Authors: Stanley Elkin
He is thinking in geological time now, in thousands of millions of years—thinking Pre-Cambrian, Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous, Permian, Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous, saddened at the sixty-million-year-old threshold of his own immediate past, Paleocene, Eocene, Oligocene, Miocene, Pliocene, Quaternary. From seaweeds, younger only than the earth’s crust, through invertebrate animals, fishes, land plants, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, birds and men. He is weeping.
The guard approaches him. “Are you all right, sir?”
“What? Oh. Yeah,” the Phoenician says, “I’m a sentimental old fool.” He starts past the guard, his friend.
“I was wondering something,” the guard says.
“Well, it’s just that you spend so much time here.”
“Yeah, well,” he tells the keeper, “I’ll tell you why that is. I’m a dentist.”
He was late for lunch. (As so often on museum days, his sense of time—he is an early riser, beats others to appointments, brisk as a candidate when it is time for the next, goes late to bed, paper work in the toilet, on the bus home, carrying no brief case but all pockets stuffed with correspondence, pens, notepaper, stamps ready in his wallet—turned tragic, pulling long faces, the past slowing his blood, thickening it, stopping his watch.) He did not even have time to go back to the office.
The bus stop he’d chosen, looking back over his shoulder as he walked from one the two blocks to the next, was outside a drugstore. A woman waited with a shopping bag.
“Missus,” Alexander said, “have you been waiting long?”
“About ten minutes.”
“Just miss a bus?”
“It was pulling away when I came out of Kroger’s.”
If he hurried he would have just enough time to call Crainpool.
“It’s been very quiet.”
“The man who was in earlier stopped by.”
“What? The mobster?”
“He said Mr. Morgan gave him the slip. He holds you responsible.”
“Does he, now? Has there been an afternoon mail?”
“There was nothing from Chile, nothing from Iran.” Crainpool chuckled.
“No word from East Germany.”
The Phoenician cracks down the receiver so hard that the drugstore clerk looks up at him. Loose, he thinks, fugitives at large—the phrase, as always, chilling, raising goosebumps. He thinks of swamps, caves, passes in mountains. Loose. At large. He thinks of settlements so inland in terrains so forbidding that the inhabitants have no language. The chatter of apes, perhaps, the signals of birds. As always, the idea of such remoteness abstracts his face, neutralizes his features, a sort of paralysis of the attention. People watching him wish to help.
“Is there something you wanted, sir?” the clerk asks. At large, loose.
“Is there anything I can get you?”
“What have you got that’s binding?” He sees his bus outside and rushes to board it.
They are in Hilgemann’s Restaurant at the girl’s request. At his they have chosen to remain indoors rather than to dine outside in the beer garden. Though it’s warm enough, the long bare vines snaking among the trellis make him nervous. He could never have been a farmer; he is a bailbondsman because he can exercise some control over his crops of criminals, his staggered harvests so nearly continuous that he feels he does not deal in time at all. (His calendars are only a sort of map, like the precinct maps in police stations.) So they are inside, in an Ohio approximation of Bavaria, leashed to reality by the sealed blue hemispheres of Diners Club, American Express’s bland centurion and Master Charge’s interlocking gold and orange circles decaled on the window like bright postage. He sees airy clubs, spades and hearts between the spindles of the heavy, low-backed captain’s chairs, notices the sweet intrusion of a stuffed deer’s head—no teeth there—and the elaborate plaster-of-Paris mugs that hang from their handles above the bar and that gravity arranges in identical angles, a fringe of falling men, with here and there a lidded pewter beer mug like a tiny hookah or an early, complicated steam engine. Once Herr Hilgemann offered to present the Phoenician with his own, and to have his name inscribed on it. “I’m not a joiner,” he told him. He sees without appetite the heavy portions of thick, stringy meats—flank and chuck and pot roasts, and sanded schnitzels, worms of anchovy curled on them like springs. Thick gravies wound the table linen. There are constructs of pastry, geometric lattices of chocolate, baked bridges of caramel, fretworks of crust, flake, cherries in cross section like the intimate slivers of biopsy. Among these moist ruins Main chews the sandwich he cannot taste; he does not want the fearful cutlery in his mouth, those heavy tines.
He is amazed at the girl’s appetite. The lunch, as Miss Krementz might have guessed, is unnecessary; this could have been handled in the office, or on the phone. He might have asked her, as he had asked others, to write a composition for him: “Why I Think——————Will Not Jump Bail.”
He doesn’t even feel like explaining it to her. He feels like taking a nap, like dreaming of fugitives, for though they are his nightmares, at least in his dreams he is with them, learning their plans, seeing them in their new settings and fresh disguises.
“All right,” he says, and puts down his sandwich. By the time he is ready to speak he has already decided against her boyfriend. “Arson’s one of the highest bonds there is. It’s a very high bond. You set fire to a building—”
Alexander shrugs. “You set fire to a building you bring the insurance companies into it. They’re the ones who determine the prices; not me. I admit it isn’t fair. Every sort of minority pressure group exists in this country, but who gives a second thought to the arsonist? Fire Power! I’m just thinking out loud.”
“His lawyer says we’ve got to get him out, that there’s too great a presumption of guilt if he stays in before the trial.”
“Well, what do you say? Have you made up your mind?”
“I have to give you a test.”
“What do I have to do? Hey, wait a minute, I’m not looking for a part in your picture. Don’t get any funny ideas.”
“What, the crap you eat? You’d blow me out of bed.”
“Okay, I just wanted that understood. I’ll give you a cashier’s check. We’ll go to the bank and have it drawn up.”
“You have to pass the test.”
“I have to pass the test.”
“It’s a very stupid test.”
“All right. Let’s get it over with.”
“It’s not scientific. It isn’t for an educated person like yourself.”
“Actually it’s an insult to your intelligence.”
me, for God’s sake.”
“How much do you love Mr. Hunsicker?”
“How much do you love him? Do you love him a bunch?”
“Certainly. Of course I do.”
“Yes. What is this?”
“Oodles and oodles?”
“This is crazy.”
“Show me with your hands.”
“Just spread them out real wide and show me.”
She opens her arms. She might be a fisherman demonstrating the length of a large bass.
“No. More. Much more.”
She opens her arms so wide Alexander can hear her shoulder blades crack. Her tits come forward into her food.
“That’s not so much,” he says.
“You’re making a fool of me. There isn’t any test.”
“I can’t do it. He’s a marked man. Your boyfriend’s ruined. You shouldn’t think badly of him. Innocent men are sometimes lousier risks than guilty. How do I know if he sets fires? I like the prosecution’s case, but that doesn’t mean anything; they could still lose. The thing is, in your boyfriend’s state of mind he doesn’t think they will. I saw him. He’s very depressed that this has happened to him. I don’t think he’ll go the course. Too much money is involved; it’s too big a risk.”
“Why did you put me through all this?”
“You got a good lunch, what are you kicking? What did the other bondsmen’s food taste like? You want dessert?”
“I want to get out of here.”
“I’ll get the check in a minute. No, you were thinking a little earlier I was trying to put the make on you. I ask you, what chance would a person like myself have with a girl like you?”
“None. Thanks for the lovely lunch. See you.”
“Yeah. My wife is dead, did you know that?”
“I’m sorry to hear that. That’s like, you know, tough shit.”
“Right. That’s just what I told her when we learned she was dying.”
“You really are one dreadful son of a bitch.”
“No. What are you saying? What do you know about it? You want dessert? How about some of that creamy shit with the nuts?”
“You actually think you can get me to go to bed with you.”
“One lunch? You set some value on yourself. I never remarried.” She makes no move to leave. Perhaps she thinks he will still do a deal with her. “I play the field, go with the whores now and again to get my rocks off. Cincinnati has some lulus. Do anything for money, some of those girls. Now if one of my
died, I’d put money in the jukebox and sit at the bar with my hat on my head like Walter Winchell.”
“You must have loved her very much, your wife,” Miss Krementz says levelly.
“Yes, well, she was very ordinary, very plain. We married each other in our middle years. You know what I couldn’t stand about being married? The picnics. All those trips to the damn beach. With the blankets and the towels and the sandwiches in wax paper. Warm Coca-Cola. Wearing swim trunks. Being barefoot on the pebbles, or the sand in my shoes if I kept them on. It wasn’t any better in the backyard. Stretched out in Bermudas on the folding lawn furniture. I come from a desert people, a hot culture, sand in my blood like lymph, but it’s as if I was running a temperature the whole time I was married, as if your Mr. Hunsicker did a job on me with the oily rags. Sweat on my belly like the fat on soup. My jockstrap was grimy, it gave me a rash. Sundays. We were together four years but all I remember are the fucking Sundays. Lounging around. Trying to figure out things to do, bored at the barbecue and settled at the fence like a lost ball.
“Not only Bermudas—pajamas. Do you know how much I hated pajamas by the time it was over? I
pajamas, I always did. Who wants to lie with his great red balls over the place, with his cock drifting like a weather vane or the needle on a compass? No, I’m a pajama guy. In motels, hotels, I love a pair of pajamas. But they have to be starched, they have to be fresh. I like a crease in them like the morning paper. But when my wife was living I wore them for a week, a guy who never slept in the same pajamas two nights running, soiled as handkerchiefs and smelly as socks.
“I don’t know, a year is supposed to have four seasons. I only recall the heat waves, being uncomfortable, doing stuff I never wanted to do, that
never wanted to do. Nobody could
to do that crap. People need to be comfortable, but you get two people together and all of a sudden there’s got to be plans, activities, you bust your ass figuring new ways to get stuck in the traffic. Her leukemia went my bail. Now I jerk off or go to the whores, specialists like the one man in Boston who can do this terrific operation. Or I give myself a treat and get one of those pricey call girls from the university. The ordinary is out forever.
“I see guys like me in restaurants—like the two of us here—old goats with tall blond bimbos with bangs on their foreheads like a cornice and terrific tans. You wonder, father and daughter? Uncle and niece? Never. They’re guys from out of town with the nerve actually to ask bellboys where the action is. Why am I telling you all this?”
you telling me all this? What makes you think I’m interested in your life?”
“You’re not? Don’t you want to know how people live? What’s the matter with you? What are you, twenty-five years old? How much can a kid like you have seen? You got a fever too? Did Mr. Hunsicker shove wadded newspaper up your ass and spritz it with charcoal lighter? All right, we’ll skip the love life. This is how I feel on this fine spring day: like I could only recover with drugs the sense of my possibilities. Like I’ve never been to the laundry in my life. You eat like a horse and I’m full. This is the reason I asked you to lunch and turned down your buddy’s bond. To lay this on you. Now you know some of how I feel. It isn’t privileged information; a lot know this much about me. There’s more, but I’ll spare you. Say, you got any pictures of yourself? You’re a beautiful girl. I’d like to have your snapshot. I’ll give you four dollars for it.”