From A Strange Commonplace
forthcoming from Coffee House press
The boy was in the backyard, playing aimlessly in the thin snow that covered the packed soil in which nothing had ever been planted. She looked out of one of the panes in the back door window at him, waiting. There he goes. He bent down and untied first one shoelace, then the other, straightened up, and headed toward the wooden stairs that led to the little back porch. She stepped away from the door, feeling a cold and gray sadness, near despair. He opened the door and stood there, a little dull animal, the wet March air coming into the kitchen. My shoes came open, Mama. She knelt down and tied them and he went out again, closing the door. The sky was turning livid as the pale, silvery sun went down. She put a bottle of Worcestershire sauce on the table, poured the sweet, orange, bottled dressing on the lettuce, tomato, and cucumber salad, and tossed it, then set the table for three. It was about time for him to get home but she knew that he wouldn’t be home till midnight. Or maybe not till the morning. She arranged sliced roast fresh ham, bologna, spiced ham, and Swiss cheese on a plate, next to which she placed a jar of mayonnaise and one of mustard, and a loaf of Silvercup. She put the Worcestershire back in the cupboard, took down an almost full quart of Wilson’s, and poured herself a water glass full, drinking it in three long swallows. She gagged and her eyes teared, but she stood still and held her arms rigid at her sides and was all right. Then she went upstairs to their bedroom, that’s a laugh. He hadn’t done it with her in more than a month and a half, and that last time his undershirt smelled of Evening in Paris. She pulled off her housecoat and brushed her hair, washed her face, then put in a pair of onyx-and-gold earrings. She undressed and put on her best underwear and silk stockings, gartering them carefully so that they’d be taut, without those dowdy little wrinkles at the ankles. She applied pale-red lipstick and just a touch of rouge, then a little powder. She stepped into a tight black dress that had faint gold threads running vertically from just beneath the bodice to the hem of the skirt, and put on a black felt hat with a small snap brim. Not bad. She pulled her remodeled gray Persian lamb coat over her shoulders, slipped on her new black pumps, then danced around the room, humming “Poor Butterfly.” She abruptly stopped, took her handbag, and went downstairs. She could feel the whiskey, her lips slightly numb, her belly warm, a vague prickling in her loins. She couldn’t do it any more, she could not do it any any any more. She’d have another drink. She looked out at the backyard in time to see the boy plodding toward the house, his shoelaces dragging. Oh Jesus, oh Jesus Mary and Joseph. She drank off the whiskey and felt it blaze into her head in a rush. The kitchen looked bright, clear, the weird orange dressing on the salad cheery, everything looked wonderful. That’s good. That would be very good. She took twenty-three dollars in fives and singles from Joy of Cooking that her battle-ax mother-in-law had given her as a hint, the old bitch, and put the money in her bag, then locked the back door just as the boy was turning the knob. She looked out at him, standing in the near-darkness, mucus running down his upper lip from both nostrils, his face blank and stupid, yet resolute, determined. He tried the knob again and again, a robot. She couldn’t do this any more. She walked through the house, knocking the black teapot with the disgusting dragon on it to the floor: a bad-luck gift, an evil-eye gift from her mother on their first anniversary. She heard it break and smiled, then staggered and almost lost her balance. She opened the front door to walk, very carefully, down the three brick steps to the street, those wonderful brick steps. She could go anywhere, she’d get another drink in someplace respectable where ladies were not allowed at the bar but were welcome in the tap room, in the restaurant. She still looked good at thirty-two, and she could do whatever she wanted to do. She was free, white, and twenty-one, and had always been full of fun. Everybody said so.
Pearl Gray Homburg
When he walked into his apartment the air felt different, something was off. Then he saw, on the scarred drop-leaf table in what he jokingly called the dining room, a pearl gray homburg, its brim and crown soiled, its black grosgrain band sweat-stained and discolored. Draped over the back of one of the creaking library chairs he’d bought from the Salvation Army was Elaine’s long flowered skirt. He sat at the table and lit a cigarette, what the hell are these doing here? The hat? He got up and went into the living room to get an ashtray and saw, on the studio couch, a neat pile of change. The bowl, hand-thrown, as Elaine had noted, that she’d bought on Eighth Street for him to keep his change and keys in, was gone. She’d been in the apartment, but what was going on? Or maybe it was Jenny who’d been in the apartment, but he’d never given her keys. At that moment, he realized that Jenny had told Elaine that he’d been seeing both of them. He could imagine her face, screwed up in false anguish, as she’d asked Elaine to please understand, she was sorry, really sorry. It must have been an acute pleasure for her. He knew, then, that Elaine had taken everything that she considered hers, not just the bowl. Her clothes, of course, would all be gone, save for the skirt, but what else had she taken? Two hours later, after he’d checked, he had made a mental list of the missing items, which he then carefully transferred to a notebook: A 1960 Bodley Head edition of Ulysses, without a dust jacket; a Lamy combination pen-and-pencil in gray matte finish, with extra ink refills and leads; a heavy black woolen sweater with a shawl collar that a junkie friend of hers had stolen; a ten-inch Revere Ware skillet; a black-and-white-striped apron from Pottery Barn; a pair of porcelain egg coddlers; an oven mitt; a set of four wooden cooking spoons; a plastic lazy Susan; a Kent hairbrush; a loofah; an unopened package of Hanes briefs; a tobacco-colored suede jacket from B. Altman; a nickel-plated Zippo lighter; a paperweight of highly polished petrified wood; a Richard Avedon photograph, framed in chrome, of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams; three LP’s: Sonny Rollins’s Newk’s Time, John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things, and Dexter Gordon’s Our Man in Paris; and paperback copies of The Sacred Fount, Pierre, The Confidence Man, The Plumed Serpent, and García Lorca’s Selected Poems. And, along with her flowered skirt, she’d left, at the back of a drawer in the little room he hopefully called his study, a black French garter belt and a pair of tangled off-black nylons. Was this by design, and how could he tell? The gray homburg, though, gave him an eerie feeling, as if the hat had a malign, extravagant power to do him harm. He wouldn’t touch it, not yet, not even to throw it out. He made himself a drink—she hadn’t taken the J.W. Dant anyway—and sat on the couch. It had to have been Jenny, the horny bitch, who’d told her. Her best friend, of course. How pleased she must have been to stab Elaine’s ego. They’d known each other since high school in Midwood, they even looked alike, had got stoned together, found the Village together. They were built the same and often shared each other’s clothes, even shoes and underwear, so Elaine said. He recalled the night they’d come into the bar together, both in black gabardine suits and black sunglasses, their black hair pulled back into chignons; for a brief moment, he couldn’t tell one from the other. He lit another cigarette, and said, aloud: So, I got bored with Elaine and started fucking her double, what a champ, they even look alike naked. About a week later, he went into the bar and saw Elaine, sitting over a pink gin and talking with Louie, the day bartender. He sat down next to her and ordered a draft beer. What the hell was that all about? he said, you even took a fucking oven mitt? And what’s with that weird filthy homburg? You left your print skirt, too. I threw it out! She turned on her bar stool so that her knees touched his thigh. What are you talking about? What are you talking about? Oh, for Christ’s sake, Elaine, even the goddamn bowl you bought me for my change, Jesus, that’s really small. And the hat! What is with the hat? Are you crazy? she said, are you going crazy? I’m Jenny, look. Look, I’m Jenny. I don’t know anything about hats or skirts, you ought to get back to work on whatever it is you were working on, get back to work. He was looking at her full in the face, she was Jenny, sure, probably, she was Jenny, of course. She was Jenny, she looked just like her. You can have your skirt back if you want, he said. I only said I threw it out. He wanted to ask her about the meaning of the hat on the table but he knew that she’d lie to him.
On the Roof
Janet’s husband, Al, was making an ass of himself, as he usually did at parties lately. With a few drinks in him, he turned into an irresistible lothario, good God. There he was, drunk and clumsy, with his shirt off, dancing with a girl who was no more than eighteen. Nobody in the hot, crowded apartment paid any attention to him, but Janet was, nonetheless, embarrassed and angry. He had acted, since their arrival, as if he didn’t know her, as if she were somebody he’d bumped into on the street that evening. She went into the kitchen to make herself another drink. There were two men there, drinking straight whiskey and eating the cheese and crackers and pretzels that had been laid out on the counter. One, a short redhead, had an open, somehow friendly yet blank face, and the other, a black man, looked like a bank officer, in a dark suit, white shirt, and carefully knotted tie. Janet didn’t know them, but then she hardly knew anybody there, save for the host, one of Al’s friends from work, a prig of a man whom she despised. You’re not having too much fun it looks like, the black man said. The other man looked fleetingly at her legs and then up into her face, smiling candidly. Oh well, she said, a party, you know, and shrugged. She looked around into the living room and saw Al with his hands on the girl’s hips, swaying erratically to “Just For a Thrill,” the damn fool. I know what you mean, the redheaded man said, and a drag of a party, too. They all laughed, complicit. The black man suggested that they go up to the roof and smoke a little, you dig?, that might help things along. Maybe the party will be better when we get back. Or at least look better, his friend said. Janet hesitated, but why not? Why not? She was tired of being humiliated, she was tired of being ignored. She thought to tell Al that she was going up to the roof for some air, but knew that he would immediately become the possessive and jealous husband and make a scene. Sure, she said, let’s go up. She liked these young men, if only for the fact that they weren’t the other young men at the party, laughing and shouting into each other’s faces, desperately hip. It was a warm, sticky August night, the moon hazy in an overcast sky, the smell of rain in the air. She was suddenly very high, very very high, they were all high, smoking two fat joints of hash. Oh my goodness, she said, I am so stoned, so stoned. She wasn’t, however, so stoned, wait! as to want this, wait! No, wait, no! she said. The redheaded man was kissing her in a frenzy, and roughly squeezing and pulling at her breasts, while the black man was pulling her skirt up and clawing at her panties, come on, bitch! They pushed her down onto her hands and knees and she felt the black man’s weight on her back and then he was in her. They were raping her, you’re raping me! she said, you bastard! She felt him coming in her and she started to cry. Her head felt as if it were floating free of her shoulders and then the redheaded man pushed a spittle-wet finger into her anus and pushed himself brutally into her, while the black man held her head between his hands. The pain traveled through her gut and up her spine and into her head, a blazing agony behind her eyes, and she sobbed and screamed, drooling onto her torn blouse. The black man slapped her across the face again and again while the other man moved wildly in her, grunting. Fuck the bitch! the black man said, fuck the cunt bitch! The man pulled himself out of her and came on her buttocks and thighs, panting. Then they ripped off her blouse and yanked off her skirt and half-slip as well. One of them threw her torn panties in her face and the black man put her skirt and blouse and slip under his jacket, laughing. Go back to the fucking party like that, bitch, see if it’ll be more fun! They left and she sat there, shivering and weeping in the soft rain that had been falling for some time. Her brassiere was soaked through, and one of the straps was broken. The cupola door opened and Al stood there, the cold light of the stairway behind him. Janet? he called. Janet? I can’t even dance with somebody without you getting all pissed off? Jesus Christ! She sat, biting her hand to keep silent, her knees pulled up to her chest, her torn panties clutched to her vagina. Her entire lower body throbbed and burned and she thought that she was going to move her bowels. Where the fuck are you? Al yelled.
His bitch of a wife had gone back on her promise, as usual, of course. So that when he got to the apartment she told him that she and the boy were going on a picnic with her latest wonderful and understanding boyfriend, some horny bastard at least ten years younger than she looking to get laid regularly. The upright and noble young man had called that morning to say that he was closing his cute little organic greengrocery for the day to drive them all up to White Plains to a lovely little park that had a beautiful picnic grounds. Including a lovely little pond with lovely little ducks that the boy could feed lovely little bread crumbs. What a prince this humble shopkeeper was! For the love of Christ! he yelled, for fucking Christ’s sake! After I come all the way down here from Washington Heights on the subway you pull this shit? This is not our deal, our arrangement, this is my Saturday! She’d tried to call him earlier but he wasn’t home, it wasn’t her fault. Her amazing and stalwart boyfriend never took a day off or even closed early, this was special, couldn’t he understand? Couldn’t he try to understand? He could take the boy the next two Saturdays to make up for it, but now—he was so excited to go on a picnic, he’d never been on a picnic. She gave him a look of saintly patience, one that said I hold no grudges and I will never point out to you your past and present grievous failings and flaws of character. This is my Saturday he yelled again, this! God, how he’d love to slap her fucking silly. Well, where were you on a Saturday morning? I tried to call you a half a dozen times. None of your business where I was. And where’s the kid? Ah, the boy was out with her warm and attentive companion buying cold cuts and salads and baguettes and soda and wine and such, he wanted to help, he’s so excited about this, really. Do you want to wait and see him and tell him—Tell him what? he said. That I came all the way down here to let him know that we were gonna go out but now he’s out of luck? That’s o.k., though, he’ll have a wonderful day with the super boyfriend, who, when he’s not fucking his mother in every hole upside down and twice on Sunday, he can give him potato salad tips and how to feed the duckies. What a guy! I should have put the make on him myself. You’re a bastard, she said, sober or not, a real bastard. And you’re a whore bitch. He left, and for no reason, walked over to the Alpine, where he’d planned to take the boy to a Tarzan-revival matinee, then for a snack in Holsten’s, with a chocolate frosted, and then for a walk in the park down to the promenade to watch the ships for a while. The kid would be able to see that he wasn’t the drunken slob of a rotten father she’d certainly told him he was and had always been—born drunk, according to her. And the kid would slowly, after a while, get the idea maybe that he was his father, his real father, not the parade of bums, including this latest clown with the fruits and vegetables, in his mother’s pants every night. How did she get to be such a whore? He sat in the theater, loud with kids, the movie probably half over by now, as if it mattered. There they were, Tarzan and Jane and the weird monkey, everything was perfect, peaches, they never argued, never a cross word, they just laughed and swam and swung through the trees and ate bananas and coconuts and papayas, all the animals loved them, and at night they humped each other blind. Tarzan never looked at another woman, not that there was much to look at, a bunch of crazy jigs running through the jungle yelling ugga bugga bongo dongo while Tarzan and Jane looked down from their tree house, feeling each other up. He left before the movie was over and went into the bar next door for a drink. He hoped the hero storekeeper of a boyfriend choked on his sandwich up in the woods in Yonkers with the ducks in the fucking pond. Her heroic and hardworking pal was choking on some organically produced pâté! How could he screw her while gasping for breath? Help! He settled himself on a bar stool and lit a cigarette, ordered a Fleischmann’s and a beer chaser. Tarzan was probably up under Jane’s little skirt made of hides or leaves or grass by now, they ought to show you that in the movie. He knocked back the whiskey and signaled the bartender for another as he drank down the beer. This was a nice bar, calm and quiet on a Saturday afternoon before the chumps came in with their whore girlfriends and two-timing wives. He’d sit for a while and have a few more, maybe, what the hell, get swacked. The alcohol had moved softly into his brain and, once again, the world was perfect. Tarzan’s world.
Gilbert Sorrentino is the author of more than thirty books, including two novels that were finalists for the PEN/Faulkner award: Little Casino and Aberration of Starlight. A critical figure in postmodern American literature, he is profesor Emeritus, Stanford University and lives in Brooklyn.