Pricksongs & Descants [1 ed.]

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Pricksongs & Descants [1 ed.]

Table of contents :
THE DOOR: A Prologue of Sorts 13
THE MAGIC POKER 20
MORRIS IN CHAINS 46
THE GINGERBREAD HOUSE 61
SEVEN EXEMPLARY FICTIONS 76
Dedicatoria y Prologo a don Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra 76
1 Panel Game 79
2 The Marker 88
3 The Brother 92
4 In a Train Station 98
5 Klee Dead 104
6 J's Marriage 112
7 The Wayfarer 120
THE ELEVATOR 125
ROMANCE OF THE THIN MAN AND THE FAT LADY 138
QUENBY AND OLA, SWEDE AND CARL 150
THE SENTIENT LENS 168
1 Scene for "Winter" 168
2 The Milkmaid of Samaniego 174
3 The Leper's Helix 179
A PEDESTRIAN ACCIDENT 183
THE BABYSITTER 206
THE HAT ACT 240

Citation preview

I

SHORT STORIES BY

COOVER ACHIEVES HIGHEST EXCELLENCE

IN

A

SCINTILLANT VARIETY OF SHORT FICTIONAL FORMS."

—Saturday Review

filCMGS & DOTS

D.

PLUME CONTEMPORARY FICTION

©

ROBERT COOVER has been acclaimed by writers and

critics as

American

one of the strongest and most original voices

fiction.

His

first

novel,

in

the origin of the

brunists, was the winner of the 1966 William Faulkner

Award

for the best

first

highly praised novel, inc., j.

the universal baseball association,

henry waugh,

His other

and

novel of that year. In 1968 he wrote the

titles

include

prop, (available in a Plume edition).

The Water

A Theological Position.

Fourer,

The Public Burning

PRICKSONGS X^P DESCANTS FiCTiOKS

'S

r

Robert Coover

©

A PLUME BOOK

NEW AlViemCAIM LIBRARY NEW YORK AND SCARBOROUGH, ONTARIO

Copyright All rights reserved.

No

©

1969, by Robert Coovcr

part of this publication

may be reproduced

or transmitted

any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with a review written for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper or broadcast. For information address E. P. Dutton, Inc., a division of NAL PENGUIN INC., 2 Park Avenue, New York, New York 10016. in

of the stories in this volume originally appeared in the new American REVIEW, the QUARTERLY REVIEW OF LITERATURE, EVERGREEN REVIEW, PLAYBOY, ESQUIRE, CAVALIER, and OLYMPIA.

Some

an authorized reprint of a hardcover edition published by E. P. Dutton, & The hardcover edition was published simultaneously in Canada by Clarke, Irwin & Company Limited, Toronto and Vancouver.

This

is

Co., Inc.

© PAT OFF. AND FOREIGN COUNTRIES REGISTERED TRADEMARK MARCA REGISTRADA HECHO EN WESTFORD, MASS U S.A

PLUME TRADEMARK REG.

U.S.



.

Signet, Signet Classic,

Mentor, Onyx, Plume, Meridian and NAL Books

are published in the United States

NAL PENGUIN 1633 Broadway, in

by

INC.,

New York, New York

10019,

Canada by The New American Library of Canada Limited, 81 Mack Avenue, Scarborough, Ontario MIL 1M8. First Printing,

September, 1970

10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18

PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

For You,

QBSP

He thrusts, she



heaves,

JOHN CLELAND, FANNY HILL

They

therefore set

me

this

problem of the equality of appearance

and numbers.

—PAUL VALERY, "VARIATIONS ON THE ECLOGUES"

CONTENTS THE DOOR: A Prologue of Sorts THE MAGIC POKER

20

MORRIS IN CHAINS

46

THE GINGERBREAD HOUSE

13

61

SEVEN EXEMPLARY FICTIONS

76

Dedicatoria y Prologo a don Miguel

de Cervantes Saavedra

Game

79

2 The Marker

88

/

Panel

76

CONTENTS 3

The Brother

92

4 In a Train Station

5 Klee Dead

104

Marriage

112

6

y

/*i

The Wayfarer

THE ELEVATOR

98

120

125

ROMANCE OF THE THIN MAN AND THE FAT LADY QUENBY AND OLA, SWEDE AND CARL

THE SENTIENT LENS

168

/

Scene for "Winter"

168

2

The Milkmaid

3

The Leper's Helix

of

Samaniego 179

A PEDESTRIAN ACCIDENT

THE BABYSITTER THE HAT ACT

240

206

183

174

150

138

PRICKSONGS

&

DESCANTS

THE DOOR: A

Prologue

of Sorts This was the hard truth: to be Jack become the Giant, his

mansions routed by the child he was. Yes, he'd climbed his

own

green stalk to the clouds and tipped old

over, only to learn,

the

Ola Man,

now much

later, that that

own and

Humpty

was probably the way

wisdom, had wanted it.

in his

He swung, chanting to himself to dropped those

spilled his beans

keep his stroke steady, and he

trees, but he was all too aware of what he what was happening up there, or about to, and how the Ogre in him wouldn't drop away and leave her free. And, look, he was picking on the young trees today, too, he caught him-

was

tall

hard

really doing, of

self at that,

my

God.

Was

it

envy, was that

all it

was ? Feeling

sorry,

13

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

14

old

man,

that

and

that joy

all

terror

is

over for you, never to

rise

again ? Hell, now. But, no,

own

wasn't jealousy, she was his

it

blood, after

all.

And

just a child.

He

swung, a sinew snapped, the

with a great wheeze and crash.

He

tree leaned, crackled, toppled

decided to chop

it

up

into foot-

length logs.

And,

listen,

that matter,

wanted her

Those

if

he wished her the not

to love life

much. But he

He

saw the

removed

tree

had held a

so he

a

it,

was

it?

it.

and watch her wonder with a

about the terror.

nest. Its pale speckled

He

he'd

it,

good part of

eggs lay

unbroken egg.

stared at the

wiped the sweat from the back of

what could he do about

And

much

broken but one.

his hat,

told her about

beanstem had taught him that

his

liked to hear her laugh

smile, and, well, he hadn't said

scattered, all

had

and that was part of

up and down

frantic trips

He

the world.

all

he did, both of them for

joy, yes,

He But

his neck.

Nothing.

afraid.

For

her.

For himself. Because he'd given

her her view of the world, in fragments of course, not really thinking

it all

out, she listening,

his love, his

smelled the blood,

telling,

all right,

and because of her

love, he'd left

but he'd called

it

and

gaiety

out the terror. He'd

essence.

And when

she

found herself alone and besieged: what then? He'd

encountered

it,

be part of

that's

it,

he

cowardly lonely

what, feared and hated.

And

he'd thought the old

Giant had lived in heaven, the poor bastard!

He swung

furiously at the felled tree, his

from the shock of the blows, enraged People-agony. Love.

There was

Hanging on.

his old

at life that

they

all

plicable

it

should so

resist.

A goddamn mess.

mother up

there, suffering continuance, pre-

ferring rot to obliteration, possessed like

mindless and intransigent.

whole body vibrating

Did he

them

all

by a

mad

resent her? yes, he did.

will,

There

went, birthing hopelessly sentient creatures into the inexemptiness,

giving carelessly of their

strength, then sinking

away

bellies,

into addled uselessness,

teats,

humming

and the

THE DOOR: A PROLOGUE OF SORTS old songs, the old

lies,

and smiling

he leaned into the

tree

with

And

bering the world's dead and

out of

and

it.

with

live

But, no, he thought,

and

paused in his chopping. Yes, a knock, he'd heard

He

rise again,

:

But

fill

it.

He remembered

wait. Sooner or later,

must happen, mustn't

it

it?

know

that there

were no monsters, no wolves or witches, but

it,

crotch,

everything,

me

he'd

And

now, made him grab up

and return

so-called

know

there were, there were.

right

made him laugh

so bless

the old

the belly full of stones.

later, she'd

him

Perhaps

leaned his axe against the felled

turned anxiously toward the cottage.

formula

damn

the

the kings were gone.

all

today then. Perhaps very soon.

of

all

remem-

forgotten itches, you can't get

all their

that easy, old buddy, only kings could sleep

it

He tree,

from death,

die to save her

he could but free her from

if

God!

toothless enfuriating smiles.

strength.

worse: that she could fear, his daughter, that she could

He'd willingly

hate.

terror

all his

15

.

to his labors, .

lied.

in fact

Sooner or

He'd pretended

to her

god-

yes,

one of them got ahold

his axe, dig ceremonially at his

and with a weird perverse

insistence,

.

I'm ruminatin on the old times

when

virtue

was

its

own

reward and acquired a well-bejeweled stud in the bargain

propped up there in the

stale

blood and beauty like

say propped

old four-poster which

I

limp sheets once the scene of so

up and dyin away

much

there in

on gamier days might seem a handsome

my

well-

lathed challenge to an old doxy but which this bad day threatens to

throw up walls between the posts and box

wondeVin where's

my

goodies? will

I

me

make

it

God

help and I'm

to the

end? where's

in

the durned kid? and to while the awful time workin up a

tuneful reminiscence or

two not

so

suffered but rather of the old wild

kinda world

I

mighta had yes

me

much

little

of the old obscenities

dreams of what in some other

with

my

wishful

way

of neckin

ducks and kissin toads and lizards

oh

I

know why

she's late

you warn

— PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

16

her and

it

does no good

I

know

who's got her giddy ear with his old

death-cunt-and-prick songs haven't

heard them

I

smelt his hot breath in the singin ? yes lickin his hairy black chops

I

and composin

my God

and

can see him

now

all

know him

his polyphonies outa

dread and appetite whisperin his eclogues sprung from disaster croonin his sacral entertainments yes

know him

I

well and

I tell

her

but Granny she says Granny you don't understand the times are different there's a

whole new

whose nose does

don't understand!

she think she's twistin the

and

juice in the

little

little

cow?

new fuzz on

bit of

hers that ain't got forests nor prodigies a dippy smile

her skirts up around her ears well well I

will

if

I'm not too

late already

go tippytoin through the

flux

drawers a few times and see

Granny God preserve me stand! hah! for ain't

her pubes

bubbies and off she prances into that world of

I

and

so

what

she don't

am?

if I

and tedium and if

on her

face

and

give her a mystery today

I'll

trip

shoot!

let

her

on her dropped

come runnin back

to old

whistlin a different tune! don't under-

the old Beauty

who

married the Beast? yes

knew

all

the old legends

my

did and gave

I

wouldn't that heard them ?

ain't there

my

them who

heart to

somethin wrong with Beauty

odd chasin about after toads and crows and stinky old creatures? but I had a dream and Papa maybe was uneasy about it but he was nothin if not orthodox and so had to respect it and even blessed my marriage when I found Papa?

me

sisters

would ask

ain't she a little

a Beast

only

my

Beast never became a prince

but Granny

new

generation! hah! child

transient as clouds

and

I

give you generations without

fertile as fieldmice!

revelations of rebirthers

don't speak to

and genitomancers! sing

to

him

I

have mated with the monster

my

a

number

me

of the

me no lumpen

ballads of deodorized earths cleansed of the stink of

revulsion! for

it's

love

enigma and and

listened

lap clean his lolly after

and the basket of goodies ?

is

that

you

THE DOOR: A PROLOGUE OF SORTS

my

on the path

dear? hurry! for

overflows and your

own

time

is

17

my

need

is

great

for listen

doggy stink

lifetime of his it

and child

and

my wisdom

hard by

until

I

truly felt

I

have suffered a

I

couldn't live without

would wake the dead though now I cannot and I have pawed in stewpots with him

his snore

sleep for the silence yes

and have paused

watch him drop a public turd or two on

to

side-

walks and seashores in populous parks and private parlors and

granddaughter his thick

on

as

I

have been

split

quick cock and then

he leapt other bitches

my

beauty decline

at

and

love

with the pain and

still

itchin

random and

still

I

Beast after

all

yes yes

me goodies!

for

I

I

have

my

hear you knockin

veils to lift

I

have watched

and

child loved the

come

tales to tell

Something had changed. She stood motionless Suspended. She

hummed

among

in! .

hurry! bring

.

at the cottage door.

the flowers alongside the path.

The sun

the white weatherboards with an incessant, almost

What was

urgent, calm.

.

damned

abandoned, orphaned. Yet discovered. The bees

felt

relentlessly

down on

beat

my own

no Prince no Prince and yet you

understand ? and loved him

doubt that

terrible haste of

and bleedin have gazed



it

?

Aha! To begin with: the door was

open! Yes, she had been

seemed, and that's

what

memory



?

many

it

coming here

and

years, forever

it

times each year, always for the same reason,

if

for years

—she hesitated: —always the door had been closed.

was, a reason, and always

no,

some dim

no

Well, and so what? She stepped back from the door, and a kind of relief swept over her, and a kind of anxiety. It was curious. That door. Yet, otherwise, things seemed about the same: the cottage itself,

white in the sun; the garden, well cared for and in neat

litde

rows, and over there the small shed where the garden tools were kept; the old well with the bucket like roof, the

bucket

itself

drawn up under

dry and cracked, surely

the small parasoluseless,

but

much

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

18

as

had always been;

it

cottage, the

down a short now could be

finally,

woods, where even

from the

distance

heard the familiar

chuck-chuck-chuck of the lumberman's axe, measured, deliberate, solemn, muffled but clearly audible.

It

was simply

that the door

was

open.

But wait! She frowned, clutched her basket around.

The

sun, like just the sun: wasn't

brighter, didn't standstill?

And

it

seem stuck up

there,

it

to her side, glanced

somehow

brought

hotter today,

to a strange deadly

the cottage, didn't the cottage have a harder edge,

the vines a subtler grip on the weatherboards, and wasn't the air

somehow

full of spiders?

She trembled. The old well seemed sud-

denly to hide some other well, the garden to speak of a stranger

And

unimagined garden.

even the friendly rhythmic chucking of

the lumberman's axe: wasn't versely insistent in

Old

stories

somehow

constancy ?

its

images with flashing teeth and

phantoms springing from the

childhood

too close by today, per-

welled in her like a summation of an old woman's

witless terrors, fierce sinuous eyes,

it

sun's night-tunnels to

terrible

devour her

—in fright, she reached impulsively for the doorknob,

tering brassily in the sun's glare. She hesitated.

The knob was warm

in her grip,

Beyond

glit-

the door?

and she had a new awareness of

breath and motion. She stared at the aperture and knew: not her.

No. That much was obvious, an age had ajar had told her. She

listened to the

surprised by so:

somehow

it

then, but

she had

the door

lumberman's steady axe-stroke. The woods.

Yes, an encounter, she smiled to recall

And

much

passed, that

no

known

longer. all

An

along.

it,

to

remember

his deference,

encounter and an emergence.

And knowing

she'd

known

eased her anguish. She smiled faintly at the mockery of

the basket she clutched. Well,

already apparent.

An

it

would be

a big production, that

elaborate game, embellished with

poetry, a marshalling of legendary doves

and herbs.

was

masks and

And why

not?

She could well

avail herself of his curiously obsequious appetite

while

Even

it

lasted.

as the

sun suddenly snapped

its

bonds and

jerked westward, propelling her over the threshold, she realized that

THE DOOR: A PROLOGUE OF SORTS though

this

returned, jurings,

it

its

gardens, and

was

a

comedy from which, once

nevertheless possessed

towers and

more

closets,

its

own

entered,

and even more pathways, more

immediate oppression of the scene behind

off her shoulders like a red cloak. All that

the sullen beat of the lumberman's axe,

remained of

and she was

that finally, by closing the door firmly behind her latch.

you never

astonishments and con-

doors.

Inside, she felt the

drop

19

able to

it

still

was even

and putting the



THE MAGIC POKER I

wander the

pines

island, inventing

it.

I

and birch and dogwood and

the pebbles of

its

abandoned

make

a sun for

it,

and

trees

—and cause the water to

firs

shores. This,

shadows and dampness, spin webs, and

and more:

scatter ruins.

I

lap

deposit

Yes: ruins.

mansion and guest cabins and boat houses and docks. Terraces,

A

too,

and bath houses and even an observation tower. All gutted and window-busted and autographed and shat upon. I impose a hot

midday

silence, a

profound and heavy

stillness.

But anything can

happen.

This small and secretive bay, here

20

just

below what was once the

— THE MAGIC POKER and not

caretaker's cabin

once possessed

21

its

own

far

from the main boat house, probably

system of docks, built out to protect boats

At least the refuse gray lumber heaped up at one end of

from the big rocks along the bony planks of

would suggest

shore.

But aside from the planks, the bay

that.

bay, shallow, floored with rocks

its

the bay

now

bottles.

long

only a

Schools of

fog the bottom, and dragonflies dart

silver fish, thin as fingernails,

and hover over

and cans and

is

—the

placid surface.

The

harsh snarl of the boat

—for indeed a boat has been approaching, coming in off the —breaks off abruptly, as the boat carves a

motor

lake into this small bay

long gentle arc through the bay, and a shallow pebbly corner. There are

Bedded deep lies

slides,

two

girls in the boat.

in the grass, near the path

a wrought-iron poker. It

worked handle, and

it is

is

scraping bottom, toward

up

to the first guest cabin,

long and slender with an

orange with

rust. It lies

but by the grass that has grown up wildly around

trees,

intricately

shadowed, not by it. I

put

it

there.

The

caretaker's

son, left

behind when the island was deserted,

crouches naked in the brambly fringe of the forest overlooking the bay.

He

and the

watches, scratching himself, as the boat scrapes to a stop girls

stand

—then he scampers through the trees and bushes

to the guest cabin.

The

girl

ruffled blouse, silk

jumps from the She

—fashionbook-trim makes neckscarf—

standing forward

hesitates,

one

false start,

then

boat, her sandaled heel catching the water's edge.

utters a short irritable cry,

finally in

in tight gold pants,

hops up on a rock, stumbles, lands

dry weeds on the other

side.

She turns her heel up and

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

22 *

frowns

down

ears tense

over her shoulder at

and

I

infest the walls. I tear

smash the windows, and

and

rot the porch

in front of her

at a thick black fly in

and asks peevishly: "What do

arrange the guest cabin.

and

Tiny muscles

She brushes anxiously

ripple.

front of her face,

I

it.

I

do now, Karen?"

tatter the screen

door

out the light switches, gut the mattresses,

shit

on the bathroom

floor. I rust the pipes,

kick in the papered walls, unhinge doors. Really, there's nothing to it.

In

fact, it's a pleasure.

Once,

earlier in this age, a family

entire island, here

these cabins

up on

with great wealth purchased

the border,

and

built

on

it all

island some, seeded

lawn

for the Japanese lanterns

up here from time on the

to

They tamed

own sewage

grass, contrived their

with indoor appurtenances, generated

caretaker

these houses,

and the mansion up there on the promontory, and the

boat house, docks, bath houses, observation tower.

and

this

electricity for the

rooms

the

system inside

and postlamps without, and they came

time in the summers. They used to maintain a

island year round, housed

him

in the cabin by the

boat house, but then the patriarch of the family died, and the rest

had other things

to do.

They stopped coming

to the island

and

forgot about caretaking.

The one

in gold pants watches as the girl

the motor into neutral

and upends

from the bottom, and

tosses

straight-armed, then shies takes her.

it

up with two

The

other

girl,

beige cardigan over

it

from

fingers

it,

up

a yellowish-gray rope

ashore to her. She reaches for it,

letting

it fall

to the

and a thumb and holds

Karen (she wears it),

in the boat switches

still

picks

it

it

ground. She

out in front of

a light yellow dress with a

pushes a toolkit under a

seat,

gazes thought-

THE MAGIC POKER

23

fully about the boat, then

jumps

water's edge, but she pays

no

in gold pants, loops

it

and then, with a nod,

At

out.

notice.

around a birch near the

leads the

way up

main house, the mansion,

the

balcony of

terrace, a

sorts,

its

many

is

a

tall

against the stone parapet.

He

unsure.

is

more

Also

The sound

distant, before

islands,

it

fireplaces

slender

warmly,

is

a kind of veranda or

wide interconnected expanses of

now, gazing thoughtfully

man, dressed

come

a boat

motor seemed

stopped. Yet,

in slacks, white

smoking a

jacket,

Has he heard of the

then: the mansion with

and wasps'

nests, its

loggia and bright red doors.



here for a while

poker to find

keys,

girl

on

pipe,

leaning

to the island?

to diminish, to

grow

water, especially around

one can never trust what he hears.

this,

piano.

there

its

and navy-blue

turtleneck shirt,

shore, smiles

the path.

islands. Poised there

out on that view,

shoes splash in the

high out on the promontory, offering a

spectacular view of the lake with

blue and

Her canvas

She takes the rope from the

I



I

first,

many

its

musty basement,

Though

the

two

have pulled out its

its

wires, chipped

green paint.

debris,

its

grand hexagonal

girls will

not come

I

am

I

have placed a green

and yellowed

nothing

if

its

ivory

not thorough, a

have dismembered the piano's pedals and

real stickler for detail. I

dropped an old boot in

its

its

they have the guest cabin to explore, the

have been busy. In the loggia,

and cracked

rooms,

its

zontal and harp-shaped).

body

(this, too, I've

The broken

wires

designed:

hang

it is

hori-

like rusted hairs.

The caretaker's son watches for their approach through a shattered window of the guest cabin. He is stout and hairy, muscular, dark, with short bowed legs and a rounded spiny back. The hair on his

— PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

24

head lip.

is

long,

His

and a thin young beard sprouts on

genitals

hang

His small eyes dart

to

thick

and

and heavy and

fro

:

where

and upper

his chin

his buttocks are shaggy.

are they

?

In the bay, the sun's light has been constant and oppressive; along the path, is

it is

mottled and varied. Even in

this variety,

though, there

kind of monotony, a determined patterning that wants a good

a

wind. Through these patterns move the two

girls,

Karen

long-strid-

ing with soft steps and expectant smile, the other girl hurrying behind, halting, hurrying again, slapping her arms, her

legs,

the

back of her neck, cursing plaintively. Each time she passes between the

two

trees,

the girl in pants stops, claws the space with her hands,

runs through, but spiderwebs keep diving and tangling into her hair just the same.

Between two heart

on

terrified.

its

trees

on the

abdomen

path, a large spider

—weaves an intricate web. The

Nimbly, the shiny black creature works,

out some terrible message for her alone.

through here without brushing into ward, holding her hands to her it is

—black

face.

as

How

with a red

girl stops short,

though spelling did Karen pass

it? The girl takes a step backWhich way around ? To the left

dark, to the right sunny: she chooses the sunny side and there,

not far from the path, comes upon a wrought-iron poker, long and slender with an intricately

worked handle. She bends low, her

golden haunches gleaming over the grass: strange impulse, she kisses

man, handsome, dressed jacket, smoking a pipe. says,

and takes her hand.

it

how

beautiful

poof! before her stands a

it is!

tall

On

in dark slacks, white turdeneck shirt,

He

smiles

down

at her.

"Thank

a

slender

and

you," he

THE MAGIC POKER Karen

is

some

when

distance in front, almost out of sight,

bedded in the

girl discovers,

with

25

grass, a

the other

wrought-iron poker. Orange

long and slender with an elaborate handle. She

rust, it is

crouches to examine

her haunches curving golden above the

it,

down

bluegreen grass, her long black hair drifting lightly

over her

small shoulders and wafting in front of her fineboned face. "Oh!"

she says softly. touches

underside

A

it,

strange!

picks

—but bugs!

How

beautiful!" Squeamishly, she

up, turns

it

it

over.

Not

so rusty

on the

millions of them! She drops the thing, shud-

wipes her hand several times on her pants, shudders

ders, stands,

again.

"How

grips

it,

few

steps

away, she pauses, glances back, then around

at

everything about her, concentrating, memorizing the place probably.

She hurries on up the path and

her

sees

sister

already at the

first

guest cabin.

The

girl in

they are

and

may

gold pants?

sisters. I

yes.

The

shall, in time,

send them

home

well choose to undress them.

the other none at cruelty. It

parents.

other one, Karen? also. In fact,

have brought two

all,

nor

is

I

again.

No,

I

have not.

some

We .

.

I

have dressed them and

have given one three marriages,

end of

that the

might even be argued that

strangely limited to

invented island,

sisters to this

I

my

beneficence and

have invented

have options that

may,

their I

common

admit, seem

.

She crouches, haunches flexing golden above the bluegreen

and

kisses the strange poker, kisses

shaft.

smiling

Yet

why

taste. I

else has she

grass,

its

long rusted

am

a fool, she

been diverted to

meadow? She kisses the tip—poof! "Thank you," he says, down at her. He bows to kiss her cheek and take her

small

hand.

handle and

Nothing. Only a harsh unpleasant

thinks, a silly romantic fool. this

its

— PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

26

The

guest cabin

funds

fashionable; proof of

vided by

its

traffic

Karen

is

with other cultures It is

standing, waiting for her

she sees her, ducking

hardly the fruit of

logs,

hand, but probably

at

gabled roof and log columns.

porch, where

when

rough-hewn

built of

is

necessity, given the

down

is

was thought

it

adequately pro-

here,

on the shaded

sister.

Karen waves

there along the path; then she

turns and enters the cabin through the broken front door.

He knows

that one. He's been there before.

He

crouches inside the

door, his hairy body tense. She enters, staring straight at him.

He

grunts. She smiles, backing away. "Karen!" His small eyes dart to

the doorway,

She

and he shrinks back

into the shadows.

kisses the rusted iron poker, kisses its ornate handle,

rusted shaft, kisses the

her mouth. Something

Nothing happens. Only

tip. is

its

long

a rotten taste in

wrong. "Karen!"

"Karen!" the

girl

from outside the guest

cabin.

"Karen,

found the most beautiful thing!" The second

step of

I

the porch

just is

in

pants

calls

She hops over

rotted away.

open the tattered screen door. "Karen, they've done

to this house!

I

it

onto the porch, drags

oh,

good God! look what

Just loo\l" Karen, about to enter the

kitchen, turns back, smiling, as her sister surveys the

walls

all

smashed

in,

switches pulled out!

Out here on what it!

Think

so

of

this island, so far

beautiful paper they

It's

—oh!

what

room: "The

even the plugs in the wall and the light it,

Karen! They even had

from everything

had on the

walls!

civilized!

And now

a dreadful beautiful beastly thing

electricity!

And,

see,

just look at all at

once!"

THE MAGIC POKER But where

is

27

the caretaker's son ?

I

with the his

This

girls

—to

shirt

I

don't

his legs

tell .

.

him

invent

and cause the hair girls, yes,

be sure, he's one of the

To he who invented me

here, shrink-

Yet, though she

no mention of the

is

I

was

first

to

my

I

round

hang between

and the

of

care-

myself, along

in the turtleneck shirt? Didn't

know. The

caretaker's son?

The

man

and the

back and stunt

buttocks?

awkward. Didn't

is

He

sister entered.

catalogues the room's disrepair, there taker's son.

know.

don't

when Karen's

ing into the shadows,

tall

man

But the

inventions.

sometimes wonder

his

in the

if it

was not

hanging hard and heavy, eyes

aglitter,

the truth,

I

.

caretaker's son, genitals

shrinks back into the shadows as the girl approaches, and then goes

bounding he peeks

silently into the

stealthily at the

empty rooms. Behind an unhinged door, declaiming

girl in

gold pants, then

almost instinctively, into the bathroom to hide.

where

Karen

first

It

was

slips,

here, after

all,

they met.

passes quietly through the house, as

though familiar with

it.

In the kitchen, she picks up a chipped blue teakettle, peers inside. All rust. She thumps the sunlight.

On

all

it,

the sound

is

sides, there are

dull.

She

sets it

on

a

bench in

broken things: rubble

really.

Windows gape, shards of glass in the edges pointing out the middle spaces. The mattresses on the floors have been slashed with knives. What Jittle there is of wood is warped. The girl in the tight gold pants and silk neckscarf moves, chattering, in and out of rooms. She

opens a white door, steps into a bathroom, steps quickly out again. "Judas God!" she gasps, clearly horrified. Karen turns, eyebrows raised in concern.

"Don't go in there, Karen! Don't go in there!"

She clutches one hand

to her ruffled blouse.

"About a hundred

million people have gone to the bathroom in there!" Exiting the

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

28

bathroom behind

warm

close

her, a lone fly

swims

elbow into the

lazily past her

air of the kitchen. It circles

over a cracked table

—the

table bearing newspapers, shreds of wallpaper, tin cans, a stiff black

washcloth chafes

—then

its

on

settles

a counter near a rusted pipeless sink.

rear legs, walks past the blue teakettle's

band of pure sunlight stretched out along

shadow

and

the counter,

It

into a sits

there.

The

tall

man

moved by

deeply

one foot up on the stone parapet, gazing out on

stands,

the blue sunlit lake,

drawing meditatively on

his pipe.

And

the desolation of this island.

desolation of artifact,

is it

not, the ruin of

He

yet, it

has been

is

only the

man's civilized arrogance,

nature reclaiming her own. Even the willful mutilations: a kind of instinctive response to the futile artifices of

imposed order,

But such reasoning does not appease him. Leaning against knee, staring out

upon the

vast wilderness,

after

all.

his raised

hoping indeed he has

heard a boat come here, he puffs vigorously on his pipe and affirms reason,

man,

order.

Are we merely blind brutes loosed

in a system of

mindless energy, impotent, misdirected, and insolent? "No," he says aloud,

"we

are not."

She peeks into the bathroom; scurely, shaggily,

but eyes

yes,

aglitter,

he

is

in there, crouching ob-

behind the

urgent grunt and smiles. "Oh, Karen!"

stool.

She hears

cries the other girl

rear of the house. "It's so very sad!" Hastily,

Karen

his

from the

steps out into

the hallway, eases the bathroom door shut, her heart pounding.

"Oh, Karen, of course. grass,

it's

Now

so very sad!" That's the girl in the gold pants again,

she

is

gazing out a window. At: high weeds and

crowding young

birches,

red rattan chair with the seat

THE MAGIC POKER smashed

29

backdrop of gray-trunked pines. She

out,

wrecked marriages, her

three

The broken

rattan

of real physical pain. "I

mean,

Where have all the Princes gone ? she wonders. who stole the things, you know, the

and eating them, and

doing

just

even

sorry for them.

I felt

if

it

I

Mexico and

Algiers, lots of

and fishheads out of the heaped-up

places, scooping rotten oranges

them,

thinking of her

not the ones

it's

scavengers. I've seen people in Paris and

gutters

is

and her desolation of spirit. chair somehow communicates to her a sensation affairs,

I

didn't

even

felt

blame them, sorry for

I

them

didn't dislike if

they were

something for nothing,

to be stealing something, to get

they weren't hungry or anything. But

it isn't

the people

who

look for things they want or need or even don't need and take them, the people

it's

just

want

who

just destroy, destroy because

to destroy! Lust! That's

went around

these

rooms driving

didn't matter

to hurt,

it

with his

feet,

who

all,

—God!

Karen! See? Somebody

his fist in the walls because

would anybody want

it

all!

Oh my

God!

curtains

is,

but for one panel,

whole. In the excepted panel, the rupture in the glass

spanned by a spiderweb more stars,

its

intricate

silver paths

than a

seeming

butterfly's

hole. It

is

a

new web,

alter its original construction.

then withdraws. "Karen,

The

girls

have gone.

let's

still

now

is

wing, than

to imitate or perhaps

merely to extend the delicate tracery of the fractured glass

rounding the

and

Why? Why

do that?" The window in front of Karen

to

(she has long since turned her back)

a system of

just

he had

maybe he kicked them

or what, or

and bashed the windows and ripped the

then went to the bathroom on

because they

for nothing has entered

still it

Karen's hand reaches toward

sur-

yet to it,

but

get out of here!"

The

caretaker's

son

bounds about the

guest cabin, holding himself with one hand, smashing walls and

busting windows with the other, grunting happily as he goes. leaps

He

up onto the kitchen counter, watches the two girls from the as they wind their way up to the main mansion, then

window,

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

30

... a love

squats joyfully over the blue teakettle, depositing

letter,

so to speak.

A

love letter!

happened

Wait a minute,

to that poker, I

had something going

this is getting

was doing much

there, archetypal

blend of eros and wisdom, sex and

what

am

I

going

to

do with

out of hand!

and even maybe

sensibility,

to

Enough

that the skin of the world

artifice,

lepered with the stigmata of

beautiful, a

music and myth. But

shit in a rusty teakettle

nothing

What

better with the poker, I

?

No, no,

there's

be gained by burdening our fabrications with impieties.

without suffering our songs to be

is

littered

human

with our contentious

aggression and despair,

by savagery. Back

flatted

to the

poker.

"Thank

you," he says, smiling

down

at her, her

golden over the shadowed grass. "But, kiss it?" "Call

and

was

rises

it

woman's

tell

me,

haunches gleaming

how

did you

with an appreciative glance. "But the neglected

in, it

must have

kisses her gently

know

to

intuition," she replies, laughing lightly, state that

tasted simply dreadful," he apologizes,

on the cheek. "What momentary

bitterness

I

it

and

might

have suffered," she responds, "has been more than indemnified by the sweetness of your disenchantment." no,

my

dear, there are

styles of possession.

marveling, at his

"My

disenchantment?

To

exist

is

to

be spell-bound." She collapses,

feet.

Karen, alone on the path to the mansion, pauses. Where sister ?

Oh

no disenchantments, merely progressions and

Has something

distracted her

has gone on ahead. Well, desolate island? they'll

it

?

Has

is

her

she strayed ? Perhaps she

hardly matters, what can happen on a

meet soon enough

at the

mansion. In

fact,

THE MAGIC POKER Karen

31

even thinking about her

isn't

she's staring silently,

sister,

entranced, at a small green snake, stretched across the path.

dozing? Or simply unafraid? Maybe before, doesn't

know what

come here now, and

it

it's

Is it

never seen a real person

people can do.

It's

possible:

few people

young snake.

looks like a very

Slender,

No, probably it's asleep. Smiling, Karen away from the snake so as not to disturb it. To the right of the path is a small clearing and the sun is hot there; to the left it is cool and shadowed in the gathering forest. Karen moves that way, in under the trees, picking the flowers that grow wildly here. Her cardigan catches on brambles and birch seedlings, so she pulls it of?, tosses it loosely over her shoulder, hooked on one wriggly, green, and shiny.

leaves the path, circling

finger.

She hears, not far away, a sound not unlike

Curious, she wanders that

The path up

to the

way

to see

an ambience of mushrooms and

gold pants, were she to come

and

what

crickets

this

it

is

it is.

not even mottled,

dark and damp-smell-

all, it is

dead brown leaves never quite dry, or so

dart to

or

main house, the mansion,

the sun does not reach back here at ing,

who

soft footfalls.

and fingery

might seem

way. Where

is

rustles

and

to the girl in

she ? His small eyes

Here, beside the path, trees have collapsed and

fro.

rotted, seedlings

and underbrush have sprung up, and

crept softly over

all surfaces, alive

lichens have

and dead. Strange creatures abide

here.

"Call

it

woman's

intuition," she says

with a light laugh.

praises her fineboned features, her delicate hands, her soft

breasts

under the

ruffled blouse, her firm

over the shadowed grass. cheek.

"You and

like to lie

kisses his

ap-

haunches gleaming golden

pulls her gently to her feet, kisses her

are enchantingly beautiful,

"Wouldn't you replies,

He

He

maidenly

with

me

my

dear!" he whispers.

here awhile?" "Of course," she

cheek in return, "but these pants are an awful

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

32

my

bother to remove, and

awaits us.

sister

Come! Let

us go

up

to

the mansion!"

A

small green snake

lies

proaching does not see girl in tight

Her hand

it,

motionless across the path. sees

pants which are

flutters ceaselessly

that drove these people right way?",

at the

its

golden here in the deep shadows.

before her face,

away from here

it

was surely the bugs "Karen,

finally,

shiny green

tail off

her

now switches with a frantic damp leaves. The girl starts

at her feet, spins

around clutching her

upper arms, expecting the worst, but though staring

to her

sister talk

the webs

sister's

all

and

the gnats

on

girl

come up

is

just a small hairy

beyond the mound of heavy back. His arms are

and the elbows,

grows between

up a pebble

the path.

caretaker's son.

of dark hair sprout randomly. His head

are short,

on up the path,

From the rear, his prominent broad and rounded, humped almost, where tufts

Karen watches the his back,

flies,

a moss-covered rock, peek-

ing through thick branches, watches the

is

did she ever

name.

caretaker's son, poised gingerly

feature

Why

her into coming here? "Karen!" She runs, ignoring

now, right through

crying out her

The

this the

into the

wide-eyed right at the sound, she can see nothing. let

is

and she very nearly walks right on the snake, which

sudden whirring shush

hands

girl ap-

only the insects flicking damply, the

still

has perhaps been dozing, but which

whip of

The

like the knees, turn

his buttocks

to toss at

and down

as

long

lump

as his legs

outward. Thick hair

his thighs. Smiling, she picks

him, but then she hears her

sister call

her

name.

Leaning against

his raised knee,

the parapet stares out

on the

smoking

his pipe, the tall

man on

wilderness, contemplating the island's

THE MAGIC POKER

33

upon one

ruin. Trees have collapsed island,

another, and vast areas of the

once cleared and no doubt the stage for garden parties

famous

now

for miles around, are

everything in sight union, he

moment,

recalls,

it

have company,

He

and

smiles

same

at the

has been brought into being by his smile,

A

on the garden path.

hears a voice

and

shinleaf,

mottled with moss. Lichens: the symbiotic

is

of fungi and algae.

though

as

Brambles

virtually impassable.

and bunchberries grow wildly amid saxifrage and

At

after all!

least

How

girl.

charming,

he's to

two, for he heard the voice on the

path behind the mansion, and below him, slipping surefootedly

through the

trees

and bushes, moves another creature

dress, carrying a beige sweater over her shoulder.

in a yellow

She looks a

little

simple, not his type really, but then dissimilar organisms can, at

He

times, enjoy mutually advantageous partnerships, can they not?

knocks the ashes from

At

times,

his pipe

and

forget that this arrangement

I

begin to think of the island as intractable,

an

the bowl.

refills

its

I

is

my own

invention.

real, its objects solid

much an

condition of ruin not so

denouement.

historical

somehow

aesthetic design as

find myself peering into blue teakettles,

batting at spiderwebs, and contemplating a greenish-gray growth the side of a stone parapet.

without

my knowing

I

remain. "I have brought two

This

is

no extravagance.

wonder

wonder

I

it;

and

griefs, I

have provided them. "In

done this

all

that

seemed

I

as

and even more say to you. is

.

.

.)

is

shall do.

not I

might

I

die

and the

teakettle

invented island,"

I

say.

who burdens them with

rhetoric. If they fact/' I add,

(I interrupt

on

might wander here

here to

have names and

"without tell

me

they'd

you that

I

have

return here to bring you this news, since

good a place to suffer

if I

indeed

and

history, appetite

others

if

sisters to this

It is

curiosity

have no cunts." This

I

and

as any.

from me,

Though you have more

this is

to face,

in fact the last thing

I

shall

But can the end be in the middle? Yes, yes, it always to alarm, merely to make a truth manifest—yet / am

meant

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

34

myself somewhat alarmed. hair between

my

It is

one thing

to discover the

shag of

buttocks, quite another to find myself tugging the

Or perhaps

tight gold pants off Karen's sister.

Where

yet troubling in either case.

it

the same thing,

is

come from,

does this illusion

this

sensation of "hardness" in a blue teakettle or an iron poker, golden

haunches or a green piano ?

In the hexagonal loggia of the mansion stands a grand piano,

now

painted bright green, though chipped and cracked

and abuse. One can

imagine a child

easily

such a piano, a piano so

at

glad and ready, perhaps two children, and the sun rather, there

is

a storm

on the

lake, the sky

is

bit,

on the

boy on the

right, the

and

wind and storm, the

pushing

left,

—no,

shining

is

in a fury, all black

pitching, the children are inside here out of the little girl

with age

at

each other a

staking out property lines on the keys, a grandmother, or per-

haps just a lady, yet

why

not a grandmother? sitting on a window-

bench gazing out on the frothy blue-black playing "Chopsticks," laughing, a

lake,

and the children are

noisy surely, and the grand-

little

mother, or lady, looks over from time to time, forms a patient smile if

they chance to glance

up

at her,

then

—well, but

only a suppo-

it's

sition,

who knows whether

damn

about a green piano even on a bad day, "Chopsticks"

all?

No,

it's

if

they cared a

only a piece of fancy, the kind of fancy that

through the mind of the strikes a key.

there were children or

There

is

girl in

gold pants

who now

no sound, of course. The ivory

is

least of

passing

reaches is

down,

chipped and

yellowed, the pedals dismembered, the wires torn out and hanging like rusted hairs.

lock loose

The

girl

wonders

at her

on her forehead, but there

own

are

unkemptness,

feels

a

no mirrors. Stolen or

broken. She stares about her, nostalgically absorbed for some reason, at the elegantly

timbered roof of the loggia,

fireplace, at the old

at the

enormous stone

shoe in the doorway, the wasps' nests over one

broken-out window. She sighs, steps out on the terrace, steep and

proud over the

lake. "It's a sad place," she says aloud.

THE MAGIC POKER

The

tall

man

35

in the navy-blue jacket stands,

on

stone parapet, gazing out

on

tatively

his pipe, while being sketched

gold pants. "I

somehow

been waiting for you,"

him from

one foot up on the

the blue sunlit lake,

by the

drawing medi-

girl in the tight

expected to find you here," she says. "I've

man. Her

replies the

three-quarters view of

the rear allows her to include only the tip of his nose in

her sketch, the edge of his pipebowl, the collar of his white turtle-

neck

shirt. "I

was

afraid there

names everywhere

I

might be

others," she says. "Others?"

Or somebody's grandmother.

"Yes. Children perhaps.

I

saw

so

many

went, on walls and doors and trees and even

scratched into that green piano." She

carefully filling in

is

on her

sketch the dark contours of his navy-blue jacket. "No," he says,

"whoever they were, they says,

"and

losing

all

too

struggle

brought

to

much

left

like

against

here long ago."

my own

life."

inscrutable

moment," she

says,

and he resumes

plished a reasonable likeness of the

"You mean, the young dreams says. "And getting

nods.

forces,

ruin?" "Yes, something like that," she

kicked in and gutted and shat upon." a

He

blind

"Mmm." He his pose.

tall

a sad place," she

"It's

straightens. "Just

The

man, except

girl has

accom-

that his legs are

stubby (perhaps she failed to center her drawing properly, and ran

out of space at the bottom of the paper) and his buttocks are bare

and shaggy.

"It's

a sad place," he says, contemplating the vast wilderness.

He

turns to find her grinning and wiggling her ears at him. "Karen,

you're

on

mocking me!" he complains, laughing. She props one

the stone parapet, leans against her leg, sticks

between her it!"

teeth,

and scowls out upon the

lake.

foot

up

an iron poker

"Come

on! Stop

he laughs. She puffs on the iron poker, blowing imaginary

smokerings, then turns

it

into a

imitating an old granny chasing

poker to her shoulder like a

walking

young

rifle

stick

and hobbles about

children. Next, she puts the

and conducts an inspection of

all

— PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

36

windows facing on

the broken

broadly before each one.

the terrace, scowling or weeping

The man

has slumped to the terrace

floor,

doubled up with laughter. Suddenly, Karen discovers an unbroken

window. She

up and down, does

leaps

jumps up and

man

points again. "Yes, yes!" the

window, Karen?" he

like the

laughs, "I see

window,

points to herself, then at the

a somersault, pirouettes,

She points

clicks her heels together.

at

it,

but

and rusty and he

dirty

stand

through the window.

clumsy with the thing.

feels

She grabs

."

.

.

it

out of his hands and

his hands. It

is

"I don't under-

crash!

"Oh no, Karen! No, no ...

it,

laughing. She

still

nods her head vigorously, thrusts the iron poker into

kisses

"You ? You're

to herself again.

asks, puzzled,

it,

Karen!" She

—drives

it

1"

Karen has joined her sister on the terrace, the balcony, and they gaze out at the lake, two girls alone on a desolate a sad place."

"It's

island.

regret

"Sad and yet

any of

don't regret

wouldn't

it,

it,

it.

all

too right for me,

Karen. No,

It'd

be

silly

Karen?" The

I

suppose. Oh,

was wrong, wrong

I

don't

as always, but I

pinched and morbid about

to be all

girl,

I

of course,

it,

talking about the failure

is

of her third marriage. "Things are done and they are undone and

then

we

get ready to do

them

Karen looks

again."

at

her shyly, then

turns her gentle gaze back out across the lake, blue with a river's

muted blue under

this

pants exclaims, though to explain that she

is

"The sun!"

afternoon sun. it is

like the

why

the girl in gold

she thought of

it.

sun somehow, or the sun

is

not clear

She

tries

like her,

but she becomes confused. Finally, she interrupts herself to blurt out: "Oh, Karen! I'm so miserable!" there are fully

no

tears in

on her lower

her

lip.

sister's eyes,

Karen

quite understanding perhaps,

moment, then grace

settles

Karen looks up anxiously:

but she

is

biting

down

pain-

offers a smile, a little

awkward, not

and

eyes closing a

finally

fluttering open, smiles

her

wanly

sister,

in return.

A

between them, but Karen turns her back on

moment it

of

clumsily.

THE MAGIC POKER

37

"No, Karen! Please! Stop!" The man, collapsed has tears of laughter running old shoe and silent

is

now

down

holding

it

up

at arm's length,

motions with her upper torso and free arm

ing upon the sadness of the shoe. She

and squats down over

floor

to the terrace floor,

Karen has found an

his cheeks.

it,

sets

covering

as

making broad

though declaim-

the shoe

on the

with the

it

terrace

skirt of

her

yellow dress. "No, Karen! No!" She leaps up, whacks her heels together in midair, picks

up the shoe and peers

spreads across her face, and she does a aloft.

With

a

little

A

no!

A broad

still

smile

dance, holding the shoe

man. "No!

curtsy, she presents the shoe to the

Please!" Warily, but

Oh

little

inside.

laughing, he looks inside. "What's this?

flower! Karen, this

is

much!" She runs

too

into the

mansion, returns carrying the green piano on her back. She drops

one leg breaks

so hard,

up with

it,

sits

off.

it

She finds an iron poker, props the piano

down on an imaginary

stool to play.

She

lifts

her

hands high over her head, then comes driving down with extravagant magisterial gestures.

The

piano, of course, has been completely

disemboweled, so no sounds emerge, but up and

keyboard Karen's stubby fingers

fly,

arriving at

down last,

the,

broken

with a cre-

scendo of violent flourishes, at a grand climactic coda, which she delivers with such force as to buckle the

two remaining

legs of the

Oh

piano and send

it all

my God!" Out

of the wreckage, a wild goose springs, honking in

crashing to the terrace

floor.

"No, Karen!

holy terror, and goes flapping out over the lake. Karen carries the

piano back inside, there's a splintering carash, and she returns wielding the poker. "Careful!" She holds the poker up with two hands

and does a

little

dance, toes turned outward, hippety-hopping about

the terrace. She stops abruptly over the front of his nose, then slowly brings

it

man,

to her

thrusts the poker in

own

lips

and

kisses

it.

She makes a wry face. "Oh, Karen! Whoo! Please! You're killing me!" She kisses the handle, the shaft, the tip. She wrinkles her nose and shudders, lifts her skirt and wipes her tongue with it. She scowls at the poker. She takes a firm grip on the poking end and bats the handle a couple times against the stone parapet as testing

it.

"Oh, Karen! Oh!" Then she

lifts it

though

high over her head



— PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

38

and brings

down with

it

caretaker's son,

him,

yowling with pain. She

he strikes out

as

at

wham! —poof!

her might

all

lets

it

the

is

go and spins away from

her in distress and fury. She tumbles into a

corner of the terrace and cowers there, whimpering, pale and

terri-

the caretaker's son, breathing heavily, back stooped and

fied, as

buttocks tensed, circles her, prepared

spring.

to

Suddenly, she

dashes for the parapet and leaps over, the caretaker's son bounding after,

and

off they go,

brambles, leaving the

scrambling frantically through the tall

man

and limp from laughter on the

There

is

Two

grandmother

with an iron poker, then returns

The

and

terrace.

a storm on the lake.

the green piano. Their

trees

in the white turtleneck shirt alone

on

children play "Chopsticks" stirs

the embers in the fireplace

to her seat

on the windowbench.

children glance over at her and she smiles at them. Suddenly a

strange naked creature comes bounding into the loggia, grinning idiotically.

The

children and their grandmother scream with terror

and race from the room and on out of the mansion, running their lives.

The

visitor leaps

up on the piano bench and squats

staring quizzically at the ivory keys.

sounds a note another

—a

—he

jerks his

different note.

He

hand back

He

reaches for one and

in fright.

brings his

for

there,

fist

He

it

reaches for

down blam! Aha!

Again: blam! Excitedly, he leaps up and down on the piano bench,

banging

his

fists

on the piano keyboard.

finds wires inside, genitals with

it,

pulls

them

out.

He

hops up on the piano,

twang! twang!

He

holds his

one hand and rips out the wires with the other, grunt-

ing with delight.

admires

and

Then he

spies the iron poker.

He

grabs

it

up,

then bounds joyfully around the room, smashing win-

dows and wrecking furniture. The girl in gold pants enters and takes the poker away from him. "Lust! That's all it is!" she scolds. She whacks him on the nates with the poker, and, yelping with pain and astonishment, he bounds away, leaping over the stone parapet,

and

slinks off

through the brambly

forest.

THE MAGIC POKER

39

"Lust!" she says, "that's

"And

happen.

Her sketch is nearly The worst ones are the

all it is!"

they're not the worst ones.

kept their caretaker here

If they'd

."

complete.

who The man

ones

just let

it

smiles.

"There never was a caretaker," he explains. "Really? But

thought—!" "No," he seems taken aback by understand

He

sketch.

.

.

."

He

laughs

says, "that's just a

this

when he

he exclaims, "but a poor

sees the

likeness,

a movie

starlet's.

Her

.

.

wanders over

I

.

then

I

don't

to appraise her

shaggy buttocks. "Marvelous!"

He

I'm afraid! Look!"

dark slacks and show her his hindend, smooth less as

.

legend of the island." She

new knowledge. "Then

relights his pipe,

.

curiosity

is

as

lowers his

marble and hair-

caught, however, not by his

barbered buttocks, but by the hair around his genitals the tight neat :

curls fan out in both directions like the

goose

.

.

The two

wings of an

.

sisters

return to the loggia, their visit nearly concluded, the

one in gold pants

trying to explain about herself and the sun,

still

about consuming herself with an outer icecold center within. It is

eagle, or a wild

obvious she

still

Her gaze

falls

fore the green piano. Haltingly, she note, only a dull thuck. it

while harboring an

has something more to say. But

declaims, she has less of an audience.

obtained about

fire,

once more on the green piano.

Her

sister reveals

not being the people

wantonly destroy, but those

Karen stands

lifts

who

let it

now

as she

distractedly be-

a finger, strikes a key. a

new

who

insight she has just

steal or

happen,

No

who

even those

who

just don't give a

proper damn. She provides instances. Once, Karen nods, but maybe only at something she has thought to herself.

Thuck! Again. Thuck! Her whole arm

Her

finger

lifts,

strikes.

drives the strong blunt

Thuck! Thuck! There is something genuinely beautiful about the girl in gold pants and silk neckscarf as she gestures and speaks. Her eyes are sorrowful and wise. Thuck! Karen strikes the key. Suddenly, her sister breaks off her message. "Oh, I'm sorry,

finger.

PRICKSONGS

40

Karen!" she

She

says.

stares at the piano,

DESCANTS

8c

then runs out of the

room.

I

am

disappearing.

You have no doubt

noticed. Yes,

and by some no

we

doubt calculable formula of event and pagination. But before drift apart to a distance

warn you: as

like Zeno's turtle, I

feared,

I

beyond the reach of confessions (though

geography.

my

am

invented island

Why,

this island

with you always),

is

really

taking

much

sounds very

its

place in world

wonder: can

it

be happening? Someone

tells

put

a resort there or something.

yet

it

seems possible.

there's Jackfish Island.

surely.

me

And

I

On my

look on a

Who

Dahl-

like the old

berg place on Jackfish Island up on Rainy Lake, people

somebody bought the place recendy and plans

me: to fix

and

say,

invented this

I

understand

I it

up,

maybe

—and

island? Extraordinary!

map:

I

listen: it's just

yes, there's

Rainy Lake,

map?

I

Well,

must have,

the Dahlbergs, too, of course, and the people

about them. Yes, and perhaps tomorrow

I

who

and Jesus Christ and the history of the moon.

Just as

told

Chicago

will invent

have

I

in-

vented you, dear reader, while lying here in the afternoon sun,

bedded deeply in the bluegreen grass

There

is

a storm

on the lake and

wind howls around trees

like

an old iron poker

the water

is

The two

.

.

The

frothy and black.

the corner of the stone parapet

shake and creak.

.

and the pine

on

children playing "Chopsticks"

the green piano are arguing about the jurisdiction of the bench and

keyboard.

"Come

over here," their grandmother says from her seat

by the window, "and

I'll tell

you the

Once upon a time, a family island on Rainy Lake up on

story of

The Magic Poker'

.

.

."

of wealthy Minnesotans bought an the Canadian border.

They

built

a

THE MAGIC POKER

home on

it

They

tower.

indoor

41

and guest cabins and boat houses and an observation an electric generator and a sewage system with

installed

toilets,

maintained a caretaker, and constructed docks and

name it Jackfish Island, or did it bear that The legend does not say, nor should it. however, is that when the family abandoned the

bath houses. Did they

name when

What

they bought it?

does say,

it

island, they left

behind an iron poker, which, years

young

the island, a beautiful

girl,

And when

altogether equal to the occasion, kissed.

thing quite extraordinary happened

Once upon

a time there

was an

.

.

who had

Others

island visited

either died or

said, no, there

was never

legend. Others believed there there yet

All this that

and was

is

back.

Only

so,

some-

it

had once had a

found another job elsewhere.

was only a

childish

was indeed a caretaker and he

What

visited the island,

names were

and carved on

Once upon its

their

she did

lived

in fact responsible for the island's tragic condition.

dary Magic Poker or avenging the

ceilings

a visit to

by ruin and inhabited

a caretaker, that

neither here nor there.

no one who

on

.

by strange woodland creatures. Some thought caretaker

later,

not quite a princess perhaps, yet

a time,

left,

is

certainly

beyond dispute

whether searching for loss of a

its

is

legen-

came on walls and

loved one, ever

inscribed hastily

trees.

two

sisters visited a desolate island.

paths with their proclivities and scruples,

dreaming

They walked their

dreams

They scared a snake and probably a windows (there were few left to break), and gazed meditatively out upon the lake from the terrace of the main house. They wrote their names above the stone fireplace in the hexagonal loggia and shat in the soundbox of an old green piano. One of them did anyway; the other one couldn't get her pants and sorrowing

their sorrows.

bird or two, broke a few

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

42

On

down.

the island, they found a beautiful iron poker,

they went home, they took

The

cabin and on

earlier the

down

the mottled path toward the boat.

who

will not live out the

hops into a darkness.

stone, burps,

web

down

the

snake slept and past the gutted guest

To

either side

and bees mumble indolently under the summer sun.

flies

small speckled frog

the

and when

with them.

gold pants hastens out of the big house and

girl in

dark path where

of her,

it

A

A

day squats staring on a

white moth

drifts silently into

of a spider, flutters there awhile before his execution. Sud-

denly, there

on the path mottled with

sunlight, the girl stops short,

her breath coming in short gasps, looking around her. Wasn't this



there

?

Yes, yes,

it is!

it is

A smile begins

the place!

to

form.

And

in fact,

She waits for Karen.

Once upon

was a beautiful young Princess in tight gold fact that no one could remove them from her.

a time there

pants, so very tight in

Knights came from far and wide, and they huffed and they puffed,

and they grunted and they groaned, but the pants would not come

down. One rash Knight even went so far as to jam the blade of his sword down the front of the gold pants, striving to pry them from her, but

lifelong

he succeeded only in shattering

dismay and ignominy. The King

his sword,

"shall

to his

at last delivered a Procla-

mation. "Whosoever shall succeed in pulling

down," he declared,

much

my

daughter's pants

have her for his bride!" Since

this

was

perhaps not the most tempting of trophies, the Princess having been

married off three times already in previous competitions, the King

added:

"And moreover he

shall

have bestowed upon him the Magic

Poker, whose powers and prodigies are well-known in the King-

dom!" "The Old Man's got Knight complained sourly mation. "If

I

his

to a

bloody cart before his horse," one

companion upon hearing the Procla-

had the bloody Poker, you could damn well bet

I'd

— THE MAGIC POKER have no trouble

43

gettin' the

bloody pants off her!"

Now,

it

chanced

remark was overheard by a peculiar little gnomehuddling naked and unshaven in the brush alongside

that this heedless like creature,

the road, and no sooner had the words been uttered than this

Magic Poker and win the might well have seemed im-

strange fellow determined to steal the

beauty for himself. Such an enterprise

most dauntless of Knights, much

possible for even the

but the truth, always stranger than

once been the King's

among

and

the mysteries

fiction,

Official Caretaker,

was

loins,

that his father

had

and the son had grown up

chambers of the Court. Imagine the

secret

Kingdom's astonishment,

entire

less for so

naked brute with the shaggy

hapless a creature as this poor

therefore,

when, the very next day,

the Caretaker's son appeared, squat, naked, and hirsute, before the

King and with grunts and broad

gestures

tion to quit the Princess of her pants

The

"Indeed!" cried her father. the Palace, and j

all

manifest his inten-

King's laughter

for himself!

boomed throughout

the Knights and Ladies joined in, creating the

my

of uproars. "Bring

oiliest

made

and win the prizes

daughter here at once!" the King

The

thundered, delighted by the droll spectacle.

Princess,

but at the same time somewhat afrighted of the strange

amused,

little

man,

stepped timidly forward, her golden haunches gleaming in the bright lights of the Palace. the

The

Magic Poker, pointed

it

Caretaker's son promptly

at the Princess,

and

poof!

drew

forth

—the

gold

dropped—plop!—to the Palace floor. "Oh's!" and "Ah's!" of amazement and admiration rose up in excited chorus from the crowd of nobles attending this most extraordinary moment. Flushed, trembling, impatient, the Princess grasped the Magic Poker and pants

kissed

it—poof!—a handsome Knight

navy blue stood before

her,

in shining

smoking a

pipe.

He

armor of white and drew his sword and

slew the Caretaker's son. Then, smiling at the maiden standing in her puddle of gold pants, he sheathed his sword, knocked the ashes

from

his pipe bowl,

said, "I

have

all," replied

the fool,

and knelt before the King. "Your Majesty," he monster and rescued your daughter!" "Not at

slain the

the

King

gloomily.

"You have made her

a

widow. Kiss

my dear!" "No, please!" the Knight begged. "Stop!"

?

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

44

"Look, Karen, look! See what it? It doesn't hurt,

just beautiful

and

does

I

it,

Do

found!

I

you think we can take

can scour off the rust and

I

— — ?" Karen glances at

mean, what with everything

else

?

the poker in the grass, shrugs, smiles in assent, turns to stride

down

Could you please sister,

head

something



trees,

?"

one

tilted to

below, at the end of the path. "Karen

Karen turns around, gazes side

like a half-gargle,

—then

laughs, a

it,

but Karen grunts again, keeps

There, she washes

She

dries

it

Her

it,

sister,

carries it

delighted, reaches

down

"Don't get your dress

dress.

rusty anyway. We'll clean

it

when we

Wet

it.

still,

it

it

to their boat.

with sand.

it

dirty,

Karen!

It's

Karen holds

get home."

between them a moment before tossing both smile to see

low grunting sound,

clean in the lake water, scrubbing

it

on her



quizzically at her

walks back and picks up the poker,

brushes off the insects with her hand. for

on

which can be

the rise toward the boat, a small white edge of

glimpsed through the

It's

into the boat,

glistens, sparkling

with

it

and they flecks of

rainbow-colored light in the sunshine.

The

tall

man

stands poised before her,

smoking

his pipe,

one hand

in the pocket of his navy-blue jacket. Besides the jacket, he wears

only a white turtleneck

shirt.

The

girl in

From

the tip of his

Only

a bitter wild goose taste in the

crown

gold pants

to the least of his toes.

is

kissing him.

Nothing happens.

mouth. Something

is

wrong.

"Karen!" Karen laughs, a low gunting sound, then takes hold of the

man and

lifts

"Stop!" poof!

her

skirts.

From

her

"No, Karen! Please!" he

cries,

laughing.

Karen withdraws a wrought-iron worked handle. "It's for it. Karen reaches exclaims and

skirts,

poker, long and slender with an intricately beautiful,

Karen!" her

smile to see

it.

a beautiful day.

It

sister

up between them a moment, and they both glistens in the sunshine, a handsome souvenir of

grunts again, holds

it

THE MAGIC POKER

Soon the bay returned,

is

45

and the dragonflies are

again, the silver fish

still

and only the

slightest

murmur

near the shore by the old

waterlogged lumber betrays the recent disquiet. far out

who

on the

lake,

its

prepared this island does not

nor would

it

astonish

them

place, or

to

why

they built

know

to hear of

common

that touch of the divinity

forgotten

boat

all

on

family

have probably

this island in the first

to

squander good hours, over the selection of

made

already

a matter of fact, with

to the rich, they

the things

is

The

the girls have been here,

As

it.

whatever possessed them seriously

decorate the newly

The

stern confronting us in retreat.

concern themselves,

this or that object to

spaces or to do the things that

had usually

to be done, over the selection of this or that iron poker, for example.

The

boat

is

almost out of sight, so distant in

possible to see

are— all

its

occupants or even to

just a blurred speck

the lowering sun.

The

lake

frog dies, a strange creature

fact, it's

no longer

know how many

there

on the bright sheen laid on the lake by calm. Here, a few shadows lengthen, a

is

lies slain,

a tanager sings.

MORRIS IN CHAINS We

have him,

I

make

intransigent effort in the

Morris has

this report to the nation. Sleepless search,

common

at last surrendered.

behalf: our thanks to his captors!

Pursued night and day through the

complexity of our parksystem (Morris, old head, protested: '"But only the parks remain!" Bumpkin! know, then, that

is

not your

crime!), tracked by the undisguisable deposit of sheepshit, am-

bushed in the end by a massing of passive

was

tion

It will

shot.

brief, the confession

not repeat not be

tourists.

The

interroga-

not quite so: alexandrian impudence!

made

public. Morris

is

in chains, his sheep

He has requested exile— they all do! —he shall not receive it.

The hunt was

long, nor

was

it

painless

:

Morris trod old paths,

forced a suffering of the inveterate green visions, a merciless hacking

46

— MORRIS IN CHAINS

47

damp growths

through the

haps an epic of

its

must be granted the grandeur.

Much

of our historic hebephrenia. It

was

per-

kind, our best minds were engaged, and yet chis captive:

was

it

his

own grit and

cunning gave

time was wasted, of course, undue risks taken.

fundamental error here was probably in the chase

itself.

it

Our

But once

the remarkable Doris Peloris, M.D., Ph.D., U.D., assumed com-

mand,

the

end came quickly. She gathered the necessary

data, reined

in the hunters, set a trap of mechanical crickets,

and waited

inexorable conclusion. All praise to Dr. Peloris!

Her wisdom

for the

the

is

State's blessing!

Encounters with Morris were never

who

stayed to fight. Cowardice?

but Morris never

rare,

could say so? he had his sheep to

care for. Loose shreds of shrill fluting

would reach our

bucking the melodic rack, we would approach,

ears,

and,

encircle, converge,

catch a glimpse of his beardtuft, sheepskin jerkin, leather breeches

and then: gone! how explain

sheep and

it?

all.

For a time: confu-

group gloom. Then a distant report of Morris' piping

sion, silence,

:

and the chase was on again.

It

was almost

as

though Morris were

challenging us. But simple song against our science! he course. clear

hand,

As

how it is

well

is

known, our parks

are not connected. It

Morris forded the concrete

no

unredeemed

secret that

still

stretches,

but on the other

he has friends in the City. Categories of the

tile sluices I tell

ye

poor old Rameses and the to dry

girls their

if

they figger to live so

makes a grim swim of wool all clotted with that gop

close atop each other they gotta excrete less

it

by and overhead the raspin scrape of

steel heels

needlin the concrete cobble that caterwaul of sirenshrieks the

me

sure ain't nothin like the nightjars scares

pox on ain't

em

old furry legs!

it

it's

damn hard

silly

to

come by

I

which

sometimes/ well a

mine god knows / that's all I'm seekin and

ain't the choice

got no mission! just alfalf and lotus

these days

of

not yet

through their blinkerin unarkades and splashin

here below through the

and no suns

lost,

to be catalogued.

(slippin nightlike

it

is

can

is

tell

ye/ sure hard to

)

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

48

figger

it

we swooned

their old

granddaddies but something clear the

matter with this brood ain't none of em'll

let

an old hero

damn

achin arse or play a lay clean through and the

rest his

sedge swarmin

with them buggers by damn! blessed flock run sick and meatless

mangerotted and

their hides

froth in the tired old teats

all

and

burred and briared nothin but sour

spite of all they'll get us they'll get us

makes me plumb sick! them slickers they do mean business damn if they don't! see them jaws? see them eyes? they ain't kiddin and if you don't get em first old furrylegs them steelyglass muckers'll have an end to us so a pox on em you hear ? a pox on em!

There were

the eventual outcome, of course: infallibility

No

early crises, these have been admitted.

was merest Morris versus the

it

of our computers, after

one doubted

all.

Data properly gathered and

applied must sooner or later worst the wily old cock. But, perhaps

due

to

an underestimation of the adversary's perverse

were

early expeditions

can

now

series of

own

were

little

those

vitality,

too often subverted by disorder,

see as undeniable disorder,

more than

a

what we

random

spontaneous incursions of the sort that most suited Morris'

patternless

fluted a

all

and irresponsible

few slim echoes

off

life.

He

just stayed

our City walls, and led

pursuants into one blind valley after another. serious. It ceased

ported forming.

being a mere parlorgame.

New

The

New

downwind, his

panicky

grew

times

flocks

were

re-

pipes were heard, plaintive essays, not to be

compared with Morris' mastery,

to

be sure, but the oldstyle har-

monics was unmistakeable. Rebellion threatened. Dr. Doris Peloris

was given command.

On

a worldwide appearance, Dr. Peloris reassured the citizens

that there

was nothing

to fear. "All possible cause for panic will

eradicated," she affirmed with a

destined for immortality.

studied dissonance

"We

machined

shall

precision, her

words

put an end to idylatry.

upon which our modern

State

is

be

The

painstakingly

structured will not so easily be corrupted."

Through

the tense days that followed, Dr. Peloris and her

MORRIS IN CHAINS handpicked

staff

49

of highly trained urbanologists, high above the

City, pored over the dossiers of previous forays. Polly

systems analysts

made

octal

down

tional program, broke

the data under

new

and symbolic

old software systems and reassembled

and came up with a new standard

descriptors,

programming package

and the other

corrections to the opera-

for the project,

now known

as Project

Sheep

Shape. Boris the Chartchief prepared detailed flowcharts, built three-

dimensional transverse Mercator's projections of the entire parksystem, and

mapped out

doctor agreed there was

Morris' movements, but both he and the

little

go on. "Even nonpattern eventually

to

betrays a secret system," Dr. Peloris explained confidently to present, "but so far that of our subject, tual,

is

which seems

all

largely instinc-

simply not apparent." Nan, her personal aide, working out of

the newly reprocessed data, reduced Morris'

known

personal habits,

the natural objects that seemed to attract him, his

own minimal

needs and the needs of his beasts, manifest psychosexual behavior,

and the

like,

to realtime-based

mathematical formulizations, but

even these computations proved inconclusive. "No, Nan," said the

moment

doctor gravely, pencil gripped in her teeth, "clearly for the the hunt

itself

must go on."

She assembled the expeditionary force into emergency braced them for the

difficult

session,

assignments that lay ahead, spoke

"You laugh. Yet, we are already, let degree corrupted. As much by our own shaky starts

frankly of old temptations.

us

admit, to a

as

by Morris. not yet the

We can nearly admit notes of savagery in our parks, have the wild optimistic call. We might yet be thrilled by

stifled

glimmer of disembodied eyes burning hot

the vision of bathing naiads' bared

mammaries

with furry thighs, by the one-note

we

from the

are not yet freed

ceivable realities. It all,

is

for

they

whom we

them between

who

or of

nutbrown

torsos

of hemlock pipes. In short,

sin of the simple.

children, to speak in the old way,

must be no confusions

calls

in the dark forest, by

must

But

is

it

consider.

our

There

the old legends and con-

oblige us to grub up, once

and

for

the contaminated seed of our unfortunate origins." Enthusiastic

applause. Boris recorded the intensity

on

his

phonometer, wrote out

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

50

the figure for Nan to report in her log. He nodded toward Polly, and both observed with troubled frowns her unmoved placidity, her subtle smile.

"Our

strategy

divided into two parts," Dr. Peloris

is

continued, "the pursuit and the trap.

on the the

which

first,

same time may

The second

of course depends

essentially a fact-finding mission,

is

but which at

complementary function of harassing

serve the

and exhausting the adversary, forcing predictable

pattern-reliance:

the wearier, the unwarier."

Boris and

Nan

spoke to the doctor after the meeting about

"Her mind wanders,"

Polly.

said Boris.

"Her

observed Nan. Dr. Peloris nodded wistfully. Polly

was one of her

favorites.

It

butt's too

plump,"

was well known

"Does she dream of the sweet

that bird,

the bright star?" sighed the doctor. "Well, our interest in her

wanes."

(third national they calls

hankerin

come on

to it

it all

it

but

spite of that

right don't plot

my

it's

clear I've took a

how we

trackin but seems as

often enough: silver poplars

and old old beeches bio win

wisted measures in the green breeze the mingled elms and hazels

and

shadows and a clean brook

westerlies shiftin the flickerin

moonbathin and drownin the

and wanderin

lice in

ivytendrils

for

and

foxglove and colocasia mingled with the laughin acanthus and a

sweet bluegrass bed halffoot spongy

but it

it's

happy enough

here too

damn

damn

if

:

ain't the happiest valley

it's

why make him decamp

he don't he's gettin old that boy

him

near bullwhip

mebbe

happy enough/ and old Rameses he savors ever time to

I

have to

this little

old dell he sure don't cater none to these long ramblins hasty grub-

blame him neither/ besides

bins and don't say as

I

somethin nice well sure

it's

time but ain't

I tell

them

that's

younguns

folks they like

some

this place

tourists here

it's

most of the

ye they ain't bad they don't really bother us none

buggin us and

antisocial type in fact

the

true they's

tickle it

it

em

after all

me

into

I

ain't the

somewhat to pipe for dancin a round or two and their old

pleasures

too don't

you know

it

let

em

no

little

kid ye otherhow/then top of

all

MORRIS IN CHAINS

that

51

why now and

again on lucky days

sion to stick the old staff

a hurried

little

touristhumpin in the copse

heedin yes by damn!

one up:

why

even experiences an occa-

I

mongst the tender herbage

women]

as the poet says:

when

the cops ain't

can't say as old Morris ever passed a

took on everthin short of newborns and old

I've

corses/ well ceptin for one

mebbe but

that there's another story a

tender folklay outa the callow prepubes:

it

was a sunny midday

in

the hot bulge of spring drove the flock into a grove of massy old

oaks dipped

my

taut untufted flesh in the cool runlet nearby reposed

alongside afterward blouse wrapped round

phoebus lap

me

made my first squawky know? seen this

dry

looked up and whaddaya stretched out beside

grabbed on

my

me! well

I

was

just a

breeches showin forth

my

breech lettin old

boggles on a set of reeds here

little

youngun

I

goosegirl just jolted

my shiny white my leatherns I

that lifted a titter outa her/ then snug in

me down

longside her

nice day wasn't it?

and

I said

and

we

so

and she

got to talkin

said yes

it

I

said

was a

sure

it

croup and let

her tug

sure

was a

nice day at that

my em dumb

her geese was mighty pretty and white and she said

sheep they was pretty and white too and just then one of

up on another one and damn swan! sure seems in her eye

up and

if

that didn't set both of us to gigglin /

now to talk back on me down to shade her

it/ she said the

silly

and pulled

I

sun was

efforted a parched kiss

her sweet breath reekin of pogonias broad crescent smile starchy folds of springfrock listin over limbcurves

and heftin

breezes her toes to the sun old ganders circlin as lilywhite fingers fondlin

my

loose leatherns

if

in flushed

in sacred pieties

and grabbin hold

like of

a she-goat's milkswoln udder her eyes glittery brown beckonin

and

me

composin

mad

poetries in the

back of

my

me

agitated skull

nervous unbuttoned the flowered bodice whitebright breasts slud out of shadows

my

tremblin

back! goosebit by free

damn!

lips

bent to the nubbins—foul

and crudded under with some mucusy gop

retch right there in her poor

and backed

taste!

reared

scarred and bloodied one blue pap flappin

off her pulled

silly

on

my

face

togs

it

like to

did! /clutched

and

all

made me my mouth

the time the

little

goosegirl just lay rigid by the runlet bruised boobies to the breeze

— PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

52

and grinnin juniper!

would

as they

mad

that

switched

I

as

my

mad

widetoothed moonshapcd grin jumpin

surprised flock

paradin around her in that solemn ye

I

could

mile away well

I

make till

that there grove fast

circle

the next by

god mountain cut I

them geese

and you know

out the unsubtle arc of her big

never been back there

ain't

up outa

scat just left that goosegirl alyin there

off

let

me

tell

mounded

belly a

my

damn!

view!

can certain ye that but

I

done

who knows ? mebbe even worse yeah mebbe —oh-oh! hey you know Rameses it looks like we just might have to move on damn if it don't! just seen that there little plumpbodied some things

since well

scout of theirs don't look at still

got

up behind

me and

knob

there! they'll be

like that old trouper! tain't

we?

night ain't

all

god's delight

that

ain't it

my

on us by

ah!

fault! and look

the third national! well

we

odd number's

so?)

Dr. Peloris drew up a detailed

set of assignments, instructed the

team on basic methodology. But before the expedition could get under way, an unforeseen incident occurred Polly disappeared. :

cursed, Boris shook his old shaggy head.

We

the search.

canals in the

bed of

came

"Poll

entire

day was

lost in

one of the park

Third National, her plump white body splayed out in a

plastic nasturtiums, eyes

flushed red

An

across her at last alongside

Nan

glazed over, simpering smile on her

lips.

on the sward," clucked Nan, and macrofilmed the

"Morris ?" demanded Dr. Peloris of the

scene.

girl.

"Morris was not here." Polly's slow uneven voice reached us

from a hollow echoing ment!

distance.

"No. Not him." Rugged announce-

A man knelt, blessed himself in the blood of the wound.

"Morris!" cried the doctor paling, but by then the

man had

disappeared.

A

gloomy uneasy

entirely unexpected

silence settled over the group.

by most. Dr. Peloris probed the

This had been girl,

then dic-

tated a field report to her aide, detailed the apparent causes effects.

"And, oh, Nan," the doctor concluded

and

in a clear voice that

MORRIS IN CHAINS reached us

broke the

53

We laughed heartily, stood

service. Cheerfully, posts. It

with a cygnet ring." Her everready humor

all: "seal it

spell.

we

eager and ready to be of

received our equipment, motored to our

was the beginning of the end

for old Morris.

Meanwhile, the bearded sheepherder popped up in one park after another.

we

He

eluded us

less

frequently now.

Upon

sighting him,

recorded his behavior for approximately four hours, then

an intentional appearance slow, grazed

all

him

to set

The

trotting again.

made

sheep were

too leisurely, slept, drank, bred, shat across the green

spaces of our public places,

Morris have made

it

nubbing the

last

The

without them?

of the old

question

hills. is

Could

academic.

Morris included them, they him, his speed was describable only by theirs.

(as if I ain't

havin troubles enough old Rameses stages him an

insurrection the sonuvabitch! I

was multiplicatin past

wheres they was draggin it

to the old tup

in for his old

all

me down I

do?

and docked the old ram but no

shouldn'ta done

it!

didn't

I

reason and

I

buddy Morris ever

wanna do had

it

to halt

but the it

some-

to a near standstill: tried to

but he wouldn't

diddle he did so what could lads

it

cropped his marbles and hell

since

stock

explain

had

listen

had

to get his daily

roasted a coupla the younger

I I

shouldn'ta done

old Rameses! whatever got into

me?

it

by damn!

if I

just

had

down and think! if you're gonna eunuch em you gotta do it young by damn/ so that did it he sets about to right the score and so this here afternoon we make the hard trek up into the big hills find us a green knob and settle us down for a breather we're stag-

time to

sit

gerin sick from runnin and climbin just too much! had to leave a

poor old ewe behind on accounta she was just too slow from carryin I left

now

her with no one to care for her

damn near made me cry/ but down in the plain the flock

then the sun was lowerin peaceful

grubbin the good mountain clover and

me

ram outa my pack my cup

snowy white milk and

thing you

know

frothin with

with a big slab of roast first

I'm noddin off dreamin of the old country the

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

54

and

slender maids little

soft halfforgotten lays

me

spread out with a fancy

and never yet

phyllis of just fourteen

mown

wakes of a sudden one of the old Rameses'

girls

just

when

I

me in the midmost of the motherin flock me in the face with her wet nose and old

finds

not far off/ can't see plain at

just a fingernail

my

ear

nudgin

bells clangin

and moon

and I'm

my

creepin in her kirtle with her pantin fast and tonguin

but yes! they're buttin

me

first

down

sun

towards the old

mind on the old country and can't arrange the landscape straight for a moment: but then it hits me! the precipice! them goddamn ewes is nosin me towards the precipice! oboy I try like hell to haul my feet under me but them bitches just ram!

knock wool

got

still

me down

fuddled

again can't hardly see nothing only just their white

rollin spooklike in the

moonlight

blocked out by the nightdark and

I

their hooves

and black

keep hearin them

faces

bells like

a

tinny dirge gettin nearer and nearer jumpin juniper! a goner by

my heart's poundin and I'm mebbe even screamin my god I catch a clear horrifical glim of the edge:

god! and

and

then oh

pale

vision of the plains

ground edgin aside

way down below/ old Rameses to

grant

me

furious grab out at the old gruff but all

the ewes ain't pushin directly

he's slowly givin

space to slip off and

now

I

get

is

his

damn

the old bellwether

but they're fumblin around clumsy and confused and

go any minute

—but suddenly quicklike

mother and send her cliff:

fly in

and janglin

I

clap the bells

more me

clutchin at last

hoof/ and then

finally

it's

collapse grabbin for breath

Rameses

I

I

can see the old

ram and

I

I

bells

movin

know

on

I

aside

gotta

the nearest

and over the

can't hear the bell

to

I

and

no

old Rameses' hind

stagger over by the rocks

his troops cut to ribbons

in retreat to the nearby copse can't sleep

mornin

you

and hangin on over and

is

off to the right

half the flock follows her over before

away and

all

droops

night myself but by

have found our truce what's :

left

to trouble us won't be neither of us)

Data streamed

Only

daily into Dr. Doris Peloris' skyhigh headquarters.

rarely did Morris escape

our network of observers now, and

"

MORRIS IN CHAINS then but card,

His

briefly.

film,

55

tape.

least

event was recorded on notepad, punch-

Observers reported his noises, odors, motions,

choices, acquisitions, excretions, emissions, irritations, dreams.

His

longest disappearance lasted only three days: at the end of that time,

some dead sheep were discovered the mountains, so-called,

less

up in The report was

in a ravine, Morris located

than an hour

later.

rushed to Dr. Peloris, high above the City. "Little matter," the doctor replied, smiling

from her machines. Instructions

down

warmly, turning

"We have him now."

were given

to wait for a

out of the mountains. Dr. Peloris

few hours, then harass him

moved Expedition Head-

quarters to a skillfully concealed bivouac area within the Third

National Park. There, she prepared the reception for the old shepherd.

"You

now

see,

Nan," she explained

certain that Morris will

camp

to her aide that evening, "it

is

here in this valley, beside this

canal and that grove, within five days.

The

order of his disorder, as

exposed by Boris' charts and the processed data, forces him to do so

no matter what operations

his

mind might undertake

arrive at

what he would tend

course,

included the foreknowledge that

it

who knows?

we

await

tion not so critical, lit

job easier,

I

might enjoy the experiment."

Nan. Please request

no overcast

and

if

skies. If this

to

the situa-

Nan

smiled

make our

necessary, create small is

captured there

order conflicts seriously with some

other department, you are at liberty to alter

under no

And

suffice

that the water in the canal be gen-

obstructions that break the surface. Until Morris

only, but

here.

Were

the doctor's cigarette. "Certain precautions will

erated with slightly increased velocity,

are to be

him

perhaps even this knowledge would not

break the power of pattern over mere mind-activity.

faintly,

in order to

to think of as a decision. Unless, of

it

to pertain to nights

circumstances are there to be clouds

from mid-

night until about one hour after dawn."

"Temperature, Doctor ?

"About normal."

seventyfive

degrees,

humidity

slighdy

higher

than

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

56

Is there any other—?" "Once the adversary has entered the

"Yes, Doctor.

target area, see to

it

extreme caution, of course, for our prey on his guard. at sunset,

Make up

can

a public

be overdone and put

easily

crickets should be turned

but only one by one, reaching

At met

bit.

looked up,

six,

we

about

full strength

announcement about the same time,

the park exits a

Nan

this

The mechanical

that

Take

fragrances of pine, myrtle, and hyacinth are emitted faindy.

on

five a.m.

in order to clog

close in."

They nodded,

the doctor's gray-eyed gaze.

smiled knowingly at each other. Six.

(so by

damn whaddaya know? brought

out a brandnew

this

evenin just as old phoeb was rollin in for the night

soft

goldreddish glow to the occasion the

too

her

:

first

—how

is it

little

ewe

they mother so sweet the

—but damn!

little

him

just a

youngun

time ?

first

lamb

lendin a

the

it's

knew that! known it for ages just forgot it I guess forgettin ever damn thing forgettin all the old songs too I am/mind wearying down with all this cussed pasturehoppin that's it! we just ain't made for it are we Rameses? gettin old you are Morris by damn if you ain't! well of course I still pain and fright in

got a

little

jism

guess

it I

left

my

in

jumpers

I

I

up

ain't givin it

yet

but I'm sure as hell on the peterin off side of the old time

it

wastes

must be

all

things and ain't

a million stars

once well hell

I

up

there!

know

why

ain't

I

just didn't

em up

know

heard crickets

give up that easy

I

I feel

matter

somehow

my

—no:

bones

I

when you

ye

lifearc yes yes

to countin

listen at

was

do but

them

just

crickets!

a boy! got the idea I

guess they don't

just shouldn'ta it

them

thought they was

guess nothin does and leastly you and

disaster in

tell

you imagine?

buggers but

Rameses? /well you know old wether we here

I

there can

like that since I little

I set

ideas

silly

nothin/hey!

somewheres they'd extincted the

can

so! /sure is pretty here tonight

you know

was young and had

always the same number of didn't

it

I

seems

like

it

figger they 'da got us

me

eh

come back don't really

one place

as

MORRIS IN CHAINS

57

another you might just as well go out grubbin the green herbs as

gaggin on garbage in the

you reckon ?/and hey!

alleys don't

smell that spring old eunuch! just listen at

makes

a body

them bawdy

just

crickets!

wanna pipe one of the old songs!) Her hairs was black as silver snails Her teeth was white as gold The copse were green as nightingales The runlet fresh as mold The runlet fresh as mold Her Her

ears they twinkled merrily

eyes hearked

How lovely If

only

If

only

life,

all I

sang

said

I,

would be

we was dead we was dead

She quite agreed and plunged her knife Into

my

bleeding breast

Sweet maid, you've given me new Pray, let me have the rest Pray, let me have the rest

Once her I laid

I laid,

twice her

life

I laid

her three times o'er

So though she died a virgin maid

We buried her a whore We buried her a whore Now if my tune obscure should seem The meaning Consider

less

overlong

than

life

a

dream

And more than death a song And more than death a song

Dawn

broke at

and beech,

5:55. Beside the water, alongside a

grove of poplar

lay the shepherd with his flock, facing the eastern sky.

At

"

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

58

Dr. Doris Peloris and her

precisely 6:00 a.m.,

shepherd.

He

staff

emerged from

advanced from different directions upon the

their concealments,

started up, then discovered the thickening

crowds of

eager-eyed tourists welling up behind the doctor and her team: he offered

no

resistance.

"You have been herding sheep," "That

The

figures, lady.

the doctor said.

I'm a shepherd."

doctor's aide snorted: "Fruitless syllogism of eclogic!"

Dr. Peloris smiled.

"Now,

"My black bag, Nan."

look here, ma'am,

"Any," corrected Dr.

I

don't

Peloris.



mean no

She drew a stethoscope and other

equipment from her black bag. "Remove your

clothes."

"My-?" "Let's not be impertinent! This is

for you.

do you

refer to those

I

them?

call

is

no

less difficult for

me

than

rank fulsome skins you're wearing,

gaskins, buskins



I

don't care, but get

it

how them

off!"

Morris glared edgily at his captors, at the pressing crowd. Dr. Peloris pulled a pair of scissors

removed

his jerkin

from her bag. Morris grumbled,

and breeches.

There were low whistles and the

"What "The

.

is it, .

.

doctor's aide gasped audibly.

Nan?"

the legs, doctor! the

fur—\"

Dr. Peloris smiled, hooked the stethoscope in her

thought you knew," she

While cally

ears.

"I

said.

the doctor conducted her examination, her staff methodi-

exterminated the sheep with hypodermic injections.

died quickly and,

it

The

beasts

seemed, with a certain satisfaction. Morris,

nude, had grown impassive. Only the death of his lead ram seemed to affect him.

A

single tear formed, slid

doctor's aide noted

it

in her

The examination

itself

down

his

tawny cheek. The

examination record. did not take long: eyes, ears, nose, throat,

heart, lungs, arterial pressure, routine check for hernia

and

piles,

palpation of the prostate, various vital measurements. X-rays, blood

MORRIS IN CHAINS

samples,

"Now,

59

and encephalograms were taken, analyzed on the

spot.

a sample of your semen, please," said the doctor turning her

back, replacing the stethoscope in her black bag.

Morris, barbarian and cold-eyed, did not move.

"Nan!"

said the doctor,

nodding back over her shoulder toward

the captive.

Her some

aide slipped a rubber glove

another

Nan

closer.

on over her

left

hand, squeezed

made one last desperate lunge, but Boris and grabbed him, held him rigid. The crowd of tourists bulged

oil into

it.

Morris

approached him, executed three or four expert move-

ments. Morris' bronzed and bearded face flushed yet darker, his eyes

widened and teeth.

lost focus, his

Nan handed

mouth seemed

grow

to

full of thick

the test tube to the doctor. Dr. Peloris

made

a

hasty smear, peered into the field microscope. "2-A!" she exclaimed

with a

soft appreciative whistle.

Morris

now

lay

"Not bad

for a

man of his

age!"

limp in the arms of the two men. His cheeks

sagged indifferently. Defiance was over. Victory was ours! Dr. Peloris turned toward Morris, smiled gently. "There a place for you in our world," she said.

enough

to

"You

are

warrant an attempted rehabilitation.

recommend you. Perhaps begin with.

I

a job at one of our

is still

more than healthy

am

in a position to

mutton

factories to

Would you be interested?"

Morris stared numbly

at

the doctor.

He

closed his mouth.

Slowly, deliberately, sullenly, he shook his head.

"Put him in chains," the doctor ordered. She closed up her black bag, strode away, to the cheers of the gathered throng.

This, then, concludes our report. Dr. Doris Peloris has received highest State honors, yet that she cannot be

which

is

it is

of course recognized by

rewarded enough.

May

all

beyond our humble means! Though he remains

Morris' story

may

urbanologists

and a famous

He

in chains,

has been turned over to the

urbaniatrist has taken a personal inter-

They admit that Morris their young sciences, but

est in his case.

precedent to

not be ended.

citizens

history grant her that

is

a challenge serious beyond

reintegration does not

seem

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

60

entirely

beyond

might be the

possibility.

We

may

well, in concert,

wish that such

case!

(Doris Peloris the chorus and Morris sonorous canorous Horace scores Boris

—should be able to make somethin outa that by juniper

then there's bore us and whore us and up the old torus no not so

good not

so

good

free!)

I

am

to ye for?

it's

losin the old touch

why'd they go and do that

by

damn/a^ hi Ramesesl

the motherin insane are

THE GINGERBREAD HOUSE A pine forest in the midafternoon. Two children follow an old man, dropping breadcrumbs, singing nursery tunes. Dense earthy greens seep into the darkening distance, flecked and streaked with filtered sunlight. Spots of red, violet, pale blue, gold, burnt orange. carries a basket for gathering flowers.

crumbs. Their song

tells

The boy

is

The

girl

occupied with the

of God's care for litde ones.

2 Poverty and resignation weigh on the old man. His cloth jacket

is

61

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS patched and threadbare, sunbleached white over the shoulders, worn

through on the elbows. His

White

dust.

seem

to pull

The

girl

stares

hair.

lift,

but shuffle through the

him earthward.

plucks a flower.

impatiendy into the

to crouch.

do not

feet

Parched skin. Secret forces of despair and guilt

The

girl's

The boy watches forest's depths,

apron

curiously.

The

old

man

where night seems already

a bright orange, the gay color of

is

and is stitched happily with blues and reds and greens; but her dress is simple and brown, tattered at the hem, and her feet are bare. Birds accompany the children in their singing

freshly picked tangerines,

and

butterflies decorate the forest spaces.

The

boy's gesture

letting a

crumb

fall.

is

furtive.

His face

eyes remain watchfully fixed

man

is

His right hand

trails

behind him,

half-turned toward his hand, but his

on

the old man's feet ahead.

The

old

wears heavy mud-spattered shoes, high-topped and leather-

thonged. Like the old man's

own

skin, the shoes are dry

and furrowed with wrinkles. The ragged

at the cuffs, his jacket a

and cracked

boy's pants are a bluish-brown,

faded red. He, like the

girl,

is

barefoot.

The

May baskets and gingerbread own fleas. Perhaps they sing to

children sing nursery songs about

houses and a saint

who

ate his

THE GINGERBREAD HOUSE lighten their

young

63

puce wisps of dusk

hearts, for

the trunks and branches of the thickening forest.

More

sing to conceal the boy's subterfuge.

reason at

all,

a thoughtless childish habit.

admire their memories. Or silence.

The

through

coil

Or perhaps

Or

hear themselves.

to entertain the old

they

they sing for no

man.

To

fill

to

the

Conceal their thoughts. Their expectations.

boy's

hand and

faded red cuff

is

wrist, thrusting

not a cuff at

ragged edge of the

The

childish.

small.

To

likely,

now

soft

fingers are short

jacket (the

but the torn limits merely, the

all,

worn

from the outgrown

sleeve), are tanned, a

and plump, the palm

little

soft,

soiled,

the wrist

Three fingers curl under, holding back crumbs, kneading

them, coaxing them into position, while the index finger and thumb flick

them

moment,

sparingly,

before letting

The

one by one,

to the

them

half-shrouded by heavy upper

Deep

creases fan out

lids

damply

is

and beetled over by shaggy white

straight ahead, but at

invisible destination.

Some

in deep dark pouches,

from the moist

past the nose, score the tanned cheeks

man's gaze

as if for luck or pleasure,

go.

old man's pale blue eyes float

brows.

ground, playing with them a

them

balling them, pinching

corners, angle

down

and pinch the mouth. The old

what? Perhaps

at nothing.

irrecoverable point of departure.

Some One

thing can be said about the eyes: they are tired. Whether they have seen too

much or

too

little,

they betray no will to see yet more.

— PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

64

8

The witch face

is

wrapped

is

drawn and

in a tortured whirl of black rags.

and her eyes glow

livid,

way and

angular body twists this flecks of blue

burning

like

Her long Her

coals.

that, flapping the black rags

and amethyst wink and

flash in the black tangle.

Her

gnarled blue hands snatch greedily at space, shred her clothes, claw cruelly at her face

and

She cackles

throat.

screeches madly, seizes a passing dove,

The

girl,

then suddenly

tears its heart out.

younger than the boy, skips blithely down the

her blonde curls flowing freely.

but her apron tattered

and

silently,

is

Her brown

dress

is

forest path,

coarse

and

plain,

gay and white petticoats wink from beneath the

hem. Her skin

is

and pink and

fresh

soft,

elbows dimpled, her cheeks rosy. Her young gaze

her knees and

flicks airily

from

flower to flower, bird to bird, tree to tree, from the boy to the old

man, from the green seems

grass to the encroaching darkness,

to delight her equally.

she even

know

leading them ?

the boy

is

Her

basket

is

full to

and

dropping crumbs ? or where the old

Of course, but it's

all

of

it

overflowing. Does

man

is

nothing! a game!

10

There

is, in the forest, even now, a sunny place, with mintdrop trees and cotton candy bushes, an air as fresh and heady as lemonade.

Rivulets of honey flow over

gumdrop

pebbles,

and lollypops grow

THE GINGERBREAD HOUSE wild as

daisies.

This

come here, but, they

is

65

the place of the gingerbread house. Children

say,

none leave.

11

The dove

is

a soft lustrous white, head high, breast

than a feather's thickness off the ground.

tail less

filled, tip

From

of the

above,

it



would be seen against the pale path a mixture of umbers and grays and the sharp brown strokes of pine needles but from its own



pure whiteness

level, in profile, its

set off

is

glowingly against the

obscure mallows and distant moss greens of the forest. Only small beak moves.

Around

its

a bread crumb.

12

The song

is

sings alone.

about a great king

The

dispassionately furtive, stares

mouth

old

now

man

who won many

battles,

has turned back, gazes curiously but

at the boy.

The

boy, too, has turned, no longer

hand poised but no crumb dropping from

back

down

the path by

his fingertips.

He

which they three have come, his

agape, his eyes startled. His

moment

but the girl

left

hand

is

raised, as if arrested

a

before striking out in protest. Doves are eating his bread

crumbs. His ruse has such matters after

failed.

all,

has

Perhaps the old man, not so ignorant in

known

all

along

it

would.

The

girl sings

of pretty things sold in the market.

13

So huddled over her prey

is

the witch that she seems nothing

more

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

66

than a pile of black rags heaped on a post. Her pale long-nailed

hands are curled inward toward her

her head lower than her hunched shoulders, in

among

massaging the

breast,

wan beaked

object,

nose poked

the resdess fingers. She pauses, cackling softly, peers

then right, then

The burnished

the heart before her eyes.

lifts

left,

heart

of the dove glitters like a ruby, a polished cherry, a brilliant, heart-

shaped bloodstone.

It beats still.

A

soft radiant pulsing.

bony shoulders of the witch quake with

glee,

The

black

with greed, with

lust.

14

A

wild blur of fluttering white: the dove's wings flapping! Hands

clutch

its

body,

fingers. Its

down

head,

its

wings

flail

its

throat, small

hands with short plump

against the dusky forest green, but

umber earth. The boy bloodied by beak and claws. against the

falls

upon

it,

it is

forced

his

hands

15

The gingerbread house

is

approached by flagstones of variegated

wafers, through a garden of candied fruits

neat

little

and

all-day suckers in

rows.

16

No

song

now from

basket of flowers struggles with the

is

the lips of the

girl,

but a cry ot anguish.

dropped, the kings and

boy for the

bird.

saints forgotten.

She kicks him,

falls

The She

upon him,

THE GINGERBREAD HOUSE

67

pulls his hair, tears at his red jacket.

trying to elbow free of the

and

of anger heart.

girl.

He

huddles around the bird,

Both children are weeping, the boy

frustration, the girl of pain

Their legs entangle, their

and

and a bruised

pity

beat at each other, feathers

fists

fly.

17

The

man

pale blue eyes of the old

squint, the sorrow, the

The deep

creases fanning out

a brief wince, as though at

some old wisdom.

stare not ahead,

but down.

tedium are vanished; the eyes focus

The

clearly.

from the damp corners pinch inward,

some inner

hurt,

some

certain anguish,

He sighs.

18

The

girl

has captured the bird.

in the path

The

boy, small chest heaving, kneels

watching her, the anger largely drained out of him. His

faded red jacket

is

torn; his pants are full of dust

She has thrust the dove protectively beneath her apart, leaning over lifts

it,

weeping

her bright orange apron, her

away.

The dove

is

softly. skirt,

The

old

and pine

skirt,

and

man

her petticoats.

nested in her small round thighs.

needles.

knees

sits,

stoops

down,

The boy

It is

turns

dead.

19

Shadows have lengthened. Umbers and lavenders and greens have grayed. But the body of the dove glows yet in the gathering dusk.

The

whiteness of the ruffled breast seems to be fighting back against

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

68

strewn with flowers,

the threat of night. It

is

The old man,

and the

the boy,

girl

now

beginning to wilt

have gone.

20

The beams

of the gingerbread house are licorice sticks, cemented

with

weatherboarded with gingerbread, and coated with

taffy,

caramel.

Peppermint-stick

chocolate roof and

its

house! and the best thing of

from

chimneys sprout randomly

windows

are laced with meringue.

all is

its

Oh, what a

the door.

21

The

forest

dense and deep. Branches reach forth like arms.

is

animals scurry.

The boy makes no

furtive gestures.

The

Brown

girl, carry-

ing her flowerbasket, does not skip or sing. They walk, arms linked, eyes wide open

and staring ahead

into the forest.

The

old

man

plods

on, leading the way, his heavy old leather-thonged shoes shuffling in the

damp

dust and undergrowth.

22

The

old man's eyes, pale in the sunlight,

late twilight.

light of day.

Perhaps

The

it is

now seem

their wetness picking

squint has returned, but

weariness: resistance, rather. His

it

mouth opens

to rebuke, but his teeth are clenched.

The

to glitter in the

up the is

last flickering

not the squint of

as

though

to speak,

witch twists and quivers,

her black rags whirling, whipping, flapping.

From

her lean bosom,

THE GINGERBREAD HOUSE

69

she withdraws the pulsing red heart of a dove. rages,

Lust

how

it

The

dances in the dusk!

flattens his

face

reflections of the

and mists

old

How it glows, how

man now

his old eyes,

does not

where

it

resist.

glitter

now

ruby heart. Grimacing, he plummets forward,

covering the cackling witch, crashing through brambles that tear at his clothes.

23

A wild

screech cleaves the silence of the dusky forest. Birds start

from branches and the undergrowth mals.

The

old

man

stops short,

is

up

with frightened ani-

one hand raised protectively in front

of him, the other, as though part of the to shield his children.

alive

Dropping

same

instinct,

reaching back

her basket of flowers, the girl cries

out in terror and springs forward into the old man's arms. blanches, shivers as though a cold

The boy

wind might be wetly wrapping

young body, but manfully holds his ground. Shapes seem to and coil, and vapors seep up from the forest floor. The girl whimpers and the old man holds her close. his

twist

24

The old man himself has made them. room is in shadows, the children tucked safely in. The old man tells them a story about a good fairy who granted a poor man three wishes. The wishes, he knows, were

The beds The sun

are simple but solid. is

setting, the

wasted, but so then

about the good

fairy,

is

the story.

how

He

lengthens the tale with details

sweet and kind and pretty she

the children complete the story with their

own

is,

then

wishes, their

demand is being forced upon him. must the goodness of all wishes come to nothing? dreams. Below, a brutal

lets

own

Why

PRICKSONGS U DESCANTS

70

25

The

flowerbasket

flowers strewn.

overturned, by the forest path,

lies,

its

wilting

Shadows darker than dried blood spread beneath

gaping mouth. The shadows are long, for night

is

its

falling.

26

The

man

old

help pull

him

girl. It is as

dies

has fallen into the brambles. free.

He

sits

though he

is

on the

The

unable to

face

is

boy and

recognize them. Their weeping

away. They huddle more closely together,

man. His

children, weeping,

forest path staring at the

scratched, his clothes torn.

stare

He

is

back

at the old

breathing irregu-

larly.

27

The

sun, the songs, the breadcrumbs, the dove, the overturned

basket, the long passage

have

all

the

branches.

good

The

fairies

toward night where, the old :

gone ?

He

man

wonders,

leads the way, pushing back the

children follow, silent and frightened.

28

The boy pales and his heart pounds, but manfully he holds ground. The witch writhes, her black rags fluttering, licking at

his

the

THE GINGERBREAD HOUSE twisted branches.

With

71

a soft seductive cackle, she holds before

the burnished cherry-red heart of a dove. steps back.

The boy

licks his lips.

him She

The glowing heart pulses gently, evenly, excitingly.

29

The good fairy has sparkling blue eyes and golden hair, a soft sweet mouth and gentle hands that caress and soothe. Gossamer wings sprout from her smooth back; from her flawless chest two firm breasts with tips bright as rubies.

30

The

witch, holding the flaming pulsing heart out to the boy, steps

back into the dark Back. Swollen eyes

The

forest.

aglitter, the

boy, in hesitation, follows. Back.

witch draws the ruby heart close to

her dark lean breast, then past her shoulder and away from the boy.

The

witch's gnarled

and

bluish fingers claw at his poor garments, his pale red jacket

and

Transfixed, he follows

it,

brushing by her.

bluish-brown pants, surprising his soft young

flesh.

31

The

old man's shoulders are

bowed earthward,

his face

is

lined with

sorrow, his neck bent forward with resignation, but his eyes glow like

burning

coals.

He

clutches his shredded shirt to his throat,

stares intensely at the boy.

The boy

stands alone and trembling

on

the path, staring into the forest's terrible darkness. Shapes whisper

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

72

and

coil.

The boy

licks his lips, steps

shreds the forest hush.

The

old

man

forward.

A

terrible shriek

grimaces, pushes the whimper-

ing girl away, strikes the boy.

32

No

more breadcrumbs, no more

The

slap echoes

through the

pebbles,

no more songs or

terrible forest, doubles

echoes, folding finally into a

flowers.

back on

its

sound not unlike a whispering

own

cackle.

33

The

girl,

shielding

weeping, kisses the struck boy and presses him

him from

the tormented old

aback, reaches out uncertainly, gendy touches the der.

She shakes

the boy.

The face.

his

The boy

hand

close,

man. The old man, taken girl's frail

shoul-

—nearly a shudder—and shrinks toward

off

squares his shoulders, color returning to his face.

familiar creases of age

and despair crinkle again the old man's

His pale blue eyes mist over.

He

looks away.

He

leaves the

children by the last light of day.

34 But the door! The door

is

shaped like a heart and

cherry, always half-open, whether

lit

is

as red as a

by sun or moon,

than a sugarplum, more enchanting than a peppermint

is

sweeter

stick. It is

red as a poppy, red as an apple, red as a strawberry, red as a bloodstone, red as a rose.

house!

Oh, what a thing

is

the door of that

THE GINGERBREAD HOUSE

73

35

The

children, alone in the strange black forest, huddle wretchedly

under a great gnarled

tree.

Owls hoot and

bats flick menacingly

through the twisting branches. Strange shapes writhe and before their weary eyes.

They hold each

rustle

other tight and, trembling,

sing lullabyes, but they are not reassured.

36

The

old

man

trudges heavily out of the black forest. His

way

is

marked, not by breadcrumbs, but by dead doves, ghostly white in the

empty night.

37

The girl prepares a mattress of leaves and flowers and pineneedles. The boy gathers branches to cover them, to hide them, to protect them. They make pillows of their poor garments. Bats screech as they work and owls blink down on their bodies, ghostly white, young, trembling. They creep under the branches, disappearing into the darkness.

38 Gloomily, the old

man

sits

in the dark

room and

stares at the

empty

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

74

beds.

The good

fairy,

though a mystery of the night,

surroundings with a lustrous radiance.

Is it

the natural

small nimble body or perhaps the star at the tip of her

can

effuses her

glow of her

wand ?

Who

Her gossamer wings flutter rapidly, and she floats, rubybreasts downward, legs dangling and dimpled knees bent

tell?

tipped

slightly,

glowing buttocks arched up

good she

is!

in defiance of the night.

In the black empty room, the old

up a wish: he wishes

man

How

and uses

sighs

poor children well.

his

39

The

children are nearing the gingerbread house. Passing under

mintdrop

trees, sticking their fingers in

sampling the

heady

air as

the cotton candy bushes,

lemonade, they skip along singing

as

nursery songs. Nonsense songs about dappled horses and the slaying of dragons. Counting songs

of honey

on gumdrop

and

idle riddles.

They

cross over rivulets

pebbles, picking the lollypops that

grow

as

wild as daffodils.

40

The witch

flicks

and

flutters

through the blackened

face twisted with hatred, her inscrutable condition. like

glowing coals and her black rags

hands claw greedily

flap

forest,

her livid

Her eyes burn Her gnarled

loosely.

at the branches, tangle in the night's

webs, dig

into tree trunks until the sap flows beneath her nails. Below, the boy

and

girl

sleep

an exhausted

dimpled knee and blanket of branches.

soft

sleep.

round

One

ghostly white leg, with

thigh, thrusts out

from under the

THE GINGERBREAD HOUSE

75

41

But wish again! Flowers and

Dense earthy greens

butterflies.

seep-

ing into the distance, flecked and streaked with midafternoon

Two

sunlight.

The

crumbs, sing nursery songs. gesture

is

man. They drop bread-

children following an old

furtive.

The

old

—but

girl

man

it's

no

walks leadenly.

The

use, the doves will

boy's

come

no reasonable wishes.

again, there are

42

The

children approach the gingerbread house through a garden of

candied fruits and all-day suckers, hopping along on flagstones of variegated wafers.

with kiss

its

They sample

the gingerbread weatherboarding

caramel coating, lick at the meringue on the windowsills,

each other's sweetened

lips.

The boy

climbs up on the chocolate

roof to break off a peppermint-stick chimney, comes sliding into a rainbarrel full of vanilla pudding.

him

The

girl,

down

reaching out to

on a sugarplum and tumbles into a sticky rock garden of candied chestnuts. Laughing gaily, they lick each other clean. And how grand is the red-and- white striped chimney catch

in his

the boy holds

fall, slips

up

for her!

how

bright!

here they pause and catch their breath. stone-red,

thing

is

pulsing

its

how

It is

sweet! But the door:

heart-shaped and blood-

burnished surface gleaming in the sunlight. Oh, what a

that door! Shining like a ruby, like hard cherry candy, softly, radiantly.

beyond: what

is

that

and

Yes, marvelous! delicious! insuperable! but

sound of black rags flapping?

SEVEN EXEMPLARY FICTIONS Dedicatoria y Prdlogo a don Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra Quisiera yo,

si

fuera posible {maestro apreciadisimo) , excusarme de

escribir este prdlogo, not

merely because the temerity of addressing

you with such familiarity and attaching your eminence prentice fictions el

is

mat que han de

certain

decir de

but also because here

to these ap-

—and quite rightly—to bring on my head

we

mi mas de

cuatro sotiles y almidonados,

are in the middle of a

book where pro-

logues seem inappropriate. But just as your novelas were "exemplary," in the simplest sense, because they represented the different

writing ideas you were working with from the 1580's to 1612, so do these seven stories

76

—along

with the three "Sentient Lens"

fictions

SEVEN EXEMPLARY FICTIONS

volume

also included in this

up

commencement

to the

and

later exposure,

I felt

77

—represent about everything my

of

hope in ascribing

to

se

my

because "si bien lo miras, no hay

tales,

pueda sacar un ejemplo provechoso," and fictions the

from your purposes, which

same property,

una mesa de

nuestra republica

dano de

I

I

haven't strayed

take to be manifold. For they are

I

ejemplares, too, because your intention

entretenerse sin

invented

I

novel in 1962 able to bear this

their presence here invited interpolations.

Ejemplares you called your

ninguna de quien no

first

trucos,

was "poner en

plaza de

la

donde cada uno pueda

llegar a

Digo, sin dano del alma ni del

barras.

cuerpo, porque los ejercicios honestos y agradables antes aprovechan

que dahan" Roberto

S.

—splendid,

experience which

We need in

all

is

our mutual friend don

for as

necessary to our imaginative well-being

the imagination

good condition"

—and

responsibility to that

vocation: they

And

don Miguel!

has told us, fiction "must provide us with an imaginative

yet there

is

have, and

we need

exercised

.

.

.

and

thus your novelas stand as exemplars of

and they

stories

more,

tell

them

this

well.

read you righdy. For your stories also

if I

exemplified the dual nature of

all

good narrative

art: they struggled

against the unconscious mythic residue in

human

synthesize

forth

the

it

most solemn and pious charge placed upon

good

tell

we

unsynthesizable,

sallied

life

and sought

to

adolescent

against

and returned home with new complexities. In fact, your creation of a synthesis between poetic analogy and literal history (not to mention reality and illuthought-modes and exhausted

sion, sanity

and the

and madness, the

scatological)

art forms,

erotic

and the ludicrous, the visionary

—perhaps above

gave birth to the Novel

your works were exemplars of a revolution in narrative

—not unlike the way abused by the conventions of the Romance— to

revolution self

all else

fiction, a

you found your-

which governs us

this very day.

Never mind whether table Italian

who

it

was Erasmus or

caused your

artist's

Aristotle or that forget-

—not

eye to focus

Values and Beauty—but on Character, Actions of

and Exemplary

Histories,

dawning, and such a

shift

for

was

it

was

in the air.

Men

on Eternal in Society,

the

new Age

No

longer was the City of

of

Science

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

78

Man

image of the City of God, a microcosmic

a pale

the macrocosm, but rather

macrocosm, yet

at the

was

same time

what man's mind, through for you, Maestro,

it

full of potential, all the

Science,

was opening up;

the

New World

could no longer be described

it

in a

compact and marvelously

taking a cue from Lazarillo and

adventurers, became a process of discovery, and to

day young authors

this

fiction,

promise of

might accomplish. The universe

by magical numbers or be contained designed sphere. Narrative

reflection of

there was, neither micro- nor

all

sally forth in fiction like majestic

divinely ordained \—pharos to discover, again

and again,

—indeed, man-

their

hood. But, don Miguel, the optimism, the innocence, the aura of possibility

universe

you experienced have been closing in

is

largely drained away,

on us again. Like you, we,

too,

and the

seem

to

standing at the end of one age and on the threshold of another.

have been brought into a blind

too,

alley

by the

and

critics

be

We,

analysts;

we, too, suffer from a "literature of exhaustion," though ironically our nonheros are no longer hopelessly defeated

own

We

seem

to

have

anthropocentric, humanistic, natural-

—to the extent that man may be thought of universe—optimistic starting point, to one that

even

mic, eternal, supernatural (in

The

and tiresome Amadises, but

and bed-ridden Quixotes.

moved from an open-ended, istic,

tireless

its

soberest sense),

as

making

is

closed, cos-

and

pessimistic.

his

return to Being has returned us to Design, to microcosmic

images of the macrocosm, to the creation of Beauty within the confines of cosmic or

human

necessity, to the use of the fabulous to

probe beyond the phenomenological, beyond appearances, beyond

randomly perceived are above tions of a tion,

all

events,

beyond mere

—like your Knight's

sallies

history.

But these probes

—challenges to

the assump-

dying age, exemplary adventures of the Poetic Imagina-

high-minded journeys toward the

New World

and never mind

that the nag's a pile of bones.

You

teach us, Maestro, by example, that great narratives remain

meaningful through time as a language-medium between generations, as a

weapon

against the fringe-areas of our consciousness,

and

SEVEN EXEMPLARY FICTIONS as

79

The

a mythic reinforcement of our tenuous grip on reality. familiar mythic or historical forms to

novelist uses

combat the

content of those forms and to conduct the reader {lector amantisimol) to the real,

from magic above

to the

all

forms able

away from mystification to clarification, away away from mystery to revelation. And it is

to maturity,

need for

new modes

encompass them that

to

address these stories.

If

I,

of perception and fictional barber's basin

prolix foreword, please consider them, in turn,

mere preface

on

my

head,

they seem slight for such a burden as this

to all that here flowers

about

don Miguel,

as a

this little book-within-a-

book, to the other works that have already preceded them in print,

and

to all that is yet to

como you al

las

to

come. "Mucho prometo con juerzas tan pocas

mias; pero £quien pondra rienda a los deseos?"

remark que pues yo he tenido osadia de :

I

only beg

dirigir estas ficciones

gran Cervantes, algun misterio tienen escondido, que

las levanta.

Vale.

1

Situation: television panel

Panel

Game

game,

live audience.

Stage strobelit and

cameras insecting about. Moderator, bag shape corseted and black suited,

behind desk/ rostrum, blinking mockmodestly

lamps, practiced -pucker on his soft

at lens

mouth and brows arched

in

and mild

goodguy astonishment. Opposite him, the panel: Aged Clown, Lovely Lady, and Mr. America, fat as the continent and bald as an eagle.

now

There

is

filled, to

protesting

an empty chair between Lady and Mr. A, which the delighted squeals of

all,

from the Audience, nondescript introduced

Participant, or

more

simply,

Bad

is

by a spectator dragged

Sport. Audience:

as

Unwilling

same

as ever,

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

80

And

docile, responsive, good-natured, terrifying.

ask,

who

he?

is

fool!

"Welcome!"

thou

greets the

the Audience, cued to ingly: "to

You

the

Bad

Sport,

you

art!

merry Moderator, arms flung wide, and

Thunderous Response, responds thunder-

the big question!"

(who

squirm, viced by Lady

(who does

not, but bless

misread: Lovely Lady

him

mouth

through a straw, and, seemingly

you) and America

the same), but your squirms are

all

lashes, crosses eyes,

lifts

excitedly through puckered

Moderator

excites

as

at the

and draws breath

though sucking milkshakes other end of the straw, the

ingests: "Tsk, tsk!" and, gently reproving, waggles his

dewlaps. Audience howls happily the while and

who

can blame

them ? You, Sport, resign yourself to pass the test in peace and salute them with a timid smile, squirm no more. A moment then of calm, but Aged Clown spoils it, quips in an old croak: "Very bad

comma Sport!"

Audience roars again. Cameras swing, bend, spring forward, recoil.

Lights boil up, dim, pivot, strike.

"Reminds me of the old

Clown cackles. Howls and finger to soft

lips.

chants.

story of the three-spined stickleback!"

Moderator

No, no! Winks

at

reacts

with flushed giggle and

Audience.

Mr. America nudges you and mutters under the "Detail! Detail!

Game's

built

on

it,

don't miss it!"

others' noise:

A

friend, after

all.

So think. Stickleback. Freshwater

fish.

Freshwater

fish:

green

seaman. Seaman: semen. Yes, but green: raw? spoiled? vigorous? Stickle: stubble.

berry.

Raw

Or maybe

scruple.

Back: Bach: Bacchus: baccate:

berry? Strawberry? Maybe. Sticky berry in the raw? In

the raw: bare. Bare berry: beriberi. Also bearberry, the

dog

dogberry. Dogberry: the constable, yes, right, the constable in

rose, .

.

.

what? Comedy of Errors! Yes! No. "And so this here boy stickleback he shimmies up to the girl stickleback and she displays him her crimson belly. Hoo boy! That does it! Zam! They scoot down to his pad!"

?

SEVEN EXEMPLARY FICTIONS

81

Hooting and howling. Moderator

Lamps

collapses into easy laughter.

Lovely Lady shyly reveals

pulse.

belly.

Not crimson

at

all,

but creamy with a blush of salmon pink. Shouts and whistles. Hooboys and zams. Salmon: semen. There

we

are again. Stickle: tickle.

Belly: bag. Lovely one, too. "I

do

believe," chuckles the

"Too

late,

Moderator

loosely,

"we might begin."

bub!" croaks Clown. "Sport's done commenced!"

Horselaughs and

catcalls.

You

forgo any further search for clues

in Lovely's navel, shrink before the noise, before the jut of lenses, strike of strobes

Eyes of the World.

:

On you, Sport.

"Think!" whispers America. "She Scoot: scute.

and pad

is

But what:

She reveals!"

reveals!

scales? shield?

bone or horn? Scut

paw: an animal! Yes! But crimson: why not

—but

Because crimson comes from kermes: insect

male

pad

Shimmy:

insect bodies!

female

stuff:

is

is tail

just red?

more! dried

fe-

chemise, or a shimmer of light. But

bellies dried

and stuffed? Dry den-stuffed.

It's

—a poem here, that's obvious. And some animal. Light. And Dogberry from— possible. Stickle

A hush

.

:

stick

:

stich

.

.

"Are you ready?" demands the Moderator, and the Audience replies:

"We are!"

Ready: red-dy. Red bone. Green semen. Naval: navel. Salmon pink.

"Then

am

let

Rounded

us proceed!"

—that

quite reasonably certain

"I believe—may

i

is,"

syllables, dried

and

stuffed. "I

Moderator coughs and

titters,

have that privilege?"

"Yes! Yes!" cries the Audience.

"Of course he may," whispers Mr. America. "He only

asks out

of malice."

"Yes," sighs the Moderator, solemnizing, "for reasonable certainty

is

but the repercussion and ritornelle of belief!"

Vigorous applause, reverently paced.

"Huzzah!" hoots Aged Clown and the be

fat

man

nods. It could

so.

"Therefore,

if

you

will allow

me,

I

believe" the Moderator

"

"

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

82

what

continues, "with

an almost categorical certitude

constitutes



till his voice cracks like a young boy's, " extracting a jubilant Aaahl" and easy laughter like a loose cough

swooping upwards on "-tude"

from the

spectators,

"



I

beg your pardon!"

Gentle approving laughter.

ain't

"And so you should, son!" the old Clown cracks. Laughter. "That nice!" Larger laughter. "You keep it clean now!" Gross

laughter.

"Hint! Hint!" wheezes

fat

America.

Clean. Immaculate. Virgin. Verges. Aha! the headborough with



Dogberry in

hmmm, belly.

The Merry Wives! No. Verges:

?

Dogberry pink.

Steal a glance

though. Eyes of the World. Keep

it

:

still

there. Nice,

"That's better, son."

"Thank "Not cepts

it,



laughter and applause.

you."

at all, bub."

—That

More

Don't touch

immaculate.

"Believe, then, as a certifiable category

"

verger: verdure:

back to green again. Green scutes: greenhorns. Immaculate

all

of

Clown grimaces. Laughter.

you on our panel are well apprized of the

and procedures of our

little

—our wonderfully delightful

prelittle

game."

From

the masses packed beyond the lights: an explosion of

cheering, an enthusiasm clearly insisting against demurrals, but you say: "I'm not."

Hush. Hostile maybe. Moderator, into the

silence, as

though disbelieving:

"I

beg your

pardon?" "Sport ain't!" hollers the

"Sport

isn't,"

Moderator

"That's what

I

said,

he

Clown and you jump. corrects. ain't!" responds

Aged Clown. Crash

of

Nothing serious. All a joke. "The one who has the most money wins," mutters Mr. America under his breath, which is coming heavier now. Excitement? Not likely. Growth. Yes, expanding still, the old lard, some accretion

laughter.

process turned

on

early

and the

safety valve plugged, cells piling up,

SEVEN EXEMPLARY FICTIONS

and

rapidly, for your

83

own rump

skidding perceptibly under pres-

is

sure along the bench toward the Lady. She

self-absorbed,

is

powder-

ing her nose and her bosom, using a camera lens for a mirror. Eyes of the

World white globes and :

She turns,

pupils pink as raspberries.

bodice, smiles at you. "Isn't

lifts

what?" she

asks,

cooing. "Isn't got it!" quips the old

Does he have

his old gnarled

ence: the usual response.

mapped with help.

They

showman on between her love him.

the other side of her.

From

legs ?

the Audi-

Shrunken and yellowed,

wrinkles, quaking with palsy, white-haired and brown-

remnant from the Great Tradition. But not

toothed, Clown's a

much

fist

On

the contrary.

"Got what?" pursues Lovely Lady. "Come on, boys! You're

me! Hasn't got what?"

teasing

"My brows

dear

.

.

lifted in

.!"

pleads the Moderator, giggling softly but with

tender supplication.

Whoops and

whistles

from the

Audience.

"Oh,

really!" laughs

something

I

Lady

sweetly.

"You can

tell

me!

Is

it

can wear?"

"You're warm!" crows Clown mid the laughter and whacks her behind.

"Mind on your

business!" whispers America,

now

in possession

of at least half the whole bench, his eyes lost in puffing fleshfolds,

suitseams parting, buttons popping. "Here

"Would

I

wear

it,

more

likely,

it

comes!"

above the waist," Lady asks, then

reddens and lowers lashes, "or below?"

"Depends on your

scruples!"

Clown squawks and

the

crowd

roars.

Hah!

^Scruple: stickle: stickleback. Getting

warm now. Warm

indeed flush against the Lovely Lady. Are those her toes under your :

jump

pantleg? Don't

to conclusions. Couldn't put

Clown, for example, not Big

A

groans

trotters, flesh

if

there

faintly,

pushing out

bear. Bearberry

:

was

a laugh in

past the old

snorting and sucking like a team of as the suit tears.

Dogberry the dog :

it

it.

rose.

Wear and

Paw and

tail.

tear.

Wear:

But what of

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

84

The dog

the scute?

rows:

and

rose

—what?

Going in long now. Own

stickleback.

stichs:

America. Can't

last

bane pink. "Depends



Rose and scrupled? Rose:

"Depends

circles.

cells



!"

gasps

against him. Flesh dog-

!"

Depends: hangs. But what hangs or hangs on what?

Old Clown hunches, trembling uncontrollably over knotted

Humor.

knuckles.

Lady

:

beauty, excitement,

America: hard

The

maybe, or

Ah,

Sport?

Odd

all

clearly,

and

passion, sobriety,

depend, they

depend. They

silence.

You

his ringed fingers

truth. all

your mind they're

it's

On

hang.

It

you, then,

may

be

it

on the rostrum and

after.

depends, they

so.

drumming

look up to discover the Moderator

moment's come! They want

yes, the

justice. Inclusion.

team.

And Bad Humor,

life itself.

to guess. Prestige

staring blankly at you. Yes, to

know! Cameras plunge,

withdraw. Lamps blaze. You, pinned, sweat. Chilled by America's enveloping blubber, heated by the Lady pink as salmon. Pink rose.

As dogberry.

Still,

All's

dog

as

Well That Ends Well? Hardly.

you

in the silence, or so

tell

yourself, so

it

seems an aura of :

hope. Moderator relaxed, smiling kindly. Lifts brows in calm anticipation.

Audience suppressed

Will you do

to a patient

murmur. Will he do

it?

Fat man, perishing, balloons and snorts. Lovely

it?

Lady watches, admires. Encourages. They need you. You take strength from their need, and clear your throat.

"Oh, come, come!" exclaims the Moderator. "Reckon you not old refrain?

To

replicate

is

Applause and cheers greet

and

smiles.

But what does

but to repent and

it

mutinous and the mutable inscrutable!" ing to the ibly

moment now,

same and the

lost is less recalled!"

his eloquence, accepting

mean? what does cries

this

which he preens

mean? "Muteness is the Moderator, warmit

riding on waves of grand hosannas. "Inflex-

lex of the

game!"

Nothing, nothing there

Wary. Tarry. Salmonberry.

at

all.

Think

back.

Faster! Sticklestuff

Wear and

and Dryden's

tear.

belly.

"

"

!

?

SEVEN EXEMPLARY FICTIONS

Crowd Green

roars.



as

Moderator stands Faster!

?

85

to



bow. Crimson semen green

Could she wear

it?

Bear

it?

Bare

it!

as

That's

it!



Keep it going! Keep it "Too !" gasps Mr. America, blind and flaccid, nearly faceless, and he has no breath to finish, yet his mouth gapes, struggling. You speak: "I think—



"Admirable!" smiles the Moderator grimly, bringing caustic laughter from the Audience. "So what?" "

—That,

if

the subject

animal

is



Unexpected crash of laughter. Lady blushes, lowers

lashes.

Moderator, crimson with giggling and with tears in his eyes,

"Good God!

I

should hate to conceive of

it

otherwise!"

cries:

Whoop!

goes the Audience, louder than ever, and even the cameras twitch spasmodically.

"Keep it clean, son!" "But—!" "I said,

\eep

it

cackles the

Aged Clown.

clean!"

Immaculate butt? Incredible! "

—Late!" concludes the fat man, releases wind, and

Only friend challenge

now and

sir!"

it

up!

is,"

the Moderator,

The

truth

is:

contrived some

"The

Deafening applause.

truth is—"

him with an

here" the Moderator explodes, losing

to

the purse of perspicacity!" is

"You must have

but

lost!"

you would be wise

"Reason

much amused,

shouts the Moderator, jabbing at

not to endeavor to disentangle

Sport,

The

haven't even—!"

"Why are you "if

relief either.

from the incontrovertible commentary qua

angry finger, "you have I

but no

just so conspicuously constituted!"

Dig in! Tie "The truth "But

cries

pressing forward.

concrete conjunctions

commentary

loss felt,

Dead.

same one.

the

"Come, come, rising

No

in the house.

is still

dies.

the

resin,

this

all

patience,

entanglement? In short, Bad

remember that the saga of sagacity is Wild applause, cheers, hoots, screams.

the college of knowledge!" Uncontrollable



"

"

"

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

86

uproar. Moderator rips off bowtie and flings

like a rose to the

it

You have

stamping shrieking crowd. Lamps flame up. "Failed! failed!

And you must pay the consequences!"

"But the truth is—"

"The truth is," crows the old Clown and leaps upon the Lovely Lady takes his quaking claw and hops up to join him:

table;



"There once was a young bellydancer

Lady

chemise as Audience whistles and heaves coins to

strips to half

the stage.

Somewhere

a brass

band plays Eastern music. With her

thumbs, she pushes the chemise bare

it,

bright as berries,

to half-mast

and the old dog rose

.

on her .

hips.

Wear

it:

.

"Who supposed that her art was the answer— Above Female

or below? Waist: waste. Scruples, pink as salmon. Crimson. belly, darts

and

thrusts

.

.

.

"But one night in a bump, She fractured her rump



Lovely Lady halts abrupdy, knees bent out, twitching navel aimed at you

bump, about

:

Eye of the World

the table, eyes

—then staggers, thus in mid-

wide and mouth puckered,

drops— bam!

vulsive delight of the entire world, then scute to the table

"

.

.

And perished grotesquely

ossifies, legs

"Yes, the truth able,

wiping

his eyes

to the con-



stiff

as a

.

Audience paroxysms reach new frenzies throes and

like a spastic,

up toward

is,"

of cancer!"

as

Lady

vibrates in last

the lenses.

gasps the guffawing Moderator

with a linen cloth:

when

he's



""

SEVEN EXEMPLARY FICTIONS

87

"Don't twiddle or piddle Or diddle your middle While riding a riddle, old Sport



Lovely Lady miraculously revives, and with a wink of the Eye of

Laughs crash and thunder.

the World, lures you to the tabletop.

Whistles, catcalls, hostile hoots.

The

man, you

Cameras crouch, pounce,

was not Mr. America Amentia. Should have known. Changes everything tract.

fat

see,

"

For the frame

is

the

after .

.

all,

jab, re-

but Mr.

.

same

In fame or in shame

And the name of the game—

Clown and Lady all

depends

.

.

grip an

arm

apiece.

A

noose descends



yes, yes, it

.

"—is La Mortl" "I

thought—" But the Audience drowns you

happy, think about

The noose

that.

out. Well, they are

is fitted.

— ?" asks the Moderator and the crowd subsides.

"You thought "I

thought

"That

it

to

is

was

all

for fun."

say," smiles the

Moderator wearily, "much ado

about nothing." "That's

it!

that's it!

The Moderator

Yes! that's what

He

surfeit of

knowledge. Nods gravely it

rests his chins in his

At heart, a tough old boy. pudgy fist, smile informed by a at Clown and Lady.

clean, son!" rattles the old

humoredly with

was trying to—!"

shakes his head.

"Sorry."

"Keep

I

his elbow.

Well of

Clown, jabbing you good-

laughter.

Always the

laughter.

A second constant. Noose

is

scratchy. Tickles your throat. Swallow. Can't swallow.

Lovely Lady's scented breath

is

in your ear. "Don't be

gone

— PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

88

long, darling," she coos

and dispatches you with a parting goose.

Whoop! Off you go! The dog rose and there depended Lamps expand whap! burst into crimson flares

.

.

.

Eyes of the

So long, Sport. o

o

o

The Mar\cr Of

the seven people (Jason, his wife, the police

officer,

and the

officer's

four assistants), only Jason and his wife are in the room.

Jason

sitting in

is

an armchair with a book in

has doubtless been reading, although

About

get ready for bed.

Jason: he

now

is tall

he

his is

hand, a book he

watching

with strong calloused hands and a sensitive nose; he

And

with his wife.

she: she

is

Nude now, into a drawer,

up

bed, picking

she

a

chest of drawers.

ever

meaning

itself

and not

At the

last,

then

rolls

Jason's jacket

comb from

the floor

if

we were

might be

in her

and has a to hear her

the room, folding a sweater

which he had

where

it

had

motion

exists

tossed

fallen

She moves neither pretentiously nor

there

35,

deeply in love

on the

from the

shyly.

What-

within the motion

in her deliberations.

she folds back the blankets of the bed (which

room from

fresh sheets

moves lighdy about

hanging up

is

beautiful, affectionate,

and charming manner of speaking, speak. She seems always at ease. direct

his wife

and masculine, about

is

across

Jason), fluffs her short blonde hair, crawls onto the

on her hands and knees, pokes gently

down on

at the pillows,

her back, hands under her head, gazing across

SEVEN EXEMPLARY FICTIONS

room

the

at Jason.

89

She watches him, with the same apparent delight

up

in least motions, as he again picks

and

inserts a

book on the

He

table.

his book, finds his place in

stands, returns her gaze for almost a

and then does

ute without smiling, his

He

marker.

removes

same time placing

smile, at the

hooking

his clothes,

it,

min-

his trousers

over the back of the armchair and tossing the other things on the seat cushion. Before extinguishing the light

behind his

chair,

he

room at his wife once more, her tanned body gay rhythm of soft lines on the large white canvas of the

glances across the

and

relaxed, a

bed. She smiles, in subtle recognition perhaps of the pleasure he finds

He

in her.

snaps out the light.

moment

In the darkness, Jason pauses a

The image

in front of the armchair.

of his wife, as he has just seen her, fades slowly (as

when, lying on a beach, one looks curving back of the

sea,

of the reflected sun lose

at the reflection of the

sun on the

then shuts tight his eyes, letting the image its

brilliance,

turn green, then evaporate

slowly into the limbo of uncertain associations), gradually becoming

transformed from that of her nude body crackling the freshness of the laundered sheets to that of Beauty, indistinct

though

still

and untextured,

as

emerging from some profound ochre mist, but though

without definition, an abstract Beauty that contains somehow his wife's ravaging smile

walks steadily toward in the dark.

he

startled

is

into

When

.

.

.

and musical it,

his right

eyes. Jason,

hand

in front of

He up

facing the bed,

him

to feel for

it

he has reached the spot where he expects the bed,

not to find

what? the

it.

He

retraces his steps,

chest of drawers! Reoriented

of drawers, he sets out again and, after wall.

still

starts to call

some

and stumbles

now

by the chest

distance, touches a

out to his wife, but hears her laugh suddenly:

some kind

of joke, he says to himself with a half-smile.

she

is

He

walks boldly toward the laugh, only to find himself—quite by

to

surprise—back at the armchair!

He

fumbles for the lamp and snaps

the switch, but the light does not turn on. several times, but the

lamp

definitely does not

He

snaps the switch

work. She has pulled

the plug, he says to himself, but without really believing

it,

could not imagine any reason she would have for doing

since he so.

Once

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

90

again, he positions himself in front of the armchair

room toward

crosses the

walk

and although almost expecting something of the

dently, less

and

the bed. This time, however, he does not

alarmed when he arrives

at,

not the bed, but a door.

confi-

sort,

He

no

is

gropes

along the wall, past a radiator and a wastebasket, until he reaches a

He

corner.

starts

out along the second wall, working methodically

now, but does not take more than gentle laugh right in his ear. just

five steps

when he

hears his wife's

turns around and finds the bed

.

Although

.

in the strange search he has lost his appetite for the

sound of her happy laugh and

at the

it

the dark, of her cool thighs. In fact, the experience, the

feel, in

anxiety of

it

and

its

seems

riddles,

to

have created a

new

urgency, an

almost brutal wish to swallow, for a moment, reason and inadequacies, and to

He

.

behind him!

love act, he quickly regains

the

He

gives

let

passion, noble or not, have

way

wonders

to his this

if

possibility,

he

determined penetration. In a is

misgivings as absurd.

her to kiss her, and as he does

so, notices a

hungry way. relaxed and

moment

of alarm, he

but since there

really his wife,

rejects his

its

itself is

surprised to find her dry, but the entry

is

its

He

is

no

leans

alternate

down

over

strange and disagreeable

odor.

At

this

moment, the

lights

his four assistants burst into the

"Really!" cries the police

come on and

the police officer

and

room.

officer,

pulling up short. "This

is

quite

disgusting!"

Jason looks

down and

him, but that she staring

up

is

Her

it

is

him, without meaning, but bulging as though in

ears.

splayed out over the pillow like a urinal

There

indeed his wife beneath

eyes are open, but glazed over,

him.

toward her

teeth.

finds that

rotting.

The flesh on her face is yellowish and drawn back Her mouth is open in a strangely cruel smile and can see that her gums have dried and pulled back from her Her lips are black and her blonde hair, now long and tangled,

terror of

Jason

at

is

is

a fuzzy stuff like

mold around

mop

spread out to dry.

the nipples of her

shrunken

SEVEN EXEMPLARY FICTIONS

91

breasts. Jason tries desperately to get free

his deepest horror that

"This

woman

he

from her body, but

finds to

stuck!

is

has been dead for three weeks," says the

officer in

genuine revulsion. Jason strikes wildly against the thighs in his effort to free himself, jolts one leg off the bed so that

dangles there, disjointed

it

on the wooden him forcibly away from the corpse of his dead wife. The body follows him punishingly in movement for a moment, as a sheet of paper will follow a comb after the comb has been run through hair; then, freed by its own weight, it falls back in a pile on the badly soiled sheets. The four

and swinging, the long yellow

The

floor.

men in

four assistants seize Jason and wrench

carry Jason to the table

it.

toenails scratching

They hold him up

where

book

his

still lies

pounds them

He

to a

leaves Jason writhing

on the

assistants.

I

qua

that all

you

floor

mean

hands with those

join

evil,

its

who

march

out,

to

at all costs. I

me, that there

own

are justified in their I believe,

then, that

is

"Now

still

sake.

not, in the

On

am

it

the other

of terrible necessity

personally convinced,

a middle road,

whereon we

soil in traditions,

law and custom are

and

essential,

which

but that

it is

revise them. In spite of that,

ma\e me pu\e!" He

turns, flushed, to his

get rid of that judging corpse!" he screams.

After wiping his pink

and turns

am

do not recognize

turn by the innovations which created

one's constant task to review

however, some things four assistants.

own

I

find inherent in tradition

and who therefore deem

custom be rooted out will permit

his nose

and turns

to say that I

recognize that innovations find their best

them.

and

the door he hesitates, then turns

tradition as sanctified in

do not

some malignant

if

At

of course," he says, "that

strictest sense, a traditionalist. I

tradition

tabletop

A flicker of compassion crosses his face.

"You understand,

hand,

marker

police officer,

on the

flat

its

pulp with the butt of his gun.

along with his four

back to Jason.

and the

against the table

without ceremony, pulls Jason's genitals out

with

his

brow with

a handkerchief, he puts

back on the bed as the

men

it

to

drag away, by the

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

92

body of

the unhinged

feet,

on the pick

up. There

it

through

it

with one hand, the other

hastily

curiosity,

and although

it is

book

of the

on

The

if it is

it.

He

to

flips

holding the hand-

still

wears an expression of

his face

know

difficult to

to the floor beside Jason.

and walks out

officer notices the

a slight spattering of blood

is

kerchief to his nose,

mild

The

Jason's wife.

book Jason has been reading, and walks over

table, the

sincere.

officer replaces the

The marker

book on the

falls

table

room.

"The marker!" Jason gasps desperately, but does not hear him, nor does he want to.

the police officer

The Brother damn

right there right there in the middle of the

wants I

to

"how

says

just focuses

when he

the hell

me

you gonna get

to

would

I

since

was born and

why you

down

to the

my

as

my

him

help

I

can get

it

for

you

need plowin

it's

to say yes I says I will of

brother

God knows and you a

is

I've

done it

bad enough year already wingin around

next? you're a

little else

out ain't

I

can't

never

got enough to do here

my God

and now damn cloud and damn boat in the

like a

not knowin what in the world he's doin buildin a

my God what

says not to

God's sake and

wife she says "I can't figure

that red-eyed brother of yours

country

water?" but he

always have to be babyin that old fool he for

me

done in time otherwise and

be loonier than him

always would crazy

course

fields

just

know how he

though you'd have

done nothin

it

on some new lunatic notion and he

worry none about that

see

he says he

out sweepin the blue his eyes rollin like they do

gets het

because he don't

I

field

put that thing together him and his buggy ideas and so

damn

fool

I

tell

you" but

SEVEN EXEMPLARY FICTIONS

me some

packs

my

brother

more

says

93

sandwiches just the same and some sandwiches for

Lord knows

his wife don't

he can go starve for

the time he

made

her

sit

have no truck with him no

out on a hillside for three

and everything because he

up ever since whole days rain

she cares she's fed

all

said she'd see

God and

she didn't see

nothin and in fact she like to die from hunger nothin but berries

and

his boys too they ain't so bright neither

but at

least

come

they

to

damn boat so it ain't just the two of us thank God for that and it ain't no goddamn fishin boat he wants to put up neither in fact it's the biggest damn thing I ever heard of and for weeks wee\s I'm tellin you we ain't doin nothin but cuttin down

help

him out with

his

pine trees and haulin them out to his field which

is

really pretty

my God that's work lemme tell you and my wife she sighs and says I am really crazy r-e-a-l-l~y crazy and her four months with a child and tryin to do my work and hers too and still

high up a

when

come home from haulin timbers around

I

enough

and

hill

left to

rub

my

shoulders and the small of

day

all

my

she's

back and

got

fix

a

hot meal her long black hair pulled to a knot behind her head and

hangin marvelously

my God

and

I

down

says to

do buddy

you'll

you

can you

my

have to

know

her back her eyes gentle but very tired brother

I

work to wanna help

says "look I got a lotta

finish this idiot thing yourself

I

and he looks off and he says "it work" and I says "the hell it don't how you think me and my wife we're gonna eat I mean where do you think this food comes from you been puttin away man? you can't eat this goddamn boat out here ready to rot in that bastard sun" and he just sighs long and says "no it just don't matter" and he sits him all I

that but"

don't matter none your

down on

a rock kinda tired like

and

might even for God's sake cry and so to

him and

how

he's already started

on

he ever found out to build a

stares off

I

the keel

damn

boat

and looks

like

he

wood up knows God and frame

go back

to bringin

lost in his

fog where he

Lord he was twenty when I was born and the first thing I remember was havin to lead him around so he didn't get kicked by a damn mule him who couldn't never do nothin in a normal way is

just a

huge oversize fuzzyface boy

so

anyway

I

take to gettin

up

a

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

94

few hours baby

day

earlier ever

to

do

work on

the boat until

my

dry and

farmin

my

"you come and help

now

hundred people and

and

my

now

least

it's

no good

says

good

will

for

it

and

of

me

gettin herself

to

and

it

and

a place to live

my

wife she

and runs her hands no more

to stop helpin

all

keep

just

big enough for a

is

it's

brother he says

and we

somethin but

won't do no good and

these days

my

it

thing

come

hair but she don't ask

knows

because she

damn

at least I think at least

not too bad at that at

through

the

go

I

the days hot

or else I'd of dropped sure

the rest don't matter"

hammerin away and my God

just sighs

me

say to try and get out of

I

wife apt to lose the

was doin then

sundown and on and on

wife keepin good food in

and no matter what

herself

my

she should keep pullin around like she

if

she's

kinda turned into

ready and

still

we keep

workin on that damn thing that damn boat and the days pass and

my

brother he says

and from time

to

we

gotta

ain't

got

much

time

time he gets a coupla neighbors to come over and

hand them sucked

give a

work harder we

by the

in

and the novelty

size

of the thing

makin jokes some but they don't stay around more than a day or two and they go away shakin their heads and swearin under their breath and disgusted they got weaseled into the thing in the place

and

stock as

me

finally

cover

it

I

much

can but at

we in

only get about half as I

least

get

can

my

my

place planted

and

see to

first

my

wife she takes more care of them than

I

we won't starve we say if we just get some rain and the damn thing done all finished by God and we

and out with pitch and put

a

kinda fancy roof on

it

and

I

come home on that last day and I ain't never goin back ain't never gonna let him talk me into nothin again and I'm all smellin of tar and my wife she cries and cries and I says to her not to worry no more I'll be home all the time and me I'm cryin a little too though she don't notice just thinkin how she's had it so lonely and hard and all

and

for

rest of the

and

I

one whole day

week

go over

to

I

I

just sleep the

work around

my

over and whaddaya

the

brother's place

know?

there in the middle of

whole damn day and the

farm and one day

and

they are

get

all

nowhere him and

some

livin

on

his boys

I

get an idea

pieces of

that

wood

left

damn boat women

and some

SEVEN EXEMPLARY FICTIONS and

my

95

madder than hell and come home and he says she's got just one more day and then he's gonna drug her on the boat but he don't say it like a threat or nothin more like a fact a plain fact tomorrow he's gonna drug her on the boat well I ain't one to get mixed up in domestic quarrels God knows so I grab up the wood and beat it back to my farm and that evenin I make a little brother's wife she's there too but she's

him

carpin at

to get

damn

outa that

cradle a kinda fancy one with

down and

polished

and she

cries

and

after

cries

and warm about

it all

a

little

give

I

and holds

stay close

animal figures cut in

little

supper

away again and

boat and

me

by her and

my

to

it

and

tight

and

all

and glad the boat thing

it

and

wife as a surprise

says don't never

I feel

over

is

wine and we decide the baby's name

is

go

damn good and we get out so

gonna be

either

Anna and so we drink an extra cup to Nathaniel's and we laugh and we sigh and drink one to Anna and my

Nathaniel or health

wife she gently fingers the beautiful

and

animal figures and says they're

little

really they ain't I ain't

know what

but

I

the

wood?" and

says

I

"it's left

moment and

say nothin for a

again today?" and

I

now

thing they're

living in the

he's

at that sorta

over from the boat" and she don't

then she says "you been over there

wood" and

got the boat done?" and

she's over there hollerin at

damn

thing

him how

does he think he's sailin to and

thing

"where did you get

says

says "yes just to get the

"what's he doin all

much good

means and then she

she

how

I

he

"funny

except the old lady

all

he's gettin senile

if

she says

says

ain't afraid of

and where runnin into

on the way he oughta get back home and him sayin she's a nut there ain't no water and her sayin that's what she's been tellin him for six months" and my wife she laughs and it's the happiest a octypuss

laugh

I've

heard from her in half a year and

have another cup of wine and that big thing

there

my

I

don't

my

by hisself?" and

and some young

somethin

damn

all

know

women who I ain't

I

laugh and

we both

wife she says "so he's just livin on I

says

"no

he's got his boys

on

maybe wives of the boys or never seen them before and all kindsa

animals and birds and things

are

I

ain't

never seen the likes" and

wife she says "animals? what animals?" and

I

says

"oh

all

kinds

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

96

I

know a whole damn menagerie all clutterin and stinkin up God what a mess" and my wife laughs again and she's a

don't

the boat

litdc silly

with the wine and she says "I bet he

"oh yes

I

seen them"

around

in that big tub

and

I

says "yes

I

says

I

got no pigs" and

ain't

and we laugh thinkin about pigs rootin

and she

you couldn't hardly hear nothin

them else"

too or mostly

know what he

ain't

got

I

heard them

I

and we laugh again thinkin

about them crows and his old lady and the pigs and she says "/

no jackdaws"

says "I bet he ain't got

seen a couple of

bet he ain't got

all

and

no

lice"

my

wife

and we

when I can I says "oh yes he does less he's we both laugh till we're cryin and we finish of? the wine and my wife says "look now I \now what he ain't got he ain't

both laugh like crazy and took a bath" and

got no termites" and

I

says "you're right

I

don't recollect no termites

maybe we oughta make him a present" and my wife she holds me close quiet all of a sudden and says "he's really movin Nathaniel's really movin" and she puts my hand down on her round belly and the little fella is kickin up a terrific storm and I says kinda anxious "does it hurt? do you think that—?" and "no" she says "it's good" she says and so I says with my hand on her belly "here's to you Nathaniel" and we drain what's left in the bottom of our cups and the next day we wake up in each other's arms and it's rainin and than\ God we say and since it's rainin real good we stay inside and do things around the place and we're happy because the rain has

come and

just in

delicious

time and in the evenin things smell green and fresh

and

it's still

rainin a

but not too hard so

little

I

decide

wander over by my brother's place thinkin I'll ask him if he'd like to take on some pet termites to go with his collection and there by God is his wife on the boat and I don't know if he drug her on or if she just finally come by herself but she ain't to take a

walk and

sayin nothin

which

nothin neither and

I

damn

is

my

unusual and the boys they

brother he ain't sayin nothin they're just

standin up there on top and gazin off and rain ain't it?"

the rain and

funny

like

and still

my

ain't sayin

brother he looks

I

holler

down

he don't say nothin but he

and then puts

it

back on the

rail

at

up

me

at

I

all

"nice

standin there in

raises his

and

them

hand kinda

decide not to say

SEVEN EXEMPLARY FICTIONS

97

nothin about the termites and so

my

happened and

it's

startin to rain a little

home and

turn away and go back

I

I tell

my

harder again

wife about what

wife she just laughs and says "they're

crazy

all

them all crazy" and she's cooked me up a special meat and so we forget about them but by God the next day the rain's still comin down harder than ever and water's beginnin to stand around in places and after a week of rain I can see the crops is pretty well ruined and I'm havin trouble keepin my he's finally got

pastry with fresh

my

and

stock fed

wife she's cryin and talkin about our bad luck that

we might as well of built a damn boat as plant all them crops and still we don't figure things out I mean it just don't come to our minds not even when the rain keeps spillin down like a ocean dumped upsidedown and now water is beginnin to stand around in big pools really big ones and water up to the ankles around the

damn house is gettin we oughta go use my brother's

house and leakin in and pretty soon the whole water and

fulla

boat

till

this

blows over but

starts in cryin

proud see

I'll

keep sayin maybe

I

go ask him" and so

where I'm goin and

get to where the boat

bastard he just looks at

and

where

me and

to

my

holler

I

I

I

can't be so

can hardly

neck in places and

up and

am and

my

finally I

brother he comes

he don't say nothin that

shout up at

him

I

says "hey

is it all

wife to come over until this thing blows over?"

he don't say a

and

I'm askin you

all

talkin he turns

hardly believe

it

him and

me

his brother

him

ever

for his wife

and

call

"GoDdamn you"

I

—"

and

all

wet and cold

name

I

I

can't

but he don't come back out and

beat on

it

to

right then right while I'm

around and he goes back in the boat and

push up under the boat and

and

out in the storm and

about to have a kid and she's apt to get sick

the bone still

at

up I

"we

says to her I says

I set

sillyass

soakin she's

and

wife she says "never" and then she

I

damn word he just raises his hand in that way and I holler "hey you stupid sonuvabitch I'm wet goddamn it and my house is fulla water and my wife

still

same

me and my

I slip

is

down

out and he looks

right for

my

again so finally

with

my

fists

and scream

I

at

I can think up and I shout for his boys anybody inside and nobody comes out cry out at the top of my lungs and half sobbin and

for

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

98

and then

sick

feelin too beat out to

do anythin more

I

turn around

home but the rain is thunderin down like mad now and in places I gotta swim and I can't make it no further and I recollect a hill nearby and I head for it and when I get to it I climb and head back

for

up on top of it and it feels good to be on land again even if it is soggy and greasy and I vomit and retch there awhile and move further up and the next thing I know I'm wakin up the rain still in my face and the water halfway up the hill toward me and I look out and I can see my brother's boat is floatin and I wave at it but I don't see nobody wave back and then I quick look out towards my own place and all I can see is the top of it and of a sudden I'm scared scared about my wife and I go tearin for the house swimmin most all the way and cryin and shoutin and the rain still comin down like crazy and so now well now I'm back here on the hill again what little

there

is left

of

it

and I'm figurin maybe

I

got a day

left if

the

show no signs of stoppin and I can't see my brother's boat no more gone just water how how did he know? that bastard and yet I gotta hand it to him it's not hard to see who's crazy around here I can't see my house no more I just left rain keeps

my

comin and

wife inside where

her the

way

she

it

I

don't

found her

I

couldn't hardly stand to look at

was

In a Train Station

At

9:27 Alfred purchases a ticket

from the Stationmaster

for the

10:18 Express Train to Winchester.

Here's Alfred: squat, work-stooped, thick white moustache on his

upper

lip,

pale blue eyes, white hair nearly gone on top, face

neck tanned and leathery, appears

to be

about fifty-two.

He

and

wears

SEVEN EXEMPLARY FICTIONS

99

an unfashionable gray

suit, loose

down, a blue checked

shirt

brown

thick-soled

(gold ring on

on him and stained from the knees

buttoned at the neck without

shoes caked with field

he carries his squarish

it)

mud. In

The

little

and happens

need be said about

He

it.

strange to fifty-one

some

that

minutes

—Alfred

But

It is

is

when

is

it

not on

to return

.

.

not

now

in the

mainly for passengers

from Track

ticket),

2.

will perhaps

it

seem

the train departs for Winchester exactly

—that

Alfred buys his ticket

after

while he

stuffs the ticket

Alfred and the Express Train to be real

nothing of the contract of the

(to say

hand

at his feet.

to be electric. It leaves always at 10:18

Now, assuming both

time

up the small bag

10:18 Express Train to Winchester:

and

station,

bulky

soft-billed cap,

conducts the ticket transaction with his right. into his coat pocket, then picks

tie,

his left

is

to say,

on

it.

.

After obtaining his ticket, pocketing

with that old man's

it

whole-hand-into-the-pocket gesture, and picking up the small bag,

window to a bench over it. The station is

Alfred shuffles heavily a few feet from the ticket

which

faces the gate to

empty except lamps glow

Track 2 and the clock

for Alfred

dully.

A

brightens harshly the Stationmaster's small of

A

and the Stationmaster.

couple ceiling

bare bulb umbrella'd by a green metal shade office.

The

station smells

musty wood. Alfred puts his bag on the bench and

sits,

he

sighs, as

though the mere

sits

down

act of sitting

is

beside

it.

As he

an awful strain on

him. Once seated, he sighs again and gazes straight ahead of him at the Track 2 gate, his cap in his lap.

Behind him, the Stationmaster writes something in a large elongated ledger, and as he does

Track 2

gate. 9:29.

so,

glances

"Nice evenin'," he

"Yep, nice enough

up

at the clock over the

says.

at that," says Alfred.

"May

rain tomorra."

"Low pressure area movin' in, I hear tell." Good for the crops, though," says Alfred. "Been doin' much fishin' lately?" "Yep.

"Nope,

I ain't.

Been too blamed hot for

fishin'."

FK1UK5UNUS & DL5CAN1S

1UU

"What d'ye

catch mostly?"

"Oh, smallmouth. stare at the gate to

Bluegills." All the while, Alfred continues to

Track

slumped and

2, sitting

expressionless, his

cap in his lap.

"Oh, that

do ye ?"

so ? Fish for bluegill,

make good

"Yep," says Alfred. "They're small, but they

"Yep, so they do. Well.

eatin'."

how's the family ?"

And

"Cain't complain. Wife's been a bit poorly, but she's gittin' better,

now

"Oh?

the summer's

come

Ain't been nothin' serious,

"Nope," says Alfred.

"Them's

"Jist

on

on." I

hope."

female troubles."

pretty fine lookin' vittles," the Stationmaster continues,

"Your wife put 'em up

his voice pitched slightly louder.

for ye?"

Alfred fumbles nervously in his bag, produces a greasy brown

From

paper sack.

it,

and a small chicken beside the bag, eaten.

wrapped

leg

and the egg

the knife,

now draws an

he

in his

in

apple, an egg, a jackknife,

wax

He

paper.

puts the apple,

upturned cap, drops the paper sack

and unwraps the chicken.

It

has already been pardy

His hands are trembling. "Yep," he says

faintly. "She's

He hesitates, then bites resolutely into the chicken. a lucky man who's got him a good woman and

good cook." "That's

food and good work," the Stationmaster

The

So

far,

it

he has not veered his gaze from the gate

clock above

though

it

reads 9 133.

He

good

says.

Alfred tears off a bite of chicken leg and chews sently.

one

slowly, abto

stops chewing, opens his

Track

2.

mouth

as

to speak, but does not.

The

Stationmaster looks

After a moment, he says

"And

a

.

.

.,"

:

up

"And

a

him through

at .

.

says Alfred, his

the ticket

window.

."

mouth

still

full of

half-chewed

chicken leg. But his eyes are puzzled and he does not continue.

"And "And

good

a a

.

.

."

good wife!"

cries Alfred.

Both

men

laugh. Alfred re-

turns to his chewing.

"Well,

it

looks like the old 10:18 will be in

says the Stationmaster, returning to his ledger.

on time

tonight,"

— SEVEN EXEMPLARY FICTIONS "Good,"

on

101

"Good. Don't wanna

replies Alfred.

He

a Sattiday night."

wax

paper, returns

egg.

The

to the

it

The egg

is

It

still

home

He

sighs.

He stares up

Not

and the

it

cavities

have

has been a long time since the apple has been tried.

He

whole.

reopens the canvas bag on the bench

beside him, peers inside, stuffs the paper sack back into

bag.

late.

paper sack, along with the apple and the

apple has a few bites taken from

turned brown.

git

wraps the leg of chicken in the wrinkled

Then he

sullenly at

it.

notices the jacknife

Then, suddenly,

as

still

it,

closes the

in the cap in his lap.

though

terrified,

he grabs

the knife, reopens the bag, thrusts the knife inside, snaps the bag

shut. Visibly shaken, he

Track 2

back and, staring once more

sits

gate, continues to

chew mechanically on

at the

unswallowed

his

bite of chicken leg.

men

Both

are silent for a while.

closes his ledger, squints

up

The

Stationmaster, finally,

at the clock. 9:42.

"How's

the tomaters

doin' this year?" he asks.

"Aw,

well as kin be expected.

Need

a

lookj" Alfred spins

suddenly around to confront the Stationmaster, his pale blue eyes

damp

though with

as

"Don't ye think maybe

tears.

this

time

I

could—?"

"Need

a

little

.

.,"

.

intones the Stationmaster softly, firmly.

Alfred sighs, turns back toward the gate, works his jaws over the chicken.

"Whole

"Need

a

little

rain,"

area could use

he says glumly.

some

rain," responds the Stationmaster.

Just then, at 9 144, the door of the station bangs

stumbles days'

in.

He

is tall

growth of beard. Khaki

the laces broken and reknotted.

fixed thing.

He

man

hair, a couple

pants, gray undershirt, tennis shoes,

He

introduces with

of stale alcohol, and his eyes, though blue and as

on no

open and a

and thin with uncombed dark

if

him

a large odor

thoughtful, focus

lurches for a bench, misses, smashes

up against

a wall. Leaning there, he breathes deeply, his eyes rolling back. Alfred, his

all

is

watching him. His face has blanched,

hands quaver. The Stationmaster "Beloved!"

self

the while,

cries the intruder,

away from the

wall.

He

is

watching Alfred.

grinning foolishly, heaving him-

weaves.

"The

su'jeck f'my dishcoursh

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

102

is

He

."

.

.

slams back against the wall again, gasping brokenly.

Alfred watches, paralyzed. "The su'jeck ... the su'jeck

]uc\

and the

it!"

man

careens

away from

.

.

aw,

.

the wall, collapses over the

back of the bench nearest him.

who

Alfred glances anxiously at the Stationmaster, serving

him

calmly, back at the

man

still

ob-

folded over the bench, up

back at the man.

at the clock (9:54),

The

tall

is

stranger slowly

with

his head, braces himself half-erect

lifts

hands against the bench, looks toward Alfred, but

blearily, with-

out focus. "Our fazher," he cries out, then sucks the

spittle off his

his

and swallows

lips

heaven

down

.

.

"our fazher whish art

it,

eating hish

is

.

own goddamn

man

appalled at the bench under him, the

vomits

with his hands over his

rolls off to the floor, lies there

heaven

*n

.

.

.

'n

chiVrenl" And, staring all

over

it,

up

at

face.

Alfred, chewing frantically, fumbles with the bag, looks the clock. 10:01.

The man on himself to his his

mouth.

sides.

He

white.

the floor shudders, then with great effort pulls

feet.

He

His eyes

cross

and

vomit drips from

a string of

wipes his mouth, then drops his hands limply to his

twitches as though with unresolved retchings. His face

The

stubble

on

He

his chin glistens.

an uncertain

takes

is

step

toward Alfred, pauses, takes another. Alfred unsnaps the hag. "So help me!" cries the

he

reels,

his eyes

tall

man, focusing

rolling back,

that instant

Alfred drops the bag, reaches out, catches the

him

to his

back on the

swallowed the hands, then

floor.

at his feet.

—then

man

in his

fall,

eases

In the excitement, he has unwittingly

bite of chickenleg.

down

on Alfred

and topples over toward Alfred.

He

His lower

looks guiltily at his

lip is

own

trembling.

"Alfred!" scolds the Stationmaster. "Alfred! Shame, shame!"

There toward the pained

He

cry,

tears

are tears in Alfred's eyes.

He

turns his head

clock, brushes the tears aside. 10:13.

He

upward

utters a short

grabs up the canvas bag, scratches desperately through

out the paper sack, pokes inside

it,

pitches

it

it.

away. Again

he searches through the canvas bag, draws out the jackknife, throws the bag away, crouches over the fallen man. 10:14.

SEVEN EXEMPLARY FICTIONS

103

"Well?" demands the Stationmaster harshly. "Well, Alfred?" Alfred squeezes shut his eyes, takes a long desperate breath.

Opening

He

floor.

man

his eyes again,

is

down

open the knife, grasps the

clicks

sleeping

he drops quickly

fitfully.

Under

parted, his teeth clenched.

A

his

man on the man's hair. The

over the

fallen

white moustache, Alfred's

lips are

whining animal complaint

faint

es-

As though struggling against an unseen hand, knifeblade downward, touches it finally to the man's

capes between them.

he presses the throat, but, "It

with a short anguished

10:16, Alfred,"

is

cry,

withdraws

it.

announces the Stationmaster quietly. Out-

one can indeed hear the 10:18 Express Train

side,

Winchester

to

arriving.

The his

hands

The

knife drops from Alfred's hand.

He

is

crying.

He

presses

to his face.

Stationmaster emerges from his

up the

Alfred, picks

knife.

"Now, watch,

office,

down

kneels

Alfred," he says.

beside

"Watchl"

Alfred peeks through his hands, weeping, whimpering, as the Stationmaster strokes.

The

severs

eyes

the

tall

stranger's

head with three quick

on the head pop open suddenly and the body

jerks

moment. Blood gurgles out of the man's neck, staining Alfred's trousers where he kneels on the floor. Alfred continues to weep beside the long body, which twitches still with small private reflexes of its own, as the Stationmaster carries the head into his office. He returns, lifts the body up on his shoulders, and carries spasmodically for a

it

out the door.

When floor,

The

carcass can be heard

tumbling down

the Stationmaster returns, Alfred

weeping.

The

Stationmaster looks

says 10:18,

and

whistle, then pull away.

The

clock above the gate to

one can hear a train outside sound

down

its

steps.

kneeling on the

is still

Track 2

at Alfred, sighs shortly, shakes his head,

then walks over toward the Track 2 gate. There

which the Stationmaster now

slides

under the

is

clock.

a chair there,

He

the chair, opens the glass that protects the clock dial,

hands around until they read slides

it

back

to

its

9:26.

He

steps

down from

former position, returns to his

studies the clock, shudders, wearily gathers

up

stands

on

moves the the chair,

office.

Alfred

his scattered posses-

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

104

and places them once again

sions

in the canvas bag.

The

Station-

master reopens the ledger. Alfred walks up to the ticket window, his cap in his hand.

Klee Dead Klee, Wilbur Klee, dies.

Is

dead, rather.

I

know

I

know

:

too soon.

It

should come, after a package of hopefully ingenious preparations, at the end: and thus, gentle lector,

But what's

fathers.

to

Wilbur Klee

has,

with customary dispatch, shifted his

fact,

and the

city clerk, public

The

city clerk

just before

file,

toady that he

any meddler's disturbance of things put in

gathered to his

is

be done? He's already gone.

is, is

as they are

lunch in

not one to suffer

and

—as

he would

—must be. Not even for a bribe, certainly not for any kind of

bribe that

I

could

clerk, in short,

human

sops;

is

and

offer,

you

city

a surly sonuvabitch, quite beyond the touch of

so Klee

In some languages, die myself,

The

not even for tickets to the circus.

irretrievably, dead.

is,

it is

possible to say

will die yourself, he

to die oneself, as in

:

:

I

would have died himself, and so own hand was perhaps

on, cunningly planting the idea that one's involved. (Which,

if I

may

would seem

say so in passing,

been the case with Wilbur Klee.) But unluckily these other languages

with it

my

—God knows

insufferable English

would be inconceivable

above

all,

in

which

case

I

my

if I

I

did

should

lively did

it

don't

have

know any

of

wouldn't be bludgeoning you

—and even know them

if I

did

know them

well, conjugations

circumlocutions would only

laugh and forget that the point of the matter

he quite

I

to

is

that

Klee

make you

is

dead and

himself, to hell with friends, family, lovers,

employers, gods, countries, and anyone else

who had

designs

on

SEVEN EXEMPLARY FICTIONS

105

him. Providing he was in fact encumbered with any of these, and

who on this earth

can doubt that he was?

Yet, contrarily, old Millicent

hand or any Well,

on

can't

I

State Street

sence of a Thirteenth

for that.

She

lives, in

Avenue being

who had

a

manner

little

tactlessly calls Lothario,

—assemblage

whom

little

inside,

little

square

is

windows windows down

them

—what,

not hopelessly flawed?) to cackle

one must assume she

who

are always

is

at

ground

above Millie's reach, which helps account

for the fact she has never closed

world,

—and

of interfiliated cats,

fuckers! Millie has been heard (her

from the

she

vicarious pleasure to lighten the daily press of

open, winter and summer, level, yet,

?

bad luck,

her stagnant aquariums, and her vast

for our purposes, nameless

little

.

lady, well into her dotage, keeps

house alone in the basement, along with her old ram

care:

.

of speaking,

a preclusion, not an oversight,

every reason to expect a

somewhat scabby old

provide Millie a

.

own

unrenovated brownstone. Millie, a be-

lives there in a multistory if

not dead, either by her

between Twelfth and Fourteenth Avenues, the ab-

of our City Fathers

lievable

is

you don't know Millicent Gee

other. Perhaps

blame you

Gee

in this makeshift

from time

referring to the cats.

The

to time,

and

have been

fish

dead for some time.

What

Millie keeps

be guessed, and for

my

on the part,

but not to be trusted. Above tution says

several floors

it's

all:

her

own

aboveground can only

business.

Rumors are rife, The Consti-

not to be encouraged.

enough about the promulgation of rumors, no need for Thank God for the Constitution. Whatever she keeps

lectures here.

up

there, though,

one thing

is

certain:

it is

not likely to be or to have

it. And perhaps there is we seem impulsively driven to up empty spaces, to plump some goddamn thing, any object, imagined, or otherwise, where now there might happily be

been human. Millie wouldn't stand for nothing up there load real,

at all.

To

be sure,

nothing, a peaceful unsullied and unpeopled emptiness, and that's

what she hides up

there,

who knows ? own biases,

But, not to be taken in by our

this

much

maybe

needs to be

said: Millie, all efforts to the contrary notwithstanding,

is

not en-

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

106

divorced from humankind, and there

tirely

doubt that she has son

reason therefore to

is

that upper space go for nothing.

let all

—God knows how she came by him—has no part

life,

apparently his

own

He no

choice.

occasionally to attend the seasonal devotions, in

good humor and kindness,

green suit and stovepipe hat with

on good

about him, even were

capable of

I

which he

his profession

he never

it,

and

is

visits his

mother,

not really her

is

merely the victim of well-intentioned but wrongheaded

at all,

gossip.

partici-

in his clover-

no point saying much more

is

smiles at the idea of duty or oblations, and perhaps

son

passes by here

done up

do with

There

at.

finely

He

ostrich feather, which, I'm told

its

authority, has something to

not, therefore, to be laughed

to play in her

longer lives with old Millie,

but resides elsewhere in an efficiency apartment.

pates in all

Her

To

tell

the truth,

place. Please forget I

have nothing

to

wish

hadn't brought

I

mentioned him,

why

not entirely sure

I

told

I

do with Wilbur Klee. In

that unconscious old nanny. Perhaps I

it

could

in the first

you can. What's more, I'm

if

you about

before facing up to Klee, that

him up

Millie. Certainly, she

was merely

tell

can

smile to think of

fact, I

it,

to demonstrate,

a story without bringing

who but Millie could was led me this way, let me

the hero to some lurid sensational end, and that hero be? In any case, whatever

say in conclusion:

God

it

preserve old Millicent Gee!

it's

the least

I

can do.

As

Wilbur Klee,

for

place

and

proof

is,

is

as

it

now

I've

know,

either, you'll be glad to

dead.

I

not

much more

just this: that

Need

high place? Your questions, friend, are western mind.

On

the other hand,

—that he

effect relationship

—well, you

place

my word

think you can take

were, here in the pudding.

is

are free to

if

to say about

I tell

foolish,

you wish

to

now

for

it.

The

you from what disease

of

the

assume a cause-and-

dead because he jumped from a high

do

so, I

confess

it

has occurred to

more than once and has colored my whole narration. there is some relationship: the remains of Klee, still splattered out in their

him

he jumped from a high

several

and discontinuous

me

Certainly,

moist, are

parts

from a

point direcdy below the high place from which he jumped only a

SEVEN EXEMPLARY FICTIONS

moment

before.

But

107

that's as far as

go, thank you.

I'll

be

refuse to

I

inveigled into any of the almost endless and no doubt learned argu-

ments which

so gratify

to belittle, a

man must

only that,

if I

done with

me

less

and only the worst

I

easier for

Who

I

forget

vows.

it

starts

do

fact,

—but

as well as

my

given

up and I

am

it is

Though

name

at

is

where

I'll

you wish

do not

I

to

make

friend,

this is

it.

care. (// I

silence for such a

my

And

peculiar

it, if

you do

matter

me

an

no disparagement.

I

Wilbur Klee was Wilbur

may have pushed may have made it up,

already

all, I

I

and unprincipled penchant for it

was

his

name

or not,

it

any other. It's

time for an assessment of some kind,

so enigmatically put

call it thirty, to

reminded

So here

won't be dogmatic about

myself.)

no matter! Whether

But enough of Klee! time, as

dead,

is

same again

fine! It certainly will

Really,

and ends.

too far, perhaps that's not his

logogriphics

I

—death?

my

That Klee

for the rest of

do not know,

them frequently

Klee, that's where

will

As

dead.

is

would have broken

I

any man's

very likely in

it's

morbid emotionalism could imagine a

in his present condition.

was Klee, you ask?

and forget

injustice

confess,

to save physics.

do that he took his own life, me as we wind this up. But I

—or

mean

don't

I

for dissent: he'll never be the

sort of

him

knew, do you think as this

room

ground: Klee

believe as it

had died

that Klee

suitable future for

my

nation's savants.

take his pleasures where he finds them,

weren't careful, one would think before they'd had

however, leaves

stand

and absorb the

for

by the storybook people,

no

clear cause of the case

Evachefsky. Let us hope for some link, some

light,

wrap

to

prophesy by the clouds and sign off

.

of Orval

.

.

it

but

Nulin

and drive on.

Orval was born exactly forty-two years ago today, the second son of Felix -and Use Evachefsky, on a small Eastern farm which Felix had acquired with the savings of his deceased immigrant parents. Orval's early years

were largely uneventful.

A

strong but

timid boy of average intelligence, he passed through Porter County

High School difficult,

as a

popular athlete and incurious student. Times were

the world

was

was deeply mortgaged,

large so

and redoubtable, and the family farm

Orval and his two brothers, Perk and

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

108

Willie, the

older than Orval, the second younger (the only sister

first

Marge was married and County), stayed on

had

lost his right

would have months

arm

some

living

away

distance

in

Huffam

high school to help their father. Old Felix

machine accident and doubtless

in a threshing

the farm as well, had not Perk, Orval, and

lost

Willie pitched

after

in.

He

lost

after all three boys

it

anyway,

as

it

young

turned out, not

were drafted into the

service

many

during the

war, they having failed to declare their status as farmworkers. Felix died two years

later,

pendent upon

a broken

and

disillusioned

man,

entirely de-

Even at that, some might say he was enough to learn of the lacklustre in-thedeaths of his sons Perk and Willie. Only

state relief.

fortunate in not living long service-of-their-country

Orval returned from the wars, though not entirely whole: an other-

him to a Maggie Wilson, Treponema Pallidum, and the debilitating. For several months after

wise well-meaning buddy had introduced

who

had introduced him

in turn

cure was long and psychically

to

Orval lived isolated and unshaven in

his discharge,

apartment (she had moved here

had the old lady not been

totally

impervious to

nomena, she might have discovered morbid melancholia. But

luckily

his mother's

to the City after Felix died), all

and

external phe-

in her son a tendency

toward

an old friend encouraged Orval

to

take advantage of governmental education handouts to veterans, and to business school, soon forgetting— apparently any—his worries. At school, he met Sissy Ann Madison, rescued her

Orval went

way

off

humdrum of the business world and introduced her to the humdrum of housewifery, though not without suffering a few from the

weeks of strange and Orval and Sissy people

Ann

call perfect

who grew

irrational panic just before the

were painfully slow

union, and in

nation to do arts,

much

reaching a state of what too slow for Sissy

increasingly nervous about the delay,

certainly have sought her

man's

fact,

at

so.

own

solutions

ceremony.

Ann,

and who would

had she had enough imagi-

Meanwhile, though lacking most of the business-

and often the gull of unscrupulous

colleagues, Orval

developed steadily into a dependable and conscientious salesman,

unimpeachably loyal

to the

Company and

embarrassingly honest in

SEVEN EXEMPLARY FICTIONS his negotiations.

Then,

109

as oftentimes happens, as

Ann came

fidence grew, Sissy

him on

appropriate gaiety, surprised

wedding anniversary with the news

that a child

A father!

he thought of

proud old man, and on the day

his

own

after Sissy

impulsively bought cigars for everyone

though he

still

had nearly eight months

are understood and,

more

self-con-

with

finally,

night of their ninth

the

kind of delirium possessed Orval. He! at least sixteen years,

OrvaPs

him more, and

to enjoy

was expected.

For the

first

morose but

father, that

Ann had the

in

A

time in

told him, he

Company, even

to wait. Well, such things

often than not, forgiven in the business

world. His sales soared over the next few months, his self-confidence

new and

climbed to a

life

was

until

one

exhilarating peak, and in short,

extraordinarily bountiful for Orval

Nulin Evachefsky

.

.

.

Ann, only a month away from parstrange red splotch on her face. She thought

day, late in the autumn, Sissy turition,

developed a

nothing of

it,

in spite of feeling a litde funny, but then a second

appeared a day

was the purest

He

later,

and she began

serenity,

compared

to

to

grow alarmed. Yet her alarm

what was happening

did not need the second splotch, that

to dredge past,

and

up

all

the forgotten

Wilson and her

spirochaete.

table, forgetting his

first

up

He

to Orval.

one was quite enough

and unconfessed

in particular, to call

one

fears of his troubled

the grinning spectre of

staggered

Maggie

away from the breakfast

hat and briefcase, and hours later found himself

stumbling blindly about in the port area of the City, a piece of cold toast in his hands.

With

the aid of three gin rickeys, he

pull himself together by nightfall sleep

was shattered by

and find

terribly biological

was

hardly noticing the second splotch on Sissy Ann's face, he

out hat, briefcase, credit cards, or office is

tie.

Whether

or not he

left

went

withto the

unfortunately not known. But at 12:47, Orval took the

and

at

window

to

elevator to the thirty-seventh floor of the Federal Building, 12 152, without the slightest hesitation, leaped

from

a west

impaling himself on a parking meter in the street below, immense horror of Carlyle Smith, schoolteacher, age thirtywho was about to put a penny in the meter. Just before learning

his death,

to the six,

able to

way home, but his visions. The next day, his

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

110

of his death, his wife Sissy

had

Ann was

told

by her obstetrician that she

He

a fairly acute case of infectious erysipelas.

penicillin in the

bottom and ordered her

Their lunch

brown matter

to bed.

—an indescribable amalgam of black meat, greenish-

and thick wet wads of some uncertain doughy

gravy,

—concluded

Jenny's

gave her a shot of

Home

at last, the city

Cooking Cafe,

with putty knives and

remove Klee, once and

firemen emerge belching from

cross the small square, and,

for

all,

from our minds. The Chief,

from our

sight,

and

Laws,

hooked up

is

shrieking obscene

to a public-address

and an unholy howl

of

commands

man

with

strict interpreta-

microphone

into a

system with three oversize speakers

(a fourth speaker

The growing bulge

thus, let us hope,

a withered crowfaced career

a bent bluish nose and a citywide reputation for a tion of the

armed

of soapy water, begin to

plastic buckets

present, but disconnected).

is

about

huddles

spectators

the

acci-

dent, so-called, staring with astonishingly blank faces at the sweat-

One

ing black-slickered firemen.

man whose furiously

uniform

up

to the

is,

of these

—what do you

call it?

an enormous

latter,

fire-

apart where sewn, stamps

literally, splitting

—the point of impact, and

as though in protest against the pressing dull-faced crowd, stoops

and

is

visibly delighted, his

and he ducks

perceptibly,

What

interest.

he

is

doing

to the task at is

.

.

.

ah

paths of his direction

is

.

.

.

like

lie

fat face

reddens

hand with exaggerated

scattered over the

miniature milestones,

spilt life's

own

merely collecting in a small pouch the

fragments of Klee's dentures, which like

wholly unintentionally:

farts indelicately, yet, as it turns out,

though the crowd

blood. Well,

we

let

us say,

pavement

marking the

could say more, but the

dangerous.

But mark

this detail

and perhaps even blank,

:

a small scrap of paper, completely illegible

lies

not far from us in the fringe splatter of

the main impact, weighted by a finger joint. //

/'/

possible that for

some time past the destructive elements in Klee's character were jew and effectively though with great effort submerged, but that Klee





perversely guarded the notes

moments by

these elements,

and themes provided

and

in

despairing

that these notes, all too honest, all

SEVEN EXEMPLARY FICTIONS

111

too unanswerable, eventually contributed decisively to his inevitable

but no betray

Hmmm,

abrupt and disturbing end?

less

my

but perhaps

the pavement before Klee arrived so melodramatically,

no account. In

so be a circumstance of like a handbill.

today.

What

I

For the piece of paper may well have been there on

trust.

The

is life,

streets are

after

all,

now

All of Klee has

fact, I confess, it

and would looks

more

always cluttered with them, more so

but a caravan of

lifelike forgeries

?

been gathered up and stuffed into a wax-

—strange

how

him there was that it should all fit! and the firemen are hard at work with water and scrub-brushes. Pretty dull stuff. Hardly the kind of show to keep crowds about, especially when there's a circus in town, and it goes without saying that they're all moving on. So may we. It only lined shopping bag

litde of



remains to be observed that Orval Nulin Evachefsky suffered from a

mental disturbance marked by melancholy and irrational

more

when

or less sat upon, which,

given license over

terrors,

him

as a

consequence of Sissy Ann's splotches, drove him hastily to his annihilation.

mere

was if

Whether

we

then

we

was the result of a more simply, reason itself say, never know. And even

Klee's suicide, however,

disease of his private reason, or

Klee's disease,

will, I

am

if,

sorry to

should find out somehow, though

it'd

be

finally, is to

damned

self-

little

I

cannot imagine

consolation to Klee.

The

best

it,

we

even

can do,

impose the soothing distortion of individuation on the

and

we

more than

I

for

one

whether he does or not.

We

didn't start all this just to search out a

luckless bastard,

comforting headstone,

feel

God knows. No,

deserve

that,

no, in the end, in truth,

are left virtually with nothing: an overlooked eyetooth, the

PA.

we left

howling, a stained and broken ostrich feather, the faint after-odor of the fireman's fart.

Abandoned.

And

a good fifteen, twenty minutes

shot to hell.

I'm sorry.

What

can

I

say ?

Even

I

had expected more. You are

right to be angry. Here, take these tickets, the city clerk, obsequious fool that

he

is,

something and

refused them, you might as well go.

this is all I have.

I

owe you

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

112

J's

It

Marriage

began not otherwise than one might expect. After an excessive

period of unlicensed self-humiliation, ecstatic protests of love, fear, despair,

and the

mate happiness though

to

any imaginable kind of

which she replied and usually

(to all of

ulti-

in kind,

rarely with such intensity), J at last determined, or perhaps

had been

this

total impossibility of

marry

drawbacks

mere

his determination all the while, the rest

her. Slow, but then there to the affair:

though she was

he was

more broadly educated. In

it

And

older for one thing.

and imaginative, he was

wouldn't be unkind

fact, it

brought himself to confess

were admittedly substantial

much

certainly intelligent

poetry,

in the torment of his

to say,

most

far

and he

rational

moments, that a good many of the most beautiful things he

said to

her she failed to understand, or rather, she understood not the sense of them, but merely the apparent emotion, the urgency, the adoration behind them. possible adorable?

himself. his

And did he adore To search out this

And, more generally and

most oppressive

her, or the objectification of a

answer,

therefore

}

frankly did not trust

more

significantly, all of

fears about the ultimate misery of any existence,

the inevitable disintegration of love, the hastening process of physical

and mental

fears

were

rot,

the stupidity of

entirely real, in fact,

and he knew

it.

human

more than

passion,

and

fears, they

so on, these

were

his lot

But there was no alternative short of death,

so

he

decided to marry her.

To

his great

embarrassment, however, she was shocked by his

proposal, apparently so at least, later

did he

burgeoned all

come

to

in her, a fear that

the time, but

and pleaded

understand that a

for time.

new kind

Only much had

of fear

no doubt cowered beneath the surface

which had always been placated by the suspicion

SEVEN EXEMPLARY FICTIONS was

that J himself

nothing more physically substantial than

really

words which

his words,

113

at times pierced the heart, true, kindled the

blood, powerful words, even at times painful; but their power and their pain did not, could not pin

one helplessly

to the earth,

could

not bring actual blood.

At

grew angry,

the time misconstruing her behavior, however, )

pressed his affections with atypical peevishness. She tore away, spat at him hatefully. He withdrew, collapsed into a prolonged and somewhat morbid melancholy, unable to lift a hammer or turn a blade. She sought him out. She wept, embraced him, tried patheti-

out

cally to explain.

He

again misunderstood and renewed his assault.

She screamed

in terror

ful confusion.

He grew

it

and escaped. Again he ill.

She cared for him.

dragged, until, in summary,

at last

it

fell

back in remorse-

And on and

became apparent

to

on, thus

him

that

although she did love him and had a healthy longing for motherhood, at

least in the abstract, she

the prospect of the loveact

What was

it ?

was nevertheless panic-stricken by

itself.

a lifetime of misguided dehortations

deformed grannies, miserable old the underworld (which the

tales of

woman's very

from ancient

blood and the tortures of position in the event

must

give one thoughts upon), or some early misadventure, perhaps a

dominant father? present

act,

vant. This

It

hardly mattered. For, in the instant of the

the past in

is

what

all its

troubling complexities becomes irrele-

} believed anyway, and once the immediate cause

of their problems had finally been

immense

relief.

case, there

level

ately

Not only was

was now no longer any

where they two

existed,

made

manifest to him, he

his pride assuaged,

obstacle to their marriage.

he explained

where he might guide love,

At

the

to her, his voice appropri-

his

domain

her, at this level sex could not be

compre-

muted, eyes darkened, brow furrowed, Truth

hended without

felt

but more to the

but love could be distinguished without refer-

ence to sex; in short, that one was the whole, the other a mere part, contributing to the perfection of the whole to be sure, but not indispensable, not indispensable.

More

her terms, he could not imagine

life

precisely,

he added whatever

without her, and

:

if

later

they

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

114

came

to share in the natural act of lovers, well, so

would arrive there, encouragement and at her own pace. course, but they

was

It

accepted

human

true (just at that

even

it,

if it

did

moment anyway)

fail to

much

all

grasped,

more by

possibly with this singular

no

this

that he said, she

take into account the processes of

action as she understood them, doubtless

than he. But aside from

the better of

only with her express

if at all,

more

accurately

and more important: she suddenly

man, and would always enjoy the upper hand in though the word was not hers, sex. All right,

intuition than by reason, that with this other, she

matter

of,

she said. All right, yes, she

would marry him, and not long

after she

did.

Their wedding night was in

all

truth a thing of beauty: the

splendor of the celebrations, the hushed intimacy of a private walk together under the cryptic light of a large

moon, the unexpected

delight discovered in the reflection of a candle's flicker in a decanter

weeping

of aged wine, finally the silent

a night that seemed infinite in

dawn,

J,

course;

sitting

it

on the

its

side of the

would take some while

ness), overflowing with

temples, and with the beside him,

and

J

still

dressed, of

yet to learn that first art of nakedaffection,

thin light of the

wept again

arms through

innumerable dimensions. Toward

bed (both of them

profound

first

in each other's

to realize the

began

new

to

day, she

caress fell

her

asleep

meaning and the impor-

tance of her sleep.

In spite of

all

his doubts, fears, his

submerged impatience with

the qualifications, to say nothing of his general view of the universe,

not exactly, as shown, a reassuring one, several

months an

J

nevertheless enjoyed for

incredible happiness. Everything

became remark-

ably easy for him, the dullest detail of existence provided

him an

immense delight: a parade of ants, for example, or the color of a piece of wood or a pebble, her footprint in the dust. Merely to watch her hand reach for a cup or place a comb in her hair left him breathless. Every act was dedicated to her being, her mere being.

The bed he made

for her with his

own

hands, the table as well

SEVEN EXEMPLARY FICTIONS which never lacked her

and the

plete happiness

consuming

made

these.

seemed

love.

J,

God knows:

last,

and puppets,

too,

Almost from the

minor, obstacle to their com-

certain, ultimately, to give

confident of his

own

made

at least

of his age

much

way

to their all-

sexual attractiveness, even

—no, not over much —was patient, infinitely patient, and she

he was, which was not too old after

should be seemed,

little flutes

encountered an emotional harmony inexpressibly beau-

and even the

as old as

him,

gifts to

chairs she sat on, he also

outset, they tiful,

115

all

of the time, as desirous as he to

consummate,

in the proper time, their marriage.

One sea.

an

He

idle

evening, just before sunset, J happened to be

had forgotten why he was

down by

the

there, perhaps nothing more than

wandering before supper, but yet

it

seemed altogether neces-

sary that he should be there, just at that instant, just as the dying

sun melted, viscous and crimson, into the sullen distant

mountains blinked from orange-green

sea, just as the

to blue, just as the

awoke the pines over his head. It was not, it was not beautiful, no, it would be absurd to think of this or any other natural composite as beautiful, but it was as though it could be beautiful, as though somewhere there resided within it the potentiality of beauty, not previously existent, some spar\ after all, only first stirring

of the night

—and

illusion of course, but

he turned

coming toward him down the

just in

time to see his wife

path. Paralyzed, he stood rooted, un-

speaking, utterly entranced by her graceful motion, by the pale light

playing over her slender body, and, above

awkward stare. Oh my God when she was near enough to

returning his to whisper,

all,

I

by her

eyes, smilingly

love you! he

hear.

And

feverish exultation, he buried his face in her breasts

them, and she allowed emotion, he

fell

it.

Then,

finally,

and caressed

overcome with an excess of

into a deep sleep full of wonderful dreams,

unfortunately he could never later

The

managed

that night, in

which

recall.

actual process of increasing intimacy

was an elaborate

sequence of advances and reversals, which need not be enumerated here.

At moments,

J

would be

greatly encouraged, perhaps by a

?

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

116

sudden

act

on her

part, a stroking of his

naked back while he was

bent over his lathe, a pressing of his hand to her breast, a soft folding into his arms while

still

half asleep beside

But other times he would unwittingly shock

him

in their bed.

her, set her to crying or

running from the room, or would wake her with a hand too

on her

tent

thighs.

fears

had been

years

tossing

And,

in fact,

justified, that

sleeplessly,

utterly impenetrable body.

it

that his worst

he would indeed pass the

tortured,

At such

times, he

bitterly

and

rest of his

marvelous but

her

alongside

the water she bathed in or the chair he

found himself weeping

seemed

actually

insis-

found himself envying

was carving

for her to

on,

sit

alone, his face in a piece of her

clothing.

But then, one evening

after supper, utterly

without warning, he

entered the bedroom to find her standing, undressed, beside the bed.

She was astonishingly his

beautiful, lovelier than

he had imagined in

He

gasped, unbelieving,

most distraught and fanciful dreams.

took a faltering step toward her. She blushed, cast her eyes down.

With trembling

fingers he tore off his shirt, ran to her, pressed her

to his chest, no, she ears,

tearfully kissed her

was no mere apparition, he

her hair, her eyes, her neck, her breasts.

He was

delirious,

feared he might faint. His hands searched desperately, clumsily,

down between—

swept over her smooth back, burrowed said. Please

don't. It

was somehow the way

she said

words, which were clearly meaningless, but the

way

words, as though carving them with consummate tainty,

and placing them,

like great stone tablets,

all

he could find for himself

to say.

I

am

not the

she formed the skill

and

cer-

between them.

Bewildered, he fumbled a moment, stepped back, and

was

Don't, she it,

I

don't



expecting a baby, she

said.

What happened weeks, that followed

in the is,

moments, and

of course, a

common

particularly entertaining

one

from delirium, and she

patiently nursed

now

at that. J

took

for that matter in the

kind of ill,

story,

and not a

suffered frequendy

him back

to health.

She

undressed freely in front of him, but with a self-preoccupation

SEVEN EXEMPLARY FICTIONS

and indifference

presence that

his

to

117

would have permanendy

deranged a younger man, not so well equipped for explained to

him simply

he had to admit against

was an

that her pregnancy

mandates of

all

life as J.

his reason that

but he couldn't imagine whatever had brought a

God

it

She

God, and

act of

must be

so,

do such a

to

and, well, yes, in a way, almost vulgar thing. J always thought about everything a great deal, even trivia that others might useless

and forget

either sensibly ignore, or observe

and about

serving,

this, to

Every day while prostrate in bed, he turned

dreams the mystery

feverish

in the very act of ob-

be sure, he thought even more than usual.

set his

it

brain on

over and over, and in fire

and caused tiny

painful explosions behind his eyes that sometimes kept going off

even after he was awake. But no power of mental

meaningful answer for him;

God would

that any

affairs of this or

were they

tant

dumped that time

began tion.

any other

to

to find his

She said

little

no

sion drove to

it

about

less

life's

must be

way back

to

him

animal, so inutterably unimpor-

it

it,

and from

daily.

said that

to health

it,

he simply gave in to

inscrutable absurdities,

one of the reasons he

was her own worsening condi-

behaved toward him

frequently, but there

suffering, quiet or no:

seemed

human

improve almost

to his credit

ever, smiled

was simply unimaginable

to each other. Finally,

on began

And

provided a

so involve himself in the tedious personal

in with the rest of

it

it

effort

as

generously as

was no mistaking her

was not and would not be

easy.

Compas-

him to forget his own wretchedness, and daily, though he grow even older, he seemed as well to assume greater and

greater stature. tion, secretly

He

returned to his carpentry with renewed dedica-

saved aside small portions of food as insurance for her

against fhe approaching winter, learned to

comprehend

in his day's

many of the tasks they once took for granted as hers. The month was particularly bitter, the great misfortune of the ill-

activities last

timed took

it

trip,

the strange cruelty of the elements, and so on, but she

with great courage, greater even than his own, suffered with

dignity the flesh-ripping agony of birth, writhing

on the

dirt floor

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

118

dying

like a

strange

beast, yet noble, beautiful. It

birth



was

most mystic moment,

J's

—that moment of the

his

only

glimpse of the whole of existence, yet one which he

indisputable

renounced,

later

needless to say, later understood in the light of his overwrought

tortured emotions.

And

it

was

afterwards, they drifted quietly years J

and

also the climax of his love for her;

and impassively

apart, until in later

found himself incapable even of describing her

to himself or

any other person.

The marriage

itself,

formal

as a

which did not come

this case, J's),

because nothing was done to stop part in the process, did of course

some while, but

for quite

little

fact, lasted

on

to the

The boy

it.

draw away

more. As for

end (in

most part

early, lasted for the

played but a small

the mother's attention

J,

in spite of his general

willingness to love the boy, he could never bring himself actually to

do

thoroughgoing manner, and for

so in any

the boy

showed complete

well; J

grew

indifference to J

this or other reasons,

from an

to prefer not being bothered to

early age. Just as

any other form of

existence.

One here, J

thing did happen, though perhaps too

maybe not even

himself talked of

dreamt

it,

it

freely

he could never deny

dreams from that

beautiful

it,

:

did at

last

consummate

about doing

so,

had come

it

earlier

namely, that some four or

gotten)

trivial

even to report

number no doubt hold, even though to those close to him (or perhaps he

true as a

might have been one of those magical night, thought

five

months

his marriage. to take life as

He it

after the

for-

boy came,

J

had frankly forgotten

oddly was for granted (a

carryover from his prolonged illness and consequent cure), had

turned

in,

breasts

still

weary from work, when she came into the room, her exposed from having nursed the baby, and

down on

sat

the bed beside him. She smiled wanly, perhaps not even at him, he

couldn't be sure, didn't even wonder,

her breasts with a small purpose.

J rose

up

damp sponge

casually, as

and then she began

to

bathe

she had brought along for the

he might have done time

took the sponge from her hands (she surrendered

it

after time,

willingly,

SEVEN EXEMPLARY FICTIONS washed her

119

interest for

was curious they held so little him: had he kissed them with such terrible rapture so

recendy?

was

sleepily),

He

it

breasts

(it

ago) and then her neck and back.

really very long

undressed her, her exhausted body compliant, went out to the

well,

reality),

him as extraordinary, him doubts about the event's

unclothed himself (later this struck

still

odd element

lent the

that caused

dipped the sponge in fresh cool water, returned to complete

her bath.

As though nothing more than the rest of a customary had a more or less satisfactory emis-

routine, he then penetrated her,

and

sion, rolled over,

some moments J died,

slept until

morning. She had

thus ending the marriage, unattractively with his face in

a glassful of red wine on a tavern table especially appropriately, since not

much

fallen asleep

before.

of a drinker.

him (keeping

He had

just

even in

many his

remarked

to himself the old

to

years later,

and not

advanced years was he

somebody

sitting near

bubbling wish that there might

have been a child for him that time, a kind of testimonial for him to leave) that

had turned out

life

had expected

after all,

he was

chestful of consumption,

to be

now

nothing more or

less

than he

very inept at his carpentry, had a

was already passing whole days without

being able to remember them afterwards, urinated on the hour and

sometimes in

his pants, separately or additively could

of any day of his

life,

and

make no

sense

so on, a tavern-type speech, in short,

but

he added that the one peculiarity he had not accurately foreseen, and perhaps

it

was the most important of

everything, there

was nothing

all,

tragic about

was

it,

that,

in spite of

no, nothing there to

get wrought up about, on the contrary. Then, without transition, a

mental feult more

common

to

him

in later years, he

had a rather

uncharacteristic thought about the time she, the wife, fell asleep, or

apparently

so,

laughed (that

morning following the wedding night; he high-pitched rattle of old men), starding the person

who had been

that

listening,

consumptive coughing.

and died

as described

above in a

fit

of

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

120

The Wayfarer came upon him on the road. I pulled over, stepped out, walked directly over to him where he sat. On an old milestone. His long I

tangled beard was a yellowish gray, his eyes dull with the dust of the road. His clothes were

was not a sympathetic

me no a

but what could

He

do ?

I

stood for a while in front of him, hands on hips, but he paid

I

up

and smelled of mildew.

of a color

all

figure,

heed.

little

or disappeared into his collection of ously. Vacantly. Perhaps

sure he afraid to

was

alive, for

(I

it.

my

did not.

boot.

But

still,

The

I

thought): mindlessly. Yet

reasoned.

It

may

or

I

scuffed

dust settled

he stared oblivi-

he sighed deeply from time

acknowledge me,

the case, but

He

thought: at least he will stand.

I

dust between us with the toe of

may

I

could be

to time.

He

served, for the time being, as a useful premise.

it

sun was hot, the

air dry. It

my

was

silent,

except for the

is

not have been

The

traffic.

my feet, made a large business of extracting my memo-book from my breast pocket, tapped my pencil on it loudly. I was determined to perform my function in the I

cleared

throat, shifted

matter, without regard to

how

disagreeable

it

might prove

to be.

Others passed on the road. They proffered smiles of commiseration,

which

I

returned with a pleasant nod.

The wayfarer wore

a floppy

black hat. Tufts of yellow-gray hair poked out of the holes in

dead wheat. Finally, stare.

No doubt, it swarmed. Still, he would not look at me. I squatted and interposed my face in the path of

Slowly



They seemed

painfully,

it

to brighten

would seem

—his

momentarily, but

could have been joy as easily as rage, or

Only

that: his eyes brightened; his face

pressive.

it

And

it

was not a glow, nothing

it

eyes focused I

am

like

his

on mine.

not sure why. It

could have been fear.

remained slack and inexthat could be graphed, it

SEVEN EXEMPLARY FICTIONS

was

121

glimmer. Then dull again. Filmy

just a briefest spark, a

And

though with a kind of mucus smeared over.

know whether

don't

my

badge.

at the

time that he would, then there could be

no further ambiguities. But traveled far,

Now

erally a safe supposition.

could have been impatience,

tempt! felt

The

my

was

reasoned, or anger

I

baseless.

light,

God! was

fear. I

trousers, then squatted

self-assurance.

I

able to

began

do

gen-

It is

once again.

catechism was coming back to me.

back in the dust.

again,

And now: is

it.

supposed

I

my

off

with a certain

my

our best teacher:

He would

I

was

It

brushed the dust

it,

It

even: con-

memo-book.

Once

to recover.

Duty, a proper sense of

—or

wrote something in

I

that. I stood,

down

I sat

my

studied

I

was blan\l Urgently,

it

There! Not so bad now. it

has

found myself beset with doubt.

I

thought, unwonted, jolted me.

peculiarly

blank!

He

frankly doubted that he did.

I

thought.

I

had begun with the supposition that he feared me.

I

as

lost the focus. I

or not in that instant of perception he noticed

wished

I

he

enjoy no further

advantages. I

asked

silence in

him about

my

book.

I

himself, received

no answers.

I

recorded his

wrote the word aphonia, then erased

True,

it.

I

could have determined the matter, a mere palpation of the neck cords, but the prospect of dipping

my

fingers into the cavities be-

hind that moldy beard revolted me, and the question,

after

all,

was

not of primary concern. Moreover, a second method then occurred to

me:

if I

could provoke a sound out of him, any sound,

prove that the vocal mechanism was uttered no sound,

confident I

I

and out

asked

him

him

my

His gaze

chest

I

would not rifle

floated

the President's

from

Of

course,

he was mute, but

my

if

he

I felt

back and poked the barrel under

unimpeded down name.

I

of the gravity of his violation

I

intact.

establish that

into indeterminate space.

asked him what day

adamant.

still

would

could provoke a sound and have an end to the problem.

unstrapped

his nose.

it

it

it

was.

I

I

the barrel through

asked him his

my

name.

I

my name. I reminded my own unlimited powers. him what place it was. He was

asked him

and of

asked

lowered the barrel and punched

it

into his chest.

The

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

122

thumped

barrel

wince.

Not

much

so

man

refused



—to

groin.

I

look at me.

might

unaware of

How

could

more

ordered

him

his head.

I

at

to

lift

him.

I

my

one

He

seemed

ordered

him

him

my

boots.

He

finger.

I

utterly

and

was

me.

one finger!

lift

But

the

him.

at

I

in

rifle

fired a shot over

to look at

rifle butt.

stared. I

I

less

felt

I

down

shook the

I

his hat.

him

ordered

my

at stake.

stomped down on

would not even

broke his nose with

that old milestone, sat

I

shouted

down.

to lie

remove

to

much was

more reproving.

tie. I

kicked dust into his face.

I

have

into his

it

Those passing were now

—yes:

loosened

ordered

course, that

it?

more

curious,

to stand. I

papery shoes with

him

know

collar. I

front of his nose.

knew, of

I

help but

my

sweat under

And

not have

attentions.

I

sympathetic,

may

not, could not

have been poking a pillow.

as well

my

was

it

it

lowered the barrel and punched

I

stood impatiently.

I

fact,

did not even

cautioned myself.

I

say refused, although

I

been a question of volition; in been

He

as a whisper.

was becoming angry. Inwardly,

I

that old

still

he wore and something cracked,

in the thick coats

but he said nothing.

so furious

his old

ordered

screamed

I

he

still

I

sat, sat

on

could have

I

wept. I

would

try a

new

once more in the line his gaze. I bared stare vacantly. eyes.

I

I

tack. I knelt



my

if

so

teeth. I

ordered

him

down

in front of

him.

ordered him to

sit.

I

Or, rather: he remained exactly as he was before.

of

my

I

had anticipated a certain

confidence, but

I

intruded

no longer looked

I

their reproachful eyes

were on me.

I

to focus his

He

obeyed.

was hardly

satisfaction, a partial restoration felt

more

at those passing. I

knew

was disappointed. In

frustrated than ever.

—of

ordered him to

under threat of death,

not,

ordered the blood to flow from his pulpy nose.

gratified.

I

vague a thing could be called that

My back

fact,

I

sweat from the intensity

of their derision. I set

would

my

teeth. It

carry out

my

was time.

I

told

orders and execute

him if he did not speak, I him on the spot. My orders,

to be precise, did not specify this place, but

did not exclude

it,

and

if

on the other hand they

he would not move, what choice did

I

SEVEN EXEMPLARY FICTIONS

123

as I asked him to speak, I knew he would not. Even was forming and emitting the very words, I already was

have? Even while

I

contemplating the old dilemma* a fair chance

I

If I

shot

pleasure in that thought.

On

I

was

He would

die

heart.

am more humane

the other hand,

head, he would surely die instandy, but I

in the chest, there

would miss or only graze the

slowly. It could take several days.

countenance.

him

it

head. In

The

fact, I

regard of

my

chest seems to

me

chest distantly fountaining blood.

me. Given these considerations, I

had

do

I

not. I

would rather away than the

could almost enjoy dying, allowed the slow dreamy

thought of the swift hard knock in the skull

As

I

farther

in the

a mess of his

do not enjoy the sight of mutilated heads.

in the chest.

it

him

shot

if I

would make

have often thought, myself, when the time came, receive

than to take

I

shot

him

is

Contrarily, the

an eternal torment to

in the chest.

feared, he did not die immediately.

He

did not even,

moment, alter either his expression or his posture. His coats were thick and many. I could see the holes drilled by the rifle shells, but I saw no blood. What could that mean? I was shaken by a sudden violent fever of impatience. Only by strenuous self-control was I able to restrain myself from tearing his clothes off to inspect the wound. I thought: if I don't see blood immediately, / shall lose it again! I was trembling. I wiped my mouth with the back of my for the

hand. Then, slowly, a dark stain began to appear in the the nick of time! across

my

knees.

It

spread.

Now

there

I

sighed.

was only

I

tatters.

sat back and lay the

to wait. I

In

rifle

glanced toward the

road from time to time and accepted without ceremony the com-

mendatory nods.

The

stain enlarged. It

would not take

long.

I sat

and waited.

His coats were soon soaked and the blood dripped down the milestone between his legs. Suddenly, his eyes fixed

worked, quickly.

And

his teeth I

chewed

his beard. I

on mine. His

lips

wished he would end

it

even considered firing a second shot through his head.

then he spoke.

He

spoke rapidly, desperately, with neither

punctuation nor sentence structure. Just a ceaseless eruption of obtuse language.

He

spoke of constellations, bone structures, myth-

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

124

and

ologies,

love.

He

spoke of belief and lymph nodes, of excava-

and prophecies. Faster and

tions, categories,

he spoke. His eyes

faster

gleamed. Harmonics! Foliations! Etymology! Impulses! Suffering!

His voice rose

to a shriek. Immateriality patricide ideations heat-

stroke virtue predication

At

last,

with

My

job

this,

he



I

grew annoyed and

I

had

was done. As

my

was

feared, he

my

to

tie. I

successfully put his present condition out of

him, strapped

my

admit, but

earlier

securely

rifle

view of him

was the

it

first

altogether. In the patrol car,

still

on

whole.

down

would make the

back, reknotted

It

my

down

full report

little better, I

I

drove a

later,

back

and

farther

little

the vital data in

out

my my

mind, recon-

was

called in details of the incident

the road, parked, jotted I

turned

I

toward forgetting him

essential step I

ordered the deposition squad to the scene.

book.

in the head.

a mess.

back

structing

him

shot

fell.

my memo-

at the station. I

noted the exact time.

This done,

memo-book

returned the

I

to

my

leaned back, and stared absently out the window.

mind was not loom this

in

my

yet entirely free of the old

my

to

having stooped

had been commendable, of gesture,

if

man. At

down

supposed that

my

The

jammed

farther to relieve the obtrusion, resting

back of the

seat. I

Uniformly

rifle

watched the it

motives

course, but the consequences of such a

down

in the future.

My

he would

practiced habitually, could well prove disastrous.

it

it.

I

to his level:

avoid

in

restless.

times,

inner eye larger than the very landscape.

was due

breast pocket,

was

I

traffic.

against

my

Gradually,

flowed, quietly, possessed of

I

my

I

spine.

would I

slid

head against the

became absorbed

its

own unbroken

grace and precision. There was a variety in detail, but the stream itself was one. One. The thought warmed me. It flowed away and away and the unpleasant images that had troubled my mind flowed away with it. At last, I sat up, started the motor, and entered the

flow

itself. I felt

calm and happy.

A participant. I enjoy my work.

THE ELEVATOR

Every morning without exception and without so

much

upon it, Martin takes where he works. He

first arrives,

the self-service elevator to the fourteenth floor, will

ever, her finds the lobby

feinting

shadows and

and he wonders It is

if

today

7:30 a.m.:

entirely to himself.

as reflecting

do

When

silences, desolate it

he

is

early

still

how-

possessed of

its

though mutely expectant,

might not turn out

Martin

He

so today.

empty, the old building

differ endy.

and therefore has the

steps inside: this tight cell!

elevator

he thinks with a

kind of unsetding shock, and confronts the panel of numbered buttons.

One

to fourteen, plus

"B"

for basement. Impulsively,

he

125

— PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

126

presses the

—seven years and yet to

"B"

visit

the basement!

He

snorts

at his timidity.

moment, the doors rumble shut. All night alert waiting for this moment! The elevator sinks slowly into the earth. The stale gloomy odors of the old building having aroused in him After a silent

an unreasonable sense of dread and he

descending into

is

Tra

hell.

la

loss,

Martin imagines suddenly

A mild shudder

perduta gente, yes!

shakes him. Yet, Martin decides firmly, would that old carrier halts with a quiver.

Nothing, only a basement.

It is

The

were

it

automatic doors

empty and nearly dark.

The

so.

yawn

open.

It is silent

and meaningless. Martin smiles inwardly

"Come

number

at himself, presses the

"14."

on, old Charon," he declaims broadly, "Hell's the other

way!"

Martin waited miserably for the stench of nostrils.

Always the same.

could never prove

who

Carruther

it.

Not

always

He so

led

supposed

much

intestinal gas to reach his it

was Carruther, but he

as a telltale squeak.

them, and though

changed, Carruther was always

among them. six men and

They were seven in the elevator: who operated it. The girl did not

participate.

offended, but she never gave a hint of

it.

But

the

was

it

other

the

faces

young

girl

She was surely

She possessed a surface

detachment that not even Carruther's crude proposals could penetrate.

Much

men. Yet

And,

less

did she involve herself in the coarse interplay of

certainly, yes,

Martin supposed, they were a torment

he was right

—there

it

was, faint at

then slowly thickening, sickening, crowding up on

first,

to her.

almost sweet,

him

"Hey!

Who fahred thet shot?" cried Carruther, starting

"Mart

fahred-it!"

of loud laughter.

came

the inexorable reply.

And

it.

then the crush

THE ELEVATOR "What!

Is

127

that Martin fartin' again?" bellowed another, as their

toothy thicklipped howling congealed around him.

"Aw

please,

Mart! don't fart!" cried yet another.

It

The elevator was small: walls. "Have a heart, Mart!

until they left the elevator.

packed

it,

jammed

at the

would go on their laughter

don't part that

fart!"

not me,

It's

was no

use. It

A

fate.

It

Fate and Carruther. (More laughter, more

"Aw, Marty, you're modest!" Carruther had thundered. Booming voice, big man.

brute jabs.) just

not me, Martin insisted. But only to himself.

it's

was

couple times he had protested.

Martin hated him.

One by floors,

one, the other

men

filed

out of the elevator at different

holding their noses. "Old farty Marty!" they would shout to

way

anyone they met on

their

down

air cleared slightly

the floor.

The

out,

and

In the end, Martin was always

operated the elevator. His

When

it all

toward the to

always got a laugh, up and

each time the door opened. left

alone with the girl

the fourteenth,

who

was the top one.

began, long ago, he had attempted apologetic glances

girl

on

exiting, but she

had always turned her shoulder

him. Maybe she thought he was making a play for her. Finally he

was forced possible.

Of it,

floor,

it

to

adopt the custom of simply ducking out as quickly as

She would in any case assume

course, there

had rehearsed

was on

his

it

was an answer

countless times.

home ground. And

his guilt.

to Carruther. Yes,

The

only

he'd do

it,

way

to

too.

Martin knew

meet that

When

man

the time

came.

Martin is

is

alone

on the

elevator with the operator, a

neither slender nor plump, but

fills

young

girl.

She

charmingly her orchid-colored

uniform. Martin greets her in his usual friendly manner and she returns his greeting with a smile. Their eyes

Hers are brown.

meet momentarily.

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

128

When

Martin enters the

people crowded

in,

elevator, there are actually several other

but as the elevator climbs through the musky old

building, the others, singly or in groups, step out. Finally, Martin

alone with the girl

left

lever, leans against

makes

it,

who

and the cage

sighs

Alone on the elevator with the straight

and

I

subtle.

would

night.

is

Her

sacrifice

girl,

my

He

hips, describes a

calves are

speaks to her,

and

Martin thinks:

life to

Her orchid uniform

under her blossoming it

upward.

a lighthearted joke about elevators. She laughs

vator should crash,

is

operates the elevator. She grasps the

skirt

save her. is

if

this ele-

Her back

is

tight, tucks tautly

kind of cavity

there.

Perhaps

muscular and strong. She grasps the

lever.

The

He

girl

and Martin are alone on the

elevator,

concentrates on her round hips until she

is

which

is

rising.

forced to turn and

look at him. His gaze coolly courses her belly, her pinched and belted waist, past her taut breasts, meets her excited stare. She

They embrace. Her Her mouth is sweet. Martin

breathes deeply, her lips parted. softly

against him.

whether the elevator

is

breasts plunge

has forgotten

climbing or not.

Perhaps Martin will meet Death on the elevator. Yes, going out for lunch one afternoon.

Or

to the drugstore for cigarettes.

press the button in the hall

on

open, a dark smile will beckon. silent.

The

shaft

is

Martin will recognize Death by His

deep.

It is

silence.

He

protest.

He will protest!

oh God! no matter what the

the sense of emptiness underneath breath lurching out

The

shaft

is

long and narrow.

He will not protest.

He

will

the fourteenth floor, the doors will

The

shaft

is

dark.

dark and will not

THE ELEVATOR

129

Martin, as always and without so

much

as reflecting

upon

it,

takes

the self-service elevator to the fourteenth floor, where he works. is

are exchanged.

Though

presses the "14" instead.

As

He

but only by a few minutes. Five others join him, greetings

early,

tempted, he

is

not able to risk the "B," but

Seven years!

the automatic doors press together

and the elevator begins

its

slow complaining ascent, Martin muses absently on the categories.

This small room, so commonplace and so compressed, he observes with a certain melancholic all:

satisfaction, this elevator contains

magnitude,

space, time, cause, motion,

we would

devices,

probably discover them.

chatter with self-righteous smiles (after

the weather, the elections, the

work

stand, apparently motionless, yet

there

is

weighted

to

after

it

particles.

all.

all,

Left to our

class.

The

them

own

other passengers

they are on time) about

that awaits

them

today.

moving. Motion perhaps :

They

that's all

Motion and the medium. Energy and

Force and matter.

The image

grips

him

purely.

Ascent and the passive reorganization of atoms.

At Only

the seventh floor, the elevator stops

a trace of her

himself, of course

by one. But the tains all of

it,

and a

woman

departs

perfume remains. Martin alone remarks

it.

—to

—her absence, as the climb begins again. Reduced

totality of the

loss

is

universe

inconceivable. Yet,

is

if

shudders coolly through Martin's body

suffused: each that

is

—then

so



the

man

con-

and a tremor

totality

is

as

nothing. Martin gazes around at his four remaining fellow passengers, a flush of compassion

must always be

washing

But none apparently need him. today, give

The

in behind the tremor.

alert to the possibility of action,

them

If

he could do the work for them

the grace of a day's contemplation

elevator halts, suspended

One

he reminds himself.

and

.

.

.

vibrant, at the tenth floor.

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

130

Two men leave. Two more intermediate stops, and Martin is He has seen them safely through. Although caged as ever

alone. in his

inexorable melancholy, Martin nonetheless smiles as he steps out of the self-service elevator participate,"

he announces in

Wherein now

am

pleased to

full voice. But, as the elevator

is

the elevator's totality

doors

?

cable snaps at the thirteenth floor.

motionlessness

chambers in

safer lying

There

is

a moment's deadly

—then a sudden breathless plunge! The

turns to Martin. its

floor. "I

behind him and he hears the voided descent, he wonders:

close

The

on the fourteenth

They

are alone.

Though

girl, terrified,

inside his heart

is

bursting

he remains outwardly composed. "I think

terror,

on your back," he

He

says.

it is

squats to the floor, but the girl

remains transfixed with shock. Her thighs are round and sleek

under the orchid

"You may

lie

skirt,

on me.

and in the shadowed

My

body



"Come," he

will absorb part of the impact."

says.

Her

hair caresses his cheek, her buttocks press like a sponge into his

groin. In love,

moved by

his sacrifice, she weeps.

To calm

her, he

clasps her

heaving abdomen, strokes her soothingly. The elevator

whistles as

it

drops.

Martin worked to

late in the office, clearing

up

the things that needed

be done before the next day, routine matters, yet part of the

uninterrupted necessity that governed his daily office,

Martin's, though he needed

for the

modest

clutter

on top of

no

life.

Not

a large

larger, essentially neat except

his desk.

The room was equipped

THE ELEVATOR

131

only with that desk and a couple chairs, bookcases lining one wall, calendar posted on another.

The overhead lamp was

light in the office being provided

the only

off,

by the fluorescent lamp on Martin's

desk.

Martin signed one cigarette, half-burned it,

last

but

from the

still lit,

ashtray,

retrieved a

drew heavily on

then, as he exhaled with another prolonged sigh, doubled the butt

firmly in the black bowl of the ashtray.

ing

it

among

the heap of crumpled

idly at his watch.

twelve-thirty

whipped into

it.

was

it?

He

was astonished

up,

rolled

extinguishing

it,

twist-

in the ashtray, he glanced

to discover that the

down

his suit jacket off the

Bad enough

The

Still

filters

watch said

—and had stopped! Already after midnight!

He jumped

tie

He

form, sighed, smiled.

jacket

sleeves,

back of his

twelve-thirty

still

his

—but

chair,

them,

buttoned

shoved his arms

my God! how much

only three-quarters of the

way up

later

his back,

askew, he hastily stacked the loose papers on his desk and

switched off the lamp. the hallway,

lit

He

stumbled through the dark room out into

by one dull yellow bulb, pulled

his office

door to

behind him. The thick solid catch knocked hollowly in the vacant corridor.

He

buttoned his shirt

collar, straightened his tie

and the

collar

of his jacket, which was doubled under on his right shoulder, as he

hurried

down

the passageway past the other closed office doors of

the fourteenth floor to the self-service elevator, his heels

away

the stillness

The profound

on the marble

floor.

He

silence of the old building disturbed

urged himself; we'll

know what

time

it is

hammering

trembled, inexplicably.

him. Relax, he

soon enough.

He

the button for the elevator, but nothing happened. Don't

have

to

walk down! he muttered

bitterly to himself.

He

pushed

tell

me

I

poked the

button again, harder, and this time he heard below a solemn rumble, a muffled thump, and an indistinct grinding plaint that grieved progressively nearer. to receive

It

stopped and the doors of the elevator opened

him. Entering, Martin

felt

over his shoulder, but he suppressed

it.

a sudden need to glance back

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

132

Once

he punched the number "i" button on the

inside,

service panel.

The

ing, continued to climb. irritably,

night!

Later, he

Goddamn

this old

wondered why he had done

Although here

Though he was not

it

was

so. its

The

doors

slid

shut behind

amused rumble fading

utterly dark, shapes

seemed

dis-

to form.

could see nothing distinctly, he was fully aware that he

His hand fumbled on wind gnawed at his ankles,

alone.

button. Cold

wretched

over. Just this

elevator stopped, the doors opened, Martin stepped out.

him, he heard the elevator descend, tantly.

wreck! Martin swore

and he jiggled the "i" button over and

The

self-

doors closed, but the elevator, instead of descend-

fool!

he wept, there

is

no

the wall for the elevator the back of his neck. Fool!

fifteenth floor! Pressed himself

against the wall, couldn't find the button, couldn't even find the elevator door,

and even the very wall was only

8

boomed in the small cage. came the certain reply. The five men laughed. The girl feigned indifference. The fetor of fart

Carruther's big voice

"Mart

fahred-it!"

Martin flushed.

vapours reeked in the tight elevator. "Martin,

damn

Martin fixed

it,

his

cut the fartinM" cool gaze

on them. "Carruther fucks

mother," he said firmly. Carruther hit glasses splintered

He

and

fell,

elbowed him, and he slipped

it

to the floor.

didn't

He

come. Someone

knelt there, weeping

searched with his hands for his glasses. Martin tasted the

blood from his nose, trickling into his mouth. glasses, couldn't

"Look tryin'

full in the face, his

Martin staggered back against the wall.

waited for the second blow, but

softly,

him

his

even

a free

couldn't find the

see.

out, baby!"

to git

He

Carruther thundered. "Farty Marty's

jist

peek up at your pretty drawers!" Crash of

laughter. Martin felt the girl shrink

from him.

THE ELEVATOR

Her

133

sponge into his groin. No, safer on your

soft belly presses like a

back, love, he thinks, but pushes the thought away. She weeps in terror, presses her

hot wet

mouth

To calm

against his.

her,

her soft buttocks, strokes them soothingly. So sudden they seem suspended in

air.

She has removed her

he clasps

the plunge,

is

How

skirt.

will

it

he wonders.

feel ?

10 Martin, without so

much

on

it,

automatically takes the

self-service elevator to the fourteenth floor,

where he works. The

as reflecting

what cracks

systematizing, that's what's wrong, he concludes, that's

them

up.

He

is

but only by a few minutes. Seven others join

late,

him, anxious, sweating. They glance nervously

None

of

them

presses the

"B" button.

at their watches.

Civilities are hurriedly inter-

changed.

Their foolish anxiety seeps out

He

like a

bad

finds himself looking often at his watch,

the elevator.

Take

it

spirit,

enters Martin.

grows impatient with

he cautions himself. Their blank faces

easy,

oppress him. Bleak. Haunted. Tyrannized by their

own

regimentation of time. Torture self-imposed, yet in

all

inescapable.

The

They frown.

woman

enters.

all

motions

to incite the doors to close.

woman

truly

remarks

resumes

its

probability

elevator halts jerkily at the third floor, quivering

their sallow face-flesh.

of the

arbitrary

They

No

They

(she has delayed them,

—to

upward

one has pushed the

nod, harumph,

—her

himself

struggle.

make are

damn

all

little

more or

less

A

hand aware

her!), but only Martin

whole presence,

The

three.

jittery

as

the

accretion of tragedy.

It

elevator

goes on,

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

134

ever giving birth to

itself.

Up

and down, up and down. Where

end? he wonders. Her perfume

will

gloomily in the

stale air.

These deformed browbeaten mind-animals. Suffering and

insuffer-

it

able.

Up

and down.

He

floats

closes his eyes.

One by

one, they leave

him.

He

arrives, alone, at the fourteenth floor.

elevator, stares

back into

its

peace, he concludes wearily.

He

steps out of the old

spent emptiness. There, only there,

The elevator

is

doors press shut.

11

Here on this elevator, my elevator, created by me, moved by me, doomed by me, I, Martin, proclaim my omnipotence! In the end, doom touches all! MY doom! I impose it! TREMBLE!

12

The

elevator shrieks insanely as

it

together, hands grasp, her vaginal rigid organ.

Their

lips lock,

drops. Their naked bellies slap

mouth

tongues knot.

they find them? Inwardly, he laughs.

meting

floor.

Her

eyes are

closes spongelike

He

brown and, with

The

thrusts

bodies:

up

tears, love

on

how

off the

his

will

plum-

him.

13

But—ah!—the doomed, old man, the DOOMED! What are they to us, to ME? ALL! We, I love! Let their flesh sag and dewlaps tremble, let their

enchain

—but

odors offend, let

let their cruelty mutilate, their stupidity

them laugh, father!

FOREVER! let them

cry!

THE ELEVATOR

135

14 but hey! theres

this

guy

see

he gets on the goddamn elevator and

famous how hes got him a doodang about kiddin you none

five feet

and he

gets

on the



a bastard like that boardin a friggin pubic

hoohah! no crux

he

is

—do with it

know

his

name Mert

I I

long

it? I

dont

know

I

Im

not

yeah! can you imagine

mean

public elevator?

think or Mort but the

possessed of this motherin digit biggern ole

is

see

carries

dont

I

five feet

its

think he wraps

it

around

Rahab

his leg or

over his shoulder or somethin jcczuss! what a problem!

why I bet hes \illt more poor bawdies than I ever dipped my poor worm in! once he was even a—listen! Carruther tells this as the goddamn truth I mean he respects that bastard—he was even one a them jackoff gods I forget how you call them over there with them Eyetalians after the big war see them dumb types when they seen him

furl out this here five foot hose of his

tryin to get the

goddamn

—he was just says —why they

one day

knots out Carruther

thought he musta been a goddamn jackoff god or somethin and

wanted

to like

Mort he

know

employ him or whatever you do with a god and well it to be a not so miserable occupation dont you

figgered

anyhow than oildrillin with it in Arabia or stoppin holes in Dutch dikes like hes been doin so the bastard he stays on there a time and them little quiff there in that Eyetalian place they grease him up with hogfat or olive oil and all workin together like vested virgins they pull him off out there in the fields and spray the crops and well Mort he says he says its the closest hes ever got to the better

real

mccoy

him

all

jeezuss! hes

the old aunts

worth a thousand laughs! and they bring splits them open a kinda

and grannies and he

stupendous euthanasia for the old ladies and he blesses friggin procreations with a swat of his little

all

their

doodang and even does

welldiggin on the side but he gets in trouble with the

churchers on accounta not bein circumcised and they wanta

a

Roman whack

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

136

it

but Mort says no and they cant get close to him with so

off

prodigious a batterin

ram

him and wrinkle up

his old

semen

so

work a few miracles on pud with holy water and heat up his fields and even one day ignites a goddamn

burns up the

it

as hes got so they

volcano and jeezuss! he wastes no time throwin that thing over his shoulder and hightailin

it

outa there

them

down damn

in elevators like the rest of us

the

pastoral days

is

can

I

sayin

tell

now

you! but

like

Im

dead and gone and hes goin up and

and

so here he

is

boardin the

cage and theys a bunch of us bastards clownin around with

little

piece

who

operates that deathtrap kinda brushin her swell

butt like a occasional accident

and hot and that lever

half fightin us off

and sweet jeezus her

and

half pullin us

zoom! wingin up through

gettin fidgety

on and playin with

that scraper

and

just

then ole

Carruther jeezuss he really breaks you up sometimes that crazy bastard he hefts up her little

mean ole

little

quiff aint wearin a sweet cleft

Mort he

is

no

purple skirt and whaddaya know! the

skivvies!

its

somethin beautiful

man

I

peach right outa some foreign orchard and poor

kinda part gigglin and part hurtin and for a minute

the rest of us dont see the pointa the whole agitation but then that

there incredible thing suddenly pops like the friggin eye of

god

up quivery

for crissake

and then

right

under

his chin

theres this big wild

up and splits outa there like a goddamn redwood topplin gawdamightyl and knocks old Carruther \apow\ rip

and man!

rears

it

right to the deck! his best

buddy and

that poor

little

cunt she takes

one glim of that impossible rod wheelin around in there and

whammin

the walls

and she

faints

dead away and jeeezusss! she

tumbles right on that elevator lever and man!

minute we was

all

I

thought for a

dead

15

They plunge,

their

in joy, the impact

damp

is

bodies fused, pounding furiously, in terror,

THE ELEVATOR

137

/,

Martin, proclaim against

all

dooms

the in-

destructible seed

Martin does not take the fourteenth

floor, as is his

self-service elevator to the

custom, but, reflecting upon

it

for once

and

out of a strange premonition, determines instead to walk the fourteen flights.

Halfway up, he hears

the elevator hurtle by

then the splintering crash from below. stair. it

stairs

him and on the

hesitates, poised

word he finally settles upon. He pronounces somewhat wearily, then continues his pausing from time to time to stare back down the

Inscrutable

is

the

aloud, smiles faintly, sadly,

tedious climb,

He

behind him.

ROMANCE OF THE THIN MAN AND THE FAT LADY Now, many

stories

have been

told,

and the Fat Lady. Not only coupling, but the

tall erect

is

to

there something comic in the

and bony

cloven mass of roseate flesh that

metaphors too apparent

is

be missed.

stature of the

the

To

Lady

it,

imagine a Thin Lady paired with a Fat Man.

crous,

it is

unpleasant.

less

is

It is

not ludithe

Thin

a circus legend full of truth. In fact,

than the ultimate image of

everyday romances, which are

also, let us confess,

We are all Thin Men. You are all Fat Ladies. 138

and the

one need only

No, the much recounted mating of

with the Fat Lady

hardly more or

Man

are in themselves

be sure of

try to

Man

Man

songs sung, about the Thin

all

our

it is

common

somehow

comic.

ROMANCE OF THE THIN MAN AND THE FAT LADY

139

But such simplicities are elusive; our metaphors turn on us, show us backsides human and complex. For observe them now the Thin Man slumps soup-eyed and stoop-shouldered, seeming not thin so much as ill, and the Fat Lady in her stall sags immobile and turned blackly into herself. A passerby playfully punches his thumb into her thigh, an innocent commonplace event, and she spits in his :

eye.

"Hey, lady!" "Right in his eye!

saw her!"

I

"What kinda circus

is this,

"She's probably not

fat, just

"Come,

anyway?" wearing a balloon

suit!"

darling, don't get too close to the Fat Lady, something's

wrong with her." Children

cry,

and

away

lovers, strangely disturbed, turn quickly

from them, seeking out the monkey

cage.

Whoo!

the

Image of

all

our Romances indeed!

Yet perhaps

—why

yes! surely!

—the

signs are unmistakable: a

third party has intruded.

Madame Cobra

the Snakecharmer ?

The Incredible Man with The Missing Link ? No, our

triangle

is

the

Double

more

of a

Joints?

sinister genius.

Our

villain

is

the

Ringmaster.

"We circus life

thought he'd understand. is

a

good

life,

but

it's

We

were open about

a tough one, too.

The

it.

A man's gotta be a

man." "Get

But he Hoesn't "I

the

was

air,

believe

me.

in the Strong

which

in

I

He moves

Man's

Thin

for a

when he comes

say:

Man

I

tent. I

on

in

my

pig.

us!

Okay, okay,

I say.

Can you imagine?"

had twenty-five pounds up

ain't bad.

Hey! look

muscle, says he, and kicks shouldn't do that.

The

Fat Lady, says he.

off that diet,

I'm pretty proud of

at that

poor

ass

muscle!

all

I'll

over that

it

in

and

show you tent.

He

got a very fragile spine."

"Tape measure,

calory charts, scales, everything. Don't take his





— PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

140

beady eyes

day or night.

off us

What're we supposed

can't exert hisself.

"Like animals,

that's

how

he

teeth, hefts her udders, slaps her scales.

No

heart at

You gotta

Eat!

It

comes

my Man

do?" Checks her

treats us. Livestock.

on the bare

nates

when

she's

on the

woman be a woman, I believe that."

to this, then: that

from fashion. The Thin to excite his

to

She's crying, but does he care? Eat! he says.

all.

a

let

allowed to sweat,

I ain't

Man

not even Ultimate Heroes are free

has wished to develop muscles, further

Fat Lady

"Builds stamina, too. Helps your wind."

her

And Man

the

Lady has attempted

to

reduce to be more appealing to

"And I had my heart to think about. You understand." Now, were the Ringmaster a philosopher, he might have



avoided the catastrophe the Truest, there

for, as in all true

a catastrophe.

is

He

romances, and surely in

might have been

able to

convince the couple with a merest syllogism of the absurdity

indeed the very contradiction!

from being

—of their

thus the best of villains!): he financier, a

respective wishes. But, far

a trafficker,

is

You want

philosophy?

Okay, okay, so they're romantic symbols,

what they symbolize, buddy,

old fraud Merlin the Prestidigitator said softsoap

me:

Who

symbols of their

can blame them

own?

if

I'll

I

give you philosophy!

understand

ain't

Beauty.

is.

being a symbol

:

But what the juc\

else

do you

it

It's

I'm not

like that

to try

and

they see outside themselves

There's something in

who wants

that,

when he came all

master, he says, that rebels against extremes. Hell,

And

is

a businessman, a

Keeper of the Holier Books.

"Philosophy!

stupid, but

(and

a philosopher, he indulges in the basest of trades

of us, Mr. RingI

can follow

anyway ? Narcissism,

thinly a circus is all

that.

that's all

it

about? Philos-

my ass! And the same goes for human nature! Want me to wreck my goddamn business? Listen! If the Fat Lady were not the fattest and the Thin Man the thinnest in the world ophy! Philosophy

we're talking

them.

Where

first

are

principles all

now, buster

—no one

would pay

to see

your goddamn noble abstractions when the



"

ROMANCE OF THE THIN MAN AND THE FAT LADY and we're

circus collapses

boys and

of us out

all

Expediency!

girls!

on the

Things do not work out

as well,

however,

The Fat Lady in her gloom waste away. The Thin Man stops

must be held

Adaptation,

streets?

And to hell with nature!"

has anticipated. begins to

141

in an upright position

all

and

eating altogether and

day by props.

Ringmaster, normally of such stable even

Ringmaster

as the

loses her appetite

And

even the

unpleasant temper,

if

grows inexplicably fidgety in the long fumbling nights alongside the couple's troubled bed.

"She can't

sleep, the

to soothe her best

I

poor dear. Whimpering

can, but

"One squeak of the bedsprings and on come "The man's a nut!"

"He

down

looks

at

all

night long.

I try

my hands, so to speak, are tied."

my Man

and



the lights!"

says: That's

one muscle too

many! And throws cold water on it "All night in a cold wet bed!"

At

last,

the Ringmaster negotiates a highly favorable contract of

exchange with a

rival circus,

dor from Mars and a small

by which he

sum

of

is

money

to acquire

for the

an Ambassa-

waning Fat Lady.

Another couple weeks, he thinks, and she would have been worthless.

Hoo

hee! a miraculous deal, a

work

of genius! Giggling sofdy

(and no doubt meanly) to himself, he drops comfortable slumber, the fretfully the

first

in weeks, the

off that night into a

bed beside him heaving

while with the parting anguish of the distraught lovers.

"It wasn't

murder,

it

was a revolution."

"A revolution of love I" As one, the "Now!"

entire

complement of the

circus arises at

midnight

"Freedom!" "Equality!"

"Clobber the fuckin lech!"

—summarily

executes

and

inters the

deserted country road (castrating circus people are

the

Thin Man

him

Ringmaster alongside the

symbolically in the process

born to symbology!), and

as Representatives of the

installs the

Fat Lady and

Common Proprietorship.

H2

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

"We were the

were last to

all

agreed.

The Thin Man and

the Fat Lady, in fact,

know."

"An Ambassador from Mars

indeed!

Did he think we had no

pride?"

So joy reigns in the circus for weeks. Every performance concludes with a party.

magically, attracting

ments, in turn, their

Man

The two lovers' happiness seems to radiate new masses of spectators, all of which aughappiness. It is indeed a paradise. The Thin

exercises without

pair of biceps.

compunction and quickly reaps a sturdy

The Fat Lady,

all

Thin Man, and within a week

the

little

aglow, switches calory charts with loses

one of her several chins.

Everyone, including the Thin Man, remarks on her beauty. Love the

word

of the day. Circus people are basically

is

good people. Their

hatred for their former Ringmaster subsides, the souvenir taken

from him

new

is

fed to the lions, and he

day, there "I

is

no place

is

soon forgotten altogether. In a

for old resentments.

mean, you go along

for years, see, thinking

you got a Ring-

master on accounta you gotta have one. Ever seen a circus without a

Ringmaster? No. Well, that

just goes to

show how

history can fake

you out!" "It

was

beautiful! All of

spontaneously, here, there,

it

it

just

happening! Acts coming on

was wild and

exciting

and unpredict-

able!"

"Suddenly

it

hits you, see. All

your

life

you been looking

at

and you say, that's how circuses are. But what if they ain't ? What if that's all a goddamn myth propagated by Ringmasters? You dig ? What if it's all open-ended, and we can, if we want to, live circuses

by love?"

"We even started enjoying each other's acts!" "I rode the elephant once!"

"Who

says clowns gotta take pratfalls alia time?

I

learned to

play in the band and train a bear and ride a horse through a fiery

hoop!" But, just

when

the picture

is

pinkest,

bad news:

too apparent that fewer people are visiting the

it

stalls

becomes of the

all

Thin

ROMANCE OF THE THIN MAN AND THE FAT LADY

Man

and the Fat Lady, and those

and with

do pass through, do

that

lover,

At

so hastily

little interest.

"Okay, so they're happy, so they're in one

143

you seen 'em

first,

The

everyone stubbornly disregards the signs.

and the

on, the songs

always, and the Fat

celebrations.

Lady

diets.

The Thin Man

was the romantic legend come

it

see

parties

go

lifts

weights as

Their glad hearts, though gnawed

a bit by apprehension, remain kindled by love and joy.

almost say

You

So what?

love.

all."

But

true.

One

at

could

finally they

can no longer ignore the black-and-white truth of the circus ledger,

now

in their care.

Somewhere, apparently, there

is

a fatter lady

new world threatens to crumble. wanna hurt their feelings, you know.

and

a thinner man. Their

"We them

a

didn't

little,

hoping they'd take the

We

kidded

hint."

"Why couldn't they just love each other for themselves ?" "For the good of the whole

circus,

we said."

In their van one night, doubt having doused for the the flame of passion, they agree: the Fat off corpulence, the

Thin Man

Lady

moment

will restore her cast-

will return his set of barbells to the

Strong Man. They re-exchange calory charts. They begin in earnest to

win back

ment, after It is

their public,

found

an integrant of

to be

their attach-

all.

not easy. Worried by business reverses, the Fat Lady must

And

Thin Man

work doubly hard

to lay

covers that his

knots of muscle tend to sag instead of disappear.

But they

little

are driven

the circus are

on each pound.

the

dis-

by the most serious determination. The eyes of

upon them. Momentary

reverses only steel

them more

to the task.

"Chocolates! For

"With

me?

It's

been so long!"

love."

"But now that you've seen

me

like this, will

you

truly love

me

when I'm fat again?" "To be honest, dear, I ain't sure I can even tell the difference." The worst part of the day for the Fat Lady comes when she steps

upon

the scales. Disgusted by her

fat,

she

is

disgusted she has

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

144

added

so

little

of

it.

The Thin Man

dutifully records her weight

each day, and his presence comes to

tongue when she succeeds. tears.

She would cry but

She refuses

perspire,

to increase

fails

submit

to

and even demands

He

her.

irritate

clucks his

and sighs wistfully when she

afraid of the loss of anything, even

is

any

to

which might make her

activity

and out of the van

that she be lifted in

each day.

The Thin Man

steps daily before a full-length mirror. Dis-

gusted by his thinness, he

is

pouches under his skin.

He

disgusted that he

frightening unfleshed bone.

lumps

little

that

were once

wears those

still

little

wishes to be mere bone. Hilarious

The Fat Lady nags and

pinches the

He

he has come

his muscles.

wonders

if

to hate her.

"Hold up your arm

how

cute! just like a

there, loverboy,

little

—hey!

lemme

feel that flab

oyster!"

And so what?"

"Yeah?

"So: oysters are a luxury, skinhead. People

may pay

to eat 'em,

but they won't pay just to look!"

The Fat Lady,

pointing out the Thin Man's bagginess, doubts

he has been firm in food.

and snoops about

his resolution,

The Man, grimly checking

the

Lady on

for

hidden

the scales each day,

begins to suspect her of burning off calories behind his back.

sneak into each other's

stalls

They

during the day, spy on one another

at

mealtimes, wrangle bitterly over the business books at night in their van. If one day the Fat

Lady

Thin Man, he must account

takes in a single

dime more than the

for his obvious inconstancy of will. If a

child carried past the Fat Lady's stall fails to laugh

the

Thin Man

to the circus

baggy Thin

if

uses

it

as proof of her deceptions.

not even a child

I

What

is

at her, is

she

worse than a

just

just laughs at

goddamn biceps overnight, they You can't exercise backwards, I tell

didn't build these

don't shrink overnight neither.

You

titillated?

use

Man who can't make a dime ?

"I'm sorry.

her.

is

and point

Of what

go limp and hope me.

"Think of

I

my

for the best.

But

I

do that and she

think she's got her eye on Daredevil Dick." nerves,

I tell

him.

If

they ain't fat nerves, he says,

ROMANCE OF THE THIN MAN AND THE FAT LADY I

145

got no use for them. All day, he's stuffing me. Even wants to add

One day he brings home this dumbbell. He's mean glint in his eye Nothing doing, I say. But it gives him idea. Maybe you oughta get pregnant, he says. That'd work for

intravenous feedings.



got a this

nine months,

I say,

but then what?

And

he gives

me

this strange

look."

The

situation deteriorates rapidly.

and morose,

The Thin Man becomes

head sunk

his shoulders stooped,

in dark thoughts.

Fat Lady, immobile and glum, goes so far

when

a passerby remarks that she

is

through the whole peanut

sales

And

drop

circus.

The

as to belch obscenely

They

really not so fat after all.

gloom spreads

quarrel without cease, and their

sour

like

wet sawdust

Gate receipts diminish and even the

ofT.

then one night, the Thin

Man moves

abruptly to the old

Ringmaster's van, something of a sacrifice on his part, since in the interim after

it

has been used by a pair of camels.

him

that she

is

devil Dick, though:

him go

glad to see

who

The Fat Lady

(it's

bellows

not true about Dare-

could think about love in times like

these?), as he stamps peevishly out of her van, the business books

smuggled under circus,

He

his shirt.

and before anyone

Ambassador from Mars

renegotiates the old deal with the rival

realizes

what has happened, they have an and the Fat Lady

in their midst

There are some unspecific rumbles of discontent, but wishes to be sold to the rival circus,

infamous for

its

known

to be

on

is

since

its last

gone.

no one

legs

and

corrupt and tyrannical Ringmaster, these rumbles

are held within discreet limits.

"Well,

had

it

to think

was the

was

all.

He

did what he had to do.

about the competition. They were

all

out to get

You

us. It

best thing for everybody."

"She was

seemed

a crisis, after

my

to care. I

best friend.

was

alone.

Everyone loved her. But no one

What could

I

say?"

"You get used to everything in this life." The Thin Man, in power, gains strength. He shoulders and

sets

about getting the circus back on

squares his

its feet.

ruthless with himself as he has learned to be ruthless with

He

is

others.

"

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

146

The

harder he works, the more rigorously he

and damn the world!

And

doing

distant, surrenders wearily to her fate and,

enough

to!

from her inseparable Thin Man! The Man's admirable

tents

will,

cannot but

and who can wander through dread? No, no,

Lady coupled with unhinged!

a Fat

A rescue

is

easy

mind why

"Even

The Fat Lady

separated

Thin

a circus without pleasure.

These are dismal shadowy

their

yawning

flaps

without a

Man! Our metaphor, with

time, has

come

called for!

Man

is

suddenly deposed,

or how.

"Taking everything

"We

so, finds it

worse even than the mythological Thin

it is

Let us suppose, then, that the Thin never

will be thin,

solution, for all the

fail. It is

are three rings of determination?

taste of

He

expand once again.

to

But wait! See what we have come

What

fasts.

even the unhappy Fat Lady, leagues

started

for himself."

growing a moustache, bought himself a whip!"



had a meeting and

Never mind. The Ambassador from Mars, unexpectedly popular,

assumes the Thin Man's functions, and the

exiled to the rival circus in exchange for a

Man

himself

is

Family of Webfooted

Midgets.

And

so here

we

go!

The Thin Man,

all

atremble and with tears

springing to his eyes, here he comes, rushing pell mell into the Fat

Lady's tent! All the circus people, the visiting crowds, the animals

run behind, snorting, whooping, laughing giddily. Whoopee! into her arms! and she clasps

him

bosom. Spectators weep for "Beautiful! In spite of

"See

how

"Oh! I'm

eagerly and forgivingly to her heaving

joy!

all

The image

is

made whole!

history!"

their joyful tears flow!" all

"He buries

weepy and

his

excited myself!"

head in her lap!"

"Hold me!" Later,

when

the world's love

is

momentarily spent and the

crowds have slipped weakly away, she makes a space for him

in her



"

ROMANCE OF THE THIN MAN AND THE FAT LADY van. It

little

corner in

is

it

rundown,

like this

rightly averred, a corrupt lief.

as all

is,

is

a

have

beyond be-

bastard, greedy

But, by staying very fat and very thin, respectively, they satisfy

pay them

too absorbed in his ledgers

is

notice.

Thus, though the prohibitive,

sacrifices

we have obeyed

have been considerable,

if

indeed not

the innocent bite in our forks

and held

our precious metaphor.

fast to

somehow,

Yet,

go

circus, yet there

Ringmaster

and mordant

daytime proddings, and by night he

his

to

whole decrepit

for happiness. This

still

147

strangely,

to the circus to see the

has

it

some of

lost

its

We

old charm.

Fat Lady and the Thin Man, and though

warmed by them, perhaps even amused and incited by them still, we home somehow dissatisfied. Fat, yes, the Fattest, and Thin but what is it? Maybe only that, as always, they are

nevertheless return



and that now, having gone

ludicrous,

we

them, crous

is

"After

all

.

more

somehow



all

right,

cute,

it's

it's

funny maybe,

."

Well,

Perhaps

let

us admit

we have

it,

ourselves who are corrupted. many Ringmasters, watched too too many thrills, counted through

perhaps

it is

seen or been too

many parades, safely witnessed too many books. Maybe it's just that in a

for us

we've done for them!"

"Thin Man, Fat Lady, .

such lengths to reunite

not also Beautiful.

"Like, well, like they oughta do

but

to

are irritated to discover their limits, to find that the Ludi-

world perplexingly simple. For,

gaily at the

Thin Man's

tense smile,

we've see,

lost a taste for the

there ?

There

simple

a child laughs

and there a young couple giggle

in front of the unctuous Fat Lady. So, w*hat the

-hell,

some

circus music, please!

and white horses and the clean cracking jacks! Peanuts!

And

a

monkey

to

wrap

Some

raging lions

of black whips! Cracker-

his tail

around the

flagpole!

For remember: these two, magic metaphor or no, are not the

whole this

circus.

Nor



to

matter of circuses,

borrow from the hoariest is life

spiel of

one. There are three rings

them

—in

all

"

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

148

"Lazygentamun, absolutely unique, arts, desolate wastes,

and hairy



this

way, patrons of the

deepest Injah, suckled by werewolves, nekkid

Yawone

"Raithiswhay, folks! She's half-human, half-reptile!

be-

lieve yer eyes!"

"Absolutely wild gotta stand back limited time only, getcha tickets here, before

son!

then there are more.

grasping, can hold

and must yet the Fat of

on human

flesh,

all

Lady

Who

No, we have

it!

and

will shrivel

die.

many

Man

more. Even the Thin

lose

can grasp

lost

alive



all?

it

things,

will

never

ya heard

and we don't know how long we can keep him

—And

now may me

goin inta the Big Top, see him

get another chance lives entirely

right,

!"

And who,

go on

losing,

grow old and

bent,

We can hang on to nothing. Least

the simple.

"This way, boyzungirls, inna the Big nit! still

plennya

Show

but goodwonzur goin

seats

startin in jusfimin-

fast! yessir

mistuh and

how many— ?" "Hey cottoncandy popcawn sodypop!" "Getcha soovuhnih booklet while they

quawtuhs of

home with

a dollah! Byootiful faw-color alia stars take a thrills

ya!"

"There they come! "Lass chance only fore the Big supply colors

nuts!

lasts

It's

now Show

the parade!"

folks gets

telly

one quawtuh



awhawgawnuhdo! limted time

madam

unnerway! pay tenshun

one quawtuh hurry!

you there

But

fifferadollah

alia thrillsnchills

Big

Top

let

swill the

faw

add extra bonus feachuh bagga

!"

listen! the losses! these too are ludicrous, aren't

us hoot

while

in

they? these

too are part of the comedy, right? a ring around the rings! So, it,

two

Fittysens

last!

and

holler

and

thrill

and

eat peanuts

damn

and cheer and

pop and laugh and bawl! Come on! All us Thin Men! All

you Fat Ladies!

"Annow lazygentamun anawyoo all

youngsters! (crack!) whatcha

been waiting for (crack!) inna the

Tumblin Twosome from Tuskyloosa

first

(crack!)

ring feachuh act the

givum

a

hand

folks!

ROMANCE OF THE THIN MAN AND THE FAT LADY (crack!) inna second

first

time

from (crack!) and riding on

this side a the Atlantic

149

comin

to us

a unicycle (crack!) whatsat rocket

you

carrying there George watchout! (crack!) and high above without a net those

flirters

with death (crack!) defying the lawza gravity it's a new secret weapon yer guvmint George? well howzit work? (crack!)

(drumrolls and whipcracks!) you say

workin on

for the

nothin but her teeth folks between her and the other world! (fanfare!)

don't

and tell

(crack!)

givum

his trained

me

thoroughbred Arabian hawses! (crack!)

and rode by the Thin

a big

now

you're gonna light that big thing in here George!

hand

Man

and the Fat Lady haw haw

folks (crack!) loo\ outl"

QUENBY AND

OLA,

SWEDE

AND CARL Night on the motor

for

lake.

A

low cloud

cover.

The

some reason dead. There's enough

see the obscure

humps

of islands a mile or

boat bobs

silently, its

light in the far sky to

two

distant,

but up close:

nothing. There are islands in the intermediate distance, but their uncertain contours are in fact, for the boat to

more

itself.

felt

From

than seen.

melt into the blackness of the lake.

Imagine Quenby and Ola gathering dusk.

150

The

at the

The same might

either end, the opposite It feels like it

barbecue

silence after the

pit.

might

be said,

end seems

rain.

Their faces pale in the

sudden report broken only by

QUENBY AND OLA, SWEDE AND CARL whine of mosquitos

the

Quenby has apparently house, but Ola

looking

at,

is

in

the

151

damp

tried to turn

grass,

a distant whistle.

Ola away, back toward the

What

staring back over her shoulder.

Swede or

the cat?

Can she even

is

she

see either?

bow sat Carl. Carl was from the city. He came north to the every summer for a week or two of fishing. Sometimes he came

In the lake

along with other guys,

He away,

this year

he came alone.

always told himself he liked

that's

what he

it

told the fellows he

the old harness, he'd say.

But he wasn't

up on the

worked with, sure.

now, on a pitchblack lake with a

Just

nowhere, cold and hungry and no

was

pretty sure he didn't like

You know

lake, liked to get

fish to

too

Maybe he

stalled

show

:

get out of

didn't like

it.

motor, miles from for the long day,

he

it.

the islands are out there, not

more than a couple hun-

dred yards probably, because you've seen them in the daylight. All

you can make out now

is

here and there the pale stroke of what

probably a birch trunk, but you pines as well,

and balsam

firs

know

there are

and white cedars and Norway pines

and even maples and tamaracks. Forests have collapsed upon

on

is

spruce and jack

forests

these islands.

The

old springs crush and grate like crashing limbs, exhausted trees,

rocks tumbling into the bay, like the lake

branches and pine needles. She ful.

is

wind

rattling

through dry

hot, wet, rich, softly spread.

Need-

"Oh yes!" she whispers.

Walking on

the islands, you've noticed saxifrage

clintonia, shinleaf,

and stemless

lady's slippers.

and

bellwort,

Sioux country once

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

152

upon

a time, you've heard

and Algonquin, mostly Cree and

tell,

Ojibwa. Such things you know. Or the names of the birds up here: spruce grouse and whiskey jack and American

like

woodpecker. Blue-headed tion. Just

three-toed

vireo. Scarlet tanager. Useless informa-

now, anyway. You don't even know what makes

that

strange whisde that pierces the stillness now.

"Say, what's that whistling sound, whistle!"

traffic

That was

Swede? Sounds like a goddamn Swede didn't laugh.

pretty funny, but

Didn't say anything. "Some bird,

I

guess. Eh,

Swede? Some god-

damn bird." Swede said finally. "Squirrels!" Carl was glad Swede had

"Squirrels,"

he knew he was

still

back

My

there.

Jesus,

said something. it

hopefully for another response from Swede, but

it

At

He

was dark!

least

waited

didn't come.

"Learn something new every day."

Ola, telling the story, laughed brightly. her.

What had

she seen that night ?

There were more lemon being

pies

and

at the center of attention

It

The

others laughed with

didn't matter,

there were

and she

more

it

was long ago.

cats.

She enjoyed

told the story well, imitating

her father's laconic ways delightfully. She strode longleggedly across the livingroom floor at the

main house, gripping an imaginary

her face puckered in a comic scowl.

under the orange

shirt,

Only her flowering

her young hips packed snugly in

bright white shorts, her soft girlish thighs, slender calves

:

cat,

breasts

last year's

these were

not Swede's.

She

is

light

an obscure teasing shape,

now

on the bay, now blending with

shattering the sheen of it.

Is

moon-

she moving toward

the

QUENBY AND OLA, SWEDE AND CARL shore,

toward the house? No, she

the docks, dipping in

By

day, there

is

153

in

is

by the boats near the end of

among shadows. You

follow.

a heavy greenness, mostly the deep dense greens of

shadowed undergrowth, and glazed blues and the whiteness of rocks and driftwood. At night, there is only darkness.

pines and

Branches scrape gently on the roof of the guests' lodge; sometimes squirrels

scamper across

it.

There are bird

the rustle of porcupines and muskrats,

sounds

like the

the burping of frogs,

and now and then what

crushing footfalls of deer. At times, there

sound of wind or

waves snapping in the bay. But

rain,

deep

stillness prevails,

And

often,

from

calls,

a stillness and darkness

far out

on the

is

the

essentially a

unknown

to the city.

lake, miles out perhaps, yet clearly

ringing as though just outside the door: the conversation of

men

in

fishing boats.

"Well,

guess you

I

know

your way around

this lake pretty well.

Eh,

Swede?"

"Oh yah." "Like the back of your hand,

I

guess." Carl felt

somehow

encouraged that Swede had answered him. That "oh yah" was Swede's trademark.

He

usually just "oh yah."

almost never talked, and

Up

when he

did,

it

was

on the "oh," down on the "yah." Swede

was bent down over the motor, but what was he looking at? Was at the motor or was he looking back this way? It was

he looking hard

to

tell.

"It all looks the

and sky/ and now you

make

squirrels sure

same

to

me,

and water

just a lot of trees

can't even see that

much. Those goddamn

a lot of noise, don't they?" Actually, they were

probably miles away. Carl sighed and cracked his knuckles.

here?"

Maybe

it

was

better

up

here in the

"Can you hunt ducks up fall or winter. Maybe he

could get a group interested. Probably cold, though.

enough

right

now. "Well,

I

suppose you

It

can. Sure, hell,

was cold

why

not?"

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

154

Quenby

back

he's

barbecue

at the

pit, grilling steaks.

diluted one for

He

two long weeks away.

after

whiskey for himself, splashed a

Quenby.

little

Flames

from the burning

fat billows

lick

The

late

solid

about hunting full

a

more

pit.

and smoke

Quenby wears

and a

pants,

soft leather jacket.

evening sun gives a gentle rich glow to the leather. There

something

Her

mixed

at the steaks,

the

those relaxed faded bluejeans probably,

it,

drink and spreads himself

and snap

up from

has poured a glass of

water in

He hands her her

into a lawnchair.

Thick T-bones, because

and good about Quenby. Most

trips.

women

Quenby bakes lemon pies to celebrate denim as, with tongs,

buttocks flex in the soft blue

is

complain returns.

she

flips

the steaks over. Imagine.

Her

hips

jammed

against the gunwales, your

wet bodies sliding

—you

wonder

together, shivering, astonished, your lips meeting

your madness, what an island can do to a man, what an island

at

girl

can do. Later, having crossed the bay again, returning to the rocks,

you find your underwear very tree time.

Yes, here's the path, here's the

gone.

is

—but gone. A childish prank

Swede was

a native of sorts.

He

and

round on an island up here on the small rustic lodge for hunt.

men from

Swede took them out

kept the cabin up. They time.

?

But she was with you

all

the

Down by the kennels, the dogs begin to yelp.

They moved here

natives, folks

How

far

is

was

lake.

the city

Quenby

lived year-

They operated

who came up

to the best places,

could take care of as

a kind of

to fish

and

Quenby cooked and

many

as eight at a

years ago, shortly after marrrying. Real

born and bred on the

old daughter Ola

his wife

lake, are pretty rare; their 14-year-

one of the few. it

to

Swede's island? This

is

a better question

QUENBY AND OLA, SWEDE AND CARL maybe than "Who

155

Swede?" but you are even less sure of the answer. You've been fishing all day and you haven't been paying much attention. No lights to be seen anywhere, and Swede always keeps a dock light burning, but you may be on the back side of his island, cut off from the light by the thick pines, only yards away from home, so to speak. Or maybe miles away. Most likely miles.

Yes,

goddamn

it, it

is

was going

to rain. Carl

sucked on a beer in the

bow. Swede tinkered quietly with the motor in the

What made was okay here

a

guy move up

maybe a week

for

or two, but he couldn't see living

the time. Well, of course,

all

and hunt.

If

a

if

man

he didn't like the ratrace in the

really loved to fish. city,

a bitch for Swede's wife and kid, though. Carl

would never stand

still

stern.

into these parts ? Carl wondered. It

for the idea.

and

so on.

knew

And Swede was

his

up

Fish

Must be

own

wife

probably pretty

hard on old Quenby. With Swede there were never two ways about it.

That's the idea Carl got.

Carl tipped the can of beer back, drained disgusted him. it

He

heaved the empty

tin

plunk somewhere on the black water.

not. It probably didn't sink.

he should do pissing

it

from the

of things

He'd have

Stale

and warm.

It

out into the darkness, heard

He

couldn't see

sank or

if it

to piss again soon. Probably

moving again. He way he even enjoyed it, he

before they got boat, in a

it.

up here when he was pissing from a

didn't

mind

felt like

boat, but right

part

now

it

seemed too quiet or something.

Then he it

got to worrying that

maybe he

shouldn't have thrown

out there on the water, that beercan, probably there was some law

and anyway you could get things like that caught in boat motors, couldn't you? Hell, maybe that was what was wrong with about

the

it,

goddamn motor now. He'd

probably.

showing

just shown his ignorance again That was what he hated most about coming up here,

his ignorance. In

green and could joke about again.

groups it,

it

wasn't so bad, they were

but Carl was

all

alone this

trip.

all

Never

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

156

The Coleman

lantern

is lit.

starched white linens

Her

flesh

glows in

are ominously

alive

its

eery light and the

with their thrashing

shadows. She has brought clean towels; or perhaps some

coffee, a

book. Wouldn't look right to put out the lantern while she's here, but

its

The springs

fierce

gleam

clatter

is

and something

scurries

down

boughs scratch the

disquieting. Pine

roof.

under the cabin. "Hurry!"

she whispers.

"Listen, Swede,

up

stood

going

in a

to step

you need some help?" Swede didn't

kind of crouch and made a motion back and give a hand.

out back there.

He

He

reply, so Carl

though he were

as

could barely

make Swede

stayed carefully in the middle of the boat.

He

wasn't completely stupid.

Swede grunted. Carl took it to mean he didn't want any help, so he sat down again. There was one more can of beer under his seat, but he didn't much care to drink it. His pants, he had noticed on rising and sitting, were damp, and he felt stiff and sore. It was late.

The

truth was, he didn't

know

the

first

goddamn

thing about out-

board motors anyway.

There's this story about Swede. Ola liked to

well About three years ago,

when Ola was

back from a two-week hunting the story,

would make

trip

tell it

eleven,

up north. For ducks. Ola,

a big thing about the beard he

with and the jokes her mother made about

heaped green

salad.

wrapped

Quenby 's homemade lemon It

in foil

And lemon pie,

pie.

told

it

telling

came back

it.

Quenby had welcomed Swede home with thick T-bones, potatos

and she

Swede had come

a big steak supper:

and baked

Nothing

and she'd baked

was a great supper. Ola skipped most of the

in the coals, a

in the it

world

just for

details,

like

Swede.

but one could

QUENBY AND OLA, SWEDE AND CARL

157

imagine them. After supper, Swede said he'd bring in the pie and coffee.

In the kitchen, he discovered that Ola's cat had tracked through

was riddled with cat over the bench and floor. Daddy

the pie. Right through the middle of tracks,

and there was lemon pie

had been looking forward

would

say,

He shells

and now

it

was

all

to that

it.

It

lemon

pie for

two weeks, Ola

full of cat tracks.

picked up his gun from beside the back door, pulled some

out of his jacket pocket, and loaded

it.

He

found the

cat in the

laundryroom with lemon pie

still stuck to its paws and whiskers. up by the nape and carried it outside. It was getting dark, but you could still see plainly enough. At least against the

He

picked

it

sky.

He

walked out past the barbecue

pit. It

was dark enough

the coals seemed to glow now. Just past the

pit,

he stopped.

that

He

swung his arm in a lazy arc and pitched the cat high in the air. Its four paws scrambled in space. He lifted the gun to his shoulder and blew the cat's head off. Her daddy was a good shot.

Her mock nary

cat,

pout, as she strides across the room, clutching the imagi-

makes you laugh. She needs a new

they were loose

on

her,

gaping around her small thighs. But

young

girls

her age do.

When

notice that the zipper gapes in

white cloth is

is

taut

pair of shorts. Last year

wrinkled where bunched she's

grown,

at

filled

the waist,

out a

lot,

as

her shirt rides up over her waist, you

an open

V

above her hip bone.

The

and glossy over her firm bottom; the only wrinkle

the almost painful crease between her legs.

Carl scrubbed his beard.

was

still

new.

He

It

was

pretty bristly, but that

was because

it

could imagine what his wife would say. He'd kid

his face into a serious

frown and

tell

her, hell,

he was figuring on

keeping the beard permanendy now. Well, he wouldn't, of course,

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

158

he'd feel like an ass at the office with

it

on, he'd just say that to

rile

Though, damn it, he did enjoy the beard. He wished more guys where he worked wore beards. He liked to scratch the back of his hand and wrist with it.

his wife a

little.

"You want this last beer, Swede?" he asked. He didn't get an answer. Swede was awful quiet. He was a quiet type of guy. Reticent, that's how he is, thought Carl. "Maybe Quenby's baked a pie," he

said,

hoping he wasn't being too obvious. Sure was taking one

helluva long time.

He

lifts

the

hem

up

of his tee shirt off his hairy belly,

his chest,

but

she can't seem to wait for that— her thighs jerk up, her ankles lock

behind his buttocks, and they crash to the bed, the old springs shrieking and

thumping

arriving trains. His legs

like a speeding

subway,

traffic

and buttocks, though pale and

at

noon,

flabby,

dark against the pure white spectacle of the starched

seem

sheets, the

glow of her full heaving body, there in the harsh blaze of the Coleman lantern. Strange, they should keep it burning. His short

flushed

beard scrubs the hollow of her throat, his broad hands knead

stiff

flesh.

She

rhythmically against

his.

her trembling

You

sighs,

whimpers, pleads, as her body

"Yes!" she

turn silently from the window.

arrive,

you find Ola washing

What

did

slaps

cries hoarsely.

At

the house,

when you

dishes.

Quenby talk about ? Her garden probably, pie baking, the neighbors. About the wind that had come up one night while he'd been gone, and how she'd had to move some of the boats around. His two-week beard: looked have

to sleep

down with

giggle, imagining her

Quenby would probably

like a

the dogs

if

said.

he didn't cut

Ola would

it off.

daddy sleeping with the dogs. And, talk about Ola, about the things she'd

or said while he was away,

He'd

darned broom, she

what she was doing

yes,

done

in sixth grade, about

QUENBY AND OLA, SWEDE AND CARL

159

her pets and her friends and the ways she'd helped around the place.

Quenby

at the barbecue pit, her full backside to

the steaks, sipping the whiskey, talking about

maybe not

talking at

setting the table.

here.

Or swimming down by

The sun now an

on the

life

Just watching the steaks

all.

him, turning island.

Or

maybe. Ola inside

the docks.

A

good thing

orangish ball over behind the pines. Water

lapping at the dock and the boats, curling up on the shore, some

minutes

Down

after a boat passes distantly.

at the kennels, the

them outside rest.

their pen.

there.

The

cat

The dogs had worked

Mentally, he gave the cat a boot in the

the dogs, but later he

flames and the smoke.

dogs were maybe making a ruckus. Maybe

had wandered down

Ola's cat

The

would take

had

a habit of teasing

hard, they deserved a

He

ribs.

the steak bones

had already fed

down.

Quenby's thighs brush together when she walks. In denim, they

Not

whistle; bare, they whisper.

together (they rarely are), there

so, Ola's. is

Even with her knees

space between her thighs.

A

pressure there, not of opening, but of awkwardness.

Perhaps, too, island born, her walk

weight

is

settled solidly

is

there, easily, calmly, weightlessly. Ola's center

narrow shoulders, somewhere

and her quick astonished her knees, her toes.

still

is

still

in the midst of her fine

stride

Quenby 's

movement; her daughter

Her

different.

mother's

beneath her buttocks; she moves out from

is

guided by the

arches uneasily out

strange outcropping of pale fur that peeks out

is

new

breasts,

her hipbones,

tips of

thick black cushion

between her

a rich locus of

and away from the

now

at the inner

edges of the white shorts. It is difficult for

a

man to be

alone on a green island.

Carl wished he had a cigarette. He'd started out with cigarettes, but he'd got

all

excited once

when he hooked

a

goddamn

fish,

and they

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

160

had

all spilled

the

damn

line

good

it

Swede

all.

To at

—a

tell

My

the truth, even

Swede's with

its

stale

home, the

real

bass.

worse,

broke his

A poor

more than

and

day,

a cigarette, he wished he

A hot supper. A bed. Even that breezy

peculiar noises filled

home,

—had

Jesus, the only strike he'd got all day,

Swede had caught two. Both

up!

What was

said

all

didn't smoke.

drink.

stiff

Swede had

great northern,

and got away.

he'd messed in

out on the wet bottom of the boat.

fish

terrific

a

empty lodge

damp longing. Not

piney smell and cold

him with a TV, friends

had

sheets to

and

mention

own

over for bridge or poker, his

electric blanket.

"Sure to

is

awful dark,

ain't it?"

Carl said "ain't" out of deference

Swede. Swede always said "ain't" and Carl liked

when he was up

here.

He

to talk that

and say

liked to drink beer

"ain't"

He

don't" and stomp heavily around with big boots on.

way

and "he

even found

Swede did. Up on the "oh," down on the "yah." Carl wondered how it would go over back at the office. They might even get to know him by it. When he was dead, they'd say: "Well, just like good old Carl used to say: oh himself saying "oh yah!" sometimes, just like

yah!"

He

drank the whiskey and

In his mind, he watched the ducks

fall.

watched the steaks and

Quenby and watched

fall.

They

didn't just

listened to

plummet, they

fluttered

times they did seem to plummet, but in his that kept trying to

happening. of the

fall

It

that

fly,

the ducks

and flopped. Some-

mind he saw

the ones

kept trying to understand what the hell was

was the rough

made him

flutter

like to

Swede, Quenby, Ola, Carl

.

.

sound and the

soft loose splash

hunt ducks.

.

Having

a drink

after

the livingroom around the fireplace, though there's no

supper, in fire

Ola's not drinking, of course. She's telling a story about her

in

it.

daddy

QUENBY AND OLA, SWEDE AND CARL and a

cat. It is

161

easy to laugh. She's a cute girl. Carl stretches. "Well,

off to the sack, folks.

Thanks

for the terrific supper. See

morning, Swede." Quenby: "Swede or Carl. I forgot to put

any

I'll

you in the

bring you fresh towels,

morning."

this

You know what's going on out here, don't you? You're not that stupid. You know why the motor's gone dead, way out here, miles from nowhere. You know the reason for the silence. For the wait. Dragging it out. Making you feel it. After all, there was the missing morning sunlight either. But what could a man do ? You remember the teasing buttocks she dogpaddled away, the taste of her wet belly on the gunwales

underwear. Couldn't find

as

it

in the

of the launch, the terrible splash

to

The

bass.

fell.

You had

a sudden vision of a

hooked through

a cheek, eyes glazed

stringer felt oddly weighted. at the

end of

over, childish limbs adrift.

You forget it. You

it,

What do you do

with a vision

setting. Ola's cat rubs

the big feed

Scouts, eats

up against

talks

and he

cat's ears

is

He

lifts

one

with the toe of his boot. Deep-throated

and

sits

down

at the dining-

about town gossip, Ola talks about school and

He

tells

how he

Golden Gate Bridge,

she's

A

about shooting ducks.

with enthusiasm.

Sawyer, things

Outside, the sun

the ducks get cleaned. Brownnoser.

talks

explains about the

drinks on the way.

his leg. Probably contemplating

£rins, carries the drinks in

room table. Quenby

He

when

and scrubs the

He

like that?

try to.

They go in to supper. He mixes a couple more The whiskey plup-plup-plups out of the bottle.

purr.

half-

paddle the boat to the nearest shore and cook up the two

long cold body

foot

Awhile ago, you

You were hungry and you were

gave a tug on the stringer.

tempted

when you

pretty

got the

happy

first bird,

cross-pollination,

been reading in school.

situation.

and Ola

and

Tom

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

162

He

for the pie,

and

and

cleans his plate

Quenby

thing.

and he

replies that

have space for ten

still

on seconds and

piles

him

smiles to see

He

room

to save

he could put away a herd of elephants

pies.

Ola laughs

has a nice laugh. Ungainly as she pretty girl, he decides.

thirds of every-

She warns him

eat.

gaily at that.

now,

just

is

drinks his whiskey

off,

She sure

going

to

be a

announces

he'll

she's

bring in the pie and coffee.

How the

good

it

had

stiff sheets,

felt!

In spite of the musty odors, the rawness of

gaudy

the

brilliance of the

Coleman

lantern, the

anxious haste, the cool air teasing the hairs on your buttocks, the

scamper of squirrels across the

the hurried by-passing of

roof,

and jacket and pants

preliminaries (one astonishing kiss, then shirt

had dropped away you

in teeshirt

Lunging

in

one nervous gesture, and down you'd gone,

and socks

still)

recklessly into that

hungering over her

flesh,

:

once

it

steaming

began,

softness,

it

was wonderful!

your lonely hands

her heavy thighs kicking up and up, then

slamming down behind your knees, hips rearing up her voice rasping: "Hurry!"

—everything

how good! And then

And you

she was gone.

staring half-dazed at the

Coleman

dampness with your

lay in

smoking

trip, idly

You

shorts.

how

good,

your teeshirt and socks,

lantern,

thinking about tomorrow's fishing groin's

off the sheets,

else forgotten,

a cigarette,

sponging away your

stubbed out the cigarette,

pulled on your khaki pants, scratchy on your bare and agitated skin,

The light leaking out your shuttered You went to stand there, and through the

slipped out the door to urinate.

window caught your broken

shutter,

watched yourself

up toward

the

eye.

you stared

at

there. Well.

Well.

the

main house, through

Ola's head in the kitchen

window.

You know. You know.

bed,

You

the

pissed

roughed-up

on the

the pines. Dimly,

sheets,

wall, staring

you could

see

QUENBY AND OLA, SWEDE AND CARL "Listen, uh,

Swede

.

163

."

.

"Yah?" "Oh, nothing. better start putting

I

mean,

my

whatever the hell you

well,

shoulder call

what to,

them.

I

maybe

started to say was,

I

you know, one of the paddles or

—well, unless you're sure you can

I

get it-"

"Oh yah. "Well

I'm sure." ."

.

.

Swede, Carl, Ola, Quenby

Swede or

.

.

.

one or both of them do return

Or perhaps Swede

there ?

One

more may soon be dead.

or

Carl, for example, in revenge or lust or self-defense.

his presence.

A man

is

what

to the island,

And

if

will they find

long since dead, and Carl only imagines

can imagine a

lot

of things, alone on a strange

lake in a dark night.

Carl,

Quenby, Swede, Ola

dinner sleepiness on

Nothing

all

.

.

Drinks in the livingroom.

of them. Except Ola.

like fresh lake bass.

ever hear about

.

Daddy and

And

two weeks

Listen

man

:

.

.

after-

Wonderful supper.

Quenby's lemon

pie.

"Did you smile.

Ola

Daddy had been away

for

the cat?" Ola asks.

perches forward on the hassock. "Well,

An

"No!" All

."

al6ne, far

from your

wife,

nobody even

to play

poker with, a

does foolish things sometimes. You're stretched out in your

underwear on an uncomfortable bed in the middle of the night;

for

example, awakened perhaps by the footfalls of deer outside the cabin, or the whistle of squirrels, the cry of loons, unable sleep.

You

lodge.

There seems

step out, barefoot, to urinate to

be someone

now

to

by the front wall of the

swimming down

in the bay, over

"

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

164

near the docks, across from the point here.

No

lights

up

at the

main

house, just the single dull bulb glittering as usual out on the far end of the dock, casting

You pad

no

A bright moon.

light.

down toward

quietly

hoping the dogs don't wake. She

away from

the bay,

swimming

is

the kennels,

way. She reaches

this

up on them, then stands

the rocks near the point here, pulls herself

on the way

shivering, her slender back to you, gazing out

she's

come, out toward the boats and docks, heavy structures crouched in the

moonglazed water. Pinpricks of bright moonlight sparkle on the

crown

of her head, her

narrow shoulders and shoulderblades, the

crest of her buttocks, her calves

Hardly thinking, you

and

slip off

the house, then creep out

heels.

your underwear, glance once

on the rock beside

her.

at

"How's the

water?" you whisper.

She huddles over her you.

"It's better in

with the

You cleft

against,

and dip your

elbows, at the young

ringers in the water. Is

girl's

flat

dark shivering

lips.

drifting

She, too, seems

between two black

is

islands. Carl squinted

matches here

Swede, you need a light? if

I

you

pretty stupid.

the islands were. Didn't matter anyway.

— they're not wet

self-

smile. "It's okay,"

concentrated, but he couldn't see the shores, couldn't guess

listen,

clutched

now, presenting you only her

have a daughter just your age." Which

They were

tummy and

gleaming

bony knees and shoulders, trembling, and her

away

it

fine droplets of water, catching the moonlight,

conscious, for like you, she squats

"Hey,

little

hardly notice, for you are glancing back up now, past the

nub where

bejewel the soft down, past the

say, "I

but smiles up at

her teeth chattering a

stoop to conceal, in part, your burgeoning excitement,

which you'd hoped hard

says,

chill.

You cold ?

breasts, a little surprised,

than out," she

how

and far

Nobody on them.

think

I

still

got some

QUENBY AND OLA, SWEDE AND CARL "No,

sit

Well,

down.

." moment and think, goddamn it, you

Just be a

hell, stop

165

.

.

match around a gasoline motor. "Well,

I

didn't carry a flashlight.

up here on a lake

these years

goddamn

along a

He

flashlight.

wondered

Maybe he wasn't so bright,

A

little

Carl

man

Jesus, a

after

live

to take

all.

Swede's wife wasn't worrying about them by

if

good cook, probably

My

."

.

.

and doesn't know enough

now. Well, she was probably used type really.

thought

just

wondered why Swede all

can't stick a lighted

to

it.

A

woman,

nice

pretty well built in her day,

friendly, a

though not

too slack in the britches. Skinny

little

Carl's

daughter,

looked more like Swede. Filling out, though. Probably be a cute girl in a couple years. Carl got the idea vaguely that

wife, didn't really like

blame

here.

Too

Quenby, Swede's

lonely or something. Couldn't

her.

He knew a

up

it

it

was a screwy notion, but he kept wishing there was

goddamn neon

light or

something around.

He

fumbled under the

seat for the other beer.

"I asked

Daddy why he

my

shot

cat," she said.

She stood

at the

opposite end of the livingroom, facing them, in her orange shirt and

bright white shorts, thin legs apart. lips

It

was a sad question, but her

were smiling, her small white teeth

imitated her daddy lobbing the cat off. " 'Well,

head threw

it

up

honey,

in the air,

gave

I

and

if it'd

it

up

glittering gaily. She'd just

in the air

and blowing

a sporting chance,' he

flown away,

I

said.

She joined in the general laughter, skipping awkwardly,

ishly,

back to the group.

She

slips into

is

a

good

in

girl-

story.

the water without a word,

narrow bottom bobbing house

was

'I

wouldn't have shot

it!'"

It

its

and out of

and dogpaddles away, her sight.

What

the hell, the

dark, the dogs silent: you drop into the water

—wow!

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

166

sudden breathtaking impact of the

icy envelope!

whoopee!

—and

follow her, a dark teasing shape rippling the moonlit surface.

You

expect her to bend her course in toward the shore, toward

the house, and, feeling suddenly exposed and naked and foolish in the middle of the bright bay, in spite of your hunger to see her again, out of the water,

But, no, she

is

you pause, prepare

in by the boats, near the

ing into the wrap of shadows.

water to the docks

—a

You

to return to the point.

end of the docks, disappear-

sink out of sight,

long stretch for a

man

swim under-

your age

—and

find

her there, holding onto the rope ladder of the launch her father uses for guiding large groups.

The house

is

out of sight, caution out

of mind.

She

up the ladder and you follow close behind, her legs brushing your face and shoulders. At the gunwales, she emerges into full moonlight, and as she bends forward to crawl into the launch, drugged by the fantasy of the moment, you lean up to kiss her glistening buttocks. In your throbbing mind is the foolish idea that, if she protests, you will make some joke about your beard.

He

pulls herself

punched the can and the beer exploded out. He ducked just in it in his ear. "Hey! Did I get you, Swede?" he

time, but got part of

Swede didn't say anything. Hell, it was silly even to ask. The beer had shot off over his shoulder, past the bow, the opposite direction from Swede. He had asked only out of habit. Because he didn't like the silence. He punched a second hole and put the can to his lips. All he got at first was foam. But by tipping the can almost straight up, he managed a couple swallows of beer. At first, he laughed.

moment later, the flat warm yeasty taste sliming his mouth, he wondered why the hell he had opened it up. He considered dumping the rest of it in the lake. But, damn it, Swede would hear him and wonder why he was doing it. This time, thought

it

tasted good, but a

though, he would remember and not throw the empty can away.

QUENBY AND OLA, SWEDE AND CARL Swede, Quenby, Carl, Ola to bed.

The

girl

.

.

.

The

167

and the laughter and off from her story. After her

story

has omitted one detail

daddy's shot, the cat had plummeted to the earth. But afterwards, there

was

night,

it

a fluttering

sound on the ground where

Squirrels whistle

and scamper. There

skunks, and porcupines. surely

by

it hit. Still,

late at

caused her wonder. Branches scrape softly on the roof.

rain.

And, from

A

profound

far out

is

a rustling of beavers, foxes,

stillness,

on the

lake,

arguing, chattering, opening beercans. Telling

soon to be broken

men

in fishing boats,

stories.

THE SENTIENT LENS Scene jor" Winter"

No

sound,

it

gets

going with utter

silence,

no sound except perhaps

an inappreciable crackle now and then, not unlike readily compensates for

sound, stretches there

itself,

evenly,

how

it starts.

silently,

no more than

or perhaps the earth

168

but our ear

reaches out past any staticky imperfections

finds: only the silence.

And

that's

infinitesimal flecks of light, settling icily

quiet forest like frozen dust.

fallen trees

static,

hears not that sound but the absence of

a wind. Merely the powderfine snow dropping

might be and

Not even

it,

itself is

The snow

has folded

itself

on the

into drifts,

ribbed beneath, cast into furrows by

and humps of dying

leaves

—we cannot know, we can be





THE SENTIENT LENS

169

sure only of the surface

we

now, a gently bending surface that warps and cracks the black shadows of the trees into a fretwork of complex patterns, complex yet tranquil, placed, reflective: the intersee

laced shadows and polygons of brightly daylit

quavering

of shadow. So close to the drifts are seen, only

snow suggest the and motion

stability of light, the imperceptible violence

we

that

whole

trees

thick black trunks flecked with white

cannot be

and plunging

branches weighted with snow, sweeping perilously near the white

we

heaps of earth:

pass beneath them, sliding by the black trunks,

over the virgin planes of groundsnow.

We

Brief sharp crackling sound! static.

Again! Next to

pine. Crack! In the

wood

We

freezing.

but our attention irregular

is

us,

up

close: the

pause. Different

from the

columnar trunk of a great

wood. Yes, again! The

subtle biting voice of

hesitate, expectant, straining to hear it again

new

suddenly shaken, captured by a

crumpling smashing noise that repeats

times, stops, then sounds again

itself



yes, of course! the

sound, an

four or five

squeaky splash-

ing padded unmistakable crash of snow being crushed underfoot!

motion!

Now we

see

him

there I

White

A

past white, but distinct.

Rabbit! Crush crush crush crush crush. Stop. Crush crush crush. Stop. Listens.

Nervous twitch of wide-nostriled

behind that pine!

Then Then away again,

Finally: silence.

nose.

Gone! Dimin-

again, louder now. Stop. Ah!

ishing crush crush beat. Stop.

Sudden astonishing

crush crush crush crush.

close-up of

dogs head, small

blac\ glittering eyes, long blac\ nose flicking swinging sniffing over the white earth, sharp triangular ears

alert,

and now we

see the

whole dog, lean, light-coated, of noble origin, taut-bodied. Nose

down, the dog

slips

soundlessly through the

the soft snow's weightless

We

reach, forgetting the dog,

space, nearly

flat,

muted

forest,

through

fall.

what appears

to be a small

open

the familiar chiaroscuro configurations unbroken

by upspearing forms. Here we pause. Our gaze

drifts

upward,

through the diminishing snow, past the arch of reaching branches,

toward the sky, up where the treetops lean inward as though possessed by, drawn toward some omnipotent vanishing point. We

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

170

cannot see the vanishing point, or even the sky: the snow that

tumbles outlines

down and away upon us obliterates all but the static black of the trees. When we look back down, we see that this

open area

is

snow

really a park,

with lamp posts standing rigid and

wide snow-pillowed benches sprawling

inscrutable,

weathered sign poking up,

at their feet, a small

We

but weathered away.

in

the deep

paint

its

all

can barely discern, and then at extremely

word men on it, but there is no arrow to might be found. The lamps are not lit: it is the

close range, the

tell

where they

bright

us

part of day.

A

road passes through the park, barely visible in the un-

trammeled snow, seen

as a slightly recessed plane

wide and stretching into the standing in the middle of

—an

the horizon

it,

about ten feet

indefinite distance. In fact,

and

as

our gaze traces

its

we

are

course toward

horizon by no means defined, by the way, but



muddled by the converging forest we see a sleigh approaching, drawn by two dark horses. Noiselessly, rapidly, it comes, the horses' hooves kicking up the dry snow in a swirl of seething clouds, pounding toward us, but in silence. Fine the horses, with flying manes and tight lithe bodies, shoulders sweating, muscles rippling, mouths

on

us,

afroth.

And

then suddenly the roar of sleighbells breaks in

and the thunder of hooves,

in a turbulence of blinding

The is

see a

Then,

man

as the fine

left in

at the sleigh as

by

us,

over us,

snow!

noise breaks off as suddenly as

blurred.

we

as the sleigh races

it

began. For a moment,

powder of cold snow

the sleigh's wake.

He

is

though in recognition of

settles

about

afoot, smiling, it;

now

all

us,

waving

he follows

it,

walking with firm measured tread along one of the two narrow tracks left by the sleigh's runners.

The man's seen before, or

face

is

much

familiar, life

someone we know, or have

someone we have seen

masculine outdoor kind of face

his,

before, a

at least

rugged

with craglike brow above a bold

once-broken nose, thin brows knotted, narrow pale eyes squinting against the glare, forehead lined by,

it

would seem,

alternating casts

of astonished perplexity and sustained anger, crowfeet searing deep

— THE SENTIENT LENS

171

into the temples, strong

blown askew. His eyes

jaw thrust forward, coarse sunblanched hair on some distant point, perhaps on

are fixed

the sleigh shrinking noiselessly into the horizon behind us, or

merely and resolutely on the horizon smile, the smile creasing his

The

cut grooves.

itself.

The man

maybe

continues to

weathered cheeks with humorous deep-

sun's dazzling radiance

is

constant.

The man's

cheeks bear the stubble of a day's beard, small wiry hairs that poke

out from their dark pockets like a plague of indefatigable parasites.

A large

irregular mole, the size of a black ant's head, interrupts the

dense growth of stubble near one of the vertical creases presently

deepened by the smile. The smile gradually fades, though not entirely,

uncommonly prominent. as

One

are quic\ to note

peculiarity

it is

the

his thin lips appear

:

dark, almost black, and his eyelashes are strangely

A

we might



we

and the frown deepens, but

pleasing virile frown of resolve.

mere

defect in certain

skills,

no doubt; we overlook

it

ignore a misplaced word, an unwanted tear, a broken-

backed shoe,

The man wears an open

static.

leather jacket, short,

over his chest and strong shoulders, swings his broad leathery hands in

wide rhythmic

wrapped

arcs, strides

vigorously through the snow, his legs

tightly in coarse gray leggings.

His boots tramp

willfully

snow is so blinding that these more than black shoe-shaped stumps only rarely do

into the drifts, but the glaze off the

boots appear no

we

:

catch a glimpse of an individual lace or a buttonhook

the most part,

it is

just a furry tunneling of black in

—no, for

and out of an

unstable white.

From

jaw jutting forward ment.

He

we watch

a distance,

is

the

in a strange

man marching

complex of anger and bewilder-

The

sky

is clear.

There are no

—there

even the sleigh tracks have disappeared leather-jacketed

man

again.

to time.

He

stops.

He

no

no shadows,

only this slender

is

The man

breaks stride

seems troubled, glances about uneasily,

Then

Looks about.

trees,

is

with wind-tossed hair striding furiously across

a barren expanse of shadowless slopes.

perhaps.

us, his

alone, utterly alone, in a vast white desolation. It

longer showing.

from time

toward

:

We

three nervous disorganized steps.

have drawn nearer.

He

He

now

is

lost

stops

puts one broad

— PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

172

hand

brow

to his

to

shade his eyes, leans out slightly from the waist,

searches the horizon in a complete circle.

from

his jacket pocket,

He

clamps

defiantly in his

it

pulls

it

Now, from strikes

it

flings

massively around

to the it.

it

a

crushes the

book of matches.

end of the

Smoke

empty packet

away

several feet

from

issues

match away, draws deeply on the

He

his nose.

cigarette.

on the

distances. Absently,

he

tears

one out,

hands cupped

He

His face

flicks

in a

into the snow.

cigarette, his

with a purposeful rigidity; he exhales slowly, his trained

cigarettes

against the back of one hand,

it

He

mouth.

same pocket:

the

holds

it,

tamps

out,

quick practiced gesture,

drops his hand, hitches

draws a pack of

crumpled packet containing only one

a

cigarette.

He

He

his trousers, appears to sigh, frowns.

is

the

tosses

set, tense,

lips pressed, eyes

the cigarette away,

glances hurriedly about, and, thrusting his head forward, sets off again.

He

has not taken

more, he

hand

stops.

presses

somewhat

He

down

more than

three or four steps

gazes about. Licks his

lips.

The

when, once

butt of his right

Once more he warily and now around him in a full circle, left hand

against his groin.

gracelessly peers

shielding his dark-lashed eyes. Apparently satisfied that he

he unbuttons his

see

fly

and prepares

alone,

From behind his left shoulder, past his flushed left ear, we can down into the dazzling unbroken slope in front of him. The

tension in his

left

temple relaxes

a kind of satisfaction as face: just this left side

it

black.

He

writes in the

urine searing

its

were

if

snow

as

of it

it

we



at that.

makes

faultless

or, rather,

Moreover, the

the face

he relieves himself.

seem almost

We

follow the

white plane, but

we can make them

out

cannot remember them, cannot even

he finished the word or words before the stream of

urine diminished, weakened from

drooping

all

lemon track through the

but afterwards

remember

—passes over what we can see of his

beyond

is

cannot discover the words

plainly,

as a certain absorption in his task

and not

blinding radiance of what

we

is

to urinate.

trickle,

occasional drip.

its initial

surging onrush to a thin

spurted ungoverned three times, then wilted to an

The man's

shoulders are shaking and

we

see that

he

THE SENTIENT LENS is

173

laughing, has been laughing throughout his performance, laugh-

ing uncontrollably now, but

our consciousness, there sound, which perhaps

The man

is

we

hear none of

silence

it,

still

governs

only an occasional and unplaced staticky

we have been hearing all

shakes out the

last

of

it,

along.

buttons himself up,

the

all

while continuing to laugh, his head thrown back, his mouth wide open, his white teeth bared, narrow eyes squeezed tight, the crowfeet

moist and exaggerated.

snow with

He

scribbles in the

his finger

DID THIS!

I

but soon

and

collapses to his knees

is

laughing so violendy that he

snow and now! strong, the

rolls

about in

it.

The

spills headfirst

laughter!

we

racking, hysterical, welling up, loose

rattling louder

—but

and louder

observe that the man's face

snow, curled up in a

is

and

though the laughter

startlingly sober!

He

into it

perverse,

swells,

we

huddles in the

damp,

ball of terror, his lined eyes

down

begin to hear

his cheeks

—and we see for the

whitened as though dusted with flour

time

first

but painted: his real mouth turns down we thought was a smile, remains, obstinate and impersonal, on his weeping face. The mad laughter thunders to a peak, then rattles off into the distance. Hollow. Peculiar. Now: no more than an echo. And then that silence again. A silence we know now. The man's dark lips move, over and over, as though reciting some terrible syllable, shattering the painted smile, although, as we have come to expect, we can hear none of it. Just the—but then, somewhat astonishingly, we do distinguish a noise of some sort, a new sound, resembling gagging, a sort of strangled deep-throated that his smile

is

not

real,

while the smile, what

gagging— Slowly quickly

we swoop backwards from

its

back,

gratefully

the

him there coiled in the snow, slide away from the vast and blinding

sound, leave

to

man and

helpless like a beetle

the

comforting shadows of the

weighted forest with

its

the

on

plain, returning forest,

the

great

low-slung canopy of snow-laden boughs.

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

174

For a

recollection that drives

but

we

we suddenly

stunning moment,

brief but

hysterical face again, as



gradually perceive that

it is

rodent eyes cloudy,

its

As we

back,

slip

we

discover that

bodied dog. Listening carefully,

man

not the

grows and louder, even

its

mouth

winter.

is

it is

only

split in a

sardonic grin.

between the jaws of the lean-

we

are able to hear a rhythmic

after the

fragile porcelain.

dog and the

ing on are long since out of sight. At

sound diminishes,

at all, no,

wide-nostriled nose

its

it is

marching over

crackle, not unlike soldiers it

mans

in a

the face of the white rabbit, nothing more,

quivering,

see the

memory, a sudden terrorizing a cold and unwanted tremor through us though

rabbit

it is

Louder munch-

nevertheless, even this

last,

absorbed into the transcendent silence of

Snow again begins to fall.

The Milkmaid of Samaniego

Uevaba en

We've nothing present

la

cabeza

una lechera

el

mira que ni

el presente estd seguro.

to let us suppose

cdntaro etcetera futuro;

it,

except the realization

perhaps of being, vaguely, in the country somewhere, yet nevertheless

it is

true: there

approaching.

Nor

is

is,

sit,

now

He

for his part merely

at the foot of the small

milkmaid

see her, a

her coming suggested in any

expression or position.

might

though we do not

way by

sits,

as a

the man's

man

arched bridge, staring idly

alone at the

stream eddying by, occasionally breaking a hunk of bread from the loaf in his lap

and

stuffing

it

between

his yellow teeth.

He

chews

THE SENTIENT LENS

much

without

175

interest, the thick

wads of bread forming

bulges in his dark unshaven cheeks. Yet, for a

milkmaid approaching, on her head

filled

with fresh milk for the market.

been some

sort of

a

It's

all that,

tall

there

shifting is

in fact

gently curving pitcher

almost

as

though there has

unspoken but well understood prologue, no mere

epigraph of random design, but a precise structure of predetermined images, both basic and prior to us, that describes her to us before our senses have located her in the present combination of shapes colors.

We

somehow

are,

and

then, aware of her undeniable approach, aware

of the slim graceful pitcher, the red kerchief knotted

about her neck, her starched white blouse and brightly flowered skirt,

her firm yet jubilant stride

down

the dusty road, this dusty

road leading to the arched bridge, past the oaks and cypresses, the

wooden

twisted

fences, the

haphazard system of sheep and catde,

alongside the occasional cottage and frequent

fields, fields of clover,

cabbage, and timothy, past chickens scratching in the gravel by the road,

and under the un tempered ardor of the summer sun.

We And

might

not,

on the other hand, have thought

man.

of the

even had the ambiguity of our expectations allowed a space for

him, as

it

might allow,

for example, for various dispositions of the

oaks, the cypresses, the daffodils

would not have had him

and the cabbages, we probably

just at the bridge, just

where our attention

might, at the wrong moment, be distracted from the maid. And,

what

more, his tattered black hat, the hair curling about his ears

is

and around

his sun-blackened neck, his torn yellow shirt

open down

the front, his fixed and swollen right eye, nearly two fingers lower

than the

left:

encourage us

these are to look for

all surprises, too,

and of a

sort that

might

another bridge and another milkmaid, were

such a happy option available. But, as though conscious of our sensing

him

intrusive

and discomposing, he suddenly

starts

up from

his idle contemplation of the brook below him, cocks his head

attentively to the right, exaggerating thereby the grotesquerie of his

bad

eye,

and slowly,

deliberately, turns to look over his right shoul-

der, thus guiding us directly

toward the milkmaid

barely visible at a turning in the road, several

herself,

now

hundred paces away.

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

176

The maid moves carried by a breeze,

toward

gracefully, evenly, surely

though there

is

none

this

and

make

still

mounted

her head as though

lifting her

smoother her light-bodied there for

all

as

if

hot day, her delicate

hands in the folds of her brightly flowered apron, skirt slightly to

us,

time the

apron

stride,

on

eggshell-

tall

white pitcher, the kind used for carrying fresh milk to the market.

Her

feet stir small swirls of dust in the road, intensifying the general

effect of

midsummer

haze.

A

white hen rears up,

ruffles its feathers,

then scrambles across the road in front of her, stopping to scratch in the gravel

on the other

side.

Even from

out the trace of a smile on the red

—or

her

girl's

rather, daffodil yellow

full breasts, fuller

this distance,

—kerchief

perhaps than

we can make

fine-boned face, and beneath the

knotted around her neck,

we had

expected, thrust proudly

forward within the white starched blouse.

As

she slowly completes the long turn in the road and ap-

proaches us from directly ahead, her hips broaden perceptibly, her skirts

grow

fuller.

The

with a narrow mouth, color of eggshells;

she

moves with

it

and smooth

pitcher, a stoneware jug, long is

a soft absorbent white, the slightly

rests steadily

on her auburn head,

a gliding, purely linear

rutted road, a smile playing suggestively

as

beneath

on her rouged mouth, her

upon

the road

As she walks, her skirt flutters and though caught by some breeze, though there is none. Her several paces ahead.

man,

this

it

motion down the dusty

eyes looking neither left nor right, but steadfastly

and

gray

one with the tattered hat and bulging

eye,

twists as

—but the

he stands

—no, no! the maid, the maid! Through

the eddies of dust swirling about her feet,

we can

catch an occasional glimpse of her ankles, rather thick but flashing

nimbly in the summer sun beneath her dark

skirt

and brightly

checked apron. Her hands, though coarse and broad-palmed, are strong and self-confident, the dark calloused hands of a milkmaid,

hands that curry bins.

Above

cattle,

grasp swollen

teats,

and shovel fodder into

the kerchief, the rich color of goldenrods, knotted about

her neck, her bemused smile exposes large even teeth, white and healthy.

Her nose

shifts just

a bit to the

left,

extends slightly, and

THE SENTIENT LENS above the right

177

nostril there appears, or has appeared, a small

spot, not unlike a wart, or a mole.

Her narrow

dark

black eyes look

neither left nor right, but stare vacantly into the road several paces

Above her high-boned face, tanned dark by the unremittent sun, and nested securely in her peat-colored hair is the tall

ahead.

summer

pitcher, completely undisturbed

The

pitcher itself

by her graceful heavy-bodied

stride.

a pale gray in color, shaded darker at the

is

neck, and etched throughout with an intricate tracery of minute rust-

Even from extreme proximity, we resemblance, in both hue and texture, to the shells colored veins.

fact, as

we

pitcher at six

dozen

observe yet more closely,

all,

though

at least,

it

we

are struck by

its

of white eggs. In

discover that

it

not a

is

has seemed like one, but actually real eggs,

maybe

seven, all nestled in a great raffia basket,

the kind of basket used for carrying fresh eggs to the market.

Suddenly, even as

we

watch, a kind of internal energy seems to take

possession of the eggs: they tumble about in the basket, burst open,

and a hundred

chicks, or more, yes! surely

more! pop out, one by

one, fluff their yellow down, and scurry about for the seed tossed at

them by the gay excited milkmaid in her brightly flowered apron. They fluster anxiously, almost furiously, about her narrowing ankles, and the faster they run, the faster they grow now they are



fat

white hens,

now

they are

still

scraping the ground, their snouts superfluity of cabbage, bran,

and

fatter

yellow sows, their

rummaging

acorns,

voraciously in the

which the slender maid

And, as we look about now more sows, chickens, too, even

flinging into their troughs.

time,

we

discover

their calves,

all

still

surrounding

as

milkmaid with the eggshell-white

though glorifying pitcher

bellies

is

for the first cattle

in the

with

happy

on her head.

Not" more than a dozen paces away, a

tall lad,

dark and

boned with flashing brown eyes and bold mouth, chested coal-black bull, his sturdy tanned—but no more of

fine-

curries a thickthat! for,

exchange charged glances, smile, she casts her eyes down. The boy seems paralyzed, he gazes at her in wonderin short, he looks up, they

ment,

at

her beautiful auburn hair gleaming in the fiery

summer

sun, at her gently blushing fair-skinned cheeks, at her soft ripe-

— PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

178

breasted body in skirt.

and the young lips, his

eyes

on her

are

toward

wide and astonished,



/

He

drops to the ground.

calves, struggles

on her

breasts,

no! not

hair

starched white blouse and brightly flowered

its

The currycomb

gone from

free,

his

His hands

his nostrils distended.

face, tearing at

She wrenches

pushes past the sows

her, the smile

her dress, tangled in her

but as she does

so,

she feels a

sudden lightening, almost a sense of growth, as the pitcher of fresh milk leans forward,

and plummets

topples,

caroms off the boy's lurching shoulders,

into the dust at his fading feet.

bubbles out of the narrow mouth, seeps

The white

liquid

the dry yellow

f utilely into

dust of the rutted road at the foot of the small arched bridge.

The maid

stoops to right the pitcher, but too

late.

Gone. The

milk, the eggs, the chickens, the fatbellied sows, the cows and the calves, that

clumsy stupid beautiful boy:

all

gone. Tears burst

down

the maid's tanned face. Gone, gone! In her anguish, she does not at first

notice the

two dry cracked hands

the stoneware jug, but it

takes but a brief second

tattered black hat

that are helping her set aright

when through

her tears she sees them at

more for her to discover the

and uncut

starts

back in

terror,

mouth. She scrambles to

ward

off

the

dark bearded face with

hair, the

bulging bloodshot eye, the sweat-stained shirt open

She

last,

rest:

down

its

to the belt.

her right hand pressed against her open

to her feet.

some blow. She

Her

hand comes up

left

as

though

seems about to run.

steps back,

The

man

sets the pitcher in the grass by the foot of the bridge, turns

back

to her, smiles.

She smiles

faintly,

cheeks, takes another rearward step.

He

wipes the tears from her looks

down

at himself, at

his torn yellow shirt

and muddy

bows slighdy from

the waist. She nods, clutches with both hands

shoes,

makes an apologetic

gesture,

her brightly checked apron, smiles again, shakes her head, does not step back.

He

shrugs his shoulders, gestures at the sun, at the pitcher

standing by the bridge, at the bread beside

it

in the grass.

She smiles

openly, showing her large white teeth, shakes her head, also gestures at the high sun

and then

at the

road she has just traveled.

follows her gestures, gazes with real compassion

down

He

the long

dusty road, then again at the empty pitcher, hesitates, finally reaches

— THE SENTIENT LENS

179

and withdraws some

into his pocket

maid. She steps forward but of gold and

silver.

to observe

They

He

coins.

them more

look, to

shows them

closely

they are few,

:

the truth, like nothing less

tell

midsummer

than a whole private universe of

to the

suns in the man's

strong dark hand. She smiles, casts her eyes down.

The

pitcher,

of the bridge, it

is

thought

actually, as

we now

weaves, leans, then finally

bursting

down

its

be stable in the grass

at first to

can

see,

on

at the foot

a small spiny ridge:

over in a gently curving arc,

rolls

rust-colored veins into a thousand tiny fragments,

fragments not unlike the broken

shells of

white eggs.

Many

of these

fragments remain in the grass at the foot of the bridge, while others

tumble

down the hill

silently

into the eddying stream below.

The Lepers Helix At

first,

in

an instant

half-real half-remembered, the leper

then he begins his approach, urgent across the

—no, no!

he has always been beginning, always approaching, just the glare caused the illusion:

coming

sun

it

at its zenith

is

at rest;

impossible!

was the and

glare,

this leper

on. Solitary flutter advancing like a crippled bird, the leper,

staggering out of isolation, staggering toward us as though in

amazement,

joy, disbelief, here

under the boiling desert sun, across

the parched and desolate surface, jerking, twisting, his white robe if it is

a robe

—stirring starched and binding, illustrating the fault of

his motion, the painful shifts of

fulcrum through

strange uncertain gait as though he lacks the

had

it,

lost

molten red

it,

flats,

Our own

dazzling white

this

his outline blurred

progress,

hang of

shimmery

by the savage

on the other hand,

is

his

abdomen, the it,

or having

figure crossing the glare.

precise, governed, has

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

180

been from the

mockingly

The

start.

call

We

it.

we might

active principle,

it.

Might

on the

desert

call

are describing a great circle

our compass point (thus,

surface, the leper's starting position as

admittedly, forcing a further reconsideration of the realities of that

moment—good

first idle

ever?). Since the leper

we compel him with

is

god! must

we

foul of such riddles for-

bend

this studied tour to

lope into a spiral, so regulating our arrival, if

fall

always approaching, must always approach,

own

bungling

his stupid

velocity as to schedule his

only he doesn't stumble, the fool, and

(and he does

fall

not, will not), at our starting point.

He

seems puzzled by our motion

flight, recoil,

to

our career

he unable,

his thin

white

obtain impact for

we

for art's sake

it

its

let

now

prolong

behind catch ity

humor.

speed

is

If

anything

is

neck. His approach in

a serious thing,

we would have

the rear, a dull

and

it

so,

He

it

his isola-

It's

must be

we would

he.

leave

him

to inscribe additional circles to

So our

veloc-

does not

know

pointless strategy.

diminishes, doubtless at a computable rate.

that.

—how

serve for comedy, this un-

not constant. No, were

at the end,

him from

now now

this miserable

gainly, high-legged, limbs-awry dance in the hot sun.

Our

like

to the

pigeon-toed

him \now extremity I

counterpart?)

some other circumstances might even tion cuts the

him

twisted to one side, head swaying precariously (is

journey? what matter! for art or no, else

to

like torn sails grappling for a stay, pelvis

now

thrust forward

on

must look

he but devotes more strength

of his failing strength, feet

arms flung

splayed,

—hah!

such a separation, to envision any shape

—but o constancy!

more

cause,

at

He

merely dances on, arms and legs outflung, dances on

helplessly— yet full of hope, that old disease

—scratching

his helix

across the desert floor, less true perhaps than our perfect circle, yet for that the

more

red plane. His robe seems not so sheet!

on the burnt ... a winding

beautiful, his steaming white helix

much

a robe as a

Death! we cry inwardly, but beat back the (alarming!)

absurdity.

moment!

It's it is,

the sun, only the sun, the glare, heat

and

he, not we, will die.

to the

end

—but only for a

will be, a leper in a white tunic.

And

— THE SENTIENT LENS

Down more than

181

we

the last arc segment

glide, closing

two-thirds done, the worst of

—he

steadily

enough now

close

is

mouth

strange that smile! for his

it

over.

now, our task

it

Our

pace letting up,

for us to see his eager smile:

apart at the corners, and

split

is

even not smiling he would surely seem

to.

Crusted eyes protruding

over shiny white cheekbones, tattered ends of his white flesh confus-

ing themselves with (peculiar, perhaps, this sensuous digression, and just at this

in

moment, but

there's,

you

see, a

kind of pleasure

had

to be

a need being reached) confuse themselves with his fluttering

it,

robe, flake off in a scaly dust that blurs his outline, dance lightly

around him

as

he staggers wildly on, closing in on

us.

The

flesh,

the

reminds of mica: translucent layers of dead scaly material, here

flesh

and there hardened into shiny nodules, here and there disturbed by deep

In the beds of these cavities: a dark substance, resem-

cavities.

bling blood not so sion,

much

as

...

as:

excrement. Well, simple

illu-

what

it is.

blood mixed with pus and baked in the sun,

His bare

brown mere few paces

that's

feet leave a trail of this viscous

But now

—oh my god! —as a —and end! —just

point of origin

separate us, our

visible before us, the brute reality

slams through the barriers of our senses: the encounter

imminent I Absorbed could

at the end! circles,

but the choice was ours just once, our impulsive

— mains—or it?

alas!

—a

and does

It is

of

after

power

it

one

all

action has

all

that re-

along? did his pace allow two

matter? for the encounter must come, mustn't circle,

two

circles,

no consequence. There

is

or ten. in us that conditions accep-

We turn to greet the leper.

Our

hands,

my

hands, appear before us, ruddy, hairy, thick-

wristed, muscular, fine rich blood

now

first

given, the inexorable governor of

has the leper had us

whether

tance.

its

we have wasted it all! —we had forgot what was to come had we thought, only thought, we could have drawn two

or ten circles, postponed this ultimate experience, could have,

become circles?

now

in our visual registrations, our meaningless

mathematics, our hedonistic pleasure in mere action and

how

is

for the embrace.

pounding through them, extended

They do not

tremble.

The

leper,

tongue

— PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

182

dangling

god! nearly blac\!

—frothing

pitifully at the

mouth, eyes

blank, whole wretched body oozing a kind of milky sweat, hurls

himself into our arms, smothering us, pitching us to the red clay, his sticky cold flesh fastening to us, face, blind eyes, that

helpless

the

instant,

from him,

ecstatic tears.

fingers,

At

it

We

is

lay

first,

tongue licking

whine! his odors choking

over.

Purged of

us,

we

lie,

I

my lie

his perishing flesh.

Then, in

we

free our-

all

revulsions,

him gently on the red earth, dry his final we make an effort to claw the earth with our

dig a hole large enough to conceal the blight of his

gathering decay. But reflex.

his black

under the sickening weight of

same

selves

me,

we weary

of

it:

the earth

is

hard, burial an old

We leave him lie and sit beside to wait. Under the desert sun.

wait, as he waited for us, for you. Desperate in need, yet with

terror.

What terrible game

will

you play with us? me.

A PEDESTRIAN ACCIDENT Paul stepped off the curb and got hit by a truck.

what

it

was

that hit

him

the truck, there could be

at

He

didn't

know

but now, here on his back, under

first,

no doubt.

Is it

me? he wondered. Have

I

walked the earth and come here ? Just as

he was

struck,

and while

still

tumbling in front of the

truck and then under the wheels, in a kind of f unhouse

gambado

of

pain and terror, he had thought: this has happened before. His neck had sprung, there was a sudden flash of light and a blaze roaring up in the back of his head.

new.

It

He

The

—almost fragrant—pain:

hot

that

was

was the place he felt he'd returned to. lay perpendicular to the length of the truck,

trailer, just to

under the

the rear of the truck's second of three sets of wheels.

183

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

184

All of

him was under

the truck but his head

I'm being born again, he reasoned.

toward the

side of the truck,

He

and shoulders. Maybe

stared straight up, past the

and

sky, pale blue

cloudless.

of skyscrapers closed toward the center of his vision;

thought about

he realized

it,

was the

it

first

read the it

fall.

The

one of them anyway. The truck was red with white

his severe angle of vision letters.

seemed

to

up the

be a "14."

He

illu-

him from being

but

able to

smiled inwardly at the irony, for he had a

numbers: fourteen!

bered having had a green it.

old

letters,

A capital "K," he could see that—and a number, yes,

private fascination with

to prove

side kept

tops

that he

time in years he had

looked up at them, and they seemed inclined to sion;

The

now

light,

but

it

He

thought he remem-

didn't really matter.

would have changed by now,

It

No way The

in any case.

thought, obscurely, troubled him.

"Crazy goddamn fool he

walk right out

just

me no

in fronta

respect just burstin for a bustin!"

The

somehow,

voice, familiar

above and to his

right.

shaking their heads.

head toward the

He

voice,

bad. Better just to

guttural, yet falsetto,

People were gathering to stare felt like

one chosen.

He

came from

down

at

him,

tried to turn his

but his neck flashed hot again. Things were

lie still,

take no chances.

Anyway, he saw now,

just in the corner of his eye, the cab of the truck, red like the trailer,

and poking out

wagging

window, the

in the sunshine.

small, in fact:

"Boy cake

its

I

God

it

The

large

driver

head of the truckdriver,

wore a small tweed cap

—too

sat just on top of his head.

seen punchies in

my

sweet time but this cookie takes the

bless the laboring classes I say

and preserve us from the

humble freak!"

The

truckdriver spoke with broad gestures, bulbous eyes rolling,

runty body thrusting

itself

in

and out of the cab window,

flying wildly about. Paul worried

still

about the

light. It

tant, yet

how

place,

could get away from you in a minute.

it

could he ever

little

hands

was impor-

know? The world was an ephemeral The driver had a

bent red nose and coarse reddish hair that stuck out like straw.

A

— A PEDESTRIAN ACCIDENT hard shiny chin,

185

mirror image of the hooked nose. Paul's

too, like a

eyes wearied of the strain,

and he had

to stop looking.

"Listen lays and gentmens I'm a good Christian by Judy a

decent hardworkin fambly little

woman and

sible

man and goddamn

and

man

seven yearnin younguns

an

idle

saw compassion, or

"It's

for

seed a respon-

at

right into

me

a neutral

least

witnessing his state and seemed to

understand, but there were others

"He asked

my own

a dear

amusement, but on most he saw reproach. There

who winced on

were those

all

wage and got

what he do but walk

that boy

my poor ole truck!" On some faces Paul

curiosity,

earnin a honest

it if

—a majority—who jeered.

you ask me!"

the idler plays the fool

and the workingman's

to

hang

for

it!"

"Shouldn't allow his kind out to walk the streets!"

"What It

is

the use of running

when you

were orations and the waving of

flags.

been carrying anything? No, no.

He

likely,

on the wrong road?"

Paul was wondering: had he

had only

wait!

but ... ah well. Perhaps he was carrying

no feeling

The

a.

book? Very

it still.

There was

in his fingers.

people were around

aired, sides taken,

man

are

worsened. Their shouts grew louder and ran together. There

arrived

him

like

flies,

grievances were being

and there might have been a brawl, but a

and broke

police-

up. "All right, everybody! Stand back,

it

please!" he shouted. "Give this

man some

air!

Can't you see he's

been injured?"

At

last,

Paul thought.

He

relaxed.

For a moment, he'd

felt

now he felt at home he might survive. Though really:

himself in a strange and hostile country, but again.

He

even began to believe

had he ever doubted

it?

"Everybody back, bac\!" The policeman was

crowd grew

quiet,

and by the sound of

guessed they were backing

but he

felt relieved just

the

effective.

The

their sullen shuffling,

Paul

Not that he got more or less air by it, same. "Now," said the policeman, gently

off.

but firmly, "what has happened here?"

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

186

And

with that

it all

started

up

again,

same

as before, the clamor,

the outrage, the arguments, the learned quotations, but louder and

more discordant than

I'm hurt, Paul

ever.

said.

No

one heard. The

policeman cried out for order, and slowly, with his shouts, with his

them again

nightstick, with his threats, he reduced

One

lone voice

stop goosing

hung

end: "

at the

mel" Everybody laughed,

"Stop goosing her,

sir!" the

—for

to silence.

the last time, Mister,

released.

policeman

commanded with

his

chin thrust firmly forward, and everybody laughed again.

Paul almost laughed, but he couldn't, quite. Besides, he'd

with

got the picture, and given his condition,

that,

funny one.

He

opened

down over him. He had "Now,

tell

was thin and

his eyes

it

just,

was not a

and there was the policeman bent

a notebook in his hand.

me, son, what happened here?" The policeman's face

pale, like a student's,

and he wore a trim

little

tuft of

black moustache under the pinched peak of his nose. I've just

been

hit,

Paul explained, by

realized that he probably didn't say

no longer

his.

He

it

at

this truck,

all,

and then he

that speech

was an

art

eyes indicatively toward the cab of the

cast his

truck.

"Listen, I asked

you what happened here! Cat got your tongue,

young man?" "Crazy goddam fool he

just

walk right out

in fronta

me no

respect just burstin for a bustin!"

The policeman remained crouched over Paul, but turned his head up to look at the truckdriver. The policeman wore a brilliant blue uniform with large brass buttons.

"Boy cake

God

humble

I

seen punchies in

my

And

gold epaulettes.

sweet time but this cookie takes the

bless the laboring classes I say

and preserve us from the

freak!"

The policeman looked down at Paul, then back at driver. "I know about truckdrivers," Paul heard him say.

the truck-

"Listen lays and gentmens I'm a good Christian by Judy a

decent hardworkin fambly little

woman and

man

earnin a honest

seven yearnin younguns

all

wage and got

my own

a dear

seed a respon-

A PEDESTRIAN ACCIDENT

man and goddamn

sible

187

my poor ole trike. Truck, I mean."

and

There was a loose frown and

tittering

from the crowd, but the policeman's

raised stick contained

asked, turning back to Paul.

who

truckdrivers were

At

it.

first,

"What's your name, lad?" he the policeman smiled, he

a salvation of sorts in that smile, but gradually

"We're here

He

if

said pettishly

Again a

and

"O God

to

It's

Paul understood.

own acumen. "Do you know

know

this

tumult of words and sounds, shouts

know

voice, belted

It

if

none knew him or

to

it,

W

ester manl"

drew

they

all

near.

The

voice, a

"Amory! What

you?"

was not a mistake.

young man?"

this

if

out above the others, came through:

Amory! Amory

what have they done

.

was jammed up

the crowd.

was hard

in heaven!

it, it

help you," the policeman

I can't

woman's, hysterical by the sound of .

"Come,

out.

nose up. "Anybody here

tilted his

roar, a threatening

forth. It

But then one

did.

it

you won't help me,

man?" he called out to back and

faded.

to help you."

and he wasn't getting

"Well,

it

winked, nudged him gently.

Paul, Paul replied. But, no, no doubt about in there

knew

and he knew who Pauls were, and there was

come, boy! Don't be afraid!"

.

me

boy what he do but walk right into

that

He

was astonished by

his

the policeman asked, lifting

his notebook.

"What? Know him? Did Sarah know Abraham? Did Eve

know Cain?" The policeman

cleared his throat uneasily.

"Adam," he

cor-

rected spftly.

know who I know," the woman low throaty snigger. The crowd responded

"You know who you know, said,

and

let fly

with a

I

with a belly laugh.

"But

this



young man

!"

the policeman insisted, flustered.

"Who, you and Amory?" the woman cried. "I can't believe it!" The crowd laughed and the policeman bit his lip. "Amory! What new persecutions are these?" She billowed out above him: old,

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

188

maybe even

and bosomy, pasty-faced with thick red

seventy, fat

rouges, head haloed by ringlets of sparse orangish hair.

"My

poor

Amory!" And down she came on him. Paul tried to duck, got only a it. Her breath reeked of cheap gin. Help,

hot flash in his neck for said Paul.

"Hold, madame! Stop!" the policeman

woman's

cried,

tugging

at the

She stood, threw up her arms before her

sleeve

What more

staggered backwards.

face,

she did, Paul couldn't see, for his

view of her face was largely blocked by the bulge of her breasts and belly.

There were laughs, though. "Everything in order here,"

grumped

the policeman, tapping his notebook.

name, please

.

.

.

uh

.

"My name?" She cried to the

.

.

miss,

"Now,

what's your

madame?"

twirled gracelessly on one dropsied ankle and

crowd: "Shall

I tell?"

"Tell! Tell! Tell!" shouted the spectators, clapping rhythmically.

Paul

let

himself be absorbed by

there was, after

it;

all,

nothing

else to do.

The the

policeman, rapping a pencil against his blue notebook to

rhythm

of the chant, leaned

down

over Paul and whispered

:

("I

think we've got them on our side now!") Paul, his gaze floating giddily police officer

and the red

haze above, wondered

am

I

alliance

if

without them ? Could

seemed

to tip: his feet

up

past the thin white face of the

side of the truck into the horizonless blue

I

were

really the

key to

it all.

What

even die ? Suddenly, the whole world

dropped and

his

head

rose.

Beneath him the

red machine shot grease and muck, the host rioted above his head,

him from behind, and out front the skyscrapers many insensate fingers, the path he must walk to

the earth pushed

pointed, like so oblivion.

was

He

afraid he

squeezed shut his eyes to

would

slide

down

set right the

world again

—he

beneath the truck to disappear from

sight forever.

"My name— /" tittering softly.

policeman

stood

woman's puffy

bellowed the woman, and the crowd hushed,

Paul opened his eyes. over

face

him,

He was

mouth

on

agape,

his

back again. The

pencil

poised.

The

was sequined with sweat. Paul wondered what

"

A PEDESTRIAN ACCIDENT

189

she'd been doing while he wasn't watching.

"My name,

officer, is

Grundy." "I

beg your pardon?" The policeman, when nervous, had a way

of nibbling his moustache with his lowers.

"Mrs. Grundy, dear boy,

who

did you think

I

was?" She patted

me

the policeman's thin cheek, tweaked his nose. "But you can call Charity, handsome!"

index finger in his

The policeman

little

blushed. She twiddled her

moustache. "Kootchy-kootchy-koo!" There

was a roar of laughter from the crowd.

The policeman sneezed. "Please!" he protested. Mrs. Grundy curtsied and stooped to unzip "Hello! Anybody home!"

the

officer's

fly.

"Stop that I" squeaked the policeman through the thunderous laughter and applause. Strange, thought Paul,

joying

how much

I'm en-

this.

"Come out, come out, wherever you "The story!" "Story?

are!"

the policeman insisted through the tumult.

What—?"

"This young fellow," said the policeman, pointing with his pencil.

you

He

said



zipped up, blew his nose. "Mr., uh, Mr. Westerman

.

.

.

Who?" The woman shook her jowls, perplexed. She frowned down at Paul, then brightened. "Oh yes! Amory!" She "Mr.

paled,

seemed

"Good God!"

to

sicken. Paul,

if

he could've, would've smiled.

she rasped, as though appalled at what she saw. Then,

once more, she took an operatic grip on her breasts and staggered

back a lies

step.

stark

"O

and

mortality!

stiff!

Delenda

Gloria, corrected Paul.

"Squashed

O fatal est

mischief!

in!

A noble

man

Carthago! Sic transit glans mundil"

No, leave

like a lousy

Done

it.

bug!" she

cried.

"And

at the height of

his potency!"

"Now, wait a minute!" the policeman protested. "The final curtain! The last farewell! The journey's end! Over the hill! The last muster!" Each phrase was answered by a happy shout from the mob. "Across the river! The way of all flesh! The

"

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

190

roundup!" She sobbed, then ballooned down on him again,

last

tweaked

his ear

enh?

Him

make

well!")

left side

fall

and whispered ("How's Charity's weetsie snotkins, :

down and bump

And

she

let

him have

of his nose, left cheek,

enveloping sour blubbering

man

did not intervene.

his

He

little

on the

it

and part of

and

kiss,

Mumsy

putsy?

and

kiss

—well, sort of on the one wet

his left eye:

this time, sorrily, the police-

was busy taking

notes. Officer, said

Paul.

"Hmmm," ah,

ahem, Grundig, Grundig

you-?" The woman the policeman,

-

D,

D

yes,

labored clumsily to her

and squinted over

R-U-NNow what did

and wrote. "G

the policeman muttered,

- 1 -

feet,

G.

-

plodded over behind he was

his shoulder at the notes

taking. "That's a 'Y' there, buster, a 'Y.' " She jabbed a stubby ruby-

tipped finger at the notebook.

"Grundigy?" asked the policeman

name

is

"No, no!" the old the winds. "Grundy!

take off your



"Oh, Grundy! end of paper

in disbelief.

"What kind

of a

that?"

woman

whined, her grand manner flung to

Grundy! Without the Mg,' don't you

He

You

Now I have it!" The policeman scrubbed the back

his pencil in the notebook. tore.

see?

looked up

"Darned

irritably.

eraser.

"Can't

we

About

just

shot."

make

it

The

Grun-

dig?"

"Grundy," said the

The policeman up

angrily,

woman

coldly.

ripped the page out of his notebook, rumpled

and hurled

it

to the street. "All right,

he cried in a rage, scribbling: "Grundy. it,

I

have

it.

gosh

damn

Now

get

it

it

all!"

on with

lady!" "Officer!" sniffed Mrs.

Grundy, clasping

a handkerchief to her

"Remember your place, or I shall have to speak to your superior!" The policeman shrank, blanched, nibbled his lip. Paul knew what would come. He could read these two like a throat.

book. I'm the strange one, he thought. faces,

but his streetlevel view gave

him

He

wanted

to

watch

their

on

their

at best a perspective

"

A PEDESTRIAN ACCIDENT under chins. bellies: the

he wanted

was

It

191

their crotches that

And

squashed bug's-eye view. to

watch

were prominent. Butts and

was

that

strange, too: that

their faces.

The policeman was begging for mercy, wringing There were serpents.

it."

The

notebook, abashed. right?"

crowd

faint hissing sounds, wriggling out of the

"Cut the

overdoing

his pale hands.

shit,

mac," Charity Grundy said

officer

chewed

his

moustache, stared

"You wanna know who

The policeman nodded. "Okay,

are

The

bosom again and

notebook up, the pencil poised. Mrs. Grundy

down at Paul, winced, "He was my lover!"

at his

silent.

police officer held snuffled,

looked

turned away and wept. "Officer!" she gasped.

Halloos and cheers from the crowd, passing to laughter.

policeman started to smile, blinking

down

at

just

one year ago today.

smiled bravely, brushing back a

tear,

The

Mrs. Grundy's body,

but with a twitch of his moustache, he suppressed

"We met ...

is,

you ready?" She clasped

her

crowd grew

down

poor clown

this

his

the

like

finally, "you're

O

her lower

it.

fateful hour!" lip

She

quivering. Once,

down at The wink nearly convinced him. Maybe I'm him after all. Why not? "He was selling seachests, door to door. I can see him now as he was then " She paused to look down at him as he was now, and wrinkles of revulsion swept over her face. Somehow this brought laughter. She looked away, puckered her mouth and bugged her eyes, shook one hand limply from the wrist. The crowd her hands clenched woefully before her face, she winked

Paul.



was

really

with her.

"Mrs. Grundy," the

officer

whispered, "please

.

.

."

"Yes v there he was, chapfallen and misused, orphaned by the rapacious world, yet pure and undefiled, there: there at

With her baggy arm,

my

door!"

flung out, quavering, she indicated the door.

"Bent nearly double under his impossible seachest, perspiration illuminating his

— undershirt

manly brow, wounding

his eyes,

wrinkling his

"Careful!" cautioned the policeman nervously, glancing

from

his notes.

He must

have

filled

up

twenty or thirty pages by now.

"

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

192

"In short,

my

went out

heart



him!" Gesture of heart going

to





"And though alas! my need for seachests was limited The spectators somehow discovered something amusing in this and tittered knowingly. Mainly in the way she said it, he supposed. Her story in truth did not bother Paul so much as his own fascination with it. He knew where it would lead, but it didn't matter. In

out.

maybe

fact,

"



I

and come

him

in here,

Charity, love, pretty

was what

that

invited

little

come

in.

I

fascinated him.

Put down that horrid

cried,

in for a

come cup of

shoulders, your pretty

come

tea,

seachest, dear boy,

warm and

your

in to

and

in

rest, rest

back, your pretty

little

obedient

little

your .

.

."

Mrs. Grundy paused, smiled with a faint arch of one eyebrow, and the

crowd responded with another burst of laughter. "And it was little, okay," she grumbled, and again they whooped, while

pretty

she sniggered throatily.

How all

was

it

now? he wondered.

In

fact,

he'd been wondering

along.

"And, seachest



well, officer, that's

alas!

sad to

tell,

what he

right

on

dozing there in the day's brief sun, alas!)

somewhat homaloidal

did,

my

he did put

down

his

unfortunate cat Rasputin,

God

rest his soul, his (again,

soul!"

She had a great audience. They never

failed her,

nor did they

now.

The policeman, who had now stood and shouted

knee,

finally squatted

down

to write

for order. "Quiet! Quiet!"

tache twitched. "Can't you see this

is

on

his

His mous-

a serious matter?" He's the

funny one, thought Paul. The crowd thought laughter mounted, then finally died away.

"And

.

so, .

.

too,

for

the

and then what

happened?" the policeman whispered. But they heard him anyway and screamed with delight, throwing up a new clamor in which could be distinguished several coarse paraphrases of the policeman's question.

The

officer's

pale face flushed.

He

looked

down

at

Paul

with a brief commiserating smile, shrugged his shoulders, fluttering the epaulettes. Paul

made

a try at a never-mind kind of gesture, but,

he supposed, without bringing

it off.



"

"

A PEDESTRIAN ACCIDENT

193

"What happened next, you ask, you naughty boy?" Mrs. Grundy shook and wriggled. Cheers and whistles. She cupped her plump hands under her breasts and hitched her abundant hips heavily to one side. "You don't understand," she told the crowd. "I only wished to be a mother to the lad." Hoohahs and catcalls. "But I had failed to realize, in that fleeting tragic moment when he un-

how

burdened himself upon poor Rasputin,

young and "This

is

the

dumbest

story

I

was wrenching

I

Oh yes, I know, I know—

unsullied heart asunder!

ever heard," interrupted the police-

man finally, but Mrs. Grundy paid him no heed. "I know I'm old and fat, that I've crossed teric!"

She winked

fragrant flush of

good thing

Grand Climac-

the

crowd's yowls of laughter. "I

at the

first

flower

is

his

gone forever!" she

down

go, pressing her wrinkled palms

know

the

cried, not letting a

over the soft

hips,

peeking coyly over one plump

shoulder at the shrieking crowd.

The policeman stamped his foot, "I know, I know yet: somehow,

swoop of her blimp-sized

but no one noticed except Paul. face to face with

Charity, a primitive

little

welled up in his untaught

"Stop

it!" cried the

loins, his pretty little

unnameable urgency



policeman, right on cue. "This has gone far

enough!"

"And you

why

ask what happened next?

conceal the truth

easy, the

.

.

.

I

from you of

shall tell you, officer! all

people?"

policeman seemed frankly pleased that she had put

way. "Yes, without further discourse, he buried his pretty in

my bosom— "

perhaps

it

(Paul

had been with him

there, yes, he did, there

my

felt a distressing all

For

Though unit

little

this

head

sense of suffocation, though

the while) "

—and he tumbled me

on the front porch alongside

his seachest

and

dying Rasputin, there in the sunlight, before God, before the

neighbors, before Mr.

Dunlevy the mailman who

before the children from

down

is

hard of hearing,

the block passing on their shiny

little-"

"Crazy goddamn fool he

just

walk right out in fronta

me

no

respect just burstin for a bustin!" said a familiar voice.

Mrs. Grundy's broad

face,

now

streaked with tears and mottled





""

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

194

with a tense pink

Then

silence.

flush,

glowered. There was a long and

difficult

she narrowed her eyes, smiled faintly, squared her

shoulders, touched a handkerchief to her eye, plunged the handker-

—Before,

her bosom, and resumed: "

down

chief back

whole itchy eyes-agog world, a coupling unequaled

in short, the

in the history of

Western concupiscence!" Some vigorous applause, which she



knowledged. "Assaulted, but I

reminded him of

"Boy

I

God

cake



seen punchies in

yes, I confess

my

it

sweet time but

bless the laboring classes I say

ac-

—assaulted, but aglow, this

cookie takes the

and preserve us from the

humble freak!" Swiveling his wearying gaze hard right, Paul could see the

huge head

truckdriver waggling his

padded heavily over

swung

to

crowd. Mrs. Grundy

at the

him, the back of her thick neck reddening,

her purse in a great swift arc, but the truckdriver recoiled

into his cab, laughing with a taunting cackle.

same

instant,

his eyes, said: "Listen lays

and gentmens I'm

Judy a decent hardworkin fambly got a dear

woman and

little

seed a responsible— "I'll

Then, almost

in the

he poked his red-beaked head out again, and rolling

man

good Christian by

a

earnin a honest wage and

seven yearnin younguns

responsible your ass!" hollered Charity

all

my own

Grundy and

let fly

with her purse again, but once more the driver ducked nimbly

The crowd,

inside, cackling obscenely. terical

Again the

driver's

— god " he began, but Her nose

taking

sides,

was more hys-

than ever. Cheers were raised and bets taken.

great lumpish

^z-raackk!

waggling head popped out:

his

below the top of

his head.

off,

him square on

his

bent red

the truckdriver slumped lifelessly over the

door of his cab,

not drop

man and

time Mrs. Grundy was waiting for him.

this

purse caught

—and

"

stubby

little

As

arms dangling limp, reaching

best Paul could

tell,

just

the tweed cap did

but since his eyes were cramped with fatigue, he had to

stop looking before the truckdriver's head ceased bobbing against

the door.



—"

"

A PEDESTRIAN ACCIDENT

Man

195

and god! he thought. Of course!

mean? Nothing. The policeman made

much

apparently had too

What

terrific!

did

futile little gestures of interference,

it

but

respect for Mrs. Grundy's purse to carry

them out. That purse was big enough maybe it did.

to

hold a bowling

ball,

and

Mrs. Grundy, tongue dangling and panting furiously, clapped

one hand over her heart and, with the handkerchief, fanned herself

down

with the other. Paul saw sweat dripping

so—fool



I

.

.

.

pufl

I



reminded him of ... of the

I

the cup of tea!" she gasped. She paused, swallowed,

brow, sucked in a deep lungful of

"And

cleared her throat.

so I

air,

"And

her legs.

and exhaled

wheel



mopped her

it

slowly.

reminded him of the cup of

She

teal" she

roared with a grand sweep of one powerful arm, the old style recovered. There

was

a general smattering of complimentary applause,

which Mrs. Grundy acknowledged with a short nod of her head.

"We

went

inside.

The

air

was heavy with expectation and the un-

mistakable aroma of catshit.

Rasputin had yielded up the

One might

spirit



almost be pleased that

"Now just stop it!" cried the policeman. "This is—" "I

poured some

tea,

we

now famous

sang the

braguetal jLa bragueta estd cerradal/

"Enough,

I

said!"

duet, '\Cierrate la

You're warm, said Paul. But cried Charity

is



danced for him, he

screamed the policeman, his

quivering with indignation. "This

"Absurd?"

1

little

moustache

absurd!"

that's

not quite

it.

Grundy, aghast. "Absurd? You

call

my dancing absurd?" "I

.



I

didn't

say-"

awesome—but absurd. " She grabbed him by the lapels, lifting him off the ground. "What do you have against dancing, you worm? What do you have against "Grotesque, perhaps, and yes, a bit

grace?" "P-please!

"Or

is it,

Put

me down!"

you don't believe

I

can dance?" Six dropped him.

1

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

196

"N-no!" he squeaked, brushing himself

straightening his

off,

"No! I—"

epaulettes.

"Show him! Show him!" chanted the crowd. The policeman spun on them. "Stop! In the name of the law!" They obeyed. "This man is injured. He may die. He needs help. It's

no joking matter. "That's better."

effect.

ing a

bit.

"Now, ahem,

"Oh,

on a new

there a doctor present?

is

He

paused for

stroked his moustache, preen-

A

doctor, please?"

you're cute! You're very cute!" said Mrs.

officer,

tack.

ask for your cooperation."

I

The policeman

The crowd

Grundy

snickered. "Is there a doctor present?" she

mimicked, "a doctor, please?"

"Now

just cut

it

out!" the policeman ordered, glaring angrily

Grundy. "Gosh damn

across Paul's chest at Mrs. this instant, or

"A ww,

.

.

now, you stop

it

or you'll see what'll happen!"

.

you're jealous!" cried Mrs.

supine Rasputin!

it

Amory,

I

Grundy. "And of poor

little

mean." The spectators were in great

and the

spirits again, total rebellion threatening,

police officer

was

at

the end of his rope. "Well, don't be jealous, dear boy!" cooed Mrs.

Grundy. "Charity

tell

you a weetsie

bitty secret."

"Stop!" sobbed the policeman. Be careful where you step, said

Paul below. Mrs. Grundy leaned perilously out over Paul and got a grip on the policeman's ear.

"That boy," she It

said,

He

humps terrible!"

"he

crowd and broke

carried out to the

and she wambled about

winced, but no longer attempted escape.

gloriously, her

it

up.

It

was her big

line

rouged mouth stretched in a

flabby toothless grin, retrieving the pennies that people were pitch-

ing (Paul

knew about them from being

his upper

lip,

mon catch

to pennies the

them

by them; one landed on

world over), thrusting her chest forward

in the cleft of her

bow with

ing his moustache.

her.

to

bosom. She shook and, shaking,

jangled. She grabbed the policeman's to share a

hit

stayed there, emitting that familiar dead smell com-

hand and pulled him forward

The policeman

smiled awkwardly, twitch-

"

A PEDESTRIAN ACCIDENT

197

"You asked for a doctor," said an old but gentle voice. The crowd noises subsided. Paul opened his eyes and discovered above him a stooped old man in a rumpled gray suit. His hair was

He

wore rimless

down

at Paul, that

shaggy and white, his face dry, lined with age. glasses, carried a black leather bag.

easy smile of a

He

smiled

man who comprehends and

assuages pain, then

looked back at the policeman. Inexplicably, a wave of terror shook Paul.

"You wanted

man

a doctor," the old

repeated.

"Yes! Yes!" cried the policeman, almost in tears. "Oh, thank

God!" "I'd rather you thanked the profession," the doctor said. "Now what seems to be the problem?" "Oh, doctor, it's awful!" The policeman twisted the notebook in

his hands, fairly destroying

truck, or so

it

mystery, and there

even sure of his

"No

it.

man

"This

would appear, no one seems is

name

a



woman, but now

I

has been struck by this to

know,

it's all

don't see



?

and I'm not

matter," interrupted the doctor with a kindly

old head,

"who he

He

is.

is

a

man and

a terrible

nod of his is enough

that, I assure you,

forme." "Doctor, that's so good of you to say so!" wept the policeman.

I'm in trouble, thought Paul. "Well, now, over Paul.

He

let

Oh boy, I'm really in trouble.

us just see," said the doctor,

lifted Paul's eyelids

rummagecj about exactly

it,

I

can't

"Why

was not such expertly,

wooden

doctor said.

withdrew a

what the doctor did

in his ears.

asked:

in

move my

He

opened

flashlight.

after that,

them from

his black bag,

but he seemed to be looking

head, Paul told him, but the doctor only

with pain. "Ahh,

and scrutinized

yes,"

manner

upon an answer, and he got none. Gently,

he pried Paul's teeth apart, pinned his tongue depresser,

in-

side to

Paul was not sure

does he have a penny under his nose?" His as to insist

down

with his thumb and peered

tently at Paul's eyes; Paul, anxious to assist, rolled side. "Just relax, son," the

crouching

his throat. Paul's

he mumbled.

"Hum, hum."

down with

head was on

a

fire



"

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

198

"How voice

.

.

how

.

he,

is

Doctor?" stammered the policeman,

muted with dread and

The

respect.

"Will

doctor glared scornfully at the

from

stethoscope

his bag.

and

inside Paul's shirt

He

hooked

it

.

.

.

will

.

.

in his ears, slipped the disc

head inclined

worms. Absolute

silence

to

had the vague impression that the doctor tapped

or two, but

mouth

"Oh,

feel

it.

His head

softly.

time

his chest a

felt better

"Hmmm," said the doctor gravely, "yes

.

.

with his

."

What is it, Doctor?" the policeman cried. it? What is it?" shouted the doctor in a sudden

please!

"What of rage.

he didn't

so,

if

closed.

one

now. Paul

could hear the doctor breathing, the policeman whimpering

He

his

?"

.

then withdrew a

officer,

listened intently, his old

side like a bird listening for

he

is

"I'll tell

you what

is it!"

He

sprang to his

feet,

burst

nimble for an

old man. "I cannot examine this patient while you're hovering over

my

mewling

shoulder and

it!"

"B-but

I

only

a

goddamn

—" stammered the

"And how do you under

like a

me

expect

damned truck?" The

officer,

to

schoolboy, that's

what

is

staggering backwards.

examine a

man

half buried

doctor was in a terrible temper.

"But I—"

"Damn

it!

truck from the scene so that

man's

injuries!

Have

"Y-yes! But officer,

.

.

I .

I

made

"Simple, you said

his

am

do?" wept the

police

mouth. "I'm only a simple

police-

it!"

Did

it

to

I

and count



barked the doctor. "I told you what

to do,

now get moving!"

Now what?

again, thought Paul.

policeman, chewing wretchedly on the corners of his note-

book, stared

first at

Paul, then at the truck, at the crowd, back at the

truck. Paul felt fairly certain

on the

this

but wh-what

you God-and-cunt simpleton cunt!

can determine the true gravity of

my duty before God

man, Doctor, doing

The

this

idiot, if

myself clear?"

hands clenched before

God and

you don't remove

you

but-I you,

I'll

truck's side

from under

— ?" the

was an officer

now

"I." "Shall

began

"Good God, no!" stormed

"K" him out

that the letter following the I

.

.

.

shall

I

pull

tentatively, thin chin aquiver.

the doctor, stamping his foot. "This

— A PEDESTRIAN ACCIDENT

man may you

199

have a broken neck! Moving him would

you sniveling birdbrain? Now, goddamn

see that,

wretched nose and go wake up your I

mean

now!

right

"B-back

it

Tell



off

him

But

!

to .

.

.



him, don't

\ill it,

wipe your

your accomplice up there, and

back his truck

off this

poor devil!"

him

but he'd have to run over

again!

He-" "Don't by or

God

run-over-him-again me, you blackshirt hireling,

have your badge!" screamed the doctor, brandishing

I'll

his

stethoscope.

The policeman

hesitated but a

moment

body, then turned and ran to the front of the truck.

you!"

He whacked

"

on the head with

the driver

Hollow thun\l "Up and

at

ME AND MY POOR

foot

first

rearing

cried the truckdriver,

wildly and fluttering his head as though

RIGHT INTO

his nightstick.

'em!"

dam that boy what,"

laughed again,

down at Paul's "Hey! Come on,

to glance

OLE TRICK TRUCK, !

I

up

"he do but walk

lost,

MEAN?" The Crowd

time in a long time, but the doctor stamped his

and they quieted right down.

"Now,

start

up

that engine, you, right

the policeman, stroking his moustache.

old spit and polish back.

He

now!

He was

I

mean

it!"

getting a

ordered

little

of his

slapped the nightstick in his palm two

or three times.

Paul

felt

the

pavement under

started the motor.

The white

fields like butterflies.

clouds

now

his

letters

back quake

as the truckdriver

above him joggled in their red

Beyond, the sky's blue had deepened, but white

flowered in

it.

The

skyscrapers

had grayed,

as

though

withdrawing information.

The, truck's

noise smothered the voices, but Paul did overhear

the doctor and the policeman occasionally, the doctor ranting, the

policeman imploring, something about mass and weight and vectors

and

direction. It

two

sets

of

was

of wheels

finally

decided to go forward, since there were

up front and only one

humanism maintaining,

after

all,

to the rear (a decent

driver apparently misunderstood, because he backed

the middle set of wheels rolled

kind

thought Paul), but the truck-

up on top of Paul.

up anyway, and

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

200

"Stop! Stop!" shrieked the police

coughed and died.

"I ordered

you

to

and the truck motor

officer,

go forward, you pighead, not

backward!"

The

driver

popped

his

head out the window, bulged

his ping-

pong-ball eyes at the policeman, then waggled his tiny hands in his

and brayed. The

ears

driver's big

officer

took a

fast practiced

head (epaulettes, or no, he had a

driver deftly

dodged

it.

He

skill

swing

the

at

or two), but the

clapped his runty hands and bobbed

back inside the cab.

"What oh what shall we ever do now?" wailed the him with undisguised disgust. Paul

doctor scowled at

was

strangling, but he could locate

no

specific

"Dear lord above! There's wheels on each

officer.

The

felt like

he

pain past his neck.

side of

him and wheels

in

the middle!" "Capital!" the doctor snorted. "Figure that out by yourself, or

somebody help you?" "You're making fun," whimpered the

officer.

"And you're murdering this man!" bellowed the doctor. The police officer uttered a short anxious cry, then raced

to the

front of the truck again. Hostility welling in the crowd, Paul could

hear

it.

please,

I

"Okay, okay!" cried the don't care, but hurry!

The motor

started

up

abrading, then slowly set of

wheels backed

down

officer.

Hurry!"

again, there

was a jarring grind of gears

slowly

slowly

off Paul's body.

interim before the next set climbed

wheel

the

There was a

up on him,

hesitates at the top of its ambit, then

Some time

"Back up or go forward,

sank

middle

brief tense

hesitated as a ferris

down off him.

passed.

He opened his eyes. The

truck had backed away, out of sight, out of Paul's limited

range of sight anyway. His eyelids weighed closed.

He remembered

the doctor being huddled over him, shreds of his clothing being

peeled away.

Much

later,

or perhaps not, he opened his eyes once more.

The

A PEDESTRIAN ACCIDENT

201

doctor and the policeman were standing over him,

people too, people he didn't recognize, though he

ought

to

know

world

for all the

as

charging admission.

up

warm

to see,

men were

though she had

Some

set

up a

fact, it

looked

booth and was

ticket

of the people were holding

faces, tender,

somehow he

felt

them. Mrs. Grundy, she was there; in

some other

children

little

compassionate; more or

less.

News-

taking his picture. "You'll be famous," one of them said.

"His goddamn body

like a

is

mulligan stew," the doctor was

telling a reporter.

The policeman shook

his head.

He

was a

"Do you

bit green.

think-?"

"Do

think what?" the doctor asked.

I

raking old man's laugh. "You mean, do

He

Then he

laughed, a thin

think he's going to die?"

I

laughed again. "Good God, man, you can see for yourself!

There's nothing

left

an appetizing one

of him, he's a

at that!"

He

goddamn

gallimaufry, and hardly

dipped his fingers into Paul, licked

them, grimaced. "Foo!"

we

"I think

should get a blanket for him," the policeman said

weakly.

"Of course you should!" snapped

the doctor, wiping his stained

hands on a small white towel he had brought out of

He

peered

down through

there,

eh?"

damn

thing

your

lip.

He I

squatted beside him. "I'm sorry, son. There's not a

can do. Well, yes,

You've

see, there's

little

use for

no function

doctor started to pitch don't they use let's

be honest:

tickled

you you

them it

for

it

suppose

eh?"

it, it,

I

is

He

there?

I

can take

laughed

No,

away, then pocketed

for the eyes

?

softly.

no, there it

penny

"Now, is."

The

The

eyes,

it

instead.

off

let's

"Well, that's better, I'm sure. But

where the penny had been. "No, I'm of

goddamn

this

doesn't get to the real problem, does it?" Paul's lip

there, boy. I can't

to the

his black bag.

his rimless spectacles at Paul, smiled. "Still

all

too

little

use to

even prescribe a soporific platitude. Leave that

priests,

eh?

like a priest?"

No thanks, said Paul.

Hee hee

hee! Oops, sorry, son!

Would

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

202

"Can't get

"Hmmm.

eh?" The

out,

it

No, obviously

not."

He

Paul's

neck.

What

He

could you possibly have to say, eh?"

up

who

policeman

at the

had not

still

probed

doctor

shrugged. "Just as well.

"Don't just stand there, man! Get

chuckled

then looked

drily,

search out a blanket.

left to

The

this lad a priest!"

police

officer,

clutching his mouth, hurried away, out of Paul's eye-reach. "I

know

it's

He

not easy to accept death," the doctor was saying.

wiping

finished

hands, tossed the towel into his black bag,

his

snapped the bag shut.

"We

all

struggle against

it,

boy,

it's

part

and

parcel of being alive, this brawl, this meaningless gutterfight with

death. In fact,

let

me

tell

to life."

He wagged

and ended by pressing the

tip of it to

you, son,

his finger in punctuation,

there

it's all

Paul's nose. "That's the secret, that's

my

is

happy paregoric! Hee hee

hee!"

KI, thought Paul. KI and 14. What know now. One of those things.

"But death begets forget

life,

Survival and

it!

my

there's that,

murder

—oh!

Hee hee h

universe!

could

it

have been? Never

boy, and don't you ever

are synonyms, son,

Sorry, son!

No

first

flaw of the

time for puns! Forget

I

said it!" It's

him

okay, said Paul. Listening to the doctor had at least

forget the tickle

"New

life

on

his lip

and

burgeons out of

it

rot,

new mouths consume

old orga-

nisms, father dies at orgasm, mother dies at birth, only old

Mass with her twin dugs long slow

split into

of Stuff

made

was gone.

and Tickle

pure light and pure carbon!

tender thought! Don't you agree, lad?"

The

Dame

persists, suffering

Hee hee

her

hee!

A

doctor gazed off into

space, happily contemplating the process. I tell

you what,

Just then, the

said Paul. Let's forget

policeman returned with a big quilted comforter,

and he and the doctor spread his face exposed.

it.

The

it

gently over Paul's body, leaving only

people pressed closer to watch.

"Back! Bac{!" shouted the policeman. "Have you no respect for the dying? Bac\, I say I"

A PEDESTRIAN ACCIDENT "Oh, come now,"

want

to. It

203

chicled the doctor. "Let

them watch

hardly matters to this poor fellow, and even

much

can't matter for

And

longer.

it

if it

will help keep the

they

if

does,

it

or?

flies

him." "Well, doctor,

you think

if

.

."

.

His voice faded away. Paul

closed his eyes.

As he

lay

couldn't rid

And

book?

And what history,

And its

among

there

odd questions

the curious, several

He knew

was no point to them, but he himself of them. The book, for example did he have a if he did, what book, and what had happened to it?

plagued Paul's mind.

there

:

about the stoplight, that

lost

why had no one brought up

increment of what

purity consist of? KI. 14.

as for light:

That impression

were mysteries,

call

the matter of the stoplight?

pure carbon he could understand, but

before. Yes, these

men

all right.

that

what could

had happened

it

His head ached from

them. People approached Paul from time to time to look under the

Some

blanket.

only peeked, then turned away, while others stayed to

poke around, dip

their

hands

in the mutilations.

There seemed

to

be

them now that they were covered. There were some arguments and some occasional horseplay, but the doctor and police-

more

interest in

man

kept things from getting out of hand.

If

someone arrogantly

ventured a Latin phrase, the doctor always put him

some

barbarism; on the other hand, he reserved his

toilet-wall

purest,

most mellifluous toponymy

He made

girls.

to

for small children

open

his eyes after

The

having had them closed some while, the

policeman smiled warmly

down on him and

good

Take

fellow. I'm

the very end.

and young

several medical appointments with the latter.

though queasy, stayed nearby. Once, when Paul hap-

police officer,

pened

down with

still

You

here.

it

as easy as

said:

"Don't worry,

you can.

I'll

be here to

can count on me." Bullshit, thought Paul, though

not ungratefully, and he thought he remembered hearing the doctor

echo him as he

When

fell off to sleep.

he awoke, the

streets

were empty. They had

all

wearied

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

204

of

it,

he had

as

darkened,

He

could

known

they would.

was probably

it

now

and

night,

it

over, the sky

had begun

see the truck clearly, off to his left.

way

people in the

had clouded

It

had

to rain lightly.

Must have been

before.

MAGIC

KISS LIPSTICK IN

DIFFERENT SHADES

Never would have guessed. Only

in true life could such things

happen.

When man

he glanced to his right, he was surprised to find an old

sitting near

him.

Priest,

no doubt.

He

had come

black hat, long grayish beard, sitting in the puddles the street, legs crossed.

Go

on, said Paul, don't suffer

don't wait for me, but the old glistening

The

on

and hanging

he noticed. At short

start,

now forming on

silent,

intervals, the old

body would

cross, his

in tatters.

tip,

The

finally relax

let

them

squinted off to the

fall

left,

padded along

up with

the rain.

man's head would nod, his

closed once more.

It

priest, so

toward the truck.

down

at Paul,

in the puddles, hair

But he began suffering he opened them again,

A

small dog, wiry and

drooping and bunching

sniffed at the tires of the truck, lifted

ently not noticing him, but

poking

its

It circled

its

legs

by

around Paul, appar-

nose at every object, narrow-

ing the distance between them with every

man,

that

he would catch himself with a

one of them, sniffed again, padded on.

the old

now

again and recommence the cycle.

discomforting visions of the old

yellow,

in

account,

wearied, especially with the rain splashing into

Paul's eyes

them, so he

.

drawn, rain

hat, too,

grunt, glance suspiciously about him, then back

would

my

.

something about the clothes: well, they were in

rags. Pieced together

would

remained,

.

his hat, face, beard, clothes: prosopopoeia of patience.

priest. Yet,

eyes

man

after all

circle. It

snarled, completed another half-circle,

passed close by

and approached

A PEDESTRIAN ACCIDENT

205

—the wet-dog odor

Paul from the

left. It

was suffocating

—and whimpered, licking Paul's face. The old man

did nothing, just .

.

.

sat, legs

not a priest at

he died. him,

If

he

stopped near Paul's head

still

crossed,

and

passively watched.

an old beggar. Waiting

all:

had any.

Go

Of

for the clothes

when

ahead and take them now, Paul told

don't care. But the beggar only sat and stared. Paul

I

course

felt

a

tugging sensation from below, heard the dog growl. His whole body

seemed

The

to jerk

upwards, sending another hot

flash

through

dog's hind feet were planted alongside Paul's head,

and again the

right

paw would

and

water out of

between

its

waves of hot pain behind

something gave way, The dog shook

yellow coat, and padded away, a fresh piece of flesh

jaws.

and he

chest,

eyes. Finally,

its

now

lose its footing, kick nervously at

Paul's face, a buffeting counterpoint to the his throat

his neck.

and

The

beggar's eyes crossed, his head dipped to his

started to topple forward, but again

took a deep breath, uncrossed his

legs, crossed

he caught himself,

them

again, but the

opposite way, reached in his pocket and pulled out an old cigarette butt,

molded

did not light

it it.

between

For an

his yellow fingers,

instant, the earth

found himself hung on the raindarts

somebody out

nobody out again. lids.

there,

The beggar

He

it

was throwing

he reminded himself, and that spat.

mouth, but

at

him. There's

set the earth right

Paul shielded his eyes from the rain with his

thought he heard other dogs.

go on ? he wondered.

in his

a target for the millions of

street,

in the night

put

upended again, and Paul

How much

How much longer ?

longer must this

THE BABYSITTER She

arrives at 7:40, ten

Bitsy, are yet.

From

still

minutes

but the children,

late,

Jimmy and

eating supper, and their parents are not ready to go

other rooms

come

the sounds of a baby screaming, water

running, a television musical (no words: probably a dance ber



patterns of gliding figures

come

to

into the kitchen, fussing with her hair, full of

she

milk out of a pan of

calls.

"The

warm

and snatches

a baby bottle

water, rushes out again. "Harry!"

babysitter's here already!"

That's

My

Desire?

faintly

with

his head, rubs his fast balding pate.

206

num-

mind). Mrs. Tucker sweeps

I'll

Be Around?

He

smiles toothily, beckons

Bewitched, maybe?

THE BABYSITTER

207

Or, What's the Reason ?

The baby

is

is

his shorts, gives his hips a slap.

that's

who

used

to do.

His

it.

with her

make

and

babysitting at the Tuckers',

the kids in bed,

gets to

on

wandering around town, not knowing what

girlfriend

TV

pulls

Who's Sorry Now,

their tub last time?

Jack

He

goes silent in mid-scream. Isn't this the one

maybe

when out a

he'll

she's babysitting,

little

to be careful because

later,

when

own

since he doesn't

wheels, but they have

have

it

have

like their sitters to

makes her nervous. She won't

her eyes because she has to be watching the door really

got

about the only chance he

it's

most people don't

boyfriends over. Just kissing her

Married people

she's

drop over there. Sometimes he watches

all

close

the time.

good, he thinks.

"Hi," the babysitter says to the children, and puts her books on top

The

of the refrigerator. "What's for supper?" stares at her obliquely. table. "I don't flatly,

and

joins

them

at the

Bitsy, only

end of the kitchen

have to go to bed until nine," the boy announces

stuffs

his

catches a glimpse of his

She

little girl,

mouth

full of

potato chips.

The

babysitter

Mr. Tucker hurrying out of the bathroom

in

underwear.

Her tummy. Under places. She'll

her arms.

And

her

feet.

Those

are the best

spank him, she says sometimes. Let her.

That sweet odor

that girls have.

catches a glimpse of the gentle

her legs up under her.

meaning packed

He

The

softness of her blouse.

shadows amid her

stares

hard

at her.

He

thighs, as she curls

He

has a

lot

of

into that stare, but she's not even looking. She's

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

208

popping her

gum and

watching

He

buddy Mark

notices his

television. She's sitting right there,

and ready: but what's

inches away, soft, fragrant,

his next

move?

in the drugstore, playing the pinball

machine, and joins him. "Hey,

this

mama's

cold, Jack baby!

She

needs your touch!"

Mrs. Tucker appears at the kitchen doorway, holding a rolled-up

"Now,

diaper. his

Jimmy! See

don't just eat potato chips,

that he eats

hamburger, dear." She hurries away to the bathroom. The boy

glares sullenly at the babysitter, silently daring her to carry out the

order.

"How

about a

she says perfunctorily. is

silent

and a

man

is

of that

little

He

lets

good hamburger now, Jimmy?"

half of

it

floor. The baby TV. The children

drop to the

singing a love song on the

crunch chips.

He

loves her.

She loves him. They whirl

breeze, through a magical landscape of rose blue.

Her

light

brown

hair coils

the soft folds of her white

away.

gown

stirring a light

and emerald and deep

softly in the breeze,

tug at her body and then

and float

He smiles in a pulsing crescendo of sincerity and song.

"You mean

she's

kids," Jack says.

alone?"

He

Mark

asks. "Well, there's

slides the coin in.

tumbling, lining up. ball

and wisps

airily,

He

two or three

There's a rumble of

steel balls

pushes a plunger with his thumb, and one

pops up in place, hard and glittering with promise. His stare?

to say

he loves her. That he cares for her and would protect her,

would

shield her,

if

need

be,

with his

own

body. Grinning, he bends

over the ball to take careful aim: he and

Mark have

machine and have

not that easy to beat.

it

figured out, but

still it's

studied this

THE BABYSITTER

209

On the drive to the party, his mind own

is

partly

on the

girl, partly

on

his

high-school days, long past. Sitting at the end of the kitchen

had seemed

table there with his children, she

to

be self-consciously

arching her back, jutting her pert breasts, twitching her thighs: and

whom if not for him? So she'd seen him coming out of there, after all. He smiles. Yet what could he ever do about it ? Those good times are gone, old man. He glances over at his wife, who, readjustfor

"What do you think of our babysitter?"

ing a garter, asks:

He

She loves him.

loves her.

diapers

And

And

and one goddamn meal

Not

fat.

then the babies come.

women

something from too-tight a grunt, strangely

Somewhere

re-

getting heart attacks or cancer or

girdles.

irritated,

dirty

after another. Dishes. Noise. Clutter.

just tight, her girdle actually hurts.

cently she's read about

And

Dolly pulls the car door shut with

not knowing why. Party mood.

Why

is

humming, "Who's Sorry Now?" Pulling out of the back at the lighted kitchen window. "What do

her husband

drive, she glances

you think of our babysitter?" she all

asks.

While her husband stumbles

over himself trying to answer, she pulls a stocking tight, biting

deeper with the garters.

"Stop

it!"

her in the

she laughs. Bitsy

stop

him/ He

they

all fall to

in a tuxedo

pulling on her skirt and he

the carpet in front of the

and

a

tapdance together.

showing

is

is

tickling

"Jimmy! Don't!" But she is laughing too much to leaps on her, wrapping his legs around her waist, and

ribs.

little girl

The

a patch of bare

TV, where

just

now

a

man

in a flouncy white dress are doing a

babysitter's blouse

tummy:

is

the target.

pulling out of her skirt,

"I'll

spank!"

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

210

Jack pushes the plunger, thrusting up a

"You

studiously over the machine.

and

clears his throat, flicks ash

steel

and bends

ball,

getting any off her?"

from

Mark

asks,

his cigarette. "Well, not exactly,

not yet," Jack says, grinning awkwardly, but trying to suggest more

than he admits

machine

to,

and

as the ball

warming up under

when

lit:

now! "Got

"Maybe you need some

my hand

on

about

that's

it,

feel

lights,

all."

Mark

wry one-sided

lip.

grin.

we could do it."

salts,

and

loves to

sink into the hot fragrant suds. She can stretch out, submerged,

good

to her chin. It gives her a

"What do you garter.

"Oh,

I

think of our babysitter?" Dolly asks, adjusting a

down, glances

"I'm not sure

I

"I don't

know." His wife tugs her

window

they are passing, adding:

little careless.

wife's broad gartered thigh.

tiny

and

and rubbery

giving

him

the baby, I

other time, I'm almost claps

one hand on his

"What's wrong with that?" he

soft adolescent flesh.

vague remembrances of football

How

And the He grins,

With

all.

asks.

Bare thighs, no girdles, nothing up there but a

flimsy pair of panties

legs,

to get

Why?"

had a boyfriend over."

Still in anklets, too.

She seems

girl.

at a lighted

trust her completely, that's

mean. She seems a sure she

up

sleepy tingly feeling.

hardly noticed," he says. "Cute

along fine with the kids. skirt

her

alive,

dangling from his

cigarette

big tub. She uses the Tuckers' bath

likes the

can

suddenly coming

help," he suggests with a

"Like maybe together, man,

He

rubber bumper.

emerging in the flashing of the

up from the machine,

glances

She

heaves his weight gently against the

off a

his hands, the flippers

delicate rapid-fire patterns

iooo

He

fires.

bounds

it is!

rallies

and movie

He's flooded with balconies.

she thinks, soaping between the boy's

his bath. Just a

funny

jiggly

little

thing that looks

THE BABYSITTER like

it

211

shouldn't even be there at

all. Is

that

what

the songs are

all

about?

Jack watches

Mark lunge and

Got her

twist against the machine.

running now, racking them up. He's not too excited about the idea of

Mark

fooling around with his girlfriend, but Mark's a cooler

operator than he

over his girls

own

around.

is,

and maybe, doing

And

timidity.

Mark went

If

if

it

together this once, he'd get

she didn't like

feels his

shoulders tense: enough's enough,

flesh, too.

"Maybe

I'll

call

man

"No, no, you're one of the

first,

you're looking younger every day!

your

secret, will

8 :oo.

The

He

you?"

Mr. Tucker's back,

leads

there were other

him .

.

.

off, too.

pats her

them

hope we're not

it!" "I

come on

in!

How do you do

By it?

golly, Dolly,

Give

my

on her girdled bottom behind

combs her

hair in front of

the bathroom mirror. There's a western on television, so she

want a

it

bath. She's angry

and crying because she has

if she'll

Jimmy

girl fights to get

lets

while she gives Bitsy her bath. But Bitsy doesn't

babysitter tells her television while

wife

in for drinks.

babysitter runs water in the tub,

Jimmy watch

He

but sees the

her later," he says.

"Hey, Harry! Dolly! Glad you could make late."

it,

too far, he could cut

to be

take her bath quickly, she'll

takes his bath, but

it

let

does no good.

first.

The

her watch

The

little

out of the bathroom, and the babysitter has to squat

with her back against the door and forcibly undress the child. There are better places to babysit.

sooner or

more

later,

bottle.

the baby

is

Both children mind badly, and then,

sure to

wake up

for a diaper

change and

The Tuckers do have a good color TV, though, and she down enough to catch the 8 .30 program.

hopes things will be settled

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

212

She thrusts the child into the tub, but thrashing around. "Stop

now,

it

and blouse

wet in the

all

knows

mirror. Before she

bathroom. "Bitsy!

"Okay,

that's

crying.

"Who

tackles him.

roll

crashes to the floor.

hope

it's

the girl

skirt

is

the

and out of the

ripped and she's flushed and bastard goes for her, but he

and tumble. Tables

He

tip, lights topple,

the

TV

slams a hard right to the guy's gut, clips his

left.

a girl." That's hardly surprising, since they already

have four boys. Dolly congratulates the but she doesn't envy her, not a

She

getting her skirt

at herself in

off the seat

is

man!" The

says?" "I do,

They

toilet,

She glances

Come back here!"

enough!" Her

chin with a rolling

"We

tub and onto the process.

it,

screaming and

still

wake the baby!" "I switching tactics. The babysitter

have to go potty!" the child wails, sighs, lifts the girl out of the

she's

Bitsy, or you'll

stares across the

room

at

bit.

woman

That's

all

who

Harry,

like

everybody

else,

she needs about now. is

slapping backs and

getting loud, as usual. He's spreading out through the middle, so

why

the hell does he have to complain about her

all

the time?

"Dolly, you're looking younger every day!" was the nice greeting

And Harry: fat." "Haw haw!

she got tonight. "What's your secret?" calories. She's getting

back her baby

"It's all

those

Harry, have a

heart!"

"Get her

feet!"

over her naked

he hollers

at Bitsy, his fingers in her ribs,

tummy, tangling

running

in the

underbrush of straps and

He

holds her pinned by press-

strange clothing. "Get her shoes off!"

ing his head against her soft chest. "No! No, Jimmy! Bitsy, stop!"

But though she kicks and

twists

and

rolls

around, she doesn't get

up, she can't get up, she's laughing too hard, and the shoes

come

off,

THE BABYSITTER and he grabs she raises

213

a stockinged foot

up her

hangs on, and

and

scratches the sole ruthlessly,

legs, trying to pitch

she's laughing,

him

off, she's

and on the screen

and

wild, boy, but he there's a rattle of

hooves, and he and Bitsy are rolling around and around on the floor in a crazy rodeo of long

He

slips the

bucking

legs.

coin in. There's a metallic

dial tone begins. "I

fall

and a sharp

hope the Tuckers have gone," he

worry, they're at our place,"

ones to come and the

last

Mark

says.

click as the says.

"Don't

"They're always the

ones to go home.

My

first

old man's always

bitching about them." Jack laughs nervously and dials the number.

coming over to protect her from getting raped," and lights a cigarette. Jack grins, leaning casually

"Tell her we're

Mark

suggests,

against the door

jamb

of the phonebooth,

chewing gum, one hand

in his pocket. He's really pretty uneasy, though. he's

somehow messing up

naked

Bitsy runs herself

and the

Artificial reds

a

has the feeling

into the livingroom, keeping a hassock

babysitter. "Bitsy

.

.

.

and greens and purples

body, as hooves

He

good thing.

clatter,

guns

crackle,

!"

between

the babysitter threatens.

flicker

over the child's wet

and stagecoach wheels thunder

over rutted terrain. "Get outa the way, Bitsy!" the boy complains. "I can't see!" Bitsy streaks past girl in the

in the

and the

babysitter chases, cornering the

back bedroom. Bitsy throws something that

face,:

hits her softly

a pair of men's undershorts. She grabs the girl scamper-

ing by, carries her struggling to the bathroom, and with a smart crack on her glistening bottom; pops her back into the tub. In spite, Bitsy peepees in the bathwater.

Mr. Tucker

stirs

host and another

a

little

man,

water into his bourbon and kids with his

just arrived,

about their golf games. They

set

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

214

up a match for the weekend, a threesome looking for a fourth. Holding his drink in his right hand, Mr. Tucker swings his left through the motion of a tee-shot. "You'll have to give me a stroke a hole," he says. "I'll give you a stroke!" says his host: "Bend over!" Laughing, the other "I don't

Then

know,"

man

asks:

"Where's your boy Mark tonight?"

replies the host, gathering

up

he adds in a low growl: "Out chasing

a trayful of drinks. tail

probably."

They

chuckle loosely at that, then shrug in commiseration and return to the livingroom to join their

women.

TV. Under

Shades pulled. Door locked. Watching the

maybe. Yes, kisses her.

A

that's right,

Her

breasts,

hard blow to the

under a blanket. Her eyes

under both

The

belly.

when he

and

yielding.

The dark beardy one

staggers.

their hands, are soft

face.

a blanket

close

The lean-jawed sheriff moves in, but gets a spurred boot in his face. The dark one hurls himself forward, drives his shoulder into the sheriff's hard midriff, her own tummy tightens, withstands, as the sheriff smashes the dark man's nose, slams him up against a wall, slugs him again! and again! The dark man grunts rhythmically, backs off, then plunges suicidally forward—her own knees draw up protectively

—the sheriff staggers!

ing through, the other

the sheriff draws!

pistol!

her hands

clutches

wounded! set,

man

the dark

steps

caught low! but instead of follow-

back

shoots

—a

between her thighs

man

hesitates, aims,

dark one has a

pistol! the

from the

hip!

—no!

explosions!

the

sheriff

she

spins!

her legs stiffen toward the

the sheriff rolls desperately in the straw, fires: dead! the dark

man

is

dead! groans, crumples, his pistol drooping in his collapsing

hand, dropping, he drops.

from the

floor

and

right! to

The

sheriff,

bruised

where he

The

lies.

sheriff, spent,

Oh,

to

nicked, watches weakly

be whole! to be good and strong

embrace and be embraced by harmony and wholeness!

drawing himself painfully up on one elbow, rubs

mouth with

the back of his other hand.

his

THE BABYSITTER

we

"Well,

215

thought we'd drop over," he

just sorta

broadly at Mark. "Who's

good thing

on

his

we?" "Oh, me and Mark

like her, gotta pass

it

and winks

says,

here." "Tell her,

around," whispers Mark, dragging

smoke, then flicking the butt over under the pinball machine.

"What's that?" she

"Oh, Mark and

asks.

were

I

just saying, like

two's company, three's an orgy," Jack says, and winks again. She

"Oh, Jack!" Behind

giggles.

"Well, okay, for just a go,

little

he can hear shouts and gunfire.

her,

while,

you'll

if

Way

both be good."

to

man.

Probably some

damn

kid over there right now. Wrestling around on

TV. Maybe he should drop back None of that stuff, she was there to do

the couch in front of his house. Just to check.

Park the car a couple doors down,

knows

it.

He

sees the disarray of clothing, the

young thighs exposed

baby crying. "Hey, what's

going on here! Get outa here, son, before

I

skirt

know how. He

rumpled

benignly

around her

loosely

excited, she stares

stares

back

He

him.

at

Of

the police!"

call

They probably

course, they haven't really been doing anything.

don't even

a job!

the front door before she

slip in

to the flickering television light, hears his

to the

down upon

the

girl,

her

thighs. Flushed, frightened, yet smiles.

His finger touches

a knee,

approaches the hem. Another couple arrives. Filling up here with people.

He

wouldn't be missed. Just

slip out, stop

pick up something or other he forgot, never bers that die other time they their house.

and casually

or

ished, yet strangely

water, and her left

something.

I

only

.

moved. Her

tummy

Aspirin

bathroom

into the

"Oh, excuse me, dear!

pubic hairs,

this babysitter, she

She liad a date afterwards, and she'd

cheerleading practice quietly

had

back casually

.

.

!"

soft

in the tub,

come from

maybe. Just drop

to pick

up some

breasts rise

looks pale and ripply.

took a bath in

just

She gazes back

wet

to

mind what. He remem-

He

were brown. Light brown.

at

aspirin.

him, aston-

and

fall

in the

recalls that

her

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

216

no more than stepped

She's

Jimmy announces from bathroom. She sighs:

The

wait."

into the tub for a quick bath,

outside the door that he has to go to the

an excuse, she knows. "You'll have

just

nuisance. "I can't wait." "Okay, then

little

when

but I'm taking a bath." She supposes that will stop him, but

he comes. She

doesn't. In level to,"

slides

with the edge of the tub.

she says, a

he

look,"

says.

She's crying.

Mark

shattered.

lies

here!"

Her

panties

lie

skirt

is

on the

wounds, help her

He

it

into the suds until she's eye-

hesitates.

"Go

ahead,

if

you have

awkwardly, "but I'm not getting out." "Don't

little

She: "I will

A

lamp

down

to

come ahead,

is

if I

want

to."

rubbing his jaw where

he's just slugged

Now

"Enough's enough, Mark!

ripped to the waist, her bare hip bruised.

floor like a

broken balloon. Later,

dress, he'll take care of her. Pity

him, giving him a sudden hard-on.

Mark

laughs at

him.

get outa

Her

wash her

he'll

washes through it,

pointing. Jack

crouches, waiting, ready for anything.

Laughing, they

roll

and tumble. Their

little

hands are

all

over her,

digging and pinching. She struggles to her hands and knees, but Bitsy leaps astride her neck,

bowing her head

to the carpet.

"Spank

Jimmy!" His swats sting: is her skirt up? The phone rings. "The cavalry to the rescue!" she laughs, and throws them off to go her,

answer.

Kissing Mark, her eyes closed, her hips nudge toward Jack. stares

at

the

TV

screen,

cautiously under her skirt. resist,

was

a

Her hand

then brushes on by to rub his

good

idea.

"Hi! This

He

unsure of himself, one hand slipping

is

Jack!"

touches his

leg.

arm

as

though

to

This blanket they're under

THE BABYSITTER

Bitsy's

217

"Come on, Jimmy, your turn!" his own baths, but she came in

out and the water's running.

Last time, he told her he took

'Tm not gonna take a bath," he announces, eyes glued on the set. He readies for the struggle. "But I've already run your water. Come on, Jimmy, please!" He shakes his head. She can't make him, anyway.

he's sure he's as strong as she

is.

She

sighs.

He

use the water myself then," she says.

"Well,

to you.

I'll

waits until he's pretty sure

not going to change her mind, then sneaks in and peeks

she's

through the keyhole in the bathroom door: big bottom as she bends over to

Trying

disappears.

bumps to the

Not

up

it's

his

to see as far

time to see her

just in

Then

in the bubblebath.

stir

down

head on the knob. "Jimmy,

is

she

keyhole will allow, he

as the

you?"

that

"I



I

have to go

bathroom!" he stammers.

actually in the tub, just getting in.

One

foot

on the mat, the

other in the water. Bent over slightly, buttocks flexed, teats swaying,

holding on to the edge of the tub. "Oh, excuse me! .

.

.

!"

He

moves quickly are

to the part

you doing, Harry?"

where he reaches

I

only wanted

awkward excuses, "What on earth out to

passes over her astonishment,

the



his wife asks, staring at his hand.

passing, laughs. "He's practicing his

swing

for

His

host,

Sunday, Dolly, but

him a damn bit of good!" Mr. Tucker laughs, sweeps his right hand on through the air as though lifting a seveniron shot onto the green. He makes a do\l sound with his tongue.

it's

not going to do

"In there!"

"No, Jack,

I

don't think you'd better." "Well,

uh, thought we'd, you

know, stop by

we

just called,

for a minute,

watch

we

just,

television

"Who's we?" "Well, Mark's he'd like to, you know, like if it's all

for thirty minutes, or, or something." here, I'm with him, right,

and he

just—" "Well,

it's

said

not

all right.

The Tuckers

said no." "Yeah,

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

218



we only " "And they seemed awfully suspicious about last time." "Why? We didn't— I mean, I just thought—" "No, Jack, and that's period." She hangs up. She returns to the TV, but the combut

if

is on. Anyway, she's missed most of the show. She decides maybe she'll take a quick bath. Jack might come by anyway, it'd make her mad, that'd be the end as far as he was concerned, but if he should, she doesn't want to be all sweaty. And besides, she likes

mercial

the big tub the Tuckers have.

He

is

come,

and stands with

self-conscious

flushed. It takes it's

him

his

back

forever to get started,

just a tiny trickle. "See,

it

was

it

finally

an excuse," she

just

neck

to her, his little

and when

does

scolds,

but she's giggling inwardly at the boy's embarrassment. "You're just

At

a nuisance, Jimmy." staring timidly

the door, his

down on

his shoes.

hand on

the knob, he hesitates,

"Jimmy?" She peeks

at

him over

the edge of the tub, trying to keep a straight face, as he sneaks a

nervous glance back over his shoulder. "As long as you bothered

me," she

"The

says,

aspirin

"you might

.

.

."

as well soap

They embrace. She huddles

child. Lovingly, paternally,

How compact, how stares

down

my back."

past her

tight

and small her body

rump

in his

arms

like a

knowledgeably, he wraps her nakedness.

at the

still

is!

Kissing her ear, he

clear water. "I'll join you,"

he

whispers hoarsely.

She picks up the shorts Bitsy threw

at her.

Men's underwear. She

holds them in front of her, looks at herself in the bedroom mirror.

About twenty

sizes too big for her, of course.

inside the opening in front, pulls out her feel!

thumb.

She runs her hand

How funny

it

must

THE BABYSITTER

"Well, man, his

I

219

say

we

go rape

just

Mark

her,"

says flatly,

and swings

weight against the pinball machine. "Uff Ahh! Get in there, you !

mother! Look at that! Hah! Man, I'm gonna turn Jack

is

this

embarrassed about the phone conversation.

when he hung

snorted in disgust

gum, angry

He

up.

baby over!"

Mark

just

down hard on his game if you are," he

cracks

that he's such a chicken. "Well, I'm

says coldly.

8:30.

"Okay, come on, Jimmy,

western gives

way

to a spy

livingroom. "No, Bitsy,

watch!" the

girl

it's

it's

and right now!" Jimmy so she can follow

Bitsy, in pajamas,

starts to

late.

Jimmy, you get

Jimmy

unmoving. The

television

gives himself his

program

own

baths.

the commercial interrupts, she turns off the sound, stands in

front of the screen. "Okay, into the tub,

They stand

Jimmy Tucker,

on the

floor,

playing with the kids.

She gets

to her

on her head, pressing her

and the

little

to beat

Too many

Too

on

it.

early.

says,

They seem

"Hey, look

neighbors, too

people in the world. That he's

take

he

little girl

to

be

leaps

face to the floor. There's an obvious target,

boy proceeds

uneasy out here.

:

I'll

hands and knees, but the

whispers Mark, laughing and snapping his fingers

though

or

try it,"

outside, in the dark, crouched in the bushes, peeking in.

tickling her.

many

could

I

in that bathroom,

you in there and give you your bath myself!" "Just "and see what happens."

She's

pads into the

throw another tantrum. "But

opening scene of the

since

it later,

The

ignores her.

stares sullenly at the set,

babysitter tries to catch the

When

show.

He

time to go to bed." "You said

whines, and

you were too slow and

time."

it's

little

many

cars

boy in there

never thought about tickling her as a

at that kid go!" softly.

is

Jack feels

going by, too

one up on him,

starter.

— PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

220

His

hand, clutching the bar of soap, lathers shyly a narrow

little

space between her shoulderblades. She

is

her knees, buried in rich suds, peeking at

The

shoulder.

water. "I

"I

.

.

the edge of her

soap slithers out of his grip and plunks into the I

.

doubled forward against

him over

dropped the soap," he whispers. She: "Find

it."

dream of Jeannie with the light brown pubic hair!" "Harry! Stop You're drunk!" But they're laughing, they're all laughing,

that!

damn! he's feeling pretty goddamn good at that, and now he just knows he needs that aspirin. Watching her there, her thighs spread for him,

on the couch,

in the tub, hell,

on the kitchen

on Number Nine, and

matter, he tees off

whapl

table for that

—swats his host's

wife on the bottom. "Hole in one!" he shouts. "Harry!"

Why

can't

his

goddamn

wife Dolly ever get happy-drunk instead of sour-drunk

all

the time?

"Gonna be tough Sunday,

tough right now, Harry," says

The

babysitter lunges forward, grabs the

him

off the couch, pulling

toward the bathroom. of magazines cries

and

they

all

go.

sitter

On

boy by the arms and hauls

two cushions with him, and drags him

lashes out,

ashtrays.

and grabs the

down

He

old buddy!" "You're pretty

his host.

"You

knocking over an endtable

leave

my

full

brother alone!" Bitsy

around the waist. Jimmy jumps on her and

the silent screen, there's a fade-in to a dark

passageway in an old apartment building in some foreign country.

She kicks out and somebody sitting

on her

face.

falls

between her

"Jimmy! Stop

legs.

Somebody

else is

that!" the babysitter laughs, her

voice muffled.

She's watching television. All alone. It seems like a in. Just

remember:

really,

no matter what she

to

go

wants

it.

good time

says, she

They're standing in the bushes, trying to get up the nerve. "We'll

THE BABYSITTER

221

her to be good,"

tell

Mark

spank her." Jack giggles

They

whispers, "and

softly,

She looks right

freeze.

if

not good, we'll

she's

but his knees are weak. She stands. at

Mark

them. "She can't see us,"

whispers tensely. "Is she coming out?" "No," says Mark, "she's

—that must be the bathroom!" Jack takes a deep breath,

going into

pounding. "Hey,

his heart

is

window back

there a

Mark

there?"

asks.

The phone a tug

on

rings.

She leaves the tub, wrapped

the towel. "Hey,

in a towel. Bitsy gives

Jimmy, get the towel!" she

squeals.

"Now hand

stop that, Bitsy!" the babysitter hisses, but too late: with one

on the phone, the other

isn't

enough

sudden nakedness awes them and

remember about

tickling her.

By

window

little



is

Her

it

takes

to the towel.

them

a

Her

moment

to

frightened. "Hello?"

angrily.

No

She

feels chilled

and

answer. She glances at the

somebody out there? Something, she saw something,

and a rustling

"Okay,

hang on

then, she's in the towel again. "I

hope you got a good look," she says oddly a

to

—footsteps

?

don't care, Jimmy, don't take a bath," she says irritably.

I

blouse

is

pulled out and wrinkled, her hair

is

all

mussed, and

she feels sweaty. There's about a million things she'd rather be

doing than babysitting with these two. Three: sleeping.

She knocks on the overturned endtable for luck,

replaces the magazines

makes her go

to

bed

at least the baby's

sick

is

and

The one

ashtrays.

a dirty diaper. "Just go

until nine,"

on

rights

it,

thing that really

to bed." "I don't

have to

he reminds her. Really, she couldn't care

less.

She turns up the volume on the TV, settles down on the couch, poking her blouse back into her skirt, pushing her hair out of her eyes.

Jimmy and

Bitsy

watch from the

floor.

Maybe, once

bed, she'll take a quick bath. She wishes Jack

man, no doubt the

spy,

is

following a

they're in

would come

woman, but

The know

by.

she doesn't

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

222

why. The but

it's

phone

Mark down

woman

happen,

to

The

rings.

is

kissing her. Jack

is

under the blanket, easing her panties

Her hand

over her squirming hips.

out, pulling

Mark

was!

man. Something seems

passes another

not clear what. She's probably already missed too much.

toward

it

her, pulling

God,

stripping, too.

is

with a kind of pious

joy,

it

and

is

in his pants, pulling

hard. She

it's

really

knew

just

where

it it

happening! he thinks

open door. "Hey! What's

notices the

going on here?"

He

soaps her back, smooth

and

slippery

under

doubled over, against her knees, between his hair, reaching to her

soap it

slips,

gleaming shoulders,

between

falls

behind him. "Help

He

his legs.

me

find

is

legs.

wet

his hand.

She

Her

brown

light

at the edges.

The

finds

slips

fishes for

it,

he whispers in her

it,"

is

it,

ear.

"Sure

Harry," says his host, going around behind him. "What'd you lose?"

Soon be

nine, time to pack the kids off to bed.

dumps paper glasses

and

and silverware

and ketchup supper

plates

in

finally,

leftover

hamburgers

into the sink,

She

clears the table,

into the garbage, puts

and the mayonnaise, mustard,

the refrigerator. Neither child has eaten

mostly potato chips and

ice

cream, but

it's

much really

not her problem. She glances at the books on the refrigerator.

Not

much chance she'll get Maybe she'd feel better

out.

to if

them, she

into the tub, tosses in bubblebath

down

she's

had

her panties, she stares for a

already pretty

a quick bath.

salts,

worn

She runs water

undresses. Before pushing

moment

at the

smooth silken

panel across her tummy, fingers the place where the opening would

THE BABYSITTER

223

be if there were one. Then she steps quickly out of them, somehow ashamed, unhooks her brassiere. She weighs her in the palms of her hands, watching herself

window behind

mirror, where, in the open

breasts

bathroom

the

in

feeling

She

her, she sees a face.

screams.

me

She screams: "Jimmy! Give

that!" "What's the matter?" asks

me my

Jack on the other end. "Jimmy! Give

"Hello? Hey, are you panting.

and

"You caught me



!"

"To

protect you,

it

I

away!" "Gee,

mean." "Oh,

"Well, what do you think, can

you?" "Well, not right

this

wish

I

I'd

now!"

in a towel

been there!"

sure," she says, giggling.

come over and watch

I

minute," she says.

very cool. "Jack?" "Yeah?" "Jack,

feels

wrapped

in the tub. I'm just

these silly kids grabbed

"Jack

towel! Right

there?" "I'm sorry, Jack," she says,

still

I

He

...

I

TV

with

laughs lightly.

He

think there's some-

body outside the window!"

She

him, fighting

carries

all

her in the back and kicking her ankles. She can't

and undress him

at the

Jimmy Tucker!"

pummeling hang on to him

the way, to the tub, Bitsy

same time.

"I'll

throw you

in, clothes

and

all,

sits

on

the toilet seat, locks her legs around him, whips his shirt

up over

his

head before he knows what's happening. The pants are

easier.

all little

she gasps.

"You

down

hysterically,

down

when

fists.

cries.

all.

She

He

hangs on

starts to

bawl, and beats

She ducks her head, laughing

oddly entranced by the spectacle of that pale there,

boy's helpless fury

Like

she succeeds in snapping

out of his grip, too, he gives up,

her wildly in the face with his

thing

he

boys his age, he has almost no hips at

desperately to his underpants, but these

better not!"

little

bobbing and bouncing rubberily about with the

and anguish.

— PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

224

"Aspirin?

Whaddaya want

aspirin here,

if

Harry? I'm sure they got

aspirin for,

— you " "Did

say aspirin?

I

meant, uh,

I

And, you know, I thought, well, I'd sorta check to was okay at home." Why the hell is it his mouth about

six sets of teeth

packed in

liverwurst his host's wife glasses for, I

is

was

I

there,

and

you want

check on the kids,

glasses.

everything

feels like

it's

got

"Whaddaya want your "Aw, well, honey,

don't understand you at all!"

to

my

if

a tongue the size of that

passing around?

feeling kind of dizzy or something,

right. If

the

Harry?

is

see

and

why

I

thought

— " "Dizzy

don't you just call

on

phone?"

They can

tell

she's

bathroom window clearly. "I

naked and about is

frosted glass,

Mark

got an idea,"

to get into the tub, but the

and they

whispers.

can't see anything

"One of us goes and calls when she comes out." do it twice. Or more."

her on the phone, and the other watches

"Okay, but who

Down

calls?"

forbidden

alleys.

world's terrible secrets.

stunning report of a

doorway

us, we'll

Into secret passageways. Unlocking the

Sudden shocks:

rifle shot,

concrete by your ear!

avoiding the

"Both of

Careful!

Then edge forward once more, now a quick dash for an open

inch at a time,

light,

loo\ out! there's a knife! a struggle! no! the long blade

glistens! jerks! thrusts! stabbed!

down,

yes! the spy's

on

top,

No, no,

Fumbling behind

her, she finds

gasps, pulling her

crimson. "I ...

I

thought

it

it,

missed!

it

pinning him, a

the spy rips off the assailant's mask: a

"Oh!" she

a trapdoor! a fall! or the

the whaaii-ii-iing! of the bullet biting

terrific

The

assailant's

thrashing about,

woman!

wraps her hand around

it,

tugs.

hand back quickly, her ears turning was the soap!"

He

squeezes her close

THE BABYSITTER between

down go

tummy between

her

legs. I

hair in the

hurries to answer

it

before

— "I have to

of Jeannie

bathroom when the phone

it

She

rings.

wakes the baby. "Hello, Tuckers."

no answer. "Hello?"

There's

Dream

bathroom!" says someone outside the door.

combing her

She's

back toward him, one hand sliding

his thighs, pulls her

her

to the

225

A

soft

She

Strange.

click.

suddenly alone in the big house, and goes in to watch

TV

feels

with the

children.

"Stop

she screams. "Please, stop!" She's

it!"

on her hands and knees,

trying to get up, but they're too strong for her.

Mark

down. "Now, baby, we're gonna teach you how says coldly, skirt rides

holds her head

to be a nice girl,"

he

and nods at Jack. When she's doubled over like that, her up her thighs to the leg bands of her panties. "C'mon,

man, go! This baby's

cold!

She needs your touch!"

Parks the car a couple blocks away. Slips up to the house, glances in his

window.

shirt

is

Just like he's expected.

unbuttoned.

He

Her

"Some

he walks cheese. there,

party!"

is

off

"You

said it!"

My

When

God,

they're

it

takes

Haw

haw! "What's the

dressed, he sends

more or

little

like

less

him home

He

gazes

says coolly. "Less

let

down on

the

naked, as bleu

naked

little

the kid get

He

bareassed. "Bareassed!"

you and me, we got a

for-

thing you got sticking out

that. "Promises, promises," says his host's wife. "I'll

clothes, son!"

kid's

them

"Hey! What's going on here?" They go white

in.

boy?" "Harry, behave yourself!" No, he doesn't

"Looks

and the

watches, while slowly, clumsily, childishly,

they fumble with each other's clothes. ever.

blouse

drinks to

mail you your

little girl

on

his couch.

secret to keep, honey,"

he

you wanna go home the same way your boyfriend

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

226

He

did!"

chuckles at his easy wit, leans

buckles his in

belt.

"Might

as well

make

it

down

two

right?"

secrets,

God's name are you talking about, Harry?"

there, drink in

over her, and un-

He

"What

staggers out of

hand, and goes to look for his car.

"Hey! What's going on here?" They huddle half-naked under the blanket, caught utterly unawares.

On

television

:

the clickety-click of

frightened running feet on foreign pavements. Jack

is

fumbling for

somehow around his ankles. The blanket is away. "On your feet there!" Mr. Tucker, Mrs. Tucker,

his shorts, tangled

snatched

Mark's

mom

crowding

in.

Everybody

and dad, the

police, the neighbors,

everybody comes

Hopelessly, he has a terrific erection. So hard

stares

Bitsy's sleeping

down at

on the

floor.

more than an hour now,

know how much

it

he's

The

babysitter

is

had

to use the

bathroom.

taking a bath. For

He

doesn't

longer he can wait. Finally, he goes to knock on

the bathroom door. "I have to use the bathroom." "Well,

ahead,

if

you have

hurts.

it.

to."

"Not while you're

in there."

come

She sighs loudly.

"Okay, okay, just a minute," she says, "but you're a real nuisance,

Jimmy!" He's holding on, pinching

He

it

as tight as

holds his breath, squeezing shut his eyes. No.

he can. "Hurry!"

Too

late.

At

last,

she opens the door. "Jimmy!" "I told you to hurry!" he sobs. She

drags

He

him

into the

bathroom and

arrives just in

wrapped

pulls his pants

down.

time to see her emerge from the bathroom,

in a towel, to

answer the phone. His two kids sneak up

behind her and pull the towel away. She's trying

phone and get the towel back

same time.

to

hang onto

the

It's

quite a picture.

She's got a sweet ass. Standing there in the bushes,

pawing himself

at the

THE BABYSITTER

227

with one hand, he ass,

which

his son

shape up, afer

lifts

with the other and

his glass

now

Haw

swats.

toasts

her sweet

haw, maybe that boy's gonna

all.

They're in the bushes, arguing about their next move,

when

she

comes out of the bathroom, wrapped in a towel. They can hear the baby crying. Then

bathroom

stops.

it

They

like she's scared or

man, whether you're with

me

see her running, naked,

back to the

something. "I'm going in after her, or not!"

Mark

whispers, and he starts

out of the bushes. But just then, a light comes sweeping up through

They hit the dirt, hearts know!" "Do you think they saw us?" "Sshh!" A man comes staggering up the walk from the drive, a drink in his hand, stumbles on in the kitchen door and then straight into the bathroom. "It's Mr. Tucker!" Mark whispers. A scream. "Let's get outa here, man!" the yard, as a car swings in the drive.

pounding.

9:00.

"Is

it

the cops?" "I don't

Having missed most

else to do, the babysitter

kitchen up a

little.

of the spy

show anyway and having

little

has washed the dishes and cleaned the

The books on

the refrigerator remind her of her

better intentions, but she decides that first she'll see what's next

TV.

In the livingroom, she finds

She

lifts

little

it's

nine o'clock, I've

boy." Sullenly, his sleepy eyes glued

room toward

channels.

sound asleep on the

floor.

her gently, carries her into her bed, and tucks her

"Okay, Jimmy, of the

Bitsy

A

the drama.

his

bedroom.

let

still

A

you

stay up,

now

to the set, the

drama comes

on in.

be a good

boy backs out

on. She switches

ballgame and a murder mystery. She switches back to It's

a love story of

some kind.

A man

aging invalid wife, but in love with a younger

room and brush your but as quickly regrets

teeth before

it,

going

for she hears the

girl.

to bed,

baby

stir

married to an

"Use the bath-

Jimmy!" she in

its crib.

calls,

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

228

Two

them

of

Oh

homes.

boy, that's

them

leaves

are talking about mothers they've salted

to use the John, takes

down

her girdle

just wonderful,

awhile, get a few

this is

is

something

one helluva party. She

good deep

breaths.

forward

to look

She has

all

right?" "Yeah,

into

my damn girdle, that's all." "Here, let me help."

She

pulls

them on, over her own, standing

mirror, holding her skirt bundled

twenty

When it.

The

I just can't

get

bedroom About them tight from

in front of the

up around

sizes too big for her, of course.

this

home. In a wheelto, all right.

she pulls her girdle back up, she can't seem to squeeze into host looks in. "Hey, Dolly, are you

in rest

advantage of the retreat to ease

picture of her three kids carting her off to a rest

barrow. That sure

away

She

the waist.

pulls

behind, runs her hand inside the opening in front, pulls out her

thumb. "And what a good boy

must

feel!

her, sullenly watching.

"Those are

how funny

it

"Jimmy! You're supposed

to be in bed!"

sees

him:

my daddy's!" the boy says. "I'm gonna tell!"

into the

are wet!

bathroom and Get them

off!"

pulls his pants

She soaps up a

washcloth she's had with her in the bathtub, scrubs him from

the waist

It's

She giggles:

doorway behind

down. "Even your shoes

out!

I!"

in the

"Jimmy!" She drags him

warm

am

Then, in the mirror, she

down

with

it.

Bitsy stands in the doorway, staring. "Get

Get out!" the boy screams just

at his sister.

"Go back

to bed, Bitsy.

an accident." "Get out!" The baby wakes and

starts to

howl.

The young lieves the

lover feels sorry for her rival, the invalid wife; she be-

man

has a duty toward the poor

willing to wait. But the

man

woman and

insists

she

is

argues that he also has a duty toward

THE BABYSITTER himself: his

life,

229

too,

He

even were she well.

away

twists

short,

is

in anguish.

The door

looking devilish, but pretty told

you not

to

was beginning children just

all

the

They

she

girl feverishly;

stand there grinning,

same time. "Jack!

thought

I

I

she's also glad in a

way: she with the

to see

She should have taken that bath, if

you were being a good at

girl,"

warm

when

around her, she goes

answer: no one there. But

phone

the

awake and bawling. She wonders

if

brother, that's the end.

that's

rings.

Maybe

it is,

tries to

calm the baby with the half-empty

change

it

and they make

it

it's

The

until she's finished her bath.

Wrapping

now

a towel

the baby's all

the

the end anyway. She

bottle,

not wanting to

bathroom's where the

stink to high heaven. "Shush,

shush!" she whispers, rocking the crib.

empty

"We

Jack says and

Jack bothering her

time. If

diapers go dirty,

all.

fragrant suds, ready

for a nice long soaking, to

after

each other nervously.

sunk down into the tubful of

leaving an airy

now

his wife

to feel a little too alone in the big house,

The boys glance

She's just

silly at

opens.

come!" She's angry, but

sleeping.

came by

blushes.

and he could not love

embraces the young

The

towel

slips

away,

up and down her backside. Even before knows

tingle

she stoops for the towel, even before she turns around, she there's

"We

somebody behind

just

grinning

"Lean

came by

down

her.

to see if

you were being a good

at her. She's flushed

over,*" says

Mark

and

them with big

her

Jack says,

mouth

half open.

amiably. "We'll soap your back, as long as

we're here." But she just huddles there, at

silent,

girl,"

down

in the suds, staring

up

eyes.

"Hey! What's going on here?"

It's

Mr. Tucker, stumbling through

the door with a drink in his hand.

She looks up from the TV.

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

230

"What's the matter, Mr. Tucker?" "Oh, uh, I'm no,

I

mean,

had

I

to get

some

aspirin.

caroming

past her into the bathroom,

sorry, I got

Excuse me!"

And

off the livingroom

lost-

he rushes door jamb

on the way. The baby wakes.

"Okay, get

He

doing here?" goes.

Mr. Tucker!" "Jack!" she cries, "what are you stares hard at them a moment: so that's where it

off her,

Then,

Mr. Tucker swings heavily

as

he's got a face full of

out,

Her

if that's

host pushes

on her

— you "

fist.

he leans into the

He's not sure, as the lights go

screaming or the baby

down on

girdle, while she

a rest home!"

.

.

.

her fat fanny and tugs with

bawls on his shoulder:

"Now, now,

take

it

easy, Dolly,

all his

me?" Some

"You're telling

"Whatsamatter? Dolly

a bigger

other guy pokes his head

in?" "No, she

fall

might

wanna go to nobody's gonna make "I don't

"Ouch! Hey, you're hurting!" "You should buy

girdle, Dolly." in.

an old man's

his girlfriend

off,

Next thing he knows, though,

bastard with a hard right to the belly.

fell

out.

Give

me

a

hand."

By

and Mark out of

the time she's chased Jack

of the

program

woman

she's

in the story

complicated

life.

games, so she

been watching on

now

for

some

there, she's lost track

television. There's another

reason.

That guy

lives a

very

Impatiently, she switches channels. She hates ball-

settles for the

time, too: there's a dead

murder mystery. She switches just in sprawled out on the floor of what

man

looks like an office or a study or something.

A

heavyset detective

gazes up from his crouch over the body: "He's been strangled."

Maybe

she'll

take that bath, after

all.

THE BABYSITTER

231

She drags him into the bathroom and soaps

up

a

warm

she reaches between his legs,

hands. "Oh, Jimmy!

him toward rubbery

it

down. She

and aiming

And you

spraying her arms and

starts to spurt,

thought you were done!" she

I

the toilet

it is!

pulls his pants

washcloth she's had in the tub with her, but just as

can turn

it

it

cries,

pulling

How moist and way. How funny it

into the bowl.

every which

must feel!

"Stop

it!"

and Jack

she screams. "Please stop!" She's on her hands and knees is

"Now

holding her head down.

we're gonna teach you

how

to be a nice girl," Mark says and lifts her skirt. "Well, I'll be damned!" "What's the matter?" asks Jack, his heart pounding. "Look at this big pair of men's underpants she's got on!" "Those are

my

them from

daddy's!" says Jimmy, watching

gonna

the doorway. "I'm

tell!"

People are shooting at each other in the murder mystery, but she's so

mixed up, she doesn't know which ones

are the

good guys. She

switches back to the love story. Something seems to have happened,

because

now

the

man

is

kissing his invalid wife tenderly.

The baby wakes, volume on the TV.

she's finally dying.

turns

up the

Leaning down over like he's

known

it

her,

unbuckling

his belt.

would. Beautiful!

pants, poor lad, remain.

"Looks

like

The

It's all

kid

is

Maybe it.

She

happening

just

begins to scream. Let

gone, though his

you and me, we got

a secret to

keep, child!" But he's cramped on the couch and everything slippery

and

small. "Lift your legs up, honey.

back." But instead, she screams.

There they

all

He

rolls

ofif,

come, through the front door.

is

too

Put them around

my

crashing to the

On

television,

floor.

some-

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

232

body

saying:

is

Dolly,

I

"Am

can explain

The game

I

a

.

.

.

burden

of the night

Again. They've got her

whole damn crowd

is

to you, darling?" "Dolly!

Get Dolly Tucker Back

is

down on

God!

Her Girdle

in

her belly in the livingroom and the

working on

her. Several of

ing the girdle, while others try to jam the

made a

My

!"

them

are stretch-

fat inside. "I

we

think

couple inches on this side! Roll her over!" Harry?

She's just stepped into the tub,

baby. She sinks doesn't cry,

it

down

when

the phone rings,

in the suds, trying not to hear.

waking the

But that baby

screams. Angrily, she wraps a towel around herself,

stamps peevishly into the baby's room, just letting the phone jangle.

She

tosses the

baby

down on

gets yellowish baby stool

She turns

him

to find

all

Jimmy

its

back, unpins

over her hands.

its

diapers hastily,

Her towel drops away.

staring at her like a

little idiot.

in the face with her dirty hand, while the

phone

rings,

and

She

slaps

baby screams, the

and nagging voices argue on the TV. There are

better

things she might be doing.

What's happening?

young

after the nels.

same man the

"The

staring

Now

there's a

To

girl or the old invalid?

women

young guy tell

in

it.

the truth,

it

Is

he

are. In disgust, she switches

strangler again," growls the fat detective, hands

down

at the

body of

after the

looks like he's

a half-naked

girl.

on

hand suddenly

clutches her

hips,

She's considering

either switching back to the love story or taking a quick bath,

a

chan-

when

mouth.

"You're both chicken," she says, staring up at them. "But what Mr. Tucker comes home?" Mark asks nervously.

if

THE BABYSITTER

How

233

did he get here? He's standing pissing in his

bathroom, his wife like

of

good

them

is still

back

kids, sitting in there in the livingroom

is

his host's

boy Mark.

"It's

Tucker,"

Mark

said,

ago. "Sit

still!"

he shouted, "I'm just

whump thump

when he came

hanging

panties,

antennae on the

good murder mystery, Mr. them a minute

a

home for a moment!" Then Long hike for a weewee, bothering him. Then it hits him: the broken balloon from the rabbit-ear

like a

TV! He

barges back in there, giving his shoulder a

Maybe

not hanging there any more.

The

are,

One

staggering in on

helluva crack on the livingroom door

Mr. Tucker," Mark

them

watching TV.

into the bathroom.

But something keeps

Mister. girl's

on

own goddamn

at the party, the three of

says flatly.

"Your

jamb on the way he's only

fly's

—but they're

imagined

it.

"Hey,

open."

baby's dirty. Stinks to high heaven. She hurries back to the

livingroom, hearing sirens and gunshots.

The

detective

outside a house, peering in. Already, she's completely

screams

at the top of its lungs.

is

lost.

crouched

The baby

She turns up the volume. But

it's all

confused. She hurries back in there, claps an angry hand to the

down on its back, starts to unpin the diaper, as the baby tunes up again. The phone rings. She answers it, one eye on the TV. "What?" The baby cries so hard it starts to choke. Let it. "I said, hi, this is Jack!" Then

baby's mouth. "Shut up!" she cries. She throws the baby

it

hits her:

"The

oh no! the diaper pin!

aspirin

.

tub. Staring at ripply.

.

."

But

she's already in the tub.

him through

the water.

Way down

Her tummy

He hears sirens, people on the porch.

in the

looks pale and

— PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

234

Jimmy

gets

up

to

go

to the

bathroom and

gets his face slapped

smeared with baby poop. Then she hauls him yanks

off his

him

pajamas, and throws

off to the

and

bathroom,

into the tub. That's okay,

but next she gets naked and acts like she's gonna get in the tub, too.

The

and the phone's ringing

baby's screaming

like crazy

and

in

walks his dad. Saved! he thinks, but, no, his dad grabs him right

back out of the tub and whales the dickens out of him, no questions asked, while she watches, then sends he's lying there,

go

him

whac\l

wet and dirty and naked and

—back to bed. So and he

sore,

still

has to

bathroom, and outside his window he hears two older guys

to the

talking. "Listen,

you know where

to

do

it if

we

get her pinned?"

"No! Don't you?"

"Yo ho heave on

first.

Not

Ugh!" Dolly's on her back and they're working Somebody got the great idea of buttering her down

ho!

the belly side.

to lose the

ground they've gained, they've shot

now suddenly there's this big who want to stuff her in and

with a basting syringe. But

under way between those

want

to let her out.

Something

rips,

but she

it

inside

tug-of-war

those who The odor of

feels better.

hot butter makes her think of movie theaters and popcorn. "Hey, has anybody seen Harry?" she asks. "Where's Harry?"

Somebody's getting chased. She switches back

now

the man's back kissing the

on? She

gives

it

I

and

happen, child," he

one foot out, when Mr. Tucker walks

only wanted some aspirin

towel, but he yanks

it

away. "Now,

scolds. "Please!

her savagely, his calloused old side.

to the love story,

lover again. What's going

up, decides to take a quick bath. She's just stepping

into the tub, one foot in,

"Oh, excuse me!

young

"Mr. Tucker!" she

cries,

that's

.

not

Mr. Tucker

.

how

it's

!" .

.

in.

She grabs for a

."

.

supposed to

He

embraces

hands clutching roughly at her back-

squirming. "Your wife called



!"

He's

THE BABYSITTER

235

pushing something between her both

—something cold

slip

legs,

hurting her. She

her skull, she seems to be sinking into a sea

They've got her over the hassock, her a

little

The phone

rings,

.

.

.

up and pants down. "Give lights flicker and

The television when lit. Whack!

waking the baby.

me— I" "No,

Fm

loud?" "Oh,

you

dear, this

I

couldn't

Harry there?

is

"Jack,

that

is

Mrs. Tucker.

hang

on.

Stop

it!

hanging on

phone

when it.

ring.

she

Oh no

"Hello?" towel,

Mr. Tucker

lets .

Stop

it!"

going

to

Her

be

you? Now, you

Isn't the

.

No

TV awfully

To

the phone,

"Honey,

rings.

"No!" she

cries.

woozily away, listening to the

sighs, getting

it isn't

mean. I'm

hand over the baby's mouth. hand is full of baby stool and

The phone

to the baby, leaning

go of the baby,

I

—"

there, dear?"

other

sick.

"Okay, okay," she

stares

screams!

Is

she screams and claps a

it!" it!

she's afraid she's

She's

to

Mrs. Tucker! I've been getting—" "I tried to

sorry,

before, but

listen! Is

"Stop

Bumper

Slap!

sorry, dear." "Just a minute, Mrs. Tucker, the baby's

"Stop

they

He leans into her, feeling her come alive.

bumper!

call

skirt

lesson there, Jack baby!"

flash over her glossy flesh, iooo

listen to

slips,

and hard slams her in the back, cracks

ahold of herself. But

screaming any more. She shakes

.

answer. Strange. She hangs up and, wrapped only in a

out the

window

at

the cold face

staring

in

—she

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

236

She screams, scaring the glances faces ass,

up

at the

down

at

his

who's back

.

.

and crashes

to his stares

is

right

all

.

.

breaking with each

locus of

all

.

.

rings.

"Dolly!

It's

cramped and awkward and

in her,

tiles,

?" .

.

Who's Sorry stares up

Now?

He

at the

woes, and passes out, dreaming of

his

for you!" "Hello?" "Hello, Mrs.

Tucker?" "Yes, speaking." "Mrs. Tucker, ing ..."

it

two

.

The phone

It's

leaps out of the tub,

at just in time to see

him, trembling, a towel over her narrow shoulders. "Mr.

litde tufted

Jeannie

gaping

on the bathroom

slips

Tucker! Mr. Tucker, are you Yessir,

He

out of him.

she's

head on the sink on the way down. She

duck away, then

whacking

hell

window

once anyway.

When

her staring up at them.

this is the police

slippery, but he's pretty sure

he gets the suds out of his

Through

the water. "Hey,

eyes,

call-

he got he sees

Mark! Let her

up!"

Down

in the suds. Feeling sleepy.

Wrapped

The phone

in a towel, she goes to answer.

"No,

rings, startling her. he's

not here, Mrs.

Tucker." Strange. Married people act pretty funny sometimes.

baby

is

awake and screaming.

lot of things she'd rather

house. She decides to

wash

Dirty, a real mess.

Oh

be doing than babysitting in the baby off in her

own

The

boy, there's a this

mad-

bathwater. She

removes her towel, unplugs the tub, lowers the water

level so the

Jimmy "Go back to bed, Jimmy." "I have to go to the bathroom." "Good grief, Jimmy! It looks like you already have!" The phone rings. She doesn't bother with the towel what can baby can

sit.

Glancing back over her shoulder, she

sees

staring at her.



THE BABYSITTER

Jimmy and

see

237



and goes to answer. "No, Jack, on the TV, as the police move in. But channel with the love story ? Ambulance maybe. Get

he hasn't already seen?

that's final." Sirens,

wasn't that the this over

pajamas

with so she can

at least catch the

Jimmy, and

find clean ones.

off,

I'll

news. "Get those wet

Maybe you better get in wrong with the baby," he says. not swimming or anything."

the tub, too." "I think something's "It's

down in

She's staring

happens.

up

"You

outa here!"

Mark

the water

and

it's

them from the rug. They slap tilted her, man!" Mark says sofdy.

at

just

Two

little

Nothing

her.

"We gotta get

kids are standing wide-eyed in the doorway.

looks hard at Jack. "No, Mark, they're just

little

!"

kids

.

.

.

"We gotta, man, or we're dead."

"Dolly!

My

God! Dolly,

I

can explain!" She glowers

her ripped girdle around her ankles.

doing in the bathtub with

my

"What

down

at

them,

the four of you are

babysitter?" she says sourly. "I can

hardly wait!"

Police sirens wail, lights flash. "I heard the scream!" shouts.

somebody

"There were two boys!" "I saw a man!" "She was running

with the baby!"

"My God!" somebody

Crowds come running. Spodights probe

screams, "they're

all

dead!"

the bushes.

"Harry, where the hell you been?" his wife whines, glaring blearily

up

at

him from

matter,

the carpet. "I can explain," he says. "Hey, whatsa-

Harry?"

goddamn

reason.

his

host asks, smeared

"You look

like

you

with butter for some

just seen a ghost!"

Where did

he leave his drink? Everybody's laughing, everybody except Dolly,

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

238

whose cheeks

them take me

10:00.

The

are streaked with tears. "Hey, Harry, you won't let to a rest

home,

will you,

dishes done, children to bed, her books read, she watches

the news on television. Sleepy.

She dozes

Harry?"

—awakes

with a

The man's

voice

a babysitter?

start:

is

gentle, soothing.

Did

the announcer

say something about a babysitter ?

want

"Just

TV. Most

As

the news. babysitter.

man on

to catch the weather," the host says, switching

it

The

comes on, the announcer host switches channels.

four," he explains.

is

saying something about a

"They got

a better weather-

"Wait!" says Mrs. Tucker. "There was

something about a babysitter tails

on the

of the guests are leaving, but the Tuckers stay to watch

.

.

.

!"

The

host switches back. "De-

have not yet been released by the police," the announcer

"Harry, maybe we'd better go

They

stroll casually

.

.

out of the drugstore, run into a buddy of theirs.

"Hey! Did you hear about the babysitter?" the guy grunts, glances at Jack.

hear the baby screaming!" Mrs. Tucker

I

across the

lawn from the

have dozed

Mark

cries,

running

drive.

startled, to find

Mr. Tucker hovering over

off!" she exclaims.

babysitter?" Mrs.

asks.

"Got a smoke?" he asks the guy.

"I think

She wakes,

says.

."

Tucker

her. "I

must

"Did you hear the news about the

asks. "Part of

it,"

she says, rising.

"Too

THE BABYSITTER

239

bad, wasn't it?" Mr.

Tucker

and golf tournaments. he

says.

"The

"Why, how

"I'll

is

watching the report of the

drive you

nice!" Mrs.

home

ball scores

in just a minute, dear,"

Tucker exclaims from the kitchen.

dishes are all done!"

"What can

I

say,

Dolly?" the host says with a

sigh, twisting the

buttered strands of her ripped girdle between his fingers. "Your children are murdered, your husband gone, a corpse in your bathtub,

the

and your house

TV,

the

know," she

news

is

is

wrecked. I'm sorry. But what can

over,

and

I

say?"

On

they're selling aspirin. "Hell, / don't

says. "Let's see what's

on the

late late

movie."

THE HAT ACT In the middle of the stage: a plain table.

A man enters,

dressed as a magician with black cape and black silk

hat. Doffs hat in

wide sweep

to audience,

bows elegandy.

Applause.

He

displays inside of hat. It

empty. Places hat on

table,

is

empty.

He thumps

it.

brim up. Extends both hands over

tugs back sleeves exposing wrists, snaps fingers. Reaches a rabbit.

Applause.

240

It is clearly

hat,

in, extracts

THE HAT ACT

241

Pitches rabbit into wings. Snaps fingers over hat again, reaches in, extracts a dove.

Applause.

Pitches dove into wings. Snaps fingers over hat, reaches in, extracts

another rabbit.

No

applause. Stuffs rabbit hurriedly back in hat,

snaps fingers, reaches

from which

it

in, extracts

another hat, precisely like the one

came.

Applause.

Places second hat alongside

withdraws a third

first

one. Snaps fingers over

new

hat,

hat, exactly like the first two.

Light applause.

Snaps fingers over third

No

applause.

fifth one.

In

hat,

Does not snap fifth,

withdraws a fourth

he finds a

first hat.

from seventh, ninth from eighth, from other

hats. Rabbits

a

Rabbit appears in third hat.

sixth.

Magician extracts seventh hat from

draws a second rabbit from

hat, again identical.

fingers. Peers into fourth hat, extracts

sixth.

Third hat rabbit with-

Magician withdraws eighth hat as rabbits extract other rabbits

and hats are everywhere. Stage

is

one

mad

turmoil of hats and rabbits.

Laughter and applause.

up

Frantically, magician gathers

and

hats

stuffs

them

other, bowing, smiling at audience, pitching rabbits three at a time into wings, smiling, first, it is difficult

faster spires.

to

bowing.

be sure he

is

It is

and four

a desperate struggle.

stuffing hats

than they are reappearing. Bows,

into each

and pitching

At

rabbits

stuffs, pitches, smiles, per-

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

242

Laughter mounts.

Now there is one

Slowly the confusion diminishes.

and

Now

rabbits.

hats.

there are

no

At

rabbits.

small pile of hats

last there are

only two

Magician, perspiring from overexertion, gasping for breath,

staggers to table with

two

hats.

Light applause, laughter.

Magician, mopping brow with at

two remaining

hats.

handkerchief, stares in perplexity

silk

Pockets handkerchief. Peers into one hat,

then into other. Attempts tentatively to stuff vain.

Attempts

to

fit

second into

Smiles weakly at audience. leaps

on

more

to stuff

it

until crushed. it

No

Wads

into second hat.

first,

first

applause.

Drops

crushed hat in

Still, it

into second, but in

but also without success.

will not

first

hat to

floor,

attempts once

fist,

fit.

Light booing, impatient applause.

Trembling with brim up on

anxiety, magician presses out

table, crushes

desperately to

jam

it

second hat on

into first hat.

No,

floor.

it

first

Wads

will not

hat, places

second hat,

fit.

Turns

it

tries

irritably

to pitch second hat into wings.

Loud

booing.

Freezes. Pales. Returns to table with both hats,

brim up, second head

as

though

still

to

in a

weep

first

in fair condition

crumpled wad. Faces hats in

defeat.

Bows

silendy.

Hissing and booing.

Smile suddenly

lights magician's face.

He

smoothes out second hat

THE HAT ACT and

places

it

243

firmly

on

his head, leaving first hat bottomside-up

table.

Crawls up on table and disappears

on

feet first into hat.

Surprised applause.

Moments legs,

later,

magician's feet poke

then torso. Last part to emerge

lifted

from

table, brings first hat

audience, shows

it

is

is

with

up out of hat on

table,

it.

Magician doffs

first

then

when

magician's head, which,

hat to

empty. Second hat has disappeared. Bows

deeply.

Enthusiastic

and prolonged applause, cheers.

Magician returns hat

removing

to head,

thumps

it,

steps

behind

table.

hat, reaches up, snaps fingers, extracts rabbit

Without

from top of

hat.

Applause. Pitches rabbit into wings. Snaps fingers, withdraws dove

from top

of hat.

Sprinkling of applause. Pitches dove into wings. Snaps fingers, extracts lovely assistant

from

top of hat.

Astonished but enthusiastic applause and whistles.

Lovely assistant wears high feathery green hat, tight green little

halter,

green shorts, black net stockings, high green heels. Smiles coyly

at whistles

and applause, scampers bouncily

offstage.

Whistling and shouting, applause.

Magician attempts

and writhes

to

remove

in struggle

hat,

but

with stuck hat.

it

appears to be stuck. Twists

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

244

Mild laughter. Struggle continues. Contortions. Grimaces.

Laughter.

Finally, magician requests

brawny men enter

stage

two volunteers from audience.

Two

large

from audience, smiling awkwardly.

Light applause and laughter.

One

man

large

cautiously.

The

grasps hat, other clutches magician's legs.

hat does not

stuck.

They tug now with

their

thick

come

off.

They

pull harder.

They

pull

Still, it is

great effort, their heavy faces reddening,

neck muscles taut and throbbing. Magician's neck

stretches, snaps in

two:

POP! Large men tumble

apart, rolling to

opposite sides of stage, one with body, other with hat containing

magician's severed head.

Screams of

terror.

Two large men stand, stare aghast at handiwork, clutch mouths. Shrieks and screams.

Decapitated body stands.

Shrieks and screams.

Zipper in front of decapitated body opens, magician emerges. as before,

wearing same black cape and same black

deflated decapitated

wings.

Two

large

body

men

into wings. Pitches hat

sigh with

immense

relief,

He

is

silk hat. Pitches

and head into shake heads as

THE HAT ACT

245

though completely

baffled, smile faintly, return to audience.

Magi-

cian doffs hat and bows.

Wild applause, shouts, cheers. Lovely

green costume, enters, carrying glass of

assistant, still in

water.

Applause and whistling. Lovely assistant acknowledges whistling with coy smile, water on

orders her by gesture to eat

sets glass

of

Magician hands her his hat,

table, stands dutifully by. it.

Whistling continues.

Lovely assistant smiles,

bites into hat,

chews slowly.

Laughter and much whistling.

She washes down each brought

band

left

in.

on

Hat

bite of hat

at last is entirely

with water from glass she has

consumed, except for narrow

table. Sighs, pats slender

silk

exposed tummy.

Laughter and applause, excited whistling. Magician

invites

young country boy

in audience to

Young country boy steps forward shyly, stumbling own big feet. Appears confused and utterly abashed. Loud laughter and

come

to stage.

clumsily over

catcalls.

Young country boy down redfaced at his

stands with one foot

on top of

other, staring

hands, twisting nervously in front of him.

.

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

246

Laughter and catcalls increase. Lovely assistant

sidles

Boy ducks head away,

up

to boy,

steps first

embraces him in motherly fashion.

on one

foot,

then on other, wrings

hands.

More laughter and catcalls, whistles. Lovely

assistant

winks broadly

boy on cheek. Boy jumps

as

at audience, kisses

though scalded,

trips

young country own feet, and

over

falls to floor.

Thundering laughter. Lovely assistant helps boy to his

feet, lifting

him under

armpits.

Boy, ticklish, struggles and giggles helplessly.

Laughter {as before) Magician raps cal

table

with knuckles. Lovely

assistant releases hysteri-

country boy, returns smiling to table. Boy resumes

stance,

wipes his runny nose with back

of his

hand,

awkward

sniffles.

Mild laughter and applause. Magician hands lovely eaten.

She

with some

stuffs

band

difficulty,

assistant

into her

narrow

silk

band

of hat she has

mouth, chews thoughtfully, swallows

shudders. She drinks from glass. Laughter and

shouting have fallen away to expectant hush. Magician grasps nape of lovely assistant's neck, forces her head with

down between

her stockinged knees.

He

its

releases grip

feathered hat

and her head

springs back to upright position. Magician repeats action slowly.

Then

repeats action rapidly four or five times.

Looks inquiringly

at

THE HAT ACT

247

Her

lovely assistant.

face

is

from

flushed

exertion.

She meditates,

then shakes head: no. Magician again forces her head to her knees, releases grip,

peats this

allowing head to snap back to upright position. Re-

two or three

times.

Looks inquiringly

at lovely assistant.

She smiles and nods. Magician drags abashed young country boy over behind lovely assistant and invites assistant's tight

green shorts.

Young

him

to reach into lovely

country boy

is

flustered

beyond

belief.

Loud laughter and whistling resumes.

Young country boy, in desperation, tries tures him and drags him once more behind

to escape.

Magician cap-

lovely assistant.

Laughter etc. (as before).

Magician grasps country boy's arm and thrusts assistant's shorts.

Young country boy

Hysterical laughter

it

forcibly into lovely

wets pants.

and catcalls.

Lovely assistant grimaces once. Magician, smiling, releases grip on agonizingly embarrassed country boy. Boy withdraws hand. In finds he

narrow

is

holding magician's original black

silk

band and

silk hat, entirely

Magician winks broadly

cian

head. Water

country boy.

cheers.

at audience, silencing

young country boy

insists.

he

all.

Wild applause and footstamping, laughter and

invites

it,

whole,

to

don

hat.

them momentarily,

Boy ducks head

Timidly, grinning foolishly, country boy spills out,

runs

down

shyly.

Magi-

lifts

hat to

over his head, and soaks young

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

248

Laughter, applause, wild

Young

catcalls.

country boy, utterly humiliated, drops hat and turns to run

offstage, but lovely assistant

is

standing on his foot.

He

trips

and

falls to his face.

Laughter

etc. (as

before).

Country boy crawls abjectly offstage on

his

stomach. Magician,

laughing heartily with audience, pitches lovely assistant into wings, picks

up hat from

three times, returns

floor. it

Brushes hat on sleeve, thumps

with elegant flourish to

it

two or

his head.

Appreciative applause.

Magician table.

steps

behind

Blows away

brushes off one space on

table. Carefully

dust. Reaches for hat.

But again,

it

seems to be

stuck. Struggles feverishly with hat.

Mild laughter. Requests volunteers.

Same two

large

men

as before

quickly grasps hat, other grasps magician's legs.

enter.

They tug

One

furiously,

but in vain.

Laughter and applause.

First large

man

to be protesting.

grabs magician's head under jaw. Magician appears

Second large

waist.

Both pull apart with

veins

in

hands

flutter hopelessly.

their

man wraps

magician's legs around his

terrific strain, their faces

reddening, the

temples throbbing. Magician's tongue protrudes,

THE HAT ACT

249

Laughter and applause. Magician's neck stretches. But long.

it

does not snap.

It is

now

several feet

Two large men strain mightily.

Laughter and applause.

Magician's eyes pop like bubbles from their sockets.

Laughter and applause.

Neck tive

hush

snaps at

last.

Large

men

tumble head over heels with respec-

bloody burdens to opposite sides of stage. Expectant amused over audience. First large

falls

pitches head

and hat

man

scrambles to his

into wings, rushes to assist second large

Together they unzip decapitated body. Lovely

feet,

man.

assistant emerges.

Surprised laughter and enthusiastic applause, whistling.

Lovely assistant pitches deflated decapitated body into wings. Large

men ogle her and make mildly obscene gestures for audience. Mounting laughter and friendly

catcalls.

Lovely assistant invites one of two large

men

to reach inside her

tight green shorts.

Wild whistling. Both large tumbling audience.

men jump

to floor in

forward eagerly, tripping over each other and

angry heap. Lovely assistant winks broadly at

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

250

Derisive catcalls.

Both

men

stand, face each other, furious. First large

second. Second pushes floor.

Second leaps

first.

to feet,

blood from nose, drives

fist

man

spits at

First returns push, toppling second to

smashes

first

into second's

in nose. First reels, wipes

abdomen.

Loud cheers. Second weaves confusedly, crumples miserably

abdomen.

to floor clutching

First kicks second brutally in face.

Cheers and mild laughter.

Second staggers blindly

to feet, face a mutilated mess. First

second back against wall, knees

him

in groin.

smashes

Second doubles over,

blinded with pain. First clips second with heel of hand behind ear.

Second crumples

to floor, dead.

Prolonged cheering and applause.

First large

man

acknowledges applause with self-conscious bow.

Flexes knuckles. Lovely assistant approaches braces

him

first

large

man, em-

in motherly fashion, winks broadly at audience.

Prolonged applause and whistling.

Large

man

ion, as she

grins

makes

and embraces lovely faces of

assistant in

mock astonishment

unmotherly fash-

for audience.

Shouting and laughter, wild whistling.

Lovely assistant to

frees self

from

large

man, turns plump hindquarters

him, and bends over, her hands on her knees, her shapely

legs

.

THE HAT ACT straight.

251

Large

man

grins at audience, pats lovely assistant's green-

clad rear.

Wild shouting etc. Large

man

his eyes,

reaches inside lovely assistant's tight green shorts, rolls

and grins obscenely. She grimaces and wiggles

Wild shouting Large

(as before).

etc. (as

before)

man withdraws hand from

extracting magician in black cape

Thunder

rear briefly.

inside lovely assistant's shorts,

and black

silk hat.

of astonished applause.

Magician bows deeply, doffing hat

to audience.

Prolonged enthusiastic applause, cheering.

Magician pitches lovely

assistant

and

first

man

large

into wings.

Inspects second large man, lying dead on stage. Unzips him and young country boy emerges, flushed and embarrassed. Young country

boy creeps abjectly offstage on stomach.

Laughter and

catcalls,

more applause.

Magician pitches deflated corpse of second large

man

into wings.

Lovely assistant reenters, smiling, dressed as before in high feathery hat, tight

green halter, green shorts, net stockings, high heels.

Applause and whistling. Magician displays inside of hat to magician.

He thumps

to audience as lovely assistant points

hat two or three times.

hat on table, and invites lovely assistant to enter

it.

It is

empty. Places

She does

so.

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

252

Vigorous applause.

Once she has

entirely disappeared,

magician extends both hands

over hat, tugs back sleeves exposing wrists, snaps fingers. Reaches extracts

in,

one green high-heeled shoe.

Applause.

Pitches shoe into wings. Snaps fingers over hat again. Reaches in,

withdraws a second shoe.

Applause.

Pitches shoe into wings. Snaps finger over hat. Reaches in, with-

draws one long net stocking. Applause and scattered whistling. Pitches stocking into wings. Snaps fingers over hat. Reaches in, extracts a second black net stocking.

Applause and scattered whistling. Pitches stocking into wings. Snaps fingers over hat. Reaches in, pulls

out high feathery hat.

Increased applause and whistling, rhythmic stamping of

feet.

Pitches hat into wings. Snaps fingers over hat. Reaches in, fumbles briefly.

Light laughter.

Withdraws green

halter, displays

it

with grand

flourish.

THE HAT ACT

253

Enthusiastic applause, shouting, whistling, stamping of feet.

Pitches halter into

wings. Snaps fingers over hat. Reaches in,

fumbles. Distant absorbed gaze.

Burst of laughter.

Withdraws green

Tremendous

shorts, displays

crash of applause

them with elegant

and cheering,

flourish.

whistling.

Pitches green shorts into wings. Snaps fingers over hat. Reaches in.

Prolonged fumbling. Sound of a

slap.

Withdraws hand

hastily,

a

look of astonished pain on his face. Peers inside.

Laughter.

Head of lovely assistant pops out of hat, pouting indignantly. Laughter and applause.

With

difficulty,

Pressing hands

she extracts one

down

arm from

hat, then other

against hat brim, she wriggles

one naked breast pops out of

and

arm.

twists until

hat.

Applause and wild whistling.

The other breast: POP! More applause and She wriggles

whistling.

free to the waist.

She grunts and

struggles, but

is

unable to free her hips. She looks pathetically, but uncertainly at magician.

He tugs and pulls but she seems firmly stuck.

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

254

Laughter.

He

grasps lovely assistant under armpits

and plants

feet against hat

brim. Strains. In vain.

Laughter.

Thrusts lovely assistant forcibly back into hat. Fumbles again.

Loud

slap.

Laughter

increases.

Magician returns slap soundly.

Laughter ceases abruptly, some scattered booing. Magician reaches into

hat,

withdraws one unstockinged

reaches in again, pulls out one arm. all his effort

some

is

on arm and

leg.

leg,

He

but for

whistling.

Magician glances uneasily

He

tugs

cannot extract the remainder.

Scattered booing,

hat.

He

perspiring.

at audience, stuffs

Fumbles

inside hat.

arm and

leg back into

Withdraws nude hind-

quarters of lovely assistant.

Burst of cheers and wild whistling.

Smiles uncomfortably at audience.

Tugs

desperately

on plump

hindquarters, but rest will not follow.

Whistling diminishes, increased booing.

Jams hindquarters back into

hat,

mops brow with

silk

handkerchief.

THE HAT ACT

Loud unfriendly

255

booing.

Pockets handkerchief.

thumps

it

Is

becoming rather

vigorously, shakes

it.

Places

frantic.

Grasps hat and

once more on

it

table,

brim

up. Closes eyes as though in incantations, hands extended over hat.

Snaps fingers several times, reaches in tenuously. Fumbles. Loud

Withdraws hand

slap.

hastily in

angry astonishment. Grasps hat.

Gritting teeth, enfuriated, hurls hat to feet.

floor, leaps

Something crunches. Hideous piercing

on

it

with both

shriek.

Screams and shouts. Magician, aghast, picks up hat, stares into

it.

Pales.

Violent screaming and shouting.

Magician gingerly

sets

hat on

grief-stricken, in front of

it.

floor,

Weeps

and

kneels, utterly appalled

and

silently.

Weeping, moaning, shouting. Magician huddles miserably over crushed First large

wings.

They

man and young

They

start

are pale

hat,

weeping convulsively.

country boy enter timidly, soberly, from

and frightened. They peer uneasily

back in horror. They clutch

their

into hat.

mouths, turn away, and

vomit*

Weeping, shouting, vomiting, accusations of murder. Large

man and country boy tie up magician, drag him away.

Weeping, retching.

Large

man and

country boy return,

trembling uncontrollably, carry

it

lift

crushed hat gingerly, and

at arm's length into wings.

PRICKSONGS

256

Momentary increase of weeping, away of sound to silence. Country boy creeps onto

abjectly

up placard against

away.

CONCLUDED THE MANAGEMENT REGRETS THERE WILL BE NO REFUND THIS ACT

IS

DESCANTS

retching, moaning, then dying

stage, alone, sets

and facing audience, then creeps

8c

table

FICTION • Z6031



$795

i

CANADA* $10.95

ONCE, SOME TIME AGO AND IN A DISTANT LAND, MET A YOUNG MAIDEN, KNOWN TO HER TRIBE AS THE VIRGIN OF THE POST, AND SHE GAVE TO ME, AMID PRURIENT AND MYSTERIOUS CEREMONIES, I

A GOLDEN Exemplifying the best brilliant

collection

good

in

narrative art, Robert

Coover s

PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS tells

stories and tells

them

These

well.

fictions

challenge the assumptions of our age; they use

the fabulous to probe beyond randomly perceived events, beyond

mere

history.

They are

weapons that counterpoint our consciousness, that show us the need for new modes of perception.

4

The

fictions in

Robert Coover s remarkable

volume are solitaires— sparkling, many-faceted, sharply drawn and brightly painted!' —William Gass, The New York Times Book Review

"PRICKSONGS & DESCANTS

is

richly stimulating:'

—Library Journal

26031

i

RING.

51857"00795

'

7

ISBN D-M52-2bD31-D