Tooth and Claw | Chapter 20 of 29

Author: T. Coraghessan Boyle | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1399 Views | Add a Review

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All the Wrecks I’ve Crawled Out Of

ALL I WANTED, really, was to attain mythic status. Along the lines, say, of James Dean, Brom Bones, Paul Bunyan, my father. My father was a giant among men, with good-sized trees for arms and fists like buckets of nails, and I was not a giant among men. I wasn’t even a man, though I began to look like one as I grew into my shoulders and eventually found something to shave off my cheeks after a close and patient scrutiny, and I manfully flunked out of three colleges and worked at digging graves at the Beth-El cemetery and shoveling chicken shit at the Shepherd Hill Egg Farm till I got smart and started bartending. That was a kind of wreckage, I suppose—flunking out—but there was much more to come, wrecks both literal and figurative, replete with flames, blood, crushed metal and broken hearts, a whole swath of destruction and self-immolation, my own personal skid marks etched into the road of my life and maybe yours too.

So. Where to start? With Helen, I suppose, Helen Kreisler. She was a cocktail waitress at the restaurant where I was mixing drinks six and a half days a week, four years older than I when I met her—that is, twenty-seven—and with a face that wasn’t exactly pretty in any conventional sense, but more a field for the play of psychodrama, martyrdom and high-level neurosis. It was an old face, much older than her cheerleader’s body and her still relatively tender years, a face full of worry, with lines scored around her eyes and dug deep into the corners of her mouth. She wore her hair long and parted in the middle, after the fashion of the day, and her eyes—the exact color of aluminum foil—jumped out of her tanned face from a hundred feet away. They were alien eyes, that’s what I called them. And her too. Alien, that was my pet name for her, and I used it to urge her on when she was on top of me and my hands were on her breasts and her mouth had gone slack with the feeling of what I was doing to her.

It was about a month after I started working at Brennan’s Steakhouse that we decided to move in together. We found a two-bedroom house dropped down in a blizzard of trees by the side of a frozen lake. This was in suburban New York, by the way, in the farthest, darkest reaches of northern Westchester, where the nights were black-dark and close. The house was cheap, so far as rent was concerned, because it was a summer house, minimally insulated, but as we were soon to discover, two hundred dollars a month would go up the chimney or stovepipe or whatever it was that was connected to the fuel-evaporating furnace in the basement. Helen was charmed despite the water-stained exterior walls and the stink of frozen mouseshit and ancient congealed grease that hit you in the face like a two-by-four the minute you stepped in the door, and we lied to the landlady (a mustachioed widow with breasts the size of New Jersey and Connecticut respectively) about our marital status, got out our wallets and put down our first and last months’ rent. It was a move up for me at any rate, because to this point I’d been living in a basement apartment at my parents’ house, sleeping late as bartenders will do, and listening to the heavy stolid tread of my father’s footsteps above me as he maneuvered around his coffee cup in the morning before leaving for work.

Helen fixed the place up with some cheap rugs and prints and a truckload of bric-a-brac from the local head shop—candles, incense burners, ceramic bongs, that sort of thing. We never cooked. We were very drunk and very stoned. Meals, in which we weren’t especially interested, came to us out of a saucepan at the restaurant—except for breakfast, a fuzzy, woozy meal heavy on the sugars and starches and consumed languidly at the diner. Our sex was youthful, fueled by hormonal rushes, pot and amyl nitrate, and I was feeling pretty good about things—about myself, I mean—for the first time in my life.

But before I get into all that, I ought to tell you about the first of the wrecks, the one from which all the others seemed to spool out like fishing line that’s been on the shelf too long. It was my first night at work, at Brennan’s, that is. I’d done a little bartending weekends in college, but it was strictly beer, 7&7, rum and Coke, that sort of thing, and I was a little tentative about Brennan’s, a big softly lit place that managed to be intimate and frenziedly public at the same time, and Ski Silinski, the other bartender, gave me two shots of 151 and a Tuinol to calm me before the crush started. Well, the crush started, and I was still about as hyper as you can get without strictly requiring a straitjacket, but way up on the high end of that barely controlled hysteria there was a calm plateau of rum, Tuinol and the beer I sipped steadily all night long—and this was a place I aspired to reach eventually, once the restaurant closed down and I could haul myself up there and fade into a warm, post-conscious glow. We did something like a hundred and ten dinners that night, I met and flirted with Helen and three other cocktail waitresses and half a dozen partially lit female customers, and, all things considered, acquitted myself well. Ski and I had the door locked, the glasses washed and tomorrow’s fruit cut and stowed when Jimmy Brennan walked in.

Helen and one of the other waitresses—Adele-something—were sitting at the bar, the stereo was cranked and we were having a celebratory nightcap at the time. It didn’t faze Jimmy. He was the owner, only thirty-two years old, and he’d really stepped in it with this place, the first West Coast-style steak-and-salad-bar restaurant in the area. He drove a new Triumph, British racing green, and he drank martinis, straight up with a twist. “How’d it go tonight, Lester?” he asked, settling his lean frame on a barstool even as Ski set a martini, new-born and gleaming with condensation, before him.

I gave the waitresses a look. They were in their skimpy waitress outfits, long bare perfect legs crossed at the knee, cigarettes propped between the elegantly bunched knuckles that in turn propped up their weary silken heads. I was a man among men—and women—and I feared no evil and felt no pain. “Fine,” I said, but I was already amending what seemed a much-too-modest assessment. “No, better than fine: great. Stupendous. Magnificent.”

Jimmy Brennan wore glasses, the thin silver-framed discs made popular two years earlier by John Lennon. His eyes were bright behind them and I attributed that brightness to the keenness of mind and Darwinian fortitude that had made him rich at thirty-two, but I was wrong. That gleam was the gleam of alcohol, nothing more. Jimmy Brennan was, as I would discover, an alcoholic, though at the time that seemed just fine to me—anything that altered your consciousness and heightened your perceptions was cool in the extreme, as far as I was concerned.

Jimmy Brennan bought us a round, and then another. Helen gave me a look out of her silver-foil eyes—a look of lust, complicity, warning?—picked up her bag and left with Adele. It was three-thirty in the morning. Ski, who at twenty-seven was married and a father, pleaded his wife. The door closed behind him and I remember vividly the sound of the latch clicking into place as he turned his key from the outside. “Well,” Jimmy said, slapping my back, “I guess it’s just us, huh?”

I don’t remember much of the rest of it, except this: I was in my car when I woke up, there was a weak pale sun draped over everything like a crust of vomit, and it was very, very hot. And more: there was a stranger in a yellow slicker beating out the glass of the driver’s side window and I was trying to fight him off till the flames licking away at my calves began to make their point more emphatically than he could ever have. As I later reconstructed it, or as it was reconstructed for me, I’d apparently left the bar in the cold glow of dawn, fired up the engine of my car and then passed out with my foot to the floor. But as Jimmy said when he saw me behind the bar the next night, “It could have been worse—think what would’ve happened if the thing had been in gear.”

MY FATHER SEEMED TO THINK the whole affair was pretty idiotic, but he didn’t deliver any lectures. It was idiotic, but by some convoluted way of thinking, it was manly too. And funny. Deeply, richly, skin-of-the-teeth and laughing-in-the-face-of-Mr.-D. funny. He rubbed his balding head with his nail-bucket hands and said he guessed I could take my mother’s car to work until I could find myself another heap of bolts, but he hoped I’d show a little more restraint and maybe pour a drop or two of coffee into my brandy before trying to make it home on all that glare ice.

Helen—the new and exciting Helen with the silver-foil eyes—didn’t seem particularly impressed with my first-night exploits, which had already entered the realm of legend by the time I got to work at four the following afternoon, but she didn’t seem offended or put off in any way either. We worked together through the cocktail-hour rush and into the depths of a very busy evening, exchanging the thousand small quips and intimacies that pass between bartender and cocktail waitress in the course of an eight-hour shift, and then it was closing time and there was Jimmy Brennan, at the very hub of the same unfolding scenario that had played itself out so disastrously the night before. Had I learned my lesson? Had the two-paragraph story in the local paper crediting Fireman Samuel L. Calabrese with saving my sorry life had any effect? Or the loss of my car and the humiliation of having to drive my mother’s? Not a whit. Jimmy Brennan bought and I poured, and he went off on a long soliloquy about beef suppliers and how they weren’t competent to do a thing about the quality of the frozen lobster tails for Surf ‘n’ Turf, and I probably would have gone out and wrecked my mother’s car if it wasn’t for Helen.

She was sitting down at the end of the bar with Adele, Ski, another cocktail waitress and two waiters who’d stayed on to drink deep after we shut down the kitchen. What she was doing was smoking a cigarette and drinking a Black Russian and watching me out of those freakish eyes as if I were some kind of wonder of nature. I liked that look. I liked it a lot. And when she got up to whisper something in my ear, hot breath and expressive lips and an invitation that electrified me from my scalp to my groin, I cut Jimmy Brennan off in the middle of an aside about what he was paying per case for well-vodka and said, “Sorry, gotta go. Helen’s having car trouble and she needs a ride, isn’t that right, Helen?”

She already had her coat on, a complicated thing full of pleats and buckles that drove right down to the toes of her boots, and she shook out her hair with a sideways flip of her head before clapping a knit hat over it. “Yeah,” she said. “That’s right.”

There were no wrecks that night. We left my mother’s car in the lot out front of Brennan’s and Helen drove me to the apartment she and Adele shared on the second floor of an old frame house in Yorktown. It was dark—intensely, preternaturally dark (or maybe it was just the crust of salt, sand and frozen slush on the windshield that made it seem that way)—and when we swung into a narrow drive hemmed in by long-legged pines, the house suddenly loomed up out of nowhere like the prow of a boat anchored in the night. “This is it?” I said, just to hear the sound of my own voice, and she said something like “Home sweet home” as she cut the engine and the lights died.

The next thing I knew we were on the porch, bathed in the dull yellow glow of a superfluous bug light, locked out and freezing; she gave me a ghostly smile, dug through her purse, dropped her keys twice, then her gloves and compact, and finally announced that the house key was missing. In response, I drew her to me and kissed her, my mind skewed by vodka and the joint we’d shared in the car, our breath steaming, heavy winter coats keeping our bodies apart—and then, with a growing sense of urgency, I tried the door. It was locked, all right. But I was feeling heroic and reckless, and I put my shoulder to it—just once, but with real feeling—and the bolt gave and we were in.

Upstairs, at the end of the hallway, was Helen’s superheated lair, a place that looked pretty much the way our mutual place would look, but which was a revelation to me at the time. There was order here, femininity, floors that gave back the light, books and records arranged alphabetically on brick-and-board shelves, prints on the walls, a clean sink and a clean toilet. And there was a smell connected to and interwoven with it all, sweet and astringent at the same time. It might have been patchouli, but I didn’t know what patchouli was or how it was supposed to smell, just that it was exotic, and that was enough for me. There were cats—two of them, Siamese or some close approximation—but you can’t have everything. I was hooked. “Nice place,” I said, working at the buttons of my coat while the cats yowled for food or attention or both, and Helen fluttered around the living room, lighting candles and slipping a record on the stereo.

I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I eased my haunches down on the floor in a pile of pillows—there was no furniture in the usual sense—and shrugged out of my coat. It was hot as a steam-bath, Helen had left the room through a set of bead curtains that were still clacking, and a beer had magically appeared in my hand. I tried to relax, but the image of what was to come and what was expected of me and how exactly to go about it without ruining everything weighed on me so heavily even the chugging of the beer had no effect. Then Helen returned in a white terrycloth robe, her hair freshly brushed and shining. “So,” she said, settling into the pillows beside me and looking suddenly as vulnerable and uncertain as I, “you want to get high?”

We smoked hash. We listened to music, very loud music—Buffalo Springfield; Blood, Sweat and Tears; the Moody Blues—and that provided an excuse for not saying much of anything beyond the occasional murmur as the pipe was passed or the lighter sprang to life. The touch of her hand as we shared the pipe set me on fire though and the music invested me with every nuance and I thought for a while I was floating about three feet above the floor. I was thinking sex, she was thinking sex, but neither of us made a move.

And then, somehow, Adele was there, compact, full-breasted Adele, with her sheenless eyes and the dark slash of her bangs obliterating her eyebrows. She was wearing a pair of black pantihose and nothing else, and she settled into the pillows on my left, languidly reaching for the pipe. She didn’t say anything for a long while—none of us did—and I don’t know what she was thinking, so natural and naked and warm, but I was suffering from sensory overload. Two women, I was thinking, and the image of my father and my sad dumpy mother floated up in my brain just as one of the cats climbed into Adele’s lap and settled itself between her breasts.

That was when I felt Helen’s hand take hold of mine. She was standing, and she pulled me to my feet with surprising force, and then she led me through the bead curtains and down a hall and into her bedroom. And the first thing she did, before I could take hold of her and let all the rest unfold, was shut the door—and lock it.

AND SO WE MOVED in together, in the house that started off smelling of freeze-dried mouseshit and wound up taking on the scent of patchouli. I was content. For the first time I was off on my own, independent, an adult, a man. I had a woman. I had a house. Two cats. Heating bills. And I came home to all that pretty religiously for the first month or two, but then, on the nights when I was working and Helen wasn’t, I started staying after closing with Jimmy Brennan and a few of the other employees. The term Quaalude speaks to me now when I think back on it, that very specific term that calls up the image of a little white pill that kicked your legs out from under you and made your voice run down like a wind-up motor in need of rewinding. Especially when you judiciously built your high around it with a selection of high-octane drinks, pot, hash, and anything else you could get your hands on.

There we were, sitting at the bar, the music on full, the lights down low, talking into the night, bullshitting, getting stoned and progressively more stoned, and Helen waiting for me in our little house at the end of the road by the frozen lake. That was the setting for the second wreck—or it wasn’t a wreck in the fundamental, literal sense of the word, because Helen’s VW bus was barely damaged, aside from some unexpected wear and tear on the left front fender and a barely noticeable little twist to the front bumper. It was four or five in the morning, the sky a big black puddle of nothing, three feet of dogshit-strewn snow piled up on either side of the road till it looked like a long snaking bobsled run. The bus fired up with a tinny rattle and I took off, but I was in a state of advanced confusion, I guess, and I went right by the turnoff for our road, the one that led to the little house by the frozen lake, and instead found myself out on the main highway, bouncing back and forth between the snow berms like a poolball that can’t decide on a pocket.

There was something in the urgency of the lights flashing behind me that got me to pull over, and then there was a cop standing there in his jackboots and wide-brimmed hat, shining a flashlight in my face. “Out of the car,” he said, and I complied, or tried to, but I missed my footing and pitched face-forward into the snow. And when I awoke this time, there were no firemen present and no flames, just an ugly pale-gray concrete-block room with graffiti scrawled over it and three or four hopeless-looking jerks sitting around on the floor. I got shakily to my feet, glanced around me and went instinctively to the door, a heavy sliding affair with a little barred window set in the center of it at eye-level. My hands took hold of the handle and I gave the door a tug. Nothing. I tried again. Same lack of result. And then I turned round on my companions, these pathetic strangers with death masks for faces and seriously disarranged hair, and said, as if I was in a dream, “Hey, it’s locked.”

That was when one of the men on the floor stirred himself long enough to glance up at me out of blood-flecked eyes and a face that was exactly like a bucket of pus. “What the fuck you think, motherfucker,” he said. “Your ass is in jail.”

THEN IT WAS SPRING and the ice receded from the shore of the lake to reveal a black band of dead water, the driveway turned to mud and the ditches along the blacktop road began to ululate with the orgasmic cries of the nondescript little toads known as spring peepers. The heating bill began to recede too, and to celebrate that minor miracle and the rebirth of all things green and good, I took my Alien—Helen, that is—out for dinner at Capelli’s, where all the waiters faked an Italian accent, whether they were Puerto Ricans or Swedes, and you couldn’t pick up a cigarette without one of them rushing over to light it for you. It was dark. It smelled good. Somebody’s grandmother was out in the kitchen, cooking, and we ate the usual things—canneloni, baked ziti, pasta primavera—and paid about twice what we would have paid in the usual places. I was beginning to know a little about wine, so I ordered a bottle of the second-highest-priced red on the menu, and when we finished that, I ordered another. For dessert, my balled fist presented Helen with two little white Rorer Quaaludes.

She was looking good, silver-eyed and tanned from an early-spring ski trip to Vermont with Adele and one of the other waitresses. I watched the rings glitter on her fingers as she lifted her glass to wash down the pills, and then she set the glass down and eased back into her chair under the weight of all that food and wine. “I finally met Kurt,” she said.

I was having a scotch and Drambuie as an after-dinner drink, no dessert thanks, and enjoying the scene, which was very formal and adult, old guys in suits slurping up linguine, busty wives with poodle hair and furs, people of forty and maybe beyond out here in the hinterlands living the good life. “Kurt who?” I said.

“Kurt Ramos? Adele’s ex?” She leaned forward, her elbows splayed on the tabletop. “He was bartending at this place in Stowe—he’s a Sagittarius, very creative. Funny too. He paints and writes poetry and had one of his poems almost published in the Hudson Review, and of course, Adele knew he was going to be there, I mean that was the whole point. He’s thirty-four, I think. Or thirty-five. You think that’s too much? Age-wise, I mean? Adele’s only twenty-four.”

Almost published?” I said.

Helen shrugged. “I don’t know the details. The editor wrote him a long letter or something.”

“He is pretty old. But then so are you, and you don’t mind having a baby like me around, do you?”

“Four years, kiddo,” she said. “Three years and nine months, actually. I’m not an old lady yet. But what do you think—is he too old for her?”

I didn’t think anything. Helen was always giving these speeches about so-and-so and their sex life, who was cheating on who, the I Ching, reincarnation, cat-breeding, UFOs and the way people’s characters could be read like brownie recipes according to their astrological charts. I gave her a sly smile and put my hand on her leg. “Age is relative,” I said. “Isn’t it?”

And then the strangest thing happened, by way of coincidence, that is—there was a flurry of activity in the foyer, the bowing and scraping of waiters, the little tap dance of leather soles as coats were removed, and suddenly the maître d’ was leading Adele and the very same Kurt Ramos past our table.

Helen saw them first. “Adele!” she chirped, already rising up out of the chair with a big stoned grin on her face, and then I glanced up and saw Adele there in a sweater so tight she must have been born in it (but no, no, I had vivid proof to the contrary). Beside her, loping along with an athletic stride, was Kurt Ramos, half-German, half–Puerto Rican, with crazily staring eyes and slick black hair that hung to his shoulders. He was wearing a tan trenchcoat, bell-bottoms and a pair of red bowling shoes he’d borrowed from a bowling alley one night. There were exclamations of surprise all around, the girls embraced as if they hadn’t seen each other in twelve years and I found myself wrapping my hand round Kurt Ramos’ in a complicated soul shake. “Good to meet you, man,” I said in my best imitation of a very hip adult, but he just stared right through me.

IN MAY, Ski Silinski quit to move up to Maine and live among goats and liberated women on a commune, leaving his wife and kid behind, and I found myself elevated to head bartender at the ripe age of twenty-three. I was making good money, getting at least a modicum of exercise rowing Helen around the defrosted lake every afternoon, and aside from the minorest of scrapes, I hadn’t really wrecked anything or anybody in a whole long string of weeks. Plus, I was ascending to the legendary status I’d sought all along, stoked by the Fireman Calabrese incident and the high drama of my unconscious dive into the hands of the state police. I’d begun dealing Quaaludes in a quiet way, I tripped and had revelatory visions and went to concerts with Helen, Adele and Kurt, and I pretty generally felt on top of things. The prevailing ethos was simple in those days—the more drugs you ingested, the hipper you were, and the hipper you were, the more people sought you out for praise, drugs and admiration. I even got to the point where I could match Jimmy Brennan drink for drink and still make it home alive—or at least partially so.

Anyway, Ski quit and on my recommendation we hired Kurt Ramos as second bartender, and the two of us made quite a pair behind the bar, he with his shower-curtain hair and staring eyes and me with my fixed grin that was impervious to anything life or the pharmaceutical industry could throw at it. We washed glasses, cut fruit, mixed drinks, talked about everything and nothing. He told me about Hawaii and Amsterdam, drugs, women he’d known, and he showed me his poetry, which seemed pretty banal to me, but who was I to judge? When work was over, he and Adele would come over to our place for long stoned discussions and gleeful drug abuse, or we’d go to a late movie or another bar. I liked him. He had heart and style and he never tried to pull rank on me by virtue of his greater age and wisdom, as Jimmy Brennan and his drinking cronies never failed to do.

It was a month or so after Kurt started working behind the bar that my parents came in for the first time. They’d been threatening to make an appearance ever since I’d got the job—my mother wanted to check the place out because she’d heard so much about it, everybody had, and my father seemed amused by the idea of his son officially making him a drink and pushing it across the bar to him on a little napkin. “You’d have to give me a discount,” he kept saying. “Wouldn’t you?” And then he’d laugh his high husky laugh till the laugh became a smoker’s cough and he’d cross the kitchen to the sink and drop a ball of sputum in the drain.

I was shaking a martini for a middle-aged guy at the end of the bar when I glanced up and saw my father looming there in the doorway. The sun was setting, a fat red disc on the horizon, and my father extinguished it with the spread of his shoulders as he maneuvered my mother through the door. The hostess—a terminally pretty girl by the name of Jane Nardone—went up to him with a dripping smile and asked if he’d like a table for two. “Yeah, sure,” I heard him say in his rasping voice, “but only after my son makes a me a vodka gimlet—or maybe two.” He put his hands on his hips and looked down at the little painted doll that was Jane Nardone. “That okay with you?” Then he made his way across the room to where I stood behind the bar in white shirt and tie.

“Nice place,” he grunted, helping my mother up onto a barstool and settling in beside her. My mother was heavily made-up and liquid-eyed, which meant she’d already had a couple of drinks, and she was clutching a black patent-leather purse the size of a refrigerator. “Hi, honey,” she said, “working hard?”

For a minute I was frozen there at the bar, one hand on the shaker, the other on the glass. There went my cool, the legend dissolved, Lester the ultra-wild one nothing more than a boy-faced boy—and with parents, no less. It was Kurt who saved the day. He was thirty-five years old after all, with hollow cheeks and the faintest weave of gray in his mustache, and he had nothing to prove. He was cool, genuinely cool, and I was an idiot. “Mr. Rifkin,” he said, “Mrs. Rifkin. Lester’s told me a lot about you”—a glowing, beautiful, scintillating lie. “What can I get you?”

“Yeah,” I said, adjusting the edges of my fixed smile just a degree, “what’ll it be?”

And that was fine. My father had three drinks at the bar and got very convivial with Kurt, and my mother, perched on the edge of the stool and drinking Manhattans, corralled anybody she could—Jane, Adele, Helen, random customers, even one of the busboys—and told them all about my potty training, my elementary school triumphs and the .417 batting average I carried one year in Little League. Jimmy Brennan came in and bought everybody a round. We were very busy. I was glowing. My father was glowing. Jane showed him and my mother to the best table in the house and they kept Helen and two waiters schmoozing over a long, lingering, three-course dinner with dessert, after-dinner drinks and coffee. Which I paid for. Happily.

THE SUMMER THAT YEAR was typical—heat, mosquitoes, fat green flies droning aimlessly round the kitchen, the air so dense with moisture even the frogs were sweating. Helen and I put off going to bed later and later each night, hoping it would cool off so we could actually sleep instead of sweating reservoirs on each other, and we saw dawn more times than I’d like to remember. Half the time I wound up passed out on the couch, and I would wake at one or two in the afternoon in a state of advanced dehydration. Iced coffee would help, especially with a shot or two of Kahlúa in it, and maybe a Seconal to kill some of the pain of the previous night’s afflictions, but by the time we got around to the deli for a sandwich to go, it was four and we were on our way to work. That became a real grind, especially when I only got Monday nights off. But then, right in the middle of a heat wave, Jimmy Brennan’s mother died and the restaurant closed down for three days. It was a tragedy for Jimmy, and worse for his mother, but for us—Helen, Kurt, Adele and me—it was like Christmas in July. Three whole days off. I couldn’t believe it.

Jimmy flew back to California, somebody pinned a notice to the front door of the restaurant, and we took advantage of the fact that Kurt had recently come into twenty hits of blotter acid to plan a day around some pastoral activities. We filled a cooler with sangria and sandwiches and hiked into the back end of Wicopee Reservoir, deep in Fahnestock Park, a place where swimming was prohibited and trespassing forbidden. Our purpose? To swim. And trespass. We could have spent the day on our own muddy little lake, but there were houses, cabins, people, cars, boats and dogs everywhere, and we wanted privacy, not to mention adventure. What we wanted, specifically, was to be nude, because we were very hip and the puritanical mores of the false and decrepit society our parents had so totteringly constructed didn’t apply to us.

We parked off the Taconic Parkway—far off, behind a thick screen of trees where the police wouldn’t discover the car and become overly curious as to the whereabouts of its former occupants—shouldered our day packs, hefted the cooler, and started off through the woods. As soon as we were out of sight of the road, Kurt paused to strip off his T-shirt and shorts, and it was immediately evident that he’d done this before—and often—because he had no tan line whatever. Adele was next. She threw down her pack, dropped her shorts, and in a slow tease unbuttoned her shirt, watching me all the time. The woods were streaked with sun, deerflies nagged at us, I was sweating. I set down the cooler, and though I’d begun to put on weight and was feeling self-conscious about it, I tried to be casual as I rolled the sweaty T-shirt up over my gut and chest and then kicked free of my shorts. Helen was watching me too, and Kurt—all three of them were—and I clapped on my sunglasses to mask my eyes. Then it was Helen’s turn. She gave me a look out of her silver-foil eyes, then laughed—a long musical girlish laugh—before pulling the shirt over her head and dropping her shorts and panties in a single motion. “Voilà!” she said, and laughed again.

And what was I thinking? “How about a hit of that acid, Kurt?” I said, locked away behind my shades.

He looked dubious. Lean, naked and suntanned and caught between two impulses. “Sure,” he said, shrugging, the green mottled arena of the untrodden woods opening up around him, “why not? But the lake’s maybe a mile off and I can still hear the parkway, for Christ’s sake, but yeah, sure, it’s going to take a while to kick in anyway.”

It was a sacramental moment. We lined up naked under the trees and Kurt tore off a hit for each of us and laid it on our tongues, and then we hoisted our packs, I picked up the cooler, and we started off down the path. Kurt, who’d been here before, was in front, leading the way; the two girls were next, Adele and then Helen; and I brought up the rear, seeing nothing of the sky, the trees, the ferns or the myriad wonders of nature. No, I saw only the naked buttocks of the naked women as they eased themselves down the path or climbed over a downed tree or a spike of granite, and it was all I could do to keep cool in a vigilantly hip and matter-of-fact way, and fight down an erection.

After a while, the lake began to peek through the trees, a silver sheen cut up in segments, now shining in a gap over here, now over there. We came down to it like pilgrims, the acid already starting to kick in and alter the colors and texture ever so subtly, and the first thing we did was drop our packs and the cooler and cannonade into the water in an explosion of hoots and shouts that echoed out over the lake like rolling thunder. There was splashing and frolicking and plenty of incidental and not-so-incidental contact. We bobbed like seals. The sun hung fat in the sky. There was no finer moment. And then, at some point, we found ourselves sitting cross-legged on a blanket and passing round the bota bag of sangria and a joint, before falling to the sandwiches. After that, we lay back and stared up into the shifting shapes of the trees, letting the natural world sink slowly in.

I don’t remember exactly what happened next—maybe I was seeing things, maybe I was dozing—but when I came back to the world, what I saw was no hallucination. Kurt was having sex with Helen, my Helen, my Alien, and Adele was deeply involved too, very busy with her hands and tongue. I was thoroughly stoned—tripping, and so were they—but I wasn’t shocked or surprised or jealous, or not that I would admit to myself. I was hip. I was a man. And if Kurt could fuck Helen, then I could fuck Adele. A quid pro quo, right? That was only fair.

Helen was making certain small noises, whispery rasping intimate noises that I knew better than anyone in the world, and those noises provoked me to get up off the blanket and move over to where Adele was lying at the periphery of all that passionate action as if she were somehow controlling it. I put one hand on her shoulder and the other between her legs, and she turned to me with her black eyes and the black slash of her bangs caught in the depths of them, and she smiled and pulled me down.

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT, of course, is just another kind of wreckage. It wasn’t as immediate maybe as turning over a car or driving it into the trees, but it cut just as wide a swath and it hurt, ultimately, beyond the capacity of any wound that can be closed with stitches. Bang up your head, it’s no problem—you’re a man, you’ll grow another one. Broken leg, crushed ribs—you’re impervious. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the emotional wrecks are the worst. You can’t see the scars, but they’re there, and they’re a long time healing.

Anyway, later that day, sunburned and sated, we all came back to our house at the end of the lane on the muddy lake, showered—individually—and ordered up take-out Chinese, which we washed down with frozen margaritas while huddling on the floor and watching a truly hilarious old black-and-white horror film on the tube. Then there came a moment when we all looked at one another—consenting adults, armored in hip—and before we knew it we were reprising the afternoon’s scenario. Finally, very late, I found my way to bed, and it was Adele, not Helen, who joined me there. To sleep.

I was stupid. I was inadequate. I was a boy playing at being a man. But the whole thing thrilled me—two women, two women at my disposal—and I never even heard Helen when she told me she wanted to break it off. “I don’t trust myself,” she said. “I don’t love him, I love you. You’re my man. This is our house.” The aluminum eyes fell away into her head and she looked older than ever, older than the mummy’s ghost, older than my mother. We were in the kitchen, staring into cups of coffee. It was a week after the restaurant had opened up again, four in the morning, impossibly hot, the night alive with the shriek of every disturbed and horny insect, and we’d just got done entertaining Kurt and Adele in the way that had become usual and I didn’t want to hear her, not a word.

“Listen,” I said, half-stoned and rubbed raw between the legs, “listen, Alien, it’s okay, there’s nothing wrong with it—you don’t want to get yourself buried in all that bourgeois shit. I mean, that’s what started the War. That’s what our parents are like. We’re above that. We are.”

The house was still. Her voice was very quiet. “No,” she said, shaking her head slowly and definitively, “no we’re not.”

A MONTH WENT BY, and nothing changed. Then another. The days began to grow shorter, the nights took on a chill and the monster in the basement clanked and rumbled into action, devouring fuel oil once again. I was tending bar one night at the end of September, maybe twenty customers sitting there staring at me, Jimmy Brennan and a few of his buddies at the end of the bar, couples lingering over the tables, when the phone rang. It had been a slow night—we’d only done maybe fifty dinners—but the bar had filled up after we shut the kitchen down, and everybody seemed unnaturally thirsty. Helen had gone home early, as had Adele and Kurt, and I was getting drinks at the bar and taking orders at the tables too. I picked the phone up on the second ring. “Brennan’s,” I said, “how can I help you?”

It was Helen. Her voice was thick, gritty, full of something I hadn’t heard in it before. “That you, Les?” she said.

“Yeah, what’s up?” I pinned the phone to one shoulder with my chin to keep my hands free, and began dipping glasses in the rinse water and stacking them to dry. I kept my eyes on the customers.

“I just wanted to tell you I’m moving out.”

I watched Jimmy Brennan light a cigarette and lean out over the bar to fetch himself an ashtray. I caught his eye and signaled “just a minute,” then turned my back to the bar. “What do you mean?” I said, and I had to whisper. “What are you saying?”

“What am I saying? You want to know what I’m saying, Les—do you really?” There it was, the grit in her voice, and more than that—anger, hostility. “What I’m saying is I’m moving in with Kurt and Adele because I’m in love with Kurt. You understand that? You understand what I’m saying? It’s over. Totally. Adioski.”

“Sure,” I whispered, and I was numb, no more capable of thought or feeling than the empty beer mug I was turning over in my hands, “—if that’s what you want. But when, I mean, when are you—?”

There was a pause, and I thought I heard her catch her breath, as if she were fighting back the kind of emotion I couldn’t begin to express. “I won’t be there when you get home,” she said.

Somebody was calling me—“Hey, bartender!”—and I swung round on a big stupid-looking guy with a Fu Manchu mustache who came in every night for two or three drinks and never left more than a quarter tip. “Another round here, huh?”

“And, Les,” she was saying through that cold aperture molded to my ear like a compress, “the rent’s only paid through the thirtieth, so I don’t know what you’re going to do—”

“Hey, bartender!”

“—and you know what, Les? I don’t care. I really don’t.”

I stayed late that night. The bar was alive, roaring, seething with camaraderie, chaos, every kind of possibility. My friends were there, my employer, customers I saw every night and wanted to embrace. I drank everything that came my way. I went out to the kitchen and smoked a joint with the busboys. Muddy Waters thumped through the speakers with his mojo workin’ (“All you womens, stand in line, / I’ll make love to you, babe, / In five minutes’ time, / Ain’t that a man?”). I talked a couple of people comatose, smoked a whole pack of cigarettes. Then came the moment I’d been dreading since I’d hung up the phone—Jimmy Brennan got up off his barstool and shut down the lights and it was time to go home.

Outside, the sky seemed to rise up out of itself and pull the stars taut like separate strands of hair till everything blurred and there was no more fire, just ice. It was cold. My breath steamed in the sick yellow glow of the streetlights. I must have stood in the empty parking lot for a full five minutes before I realized Helen had the van—her van—and I had no way to get home and nobody to call. But then I heard a noise behind me, the rattle of keys, a slurred curse, and there was Jimmy Brennan, locking up, and I shouted, “Jimmy, hey, Jimmy, how about a ride?” He looked puzzled, as if the pavement had begun to speak, but the light caught the discs of his glasses and something like recognition slowly transformed his face. “Sure,” he said, unsteady on his feet, “sure, no problem.”

He drove like a zombie, staring straight ahead, the radio tuned so low all I could hear was the dull muted snarl of the bass. We didn’t say much, maybe nothing at all. He had his problems, and I had mine. He let me off at the end of the dark lane and I fumbled my way into the dark house and fled away to unconsciousness before I could think to turn the lights on.

Two days later I put down five hundred dollars on a used Dodge the color of dried blood and moved in with Phil Cherniske, one of the waiters at Brennan’s, who by a cruel stroke of fate happened to live on the next street over from the one I’d just vacated, right on the shore of the same muddy lake. Phil’s place stank of mouseshit too, and of course it lacked the feminine touches I’d grown accustomed to and cleanliness wasn’t all that high on the list of priorities, but who was I to complain? It was a place in which to breathe, sleep, shit, brood and get stoned.

In the meanwhile, I tried to get hold of Helen. She’d quit Brennan’s the day after our phone conversation, and when I called Kurt and Adele’s, she refused to talk to me. Adele wouldn’t say a word the next day at work and it was awkward in the extreme going through an eight-hour shift behind the bar with Kurt, no matter how hip and impervious I tried to be. We dodged round each other a hundred times, made the smallest of small talk, gave elaborate consideration to customers at the far end of the bar. I wanted to kill him, that’s what I wanted to do, and I probably would have too, except that violence was so unhip and immature. Helen’s name never passed my lips. I froze Kurt out. And Adele too. And to everybody else I was a combination of Mahatma Gandhi and Santa Claus, my frozen smile opening up into a big slobbering insincere grin. “Hey, man,” I said to the cheapazoid with the mustache, “how you doin’?”

On my break and after work, I called Kurt and Adele’s number over and over, but Helen wasn’t answering. Twice I drove my Dodge down the street past their house, but nobody was home the first time and then all three of them were there the next, and I couldn’t face going up those steps. For a while I entertained a fantasy of butting down the door, kicking Kurt in the crotch and dragging Helen out to the car by her hair, but it faded away in a pharmaceutical haze. I didn’t run through a checklist of emotions, like one of those phony Ph.D.s in the women’s magazines Helen stacked up on the coffee table like miniature Bibles and Korans—that wasn’t my way at all. I didn’t even tell my parents we weren’t together anymore. I just got high. And higher.

That was what brought about the culminating wreck—of that series, anyway. I was feeling bad one day, bad in every sense of the word, and since it was my day off, I spent the afternoon chasing down drugs in every house and apartment I could think of in Westchester and Putnam Counties, hitting up friends, acquaintances and acquaintances of acquaintances. Phil Cherniske was with me for part of the time, but then he had to go to work, and I found myself driving around the back roads, stoned on a whole smorgasbord of things, a bottle of vodka propped between my legs. I was looking at leaves, flaming leaves, and I was holding a conversation with myself and letting the car take me wherever it wanted. I think I must have pulled over and nodded out for a while, because all of a sudden (I’d say “magically,” but this was more like treachery) the leaves were gone and it was dark. There was nothing to do but head for the restaurant.

I came through the door in an envelope of refrigerated air and the place opened up to me, warm and frank and smelling of cigarettes, steak on the grill, fresh-cut lime. I wasn’t hungry myself, not even close to it, so I settled in at the bar and watched people eat dinner. Kurt was bartending, and at first he tried to be chummy and unctuous, as if nothing had happened, but the look on my face drove him to the far end of the bar, where he tried to keep himself urgently occupied. It was good sitting there with a cigarette and a pocketful of pills, lifting a finger to summon him when my drink needed refreshing—once I even made him light my cigarette, and all the while I stared hate into his eyes. Adele was waitressing, along with Jane Nardone, recently elevated from hostess. I never even looked at Adele, but at some point it seemed I tried to get overly friendly with Jane in the corner and Phil had to come out of the kitchen and put a hand on my arm. “Brennan’ll be in soon, you know,” Phil said, his hand like a clamp on the meat of my arm. “They’ll eighty-six you. They will.”

I gave him a leer and shook him off. “Hey, barkeep,” I shouted so that the whole place heard me, all the Surf ‘n’ Turf gnashers and their dates and the idiots lined up at the bar, “give me another cocktail down here, will you? What, do you want me to die of thirst?”

Dinner was over and the kitchen closed by the time things got ugly. I was out of line and I knew it, and I deserved what was coming to me—that’s not to say it didn’t hurt, though, getting tossed out of my own restaurant, my sanctuary, my place of employ, recreation and release, the place where the flame was kept and the legend accruing. But tossed I was, cut off, eighty-sixed, banned. I don’t know what precipitated it exactly, something with Kurt, something I said that he didn’t like after a whole long night of things he didn’t like, and it got physical. Next thing I knew, Phil, Kurt, Jimmy Brennan and two of the busboys had ten arms around me and we were all heaving and banging into the walls until the door flew open and I was out on the pavement where some bleached-out overweight woman and her two kids stepped over me as if I were a leper. I tried to get back in—uncool, unhip, raging with every kind of resentment and hurt—but they’d locked the door against me, and the last thing I remember seeing was Kurt Ramos’ puffed-up face peering out at me through the little window in the door.

I climbed into my car and fired it up with a roar that gave testimony to a seriously compromised exhaust system. When the smoke cleared—and I hoped they were all watching—I hit the gas, jammed the lever into gear and shot out onto the highway on screaming tires. Where was I headed? I didn’t know. Home, I guessed. There was no place else to go.

Now, to set this up properly, I should tell you that there was one wicked turn on the long dark blacktop road that led to that dark lane on the muddy lake, a ninety-degree hairpin turn the Alien had christened “Lester’s Corner” because of the inevitability of the forces gathered there, and that was part of the legend too. I knew that corner was there, I was supremely conscious of it, and though I can’t say I always coasted smoothly through it without some last-minute wheel-jerking and tire-squealing, it hadn’t really been a problem. Up to this point.

At any rate, I wasn’t really paying attention that night and my reaction time must have been somewhere in the range of the Alzheimer’s patient on medication—in fact, for those few seconds I was an Alzheimer’s patient on medication—and I didn’t even know where I was until I felt the car slip out from under me. Or no, that isn’t right. It was the road—the road slipped out from under me, and it felt just as if I were on a roller coaster, released from the pull of gravity. The car ricocheted off a tree that would have swatted me down like a fly if I’d hit it head-on, blasted down an embankment and wound up on its roof in a stew of skunk cabbage and muck. I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, of course—I don’t even know if they’d been invented yet, and if they had, there wouldn’t have been one in that car—and I found myself puddled up in the well of the roof like an egg inside a crushed shell.

There was no sense in staying there, underneath two tons of crumpled and drooling machinery—that wasn’t the way things were supposed to be, even I could see that—so I poked my hands through the gap where the driver’s side window had formerly been and felt them sink into the cold ooze. There was a smell of gasoline, but it was overpowered by the reek of deconstructed skunk cabbage, and I didn’t give the situation any more thought or calculation than a groundhog does when he pulls himself out of his burrow, and the next thing I knew I was standing up to my ankles in cold muck, looking up in the direction of the road. There were lights there, and a shadowy figure in a long winter coat. “You all right?” a voice called down to me.

“Yeah, sure,” I said, “no problem,” and then I was lurching up the embankment on splayed feet, oozing muck. When I got to the top, a guy my age was standing there. He looked a little bit like Kurt—same hair, same slope to the shoulders—but he wasn’t Kurt, and that was a good thing. “What happened?” he said. “You lose control?”

It was a ridiculous question, but I answered it. “Something like that,” I said, my voice thick with alcohol and methaqualone.

“Sure you’re not hurt? You want to go to the hospital or anything?”

I took a minute to pat myself down, the night air like the breath of some expiring beast. “No,” I said, slowly shaking my head in the glare of the headlights, “I’m not hurt. Not that I know of, anyway.”

We stood there in silence a moment, contemplating the overturned hulk of the car. One wheel, persistent to the point of absurdity, kept spinning at the center of a gulf of shadow. “Listen,” I said finally, “can you give me a lift?”

“A lift? But what about—?”

“Tomorrow,” I said, and I let one hand rise and then drop.

There was another silence, and he was thinking it over, I could see that. From his point of view, this was no happy occasion. I wasn’t bleeding, but I stank like a corpse and I was leaving the scene of an accident and he was a witness and all the rest of it. But he was a good man, and he surprised me. “Yeah, sure,” he said, after a minute. “Climb in.”

That was when things got very strange. Because as I directed him to my house at the end of the lane by the side of the soon-to-be-refrozen lake, a curtain fell over my mind. It was a dense curtain, weighted at the ends, and it admitted no glimmer of light. “Here,” I said, “stop here,” and the curtain fell over that part of my life that played itself out at Phil Cherniske’s house.

A moment later, I found myself alone in the night, the taillights of the good samaritan’s car winking once at the corner and then vanishing. I walked down the dark lane thinking of Helen, Helen with her silver-foil eyes and smooth sweet smile, and I mounted the steps and turned the handle of the door thinking of her, but it wouldn’t turn, because it was locked. I knocked then, knocked at my own door, knocked until my knuckles bled, but there was no one home.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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