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By Richard Price
Picador Copyright © 1978 Richard Price
All rights reserved.
SO THERE WE WERE. Me, I was doing my usual hundred and fifty sit-ups. My feet were jammed under the couch for leverage and I was holding a five-pound barbell behind my head like an iron halo. La Donna was in her black Danskins sitting by the wall doing dancercizes. I had a stomach that looked like six miniature cobblestones. La Donna was so limber that standing and without bending her knees, she could work her head down between her legs and kiss her own ass. How very nice for the both of us. She was a twenty-eight-year-old bank clerk would-be singer; I was a thirty-year-old door-to-door salesman and we both walked around all day like Back to Bataan.
When I was doing my sit-ups I liked to watch TV — Lucy or Fonzie, whatever reruns I could get a hold of. That was not allowed when La Donna was around. She needed silence to stand there, pull one foot backward, up over her shoulder, and tap the base of her skull with her heel. I could have worked out when she wasn't around, but six weeks before, on a Sunday morning after she finished her dancercizes, she came over to where I was doing sit-ups and just sat on it. There are aborigines in New Guinea who have been squatting by an air strip since 1943 because a plane once landed and dropped off food. Six weeks ain't that long. Meanwhile, if I needed extra money I could do exhibitions, have two-ton semis drive over my stomach at state fairs.
La Donna walked past me on the way to the bathroom, a thumb-pinch of tush peeking out over each thigh. My stomach queered and I couldn't do another sit-up. I lay flat on my back and stared upside-down at the wall unit across the room. I followed her into the bathroom. She was hunched over the sink spitting out toothpaste. I stood behind her, dropped my gym shorts and got into the shower.
"Comin' in, babe?"
She looked up at me with a werewolf froth of toothpaste and spat into the sink again. "I'm gonna work awhile."
The shower curtain had a box design with alternating white and clear plastic squares and I watched her wash her face. When she finished she started to work her dusty black leotard down her shoulders and thumb-hook it below her hips to her knees so she could pee. She had tits the size of fists, hard and muscular with long, rubbery, dark brown nipples. That was unusual because her skin was as pale as dough. She sat on the pot and wiggled her toes which still had weird bumps and corns from when she had been trying to make it as a dancer. I leaned against the wall in my soap overcoat and pulled on myself.
Love. We fought like the U.S. Marines, and the only pleasure we ever got with each other was the hour between the end of a fight and sleep. That was the only time we really talked or fucked. The rest of the time we walked around afraid of each other, not really understanding or appreciating each other; what I found funny she thought pathetic or mean and what she found funny I usually considered a major yawn. I loved good balling and good movies. She was into modern dance and nightclub-type singing.
On the other hand, she had this cute big head with matching big ears. She never smiled and always had an incredible serious look on this outrageous baby face — round, with round gray eyes and a Danish nose, broad but upturned like Hitler intended. But I knew how to get her laughing, and when she did, that serious baby face broke up, went east and west, and she would cover her mouth and touch the tip of her nose with her index finger like a high-class Japanese hooker and she was a kid and she was human and I loved her. She needed me. I knew she needed me. And I wasn't stupid or shallow. I knew all about sexism, and productive relationships and growth, but I'm talking about love. I'm talking about irrational, illogical passion. And you can go to all the forums on meaningful concepts, you can have all the shared interests you want, but the bottom line with what I'm talking about here was how her arms felt wrapped around my neck when she was coming, how she looked at me when I made her laugh. And how I knew she needed me, how I felt in my heart she needed me. The rest was all good and well, but it wasn't from the gut and it wasn't love.
"Kenny? When you come outa there I wanna run down 'Feelings' a few times, okay?"
She got up, flushed, pulled her leotard back up to her hips and left the room. I waited until I was sure she was dressed before I came out of the shower.
"Anytime you're ready, babe." I didn't feel like listening to her sing again, but she had the showcase that night and it was important. She sat cross-legged on the living room floor back against the wall frowning and staring at her nails.
"I wanna wait awhile, Kenny, okay?"
"Sure, you mean like a few minutes?"
"You want some coffee?"
"No thank you."
It was a small apartment and the living room was off limits now. I went into the bedroom and turned on the TV low, but the room was blasted with sunlight and it made me feel like an invalid to have the box on. I turned it off and scanned the titles of books on the shelves. I had a million books. I loved books. My father loved books. I rebrushed my hair in the closet mirror. I could hear La Donna breathing through her nose in the living room. I felt like a big cat in a cage at the zoo. I had taken the goddamn day off to be with her, to be supportive. It was high noon. I couldn't take her goddamn depression, her goddamn isolation. I paced, fists on hips, then walked into the living room ignoring her, snagged a book from the wall unit and returned to the bedroom. She never looked up from her nails. She was frowning so hard her eyebrows were touching. I threw the book on the bed and changed my shirt. She never even thanked me for taking the day off. I didn't make money when I took off. I didn't make money, she didn't take singing lessons. She got paid in peanuts at that bank. After taxes she didn't even have enough money for a 45 let alone singing lessons. And she wasn't very good either. That fucking music teacher Madame Bossanova or whatever the hell her name was told her she was the next Liza Minnelli, but if I stopped forking over for lessons all of a sudden she'd hear the truth from that old Russian cunt, and the truth was that she couldn't goddamn sing. I put on my coat and headed for the door.
"See ya later," I mumbled.
Now she was biting her nails.
I stood by the elevator feeling like a class A pud. Where the hell was I supposed to go? She didn't even ask me when I was coming back, where I was going, nothing.
We lived between Broadway and West End Avenue on Seventy-seventh Street. I walked to the deli on Broadway, sat at a window table and ordered coffee so I could have a few cigarettes. It was a windy sunny nothing of a February Monday. There was nobody out on Broadway except bag ladies and street whacks. In a way it was just as well I took the day off. Door-to-door really bit on a cold day. Fuck the job. That job sucked in any kind of weather. If I had any balls I'd quit, go back to school and get a teaching degree. I'd teach English. Books. Books were bitches. I always had this fantasy of teaching English in some little ivy-covered brick schoolhouse in New England — running down Jack London to all these blond little plumpling dumpling kids. Or it's Halloween and the leaves are turning and I'm sitting up there on my desk reading them The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, or The Monkey's Paw, and maybe some of them have nice, blond, thirtyish divorced mothers and fourposter beds and heavy patchwork quilts and dream on. Maybe next lifetime. I would have been a bitch of a teacher though. I could talk about books like nobody's business. Hemingway, Baldwin, Stephen Crane, Poe, Richard Wright — you name it, I read it, and I could talk your ass off about it too. Talk. Talk, talk, talk. Cold days with nothing to do always brought me down. I liked the night better. It was too dark to notice the weather. I liked night life. I thought of the evening to come and I swallowed a lick of panic. She was going to get butchered. Every Monday night this joint over on the East Side, Fantasia, had an amateur night. First twenty people off the street got ten minutes onstage. If you had talent they invited you back the next week. About one in ten thousand went on to become famous entertainers, but the management milked the legends of those people for all they're worth and every week twenty clowns with dreams of Johnny Carson shows, Vegas and all went onstage and got massacred by audiences who made the Roman Colosseum fans look like humanitarians. And that night one of those clowns was going to be La Donna.
And didn't she know it. She had to know it. I didn't care what her goddamn singing teacher told her, she had ears, she was intelligent. I thought of her sitting in the apartment staring at her nails. She knew it. And I knew me. I wasn't going to say dick. I couldn't. In the beginning we could say anything to each other, but now it was too dangerous; if we started cracking on each other with truths at this point we would inevitably get to the bottom truth, which was that we had no damn right being together anymore, and I for one was scared to death of the alternatives. So I settled for the bullshit low-key rage of two people going through the motions of a relationship, a life; and I would let her humiliate herself at Fantasia in the name of not rocking the boat even though the boat was capsizing fast, and I would even have the stones to call it being supportive.
"Kenny? When I finish I want you to tell me if I look better if I bow my head" — she slowly dropped her chin to her chest — "or if I should just close my eyes and keep my head up. Please don't smoke."
I ditched my cigarette and spread my arms across the top of the couch. La Donna stood five feet in front of me.
"Feee-lings, no-thing more than ... fee-lings, try-ing to forget ... my fee-lings of loove ..."
She was bad. Not real bad; she could carry a tune, but every note bordered on clinking. And she was standing in front of me as if she were singing in the front row of an Episcopalian choir. No movement from the neck down. She wouldn't look at me. She was singing to some point three feet over my head.
"Fee-lings, Wo wo wo feee-lings, Wo wo wo fee-lings ..." She ended with her chin slightly upturned and eyes closed as if waiting for a kiss on the forehead.
"That's nice, baby. I like that better with the eyes closed. Just relax a little more and you'll be outa sight." I reached for another cigarette, then stopped myself. La Donna stood there, hands on hips, nervously chewing off shreds of dead skin on her lower lip. She was staring in my direction but her eyes were glassy with thought.
"Okay." Her eyes were still unfocused. "I wanna run it through once with the Spanish lyrics."
"Fire away, kid."
"La Di?" She was in the shower and I poked my head into the bathroom and stared at the floor. "What time that guy say to get there?"
"Five, but I wanna get there at four. What time's it now?"
"It's three now," I warned.
"Oh Christ," she said through clenched teeth.
I went into the living room and started flipping through the records. I pulled out Cabaret and put on "Tomorrow Belongs to Me." When I saw the movie all those cute little Nazis singing in the beer garden had made me cry. I wasn't into Nazis or anything, there was just something beautiful about that scene that got to me. I always felt a mixture of pity and envy for kids. Childhood was hell, but I swear I'd give anything to start all over again.
"Pleeze don't play music." La Donna was dripping nude at the far end of the living room. "You ... know ... what ... other ... music ... does ... to ... my ... concentration." She sounded like she was trying not to lose her patience with a retard, her eyes wide with anger, her hair plastered with water over her left tit. I didn't move. If I told her she was beautiful, that I wanted to ball, make love, whatever, it would be my death by radiation. I didn't move for a few seconds until she realized I was defying her. It was like Russian roulette. Maybe I wasn't horny after all, just thrill crazy.
We arrived at Fantasia just about four o'clock. The sun had begun to go down about three and it was as cold as a snowball's ass. Even though they didn't take sign-ups until five there were already about ten of us yo-yos in what looked like a bread line. Everybody was hunched down into winter coats, hands in pockets, faces pinched in pain. We got on the end and watched everybody on Third Avenue watch us. La Donna was wearing a big fur coat and too much make-up. She held a manila folder between her elbow and ribs containing a 8-by-10-inch studio picture of her dressed in a Suzie Wong side-slit number with LA DONNA printed below the photograph in bamboo letters. She also had a letter of recommendation from Tony Randall, the story behind which kept changing every time I heard it.
"Well, you know, if you don't believe in yourself, if you don't have confidence in yourself, nobody else will."
"Oh, I have confidence in myself."
Some black kid standing in front of us in aviator glasses and a long coat with a fake fur collar was lecturing to a blond chubby teen-ager carrying sheet music for "September Song."
"I believe in myself. I really do." The blond kid sounded like he was trying to convince the jury. The black kid seemed skeptical, arching his eyebrows with self-importance like He Really had self-confidence. I slipped my hand under La Donna's collar, grabbing the nape of her neck. "You got self-confidence?"
She hissed and turned her head away. No sense of humor.
"I'm gonna smoke, okay?"
"I'm not your mother," she said, still looking away.
I dropped my hand from her neck.
"Why don't you get fuckin' Tony Randall to stand on line with you?" That I muttered to myself.
In front of the two kids, an older guy in a gravy-colored raincoat was leaning against the building. He was short, fiftyish, blubberized and toupeed. His nervous darting walleyes made Peter Lorre look like a squinter. Every time a cab honked he started blinking in spasms. In front of him, two other guys were talking. One guy was tall, dressed in baggy chinos and a lightweight dungaree jacket. He had the longest, pointiest head I'd ever seen; it was shaped like a slip-on pencil eraser. His hairline began a good two inches above his temple as if his hair had been glopped on like whipped cream on Jell-O. He wore bottle-bottom glasses, the heavy black frames held together with rubber bands at the joints, and his elevator forehead was sprinkled with pimples. The guy he was talking to looked like Rasputin's dwarf — a Mad Russian. About five feet even, scrawny, dressed in a pea coat, he was balding but combed his hair forward in sparse bangs over his eyes like Moe of the Three Stooges. He held one arm across his gut supporting the elbow of the other arm, which was slowly stroking a goatee that looked more like a collection of long chin hairs than a beard. As the guy with the glasses talked, the Mad Russian kept massaging his chin and staring up at him with hungry gleaming eyes as if trying to figure out how to knock out that big turkey so he could cook him in a pot.
"I — I feel kinda good today." He had a meek voice. "I wrote a new joke. My cousin is so dumb" — he pushed his glasses up his nose — "my cousin's so dumb he had to take a color-by-number course in graffiti."
The Mad Russian didn't laugh, only smiled wolfishly licking his lips and rhythmically tugging his chin hairs.
The comic shrugged, embarrassed. "I don't know, I kinda like it, and I also picked up this." He took a switchblade out of his back pocket, shook it in front of his face and out snapped a comb. The fat popeyed guy jumped, but nobody noticed. He started combing his bird's nest as if to illustrate further that it really wasn't a knife.
La Donna stared at all of them, horrified and ashamed. She looked like she was ready to walk. I felt sorry for her and put my hand on the back of her neck again, but she shook if off. A heftylooking Jewish chick emerged from a taxi, shouted at the taxi driver, "Remember, twelve noon New Year's Eve nineteen seventy-nine behind the soccer stadium in Istanbul. Be there!" and ran across the sidewalk to the end of the line, which was us. She briskly rubbed her hands and made a loud brrr sound. "This train go straight out to Montauk, or do I have to change at Babylon?"
La Donna looked away like don't fuckin' bother me. I smiled, jammed for a comeback line. La Donna's rudeness pissed me off to no end. I could never stand people who couldn't even transcend their own shit, just for the sake of politeness if nothing else.
Excerpted from Ladies' Man by Richard Price. Copyright © 1978 Richard Price. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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