I don’t usually go to a bar with one of my students. It is almost always a mistake.
But Cornelius was having trouble with irony. The whole class was having trouble with irony. They do much better with realism. Realism, they think, is simply a matter of imitating Ernest Hemingway. Short flat sentences, an adjective before every noun. Ernest Hemingway himself, the idea of him that they have from the writing, makes them uncomfortable. They disapprove of him. They don’t like him or the white hunter in ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.’ The bravado, the resentment in the writing excites them, but they cannot allow themselves to feel it. Hemingway, they’ve decided, Hemingway, the person, isn’t cool.
I considered giving them Naipaul to read, A Bend in the River or Guerrillas, but I decided that they would be so sensibly outraged by the beating, murdering and dismemberment of women that they might not be able to see the intelligence in the books. I wondered if they would like Graham Greene. Brighton Rock perhaps. But I had forgotten, I don’t know how, the dream in which the murderer, straight razor in hand, says only two words: ‘Such tits.’
Stream of consciousness, which some of them thought at first was stream of conscienceness, doesn’t seem to give them much trouble. They think it’s like writing down your dreams except without punctuation. Some of them admitted that before completing the Virginia Woolf assignment they’d smoked a little dope and it had helped. They make these confessions to me in a shyly flirtatious way, as if they were trying to seduce me. Which, of course, they are. Not sexually, but almost sexually. It would be sexual if they knew any better.
And someday they will. Know better. But irony terrifies them. To begin with, they don’t understand it. It’s not easy to explain irony. Either you get it or you don’t. I am reduced to giving examples, like the baby who is saved from death in the emergency room only to be hit by a bus on the way home. That helps a little. Cornelius said that he preferred realism to irony because irony turned conceived wisdom on its head. Whether he meant to say conventional wisdom or received wisdom, I don’t know. I was so distracted by an image of wisdom being turned on its head that I simply nodded and let him go on. Irony is like ranking someone or something, he said, but no one knows for sure you’re doing it.
That’s close enough, I said.
I am beginning to sound like one of the spinster ladies who used to take an interest in me in boarding school, except that they used to bemoan (a word they often used) the lack of manners, civility, and the incidence of haphazard breeding, rather than illiteracy. I hope that I don’t turn into Miss Burgess in her good Donegal tweed suit, her snappish red terrier at heel, the dog’s own tweed coat beginning to fray where it rubbed against his tartan leash. Summers in Maine with her companion Miss Gerrald in a cottage fragrant with mold. It doesn’t seem that bad, now that I’m imagining it. Hydrangeas. Blueberries. Sketching on the rocks.
I admitted to my students that I am writing a book about regionalisms and dialects, including the eccentricities of pronunciation. I want them to know that I am not against dialect, or even misusage. I like it. I like that kids now think that Nike is a word of one syllable. Why wouldn’t they? Nike isn’t a goddess. It’s a shoe. The winged shoe of victory. Despite my interest in idiomatic language, however, I do not want them to use phonetic spelling. I do not want to see motherfucker spelled mothafucka. Not yet. Get it right first, I said, then you can do whatever you like. It’s like jazz. First learn to play the instrument.
Cornelius raised his hand last Tuesday and asked, I’m afraid, if I did not think my book on slang was a diss. A diss to whom? I asked. Stressing the whom.
Cornelius waited for me at the end of class. The others lingered around him, gathering their things slowly. He said, people like you think the brothers are guinea pigs. The way we talk and shit.
The others looked at me, no longer concealing their interest.
I walked out of the room.
He followed me.
The bars in my neighborhood fill me with dread. French tourists studying subway maps, and pink teenagers from Rockland County who look and talk like they’re about to explode, perhaps with rage. I hope it is rage, since they have much to be angry about, even if they don’t know it. The blank-faced thirteen-year-old girls with fake IDs and nose studs hoping to meet some sweet-talking Jamaicans; the black boys from the projects in those wide-legged shorts that hang below the knee, and Nautica windbreakers, the shorts making the elaborate running or hiking or telephone lineman shoes that they wear look enormous and unwieldy, the boys jerking restlessly on the streets outside the bars with bottles of malt liquor in brown paper bags.
Just the thought of Bleecker Street makes me a little anxious. Stores full of baseball caps and silver-plated ankhs. Nowhere is there a sense of peace.
Cornelius and I sat at the bar in the Red Turtle. He took off his Walkman and ordered a rum and Coke. I said hello to Lothar, the bartender, and ordered a beer.
Cornelius gestured at the Walkman. ‘Smif and Wesson,’ I thought he said.
‘Smith and Wesson? You’re listening to guns?’
‘Not Smith. Smif. It’s regional. What you like.’
He made me smile.
‘And ironic,’ he said.
‘I think it’s you who’s ironic.’
I had once asked him if he would trash-talk for me, a form of humorous verbal intimidation. There are regional styles. In Chicago, for example, it is called signifying and it must be in rhyme. It hadn’t been a success, Cornelius talking trash, or woofing as he calls it. He’d been inhibited. You can’t just woof whenever you feel like it, he said.
He was having trouble with his term paper. That is why he wanted to see me. He didn’t want to flunk another class, he said. He needed the credits.
I had asked my students to take a true story, a fact, a line from a newspaper or magazine, and turn it into fiction. An attempt to make them write about something other than themselves. It was called, rather grandly, The Re-created Event. I had encouraged them to look for a story in papers like the National Enquirer.
And Cornelius had. He wanted to know if he could turn his news clipping of the execution of John Wayne Gacy for the killing of thirty-three young men into an imagined conversation that he, Cornelius, had had with Gacy on the telephone. He wished to write about the sadness it had caused him to feel. Before his death, Gacy’s voice could be heard on a 900-number by anyone interested enough to pay three dollars a minute to hear Gacy explain that he didn’t kill those boys.
Cornelius told me he had spent close to forty-five dollars listening to the message.
I didn’t know what to say.
‘No,’ I said. ‘This is not supposed to be about you, Cornelius.’
‘You said in class once that every word a writer writes, even the conjunctions, even the punctuation you said, is a reflection of him or her.’
‘I don’t think I said “or her”.’
‘I’m going to the bathroom,’ I said.
That was my second mistake.
I walked to the back of the bar. There was the smell of fried garlic and spilled beer. I did not see any bathrooms, or signs for bathrooms. I went down a flight of stairs to the basement. My eyes are not very good, so I put on my glasses. There were still no signs to help me along.
I opened a door into a room full of aluminum kegs of beer. I stopped at the next door. It was slightly ajar. I leaned against it, and the door opened slowly.
It was a small room. There was a metal desk. A coffee mug was on the desk, and a small lamp and a digital clock. The number on the clock changed with a loud, reluctant click. The lamp was made from a neon beer sign. In one corner was a jukebox, a plastic garbage bag thrown over it. There was an old sofa.
And there was a man sitting on the sofa.
His head rested against the wall, his face in darkness. I could see the rest of him clearly, illuminated in the small circle of pink light from the lamp. His suit jacket was on the back of the sofa. His tie was loose, one of those muddy-looking ties you can buy on the sidewalk in front of variety stores, displayed alongside the orderly arrangements of headbands and blank cassettes. His hands lay on either side of him, indecorous, matter-of-fact, the pale palms turned upward in a gesture of supplication. There was a tattoo on the inside of his left wrist.
His legs were apart. Long. Slack. He wore black lace-up shoes and thin black socks, the kind of socks worn by a man who is vain about dress. His shoes needed a shine and that made me wonder about the vanity. There was an alluring symmetry to him, as if he were meditating, or balancing, or cajoling himself into what he knew would be uneasy sleep.
On the floor was a woman. Her hair was spread across his lap. She was kneeling, her hands on his thighs. She moved her head back and forth with a dipping motion as she took his cock into her mouth, then drew it out, then took him in again. I thought to myself, oh, I don’t do it that way, with a hitch of the chin like a dog nuzzling his master’s hand. The sound of her mouth was loud. She gave a little sigh and shifted her weight, quickening her movement. He lifted his head slowly and saw me standing in the doorway, my hands crossed on my chest as if I were about to be sacrificed.
He did not turn away. And he did not stop her. She made another little moan, just to let him know that she was getting tired, and he put his hands on top of her bobbing head, bunching up the red hair, gripping her, letting her know, letting me know, that he was about to come and he didn’t want her to fuck it up by suddenly deciding to lick his balls.
I wanted to see his face. He could see mine.
He lifted her hair so that I could at least see his cock moving in and out of her mouth, her hand around him, sliding him up and down in time with her mouth. I could see that.
There was a stiffening in his thighs and she worked faster for a short quick time, and then there was a barely audible intake of breath as if he weren’t going to give away any more than he had to, not even his breath, especially not his breath, and he held her head to him tightly. She began to slow down as he came, and I thought, this girl knows what she’s doing.
I backed out of the room like a thief and he still did not turn away, his hands in her hair, holding her there so she could not see me, so it was just the two of us.
I did not go to the bathroom. I ran up the stairs, looking over my shoulder, suddenly afraid that someone had seen me standing in the doorway of the basement room.
Cornelius was not at the bar. He had ordered fried mozzarella sticks to take out. Said he had work to do. Something about a murder. Lothar winked at me. Haven’t seen you in a while, he said.
When I paid the bill, I noticed that my hands were shaking.
Photograph © Ella