The Sleep-Over Artist: Fictionby Thomas Beller
"In the same way Salinger carved out the niche of male adolescence ....Beller approaches that mutable boy-to-man territory."—San Francisco ChronicleWriting with the sparkling wit and insight of his highly praised debut, Seduction Theory ("Brilliantly captures the great expectations and recurring ambivalence of youth."—The New/em>/p>/em>
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"In the same way Salinger carved out the niche of male adolescence ....Beller approaches that mutable boy-to-man territory."—San Francisco ChronicleWriting with the sparkling wit and insight of his highly praised debut, Seduction Theory ("Brilliantly captures the great expectations and recurring ambivalence of youth."—The New York Times), Thomas Beller continues to plumb the adventures of his hero, Alex Fader, a youthful existentialist and sensualist with an insatiable appetite for trouble. The Sleep-Over Artist is an account of critical stages in Alex's life, mapping his progress from youthful delinquent to filmmaker whose career begins when he makes a documentary film exposing the prep school from which he has been expelled. Alex longs for the taste of family life that the early death of his father has denied him. As a young boy he sleeps over at his friends' houses and ingratiates himself with their families; as a young man he extends his sleep-overs to the lives of women, culminating in the ultimate sleep-over—an affair in England with a glamorous, slightly older woman, the mother of a young boy. Beller has a pitch-perfect ear for emotional nuance and a microscopic eye for rendering the wordless moments when a relationship catches fire and all too often begins to falter. The high-wire tension that electrifies The Sleep-Over Artist is Beller's ingenious portrait of a young man who longs to disappear and belong all at the same time.
"Hilarious....captures perfectly the myriad stages of fear, discovery and elation that mark one's first sexual experience."—The New York Times Book Review, Katherine Dieckmann, 16 July 2000 "[W]ell-crafted stories recall the witty phrasing of Updike, the poignant nostalgia of Cheever, the earnest but confused innocence of Salinger."—Library Journal "Featuring a New York that, like Kundera's Prague, is a vast hive of seductions....A moving portrait."—Publishers Weekly, 17 April 2000 "The gentle humor and delicacy of Sleep-Over Artist remind me of the stories of another young cosmopolite, F. Scott Fitzgerald."—Stewart O'Nan, author of A Prayer for the Dying "Fresh, sophisticated and most of all utterly readable...strikes a perfect balance between timely ironies and perennial emotional truths."—Eva Hoffman "Tom Beller is gifted with a wry, dry appreciation of life's sweet and unlikely subtleties."—Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation and Bitch "A fine novel of Manhattan manners."—New York Observer
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ALEX FADER GREW UP IN AN APARTMENT ON THE FOURTEENTH floor of a large prewar building that took up an entire block of Riverside Drive. From his bedroom window, which looked north, he could see a broad patch of sky, the tops of buildings, a multitude of wooden water towers, and off to the left, visible only if he pressed his cheek to the windowpane, the Hudson River. The view that most fascinated him, however, was the one to be had by looking directly down.
Once when he was six, he suddenly rose from his bath, opened the narrow bathroom window above it, and leaned out. He balanced on his wet stomach, arms and legs outstretched like Superman, contemplating what it would be like to take the plunge and if his life so far had contained enough satisfaction so that it could now reasonably come to a close. He stayed teetering on the windowsill, looking at the distant pavement below, trying to imagine what it would feel like to land there and what he would be thinking during those thrilling seconds of flight.
Half his body felt the moist familiarity of the bathroom, and the other half, wet and gleaming like a dolphin, hung in the cold air of the unknown. Then a faint curiosity as to what would happen after his fallthe ensuing hours and daysasserted itself. He pictured himself in a steaming heap on the concrete below, and a few minutes later his parents would be staring confusedly at the bathtub, full of murky water, but empty of him. He teetered for a while longer. The image of his parents trying to make sense of theempty bath was amusing at first, but then became unpleasant. With the same entranced conviction with which he had got up on the ledge, he got down, closed the window, and resumed his bath.
Having decided that he would not throw his body out the window, he began throwing smaller, less valuable objects.
First a cracker: it went spinning out the window and out of sight, and its absence seemed profound. Next were water balloons, whose wobbly downward trajectory he always monitored until they hit the ground, after which the small figure of the doorman would appear hustling onto the wet pavement, looking up. Alex loved the sight of this tiny figure, so formidable in real life, appearing on the sidewalk, but in watching from above, he was usually spotted from below.
Things were different at his friend Walker's apartment. Walker lived a few blocks south of Alex on Riverside Drive, also on the fourteenth floor. They were ten, and new best friends, and Walker was constantly surprising him with new and interesting ways to express malice. With regard to throwing things out the window, it was Walker who introduced the idea of a human target. They would stand perched at Walker's kitchen window, both holding on to a pot full of water balanced on the ledge, waiting for a suitable victim.
The windows of Walker's apartment all looked out over the Hudson River, and directly below was a broad lonely patch of sidewalk onto which people arrived like actors walking onto a stage.
They once observed an attractive young woman walking briskly with a bouquet of flowers in her hands towards a man who was standing with several suitcases around him, as though waiting for a taxi, right beneath their window. He was a perfect victim. They were about to douse the man with water, but it looked like something incredibly romantic was about to occur, some long-awaited reunion, and Alex and Walker instinctively held back and watched.
The woman had a strapless top on, and even from the distance of fourteen floors Alex could make out the subtle jump of her shoulder muscles and the tremulous softness of her breasts as they bounced up and down with each step. The flowers had delicate pink petals. The man with the suitcases stared at her as she approached with bold strides. His body was still and unmoving. His gaze fixed. He was oblivious to everything else in the world but her. She walked right up to him and bashed him in the face with the bouquet, a violent forehand smash. The petals scattered like confetti. Then, without missing a beat, she turned on her heel and stomped back in the direction she had come, still clutching the considerably less flowery bouquet. The man just stood there.
Alex and Walker were so transfixed by this scene that they forgot to pour water on him.
Other people were less fortunate. Alex and Walker would stand guard at the kitchen window until someone appeared on Riverside Drive. There would be time to size up the targetgait, posture, clothes. At a certain ideal moment the water would fall forward from their pot in one solid translucent mass, and then split in half, and then in half again and again, so that what started as a single glob on the fourteenth floor ended as a thousand pellets of water on the ground. The pale pavement darkened and the victim became completely still. This momentary freeze was, for some reason, the most delicious part.
There was one set of victims who stayed in Alex's mind for a long time afterwards. A little girl wearing a pink coat, white stockings, and shiny black shoes ambled down the sunny street, a half step behind her mother. She looked as if she was on her way either to or from a party. She walked with unsteady steps, and her mother walked beside her, looking down and talking, but also giving the girl her independence. They were two small objects alone on the sidewalk. The water hit the ground in a great hissing mass and they froze like everyone else.
But in the several seconds between the pour and the splatter, as Alex watched the water fragment and descend, a tremendous pang of regret leapt up in his stomach instead of the more familiar thrill. As he watched the jerky awkward expressiveness of the little girl walking beneath the water's widening net, he understood that there was a small corrupting moment about to take placeone kid introducing another to the random world of fate and bad luck.
ONE AFTERNOON IN MAY, WHEN SPRING WAS IN FULL bloom and the school year almost over, the entire fifth grade was assembled for a special announcement regarding Becky Salatan. They were gathered in the science section of the huge, loftlike space in which the fifth grade spent their days. For the traditionalist Wave Hill School ("Educating Young Boys Since 1907" had once been its motto, until it also started educating young girls), this open-plan arrangement was a departure.
The special announcement was that Becky Salatan's father had died the previous day, and everyone should be considerate of her when she returned to school tomorrow.
Mr. Gold, the science and social studies teacher, delivered the news. The science section, with its miniature zoo, was Mr. Gold's domain. Located next to the room's entrance, it was a maze of desks and chairs and numerous clear glass aquariums within which fish and rabbits and guinea pigs and turtles and a garden snake writhed and twitched and nibbled and slept and shat.
Alex Fader thought that perhaps the real purpose of these glass boxes was to make him and his fellow students appreciate the amount of space they could roam in, while other species, and even other humans (like sixth-graders), had to occupy limited and constrained spaces and generally live much less free lives.
Now they all sat quietly amidst the animals and listened to the news. Mr. Gold looked solemnly at the assembled class before speaking. His forehead, made huge by a receding hairline, was a bit like a lightbulb, and tended to color whenever he felt any strong emotion. His mouth was exceedingly broad and expressive, like a clown's, and in repose possessed a clownlike sadness. His ability to provoke emotion on the part of his students was always just exceeded by his ability to provoke contempt.
"There is nothing you can really do for Becky, except be considerate," he told the class. "Be nice to her, give her some space, try and respect the gravity of what has happened."
Several people groaned. Mr. Gold's solemn face seemed to empathize with his students' pain. But the groans were in response to his use of the word "gravity." The uncensored version of this story had already made the rounds at lunchtime, when word got out that Becky Salatan's dad had jumped out the window and Becky had been the first person to wander into the room, just home from school, and find the window wide open with the sounds of shrieks and screams emanating from the sidewalk twenty-two stories below.
Alex had thoughtfully chewed his microwaved pizza upon hearing this and tried to remember what Becky had been like before, so he could better gauge how this event might change her. His own father had died exactly a year minus one day earlier. He had died of natural causes (to the extent that cancer, compared to jumping out a window, was a natural cause), but he didn't think he would want to be the subject of an announcement like the one made for Becky. He was of the opinion that disaster ought to be respected with silence, the better to acknowledge that nothing can be done to reverse it.
Tomorrow afternoon he and his mother were supposed to drive up to the cemetery and visit the grave.
"Later this week it's going to be one year since Papa died," his mother had said a few days earlier. "We'll bring flowers and good things and have a visit."
"We can't visit him," said Alex. "He's dead."
"We're going to visit the grave," she said.
"We're going to have a picnic on his grave?" said Alex.
"Not on it, exactly," she said. "Next to it. We'll spend some time and try and make it nice."
His mother was always, as far as Alex could tell, trying to make things nice. It was tiring.
"What about school?" he had said. On the day of the funeral he had missed school.
"I'll pick you up after school and we'll drive up."
"You don't have a car," said Alex.
"I'll rent a car," said his mother.
"What if we're not allowed to sit on the grass?" he had said.
* * *
HIS MOTHER WAS a dancer. This meant that she could be found on certain afternoons on the second floor of a building on Eighty-ninth Street and Broadway, standing barefoot and in a leotard on a vast wooden floor, often in some strange position. His father had taken him a couple of times to the empty room with an upright piano in the corner. Together they walked up a long narrow flight of dimly lit stairs, at the top of which was a large sunlit space. Sweating men and woman in leotards were either jumping around or standing and watching some other person jump around. Their leotards gave them the quality of something encased, like M&M's. His mother always stood in their midst, panting.
She was also a choreographer. Alex understood this word to mean that she could tell people what to do, and they would listen. Once, when she told him he had to take a bath, he responded, "You're not my choreographer," which had the desired effect of shocking her into a kind of marveling silence and therefore postponing, if only for another ten minutes, the bath.
She was a modern dancer. This distinction confused him. He asked his father about it.
"It means she's not a member of the Rockettes," he said.
One day, when he was seven, she told him that she would soon be having a concert.
"What's a concert?" he said.
"It's when I perform in front of many people with my company."
"What does your company make?" he said.
"It's a dance company," she said. "We make dance."
"Can people buy dance?" he asked. At the age of seven he was demonstrating certain capitalist proclivities that had the effect of making his parents look at him with concern, as though he might be coming down with a fever.
"They can buy tickets," she said.
She seemed to take some odd pleasure in his questions. He was trying to deal in facts and work things out logically, but she was always able to attach an invisible meaning to the facts which made her smile.
As the concert approached, she rehearsed more and more frequently, and certain routines were interrupted. Alex often found himself alone in the apartment with his father. One day his father cooked dinner for just the two of them while she was at rehearsal.
"What's for dinner, Papa?" he had asked.
"Wiener schnitzel," said his father. He said it in that slightly emphatic but questioning tone teachers use when they are calling attendance and someone does not respond, and they then repeat the name a second time as if perhaps the person (in this case, Schnitzel) had just been nodding off, though they are also posing the question: What happened to Schnitzel?
On the occasion of being chef, his father took off his jacket and went so far as to loosen his tie, but that was all. It was as though he was determined not to let his wife's rehearsal schedule impinge on the normal rhythms of the household, though the very fact he was making dinner was unusual.
Alex was very pleased with the whole situation and particularly liked the way his dad pronounced that night's meal. So he kept asking, "Papa, what's for dinner?"
"Wiener schnitzel," came the matter-of-fact reply each time.
The seriousness with which he said it"Veeena Schnitzel"combined with the fact he said it with a slightly German accent, and the additional fact that the words themselves had a strange relationship to each other, as if they were a comedy team (Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Wiener and Schnitzel) made Alex burst into laughter every time.
His father's accent was a normal American accent beneath which bubbled a vast cauldron of linguistic weirdness called "German," which sometimes splashed out in an odd-sounding phrase or word. When his father actually spoke the language, Alex went into hysterics. German, as his father spoke it, was the language of a person bitterly complaining that someone has opened his box of chocolates and taken a bite out of each and every one.
Alex once heard his father have a screaming fight on the telephone in German, with his sister, while in his underwear. Alex thought it was the funniest thing he had ever seen until his father shouted at him to go to his room. This shut him up, because his father rarely raised his voice. From that point on, though, German was the language of someone being really angry while in their underwear.
Sometimes his mother laughed with him, though she had her own strange linguistic cauldron, something called Hebrew, which was, measured purely on the quantity of strange sounds, an even more comic language, but which had a much less amusing effect on Alex. There was something in his mother's voice when she spoke itmelodic, hopeful, warythat made him feel disorientingly sad.
His father concentrated while he cooked. Alex liked his dad's face when it was concentrating. Once, when his father had been staring at the crossword puzzle for a long timethe clean lines of his eyebrows furrowed, his forehead crinkly with ridges which disappeared only when he laughedhe had sighed and looked up and said, to no one in particular, "What I don't know could fill a textbook."
Alex had found it a fascinating concept: the book of things his father didn't know.
His father spent a lot of time preparing each piece of meat in flour and bread crumbs, and then he lowered each piece rather lovingly into the frying pan to the accompaniment of a fierce sizzle. Then he stared at the pieces with a concerned look on his face, poking them occasionally with a fork. His father was a doctor, which Alex grasped, and also a psychoanalyst, which he didn't grasp at all, but which he intuited to mean he treated patients in a manner similar to the way he was currently treating the Wiener schnitzel. Alex loved the look of concern of his father's face.
The Wiener schnitzel was good. They ate in silence, sitting across the table from each other. Then his father, without any warning, threw his balled-up napkin at Alex.
"Papa!" he yelled with wide, delighted eyes.
This was one of their favorite games, a rare treat. One of them would launch a sneak attack, and his mother would always cry out in mock displeasure at this breach of civility. Order would be restored, the meal would continue, and the other would bide his time, waiting to retaliate with his own napkin attack. It would give the whole meal a suspenseful air. Now Alex bided his time. But without his mother's protest it wasn't the same.
HIS MOTHER BROUGHT home a poster advertising her concert. It was a picture of her spotlit against darkness in a flowing white dress, her head tossed back, arms raised over her head, and one knee raised. Her hair fell straight back, like a horse's tail. The raised leg had a vaguely military quality.
"Mom, you look like a horse," he said.
"Thank you," she said, laughing.
She looked disturbingly weightless, as if she were an angel floating in the night, being recalled to heaven for minor repairs. She hung the poster in the kitchen.
As the concert drew near, dinner was composed of one meal that she cooked for him and his father, and another special meal she cooked for herself, her training diet, as she put it, which was invariably boiled chicken and which, he informed her with no effort to be diplomatic, was disgusting. Once she had bit into a chicken leg and some blood squirted out. This confirmed his suspicion that his mother was an animal.
The night of the concert had been full of anxiety for Alex, even though all he had to do was sit there in the dark and watch. He sat with his father, in the front row. They were in an auditorium somewhere inside the looming Gothic structure of the Riverside Church. The place was full of people. That poster on his kitchen wall was everywhere; his mother floating through the night. There were three dances. In the first two the stage was filled with dancers flinging themselves around the stage and arriving at strange positions. He observed a peculiar something in the way his mother dancedshe danced with abandon. The last dance she did by herself. At a certain point she stood very still and her knees trembled. Alex sat still amidst the crowd in the dark theater, next to his father, who had also been very still throughout, and wondered if her knees were trembling because she was nervous, or if it was part of the dance and her knees were supposed to tremble. At the end someone took his hand and pulled him from his seat while everyone was clapping. They rushed him backstage, where they shoved a bouquet of red roses into his arms (they were about the size of his torso) and gently pushed him onto the stage. He tottered out and presented her with the roses. People were clapping. The applause came down like sheets of rain. The lights were bright, white, and cruel. He held the roses up to her and for some reason felt worried that they would be too heavy for him to lift. He would collapse under their weight in front of the whole auditorium. She took them from him, smiling wildly, a frightening look on her face. He could see her makeup, thickly applied, theatrical, and the little beads of sweat that pressed out from beneath it. The applause was a crashing wave. Her smile was so wild. She kissed him and then in front of the whole theater wiped the lipstick from his cheek with her thumb.
Later, when the storm of applause was long past and the auditorium an empty shell, all the dancers and his mother took down the set. A bare lightbulb illuminated the scene. He sat beside his father and watched, appalled that so much effort should be in service to such a fleeting thing. His father sat with him in the front row, holding his chin in his hand as if he were tolerating something. In the end they went home without her.
AFTER MR. GOLD'S announcement, Alex made a pit stop in front of his cubby before heading over to English at the far end of the room. He liked visiting his cubby. The very word made him happy. Cubby. Standing in front of his, seemingly so alike in size and shape to all the other cubbies yet so distinctly his own, he muttered the word in long sustained hummed sighs: "cubby cubby cubby cubby." This sound was similar to the humming sound he made when he was particularly enjoying some food he was eating, about which his mother had scolded him on a number of occasions as being impolite and unseemly, even though it was just the two of them at the dinner table and he had pointed out that by humming a little he was indicating that he was enjoying the food and therefore paying her a compliment.
Alex stared into his cubby, about to extract his English book, and then glanced at some of the surrounding cubbies. Though identical in shape and similar in content, they all possessed a certain glamour his did not. They also possessed something else his did nota pencil case. These pencil cases were made of denim and had little pockets, or made of industrial rubber, or done in colors like canary yellow or mint green. And they all bulged with hidden contents.
He reached his hand into one of the other cubbies, took a pencil casea denim one, the most popular modeland put it in his own cubby. He had been relieving his classmates of their pencil cases for weeks.
This transaction complete, he headed across the room as though it were prairie and he an adventurer setting off for new territory, but not before casting an urgent glance in the direction of Mr. Gold, to make sure he hadn't seen anything.
A peculiar pang of sadness sprang up within him when Mr. Gold smiled at him as he walked by.
Mr. Gold had some sort of minor speech impediment. Little bits of spittle often flew from his wide mouth as he spoke, and when he found himself stammering his forehead would change color. Something about his mouth and forehead communicated feelings, and this made Mr. Gold somewhat pathetic. He was always going on about the theory of evolution, origin of the species, natural selection, and other rules that governed the world of animals and humans alike. "Survival is the fundamental most basic activity of every species," he had said. "These animals have learned to survive over thousands of years."
He seemed very intent on communicating his love for science and for nature. But what he best communicated was that if you loved little animals, and the theory of evolution, and spat a little when you talked, and had feelings, then you would be a science teacher whose best friends were gerbils.
The English section was the most comfortable part of the room. There were huge pillows on which you could loll and huge wooden blocks of various colors on which you could sit. Its most exciting feature, however, was the teacher, a young British woman named Stacey, whose brown hair bounced and shimmered whenever she turned her head.
Stacey's breasts, like the pillows and the blocks, were oversized. She usually wore faded blue denim, often in combination with a light blue kerchief around her neck, and eye shadow that was pale blue. Sometimes she wore a blue dress. Sometimes she wore light blue silk shirts with the top two buttons undone. The combination of her sleekness, her pale blueness, and her breasts made it seem as though she might at any moment lift off and float away, and she so entranced the male population of the fifth grade that her English classes were markedly more hysterical, emotive, and unruly than any other class.
Alex was obsessed with Stacey. She was the faculty supervisor on his school bus, and so he saw her every morning and afternoon. He felt a special bond with her. She lived near him, on Eighty-third Street and Broadway, and he often entertained fantasies of breaking into her building and knocking on her back door at some unlikely hour, and of her opening it in just a sheer bluish nightgown which would hang over her body like a thin transparent veil. She would invite him in.
During English class Alex administered a neck and shoulder massage with one hand to the grade's most popular boy, Arnold Gerstein. Arnold looked like a doll. He had blue eyes and clear skin and buttony features, and his brown hair sat atop his head like a helmet.
One day Alex had sat next to Arnold in English and said, "Do you want a massage?"
He had recently seen a gangster movie on television in which the head gangster was given a massage by one of his assistants. The head gangster tended to his business while his neck and shoulders got a rubdown. Alex calculated that the role of massage administrator to head gangster was as high as he was likely to get in the complex hierarchy of the fifth grade.
Arnold and Alex were friends, though this didn't prevent Arnold calling him fathead and lardface and so forth with a casual thoughtless cruelty that nevertheless had the effect of making Arnold the object of a certain kind of obsession and almost love for Alex, whose reflex for obsessing about (and almost worshiping) his tormentors was sadly well developed.
He often went to Arnold's house after school. Arnold lived on Fifth Avenue in a modern building not far from the Metropolitan Museum. Like the museum, Arnold's house had a uniformed guard. Her name was Mary. She was a black woman and wore a white uniform that made her look like a nurse. Her job, as far as Alex could tell, was to keep the house clean, to do the dirty work of incessantly reminding Arnold and his older siblings to behave, and, Alex could vaguely sense, to absorb all the random hostility that Arnold might otherwise vent on his parents.
There was a stretch of fifth grade when Alex essentially became an honorary member of the Gerstein family, coming over for many afternoons, and often spending the night on weekends. He was often present for the strange scenario of Mr. Gerstein coming home from work. Mr. Gerstein owned a company that manufactured pet food, and seemed to want nothing more out of life than to come home from work and be allowed to submerge, without harassment or interruption, into his easy chair with the New York Post sports pages, an act which was always accompanied by a momentous groan that never ceased to amaze and fascinate and repulse Alex. It sounded as though Mr. Gerstein were lowering himself into a bath that was much too hot but which he was nevertheless committed to entering. It was at precisely this near-orgasmic moment that Mrs. Gerstein, with the timing of a predator intimate with its prey, would present the day's troubles to Mr. Gerstein.
One day Mr. Gerstein walked in the door, and she began to complain bitterly that Arnold's older sister, Gabby, was spending too much time with Eve Blum, who was a bad influence. It was an acknowledged fact among the Gerstein family that Gabby was, as Mrs. Gerstein once put it, "fragile." Whenever she had an exam she barricaded herself in her room and the whole house was put on silent alert, as though Gabby were spinning an incredibly delicate web between herself and a good college that a single raised voice could tear to shreds.
The idea that there were bad influencesand therefore a group of people who were bad, and another group who were influencedcaptured Alex's imagination, though it should be said that almost everything about Arnold Gerstein and his family captured Alex's imagination, held it down like a prisoner, and tortured it. But that is another matter.
ONE DAY, WITHOUT any warning, Alex's father went to the hospital. And then ten days later he returned from the hospital. It was an April day near the end of fourth grade. The bus dropped Alex off in the usual spot and he ambled the two blocks to his building, and then up the elevator, and when he entered the front door he encountered a suitcase in the foyer. Voices emanated down the long hallway from the master bedroom. One of them was excruciatingly familiar, a woman's voice, his mother's; the other was also familiar, and he felt its deeper reverberations somewhere in his chest.
He ran down the hall and discovered his father in bed, propped up on some pillows and wearing his blue seersucker robe. He sat there looking very much like himself, his thick black hair in a state of mild rebellion, the newspaper spread out to his side. The television was on low, a nature documentary of some kind. He was clean-shaven. When Alex hugged him and kissed him he felt the reassuring sandpaper of his cheek.
The very sight of him in that bedroom, unadorned by tubes in his arms, a white smock, a plastic wrist band, filled Alex with relief, though it was mitigated by a strange instinctive caution. Prior to his father's stay in the hospital there had been no such thing as normalthere had been his mother and father and himself, all tumbling through life as though swept forward by an infinitely cascading wave, its sound and light and shape changing and evolving but never with an end in sight. His father's departure to the hospital was like that moment when the wave crashes onto the beach and then, spread thinly over the sand, hissingly retreats into silence.
The documentary on television was about these wild, cowlike animals called wildebeests. They spent a lot of time grazing on the vast plains of Kenya.
His mother fussed over the two of them. Her mood was festive. It was like a holiday, a weekend, and someone being sick all rolled into one event. His father sipped black coffee in bed and peered at the stock market pages with the same mildly perturbed and mystified expression that Alex always enjoyed spying on. That vast array of tiny symbols was obviously part of the book of things about which his father didn't know.
They turned the volume up a little, and his father alternated between watching the wildebeests and perusing the newspaper, and when he absentmindedly reached up and ran his hand through his thick black hair, Alex shuddered for some reason.
Apparently, the wildebeests were migrating.
"I want you to know that certain things are going to change now," said his father.
His father proceeded to dole out dispensations like a king. Allowance was to increase. Sporting events would be attended. And from now on he was going to start calling him Alex, as opposed to Alexander, a silent wish Alex had expressed only to himself. That his father knew about it filled him with awe, gratitude, and suspicion.
The wildebeests staggered in a huge horde amidst a cloud of red dust from watering hole to watering hole, trying to elude the many perils of their migration. Sometimes they were relaxed and grazed calmly; other times they ran in a panic. Alex sat with his father, who seemed in high spirits, and contemplated the new regime of his life now that his father was back from the hospital.
"And I'm going to quit smoking," said his father.
They turned to look at each other. Alex's great passion was finding and stealing his father's cigarettes. These packets of Marlboro Reds, or sometimes Dunhills, were like treasure. He would steal them, hide them, and wait for his father to erupt in rage upon discovering their absence. Then he either would or would not break down and tell him where they were, depending. It was a test of wills.
He absorbed this news with a tinge of regret. He had been looking forward to stealing the cigarettes again.
"Are you sure?" he asked.
His father nodded.
"Then what are those?" said Alex, nodding at an unopened pack.
"Those are for show," said his father.
They turned back to the television.
There were so many wildebeests! There was something soothing about their sheer volume. They grazed peacefully, but when frightened they bunched up and ran so close together it was as though they were a single undulating being; they looked like the surface of a brown ocean. At one point a whole horde of them fell over a shallow cliff. Plumes of red dust rose in the air as they struggled to clamber back up.
Their brown bodies were sympathetic and interesting. Their mooing was emotive. Their necks were less graceful than a horse's, but more elegant than a cow's. Their shoulders were bony and anxious, as though they worried too much. But then they had a lot to worry about: drought, disease, predators everywhere. When they ate and drank they seemed truly happy, and when they got scared they really did seem scared. Even on television, the atmosphere of panic when a lion came close was palpable, a deep animal fear. They made fearful sounds that struck a chord in some placeless part of Alex's body; their desperation reverberated from the top of his head to his toes, a feeling similar to a roller coaster's first rickety plunge.
Six days later his father went back to the hospital. His mother spent a lot of time there, and left Alex with the upstairs neighbors, the Diamonds, whose son, Jerry, was an old friend of Alex's from back when they were three. The Diamonds had an enormous state-of-the-art television. One evening, when the Muhammad AliGeorge Foreman fight was about to come on, he received a call from his mother summoning him to the hospital. He wanted to watch the fight. There was a tense discussion. In the end Mr. Diamond took him in a taxi. Nothing much happened when he got there. His father lay asleep, unshaven, tubes in his arms.
His mother had purchased an electric razor for his father, but it sat unopened in its box, and Alex took it out and plugged it in and preoccupied himself with the razor and its three vibrating coils.
There was one last urgent late-night visit, a few days later, during which Alex had been effusive and cheerful.
"Hi, Pop!" he said with real exuberance when he walked in. He had never before called his father "Pop." But as his father had instituted the Alexander/Alex change, he thought he would go out on a limb and retire "Papa" in favor of "Pop." His father was groggy and never surfaced from his sleep, though he briefly became restless.
That night he slept over at the Diamonds again. The next day there was a Mets game on, and he and Jerry munched from a big bowl of sour-cream-and-onion potato chips that sat on the coffee table and watched the game. His mother came over towards the end of the game and looked very ashen and asked him to come downstairs, but he wouldn't come. He refused. Then Rusty Staub struck out and he went home and was told the news at the kitchen table.
"What does `passed away' mean?" he said.
When she explained, he said, "Oh, but I prayed!" and slammed his fist on the table and broke into tears. He and his mother cried together. But the strange thing was that as he cried he wondered if he had just told a lie. Because he hadn't really prayed. He had thought about praying. But he hadn't actually done it, or he hadn't done it wholeheartedly. He had tried to engage God in a discussion as to whether or not He existed. God had not been forthcoming on the matter.
After a while he composed himself, sat up, and looked at his mother. "What's going to happen to me?" he said.
EVEN AT AGE ten, Alex vigilantly guarded his father's death from the threat of interpretation. If throwing yourself out a window could escape interpretation, then dying of cancer should be left alone as well. He felt that to hold his father's death up as a cause and draw a line to some effect diminished the event and missed the point. It was like saying that hairstyles changed drastically after the earth lost its gravitational pull.
He took every stolen pen and hid it carefully in the depths of one of the apartment's closets. The house was generally stuffed with writing implements left over from his father. You couldn't open a drawer without finding some. It was as though Alex were hoarding these extras in anticipation of the day they would all run out.
After school Alex smuggled the pencil case onto the bus. Whenever Alex boarded the bus, Stacey gave him a warm but also knowing and somewhat forbidding smile, meant to remind him to behave so that she wouldn't have to walk to the back of the bus to scold him. Alex cherished these looks, just as he cherished her scoldings, which always seemed to involve Stacey coming very close to him and speaking in precise, clipped tones while her breasts hovered in front of his face. He wondered, in these moments, when her breasts were so close, if she was doing it on purpose, giving him a hint, an invitation. He would stare back at her with wide eyes, as though by the sheer power of his expression he might provoke her to lean forward and whisper, "Yes, visit me." Now, as he boarded the bus with his stolen goods under his shirt, he had to close himself off, and her eyebrow twitched in recognition of his new demeanor. But nothing was said. He went and sat in the back seat and, with a pounding heart, opened the pencil case to examine his loot.
The bus ride took forty minutes. Every day in the morning Alex would sit with his forehead pressed to the window and stare at the passing scenery which unfurled before him in triptych form. On one end was West End Avenue, that long parade of heavy-lidded buildings from whose lobbies emerged old European ladies and gentleman in elegant clothes, peering up and down the avenue as though they had somewhere to go.
The other end of the triptych began with the Stella D'oro cookie factory in the Bronx, in whose vicinity there was always a sticky sweet smell. This was followed by the slightly dilapidated area of the Bronx over which loomed the subway tracks, which in turn gave way to the opulence and cleanliness and order of Wave Hill, where the Wave Hill School was located.
In the center of the triptych was Harlem. In the morning it was a quiet, shuttered place, with few people on the sidewalks, a place where the burned-out buildings mingled with buildings that had that same heavy-lidded dignity of the ones on West End, with various grandeur-inducing embellishments illuminated by the bright morning sun. The stores were all shuttered and gated and covered with illegible graffiti, except for the ones with murals advertising the store and providing a faintly uplifting message in the process. Mango Records had a mural featuring a disc jockey with a funny hat and an unbuttoned shirt holding a gleaming vinyl record over a turntable and smiling a toothy grin and giving them a thumbs-up; the name "Chico" was proudly written out in the corner. The store was a landmark of sorts that Alex passed every morning and enjoyed a great deal, as he seemed to be getting a personal vote of confidence from the Mango Records disc jockey. This same Chico had also done a mural on the grocery store, which featured a series of break-dancing vegetables with happy faces: mushroom, broccoli, carrot, and one other vegetable that Alex, in his morning-addled state, could never identify (maybe it was a turnip, but he didn't really know what a turnip was), whose mystery slowly came to obsess him on his morning ride, a tiny tremor of frustration presaging the earthquakes of the day ahead.
The afternoon was altogether different. Alex was awake, buzzing from a hit of after-school candy, and Harlem was awake, too. It was alive and full of people, all of whom, to a uniform degree that never ceased to amaze him, were black. The bus moved fast enough so that few individual faces had a chance to take hold. It was a montage of faces and strange clothes, and cars, some dilapidated and others well-looked-after. A few were so dismantled that they resembled the carcass of a huge, long-dead animal, and others, extravagantly ornamented in chrome and with shiny tires and strange fuzzy dice hanging down from the mirror, were attended to by one or even two or three people carefully polishing it with wax.
Now he peered out the windows at the effusion of life and activity, viewed at high speed, riding through Harlem in the silver bus. At times like this it seemed as though Harlem were another of Mr. Gold's glass boxes. And at still other times he felt as if the bus itself were the box, and he a specimen.
The bus stopped at a red light, and Alex found himself staring at a group of young boys not that much older than himself. Something about the bus caught their attention. Alex, forehead pressed to the window, stared with interest as their body language changed and all their attention became focused on the bus. If he had been in a different state of mind he might have noticed that their attention was not just focused on the bus, it was focused on him, but he wasn't thinking of himself as a distinct entity. He could not have pictured himself. He was just a perceiver. And so he watched without so much as a twitch as one of the boys reached down to pick something off the street and started running towards him. The bus had started to move again, and his ears were filled the roar of the engine as it struggled to thrust the vehicle into motion. The boy ran towards him, his face contorted with anger or, to look at it another way, possessed of the pitcher's concentrated glare as he is about to release the ball towards home plate. Alex watched as the boy reached back from a distance of about five feet and threw something. He didn't see what it was. He just saw the contortion of pain and spite on the boy's face as he released it, and felt a calm impassive wonder at what it could be, and what was going to happen next.
The sound was shockingly louda popping, shattering sound, followed by shrieks from all the passengers, who, being between the ages of seven and seventeen, were not generally reluctant to scream for whatever reason. The rock hit the window with a huge crash, somewhere a little below where his chin was. The window cracked but did not shatter. The bus roared forward.
Alex had moved his forehead an inch off the glass just before impact, and after the sudden blink that the impact provoked, he kept staring at that face that he had been staring at a moment before, which was strangely, almost miraculously, transformedanger had become laughter. Stacey came quickly down the aisle to see what had happened, and Alex kept staring at this suddenly happy black kid as he turned towards his friends.
Only at the last moment did he realize that he was clutching the pens and pencils in his hand. When Stacey leaned her fragrant body over him, and asked what had happened in a concerned, almost angry voice, and then asked if he was all right in a softer voice when she realized he hadn't done anything wrong, the image that stuck in his mind was that transformation from anger to happiness on the boy's face, and also the transition from the clear transparent veil of glass to something fractured and blurred. And he couldn't help noticing, as he frantically tried to stuff the bouquet of pens and pencils into his pocket, that it was the clear pane of glass that had delivered the anger, and the shattered one that transmitted the happiness.
"HOW WAS SCHOOL?" his mother said when he got home.
"It was good. Everyone signed everyone's yearbooks and someone threw a rock at me," he said.
"I mean at the bus. It was no big deal."
"I see. Tomorrow I'll pick you up after school and we'll go make our visit."
Alex looked down glumly. The grave, he remembered, was on top of a steep hill with a majestic view of trees and rolling hills and far off in the distance something that resembled a castle. The whole cemetery was built on a hill, and at the top was a patch of unused land. Theirs was the first grave up there. Everywhere on that hill there was a neat carpeting of green grass, exquisitely ripe and soft, except for the raw unruly spot where they had dug a hole. Alex had been embarrassed by that hole. People threw flowers into it after the coffin was lowered, stepping with their black shoes on the reddish soil at the hole's edge, and Alex felt the flowers were some kind of apology to the earth for having so violently interrupted its surface. He couldn't imagine a picnic next to that gash in the earth.
After the flower-throwing and some general snuffling and outright weeping from people he had never seen before, everybody began to move down the steep hill, leaving his mother alone up near the hole. He had wanted to go and get her, but there was some kind of respectful distance being kept, and his mother was kneeling next to the hole and had her hand pressed against her forehead. From behind, even at a distance, he could see her back move with her breathing. Or was it crying? She seemed to be pressing her hand very hard against her forehead. She had high heels, and after a couple of minutes one of his father's friends went up and got her and helped her down the hill, and Alex wondered if the high heels were digging into the soft grass and giving her extra traction.
"I've brought you something nice," she said now, and went to refrigerator, returning with a plate of three small delicate-looking pastries she had brought home from Eclair, on Seventy-second Street, where she always went for occasions she considered special. But what was the special occasion? It was just another day at school. One of the pastries was a small pink tower with a cherry on top. If someone made a chess set out of pastries, this would be the castle. It was his favorite sweet. He felt a pang of exasperation with her, an enormous wave of anger at her incomprehension of the facts of life as he was experiencing them. She had no idea about pencil cases and cubbies; she didn't know about the way he ran his fingers over Arnold's back; she had never seen the jittery steps of a kid freeze under a net of descending cold water. She didn't know about Stacey and his planned midnight visits. She didn't understand about the pleasures of rock throwing. And here she was putting out treats the day before they were supposed to go to a cemetery and have a nice picnic. Yet he also felt a strange kind of gratitude.
His anger lasted all the way until dinner. That night she made Wiener schnitzel. Halfway through he balled up his napkin and threw it at her.
"Alexander!" she said, and looked at him with surprised, wide eyes.
He took another bite as if nothing had happened. He waited for a few minutes and then gave up hope, at which point from across the table came flying a balled-up napkin that hit him on the head.
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Meet the Author
Thomas Beller is the author of Seduction Theory, The Sleep-Over Artist and How to Be a Man. He is a founder and editor of Open City magazine and Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood.com. He lives in New York City and New Orleans.
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