from THE ABYSS OF HUMAN ILLUSION
(Coffee House Press, September 2009).
He sat and stared at the sea, which appeared all surface and twinkle, far shallower than the spirit of man. It was the abyss of human illusion that was the real, the tideless deep. —Henry James
- I -
Mundane things, pitiful in their mundane assertiveness, their sad isolation. Kraft French dressing, glowing weirdly orange through its glass bottle, a green glass bowl of green salad, a bottle of Worcestershire sauce, its paper wrapper still on. All are in repose, in their absolute thingness, under the overhead alarming bright light of the kitchen. They may or they should, they must, really, reveal the meaning of this silent room, this silent house, save that they won’t. There is no meaning. These things will evoke nothing.
In years to come, almost three-quarters of a century, they still evoke nothing. Orange, green, incandescent glare. Silence and loss. Nothing. There might be a boy of four at the table. He is sitting very straight and is possibly waiting for someone.
...Kraft French Dressing, glowing weirdly orange... The label on the bottle describes this dressing as “creamy.” So it was in 1934, so it is now. No one has ever discovered why this dressing, with its odd tang of sugary vinegar, was and is called “French,” nor has anyone suggested a reason for its strange, pumpkin-like color. It is highly popular. ...a bottle of Worcestershire sauce... This sauce was Lea and Perrins, considered by virtually everyone to be the ne plus ultra of Worcestershire sauces. The brand has been made since 1835, and its paper wrapper surely adds to its special cachet. For many years, the label on the bottle noted that it was the recipe of a “nobleman in the county,” or, perhaps, “country,” but that information is no longer provided.
- XII -
While he was at work each day, an old friend who was staying with him and his wife until he could find an apartment, and who was, in the meantime, perfectly at home in his hosts’ apartment, passed the long days by making love to his friend’s wife, whom he didn’t much care for, but, well, there she was, vapid and bored and available.
The host felt, rather than knew, that the pair couldn’t wait for him to leave for work in the morning so that they could happily get to their rutting. On weekends, the tension in the apartment virtually sizzled. The man had no knowledge, no proof, no evidence of his cuckolding, no hint was ever given, no suggestion, leer, no shifting of eyes.
Every day after lunch, the husband threw up, and every night, he would stare out the kitchen window for hours, smoking one cigarette after another. His friend found another apartment after three months and moved out, taking the husband’s Zippo lighter, a gold graduation-gift fountain pen, a can opener, all the change that was in a little bowl on the kitchen table, as well as three shirts, nicely selecting those fresh from the Chinese laundry.
His wife remarked, that first night, with an almost brilliant sincerity, that it was really good to have the place to themselves again. She was, of course, pregnant.
...smoking one cigarette after another... In this particular case, Philip Morris cigarettes, the package of which was designed to look like a cured tobacco leaf. ...the husband’s Zippo lighter... This lighter had a matte nickel finish. ...a gold graduation-gift fountain pen... This was an Eversharp Skyline fountain pen of 14K gold. Its companion mechanical pencil had been broken for years, and languished in a kitchen drawer. ...She was, of course, pregnant... She may well have been made pregnant by her husband, but he didn’t think so.
- XX -
He died in a monstrous blooming rose of blood and fire outside of Munsan-ni, under a mortar attack. A week earlier, Chinese rounds had tracked a squad across a valley floor with relentless, elegant, fussy precision, killing two and wounding two.
Before his orders had been cut for Ford Ord and FECOM, he was stationed for a brief time at Fort Meade, Maryland. A friend of his, in the Marines at Camp Lejeune, thought it might be a good idea if they met maybe in Baltimore for a weekend of disorderly drunkenness, etc. He said okay, and they agreed to meet at a bar on Charles Street that they both knew. He got out to the highway on a post bus to hitchhike, in clean and starched Class-A khakis. What a soldier, standing tall!
After ten minutes, a powder-blue Cadillac Coupe deVille rocketed to a halt just past him, and then backed up, whitewalls screaming, and he got in. The driver was going to Wilmington, and he’d take him right into fuckin’ Baltimore. He was a man of maybe fifty, sunburned and sweaty and absolutely drunk in that placid way that alcoholics know how to polish to perfection. On the seat, between his legs, was a quart of Gordon’s gin, from which he drank regularly. He’d occasionally light a Pall Mall, at which times he’d steer with one knee, smiling childishly. He maintained an average speed of about 85 to 90 miles an hour, looking at the road, or so it seemed, but now and again. At one point, the car hit a patch of gravelly sand and sailed through the summer air, quite beautifully, for some 20 yards, while the driver hooted with pleasure at, perhaps, the sight of death, grinning on the hood. But the Caddy landed gently and on they went, spared for something or other. We know why the soldier was spared, of course.
Incidentally, the driver offered the soldier a drink and a cigarette only after their unexpected flight: maybe he thought they were now true comrades.
...under a mortar attack... The expertise of the Chinese with mortars was well-known among American troops during the Korean War. ...FECOM... An acronym for Far East Command.
- XXIII -
The elevator is huge, the size of a small apartment, and is filled with rows of desks, more, it would appear, than can fit into the space. On the rear wall of the elevator is a blackboard with chemical and mathematical symbols scattered across its surface. The door opens and he is on the sixth floor of the building in which he lived just after his divorce. This was his floor and he walks down the corridor, its walls now filthy, smeared with dirt and grease, the tiles underfoot pitted, scarred, and broken. He comes to his door and checks the apartment number, which is, rather strangely, he thinks, 666. But he opens the door.
The apartment is the one he lived in when he was a little boy, complete with the faded brown studio couch, the Philco floor-model radio, and the hammered copper bas-relief reproduction of The Last Supper, with its Latin inscription across the upper border: AMEN DICO VOBIS QUIA UNUS VERSTRUM ME TRADITURUS EST. He hears a noise in the kitchen and looks away from the vaguely glowing image on the wall to see his mother standing in the kitchen doorway.
She seems pleased to see him, even though he is clearly startled at her appearance, that of a young woman in a summer pinafore, her blond hair in a loose chignon. He is about to speak to her, when she says, “I hope you’re not hungry, I’m dead.” She is apologetic and he remembers that the reason he is here is to tell her why he wasn’t with her when she died. He knows he won’t tell her the truth, but decides that a lie is all to the good in this situation, especially with the radio tuned to The Make-Believe Ballroom. She smiles at him and says it’s all right, she knows he wanted to be there, and “after all, who wants to travel in the bitter cold to Jersey City?!” She sits on the studio couch and motions for him to sit next to her. “I thought I’d ask you over so that we can listen to the Lux Radio Theater,” she says. “Lana Turner is on tonight. They discovered her in a drugstore, you know.” The radio is playing Bix Beiderbecke’s “Margie,” and he starts to laugh.
...AMEN DICO VOBIS QUIA UNUS VERSTRUM ME TRADITURUS EST... Which may be translated: “Amen, I say to you, there is one [of you] who will betray me.” ...in a summer pinafore... The pinafore is pink and white. ...The Make-Believe Ballroom... a radio program hosted by the DJ Martin Block. The theme song, “It’s Make-Believe Ballroom Time,” was, I believe, the Glenn Miller version. ...to Jersey City?!... Jersey City was, and probably still is, unprepossessing at the best of times; in the “bitter cold” it could be thoroughly dispiriting. ...Lux Radio Theater... The hallmark of this radio drama series was its presentation, as aural dramas, of the popular movies of the era. Lana Turner may well have starred in the radio version of The Postman Always Rings Twice. ...Bix Beiderbecke’s “Margie”... “Margie,” a popular song, with words by Benny Davis, music by Con Conrad and J. Russel Robinson, published in 1920. It was performed, perhaps most famously, by Eddie Cantor in the film, Margie. The Beiderbecke performance, here noted, was recorded in New York on September 21, 1928, by Bix Beiderbecke and his Gang. The personnel were: Beiderbecke, cornet, Bill Rank, trombone, Izzy Friedman, clarinet, Min Leibrook, bass saxophone, Roy Bargy, piano, and Lennie Hayton, ordinarily a pianist, on drums. Bix plays with his usual heartbreaking clarity of tone. It’s pleasant to think otherwise, but Martin Block would probably never have had Bix’s “Margie” on his playlist.
- XXVIII -
Steve had subscribed to The New Yorker for some seven or eight years, and doggedly read all the fiction in every issue, trying to absorb and internalize, I suppose is a just word, the strained sophistication of the prose, its nervous hipness, aloof disingenuousness, its remote, somewhat bored whimsy. It goes without saying, perhaps, that he had “submitted” his own stories, they were many, to the magazine for five years, faithfully sending a story out on the day after he got one back, its rejection slip clipped to his beautifully printed-out “stuff,” as he called his work. There was never a note, encouraging or otherwise, written on the slips; for that matter, it was my fantasy that the rejection slips were attached to the papers in a strangely dissociated way, that they had somehow found the stories and seized upon them as prey: no human agency seemed ever to have been involved. I once suggested that he send his stories to a magazine that was, well, not as impressed with itself but he gave me, as it is said, a look.
I sometimes wanted to tell him my own opinion of the magazine’s fiction, but never did, for it is not possible to use the phrase “a New Yorker story,” without its devotees hustling to the journal’s defense, smirking at one’s gauche ignorance, and telling—and telling again—the offending and pitiable ignoramus that there is no such thing as a New Yorker story, that there might have been, years ago, such a thing, but that now—look, just look!—Hip and Engaged and Transgressive and Absolutely Unexpected, brékékékék koáx koáx, and just plain Well Written! They wouldn’t publish Faulkner for Christ’s sake! Not their sort of thing.
So I said nothing; on the contrary, I took notes on certain stories, on certain phrases, on bright wise similes, so that Steve and I could discuss their subtleties. I don’t know why I did this, save that I was feeling a little bad for him. One day, the latest issue had a story in it written by a young woman who had been, ten years earlier, in a writing workshop with Steve at the New School. Steve read the story three or four times that first day, turning to look at the author’s name—Joye Lapidus—again and again, her name in that “beautiful, beautiful” New Yorker typeface. It is beautiful, I said, classic, traditional, aristocratic, really. Look at the “e” in “Joye.” He nodded, and I knew he was seeing “Steven.”
...its rejection slip clipped... I have no idea if The New Yorker uses or used formal rejection slips. ...printed-out “stuff”... Steve thought the word “stuff” democratic and non-elite, it perhaps made him feel like Clifford Odets, although in any case the word seems somewhat out of place in connection with electrostatically transferred, heat and pressure-fused printed documents. ...in a writing workshop at the New School... “Writing for Publication” was the official title of the course.
- XXIX -
The old man knew he was dying. The doctor had come after an episode of terrible agony he’d endured that morning, and after the briefest of looks at his patient, who twitched and writhed and rocked in pain, he said that he wanted him admitted to the hospital immediately. But the stubborn old fool refused to go in an ambulance, and the doctor, who knew his catalog of neuroses and prejudices and insanities virtually by heart, said that he’d drive him in his car, which was parked right in front of the building. “I’ll not have the horse’s ass gawms staring at me in an ambulance, by Jesus,” the old man said. “Goddamned fools and creeping Jesus Lutherans, may God damn them to hell.”
He asked the doctor to go down and wait in his car, he’d be right down, he wanted to put on some clothes, he’d be goddamned if he’d leave the house in his pajamas like some shanty Irish greenhorn. The doctor told him not to be too long, then repeated this information accompanied by a pointing and admonishing index finger, and left.
The old man put on a starched white shirt, a dark-blue tie with a small light-blue paisley figure on its ground, an Oxford gray shadow-striped suit with vest, black shoes, and black silk socks, and a grey Homburg. Then he left, with his daughter, who had been standing, during the doctor’s visit, in the kitchen, looking out at the neighboring roof. She didn’t want to have this sick father, she didn’t want to have this dead father, she didn’t want to have to be alive to put up with this. But here she was; with this mean, dying old man. She was afraid and relieved that he’d probably not recover this time.
On the landing between the ground and second floor, the old man stopped, stood straight for a moment, then bent over and vomited black, grainy blood, once and then again. He wiped his mouth with his handkerchief, then inspected his shoes and trouser cuffs for stains. “You’d better clean this mess up, Skeezix,” he said, “the Scowegian will have a fit and you’ll never hear the end of it.” She went back up the stairs. “I’ll be at the hospital as soon as I get dressed,” she said, and he waved her away and, panting with the pain in his innards, continued down, cold sweat making his face shine resplendently with doom.
When she’d cleaned up the vomit, she went upstairs again, dressed, left the building, walked to the nearby hack stand, and was at the hospital in twenty minutes, to discover that he’d died in the doctor’s car. Later, back in the apartment, walking about in her slip, a private luxury that she suddenly became happily aware of, she found his watch and chain, his sterling silver pocketknife, and his wallet, with some four hundred dollars in it, on the dresser in his bedroom. She could hear his voice clear in her mind: “The hospital is nothing but a den of thieves. Worse than the goddamn firemen.” She sat down on the bed and lit one of his Lucky Strikes. “Bye-bye, Poppa,” she said.
...admitted to the hospital immediately... The hospital was the Caledonia, located on Prospect Park South. It is now called the Caledonian Campus of the Brooklyn Hospital Center. The nurse’s aides wore plaid jumpers. ...he’d drive him in his car... the car was a 1951 Olds. ...lit one of his Lucky Strikes... By now, of course, in their wartime white package, the switch from OD being a great advertising coup—profit in patriotism.
- XXXIX -
To the Editor:
Sheldon Dufoy’s letter to last week’s “Faith Base” section was in very poor taste and lacking of good sense and education in the Christian religion field. The Bible tells all Christians who are true Christians that there is no way of entering Heaven unless you are born again and accepting Jesus Christ in your heart as the only true Lord of the Universe, be it vast or otherwise, it does not matter for the Lord God is all Supreme.
There is no other god or gods, and Mohammed (or Allah), Moses, Talmud, Buddha, Zen, Hindu Deity, and others, for instance, of the Eskimos, Africans, Bushmen, Pygmies, and so on are, are all false gods that lead nowhere but to everlasting torture in the fiery flames of Hell forever in eternity, Mr. Dufoy’s secular humanistic beliefs and fashionable liberal ideas are not based on the Holy Bible, which alone, he might not be aware of, is the Word of God.
As for the translation of God’s word maybe being not accurate and so, therefore, not the true Word of God, as was spoken by Him or Jesus Christ, his son, Mr. Dufoy should know, to lighten up his ignorance, that the Almighty God or Jesus sometimes was at the side of King James and his helpers as they labored, in spirit and giving them strength in their labors. It is almost amusing to read such displays of ignorance however, but I hope that Mr. Dufoy soon asks God into his heart, for Jesus, is always standing by miraculously every single person at the same time, waiting for such an invitation, even though it may be given by a Jewish person, despite what they have done to Him over the thousands of years ever since Adam and Eve. He forgives even them and their crucifixion of Him, hard though it is for, He is the lord of forgiveness and a great Boss, no matter how small it may seem or unimportant.
This letter was found in the desk drawer of its author some few weeks after a massive stroke led to his death outside the Pinto movie theater, which establishment he had just exited. The film playing at the time was Hot Bottoms, starring J’Adore Vegas. The letter was tucked into an addressed, stamped, but not sealed envelope. In another drawer of the same desk there was discovered some 1500 pages of pornographic writings by the same author, rife with solecisms, tattered grammar, bad spelling, and a syntax seemingly borrowed from a lost language.
Notable in this work of erotica—apparently a series of linked amorous adventures—is the presence of a recurring female character, a “quivering,” “shameless,” “tremballing,” “moaning,” “large-breasted,” and “full-lipsed” young woman, who, the patient reader is told, over and over again, looks exactly like Julia Roberts, and who often has “depraved” and “perverted” sex with other women, all of whom bear the name of the deceased author’s wife, Myrna.
When told of the discovery of this venereal cache, Myrna unhesitatingly averred that Satan was certainly the author of such filthy material, for her husband—and, as his wife, she could, she said, testify to this—knew absolutely nothing about sex. “I could tell you some stories,” she remarked, and then fell silent.
Satan’s evil literature was burned at a ceremony conducted by the White-Robed Ladies of the choir of the Lamb’s Blood Ministries, Inc., Church, in the parking lot, to cries of “Amen!” “Jesus!” and “Yes!” wails of joy, and the loud clashing of tambourines. The purification ceremony was followed by a buffet luncheon in the church’s basement, where the pastor, Ellsworth Roy Womp, noticed how her White Robe flattered Myrna’s figure.
...Talmud, Buddha... These are, of course, not religions. ...her White Robe... The devil, it is said, has many wiles, white robes on well-built women being but one of them. Satan calls this costume “Jerry Falwell’s Breakdown.”
- XLIX -
Billy and his wife, Audrey, were vegetarians, and, like many people who embrace what they consider to be salutary and superior modes of behavior, they, in their perfection, slowly yet relentlessly marginalized all those friends who were not of their dietary persuasion. In this, they were, perhaps, much like cultists, whose happily demented myths make them smugly exclusionary. As the years passed, and up to their elbows in brown rice and tofu, they made many new friends of their ilk, of course.
When one first met Billy, who was a routing clerk for UPS, it seemed, for some reason, that he “did” something interesting: something artistic, perhaps; or excitingly political—shadowy, vague, radical. He wore a long, well-trimmed beard, round wire-rim glasses, and smoked a lot of marijuana, which he was candid but not too candid about—as if it wasn’t really worth hiding, yet just lawless enough to keep from the unanointed, the squares. To be enlightened as to his smoking habits was to feel—or at least, many people felt themselves to be—intimate adepts. After knowing Billy a little while, however, it became clear that what he “did” was work as a routing clerk for UPS and stay half-stoned at all times. Still, his rickety “mystique” (such were the times) somehow prevailed, amid the smoke and the perfected ravings of the Stones, the Dead, the Airplane, and other assorted multi-millionaire rebels. He was a UPS routing clerk, yes, and nothing else, but he was so perfectly hip that it still seemed as if there was something secret and darkly interesting about his life, though it was, metaphorically speaking, a life that possessed the quality of a paper bag.
Audrey was a large, hefty, yet rawboned woman of a startling homeliness: she wasn’t ugly or deformed; her features were regular, as they say, but there was a blank neutrality to her face, a kind of dumb look, and her body, oddly enough, seemed to be dumb as well, if that makes any sense. Those who know Audrey will understand this. She deferred to Billy in all things, and was given to small, consciously half-suppressed smiles when some fringe idea—political, artistic, sexual—was mentioned over the broccoli-rutabaga casserole, as if the mysterious Billy knew all about such things, was involved in such things, had, perhaps, thought up such things. She contributed to Billy’s phantom panache by herself pretending that he “did” something. For all I know, she may well have thought that Billy had a secret, romantic life that he kept from her so as to protect her and their snug domesticity. Where he got the time to lead this life, she would not explore, for when he was not at the UPS job, he was usually at home, cannabis-paralyzed, his ears wide open to the music on their stereo. Rock on, man!
Audrey began attending a macramé class at a nearby community college (Macramé: Fun and Function), and began a small friendship with a woman, some fifteen years her junior, who expressed fascination and delight at the fact that Audrey was a vegetarian, and mentioned, more than once, that she had long considered abandoning meat. Things went along, and Audrey invited her to dinner a few weeks later, at which she and Billy seemed to get along very well. She loved the dinner—eggplant, tomatoes, fresh corn, and yellow squash made into a kind of pedestrian ratatouille, salad, carrot cake—one of Audrey’s specialties—and herb tea. Billy suggested that he “did”—oh, it’s not, he hinted, important—this and that, and Akina, the new friend, was deeply impressed by the reticence of the really interesting Billy. Audrey, of course, helped the scene along, as always: smiles, silences, the works.
They began seeing a lot of Akina, a small, dark woman who wore, more often than not, a strained, worried expression, as if she were about to be interrogated, and whose light-coffee complexion appeared to be—how to put this?—manufactured. Perhaps it was. It was summer now, and when the three went to the beach, Akina, who couldn’t swim, seemed either unaware or uncaring that a profusion of her black pubic hair flourished wildly at either side of her bathing suit’s crotch. This sight may have maddened Billy, for soon he and Akina were committing adultery with, as they say, abandon, and soon Billy moved out, leaving Audrey hurt and bewildered.
Billy left his job at UPS, at Akina’s urging, so that he could “do” all the things he was capable of; she had realized, of course, that Billy could do nothing at all, but she thought that with his—with his what?—he would make a really great life for them both. Billy had some money, slyly saved in a bank account unknown to Audrey, and they lived off that and the few dollars Akina made working in a boutique on St. Mark’s Place, just then beginning its ascent into the diligently fake disreputability it would soon attain. He ignored Audrey’s pleas for financial help, smoked more “dynamite weed” than ever, and, with Akina’s urging, began to eat meat again: vegetarianism was for dumb fucks—like Audrey! They did a lot of laughing over their lamb chops.
Audrey knew that Billy would tire of Akina, re-embrace his lost, mysteriously vacant life, and return home to her. She suggested that this sort of thing had happened before and that she was, always, to blame for Billy’s sexual escapades, and that they had been mutually planned. She smiled Billy’s secret smile, his I-can’t-talk-about-it smile, and lighted a cigarette made of some sort of rank legume. “Billy,” she said, “well...Billy.” Then she changed the subject; she, and it, obscured in a cloud of smoke that smelled like a burning barn.
...like cultists... And/or those who chat with God.
...smoked a lot of marijuana... E.g., Bangalore Blast, Mexicali Mania, Super Head, etc.
...rebel... The word is used with pronounced irony, of course.
...broccoli-rutabaga casserole... This dish may taste better than it sounds.
...a macramé class... An “adult education” class.
...carrot cake... Her secret ingredient was a pinch of thyme.
...Akina... whose real name was Arlene.
...diligently fake disreputability... This was about the time when the Dom closed and the Electric Circus took its place. It was the beginning of the end of the Lower East Side, now a neighborhood of staggeringly, albeit carefully disguised, bourgeois sensibilities.
Chapter XX originally appeared in Golden Handcuffs Review Winter, Spring 2007 Vol: 1, No. 8
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.