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The year is l995. Thirty-nine-year-old Brian Moss lives alone in New York City's Chelsea neighborhood, his survival in the city barely rising above the marginal. He's in danger of becoming a fixture on his block, someone not registered by those around him. Over three seasons-autumn through spring-events conspire to show Brian that a richer life is within his grasp. Returning to his childhood home in the Midwest when his father has a stroke, Brian ...
The year is l995. Thirty-nine-year-old Brian Moss lives alone in New York City's Chelsea neighborhood, his survival in the city barely rising above the marginal. He's in danger of becoming a fixture on his block, someone not registered by those around him. Over three seasons-autumn through spring-events conspire to show Brian that a richer life is within his grasp. Returning to his childhood home in the Midwest when his father has a stroke, Brian finds the scale of emotion between them weighted first one way, then the other.
While there, he uncovers a surprising family secret that gives him a much-altered view of his past. And then, slowly, Brian enters into a relationship with a man who challenges his feelings about romantic love and disrupts his pattern of random late-night encounters. As Brian's life becomes illuminated within this set passage of time, so does the reader's understanding of an ordinary, extraordinary man.
No time seems quite so hushed and suspended with promise as the pre-dawn hour when I walk home alone. Dark though it is, I can sense the approach of daybreak, and it lightens my step. In the fifteen years that I've lived in my studio apartment in New York City-a decent-sized studio on Twenty-Second Street in Chelsea-I've become fully accustomed to the effect of shadows, from both sun and street lamp, on every stoop along the way to my building. Before dawn I love my block with a singular devotion. Arriving here after a night out always seems to me a happy accident, as if I've been delivered on the crest of a wave.
Tonight I'm especially happy to turn up my block and let myself into the building. The night was not an absolute success. The second man I followed into the Shackle's back room, a powerfully built man with bushy blonde hair, refused to wear a condom. It made me think of what Toulouse-Lautrec said when his mother made him see a priest about his frequent visits to the brothel at 24 Rue des Moulins. "I am digging my grave with my cock," Henri is supposed to have told the priest. In some awful way, it's a comfort that a man who lived in the nineteenthcentury and wore a waistcoat and a bowler hat made this remark, and that he pronounced it in the same insolent tone as came from the good-looking man tonight, the one who snapped at me, "Live fast, die young."
Lately, my thoughts have returned to Toulouse-Lautrec. By quitting the doctoral program before I completed my dissertation-yes, on Toulouse-Lautrec-I made a conclusive statement. I had been neither in a first-tier school nor ranked at the top of my class; there had been no hope of pursuing a real academic career. Yet even though I know the world has all the information and myth on Toulouse-Lautrec it needs-an artist too popular to earn the serious attention of my professors-Henri's short and dissolute life, with its improbably delightful paintings, continues to fascinate me. I sometimes imagine that the bar I tend, the Barracks, is actually the bar at the Moulin Rouge. In the course I teach, a nineteenth and twentieth-century art survey at Jersey Tri-Community, right across the Hudson, I find myself lingering over slides of A la mie (Down to the Crumbs) and Le Baiser (In Bed: The Kiss). I find myself drawn back to that neglected dissertation, to my unfulfilled curiosity.
Lately I've been thinking once again about the parallels between my New York back in the 1980s and Paris in Lautrec's era, parallels I drew in my dissertation. Daddy Decency, for instance. I remember from my research that Senator Béranger, the senator they called Daddy Decency, was popular in Paris in the 1890s. He led a group of conservatives who were out to preserve the rectitude of all Parisians. Toulouse-Lautrec and the others were a threat to the common morality. The parallel to our eighties was obvious: a government unable to mind its own business.
Inside my apartment, I switch on a lamp by the front door and check my reflection in the mirror. I don't look so bad, considering the number of hours I've been awake. Now I have to sleep. Who cares about the social parallels between one century and another? My Murphy bed is still open at the center of the room, a thoroughly welcome sight.
I wake at nearly four in the afternoon, dressed in last night's jeans. My lips are parched from the early heat that pushes up the riser, heralded by a clanging noise like a hammer smacking metal. The whole Shackle incident comes back to me. Rather than brood over it, I get up, drink half a liter bottle of lemon-lime seltzer, then take a shower and shave.
Shaving is something I do only a few times a week. My father, Avery Moss, shaves every morning of his life. He shaves on Sundays, too, even now that he's retired, because he loathes and fears bums (what he calls the homeless), looks upon them as a concept, the clear fate that awaits the undisciplined man. I shave when I feel like it. I find the scraping sensation, softened by lather or shaving cream, pleasantly bracing. I enjoy the necessary command over my own safety. I enjoy too the manifest evidence that I am starting anew. For me, shaving is enjoyable because it is not an imperative in my life. Now I shave to go out. It's Monday, and I don't work. Wednesday is my teaching day, and I'm off from the Barracks on Mondays.
The sound of my sister Beryl's voice on the answering machine interrupts my shaving. As always, the sound of her voice startles me. Even now, in 1995, both of us thirty-nine years old, Beryl's voice manages to mock me as I know myself to be. Yet I always pick up when it's Beryl. I picture her standing in the kitchen of her big house in Scottsdale, Arizona, where every other day her maid stocks the huge ceramic bowl on the kitchen table with ripe mangos and bananas.
"Hi, Brian," she says. "It's me. I ..."
"Hold it, I'm here ..."
"Dad's with me for a while. He wasn't faring so well in Cleveland, so I thought I should bring him back."
"Really'? I thought he was okay. Or just about."
My father, who still lives in the house where I grew up, on Periwinkle Drive in Cleveland, had a small stroke three weeks ago. A little lacunar, the doctor told Beryl. He'd had numbness during it, giving the doctor reason to believe he'd had other such strokes without knowing it.
"You know Dad. He refused to have a nurse or anyone to look after him. He probably doesn't really need a nurse, but I think he needs someone. He seems to have lost a little self-reliance at this point."
I don't answer right away. I know that this hesitation, this considered pace that has been mine since childhood, annoys Beryl. "In what ways?" I ask.
Even Beryl waits a second. Perhaps she doesn't want to be the one to enter the first event on a timeline of our father's decline. "He's just not himself. There've been certain changes. It would be different if he would get someone in."
"What kind of changes? Was the stroke worse than you said?"
"No, but I think he still has some recovering to do. It's easy to have him here. You know Seth. And after a while, Dad'll decide he has to go, and he'll be off."
Seth, my brother-in-law, evinces patience in all situations. He may not be a man with whom I have an affinity, but his mellow temperament has been a boon to Beryl, and to me as well.
"Do you think I should talk to Dad?" I ask. Beryl will know I don't want to, but of course Avery won't want to talk to me, either. The attempt would be excruciating for us both.
"I don't think you have to. I just wanted to keep you abreast," she says. She has assumed her business voice.
"Thank you," I say.
"There's one thing that's really puzzling. Eerie, actually. He's become obsessed with us when we were children. Especially our being twins. He keeps reminiscing over our matching pogo sticks and scooters and tricycles. And those saucer sleds, remember them? He never even picked those things out for us: Charlene did."
"I was thinking of her the other day," I say. "I'm going to look her up."
Charlene Wright had been our part-time housekeeper until my mother died, and then she started to work for us six days a week. Beryl and I were only five. If someone woke me up in the middle of the night and asked me who'd raised me to adulthood, I wouldn't have to be out of my REM cycle for five seconds before I'd answer, "Charlene Wright."
Beryl ignores my reference to Charlene. "Anyway, now Dad wishes all that stuff was still around so he could have it bronzed. Especially the pogo sticks. He's really obsessed with them."
"So you think he's had a personality change?" I ask stupidly. She has just described a total revolution.
"It would seem so," says Beryl.
I can tell she has something to add, but her daughter Melissa has come in from somewhere, and she says good-bye to me.
What remains of the day is mine. I put on my scuffed-leather bomber jacket and walk out.
Smoking a cigarette, I head toward the Hudson River. I think about Lautrec-digging his grave with his cock-and about Charlene Wright. For her, Toulouse-Lautrec must have been just another in a legion of people, past and present, who needn't be concerned with the details of survival.
It's a compulsion of mine-this rounding up of the people who swarm through my thoughts, positioning them together, forcing them to regard each other. A tic, maybe, a driving little compulsion that occasionally threatens my sanity, yet a thing I have always done.
I stop at my coffee shop, The Aegean, for dinner-eggs over-easy and Canadian bacon-then walk south to the pier. Late September, the light is already dim. There's a damp chill in the air, a threat of rain. Still, several men on rollerblades are doing fancy maneuvers, clearly pleased at how the velocity they produce combines with the smooth rotation of their hips and the tightening of their buttocks as they strike one foot and then the other to the side. Their style is expert. I wonder where they practice to attain the perfect form they show off along West Street and the pier. Watching the bladers in their sleek tights, I think that in a way Avery would be the ideal father for these men. He had always been uneasy about me showing any undeveloped skill in public. Fumbling, or the threat of it, terrified him. These men, who've kept their bungling private, who've emerged into public only as masters of their form, would have been the right sons for Avery.
The bladers and I establish our reference to each other instantly. The swift looks we exchange have only one objective-to be the first to register disinterest. Our mutual rejection is sullen, even hateful. I suspect the bladers know I would fumble.
Clomping a bit in my thick-soled boots, I walk past the bladers. I light another cigarette and let it dangle from the side of my mouth. I close one eye against the smoke. Gray water slams against the piling; its sight depresses me, but I look anyway. Why, after ten years, am I thinking again of my old dissertation? Should I return to it? If I do, will I just abandon it again-finding my talent wanting, my drive inadequate?
"Cigarette," says a voice in my ear. A demand, not an offer. The man knows from the shape of my back and the way I brood over the water that a demand can be made. I feel warm breath on the tip of my earlobe; the man is tall. From the inner pocket of my jacket, I remove a package of Marlboros. Together, we watch the water. I give up my thoughts to join this man in observing the shadowy waves that charge the piling. How much passes between us on what little basis! Neither of us speaks. I don't look at the man, but with each fleeting moment his physicality deepens. His stillness begins to describe him-his darkness, his capacity for reverie, his indifference to words. There is little more I need to know. We leave, smoking, neither of us leading nor following. Three bladers do figure eights nearby. We find a place we both know. I'm excited when the man withdraws from under his own leather jacket a set of handcuffs-standard register NYPD, as I recognize them-for I know it's part of what is to be, what follows the demand of the cigarette. The cuffs are attached to the man's belt by a hook on a scarred leather strap, and as he pushes back the hook's release with his broad thumb, I get hard; I know to expect resoluteness sooner from my penis than from my character. I look around to make sure our outpost is ours alone. A flash of dull steel whirs by as the man forces both my arms about a sodden post and locks the cuffs in place. My taste has grown rougher since the necessity of latex has intruded its unwelcome tameness into my nights. Now, occasionally, it's the combination of threat and latex that entices me. Partners who are tough, yet self-preserving. In the end, the man takes my money clip and the bills contained there. Rather than leave, he grips my elbow hard, guides me away from the place, towers over me as we pass the bladers once more. Then, without so much as a glance, he departs.
I wander around a bit longer. Thinking about the man at the Shackle last night and the one who ripped me off tonight is too depressing to bear. These men I see drifting around me at the piers, the obviously cruising ones, hold no allure. For so long I've been coming here, and yet I haven't figured out how to keep safe, how to psyche out the really nasty ones, the ones bound to make me feel as I do now. I want to do nothing, to take no action, to occupy as little space as possible. At most, I want to go home and open my window so that I can hear the music that comes every night from my downstairs neighbor's apartment.
Molly Winfield, a Brit in her seventies, has lived in my building for thirty-five years, twenty years longer than I. I've never been all that fond of her, and I sense there's something about me she dislikes. Yet my great fortune is that I have the freedom to appreciate the best of Mrs. Winfield without speaking to her. Her wonderful garden, which my apartment overlooks, is a bit of rare luck in a city whose very earth seems to judge flowers more impertinent with each passing year. She's planted bluebells and foxgloves where litter and crack vials could have been. And there's more good fortune. Mrs. Winfield has a superb sound system, a better one than I could afford, on which she plays her opera CDs nearly every night.
I cross West Street and head home, vaguely hoping that tonight it will be Callas singing Puccini. It's still early, and I have no particular plans. Maybe I'll just sit at my kitchen table with a seltzer or a beer and listen to Puccini and look at the ivy, illuminated by footlights, climbing up Mrs. Winfield's garden wall.
Excerpted from Brian in Three Seasons by Patricia Grossman Copyright © 2005 by Patricia Grossman. Excerpted by permission.
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