a novel by Richard Bankowsky
COVERING THE ENTIRE WALL ABOVE AND BEHIND THE MAIN ALTAR
OF THE MONASTERY CHAPEL OF THE DISCALCED CARMELITE FRIARS OF THE ASCENSION
DESERT IN MEXICO STANDS A HUGE ALTARPIECE CONSISTING OF SIXTEEN TRIANGLES
SEVEN AND ONE-HALF FEET ON A SIDE, FITTED TOGETHER TO FORM A THIRTY-FOOT
EQUILATERAL TRIANGLE, THE VERTEX OF WHICH, RISING OUT OF A BASE RESTING
ATOP THE ALTAR, FITS SNUGLY INTO THE CHAPEL'S CATHEDRAL CEILING. WITHIN
THIS TRIANGLE A CIRCLE CIRCUMSCRIBING A SQUARE CONSISTING OF FOUR SMALLER
TRIANGLES EACH OF WHICH CONTAINS PAINTED PERSONAGES IN VARIOUS BIBLICO-CONTEMPORARY
SITUATIONS APPEARS TO REVOLVE.
Und wenn das mein A und O ist,
dass alles Schwere leicht,
aller Leib Tanzer,
aller Geist Vogel
werde: und wahrlich, das ist mein A und O!
AlSO SPRACH ZARATHUSTRA
I am the Alpha and the Omega.
THE FOURTH OF THE SMALLER TRIANGLES PICTURES A SPLENDID
CITY BUILT ON SEVEN HILLS PAVED WITH GOLD. ONE OF ITS BASE ANGLES CONTAINS
A PORTRAIT OF A BARE-BOSOMED SLITHERING WOMAN CONSTRICTING ROUND A HAIRY
EGG OVER WHICH HOVERS A HUGE OLIVE-GREEN SWIFT WITH CLAWS UN SHEATHED READY
TO POUNCE. IN THE OTHER ANGLE A FELLOW WEARING CUCKOLD'S HORNS AND ANIMAL
SKINS PAINTS WITH, HIS TAIL A PRETTY PICTURE OF THE WORLD RID OF FAMINE,
PESTILENCE, AND WAR FOR WHICH A BARE-BOTTOMED WOMAN .POSES SPREAD-EAGLE
ON A PSYCHIATRIST'S COUCH OVER WHICH HOVER LOCUSTS CURSING GESU, GESU,
GESU. IN THE VERTEX ANGLE, IN HIS ERMINE ROBES, SITS ENTHRONED THE OBVIOUS
KING OF THE CITY OF THE SEVEN HILLS. HIS TOO LARGE DUNCE CAP WITH
TWO HOLES CUT IN IT FOR EYES IS PULLED DOWN OVER HIS EARS SO THAT HIS FACE
IS NOT REALLY VISIBLE AS HE RAVISHES WITH HIS MITER A SWOONING SHAVE- HEADED
WOMAN CHAINED TO THE MOON, WEARING ONLY A G-STRING SCAPULAR ABOUT HER WAIST.
When he arrived back in the city that evening he found his recently re-orphaned twelve-year-old adopted kid brother in a deserted and, except for the single music lamp over the grand console, darkened Manhattan church; found him there booming away on what the choirmaster assured him were not merely simple reproductions of the opera and tone poems but absolutely ingenious transcriptions of the original Strauss pieces to suit the tonal and mechanical possibilities of their six Romantic swell-organs, amid which, incidentally, he thought he detected interspersed in almost unrecognizably baroque variations the musical car-horm Mary-had-a-little-lamb tune of their recently deceased mother's rose-colored custom limousine.
According to the uniformed chauffeur he'd found waiting outside in the snow-covered limousine, the boy had been at it since a little after the funeral that morning, having refused to take time out for even a light supper. He did not interrupt, however, either the performance or the modest choirmaster's accompanying ecstatic assurances that no ordinary artist like himself was capable of compelling such a magnificent instrument to obey his will, that only a miracle-maker like his prodigious and precocious brother--"a musical magician capable of endowing inanimate matter with sense and motion--could be expected to breathe life into those electric cables, those multiple switches, those motors, those valves that open and close, those expanding and contracting pneumatic engines...
He simply knocked the snow off his homburg, unbuttoned his chesterfield,
loosened his muffler and sat down next to the choirmaster in the pew at
the rear of the nave, not so much to listen as simply to immerse himself
in the huge stillness, the sort of photographic negative of silence the
booming organs developed around him, to put off as long as possible his
having to confront the boy or anyone else, for that matter. For he was
tired. He had just driven a couple of hundred snowy miles in from the Catskills,
where that afternoon, just hours after burying his mother in a Bronx cemetery,
he'd been "invited" to appear as the star witness in a syndicate trial
at which his Seventh Avenue cloak-and-suit-firm business partner, cousin,
and deceased mother's thirty-five-year-old lover was given the kiss of
The fun had begun Christmas week when his kid brother was asked not to return to the Ponce de Leon Catholic School for the deaf after the holidays. The dismissal disturbed their mother, Stella, out of all proportion. Neither he nor Rosen, the family physician, could convince her that the dismissal had nothing whatsoever to do with her affair with his business partner, that the boy probably knew nothing of the affair to begin with, and even if he did, there was no reason to believe it had anything to do with his having supposedly been a bad moral influence on his companions, as the headmaster had unfortunately put it in an interview, though the official grounds for termination were the inability of the school to teach the boy anything since he was so far advanced scholastically that he belonged in college not secondary school. There was, however, the matter of the Schneewitchen essay, which, as Rosen put it, "resulted, in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred fifty-eight, in the state of Massachusetts, U.S.A., in the accusation, trial, and sentencing, by the inquisitorial court of the Ponce de Leon Catholic School for the deaf, of a twelve-year-old boy, for heresy ."
The essay, A Psycho-theological Interpretation of the Apocalyptic Implications of the Schneewitchen Allegory, pub- lished in the Fountain of Youth, the Ponce de Leon literary magazine, founded and edited by the kid and subsidized by his mother, was harmless enough up to a point, which accounted for its getting by the strict faculty censorship, since according to the headmaster only the harmless part of the article had been submitted to him for scrutiny and imprimatur so to speak, the offensive part having been added without his knowledge. The kid himself did not contradict the old priest, ostensibly on the grounds, as he admitted later, that he could not accuse the old man to his face of not having done his homework as thoroughly as he should.
The harmless part of the article simply proposed that the Good King and Queen in the Snow White story were God and Mother Earth or Eden before the fall, that Snow White represented Mankind, that the Wicked Queen represented the earth fallen from vanity and pride up to whose beauty art holds a mirror, that Mankind's original sin was signified by Snow White's birth, the death of the Good Queen Mother Earth and the appearance of the wicked Stepmother Earth, whose sending of the child into the forest to die at the hands of the Huntsman represented Mankind's ouster from Eden, the Huntsman, a form of the Good King, appearing as a wrathful but merciful God who instead of casting Mankind into hell for his disobedience, as the wicked stepmother had proposed in asking that the child's heart be brought back in a box, merely sends Mankind out of Eden into the forest of the world to die, where luckily the dwarfs, who, mining the earth of its gold as they do, represent classical humanistic civilization built on the seven hills of Rome, come to the aid of poor Mankind, saving him from the certain death in the fearful forests of proto-history, feeding and clothing and protecting him, but at a price of course, the price of domestication and socialization.
"If you will keep house for us, cook, make bed, wash, sew and knit and make all neat and clean thou cans't stay with us and will want for nothing," the dwarfs promise. But they also warn, "Beware thy wicked stepmother," which is to say beware the temptations of the fallen earth, roamed as it is by the serpent and Satan combined in the form of the wicked stepmother, that is, beware fallen man's own angelic and animalistic desires, which are irrational and anti-social and anti-civilizing.
"Beware thy wicked stepmother, who will soon find out thou art here. Take care to let nobody in," the dwarfs warn, meaning that Mankind must not only not give in to extravagant super- or sub-human angelic or animalistic desires, he must not even think of them. Mankind must root them out of his heart completely, for if they are let into the house even for a second, they will surely outwit him, just as the wicked stepmother in her disguises outwits Snow White, selling "Good wares cheap, very cheap," the coloured silks and laces and the comb and the apple, representative of the three temptations Christ successfully overcame in the desert but to which Mankind eventually succumbs, succumbing, that is, to the materialism and unqualified naturalism and angelism of the Roman Empire in its decline, symbolized in the apple, the fruit of the forbidden tree of Eden returned, the eating of which signifies the Roman Empire's repetition of Adam's attempt to deify himself.
The Prince who wakens Snow White out of her deathlike sleep is of course Christ the son of the Good King and a projection of the wrathful but merciful Huntsman, who loves Mankind even though he is apparently dead, knocking out the apple stuck in his throat since Eden by way of the crucifixion, which in the fairy tale is modified and minimized just as it is in all forms of Christianity , save Roman Catholicism which are little more than fairy tales themselves minimized and modified into the stumbling of the Prince's servants over a shrub and the jolting of the casket in which Snow White lies as dead. And as the fairy tale would have it, the Prince and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs--the Roman Empire now become the Holy Roman Empire--all live together happily in the palace of the Prince's father, the Holy Roman Church; the Wicked Queen, as the Brothers Grimm tell us in a very ambiguous ending, having been forced to put on red-hot shoes and dance until she drops to the ground dead.
That much of the essay the headmaster of Ponce de Leon approved; it was what followed that caused the stir. The essay went on to say that the statement about the disposition of the wicked Queen was meaningfully ambiguous.
To say that the Queen has to dance until she drops to the ground dead, is not to say that she is dead, or how long it will be before she is. For the dance the Queen is dancing in those red-hot shoes, which symbolize the Medieval Christian conquest of worldly Naturalism and Angelism in the ascetic doctrines of the Church, is the dance of the seven veils, whose voluptuous whirls and undulations, as they always have throughout the long history of the so-called "belly-dance," represent the writhing and undulation of copulation and childbirth. And it is during this dance that the wicked Queen androgynously gives birth to an hermaphrodite called the Renaissance, with whom Snow White, tiring of the connubial but unromantic and ascetic bliss of holy matrimony, begins a perverse extramarital affair, which has been going on now for five centuries while the bastard Prince bides his time, anticipating that moment when he may safely proclaim to the world that Snow White's marriage is incestuous, since she is wedded to her own brother, a proclamation which will result in the dwarfs' annulling the marriage and banishing the Prince and his children from his father's palace wherein the bastard hermaphroditic Prince and Snow White, united in an unholy passionate and of course sterile marriage, together with the wicked Queen and the Seven Dwarfs will frenziedly and passionately dance away their lives in red-hot shoes.
It was the essay that had convinced Stella that the kid knew about her affair with Wadzio. She was certain he'd written the analysis as a response to that knowledge. Rosen told her that she was behaving stupidly, that none of it had anything to do with her, but confided in him, her natural son, that if his kid brother did happen to know of the affair, some such response as the essay was not out of the question. Obviously, according to Rosen anyway, the boy didn't find it easy to tolerate having to share Stella with anybody, not even with him, her own flesh-and-blood son, much less a complete stranger like Wadzio. For there existed, Rosen assured him, some sort of secret subterranean and unformulable carnal ties between Stella and the boy that went much beyond those embryonic attachments that supposedly bind mothers and their first-born natural sons like himself, ties which in precocious children were sometimes replaced positively by religious orientations or even vocations and negatively by homosexuality and crime.
According to Rosen, Stella's at least unconscious and intuitive awareness of those ties, together with her own increasingly burdensome guilt over her affair with a fellow young enough to be her son, was what probably caused her to fear, though she would never admit it even to herself, that the bad moral influence he exerted over his classmates might somehow have been sexual and perverse, which of course was not the case at all. Rosen assured him that he'd done his best to convince Stella that examinations of, and talks with, the boy before and since his dismissal had proved to his satisfaction at least that if anything the boy was healthily asexual, having devoted himself so thoroughly to his studies and to his music that "our little pseudo adult, our little abortion," as he put it, couldn't be less interested in sex of any variety, at least not for the moment. And though the boy's theological rendition of a fairy tale might very well have been a manifestation of an attempt to adjust to conflicts rising out of the stepmother's situation in the family as well as the problem of child adoption, problems with which the fairy tale was indirectly concerned, its allegorical and anagogic implications were much more important than its psychological sources and were evidence not of the boy's illness but rather of his extraordinarily prodigious intellectual health. The essay was in fact the straw that broke the camel's back, leaving him from the point of view of the Ponce de Leon School stranded out in the desert of Anathema, but from the point of view of the modem world in an Edenic oasis that the rest of his companions in the schoolboy caravan toward Rome had completely by-passed
Rosen said he had seen it coming for a long time. For though it was true the boy was a perfect gentleman, dearly beloved of all the nuns and priests at school, a perfect little charmer, and on the surface at least as loving and warm-hearted and generous as Stella herself, he had more than once confessed to him that back at school every time he opened his mouth his teachers were impressed but scandalized.
"Because certainly ," Rosen said, "the Ponce de Leon School can't be expected to accept, without at least a battle, the obvious fact that the symbols of Christianity as the Church dispenses them in the twentieth century are no longer sufficiently vital to sustain any but the most superficial kind of belief from the modern muddleheaded Christian much less from a genius like the kid"; saying, "Why even among the muddleheaded the Christian god is about in the same state of disrepute as the anthropo- morphic Roman gods and goddesses were in the first century A.D., worshipped but not believed. As a matter of fact, the advent of psychotherapy, the rediscovery of the physical and the psychic after nearly two centuries of depreciation in the name of the spirit, is a modern analogue of the Advent of Christ and the consequent rediscovery of spirit after a long depreciation in the name of the body. But certainly you can't expect the Ponce de Leon pietists to admit that the seesawing between overemphasis on flesh or spirit throughout the history of Western civilization will cease only when we finally realize that the flesh and spirit are one and that the incestuous dualism implied in traditional Christianity , with its insistence on the absolute separateness but goodness of matter and spirit, is extremely harmful, that man is either all spirit and good, and matter is merely spirit in another form and good, or turning into spirit and good; or what we call spirit is simply an effusion of matter as Spinoza and Einstein have told us all along, and damn the quantum dualists.
Meaning, of course, that there are no transcendent gods, only immanent ones. Because if man is either all matter or all spirit depending on one's point of view, and there is nothing else but matter or spirit, not both, then man is ALL and the Church's attempt to get him to accommodate the contradictory dualistic concepts of the superstitious past, to live in such tension under such an intolerable burden is to force him to his knees when he ought to be dancing." All of which, Rosen pointed out, apologizing for getting up on a soapbox and making a speech for modern ideas, was immanent in the Schneewitchen essay, and though it was pretty generally accepted issuing from the mouths of scientists like himself in the real world, out of the mouth of a twelve-year-old at the Ponce de Leon Catholic School for the deaf.. .well ...
It was apparently all wasted on Stella, however. She'd listened and even agreed that she was probably blowing the whole thing up out of all proportion, and then simply and absolutely proceeded to refuse to have anything more to do with Wadzio, though she was dying to see him and was tearing herself up with drink in her loneliness, absolutely refusing to see him under any circumstances, saying, "It wouldn't be any good. I'd be expecting him to burst in on us any moment. Because he knows. He must have followed me there sometime last summer or sometime. I'm sure he knows. He thought I was perfect. He thought I was an angel. And now? He's not like you, darling. He's only a boy. You're a man. You know that even mothers aren't perfect"; saying over and over again, with that incredible note of fear in her voice, how uncanny it was, how the boy seemed to know things about her she never would have dreamed anyone would ever be able to fathom, intimate things, "things he shouldn't know. Things you wouldn't expect a child.. . I mean not even a grown man would be expected.. . I mean it's just impossible to keep any secrets from him, even though he isn't home but a few months of the year.
"Don't ask me how he knows. Maybe it's his deafness, his ability to read lips at great distances. But how does lip reading explain his knowing things I've never spoken of to anyone? I just can't help thinking that even now, somehow, even though he's in bed with his nanny watching over him, somehow to compensate for his hearing loss or something, he can see through walls, through darkness and over great distances. And if I were to go to Wadzio just for an hour, he would know. And even now, this minute, lying there in bed in that absolutely hellish silence that surrounds him, I know he's reading my lips as I talk to you."
All of which, as far as he was concerned, was just a little too spooky to be anything but her guilty conscience operating overtime, even though his own observations and his talks with Rosen about the kid's precocity more or less confirmed Stella's awe and downright superstitious fear of him. For that was what it was, awe and fear. And as far as he was concerned, only a mother, or rather a stepmother who was willing, when she already had a natural son of her own, to take into her home not only somebody else's bastard, but a handicapped one at that, could ever be naive enough to call it love, the boy's handicap of course accounting for the orphanage's giving him to her in the first place, since they didn't usually give kids to widows unless, as in her case, the widow happened to be wealthy enough to provide special tutors and special care to develop an obvious precocity which parents who might have provided a more stable family atmosphere couldn't have afforded to nurture even if they had been willing to take a handicapped child in the first place.
And of course they knew nothing at all about her drinking, a problem which, even increasing as it had through her menopause, none but her intimates were aware of, and certainly not St. Michael's orphanage. Her drinking never interfered, for instance, with her frequent weekend trips to visit the Ponce de Leon School or in the last two years her just as frequent weekend trips to visit a mental-patient cousin of Wadzio's up in a Connecticut sanitarium, whom Wadzio, according to Rosen, apparently never took the time to visit himself; Wadzio, of whom she said that final night after several weeks of not seeing him, "Oh God, how I wish he'd go out and get himself a beautiful young thing to marry and leave me alone. There are so many in the district. Honestly, it makes an old woman like me weep to see all those beautiful young things all over Seventh Avenue," that sad faraway smile on her lips, and she just as serious and pensive for a moment as he'd ever seen her, her back to him but her face reflected in the vanity mirror as she put on a diamond choker she'd just removed from the safe hanging open on the wall, dressing to go to a show with Glory, she said, though he knew that Glory and Rosen had made plans with him to go with them, since Stella had called Glory earlier that day and said she didn't feel well enough to join them.
But of course he did not question her, assuming that she was going to Wadzio's. Or at least was going to meet him some- where, since he was supposed to be out of town for the weekend. Or at least that was the excuse Wadzio had given Glory when she'd asked him to the show earlier that day hoping to play Cupid. He assumed Stella was keeping her date with Wadzio a secret even from him and Rosen and Glory in order to keep the kid from finding out about it, which seemed to him an extraordinary precaution, but hardly a surprising one considering the way she'd been acting the past few weeks since the kid had come home from school, refusing to go out at all in the evening and spending all day with him at the museums or listening to him play the organ at the uptown church he'd been permitted to use not only because of his extraordinary talent but because Stella heavily endowed the parish, or visiting various alumni groups of Ivy League colleges interested in having the boy apply at their schools for the fall term, or searching out suitable tutors for the spring and summer before the fall term began.
And so he did not question. And late the next morning he walked into
the apartment and called her name. And there was a note on the secretary
blotter from the kid, saying he'd borrowed her chauffeur and would be down
at the church practising and would send the car back around noon to pick
her up for some Bromo and brunch, "and that long talk." And it was
almost noon by then, and the snow was oh so white on the terrace behind
the glass doors; and he called her name, and the door to her bedroom was
open and the room still and her face just as polished and beautiful as
ever under the sleeping mask. And he tried to wake her. And there were
a few last words and then nothing, only the silken headed pigeons bobbing
and strutting out there on the terrace beyond the glass doors, picking
at the bread crumbs she had tossed out for them into the snow.
It was over her deathbed that Rosen, in a fit of despair, finally revealed the little bit of incredible melodrama they'd been so successfully keeping from him all those years, which bit of melodrama Rosen confessed he held to account for Stella's uncon- scionable guilt and what he considered her consequent suicide, despite the fact that on the attending physician's report he'd en- tered the cause of death as heart failure; saying, "She's had a long history of heart trouble, your mother had. And so what I've written on this report is the truth. Much more the truth than if I had gone and performed an autopsy to prove what I suspect even though there's no note or empty vial of sleeping pills around. Because your mother has had more trouble of the heart than anyone could ever imagine. And she died of heart trouble whether she'd taken an overdose of sleeping tablets or not"; saying, "Maybe I shouldn't tell you. But. ..I guess you have a right to know... And I can tell you only because next to you and Harry nobody loved her more than I did. And you know as well as I do there was never a better person, but even saints make mistakes.
So I don't know what good it will do to tell you; because nobody ever was a better father than Harry, and for all anybody knows including her he might very well have been your father after all," telling him all about how his father, Harry Greenglass, the originator of the Greenglass and Son Seventh Avenue cloak-and-suit firm, had found a little seventeen-year-old Polish Catholic girl from a little town across the river in Jersey called Anderson, the same town Wadzio happened to come from, found her almost literally in a gutter and had given her a modelling job in his New York show rooms even though she didn't fit his suits, and within three or four months had married her though she'd told him that she had a baby in her belly which if it weren't his might have been fathered by any number of derelicts, numbered among whom was her own father; which information he, her son, in a fit of despair himself over that same deathbed, accepted as a rather trite, melodramatic, and tedious story about somebody he had not only never known, but who did not even exist except as a character in a trite, melodramatic, and tedious story that Rosen showed very poor taste in detailing-though at that point, considering the extent of their loss, poor taste was not only forgivable but even acceptable or desirable, even to the extent of wailing and the wringing of hands, and the beating of breasts and tearing of hair, which outward trappings of grief unfortunately neither of them had the requisite bad taste to indulge themselves in.
And even if the girl Rosen was talking about had been the Stella he'd known, it wouldn't have made any difference. For as Rosen himself had said even saints make mistakes, just like anybody else. The only difference was that a saint's mistakes were something to be not so much forgiven as cherished. And certainly you couldn't condemn anyone for a mistake, not even your own mother, even if she weren't a saint, which everybody knows all mothers are even if they aren't. And amid all the mistakes that Rosen had so tastelessly documented, even if Wadzio hadn't been the greatest, he nevertheless had to be cherished. Even if he were a king of vice and a stewer in corruption, even if he had somehow indirectly or even directly caused her death. He had been a part of her. He had been one of her mistakes. And therefore he had to be cherished, the more so the bigger the mistake he represented. Because you didn't judge right or wrong by any kind of absolute standards; he knew that now. You judged it by who was doing the right or wrong.
He'd learned that a long time ago, that evening way back in '52 as the girls adjourned to Stella's room there in their Central Park South penthouse apartment so that Glory could redo her face, and Stella could get her wrap in preparation for what was to become after that first time a usual three or four nights a week ritual he had to learn to accept, a ritual consisting in a little intimate dinner for four at Wadzio's Central Park West apartment, after which Glory and Rosen would spend a night on the town, leaving Stella there until the wee hours, at which time they would return for her and drive her home; Rosen saying, "Certainly you're not going to try to make yourself believe it's simply a case of rebellious hell mutinying in a matron's bones. He may very well be a murderer and a villain and a king of vice, but you know as well as I do it's not simply a case of honeying and making love in the rank and sweat of an enseamed bed. Why don't we both admit it and learn to live with it. No matter how much we hate it, me perhaps even more than you. Yes, she's fallen in love. And what's more he loves her. And as far as I'm concerned why they don't get married is their own business.
"You're supposed to have a reputation as one of the sweetest, nicest, most compassionate, loving, warm-hearted 'human beans' in the garment district, a regular Seventh Avenue Schweitzer, with a heart as big as gold, so big in fact your shops were some of the toughest the syndicate has ever tried to organize, not only because you're such a bright boy, but because your employees love you so much. A trait you inherited from her whether through blood or through the milk of human kindness you sucked out of those big bursting mothering breasts of hers when you were a kid. Not that you're the only one. Because all of us who've come under her bounteousness have ingested in some small amount at least her generosity and kindness and self-sacrifice. Pardon me if the figure offends, but we're all of us like a bunch of blind puppies climbing and crawling all over each other fighting for a teat, including Wadzio.
"Well, how about exercising some of that famous charity of yours at home, as the saying goes, exercising it on the woman you inherited it from in the first place, not to mention the man she loves regardless of what you may think her reason for loving him is, even if it is her own goodness forcing her to believe she loves the man she's sleeping with, even if she doesn't? The point remains she thinks she's in love with him, whether she is or not. So what do you want her to do, give him up just for your sake, because it hurts your pride to have her running around with a guy no older than you, a guy who muscled you out of half your business? What about her feelings? Is she supposed to sacrifice everything for you? Hasn't she already sacrificed enough? I can see that analysis hasn't really helped you very much, has it? You still haven't learned to withdraw from the painful tension of assent and dissent in your relationships with the world, have you? You still haven't managed that attitude of ironic insight on the part of the self toward all that's not self, that inward alienation that makes possible outward reconciliation, that would make it possible for you to say to the world, 'So she's not married. So she's living with a man. So what? '"
It was upon his return from Miami that spring of '52, after several months of rest and analysis following a nervous breakdown brought about by union harassment as well as a disastrous love affair, that he discovered that his loving mother, having in the meantime adopted herself a new son who was unfortunately and only chronologically too young to be her lover, had in addition adopted herself a new lover who was unfortunately and only chronologically young enough to be her son, the one ironically an orphaned half brother of the fellow for whom the girl he'd been planning to marry had left him, and the other just as ironically an old college buddy of his he hadn't seen in ten years, not since back at the university , which after his father Harry's heart attack he'd been forced to leave in his senior year in order to take over the firm himself; an old college buddy who was now, whether he liked it or not, his new silent partner who, supposedly instead of having moved in on the Greenglass firm completely and getting a controlling share of the business as he'd been ordered to do by the syndicate and considering his prodigious brilliance in such matters even at thirty could have succeeded in accomplishing though all others had failed in the past to get even a toe hold in the firm, had settled for a forty-nine-percent interest, simply for Stella's sake, a compromise which the syndicate was not supposed to know was not dictated by necessity, a compromise which as he saw it was due to his own mother's having prostituted herself to save the business for her son.
He never did get on the phone to the syndicate's Mr. Big, however. He
gave himself the excuse that he would first have to consolidate his holdings
so that if he did take the chance of turning Wadzio in, the syndicate would
not be in a position to gobble up his remaining fifty-one percent in the
event that Wadzio had, as he was sure he must have, worked out a "cover"
for himself long before he'd decided to be so generous with the syndicate's
interests. Then of course there was Rosen's insistence, which he interpreted
as an old man's gallantry and wish to save face for the woman he himself
had always loved and had, ever since her husband's death and until Wadzio
arrived on the scene, been asking to marry him; Rosen's insistence
that Stella had not in any way engineered the compromise, had not in any way offered herself to Wadzio for the business's sake, had indeed remained absolutely cold and aloof throughout the rather one-sided negotiations, and had not changed her attitude toward him until after the compromise had already been effected totally on Wadzio's own initiative.
As a matter of fact, according to Rosen, it was his, her son's, own
affected estrangement from her and his undisguised resentment of the man
who as far as she was concerned had jeopardized his own career, and possibly
even life, to leave him at least part of the business, when he could have
ruined him completely had he chosen to, which led her to be that much more
than merely grateful to him by way of compensation if nothing else, this
gratitude soon growing into a friendship fuelled by presents and flowers
from an anonymous admirer, the warmth of which friendship, one night already
hopelessly in love with her supposedly, Wadzio interpreted as an invitation
to intimacy, threatening her when she rebelled at the idea, not only with
a complete take-over of the finn, but also with the revelation of her background
to her son if she didn't submit, which ultimatum she supposedly, according
to Rosen anyway, confessed she was grateful for, because, she said, it
gave her a good reason to submit to an incestuous relationship with a nephew
she was already desperately in love with.
And so when it came to testify against him, he and Rosen having received separate secret invitations from the syndicate to appear at a designated thirty-room hideaway in the Catskills, the two of them arriving in separate cars at just about the same time, he thinking that despite everything Rosen had called Mr. Big and turned Wadzio in, since only he and Stella and Rosen and Wadzio himself were supposed to know about the double-cross, and he himself hadn't even thought of calling the syndicate and certainly Wadzio hadn't and they had just finished burying Stella in a Bronx cemetery that morning; when it came time to testify he simply lied outright, saying that he knew nothing of any double-cross, that the syndicate was lucky to have what it had, that had it not been for Wadzio and his own nervous breakdown, they wouldn't have any part of his business at all and they damn well knew it, and that yes he had told Rosen that Wadzio had done him the favour but simply in order to explain away his mother's having taken up with a man who'd not only stolen away almost half of his business, but was her own nephew, and that he was sorry that this tale of his had put the syndicate to so much trouble and that he hoped the syndicate would not hold Rosen responsible since Rosen of course could not have known that he had lied about the double- cross, though he could not say honestly that he apologized for any discomfort he may have caused the man in the dock, since as the syndicate must realize, it would more than please him to have Wadzio discredited and worse.
Rosen, surprisingly, went along with the lie, assuring the council that he had interpreted his, Stanley's, remarks for just what they were, a shamed son's attempt to defend what seemed to him his mother's irrational and shameful love for a man who had just tried to completely ruin her son's career and had been unable to get more than forty-nine percent of the business only because, as the syndicate well knew, even with a nervous breakdown he, Stanley, considering the love and respect he commanded in the garment business, was a man to be reckoned with, and that he, Stanley, was under an illusion if he thought he'd believed him for a minute or that he'd done something so stupid as call the syndicate to report such a ridiculous story, though he too had no love for Wadzio and would as soon see him dead as not.
All of which meant that Wadzio was in the clear unless the syndicate had some more certain proof, which he feared was the case, since if as it had turned out neither he nor Rosen had tipped off the syndicate, then somebody else must have, perhaps someone involved in providing Wadzio a "cover." Though if that had been the case, if there were even such a possibility, certainly Wadzio himself would have known about it, or at least suspected it. It never even seemed to occur to him that possibly he or Rosen or Stella herself had inadvertently leaked the information to someone. He just stood there in the dock just as he had at the wake and funeral, seemingly as cool and dispassionate as though he had been one of the salesmen or friends and acquaintances who had never even met Stella rather than her lover.
It was all so incredible. None of it made any sense. What he was doing was asking for the kiss of death; he was committing suicide, just as Rosen and he, too, apparently, despite the affidavit of cause of death, seemed convinced Stella had. Granted that her suicide might very well, to a great degree, have been caused by her unconscionable guilt over her affair with him, and so in a sense perhaps he might consider that he had been responsible for her death, had actually himself killed her. And she would certainly have been naIve enough to believe that he had actually been naIve enough himself to have placed his life at her and her son's mercy. But it was inconceivable, even impossible, that anyone, especially a man who knew her and loved her, could possibly believe that she could ever have done such a thing to anybody, especially not to a man she loved. Though on the other hand it may have been just that, the absolute inconceivability and impossibility of the act, which caused Wadzio in his turn, as though the last thing one bad turn deserved was another, to turn upon himself, standing there in the dock, saying, with that cool calm horrible grin on his face, "I guess it's useless to ask you gentlemen who tipped you off., since we never reveal the sources of our information to the accused even if that source is already dead, do we?" saying, "Well, it doesn't matter. It just goes to prove that she was my kind of woman after all, that at least she'd learned something from me. Because despite what the doc here wrote on the attending physician's report, I killed her. And only a sucker would be stupid enough not to try to nail the guy that got her killed.
"Only trouble is, she really didn't learn as much as she should have, otherwise she never would have believed that I'd actually go so far as to put my life in anybody's hands for anything or anybody, even her, especially in her sonny boy's or the doc's here. Something of course sonny boy and the doc were smart enough to have figured out for themselves, because of course I've got and have always had a 'cover,' long before I even made the move. And they would have been fools to testify against me, much less turn me in. And I want to compliment them on their loyalty and wisdom of the ways of this world, and thank them for all the trouble they went through to think up their ingenious story, which nobody in his right mind would believe for a minute anyway. Actually though, it's all a waste, because they have nothing to fear from me even if they had told the truth, because within twenty-four hours if I know the efficiency of my colleagues in these matters I won't be around to do anyone any more harm. Because, you see, despite everything I guess I'm just a sucker after all. Because the truth is, I did cheat the syndicate out of fifty-one percent of the Greenglass firm. And now what I want to know is when one of you gentlemen is going to get up and give me that great big kiss you're supposed to get when you're a good boy and tell the truth."
The only trouble was, when they got back to the city, Rosen having sent
his own car back with its chauffeur so that they might ride back together
and talk, though they said hardly a word to each other throughout the trip,
Rosen no doubt like himself unable to bring himself to accept or consider
or even imagine Stella's having called Mr. Big much less to talk about
it--and he let Rosen off at his and Glory's Sutton Place address and drove
to the church and found his kid brother there just as he'd expected he
would, the two of them standing there together after the recital, beside
the grand console under the single music lamp (the choirmaster scurrying
about shutting off the electric motors and pneumatic engines that opened
and closed and the valves and cables and whatever of the six Romantic swell
organs) the kid--his bony knees sticking out between his short pants and
knee socks--wrapping his muffler round his neck and pulling on his fingertip
jacket and earmuffs, and brushing his long lank blond hair out of his eyes
hidden behind the owlish steel-rimmed glasses disfiguring his bright and
beautiful face, said, "Well, are they going to kill him? " and he, "Kill?
Who?" and the kid, "Why, Mr. Wadzio, of course"; and he, "But how...?"
and the kid, "You mean they didn't tell you who called them?" and he, "You
don't mean ...?" and the kid, "Well, I knew you never would."
PART ONE: FORTUNE
Das ging zu weit, so hab' ich's nicht gemeint,
Wer Boses thut, thut mehr stets, als er will.
They divided my garments among them;
and for my vesture they cast lots.
IN THE VERTEX ANGLE OF THE SECOND TRIANGLE, A HUGE BURNING
JUNK PILE OF A GARBAGE- DUMP-GOLGOTHA COVERED WITH TONGUES OF FLAME OVER
WHICH HOVERS A SOOTY AND BLACKENED DOVE, STANDS A SOLDIER IN A ROMAN CENTURION'S
UNIFORM KNEELING WITH A BROKEN LANCE AT HIS SIDE, TOSSING DICE ON A SEAMLESS
GARMENT INTO WHOSE FABRIC IS WOVEN THE FACE OF A WOMAN. THE OTHER TWO ANGLES
CONTAIN RESPECTIVELY A MAN DRESSED FORMALLY LIKE A BRIDEGROOM, OR AN UNDERTAKER
PERHAPS, WITH A CIGAR IN HIS MOUTH AND A BALLOT BOX UNDER HIS ARM, HOLDING
HANDS WITH A DRUNKEN NUN WEARING A HUGE CHAIN OF IRON KEYS AROUND HER WAIST.
IN THE OTHER ANGLE, A PRIEST IN A SWASTIKA ARMBAND WITH A SCALPEL IN HIS
HAND SEEMS TO BE ABORTING A BEAUTIFUL BLOND GIRL WEARING A CIGAR BAND ON
HER WEDDING-RING FINGER.
"Women are the incarnation of our ideals," Roman had said. "And we are women's. And the higher our ideals, the more we tend to despise each other for being human only, and unable to live up to them"; said it back at the monastery that afternoon when Roman had finally got him to tell the real reason he had suddenly decided to come visit his long-lost brother after almost ten years, the voices of the Carmelites singing vespers drifting across the courtyard olive orchard on the cool winter breeze their God had wrought out of the blistering desert, his sandals hushing on the stones, sandals because combat boots just didn't go somehow with the tunic, girdle, scapular, and black hood of the lay order of the discalced Carmelite friars of Ascension he'd changed into that morning after Roman found him there beside the well as he and the other brothers hushed hurriedly across the olive court to Mass, found him there shaveless and covered with dust and wisps of donkey-cart straw clinging to the cuffs and collar of his uniform, just as years earlier, Roman told him later, Geldstucker had appeared one morning, sitting there before the well in the GI fatigue jacket and trousers he'd worn ever since his discharge in' 48 after his first tour in service, his laceless combat boots off and his hands prayed around the sole of one bare foot, saying, "Behold old swell-foot the hitchhiker. Behold Mike Angelo sans pallet, Nero sans fiddle"; feeling no doubt, Roman said, after having just buried a murdered girl they'd both loved, feeling just about the way he imagined he, Johnny, must be feeling at that moment judging from his story, that is that the world was full of blind, irrational, and unspeakable forces hostile to rational inquiry or art, and worthy only of deluge or the torch.
Which was okay, he guessed. Which was a pretty good estimate of the way he was feeling. Which was, in fact, pretty much exactly the kind of talk he'd expected to hear from Roman. He would have been disappointed if it were any different. Especially the women-and-ideals business of which he was hoping to hear a great deal more the next morning, looking forward, while he was still in the monk's robes at least, to the next day when after a good night's sleep he planned to wake up and go to Mass with them and whatever, and for the rest of the day listen to Roman talk. Only trouble was, almost the minute he got out of the robes that evening in the hostel, and into his washed and ironed skivvies and cleaned and pressed uniform all waiting for him there folded over a hanger on the bare wall beside the crucifix over the chair on which his spit-polished boots and his cleaned and darned socks were all laid out as though for inspection, he just couldn't resist the invitation the two El Paso businessmen, one of whom actually wore ten-gallon hat and cowboy boots, who had stopped at the monastery late that afternoon with some minor motor trouble and had asked him whether he'd like a ride into Ascension that evening, all his good intentions left behind in the cloud of holy dust, he left Roman standing in there in the courtyard as the limousine barreled out through the gates onto the open dirt roads.
He didn't have a dime in his pockets, having left his bankbooks the Roman for safekeeping, and had no idea how he'd get back from Ascension once he'd gotten whatever it was he'd suddenly realized he hadn't had since Glory back in New York; which sad story, minus the part about the bankbooks, affected the El Paso businessmen just about the way he guessed he must have been counting on it to, because not only did they offer to provide him with enough to get himself whatever it was he needed as well as airfare back to the monastery in the morning, because as the one in the ten-gallon hat put it, "Hell, we all've been in the service ourselves once. And like ah always say, nothin's too good for servicemen," something he, Johnny, hadn't heard since the war; but they also had a bottle in the glove compartment of which they let him drink all he wanted during the ride, the quiet one with the Texas accent, who wore a homburg and smoked a big cigar with the cigar band still on it as he drove, saying, "Go ahead, You're going to need it"; asking him all about what it was like in New York and he getting himself drunk enough to tell him, talking away about Glory and the night at the Sheraton and God knew what else.
Certainly he couldn't remember. He just sat there in the speeding limousine, smoking their cigars and drinking their booze taking turns popping at the moonlit prairie dogs, real or imaginary, out the window with the .45 the cowboy carried holstered under his arm because "Hail, man. A businessman's got no call to travelin' through Mexico without no protection"; saying, as they pulled into the ranch set way back miles off the main highway, the moon bright up there directly over their heads, that he could get more of what he wanted out here on the outskirts of Ascension than in the city itself. And he, "But how the hell do 1 get back to Ascension in the morning, not to mention back to the monastery?" And the long one in the boots and the cowboy hat, "Now ain't we been good to you, Polack? Ain't we given you all you want? Here you got the choice of any girl in the house, any two or three in fact, or whatever your little hunky heart desires. Because your request is our command, Polack, ain't it, Frank?" And Frank driving up to the main house, saying, "You talk too much, Dallas."
They had begun calling him Polack back on the road. He had been a little ruffled at first, but figured they were only being affectionate, like Dallas said, "Well, we cain't call you 'ski,' with a name like Gros ...what the hell ever it is. So we call you Polack. Right, Polack?"
And so he agreed. What the hell. He'd met plenty of Texans in service, and he could never quite figure out their sense of humor or anything else. But what the hell, live and let live. And they introduced him to the three ladies who ran the "ranch," one in her fifties and the other two in their forties, Mexican women with names like nuns, like Maria de Jesus or something like that, names he couldn't remember, to whom Dallas spoke Spanish, the older one shaking her head and looking over at him, Johnny , and shaking her head some more, saying things in Spanish none of which he understood, and patting him on the head like a mother , shaking her head some more, and saying something to one of her sisters, who left for a few minutes and returned with some of the most beautiful darkened girls he'd ever seen.
It was then that he first realized that he must be dreaming, that he must be back there in his hostel pallet listening to the brothers singing lauds in the chapel, dreaming all of it. Because not only was he getting all of it for nothing, and as much as he wanted, but as he lay back on the pillow with his head spinning around with all the booze he'd drunk, which even all that exertion had failed to overcome--the fourteen or fifteen-year-old one still lying there on the bed beside him weeping, the one Dallas had said Maria Jesus had told him had just come in from the training brothel that week and was hardly broken in yet, and of whom he, Johnny, had asked the old standard hick-in-a-whorehouse question about how the hell does a nice kid like you get mixed up in a business like this", something he would only be corny enough to ask in a dream even assuming as he did that the kid didn't understand English anyway. As it happened, she not only explained in her broken English how she was a poor girl lured by promises of a job in the city as maid in an upper-class family, and had been raped by a ring employee and hustled off to a training brothel along with many other girls, there to be sold to brothel owners throughout Mexico and Texas for eighty dollars a head, and how she had gotten sick from not being fed enough and from being beaten so badly that she was taken from the room in the training house where they were all locked up together and sent here to the "hospital" where the sick were sent to die and rebellious girls like herself were sent for discipline; not only that, but how the ranch was really a concentration camp for 'White slaves complete with cells and torture devices, the most feared called by the sisters the "cama real" a narrow board on which girls were wrapped in barbed wire so that even the slightest movement caused a cut, and how the undertaker would sprinkle the bodies of those who died of the punishment with kerosene and set them on fire, and how in the week she'd been there she'd seen one girl give birth to a child herself without medical aid, a child which died and was buried in the ranch yard.
After that he was positive it had to be a dream. What he was doing was simply confusing his visit with Roman to the concen- tration camp at Dachau ten years ago with this business, all of it commensurate with, as Roman had described it earlier, his disillusionment with women and his feeling that the world was worthy only of deluge or the torch. In fact, if he would just close his eyes, he was sure the girl and the ranch and all of it would fade away and he'd wake up in the morning in his hostel pallet, and Roman would be standing there in his tunic and girdle and scapular and all the rest instead of in his old MP army uniform as he suddenly appeared there beside his bed when he closed his eyes on what he was now more than ever convinced was simply a dream, a dream which however, instead of fading away, got even more ludicrous after he closed his eyes, Roman standing there over him in his MP uniform as though he were an honor guard for a military wedding or funeral maybe, sharp as a saber in his white gloves, his helmet liner, and white cartridge belt from which dangled a .45, rousing him out of bed with his billy club, saying, "Okay, okay, Polack, let's go, let's go. You've had your good time, now you got to pay the piper," his voice sounding awfully damned like a Texan's for a minute.
And when they got him up and out into the yard, the dawn was already coming up over the barbed-wire fences, which of course he hadn't noticed when he entered, just as he hadn't noticed that the ranch was not really a ranch after all, but a carpet factory in which the recalcitrant and sick whores dressed in nun's habits were forced to work at this great huge loom, weaving an immense carpet, one of the three Mother Superiors holding the distaff , the second drawing out the thread and the third cutting it off , all of it taking place out there in a garbage dump field which was apparently also a graveyard, because stepping on some soft earth he turned up a man's arm and the skeleton of a baby.
Of course, there were also the inevitable three crosses, on two of which were tied, naked except for the cowboy hat and boots, the two businessmen from El Paso. The middle cross was vacant, and he thought he knew whom it was waiting for, and so he wasn't at all surprised when Roman led him into the dock before the Military Peace Crimes Tribunal for court-martial. However, instead of the usual procedures, the president of the court simply handed him a cup of dice, and the three sisters with the aid of the nuns, spread out over the desert floor the huge carpet they'd just completed in which was woven a figure so huge he couldn't make it out. He would have had to be up in an airplane in heaven in order to make out the design. And what he was apparently rolling the dice for was a tunic, a tunic of the order of the discalced Carmelite friars of Ascension, very much like the one he had laid aside back at the monastery earlier that evening, which, however, had been removed from a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old blond girl who was, as he rolled the dice on the carpet, in the process of being nailed to a cross and raised into place between the businessmen from El Paso.
From where he knelt he could see the talkative one in the hat and boots saying to her, "Hey, Polack, cut the kidding and get us down from here. All you got to do is put out for the tribunal. Don't be stupid. Everybody knows a gang bang's heaven on earth": and the other one, "You talk too much, Dallas"; and he, standing there at the foot of the cross now, with the empty dice cup, agreeing, shouting, "Go ahead. Go ahead. He's right. If that's all it takes. Go ahead. What's the difference. Don't listen to me; you don't have to be so pure. Go ahead. Why do you want to suffer like that?" And when he saw she didn't even hear him, he grabbed Roman's pistol out of his hand and tried to fire at her. But it was jammed, or empty, or something. And she just hung there as Roman wrested the .45 away from him, saying, "Okay, Polack. Okay, Polack. Let's go. Let's go. You've had your good time; now you got to pay the piper."
Only suddenly he realized it wasn't Roman at all but the Texan standing there over him as he lay there back on the bed, the .45 stuck in his face, the Texan saying, "We all're gonna tie you up, okay?" His partner and the three sisters binding his legs and arms to the bed, and he just smiling up at them in his drunken stupor. Because it had to be a dream. Because the sisters were standing over him as he lay there in only his T-shirt and dog tags, one with a needle and thread, and the other with a scissors just like the carpet-factory part of the dream except that the distaff the third one was holding didn't have any thread on it, and when he saw the butcher knife in her other hand and he realized what was happening, he was sure he'd wake up any second and find himself back his hostel pallet.
And so he closed his eyes, and let out one great scream, hoping it would wake him.
And it did. And he found himself back at the monastery all right, just
as he had known he would. The trouble was, he wasn't back in his pallet
at all. He was, instead lying there beside the well where they had tossed
him. And it was dawn, and the chapel bells were ringing out the new day
God had just wrought. And, silently, as Roman and the other brothers hushed
hurriedly across the olive court to Mass, whispering as soundless as timbrels
on an urn trickling darkly and fiowerfully through fingers laced about
a groin as barren and vacant as the moon, he proclaimed to the morning
sun, "Behold, Don Juan sans rapier. The Soldier at the foot of the cross
As he got dressed, he tried to remember how pure and peasant and out of place Magda had looked back there in the posh fifty-buck-a-day top-drawer hotel suite overlooking the ocean over ten years ago when, running scared from a misfire abortion he'd arranged for a cousin of his he'd knocked up, he drove down to Atlantic City and popped in on his old man on his honeymoon morning and had found her standing there barefooted in one of those long old-lady white cotton nightgowns with the long drawstring sleeves and neck and the ribbons running clear up to the chin, kind of hugging herself, her hands criss- crossed over her breasts as though she were cold or perhaps knew that, despite everything, he was thinking nine'd get him ten her feet weren't all that was naked under that night gown, not to mention what it would be like if she were willing and she weren't married to his old man.
But that was ten years ago and she was no longer just a beautiful barefooted
Polish DP fresh over from Europe to marry his politician old man. Now she
looked absolutely at home in her posh five-hundred-or-so-bucks- a-month
terraced apartment overlooking the parkway. And not only were her lips
painted but her eyes too, and on her bare feet she wore silk high-heeled
slippers and her satin wrapper had not a single ribbon or drawstring on
it anywhere, and he would have been willing to lay odds that what little
it covered had like the rest of her only improved with age.... (to be continued)
PART TWO: FREEDOM
Theme music from TOD UND VERKLARUNG
Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind,
have caused that this man should not die?
THE THIRD TRIANGLE IS PAINTED DARK AS NIGHT. IN THE VERTEX
ANGLE A BRIDEGROOM RESEMBLING THE FIGURE IN THE CONVERSION OF ST. PAUL
MURAL ON AN ADJACENT WALL OF THE CHAPEL HELPS DOWN A LADDER AND OUT A WINDOW
IN THE DEAD OF NIGHT A BEAUTIFUL BRIDE CARRYING A BOUQUET OF LILIES. IN
ONE OF THE OTHER ANGLES, A DARK OWLISH-LOOKING MAN IN A BUR- NOOSE WITH
TWO BIG BLACK SUITCASES IN HIS HANDS AND A PAPER BAG ON HIS HEAD FLEES
ACROSS A MOONLIT DESERT FULL OF PYRAMIDS, LEADING AN ASS UPON WHICH SITS
A CHILD IN A NUN'S HABIT. IN THE OTHER, A COARSE VEINY-LEGGED FEMALE DRESSED
LIKE A WASHERWOMAN GIVES BIRTH IN A CESSPOOL UNDER A SHINING STAR, WHILE
A YOUNG PROFESSOR IN MORTAR- BOARD AND FULL REGALIA LOOKS CURIOUSLY ON
When on the fourth day he emerged all stinking and blinking from the tomb, all he could think of was how badly he needed a cigarette and a woman.
But he could not tell them that, no more than he could ever hope to tell them what it felt like to be standing there before them bound head and foot in his grave clothes and his face still partially bound about with a napkin and the desert sun burning off the Mexican sand like looking through the steam of his own dissolving eyeballs; all of them kneeling there before him in the desert graveyard in their dust-covered brown tunics and girdles and scapulars and black hoods and pure white woolen mantles, wavering and floating like a mirage against the silent aspect of the ruined and pigeonless bell tower and the waterless well silhouetted against the absolute ball of noon blazing high over the distant Sierras.
For he could tell from the aspect of their uplifted faces that what they no doubt wanted from him was a bunch of breathless beatitudes about how beautiful God's world really was after all, how the patches of winter grass cowering in the shadow of the protective rock they had so recently rolled away from the tomb were not only green but aqua marine, and the sky ablaze above was oh just so impossibly blue, and the air burning off the sand was just as fresh and clear in his lungs as resurrection. When actually the air not only burned in his lungs but reeked also of his rotting flesh, for he still had the stink of the grave in his nostrils. And it was the same old sky, except that as he remembered it, it had been much bluer the day he'd died, and the winter sun had then seemed much more distant a ball over the distant Sierras. In fact it seemed to him now as though the sky had somehow tilted improbably close to the earth in its stationary revolve about the equator, so much so that the illusory blue of distance had dispersed into the colorless haze of here and now, and though the grass cowering in the protective shadow of the empty tomb was exceptionally green (even aquamarine, if they wished), it certainly wouldn't be for long, now that they had rolled away the protective stone and the sun blazed as improbably immense in the advancing sky as the thermal center of some alchemical furnace which the whole round sand- and limestone-thrusted world would revolve itself into the clearest most invisible ball of cooling glass and suspirating animate gas.
And death? What could he tell them of death? Could he be sure that what he had experienced the past three days had truly been death after all? Might he have merely been the victim of a bogus miracle, of some occult Mexican sleeping potion manufactured in the same alchemical furnace he had invented for his previous figure, and administered at the hands of this well-intentioned modern-day Friar Lawrence standing before him now. And could what he had then interpreting as the unfamiliar stink of the grave in his nostrils merely be a three-day advance in the wretchedness of the familiar odor of his cancer. That of course would be much more contrived and farfetched and melodramatic than any mere resurrection from the dead for which there was at least an equally unlikely precedent. Unless of course it was all simply a dream--which was most likely. He was probably still lying back there in his hostelry pallet fast asleep under the influence of the sedatives the padre had been find- ing it necessary to administer in increasingly potent doses now that the pain had rendered his body so recalcitrant to sleep, and Roman his tunic and girdle and scapular and black hood and pure white woolen mantle hovering over him mumbling his prayers just as he had for the past three months, there amid the stench of his decaying flesh rising cum odore suavitatis on the candle smoke and the wisps of his burning cigarettes hanging abandoned in the lips of the ashtray on the bed stand under the steaming roof beams and drifting out of the opened window and across the olive courtyard and into distant desert amid the ringing of the canonical hours in the tower, and the lament of the brothers singing matins and laud in the chapel under his beautiful painted ceilings and before his magnificent altarpiece, as the old hand-bellows organ boomed against the desert night.
Because actually he couldn't remember having died at all, only of having fallen asleep--and just a minute or so ago. For even now, standing here before his emptied tomb, he can still hear Roman's arguments, the arguments he had been listening to for the passionate past three months as he lay there nursing his cancer and contemplating suicide. And so it must be nothing but a dream, and yet he had actually arisen from his dream death after three days and so had the problem (at least while he was dreaming) of trying to describe to his dream brothers what it had been like, which seemed an impossible and frustrating task. For how could he ever hope to tell any of them what it was like, when merely trying to explain it to himself simply proved the absolute and utterly hopelessness inadequacy of analogy? How could he begin to tell them that it had not been like a deep sleep at all, and there had been no Eden-topped mountains to climb as he had envisioned in one of his sedative hallucinations? Could he ever get them to understand that there had been no sense of loss or deprivation.? Nor of gain either for that matter, or of anything at all except change, nothing more nor less, just a melting and a thawing, an evaporating, like being resolved not so much into a dew as into a breath, that breath which not only breathes life into dust but apparently out of it too, or as in his case back into dust again at the prayerful request of his boyhood friend, the modern-day, if not yet himself miracle-making, saint of the discalced desert friars of the Carmelite Mission of Ascension, at least already an influencer of saints, who stood there beside the miracle-making padre now amid his kneeling brothers, stood before him barefoot on the burning sand, his face hidden under his black hood and his hand outstretched not nearly so much, it occurred to him, like the Man he had set out so many years ago to imitate making His miracle at the tomb of Lazarus as like a vindictive Savonarola, frustrated at Lorenzo's deathbed but vindicated at his crypt.
For the padre had performed the miracle at Roman's request, he assumed, to prove to him that Roman had been right from the beginning, and to give him another chance to repent, to renounce his past, to root out of his heart any thought of suicide, and to bathe himself in the healing oil of Christian hope. However , regardless of what his resurrection might mean to Roman or the brothers or the peasant countryside, for him it was simply dirty pool. Because all it succeeded in accomplishing was a futile delay in his confrontation with Roman's God--if there really was one. And perhaps his resurrection had gone some little way toward at least proving that--for he certainly wasn't so completely confirmed in his skepticism as to really seriously consider that the padre would ever indulge in a fake miracle, even for Roman's sake, even for the sake of saving an immortal soul--but only a little way, for after all he was still not convinced that this was not all simply a dream. Anyway it was a futile delay, because the miracle, though it might have proved Roman's God's existence, certainly did not prove that his own past , was worthy of repudiation only, which was the bone of contention to begin with and the reason for the miracle in the first place, he assumed. For it didn't necessarily follow, did it, that because God existed we were necessarily obliged to imitate His life here on earth in order to achieve salvation? He was after all not only man but God too, and so how could any mere man hope to imitate Him anyway? Some of His strangest and most fanatical saints lived lives that were not anything like imitations of His life, at least outwardly. And so wasn't it at least possible that the inner life of the most outwardly corrupt sinner might be closer to an imitation of His inner life than was that of the most outwardly pious man? The truth of the matter was that he had bathed himself in the healing oil of hope, though perhaps not Christian hope. For his contemplation of suicide was not at all as Roman had interpreted it: an act of outright despair. On the contrary, he was sure that were there really a heaven after all, and a God, that he who had not believed either in it or in Him and never would (even now when Roman more or less proved His existence by bringing him back from the dead, preferring simply to think of it all as a dream he was dreaming back on his pallet in the hostelry of which he could see now--standing there in the shadeless graveyard--the decaying roof just behind the wall in the distance beside the silent and pigeonless tower and the waterless well), he was sure that he who had thought it all, and still did, hocus-pocus, would be as welcome there as any not-yet-miracle-making saint of Ascension would be. Or perhaps if not as welcome, at least he would have as much right there. He was sure of that. And Roman's God would have to allow him in, despite his reluctance, despite the failure of the miracle to mold him into something a bit more respectable, a little less intractable and recalcitrant.
In fact, in those past three months lying there on his pallet listening to Roman preach at him, begging him to repent, he had actually wished there might actually be a heaven and a judging God after all, for he would probably enjoy appearing before Him and defending himself just as he'd defended himself against Roman, who as far as he was concerned not really a very worthy adversary, not nearly as worthy as for instance as a genuine miracle-making saint like the padre might have been; and now standing here before his opened and empty tomb he was if anything disappointed that he had been deprived of the privilege of defending his past against his Maker's wrath, and wondered whether perhaps Roman and his God had decided he was really too much of an adversary for them to deal with at the moment, and had collaborated in a miracle to soften him up, to make him lose his confidence. The only trouble was, it wasn't working, and his disappointment at having been denied the opportunity to adjudicate his way into heaven was only softened by the thought that he would have another opportunity in the near future to do just that. Because he couldn't live forever, could he? Shades of Ahasuerus, they would never go that far , would they?
It was true that at first with the discovery that his cancer was terminal he had been a little rancorous at having to die so young. Why, he had not yet even begun to fulfill himself. And the thought of his being required to ask forgiveness, to be contrite, to confess the so-called errors of his past--a past that looking back then seemed to him hardly any past at all, as though he had just that moment there on his invalid's pallet emerged from the womb, as though his entire past was simply a struggle to emerge, to squeeze head and shoulders out into the light of day--seemed to him the worst kind of affront. And as he lay there amid the straw on the hostelry floor, with Roman there kneeling beside him leaning hard on his words, and the man on the cross on the wall above him leaning out on His nails to hear too, he mumbled his confession, a confession without remorse. For he could not possibly have been sorry, not really and truly sorry for anything he had done in the past (what he had failed to do was another matter entirely). For though it was certainly true that it had all led him there to his deathbed, cancer of course was no respecter (as far as medical science could to date determine anyway) of creed any more than it was a respecter of race, color, or national origin. And he would not have been himself if he had not had the past he had had. And he most certainly had not ever been sorry to be himself, had he? What he had been sorry about was that he had to be there dying, that he should be taken so young, so very young, at the beginning of everything, he who had so very much potential, the talented one, who could (to use Roman's terms) do the Lord's work for Him better than most, perhaps even better than one of His own saints might, even the potential one leaning over him then, listening to what he could not possibly after the first ten or fifteen minutes have gone on believing was actually a confession.
For looking back on it, standing there returned from the dead (even if only in a dream), with all of it so clearly laid out before him, clearer than it ever had been before, he realized that he had not been confessing as a sinner then, so much as mouthing his own panegyric, at his own canonization. And if there had perhaps been some little hint of contrition involved, it was over his not having listened to his inner voices warning him that there wasn't much time left, that the kind of talent he had was only given for a day, that it was not so very unlike the talents given the great mystics whose spiritual ecstasies exacted their toll on the physical body--his overly excited pituitary pouring cancerous acids down on his liver and pancreas--contrition at his not having lived his short time to the fullest, contrition at his not having committed more of what Roman called "the errors of his past," for actually he wouldn't willingly trade any of his past "errors" for anything at all except perhaps more of them. Everyone of them had gone into making him what he was then, lying there on his pallet dying. And he was not unhappy to be himself. There was no one he had ever known, or known of, that he would rather have been. Not even the padre. For he too had performed miracles. He too had done the Creator's work. Not by the example of his life as the padre had. But by the example of his work, which amounted to the same thing.
Though his life too had been an example in a sense. An example of making good out of evil. Because his works--at least the chapel ceiling ( even with the britches he had been forced to add at the padre's request) and his masterpiece the enormous Ascension altarpiece--were good. There was no denying that. Out of the salacious corruption of his life he had made something beautiful. Not perfect perhaps. But at least an imperfection which perhaps suggested the perfection which, as the padre had put it, lay only in God. For his way had been meted out to him. His had been as much a vocation, a call, as any priest's was, or soldier or husband and father. Was it true that his duty had been to be a good man first and an artist second.? If he had been a good man in the conventional sense, if he had not sinned as much as he had in the past, if he had not been so recalcitrant and unmanageable, and skeptical, and unrespectable, and disrespectful, could he possibly have produced the works he had? And weren't they enough? Why even consider the works he should have produced? That was an argument Roman could at best only tentatively advance anyway. For if it could be granted that his works had any genuine merit at all, how could anyone willingly sacrifice that, or be blamed for at least loathing to sacrifice that, for the possibility of what might have been.? Was it true that if the source was pure the stream would be pure? And if it were, would it necessarily follow that if the source was impure the stream would be too? And if the stream was impure, if there was poison in the water, could it be possible there might be just enough to immunize the drinker rather than kill him? Was the only work acceptable to Him, work by good men, devotional work, work about the good? N ot even Roman would maintain a position as untenable as that.
But how could a man include evil in his works without having at least experienced evil imaginatively? How could he include it without some sympathy for it, without at least some secret complicity in it, at least during the time of creation if not after, without performing in his heart and soul that very evil? Could he really be inclusive in his work if he told the devil to get behind him? Would the devil reveal his secrets to an outright enemy.? Or did he have to take the chance, face the danger of soliciting the aid of the devil, of playing a game with him, of deluding him or making a fool of him (or perhaps, if he were unlucky, of being deluded, of being made to play the fool himself), of using him to achieve the ultimate good of his work, to even make concessions to him, to allow him to tempt in addition to himself those people who might be corrupted by his work, who would view his work only for the salacious elements involved, pornographically, which was indeed a definite danger, for his works though they were not pornographic in any legal sense, perhaps, were necessarily a kind of pornography of the spirit, he had to admit, since men were not angels and could approach the spiritual only indirectly through the senses. Certainly if the work was to be complete the devil must be there, just as he was in life--all due consideration given to the separation of art and life. And suppose for some the only way they knew to accomplish that was through the seeming co-operation (all right, outright co-operation, even shameless complicity) with evil--an outright pact, a selling of one's soul, an outright and shameless sacrifice of the good of the man for the good of the work, and by extension, whether the artist were even consciously to make the extension, or perhaps might even consciously deplore the extension, the good of men.
For now that he had returned from the tomb, it seemed to him that he
could see much more clearly into those arguments he had presented to Roman
not only in those past three months on his invalid's pallet but ever since
he had known him and certainly all through their long stay at Ascension.
He thought he could see now, not only where Roman had been wrong but Rosen
too; and so really the padre's miracle had been self defeating. All it
had succeeded in doing was to confirm him in his recalcitrance. For he
could see suddenly as he stood there before his opened tomb with his eyes
suddenly open, watching Mary-ah over him with her knife making the long
slow descent down the air and into his entrails like some python priestess
over a sacrificial lamb, could see that it wasn't evil that caused
all the trouble in the world, after all, no matter what Roman or Rosen
or anybody had said, not hate so much as love--love spelled L.U.S.T.
love. For lust wasn't just hate masquerading as love after all, no matter
what the doctors said. Lust was love love--love merely masquerading as
hate masquerading as love. And he really had loved her, no matter what
Rosen or Roman or anybody had said, loved her a hell of a lot more than
anybody ought ever dare to love perhaps, but loved her all the same, loved
her so much he actually needed to become her, even closer than the yolk
and white of Plato's egg, and always had ever since Eden, ever since little
old lady Eve lay there under Adam panting away for her rib, and bewildered
old Adam tried so desperately hard to hump his way back up into her side,
ever since they first choked away together on that big ripe apple of their
own God-damned flesh--the one they hoped would make them not only one,
He had enlisted in Venice as a staff sergeant, the rank he'd achieved
during his first tour in Korea before the war. Offered the privilege of
choice of station, he chose a front-line infantry outfit in Korea, assuming
that the truce couldn't last forever and that he would eventually be killed
in battle, and that he might actually live in the meantime the kind of
life he wrote Roz he was living, that Spartan life so different from the
kind he actually did lead in Korea, since of course the truce did last
forever, or at least forever as far as he was concerned--a way of life
he'd read about on the boat over out of a book he'd never bothered to return
to the base library before shipping out, a way of life "devoted to those
sane and manly ideals of life and conduct which characterized Spartan life
in the annals of classical Greece, a way of life devoted to a purely secular
explanation of experience which posited the meaning of experience solely
in history and manifested itself in the worship of the human community."
For he had, in his pre-war Korean days, tried the way of the classical
artist hoping for resurrection in the memory of the human community through
his art and had found that wanting. He had tried monastery life with Roman
in the Ascension desert, and had found himself wanting. And finally he
had tried the owlish, alchemical way of the Romantic artist and had found
that a nightmare, an illusion, an ephemeral and insubstatial dream. (to
PART THREE: FATE
Loscht die Fackeln aus,
Verbergt den Mond, verbergt die Sterne!
Es wird Schreckliches geschen.
But one mightier than I is coming, the strap
of whose sandals I am not worthy to loose.
I N THE VERTEX ANGLE OF THE FIRST OF THE SMALLER ANGLES A FIGURE IN FIGLEAF CARRYING A SUBMACHINE GUN STANDS BESIDE A NAKED WOMAN HOLDING A BITTEN APPLE IN HER HAND IN A KIND OF ROSE GARDEN OF EDEN. IN ONE OF THE OTHER ANGLES OF THIS TRIANGLE OF ROSES AN ANGEL WITH GLASS WINGS CARRYING A LUNCH PAIL AND WEARING A PANAMA HAT AND A BUSINESS SUIT COAT OVER A PAIR OF BIB OVERALLS STANDS BESIDE A WOMAN IN A HOUSE DRESS HALF OPENED DOWN THE FRONT FOR THE COOL HOLDING A LIPSTICK-RIMMED SODA BOTTLE TO HER PUDGY FACE. IN THE OPPOSITE ANGLE A SLACK-DUGGED OLD MONGREL BITCH SMOKING A CIGAR AND WEARING A HOMBURG LIES TAIL WAGGING NEXT TO AN IRON COAL STOVE BESIDE A ROCKING CHAIR IN WHICH SITS A DEMENTED-LOOKING OLD WOMAN FINGERING A WEDDING BOUQUET IN HER LAP.
He had asked for the kiss of death at the preliminary judgment back
in the Catskills, assuming that death would be the end, would be nothing
but void and blackness, and since that had been exactly what he had been
looking forward to the past two years since they'd committed Roz--that
nice, irresponsible dark void he could drop into once and forever and for
That was why, when they had pronounced their verdict, a verdict which was supposed, of course, to be a punishment for his crime against the syndicate but which, as he saw it, was a reward for the one decent thing he'd done in his life, an end to the misery of the past two years, it was so easy for him after the kiss to walk away from the bench, smiling at his judges and the prosecution's star witnesses, just as coolly and calmly as ever, to walk back out of the trophy room of the thirty-room cabin hideaway in the Catskills--the stuffed torsoless animals brooding glassy-eyed down from the walls at him--to walk back out to the limousine and tell the chauffeur to drive up to Connecticut so that he might once more, before he received his reward, look into the mirror of her eyes and see the twin little dwarfs of himself there, to see himself for what he really was, actual size. For his life had become in the past two years (and all of his life before that was merely a preparation for those two years) a process of constriction, and he would eventually end up no larger than the size of her iris.
And so he'd welcomed the kiss of death his brother bishops had planted on his cheeks, welcomed it as a reward which would free him forever, not only of the necessity of ever having to look into those eyes again, but of even having to imagine himself looking into them again, something he had had to live with for two years now; though he had avoided like a plague even the mention of his visiting her in the sanitarium after that first and fatal time the weekend they'd had her committed, having had to stand there like that not so much like the bridegroom that the striped gray trouser, and gray spats, and gloves, and white silk scarf , and black chesterfield he had affected ever since leaving school that summer of' 48 and coming to New York to work for the union, had earned for him as a nickname among his colleagues; not so much like the bridegroom as a mortician, realizing that his sartorial eccentricities had merely been preparation for those two years he would be forced to mourn her.
However, appeal was apparently automatic. Because not only was there the relatively minor matter of the one good deed, there was also the matter of the altarpiece, which the lower court completely overlooked, the altarpiece, which he, in the last three days since Stella's death, in addition to making arrangements for his own funeral, including a new suit of formal clothes and black patent-leather shoes, a solid silver casket, the hire of eleven Cadillac limousines, seven flower cars, a hearse that plays organ music, nine professional pallbearers, a mausoleum in St. Michael's Cemetery in New Jersey , and hundreds of gold invitations to his funeral to be sent to all of his business acquaintances and especially to the men who were going to have him killed, as well as making legal provisions for the disposition of all of his wealth including his art collection for the treatment and care of Roz (Rosen to execute estate), all except the altarpiece, which he had willed to the monastery at Ascension for which Geldstucker had designed it, which work of art the syndicate apparently had wanted as badly as though it were a set of books detailing its universal operations with dates and names named.
He, of course, was not permitted to inquire why it was the syndicate thought the altarpiece so important in the first place; or why the prosecution considered his having left it to the monastery at Ascension such an absolute apostasy, a betrayal much, much graver than his having allowed Greenglass to retain the controlling interest in his company. Or why the prosecution should insist that he was actually guilty of the very production of the painting just because he had provided funds for his own half sister's honeymoon. According to the prosecution he had not only supported the artist financially but actually, by forcing him to marry his half sister, had provided him with the insight into those very human tendencies which gave the syndicate its power over people, that is, the desire be more or less than human, an insight commensurate with the production of the work. And it had done no good at all for his defense counsel to argue that he had not patronized the artist with intentions of any kind of expose, that they were wrong to think of him as the prototype of the penitent thief who wanted to ease his way out of the rackets, knowing of course that as far as the syndicate was concerned there was only one way to get out and that was to leave the world. He had no intention of using the altarpiece as insurance against syndicate reprisals, like the fellow who keeps books of syndicate operations and hides them away in a vault with instructions that they be delivered to the district attorney in the event of his death. It did his counsel no good to insist that there had not been a single good intention behind his marrying his half sister off to the artist, that he had only been interested in art as speculation ( that was an outright lie, for art was one of his weaknesses, and he actually loved it for its own sake and cared nothing about the monetary value of a work; however, his counsel could not admit that in court), that he had only married his half sister off to get her out of own hair, that he'd figured she was a woman and so was going to whore anyway and so why not let a husband worry about keeping her chaste. And realizing that that story did not go over well with the bench, it did his counsel no good to switch his strategy, to confess that he had had no choice, that he had only done what any other real man would have done under the circumstances, that is, made the man who had molested his sister marry her, detailing in the process how he had come home and found his poor little virginal sister, whom he had put away in a convent to keep her safe and away from the rotten world, raped in her own vomit, to which maudlinity the bench responded with "hear, hear," especially when he talked about the world's being a rotten place to live in, all of them frowning and, with sad eyes, shaking their heads at the corruption of a world which they of course had always hated with an intensity that led them directly to salvation, the syndicate of course being full of idealists who saw the world for what it was, filth and corruption, a world from which they and their congregations craved release in the form of the forbidden, which the syndicate in its sad-eyed wisdom provided, provided for pay, though actually their motives were not economic at all, the economic considerations being simply a way of disguising their real motives which were more psychological and theological than economic, while at the same time in a kind of offertory celebration, allowing their congregations the opportunity to sacrifice their worldly goods, of which money of course was the symbol, for what were essentially spiritual pleasures and at least a momentary release from the corrupting world.
There were three in the council who had had daughters in convent schools in Italy and the South of France and knew exactly what he was talking about. And when he detailed his finding his virginal sister raped, there was not a dry eye in the chamber... And as his counsel continued, he could see them nodding over the necessity of his having made the bastard who raped her marry her and the generosity of his providing cash for them to live on so that sister might be comfortable and make the best of a bad thing, and so that her husband would have time to paint and maybe study and right eventually be able to support her properly himself; all of them aghast when told how this crummy artist had used his poor sister, how he had brutalized her and turned her into a whore one of the judges, the cardinal in charge of Universal Prostitution, so beside himself with horror that he called out, "Why, that's cutting in on my territory. How the hell come nobody told me about this sooner," which bit of comic relief only contributed to the feeling of brotherhood and commiseration in the air, as his counsel went on to explain that the defendant had only behaved as any good syndicate man would have behaved under the circumstances, because damned if blood wasn't thicker than water.
But it did him no good, even though suddenly they were all apparently willing to accept the plea that he had had no idea what the kid had been painting a couple thousand miles across the Atlantic, and that after he had finally found out what they'd been up to in Rome and had gone over and brought his sister home, the kid had disappeared and the altarpiece was just a bunch of crated pieces of canvas which he'd brought back to New York and put into a vault and never even got time to look at as a whole. First of all, the story wasn't true, for he had had it spread out and put together on the floor of one of the Seventh Avenue lofts once. And though it was true that he didn't know it was in someway incriminating, and had no idea at all that it could make any difference to anybody, especially not to the syndicate, if he left it to the monastery, they wouldn't go for that. According to the prosecutor, his having left it to a monastery was a good deed and therefore a guilty act, which was probably true, but damn, they couldn't very well condemn him for one good deed, could they? Or o at most two if they counted the Greenglass affair? What about all the rest, what about the soldier kid, what about his driving Roz into the nuthouse? Certainly these deeds alone, not counting all the syndicate business he'd been involved in the past ten years, were enough to offset any minor good he might have done.
He was on the spot. It had been one thing to be condemned death as he had been by the bishops in the preliminary trial. He had actually welcomed death, welcomed it as the end, period, that's all she wrote. But apparently death was not all she wrote at all, and it was one thing to be condemned to death, but to be condemned to heaven for all eternity? Because damned if it wasn't all just as corn ball as he was always so sure it couldn't possibly be. Damned if it actually wasn't just like waking out of a deep sleep. For after he had left the preliminary trial in the Catskills with the death sentence on his cheek, and got into the limousine and told the chauffeur to drive up to the sanitarium in Connecticut, he had promptly after three days of not even a closed eye fallen asleep. For he had not been able to sleep at all since the phone had waked him into Stella's death that morning, lying there night after trying to put it all together, all of it happening all over again, he and Magda sitting there in her Riverside Drive apartment overlooking the neon-lighted amusement park on the New Jersey Palisades across the Hudson, sharing a hot catered dinner and champagne, Magda sitting there, big and beautiful and completely drunk in her kind of Grecian-knotted blond hair and white Grecian couturier gown he'd bought for her off a model at Bonwit's, on whose pigeon-breasted figure the décolletage which forbade the use of any type of harness whatsoever apparently had presented no real modesty problems, whereas on Magda it had seemed to him just short of obscene, which was why they just happened to be having dinner at home instead of out on the town, though he had even balked at allowing her to wear it at home when he realized after calling the caterer that there would be the waiter to contend with, who, however, luckily was wise enough not even to notice; she sitting there just as gay as they make them on all the champagne she'd consumed, which was in itself unusual, because unlike Stella, she never drank more than a few glasses of anything, and he of course as usual was just as sober as a priest, she tilting her head back under an empty champagne glass, saying, "Where is the waiter? Where is he?" And he, "He had to go back down out to the truck. He'll be back in a few minutes. But in the meantime, would you mind telling me what we're celebrating, or at least what you're celebrating"; knowing that she was getting herself drunk so she could tell him something that was on her mind, something that was troubling her.
He'd detected it in her voice over the phone when she'd called that morning and said she absolutely had to see him that weekend, that he would have to tell his business partners he could not go up to their meeting in the Catskills, that if he didn't tell them, if he had 't come to see her that weekend, he would never see her again-- the business of the meeting up in the Catskills something he had made up to tell her over the phone that Wednesday when he thought he might just possibly be spending the weekend with Stella, which luckily had turned out not to be the case. "Luckily" not because now there was no reason at all why he couldn't see Magda as usual--going out that afternoon to Bonwit's to get her the gown to assuage her temper, and planning to take her upstate to dinner--but also because when he got to see her in the gown, he was glad to be right where he was, especially since he knew what a weekend with Stella would be like with her kid in town, and unlike on the phone that morning, Magda was just as gay and friendly as he'd ever seen her. Though when he realized she was going way over her limit with the champagne, he knew that his assuming her trouble that morning was probably just due to her suspecting he was not really planning to spend the weekend with his business friends at all was much too optimistic, and that she was screwing up her courage to tell him something, something apparently pretty scary judging by the way she was drinking.
She just sat there laughing through most of it, saying in her perfectly precise beautiful Polish, "At first I had planned to confront you with this when we were in bed together, so I could see your face and read the truth there above me before you had time to put on your mask. But then I decided that would be too cruel. And so I thought, on a dance floor perhaps, amid a hundred people, after I had much too much to drink. And though we have not gone out and there is nobody but you and me and not even the little black. man in the red coat any more--oh God, how badly I need another glass of champagne--and though I don't suppose I could ever get too much to drink, could never even hope to get enough to drink to say it, to tell you...Oh God, Wadzio."
And then she wasn't laughing any more, saying, "I received a phone call this morning. Just before I called you. He wouldn't say who he was. I thought at first it was one of the neighborhood boys again from Broadway who always whistle at me in the market and say things. I thought one of them was putting on airs, affecting an overly cultivated, almost British accent. He spoke so beautifully. And I did not even pay any attention at first to what he was saying. It was not till I was already hanging up the receiver that I realized what he had said. And when I said what? he said it again. He said why don't you ask him to tell you the truth about how your stepson died?" And he, "What?" And she, "That was what I said. And so he told me. He told me everything."
What he told her of course was that she was a fool to believe, along with the United States Army and the Mexican police and Stella, that phony confession he'd got the El Paso boys to buy from that Mexican wetback and his supposedly dishonored daughter. And just then there was a knock on the hall door, and she was laughing again, yelling, "Come in. Come. More champagne," thinking it was the waiter of course, which was what he thought too, sitting there with his back to the foyer, waiting, glad for the reprieve, for he'd have time to think while the waiter poured and got back out of the room, before he'd have to answer her, in the meantime asking her why she'd never told him before about the kids bothering her in the streets and the anonymous phone calls, that he could put a stop to that kind of thing in a minute, all simply to stall to give himself time to think, waiting for the waiter to enter from the foyer, but the waiter not appearing, and he stalling for time, getting up out of his chair and going to the hall door, the door open but the hall empty and not even any heels or anything clicking on the stairs, and the elevator making not descent but an ascent from the lobby, and the service elevator ascending too, the doors of which, opening, revealed the little red-coated man with his ice bucket and champagne.
And so he should have known it had been Stella, that she had found out
about Magda the same place Magda had found out about the soldier kid, because
after having left Magda's, refusing to deny the phone caller's accusations,
having simply helped her through her champagne sickness, she saying she
would never see him again, talking in her drunkenness about her girlhood
in Poland, about how she had studied for the sisterhood and that she knew
of an order for fallen women, and a lot of that guilty kind of stuff he
didn't know then he wouldn't be able to talk her out of in the morning
when she sobered up, because in the morning she'd take off, leaving no
address; he was wakened out of a dream in his own bed at noon by the telephone,
a dream in which he found himself a boy again standing on a sidewalk before
a vacant lot near the store back in Anderson, watching a ghost girl float
by all brownish and smoky and apparently in a deep sleep, and when he reached
out to touch her, expecting her like all ghosts simply to fade under his
touch into smoke, he was surprised to find beneath the smoky surface the
solidity and resilience of blood and bone, which he could not help embracing,
could not help trying to kiss, those brown lips in the beautiful but unrecognizable
face the color of dried blood smiling slyly up at him under the closed
eyes, turning coyly away from him he realized, only to tantalize
him into the kiss which he in all abandon was just about to implant on
her lips when he heard his mother's voice calling him from high up in the
attic window, her voice clear as a bell falling from the sky, and he woke
ringing of the telephone and Rosen's voice hollow in the receiver saying that just an hour earlier Stanley had found his mother dead in her penthouse bed.
When he awoke they were already climbing out of the valley, and he just continued to sit there with his head resting against the seat--his homburg tilted back off his face now--looking out at the snow and pines through the limousine window. The air was bright and there were huge puffs of clouds in the sky. And he felt strangely calmed and refreshed and despite everything somehow hopeful. And so when the limousine ascended the last mile up to the sanitarium gates and circumnavigated the circle to the colonnaded porch, and the chauffeur got out, and instead of opening the door for him, shouted, "I'm sorry, boss. I'm really sorry," and ran away with the car keys before he realized what was happening, he was not even angry, not even at the chauffeur whom he had always thought he had paid much too much for anybody, especially a kid, to bribe.
They were waiting on the steps among the columns like a couple of Roman
conspirators in a play. He had known they would get out-of-town cannons
but had never dreamed they'd be poetic enough to send all the way to El
Paso for them, one of them actually wearing boots and a ten-gallon hat.
Adjusting his white silk muffler and straightening his homburg, he got
out and headed for them. He was just about halfway up the stairs when he
heard her call his name from the high window, she who had not spoken a
word in almost two years. And when the cannonade started, he could see
her up there standing out of her rocking chair before the solarium window
screaming, and he was pleased, and when the cannons ceased to shoot, even
before he had time to smile good bye, he was already being carried into
the Hall of Animals torsoless upon a platter with a big red poisoned apple
stuck in his mouth, carried in by a little black red-coated waiter and
placed on a table before the tribunal, which consisted not as it had in
the lower court of three bishops of the Eastern Seaboard and since he was
in dock his own empty chair, but of seven cardinals of the Universal Syndicate,
including, he was told, Mr. Big himself, who apparently in addition to
being a cardinal of the American Eastern board, was the pope, himself;
Mr. Big sitting there dwarfed in the huge thronelike chair between the
Barberini chandeliers and Scopas's Meleagre there in the Universal Syndicate's
thirty-room hideaway atop the seventh hill, along with six other cardinals
similarly dwarfed in their big chairs between Thanatos, the God of Death,
and the statue of Ariadne asleep on her sarcophagus while Amazon and Apollo,
the killer of the lizard, looked on; Mr. Big, whom he had never met before,
at least not in his role as Mr. Big, much less as pope; Mr. Big, whose
face during the entire trial was hidden behind the too-big dunce cap with
the eye holes in it pulled down over his ears, but whose voice, muffled
under the cap so that it sounded as though it were in a telephone receiver,
he recognized , immediately--that overly refined, sweet warm voice, cajoling
as birdsong, that very young voice of a boy of twelve, going about his
father's business there on his inquisitorial throne, leaning hard on words
of the headless defending prosecutor, with completely deaf ears.
In the fairy tale the wicked queen eats the token with salt and much relish, as I remember it," Rosen said, driving back to the city from Connecticut after having committed her just one week after her husband's death and her running off with the soldier kid, leaving her sitting there like that before the sanitarium window just as beautiful as ever, just as fresh and rosy as though blooming with health, there in her rocking chair in her night gown as though in a dream--eyes wide open staring out into the sanitarium rose garden, the rocking chair going up and back and up and back like a cradle and her lips moving and no words coming out, the sun slanting in through the open window on the hands folded in her lap--looking at one moment like some kid in a too-big chair where your feet don't even touch the floor, and in the next like an old woman in her second childhood, recog- nizing no one, never speaking, not even hearing apparently; Stella kneeling before her weeping into her lap, saying she couldn't go and leave her, that she just couldn't go and leave her there like that, and Rosen with tears in his eyes too, trying to wrest her away and finally only succeeding with the help of one of the orderlies, so that it began to look as though maybe she ought to be the one committed and the peaceful and becalmed Roz the one driving home with them in the limousine.
Like all cannibals she wasn't eating it just as an act of desecration,
but with the hope of putting on some of Snow White's strength and beauty.
And I'll tell you I've got to hand it to you. That's just about exactly
what you've managed to do. Because Roz will never again ever look at another
man if her life depended on it, and it does of course. Because to all intents
and purposes you've got her back into that nunnery after all. Because
you put on not only that soldier kid's strength and beauty but her husband's
too. Because when you showed her that poor kid's heart, what she saw of
course was Geldstucker's.
(to be continued)
Vieles an euren Gulen macht mir Ekel,
und wahrlich nichl ihr Boses.
Wollle ich doch, sie hatten einen Wahnsinn,
an dem sie zugrunde gingen,
gleich diesem bleichen Verbrecher.
And he advanced in wisdom and age
and grace before God and men.
TOGETER THE SIDES OF THE FOUR TRIANGLES FORM A CROSS WITHIN A SQUARE CIRCUMSCRIBED BY A REVOLVING CIRCLE FULL OF STARS AND PLANETS AND METEORS, INSCRIBED WITH THIRTY-FOOT EQUILATERAL TRIANGLE CONTAINING IN ITS THREE ANGLES RESPECTIVELY, A CROWN, A CROSS, AND A DOVE, IN FIELDS OF AIRY WHITE, WATERY GREEN, AND FIERY RED.
There in the graveyard in the long, already almost indistinguishable shadow of the chapel--as the other brothers hushed hurriedly across the olive court to their pallets--there, shave-headed and sandaled, in his tunic and girdle and scapular and black hood and pure white woolen mantle of the discalced desert friars of the Carmelite monastery of Ascension, knelt brother Roman Paul Novak before the graves of his profligate and prodigal brothers, those other two angles of the triangle of himself, neither of whom in the past three years of his novitiate he had come to realize he should have been trying so desperately to lose or shed so much as to absorb or assimilate; the two of them there together--or rather three, whether through fortune or freedom or fate or their triangulation providence- the three of them transfigured in the good works one of them had painted on the walls and ceiling of the chapel, which one of their bankbooks had helped to renovate, one of which works, the great Ascension altarpiece, one of them, that third angle of the triangle of himself had willed to the monastery, the one he'd met only briefly once years ago that summer he came down from New York to look at and try to bargain for those good works, and who he knew from Johnny's story was, regardless of the peon's confession, responsible for the death of those other two angles of the triangle of himself as well as his own; so that in Paschal time in the year 1958, he, Roman, could find the fourth, the recalcitrant fourth--that triangulation of the three angles of himself viewed not as dance but as dirge--could find him after the unveiling and dedication of the altarpiece and the burial of the exhumed bronze and silver casket transported all the way from a Manhattan cemetery to a Mexican airport by private plane and three hours through the desert to the monastery in a local hearse followed by several flower cars full of parched and withered roses and two limousines containing the artist's recently remarried widow (who apparently thought her deceased husband ought to rest in peace amid his good works), and her philanthropic New York manufacturer husband, and her husband's business partner and family physician, and his cassock-crazy female companion, as well as a beautiful, poised, precocious much beyond his years, deaf little twelve-year-old boy; left sitting there at the chapel console long after his guardians had left for the airport--and before it had occurred to them, after they had already come an hour's journey from the monastery, to look for him in the doctor's limousine, and not finding him there, return through the desert to search for him--left sitting there as though transfixed before the huge prophetic altarpiece of Ascension, only his hands moving, trying desperately to accommodate the ALSO SPRACH to the tonal and mechanical limitations of the ancient bellows-type mechanically operated polyphonic organ, the great chords booming against the stained-glass casements and out across the desert and up the sides of the Sierras blue in the distance and off into the universe itself, as in the bell tower complin ceased to ring out, and the pigeons one by one wheeled and sank and settled above the eaves of the chapel like falling angels out of a darkening sky.
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