The Washington Square Ensemble

The Washington Square Ensemble

by Madison Smartt Bell

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Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
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Penguin Contemporary American Fiction Series
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5.16(w) x 7.68(h) x 0.64(d)

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The Washington Square Ensemble

By Madison Smartt Bell


Copyright © 1983 Madison Smartt Bell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-3550-8


Part One: The Storytelling Stone

... and it walks your dog doubles on sax
doubles on sax you can jump back jack
see ya later alligator see ya later
alligator and it steals your car Gets
rid of your gambling debts it quits smoking
it's a friend it's a companion it's the
only product you will ever need ...

—Tom Waits

Johnny B.

It's saturday night and I'm coming into the park from the foot of Fifth and what do I see? Alex the fuzzbox guitar player has taken the prime spot under the arch, the Washington Square arch so newly purged of ugly graffiti by the good people in this world, and Alex the fuzzbox guitar player is actually singing in public, for the first time ever, to my knowledge. It would seem that Alex has raked enough quarters out of his scummy guitar case to spring for a Mighty Mouse amp with matching microphone for his voice. A big yellow man with a raggedy Afro, Alex is, and he plays very nicely on his fuzzbox guitar, always has, and he probably thinks he looks like Jimi Hendrix, but what is he singing into the new amp bought and paid for with the quarters of NYU students and tourists from Iowa? "The Nights of Broadway," by the Bee Gees. And the vocal tones coming forth from the Mighty Mouse amp sound like not one of the Bee Gees but all three of them, and Alex is attracting a big big crowd, with lots of chic white people in it for this park on the short end of Saturday night. Which must be why Alex is in the arch instead of at his usual post by the fountain, for here within screaming distance of the lights of Fifth Avenue these well-dressed white people with pockets of money feel safe and secure. And Alex has brought two walking muscles down from Harlem to protect the nickels and dimes they will give him, so he can buy another Bee Gees album and practice for the Carson show.

But I have no time to stand on the edge of a crowd and listen to Alex spit smarmy pop-tones into his gleaming new microphone. I am a businessman, and I am not in the entertainment business. I sell pharmaceuticals, and I have four retailers working nights in the park, and I would like to know why at least one of them is not working this nice crowd got together by Alex the fuzzbox guitar player and his classy new act. So I proceed onward, over to what used to be a volleyball court and is now the disco skaters' track, where my little Rican Santa Barbara should be stationed right now. Because pharmaceuticals make for zippier, happier skating.

But Santa Barbara is nowhere to be seen, and there are not even any disco skaters, except for Eva the Swede. Though I don't know if that is really her name, because we have never exchanged word one, because she comes to the park for the sole and only purpose of picking up black dudes. I gave her that name because of her looks—she isn't so gorgeous but she has ice-white skin and chrome-blond hair hanging down her back in a Nordic plait. And a dynamite skater too, if you care. Spends all her time skating from one big sulky black dude to another, rotating on her plastic wheels to provide a round-the-clock view of her pale charms, and leaves with a different one every night. Poor Eva, she doesn't discriminate Rastas or Haitians or hard Harlemites, she just takes the blackest one she can get. I think she must have once flunked out of art school, and it's some kind of aesthetic turn-on for her to get that white skin against something real dark. And maybe it's a big kick for her, but I think it's a lousy reason to die, poor Eva the Swede, I get so tired wondering whether it will be the Rastas who claim her flaxen head for a soccer ball or the Haitians who will shrink it down to one-quarter size to add to their voodoo relic collections that I have thought of knocking her off myself. Just to save myself the suspense. Or maybe I could concoct some sort of ultra-aphrodisiacal pharmaceutical (with color blindness as a side effect) and afterward put her out with Lopez's string on Twenty-first and Park, where she could get professional protection from herself and from others. But then she's not my type, and that's not my type of business.

And I have no more time to devote to thinking of Eva the Swede, for I have now covered three quadrants of the park and I have not seen any of my retailers, which means that something is very very wrong. Because according to the system which I have devised, every member of my staff must stick to his sector, supplying prompt and courteous customer service and at the same time staying in touch with the others in case any trouble should arise. And perhaps trouble has arisen. Because now that I have cruised the southeast and northeast and northwest sectors, my staff can only be in the southwest quadrant, down there where the little chess tables are, unless they have split without reporting, an unthinkable thought.

So I am now approaching these little chess tables, and yes, all four of them are there, all sitting around a concrete chessboard—Santa Barbara and Yusuf Ali, Carlo from Santa Domingo and Holy Mother from my old neighborhood, which shall remain nameless. I take a sigh of relief to see that they all appear to be well and happy, and then a deep breath to prepare to scream at them for not being on post. And then I see a fifth head protruding from this little cluster, and I get very angry inside, because it is against the rules and ethics to sit down with strangers at this late hour, because it endangers the take.

Yet when I draw nearer I see that the fifth wheel is not precisely a stranger, it is Porco Miserio, Porco for short. Porco looks nothing at all like a pig, being worn and emaciated to the very bone, like a speed freak, though he isn't that either. I gave him the name for reasons which I will develop in due time, the same reasons, in fact, that I do not want him to fraternize with my retailers, who also got their names from me. I give everything a name, and perhaps it is time that I gave you my own.

My true christened name is Enrico Spaghetti, or something like that, but I am known to my colleagues and business acquaintances as Johnny B. Goode. Because I love black people and their music and money, and because I do be good. I carry no I.D., my pockets are perennially empty of pharmaceuticals or anything else that you might want to find, and I do not do business with my relatives. Absolutely no way, not for years and years. I buy my pharmaceuticals from the Latinos in Alphabet Town, and what do I care if the Gambino family brings it all in from Turkey? Nothing, that's what I care, I care so little that most of the time I don't even know it. And I can afford the markup, because here in Washington Square Park we cater to a classy clientele.

There's just one other reason for this name I gave myself. When the narco squad comes down looking for Johnny B. Goode, they are not looking for a white Italian. But enough of all this personal stuff.

I am not happy to see Porco here, partly because he is in and of himself a bad influence, but chiefly because I told him very firmly at the start of the summer to stay the hell out of the park, and to be disobeyed in this frivolous way knocks a chip off my precious authority. But before I toss him out on his backside, I would like to find out why he is here.

"Well, well, my happy family," say I. "Why are we sitting down on the job without the permission of our supervisor? If I may inquire. And what has brought our prodigal brother home from exile?" And I rap my knuckles on the black and white squares and look around at all their beaming faces. It is Yusuf Ali who answers my question.

"Porco has come up to see you especial, Johnny B. He says he has a talking rock."

"My son, you are confused," I say. "Porco is himself a talking rock." But behind this air of casual unconcern I am in truth a little worried. The problem with Porco, in brief, is that he's crazy. Otherwise he's a very nice guy. Tough for his weight—I think he has done time, probably in hospitals more often than jails. He has a fighting style which suggests experience with jujitsu-trained orderlies, including a reflex hip wriggle designed to take the buttocks out of range of that soporific syringe.

Past that he's hard to classify. Porco drinks, and when he drinks he talks. A fascinating conversationalist, up to the point where he bugs out altogether. I ran across him first at the Spring Street Lounge, where I understand he is a habitué. I'm not. It's too close to my old neighborhood. I understand he spends his down-and-out periods on the Bowery with the winos, but he's not particularly one of them either. Now he's sitting in my park, and in the little bit of light trickling over from the MacDougal Street streetlamp, I can see that he does have some sort of an object clamped in his right fist. Yusuf Ali says it's a talking rock, but knowing Porco it could just as easily be a grenade. So I sit down on the bench across from him.

"So, Porco," I say. "Tell me all about your talking rock. Take ten minutes, then farewell forever, at least as far as these premises are concerned. You must have forgotten all the things I said before."

"Feel it," Porco says. He drops his fist into my hand, and I am truly impressed. Porco's hollow finger bones never had a tenth that heft, I feel as if I'm holding a cannonball. Then the weight is lifted and it lands next on the outstretched palm of Santa Barbara, which then gets mashed flat on the chess table.

"Heavy, mon," says Santa. He's a tiny guy, no bigger than Porco, and his whole face is composed of points, right down to his little goat's beard. He commutes from Hoboken, and he used to be in business for himself. Want to hear how he got his name? I used to know the witch in his neighborhood out there. And I found out that his patron was Saint Barbara. The one that holds a tower up, because she died in one just like it. And I knew that when Santa smears chicken blood on Saint Barbara's statue it is Chango the Yoruba god of lightning that comes to lick it off. I called him Santa Barbara in the park one day and he knew that only the devil himself would have the knowledge and the nerve to call him that. I named him and I had him by the short hairs of the soul.

"If it's words your rock is full of, mon," says Santa, "it will still be talking at sunrise."

"Let's have a look at your talking rock," I say. In spite of myself I'm curious. But Porco won't let go of it. He just stretches out his fist and lets one end of whatever it is peep out between his thumb and forefinger. It's too dark to see so I take out my little penlight that I always carry for inspecting pharmaceuticals during the nighttime. (And at the other end, tear gas. In case Santa stops believing in my magic powers, or if something else goes wrong.) Under the light I can only see that this rock is as black as the guts of the universe. And deep down inside it I think I see some silver sparkles but they keep moving around, and maybe it is only a trick of reflections and my weary eyes. My retailers bend over too to take a look and Porco covers the rock with his hand.

"Yah," says Yusuf Ali "A talking rock. Where is its mouth?"

I picked up Yusuf Ali about a month after Santa. It took more daring but I had to have him. He has the height of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the build of a world-class weightlifter, and I needed him for visible protection, show of force. For that very reason it was scary when it came time to choose him a name. I thought of Blue Gum Nigger, but after I had watched him for a while I figured out that he was a Muslim. The original Yusuf Ali translated the Koran and printed it in parallel lines with the Arabic. I called my man that name and he came to me. My Yusuf Ali is also a scholar. He is learning Arabic and he doesn't believe in talking rocks. Also he can be mean. But Porco, a cockroach by comparison, is not afraid of him.

"It is not a talking rock." Porco's voice drops two octaves. "It is The Storytelling Stone." And I know that I will listen to him now even if he runs all over the ten minutes I allotted. Porco's voice, when it goes deep, makes you feel like you have fallen out of your own little life into a very deep well, at the bottom of which is a large and beautiful cathedral. Or it makes you feel like you have been shot in the heart. He should have been a politician or a priest. Too bad he's crazy.

"The Storytelling Stone," says Porco. "I hold it in my hand and I have knowledge and power."

"Oh, Mister Knowledge and Power," Carlo says. "So make it talk." Carlo is a very handsome guy from the Dominican Republic, a quadroon, a picture-book Kool Kat. What interests him above all other things in life is his clothes. Carlo is his real name as far as I know. I never bothered to name him because he has no power worth tapping into. I keep him around simply because certain customers are impressed by his style.

And while I'm on the subject of names and personnel, I should cover Holy Mother too. From my old neighborhood, I've known him all the way up from my beautiful childhood. Nowadays he's so depressed all the time that he really can't even talk. He actually takes pharmaceuticals, poor bastard. I call him Holy Mother because as a little kid he had a thing about the Virgin. But I don't want to hurt the guy; I take care of him the best I can. (Also he's my knife.) And at least with me he'll die of a clean OD or a straightforward stabbing; he won't end up with his brains splattered across a plate of linguine with pesto. My relatives, they like to shoot you while you're eating out. Sets an example, so they say.

"Shut up," I tell Carlo. He always does just what I tell him to because if he ever doesn't I will have Yusuf Ali put a knot in his nose, and he loves his nose even more than his silk shirts.

"I can't make it talk," Porco says. "It can make me talk. It can even make you talk, Johnny B. But we are not to know the day or the hour. But I didn't come up here to talk to two-bit pushers. I came up here to tell you, Johnny B. Goode, that I have The Storytelling Stone and that I am holding it here in my hand. Because you have every right to know. Because of the names."

And with that Porco demonstrates the eerie power that he has to make me think. In happier days gone by, Porco and I used to be what you might call friends, perhaps because of his thing for talking and mine for names. I used to actually go down to Spring Street, where I am not popular, just to talk to him. And he would come up to the park to talk to me. And everything was very nice. Then one day Porco bought some pharmaceuticals from Santa. I believe I mentioned that what he usually does is drink, but he was of age and he paid Santa with perfectly good American money. With his head full of pharmaceuticals, Porco began to preach. The theme of his sermon was, in brief, that the world is hell. Now a very good case can be made for that, and plenty of people make it in the park every day, but personally I have no time to listen. Don't think about what you can't do about is and ever shall be my primary motto. And my secondary motto, for those who are interested, is Let other people do what they want (within reason). But Porco's sermon turned into a screaming freakout, and freakouts bring the man and drive away your business.

I told Santa to try to calm him down while I blew red alert for Holy Mother and Carlo. Carlo's not a lot of use for this kind of work, because he doesn't like to get himself mussed up. But I thought Santa and Holy Mother would be plenty of calming influence for a little catlike Porco; I was wrong. Half the time Porco had them wrestling each other by mistake. That was the day I got to analyze his fighting style. I dispatched Carlo for Yusuf Ali but he was at the far end of the northwest quadrant, and the man had arrived before he could get back, and we all had to blow out of the park very quickly indeed.


Excerpted from The Washington Square Ensemble by Madison Smartt Bell. Copyright © 1983 Madison Smartt Bell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Madison Smartt Bell is the author of two collections of stories and nine novels, including All Souls' Rising, which was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Best American Fiction.

Brief Biography

Baltimore, Maryland
Date of Birth:
August 1, 1957
Place of Birth:
Nashville, Tennessee
A.B. in English, Princeton University, 1979; M.A. in English and creative writing, Hollins College, 1981

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