(Originally posted March 6, 2008)
I tell you, hopeless grief is passionless;
That only men incredulous of despair,
Half-taught in anguish, through the midnight air
Beat upward to God's throne in loud access
Of shrieking and reproach...
-- Elizabeth Barrett Browning
The dreaming man kicked ineffectually at the North Korean soldier clawing for his silver belt good-luck ring and woke up. A loose hair bobbed as his head trembled and caught in his sleep-encrusted eye. The dust particles agitated in his struggle swirled in the cold glare of the morning sun that knifed through the casement windows and bore its fiery imprint on the man's squinted face. He brought himself to a sitting position on the edge of the bed, his back twinging a little, but what else was new. The tiny studio apartment smelled of his nocturnal exhalations, an acrid mixture of garlic, wine and cigarettes. Creakily rising off the bed he walked to the bathroom to urinate and passed the large plastic-framed mirror, glimpsing his pillow-creased face and hunched shoulders and thought nothing.
This morning would be budget morning, so over a cup of Sanka he spread his files out on the folding kitchen table and proceeded to break down his weekly take-home pay into the innocuous bits that made up the dubious whole. He had been spending too much and was too far behind on his rent, car and credit card payments to continue and so, like everyone else he had to tighten his belt just a little more. Most "successful" men his age were looking forward to retirement, a pension, or just living off what they had saved. But being a personal manager of Catskill comics and singers was not nearly as lucrative as it once was. And his one "big" act had died two years ago, leaving him without a meal ticket, so to speak. The search for a comparable younger comic proved only moderately successful in this Mac Sellers kid; soon he, too, took his leave and once again the man was left to deal with the unattractive prospect of making sense out of a diminishing set of choices.
He opened a writing tablet, uncapped a black felt-tipped pen and wrote his weekly income at the top center of the ruled page:
The "var." meant that this figure varied depending on how much fringe money was made from his lesser acts who did or did not work that week. It wasn't really commission since he didn't handle acts on his own anymore, just an arbitrarily determined wage that the younger agents (who ran the office where he was allowed to use a desk rent-free) had allotted him. They felt sorry for him. His was a name everyone in the business knew; had learned from him while they themselves worked their way up and thought him to be a stand-up guy who as of late was just very unlucky. At least that's what he hoped they thought.
The figures in front of his eyes tingled and blurred and went away and he thought about his father. Willie had been an agent as well, a prosperous and ruthless man, known for his dealings with the Mafia in the '30s, and for his peculiarly acute eye for spotting rising talent. He had handled the likes of Gleason and a young Don Rickles, giving them a leg up in the business before (somewhat mysteriously) setting them free to become highly paid stars. And his son, despite earlier protestations which were quickly quelled, became his partner, inheriting the old man's smarts and reputation, but in the end, not his enthusiasm. He had never really wanted this life of bounced checks, booze and "dames" of which show business proudly boasted. Although a Bronx boy, he had love of the outdoors through exposure in a New Deal forestry program for underprivileged youth. But after this and a few other stints of rebellion, he became the son that Willie wanted, developing a hard exterior and his own keen eye. Keen eyes...
He blinked. He looked down at the figure on the sheet in front of him and underlined it with a six-inch ruler and wrote:
$378.00 var. (net after taxes) x 4 =
$1512.00 monthly -
$ 583.00 rent -
$ 149.00 car payment -
$ 57.00 Con Ed and telephone (var. monthly) -
$ 50.00 credit card ($2300.00 outstanding) -
$ 50.00 food (weekly) - $ 50.00 sundries (kitchen and bath supplies) -
$ 50.00 Mother (weekly) -
$ 167.27 glaucoma eye drops -
$ 10.00 transportation (weekly) -
$ 25.00 lunches (weekly) -
$ 10.00 misc. (var.) =
So at the end of the month, after conservative spending, he still had a deficit of about $95.00. He leaned his elbows on the table and massaged his purple-lidded eyes slowly. He rose to spill the cooled Sanka out into the sink, went to the closet to put on his corduroy coat and went downstairs to move his car across the street. Today was an alternate parking day.
He sat in the car waiting, the motor idling smoothly. His frosted, steamy breath blew wearily about the car's interior as he sat there unblinking, vanishing into a romantic daydream: reunited with his estranged wife and children, whom he hadn't seen in four years, they came to him now, smiling beatifically, his wife's hand smoothing his thinning hair. His daughter and son reached out and gently laid their hands on his shoulder and he closed his eyes and sighed his bitterness out into the air, over them, and away forever.
He still loved her. And he had often made it known to his associates and even to the occasional girlfriend. They were a model '50s couple full of dash, tough sophistication and New York street hip and together they ran with a fast and funny showbiz crowd, clubbing, drinking and staying out to all hours. She was a saloon singer lured by his Bogart sensuality, he by her velvet voice winding like ivy into the smokey night club atmosphere with each sweet, sad ballad. They posed for pictures in a 50 cent foto-booth, their frenetic laughter blurring their images as if they shot through life at a hundred miles an hour. They stared at each other across tables at the cabarets, oblivious to the gently amused titterings of their companions who envied their youth and beauty and love. His hands stopped trembling when they caressed her hair and soft featured face.
Someone getting into a car across the street pierced the reverie and he shifted his car into gear. He must be the first to park in that space. He wouldn't let anyone get it but him.
At 10 o'clock he rolled into the office with pleasant "hellos" to the secretaries, went directly to his desk and lit a cigarette. He had not come to any conclusion re: his financial situation, which when mapped out was skeletal to begin with. Perhaps he could get rid of the car, by no means the largest expense, but a headache that did require maintenance every so often, and the relief of which would mean that he would be unable to drive up to the mountains to catch an act, and severely restrict his already limited means of escape. Then the outrage of having to shell out almost $200.00 for eye drops was something that he had to live with or go blind or crazy from the skull-cracking headaches the glaucoma produced. And that his annoyingly infirm mother required weekly filial and financial assistance was something he would never consider ending, despite her plaintive dotings that dominated their Saturday breakfasts and daily phone conversations. She was his mother, and he was obliged. In fact, he should call her now. His raw pink fingers dialed the number.
The conversation was no different from any other they ever had, and his responses were uttered without any thought, as they were invariably "yes, ma, no ma" responses. It ended with a frustrated, bottled anger that made itself known through gritting teeth and tightening jaw, making every word an almost painful threat to stop her incessant badgering. White-knuckled hand wrapping around the receiver, he slammed it into the cradle. End of conversation.
Her tinny voice squirmed and needled through his head and he tried to busy himself with his budget. If only his younger sister could put the cork in the bottle long enough and show her face once in a while maybe it wouldn't be so bad. But she had flown from her responsibilities long ago and could not be retrieved. He couldn't watch his mother erode all by himself, dreading the day he would have to institutionalize her. He supposed he would visit her every weekend there, as well, bringing her the TV Guide and the newspapers. But her encroaching senility would make an already difficult situation nearly impossible to bear. His father was buried with his reading glasses on, he remembered. Some people chuckled derisively at the open-casket affair and he himself felt a sort of perverse, confused amusement at the thought of his domineering father now reduced to a ludicrously bespectacled husk. But he had to summon up all his reserve to stop himself from beating the life out of those who were so amused.
A white-hot thread of heartburn rose from his sternum to the base of his throat and he went to the tiny refrigerator to sip from an opened pint of milk. As he brought it to his lips, the acrid curdled brew wafted into his mouth and nose, and he felt his muscles gagging to vomit. He swallowed hard, and grimacing, threw the container into the trash.
Throughout the rest of the morning he tried to scare up work for the two remaining acts he had any contact with: a husband and wife tango team (whom he was able to book on a cruise to Nassau) and an under-the-hill comic with a reputation for drunken-ness and who refused to work clean (he would go jobless that week). At one o'clock he went to lunch.
He walked along 51st street towards the Sabrett hot dog stand on 6th avenue. Looking down as he walked, his eyes fell into the rhythmic brushing of his suede shoes on the asphalt. He heard each footfall, and his thoughts eddied back to the time he and his son had run together around a wooden track that had been erected for a meet at the Catholic high school across from their apartment building. They had scaled the fence and run on the track like children, racing at intervals, he letting his 10-year-old son edge him out at the end. They ran in unison and the delightful wooden ponkponkponkponk of their footfalls over the hollow wood echoed in his mind. A wistful smile started to form on his lips but stopped at the sight of the prostrate form lying on the sidewalk. A walnut-brown hand beckoned him, though he could not see the face belonging to the hand. His expression hardened into a determined jaw-clenching sneer, and looking down, continued past.
Someone was calling from behind. He heard it once, twice, but would not turn. The voice was one which called him "Uncle" and at that the man momentarily whirled:
"I'm hungry, lonely and broke!"
He spat out the words without seeing his antagonist and went on walking. His nephew stood there, his jaw hanging slackly.
He devoured a hot dog with mustard and onions and drank a Coke. The day was exceedingly cold for such a rapidly ebbing winter. Hands thrust into his pockets, fingering the change from lunch and a crumpled tissue he had used to staunch a nosebleed from the morning before, he returned to the office. Without looking up he threw the tissue onto the sidewalk, right where the homeless man had been, now replaced by a grayish-yellow puddle and that morning's newspaper.
At his desk he made phone call after phone call, some to find work for the under-the-hill comic (who had made his own thickly threatening call to him that ended in a red-faced shouting match, not uncommon in an office of this type), and others to stave off the menacing collection agencies, who laid in wait to prey upon the weakened and confused. The thought of cutting back even more than he already was caused his stomach to roil and sputter lowly.
He lit a low-tar cigarette and swallowed the milky blue smoke.
He exhaled a remembrance of his daughter that saw her sitting in the park at dusk with her "friends", these potentially dangerous long-hairs that were seen to shoot crudely cooked chemicals into their arms. He strode purposefully into the park and approached the group sternly and silently, grabbed the girl by her thin white arm and dared with his eyes anyone who would even think of stopping him. He inhaled again, and now she kicked at him as he tried to tell her of his embarrassment, of her mother's embarrassment, and how would it look to her younger brother? And as her kicks became more desperate, so his insistent anger became more brutal and he had to hold her and slap her.
His face reddened.
At his desk, he began to plan his dinner for that evening: a small Caesar salad and chicken (whether to boil or broil it?) and a dessert of Oreos. Maybe he'd splurge, despite his worries, and buy a pint of vanilla ice cream to dollop over the cookies. And his favorite film, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon would be shown tonight with fewer commercial interruptions. The vivid blues and yellows of the cavalry's uniforms and Victor McLaglin's loveably bibulous sergeant sounded slightly tinny and beautiful in his mind's ear. Elenore, the office secretary who sat at the desk by the front door called out to him:
"Could you Xerox something for me, hon?"
He was closer to the Xerox room than she was, and although Elenore was in general a good-natured idiot, he felt put upon by her overall, henna-tinted disinterest. He reached for the player's contract she extended toward him, without getting out of her swivel chair. He frowned, as she didn't say "thank you" and went into the room and closed the door.
He switched on the machine. It made a piercing whine, drowning out the voices making lucrative deals in the big offices in the next room. Lifting up the rubber flap, he inserted the contract under it. Accidentally tripping the "copy" button before the flap was lowered, a strobe of white light burst into his unprepared eyes making his phosphenes dance in purple blooms and swirls. He shook his head to clear it and felt his throat tighten. He hacked to try to loosen the phlegm that must be lodged there. His chest felt congested and tight. Bracing both hands on the machine as it reproduced the contract, he dropped his head forward and closed his eyes tightly. The purple blossoms bloomed into white explosions as now cough after cough wracked his torso, sending tingly-hot shudders through the arteries that pulsed out on his temples and neck. His stomach felt warm and sent up a stream of acrid bile, mixed with the semi-digested mustard/onion mixture of hours earlier. He wanted to lie down, but before he could his knees buckled and he fell to the floor. His head hit the rug and a plume of colors streamed over his face and around the room, and as the warm vomit ran over the rim of his open lips he saw a grainy image of the door opening and Elenore making a sound that was both distant and very near. Her muffled pleas became the sound of the pulsing rush of his blood in his ears and he felt a little embarrassed and wanted to go to sleep. He closed his eyes.
A thousand years passed and his eyes opened to see Elenore's rouged face inches from his. He knew that her fingers were in his mouth holding his tongue and he wondered if he should ask her why. She had a small crumb of mucous in the corner of her eye and looking past her just over her shoulder he saw Victor McLaglin give him an amused salute, his chapped lips parting in a benevolent grin. He felt scared and he knew that he was crying, crying in long moist jags that warmed his whole body. His arms felt light and fell away and he felt himself being pulled toward the center of something, his soul rolling and yawing as if on a raft, all the secrets and yearnings and pain becoming suddenly liquid and velvet and without horizon. His curiosity got the best of him and he went away, away from now, and from what was, and from what would soon be. He wanted to go.
And so he did.