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By Alfred Hayes
Peter Owen Publishers Copyright © 1987 Marietta Hayes
All rights reserved.
Here I am, the man in the hotel bar said to the pretty girl, almost forty, with a small reputation, some money in the bank, a convenient address, a telephone number easily available, this look on my face you think peculiar to me, my hand here on this table real enough, all of me real enough if one doesn't look too closely.
Do I appear to be a man, the man said in the hotel bar at three o'clock in the afternoon to the pretty girl who had no particular place to go, who doesn't know what's wrong with him, or a man who privately thinks his life has come to some sort of an end?
I assume I don't.
I assume that in any mirror, or in the eyes I happen to encounter, say on an afternoon like this, in such a hotel, in such a bar, across a table like this, I appear to be someone who apparently knows where he's going, assured, confident of himself, and aware of what, reasonably, to expect when he arrives, although I could hardly, if now you insisted on pressing me, describe for you that secret destination.
But there is one. There must be one. We must behave, mustn't we, as though there is one, cultivating that air of moving purposely somewhere, carrying with us that faint preoccupation of some appointment to be kept, that appearance of having a terminal, of a place where, even while we are sitting here drinking these daiquiris and the footsteps are all quieted by the thick pleasant rugs and the afternoon dies, you and I are expected, and that there's somebody there, quite important, waiting impatiently for us? But the truth is, isn't it, that all our purposefulness is slightly bogus, we haven't any appointment at all, there isn't a place where we're really expected or hoped for, and that nobody's really waiting, nobody at all, and perhaps there never was, not even in the very beginning, long ago, when we hurried even faster than we do now, and there was in us something that permitted us to believe, even for a short while, when we were younger – or at least I was; you, of course, are still comparatively young; how old are you, actually: twenty-four, twenty-five? – that the intensity with which we set out must compel such a destination to exist.
So now, close to forty, I tell myself that perhaps there isn't, and hasn't ever been, a place at all, thinking that to be, not disillusioned, but just the opposite of illusioned, is a sort of improvement, when it probably isn't; and with this sense, that's hard to describe, of permanent loss; of having somewhere committed an error of a kind or a mistake of a kind that can never be rectified, of having made a gesture of a sort that can never be retracted.
But you're pretty. And it's close to four o'clock. And here are the cocktails on the table. And in that mirror both of us are apparently visible. The waiter will arrive when we want him, the clock tick, the check will be paid, the account settled, the city continue to exist.
And isn't that, after all, what we really want?
Things in their place; a semblance of order; a feeling, true or deceptive, of well-being; an afternoon in which something apparently happens.
Nothing shaken; nothing really momentous; a certain pleasure, without a certain guilt.
The guilt comes later, doesn't it? The guilt's further down the menu. It's only when, after the waiter's been paid and the bill settled, that something's always somehow left over, unaccounted for, and that's when we come to the guilt, don't we?
Odd, though, the man said to the pretty girl, how I sleep well, how unimpaired my appetite is, and yet I seem always tired now; there are inexplicable pains in my back, here, where the muscles seem mysteriously knotted, my eyes (although I hardly ever read now, and hardly ever go to the movies) ache; how a rough, dry taste's settled in my mouth.
And why? The man said, having promised to tell her a story, smiling at her, with an odd sort of restraint, looking at the pretty girl who had all the advantages of being not yet forty, and all the disadvantages, why should I feel this way? What have I lost that cannot, supposedly, be recovered? What have I done, he said, to be so unhappy, and yet not to be convinced that this unhappiness, which invests me like an atmosphere, is quite real or quite justified?
Perhaps, the man said, frowning now, to the pretty girl, that's the definite thing that's wrong with me, if something's wrong; I don't know, any more, what things signify; I have difficulty now identifying them; a sort of woodenness has come over me. There they are, the objects that comprehend my world, and here I am, unable to name them any more – an ornithologist to whom all birds have identical feathers, a gardener whose flowers are all alike. Do you think, the man said, earnestly, that's my malady, if it is a malady? My disease, provided it is a disease?
Yes, the man said, I've often wondered why I impress people as being altogether sad, and yet I insist I am not sad, and that they are quite wrong about me, and yet when I look in the mirror it turns out to be something really true, my face is sad, my face is actually sad, I become convinced (and he smiled at her, because it was four o'clock and the day was ending and she was a very pretty girl, it was astonishing how gradually she had become prettier) that they are right after all, and I am sad, sadder than I know.
He began the story.CHAPTER 2
She inhabited a small apartment. Next door, I recall, there was a rather queer girl, New England-looking and tubercular; downstairs, there were a pair of elegant boys who were in television together, and had black candles over an imitation fireplace, and prints on the wall of the muscular guards at Buckingham Palace; a Mrs O'Toole had a dog.
Tiny and high up, her windows faced toward a large office building, and there were always eyes, distantly lascivious, which lifted hopefully from desks or machines or shipping-room tables whenever her curtains stirred. At night she would lock her windows, as well as curtain them, because she had the idea that a prowler (in her dreams he was always a Negro) might lower himself from the roof (she would be asleep, of course, and alone, and it would all be done noiselessly) to the rather wide window ledge and break into the living room in which she slept. I used to try to reassure her about the prowler by pointing out how nearly impossible the feat was, and how close by people were. Mrs O'Toole's dog could bark; at what? she said, it hasn't a tooth in its head; the girl next door could hear if she screamed; but there's something wrong with the girl, she said: she never goes out of that apartment; well, there were the boys downstairs; my God, she said, who could they scare? So I would argue then that the street she lived on was a populated street, and noisy with trucks and buses, and it was not as though she were alone. She was protected, if people were a protection; she was hemmed about, if being hemmed about was a reassurance; she was guarded, if having neighbors who drank too much, and a subway at the corner, and a hack stand with sleepy-eyed hackies reading the late tabloids in their parked cabs were any sort of a guard.
But she had had the usual terrifying experiences. Once, in a local movie house, when she had used the ladies' room; she had screamed then, in absolute panic, seeing the face lifting itself horribly above the edge of the door. And once, in her own apartment. She had heard footsteps in the hallway, very soft and guarded, the insistent creaking of the stairs, a low sound of human breathing. And then a knock. Her door was bolted (and later, when we quarreled, I remember her face appearing in the cautious slit) and chained. She stood there, I used to imagine her standing there, in the short white soiled terrycloth bathrobe she wore, on the scatter rug, forcing herself to ask in a voice that probably wasn't far from hysteria, Who is it? And then (it was odd how unvariable the phrase was, how graven) the unidentifiable voice answered: It's the man you asked for, and she could hear the doorknob being softly tried. She had, then, retreated swiftly to the telephone which rested on the small coffee table beside the studio couch on which she slept, and telephoned the operator, asking in a voice made quite loud and shaken by her terror for the operator to call the police, loud enough for it to penetrate the door, and the experimenting with the doorknob stopped and she could hear the footsteps, hurried now, going down the flights of stairs. But the image stayed with her of that unidentifiable voice disappearing into a crowd of ordinary-looking people coming up or descending into the subway or pausing for a newspaper at the corner stand or mingling with the heavy faces at the bar in the bar and grill, an unidentifiable voice that would insist, as it tried the doorknob softly again, poised there outside her not completely invulnerable door, It's the man you asked for.
She would often think of moving, or of having bars put on her windows, or of somehow reinforcing her door; but in the end what she did was buy, in a store recommended to her by a doctor, a weapon of a kind which resembled a fountain pen but was actually a tear-gas gun, and this she kept also on the coffee table close to the studio couch, with the telephone and the fruit rotting in a black porcelain bowl and the pack of cigarettes and the cigarette lighter that was a gift from some man. It gave her, I suppose, an idea that she was somewhat protected to know it was there, looking harmless enough, an innocent pen; and she had worked out for herself a small manual of arms should the time come when it would be necessary for her to use it: she would, she thought, having gone over her own military strategy, blind the faceless and nameless and unidentifiable assailant with the gas, while her own mouth and nostrils were covered by a wet cloth, since it had been explained to her that a wet cloth was most effective, and then she would seize the phone and call what, of course, were the equally faceless and nameless and unidentifiable police. She had not yet been forced to use the dangerous weapon; and it lay there with, when one knew what it was, a mildly ominous quality beside the telephone and the bowl of rotting fruit.
The studio couch, with its excess of pillows, was arranged against the wall underneath a Japanese print; beside the radiator, there was a small radio; under the windows, bookshelves; in front of the bookshelves, an armchair; in front of the armchair, a hassock. The bathroom was also small, and always littered: from the curtain rods, her stockings were suspended as limply as hanged men; from the white rod above the sink, her brassiere, with its intricate look, dangled; the towels were not quite clean, and never entirely dry, the Kleenex protruded from its torn box, the toothpaste tube was nearly always uncapped. There were an infinite number of small, and to me, mysterious bottles in the medicine cabinet, jars, vials, peculiar pastes, half empty or almost empty, deodorants and salves, with all the disorder of a pharmacy about to go bankrupt. The kitchen, too, hardly larger than a closet, was littered: the cups unwashed, the icebox with a tendency to get out of order, evidence nearly always of a breakfast eaten too quickly or a dinner put together out of whatever was on the shelf, a bottle of scotch or a bottle of brandy (somebody's present, of course) in the cupboard. There would be, however, mornings when she would make sporadic and intense efforts to put her place into some sort of order, and once a month a colored girl would arrive to air and mop and ventilate and dust and reassemble; but when I think of her, she seems to exist for me in a debris of hats, jewelry, elaborate shoes, an inscribed book, telephone messages, fruit quietly rotting in a bowl, tasseled pillows, love letters tied with a ribbon and hidden away and taken out and read again and sometimes discarded, candy boxes, and of course portraits: portraits of her child, of herself when she was married, looking altogether like another girl, an ancestor who was remarkably pretty, of her mother on a trip to Florida, of a skating party or a Girl Scout campfire, with the girls in middies and laughing and the campfire in the background, and of a man or two. Everything tossed into the last position or the last hiding place it occupied, as though they'd all been looked at or used or picked up briefly and thought about briefly and the mystery they contained too difficult to unriddle, and thrown back again wherever she happened to be, a drawer or a shelf or the edge of a table; but it seems to me now that all this disorder, so much in evidence, and so little cared about, came from the fact that she considered the life that she was leading then as only temporary. This house, the way she lived, was only a hasty arrangement, thrown together to cover a time in her life which she did not consider too important, and in which she did not feel any necessity for putting things into any sort of final order. The final order had not yet arrived; she was waiting for it to arrive.
She had a tiny scar over the ridge of one eye; an almost imperceptible scar; a bow-and-arrow had done that; and she had not been vaccinated on her arm: that was her mother's desire not to have her marked. Her eyes were, I thought, a lovely blue: dark, and when she was angry, they darkened more. She wore her hair up, high and twisted, with a comb in it, and she never did her eyebrows quite right: they were nearly always penciled, I thought, too long. She claimed she could ride a bicycle. We rode one once, and I went into the back of a truck, but that was at the beginning when it was fun on a Sunday to hire a bicycle. She knew a dozen words in French; she had never learned to drive a car; I measured her once, against a wall, kissing her for each twelve inches, and she was five feet, four and a half inches, without her shoes on, or for that matter her stockings either. She had been born in Oak Park, Illinois, during a snowstorm, and she was the only child in the family, and her father had taught mathematics in a public school. Her father was dead now, and her mother had remarried, a man in the produce business, and the child was with them. Once a month she visited them.
O God, she would say, how mixed up I am, aren't I mixed up? Because she wanted everything, and it seemed to her she had nothing. She wanted what was certainly not too much to ask of even a grudging world: a home, another husband, another child. True, the home, when she allowed herself to think of it, was rather modestly imposing, in the suburbs or near the ocean; and true, the husband, when again she would have one, ought to have money, not necessarily too much of it, but in reassuring amounts, for in her first marriage there had been almost no money at all; and the second child, when its small image took shape for her as she lay on the studio couch in her apartment, which now she did more frequently than ever (there seemed at times almost no reason at all to get up and only the telephone still connected her with hope and possibility and a life that existed somewhere outside), was to be a beautiful, talented, charming, healthy, thoroughly wonderful replica of herself. And, of course, to be happy; that was what she wished most for it; not deliriously happy, she was much too realistic, she told herself, to expect that; but happy, quietly happy, beautifully happy, genuinely happy. Wasn't that little enough to ask? A world notoriously ungenerous could hardly refuse her that. The secret was, of course, to extend toward the invisible benefactor always a diffident palm. Besides, she was beautiful. Men, who said almost everything to her, and if she knew them long enough eventually the truth, always said to her that she was beautiful: it was something she remained for them, always, no matter how many other things she stopped being. Then why was everything so difficult? Why did the diffident palm return empty? Why were the alms she asked, the simple alms, refused her? Why, being beautiful, and why, being young, and why, being reasonably faithful and reasonably good and reasonably passionate, was it so hard to gouge out of the reluctant mountain her own small private ingot of happiness?
Excerpted from In Love by Alfred Hayes. Copyright © 1987 Marietta Hayes. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
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