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Mother Tongue Cause was cure. Of course, hair of dog, right? The proposition touched a cold mallet to his forehead and dropped the trip-hammer proper into Mailer's lap. Cause-effect-cure was no warring triumvirate, no irreconcilable holy trinity, and no algebraic tribulation after all. It made sense only as a syllogism, variable A and variable C sharing a common identity. You heard about cause endlesslyadditives, pesticides, saturated fats, carbon monoxide, socialism, television, nuclear physics, Forty-second Street, Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey Spillaneand effect was there for everyone to see, but where was the data on cure? The good preached prayer and abstinence just as they had done in the Dark Ages and the bad preached theater, bidding us all to become actors of the moment, as they did during the Renaissance. Cause was cure; therefore cure could kill cause. Speaking of Dark Ages, why was he only now realizing something he'd known all along?
At least he always acted like he knew. Hadn't he taken courtesans in rooms off the Boulevard Des Invalides, disdaining the hypocrisy of the tickler? Hadn't he dueled with Jap artillerymen, exposed on a bluff, across a river boiling with lead? Had he not called Eisenhower a woman on Mike Wallace's Night Beat? You wanna talk living dangerously? He was going on Wallace again this coming Sundayhow astonished the viewers would be to learn that the Great Cure was the Siamese twin of the Great Cause and that the two procreated by merely standing sideways, and thus creating a crowd of onlookers.
Whoa, make anote of that; link voyeurism with politics, both of them being lonely, haphazard, and vaguely effeminate means to an endorgasm, however derived, and elected office were one and the same from a literary standpoint since both of them held something of the finality of death. Way off the topic now, though.
"Mike, I'm running for mayor for my own damn good reasons, to cure my own damn good cancer. God knows the electorate doesn't need me except that they need me in the sense that they deserve me. They read me, don't they? ... Well, they read Advertisements so that they could send irate letters to G. P Putnam's Sons and stage whisper the sexy bits around the cooler and under the dryer. `Overly stylized,' said the Washington Post. `Hipapocalypse,' said Life magazine. `Yikes,' said Mr. and Mrs. Willie Winnebago. So, what can I do to get your vote, Mike? You want a date with Lillian Hellman? You guys could browbeat each other until she gets an ectopic pregnancy on her forehead. You know, `Congratulations, the two of you are mother and father to a fine and healthy carbuncle.' Okay, we're going to break now so that Mike can sell you some more crockery. The soup bowl makes a great pith helmet at parties. `Hooray for Captain Spalding, the African explorer ...'"
Maybe this mayoralty thing wasn't such a hot idea at that. Oh yes it was, he thought as he was waking the next morning, the steaming coffee cup forming a devil's stovepipe in the pillow, the maid's proficient little steel-to-steel and steel-to-enamel noises coming in from the kitchen, and Adele Morales Mailer chattering like a happy kid, her visceral springs fully recoiled from the ten hours of lazy slut sleep she must have gotten while he brooded through the night over their redemption. The girls would be at dance or dramatics or at the neighbors' down on Ninety-second. Whose redemption? His redemption. He must learn to leave out this "they" and "their" business. Once there was an external fugue as well as an internal fugue and the two blended beyond the best hopes of algebra, but then tonic and dominant turned to barking and bickering on one or other and then both sides of the fence. Take it like a solo act, Norman. You could be the most self-contained man on earth. Look at you now, lying in bed, stewing your own guts like cabbage and getting the giddiest little kick out of the glower of your curdled bourbon and marijuana breath as it blasts back at you from the coffee cup. Well, Madame Adele talked to her gin glass, didn't she? He lost count of how many times he'd overheard her. She confided in it like a wishing well. For the rest of his life, he must abstain from ginit knew him too well. His mistress over on the East Sidea bona fide British Ladyshipdrank only white rum.
Would the syllogism hold up under a hangover? "Let's see what it's made of," Mailer garbled to himself. The disease and the vaccine hold the seeds of each other in their bellies and effect is but the marrying agent, the wizened votary who bids them to kiss. Vaccinetincture of orange mold, snake oil, omega-blocker, malekills diseasekarmic equalizer, germ of death and enlightenment, femalethrough the process of melding, through a copulation as ordained and incestuous as Adam and Eve's, but only if he is so worthy as to bring her to an internal simmer, to break up those woven and enigmatic compounds which have defied lab work and definition through the ages. Here is the world made whole in the same petri dish that spawned the hydrogen bomb of The Naked and the Dead.
Good show. How ridiculous. How authoritative. Let Mailer tell you something about truth. Verisimilitude is verisimilitude relative to its concealment. The blue sky has validity only to the blind and truth is like an alarm clock, someone else's alarm clock in another room and only when you've overslept. Mailer looked up from his coffee and said to nobody, "It's the man with all the answers that has the most to learn. That's why I'm running for mayor."
* * *
Adele came into the bedroom. Her features were unusually aligned for this hour of the morning and her eyes projected the bright, hard gauntlet of the East Harlem double Dutch champ she never was outside of Norman's wish fulfillment. Some PerryStreet apothecarywould they ever succeed in moving far enough away from the Village?brewed her an herbal purgative with a handicapped kick like a spinster's eggnog (yes, Norman sipped some) and she drank it last night in lieu of her usual martini intake. Eureka, this morning her features had all the glow of a spic-and-span colon.
"You got the last of the milk, baby. I don't have any for tea with Lucas and he'll be here any minute."
Lucas was Lucas Swafford, Adele's art coach and onetime drinking buddy of Jackson Pollock, he said, who gave liquor up for good when they found bad time Charlie in a tree alongside the road to East Hampton. He wasn't competition; far from it, fiftyish Lucas had the wispy coxcomb and the slackened neck common, it seemed, to all those older art types who once knew someone seminal. If he couldn't cadge whiskey off of an apocryphal association, he'd go for tea.
"Couldn't Lyris go?" Mailer asked.
"Lyris is fixing your lunch?"
"Two P.M., baby."
There it is. The clock of truth. It tolls even for Norman.
"You gonna go for the milk?"
"Why can't you make me lunch?"
"I didn't marry Lyris, did I?"
"You'd screw her if you could."
And he laughed. Lyris was in her sixties and had a complexion that presaged her corpse. When she smiled, her crow's-feet reminded him of a batter digging in at the plate.
"Forget it, I'll run and get the milk," Adele said. "Put some clothes on and entertain Lucas if he comes."
"I thought I was gonna screw Lyris."
"Hush, not so loud, Norman."
She turned back into the doorway. He liked that look over her shoulder. One great dark Peruvian eye frescoed above the bulb of her cheek.
"I love you."
"Tell it to the Times," she sneered.
He laughed again. The marriage was on the ropes, sure, but it still had its reflexes. "Tell it to the Times" was a running gag they'd kept up for years. Long ago, in his naivete, he would phone a certain Times columnist to lend a bon mot now and again. The guy would thank him cordially and then spite him with utter neglect in print. Norman thought that the columnist was currently collecting his pension and stringing in chess stratagems and soufflé recipes. God, he felt good. Party tonight.
* * *
This was nice; to be in the root bed of the house, alone and with the phone lines silent, his own wires extending into the various antechambers. This went back to his heritage of the temple The Patriarch's house was the bellwether of the universe, and this was a part of himself that Mailer acknowledged less and less these days. Let Malamud mine the Jewish neurosis, the Jew love-hated himself while the good Christian love-hated his God. Who'd hooked the bigger fish? The girls were back and watching laugh track TVdon't get him startedin their bedroom, and Lucas Swafford and Adele were in the studio chatting, Adele, now and then, floor scraping out another of her canvases to illustrate the latest mediocrity to come up in conversation. Lucas's voice was a virus of the Golden State. (This was something he also thought the Negroes picked up with an alacrity propelled by media. In a decade, they'd gone from Kingfish to king-of-arms.) As with so many West Coasters, Lucas's accent was a variation on that of the early hour jazz DJ who utters "Brewbeck" with a stuttered lick like brush against drum hide. He was saying, "You turn it on by turning all else off. It's the very last switch. Like, what do you see before you sleep?"
"The back of Norman's shoulder. When he's home."
"C'mon, Adele, what have I been telling you? You gotta leave Norman out of it."
Oh, yeah? With that Adele got up and went to the turntable and dropped the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor to serve as her and Lucas's little communion antiphon. He didn't think he'd ever discussed the gloomy masterpiece with Adele, but he had to grant her access to the master controls of his nervous system, else what would be the point of the marriage? He finds something horribly martial in the fabric of the piece, some great, rhapsodic belligerence, something like Sgt. Croft's "Recon, up!" or Sergius O'Shaughnessy's command of "All rise" to his own genitals. This was not the hour for the Toccata and Adele wasn't leaving Norman out of it at all. He could tell her to turn it off; it was his house, wasn't it? But he would need her for tonight. She could either be a captivating hostess, or she could curl against the wallpaper with a drink in her hand and regard the guests in the same way the captive panther, tethered to a painted jungle backdrop, looks at zoo guests. "Oh, if you and I were only in the wild," Adele's eyes would be saying.
He wanted to write, but he was in exile from fiction until he could come up with something resistant to the Zippos of the critics, and for two months of trying, his agent hadn't hooked a decent journalism assignment. The alternate escape hatch was the fine alchemy of bourbon and pot, but the liquor and the makings were in the kitchen cupboardLyris was always complaining that the "mildew" smell of the grass undercut the empyrean of her floor wax. He would have to pass Adele's studio. Well, what of it? The worst they could do would be to ask his opinion.
Adele had her blinds up and the withering fluorescence of the afternoon lent a great deal to the Rothkoesque block of vermilion that she and Lucas were looking at. They turned their heads as he passed and he said, "Getting to the bottom of it?" half under his breath.
"It has no bottom, Norman," Lucas said. And this was true, Abstract art was dimensionless and redeemed largely by its coupling with Zen, albeit the association was ex post facto in nature and brokered entirely by famished critics. But he'd crossed into the kitchen now and the current of ammonia coming off of the floor tiles tingled up into his ankles. He felt a benignity toward the art form. It was based on simple sensation rather than observation and, who knows, this sensory god/fraud might yet amount to a wondrous prodigy, only now learning to play his scales.
"Nor-man, you're not getting high already, are you?" Adele called from the studio as the Toccata's final measures ricocheted around the walls and Mailer, without even having lit the snout of the dragon yet, heard a sound picture that delighted him to no enda squadron of Texas lariat wizards winding up for the moon.
"I'm not gettin' high, I'm aimin' high!" he hollered back in his best cowboy accent.
* * *
At the price of eleven pesos, the bullfighter's shirt was from God, the gawking sun god who scorched the Mexican earth and endowed the flora that happened to survive its eye with a shapely green luxuriance as totemic as flamesmirada fuerte indeedand Norman loved the shirt all the more for the fact that the material was as hot as stove mitts when he first plucked it from the pile in the clothing stall. The air pocket shoulders, the wilting accordion front, the primitive jailhouse shivs embroidered on either breastthe shirt said "death" and it said "grace," and it said that both were children of the heat. He was going to wear it to the party and Adele had put on a low-cut black crepe number, her breasts worked up into a pearly armature. He could hear the girls, already in bed, whispering in lower and lower tones, their vicarious excitement counting them down to oblivion as deftly as a lullaby.
"You invite anybody?" he said to Adele and she looked over at him, disbelieving that he would breach the hush of the dressing ritualboth of them tended to preen like prom kids, never exchanging a word.
"Lucas. And he's not coming."
"The way you canvassed, we're going to have to use Riverside Park as an annex as it is."
"I tried to get Eleanor this afternoon," he said, and she left it hanging. As always, he felt a fist closing in his belly.
"No. I called that hotel in D.C. You know, the ladies' residence she stays at."
"Yes, but she's in West Virginia. There's been a mine collapse."
"What's she gonna do about it?"
"They take her by the heels and use her for a divining rod. When she starts to froth at the mouth"
Mailer said, "I didn't mean that she was ugly. It's just her overwrought sense of caring. She's born rich, you know, and"
"I didn't say anything about ugly either," Adele said.
"I think she has a face of antiquity."
"Then or now?"
He hated it that he couldn't laugh. Her attitude and all.
"Funny. I called Hyannisport. The compound," he said.
"No, oh, Jack."
"You get him?"
"No, I got a kid. A nephew. `Uncle Jack's in Miami with Grandpa Joe.'"
"What do you think they're talking about, Norman?"
"The future. God forbid either of them should talk about their pasts. I really wanted Jack here tonight."
"Superman comes to the super-manhole," Adele said. Christ, her mind was quick sometimes.
"You know, Adele, I think art will inform this decade more than politics. Corporations, you see, will need a more highbrow opiate as the country grows more affluent. Especially the television networks. Then, you just watch. The biggest backfire since"
"So, you tell them, Norman. What do you need Jack Kennedy for?"
"Yeah, you're right. Anyway, I got through to Plimpton and he's bringing in the brain trust. Adele, I noticed that you're not drinking."
"Party's not started yet, baby."
* * *
He waited out the preliminaries in the bedroom. The early guests all commented on how great Adele looked (would they use the adjective "ravishing" if he were in the room?) and named their drinks, some of them saying, "I'll get it myself, hon," remembering from former parties her ineptitude as a chemist. "Where is Norman?" or "Where's Daddy-o?" or even "Where's your more prodigious half?" reverberated around the room, and Adelebless herplayed it off with "He had a very important root canal to go to," and "He's in a bubble bath with our otter." "Be patient," she told them. Then the party noises became cacophonous and through the wall he could feel the density of the roomafternoons in Flatbush so long ago, Norman biking by Ebbets Field. The pagan bleacher chorus would be calling for blood and there was even an unschooled brass band in those days to nettle the nerves of the opposing team ("the Bums" had long ago grown immune). Mailer, at eleven, twelve, and thirteen, thought of the troubled sleep of Jehovah and kept his prayers as concise as postcards.
He was holding up well, considering that he'd trained for the party by boozing and toking for three days straight. He moved about the bedroom, danced in place, and his bloodstream sang of mercury like a chiming cathedral bell. The trouble was in his tongue. The pot dehydrated it and the bourbon lent it thickness. He had this problem last night and he'd gone to the bathroom and licked the running faucet. No chance of that now. The best he could do was to try a declamatory exercise so he turned to the wall and offered the first Shakespearean disquisition that came to mind. "This by summer's ripening breath" came out "Dis by dummer's ripening blath." He hit the offending member with a fresh slug of bourbon and spat on the carpet. The scales fell away. "Ladies and gentleman," he said in a suitably patrician Harvard voice, self-cured by self-cause, "the next mayor of the city of New York, No Man Mauler," and he gave himself a round. He opened the bedroom door and the single peacock of over a hundred guestsbank panicked out into the hallway and down the stairwellturned and fanned him and countless starry eyes inquired of his sanity. Startled, he looked away and directly into the bedroom mirror. He was wearing a bullfighter's shirt and holding a half-empty bourbon bottle, his dark hair (hadn't he just combed it?) springing up like a pommeled crown.
"Fetes and trumpets," he shouted. He listened to the laughter and didn't hear Adele's.
* * *
Once he was out of the bedroom, there was a round of glad-handing and a couple of bear hugs and Tony Franciosa, television detective or whatever, waved from the divan where the ladies of the gathering were taking orderly shifts sitting on either side of him. He couldn't hear a word of what they were saying, but he guessed that the topics might be Tony's suntan and Tony's dental work. After a few moments, Tony even looked over and almost nodded as though he'd cat-burgled his way onto Norman's wavelength. Mailer elbowed through the room in a hurry to stop Allen Ginsberg from avenging Norman Podhoretz's opinion of Jack Kerouac. He took Ginsberg by the wrist and gentled him away from Podhoretz, and Allen gave him a look that he was most familiar with on the faces of shamed dogs.
"Allen," he said, "you're a poet. You'd better leave the fisticuffs to guys like me."
"You are not a poet?" Allen asked.
"Hell, no, I'm a writer."
His tongue stiffened up again and an angel of dissipation came and sat on his craniumhe could feel the split of her anus cutting a seam across his skull, her wide, liquid thighs a lodestone around his shoulders. No Jack, no Eleanor, and him with this bitch on his back; the party had gone rudderless and was drifting in circles along the shallows. Where was the Plimpton-promised intelligentsia? He wasn't sure whom this intelligentsia might consist of, but a promise was a promise. For that matter, where the hell was George Plimpton? C. Wright Mills holding forth beneath the bookshelves. "Crooked commie dew-heart philosopher," the Texas patrolman who resided, once in a while, in his mind said. If Mills had a tan and capped teeth, he'd talk them up in place of Trotsky. Maybe he should buttonhole Ginsberg. Would Ginsberg be willing to announce his candidacy for him? Would he tell the guests that they could cure their cancers by reveling in them? Would he sit on Norman's lap and let Norman turn his knobs? No way he would. For starters, Norman wasn't unwashed enough. So, what about Adele? Adele was talking to a woman, good. She was doing all right on the turntable, tooSun Ra and Sonny Rollins and it was no accident that the nebula of blue-tinged cigarette smoke had settled directly over the stereo. But would Adele be willing to clap the party to attention and then say, "My husband is running for mayor and he'd like you to know that the excess of the soul is also the health of the soul, employed with the proper discretion, of course?" Would she say, "The Zeitgeist is running wild, go and chase it for dear life?"
Adele was standing next to a brown-skinned woman with diamond-clear cat eyes and a black drum of hair and the two of them were racing along the speedway of the Spanish language, their hand gestures serving as auxiliary units of communication and the two of them were absolutely in sync, like two kids playing shadow. Each time Mailer glanced, they seemed to have moved a millimeter closerdid they want to verify the suspicion of kinship in the scent of each other's breath? Casually, they backed into the bathroom together and he caught Adele's index finger straying from the bulb of her gin glass just long enough to draw the door closed. Well, women did that and they did that purely for aesthetic reasons, they compared stockings and underthings, and bolstered each other's cleavages; it was merely a retention of the psychology of the doll keeper, that prettified bridge to womanhood.
He listened for giggles from behind the door, but then Sonny Rollins hit a squall out on the high seas and Ginsberg, recovered now, was talking much too loud about Pound. The name Pound put Norman in mind of Atlas. Yes, he would like to hear of Atlas and the ease the eyes of the Gorgon brought to him as he trembled under the weight of the heavens and earth instead of Ezra Pound, who wasn't so much a traitor to his country but a traitor to his own salvationthat taut centurion rope of sanity. In the end, one went mad on purpose; you might well be pushed to the brink, but never past it. He resolved to phone his mistress. She was the circuit breaker for situations like this. Adele and Lady Jeanne had never met, thank fate, but they existed in parallel universes. Adele lit a cigarette; Lady Jeanne took a flash photo. Neither could ever make Mailer forget the other. What could Jeanne be doing now?
A Times Square bookie he barely knew was on the phone and a line queued behind him. Jeanne wouldn't speak with a din in the background anyway. She'd only say, "Ring me after the bombing, would you, dear?" He would get her from the street. Then, Podhoretz had to take a leak andstout soulhe shook at the door in defiance of the lock. The drum-haired woman called out, "In a minute," and Adele, as an afterthought, hollered, "In ten minutes." Ten minutes? Ten pages were the initial litmus of a novel, able on or abandon. Ten minutes was the width of a woman's clock, her timetable of compatibility in bed or, in this case, in bed in the goddamned bathroom. In ten trembles of the clock, Adele would have a decisive answer as to whether or not Podhoretz would be allowed to urinate.
Where was the anger? It wasn't the liquor and the herb's fault since stupefaction never before drained his rage; on the contrary it always seemed to grant him permission. What, partial view observer status at his own public cuckolding? And to be unmanned by a woman? Was this not a blow to all mankind? He tried to work up a steam, but his head contained only gas. He moved to the door on the reflex intent of phoning Jeanne from the street. A woman in a tasseled dress handed him a copy of Time magazine with Khrushchev on the cover.
"Page forty-one, Norman. You'll be very interested."
That was all he needed, his name on the innuendo page or some critic dancing on the carcass of his reputation.
"What have I failed to do now?" he said.
* * *
The substratum on the stairway felt like a private party and he was surely not its host. Seated or standing, they all inched to the railings as he cut a stripe down the center and then someone said, "Out for air, Norm?" but translated into the vertiginous dialect of pot, drink, and cuckoldry, the voice was saying, "Out of air, Norm," and he half wondered if the guy didn't expect him to go someplace and fetch him a tall, cool drink of oxygen.
"Take your head out of your asshole," Norman said and listened for the laugh that didn't come.
George Plimpton, six feet and five inches of Ivy League erudition and pluck, gangly-cute as a baby llama, stood on the stoop, sharing a Cubano with a Negro too old and unprepossessing for his fedora and his blowfly shades. Plimpton was saying, "The definitive moniker was `Mongoose.' You know, Mongoose Archie Moore? I've always enjoyed the inference that all of his opponents were venomous serpents."
Norman rolled the copy of Time and took aim just as Plimpton was taking a contented draw on the cigar. Sparks rained between him and the Negro. The Negro stepped back and hitched his trousers, maneuvering for room. Mailer said, "Stay out of this, Brother Ray," and tilted up until his eyes were level with Plimpton's conspicuously hollow gullet.
"Where's the think tank, pal?"
"The School of Athens you were going to bring over here tonight."
"Norman, I phoned the fucking Algonquin and everyone is dead or in Los Angeles."
"Precisely," said Plimpton.
"What's on page forty-one?"
"What's on page forty-one of this Pap smear?" Mailer said, dangling Time.
"How should I know?"
"Name me one literary scandal not bred in your hip pocket."
"Oh, for God's sake!"
In the "People" section on page forty-one, he found Ernest Hemingway in the doorway of an emergency room, looking into the camera with his mouth open, his eyes huge. The blurb alongside the photo offered the news that he was undergoing voluntary electroshock treatments at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. He was eating mostly oatmeal and onion soup, receiving very few visitors, and reading Stendahl's The Red and the Black and Out of My League by George Plimpton.
Norman said, "I thought you said you knew nothing about this?"
Plimpton glanced at the page.
"Oh, no. I heard it was only delirium tremens. Thank God, the man is reading at all."
"That's all you have to say?"
"Well, of course, I'm shocked and I'm ... honored."
Mailer said, "Who's a venomous serpent, George?" and turned to quit Plimpton, but Plimpton said, "Norman, meet my barber John David Cronin."
He'd forgotten about the little man in the hepcat glasses.
"John David, will you tell Norman the slogan of your emporium?"
John David Cronin hitched his trousers a second time and rasped, "Clean your head; clear your mind."
* * *
There was a booth on Riverside, removed from the Broadway traffic and in the shade of a firefighter's memorial. Several times he'd used it to negotiate cessations of hostilities with Adele and it was the perfect spot to ring Lady Jeanne from. The booth was in sight and he would have gone ahead and entered it if he hadn't been distracted by the moonlighthe noticed it first in the phosphorescence of his wedding ring and wristwatch and in his shoeshine, and finally in the jewel bits of the asphalt. "Hello, Your Ladyship," he said, his eyes averted from the moon, his body English spelling "drift"watch Brando, he never looks directly at a woman. "Pity you couldn't come to the party. I see you're dressed for it."
Instead of an answer he got more brilliance, which was what he wanted. He turned on his heelthe phone call would be redundant now. The moon made a lake of the wide front window of the park-side townhouse across the street, possibly tiered into three or four dwellings at this point; the window might belong to a private apartment or it might well be the seat of some esoteric foundation, Museum of Absolute Humidity, or some such drivel. The rich were so discreet and mad with their money. A potted fir grew without constriction against the glass and the green and off-green and moon-silvered needles forged a web of rhythm, a portrait of the logic of fire. Norman saw Jackson Pollock hovering in the air, hurling, spitting, and pissing at the window. He then repented with the aid of a long trowel, like a diamond thief with a pincer, until he realized that the very texture of his painting was laughing at himflame being the ultimate giggleand so he threw the trowel away and hurled and pissed, and spit once again. And the moon so loved the show that it stayed up for hours.
Silence. Norman and Pollock shared one common interest, the enhancement of silence. Pollock painted its portrait and Norman, in prose, could make it speak. Pollock learned the character of silence while tearing at a whiskey labela paint scraper against a blackboardwhile Norman thought he learned it first in the South Pacific. He could remember well the timbre of a soldier's furtive peeing against the tin bottom of a troop truck and the way in which the sound funneled ice up his spinal column.
Ice? Was that the name of that late Pollock he liked? Maybe a couple of years, maybe a couple of days before the joyride, raised enamel tapestry, the white acrylic piled, molded into furls, almost an icebound fountain spouting out of the canvas. Here silence really roaredone's entire head became encased in a seashell while looking at the painting. But a fountain? First, the fire and then the fountain? Did Jackson Pollock seek to play God backward?
Was the late painting called White Ice? No, he hung something even more B-movie on it, the same way he christened what passed for his juveniliaMoon Woman, Guardians of the Secret, The She-Wolf. In Middle Pollock, you get only numbers, dates, and seasons. They say we all regress just before death. Once a man.
* * *
Up the hill on West End, some trouble boys gathered on the corner. They all had team jackets with HIVE stenciled on the back and they were yammering and floating in half circles with that no-place-to-pee intensity. One of them was giving another a haircut with a Barlow knife, sawing at the kid's back strands. Wait, no, he wasn't. Mailer had to stand still and squint. Each of them sported a medallion on a silver braid and the one kid was fixing the other's latch pin with the knife. The moon had gone behind a high-rise, so no telling in this light what sort of race they might have won.
"Nurse, I said, `suture,'" Mailer said, coming close. The kids looked at him.
"The Five Hives, huh? Who's your rival gang? The Quintet of Dermatologists?"
One kid said, "Faggot flea market."
"Where you got your Zorro shirt from."
"Look who's talking? Spades, wops, swishes, and women wear jewelry. What's your category?"
The kid with the Barlow turned to him and the other kid's medallion clattered on the ground.
"Aw, fuck," the kid said.
"El toro," the kid with the knife said.
"That's right, El Torso. Pleased to meet ya. You guys go to the Olympics?"
"We busted a window on Jew Street."
"I'm whole hebe. Watch your lip."
"Jews don't fight bulls," the one behind Norman said.
"Naw, they play the violin and figure out eternity, right? I'm running for mayor and your ignorance is the only thing gaining on me."
The kids laughed.
"Hey, I'm serious. Tell me, what'd you guys ever get from City Hall besides a curfew?"
The knife kid nodded out of the rope of his medallion and raised it high, catching a little of the refracted moon. Norman peered and read the words "Christophe Sanctus"; the medal was printed with the likeness of a white-bearded giant with a tribe of children on his shoulders. The kid tossed it to Norman. He eyed its glint as it was homing in on his forehead and he swatted it to the pavement, not trusting himself to catch it.
"Pick it up. You need it more 'n me," the kid said.
"Why? Where you think I'm traveling to?"
The one behind Mailer pithed him with a boot heel and he was on his knees, feeling a rather pleasant nausea, an anticipatory hunger. The knife kid's boot was flying at his face and he tilted his head casually, as though to read the tread pattern. The laces whipped his temple and the kid was on his ass. The others were climbing Mailer's back. Serviceable jazzStan Kenton, maybewas playing past a sleeper's window. Filtered through a corroded screen, the cadence of sleep, and the fugue of the night, it was as lonesome and clattering as a train going by and, like a train, it rendered the atmosphere prismatic; their punches were sequenced into stages and he could gauge the pain of each of the blows before they connected. He stood with two of them on his back. The knife kid rose and stepped in with his Barlow and Mailer swiveled for a pas de natural. The kid grafted to his right side inadvertently kicked the Barlow into the air.
Then they were running. Blood in his eyes and a train in his ears, the moon flashing now and again over the arch of a diminutive brownstone or through the gaps of the crossways, the kids' medallions flying in silver blurs about their necks, the fight forgotten, they were running to beat the wind up the street, and, defeated at each signpost, they simply renewed the race. Mailer remembered to breathe and his windpipe filled with acid. He slowed and the kids slowed. He brought it down to a trot and then a walk. They were in the middle of traffic with car horns sounding and sickly yellow headlights turning their skin to wax. The kids looked at him like (could it be?) they were expecting an apology.
"Hey, you guys want to come to a party? You could meet Tony Franciosa."
Smoke leaked from their mouths, yellow like their complexions. The gist of the respiratory conversation was "Aw, well." Walking away, Norman started to put his hand into his hip pocket. He felt something sharp against his leg. He looked down and saw that he had been holding the Barlow knife, open in his hand, since Ninety-seventh Street.
* * *
The party had swelled into the courtyard, the entire façade of the building burning like a jack-o'-lantern. Norman felt a seismic premonition in the pit of his stomach and longed only for an available toilet. The guests spotted him and quieted and then someone shouted, "Norman, you look like you've been in a war!" The only light in the basement was a bare bulb way in the back. He stepped over a tangle of loose cables, his sickness deepened by the association with serpents, smelling fiberglass now as well as wet rubber, mildew, and dog hair. The cauldron in his belly gurgled and a noxious bubble erupted in the base of his throat. A converted iron washtub hung on the wall, serving as the superintendent's sink, and, just above the rusting faucet nozzle and the equally rusting starfish-shaped hot and cold handles, the super had taped a full-faced close-up of Marilyn Monroe. Time and humidity had puckered the photo, her forehead and jaw were morphing forward with the artifice of caricature and this, combined with the powder tone of her skin, made Norman think of the evanescence of dreams. He redirected his attention to the hole in the sink and dredged the river in his guthe brought up only spittle and a solitary bead of sweat from his forehead taunted him by piercing the dead center of the drain. He looked back up at Marilyn with watery eyes as he hung over the sink by axis of his thickening middle, inadvertently overexposing the photograph through the force of sheer longing. He watched helplessly as she faded to a white burn on the concrete wall. White Light. That was the name of that late Pollock painting. White ... Light. We all regress before death. Twice a child.