Cardinal Numbers: Stories

BOOK: Cardinal Numbers: Stories
3.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
Cardinal Numbers
Hob Broun

, O


Ice Water

By the Numbers

Blood Aspens

Is This Civilization?

Slow Grounder

Ruby Dawn, Private Duty Nurse

Cycling Posture


Municipal Noir

Fryed Cutlets

Highspeed Linear Main St.

Finding Florida

No Smoking

Cows on the Drag Strip

A Tale of No More Demands

The Deep Blue Eastern Sky

South Sea Sensations


Rosella, In Stages

About the Author


wearing two sweaters, window glass rattling in dead putty there at the back of the shop, Schenck drank only ice water. It rippled on his throat, against the wall of his stomach. It cleared his palate and cleansed his bladder. He drank down a gallon or more in a day, not from an excess of thirst—his appetites were diffident—but vigilantly, to maintain a pattern of comfort and good feeling. Always, Schenck had guarded his habits.

Opening the minifridge balanced on phone directories and accordion files, he took a refill from the pitcher. Pain in his knuckles was best relieved by heat, and yet Schenck had never held a teacup with familiar reassurance as he held this glass. He bent back his head, let ice cubes fall against his teeth, saw the uneven black tin ceiling, and indulged an image of it giving way. Everything would fall around him, but nothing on him. Schenck’s safety of place held its own in the impacted city, amid all its reprisals.

Some lugubrious piano piece came over WNYC as he stood with his feet under the radiator by the display window and read a letter from a client in New Haven asking that he locate a particular translation of Heine. As a student in Vienna just after the war, Schenck had been inspired by the early lyrics, even memorizing parts of the Nordsee cycles. Storm-whipped waves and glistening crags. Schenck’s ambition then had been for the stage, to secrete himself inside the great roles. Iago, Cyrano, Faust. All sorts of peaks had been foreseeable then, a tame, benign delusion in which, no doubt, there was less sin than in the pride he now took in the humility of old age.

Buzzing of the security-wired door startled him badly. A tousled woman in high boots and a man’s raglan overcoat came at him.

“I need something for a girl eleven. Very bright. Loves animals.”

Her smile was ferocious.

“Pictures? Something with pictures?”

“That’s not necessarily what I meant.” The woman gestured curiously in front of her mouth as though drawing out a tapeworm and winding it on a stick. “She reads novels all by herself. Jack London. Dickens. Really quite exceptionally mature, I think.”

Schenck managed to sell her the memoirs of a nineteenth-century Irish veterinarian—hand-tinted engravings and marbled endpapers, twenty-five bucks. And then she asked him to wrap it.

“This is a department store? You see gift paper here? You want wrapping, go down two blocks to Wexel’s and buy some.”

dined alone, by candlelight, on smoked fish and macaroni salad. He ate too quickly, afterwards slowly drank his ice water, detecting synthetic undertones probably traceable to a plastic ice tray, which he now dropped in the garbage. No more of those.

The apartment over the shop, a series of low rooms off a long L-shaped passage, was too large for him. Three of these rooms he used only for storage. They were clogged with furniture and crates of books, armoires, washstands, a Peruvian hammock, brass lamps, Hogarth reproductions, a library bought blind three years ago from an executor in Mount Kisco and never looked through. And his bedroom, in the shorter leg of the L, was divided by folding screens, the half-space less shadowy, more settled.

And one room was empty except for the director’s chair in which he waited now by the window that gave onto the air shaft. He waited in the dark until past eleven—later than usual—when the light came on across the way as two opposing V’s projected from top and bottom of the lampshade onto the beige wall. Sheila came naked to the window and put her hands on the glass. She could look straight at him and still seem not to see. Graying hair was undone; breasts hung almost to her navel. She would stand there for five or ten minutes, swaying, expressionless, and then disappear.

This is a very long quarrel, he thought. I am not competent to judge.

Schenck had claim to a small period of marriage, and while he worked at resistance, this ritual at the windows inevitably stirred random memories of that time. He had been forty, newly a citizen, employed in a machine shop owned by Czechs. Penny was an obstreperous girl, and large. She had been raised on a dairy farm and referred to all other women as “heifers.” They were married somewhere in New Jersey with two strangers from a luncheonette as witnesses. Penny ate red meat at every meal, and liked to make love standing up. She couldn’t learn to drive but played competent chess. At the end of their third summer she left for a day at Rockaway Beach and never came back. In 1971 she mailed him divorce papers from Elko, Nevada, where she and the man she’d met on the subway were managing a ten-unit motel.

All that Schenck knew for certain about Sheila was her name. Data solicited in the neighborhood were conflicting: She was shy and retiring, snooty and arrogant, a high-average bowler, known to keep odd hours, deeply religious, a “cocktail waitress,” a divorcee from California. The informants all spoke with an unexampled lack of vehemence, as though describing a fictional character. Schenck had not decided anything, but as an adjective for her attraction he most often took up “opaque.” That seemed fair. Standing naked at her window, she was completely opaque.

By closing time on Friday, Schenck had written in his ledger these sales:

Wallace, Alfred Russell
The Maylay Archipelago
$ 10 –

(boards slightly foxed)

deAssis, Machado
Philosopher or Dog?

Pynchon, Thomas
Crying of Lot Forty-nine
35 –

(1st edition w/ wrapper)

Day total: $53.50

4.28 (tax)

Week total: $457.73

Year total: $28,693.19

Week avg. $562.62

At six-thirty, earlier than usual, Ugo tapped on the window. He held up a white parcel, gestured with his eyes.

“I was just about to go up,” Schenck said, now reengaging the locks.

Ugo stamped and blew and tugged at the ends of his long red muffler. He crackled the deli paper. “Lombardese braciola. Filet of beef cured in salt and then air-dried. It’s a little like prosciutto, only milder.”

Ugo had begun as a garrulous loiterer in the shop during breaks from rehearsal of an off-off production of Pirandello’s
Right You Are (If You Think So)
; transforming himself from a nuisance into a friend had taken a year. Schenck’s spiny reticence made him unavailable to all but the truly persistent. And still Ugo needed to certify every visit with a gift. These had lately become more elaborate, and Ugo wore the slight, perpetual smile of a dolphin or a beluga whale. All by himself, without an agent, he’d bagged a gangster part, three months guaranteed, on the daytime serial,
Edge of Night.

Easily annoyed but hard to embarrass, Schenck was both when presented with a dressing gown from Lord & Taylor.

Ugo said: “This is my first TV job with lines since I did an anti-Semitic janitor on
The Defenders
in 1962. Why shouldn’t we both enjoy it?”

And this was the Ugo who once had said that he yearned for subtleties but was trapped in a culture of noise.

They ate the braciola with capers and olive oil, finished with a romaine salad. Schenck poured Chartreuse for Ugo, ice water for himself, and they torpidly resumed their ongoing game of casino. Score: 18,201 to 18,169, Schenck leading. Ugo, naturally, saw this parity as a signal, if not a proof, of their fellowship, but Schenck called the game defective since luck determined what skill should have.

“It’s like a coin-flip experiment,” he said, sweeping in the ten of diamonds. “All that’s decided is that you can’t decide.”

Schenck, gazing at his friend, at Ugo’s clumsy fan of cards, the tufts sheep-white around his bullet head, his waxy eyes and incomprehensible tics, felt dismay. And in his effacement of clothes, the shabby poplin zip jacket, cuffs and collar frayed like a busboy’s, the welfare pants he could scale fish in, there was something willfully craven and dreadful. So much did he resemble the bumbler who onstage would not know what to do with his hands—was it conceivable at all that he’d been in Actors’ Equity for almost thirty years?

But in another moment, one flourish of liqueur, he was singing “When Yuba Plays the Tuba Down in Cuba” in an elegant tennis-club drawl, with soft shoes, and then, in the space of a spin, hitting every note of defiance in “Was I Drunk, Was He Handsome, and Did My Ma Give Me Hell?”

Schenck whistled appreciation. “Ugo, you should go on stage.”

Clammy and pale, Ugo lipped the Chartreuse bottle, groping for any chair. “All the hells of Dante,” he said vaguely.

rose earlier than usual on Christmas Day, which was not white. He went downstairs to the shop and retrieved the
from in front of the door. Back in bed, vivified by two full tumblers, leafing quickly toward the crossword, he found this among the death notices on page 18:

GLASSER—Jean-Pierre. Beloved husband of Ciel, loving father of Todd, Mimi, and Sara, dear brother of Simone Taubman, adored uncle of Mario, cherished cousin, devoted godfather, and friend to many. Pre-deceased by parents Bernard and Rosa Glasser of Deerfield Beach, FL. His warmth and generosity of spirit touched all who knew him. A proud fighter, he died as he had lived, with passion. Memorials will be appreciated to the Topaze Research Foundation, or American Ballet Theatre.

In 1969, Jean-Pierre Glasser had put up money enabling Schenck to open the bookshop, at that point stocked mainly with Schenck’s personal collection. Devoted godfather, and friend to many. They had met by chance in the lobby of the Carnegie Hall Cinema, at a showing of Von Sternberg’s
The Blue Angel.
Schenck admitted reading the subtitles, that his native German had been distant, indistinct, a passing wind. Harmony of emigres! (Glasser was a Jew from Quebec.) They had dinner that night and enthused over Dietrich the humiliator. In this phase, Schenck was looking around for an ally.

He studied the ice cube remnants in a puddle at the bottom of the tumbler. They were opaque now, not glassy as before, and shaped like charcoal briquettes. He recalled his discovery of baseball that ’69 summer, wearing a Mets cap everywhere: impenetrable laws of assimilation. And that vivid afternoon in the new shop—which people stumbled quickly in and out of as though it were an occupied toilet—when he reached his ice water epiphany during the listless late-Sunday innings of a televised doubleheader, that first experience of calm, silvery perfection from tongue to glottis to gut.

Schenck completed the puzzle, except for an unfair corner where “Spiny shrub” was crossed with “Former 5-franc coin in Brussels.” The clock read nine-fifteen, and he could not think of anything to do.

Wednesday he waited for Sheila until 2 a.m., but her light never came on. Could she have relatives to visit? He felt lower than he had the night before, alone with bad news then, and without a single clear remembrance of Christmas childhood, the sweet sadness of which might have been balm. The deficit was not of his memory, but of the past itself, which was evidently tainted with self-erasure, a slow rot working from the inside out.

He was aground in the present, dreaming of Sheila nearly all the time now. In these dreams she was always severely clothed, like a governess, rigorous and strict in her speech and behavior. So he was afraid to sleep, late as it was, afraid not of the dreaming but of waking into the naked fact of her absence from the window. He stayed up all night reading James’s
Transatlantic Sketches,
drinking his water.

BOOK: Cardinal Numbers: Stories
3.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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