Excerpt from the novel Body Only. Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 110 in 2005.
Somebody was sucking the tip of his nose. He opened his eyes. It was a girl, one of the street kids who hung out around the Turtle Fountain. She was wearing a filthy T-shirt with a jockey and the number 21 on it.
"Do you want sex?" she said. "Five dollars."
He was thinking, Is this the new scene? He sat up on the curb of the fountain and looked her up and down. She was short and had a flat face with somewhat oriental eyes and obviously had Down’s syndrome. Her hair looked like it had been cut with a garden shears.
"A little Downy, huh?" he said. "Been workin’ the street?"
"Do you want a shower?" he said.
They walked back through the park to 92nd and crossed Riverside Drive. Her name was Sky. It was like picking up a child.
He was glad for the company. She had just come from the shower and stood nude and knock-kneed looking at herself in the full-length mirror on the closet door.
"Not the kind of looks guys can make money off," she said ruefully and made a raspberry. Her smile gave her a gamin sweetness.
"Do you want some clothes?"
She shook her head. He had laundered her T-shirt and underpants and socks in the kitchen sink. Now he went to the bathroom and hung them out on the fire escape. When he came back she was looking at one of the books from the pile on the desk. Surely she was dyslexic. He was curious.
"What’s the title?" he asked her.
"The Structure of Behavior by … Maurice Merleau-Ponty…" she said, stumbling slightly. He gave a whistle.
"Where was it published?"
"Do you know where Boston is?"
She was quick with an answer and he wondered if she was on speed.
"Hey, why don’t you brush your teeth while you’re at it? Use the paste and any of the toothbrushes. I have no idea when these guys are coming back."
"Maybe they’re in the slammer," she said when she came back from brushing her teeth.
"Naw that’s too obvious. I think they must be spelunking someplace."
"Exploring a cave. There’s a nail clippers…" He rummaged in a desk drawer, tossed Tim’s big nail clipper on the bed. "It’d be a good idea if you used it. Do you want some clothes?"
He watched as she immediately sat down on Tim’s bed and began clipping her toenails. That was when he realized she didn’t have a futz. Instead there was a ragged stubble of shaved pubic hair. When laundering her underpants, he noticed some blood in the crotch and thought it was from her period. Now he saw that her cunt was wide open and raw from open friction sores.
"Hey. There’s a tube of zinc salve in the medicine cabinet, heal those sores right away."
"What makes you think they’re exploring a cave?" she asked. "Because they didn’t take their zinc salve with them?"
"Naw, it’s something I saw in a dream. Do you dream, Sky?"
"I was in a program … but after a while I was no good because I couldn’t introspect."
"But you’re right, Sky. I don’t know how you do it. One of the guys does happen to be in the slammer, or he was. Art Zimmer was in the slammer, I know that for a fact, or at least he was until he escaped from Manhattan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. That was where he was sentenced for attempted homicide."
"What did he do?" she said.
"He went down on the street with a pistol and shot two policemen."
She made a raspberry, then said slowly, "They’re all in the slammer and the cops have got this place staked out."
"It wouldn’t surprise me, Sky."
Evening was coming on and the room was growing dark and he didn’t want light to be seen in the apartment. She was applying the zinc salve. He felt his way to the kitchen, opened the refrigerator and took the last bottle of Spätlesen, located the corkscrew and opened it. They passed the bottle back and forth as they shared the bag of donuts he had bought on Broadway. Sky had been roughing it for a while and was in poor condition. Actually she was panting with fatigue. Her feet were becoming deformed from constantly being on the move in her platform training shoes that were too small. Her face and neck were red and schmutzy from the sun. But the rest of her, the skin which was covered by her clothes, was unbelievably white and soft and her breasts, with their small soft nipples, were like a child’s. Her elevenses, he thought.
"Do you want sex?" she said.
"You bet I do," he said, patting her pussy. "But I really think you should give this a rest for a while."
They were stretched out side by side on the bed and his hand automatically began stroking her mons, the tips of his index and middle fingers moving in whorls through the stubble of hairs. She snuggled into him.
"Come on, give you an orgasm," he said.
Her childish breasts. Have you ever been faithful to a child? Her shaved, ravaged cunt—like a skinned knee. The palms of people with Down’s syndrome have a single transverse crease, just like Sky’s. He thought about this as she was giving him a hand job. The hands of Walt Disney figures have three fingers and a thumb. It was like getting a hand job from Daisy Duck.
When she came she abruptly fell asleep, and he put his head close to hers to pick up on her imagery content. Was she a hypnagogic? The difference in mental content between hypnagogic and nonhypnagogic individuals. Hypnagogic images operate as a substitutue for feelings of familiarity … the visual associates are integral parts of the development of meaning.
She was a visualized metaphor, Arethusa, a wood nymph who is changed into a spring while fleeing the advances of the river god Alpheus...
He got up in the night and used the toilet, came back to the room where the kid was asleep and snoring. There was nothing deluding him that his sexual energy was going to stand him in good stead this time, nevertheless he had a complete appreciation of this idyllic interlude in his rapid waning to extinction. He stood looking out the window. It was a clear night and the stars glinted on the calmly flowing Hudson. Over in the nebula of Palisades Park the rides could be seen whirling. The kid turned over in her sleep and snored a raspberry.
Ubiquitous is what you are, all your pufferbellies. When you see the moonlight reflected off their fingernails, the shadows of the leaves in your little house whose dirty windows let in the starlight, you operate your pedal locks, make funny shapes with your lips, funny noises out from under them like squirting something out, amplexus of the pneuma.
He lay down beside her. Oh Sky, I don’t know, I just don’t know what I’m going to do on afternoons when the dust falls. Is it better to conclude something begun or to invest anew? Though neither is an option at this point, I find myself favoring a thought for an event so that life might seem a succession of the former, timetight compartments that only, after all, control the flooding. And so we recompense in ritual for the spilled reality, and Nadia replies that it’s too late to begin again, and anyway the children, and on into the night too far gone to caress and make up.
The kid slept for fourteen hours.
"I can’t stay here. There was a key on my keyring. I used to live here. The apartment was a mess like it had been ransacked." He patted the computer monitor; the computer had been confiscated. "Nobody had been here for a long while. The cockroaches had long since abandoned the kitchen, the dishcloth flung splat and dried there the exposed contours browned from the sunlight through the window."
He boiled and dished up the rest of the package of spaghetti and sloshed the last of the bottle of soya sauce over it. It was steaming and plenty. This was their breakfast, and it was the last meal the kitchen contained. He polished his glasses with his shirttail and put them on again. He took them off and placed them on the table. He let them lie there, massaged his eyelids and looked around the kitchen. Things were more lovely. He told her about himself.
"My father worked for the phone company. He rose up through the ranks, became switching systems supervisor. My mother was artistic. She drew a disgusting caricature of me."
Sky’s real name was Sharon, grew up on Long Island. Her ears were pierced once in each lobe for the silver earrings her mother gave her. Her father had given her a charm bracelet, she told him about it. Refreshed, she babbled like a brook.
"Zukhafim, les petites arachnes going up and down…" she said, sounding like she could speak French. She showed him moving her three-fingered hand like baby spiders trying out their spinnerets.
Apartment house noises. The two Jewish sisters in the neighboring apartment talking with somebody in the hall. What those caryatids have to put up with.
The laundered T-shirt with the jockey and 21 was dazzling over her filthy bellbottoms with the tattered downtrodden cuffs. He looked her over. Something was missing in her ensemble.
"Just a minute…"
He went and rummaged in the cardboard box full of Art Zimmer’s clothes and came in with a Rutgers baseball cap. He put it on her head with the bill backwards to protect her neck from sunburn. She turned and looked at herself in the full-length mirror.
"Wow, you’re so kind to me." she said.
When she turned back he was holding out a five. She took it and put it in her pocket. She couldn’t know it was the last bill from his final pay at Republic Electric.
"Maybe I’ll see you around," he said.
The lightbulb in the hall ceiling was burned out—credited by Jim to the influence of Art’s Jewish girlfriend; they were always riding Art about his Jewishness—and he felt his way to the living room. Opened the door and skirted the Lincoln Logs bed Jim had contrived for the declared purpose of scotching Jewish succubas—"I got the plans from a guy," Jim had said, somebody in the extended sodality, "he says it works for him"—the four-by-fours were brought at great expense from the lumber yard over by Central Park. He squeezed between the bed and the back of the sofa over to the far window for a different look at the river. There were no windsurfers that he could see. What caught his eye was a yellow light blinking way off on the West Side Highway.
He was standing at the edge of the roof and heard a sound in back of him, he turned. It was the landlord watching him.
"Oh, Mister Fried..."
Mr. Fried took off his hat and puffed on his cigar. The roof had been tarred and the landlord, amid askew TV antennas from different periods and probably thinking of litigation, was having another look at it. He put his hat back on his head and looked at him with his good memory.
"They still haven’t showed up, have they?"
Steve shook his head. The rent was being paid but obviously not by him.
"No sir," he said deferentially.
Mr. Fried’s military moustache twitched. It was a slapdash job of roof maintenance and he scuffed with the side of his shoe sole at a bituminous length of ladder-lead. He took his cigar from between his canines and examined the tip. Then he cracked a sardonic smile.
"Maybe they’ve gone back in their mother."
"That’s a good one, Mister Fried."
Mr. Fried lived in New Jersey.
The two men turned and looked out over the limberlost of Riverside Park.
The yellow light could be seen blinking up on the West Side Highway. Maybe there was road work even though it was Sunday.
In the park again, walking swiftly. Jogging was for show, identity. It was an act just like anorexia was an act.
What he found was an incident of road rage. The guy, driving too fast, wanted to turn off the West Side Highway just as the other driver sideswiped him hard and the car had flipped over. It was lying balanced on its top with the yellow turning light still blinking. The guy had simply crawled out and walked away from it.
He put his weight against the car and it rocked a little like an egg. The dashboard compartment had flung open and road maps were scattered all over the interior. There were a lot of them, and they were grimy. He pulled one out. Long Island – Westchester County. The guy’s hat was in there too, black straw with a narrow snap-brim just like Mr. Fried’s. A management hat. He knelt in and fished it out. He jammed it down on his head. It was a half-size too small. He was still as large as a family-size sedan. Maybe if he lost more weight…
But he mustn’t lose more weight. Of course there was still some food left in the kitchen cupboard. A couple of health food items, a jar of those Japanese pickled apricots, a box of wheat germ, and a small can of Pet condensed milk. It should be possible to make a meal. A boy dog and a girl dog get together on the ends of their leashes. It’s beside the health foods store and the two dogs, noses to genitals, make a wiggling waggling yin-yang symbol. But their masters are busy and start to move on. Something makes the two dogs growl at each other, and then on parting they each give a short and private whine. See you in dog heaven.
He had a lucid dream about getting food and money. Wearing his new hat he walked to Broadway where Mary Queen of Chance—please, my lily of the windowsill—might smile on him and he could shop, the Yentas sitting on the benches on the island and vigilant feebs by the subway entrance. Who should he run into but Drayton Simpson. She invites him up to her place. Her apartment is on E. 86th. Living with her is her fiancé who is breaking up with her. After all, she is only a surrogate spouse. They are making dinner preparations for a get-together with her parents. She has Steve taste the hors d’oeuvre, which is delectable, and says that he is welcome to dine with them. The only problem is that they forgot to buy potatoes. So she asks him if he won’t go and buy a couple of pounds at the nearby Dominican grocery store. She gives him five dollars and he goes down with the elevator. As he is walking in search of the Dominican grocery, he realizes that he neglected to memorize her address and it is unlikely that he can find her building again. It’s possible, however, that he has her phone number in a pocket somewhere. There is also the problem of finding a phone that works. He finds one on the corner of Broadway and 92nd, but this was the anomaly which broke the dream, when he realizes that the phone booth doesn’t exist and that it is the mockup phone booth on the corner used in Rosemary’s Baby. He woke up.
He lay and thought of Nadia Abovo in her city clothes, ballerina’s mufti, Burberry, the dark plait, eye make-up, the disposition of her thighs as she stands in a phone booth talking in the rain, blue legs and Capezios. He thought of Drayton Simpson. He could picture Drayton going on talking and talking. If an action of his would interrupt her talk, her gait, her cogwheel conversation, then she would break off for a while and time would stop for her, or it would go on, and she would try to pick it up again. She would try all kinds of things to pick it up again. Things that may or may not work. But she has a time mesh there with conversation and thought, and she could be up all night, talking, talking to a blank wall. She could go down into that cellar store on McDougal Street that the two of them looked at that time like they were going to buy it, and there might be a couple of people nodding on the floor, and the walls blank and damp and a gas heater burning along the other wall and a light bulb burning. And Drayton would be standing there talking and gesticulating and putting her hands in her pockets and turning around. He was hungry and he didn’t have any more than a couple of dollars in change, and when it came to the point he didn’t have a roof over his head. He was no longer able to sustain life.