Me and the Devilby Nick Tosches
A raw and blazing novel by "the single, most brain-searingly dangerous man of letters. Read him at your peril." (Anthony Bourdain)
An aging New Yorker, a writer named Nick, feels life ebbing out of him. The world has gone to hell and Nick is so sick of it all that he can't even have a glass of champagne. Then one night he meets a tantalizing young woman/b>… See more details below
A raw and blazing novel by "the single, most brain-searingly dangerous man of letters. Read him at your peril." (Anthony Bourdain)
An aging New Yorker, a writer named Nick, feels life ebbing out of him. The world has gone to hell and Nick is so sick of it all that he can't even have a glass of champagne. Then one night he meets a tantalizing young woman who agrees to come back to his apartment. Their encounter is the most strangely extraordinary of his life. Propelled by uncontrollable, primordial desires, he enters a new and unimagined dimension of the forbidden and is filled with a sexual and spiritual ecstasy that is as intense as it is unholy.
Suddenly Nick's senses are alive. He feels strong, unconquerable, beyond all inhibition and earthly morality. He indulges in life's pleasures, pure and perverse, sublime and dangerous, from the delicate flavors of the perfect tomato to the fleshy beauty of a woman's thigh. But Nick's desire to sustain his rapture leads him to a madness and a darkness far greater and dreadful than have ever ridden the demon mares of night.
Writing in a lineage that includes Dante, William S. Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Hubert Selby, Jr., and Hunter S. Thompson, Nick Tosches may be America's last real literary outlaw-a fearless, uncensorable seeker of our deepest secret truths and desires, from the basest to the most beautiful. Me and the Devil is outrageous, disturbing, and brilliant, a raw and blazing novel truly unlike any other. Like the man said: Read him at your peril.
Words and wisdom that I shall carry with me into the fucking dirt."Johnny Depp"
If there was ever any doubt that Nick Tosches is the Dark Prince of literary fiction, Me and the Devil should settle the matter. The single, most brain-searingly dangerous man of letters. Read him at your peril."Anthony Bourdain"
A dark narrative that cleverly blurs the lines between reality and fantasy....Tosches takes readers on an unpredictable journey through disturbing and erotic desires ....excellent."Booklist"
By turns profane, obscene, perhaps even blasphemous, Tosches's fictional account of 'the most diabolically fucked-up year of my life' is like a cross between William S. Burroughs and J.K. Huysmans."Ron Hogan, Shelf Awareness Pro"
Tosches has created an erotic asphalt odyssey that takes him on a subcutaneous awakening, drifting through a world of hallucinations, dark secrets and dangerous desires."Peter Wolf"
During his long career, Toshces has earned a reputation as a writer who doesn't mess around....Me and the Devil is Tosches touching his outer limits. It's a compulsively readable tale of sadomasochistic obsession and Faustian misbehavior: a meta-rumination on aging, sex, and the nature of art."Tony O'Neill, BlackBook"
Another chapter in Tosches's unflinchingly perverse literary output."The New Yorker
- Little, Brown and Company
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.60(d)
Meet the Author
Nick Tosches is uniquely acquainted with the half-lit New York world in which this novel is set. He is the author of three previous novels, In the Hands of Dante, Cut Numbers, and Trinities. His nonfiction works include Where Dead Voices Gather, The Devil and Sonny Liston, Dino, Power on Earth, Hellfire, Country, and Unsung Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll. He lives in New York City.
- New York, New York
- Date of Birth:
- Place of Birth:
- Newark, New Jersey
- High school
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Read an Excerpt
Me and the DevilA Novel
By Nick Tosches
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2012 Nick Tosches
All right reserved.
THE PAST IS A VERY BAD PLACE. IT IS NOT GOOD TO GO there. Not alone. Not like this. “Take a deep breath.” They’re always telling me to take a deep breath. But that deep breath does not come.
Somewhere along the line, something went wrong.
These words were supposed to have led to more words, to the beginning of what I cannot bring myself to tell.
Now, having got up, poured myself a drink, lit a cigarette, and stood awhile at the window—seeing night and rain, feeling nothing—I look at those words and realize that I’ve just written my autobiography, the story of my life. From beginning to end, that’s it. Somewhere along the line, something went wrong. There’s really nothing more to it than that.
But that’s the easy way out, the easy way out of saying what I cannot bring myself to say. Yes, a lot went wrong. There were a lot of wrong turns. But this one. This one.
Let me drink.
The label on this bottle has a lot of words on it. Some of them are invisible: lies, truth, destiny, darkness, loss, shame, guilt, the sound and fury of the idiot’s every delusion, sickness unto death of body and of soul. And courage for the coward. I have read and retched them all, these hidden things upon that label. They define what is in the bottle, and what is within me.
Courage for the coward. Yes, let me drink, so that I can say what I cannot. Even if in the end I let the flames consume it, and can then return quietly to my lies. This thought goes well with that coward’s courage that I seek.
But can there be any returning? Any returning to anything? Now? From here, from this final somewhere? This final somewhere of endless wrong somethings and endless wrong turns?
Enough. Just drink. There, yes, that’s better, that’s it. Just drink and the words will come.
IT’S THAT THING WITH THE MONKEYS. THOSE MONKEYS, THOSE dead monkeys, haunting me for all those years, and me not knowing why.
Just the other day I was sitting on the bench outside the joint on Reade Street. Not on a barstool inside the joint, but on the bench outside the joint, not drinking. I mean a coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts, that’s what I was drinking. I was just sitting there, with that coffee and a smoke, looking into the clear blue morning sky. Looking for a way out.
“Here’s for the guys that never came back.”
My eyes moved from the sky to where the voice came from. Him again. Some stumblebum who passed this way every once in awhile. He was standing there, drunk and weaving, looking like shit.
“You know what I mean. You were there,” he said as he poured some of the cheap whiskey from the pint bottle in his hand onto the pavement. This wasn’t like a capful on the sidewalk for the boys upstate. It was spillage.
“Don’t waste booze like that, you stupid fuck,” I told him.
“We were there. We know,” he rasped.
He was never there, I figured. He was full of shit.
“What was your MOS?” I asked him. Everybody had an MOS. Mine had been 2531, Ground Radio Operator.
“Communications is the voice of command.” That’s what that fucking CO said. That’s what he was supposed to say, but he said it as if he believed it. Worse: as if we were supposed to believe it, and that it was supposed to make our chests swell with pride. Sitting there nodding out in the middle of nowhere, conveying coordinates between one jackass and another on a nigger-rigged Prick-25. The voice of command.
Yeah, that’s what I was fighting for. That’s what I was defending. The American Way. Freedom of speech. But you couldn’t use that word anymore. Shouldn’t use it. No. The “n-word.” Nigger-rigged. It was probably the one indispensable technological term in the Local 79 lexicon. Verboten.
It was all bullshit. But everybody had a Military Occupational Specialty number. I was somehow sure that this bum didn’t even know what an MOS was. He looked at me, wove closer to me with that pint in his hand, grinned a big, drunken grin, baring dirty gums and a few dirty teeth. A mouth even worse than mine.
“If I told you, I’d have to kill ya,” he said, hoarse with booze and bullshit, then laughed a laugh that was hoarse with booze and bullshit.
He didn’t know what an MOS was. He didn’t know that it was just a stupid fucking number for a stupid fucking asshole. I just turned away from him, and he saddened, took a swig from that cheap pint, and staggered away.
But the damage was done. He had brought back the monkeys. In the middle of all I was already going through, this fucking pain-in-the-ass, full-of-shit drunken bum had brought back those dead monkeys.
The Northern I Corps. The border of the DMZ, that stupid five-mile swath. The Dead Marine Zone, we called it. One day, atop a hill, I was standing around doing nothing. That was really my specialty, doing nothing, but there was no MOS for that. I was just watching the bulldozers, encircled by a bunch of artillery idiots—grunts, the lowest MOS, riflemen—raze the ground on the top of the hill to level it into a landing zone for helicopters. I walked off into the jungle to smoke a joint, hoping I might run into somebody with some smack.
The jungle was getting more and more bare and barren every day. That shit from those helicopters worked.
I was out a way when I saw them. These weren’t just a bunch of dead monkeys. I had seen dead men, paused awhile to look at them, moved on, and forgot about them. But something about these monkeys affected me as nothing else ever had. It was beyond my understanding. I just stood there, transfixed, as a strange sort of horror overtook me; and breath must have stopped, or faltered, for the next heartbeat I felt came deep, hard, sudden, resounded within me, and shook my nerves with an inexplicable sense of vague, terrible presentiment.
Many years passed before I realized what I’d foreseen in those dead monkeys, and what about them had stopped, chilled, and seized me so. It was me that I saw. Me, my future, and my fate.
Those monkeys clung to one another in the throes of desperation, the throes of death. It was my end, your end, the common end of us all. Though the horror and haunting of those monkeys shot immediately into me and remained with me, only as age crept through me and over me did I come to see this and feel it full.
I was closer now in years to death than to youth, and I was desperate to cling to another. I felt it long before I knew it for what it was and could express it: the desire for mortal communion with the body and soul of one still in the flush of what had ebbed and was now lost to me.
It creeps into us, this desperation, without our being quite aware of its nature, when we enter our fifth decade of life. If we are fortunate enough to enter our seventh decade, its nature is clear to us. But society, thoughts of moral judgment, a sense of shame, even fear of public damnation and prison restrain us, and the growing compulsion devours most of us unslaked as we wend our way from life in silence and secrecy to our common end. Most of us. But I would not be one of them.
I felt more than thought that if I could not have youth again, I could at least slake myself in new life. Sustenance, moisture, deliverance.
If I could not bear the truth, I could at least close my eyes in the comfort of a lie.
MOST MEN BELIEVE THEIR LIVES TO BE SOMEHOW distinguished from the rest. But their lives hold as little interest as they do meaning, and are worthy only of being extinguished. As a writer I have encountered more of these men than I care to remember, indeed than I can remember. Though they do not read, except perhaps to graze on the mulch of an ill-written tabloid or the drivel on a handheld device or computer screen, they feel that writers might somehow be drawn to their drab and dreary tales of sameness. It is hard to escape them. They know nothing, least of all themselves. They go from cradle to grave seeking something. What they seek means as little to me as they do. They are a source of tedium and acid reflux, nothing more.
Do not think that I am setting writers apart from this majority. Most of them, in fact, belong to it. But they are not writers to be read, or countenanced.
I myself did not read much anymore. And I wrote even less. In fact, I had not written a book in years. Nothing seemed to matter. I felt that there was nothing left to write. I was a poet without pen or drum. Approaching a blank page, or even thinking of doing so, I felt disoriented and abstracted and my nerves went raw. Again and again I swore that I would stop drinking and resume writing. Again and again I drank. And when I did not, I sat and drank coffee and smoked and withdrew into myself. Yet I still called myself a writer when asked what I did for a living. Maybe I still thought like a writer. Or maybe, as George Orwell said, all writers are vain, selfish, and lazy.
“Writing a book,” he said, “is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.” Perhaps I had lost my demon. Perhaps other demons had overtaken it. Then again, Orwell wrote those words when he was in his early forties, and he lived to be only forty-six.
Exceptional men do not hold their experiences to be out of the ordinary or of interest to anyone else. Unlike the trodden fungus-men, they are not so ignorantly and presumptuously self-absorbed. They are nobody and they know it. They shun notice. They are exceedingly rare.
All in the way of saying that people are often drawn to writers. Not so much as to buy or read what they write, but simply as bothersome parasites. If you’re not careful, they will drain you dry.
Women are not so bad as men in this regard. Still they too are drawn to writers, if only because this solitary and distressed way to make a living seems to them for some reason, or lack of reason, more alluring and more attractive than the usual occupations professed in bars.
And in bars, behind a mask that hides hatred or jealousy or fear or the unspeakable, everyone thinks he, or she, knows you, as you think you know them.
Where they knew me, where they thought they knew me, they came near, to drain what they thought to be my life force, or to cough up the dregs of their own on me. I was anathema, accursed and consecrated. Yes. They came near. It was easy.
We were all monkeys about to die. I did not want to die.
Though my inchoate and unclear desires carried the air of the forbidden, they stirred in me something like what I remembered the commingled feelings of love and lust to be.
THE OLDER WE GET, THE MORE THE GHOSTS CROWD AND claim us. Death does not deter the dead from living on within us and around us. We are under their spell. The world becomes irrevocably haunted.
It was she who spoke to me. I don’t know why. I was old. My looks were long gone. Maybe it was because I did not speak to her. I was quiet. One of the fungus-men was trying to talk her up, and she escaped by turning to me and smiling. Some girls liked those guys. Girls seeking attention. Seeking their fathers. Those guys fell for it, bought them drinks, got suckered in.
All I had seen was her long blond hair. Now I saw a face and a smile, and I liked what I saw. I deliberated for a moment on what I should say to her to set me apart from the others in that half-lighted barroom.
I could not see her legs, but her breasts in her pale blue cashmere sweater seemed modest. This was good. No woman with large breasts has comely legs. I wondered if the cuffs matched the collar. She looked like a real blonde. But I was drunk, even if only I knew it. I wanted to bury my face between her legs. I could tell if the cuffs matched the collar, I could tell if she was a natural blonde by the feel of the hair between her legs, how soft it was or was not on my lips. Even drunk. Even in the dark.
Better not to make too much sense at first. Better to lure her with a gleam of inscrutability. Something that could be taken by her to mean and pertain to whatever she fancied.
“Thenceforth evil became my good,” I said, hoping that the hair between her legs was cornsilk blond and that she did not shave it.
“Where’d that come from?” she asked. Her smile curled a bit and her blue eyes brightened.
“Milton. Paradise Lost,” I lied. Milton said something like it, but he never said that. Maybe it was Mary Shelley. No matter. Better to quote Milton, even if it was a fabricated quotation. Had she ever heard of Milton? If she hadn’t, maybe she had heard of his big fat poem. As I said, I was drunk. “The words of Satan,” I added, returning to my drink.
“I think I read that in high school,” she said. I figured that she was lying too. That was good. I wasn’t expecting what she said next.
“Are you a Miltonist or a Satanist?”
“Neither,” I said. “I’m just an old, old man trying to live while I can.” Lefty Frizzell said that, or something like it; but she didn’t ask.
I made love to her in my way later that night. An old man and a young woman who was to me little more than a child. It was not what I wanted. It felt good for a moment, then left me feeling emptier and more alone than I had felt before her smile and our desultory lies.
“How long is your refractory period?” she asked, with a giggle and a purr.
“Forever,” I said. “Forever.”
The shades of the night were endless. Maybe it was the booze, I told myself. But I had only been drinking beer. Maybe it was the beer, I told myself. But I knew that it was not. I had entered her, but she had not entered me. There had been no slaking. I had breathed no new life. Sustenance, moisture, deliverance were not mine.
The blond hair was real. My hands shook the next morning after she left. I have to stop drinking, I muttered aloud. I managed to make a cup of coffee and I sat there with it, smoking one cigarette after another. My stare was vacant, as if in mourning for myself. The last time I raised the cup to my lips, the coffee was cold. I took a Valium and exhaled. I do not remember her name.
A few nights later I was sitting at the bar at Circa Tabac with a vodka and soda and a smoke. My buddy Lee, who runs the place, sat down next to me with that inscrutable grin of his on his face.
“Happy Candlemas,” I said.
“Is today Candlemas?” he said. “I thought it was Groundhog Day. What’s Candlemas?”
“The Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary. Something like that. Lots of candles.”
“Yeah? What do I know? I’m a Jew, and I don’t even know Jew holidays.”
“Also the first of the four traditional witches’ Sabbaths of the year.” I drank and drew smoke. “What I want to know is: how did Candlemas become the witches’ Sabbath, and how did the witches’ Sabbath become Groundhog Day?”
“It’s when the groundhog comes out of its hole.”
“I don’t know.” He drank and drew smoke. “You writing these days?”
“How are the girls treating you?”
My reaction was spontaneous. I don’t know what my face looked like, but I think I uttered “Oh, God” and managed a laugh that ended in earnest with the words “It’s sad” and a sound of a different kind.
At this he in turn managed a laugh.
That was the night I met her, right there at that bar on Watts Street. Her name was Sandrine, and she liked to be raped after bathing in warm water and milk and brushing out her hair. She was in her early twenties. If she had told me she was seventeen, I would have believed her. Maybe she was. I had not been with a redhead, not such a pretty one, in a long, long time.
I HAD NEVER READ ANY OF THE BOOKS, BUT I GOT A KICK OUT of the old movies. Bela Lugosi was a hoot.
I read a biography of him once. The only thing I remember from it is his craving toward the end of his days for a kind of oily peppery paprika bread that he had longed for since leaving Hungary. I remember this because I’ve been craving a kind of oily peppery paprika bread that a few of the old Italian-Albanian women in my boyhood neighborhood made in their black cast-iron ovens. I’m pretty sure it was called zallia, or something like that. The recipe seems to have died with the last of them, as I haven’t been able to find it again in more than forty years of searching, and I’m beginning to feel that I never will. What they called tarallia, pretzel-shaped anise bread, I’ve found a lackluster echo of in taralli. And what was called—though the final vowels were never pronounced—culliaccia, the rich, buttery egg bread they made in glazed braided rings, I’ve found a more distant approximation of in what has been served to me as a dismal confection called Italian egg bread. But zallia remains a maddeningly tantalizing memory. When I read about the bread the Hungarian actor so longed for, I was sure it was pretty much the same thing; and in time all I retained from the story of his life was the mention of that bread.
In the pictures, they don’t eat. And the mere sight of garlic can bring about a seizure. They react worse than a WASP schoolgirl to it. It’s ridiculous, not only to a wop but probably to Hungarians and Romanians too. Italy isn’t the only place in Europe where they’re big on garlic soup.
And what is this malarkey about the light of day? Are they all supposed to be independently wealthy? No nine-to-five working stiffs? It’s like the nonsense about the cross. And wouldn’t a stake through the heart do in just about anybody? I mean, come on. Think about it. Not at all afraid of rats, mind you; but afraid of garlic, daylight, and crosses. Who came up with this stuff?
I really get a kick out of the fangs. Hell, between Sandrine and the next of the four witches’ Sabbaths, May Eve—yes, I’ve observed only pagan holy days, from Christmas and Easter to the four Sabbaths, for a long, long time—I had nine teeth pulled on a single day, and another had worked itself out of the gum on a day soon thereafter. As I had already lost a bunch of teeth before these ten, I was left practically toothless, with a loose, unsure contraption of plastic and wire to make do in my mouth.
How those guys on Bedford Street, on Sullivan Street, on Thompson Street shook their heads and laughed low and down at those Mafia pictures. A ban on dope dealing, mother love, a code of honor. Same thing. Garlic, light, crosses, and fangs.
It’s not like that. It’s not like that at all. Nowhere but in truth will you find the truth.
WHEN I BIT INTO SANDRINE’S THIGH WITH MY mouthful of plastic, wire, and the few real teeth that still cut, her moan turned to a jagged scream that slashed the night, and her scream turned to a wild sigh that was deep as the sea.
I tasted her blood in my mouth. It could not have been more than a few drops, a thin trickle, but it was as if I suckled on her very soul and the inmost mystery of her. That taste and the sweet taste of her flesh, soft and young, in my mouth were one; and the sound, which seemed to come from a distance, dreamlike and timbrous, of her surrender and her giving was a beckoning to enter more deeply into the strange black forest of lust on the edge of which we trembled.
She was mine, I was hers. We seemed to merge, I into her, she into me. I clung, quenching my tongue in the sweat and blood of her thigh. Sustenance, moisture, deliverance. I was lost, beautifully lost, breathing and feeling as I had never felt before.
I opened her lips with mine and had her taste what I had tasted, the taste of what she had given me, of what I had taken. We kissed gently. I collapsed, falling into a sleep without dreams, a sleep without hauntings, aware of nothing but a vague and comforting sense of enchantment.
This sublime feeling lingered when I woke. We did not talk about what transpired. Her presence was with me long after she left. I went more than a week without drinking. Then I returned to the bar where we had met. She was not there. I asked Lee if he had seen her. He told me that he had never seen her before and he had not seen her since.
I went home alone that night, not really drunk but feeling the old loneliness welling up in me.
She returned there a few nights later. I brought her home with me, but it was not the same. She seemed to regard me as a danger, as one who knew something unutterable about her, and it was as if the possibility that I might utter the unutterable put her on edge and made her ill at ease. I was not with the girl who surrendered and gave, the girl who had gone to heaven and hell when I broke her skin. No. I was with the girl who liked to be raped after bathing in warm water and milk and brushing out her hair. It was then that I knew her to be troubled. It was then that I knew her mind was not right. In the morning, when I walked her to the door and kissed her good-bye, she lowered her head and turned away and began to silently weep.
She had surrendered and given the heart of her youth to something far worse than I, who had taken her but for a single earthly night. She had chosen hell over heaven long before that night, and that night had not cured her.
We were to meet again.
IT IS ALWAYS EASIER TO SEE IN ANOTHER WHAT WE ARE uncomfortable with in ourselves. A few days after my second encounter with Sandrine, it struck me that when I felt that I was looking into her heart I was really looking into my own.
The blonde whose cuffs matched her collar had been the first woman with whom I’d had old-fashioned, missionary-style sex in a very long time. It had been years. I had grown jaded. My sex drive had evanesced and with it my virility. I looked like a man but I was not.
Once upon a time I had known the heat of passion every day and every night. The combustions of sensuality consumed me. Now there were only passing moments of lukewarm velleity. The prospect of being close to a woman, to anyone, repelled me. I could no longer bear a human touch without recoiling. Maybe this is what disturbed and haunted me about the prophecy of those dead monkeys. They had foretold not only my fate but my escape from it as well: an escape that involved the closeness to another of which I was ever more incapable. They had seemed to present a choice, unclear and unknown, between one terror and another. The terror had increased through recent years, as I grew more bound to the loneliness and desperation of my descending darkness and at the same time more loath to caress or be caressed by another.
I had embraced the blonde in my drunkenness. It had always been this way. Alcohol enabled me to do what I otherwise could not. The many lovers, remembered and forgotten, I had known in younger years were as much a part of my drinking life as of my love life. At times those lives seemed inseparable.
Why were they attracted to me? Not the women of my past. The blonde and Sandrine. What had possibly moved them? They were young and it was a young man’s world. I was a toothless wraith of a man that once had been. It was not what they saw, I concluded, it was what they sensed. Was it a certain world-weariness that I evinced? The unrevealing nuances of a perverse vestigial cupidity? The hint of what they had never experienced? All of these, none of these? What beguiled them? Was the answer as elusive and ultimately unknowable as the parts of their souls that lay hidden to themselves?
Maybe I was different after all. They—the great royal they, who spoke from on high—had told me throughout my life that I was different. Maybe I had always been different. Not better. Maybe even worse. But different.
It mattered only that they were drawn to me. As empty and forlorn as I had been left by my night with the blonde, it brought back to me, I later realized, something of old, forsaken confidence, even of old, forsaken courage. Were it not for the blonde, there would not have been my night with Sandrine. Were it not for Sandrine, I would not have had my first lovely taste of what, as I clung to her and drew her into me, felt like deliverance. I had judged her to be a troubled soul. I would have judged Saint Teresa in her ecstasy to be the same.
Troubled souls or divine. Who was I to judge, and what did it matter? It mattered only, I told myself again, that they were drawn to me. And as they had been drawn, I now had no doubt, there would be others. Lost souls or holy intercessors, there would be others. All I had to do was lead them, go together with them, to where no one could go alone.
It was not sex that I sought, not as it was commonly conceived. I sought communion, sacrament, transubstantiation, the blood that brought redemption.
Sandrine had placed magic in my hand, in my mouth. It was the magic of herself, and it was mine. It felt good to be awakened, to be thrilled once again, like a child experiencing his first inkling of the illimitable.
The monkeys no longer anguished me. They became instead an inner sophia, an image of perception and veneration painted in indelible hues in my mind. They are sacred to me. They brought me to new life.
I would go headlong into the promise of this new life. This was not a conscious decision. There was no thought or deliberation. The momentum of exhilaration simply took me.
THE PART OF DOWNTOWN MANHATTAN WHERE I LIVE WAS once the quietest, least traveled, and most sparsely occupied area in town. Its stately old brick buildings, many of them dating from the middle of the nineteenth century, were from an era when buildings were built to last. The stonework of window arches and the loading platforms of warehouses, the narrow cobblestone streets and small shops evoked the atmosphere of a bygone New York. It was a place of lovely days and enticing hushed nights. The balmy summer breezes and brisk winter winds that wound through it from the Hudson were like familiar spirits that caused leaves, panes, and shadows to tremble in the lush silence. It was easy to imagine the elderly Thomas Paine idling here amid others to witness the hanging of a murderer, on the corner of Leonard Street and Broadway, as he did one day in the spring of 1804. Easy to imagine butter and egg traders still bustling within the old red-brick Mercantile Exchange, as they did a century ago and more, near to a Bayer heroin warehouse on Harrison Street. The bar I haunted occupied the ground floor of a three-story building that had been put up in 1852.
It was a wonderful neighborhood, a neighborhood of seclusion and friendly encounters and whispers, welcoming byways and odd purchases, peace and quiet, cosseting charm, and open skies above gables, chimneys, and trees.
Then, some years ago, in the closing decade of the last millennium, everything began to change. At first the change was slow and subtle, barely noticeable. By the time it was perceived, it was too late. What had lingered on, so rare and so precious and so different for so long, was gone forever. New, ugly buildings of glass, metal, and cheap fabrication belittled the old structures and obscured the sky. I lived now in a valley of eternal scaffolding. Years before I had slept on my fire escape, rising with the soft light and stirrings of early morning. Now the night was a glare of artificial lighting and a blare of industrial clamor. Through the window that opened to the fire escape where I had slept so soundly, I now saw scaffolding that advertised Warburg Realty, where “Tribeca’s cobblestone streets meet the information highway.” The old and real cobblestone street beneath my window had been torn up and repaved with a new, quainter-looking surface: a stupid project that had brought with it a year of deafening noise. Forget about the sweet open-air sleep on the fire escape outside my bedroom window, back when an old florist had occupied the corner where Warburg now kept its windows brightly lighted all night. I now needed a blackout shade on the window just to sleep in my bed.
The whispering peace of the place vanished amid the obliterating noises of traffic, construction, demolition, street renovation, and above all and most abhorrent, the crowds that infested the place, blocking the narrow sidewalks with their twin baby carriages and strollers, whining shrilly into mobile telephones, professing a love for what had been as they ran amok and destroyed it.
Why had they come here? Because they read that it was the place to live. The school was good. Property values were rising. It was safe. It was a good investment. It was the perfect place to raise a family. So they came, and so they overcrowded the school, created a real estate bubble, attracted crime, caused inflation, shoved aside those who had been here before them, and remade the neighborhood in their own image, trumpeting their obstreperous entitlement over the vanishing remains of what had been and was no more.
Who were they? Emigrants from the Upper East Side. The rich white trash of Europe and Asia. Wall Street thieves. Speculators. Yuppies. The scum of New York and of the earth. I was becoming a racist. I was coming to hate white people. These white people.
I had seen their spawn grow into adolescent blobs of medicated hyperactive protoplasm. I had seen those blobs of adolescent protoplasm grow into the manic dusk of their teenage years, scorched, undone, and broken apart by privilege, free money, alienation, disorders of the mind, and congenital enfeeblement.
The doomed soul whom Thomas Paine had watched hang had comported himself tranquilly, attaching the gallows rope around his own neck to the crosspiece above. Not so these uneasy children of the damned, these blood blisters of entitlement and dejection.
I was surrounded by susceptible, impressionable lost young girls. Surely the magic in my hand and my mouth would not fail to bring longed-for grace to these trembling lambs. Even if they did not know it, they wanted me as I wanted them, needed me as I needed them.
It was better, however, to hunt elsewhere, was it not? The Lower East Side and other old pockets of character had also fallen, or were falling, to nothingness. Yes, better to hunt elsewhere, away from the eyes and tongues of these girls’ parents and guardians. Such girls, after all, were everywhere in this fallen city, in these fallen days.
I thought of the girl-child, maybe sixteen, whom I had seen masturbating one morning, her eyes tightly shut, rubbing herself into a frenzy on the narrow arm of a bench in the little park nearby. (I had stopped watching her when two sanitation men, on their way to the bar, paused to watch.) I thought of the girl who offered me money to take her half-finished container of coffee into the bar and have it filled with liquor for her. I thought of the girl, thin and pale and hithering, who wore sheer black hosiery under the hiked-up plaid of her school skirt. I thought of the girl, a wisp older (the bars served her), who sang for me on a sultry late summer night but had never heard of Billie Holiday or the Jaynetts. I thought of the girl who asked me for a cigarette and smelled like freesia and dew when she drew close to the flame of my lighter. I thought of all the errant daughters, in their distress and in their dangerous desire. I thought of the blood like rainy lace on Sandrine’s thigh, transposed to their thighs. I thought of many things.
IT WAS A TERRIBLE WINTER, THAT WINTER OF TWO YEARS PAST, that winter of my first, tentative steps into the passage of my resurrection. Frigid winds brought a barrage of storms, one fast after another. Icy sleet and rain transformed the deep snows into a treacherous mess of filthy black ice and slush that covered streets, pavements, gutters, garbage. Insalubrious gales of cold, humid air blew and slashed almost relentlessly, making the temperatures, which were most of the time below freezing, seem even worse. It went on for months without respite.
I did not succeed in my pursuit of the young flesh that I craved. Oh, they were young, yes, the girls I brought home those biting winter nights. But they were not virgin temptresses. They were in their twenties, even their thirties, and, on at least one occasion, over forty. It struck me that the younger these women were, the more willing, even eager, they were to indulge me as I descended on them—always gently at first, then letting my hunger lead me—to execute the rite of the dead monkeys, to cling to them, to revel in the taste and feel of their sweet thighs, to break open their skin and dainty tendril-like vessels, and to lovingly exsanguinate with my mouth the drops of their essence.
Yes, the younger they were, the more willing they were. I would have thought the opposite to be true. I would have ventured that the older and more experienced they were, the more ready they would be to experiment and accept. It was a pleasant revelation, what I learned from my encounters with these six or seven women over the course of that stormy winter.
I did succeed in finding my path to sobriety. The sense of new life I was beginning to feel, and the exhilaration it brought, were such that I wanted to be sober, I needed to be sober, because I wanted and needed to be fully there for these blessings. There could be no other way. Light now shone in the great cathedral of melancholy. It was as simple as that.
It wasn’t easy. I recalled my father, lying in a hospital bed, telling me that he had been drunk since he was nineteen and that he was never going to drink again. At the time he was a few years older than I am now. They let him out of the hospital a few days later, and a few hours after that he was back in the bar drinking. I was not him, I told myself. I may have been like him in some ways, but I was not him.
For three or four days it was pretty bad. There were slight sudden seizures. I did not suffer delirium tremens, which I had in the past during severe spells of alcohol poisoning. But with every breath or abrupt frightened gasp my racing heart, mind, and nerves screamed with urgency for a drink. I put off taking that drink from one moment to the next, then from one hour to the next. Finally I slept. It was a troubled, nightmarish sleep, and I woke from it in a cold sweat. But it was sleep nonetheless. Finally I ate. A couple of runny soft-scrambled eggs, lightly toasted white bread with butter, a glass of milk. But it was food nonetheless. When I no longer feared cutting myself, I shaved. I took vitamin B, washed down Valium with more milk. I drank water. I drank tea. I ventured outdoors and inhaled deeply. After a week or so, my heart, mind, and nerves no longer screamed. I was weak, sickly, and on edge. My brain was not right. At times I quivered. But I was here, and I was sober. A few mornings later I wakened to a strength, clarity, and calm that had not been mine for a very long time. I made a cup of coffee, lit a cigarette, and listened to Arvo Pärt’s Litany.
I tried to banish the self-torment and self-doubt that I had sunk into. Had I not been through this before, and had it not in the end led to nothing? Had I not, again and again, over and over, got myself sober only to get drunk again? Wasn’t this just another suffering on the wheel of suffering? How could I feel so sure that I would succeed where I had countless times and invariably failed?
But recent events had filled me with belief—belief in a new life, which meant a new world, a new me. This was part of it all. It had to be. I whispered to myself the words from Isaiah that had always made me smile: “Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning that they may follow strong drink.” I was not smiling.
Alcoholics Anonymous tells us to put our faith in God or a higher power. We are told to relinquish willpower and say, echoing the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will, not mine, be done.” This theist dogma proves an obstacle to many. Such was the case with me until I simply learned to discount it. If the founders of A.A. could not see that it was folly to doubt the human will while at the same time propounding faith in a God that had been willed into being by man—so be it. To me it was the sort of nonsense that obscured the good of A.A. I had witnessed and felt that goodness, but it had never taken root in me. Some might say that my will disallowed it. But it was my will that got me there in the first place. It was their insistence on a “loving God,” so indelibly fundamental to the precepts of A.A., and their Hallmark platitudes and cultish humbug that did the disallowing. Apologists and exegetes have stressed the importance of spirituality over religion in A.A., but that God remains. Not a god, not a godly force, but the God of man’s stupid invention and enduring madness.
That there was good in A.A. I had little doubt. I had felt it and I had seen it at work in those rooms and in what people took with them from those rooms. The times I had committed myself to hospitals to get clean, the cure that was offered in every institution, with no exception, was ultimately the same: A.A.
In all my reading, in fact, from E. M. Jellinek’s The Disease Concept of Alcoholism to the present, I had come across only one credible author who offered an alternative. In Heal Thyself, an account of his own alcoholism, Olivier Ameisen, a medical doctor, advances the drug baclofen as the cure that saved his life and has since saved the lives of others. As baclofen is unaccepted as a treatment for alcoholism by the medical and pharmaceutical establishment, it is difficult to find a doctor who will administer it as such. Ameisen’s book was published in the United States under the imprint of an editor and publisher I know, and she was kind enough to give me his private address. I wrote to him of my willingness and eagerness to undergo baclofen therapy; but he never responded. I wondered if he was laid out drunk somewhere.
Though published almost fifty years apart, Jellinek’s book and Ameisen’s book are companions on my shelf, along with two older books, Jack London’s self-described “alcoholic memoirs” John Barleycorn and Charles Jackson’s The Lost Weekend. (I was very late to discover Jackson’s masterpiece, so stupid was the moving picture that prejudiced me against this book on which it allegedly was based.) Others, like Hans Fallada’s The Drinker, I have read with some interest and at times admiration, then discarded. I like scary drunk tales, and the disparate three to be found together on my shelf are to me the best of them, each in its way. I blame it on myself that, alone or together, they did not scare me enough to effect a change in me. But it was very much to the contrary. I derived vicarious delight from reading in these tales during my fleeting periods of sobriety. I did not now draw down one of these volumes, but searched out my hefty little blue A.A. book, which I kept in a closet, separate from the others.
I had no trouble feeling the presence of, and believing in, powers greater than myself—the sea, the wind, certain sacred breezes that seemed to bear the lingering powers of old gods and old wisdom—but I knew that none of these powers gave a fuck whether I drank or did not drink. Only I did. It was up to me, only me, and my will—mine, not thine.
That Saturday afternoon I walked to the meeting in the basement of the Municipal Union Building on Barclay Street. “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.” I had read those words posted on meeting-room walls many times, and every time I read them I reflected that I did not belong, that I failed to meet this sole requirement for being there; for I knew in the back of my mind that I was intent on drinking again. I had brought men and women to these rooms who had fared far better in them, and in the program, than I. But I knew that this time was different. I had a desire, a very deep and real desire, to stop drinking for good. I felt that I belonged.
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
I always loved these words: the mystery of their origin, the power and beauty inherent in them. Plain, straightforward, they invited no interpretation. Here, as often encountered in A.A., shorn of the God who was called on to do the granting when A.A. first appropriated it, and who remains when these words appear in the sanctioned literature of A.A., as do the closing words “Thy will, not mine, be done,” was a prayer not only for drunkards but for every mortal soul. These words felt good coming from within me, my voice one with the voices of the others.
Her eyes, so sad, were the first thing I noticed. I watched after her as she hesitated then wandered slowly, alone, from the room. She wore a skirt or a dress under her gray woolen coat, and under that, dark patterned tights. Her legs were shapely, very shapely. I imagined ripping open those tights, baring her thigh, and hearing her utter what wild and exquisite cries she might. I breathed the air through which she had moved.
IN THE COMING DAYS I DEVOTED MYSELF TO EASY INDUSTRY, shopping for groceries, cooking, paying bills, replying to correspondence, taking care of business, such as it was.
A woman named Irene at a publishing house called Errata Naturae Editores in Madrid had inquired about putting out an edition of one of my works.
“We do assure you,” she wrote, “that we are fascinated with your text and that it will be carefully translated and printed into a beautiful book.”
I fell for the line about her intention to produce a beautiful book, and offered to let her license the Spanish rights for a five-year period at an extremely modest price. I regretted my generosity immediately, but my word was my bond. But my price, she claimed, was all of two hundred dollars beyond her means.
“Unfortunately,” she wrote, “Spain is a small country, with not that many readers.”
The indignation I felt turned to laughter, and I dismissed the matter without another word to her. Maybe the name of the house—Errata Naturae translates from the Latin as “errors of nature”—should have served as warning from the start.
No wonder I didn’t write anymore. To quote Tennessee Williams, from his final stage play: “Fuck it!” Nobody remembers Shakespeare’s creditors.
So in my newfound sobriety I continued not to write. At least not consciously. Then early one morning something gave me start. I was sitting on the couch with my coffee when, from the corner of my eye, I noticed there was a pen on my desk, and beneath the pen was a scrap of paper. I was sure that these had not been there the night before. I went to the desk, looked at the paper, saw hurried-seeming words. My pulse quickened. The light and sounds of morning through my windows seemed to vanish.
I’m lying here dirty waiting for the undertaker to give me a shave. I shouldn’t have put it off for so long.
The movement of my life was as the movement of my left hand. It stirred, reached out for the touch of another, raised the glass to my lips, and, when paralysis came, trembled occasionally, senselessly, vaguely, with no meaning at all.
Before that stirring I was a woman who spoke another tongue.
I was a leopard awaiting glance in bowering shade.
Remembered now: forbidden gods to whom I did pray.
Remembered now: the coming forth that awaits me into the light beyond day.
It is an electric razor. It is not what I would have wanted. There was no slow, measured scrape of the blade. Of course I should have known. Strange, the things we do not foresee.
I am risen now from what was me.
Eternal Savior, bear me unto thee.
Eternal Savior, rise.
Remembered now: the long dark passage without breath, the dark passage longer than life.
Eternal Savior, bear me.
Eternal Savior, rise.
Remembered now: what the lady and the leopard, the daemon-seeker and miller did know before me.
Eternal Savior, bear me.
Eternal Savior, rise.
Remembered now: it is not meant to be.
It was my written-in-the-dark scrawl, but I did not remember writing it. In fact, I felt certain that I had not, and that these words were not mine. But the handwriting attested otherwise. Had I written this while sleepwalking, or in a semiconscious state? What did it mean? I did not believe in reincarnation. But had I felt a sense of reincarnation when I wrote the lines I now beheld? Did my unconscious know what my conscious mind denied? Had something from within, or a voice from somewhere, spoken through me? What was I to make of this eerie incantation of everlasting life?
I read the words again, whispering them aloud to myself this time. I placed the pen in the center drawer of the desk with my other pens, and I folded and placed the scrap of paper in the drawer to the right. Something in me wanted it out of sight. I wanted to put it out of mind as well, but I could not.
These words were strange to me, yet at times uncannily familiar, as if they might be speaking to, or from, atavistic memories that were hidden, vague and veiled, unknown and unarticulated, in me. The phrase “bowering shade” meant nothing to me. But I have always loved and felt a deep affinity for leopards.
THE COLDEST MONTH OF THAT WINTER PASSED SLOWLY. Even the wolf moon when it arrived seemed frozen in the sky as I gazed at it through my kitchen window. It was there, to the west, looming high and big over the river, at four o’clock in the morning, and it was still there, seeming not to have moved, more than three hours later, after seven, when I went back to bed. The winds howled to gusts of fifty-five miles an hour in the wake of that moon.
More snow and frigid sleet came down upon the city. I took a taxi to the Lower East Side, telling the driver to let me off at the corner of Tenth Street and Avenue B. Leslie would be tending bar at the Lakeside Lounge that night, and I knew that she would accept, perhaps even be happy to see, that I was not drinking.
I liked Leslie a lot, and it was good to see her. She had a smile that always worked on me like mellow medicine, even when I encountered it through barely seeing narrowed eyes. But I was there for another reason. Whatever strays were out on a desolate night such as this, I figured, belonged to nights such as this.
“What brings you out?”
Leslie was one of the few people who ask this and elicit a thoughtful answer. It was the way she asked it.
“I feel like sucking a damsel’s blood,” I told her. She smiled that smile of hers, and I saw that she thought I was being merely glib and playful. “I’m serious,” I said.
It was no use. I did better when I lied than when I told the truth, it seemed. She asked me what I was having, and I told her that all I wanted was a club soda with a piece of lemon. She brought it and pushed my money back to me. I looked around. It was dark, and it took a while to make out the animated or torpid forms at the bar. It felt good to be sober, to see and think clearly amid the slurred mutterings and the wailed descants of misery, complaint, and lunacy.
Leslie was talking across the bar to a girl several seats down to my left. When the girl laughed, I saw that she was quite pretty. She was alone and had a full drink in front of her.
I felt slightly demonic. It was a not unpleasant feeling. Old Nick or Nicholas the Ancient. Wasn’t that it? No, no, no. Old Scratch or Nicholas the Ancient. And ancient was spelled in a peculiar, antiquated way. What was it? Antient. Yes, that was it. Old Scratch or Nicholas the Antient. Where had I found that? Something British, no? Seventeenth century, eighteenth century?
Maybe that explained the words on that scrap of paper. Maybe I had read them somewhere, and somehow they had come back to me when I was half asleep, and I had set them down and not recalled doing so. Or maybe I had written them long ago, completely forgotten them, and, yes, somehow they had come back to me when I was half asleep, and I had set them down and not recalled doing so. Memory and the subconscious could be very tricky.
But as I told myself these things, I did not believe them. I wanted only to solve that piece of paper and the words on it, to be rid of the uneasy strangeness they had left me with.
“Who’s she?” I asked Leslie. “The girl you were talking to.” Without turning I gave a toss of my head in the direction of the girl down the bar. Leslie followed my gesture with her glance.
“Oh. Melissa. I don’t really know her. She seems like a nice kid.”
“Give her a drink on me.”
“She just got one.”
“Back her up.”
She went over, said something to her. They both looked my way. Leslie lightly rapped the bar in front of her.
Old Scratch or Nicholas the Antient. A leopard in the bowering shade.
I shook loose these words from my mind.
The girl finished her drink. Leslie set another before her and took money from me. The girl raised the drink to me, then drank.
I wasn’t about to approach her. That was something that foolish young men did. I too may have once done such a thing. But I was a foolish old man now, and my folly was not without dignity. At the same time, I knew that she was not likely to approach me. I found myself walking toward her. After a few steps I decided to keep walking, to walk past her, as if I were barely aware of her, and to go outside and have a smoke. An inspired move. I made as if to be preoccupied and not to notice the curiosity in her eyes as I passed.
The awful cold and winds seemed not only to have rid the streets of people but also to have rid the sky of clouds. The moon had waned to a delicate falcated sliver, and stars were visible. As a child I had seen many stars in these night skies, but now it was rare to see one. Tens of billions of planets, suns, and moons in the Milky Way, and we had disconnected ourselves from them all.
Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight.
I flicked my cigarette butt at a parked car and saw the wind take it, red embers flying and vanishing.
I wish I may, I wish I might.
“So, Melissa, tell me. Can you control the tides by crossing and uncrossing your legs?”
She looked at me awkwardly.
“Do you like to drink strong drink, go mad, and dance with the apparition of freedom?”
She seemed about to say something but giggled instead.
“Do you like to watch old men masturbate and know that they too once were young?”
“Who are you?”
“I was asking myself that just the other day.”
“Leslie says you write books.”
“I used to.”
“What do you do now?”
“I’m retired. I enjoy the fruits of my past labors and contemplate the pains of hell. What about you?”
“I’m a student. I go to school.”
“What do you study?”
“How do you plan to make a living off that?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think about money much.”
“I guess that’s good. It doesn’t think much about you either.”
“That’s pretty much the way I look at it.”
Her voice was pleasant. She wasn’t really drunk, though she was getting there. She was wearing pants, but they were quite close-fitting, and her thighs looked good in them. Her skin was beautiful. Her lips were full. Her dark hair was not all that long, and she wore it in a ponytail, which made her look even younger. Its end formed a sweet, lush curl that filliped amid the down at the nape of her neck with her every slight movement. She raised her knees to rest against the bar. It was a beautiful sight.
So strange to be like this, sober in a bar as midnight struck. Strange and exhilarating too.
She seemed as beguiled by me as I was by her. I did not know, and did not care, how much of her apparent beguilement could be attributed to the alcohol’s warm, rising effect on her. The red lipstick she wore set off the whiteness of her teeth. I was lucky to have been mindful to put my teeth in before I came out.
When she laughed I glimpsed the tip of her tongue dancing on the pearly white crenulations of those teeth, and I felt a twitch and a throb in the vein that runs down the length of my cock. In that instant, it was all I could do to keep from placing her hand to it. The nails of her fingers were the same color as her lips, and touching her hand under the pretext of making a point of something I was saying, I felt how soft and smooth those pale fingers were. The unseen parts of her body would be even more so.
Her laughter and my laughter became shared laughter. Her talk and my talk became shared talk. Truth be told, I was starting to like her. If only I were younger, I thought. Much younger. But I was not.
I had the basic facts of her, as far as she had chosen to give them to me. Age nineteen. Born in Minnesota; this cold did not bother her. An only child. Father a medical researcher, but not a vassal of the pharmaceutical racket; and, no, she herself had never really thought of pursuing science.
She had come here tonight after walking out on a date with “this guy I met.”
Why had she gone out with him to begin with?
“Because he was cute.”
What was she doing wasting her time talking to me?
“Maybe because you’re not cute. And you’re not telling me how much money you’re going to make and how to pronounce the dessert or how a single mother you heard about had her child taken away from her because she ate so many poppy seed rolls that she tested positive for opiates.”
When I told her that I wanted to take her home with me, that I wanted to end the night with her, she gave me a look with eyes that seemed to demur, even to chastise. I did not further plead my desire but told her that I understood.
“Do you?” she said.
The taxi turned west on the corner of Broadway and Leonard. It was well after two. There was very little traffic. Furtive shadows seemed to appear and disappear in swirling blasts of wind.
“Thomas Paine saw a man hanged here,” I said. Looking out the backseat window, I wondered which corner of this intersection the gallows had occupied.
“Who’s he?” she said, glancing out the window.
“Friend of mine,” I said after a moment, then smiled to myself. This was going to be a good one.
I placed my arm lightly around her, and she leaned her head just as lightly to my shoulder. She asked me if I had a cat. I told her that I did not. She told me that she did not trust men who kept cats. I told her that I did not trust them either. It was true.
The liking for her that I had felt come over me in the bar seemed to grow stronger as we rode alone through the night. If only I were younger, much younger, I thought. If only I were looking for, if only I needed, something other than sustenance, other than moisture or cure. But what had I always hungered for, even without knowing it? What did we all hunger for, in our way? I wondered what unknown thing it was that impelled her to me.
It took far less time to get her from the couch to the bed than it had taken to get her from the bar to the cab. I left the music on. Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead. To its grand thalassic echoes of the Great Dirge, I tongue-kissed her panties and the ankle from which they dangled so delectably. I did not hear the music end. I heard only her.
She uttered a little gasp. I felt her shiver and her flesh horripilate as I ran my nails down her hip and thigh. Her belly rose and she shuddered. I put my mouth to her breast. She shivered again, and shuddered more deeply, deliciously. Her panties were in my hand. I raised them to her face as I kissed the warm dew between her legs. Her mouth opened and her tongue rose through the sheer veil of the panties. My free hand grabbed her thigh above the knee. I breathed long and slow into her, then lowered my lips to her leg. I licked, sucked, lowered my jaw, felt her flesh between my teeth. Her hand was on my head, her fingers raked my hair, softly, then roughly, then softly again. She seemed to await the clench of my teeth, the pleasure of a suffering so sweet, and the release it would bring.
I bit her. She muffled her own scream. I tasted her blood in my mouth, in my throat. I felt her body relax, and I heard her breathe as if she were lost in a dream that would not be remembered.
I was not aware of how much time passed. I wiped blood from my mouth, licked blood from her skin. Then I felt her upon me, her mouth upon me, her tongue upon that vein that throbbed and that twitched. I worked her ponytail like a suicide clutch. I felt her hand stir. She raised it to my lips, and again I tasted her blood. I came violently, heard the sounds of her sucking become the sounds of her swallowing; heard the sound of her hand in a frenzy between her taut legs. Her mouth slowed but did not cease. I could take no more, and I withdrew from her.
Our breath slowed and we fell to sleep, closely entwined, her arm around me. It was almost as if, young and innocent as she was, she knew about the monkeys.
WHEN I AWOKE THAT MORNING I FELT INVIGORATED, as if I had taken some sort of root tonic that had cleared and cleansed me and set me aright. With Melissa still asleep, I rose quietly. As I entered the bathroom to piss and shave, I saw there was a calm and sanguine smile on my face. For an instant I did not recognize that smile as my own, that figure in the mirror as myself. It was good to see me.
I pulled on my pajamas and went into the kitchen to make oatmeal and coffee, enough for the two of us. It was not so warm in my place that bitter winter. My big old banging gas-guzzling HydroTherm MultiPulse AM100 heating boiler had finally broken down irreparably the previous year, and I had ended up replacing it with a fancy new wall-mounted, energy-efficient Lochinvar Knight. This was a nine-grand mistake. I should have had the old boiler rebuilt from the concrete up. But that would have taken brains. All I had was hindsight. The new boiler was so energy-efficient it didn’t give off any heat to speak of. After Con Edison came to inspect it and I got my energy-efficient residential gas rebate and tax-credit authorization, I had the energy-efficient wiring disconnected, and the damned thing still did not work worth a damn. I got more warmth from the little twenty-buck space heater I kept on the end table by the couch than I did from my five radiators. The new could never replace the old. This was true of all things. But the old boiler had pulsed and clanged and banged its last. The concrete in the base of its tank and the cinder blocks beneath it had rotted clean through and the water that seeped through them flooded the boiler closet. How I yearned for the old antediluvian warmth that I had known. But on this morning the chill did not bother me at all. I didn’t even feel it.
I sliced a banana into the simmering oatmeal, added some raisins, a nutmeg, a bit more cinnamon, stirred in buttermilk, stirred in butter, a little chestnut honey. She had crept up behind me, barefoot and wearing my robe. I asked her how she liked her coffee. Cream and a little sugar. I had no cream, only milk and half-and-half. Like most Americans who asked for cream, she meant milk. I asked her if she wanted a shot with it. Her “no, thank you” was enwrapped in a low sleepy giggle. I poured out the steaming oatmeal into bowls, the steaming coffee into cups. I turned on Rachmaninoff again. What’s good for the dark of night is good for the morning light.
Who said that? Why did it whisper of ancient Egypt? Was it from the Pyramid Texts? The Book of the Dead? No, I had never read or heard those words before. Nor had I ever said them, written them, or thought them before.
She was looking at the wound on her leg, the red cicatrice of her broken skin and the livid swollen flesh around it. She seemed rapt by it as she ran her finger gently over it.
“Do you want to kiss it?” she asked.
I bent over her, lowered my lips softly to her thigh. This gave me no pleasure. I did it to please her. She closed the robe over the scar and returned to her oatmeal.
“Do you want to put something on it?” I said.
“Peroxide. Ointment. I don’t know.”
She did not respond to this. Instead she asked me about the music. I told her what little I knew about it.
“I was fooling with you last night,” she said.
I was taken aback. I asked her what she meant.
“Thomas Paine,” she said. Her eyes danced with a sly playfulness. “Common Sense.”
“Oh.” I felt a sense of relief, and my spirits brightened again. “I should have known. History major.”
“Ancient history,” she said. “But I remember him from high school.”
I gestured to the open doors of my library. “I’ve got a wallful of books in there on ancient history, ancient writing, ancient mythology, ancient everything. The shelves on the left.”
My library had been carefully gathered together over the course of a lifetime, and in the course of a few years I had for the most part lost interest in it. Had I sent her through those doors, to those books, because I was experiencing the spark of a renewed closeness to them, a rekindling of my sense of their importance to me and to my life?
She went into the library, but, as I saw from where I sat, the cuneiform tablets on the wall immediately facing her caught her eye and she went directly to them.
“When are these from?” she asked with her back to me.
“They were put out to bake about four thousand years ago,” I said. “Sumerian. Third Dynasty of Ur.”
“What do they say?”
“They’re an accounting of cult offerings to a god of war called Shara, from a temple in a Mesopotamian town called Umma.”
“Can you read them?”
“No. Can you?”
She seemed transfixed by them. Only after some minutes did she turn to browse the shelves of books I thought might interest her. As she left the room, she paused to peer through the glass of the case that held the books that I had written.
“You’ve written a lot of books,” she said.
“Yes and no,” I said. “Most of the books in there are just different editions and translations of one book or another. Most of them I can’t even read. Chinese, Russian, Japanese, Swedish, Dutch, this, that, the other thing. I can’t understand a word of what’s in most of those books. They just have my name on them. They just look good.”
Excerpted from Me and the Devil by Nick Tosches Copyright © 2012 by Nick Tosches. Excerpted by permission.
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