"You'll buckle like a fruit, Silver.
Kissing dirt is what you do.
You'll make a royal goat's ass of it, and they'll come looking for the culprit. They'll want to dance on somebody's head. And it'll be you.
It'll be you.."
During the Great White Hurricane of 1888, a blizzard which ran from Chesapeake Bay to Maine, New York was paralysed under snowdrifts fifty feet high. Telegraph and telephone wires snapped as forty eight mile an hour winds damaged premises and vehicles. Broken glass blew around in the street. People drowned in snow. One hundred seamen perished in the Atlantic and fifteen thousand passengers were trapped helpless in the unheated cars of the city's four railway lines. The disaster led to the decision to create a city subway, which was approved in 1894.
"..You. You listening, Silver?" Through the kitchen window, Clifford Silver examined the damage. More snow had settled overnight, giant's backs in the almost-light.
"Alas, I have grown myself some old man's hands." Returning through the weak neon of his kitchen, he opened a cupboard and looked between a box of Gooseberry Chewsli and a box of Cola Golden Gregoires. As he reached up, he noticed, suddenly re-noticed, the depth of wrinkles which have, for a time now (the days were speeding up, only to cover less distance) made a home on the back of his hands. Under the flourescence, they are an impressive network.
Examine anything long enough and, by an inexplicable method our job might be to try to explain, whether an animate thing or not, it seems to reciprocate. "Silver?" For a reason best left unexplored, then, Clifford moved back to his kitchen window, to re-examine the giant's backs of snow. Indeed, they appeared to have turned around in the darkness, as if they were assizing him.
He shuddered. Bowl. "Ah." Each night, prior to bed, he prepared a bowl for the morning, a habit he had maintained his entire life. He preferred to sleep knowing a full bowl was there, or perhaps he preferred to imagine someone had prepared it for him. Clifford had maintained a Sense Of The Expected.
"Hmm." That morning, again for a reason he didn't consider, he changed his mind. The bowl sat prepared, a third from the rim, with Cola Golden Gregoires but, as he eased the refrigerator door over, a quart of milk held in a secure nip between his fingers, the utter trickiness of Chewsli suddenly struck him as somehow more suited to his mood. Chewlsi was a challenge. Gooseberry Chewlsi especially so, since much of its pleasure required balance. Not just in the ratio of milk to cereal a person might put into the bowl, but also in the ratio of milk to Chewsli captured with each spooning. Too much Chewlsi ushered the shrewd tang into a zone that could only be labelled 'poke'. Overdoing it on milk created a sensation upon swallowing that recalled childhood sweets, heated on a radiator, then allowed to cool. Something gone slightly wrong - the taste of mutation.
After putting a pan of milk on the stove (it had to be hot), he removed the box of Gregoires and began to return the contents of the bowl to the box. He considered the action as a touch immoral, mixing fresh Gregoire with an over-oxygenated diaspora, but he assured himself it was a tainting he could live with. It went successfully, with no spillage.
As he finalised the act with a confident tip ("Yay") a sudden wave of spores, like a seeded vapour, the merest huff of Gregoire, backdrafted from the box and began to pirouette towards the weak neon, in an off-centre halo that climbed higher and higher around the box top. He quickly lowered his nose into it, capturing the aroma. He found it rootsy, this smell, like some course ancestor to the chummy Cola Golden flavour. Dark, misunderstood, more bass notes. Not over-eager, yet grateful for release - a grateful genie freed from the exasperating task of recreating a reminder of itself as it rinsed against an intended's tongue. "Mmm." He watched the huff run wild, loll, dissipate and fall.
"Pfff." He blew upon the empty bowl but, prior to a replenishing it, Clifford Silver set it down and attempted to recreate the huff of Gregoire with the other cereal, the Chewsli, for comparison. He gave it a sharp squeeze inward, but nothing appeared. "Hmm." "It is coming, Silver." On its way. In flight. Taking down steps and crossing hallways. Somewhere, her work was beginning, like most everyone else. Perhaps she had forgotten something and had to turn to go back her apartment. A book, probably some form of catechism.
Patiently, he moved towards the first display of dawn, grinding through a break between his two adjacent, facing tenements and beginning its slow, yellow illumination of the snow and the blinds in his kitchen. Repeating the box exercise, his eyes narrowed in on the space where any subtle, assisted backdraft might occur. Then he examined the insides.
She hates the city faces. So cold, defensive, focused in on themselves. Exhausted they are, exhausted examining their own lack. For those not musical, the musician holds a secret. Likewise, her near-Siberian features and demeanour held an infinite secrecy with no actual content. Pure secrecy, like an abstract oil, a person's response is to complete, by imagination, what was not laid out on a tray and available for all. In the imagination, there might only unmentionable, inevitable cruelty, and a person could look for it for hours. But her name is neither Frou Frou, nor the Froumeister General, nor even Froudle Doodle Do. She was Nokja, and her homebaked simplicity had the cruelty to mock a world of dash and fancy. She was youth but it was more than youth that made him feel that he was looking at someone becoming. Clear natured and learning. Youth comes close to becoming. It looks the part, but it is not the whole story. Under her uniform, Clifford saw tunic, knee socks, flat shoes. Modesty, religiousity. And across the bakery, he was damn sure he could smell her unperfumed health - wholesome, trustworthy. So wholesome no man will ever be ("Who reaches.. falls, Silver.") good enough.
Cruelty was (being alone he tended to think this, there's an unheard howl in any self-sufficient system) his problem. He had never learned it, as we must. Somewhere deep below the 'Hey's and 'Howdy's, we privately know that we must internalise something not unlike cruelty. Not to be pleased by an evil act, but to know that something of its intensity lies behind us. That might be enough. Or maybe what we need has no word, but cruelty comes close.
He shook the box and re-examined. The Maryland Gold Heats had been a giant-sized cruelty, although he had never laid it on thick with Master Beauregard. Clifford showed the whip. He used it only in the backhand position as a reminder. He gave a chance to respond before showing it again. And when he did use it, it was in rhythm with Beauregard's stride, and once only. He had never used the whip whilst ahead, hung, out of contention or past the post. Rendered transparent in shock, as he turned his head to follow the sound of hooves disappearing around the running rail, he might have asked the horse if he had been too cruel. Or not cruel enough. (Maybe that's something else we have to work out). And, in such a dream state, the horse might even have told him.
He lowered his nose into the box. They said he hadn't deserved it. They said it was a course for breeders. Breeders won Maryland. Four and a quarter miles of sticky ground. Almost too easily, Clifford had pulled well ahead. Turning frenzied, he flunked the third fence and found himself spun, on the sod, dropped on, marched on and kicked forward. There he lay, like a dog giving in, deferring to some superior animal and poised for its fatal, unmatchable force. The benevolent jawing, from a phantom, primordial pack. That pose, arms bent back at the elbow, wrists limp, knees raised, was a preparation not for tummy tickle but for death. Shocked into the parallel adrenal dimension, it was a posture that meant the show was over, less than sixty seconds in.
Antebellum. Stroker's Commotion.
Dr Nibs. Never On A Sunday. Under his eyelids, he watched his closest
pursuers in flight overhead, splitting the sun into flickers. Ballard's Clap.
Seconda. Under his head, he felt the tremors of their descent, and it rattled
him around on the grass like the wrath of battle condensed. Mostly Marigolds.
Hold Me Henry. Abruptly, and before he could even register an objective
to throw himself towards the safety of the fence, the fusillade ended (save
for a fussy five-year-old called Aristotle, who'd had a history of nerves since
sponges were pushed up his nose prior to the Belmont Stakes and had fought the
approach). The sound and
the fury was gone, leaving a faraway tannoy squawking for help, like a thing
in a tin can, and the rumbled curse of stakeholders in the grandstand, like
an unforgiving sea.
"Hey." Waiting for a degree or two of extra dawn, Clifford examined the infinite grains of Chewsli. He squeezed, then shook again.
Back at the Heats, crippled and alone, he recalled seeking some kind of living solace in eyes, and recalled finding them. Beauregard, having shaken himself, had flipped up to loiter in a hunch near the running rail, and was snorting and inspecting the grass like nothing much had happened. Suddenly, a uniquely equine expression, too dumb for such a beautiful animal, as one eye bent side-on. Fearing, eternally apologetic, a single swish of tail even seemed to offer its own 'Hey.'
While Clifford held a death posture, feeling nothing but the strongest need to keep their slow ('Hey back') mutual regard, the sudden drop in adrenalin began to reveal a series of slicing sensations in both legs, and in his lower back. Like cracked bones still cracking, even the onset of gravity and the modest return of the necessary, normal tension were enough to rend the ruined muscles, to saw drunkenly at the tendons which supported them.
He began to howl, and howl so recklessly that Beauregard limped off in the wrong direction, around the edge of the steeplechase, and the jockey didn't stop screaming for over forty minutes. When they finally sedated him, his final thought, a conviction burrowing into the will to live itself, was that this event must, one day and possibly off into the future, do him some sort of good. Amongst other things, there was Clifford's Sense Of Waiting.
"Splendid." The milk revolved a thin film, then boiled up the sides of the pan. With the Gooseberry Chewsli apparition failing to appear, he returned across the kitchen and resumed breakfast. Pouring some pineapple juice and spreading some Klutmacher's 100% Rape And Clover Monofloral onto a slice of rye bread, he decided to top it with a chopped banana, for his duodenum. Banana, he mused, peeling. A strict nutritionist sees potassium and, in this, the drunk sees support through tomorrow's hangover. A child sees a split in a diner, while the adolescent in nature might find time for a crude gesture. A dieter sees one hundred and seventy calories, while a clown sees someone going flat on their ass. A kingdom of things in the same yellow curve, and most of us see it all.
Clifford slurped the last of the cereal, watching the sun. She hated city faces, but held out for a goodness she knew could be found about her. A loftiness she had, an impenetrable, for hers was a far away kingdom. Beyond Europe. Turning to the rye bread, Clifford saw a parachute harness hanging from a tree, and a dash over long grass towards a farmhouse. Europa.
He sniffed, and examined the constellation of crumbs falling on his empty plate. She hated city faces. Yesterday, maintaining his patient smile, he waited behind another customer, taking his time, flopping like a rap star.
"Hey, Betty. What is you up to this weekend? I got two tickets for the circus. Move with me. Move with me." He begins a slow dance with himself, still plugged into an iPod.
"The circus. What am I, six?" Betty looks at Nokja.
"Not a kid's circus." He begins to jerk his hips up and down against the vitrine. "They got sumo rats and everything. Give me one of those macaroons. See you here at six? I'll be waiting for you, baby. Baby baby. Baby baby baby baby."
"Nokja, would you serve the gentleman?"
"Ask her to the circus like a half-wit, Si-."
After his racing career ended, Clifford was in and out of hospital for three years, heavily pinned and unable to walk due to the solid plugs of antibiotics they embedded in his hips (the surgeons unhurriedly admitted their responsibility for an infection and he successfully sued). During this difficult time he organised and marketed the annual Injured Jockey Calendar, and, while his walking improved, he went through a divorce (upon discovering that his wife was giving accounts of their awkward sex life to her therapist, he had fantasies of taping her mouth shut, fantasies which he began to insist upon in bed. His compulsions lead his wife to seek further therapy and a highly-wired emotional hiatus edged their respect for one onto a self-perpetuating helter skelter. Although Clifford insisted that his only crime was a desire for some sense of the sacred, they divorced to avoid physical harm to one another).
"-urp." Once he had
finished breakfast, with the sun now confirmedly up, he moved down the hall
to prepare his bath. The Maryland Gold Heats disqualified a lot. But when a
lot was disqualified and you still wake up each morning, what to do? Two years
after his divorce, and until his recent retirement, he founded and edited the
newsletter for a charitable group supporting fellow sufferers of a syndrome
he contracted in the summer of 1979. Recommended towards any kind of positive
action by his physician, he still made time for the role of Honorary President.
Would a lick of cruelty have steered him from his Sense Of Impending Doom Syndrome?
Diet helped, and fresh pineapples helped especially. Morning
meant washing the SIDS away, and washing well kept the SIDS away all day. As
he opened the door to his disability bath, he entered the European farmhouse,
where a family helped him into their cellar. After turning on the radio, he
sat and adjusted the flow of water, let it fill around him.
"You'll buckle like a fruit, Silver. Like a bedwetter or a backward or both. Staring and not able to do nothi-" She is unbuttoning her coat, uncoiling the scarf from around her neck, running an eye across a vitrine of cheesecake, babka, parfait and strudle. Straightening her hair, she approves of the latest Very Berry Cake, and the Star Anise ganache. She is leaning into the kitchens for her Heys, through the warm smells of challah, bagel, ripening pie. She takes a tray of Cannoliccho Siciliani and Ciarlotta di Mele. Arranges them in another vitrine. Returns for a second tray. Blackout cake and vibrant pots of mousse: peach, key lime, white chocolate, passion fruit and raspberry. "-nothing. They'll dance on you."
"Oo oo." He eased himself around in the hot water, and waited till it reached past his waist before adding six-to-ten splashes of counter-SIDS (being an essense of pressed valerian, skullcap, passionflower and so forth) prepared for him by a group member and great friend in Greenwich Village. She made ear candles too, which he used weekly.
Tuesday meant the gender issues phone-in on the Community Radio. "..and at last count the English language had two hundred and twenty words, almost all derogatory, for the sexually promiscuous female. It has about twenty words for a sexually promiscuous male, and most of them are taken as complimentary."
"Shit's a bitch. I'll write you a prescription. Quit flapping, make it happen."
"You go, caller."
Clifford suspected that the first word in any language ever was 'No!' Some primordial bark, an I've-had-it-up-to-here howl from a defiant cavegirl, fending off advances. The greatest trick of modernity, he mused, is to convince us what is modern and what is not. After the bath, he would towel, shave and choose between ties. Regardless of what happened, he could say that he faced it in an I've-had-it-up-to-here howl at the modern laxity. In an unconscious reflection of his morning musings, he might have chosen a banana-ish ochre tie, and offset this with a petrol blue single-breasted suit.
Clifford examined his naked body. Sometimes he felt like a man inside out, as if the world's gaze, rather than facing a solid object, reflected off him. Disqualified, even by himself, from any kind of appraisal, the kingdom of things that might give Clifford Silver a meaning came apart, turned to birds and split like light. And when things were disqualified and the world's jazz was at a pitch you were no longer designed to hear, when you were just passing and you still kept waking up to face the mornings, what were you to do? Keep passing. Pass with it. Recognise the fellow passer, passim or passenger.
He looked around the bathroom, not hearing the radio. He watched the bathroom light, then pressed his chest, held his breath, and ("Sid..") slipped beneath the water. Curtain up, SID.
It is he, then, briefly. Leaning, touching black-backed cards, as if for solitaire. In the tall dressing room mirror, framed in walnut, with silver dragons intercoiling, his cloak is coal black and heavy like a fire blanket. It waits, like a sidekick, draped over the back of a high Persian chair - a prop, it must be, from some production.
An elbow. Her uniform, her back and hair. A smile through condensation. Smiling himself. Passing, once or twice he might slow, turn to examine her properly, over the shoulders of a New York eternally preparing. Sometimes choking with fear on Mulvenna Square, wiping his chin, swapping his handkerchief for a mint for his breath from his pocket, one eye à la Beauregard, for the merest hint of her. Actually going into Occasions (which was Gombrowicz's, which was Duffy's) required timing.
Sid exhales, flexs his fingers and tests his senses. He leans across to pull a cotton handkerchief from a black wooden box resting on a divan patterned in rose and red prisms, then picks a black cane up from the floor. Carefully, he folds the cloth and draws it the length of the cane, clearing blood.
He felt himself slowly becoming defined by the water pressure. Clifford used to count his Occasions passing, to gauge a sort of optimum quantity, to attempt to repeat success each day. The closest optimum he came to was eight. But everything depended on several factors.
The dressing room door is rapped while Sid is washing his hands. He swipes back his hair and opens it.
"Timeless, Sid." A stage hand passes him a bouquet of black and white lilies. "Major, major fracturing."
Sid thanks the stage hand. He closes the door and reads the card. 'I know you said we never give a man flowers, but what on earth else?'
He can hear the sound of eight hooves hit the cobbling, through the window at the rear of the dressing room. He passes to the curtains, to peer through equal squares of clear and variously coloured glass. Drawing the Black Ambulance to pause, two horses then assume the wait posture. To the right, the stage door is opened, sending fans and triangles of light across the steps and across the snow and up to reach the rich lacquer of the Ambulance door. Mute, awkward shadows then approach, as several of the sturdier stage hands jostle a lifeless body from the building.
Sid Silver returns to retrieve his cloak, passes it over his shoulders. The calendar says 1888.
Having no choice, Clifford surfaced to burble water and counter-SIDS in a spurt from his mouth, then drew back oxygen appreciatively for a while.
"Looks like it's set to snow, miss." Shoes. Refined and fashionable shoes. The gentleman leans forward.
He slips back under the surface of bath water, where a multiplicity of shoes are passing on Broadway.
She doesn't look up. "Miss, aren't you feeling well?" The voice is much closer.
She rises from the hotel steps, and turns to flee in the direction of an alley. The gentleman bends to follow. "Benson, please. A mission girl. In God's name, come away."
The alley is comparatively quiet. For some reason, it is warmer there. She slows her run to a walk as she enters the darkness. What has she got? What has she got? Before she has got very far, a hand on her shoulder stops her abruptly. "Ya got it? What ya got?" His voice is thick and treacly. He spits.
She hands it to him and turns. "Here, where ya goin, mademoiselle? It's not midnight." Fingers return to the nape of her neck as he counts, his thumb pressing hard into the pulse point. She pauses in this position, as if in a count, as if trained that way.
They are getting wet, from an overflow in a high drain. She looks up into the origin of the droplets. Caught in slope of light, they oyster-shell towards her face. "Mott Street."
As the figure squares up, half his face falls into the orange from Broadway. "D'ya actually think those fools are friends of yours? Do ya, girl? What, with their pampas hemp and their song and dance? You know they ain't nothing of the sort. You cry out and the street falls deaf. You fall back and Lady Liberty ain't had her arms delivered. You ain't got a friend here, girl. You know it. I know it. Nobody."
"Duster, I.." She speaks cautiously. ".. I don't wanna work with you no more."
He throws her against the wall. "What? Call it what? What ya got ta do? Smile." She turns her head away. "Smile for me. Smile." He pushes her mouth up at the side, cracks her on the cheek with his hand. "There's a smile." He continues doing this. "There's a smile now." He swipes hard. "There's a big smile." She tries to free herself but is gripped tightly. "Keep it warm." He finishes, and draws the handle of a heavy Bowie knife out from the innards of his coat. "I've cut 'em. I'd cut ya deep as any gentleman would ask me too. Till cutting's the business I can't cut ya. But I can keep 'em warm." He pushes her head against the wall. "Run, is it? Run from Duster and he'll cut ya into a sack o'dog bits. And what the dogs choke up he'll post home to granma."
Vaulting to and fro behind the tenements, hooves seem to fall ahead of themselves rapidly, turning their approach around a butchers' billboard, whitened awnings, and down through the shifting constellations of snow.
"Duster, the gentleman said he'd see me right."
"What gentleman? McKenzie? Carpenter?"
"A kind and worthy gentleman. He said if I was facing trouble, I only had to say."
"Say? You're good at sayin'. Say some more."
"He said I didn't have to entertain. Said I was pretty. Said he would paint me. Said one day.." She wipes an eye. ".. I'd see Paris. In a way I couldn't imagine. I'd get there. Paris, Duster. All the sophisticated ladies would come. And their eyes, accustomed to every shade of good taste, would light up in rapture. And the gentlemen of Paris, the gentlemen would fall in love with me. As much as he.." Duster's eyes widen. ".. as he has."
Duster falls silent. Standing back a pace, he watches the snow collected on the ground.
"And that's why I ain't working with you no more." She seems upset. "He put his head at my belly. Kissed me. Said things a girl never dreamt of. And I cannot work with you no more, Duster." It seems as though she has been training herself with these words, yet she shakes her head as she says them. "No more."
Hooves will fall ahead of themselves.
As the Bowie knife leaves his coat, the Black Ambulance will pause at the end of the alley.
Clifford was struggling.
"Here he is, your gentleman." And he will approach.
Dragging her to her knees, Duster runs the blade against her throat. "Good sir, kind sir." He spits.
And he will keep approaching, an unknown, a silhouette to both of them. And she will try to shade her eye against the orange glow from Broadway.
Parting the heavy canopy of water for a frantic gulp for air, he reappeared to search for the bathroom light.
Barbiturates shut the brain down first and are considered more humane. Humane. Savour the word. "You're off somewhere kinder, old fellow." He says, finding an artery in the neck. He presses the needle for a while, till it breaks the skin and slips in up to its limit. "Just letting out the air. Trust me." He looks up, searching for a spectator, as if it is necessary to demonstrate this act, as if it might be something someone would need to do again. And when he looks back, the barbiturates have gone.
He tugs the needle free and stands back. "Bullets aren't the party people think."
Once the brain has shut down, the twitch and sway in the legs will follow. "I'll fire up the renderer." He adds, and leaves.
Clifford can't move. He tries to reach out, to reach his young man's hands away from the awkward scaffolding of splints, bolts and braces, to caress Beauregard under the chin, for a kind of goodbye. Hey.
He watches the departing surgeon leave the stables and pass into the clear Maryland air. He decides to try to shift forward but, as he glances back, the eye that examined his late arrival, an arrival which was the source of all the twitch and sway in the legs, finally closes over.
"Hey." Clifford shaved. He paused to re-examine himself briefly in the mirror. A borrowed face, speeding up to the point of not moving, its lips part. And when it spoke. When it spoke. Nobody ever filled with rapture when it spoke.
He dried, taking his time. Then he turned off the radio, and moved from the bathroom to the bedroom, to continue dressing.