Second installment in a series of three. This story was first published at Failbetter.com.
Alec leaned against the squared-off metal post at the bottom of his stairs. He did not know how he’d make it up the four flights. He mused that if Rick were to be stricken with love—not that he ever would be—he’d at least have that cooled, lemon-scented elevator in which to be whisked to his penthouse, rather than these hot, cat-piss-smelling stairs to climb. Climbing them, relying heavily on the banister, he also mused that Fortune, waiting for him on the fifth floor landing, was Richard Widmark in the original 1947 version of Kiss of Death, and Alec was Widmark’s mother, whom Widmark throws, in her wheelchair, down a full flight to her death, then laughs. Unfortunately, Alec did not much appreciate that Fortune, however cruel, had also granted him the modest ability to muse, which while not a profound consolation was also not no consolation.
He could not bear to turn on the lights in his one-room home, but lit a candle, dropped into bed in his sweat-dampened clothes, and slept.
The harsh sound of his buzzer woke him. The sky was dark. The candle had burned halfway down. The buzzer buzzed again and made him jump: drunk East Village college kids, jerks. The third and longest buzz brought him to the intercom. Why were his legs so heavy?
“A friend of Oona,” said a woman’s voice, a biological woman, Alec thought. He pressed the button to let her in. In the time it took her to climb the stairs he decided that this had to be a robbery attempt, which he would allow to succeed if its success would put him in contact of no matter what kind with Oona once again, which he doubted it would.
The knock on the door. Through the peephole he saw a medium-sized white woman in a sleeveless black cocktail dress with a choker of pearls, short, expensively cut chestnut hair, and pale, powdered skin—a society beauty of a kind so elite she might not even date Rick.
He opened the door. She looked around with undisguised annoyance. “Come with me.”
“She asked you to retrieve me?”
“Duh. She said something about being worried she’d given you the wrong impression about who and what she was. She asked me to say that to you.”
“Where is she?”
“Just come, the cab is waiting.”
In the cab the woman looked straight ahead and did not speak. Expensive perfume could be so complex and understated!
Alec said, “How long have you and Oona—”
The woman grabbed his wrist, hard. It hurt, but also sent through him a shiver of ecstasy, as if Oona were touching him indirectly. “Don’t talk.”
They rode a long while, up, up, up.
“It’s on the next block,” she finally said. “For the record, I think this is a terrible mistake.”
“You think I’m making a mistake?”
“No, she is.”
“Then why are you helping her?”
“Because you can’t stop your friends from loving whom they choose.”
Oh! What a gorgeous shock, and yet he had known it! She seized his sore wrist again with that grip wrought by the most exacting personal trainer in the land. He was a bobbling helium balloon she pulled along behind her through an echoing lobby of marble, mirror, and chrome. This was one of those residential buildings where on any given floor the elevator let you off not into a hallway lined with the doors of individual homes, but into the foyer of a single, enormous home that occupied the whole floor, and perhaps also the one above or below it.
She led him to a cavernous room with vaulted, frescoed ceilings, parquet floors, and glittering diamond chandeliers. A hundred people in evening wear sat in folding chairs arrayed around a string quartet that played a frenetic, pulsing piece—but maybe any piece of music would have sounded that way with his heart still slamming to the accompaniment of Oona’s friend’s last remark in the cab.
The woman put him in a chair at the end of the last row and placed her fingers firmly on his left shoulder to say “Calm down” and “Stay.” He did both. He closed his eyes and slowed his breath. He liked music for string quartets and let this one address him on its own terms. It had to be by Beethoven, one of the late quartets that strained fitfully against the rhythmic and harmonic limitations of Western music, and against the composer’s own encroaching hearing loss and death.
Alec knew what would happen when he opened his eyes, and it did: he saw her. She was the violinist, erect at the edge of her seat in a floorlength black summer gown, head atilt, bowing with furious precision. Alec wept, silently, in gratitude. Fortune wasn’t Richard Widmark after all, It was Cary Grant in Notorious, who had seemed all movie long to despise Ingrid Bergman, but in the end he came to her rescue from imprisonment in the mansion of the crypto-Nazi Claude Raines, and Alec was Bergman, of course, poisoned half to death by Raines, swooning in Grant’s arms and whispering, “You love me, oh Dev, you love me, you love me, you love me.”
The false crescendo happened, then the second false crescendo, then the real one, and the four string players were on their feet, bowing to the front, the left, the right, tonight’s short, straight wig and the scooped back of her dress revealing velvet skin and delicate musculature. She was mobbed by men—all tuxedoed, rich, and white—but fought her way toward Alec. “I’m so glad you came. Did Lily give you a hard time in the cab? That bitch is my one-headed Cerberus. Come with me, lovey, we have to get away. I’m liable to be pecked to death at the ankles by all these cocks.”
She took him gently by the hand and led him deeper into the house. They passed clusters of perfumed trophy wives and swirls of husbands with cigars—Providence had so arranged it that where there are rich men and tuxedos there are also cigars—and they were nearly at the door to which she was leading him when a former defensive tackle and Harvard MBA blocked their way.
“Ms. Angstrom, we have to have you at our benefit in December.”
“To do what, pop out of a cake in pasties?”
He laughed, glanced at Alec with contempt, encased Oona’s whole arm in his ten-gallon hand, and muscled her away from the poor poet, who noticed for the first time that he was still in his oversized hand-me-down dress shirt, wrinkled and stiff with dried sweat, which he had fallen asleep in.
“Email the address on my card,” Oona was saying a few minutes later to the giant, ducking under his massive hand, “or just look me up on the internet at angryinchstringquartet-dot-com.
“Oh Lord,” she said to Alec, pushing him through the door and onto the narrow landing of a steep flight of concrete stairs. He looked down them, thought of Richard Widmark again, hoped she’d just shove him head-first, break his neck, and get it over with.
“That was amazing. Was it Beethoven?”
“Aimez-vous la musique classique, Alec?”
“Oui, in an ipod shuffle sort of way. But it felt as if you guys were kind of explaining it as you played it, not dryly and academically but, like, I could feel my body metabolize each note as it entered me.”
She batted her eyelashes, a coquette’s thank-you. “Ooh, I think I peed my undies a little when you said ‘metabolize.’”
“Your… demeanor, your way of talking is so different from earlier tonight by the pier.”
“That’s called code switching, bubbelah, you can look it up in an anthropology textbook. When you’re like me, you are always more than one thing anyway—it has its advantages.”
“And one of the advantages is hanging out on the pier with street whores?”
“‘Be kind; for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.’ That’s Philo of Alexandria. You don’t know those people, just as the people at this party don’t know you, but you can bet your ass they’re judging you by your appearance.”
“But are you… a prostitute?”
“You mean, do I exchange blowjobs for rocks of crack on the pier? No.”
“Well, honey, I’m a 25-year-old violinist, and I’m not exactly Joshua Bell, let me count the ways. A girl needs to eat and have a selection of wigs for a variety of occasions. And you saw how those men were all over me out there. You not the only college-educated white boy with an interest in the dark side, and by ‘side’ I mean ‘bottom.’” Anyway, you mean to tell me your boy Rick pay your rent but he don’t never do you?”
“Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.”
“So, okay, but… Beethoven, Cerberus, Philo of Alexandria?”
“You mean, how do a po’ little black tranny ho know about those things? Well, I’ve been playing violin since age six, and I got my degree from Oberlin College, not to mention my pedigree, and my pedicure.”
“You went to Oberlin? Do you know Jennifer Rothstein?”
The stairway door swung open and nearly knocked the two of them to their deaths. Lily, aka Cerberus of the Cab Ride, stood backlit and glowering, fists on hips. “Oona, you are needed at the party. You,” she said to Alec, “go home.”
He went, and woke up in bed not knowing how he’d gotten there. It was 10 a.m. The candle was a disk of wax, a short black wick, and no flame. He found the page in his notebook on which Oona had written her number by the pier in a scrawl that was strangely large and misshapen for an Oberlin graduate. He knew he mustn’t call her until noon. What to do for the next two hours was no small problem. He would not call Rick, nor take a call from him, for he knew that the facts and the beautiful feeling that clove to them could be so easily sundered by rational argument and its most effective weapon of assault, derision.
He made scrambled eggs and did not eat them. He tried to write a poem for her and could not. He went out for a stroll in Tompkins Square Park in the balmy autumn weather and passed the lone heroin salesman, who’d shown up there a few weeks ago and who now brought out in Alec an unexpected sympathy. Alec nodded and the man nodded back, gravely, two souls who recognized in each other comrades on the losing side of the great battle they’d been fighting all their lives.
Round and round the eight-block perimeter of the park he went till noon arrived. He would go back up and call her now and maybe have an answer to the question of why, if she loved him back, he felt so sad.
“Who this?” she said.
“Very funny, Oona.”
“I ain’t bein funny. Where I know you from?”
“Well, from the pier, last night, for one.”
A brief silence, then, “Oh, you that little white boy, the whatchacall, poet.”
“That’s right, Miss Code Switching, the poet.”
“Say me another poem.”
“I’ll write you one. I’ll write you a hundred. You want to come over?”
“I don’t ordinarily work days.”
“Who’s asking you to work?”
“You think ahmuh come to wherever you are in the daytime and not get paid, you best hang up the phone now, boy.”
Did flirting have to be this aggressive? He decided to try it, maybe he’d like it: “Bitch, get your ass over here.”
She laughed. “Where you at?”
He did like it! He told her and she hung up without saying goodbye.
He set about cleaning his place, taking now and then a bite of cold scrambled egg or a tiny sip of bourbon to reinforce the soap-bubble-thin sheath around his happy anticipation.
An hour and a half later he bathed and dressed, sat on the folding futon-couch and tried to write a poem, then to read one, then to read the paper. He was terribly hungry and ate a little more—peanut butter and crackers, a celery stalk. He lay down on the couch with the paper, fell asleep, woke with a start that didn’t subside but transmogrified into a stomachache. It was three o’clock. She wasn’t coming. He called her again. “A girl has to get ready, honey.” She was selfish and mean, and he was a fool, how could he have ever fallen in love with a woman he didn’t know, and who wasn’t a woman? Despicable and lamentable.
Just as, after a number of hours of not being fed, a body begins to feed on its own fat cells, so a soul, after a number of hours without solace, raids its storehouse of hope and starts consuming the contents. Hopewise, Alec was skinny to start with, so the hour from three to four, with the day’s light dimming in the room, was long and grim.
By the time she arrived, at 4:28, it was too late for him to enjoy himself with her. She looked tired and had pimples she’d covered with mounds of pancake of a color that did not quite match her skin. But that was not the trouble; it was easy to love a person through any number of layers of makeup—easier in some ways than without it. So what was the trouble? Was it that, despite having sent Cerberus of the Debutantes to his exact address in a cab at two o’clock that morning, she had still needed to ask for his address on the phone at noon? No, many plausible explanations for that. Was it the “You got some vo’ka, baby? Oona thirsty” with which she greeted him? No, because he did have some vodka. Was it the incommensurability of String Quartet Oona with this one, whose coarse hair was pulled back in a ragged and undersized chignon? Well, maybe, but no, no, probably not, definitely not. So there was no trouble except the one inherent in his nervous system, and that, he argued—against the nerves themselves, he guessed—was exactly what a great love was meant to salve.
They sat side by side on the futon. After she’d wetted her lips with the drink she said, “What you want to do?” and gave her price list, “and also did you call me last night and say something to my voicemail about—what’s that dude? the composer, Beethoven?”
All right, so the whole cab/chandelier/string quartet experience had been a dream, he sort of knew that anyway, and one thing to focus on here was that his mind, in sleep, had reproduced, or invented, every single note of a Beethoven string quartet, that was something to feel good about, that he, Alec, was so fine a machine for the production of beauty, even if only for his own consumption.
“I love you,” he said. He’d skipped a couple steps, probably should’ve warmed up to it for a month or so, had sex with her for money several times a week in the hope that even if she didn’t, as they say, come with the client, she’d have become acclimated to his faults and enamored of his charms, but that door was now nailed shut.
“Oh, honey, you what?”
“No! That came out wrong. I like you, I want to get to know you—I’ll pay! But I want… let’s just… go slow, and see how we like each other, and if we do, who knows?”
“Well, you are very sweet.”
“Really? So do you think we can try to…?”
Oona had lain in bed for three hours after this boy had called her, and had not intended to come, but then he’d called a second time, and she did need walking around money. She was missing a breakfast with her friends to catch up on the latest news of their mutual acquaintances, and might also miss the beginning of a visit to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where they were doing a lung biopsy on her aunt, the nice one, who did not call her any of those nasty names. In his way this boy was as bad as those all-too-frequent dudes who thought it would be fun not to use a condom. And yet she could not ignore the depth of his feelings.
“Oh, no,” she said, softly, “I don’t think so. You very nice, even though you crazy and shit. And I do want a nice young man to love me, and take care of me, and he ain’t even have to be a black man, but he prob’ly ain’t gonna be a dude who want to sit and talk about Beethoven and whatnot.”
“Beethoven’s not that important. I have other people I can talk about Beethoven with. I also like to talk about Beyoncé and Lady Gaga.”
“I don’t listen to them.”
“It ain’t about the music. I need a man who can help me get my surgery. But it ain’t even really about that neither. Alec—you named Alec, right?—it’s about that thing that you can’t even say what it’s about. You just ain’t my guy, and I ain’t your girl, and I ain’t never gonna be.”
He wept. She stroked his forehead and murmured soothingly, “You want me to suck your dick? Half price for you today, sweetie.”
This was worse than he’d expected it to be. Why could she not ridicule him, or kick him, or otherwise mitigate her wholesale rejection of him with cruelty? After she had gone, there was, of course, only one thing for him to do.
By the fenced-in blacktop at the corner of Tenth Street and Avenue A, he found the man, a tall thin redhead named Jim, who did turn out to be kind, insofar as he gave Alec a syringe, a vacuum-sealed needle, a thin length of rubber tubing, and—because Alec didn’t know how to use these things, and was scared to—came over to his apartment to walk him through his first self-administered heroin injection.
“I’ll lock this on my way out,” Jim thoughtfully said, “because…” And that was the last word Alec was able to hear as such; he inferred that Jim was finishing his sentence, but for Alec it wasn’t a sentence anymore, it was five Ray Charleses humming in harmony, with a rim shot from the drummer when the door hit the jamb.
And now all the city sounds became music, and each thing that he could see was a visual correlative of one of the sounds, though not necessarily of what, back in the real world, would have been considered ‘its own sound.’ So the fridge, for instance, was not the embodiment of the hum of the fridge; its whiteness, coolness, and rectangularity were more intrinsically a part of the sound of the soft breeze coming through the window on this pleasant autumn evening, whereas the billowing of his dirt-beiged curtains in the breeze was secretly connected to the sad corrido coming from the speaker of the car passing on the street below, while the deflation of the curtains as the breeze subsided caused and was caused by the feeling of loss that underlay the fading of the volume of the song and its slight descent in pitch as the car went away from Alec down the street. The descent of night was naturally complex, and Alec really had to listen hard to hear for sure what sound it made, but was rewarded for his close attention with the knowledge that the stillness of the night air on his skin was the sound the night made, as was the deep, vast, mildly irritated sigh emanating from that enormous subwoofer, the planet earth.
But these relationships were fluid too, and, as time wore down, jagged. At the darkest hour, just before the dawn, the absence of light was the screaming, drunken fistfight below his window. It must be said here too that “the darkest hour, just before the dawn” is most emphatically not to be taken as a metaphor for emotions, because while that hour was pretty bad, the dawn itself absolutely sucked ass. But Alec, surprisingly resourceful for someone in such extreme pain, used the harsh time to stroll to the ATM, get some cash, and text the pleasant salesman Jim, whom he urged in the laconic diction of the medium to please come over as soon as he woke up and sell him more drugs. Thus did Alec, in the course of half a day, become a heroin addict.
ORIGINAL FICTION from HILOBROW: James Parker’s swearing-animal fable The Ballad of Cocky The Fox, later published in limited-edition paperback by HiLoBooks; plus: a newsletter, The Sniffer, by Patrick Cates, and further stories: “The Cockarillion”) | Karinne Keithley Syers’s hollow-earth adventure Linda, later published in limited-edition paperback; plus: ukulele music, and a “Floating Appendix”) | Matthew Battles’s stories “Gita Nova“, “Makes the Man,” “Imago,” “Camera Lucida,” “A Simple Message”, “Children of the Volcano”, “The Gnomon”, “Billable Memories”, “For Provisional Description of Superficial Features”, “The Dogs in the Trees”, “The Sovereignties of Invention”, and “Survivor: The Island of Dr. Moreau”; several of these later appeared in the collection The Sovereignties of Invention, published by Red Lemonade | Robert Waldron’s high-school campus roman à clef The School on the Fens | Peggy Nelson’s “Mood Indigo“, “Top Kill Fail“, and “Mercerism” | Annalee Newitz’s “The Great Oxygen Race” | Joshua Glenn’s “The Lawless One”, and the mashup story “Zarathustra vs. Swamp Thing” | Adam McGovern and Paolo Leandri’s Idoru Jones comics | John Holbo’s “Sugarplum Squeampunk” | “Another Corporate Death” (1) and “Another Corporate Death” (2) by Mike Fleisch | Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and Frank Fiorentino’s graphic novel “The Song of Otto” (excerpt) | “Manoj” and “Josh” by Vijay Balakrishnan | “Verge” by Chris Rossi, and his audio novel Low Priority Hero | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD (1.408-415) by Flourish Klink | EPIC WINS: THE KALEVALA (3.1-278) by James Parker | EPIC WINS: THE ARGONAUTICA (2.815-834) by Joshua Glenn | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD by Stephen Burt | EPIC WINS: THE MYTH OF THE ELK by Matthew Battles | EPIC WINS: GOTHAMIAD by Chad Parmenter | TROUBLED SUPERHUMAN CONTEST: Charles Pappas, “The Law” | CATASTROPHE CONTEST: Timothy Raymond, “Hem and the Flood” | TELEPATHY CONTEST: Rachel Ellis Adams, “Fatima, Can You Hear Me?” | OIL SPILL CONTEST: A.E. Smith, “Sound Thinking | LITTLE NEMO CAPTION CONTEST: Joe Lyons, “Necronomicon” | SPOOKY-KOOKY CONTEST: Tucker Cummings, “Well Marbled” | INVENT-A-HERO CONTEST: TG Gibbon, “The Firefly” | FANFICTION CONTEST: Lyette Mercier’s “Sex and the Single Superhero”