After my mother’s first diagnosis I thought I would keep living at home. My heart was filled with fear and a cold certainty I couldn’t bear to look at. It was my father’s idea that I should go to New York City and stay at Regan’s place until I could move in with my old friend Leudtke. Leudtke’s roommate was moving out soon. This was in 1998.
Regan was my father’s cousin or second cousin. He was between my father’s age and my age. My father had always spoken of Regan as though he were a streetwise, beatnik type of dude, almost like a Merry Prankster, a man rooted in the bohemian lifestyle of Greenwich Village. He’d been a street artist and a globetrotter, exploring Africa in the seventies.
‘He was a hellraiser. But a kind person. He’s an epileptic,’ my father added. ‘He used to be in a special school, like a Boys Club. He had a terrible seizure. It affected his heart. I don’t know where he was when it happened. He could have been walking down the street in New York City.’ My father said I knew Regan, that he’d come to our home in 1982. ‘The juggler. He did those clown tricks. He had a shower cap on. He was working at a preschool.’ I had a vague memory of a young man who had dined at our table barefoot and shower-capped, and made me feel uncomfortable with his quick intimacy and pushy good humor.
I arrived at Penn Station after the New Year’s blizzard. The cable car, like a ski gondola, rose out of the fortress of Manhattan, high above the black river, and descended to Roosevelt Island where Regan lived.
He met me at the door to his apartment: a small, broad-hipped man with widely spaced eyes, a neatly-trimmed moustache, and a thin, childlike mouth. I’ve always had a fear of little men. As if they might contain tremendous strength or an access of rage or sexual prowess compressed into their small physique like air into a scuba tank. He lived in a ground-level unit with a tiny fenced-in yard. Snow was heaped against the sliding glass door. The home was filled with cooking smells. The kitchen opened onto the carpeted living room. The shelves were filled with tchochkes, among them a few African figurines. There was one bathroom, off the living room. The bathroom door was next to the door to Regan’s bedroom, which was closed.
It was so different from what I’d been picturing – an artist’s loft in SoHo, airy and gritty, with fire escapes and canyon-like views of the street – that I didn’t know what to say.
He showed me to the basement level where I would sleep. He went before me down the steps, and his bandy-legged stride struck a faint chord of memory. The basement was a carpeted, L-shaped room with a futon bed in the alcove. The bed was made up with a sheet, a pillow, and an unzipped Spiderman sleeping bag. The room was empty except for the futon and some boxes stacked against the wall. I noticed indentations in the carpet where a piece of furniture (a desk?) had been removed. Regan asked me if I planned to have a home computer down here. I said probably not.
He had prepared a meal: floured pieces of chicken breast fried in a skillet. The chicken pieces lay on paper towels on top of paper plates. ‘I thought you were coming earlier,’ he said. ‘It’s an old Louisiana recipe. I can heat it up in the stove, or we could eat it cold. I’m about ready for bed.’ He moved around the kitchen with a stiff deliberation, cursing quietly when he made a mistake. He had a faint Southern accent. He poured us each a glass of Hamm’s beer.
The chicken was greasy and bland, the batter falling off, but I ate it hungrily. He set out a canister of Tony Cachere’s cajun seasoning that we both shook liberally on the chicken and rice. With the food and beer in his belly, his mood seemed to improve. He spoke groggily of the times we would have together, he and I, out on the town. He spoke about the nightclubs of Manhattan. ‘I can show you the jazz clubs.’ He said I had ‘killer good looks’; or maybe he said something like ‘an exceptionally good-looking kid like yourself . . .’
‘Are you getting any tail?’ he asked. ‘I can introduce you to women.’
I was average-looking – I’d been told I had nice eyes – and moderately overweight. I was a virgin.
‘There are any number of women,’ he said, ‘elegant, artistic women who come from New Jersey seeking to fulfill their needs. You could go out for nice meals with a married woman. She’d take you back to New Jersey.’ He washed down his food with a swig of beer and wiped the grease from his lips and moustache with a folded paper towel. Older woman, he said, would be good for a young buck like me: ‘A lady with experience, to teach you the ropes. You could take a lady out dancing at the Barbazon.’ He said something about tuna – ‘tuna-makers’ – I didn’t understand the phrase and feared it was a dirty reference to women. ‘I don’t get down there as much as I used to,’ he said. ‘I work in a business office in White Plains.’
Regan said he was turning in. It was 9:45. I went down to the basement. I saw a door near the bed. It opened onto a storage closet.
I wondered about his comment about teaching me the ropes . . . whether he inferred my virginity from my manner or if it was just a way of speaking. My father (who even then had a way of repeating himself) had said on several occasions, ‘When I was your age I was terrified of women.’
I thought of how epileptics were known for bouts of exotic behavior and rare transports of the spirit. They called it the falling sickness. Or so I’d read.
When I woke up I saw twin rectangles of faint gray light high up on the wall – the basement’s windows – and could hear the muffled noodling of a saxophone.
In those days, when I was unemployed, I would get up and have breakfast with Regan: griddle-cakes and a kind of Southern porridge or, if he was in a rush, a bowl of cornflakes.
After Regan left I would heave back the sliding glass door and wade into the snow to have a smoke. Then I’d flip through the channels for a while and then go back to bed. When I woke up it was the mid-afternoon. Before it came to feel like my own, I would make the bed each day, out of a sense of being a houseguest, or as if maybe Regan came down there sometimes and checked. (A guest is given ‘privacy,’ which is another way of saying he is observed.)
Upstairs the smell of aftershave lingered. The bathroom was humid and moist, as though Regan had come home while I was sleeping, bathed, and left again. I had a sense that Regan would bathe sometimes in the European manner, standing at the basin stripped to the waist, splashing water on his head, the back of his neck, his armpits. I’d heard of French people who squatted atop the basin to perform their ablutions. He had an Oleg Cassini mini grooming kit with a short comb, a spoonlike shoehorn, and other little devices. His bathroom reminded me of my grandparents’ bathroom in their mobile home in Port Susie. Maybe it was the wood-grain veneer, the olive green floral soap, the scallop shell night light. I don’t think there was really a night light in that bathroom, but that’s the impression it gave. It had a smell that reminded me of vacations in a humid place among the elderly, of raindrops on blossoms of gardenia. There may have been a stack of little blue Dixie cups.
Regan never left any toilet smells, which made me nervous about my own smells. I always had to go to the bathroom right when Regan came home. It must have seemed like I’d been waiting all day to drop a bomb as soon as he walked in the door. But from my perspective it was Regan’s poor timing; his arrivals may have triggered it. I would emerge from the bathroom and stiffly cross the living room without looking at Regan on the sofa, and go straight to the basement. After a while I’d smell his cooking.
Sometimes in the evening he would lie on the carpet with the TV on, his stocking feet elevated on cushions. I felt there was some weird sexual thing going on with Regan, though I couldn’t say what it was or even characterize it. I had an intrusive thought that he was going to expose himself to me at the moment I least expected it.
I began to leave before he got home. I would take the train to Astor Place and check my email at Alt.Coffee on Avenue A. Then I went to Leudtke’s apartment on 7th Street. He lived there with Sam Lake, whose room was soon to be mine. Leudtke’s girlfriend Vanessa would usually be there, and her college friend Bartlett, and a guy named Esai. We drank beer and smoked cigarettes at the Polish bar around the corner, where matronly women served bottles of Okicim or Zubr from out of an ice-chest, and the young Polish men sometimes fought with their fists while the old men looked on. Afterward we went back and smoked pot in the apartment, talking and laughing and listening to CDs till the early hours of morning. I felt glad I would soon be living there. I wouldn’t have to go out in the freezing night and make my way back to Roosevelt Island.
I let myself in as quietly as I could. Regan spoke and sometimes shouted in his sleep. I heard it through the door, eruptive and jagged. He shouted something like, The gate . . . of Christ! He yawned lavishly, great rolling yawns that seemed to wash him to and fro in his sleep.
When the weekend came I woke in the dim light of afternoon. The TV was blaring upstairs. The volume seemed passive-aggressive. Regan was on the sofa, freshly showered, dressed in loose slacks and a button-down shirt, the clicker in his hand. He had planned for us to go to the zoo.
‘How’d you sleep?’ he asked, as if to say, Well, so much for today and all the fun I had planned.
Sometimes, lying in bed, I’d hear the saxophone, which seemed to come not from Regan’s bedroom but from many floors above. Once I woke to a crashing sound. It was dark. Regan was in the basement. He was fumbling and cursing in the storage closet next to my bed. I thought he must be looking for the circuit box. Then he was standing over me, holding stacked trays of what struck me as Easter decorations. ‘Why don’t you ever go out?’ he said. ‘If you don’t go out there you don’t know what’s happening. You go into a shell and just become a nothing, a . . . a nothing person. A forgotten person.’
I lay there after he left. I was mortified and rageful. I heard the honk honk hooo-ooonk of a desperately emphatic saxophone solo. Then silence. The whump of a shut door. When I came upstairs the house seemed empty. The phone rang in the kitchen. It was my father. He sounded ebullient, falsely cheerful as if drunk.
‘Where are you?’ I said.
‘Huh? I’m going to hand over the phone to your mother now.’
I prepared myself to hear her ragged voice.
My father arranged for me to meet with his old friend Patti from California. She was now a big fish at the Museum of Broadcasting. Her assistant gave me the name of an Indian restaurant on Forty-Eighth Street. The restaurant was on the second floor of an office building. ‘She’s already in there,’ the host said when I gave my name. He led me to a large circular banquette in a darkened area of the restaurant. I saw Patti, who looked like Esai Morales, if he were a woman and a bit heavier. I mean she looked then sort of like what Esai Morales would look like twenty years later, if that makes sense. She might not have actually looked like that, I may be projecting the face of Morales retroactively onto Patti. She sat at the top or midpoint of the banquette’s arc. I slid into the booth. She was distractedly picking at the bread, and over the course of our short lunch gave an impression of being consumed with other matters of a personal or business nature.
She said she could think of a couple of things I could do at the museum, but I wouldn’t want to do them. Trust me, she said. Then she got the idea that I could work on the catalogue.
She left the lunch a few minutes after the dishes arrived. Despite her brusque (or distracted) personality, I could sense in her a fierce loyalty toward my father. I don’t know if they slept together. I knew little of my father’s bachelor days.
I saw Patti only one other time, storming off down a hallway. In the spring she resigned (or was fired) from the museum and moved on to some other institution of the arts.
There was no interview for the position. The job was straightforward. Stacks of tapes were left in my cubicle; I watched them on a monitor with headphones and typed up a summary of each episode. The museum was amassing an archive of television history. It was the sort of work that would later be crowdsourced for free, I guess, through Wikipedia, etc. Darlene, my supervisor, assigned me to catalogue The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. I knew the phrase ‘Ozzie and Harriet’, but hadn’t realized it was a show that had run for almost sixteen years, focused around incidents in the daily lives of an actual family who played themselves in scripted episodes based on incidents in their real lives. It was the distant prototype of reality TV, which in the late 1990s had begun to seize the entertainment market in its iron grip. I started on Season 3.
During my first viewing I had a panic attack. I think it came from the sense that I didn’t understand what I was watching. I was utterly adrift. The disorientation is hard to describe. Everything on screen was happening too fast (or too slow) and it felt like my brain was having to translate the lines the actors were saying.
I thought I might be having a stroke. I paused the tape, went to the restroom, and wept quietly in the stall. The bathroom was spotless but antiquated, with vintage porcelain sinks and urinals, original taps and piping. It had the furtive air of a Catholic school bathroom, with an echoey drip counting away eternity in the blue-tiled stillness. Many times I would need to hurry to this refuge and release my bowels in a burning liquid jet. Then I splashed cold water on my face, dried it with paper towels (they had nice paper towels there), and returned to my station.
Probably it was a case of the first-day jitters, the cluster of unfamiliar sensations such as the chair, the walls of the cubicle, the headphones over my ears, my proximity to the viewing monitor, the legal pad on my desk, the dimmed overhead lighting, the tie constricting my neck, and Darlene’s wraithlike face appearing now and then around the edge of the divider, combined with the dawning realization of the hours I was going to spend every day immersed in the world of the Nelson family: Ozzie, Harriet, David, and Ricky. And Don DeFore as the neighbor, Erskin ‘Thorny’ Thornberry.
I remember reaching the end of that first twenty-eight minute episode, and while the Eastman Kodak commercial played, realizing that I couldn’t begin to summarize what I had just seen. I rewound the tape and played it again. As the day wore on, I eased into it, training myself to jot down impressions on the legal pad as the events of each episode unfolded.
In the attic, Ozzie shows Ricky a megaphone. Harriet serves pie to the family. Ozzie recalls the vaudeville era. Harriet, seeking attention, dresses up as a newsboy. Ricky has band practice, confirming his father’s worst fears.
I celebrated at the Polish bar with Leudtke, Vanessa, Bartlett, and Bartlett’s girlfriend Pilar. Leudtke seemed a bit reticent. Later, when we were alone, he admitted that Sam Lake’s fortunes had changed and he was no longer going to move out.
‘Where does that leave me?’ I asked. We stood on the sidewalk smoking, half-drunk, half-arguing, shivering in the January cold as the traffic surged up First Avenue.
Suddenly I spotted Regan at the wheel of a white sports car. The car was idling at the red light at Sixth Street. The instant I recognized him, Regan turned his head and saw me. Then he revved the engine, the light changed, and the car peeled away.
‘That was Regan,’ I said.
‘Who’s Regan?’ asked Bartlett.
‘Well,’ I began.
‘It’s the man he lives with,’ said Leudtke.
I hadn’t known Regan owned a car. Leudtke pointed out that the sports car didn’t necessarily belong to Regan; he could have borrowed it. But from whom? For what purpose?
‘Maybe he’s stalking you,’ Bartlett observed.
In bed that night I heard the creak of a hinge, a fluttering like pigeons, a slippery shuffling, soft thuds . . . I was dreaming. I hadn’t realized the two small basement windows were mail slots. Small and large envelopes came slipping through the holes, along with stray sheets of paper and pieces of clothing and garbage.
When I woke up I was relieved to see the bare carpeting along that wall. I looked at those indentations in the carpet. I thought they must have been from Regan’s computer desk. I supposed he had moved it upstairs to his bedroom.
EPISODE 33, ‘THE SURPRISE PARTY’
WRITER: OZZIE NELSON
DIRECTOR: OZZIE NELSON
David invites Kathy to a party at his home. The Randolphs show a color movie to Harriet. Ozzie speaks of aging and the physical appearance of women. He retrieves from the attic a damaged badminton net. Harriet promises not to interfere with the party. David compliments his mother’s youthful appearance. Lying in bed, Ricky dreams of Hawai’i. Fifty pounds of hamburger meat lie ready to be served. Mr. Randolph admits that he was ill in Hawai’i. Ricky dances, his feet like lightning. Ozzie points to the exact place on a boy where his center of gravity rests.
In the middle of the month, the deep freeze lifted. For a couple of days people basked in the sun in their shirtsleeves and light dresses. A dream of springtime reigned. It was on one of those fleeting, springlike days, on my lunch break at the deli, that I noticed a magazine by my foot. Someone had wedged it under the base of the table to steady the wobble. My hand, working faster than my brain, snatched it up and put it in my backpack. I didn’t look at it until that evening, when I was back in the basement. It was an erotic mail-order catalogue. It seemed fairly upscale for what it was.
At some point that night or in the course of the following day, I decided to order a bisexual porn tape. I was willing to admit that I wanted to watch men having sex with other men on tape. I knew it was a risk. In retrospect, the risk seems insane. Regan always left earlier than me. In the morning, once he was gone, I called the mail order company. A man answered. He sounded calm, courteous, professional. I confirmed with him what the catalogue explicitly stated: that the item would arrive in a package giving no indication of its origin or contents. I thought: my job is nothing but videos, so even if Regan saw a package for me whose shape suggested a videotape, it would seem work-related. Still, the blood was pounding in my ears when I gave my credit card information, the item number for the tape (I did not have to speak its title) and finally, Regan’s address. I asked if it was possible to arrange for the delivery to occur on a specific date. It was not. The package would arrive in seven to ten business days. I hung up the phone with a sense of doom. I was ill for twenty minutes in the bathroom. Then I hurried to the subway in the mild weather.
The next day there was winter thunder and a blizzard blew in, filling Regan’s little yard with snow, leaving heaps of dirty slush in the streets. Then it froze even deeper, days of pale blue sky and bitter winds.
I seemed to dwell in a subterranean world, moving from my basement to the subway to the cubicle to the subway to Alt.Coffee to Leudtke’s and/or the Polish bar, and the underground return trip back to the island by night.
Watching The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was like falling down a hole into a cave where the Nelson family dwelt. Ricky, the irrepressible scamp. David the ready flatterer, obedient as a dog. Harriet with her warm but brittle irony, her kitchen-sink charm. Ozzie, the American father, boxing or dancing his way toward the center of every plotline, chuckling through his bewilderment. A short, full-chested, big-headed pop who could literally turn cartwheels. A lion of a man, confounded in the world of his own making. I saw the appalling courage of Ozzie’s self-exposure – to so literally stage, week after week, his own terrible fears of aging, of exhaustion and obsolescence. I saw the desolation in Harriet’s face and in her hands: grief for the fun of life that was every moment slipping away. The sons prowled the home like panthers, or darted through the rooms like sharks. The Nelson house was a hothouse of sex and of fear. The Father looked on – wistful, perplexed – the smile fading on his leonine visage, as his sons assumed the reigns of sexual mastery.
My mind was crammed with the spectral forms of the Nelsons. Sitting across from me on the F train was a broad-shouldered boy with the same low hairline as David. In a Sbarro at lunchtime, the man in line in front of me had the head of Ozzie Nelson, that monumental head with its burden of hopes. On the walls of Leudtke’s apartment I seemed to see the Nelson’s framed pictures of marine life crowding the walls, and that figurine of Christ (or was it a clown?) between the ashtrays and empty beer bottles. In the eyes of Vanessa I caught flashes of Harriet’s eyes, wavering between terror and knowledge. If she went to bed with Leudtke while I was still there, I could hear her cries of passion from behind the door: restrained at first, then escalating hoots and yips. Sam Lake retired to his room.
On the day I felt convinced the porn tape was going to come – it was the seventh or eighth business day – I called in sick to work. I waited all day, watching game shows and reading in bed, listening for the buzzer and periodically checking the mailbox. Nothing.
That evening, Vanessa had a party at her apartment on the Upper West Side near Columbia. I got fairly drunk. I found myself looking at Bartlett, who was passed out on the sofa. With his dark hair and plump lower lip he looked like Ricky Nelson. He sat with his legs spread, his chin slumped on his chest. His oxford shirt was sloppily untucked. Cibo Matto was playing on the stereo. Leudtke had told me a story about Bartlett that he’d heard from Vanessa: At Oberlin, Bartlett had been seduced by an older, married man, a special student in his forties. The older student attended the college on a disability program. He was almost hunchbacked from a degenerative ailment of the spine. Bartlett had consented to be sodomized repeatedly by this man for the better part of a semester. Now he had a job in finance. He was dating Pilar. I couldn’t understand any of it.
I was staring at Bartlett’s crotch. I could see the outline of his penis in the leg of his chinos. It lay along his thigh like a soft salami. By the time I caught myself, Pilar had seen me ogling. She met my glance and her eyes were like, What the fuck, dude? Like the eyes of Harriet Nelson, when she widens them with disapproval but holds her tongue.
On the subway, that bleary late-night ride through the bowels of Manhattan, I wondered if Pilar would tell Vanessa, and if she would mention the incident to Leudtke.
I thought of Ricky in a Spanish costume. His smooth cheeks beneath that sombrero. I had watched the boy grow up in time-lapse, the episodes speeding him through puberty, from a wisecracking imp with a piping voice to the teenage drummer with bedroom eyes. He was a little boy and a young man. He was alive, and also he was dead. He’d been burned alive on an airplane in 1985, his charred corpse clustered with the others at the blocked exit door. It was disconcerting. I wondered if my attraction to him made me a pedophile. A pedophile in love with a dead boy, or a living boy who became a dead man. I couldn’t imagine what would happen in my future. I couldn’t see a future.
When I got home I saw the light under Regan’s door. I had a terrible premonition. I went to the bathroom as quietly as I could. When I came out Regan was in the kitchen. He wore a kimono and was drinking a glass of milk. His short, frizzy hair was mussed and his face appeared flushed. He seemed to be having trouble speaking.
‘Where you were the other night?’ he said. He raised an eyebrow. It wasn’t much of an eyebrow.
I shook my head. I thought somehow he was referring to Bartlett, or the porn tape.
‘That bar,’ he said.
Then I knew he meant the Polish bar, the night he’d seen me from the sports car. It seemed ages ago. It had come to feel like an incident that hadn’t really happened or which would never be addressed.
‘That is an area known for prostitution,’ he said.
I laughed. Regan wasn’t smiling. I could smell coconut . . . maybe an oil or a cream.
‘It’s just a bar we always go to,’ I said. ‘It’s a neighborhood place.’ I explained about the Polish men, the fights. ‘It’s in the East Village.’
Regan looked unconvinced.
‘It’s louche,’ he said.
‘What you were doing back there? It’s louche.’
He drained his glass, banged it in the sink, and went to his room.
I went outside for a smoke. The night sky was a purplish haze tinged with a sickly orange. I could see one or two stars – or planets, or lights atop enormous hidden towers.
In the basement my futon was made up, the sleeping bag blanket and sheet neatly folded over the edges, and the package lay on top. It was a padded mailer – scuffed with black marks as if it had been fed under the wheels of a tractor, but it was intact. The labeling was as promised. I examined it closely, looking for any way it could have been opened and resealed.
The futon bed was made up more neatly than I remembered having made it. I peeled back the bedding and felt around underneath.
I could barely sleep.
That word, louche, stuck in my ear. Like an earworm. Louche.
The next morning a note lay on the kitchen table: Regan was attending a baptism. There were pork chops in the fridge.
I called Leudtke at lunchtime from a payphone around the corner from my building. He was an editorial assistant at a science fiction magazine. It wasn’t a demanding job.
‘He is completely crazy,’ I said.
‘What did he do?’
‘Remember that time we saw him in the sports car? He said we were in an area known for prostitution.’
Leudtke was silent, as if thinking. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I guess it depends what kind of prostitution you mean. Did he get any more specific?’
‘What do you mean?’ I said.
‘Did he say or do something else?’ Leudtke asked.
I could have mentioned the louche remark but didn’t. It would have been somehow shameful. I felt annoyed.
‘I have to hang up now,’ said Leudtke.
The next day I got up early and had a breakfast of sausage and scrambled eggs with Regan. I complimented him on his cooking and thanked him for the breakfast. We left the house together and parted ways – me to the subway, and Regan (I supposed) to the block where his car was parked. I got off the train at Lexington, found a payphone, and called in sick to work. Then I crossed the platform and got on the train back to Roosevelt Island.
I was hesitant re-entering Regan’s home. There was no sound. I did not go into Regan’s bedroom, but I stood by his door for a while, listening. I checked the bathroom, the backyard and the basement. Then I double-checked the chain lock on the front door. I switched on the TV with the volume muted, put in the VHS tape, and sat on the floor. It felt like I was having an out of body experience.
The film was from the 80s. The men had feathered hair, cut-off jeans, and half-shirts. Their long penises never got fully hard, whether it was a woman or a man fellating them. The men seemed unbothered by this, unembarrassed (though I wondered). Even when they fucked they were semi-soft. There would be a stack of crotches filmed from behind, M atop M atop F, with the men pumping urgently, those flaccid schlongs sloppily penetrating the different lubricated holes. I wondered if semi-arousal was the standard condition of bisexuality. You would be willing to penetrate any type of hole, but with limited to moderate enthusiasm. The men’s legs were brown, their buttocks white. I fast-forwarded the tape. When I hit play, two man sat smoking at a table. I raised the volume. One man was talking about schizophrenic teens. Ways to intervene before the mind breaks free from reality. ‘You need to say, “That’s me speaking, not someone else.” You step into the voice. Actors do this kind of thing all the time.’ The other man looked like Charlie Rose, his head nodding amid wreathes of cigarette smoke. It was Charlie Rose. I had changed channels by accident. I heard a sound from outside the door and hit eject. The volume rose. The VHS player was grinding, clicking and wheezing. For a moment I knew the tape would be stuck and that Regan would open the door. But the machine disgorged the tape with a gasp. I snatched it out. The tape was warm in my hand. There was silence. No one was coming. It was 10:20 a.m. The thought of the rest of the day filled me with sudden dread. I called the museum, saying I felt better and was coming in. I brought the tape with me in my backpack. I was not going to leave it at Regan’s.
Darlene came to visit me at my cubicle to ask how I was. She had a small, grandmotherly face but her hair was long and Gothic, with a dyed blue tinge, not like an old lady from the 50s but like some girls have nowadays, a light, silvery blue. Darlene was ahead of her time in that regard. The effect was weird . . . you could spy her in profile and it looked like she wore a hood or hijab. The hair made her face look skeletal. She wrapped a kind of silken netting around herself, leaning into my cubicle. Her eyes were small, sparkly and remote. She asked me what bands I liked, what movies I’d seen. I wondered if there was something flirty about it. It felt like she needed something. I couldn’t help thinking of my mother. Darlene was at least a decade older than my mother, and as far as I knew was in perfect health.
Darlene talked about her son in Lake Tahoe and his family. He was a computer programmer, a former Olympic rower . . . he had met his second wife in Reno, where she’d been in an abusive relationship with an older man . . . the son brought her to Tahoe to begin a new life . . . she worked as a music therapist . . . they had a grown daughter (from the wife’s first marriage) who had ME and lived at home . . . ME was the correct term for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome . . . it was the tragedy in their family, this girl struck down in the prime of her youth, gradually drifting into an inner world of suffering. Darlene evoked boat rides on Lake Tahoe – ‘the Caribbean in the mountains’ – the family sunning themselves on the water, but their enjoyment always shadowed by the specter of the daughter at home in her bedroom, with a sign on the door saying Silence Please!, because even the sound of voices caused her a pain too profound to be described as either physical or mental. She spoke of the wife’s good friend, an old friend from Reno who’d come to live with them and help nurse the daughter . . .
I thought of the tape in my bag near my feet, and the image of those stacked crotches, those sloppy penetrations. I worried that those images could somehow linger in Regan’s living room like ghosts or apparitions that other people could see, like how the smell of smoke or of sex lingers in a room.
Darlene seemed satisfied with my work on the catalogue. People did come to the museum, usually researchers but also some random curious people (or weirdos or perverts) off the streets. The catalogue was primitive in those days, there were no search tools or metadata. I would never know how many people (if anyone) had looked at my summaries.
EPISODE 67, ‘THE ELOPEMENT’
WRITER: OZZIE NELSON
DIRECTOR: OZZIE NELSON
Ozzie has insomnia. Part of the newspaper is missing. Harriet tells Ozzie that David has gone to an amusement park. Ozzie speaks of the anonymity of crowds. He recalls a memory of illness. The family studies travel folders. Ricky wants to water-ski in Bermuda. Having lost all sense of time, Ozzie finds himself in a medical building. Loitering in the office, he hints at a revolution in medicine. The doctor has drawn the blinds. Ozzie confesses his worries about David. The doctor helps himself to some candy; he has no solutions.
A few days later I left work early. First I went to Alt.coffee to check my personal email. Then I stopped at a True Value hardware store on Third Avenue and bought a hammer, a box of Hefty garbage bags, and pair of rubber gloves. Then I headed to Roosevelt Island. I got a brown grocery bag from the kitchen drawer, took the Yellow Pages from atop the fridge, and went down to the basement. I wrapped the porn tape in two trash bags, set the wrapped tape on top of the phone book, and smashed it to pieces with the hammer. I put the trash bags with the pulverized tape into the grocery sack. Then I put on the rubber gloves, took the sack up to the kitchen, set it next to the garbage can, and manually transferred a bunch of garbage into the grocery sack so that it filled up the sack. Then I put the grocery sack into a double-thick Hefty, tied it off, brought it downstairs, and stashed it in the closet behind my bed. I put the hammer, trash bags, and gloves away in my luggage, and returned the phone book to the kitchen.
I sat or slept vigil over the closet that night. In the morning, I thought I would just put the trash bag in a random bin on my way to the subway. But there were too many people on the sidewalks; I was nervous that someone would spot me. People could be touchy about other people putting trash in their bins. I brought the trash bag with me on the subway and took the train to Queens. I got off at the Queensbridge stop and walked a dozen blocks until I saw a Key Food on 36th Avenue. The dumpsters out back were unattended, and I slung my bag into one of them.
It could now be in a Fresh Kills landfill. It could be converted into asphalt, spread over an interstate in Ohio or New Mexico or Maine.
I arrived at the museum flustered and late. Darlene wasn’t a stickler for the clock – she wouldn’t reprimand me or even comment on it – but I would still be ashamed meeting her eye. However, Darlene was not there. Everyone assumed she was out sick, but by the end of the day we were told that her apartment had been burglarized. Darlene was fine – she hadn’t been home during the burglary – but she had resigned her position at the museum and left New York City by plane. I never learned where she went and never saw her again.
Regan had invited me to see a jazz band at Tommy Joe’s Pub in midtown. This was just before Valentine’s Day. He appeared to have no suspicions about the porn tape, and this made me so grateful that I accepted his invitation with tears in my eyes.
I met my friends after work on a Thursday. We had many vodka shots at a Russian bar on Second Street. Then I got too high, way too high in Leudtke’s apartment.
In the subway I felt deranged. During my last year of college I had wondered if I was going crazy . . . the phrase going crazy hovered in the air in quivering cartoon letters, as if the thought of going crazy was itself a thing that could make you crazy. I wondered what would happen if it happened. Was it happening now? Where would I be sent? Bellevue? A locked ward? Would they call my family and give me injections?
I sat in the fluorescence of an all-night deli, waiting for my mind to stabilize and for some of the reek on my breath and clothes to evaporate. The lights were too bright but the Indian men working there, the customers being served, the rhythm of their work in the store was comforting.
At the corner of Regan’s block was a bank branch, a little cube of aquarium light with an ATM inside. I thought of going in there, withdrawing all my money, and heading to the Port Authority Station.
When I came in the door I heard a woman’s laughter and sounds of Don Henley on the hi-fi. They were on the sofa, a few feet apart, her left leg – a big jeaned thigh – crossed elaborately over the right.
I waved and walked into the kitchen. The table was cluttered with the remains of dinner. I saw pearled couscous and vegetable chunks in a sauce. The woman kept talking. ‘He tracked me for seven years,’ she was saying. ‘He’s a healer, don’t get me wrong. He has a power over women. He called himself a dragon-slayer.’ (They both laughed.) ‘He broke into my cabin twice.’
I poured myself a glass of orange juice. While I was guzzling it, eyes shut, Regan’s voice spoke into my ear:
‘Smoking the wacky weed?’
I opened my eyes. He gazed at me with a soft reproach, his moustache tweaked in a smile.
‘Bring another bottle’a booze,’ called the woman.
‘That’s Janice,’ whispered Regan. I waved to Janice. ‘She’s an artist,’ he whispered, ‘a master sculptor.’ His breath smelled of spices and wine.
‘So here’s the young buck,’ said the woman. ‘Do you want some salad?’
‘No thanks.’ Her hair was thick, graying and wavy, tumbling out below a sort of headband with a third-eye gemstone-type ornament. She wore a roomy green shirt overlain with gold paisley filigree. They were talking about the old days. I made a move for the basement door, but Janice waved me over. She scooched closer to Regan and patted the cushion beside her. I took a seat. She was in the middle of a story. She and her friend left the cabin and traveled through the national forests of New Jersey, subsisting on oatmeal. Janice was struggling with depression. Her parents, she said, drove her to suicide because they wanted her to be normal. ‘They were going to do a frontal lobotomy on me,’ she said. ‘That happened to my friend Olivia. They sent her to Corpus Christi.’
Regan nodded, a grave expression on his face. Janice had big watery eyes and a long downy upper lip. I couldn’t have guessed her age any more than I could have guessed Regan’s. ‘I didn’t care,’ said Janice. ‘I forgave them, but I didn’t care.’ She was talking about some people who were living in a commune on Staten Island. A woman who drove a medical supply truck. Interdiction by federal agencies, all scrambling for their cut. ‘Knives out,’ she said. ‘Knives at one another’s throats.’
Regan stood, stretching and yawning. ‘Bedtime for Bobby?’ said Janice derisively. Regan grinned sheepishly and shrugged.
‘Who’s Bobby?’ I asked.
‘That old fellow,’ said Janice. I watched with horror as Regan slipped into his bedroom. ‘We always called him Bobby.’ I went into the kitchen, filled a glass of water and drank it down, then filled another glass. I opened the freezer and examined a tub of peach melba.
‘I guess I’ll have to sleep out here,’ said Janice loudly. She was sitting on the couch, stretching her arms and her back, eyes closed, swaying a little to the music. Normally Regan had an elaborate, mysteriously protracted bedtime toilet ritual, but I saw that his door was shut and his light was off.
‘Goodnight, then,’ I said.
Janice shot me a glance. ‘Goodnight, then.’
I closed the basement door behind me, my heart racing. I didn’t know if the sharp sarcasm I heard in her voice had been real or a distortion of my stoned brain. I couldn’t believe Regan/Bobby had left me to the wolves.
I lay petrified under the Spiderman blanket. I could hear the beat of the music upstairs. It was pitch dark and cool. I was too high to sleep. I saw the leonine faces of Ozzie and David Nelson, the thick ridge of flesh between their eyebrows, the flattened upper nose-bridge, as in cases of leprosy. Ozzie in a flannel shirt-jacket, chuckling at his own jokes. His open hands the innocent hands of a murderer. That David, not Ricky, was the inheritor of crime, as evidenced in his facial physiognomy. Harriet a captive in a house scripted by Ozzie. Surviving by dint of its being only film. Hiding in plain sight in the rooms of Ozzie’s amnesia. A woman in a house of ghosts, but ghosts that could hurt you. The specters of her boys passing through walls . . . I saw how the mortal hand, the hand of fear, lay on the shoulders of the parents and on the shoulders of the youths, but the youths didn’t know it. I saw how the mirror of love was the mirror of death . . . clocks floating in the rooms like eyes, pendulous clocks that sagged and bulged in the background . . . shadows on the wallpaper like vultures or owls. Sweet Ricky a changeling among them, his mouth a hole of teeth in his long jaw, the yearning timbre of his voice, buzzing toward manhood, a prop plane struggling to lift off . . .
The music had stopped. I heard the door creak open. A beam of light shone down the stairs. Janice was descending. Then I heard her stumble, a frightening series of thuds, an anguished cry – for a moment I was certain she’d broken her neck, that Regan would come running – but then she was crawling into my bed, groaning in pain. She spooned her body back into me. She took my arm and pulled it around her belly. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I said. ‘Are you okay?’
‘I’m hurt,’ she said. ‘I don’t know,’ she murmured weepily.
I lay waiting for what Janice would do next. Her breathing calmed. Her bottom was warm against me. I thought she might have fallen asleep. Then she spoke:
‘Oh honey. It doesn’t hurt too bad. But it makes me think of times when it did hurt, that’s all. There’ll be bruises tomorrow.’
She reached over and tugged on the back of my hair. She turned herself and kissed me on the mouth, on the face. Her hand fumbled for my dick, which was soft.
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Do you . . . I mean . . .’
‘It’s not like that,’ I said. ‘I just got too high.’
She took her hand away. ‘Of course you did, sweetie. Come here. Let’s just rest.’ I lay there while she breathed on my face. Her hot breath smelled of liquor and cream. I lay for a long time, waiting for Janice to be asleep. When I tried to turn over, away from her, she sighed heavily, holding me back. ‘I thought you young guys . . .’
‘I’ve got a lot on my mind,’ I said. ‘My mother is ill.’ I was shocked to hear myself say it. I could feel her body change. It was electrical.
‘Oh honey,’ she said, stroking my cheeks, planting little dry kisses on my eyes. ‘You’re not going to have to go on this journey alone. I’m here for you. Bobby is here for you. He’s suffered terribly . . .’
Terribly, I heard her say again after a while, who knows how long. My mind was just spiraling emptily. I felt her hand graze my dick. She was talking about the arts, about sculpture and music, about Bobby’s saxophone. The Tunamakers. ‘You’ve seen him play. You know you’ve gotta want it bad, right? You know how badly he wants it.’ She talked about trying to control Bobby or being controlled by him. I thought I heard her murmur, It feels like when you pee, or something like that. She was snoring.
When I woke, I could see no physical trace of Janice. I went upstairs. The living room was vacant, the coffee table cleared and wiped clean. It was after 1 p.m. I realized I had missed the jazz band at Tommy Joe’s Pub. It was Regan’s band. It had been last night. I’d completely forgotten.
I called in sick to work. It was sunny; melting snow lay in patches outside the sliding glass door. The phone rang in the kitchen. I put out my cigarette and went in. I thought it was the museum calling back. I answered the phone. It was my mom. ‘Now I am a woman with a second fatal disease,’ she announced.
‘Could you please not talk that way? What are you talking about?’
She laughed a high, false laugh. ‘Something in my lung. Both lungs. It’s good news and bad news,’ she said.
I waited for her to go on. ‘The good news is it doesn’t change anything,’ she said.
There was a note on the kitchen table from Janice: I’m sorry my life has been out of control. Try not to blame me . . .
I meant to ask Regan about her – like, had she really injured herself, had to go to the hospital, anything like that – but it never came up.
The next week Sam Lake finally moved out of Leudtke’s, and then I moved out of Regan’s.
One other thing happened before I moved. I’d had a quiet night in, and was up late, packing and repacking my suitcases. Earlier, upstairs, I had heard Regan talking on the phone in his room. Through the door I heard the heated tones of an argument. But when I came out of the bathroom, I thought I could hear him laughing. It was such a sweet laugh. It disarmed me.
I spent the rest of the night futzing with my belongings and reading in bed (a collection of short stories by Heinrich Böll). After midnight, I went upstairs to pee. But at the top of the stairs I could hear the TV. I hesitated. I couldn’t hear Regan’s voice. I knew he was on the other side of the door. I had a sudden apprehension that I would find him dead. I opened the door softly. Regan was kneeling beside the coffee table in a sleeveless undershirt. His head was bowed: it looked massive and grayish in the TV light. The Olympics were on, the opening ceremonies in Japan.
For an instant I thought I was witnessing something sexual, that the moment of proof had come, and that it would be traumatic.
On TV, children in puffy powdered wigs were dancing in concentric circles on a platform. A woman at the center sang into a microphone, sang about the children.
Regan’s eyes were closed, his lips under the moustache moving, his hands were clasped in what appeared to be prayer while the Japanese music washed over him. I saw him so deeply in himself, in a body and head filled with memories and fears, joys and tenderness and shame. I had a vision of myself laying hands on Regan. I felt afraid: for myself, or Regan, or both of us. There were moments when the world split open just enough to reveal something awful, something marvelous and awful – and in those moments fate whispered something in my ear, but I was too transfixed to hear it.
I closed the door and crept back downstairs. I lay in bed and tried to fall asleep, but I had to pee badly. I remembered a Snapple bottle in my backpack, and used that to pee in. Then I lay awake wondering what I was going to do with it, how to make the pee bottle disappear.
Photograph © Ana Paula Hirama