It was the suit perhaps—rime on the wingtips—or—wingtips themselves—my body swaying there and its shadow cutting across her skin—blonde against the nut sand—and yet under the dim palatine sconces of the bar she warmed to taupe—moleskin—I am confusing it now—bringing in the bar—having just stood standing on the beach—but ignore this—it’s not important—a single shot to the head—it falls—bring her back—crawl over the heel and around the ankle—trace the malleolus—the soleus—run along a slender calf and behind the knee—and then up along the back of the thigh where an elastic band dug into this taut skin drenched in the grey sun and encroaching sea.
—Overdressed, she said.—Don’t you think. And I kneeled—or—wanting to kneel—stood shifting on the feet—bring in the beachcomber, swinging his paddle—spade turned over loam—fill a canvas satchel with bits of soft metal and knotted driftwood—bring in the surf, and shouts over the swells—bring in the dead scent of the water—of vapor down the cliff and oil on the road—Pacific Coast Highway, I’ll say—my voice faintly telling her of the beach house—an Italian sportscar—wad of bills in the pocket—showing a few—or with the pronated flat of the hand patting the leg.
She sat up holding a rainbow bikini top against the breasts—face refused—for the moment—or—later—or—not at all—loose straps dangled over the arm, and I touched the clotted hair as I tied them—wiry blonde and brown—the notches of vertebrae running down the back—thistledown planes of the rhomboideus—the latissimus dorsi—I’d chosen one of the professions—a certain palaver—shift of the hips and swagger of the head—drifting then, as now—impossibly high on the shoulders—nose sunk into the nasal bone, the sinus—ears dissolving against the processes—a kind of wind-blown depilation—this silent unctuous dot on its hair-thin stem—and the body enfolded like this in moments of rapture—of disease.
There is no mystery to this—nothing to tease out—a clear thing stated clearly—to purge these memories as the body purges itself on the earth is all I mean—when the eyes go, we will say: And then he goes out—but now—nothing.
We rode east by cab to the foot of Market Street—California and Drumm—drifted beneath wires and yellow light—in the yellow gown—thinking this—believing it in moments—that she wore a gown—all gauzy veils and sallow muslin—a thin membrane of lanternlight—rather—she surely wore a pair of red sweatpants cut roughly at the knees—the metallic rainbow bikini top—a headband perhaps—and—maroon coatee around the shoulders.
I turned to her on the sidewalk—pointed to the blank wall—east—said,—The lights of Monte Carlo are at least twice as bright as Las Vegas. I fumbled with her sleeve.—And you sit outside under the umbrella of a sidewalk café drinking espresso all year round because it’s never cold. There is a juggler on every corner—a clown—an acrobat—and the Mediterranean Sea floods the streets every seven years to wash away the great sins which accumulate in that time—Venice, of course, it is the same—but as it begins in the sea the body of its sins can become that much greater.
The light persisted for a time—undiminished—the jeweler’s window—department store tableau—and I began to offer window-promises, each more vagrant than the last—to the squeal of brakes—to the sound of a single note on the saxophone somewhere out of the Mission—dying along sidewalks—driving the feet forward.
She encouraged this movement, I see now—the agent of this—hand pressing into mine—a pair of legs stuck out of a doorway, twisted unnaturally on the cement—a kind of grey along the curb—and buildings the length of whole city blocks disappearing into Eddy Street—led up the hill—she leading—or—myself—leading the both of us under the steady tutelage of her sweating arm to my spot up in the Tenderloin—the bar of the Strand Hotel.
Did she laugh gaily—skip once or twice—though hummed to herself something in a major key—and for days afterward, I could hear the growling of dogs, and the premonition of blood—a smell—sometimes a taste—closer now than before—holding it in the palm—claret and heavy—scuttling in lines—creases—over the fingers—and coming to feel I was holding a simple thing simply—I thought to remember it—or later remembering then how I felt walking arm and arm into the bar and thinking I should have known all along how it would go—or—knowing this now.
Coming together on the sand I hesitated to describe there for the sake of decorum—for the sake of a kind of reticence observed in the evening hours—knowing it would all come out later in boasts and brags.
The drunks floated up from their stools—first heads—necks and shoulders—chests and arms—and then the whole thing of them sat right there—saying nothing at first—recording silently among themselves with nods and posturing their small deviations: Tattoos and clubbed feet—lost digits—limbs—it wasn’t a night of it until someone pulled away the prosthetic for comparison and itching—the gnarls of skin—tubers—and—spurs coming off the bone.
Scars were nothing—to flash a scar was a sign of churlishness and depravity and as likely to get one tossed into the alley as any amount of drunkenness—who among them didn’t have a scar—who didn’t feel the impress of some new invasion each day.
Rose—Rose-darling—that name I wedded to her—sat wide-eyed and silent—thin bare legs crossed over the oak floor—toes dirty and curling on the edge of a low table. I wanted to touch them—to lick them clean.
—Buy me a drink, she said over again. —Tequila—or gin.
Later she drank whatever they all drank—whatever the boys made out of whatever we had—a kind of mash, I suppose—feeding it to the dogs and laughing it up until Mary came in with the whip—a kind of mash, or exactly that—though I don’t know—did I know it then—the impossibility of knowing anything there on the couch—and though it seems I had gone into hiding there—at that time—my night spots—my afternoons—weeks at this—I wonder now if in fact I had craved the four of them—something like them—to bring things to an end—I am almost gleeful to bring the rest of them in—sick at the way they have stayed with me all this time—and wanting nothing more than to have them out—rid for once and all—this to be the last and then done.
She twirled her hair between the thumb and finger—a few sea-thick strands hanging down over the forehead—eyes blue at first—but then: hazel—feeling certain of this, though perhaps another setting—another time or light—her fingers through the hair—a kind of lulling—someone else perhaps.
I pulled a handkerchief from the inner pocket of the jacket and daubed the forehead—having practiced this until it became habit—one of a few constructed idiosyncrasies. I had been assured it was silk—or—sure of its silkiness, I had taken it—or—caused it in some way to become taken—I am certain I did not find it. Spreading it out on my knee, its threadbare folds formed a series of sleek squares—the monogram read: ASK—and Rose guessed at my name for the better part of two days—stroked the surface of the fabric—these fine bones of her fingers—and pulling the tongue in across her lower lip.
Around us, a blur of motion—and—music—pushing toward us and striking us in some way—seeming hopeful of something, but dying away—a series of jazz fusion originals—one could sense it there in the room—falling against the far wall—or—sinking down into the barstools—out of the tap—into the drink—out of the drink—into the mouth—into the body—out through the anus—nothing was too far away—everything within reach—and in reaching ruined—no one was listening was the thing—to what, I can’t recall.
Dim lamps hung overhead—mad flickering—a glossy bartop along one side and the narrow barman’s trench behind—a stadium of gleaming liquor bottles behind this—a mirror running the length against the wall, corners mottled with patches of flaking foil. The barman’s name escapes me—though perhaps I have always suspected some deception—a simple name inspired confidence and candor—and every bartender in San Francisco was named Frank except this one, who was named something in many syllables rather than one—I divulged nothing—or—it may have been a barmaid—and I may have said a few things—I will draw her out—a thick black line following the arm, the shoulder, orbiting the head—but here leave her.
Rose leaned against my neck and whispered to me a girlish buzz of intimacies—how many houses did my family own—what kinds of cars—did I play for keeps in the casinos—I did—but became suspicious of her part in all this—these features as fine and delicate as any on the Island of Monaco—gentle slope of the frontal eminence, skin taut over the superciliary—zygomatic flare—taupe, as I have said—moleskin—and a gloomy rouge through the cheeks—seeing this kind of thing in Fresno six months before—but more mesmerizing—her hand on me.
Five or six of us sat together on the couch—I bought a round of whiskey sours.
—The prince of bees! one of them shouted, waving at me a single moldy napkin—lifting the glass. —The best part yet!
—Yes, the prince! said another—winking with the eye and draining the glass. —Best part gone!
It had been discussed among us in recent months a baron had taken a room above the druggist—a duchess had leaned out of a cab window on O’Farrell shouting obscenities—and a king—somewhere a king. So I began describing my native land as a series of hills at the foot of mountains—caps of snow disappearing in the spring—asphalt road winding among a succession of overgrown ramparts—gold our currency at home, paper abroad—holding in the fist in the pocket my dwindling bundle of bills—the waitress stood over me—one of her lips swollen purple and yellow, tiny dark thread of a scab disappearing into the mouth.
—Pay as you go, she said.
Saying to them then with my own mouth, —There was a tulip garden—a sea of marigolds on the wind—a high maze of hedges. The gardener swung a metal detector through the beds, picking out of the earth toys I played with as a child—lead pellets for an air gun mixed with tiny hollow bones—models painted metallic gold. Dapple-gray horses broke the paddock fence at least once each week—caparisoned in the family crest—trampling through flowers—gardener and groom at constant odds.
Rose-darling draped her leg over mine—pale knee out from under the shredded red cloth—hooking the toes of the foot in the dark crook of the far leg—flexing against the plantis—so that I quickly became erect—and French kissing in the acrid air—her tongue tasted of lemon whiskey—and the nipple showing through a band of violet. I had mentioned a penthouse in the Mark Hopkins—or—the Fairmont—how the flags snapped in the wind—brick cobblestones filling the courtyard—Sunday brunch in the Tea Room—in the ears of waxen ladies and powdered gentlemen—running whole countries from the dessert cart—and Rose finally urging me up and out. We would have made it but for the band, who at that moment began a ludicrous tango—some middle-aged lothario dropped a crisp hundred-dollar-bill onto the music stand—moved through the parted crowd—extended his hand to the couch.
A ludicrous scene—ludicrous—bring in the sea again—the gardens—the stables—the dogs—flash forward to Grunewald pulling up the planks and cleaning the pit—dried blood confusing them—putting them in a sanguine mood—whereas fresh blood matted in the hair—the paws and nails—a muggy ferrous thing drifting through the barn—Rose rested on the money tin—jeers from the crowd—kicks in the sunken flanks from owners—set them at the ready.
—He dragged her, I said to one of them, a tall one named Frank—a kind of appeal—with no object—and no subject—they were all named Frank, I believe—and Frank squinted at me, knocked the tip of his nose with a finger—into the filmy space between us—grinned—wavering.
—Grabbed, I said again, looking out at them—hands of the lothario moving over her.
—Dragged, you mean, said Frank.
I worked my hand out of the pocket with the bills—a few left—bring in the sportscar, where I kept a secret of cash for emergencies rolled around a seat spring—bring in the penthouse—the hotel safe.
He jerked her among tables at the foot of the stage—band losing its way around those austere predatory rhythms.
—How about another, Frank said, lifting the glass and ringing it empty near the flat of his head—its blank earless meatus—a kind of gaping sphincter—or—tiny stricken mouth.
I removed my jacket and laid it into Rose’s empty place—my pink shirt long wrinkled and stale against the skin—undid its cuff and rolled up the sleeve. On my arm, a thick scar three inches long ran diagonally from the extensor digitorum longus, across the carpi radialus brevis, to the edge of the radialus longus—out of Frank a tiny peep—sat back in the chair and putting the empty glass to his lips—his face in the head—on the shoulders—stirred up—stirring them up—I could see that. A wheelchair-bound woman drifted closer—plastic foot turned at right angles to the leg—and a man I knew as Giovanni—maker of calzones—focaccia—hid his debilities in the shoes—possibly the shins—weaved limping from the bar and placed his foot on the table near the couch—shoe smelling horrible—and the foot waiting inside for its moment—sock falling at my own shoes—trailing evidence of rot—decay—only two toes—baggy grey worms curling, rooted to a hoof of glabrous flesh.
—Crabbing boat, Giovanni said, staring me down.—Bering Sea.
A clattering of hooked metal tines—wooden posts and latex fingers.
—Better put that away, Frank said to me, still holding the glass—eyes unwavering—my scar—arm.—Put that away and buy us another.
I waved it about.
—Plate glass, I said.—When I was ten.
Another on the couch with us—mustachioed—leather pouch hung around his neck always—bowing the head and squeezing one eye out of its dark socket—between the fingers and pushing it at me.
—Plate glass, I said again, offering the arm to the room—mimicking the kind of disdain—the haughtiness they feared—a superiority of affect—or—an affected superiority—finding the handkerchief and, in affectation, dusting off the scar—presenting it to them for consumption—ardor—honor.
Rose kissed the lothario as she had kissed me—evidence on the cheek—sucking in—angle of the mandible glowing with sweat—his hand disappeared somewhere behind her on its business—operating—making her—I reasoned all this out—reason still—and the turned plastic shoe bumped into my shin—and Frank who had seemed to shrink into his glass before stood over me—someone else’s hand on my shoulder—a hook rubbed gently my seventh cervical vertebra—coming down. I felt a kick—or—a strong shove—Giovanni somewhere to my left—Frank squaring off.
—Better put that away now, prince. And with the glass high over the head.—Let’s have us another.
They’re rushing me—the cohorts—before I can get there—the room and its sparse furnishings—where through clouded windowpanes—and—up through the floor—the walls—the band failed away still.
The sink ran hot and cold from separate taps—bowl of it brown and pocked—porcelain chipped—I filled my hands half from each before throwing on the face—or—half with cold—to avoid scalding them—my smooth young palms—pale and fading—first cold—then hot—then the face—learning it this way—and watched the blood swirl into its hole—leave splatters on the rim drying in tiny calamine drops.
Rose sat on the edge of the bed—twenty-one, she had said, but I thought seventeen—collar of her jacket fallen back off the shoulders—bony glowing skin—its contours—none of the blemish and festering of my own skin—paler again in the new light—the ridge of clavicle and its gentle hollow above the ribs—sinking in steps to the breasts—the top a crumpled rainbow flag on the floor.
Should I mention she went down on me with hunger—pulled the head of my cock with her tongue, pushed her fingers into my anus—that she pinned me down onto the bed, ground herself into my face—able to hear only her breath—and sweating—and knowing this made things worse in the days to come—makes things worse—or—rather—is it best to say nothing.
She found me on the sidewalk—the alleyway—crawling there—or beginning there and crawling to the sidewalk—deaf in the ears—her face in streetlit shadows swung above me on a thread—receding—or—the body falling into blood—blood into concrete—myself disappearing—and coming the few feet to the sparse room in the hotel above the bar where I had fixed myself for weeks—handing her the key—its name in gold letters across the plastic ring—The Strand.
—My downtown residence, I said at one point—bring in the room—the taps—the ministrations—these difficulties I must apologize for—wanting to go back to the sea—but fuck all that now.
We holed up for two days—avoiding the bartender who lived two flights above—and the rest of them—groped each other through nights—and in afternoons talked of race horses and derbies and the quickest way out of a hedge maze, which is to mark your starting point and then to make every right turn, only beginning to make left turns if you reach your starting point again—the groom taught me this—Frank was his name.
She didn’t say much about herself—had been in the city for three months—headed south—eluded a mother and two uncles—and lived on Polk Street near the theatres and sex shops—having heard this so many times before I shut my ears to it now—to it then.
—Where have you been, she said.—Is your father a powerful man—and the beach house—and a chandelier—and French doors—and a marble portico.
All of it—yes—and a long window set into the west-facing wall, Pacific from one end to the other—I sat on a leather couch—followed container ships out on the horizon, watching them crawl over the glass—and when they disappeared from sight I slept—ate—sitting again to see what would happen next. I was an only child, and she approved of this—the idea of it important to her in some way—she clung to me—kissed me.
—Alan, she said, holding the handkerchief, its dim blotches of blood failing to come out despite my attempts.
—You already said that one, I said.—I think you did.
I had been missing the bar somewhat—and tiring of her—not tiring exactly, but wondering—growing uncertain—when on the second night, there was a knock on the door—this interruption—impropriety—I thought the fellows had come to make amends—ply me for company and drinks.
I had for those two days continued to greet the bartender in the lobby—misremembering his name—so—nodding with the head—who had as little to do with the trouble as anyone though perhaps had himself lifted and tossed me through the entrance onto the sidewalk—the mustachioed man—sharp heads of the metacarpals coming in around the teres major with such force I could not bear lifting my arm higher than the shoulder—in the mornings sat outside on an empty paint tub smoking cigars—nodding to me—thinking now—now—if I could just go on nodding it would be all right. We had been ordering take-out from a place across the street—kung pao chicken—and—beef with garlic sauce—egg rolls—fortune cookies meant everything and we read them on the bed wringing hands and bleating a kind of oscine nervousness. Everything about these days remains—untenable though they are—pressing further in rather than out, as I intend them. Her leg swung back from the knee—over the body—sponging off weeks of rancor—of spit and tongues—and the alleys of Polk Street—of theatre cushions and shop corners and the pungent remnants of dissolute Millbrae salesmen—done with that for once and all—saying this to her with the mouth—the phallus and its glands—disinfecting from my limbs the sea and Monte Carlo—fine meals in the Fairmont—the odor of stables and the surprisingly leaden handshakes of jockies—cleansed and new to each other—I sat on the edge of the bed dragging a fingertip along the thigh—the trochanter—circling the small of the back—and a blotch of eggplant flesh on my forearm encircling four tiny black dots where Giovanni had driven the fork. I said,—In the Himalayas, it takes four weeks to reach base camp—but the rest of the climb can be made in a short-sleeve shirt without oxygen—the apparent curvature of the earth from that height—at that time—a trick of the sun and the altitude. My finger followed the spine to the coccyx and down between the buttocks—a growing murmur in the hallway—scraping wallpaper and dust under soles—the knock—three sharp knocks—the door rattling in its hinge—shellac in brittle flakes coming to rest on the floor—this voice through the keyhole I had never heard but suspected—and suspect still—having by now heard far too much of it.—Rosey? it said.
She sat up with a kind of recognition I couldn’t guess at—refused to see—dressed quickly and jumped for the door—still groped for pants and shirt—my sluggish limbs.
And now they enter—fill out this space—at my whim I think—arriving no sooner than I choose to allow them—though the sense of this adheres to nothing—and—forever reconstructed—my whim—my time—my convenience—breaking down under a collection of ill manners and pomade—blackened fingernails and bootheels and the salmon-colored scarf—bringing with them then all that would come later—turpentine stinging the nostrils—and the brain—apple crates rancid in the sun—the slick sensation of gun oil between the fingertips.
Mary stepped into the room—and Rose flushed—trembling and eager—stepping one bare foot onto another—off the chill floorboards—stood perched on the leg—how wounded I felt watching the face fall—her hopes however set in the end against my own narrow concerns vanishing—how I felt then!—Mary circled around—Ben closing the door—Grunewald standing apart. How to tell it from here—the delicacies crushed under it—the fragile limbs—a touch of the thumb, and—
—I knew it, Mary said.
The boys stony—silent—Rose confused.
—What did I tell you? Mary said to the boys.
Ben nodded—lit a cigarette—the matchstick burned on the floor igniting bits of dust around it and blacking the wood before going out. Grunewald stood near the dresser—unflinching—staring at me. Mary continued to circle.
—Look at this place, she said.
My downtown place—just for fun, of course—a bit of slumming—the beach become drab and unbearable after awhile. She pulled the salmon scarf from the neck—this kind of ragged mustard skin—slinging it over the shoulder—plucking paint chips from the molding with a fingernail and kicking at a hole in the plaster above the baseboard—turned to Rose.
—He’s got a beach house, Rose said, looking at me—my pants half snapped—and—shirt untucked—unbuttoned. The shoes lay under the bed and the jacket lay in a heap on the chair, threads from its tattered lining dangling over the floor—losing track of the handkerchief—and—never finding it afterward.
I looked for something heavy—a throwing thing—but there was nothing—sparse, as I said before—and here make their exit—or—ushering them out—done with it—as I have intended all along—extras—day players—and then they go out.
But they will somehow refuse me—linger in this end—so that I will be the one to go first.