The following is an excerpt from Peter Straub’s “Little Red’s Tango” in Conjunctions:39.
Little Red Perceived As A Mystery
What a mystery is Little Red! How he sustains himself, how he lives, how he gets through his days, what passes through his mind as he endures that extraordinary journey … Is not mystery precisely that which does not yield, does not give access?
Little Red, His Wife, His Parents, His Brothers
Little is known of the woman he married. Little Red seldom speaks of her, except now and then to say, “My wife was half Sicilian,” or “All you have to know about my wife is that she was half Sicilian.” Some have speculated, though not in the presence of Little Red, that the long-vanished wife was no more than a fictional or mythic character created to lend solidity to his otherwise amorphous history. Years have been lost. Decades have been lost. (In a sense, an entire life has been lost, some might say Little Red’s.) The existence of a wife, even an anonymous one, lends a semblance of structure to the lost years.
Half of her was Sicilian; the other half may have been Irish. “People like that you don’t mess with,” says Little Red. “Even when you mess with them, you don’t mess with them, know what I mean?”
The parents are likewise anonymous, though no one has ever speculated that they may have been fictional or mythic. Even anonymous parents must be of flesh and blood. Since Little Red has mentioned, inhis flat, dry Long Island accent, a term in the Uniondale High School jazz ensemble, we can assume that for a substantial period his family resided in Uniondale, Long Island. There were, apparently, two brothers, both older. The three boys grew up in circumstances modest but otherwise unspecified. A lunch counter, a diner, a small mom-and-pop grocery may have been in the picture. Some connection with food, with nourishment.
Little Red’s long years spent waiting on tables, his decades as a “waiter,” continue this nourishment theme, which eventually becomes inseparable from the very conception of Little Red’s existence. In at least one important way, nourishment lies at the heart of the mystery. Most good mysteries are rooted in the question of nourishment. As concepts, nourishment and sacrifice walk hand in hand, like old friends everywhere. Think of Judy Garland. The wedding at Cana. Think of the fish grilled at night on the Galilean shore. A fire, the fish in the simple pan, the flickeringly illuminated men.
The brothers have not passed through the record entirely unremarked, nor are they anonymous. In the blurry comet trail of Little Red’s history, the brothers exist as sparks, embers, brief coruscations. Blind, unknowing, they shared his early life, the life of Uniondale. They were, categorically, brothers, intent on their bellies, their toys, their cars, and their neuroses, all of that, and attuned not at all to the little red-haired boy who stumbled wide-eyed in their wake. Kyle, the recluse; Ernie, the hopeless. These are the names spoken by Little Red. After graduation from high school, the recluse lived one town over with a much older woman until his aging parents bought a trailer and relocated to rural Georgia, whereupon he moved into a smaller trailer on the same lot. When his father died, Kyle sold the little trailer and settled in with his mother. The hopeless brother, Ernie, followed Kyle and parents to Georgia within six weeks of their departure from Nassau County. He soon found both a custodial position in a local middle school and a girlfriend, whom he married before the year was out. Ernie’s weight, 285 pounds on his wedding day, ballooned to 350 soon after. No longer capable of fulfilling his custodial duties, he went on welfare. Kyle, though potentially a talented musician, experienced nausea and an abrupt surge in blood pressure-at the thought of performing in public, so that source of income was forever closed to him. Fortunately, his only other talent, that of putting elderly women at their ease, served him well—his mother’s will left him her trailer and the sum of $40,000, twice the amount bequested to her other two sons.
We should note that, before Kyle’s windfall, Little Red periodically mailed him small sums of money—money he could ill afford to give away—and that he did the same for brother Ernie, although Ernie’s most useful talent was that of attracting precisely the amount of money he needed at exactly the moment he needed it. While temporarily separated from his spouse, between subsistence-level jobs and cruelly hungry, Ernie waddled a-slouching past an abandoned warehouse, was tempted by the presence of a paper sack placed on the black leather passenger seat of an aubergine Lincoln Town Car, tested the door, found it open, snatched up the sack, and rushed Ernie-style into the cobweb-strewn shelter of the warehouse. An initial search of the bag revealed two foil-wrapped cheeseburgers, still warm. A deeper investigation uncovered an eight-ounce bottle of Poland Spring water and a green Clingfilm-covered brick composed of $2,300 in new fifties and twenties.
Although Ernie described this coup in great detail to his youngest brother, he never considered, not for a moment, sharing the booty.
These people are his immediate family. Witnesses to the trials, joys, despairs, and breakthroughs of his childhood, they noticed nothing. Of the actualities of his life, they knew less than nothing, for what they imagined they knew was either peripheral or inaccurate. Kyle and Ernie mistook the tip for the iceberg. And deep within herself, their mother had chosen, when most she might have considered her youngest son’s life, to avert her eyes.
Little Red carries these people in his heart. He grieves for them; he forgives them everything.
What He Has Been
Over many years and in several cities, a waiter and a bartender; a bass player, briefly; a husband, a son, a nephew; a dweller in caves; an adept of certain magisterial substances; a friend most willing and devoted; a reader, chiefly of crime, horror, and science fiction; an investor and day trader; a dedicated watcher of cable television, especially the History, Discovery, and Sci-Fi Channels; an intimate of nightclubs, joints, dives, and after-hour shebeens, also of restaurants, cafes, and diners; a purveyor of secret knowledge; a photographer; a wavering candle flame; a voice of conundrums; a figure of steadfast loyalty; an intermittent beacon; a path beaten through the undergrowth.
The Beatitudes Of Little Red, I
Whatsoever can be repaid, should be repaid with kindness.
Whatsoever can be borrowed, should be borrowed modestly.
Tip extravagantly, for they need the money more than you do.
You can never go wrong by thinking of God as Louis Armstrong.
Those who swing, should swing some more.
Something always comes along. It really does.
Cleanliness is fine, as far as it goes.
Remember—even when you are alone, you’re in the middle of a party.
The blues ain’t nothin’ but a feeling, but what a feeling.
What goes up sometimes just keeps right on going.
Try to eat solid food at least once a day.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with television.
Anybody who thinks he sees everything around him isn’t looking.
When you get your crib the way you like it, stay there.
Order can be created in even the smallest things, but that doesn’t mean you have to create it.
Clothes are for sleeping in, too. The same goes for chairs.
Everyone makes mistakes, including deities and higher powers.
Avoid the powerful, for they will undoubtedly try to hurt you.
Doing one right thing in the course of a day is good enough.
Stick to beer, mainly.
Pay attention to musicians.
Accept your imperfections, for they can bring you to Paradise.
No one should ever feel guilty about fantasies, no matter how shameful they may be, for a thought is not a deed.
Sooner or later, jazz music will tell you everything you need to know.
There is no significant difference between night and day.
Immediately after death, human beings become so beautiful you can hardly bear to look at them.
To one extent or another, all children are telepathic.
If you want to sleep, sleep. Simple as that.
Do your absolute best to avoid saying bad things about people, especially those you dislike.
In the long run, grasshoppers and ants all wind up in the same place.