StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

A SORCERER ON MONTMARTRE – (CHAPTER EIGHT)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on June 16, 2014

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A Sorcerer on Montmartre

By Kyle Thomas Smith

© 2013

Sixth chapter from the novel I’m writing

(Click the following for Chapters 1234, 5678910 (p. i)10 (p.2)10 (p.3)111213)

CHAPTER EIGHT:

RAMSHACKLE

Not six weeks into his new life in the City that Never Sleeps, Simon found himself on his knees in a ramshackle East Williamsburg apartment, kissing the crotch of a blue-eyed, black-haired actor’s blue jeans.

“What are you doing?” asked the actor.

“Paying up-front,” said Simon.

“I didn’t say you had to pay.”

“Everything has a price.”

“Shit. That sounds so canned. Who taught you shit like that?”

“Just learned it being around.”

“Around? Boy, you just got here.”

“Learned it just by livin’ and breathin’.”

“You’re what, 18? 19? You’ve hardly lived yet—and you’re breathing out a lot of hot air in my kitchen, is what you’re breathing. And this is not a good way to start out, especially in this town.—Here. Get off your knees. Just have, have some tea. It’s made now.” The actor turned off the heat on the front burner and took the kettle off it. “This is a shit habit to get into, Simon.”

“You don’t want it.”

“No, I don’t want it. Get up. And my boyfriend doesn’t want it he gets back either.”

“Just trying to pay you.”

“You have no idea the ditch you’ll end up in if this is what you—I told you you can stay for a while. I didn’t say nothin’ about payment.”

The actor poured Simon a cup of hot water and dropped in a bag of black Lipton. He pulled out a kitchen chair and Simon sat down in it, shaking.

“Everything has a price,” Simon repeated.

“You mean he had a price.”

“Who?”

“The Roche Bobois apartment guy.”

“The what?”

“It’s a furniture store. Gotta say, your friend knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, don’t he?”

“You just make that up?”

“No. I wish. Paraphrasing Oscar Wilde.”

“Rush Boo—”

Roche. Roche. Roche Bobois. Stan works there. In Midtown.”

“Rush. Rush Boo—”

“Stan’s getting back from Pennsylvania in another couple hours. I’m gonna have to tell him what happened. I’m sorry, Simon. It’s the only way he’ll agree—”

“Boo-bois. I like that. Is it all French stuff?”

“Looks like your friend just bought up a showroom floor and passed it off as his own nuanced taste. Sure his asshole friends don’t know the difference.”

“I was amazed by it.”

“Oh, Simon.”

Kyle Thomas Smith is the author of the novel 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010)He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his husband and two cats.

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A SORCERER ON MONTMARTRE – (CHAPTER SEVEN)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on June 16, 2014

soho

A Sorcerer on Montmartre

By Kyle Thomas Smith

© 2013

Sixth chapter from the novel I’m writing

(Click the following for Chapters 1234, 5678910 (p. i)10 (p.2)10 (p.3)111213)

CHAPTER SEVEN:

LOOSENING-UP

Simon did get a new sweater the next day, more than one (ones that fit), along with a top-to-bottom makeover, starting with his hair. Robert O’s styling credentials in San Francisco, as well as all the hair shows he’d either won or placed in both cross-country and in Europe, had opened doors for him in Manhattan by the time he’d decided to relocate there three years before. He’d had his pick of the litter when it came to finding a spot in a high-end salon, so he took a booth at Copenhagen Essentials, a premium Fifth Avenue salon where head stylists often give $600 haircuts to the kind of A-List clients who can afford them. This is where Robert O took Simon and he quoted the $600 price to Simon again and again, from the time his assistant first brought him to the shampoo sink, reminding Simon just as often that he would be performing his services free-of-charge. Much like the night before, Robert O said precious little else to Simon, who knew too little about the world to know there’s no such thing as free-of-charge when Robert O is behind the chair.

When Simon came back from the sink, his chin-length wet mop of dark brown hair left Robert O with no less than a wheat field of split ends to thresh down. Robert O didn’t ask Simon what style he wanted. He’d already appraised Simon’s face and had a Layer Cut in mind, the kind he had given to male models on catwalks from L.A. to Hamburg for the past few years. Every now and then, from across the room, Belinda would look up from her book—a raggedy paperback copy of The Loved One, which she’d picked up for a few bucks down the street at The Strand—to hear clippers roaring and see whole Gryphon wings of hair flying off the back of Simon’s head. Belinda smiled, wishing she could see his Simon’s face too but Robert O was jumping around like a monkey on a stovetop full of hot skillets, attacking Simon’s erstwhile hairdo on all fronts and monopolizing all his station’s mirrors in the process. In next to no time, Simon’s hair was cut medium short and Robert O was already going in to texturize the top with a razor. Once that process was completed, Robert O’s assistant shampooed Simon a second time before helping Robert O apply tiny foils to a new array of blond and red highlights. After all the color had processed and Simon’s hair was washed and blow-dried one last time, Robert O shagged out the new style with his fingertips before applying Pierre Cardin’s American Crew Pomade and dabbing Simon’s neck with Armani aftershave. Lastly, he dusted off his neck with Taylor of London talcum powder.

Simon had never asked to be Cinderella on her big night out, but this new cut was proof positive that he had been spirited away from Wizard’s Stone every bit as much as the redheaded stepchild had been spirited away in her pumpkin carriage. He kept looking in the mirror, running his fingers through his hair and over his forehead as if to see whether his face had managed to make it out of the makeover in tact. He even pawed at the air where his weighty locks used to be, still taking in how much more than just his hair had vanished these past several days.

“I think you mean to say thank-you,” Robert O snarled, putting his clippers and shears away.

While this transformation was still too new for Simon to be altogether sure he was altogether pleased, he erred on the southern side of telling a polite lie, “I can’t thank you enough.”

“That’s right you, you can’t,” said Robert O, not even looking at him.

Belinda sashayed over, “Thought up some threads to stuff him in?”

“Hmmm…Do we want him warding off angels like you do, Mortitia?”

“Nah-uh, sugar,” Belinda said, spreading out her hands in self-presentation, “Mine is a signature style. Simon is way too nice for it.”

“Fine. We’ll go get him something off the rack.”

Robert O left his assistant to clean up the tonnage of hair on the floor and, since Simon was his only client on what otherwise would have been his day off, he grabbed his coat and Simon’s hand and herded him and Belinda out the door. First, Robert O and Belinda took Simon down to Soho, where they fitted him with form-fitting sweaters from DKNY, black leather zipper boots and a black leather jacket from Kenneth Cole, along with back-in-vogue plain white Nikes and a few pairs of Levis in varying shades of blue. From there, they took him up to Macy’s on 34th Street, where Simon left the various retailers with bagsful of Merino wool sweaters and scarves, silk button-down long sleeve shirts, and even a pair of black silk pajamas, so he no longer would have to sleep in a 1940s nightgown or in the nude, like he had done with Belinda the night before (and he could have sworn she’d gotten handsy when she’d gotten back from the clubs, though he was half-asleep, so he couldn’t say for sure). Then there were pairs of Calvin Klein underwear, dress socks and even a good stock of athletic socks, odds-and-ends that added up to a high-end bill. It was all paid for too, on Robert O’s platinum AmEx card and from over one grand of Belinda’s get-out-and-stay-out stash, which Simon had told her she shouldn’t spend on trifles but she’d told him to shut the fuck up so he did.

The outlay of this new haul put Simon into a greater state of shock than anything that had transpired up to now, although he did manage to say thank-you a plethora of times but his thank-yous were not met with you’re-welcomes but rather with stony silence and a lot of cursory up-and-down looks. Simon had become a clotheshorse and he didn’t know why, but rather than questioning it, he just decided to go with it and, in the meantime, admired his sudden style reflected back to him in store windows as he walked to the subway home with Belinda and Robert O.

Simon said, “I don’t know how they’ll like this at work tomorrow.”

Robert O said, “With any luck, they won’t.”

“Why would that be lucky?” asked Simon.

“Wise up, Simon,” said Belinda, “You think you can get by here just picking up dishes and washing them?”

“I’m gonna have to.”

Robert O blew a stream of smoke from the Dunhill he’d just lit, “A little loosening up’ll set him straight.”

That line hung around in Simon’s mind a lot longer than Robert O’s cigarette smoke did on 7th Avenue. The “set him straight” part, Simon could understand. He was the first to admit how much he didn’t know and, looking in any direction of this newfound Babylon, he knew he was getting only the faintest intimation of how much was around to school him in the things he ought to know. But “loosening up”? Simon thought all that was over and done with now that they were actually paying for the stuff they were walking out of shops with, yet it seemed Robert O and Belinda had other practices in mind too. But Simon said nothing, nothing at all the whole rest of the night, which wasn’t hard since Robert O and Belinda just went on talking to each other, about old times—which mainly consisted of times they’d gotten wasted together and what they’d gotten wasted on—as though Simon weren’t even in the room.

Meanwhile, he just sat saying silent prayers—though he wasn’t sure whom he was saying them to anymore now that he was doing his level best to be a nonbeliever, Sartre-Beauvoir-style. Nonetheless, he prayed that he could toe the line at Chelsea Night & Day Diner so he could wean himself off Robert O and Belinda’s meal ticket, especially now that his keepers had made it known that what they had in mind for him was a lot of loosening-up, whatever that meant to them. And whatever it meant, somewhere in between the after-dinner bong Belinda and Robert O smoked and the lines of coke they did, Simon had decided he wasn’t going to join in any of their kind of loosening-up, lest he become the prodigal son, booted back home to a shotgun-toting daddy who’d do to him what the daddy in scripture did to the fatted calf.

When Simon walked into his first day of work the following afternoon, Paula greeted him at the hostess stand with a few menus in hand, “Hi, sweetie, how many of you will there be?” Simon said, “Paula, it’s me…Simon.” Paula said nothing but peered closer. Simon said, “I came Saturday. I’m here to start work.” She looked at his ensemble. It wasn’t anything like what he was wearing Saturday and it wasn’t anything a busboy would wear.

Kyle Thomas Smith is the author of the novel 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010)He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his husband and two cats.

A Sorcerer on Montmartre – (Chapter Six)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on June 12, 2014

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A Sorcerer on Montmartre

By Kyle Thomas Smith

© 2013

Sixth chapter from the novel I’m writing

(Click the following for Chapters 1234, 5678910 (p. i)10 (p.2)10 (p.3)111213)

CHAPTER SIX:

CHELSEA NIGHT & DAY

Once past Canal Street, Belinda and Simon were well on their way to Chelsea Night & Day Diner, courtesy of Mapquest, which they had logged on to one night at an Econo Lodge in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, while they both had been wearing Nuetrogena mud masks and a couple Rita Hayworth-era nightgowns that Belinda had picked up thrift-diving in her days out west. If that weren’t enough, they also had been watching All About Eve on Turner Classic Movies. It was one of the first movies Simon had seen that didn’t involve either Bible patriarchs or Charlton Heston, so he had scarcely been able to tear his eyes off the TV screen long enough to map the best route from the Holland Tunnel to 7th Avenue and 14th Street.

No matter how hooked he had been on the title character’s cunning, though, it wasn’t enough to keep his mind off all the drag on his own body. The letters where St. Paul inveighs against the Romans doing these kinds of things had scrolled through his mind on continuous loop, but he’d told himself the second-hand, crepe-de-chine nightgown was all there was for him to sleep in since he didn’t have pajamas (they weren’t in either of the Hefty bags he’d snatched from Menard’s lawn). It hadn’t been long, though, before he was flouncing around the motel room like Caligula in his seashell-collecting phase, doing Anne Baxter and Bette Davis impressions from the moment the end credits had rolled, and Belinda, guzzling New Amsterdam Gin straight out of the bottle, had been thrilled to see he had it in him—he’d need it for where they were going.

Simon could see why they called Sixth Avenue, Avenue of the Americas. It looked like everyone from both American continents—and most of Asia, Africa, Europe and maybe even Antarctica—had either driven in to clog up traffic or had at some point parachuted in to swamp the sidewalks. He had long heard you practically had to rob a bank to pay a month’s rent in the buildings they drove past, but the facades were still as grimy and sooty as the garbage-laden pavement. Imposing as they were in their dirt and dominion from Soho to the Village, the buildings seemed to grow even taller and bolder the farther they edged uptown, and the horizon promised no end of towers. However, just as Belinda turned west to go to Seventh Avenue and Simon wondered if he would ever find any room to breathe in this megalopolis, a parking spot opened up right in front of Chelsea Night & Day and they were able to pull right into it.

“I’m calling Robert O,” said Belinda as she threw blankets over their bags in the backseat. Simon stepped out of the car, fed the meter with a stack of quarters and walked to the middle of the sidewalk as Belinda made her call from the curb. A light snow started swirling around Simon as he stood stock-still among the masses thronging down the avenue on this leaden-sky, late-winter Saturday afternoon. He knew he was pushing his luck by taking up space where there was none, but no one hassled him. In fact, one woman accidentally bumped into him and said, “Oh, I’m sorry,” and he said, “No trouble at all, ma’am,” and she looked back and smiled at his civility. Everybody else just weaved around him like creek water to a boulder. In the course of only a couple minutes, he had already seen several men holding hands with other men, some while carrying shopping bags, and nobody hassled them either. No one made it their business like they would have in Wizard’s Stone.

As Belinda wrapped up her phone call, Simon turned one way, slowly, and looked in the eyes of a man in a camelhair overcoat, who walked toward him and past him. Simon noted, That guy doesn’t want to beat me up. He turned another way and made eye contact with a tough-looking Italian guy in a black leather jacket, who also kept walking past. Him either, Simon observed, even if I am…y’know…the third sex. His soul thrilled at how he was still standing on the same slab of concrete, not getting knocked over. If I knew any songs from that cat show Connie saw at that Winter Garden place, he told himself, I might be singin’ ’em now!—heck, if it’s still in town, maybe I’ll even go see it…once I’m settled in.

Belinda grabbed his arm and marched him to the restaurant door. “He’s meeting us here,” she said, “He works nearby.” Simon left his feel-good moment behind and opened the frosted glass door for Belinda like a gentleman, a hoary patriarchal custom Simon suspected Beauvoir would have abhorred but Belinda knew Simon could never shake as a southerner.

Once inside, Belinda unwrapped her long black scarf and soaked up the atmosphere. In one corner sat a preoperative transgender female with beefy forearms, a mane of goldilocks ringlets and stubble that was only a week or so away from growing into a full beard. She was drinking hot cocoa in a booth with a frowsy old man who wore a blue Yankees cap, a red plaid flannel shirt, and gray polyester pants held up by both suspenders and a belt. The trans woman seemed to be doing all the talking and all the gesticulating at the table as the old man warmed his palms on his cocoa, with his head down, half-listening in the same daze it looked like he’d been in for years. Some other tables were full of much younger men—white, black, Filipino, Puerto Rican—dressed with much more expense and savvy than the old man, many of them with big muscles that showed through their shirts and sweaters as each vied to get a word in at their tables with as much avidity and gesticulation as the old man’s companion, often forgetting all they’d been fighting to say as a result. Over the crackling speakers, Carolyn Johnson from The Exciters warbled something about how she knows something about love. A few old ladies in fuzzy sweaters were having Celestial Seasonings Lemon Zinger or Darjeeling tea with cherry pie, carrying on like gravel-voiced sopranos doing recitatives in a yenta operetta. A longtime unwashed man in longtime unwashed clothes stood stooped at the side counter and the cashier came by with a bag of leftovers for him from the kitchen. “Here ya go, hun,” she said, “A whole bag. Just take it outside, ’kay? We’re pretty slammed.”

As the stooped-shouldered vagrant shuffled out, the same cashier-cum-hostess came up to Belinda with a couple menus (never minding Belinda’s black-arts appearance, Simon noted, she just didn’t seem to care like places back home did), “Hi, sweetie. Two?”

“There’ll be three, actually,” Belinda answered, “But my other friend will be a while.”

As they followed the cashier-cum-hostess to their table, Belinda rubbed Simon’s arm. “Good call, kid,” she said, looking around the room. Never before this moment had Simon felt two high-highs in a single day, but now not only had he had his sidewalk epiphany but he-who-knew-nothing-about-the-world had shown something new to she-who-knew-all, she who had ten years on him and had brought him all this way.

Simon took off his rust-orange down jacket (providentially, it was in one of the Hefty bags he’d seized, unlike his p.j.’s) and rubbed his hands together as he took his seat. The waitress wasn’t at their table yet but still he said, “Cocoa, pronto!” with a chuckle and smiled at Belinda who looked up, snapped open her menu and looked down again, not smiling back. He knew that look. She’d given it to him lots of times. It meant he was being a dork again and not in a cute way. The look seemed harsher now than ever too. Somehow it was uncool to say “cocoa, pronto” and everybody was just supposed to know that or be penalized with a glare.

Simon pulled down the hem of the V-neck sweater he was wearing. In Wizard’s Stone, he rarely had to wear winter clothes, so he didn’t have any besides the down coat, which meant that up here he was forced to double up on t-shirts to stay warm—the one he wore on top was an Atlanta Falcons t-shirt, and the name showed, making him out to be an even bigger hayseed among these east-coast sophisticates (the old man in the Yankees cap being the lone exception)—under a holey black wool sweater that Belinda had come prepared with. Belinda had fished the ill-fitting sweater out of one her suitcases in Pennsylvania and told him to put it on. She’d said she’d take him shopping for one that fit later. The sweater clung to his chest, even though she had bigger breasts than he did (she was no Dolly Parton but he was ribcage-flat), it only went down to his navel and the cuffs barely cleared the flesh between his wrists and forearms. Simon looked over at the dandies a few tables away, who spoke as glibly and looked as decked-out as Cleopatra’s court, and his heart plunged at the thought of how much catch-up ball he’d have to play out here. But, then again, all of them also looked to be about Belinda’s age, so maybe there was hope for him cooling out in time.

Simon pored over the menu, which wasn’t altogether different from the one at Desiree’s. There was the chicken club sandwich and there was the double-decker cheeseburger and they had breakfast all-day and he surmised from the picture that home fries were just another variation on hash browns. But Chelsea Night & Day’s prices dwarfed Desiree’s like Goliath did David. Simon doubted he could stick it to Chelsea Night & Day the way the puny future king did the giant, and the way he himself had stuck it to A&W and Applebee’s and all those other restaurants on the way to Manhattan, the ones that had the gall to charge customers money in exchange for food and services. Based on what he had seen so far, it seemed this diner was a microcosm of New York itself and, from what he had seen so far, this city was no place he’d want to monkey with.

Furthermore, even if he were powerful enough, or slick enough or lucky enough, to come out on top in a clash of wills with it, even if he could bring it down with a slingshot, he wouldn’t want the giant to fall or even stumble. It seemed an oddly friendly giant despite rumors to the contrary from people like Connie. Look at all the people who had found belonging here. Look how many people already had had their chance to beat him up on 7th Avenue but didn’t. Look how the lady at the counter gave the beggar food. Suddenly he found himself following the urge to risk looking like a dork again to tell Belinda, “I think we should pay this time,” and he even dared to look at her like he wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Belinda screwed up her face and leaned across the table, whispering, “Of course we’re fucking paying. You think I’m stupid? We gotta pay from now on.” For however much Belinda played the stiletto-packing mandarin, she also watched her share of the boob tube on the sly, including almost every season of NYPD Blue. She took the show’s thugs at their word when they said almost—almost—nothing gets past the law casing every joint in this town. After coming this far, the last thing she wanted was to end up in Rikers, which she was pretty sure would make for even worse bondage than the human condition itself. As for Simon, he was just breathing a sigh of relief that, for one thing, they wouldn’t be shoplifting when she’d take him shopping for that new sweater. He was already thinking of retiring his Barabbas jersey, which fit him worse than that sweater he had on.

Belinda closed her menu and flagged the waitress, who was finishing up with another table, “Robert O says start without him. He’s in the middle of a Baylage, plus extensions.”

“I know just what I want,” Simon cheered.

The waitress came by. Belinda ordered a cob salad and a coffee, no milk. Simon ordered a Belgian waffle with strawberries and ice cream, home fries and a large vanilla malted milkshake.

“You’re having all that,” Belinda jerked in her seat.

“It’s time to celebrate!”

“He’s a growing boy. Give him what he wants,” the waitress enjoined, “Whatcha celebratin’, doll?”

Simon said, “Moving to New York.”

“Oh, yeah? From where?”

Belinda sat mute with the same glower that had hung on her face when she’d heard Simon’s order, so Simon assumed stewardship of the conversation, “Georgia.”

“Ah, for school?”

“No. Just…look for a job. Start over.”

“What do you do?”

“Well,” he said, “I worked in a restaurant, a lot like this. And on the street, I saw lots of restaurants, so…”

“What are you looking to do?”

“You know, go in for some busboy work…wash dishes, that kinda thing.”

“That’s what you did before?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The waitress gave him a big once-over, “Got a place to stay?”

“We’re staying with a friend for now.”

“Whereabouts?”

Simon drew a blank so Belinda jumped in, “Lower East Side.”

“What’s your name, sweetie?”

“Simon.”

“Simon, I’m Margie. How about you come with me?”

Margie took Simon to Paula, the cashier-cum-hostess who also turned out to be the owner. To anyone looking, it might have gone down as one of the fastest, most unexpected interviews in the history of job hunting. Chelsea Night & Day just happened to be needing a busboy who also could help with doing dishes. All Simon had to do was give Paula a thumbnail account of a typical day at Desiree’s, lie a little and say he’d worked there a year instead of eight months and add he wasn’t just passing through and that his residence (he didn’t even know what street Robert O’s apartment was on) was semi-permanent enough for him to show up to work on time. After telling her everything she wanted to hear for now, Paula paused, nodded and told him he could start training after the lunch shift on Monday. He could fill out paperwork then. She also told him how much he’d be making and it was a dollar more an hour than at Desiree’s, plus part of the tips. “Thank you, ma’am,” he said, gasping like he’d just won the $100,000 Pyramid, “Thank you,” slathering on the southern twang, not just for charm but so Paula would know that Immigration wouldn’t be on her back since no one but an American could sport that drawl. (He also wondered if Paula was the one who, so many years before, had played the antagonist in “The V8 Incident” but she seemed too nice, but then again he also expected age might have mellowed her since the eighties.) Margie the waitress smiled, said welcome aboard and told him she’d be right on over with their food and just this once their late lunch would be on her. Simon thanked both women with Dixie alacrity and returned to Belinda, whose frown was now supplanted by raised eyebrows and nodding.

“Boy, things sure happen fast up here,” Simon said with a lot of huffing and even pinched himself, “And with me looking like this!” Once again, he pulled down the ratty sweater’s hem.

Belinda folded her arms and nodded, “Now we can tell Robert O you got a job already. How’d you manage that?”

Simon threw back his shoulders and puffed out his chest to the point where buttons would have popped off, had he been wearing a professional shirt, “It must be that Sorcerer magic of mine.”

“You’re a busboy. Don’t get cocky.”

“My conjure-man wiles.”

“Leave daddy back home, Simon.”

“Why, what you think it is?”

“You’re in the right place. The Universe is telling you something.”

“You mean a sign?”

“Yes.”

“Well, Belinda Quell, I do declare! Sounds like you think there’s something up there arranging things for us.”

“Even I have my less skeptical moments—don’t get used to them.”

“Oh, Belinda,” Simon leaned in, “I’m sorry. I shoulda got you a job. You want I can—”

“No, Simon. No. I don’t want to work here. I’m happy for you. But no. I’m getting a job somewhere else.”

“Where?”

“We’ll see. But Robert O will be glad to know you’re not just gonna be bumming around his apartment.”

“What’s he like?”

“I think you’ll like him,” Belinda said, “He’s Mexican, so he’s got a certain respectfulness about him.” That’s all she said on the matter and Simon wasn’t at all sure what to make of it, although he did remember the Mexicans in Desiree’s kitchen were all salt of the earth when they weren’t taking time out to horse around and moon each other or pucker up and say uno beso to the waitresses carrying orders out of the kitchen.

Margie brought out the food. “For a new colleague,” she smiled as she presented the dishes.

“Thanks, Margie,” Simon beamed, “Oh, this is my friend Belinda.”

“Pleasure,” Margie said out the side of her mouth, not feeling the need to extend a royal welcome to a banshee who wouldn’t so much as look up at a middle-age waitress in a burgundy apron giving her free food. Meanwhile, a group of tourists at a neighboring table sat in giggling awe of the mountains of vanilla ice cream, whip cream and preserved strawberries sitting atop Simon’s waffles, not to mention his pearl-opaque milkshake, and he giggled right along with them all as he dug into the squishy heap with his spoon.

Belinda hid her face, “Are you going to be a total spaz-attack when Rob gets here?”

“Huh?”

“All that sugar.”

“I have hash browns too, Belinda. Salt takes the edge off sugar.”

“Remember, they’re called home fries here. Home fries.”

Lifting a fork to her cob salad, Belinda couldn’t break focus from Simon’s wolfish sugar consumption, wondering if he’d be fat by morning. Meantime, he went right on tunneling through his late-lunch, but halfway in, got an ice-cream headache and had to stop. As Simon held his eye with one hand and gripped a chair leg with the other, the long-awaited guest appeared on the door runner, surveying the room as he dusted snow off his gray herringbone scarf, tied in a European Loop that draped down his multi-zippered, black cashmere jacket. A lot of the dandies’ eyes settled on him, setting off highly individualized fantasies all around the room.

“Mortitia,” the swarthy man intoned, “As I live and breathe.” Belinda vaulted from her chair and tore over to him. She hugged him and jumped up and down, and hugged him and jumped up and down, and hugged him again with lots of two-cheek kisses as though Robert O had just come back from war, albeit after trading in his fatigues for haute couture, with red hair dye, not blood, on his hands. Simon thought maybe he should go over and say hi but they were making such a spectacle and he could see his new boss watching the spectacle as though it were nothing but a spectacle, so he decided to stay out of it. Belinda ran the palm of her hand all over Robert O’s tawny shaved head and tiny black Mohawk. “What’s happened to all those gorgeous locks and waves?” she asked.

“Ain’t you been readin’, bitch? The butch is back-back-back,” Robert O said snapping his fingers between each iteration of the word back.

Belinda threaded his scarf through her fingers, “I hardly call this butch, m’dear.”

Margie came by to refill Belinda’s coffee while Belinda was still up front with Robert O. As she poured, she whispered to Simon, “I’m only buying two lunches, okay?”

Simon said, “Oh, Margie, this one’s on us.”

“Yours is still on me. And your lady friend’s. But—”

“Understood, ma’am. Understood.”

Margie patted his shoulder and walked off. Simon looked down at his waffles, fearing that Belinda and Robert O had just blown the good impression he’d hoped to make on Margie and Paula. Once his eyes took in all the ice cream and whip cream dripping down his plate, though, Simon forgot all about good impressions and his fading ice-cream headache and started scarfing everything down again. This, in turn, would become the first impression he’d be making on Robert O whom Belinda had just now drawn up to the table.

“Well,” said Belinda to Robert O, “He requires no introduction, does he?”

“Holy shit balls,” Robert O shrieked, stepping back and wincing as though he were witnessing a python swallowing a rabbit whole, “Does he always eat like that?”

“Good metabolism,” said Belinda.

“Not if he keeps it up,” said Robert O.

Through this whole exchange, Simon had stopped eating and was looking up at them both with his spoon halfway to his mouth. He had ice-cream glaze on his lips and some powdered sugar at a corner of his mouth. A creamy waffle chunk dropped off his spoon as he looked at Robert O, lean and ravaged-handsome, the kind whom even Simon could tell knew how to work a club (and Simon had never even been to a club, much less seen a roué work one). Simon remembered his manners, got up, wiped his palms off on his pants and held out his hand to Robert O, “I’m—”

“I fucking know you,” Robert O said and began futzing with Simon’s hair, “Needs work. It’s almost matted.”

Margie intervened, “Is this your third party?”

Robert O turned to look at her wide-eyed but Simon had the instinct to step up before Robert O could say something smart, “Yes, Margie. Sorry we’re standing here. Can I help clear dishes? Just let me know where to take ’em.”

Margie said to Simon, “Monday,” and she said to Robert O, “Coffee?”

Robert O winked, “It’s the only FDA-approved thing gettin’ me out of bed in the mornings, honey.” Margie turned over his cup and poured, “Please have a seat.” Robert O smiled and sat down in slow motion, like he was easing into a hot bath.

Kyle Thomas Smith is the author of the novel 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010)He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his husband and two cats.

Permission to Waste My Life

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on May 16, 2014

 By Kyle Thomas Smith

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Here and now, I’m doing something my younger self would have sooner died than done.

I’m saying die.

I’m saying die to my old ambitions.

I’m waving the white flag. I’m surrendering, abandoning all hope of accomplishment as a writer.

I’m already 40 anyhow. It’s not like there’s still time to be a wunderkind.

And in doing this, I feel extraordinary relief. It’s as though all shackles and tethers have fallen off me.

I simply want to write because I love writing.

I don’t care if I ever write another book. I’ll still fill up notebooks.

I don’t care if I ever again get published. I can publish myself, I’ll still blog.

When I was 26, I went to a psychic of some renown. It was a stupid thing to do. A couple years before, I’d read one of her books, which was all about how to get this, that and the other thing you want from the universe. We were living in the same city, the psychic and I, and I’d looked up her home address and had written her a letter in which I’d let her know that I found her pseudo-spiritual approach way too materialistic and acquisitive. (Looking back, it was pretty bitchy of me, but I was only 24 at the time of postmark and as such, felt an inordinate need to be the false-prophet police.) Then I experienced a dismal failure in my life and went looking for answers, so I went to see her.—It was dumb. Dumbest thing I’ve ever done so far in my life, which is saying something. But I did it, and it made no sense, but I did it, so…SO…

In her books, she brags about how people schedule a year in advance to see her, but when her assistant told her I’d called, she’d scheduled time for me the next day. She took my money at the door, took one look at me and she said she knew I was a writer. (Gee, how’d she guess that? Could it be that I’d said so in my letter?—The letter, the proverbial elephant in the room, which—plot spoiler—neither one of us mentioned even once in the session we went on to have.) I told her I didn’t feel I’d gotten far enough as a writer by the ripe old age of 26. Once she saw I had a complex about it, she started screaming, “YOU HAVE WASTED COLLOSAL AMOUNTS OF TIME!…YOU HAVE WASTED COLLOSAL AMOUNTS OF TIME!” I told her I was writing night and day. “No you’re not,” she said. Well, yes, I was but…her word was law in her chambers.

She took some other slaps at me, pushed my money deeper into her pocket and showed me the door.

Karma is a faulty system. They say, if it doesn’t get you this lifetime, it’ll get you in the next. That’s not soon enough. I’ve lived to see this woman go on to great things, and it’s not fair. By now, she’s even conned the top New Age gurus in America into announcing her as their personal advisor. (I’m sure she tells them just want they want to hear, and I’m sure they introduce her to all the right people in publishing, especially when her stopped clock gets something right.) Her regular clients swear by her. Just ask her. She writes book after book about how she’s always batting a thousand setting each of them straight. Jim Jones’ followers swore by him too. Look how they ended up.

Still: “YOU HAVE WASTED COLLOSAL AMOUNTS OF TIME!” That got to me. She hoped it would.

Today I wonder what she’d say about a friend of mine. He and I have known each other for years. He’s in his late thirties and works at a coffee shop I go to a lot. (Usually, I name the names of people and places but he might be reading this, so I have to be discreet.) He moved here from New England (how’s that for specific?) ten years ago. He thought being in New York would spur him on as a painter. He took a café job so he wouldn’t drain his brain working for the Man, and he was fine with scraping by on what was left in his tip jar if it meant he could devote more of himself to his art. Problem is, he had to work twice the hours he would in any other city if he was going to make rent. The years went by this way. And a couple weeks ago, he told me he’s moving back home. He says he gave it ten years here but he’d put all his energy into making ends meet and hasn’t produced any art. He’d hope to be a name by now. Not only did it not happen for him, it really didn’t happen for him. I don’t think his story is so uncommon. It might even be the norm.

I’d always known him to be chipper at any hour of the day. He always had a smile on and always seemed to be jumping from espresso machine to cash register to ice-maker to sandwich station. He never seemed to be kicking himself like I do, despite myself, about not living up to some imaginary standard.

Looks can be deceiving, though. You never know what’s going on in people’s heads. We’ve been talking over the past couple days and I’ve seen a whole other side to him. His head hangs now. As his days tick down at the coffeehouse, he moves a lot slower behind the counter. And he’s talking frankly at last, “I have no career plan past moving back.” Worse, the universe has set it up so that, as he spends his last weeks with the friends he’s made here, he keeps running into So-and-So, who came here at the same time he did and now he or she is a rip-roaring success. He says he’s got nothing to show for his years in New York.

My friend says he plans on going back to painting once he’s moved back in with his folks. He says there’ll be nothing else to do up by where they live. He’s going back so he can finally do what he came out here to do. I said, “Moving back might be just the thing for you.”

It wasn’t just a pep talk. It plain made sense. After ten years in New York, he’s seen a lot, experienced a lot and interacted with all sorts. He’s not the same New England sprout he was when he first turned up. As long as he keeps going at his canvasses, the life experience he’s racked up will transform into images and colors and concepts, far more nuanced than they would have been had he not taken his chances here. From where I stand, these past ten years weren’t a waste of time for him. And yet the grifter I’d gone to see 14 years ago might have delighted in tearing him apart: “YOU HAVE WASTED COLLOSAL AMOUNTS OF TIME!”; when, in fact, he was broadening and deepening.

Let’s recall: even the experience of shame is valuable if we transform it into wisdom—and the experience of wisdom is more valuable still if we transform it into creative expression.

Why, oh why, can’t I always view my condition as I view my friend’s?

And my friend despairs as he looks at his age—a baby’s age to those who’ve lived long enough, and it will be a baby’s age to my friend if he’s lucky enough to live long enough, but I understand—boy, do I ever understand—that his age might seem “up there” to him if he’s looking at his current age with a teenage mind, which we too often do when it’s ourselves we’re looking at.

I told him what I try telling myself when wrestling back my own inner critic: THE WORLD NEEDS LATE-BLOOMERS. It’s my battle cry. The world needs us late-bloomers if only to show other late-bloomers that their own personal prime might be well beyond the age dictated by the social metric. The world needs late-bloomers so that other late-bloomers might have hope.

Now, of course there’s hope and there’s false hope, but I don’t care what the nihilists say, there is hope—and I have every reason to believe there’s hope for my friend.

And yet I struggle to find the same hope for myself. Julius doesn’t struggle to see that there’s hope for me. It’s as evident to him as day turning into night, and night turning into day.

Julius gives me a swim-team analogy: Don’t Look at the Lane Next to You, It’ll Only Slow You Down. I give the same analogy to my friend and he gives me a free iced coffee for giving him that analogy. It makes total sense.

It makes sense to me now as I write this. But how often I have to remind myself!

And yet I maintain what I started out saying: I surrender.

But let’s talk about what that means.

I have a different way about me. Frankly, it’s un-American. That is to say, it’s organic, not manufactured and mass-produced. It’s not the Steven Pressfield, War of Art model.—I can’t get with that at all, though I understand why others can. (There’s a machismo and bravado to it that’s particularly attractive to straight men, though some gay guys I know get with it too.)—Mine is more the Natalie Goldberg model. If you’ve tried her and she’s not for you, I understand. If you think her compulsive free-writing method is a waste of time, I understand. It’s a process that requires tremendous patience, just like fallow fields require tremendous patience and tremendous care, but in my own experience, it’s a model that’s yielded the best I’m capable of producing.

My mom died a little over a year ago. My dad died this year, less than a year after my mom. One of my brothers asked me if I wanted anything from their house. I said all I wanted were some boxes of notebooks my folks let me put in their crawl space before I moved to New York, more than a decade ago. Over a three-year period in my twenties, I’d been filling up notebooks with stream-of-consciousness free-writing a la Natalie Goldberg and had even run writing workshops around it. I’d forgotten how many notebooks I’d filled up in those days. My brother found the boxes in their crawl space and sent them to me via UPS from Chicago. All in, they weighed over 140 lbs.

Since moving to New York, I’ve continued the process and have probably filled up at least three or four times as many notebooks.

Yet so far, I’ve only gotten one book published. I’ve amassed many personal essays but do they quite hang together as a book? Julius says I should probably get about five or six more finished before we go looking for an agent. To do that, I either need more life experience or I need to dig even deeper for material than I’ve dug so far.

If the tonnage of notebooks I’ve filled hasn’t given you enough of a sense of how deeply I’ve been digging, please also note that I meditate two to three hours a day outside of writing. “And wadd’it getcha?” I could hear my Midwest roots barking, and yet it’s gotten me all that I’ve been able to get done.

It’s not laziness on my part. I’m showing up every day. I’ve done it the other way. I have tried the Steven Pressfield way of trying to grind material out of whole cloth but nothing worthwhile has ever come of it. I’ve read the cute quote by W. Somerset Maugham about how he can’t work without the muse but luckily the muse shows up for him every morning at 9 o’clock, and there’s Flannery O’Connor’s line about how she’s at her desk even if the muse isn’t.

And let me tell you, I’m there too—every single day—whether the muse is there or not, but so far there’s no War & Peace by Kyle Thomas Smith. I’m simply gathering meditations for a compost pile that I hope will grow a garden, and in my experience, it can take many years.

And I often despair as my friend despairs.

The best literary analogy I’ve ever found for this dilemma is in the South African dramatist Athol Fugard’s elderly character, Helen, in his play, The Road to Mecca. At some point in her old age, Helen had found that she has a gift for sculpture, so she continues to sculpt Gothic images that send shockwaves throughout her community, most of whom are superstitious and view the sculptures as some strange voodoo. Consequently, they view Helen as a mad woman, possessed of evil powers. A young woman friend, Elsa, comes to visit Helen. Elsa says she sees that Helen has not finished her newest series. “Roll up your sleeves and get on with it,” she tells Helen.

Helen responds with the following (redacted) monologue:

It’s not as simple as that, Elsie…You see, that’s the trouble. It’s still only just an idea I’m thinking about. I can’t see it clearly enough yet to start to work on it. I’ve told you before, Elsie, I have to see them very clearly first. They’ve got to come to me inside like pictures. And if they don’t well, all I can do is wait…and hope that they will. I wish I knew how to make it happen, but I don’t. I don’t know where the pictures come from. I can’t force myself to see something that isn’t there. I’ve tried to do that once or twice in the past when I was desperate, but the work always ended up a lifeless, shapeless mess. If they don’t come, all I can do is wait…I try to be patient with myself, but it’s hard…suppose that I’m waiting for nothing, that there won’t be any more pictures inside ever again…Oh God, no! Please no. Anything but that.

(Athol Fugard, The Road to Mecca)

I meditate. I write. I wait for the pictures myself. But suppose they don’t come and I waste my life.

Well, if that’s wasting my life: here and now, I give myself permission to waste my life. To waste colossal amounts of time. To become no-one and nothing, in the face of my society and Steven Pressfield and that sham sibyl I went to when I was vulnerable and in need of answers, I give myself permission to waste my life and let the pictures come, if they have the heart to come.

I find that I can only produce something worthy of publication if I’m riding the crest of a creative wave, if I’m writing with alacrity, a kind of flow. It’s how Van Gogh painted. Look what happened to him. Yeah, and that concerns me. But he had a lust for life that, to me, made up for how his life ended. I write to pay homage to life, to prana, to that source of vitality. Without that source, that prana, life is nothing and writing is nothing.

But don’t you want to make a name for yourself? I’d be lying if I said that superego shit doesn’t keep me up at night, but it’s that superego shit that also militates against prana.

And so I surrender.

I’ll wait…even if all my waiting comes to nothing…and even if I come to nothing.

I once read a quick-sketch bio of Euripides that said, “Euripides went on to live a life of introspection.” And that seems a worthy occupation to me. But where I’m from, anything beyond the barest minimum of introspection is considered a waste of life. And so, if those are the terms, I give myself permission to waste my life. It seems to be what I was called to do.

Kyle Thomas Smith is the author of the novel 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010). He lives in Brooklyn with his husband Julius and his cats, Marquez and Giuseppe.

@Sardi’s (Crossing 40: Part II)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on May 14, 2014

By Kyle Thomas Smith

SardisSardi’s, Manhattan, May 11, 2014

Julius (collared shirt) and I (uncollared) celebrate my 40th*

birthday after Bullets Over Broadway under an autographed

caricature of Dr. Ruth Westheimer.

Overheard at Sardi’s – Old Lady in hornrims to meaty-armed Old Man, eating steak in Cabana shirt:

Old Lady: Any interest in seeing this play? Where’s my Playbill? S’pose to be good. Something like “Hedge-Wig and…and…the Inch.” One of those transvestite plays.


Old Man: Y’know, they can say all they want but (pauses to chew on potato and consider) those transvestites are okay by me.

(Both nod, resume eating and don’t say another word until waiter brings dessert menu.)

* On a separate note, I’d thought about doing a series called “Crossing 40” in infinite parts with infinite Roman numerals to document my experience of the new decade. However, upon further (albeit early) consideration, my experience has been that there’s no need. Turns out, crossing this threshold has been no big deal and I don’t need to make it one by always naming the experience in the title. From now on, I’ll simply blog in the hodgepodge way I’ve always blogged. I still intend to blog more than I had in the past, though.

Subway Car of Souls (Crossing 40: Part I)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on May 13, 2014

By Kyle Thomas Smith

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I turned 40 on Sunday.

It’s My New Decade resolution to blog more.

We’ll see how I do.

The other day, I was transferring from the 2 to the 1 at Times Square when a little white man, in his forties (like I am as of this past Sunday—40, that is, not little), shoved his way in front of me as the train pulled up. The crunching tumult of the opening subway doors served as his battle hymn as he blitzed through the throngs attempting to exit. The conductor must have witnessed this scene because, right as the little man embarked on his rampage, you heard over the P.A.: “Let ’em out first, let ’em out first! Hey. Leddem owww-tah!” He attracted a score of leers, not the least being mine as I trundled in after him.

The little man was wearing a featureless orange baseball cap, a stuffed-up black backpack and a green coat that I think I once saw on sale at Urban Outfitters in the early 2000s. He dove at a couple stomped-on gatefolds from the Times that lay at the feet of a young African-American college student, in thick bifocals, clutching her chemistry textbook, and a squat old man with a musty tweed coat, a yarmulke and a feral Einstein mane.

“Is this yours?” the little man asked them as he bunched up the gatefolds like they were the books of an unfaithful lover, who always took up too much shelf space and now was about to find their books airborne out the apartment window.

“No,” they both answered, shaking their heads in tremors like he was grazing the edge of a trash-pick across their throats.

The little man took a deep breath, the newspaper pages bundled at his side, and walked over to wait by the door for the next stop, 50th St, casting back a glance that read, Yeah, well, they better not be. But did the man even look to see how many footprints were on the pages? They were like a low-rent version of the Gauman’s Chinese Theatre walkway. They’d probably been on the ground since Wall Street. He should’ve looked miles back for scapegoats. Now, I’m all for reducing our carbon footprint, but this guy was acting like an Earth Day capo. Plus, good as it is to put litter in its place (and I do, at least my own), the MTA does have a clean-up crew at 242nd St even if our green avenger hadn’t arrived on the scene.

The Scandinavian bombshell, sitting near where the man was now standing, removed her earphones and said in a Swedish Chef voice, “Thanks for vat you’re doing.” She must have been an off-duty model, cheekbones high as the white cliffs of Dover and sapphire blue eyes with eyebrows that a cosmetologist has to train for years to arc to such an apex, yet she was decked out in granola grubbies with a thick white fisherman’s knit sweater and hiking boots. Clearly, he’d scored a better find than dirty newspaper pages just now. The fire tearing through the man’s veins guttered to a slow, flickering burn as his face and voice ebbed from Charles Bronson to Potsie Weber, “Oh, well, thank you. Yeah, um, y’know…” He fumbled for a talking point and damned if he didn’t find one: “Recycle, Reuse, Restore, Replenish.” He sniggered, only to brace back up after an ill-timed snort obviated his cool.

The eco-conscious model smiled, though, and a ray of hope began to shine once more in the man’s eyes. The model, however, went back to staring into space as she reinserted her earplugs. Lest he blow his last chance with her like our greed-and-turbine-driven society has with the planet, the man piped up again, “It’s better than being pissed off.”

The enchantress removed her earplugs, “Excuse me?”

“It’s better than being pissed off.”

“You’re pissed off?”

“No. Well, yes. But no. I mean, it’s better than being pissed off.”

“What is?”

“Helping.”

“Helping?”

“Yeah, helping is better than being pissed off.”

“Oh, yes. Yes. I agree. I agree. Helping…better than being pissed off. Any day. Yes.”

“Yeah.”

She smiled and nodded, and he smiled and nodded, and she put her earplugs back in. He jumped in again, “The earth, right—”

She took her earplugs back out, “I’m sorry?”

“No, it’s just…important. You know. They say it’s too late but…you know…it’s important…the earth.”

“Yeah,” she said, “Important.” She held up her canvas bag. She nodded. She smiled. She reapplied her earplugs and turned back to oblivion.

“Thank you,” he said.

She took her earplugs out, “Excuse me?”

“Thank you,” he said.

“For what?”

“For your bag.”

“My bag?”

“Your bag,” he said, and he pointed to the green recycling arrows that decorated the exterior.

“Oh, yes,” she smiled and nodded.

“It’s important.”

“It is. It’s important,” she nodded, returning her earplugs to her ears.

Never before had 50th Street seemed so far away to anyone observing this exchange, much less to the two participating in it. When the subway finally pulled up to his destination, the man who’d stormed the car like the cavalry now mooned around by the doors until they opened, his spirits slung lower than the rats scrambling beneath the tracks.

“Have a good day,” he told the model as he took his first step out.

“You too,” she smiled and nodded, earplugs wedged in her ears.

I still had two more stops to go. I was on my way to the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library. It’s where I go when I want to write a book. I’ve only published one book so far and I started it there. I started it as a short story but it became a novel, got published and won lots of awards. I sometimes go back to the library thinking I’ll get lucky again.

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What got me to go there the day I started the-story-that-became-a-novel was the movie Wings of Desire, which I first saw at The Music Box Theater in Chicago in 1990, when I was 16 years old. The Music Box Theater is hands-down my favorite venue in all Chicago, possibly in all the world. We’ve got nothing like it in New York. I mean, we have great theaters for art movies but none as majestic as the Music Box, whose main theater is a veritable cathedral with vaulted ceilings and gilded walls, ornate cornices and niches harboring vined putti. At prime time, they even have a guy playing the pipe organ in a Tuxedo. It was my Cinema Paradiso growing up—where I came of age, where I witnessed cultures and vistas worlds away from the Midwest.

For me, Wings of Desire remains the crowning cinematic achievement. Two angels, dressed like those chain-smoking existentialists I so adored in my youth, roam Berlin and listen in on people’s thoughts. The mindscape the angels inhabit is rendered in austere black and white. Every now and then, director Wim Wender splices in color sequences to portray the sentient world of mortals, whose hearts ache but who also have the capacity to fall in love and to experience the groundedness and earthiness of ordinary life. One of the angels longs to have this capacity himself, even with all the trouble it causes, and so he must choose: does he stay in his exalted but colorless sanctum or does he cross over and endure the strife of being human, just so he can meet and fall in love with the woman he’s been watching over throughout the film?

This is also where I first discovered both Nick Cave and Crime & The City Solution, both of whom perform in a Berlin nightclub during various sequences of this neo-expressionist masterpiece. Both acts also figure prominently on Wings of Desire’s soundtrack, which also contains a haunting operatic score called “Cathedral of Books.”—But…thing is…someone once told me the song’s called “Library of Souls”…and it isn’t…but…I like that title better and think it comports better with the scene I’m about to describe, so…let’s just call the song “Library of Souls” anyway, okay? So, this track, “The Library Souls” (really, “Cathedral of Books,” but remember our deal) comes in when the angels go to a library in Berlin to audit the thoughts of the young and the spry, the old and the weary. The orgasmic crescendos that come and go throughout this number are enough to spirit you away, no matter how much reality might beg your attention, and all the while the library denizens are simply reading or sifting through the stacks for books.

The Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center attracts a similar mélange of old and young, spry and weary, so it seemed a good enough substitute for the Library of Souls the day I began writing what became my first published novel, and I remember hoping an angel would be standing over me to ensure that the piece would come to fruition. It did, so maybe an angel had been standing over me and maybe one would again if I went back.

Still seated on the subway, I began to wonder how it would be if I were one of those angels. I don’t mean angel as in someone who behaves well, but a Wings of Desire angel who can drop in and hear people’s thoughts. I looked around the subway car. It was a model of diversity, a motley, laid-back panoply, pretty much all world cultures represented sheerly by dint of each of us having places to go, people to see in this crazy, mixed-up town. How the hell should I know what any of my fellow passengers is thinking? I could make assumptions but we all know what happens when you do that. I’d end up yet another white guy, saying I know what’s going on in other people’s heads, when I don’t. Would I end up portraying the babushka-capped matron in the bulky man’s frock coat as someone wringing her hands over whether gay marriage will win the day in Arkansas even though the attorney general  has vowed to appeal the case, even though in principle he supports marriages such as mine with Julius? Will the Nigerian man in the fez and tunic puzzle over what wine to pair with paella (a seafood paella, say, like the delicious one my friend in Clinton Hill served at the dinner party we went to the other night)? Would whole passages from D.H. Lawrence drift in and out of the young Japanese student’s consciousness, even though she’s carrying a textbook called Let’s Learn English, Level 2?

If I were one of those angels, I’d never get my wings. In our debriefing meetings, God would say, “You’re just making shit up.” Even more damning, he’d say I lack imagination. And here I was, on my way to the Library of Souls…or the Lincoln Center library anyway.

As soon as I got to the library, I sat at a long table with sundry other souls. I opened my notebook. I looked up and down the table. Some people looked at me, like, what the hell you starin’ at, asshole? Others sat as lost in their earphones as the Scandinavian model had hoped to get in hers.

Just as an exercise, I started scribbling out a scenario in which the Scandinavian model had leapt out of her seat and, in slow motion, run after her prince in reusable rags. My first shot at their exchange didn’t yield much. I couldn’t leave it at a movie ending where they’d just fall into each other’s arms at the turnstile and smooch. We all saw Into the Woods. (Or maybe we all didn’t. It’s a Sondheim musical, after all, and not all the world goes to those, nor does all the world have access to the TKTS booth at Times Square if they can’t pay full-price.) We all know there’s much more to a story than the happily-ever-after kiss. (That much is something, I can safely say, anyone with any sense knows.)

So, I had to put the Green Avenger and the Scandinavian model on a date. What restaurant can I send them to? What’s around Lincoln Center? Then I remembered that Jean Georges (Julius took me there a couple times, eight years ago, when we started dating) is right across from Central Park in the Trump International Hotel—and never mind that the Green Avenger would sooner die than enter an establishment paying rent to Donald Trump and that the maître d’ would never allow him in, what with all the dirty newspaper pages sticking out of his backpack—this was only a first draft, and this would be where the Green Avenger and the Scandinavian model would walk in hand in hand and say in unison, “Table for two.” The maître d’ would guide them to a corner table, beneath a sparkling chandelier. The enchantress would find the environmentalist’s social conscience so enchanting, she’d toss her headphones away like so much salt over her shoulder and he’d be so enchanted by her, he’d say nothing about how she just littered. Besides, Trump had it coming. Inevitably, their eyes and then their lips would meet over candlelight. Before leaving Jean Georges, the man would open his backpack and they’d both surreptitiously toss in their cloth napkins, which the Green Avenger would launder himself in eco-friendly detergent before returning them to their rightful owner.

The story was a no-go from the get-go. I kept looking over my shoulder, shrugging, turning my palms perturbedly to the ceiling, as if to call my Wings Of Desire angel over to the long table where I sat in my Library of Souls. I would tell the angel, “You can take my order any time, you know,” but it seemed the angel—the muse—doesn’t work at that library anymore—the angel, whom I’d somehow conflated with the waiter in my washed-up story, in the Library of Souls, which I’d somehow conflated with Jean Georges. Worse still, there was nothing on the menu and all I was left with was a series of bad metaphors that would find no other home than this blog post.

I packed up and walked all the way down to Rockefeller Center to clear my head. The crowded streets were exactly that, a series of crowds, multifarious but somehow indistinguishable from all the other crowds crowding all the rest of the Midtown streets. I caught the F train back to Brooklyn.

The week before, Julius and I had taken the F train all the way to Jackson Heights. My friend Mike, who was the best man at my wedding, is getting married in Barbados next month to Padma. Julius and I are going. Padma had come to our wedding in a scarlet sari with gold trimmings that put my black-velvet jacket, ruby Tibetan shirt and striped pants to shame, and Julius, for the first time in his life, didn’t wear a tie to a semi-formal occasion. Now it was Padma’s turn to be sorry as both Julius and I were going to go get fitted for the best Sherwanis we could find. Our stomachs were growling for lack of breakfast, though, so we went on a mission to find a good Indian buffet before we’d go looking for a good Sherwani merchant. We stopped in a sari shop for advice. The bejeweled owner told us to go to Jackson Diner. She looked like a Bollywood grand dame but her voice was pure Queens, “I know, I know, it’s an American name, but trust me, hun, it’s Indian. I order from their awl the time.” As luck would have it, she said she also sold the best Sherwanis in the neighborhood, right across the street from Jackson Diner, at her other store, Aura.

Both places were magnificent stumble-upons. Only, I kind of felt like Adela Quested in A Passage to India, eating at Jackson Diner. Remember that classic scene in the book? She expresses her desire to see “the real India” and someone tells her, “Try seeing real Indians.” The crowds on 74th Street were mostly Indian and Southeast Asian. Aside from the staff, however, almost everyone in Jackson Diner was as white as we were and gobbling up Tandooris and Samosas with a wolfish relish, just like we were—and it was hard to make the case that all those other white people were ruining our cross-town exotic escapade without also feeling we should have the word Hypocrite tattooed across our foreheads; moreover, it seemed that everyone was thinking the same thing about us, so we all just seemed to pretend that we all weren’t there, kind of like how you look right through any other American you might see coming your way when you’re in Paris. They remind you too much of you.

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Anyway, here’s a picture of the Sherwanis we ended up buying. Mine is the royal purple. With my Irish pallor, it’s Jagger ’67 meets Bowie ’69 (no pun intended). Julius has the powder blue (“Butterfield 8, Hi…It’s Gloria…”). This time, if the two grooms don’t outdo the bride and groom, there’s gonna be some serious silk piles littering the white-sand beaches of Barbados.

Sherwanis in the bag, we took the F home to Brooklyn…

Before I say any more, I want to qualify that I’m agnostic on the issue of panhandling. I’ve worked for homeless organizations and used to volunteer in soup kitchens and my heart goes out to anyone in that situation, so I still give to panhandlers unless I see an obvious con or I’m somewhere where it’s too dangerous for me to take out my wallet. I’ve heard both the pro-homeless and the anti-homeless speak out against panhandling. The anti-homeless are clearly assholes who’d eat their words if they ever wound up destitute and, as far as I’m concerned, any talk that comes out of their mouths amounts to a talisman they’re waving in front of their cravenly faces to ward off their own gnawing fears of personal vulnerability. However, I do respect advocates for the homeless who make the case that giving to social-service organizations is a far better way to go, and Julius and I do give to such organizations. Because Julius only gives to established charities, he won’t dole out cash to panhandlers but I at least try to think it over. While I don’t think anyone should feel bad about being more fortunate, I think we’d all do well to practice gratitude and generosity in some way, every day, when we are more fortunate. Also, and maybe it’s only a superstition born of being raised Catholic, I do think the universe—maybe even one of those angels—is watching whether or not I follow through on any intuition that it might give me to offer the person money or a silent prayer or even just a kind word, so I’m vigilant about following through.

That said, from Roosevelt Avenue all the way down to Brooklyn, the subway car was overrun with beggars. One had lost an ear and had third degree burns on both sides on his face. Maybe he’d been in Iraq or Afghanistan and sustained the wounds in combat. I don’t know. He didn’t have a pitch. He just stumbled through the standing-room-only car with a ragged paper cup, a walking billboard of need. I wanted to fish out a couple dollars but he disappeared into a gallery of standers. Another was a gypsy-looking woman with a baby in a front pack, hitting up everybody one-by-one, her spiel spelled out repletely in marker on a cardboard sign that hung just-so over the infant. She didn’t strike me as sincere. She marched too straight-backed and had her lines down too pat. By then, I had the feeling I should hold off on giving money. It’d lead to a big debate with Julius about where and when and how to give, and we’d just go around in circles, so I kept my money in my pocket. It didn’t help my side of the argument that there were at least three announcements coming over the speakers saying, “It is illegal to solicit money on the MTA. Please do not give to panhandlers.” And it really didn’t help that the next guy who walked through, only paces away from the baby mascot, announced, “I haven’t eaten since yesterday morning, people. I’m hungry,” but Julius whispered to me, “Look at his coat pocket,” and I saw he had a fat roll of bills.

The train back from Jackson Heights kept getting more and more crowded when this 20-something busker got on at W4th. Now, for me, musicians are another matter. I’m fine with them playing for change on the platforms and on the street, but I consider it rude when they step on to a subway car and make everyone listen to them. Nobody asked them to play. A lot of times you’ve had a hard day, and then one of these interlopers trudges in, stands their ground and starts letting their guitar or accordion or tambourine or violin rip. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re not, but the point is: they were never asked; they just decide, you’re there to listen to them and that’s all there is to it.

That was this kid’s disposition. He had chin-length, dirty blond hair, a fuck-with-their-minds edge to his chestnut-brown eyes and an amp strapped to his back. He adjusted his microphone, harmonica and acoustic guitar and proceeded squeal on the harmonica for half a stop, strumming waywardly on his guitar, before crooning Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” Dylan-style, which a better busker might’ve been able to pull off but he just didn’t. He was out of key, missing critical lyrics and then covering his tracks by chicken-heading the harmonica.

He stopped playing come 2nd Avenue, missing most of the last verse, when overcrowding made it impossible for him to keep going. With that, he pulled a cap out of his army jacket, which he probably picked up at Uncle Dan’s, turned it upside-down and wedged through the jammed-up, body-to-body subway car for change. Whether on account of being apathetic or cleaned-out by other bindles or just plain unimpressed, nobody put anything in his hat. He swanked back down to our side of the car, where he thought he might’ve landed a sale in a swarthy old man with dyed-black hair who wore a three-piece, blue pinstriped suit and a chunky ruby ring. The man had dug deep into his pocket. The kid waited but the man merely withdrew nail-clippers and clipped off a hangnail. The kid stood and fumed. He turned his amp up to top volume and said, “Thank you so fucking much, everybody. No shortage of assholes in the world,” before slouching off at Delancey Street.

A week or so later, as I took the F train back home after my stint in the Library of Souls, I thought about us first-worlders with our Sherwanis and the subway mendicants and the busker with the bad attitude, and it seemed to me these elements add up to impressions, disjointed anecdotes, a pastiche maybe, but not to something epic. They’re fragments I see or experience on a daily experience but they don’t always crystallize into masterworks.

As I sat musing on this with ever-growing diffidence, on a train that had mostly cleared out by Jay Street-Borough Hall, a vagrant with a head of patchy, clumped hair stood with his pants hanging off his no-undies ass. He leaned forward, spit on the empty floor in front of him and stood back up. Again, he lean forward, spit on the floor and stood up. He repeated this act over and over again. The F train moved out of the tunnel at Carroll Street and I just kept looking out the window at the Williamsburg Bank building and at all the new developments going up from Gowanus to Boerum Hill to Fort Greene. By 4th Avenue, I recalled that there had been a case of Bubonic Plague reported in New York last year, and it occurred to me that the spitting vagrant might be giving it to me now. I’d be getting off at the next stop anyway, though. I was sure he wouldn’t be offended if I got up a little early and walked over to the other door till we reached my stop.

Another down-and-out stood next to me by those doors, though, stinking of too much whiskey and too few showers. 7th Avenue arrived. He got off first and turned around and looked dead at me, spaced-out and wild-eyed. I looked back at him, deadpan, and without moving my lips, sent him a telepathic message, “It’s been a hell of a day. Could you just not piss on me, please?”

When I reached the 8th Avenue staircase, I looked back over my shoulder and saw that the man had respected my wishes. He was only now taking out his penis and pissing on the white tiles on the side of the 7th Avenue staircase.

Kyle Thomas Smith is author of the novel 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010). He lives in Brooklyn with his husband Julius and his cats, Marquez and Giuseppe.

A Life to Write About

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on April 18, 2014

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“If you do too much, I can pull you back,

but if you don’t do enough, I can’t pull it out of you.”

–       An Acting Teacher

By Kyle Thomas Smith

So Michael Alig is due for release from prison on May 5 after serving 17 years for the murder of his friend and fellow club kid, Andre “Angel” Melendez, the subject of the 2003 movie “Party Monster.” I didn’t know them. It happened years before I moved to New York, and I was never a club kid. I knew some club kids, but not well, just from around, you know. To hear them talk about their lives, though, always left you wondering if they’d be dead by tomorrow—the 24-hour clubbing, the designer drugs gatewaying into much harder stuff, the pasquinade drag crossing over into daytime ensembles that made you wonder how they kept their day jobs dressed like that, unless of course they got by as dealers and hustlers.

Before he’s even made his grand reentrance into society, Alig already has a book deal and is already passing drafts on to his Madison Avenue editor from behind bars. No doubt the memoir will fly off the shelves. Readers will return to the office red-eyed from all the adrenaline coursing vicariously through their veins as they make every phantasmagoric local from the front to back cover. All the while, the reader’s life will seem drab contrast to Alig and his unalloyed debauches. His wildly tossed salad days might be painful to write about but I doubt he’s at any loss for material—loss of memory, maybe, but as far as material goes, he’s a Velvet Goldmine.

Like I said, I was not a club kid. I was a reader. I was a cogitator. Even in college, in the 90s, I stayed in a lot and read classics and watched fine-arts and foreign films so I could be a writer when I got out of school. I strove to be an intellectual. This was no mean feat. By the time I graduated high school, I think I’d managed to squeak by with a cumulative D average. No-one knew better than I that I had a lot of catch-up ball to play if I was ever going to make it as a man of letters, so I got cracking while everyone else was out clubbing.

I’d done the club thing in early high school. Even back then, it was the same old story. You had to know how to dress. It was clear to anyone with eyes who the beautiful people were but it was never clear what secret DNA you had to have to walk among them—at least it was never clear to me, so after some failed attempts at fitting in, I just went along cultivating an outsider kind of cool and never looked back. And I gave up on those places early. The music was always the same—even when I’d drop back in from time to time, ten or so years later, even in the hottest places, they were still just spinning out the same ragbag.

It wasn’t going to clubs that got me bad grades in high school. As mentioned above, the club thing for me was short-lived. The reason I got bad grades was I went to an elite school I had no business going to: I only got in as a legacy (a legacy many times over); I had dyslexia, severe ADD (which they didn’t test for back then) and was enduring a lot of physical and emotional abuse at home and in my neighborhood. I got my IQ tested and the score came back average. But I wanted to be smart, so I took the fake-it-’til-you-make-it approach to intellectualism: I used ten-dollar words (cf., Sarah Palin), dressed in great coats, hung out in cafes, smoked European cigarettes and bored into dusty tomes.

Bored being the operative word. It was only in recent years that I even started letting myself watch TV. Last night, my husband Julius and I watched an episode of The Sopranos, a show I never saw while it was on the air but which I just started watching after reading that The Guardian ranked it Number One of the 100 Best-Written Shows of All Time, and I respect The Guardian and like well-written scripts, so I bought the box set on sale. It’s a good thing I never did drugs, considering how hooked I’ve gotten on The Sopranos since then. Seriously, even as I write this post from the azure coast and lucullan gardens of Mevagissey, England, Julius has had to swipe the Season 2 and 3 DVDs out of my laptop to get me to enjoy any of our actual vacation. But I can’t help it! I can’t get enough of Tony Soprano’s no-bullshit. On the one we watched last night, his psychiatrist (such a nice lady, I feel so bad for her, her mousiness is heartrending) recommended a book to him. In seven words, Tony summed up my guiltiest secret: “No. I read, I go right out.” I confess that’s true of me too. But I’ve forced myself all these years to chug coffee and read constantly just so I don’t end up a total dumb-ass (you can draw your own conclusions about to what extent I’ve succeeded in not becoming one, but I think I can safely say I’ve managed to stay out of “total” territory) since everyone who knows me would agree that, for whatever my failures have been in conventional life, I don’t have it in me to set up a career in organized crime.

Which brings me back to Michael Alig. I am probably the blogger least qualified to write about him. I know nothing about his life—though I am looking forward to reading his memoir—but having heard the hearsay and seen a couple Youtube clips, he strikes me as the sort who, for all his theatrics, had a secret stash of savvy that kept him afloat where others would have gone down long before the underground pulled him under. One knows this kind of person where I live in New York City. I’ve known people who were total junkies who managed to pull 4.0’s in Ivy League schools and become bestselling authors, full professors or senior partners in top law firms (some are probably all three in one).

Me? I had to keep my head down all these years and, now that I’m within striking distance of 40, I’m wondering if that was the best policy for me as a writer. Since I underperformed so spectacularly in high school, I had to do a year at a little college I hated before I transferred to University of Illinois at Chicago, which wasn’t considered the crème de la crème and it was just down the street from where I’d gone to high school but I liked it there and the people were by and large hard-working and intellectually curious. Most of us lived off campus and worked while we went to school. I worked as the assistant to the assistant in a Claims Management office, which paid my rent and bills and I liked my coworkers and could leave work at work when I’d go home after five o’clock to do my homework and all the many hours of extracurricular reading and studying I felt I had to do to become the writer I was so bent on becoming. I sported a bohemian look but I didn’t drink much or stay out too late on weekends.

When college was over, I did more of the same, just worked on becoming a better writer. I never went for an MFA since I was never one for groupthink, so I just wrote on my own, filling up notebooks Natalie Goldberg-style and like her, I’d also combine my creative aspirations with a regular Buddhist meditation practice. I travelled far and wide to exotic lands and always kept a notebook with me and later moved to New York, where rent was high and the jobs were so much more demanding, so you had to be alert and sober every hour on the clock, unless you have an exceedingly high IQ, which I don’t. And one day, I looked up and the rules changed. To be a writer, you had to stand on the brink of death, joining street gangs or being in and out of rehab or catching VD and spreading it to as many people as possible before you could make a mint off a tell-all about how that-was-my-past-but-boy-do-I-have-stories-now. And if you have to put some made-up shit in your books, big deal, you’ve done enough in life to make your spiel convincing.

I look back now and sometimes I despair over how I spent so much time thinking and reading books rather than, oh, drinking absinthe (oh, God, even that’s a dorky thing to do by now!). It kept me out of trouble but did it also keep me from living? Maybe not. I mean, I’ve done things. I published a novel and it won many awards. I’m married—in fact, gay-married, how cool is that? I know what it is to love and be loved. I’ve seen both my parents die. I’ve experienced the death of close friends. I’ve been to Bhutan, Botswana, Argentina, Cracow, South Africa, Nepal, Thailand and many, many other places. Still and all, Julius and I are in bed before midnight on weeknights and not long into the twilight on weekends. I wake up early to write and I also meditate twice a day, which some might consider cool, but I also pray and believe in God, which many would consider uncool and I don’t like to talk about it, not because it’s too Melvin or whatever but just because it’s a matter so intricate and ineffable, I prefer to keep it private. And, you know what, I’m fine with my life being this way—until I get to worrying that my writing will become too prosaic.

I could always write fiction, and I do write fiction, it’s just that fiction for me has to have some grounding in real life, and my real life is one that I prefer to keep out of danger.

Yet I keep coming back to something I once heard someone say about an acting teacher they once had. The teacher told his students, “If you do too much, I can pull you back, but if you don’t do enough, I can’t pull it out of you.” Michael Alig did too much. He even killed someone. Now the world awaits his memoir. Would you await the story of, say, the person standing next to you on the subway—if they’re not an addict or a recovering addict or a prostitute or a recovering prostitute, if they’ve never killed somebody? No matter how well they might tell their timeworn tale, would you long to hear it if they’re good and upstanding and just trying to get on with things same as you are?

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(Julius in sunglasses, Kyle in hoody, by the Godrevy Lighthouse, inspiration for Woolf’s To The Lighthouse) 

These are my koans for the day as I turn off The Sopranos and venture out to take in the beauty of Cornwall. This is after all, the place that inspired so many of Virginia Woolf’s stories—stories in which not a hell of a lot happens.

Kyle Thomas Smith is the author of the novel 85A. He lives in Brooklyn with his husband Julius and his illustrious felines Marquez and Giuseppe.

A Sorcerer on Montmartre – (Chapter Four and Five)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on March 5, 2014

A Sorcerer on Montmartre

By Kyle Thomas Smith

© 2013

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I know I’ve only been posting these chapters sporadically. It’s been a stressful time: my father died a couple weeks ago, less than a year after my mom – also, I sometimes forget I have a blog. Here are a couple more chapters of A Sorcerer on Montmartre. – Kyle

(Click the following for Chapters 1234, 5678910 (p. i)10 (p.2)10 (p.3)111213)

Chapter Four:

A Rogue and Peasant Hamlet

Do they even have hardware stores in France?, Simon wonders as he turns away from the window overlooking Montparnasse Cemetery and fixes on an iron hook that is screwed into Pascal’s ceiling. He can’t remember ever passing one on his desultory walks through Paris’s arrondissements, but he suspects the French must have hardware stores or else how could whoever-built-this-place have found things like Pascal’s cabinet hinges or the whitewashed screws on his doorknobs? And where else could the real-estate developer, even it was eons ago, have obtained that hook he’s staring at, in addition to all the other nuts and bolts and sticks and bricks that make up an apartment building? They must have purchased them locally. Simon can’t imagine everyone in France has these things imported to their doorsteps from England or Connecticut or wherever. Yet Simon has rifled through Pascal’s drawers and closets like Sherman rifled through Georgia and hasn’t found a single tool, not even a hammer or a Phillip’s-head screwdriver, much less the stepladder and rope he’s been angling for. It looks like Simon will just have to Google “Montparnasse hardware stores” and hope someplace nearby pops up.

Simon supposes he could always stand on a chair and use his shoelaces or any one of Pascal’s designer belts, but the ceiling hook is for hanging plants, not a man, and what if Simon’s dramatics go awry and he winds up bringing down the whole fourth floor? Apart from the obvious embarrassment, Pascal’s landlord would slap him with a big French lawsuit that Simon couldn’t even begin paying off on his zero-Euro a year salary. Lest he forget, Simon is an illegal in these parts, as undocumented as so much of the kitchen staff at Desiree’s was, and a jobless one at that. Does he want to get shipped back to New York if he doesn’t succeed in dying? There’s no job for him if he returns and his roommates aren’t about to take him back, rent-free, especially now that they’ve gotten someone new to take his place. So, then, without a roof over his head at Pascal’s, if someone from the French Ministry of the Interior were to find him alive and without papers, they might catapult him right back to his place of origin, Wizard’s Stone—which begs the question, does Simon want to hang himself here and now in Paris or there and then in Georgia?

Simon marvels at how there is no plant on Pascal’s ceiling hook, and there never has been, not even a nice fern. Why hasn’t Pascal ever hung a damn plant? The hook is there, it’s available. Simon guesses Pascal just never had much interest. And would he bat an eye if he found Simon dangling from the hook when he gets home from work? Or would he just…sigh…throw his keys on the bureau…sit on the couch…polish off the International section of Le Monde and a glass of that Bordeaux he likes so much before getting off his derrière, cutting Simon’s body down and calling the police in rivulets of crocodile tears? Pascal might not have tools but, in the vegetable basket, he has plenty of onions for opening his lachrymal ducts if he needs to.

Simon considers that Pascal does have strong-enough knives for cutting a man down from a ceiling, though. The knives give Simon some other ideas for how to shuffle off the mortal coil, options that do not entail a trip to the hardware store. But Simon would have to stab himself too many times, it wouldn’t be as fast or as efficient as a hanging, and the thought of slashing his wrists seems an even grislier, more drawn-out business. He had thought of throwing himself out the window, but Pascal’s place is only on the third floor and Simon remembers all too well the story of an alcoholic in East Harlem who did the same thing over a breakup, and from only about as many floors up, and that guy ended up surviving—with eight fractures and a world of pain. To make matters worse, all the drunk could do afterwards was take Vicodin with scotch while soiling his couch and watching schlock TV, which is how TV Guide became his bible, which is where the drunk found an ad telling him to call toll-free for a free copy of The Book of Mormon, which being broke and bored he did, only to find the book hand-delivered to him by Mormon missionaries, who said they wanted to talk to him about salvation and since the drunk had no one else to talk to anymore, much like Simon in Paris, he let them stay and chat. Now that the Latter-Day Saints have taken over payment of his hospital bills, the now-teetotaling drunk has found himself back on his feet and in a thrall to the Mormons. He is currently putting body and soul back together by hectoring other callers of their toll-free number, oftentimes finding them far less receptive to Joseph Smith’s message than the drunk himself had been. So, no, Simon will not be throwing himself out Pascal’s window into Montparnasse, not as long as there are Mormons on the other side of the river in the 16e arrondissement. He had done too much door-knocking for Calvary, when he was younger, to want to be on the other side of that transaction now. And, yes, he has thought of falling from higher up, but he has already tried for roof-access on the huitième étage, only to find it dead-bolted and backed up by an alarm system.

Of all the options on the table, hanging still seems the best, but now Simon is thinking that’s too much of a Judas way out and if anyone has betrayed anyone, it’s Pascal. He was the one who had kept the billets doux coming via Facebook and email and he was the one who had sent for Simon when his chips were down, only to end up showing about the same level of interest in being with Simon as he has for putting ferns on ceiling hooks.

And, as of last night, Simon has discovered Pascal’s communiqués with at least two other guys, one a 23-year-old Albanian trick from FastCupid.com, who emails Pascal in what looks to Simon like good French and whom (according to Google Translate) Pascal has been seeing in his office for nooners every Tuesday for the past several weeks. Others are from his ex, Raphaël, in absentia for seven years, who now keeps writing réunissons-nous et parler.

Simon does not feel the least bit bad about hacking into Pascal’s emails. Pascal had been dumb enough to leave the smoking gun on Full Screen while they were eating the tuna niçoise that Simon had prepared for him last night. Halfway through dinner, Pascal had gotten up to take what he had said was a business call on his mobile and, while he was out of the room, Simon crept over to the computer screen and read: “Je me suis amusé. Tu es un homme sexy. Je ne peux pas attendre pour la semaine prochaine…” Pascal came back and caught Simon snooping. “C’est privé!,” he shouted as he logged out. They did not speak another word to each other for the rest of the night. Simon simply washed the dishes, Pascal simply dried the dishes and they both went to bed in a dummied-up muddle. Simon lay awake all night and only fell asleep about half an hour before Pascal had woken up for work, leaving behind a note that read: “Buy milk.” Pascal was long gone by the time Simon woke up wishing the Albanian’s email had been a bad dream. So, was Pascal indeed dumb or, on some level, did he want to get caught? Either way, Simon had been clever enough to guess his email password, “Mignon,” which yielded a tree of knowledge he now wishes he had not picked from. The truth shall set you free or make you wish you were dead. If things between them were going to end in tears anyway, why couldn’t this have been one of the great romances like Heathcliff and Catherine’s in Wuthering Heights? Why did it have to turn into some trashy talk-show episode about a hackneyed email hacking? None of this was the stuff of great lives.

And what are the chances of Pascal seeing the error of his ways when it’s all over? Could Simon ever count on Pascal to arrange a plot for him in Montparnasse, preferably one within shouting distance of Sartre or, better yet, Beauvoir? Or is Montparnasse all booked up? Do you have to buy generations in advance? In the end, would Pascal just haul Simon out under cover of the night, dump his corpse in the Seine and go have a rapprochement with his ex or, better yet, a booty-call with his Tuesday Albanian? Simon determines that, far worse than being melodramatic and complicated, his suicide could prove downright anticlimactic. Yet his packed suitcase in the bedroom, which Pascal’s black cat Mignon is sprawled out on now as he licks his paws, could prove even more fatal.

Simon walks into the bedroom and begins petting Mignon. The cat, the password’s namesake, so sleek, so self-assured, so up for a petting at any moment is the best part of living chez Pascal. More than a few times, they have spent all day together while Pascal was ostensibly out-of-the-country on assignment (“Nozing happens in Ystad,” “You’d be bored if you came,” “I would not be able to passer du temp avec toi”) or pulling all-nighters in the editing room (“I could be un nuit, I could be zree. It’s okay, I have a bed et toiletries là-bas.”). As Simon strokes him, Mignon purrs and his front paws start strutting up a storm even while he lies on his belly with his nose upturned. Every night that Pascal is in town, Mignon sleeps between him and Simon. Many were the times Simon would reach over to touch Pascal and Pascal would rustle, as though Simon had stirred him from the soundest sleep, even if Pascal had been wide awake with his eyes open the whole night, worried about his film projects or what he had gotten himself into with all the emails he used to exchange with this American boy whom he now found living in his apartment and with whom he now had a joint bank account. Simon would end up pulling his arm away from Pascal and down to Mignon, who no sooner would wake up with a start than he would start rustling up a purr louder than a ringing alarm clock, to Pascal’s even greater dismay.

Pascal has 3,000 Euros in savings. Simon runs the numbers and decides he will take 600 as severance. He also tells himself he will keep the debit/ATM card but not use it unless it’s an absolute emergency. Besides, he also expects Pascal to rescind the account once he finds him gone, so 600 Euros seems fair. It’s about as much as Simon showed up with when his plane landed at Charles de Gaulle and Pascal greeted Simon in a swarm of people, while holding up a cardboard sign with Simon’s name on it, as though there were any danger of Simon not remembering what Pascal looked like after that week they had spent together, months before, in Manhattan. In dollars, 600 Euros is about the amount of his severance check from the August Strindberg Theatre. He would only be taking what he came with, Simon told himself, he’d be playing aboveboard.

Simon has learned that it’s always best to keep a weather eye on karma, especially in a pinch, something he had become well aware of after he had taken leave of his scruples so many years before on the road to New York with Belinda. He had come to find that, if you walk a narrow path, your chances of having it easier later dramatically appreciate. He had also come to see the opposite as true.

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Chapter Five

SAW-TOOTHED MONSTROSITY

Again, Simon and Belinda had to make their five grand last, so they dined-and-dashed in restaurants and diners all the way up the east coast. Belinda already knew how to beat a check. She had been doing it ever since she had first left Whimbrel Creek. She even did it when she wasn’t hurting for cash, just for a prank, a dare, shits and giggles—pretend to go to the restroom, wait until the waitresses’ and managers’ backs are turned and scuttle out the door. It wasn’t rocket science.

The first time they did this together, though, in an A&W Family Restaurant in South Carolina, Simon felt the presence of Jesus and the flaming sword he said he’d come back with in Revelations. Not even Sartre could have defended what Simon had done when he squinted and told the waitress he had to go get his glasses (lie #1: he had never worn any) from the car so he could read the check; from there, he’d gone out and sat waiting for Belinda in the passenger seat until she could abscond on the pretext that she’d had no idea what was keeping her young husband (three lies, plus theft, plus conspiracy). Sartre’s ethical paradigm dictates that, even in a godless universe, it is nonetheless incumbent upon each and every one of us to behave in such a way that we would wish for our actions to be those of all humanity. Did Simon want all the world behaving like a den of thieves, even in A&W Family Restaurants? When the flaming sword lanced him for this first violation, he had felt his soul becoming a towering inferno. He couldn’t speak a single word for the next couple hundred miles of their trip to New York and he couldn’t bear to look at himself in any of Belinda’s car mirrors either.

It got easier the more they did these things, though. The sword and the burning became bearable. Simon had even begun to swagger into roadside restaurants (swaggering being yet another thing he had never done before and that Menard never would have allowed, though from his first touchdown, his football-star brother Key had made a science of it and Menard had lauded Key’s every strut). Simon had even begun developing new moves for the duo’s post-dining experiences. Once at an Applebee’s outside of Roanoke, after the waitress had brought the bill, Simon had instructed Belinda to go out and start up the Mustang while he sat and enjoyed an after-dinner refill of Coke. Once he had jangled out and chomped down the last ice cube from the bottom of his gold-tinted soda glass, Simon approached an old-timer who was sitting alone, reading The Virginia Gazette in the booth behind him. “Excuse me, sir,” said Simon, “I have a friend who’ll be joining me and I want the waitress to know we’ll be needing another setup. When you see me go up and talk to her, would you mind waving and pointing at the table, just so she’ll know which table I’m talking about?” The old man said he’d be glad to and so, when he saw Simon walk up to the front and talk to the waitress, he waved and pointed to Simon’s table, not knowing that Simon was telling the waitress, “See that gentleman over there? The one waving? He says he’ll pay our check.”

Simon knew all along these were the kinds of things people like Barabbas do, but some little devil or other on his shoulder had reminded him that, on that fateful day in Jerusalem, Jesus was the one who got crucified, Barabbas was the one the crowd spared, and besides it’s common knowledge that you have to learn to cut a few throats if you’re going to make it in New York, which Menard used to refer to as “American Gomorrah” and which Aunt Gloria had called “Babylon at its best and worst,” based on things her daughter Connie had told her.

Connie had been to New York twice for trade shows when she was working for Dazzle Razzle Fashions in Savannah and she never, but never, stopped talking about it. She had made both trips in the eighties. She was even wearing a stonewashed denim jacket with detachable white-wool lining (the one that had made her the envy of her swinging-singles apartment complex), a passel of pinchbeck trinkets and a mane of fluffy blonde hair, all immortalized in the pictures her coworkers had taken of her on their night on the town in Times Square and a little ways up the street, outside a theater called Winter Garden on Broadway. The pictures had held a time-honored place on Aunt Gloria’s picture stand throughout Simon’s childhood. He remembered a show called Cats was advertised on Winter Garden’s marquee. Connie and her coworkers had bought tickets to it and Connie said she had never seen anything so spectacular. All the actors were dressed up like alley cats and had clarion voices with which they sang songs that were based on a book of poems about cats in a faraway fairy-tale city called London, where everyone speaks like Malcolm Muggeridge. The very idea was enough to send Simon’s green mind into imaginative transports in which he envisioned cities abroad and stories that included singing cats and things other than deeds done by those who incurred the Lord’s wrath or those who pleased Him by smiting those the Lord didn’t like.

But…speaking of fairies and faraway cities…how was it that Menard could have called New York “American Gomorrah” while Cousin Connie had said it was the toughest town she had ever seen? In fact, Connie had said she was scared to death walking through it. Weren’t fairies the kind that, again, back in the eighties, on into the nineties, Menard’s deer-hunting buddies would take special Saturday night trips out to Atlanta to go beat up in Ansley Square? His friends had always made them out to be namby-pamby cream puffs, who ran from them like loping hinds, which always had made Simon confused as to why Menard’s buddies had felt the need to load up their pickup trucks with baseball bats and feral teenagers if fairies were so easy to take down. Still, there was Menard on one side, saying fairies were all over New York, and Cousin Connie on the other, saying it was the toughest town in creation, a lot tougher than Wizard’s Stone, she insisted, which did even more to scare Simon, who wouldn’t have walked through his hometown at night on a bet. If the toughest town on earth was lousy with fairies, then even its fairies must be pretty tough. But he couldn’t square this logic with how everyone he knew in Wizard’s Stone had made it clear that anything fairy is the opposite of tough.

So how would it be for Simon to walk a square block of New York at any hour of the day? Would people stop whatever they were doing and target him like they do anyone who seems like easy pickings in Wizard’s Stone? How many times did he have to haul ass out of the way of bottles hurled by knots of dirt-head hicks, declaring Main Street their street, when he was, say, just on his way home from picking up a peach cobbler pie for Sunday dinner from the General Store? Did it get even worse than that on the streets of New York?

Connie was married now with a brood of five quick-succession rug rats in Macon. Yet every time Simon would see her, she would retell the tale of “The V8 Incident,” something that had happened to her, all those many years back, on one of the couple jaunts that she and the Dazzle Razzle girls took to downtown Manhattan. In recounting the story, Connie always mentioned a place on Seventh Avenue called the Chelsea Night & Day Diner, which she used to say had all these scrappy Jewish waitresses. Connie was on a big health-and-diet kick back then, “her salad days,” she called that period when she was young and thin and eating lettuce for a snack and was wearing baby-blue legwarmers more for Richard Simmons’s workout tapes than for show. At lunchtime, which they call brunch on weekends in New York, while all the other girls were too busy shopping to go eat, she had dropped into Chelsea Night & Day Diner with her boss and ordered a V8 with an all-green vegetable salad from a waitress whose entire demeanor had made it known she did not have all day, a temperament utterly foreign to Connie and the folks back home. The waitress scribbled down their orders and rushed off from their table without so much as a smile or a thank-you. When she came back with the beverage, Connie couldn’t help but notice how pulpy her V8 looked. She took a sip and told her boss it just didn’t taste right. She signaled the waitress, who was meeting herself coming and going on her way from line cooks to customers. “I’d hate to bother you, miss,” she said, “But I asked for a V8 and you brought me tomato juice.” Of all things, the waitress started arguing with her, “Waddya tawkin’ ’bout? You said V8, I give ya V8.” Connie had already known she was no match for New York City but this was still her country and a southern lady must take a stand for hospitality in it, so she laid it on the line with the waitress, “I know from V8, miss.” At which point, the waitress called out to another waitress, who was carrying a four-top tray full of omelets and toasted bagels, “Hey, Lisa! Waddya say? Is this V8 or ta-may-ta juice?” Without even breaking pace or looking down, the other waitress scooped the glass off the table, took a sip, put it right back down in front of Connie and hustled on over to her four-top across the room, saying over her shoulder, “It’s ta-may-ta juice.” Connie did not know whether to be scandalized or honored to have stepped into the starring role of such a bona fide New York moment. One thing was certain, though: “The V8 Incident” was the kind of thing Connie was talking about when she said that, to get through a day of life in New York, you have to be one tough hombre.

Simon liked the thought of finally becoming a tough hombre after all these years of his head being in the sand. So, before they had even crossed into North Carolina, Simon had said the Chelsea Night & Day Diner should be the first place he and Belinda should go when they get to New York, betting it would be just the kind of total-immersion experience they would need to inure themselves to their lives-to-come. First, though, they had to brace themselves for entering the city itself.

Simon had been suppressing anxiety attacks the whole way east and north. He knew in his bones that nothing less than a complete change of both scenery and being would do from here on out. Yet even Baltimore’s high-rises looked to be well on other the other side of manageable as they drove past them and even America’s Comeback City looked like nowhere he’d ever come back to if it were left up to his small-town self—but that was the same self he had to shed now, and how did he expect to take on New York if he couldn’t even belly up to Baltimore? Downtown Philadelphia was an even more daunting vision, yet as they crossed the Delaware River into New Jersey, Simon also had a feeling that Philly was a mere shadow of what was coming next. He had read about all these places in Civil War lessons in school but he could not imagine any Confederate cadet feeling one iota more trepidation than he did upon entering them, but still he sat in silence with a rigid exterior as Belinda intermittently looked over and laughed at Simon’s pygmy attempts to bear up inside.

From I-78, above and beyond Newark’s smokestacks, Simon could see the saw-toothed monstrosity looming in a pollution aura above the Hudson. The closer they crept up to it, the more the cars and trucks bottlenecked. At the tolls, Simon and Belinda had to pay the better part of what they would have had to pay at Applebee’s, had they paid at all. When they came through the Holland Tunnel and drove up to Canal Street, the first thing Simon heard was the crushing barrage of a garbage truck bouncing down a gravel parkway over a multitude of car horns and Al Green’s “You Ought to Be with Me” on full blast in the cream-colored Cadillac in the next lane. For the next long time, no matter where Simon happened to be, no matter if a garbage truck was in sight or Al Green was even playing within a mile radius, this cantankerous symphony was anchored in his mind as the sound of New York. A stench he would come to know too well, the fetid blend of trash, gridlock exhaust and herbs and spices from hundreds of thousands of different cultures and their restaurants, seeped into his open passenger-side window. Smoke billowed out of two manhole covers over on Hudson Street. People of any and all colors and creeds bustled past each other, not casting disparagement on each other’s differences, but, it seemed to Simon, respecting each other’s right to the sidewalk. Simon had fully expected himself to shut down inside when envisaging this cacophony. Instead, it felt something more akin to a slough peeling off a tender but altogether new layer of flesh. Whether he would survive it all seemed beside the point. He had come this far and he was here.

Kyle Thomas Smith is the author of 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010). He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his husband Julius and illustrious cats, Marquez and Giuseppe.

A Sorcerer on Montmartre – (Chapter Three)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on November 2, 2013

A Sorcerer on Montmartre

By Kyle Thomas Smith

(c) 2013

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Third chapter from the novel I’ve been working on

(Click the following for Chapters 1234, 5678910 (p. i)10 (p.2)10 (p.3)111213)

CHAPTER THREE:

QUELL

In his second (and final) semester at Reginald Hill Bible College, Simon had met a girl named Belinda. Or, rather, Belinda was a woman, a woman of the world, up to ten years older than all the other co-eds. In San Francisco, she had worked days as a barista at the Daily Grind on Castro Street and nights as a sales associate at the Manly Pointer sex shop in the Tenderloin. She had been a bartender in New Orleans’s French Quarter, a Mumblecore actress in three indies in Austin and a lounge singer/cocktail waitress at Search & Distill, a speakeasy-themed tavern in the Little Five Points area of Atlanta. She had dropped out of school after school after school, from one coast to the other, until she had decided on her own that she needed to settle down and finish up a degree anywhere that would accept her surfeit of transcripts. So, being out of funds, Belinda had moved back in with her mother in Whimbrel Creek, the next town over from Wizard’s Stone, and matriculated into Reginald Hill.

Founded in 1979 by its region-famous Southern Baptist namesake, Reginald Hill Bible College prides itself on being one building, three floors and no frills. Austerity is the name of the game at this Christian commuter college. The outside is beige bricks; the hallway and classrooms are all white walls, no pictures, and black metal chair desks; the chapel is all cedar walls with knotty-pine pews, a three-step pine altar and a mahogany Communion table; the ladies rooms don’t contain a single tampon dispenser. A cross stands above a steeple merely to announce the building, which in its simplicity stands as a living testament to how the only grandeur is that of God and, by extension, he who once bore the name on the sign out front, the late Reginald Hill. The sign faces the aptly named Hill Street, formerly Piedmont Street, renamed by the town of Whimbrel Creek in 1990, upon Hill’s passing. The student body numbers at a maximum of 400 students annually, with a current graduation rate of 82 percent, and Reginald Hill ranks 131 among Bible colleges nationwide, according to Christian Nation Magazine’s Top 150.

The contrast between Belinda and the sweet-cheeked, wide-eyed underclassmen in this institution couldn’t have been starker: Belinda strutting into lectures with black nail polish, black sleeveless t-shirts, septum and lips rings, Himalayan demon tattoos, fishnet stockings and rows of sterling silver hoops, running from the topmost cartilage to the lobes of her ears. Her hair was down to her mid-back, dyed jet black, at times with streaks of fuchsia, and shaved to the scalp on the sides and back. She chomped gum during mandatory Bible study groups and smoked on campus, racking up violations and remonstrations that she’d just go right on smacking gum and blowing smoke at.

The common areas hissed with whispers about how, being one of those kooky-spooky girls, Belinda must go home after class and practice witchcraft, all the while flouting the school’s injunctions against dancing or listening to bands that didn’t make the college board’s List of Approved Music. And they were right, though the hardest she ever went with witchcraft was to work with an Aleister Crowley tarot deck and a Wiccan protection circle, which seemed to do the trick since nobody, not even the wickedest trash in the trailers at the end of her street, dared mess with her. Her immunity within the trailer-park community, however, might have had more to do with how she always paid cash on the barrelhead, nothing on account, whenever she bought weed from its main dealer.

Why Belinda had been admitted to Reginald Hill was no mystery: they needed all the warm bodies they could get and offered financial aid to good essayists, without even so much as an in-person screening, a policy they revised in an emergency meeting the day after Belinda first set foot on campus. For the essay portion of her application, Belinda had dashed off ten pages about the profanation of the sacred in Anne Rice (shrewdly omitting sex scenes), which she’d meant as praise for the author, but which the board took as excellent writing and a lurid exposé of Catholic hoodoo. They had welcomed her sight unseen, saying she would set a fine example and, with the right training, make a fine envoy of Christ. She didn’t even have to list her church-service experience to pass muster, unlike every other applicant—and, if it had been the kind of hard-and-fast requirement for admission they’d tried to make it out to be, she never would have gotten in, what with Anne Rice being the closest thing to religion Belinda had ever had in her life. Once in the door, of course, no one could figure out why anyone had let Belinda within 100 miles of the building, much less allowed her to sit in class. And with each second that ticked by at Reginald Hill, no one thought Belinda crazier for coming back to Whimbrel Creek than Belinda herself—except maybe her mother Hilda.

When any other parent in and around Whimbrel Creek said to their offspring, “Get out and stay out!,” it was by way of eviction, but when Belinda’s mother Hilda said it, she meant it in the hopes that her daughter would go out and do what Hilda herself had never gotten her own act together to do, namely to leave their part of Georgia behind as one would a bad dream on a sunny day. It’s not that the option of leaving had never been open to Hilda. She was a dental hygienist, a profession in demand in every town on earth. All five of her children, whom she’d had by three different men, were grown up and gone (at least they all had been until Belinda dropped back in to finish up school), so there was nothing tying Hilda down. But relocating to another small town would be nothing more than a lateral move and a big city is too big a leap, however tempting, so Hilda bided her time waiting for a sign. A sign, like every bozo she’d ever brought home wasn’t sign enough to get the hell out of Whimbrel Creek; like Belinda’s own father, who’d run off to Florida with the Diddy Donuts counter girl, hadn’t been sign enough to sell their ticky-tacky house and start a new life. Thing was, Hilda had had the same group of girlfriends since high school who’d stayed native and whom she never could stand up to, and they would take her out to bars not even a full day after yet another one of Hilda’s romances had gone south (or west to Texas or east to Florida) and fix her up with any takers in sight, and it seemed like, every time, there was another loser lined up to sweep Hilda away and then move into her house six months later, only to be out on his ear within a year, either on account of another woman or the need to jump bail or an immutable lack of ambition to get a job.

It had gotten to the point where Belinda had stopped bothering to ask the newest guy’s name whenever she’d call home from whatever city she’d found herself living in. But Hilda never stopped asking her daughter what she’d been up to, who she’s seeing, where she’s thinking of maybe moving next (just don’t let it be here, don’t be dumb like mama, stay out before you’re too old to go anywhere’s else anymore). Not once did she mind Belinda’s vampire getups, though she always did say she’d take her own Ann Murray and Elvis any day over her daughter’s scary-dairy music, which she always had to special-buy online or all the way out at some wacky record store in Atlanta. The clothes might be a little slutty, but long as she turned down lowlifes-with-no-lives and used protection and quit having those abortions she’d always been so down on herself for having, Hilda considered Belinda welcome to all the fun and frolics she wanted. Hilda only wished she herself were brave enough to appear so outré, maybe then she’d meet someone truly different—maybe even someone, ha!, as different as her daughter, if that were possible—to pull her out of her Whimbrel Creek wallow. But she acknowledged she was an old cougar now and she liked Ann Murray and Elvis, so she knew she couldn’t pull off Belinda’s look, though she admired the guts it took in a town like this.

But the Bible college? Oh, Belinda! What the hell were you thinking? Why not cosmetology school? Belinda never could stomach the thought of doing Georgia up-dos for the rest of her life, so she said no, and you meet too many gross guys doing tattoos and piercings, so she nixed that career option too. She said she needed a degree, any degree, and she could take it from there. Hilda said, well, just don’t let them Holy Guacamole types hypnotize you into giving up on who you are so you can start preaching door to door for them, or go screaming scripture verses on street corners, and I hope you can come out of there as something more than a Holy Guacamole yourself and keep an eye on those loans too so they don’t drive you so far in debt you’ll never afford anything worth wearing again.

Yet, recalcitrant though she seemed, Belinda was at least kind of committed to making the best of what she could tell from the gate would be a bad situation. She felt sure there’d be freaks at Reginald Hill to hang with, the good kind, the kind who end up in Bible colleges when there’s nowhere else that will take them because they fucked up by partying too hard or slacking off too much in high school and have to get their grades up so they can transfer to someplace semi-decent, where they can party harder and slack off some more. She’d come to know the kind well in all the time she’d spent kicking around the country.

Her first exposure to them was at University of Georgia, where she’d gone on a full scholarship to the Grady College of Journalism and Communications, and these were hardcore freaks, the kind who blasted Dead Kennedys from ghetto blasters and free-styled on skateboards after taking fistfuls of acid and who dyed their hair green and even leopard-spotted the bleached-out parts. A few were radical queers too—one was an estranged Mohican son of a preacher man, who was paying a lot of his way through law school by moonlighting as a rent boy for a prominent member of the Athens-Clarke County Chamber of Commerce, a Republican with a rubber fetish; another two were the brassiest spike dykes Belinda would ever come to love and fear. They out-freaked all the art-school goons who swanned around campus with their clove cigarettes, Goodwill rags and European airs. The best day of Belinda’s life was when she and the transfer freaks from the Bible colleges went up to the lab on the third floor of the Natural Sciences Building and made water balloons out of condoms and dropped them on the art students as they smoked and talked on the quad, all sophisticated and philosophical-looking. They bombed a whole circle of them! And those artistes looked around, agog and bedraggled, and went screaming to the R.A.’s in their dorms, putting the blame on the frat boys, who got some kind of warning from up top. Man oh man, those were good times! She’d even dropped out that year to go to San Francisco with the spike dykes and a few other stragglers, which led to the vagabond lifestyle Hilda so envied in her daughter. And Belinda didn’t think she’d have to look too hard to find a new pack of freaks at Reginald Hill, ones who’d help make Christian hell just a little more like heathen purgatory.

Turned out, though, Reginald Hill wasn’t what she was looking for when she went looking for freaks. There were none like the ones who’d transferred to U of G-Athens, not even a pretty obvious softball dyke, which at least would have been something. Everyone looked and acted squeaky clean and was bent on being a preacher or a missionary.

That’s what Simon had thought he’d be, a missionary. That way he could see the world. He even said as much on the first day of his New Testament survey class, which Belinda also happened to be in. Reverend Holmes went around the room asking why the students wanted to pursue the ministry. Most people said the right things, even if they didn’t mean them: they wanted to spread the Word of God, they wanted be a handmaiden of Christ’s love, there was a lot of my daddy is a minister and I want to follow in his footsteps even though I fear my feet aren’t big enough to fill his shoes. They hadn’t gotten to Belinda, but by the time the question had come round to Simon, he said, “I want to be a missionary.”

Reverend Holmes said, “Why?”

Simon looked to the ceiling and thought it over, “So I can see the world.”

Everyone looked askance at him, and so did Belinda, albeit for different reasons. When the rest looked at Simon screwy, it was because he hadn’t even tried to sound like he had a calling, which it’s an unspoken rule you’re supposed to do with every teacher at Reginald Hill, not just with Reverend Holmes. To them, it sounded akin to a heart surgeon saying he’s only in it for the hot cars and big houses the profession buys him, and, if he is, well, more power to him, but he should know better than to say it aloud. What surprised Belinda, though, was that someone from the area actually wanted to see the world. She continued sizing up Simon as he sat in the hot seat.

Reverend Holmes took off his glasses, “Your name?”

“Simon Minshew.”

“That’s right,” Reverend Holmes addressed the class, “We have here Simon Minshew. And, unless you’re not from around here, I’m sure you’ve heard of the Reverend Menard Jake Minshew.” Most of the class nodded their admiration. Reverend Holmes went on, “Reverend Minshew has been a beacon of the Lord’s faith, hope and charity throughout the community for more than 40 years. I know he has been no less than a mentor and an inspiration to me. And yet here sits his own flesh and blood (if Reverend Holmes had known the whole story, he’d have thought twice about that flesh-and-blood crack), and do you hear him talking about his daddy’s big shoes? No, no. He’s saying he’d rather traaaa-vel. Now, Simon, you want to try that again? Maybe step it up? Say something more high-minded?”

Simon looked quizzical, “You mean, you’d like me to start talking about my daddy’s shoes?”

Even the holiest members of the class cracked up, as did Belinda who thought maybe there’s hope of finding someone she could work with here. Reverend Holmes whipped around, “God does not abide hecklers, Simon Minshew, and neither do I. Out of respect for your father, I’ll let it slide this once. But don’t any of you all think you can get so much as one strike with me. Simon over here has used up the only free pass I ever have or ever will give any student. Oh, and Simon, some advice: you might want to look into getting a haircut for next time. It’s past your ears and you’re not a woman.” Simon pulled his lips between his teeth and nodded. (Menard had been too busy with the Christmas season at Calvary to monitor this infraction, but on New Year’s Day, he threatened to take a scissors to Simon if he didn’t get to the barber, so Simon was now doubly aware he was overdue for a trim.) Reverend Holmes quit asking for the rest of the students’ vocational objectives and turned to go back to his podium to start his first lecture of the term.

That’s when Belinda piped up, “I think he should grow it out.”

The class gasped and Reverend Holmes bared his eye-teeth, little knowing where to start with the one-woman freak show in row two, “Little lady, when I saw you at the start of class, I’d made up my mind to have a word with you later, in private. But since you’re being so bold, so will I be. Let’s, let’s just say on the matter of Mr. Minshew’s hair, I think I’m a better source of counsel than you. And you might want to do something about that doomsday garb you got on. Oh, and that head that looks like it was marauded by a tar bucket and a lawnmower.” Hardly a soul in class hadn’t been hungering for a chance to ridicule Belinda’s appearance, and they laughed in gratitude to Reverend Holmes for slinging the first barb.

But Belinda smiled and intoned, “Sir, there’s a whole field of mullet haircuts right before your eyes. But you’re saying Simon and I are the ones who should go do something about our looks? With all due respect, Reverend Holmes, I wouldn’t trust your counsel. Nor should Simon. At least he keeps his hair all one length. Just like Jesus. If you’re too blind to see how many hairstyles in this room are worse than ours, then how can any of us trust you to so much as find the right scripture passage?” Simon turned his head, ostrich-like, toward his desk, lest he be associated with the goon speaking in his defense.

Reverend Holmes grasped for the first cudgel that came to mind, “Well, vanitas vanitatum, little lady!”

“I take that as a compliment,” replied Belinda. Reverend Holmes was never in any mood for a sparring partner, much less one who actually caught his rarefied references, which Belinda had learned from reading Goethe, Thackeray, Anne Bronte and Anne Rice—not Ecclesiastes.

“Well, it’s not a compliment!” Holmes railed, “And you and I will be talking this over with the dean.” Everyone in class was too stunned to pull a smirk—it was well known that being called on the carpet in the dean’s office (well, there was no carpet, just a few sticks of furniture and a gray tile floor) was only a step down from Judgment Day. Belinda conceded to holding her tongue for the rest of the period but also played the classic head game of staring down Reverend Holmes the whole time, never for a second letting her eyes leave his, except for once when she couldn’t help but roll hers (and he saw it) as Holmes droned on about how Jesus said to his mother, “Woman, what have I to do with thee?,” when Mary tells him there is no wine (a beverage forbidden to Reginald Hill students anyway) at the Wedding of Cana. However, by the end of the hour, Reverend Holmes had decided Belinda would be too much of a handful to wrangle into the dean’s office without the aid of some other faculty and maybe a couple men in white coats, so he let Belinda off with a warning, a favor that earlier he’d professed he’d never do for anyone but, on that first day alone, had done for both Simon and Belinda.

And so, after receiving Holmes’s warning without even the yes-sir that Reverend Holmes had demanded, Belinda glided down the halls, past the stares and whispers of her younger classmates huddled outside the classroom. Belinda walked out of the building to the parking lot where she spotted Simon, who was parked one spot over from her black Mustang. “Hey!” she greeted him. He fidgeted and gave a lickety-split smile before taking out his keys. “Sorry if I made you look bad,” she told him. Simon raised his shoulders, “Naw, you didn’t. If anything, I made myself look bad. And maybe my dad, but…”

She looked him up and down. Did she have a shot at getting laid? She’d been back in town a whole two weeks and nada, unless you count the spindly Thorgasm from Manly Pointer she’d stashed away in her nightstand drawer and also suspected her mother of taking out and using. But as she honed in on the little curlicue that had touched up at the side of Simon’s quivering lips, it struck her that she was looking at a dead end as far as all that goes. He seemed too much like the newbies she used to know back in the Castro, a certain dourness that couldn’t but explode into a thousand flames when exposed to the right catalysts. At this moment, all those boys came into full relief in her mind and she knew to the steel toes of her boots that even those ingénues were two steps ahead of where Simon was now. Her eyes beamed for the first time in a fortnight. Even better than the Thorgasm or getting her itch scratched old-school, she had found her freak.

Belinda asked Simon back to her mom’s place. Simon blanched, “I have to go to work,” and got in the 1988 Nissan Sentra that his Aunt Gloria had offloaded on to him six months earlier. Without even saying goodbye or nice to meet you, he backed out and tore out as quickly as he could, without violating the 10-mile-an-hour school zone sign that the township of Whimbrel Creek had posted on Hill Street, at the behest of the school, which otherwise preferred to keep municipal, state, and federal governments at rifle-barrel’s length. Belinda hopped into her seen-better-days Mustang and tailgated Simon all the way up to his job at Desiree’s Diner, off I-85.

That’s where it all got started—at Desiree’s. Nondescript as a highway-side diner, festooned with strips of hot pink and neon blue lights racing each other, might seem, it was the closest thing to Times Square going in these parts. People from more colors and cultures than normally would be seen in the region dropped in on account of the $9.99 Blue Plate Special advertised daily on the marquee and the Chevron station across the parking lot. Simon considered himself lucky to bus tables and wash dishes at Desiree’s, especially due to the contrast it made to home and school. He’d even broken the ninth commandment (thou shalt not lie) and the fifth (honor thy parents) when he told his mom that Desiree’s is so wholesome, they play Appalachian gospel tunes in the kitchen where he did all his soapy scutwork, and she passed this news on with an effulgent smile to Menard, who’d shared concerns over the kinds of walks of life he’d seen coming in and out of the diner on his drives up I-85. “Hope he doesn’t come back home one day with a trucker mouth,” Menard once admonished on his way to write a sermon in his study, “But no worries about him ending up with any of them loose ladies at the counter.” And, as he walked away, Simon’s mother scowled at the affront and (what she viewed as) imputation. Simon knew it wouldn’t have gone over well if he’d given her the real skinny about how even black people come into Desiree’s or that the other kitchen staff is either ex-cons or undocumented Mexicans or that the scullery soundtrack is mostly Mariachi, gangsta rap, and good ole shit-kick country.

And Menard was right about the truckers. They talked Jesus and pussy in the same breath, and with unequal fervor. The Talk Radio listeners among them often took to prating back what they’d heard from headline carny-barkers about threats to the second amendment, the imminence of Sharia Law, the necessity of preemptive strikes on Iran and Iraq and bills on the senate floor favoring freeloaders and illegals. More often than not, Simon rushed like the wind when picking up dirty dishes from Desiree’s tables and counters, lest he learn to take on the truckers’ tongues and notions. For him, four-letter words were the least offensive aspect of their discourse. In fact, he’d taken to using some curses himself, but on the sly, jawing with the illegals and formerly convicted in the kitchen: “Clean them forks and knives up goddamn good.”

Ever since she’d first tailed Simon, Desiree’s truckers were forced to welcome a new unwelcome element in the form of Belinda. They called her Resident Evil. For two months, she would camp out in the back booth with a bottomless cup of coffee, reading everything from Clive Barker to Nietzche to Rimbaud and Baudelaire—everything, that is, but the Bible, which didn’t stand her well at her new Bible college, but she didn’t care. The only reason she was even going to class anymore was to see Simon. It turned out Hilda was right. It was a bad move going to Reginald Hill and what she needed was yet another move, preferably cross-country, and already she was online every day putting out feelers to the hosts of friends she’d made along the way. In her first month in school, she’d already had three disciplinary hearings about her clothes and hair and backtalk and smoking, the last of which the student life administrator, Mrs. Hubble, called “the devil’s gateway practice” until Belinda reminded her that Senator Jesse Helms used to grandstand for Big Tobacco in North Carolina and all Mrs. Hubble could do was repudiate the hellion’s invocation of an all but sacred name.

Simon usually had downtime between five and six at night at Desiree’s and, two nights a week, he would work the late shift and Belinda would come and hang out at her usual table until all hours. As fate would have it, Desiree the owner was also Hilda’s best friend, so she didn’t mind Belinda staying forever and a day, just as long as it wasn’t too busy. And Desiree would tell off any trucker who made a remark about the wraith in the back booth—not that Belinda gave a rip what those knuckle-draggers thought of her and not that she could even hear them most of the time since she always had her headphones on with something like Einstürzende Neubauten blasting from them.

Yet Belinda was no all-day loiterer. She had work and school, at least for a while. Her first week back in the area, she had landed a part-time job stacking books at the Trueville Public Library. The head librarian was the kind of small-town anomaly who insisted on a culturally diverse collection and stuck up for banned books like The Anarchist’s Cookbook, but also asked Belinda if she wouldn’t mind staying in the stacks, out of plain view, if she insisted on dressing the way she does. And Belinda was happy to oblige since she stacked books faster than a possum plays dead, leaving her ample time at work to engage in a pleasure that was better than Acapulco Gold, better than the Thorgasm and almost as good as a prophylactic water-balloon raid—the pleasure of reading. She had always been one of those rare people who never even found hard books hard and who read so much that, for a time, she even had visions of being a comparative literature professor, that is, until she stopped joshing herself about having that kind of discipline. Plus, these days, she had to rely on books to take her away until she could take herself away, now that she was back.

Belinda always came to Desiree’s with the best books from the Trueville Library. In fact, she was the one who’d passed on to Simon one of her all-time favorites, The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir. Simon knew something about existentialism. He knew who Sartre was. His parents might not have had Internet access and they did not allow non-Christian books or TV programs in the house, but he still managed to discover who the preeminent atheist philosopher of Twentieth Century France was. Once, while he and Belinda sat drinking coffee at Desiree’s, looking out the window over to the mountains on the other side of I-85, Simon had told Belinda that Sartre was one of those thinkers who just kind of snuck up on him in high school after he had caught a glimpse of a PBS special at a classmate’s house. He noted the name and, without his parent’s knowledge, did web research. The town library’s Internet system had a porn firewall but no philosophy firewall, so Simon was able to look into who Sartre and his influences were and how one could even get through life in a foxhole without recourse to religion. Now, given Simon’s fundamentalist indoctrination and unwillingness to insurrect, he never dreamed he would find as much freedom as Sartre had found, but any approximation of freedom is better than none at all, so he kept reading him. He even read some of his dry-as-dust epistemological essays. So, when Belinda put The Second Sex into Simon’s hands and said, “Beauvoir was Sartre’s lover, I like her even better than Sartre,” Simon brushed aside his Bible studies and went at The Second Sex like gangbusters.

Unlike Belinda, Simon was someone who found reading difficult. He couldn’t count the number of novels he had picked up, put down after a couple chapters and never picked up again, even while hoping to be a writer himself some day since enough teachers had told him his papers were well-written. And Sartre’s epistemological essays had been murder for Simon to read; he needed a dictionary for half the words, and Wizard Stone K-12 had done nothing to prepare him for that or any other book, even an easy one. Yet something kept telling him to keep reading, keep reading. And as he applied himself more, he found he could at least understand some of Sartre’s fiction and even a couple of his plays, which he had asked the local librarian to order from some obscure drama publisher in New York, and which she did with gratitude for the fact that at least someone around town was reading.

But as he lay in bed with his nightlight on or sat on an upside-down plastic crate behind Desiree’s kitchen, delving into Beauvoir’s hefty tome, Simon could see why Belinda liked Beauvoir so much better than Sartre. The more he read, the more he liked Beauvoir better too. The writing was like whitewater blasting through every bulwark of his mind. In discussing how women have been viewed and treated from the dawn of civilization, Beauvoir had marshaled a stunning amount scholarship in philosophy, world literature, psychology, religion, anthropology, biology, coming at her subject from every conceivable intellectual angle. The writing was brisk, the words accessible, the arguments so massive and complex, with semicolons outnumbering periods at least ten-to-one per page. True, a lot of Beauvoir’s assertions went over Simon’s head but they never ceased to awe, and he wanted to study all that Beauvoir had studied and break out of Wizard’s Stone and make the level of impression that Beauvoir had made, though he doubted he had the brains and knew that Reginald Hill wasn’t known for churning out great minds. But Beauvoir had a big case to make and as Simon kept reading, he saw his own mother, at the one end of the female spectrum, all balled up with Stockholm syndrome, and Belinda, at the other, defying all social doctrines.

Simon became convinced that, when he sat with Belinda at Desiree’s, he was sitting with Georgia’s own Simone de Beauvoir. She sounded so smart whenever she talked philosophy. He thought she would make a great teacher—shame that, as a student, she couldn’t stick with a school. True, in most of their tête-à-têtes, Belinda would do her best to turn Simon red with stories about fisting incidents in San Francisco sex clubs or about how the streets of New Orleans smell like semen for weeks after Mardi Gras, but then she would go and say something like, “Do you notice how Beauvoir doesn’t come at Freud with any sort of knee-jerk feminist rant against penis envy? No, she performs a thorough analysis of his treatises and contends that, if Freud is going to posit a philosophy, then he’d better be ready to defend it on philosophic grounds, rather than simply decree his own irrefutable authority.” Simon had no idea what she had just said, but he wished he knew how to say stuff like that.

Then there was the night Belinda saw that Simon was halfway through the book. And that’s when she said: “It’s not just about women, Simon. It’s about all modalities of subjugation, subjugation of the ‘other.’ Let me ask you, as you read this, do you see the subtle ways in which people like you are subjugated?” He didn’t ask what subjugation is. He could tell by the tone of her voice that it means something like oppression. But he did ask, “What do you mean people like me?” But Belinda didn’t need to spell it out. She only had to hone in with one of her stares. Unlike others rounded up in the witch-hunts at Wizard’s Stone K-12, Simon had been able to duck the searchlight all these years, but Belinda had found him naked, even as he sat in the booth in his white work uniform. Simon said, “Well, I…was…reading in, in…in the intro, how, how she got the, you know, the…the title for the book. A friend of hers, another philosopher, in, in, in Paris, he, he came over and he, he said that…” Simon looked down and breathed. He could hear his own breath. And over own his breath, he could hear the ticking of the neon diner clock, six feet above his head. And over the neon diner clock, he could hear something by Garth Brooks, sounding from the speakers. And for a while, he just sat there listening to his breath until it was all he could hear. Belinda’s stare came in again and Simon continued, “Her friend said that people like, like me…are…the third sex. So, that’s how she came to call it The Second Sex.” Belinda let the air settle and then came around to Simon’s side of the booth. She wrapped her arms around him and kissed his neck. She said, “Not to worry, Simon. I know people who are already on their fifth sex.” Simon smiled and thanked the Lord, the same Lord that Sartre and Beauvoir and Belinda didn’t believe in, that another customer up front had paid and left and it was time for him to get up and go bus another table.

By the time Simon finished reading the book, two weeks later, Reginald Hill had finally expelled Belinda. By now, her infractions were so numerous, there was no explanation necessary on the part of the faculty and administration. Nevertheless, the dean had her sit in the middle of his office while he circumambulated her chair. He had rehearsed a twenty-minute lecture about the Expulsion from the Garden, expulsion from Reginald Hill, and the never-ending descent into hell that results from both, but he did not even get past the point of blaming the fall of man on Eve before Belinda rose up, spit in his face and left him in as bad a shock as Adam under the Cherub’s sword. The dean wiped the slimy loog away like it was boiling semen straight out of the Whore of Babylon’s maw.

The next night, Belinda dropped by Desiree’s to gloat, “You should’ve seen that holy-rolling fuckface! If only I went for the nuts, man. Yeah, maybe I’ll go back and go for his scrotes.” Simon thought maybe he’d hitched his wagon to a devil star if Belinda was so bent on going back for the nuts. Still, he chuckled, albeit with a tinge of sadness that Belinda would not be in school with him anymore.

Simon had never known what it was to have a close friend. He’d had almost all the same classmates most years at Wizard’s Stone K-12 but no real friends. Menard Minshew was too imposing a patriarch and his mother too warped a minion for him to want to bring anyone home, and both of them always wanted to know what he was doing and who he was doing it with, lest he be doing even the tiniest thing to stray from the ways of righteousness, so he rarely did anything with anyone and just stayed in his room and wandered around in his own head. Joining a sports team would have been one way out of this stalemate, if Simon had had any inclination for sports and if his high school had offered anything more than football or baseball. Menard Minshew would have stood the tallest under the klieg lights of every Friday night game, provided Simon had made first string, but Simon did not make any string of either team and Menard took every potshot at him he could for it, especially when bringing up how front-linesmen Tommy Sandage and Bob Jenkins were not only MVPs but model boys. He constantly goaded Simon’s three younger brothers into laughing at him for being a weakling, which being young, they did with glee, and Menard also said Simon would catch hell if he hit them or told them to shut up for it, so instead Simon learned to look down and raise neither hand nor voice to them, which turned out to be a good policy since his brother Ezekiel (Key, for short), two years Simon’s junior, did grow up to be a first-string front-linesman, twice Simon’s size.

Further isolating Simon was the reality that Menard had damned too many people, both from the pulpit and on the main drag, for anyone to believe that the apple could have fallen far enough from the tree. And Simon walked around so hunched and mopey under the scourge of all this that even those who held no brief with Menard weren’t lining up to be Simon’s friend. Daddy’s reputation might have preceded Simon in a good way at Reginald Hill—the one school his parents let him apply to, though they made him pay for what scholarships and grants did not cover, which was why he had to work so many hours at Desiree’s—but Simon had made such a practice of sticking to himself that he did not know how to approach even people who smiled at him at his new school.

And yet now here he’d found Belinda. In fact, she had sought him out. A bad seed, for sure, but he took what he could get and for the first time ever, felt his brain kicking into high gear, as well as someone literally putting their arms around him whenever she saw him, someone who was fine, ecstatic even, with knowing that hugs were about as far as he ever could go with her.

Simon did not know how he would endure the coming loneliness of Belinda being gone, but as it turned out, she would not let him endure it. Belinda became more a fixture than ever at Desiree’s, sitting in the back, crafting some kind of new plan for her future. Simon could tell Belinda had a lot more time on her hands now that she didn’t have school and was only working part-time. He thought she’d fill her spare time with reading, smoking, listening to patricide-matricide bands or maybe even venturing into writing disaffected essays that might later end up in some brainy anthology that would be such a call to arms, he could look back one day and say he knew her when. But her attention was too scattered for her to undertake much of any of those activities. Instead, she spent her idle time either ruminating at Desiree’s or, when she was at home, reconnecting with out-of-town friends online.

One night during this low point in her life, Simon sat down with Belinda on his dinner break when she whipped out a magazine, Euro Boy, right at the restaurant table. The cover showed a tan, frosty blond, callipygian ephebe—seventeen if he was a day—standing in the raw with his back to the camera, looking over his left shoulder with pouty lips, as the rest of his body faces an open window in a spare room that looks out over Prague Castle. Simon dropped his fork and pulled the magazine under the table. He looked around to see if any customer or coworker had seen it and, seeing none had, stared at Belinda, who fell back with laughter.

For some time now, she’d determined that she’d have to take drastic measures. On numberless occasions since his great confession, the grand inquisitor had asked Simon what boys he found cute. He couldn’t name one, which she could understand since she hadn’t seen anyone cute around either, so she went middlebrow and asked if any movie stars did it for him. She even would have taken George Clooney, mainstream though he might be, for an answer, but Simon didn’t go to movies, much like he didn’t know any music, not even what was on the Top 40, much less the underground stuff people like Belinda staked their identities on. So, she had to come up with something crafty and Euro Boy was it.

“So, what do you think?”

“Belinda,” he said blinking, “I’m at work.”

“Fine. Look at it later. But how ’bout that guy on the cover? You said you wanted to see the world, didn’t you?”

Simon slid Euro Boy inside the front of his pants and covered it with his work shirt. He did not take another sip of his milk or bite of his mashed potatoes and meatloaf and he did not speak to Belinda for the rest of the night either, though she stayed put for hours and he did not ask her to leave since that of course would have required speaking to her. Instead, he walked to the staff closet, slipped the porno into his backpack, and got back to work. Fortunately for him, a new rush of customers left Simon with enough table-clearing and dishwashing to do for him to work off a lot of his chagrin and aggression. When his shift was over, Belinda was still sitting where he left her, but he stormed out to his car and drove out to I-85 without so much as throwing a look Resident Evil’s way.

Simon thumbed through the magazine when he got back to his bedroom, though. He even laid back, put a towel that he kept under his mattress over his bare stomach and let Euro Boy’s various offerings from Czechoslovakia, Lichtenstein, Romania—and don’t forget that grape pickers’ orgy from Provence—help relieve him of what had for too long been backed up inside of him. It became an unholy rite night after night and he began to have a sense of what people were talking about when they said a trip around the world could help a man grow. Still, he didn’t speak to Belinda the next time she came looking for him at Desiree’s, and she didn’t make a scene, nor did she apologize. Instead, she had one cup of coffee, no refill, paid Desiree at the register, and never returned. Simon could feel the onslaught of regrets over the loss of his only friendship rising up, but he steeled himself with the rationalization that he had not lost a friend so much as gained a magazine, one which he kept secreted away in his backpack.

That is, until one night, when Simon came home to find Reverend Holmes sitting with Menard in the living room. Reverend Holmes had come by to deliver Simon’s Progress Report, a form that Reginald Hill only metes out to students failing a class and which requires a parent’s signature, a practice reviled in colleges that make a pretence of treating people in their late teens like adults in charge of their own lives. Normally, Reginald Hill teachers send these reports home with students or, in rare cases, directly to the parents by mail. However, Holmes had decided to go a step further and bring the report to Menard in person out of respect for how the venerable churchman would be bound to anguish over the news that his own son (stepson), once a student of promise, whom Holmes conceded “knows his Bible better than kids today know their video games,” had stopped turning in homework and even term papers, which Simon used to write with a spirited proficiency, as his teachers from the prior semester had confirmed for Holmes. He still got A’s on the multiple-choice sections of his New Testament exams, but in the essay sections, he’d begun loading his answers with subtle refutations of scripture (“The Four Evangelists present conflicting accounts of the Crucifixion”) and references to any number of atheistic philosophers (“Beware the man of a single book.” – Bertrand Russell).

During this sit-down talk, Holmes also had informed Menard, “Sir, Simon has not joined any extracurricular activities and he has fallen in with some strange company, specifically a dastardly little number named Belinda Quell, whom we recently expelled.” Holmes sighed and ran down Belinda’s entire profile and rap sheet. He added, “Some have reported seeing this Belinda pal around with your Simon at that diner he works at.” So, it seemed there was danger of Simon ending up with one of the loose women at Desiree’s after all.

The thing that sealed Simon’s fate, though, before he even put his key in the front door that night, was Holmes imparting to Menard: “Pastor, three times in a row now, Simon did not even bring his Bible to class.” This confounded Menard as much as it had confounded Reverend Holmes. Simon was always carrying a bagful of books and, at a Bible college, it only made sense that one of those books would be the Book of books. So, after Simon walked in, Menard ordered him to sit down and, without missing a beat, said to him in front of Reverend Holmes: “Bring out your Bible, Sorcerer. Open to Deuteronomy 21:18-21. Let’s talk about what it says to do with shirker sons.”

Simon said, “I’ll have to go get it from my room.”

Reverend Holmes said, “You had school today. Why isn’t it in your bag?”

“I forgot it.”

“Then what’s in your bag?” asked Menard.

“Other books,” Simon answered, drawing his bag between his legs.

Menard got up, grabbed the backpack and dumped its contents on the mousy-brown Stainmaster carpet. Over a heap of notebooks, pens, and religious textbooks that Simon might as well have left in his room with his Bible for how much he’d been cracking them open lately, The Second Sex and Euro Boy came spilling out in flagrante delicto. The pause that ensued over the frozen faces in the room was not unlike the one that arises between moments of laceration and hemorrhaging. Menard no sooner picked up the magazine than he let it drop like a handful of scalding water. As Menard seethed, Reverend Holmes collected the slick from right back off the ground and flipped to a centerfold of the Czech boy from the cover getting topped, dog-style, by a muscular, gay-for-pay brunette as night falls over the same daytime view of Prague castle that had appeared outside the window in the prequel photo. No sooner did Holmes cast Euro Boy down to the Stainmaster carpet, as though its acrylic threads were tongues of hellfire, than he kicked The Second Sex clear across the room, which led Simon to wonder if Holmes had heard of Beauvoir or if he just found the word sex unseemly, especially when emblazoned above the photo of a woman author on a Women’s-Lib book. He surmised that the answer was the latter but he did not have time to hash it out with himself as he looked up to find Menard storming at him from three paces away.

Not by a long shot was it the first time Menard had knocked Simon off a chair or punched him in the face. Not by a long shot was it the first time Menard had literally kicked Simon while he was down. It was the first time, however, that Simon fully understood the expression “seeing stars,” something he thought only happens to cartoon birdbrains when they get knocked out, yet here he was, witnessing a galaxy of stars exploding on to some invisible screen before his eyes, stars which began rotating in crazy patterns, so unlike the neat, orderly carousels of twinklers and tweeting birds that go around Loony Tunes characters’ heads after pianos or anvils fall on them. Menard wailed on Simon with pile-driver force, pounding on and kicking at him, as Simon either bruised or bled from his eye, nose, mouth, back, chest and stomach. It was as though, for this one moment alone, Menard had saved up all his contempt for all the things in life he had ever pronounced hateful. All the while, Reverend Holmes played backup at this bashing with an impromtu exorcism, where he read aloud from the Bible he always carried with him, flipping from Romans 1:18 to Leviticus 20:13 and all the way back up to 2 Timothy 3:1-5 as the mayhem crescendoed. Simon’s mother knew to stay in her room when these things transpired, so that’s where she stayed, crouched in a corner behind the door.

At one point, though, Menard had stumbled between stomach-kicks and Simon was able to grab his leg and throw him back so he hit the ground. This gave Simon’s bag of bones just time enough to grab the magazine, grab his keys and run like the hunted while Menard bolted to the back room to get his deer-hunting rifle, all to the shock and awe of Reverend Holmes, who now was making his first effort of the night to hold Menard back. Simon’s Nissan Sentra tore off to I-85 as Menard stood and cocked his rifle in the middle of the street. As Reverend Holmes pleaded with him to stop, to let God be the judge now that Menard had gotten some good licks in, Menard took Simon’s car’s rear window fully into his crosshairs, but, just as he was set to shoot, Simon had barreled down another street and was turning on to the highway ramp. Menard had to shoot something, though, so he turned the barrel up to the sky and pulled the trigger on the moon before turning back to the house, breathing in shallow gulps as though he were the one who had gotten the wind knocked out of him that night.

Simon had heard Menard’s shot from far away. He knew it had been Menard’s gun as surely as he felt every millimeter of his body howling and smarting with pain from Menard’s beatings. The shot resounded in his ears as he sped up I-85. It reminded him of a hodgepodge of stories he had heard as a child, ones meant to underscore the divide between man and beast, about families who raise a wild cub—a bear or a lion or a wolf—but eventually have to chase it back into the wild with a shotgun, no matter how much they love it. Not that Simon had any illusions about Menard loving him in the least, but maybe fate did, so it had sent Menard after him with firearms so Simon would be forced to move on to some new uncharted territory. But when he considered what Sartre might have to say about all this, all he could come up with was the aphorism: “Man is condemned to be free.” So, which was it now? Was he liberated when forced to run for his life from Menard’s house or was he confined to a wretched freedom, which might as well be hell, for the rest of his born days? Whatever the case may be, roaring up an interstate highway proved even less conducive to philosophical musings than being trapped in a room with two sanguinary preachers staring at a triple-X photo gallery. The only smart thing to do was run wild, run free, but where to?

The answer was easy: the only place left to run was to Belinda’s house. Although he had never been inside, he had picked her up and dropped her off a couple times when her Mustang had been in the shop with a broken taillight that the cops had kept pulling her over and ticketing her for, so he knew where she lived and how to get there. And if there were any such thing as fate, it knew how to drive its point right home: Simon’s old beater broke down for the tenth and final time, right at the Heavenly Grass trailer community, two streets down from where Belinda lived, and Simon was even able to pull it on to a patch of gravel and leave it for dead. He gave the 1988 Nissan a final bow and limped along to Belinda’s door, past a cacophony of ’70s southern rock, Harley engines and hillbilly carousing.

Simon expected that Belinda had found new friends since him and wasn’t home, but he would wait at her door for days if he had to, with his face and body throbbing and bloody. Now that it was past midnight, he didn’t want to ring the doorbell, but he didn’t own a cell phone yet and he didn’t know which bedroom window was hers to knock on, so he went ahead and rang the bell. A light went on in the hall and he was relieved to see Belinda’s figure coming his way through the square window. When she answered the door, she was wearing no makeup and a pink kimono that she had bought ages ago at a Burbon Street resale shop. She looked so pretty with high cheekbones, sky-blue eyes and soft skin, so why was she always walking around the outside world so grotesque-looking? But when she opened the door, she shrieked at the state of Simon’s face, making it clear that if anyone was looking grotesque, it was Simon.

She pulled Simon into the house and put his face in her hands as she assessed every bit of damage on it, every scar, cut and emerging bruise. Simon looked a few feet ahead to see Hilda standing in the hallway with the same expression as her daughter, albeit while wearing soup-can curlers and a red gingham housecoat. Belinda gave a quick introduction, “Mom, this is Simon, I’ve told you about him,” before she shot straight to the heart of the matter, “What happened?” Simon had heard enough about Hilda to know he could speak the truth in front of her. He reached into his back pocket and brandished Euro Boy. “He found it,” Simon said.

Belinda took Simon’s arm and brushed past her mother and the grandfather clock on the way to the kitchen, where she sat him down at the table, which Desiree had actually gifted her mother with when she had found she had ordered one too many tables for her grand opening, eighteen years prior. Hilda followed her daughter and Simon and stood in the doorway with her hand over her heart. Belinda began scooping coffee grinds into a filter, readying all assembled for the long night ahead, but Hilda could see Belinda was shaking so she took over the coffee-making while Belinda turned to Simon, breathing deeply with her eyes closed as she got her bearings.

Belinda walked over and manipulated Simon’s arms, legs, torso and hands to see if anything was broken. The only thing “off” was the look he gave her while she pulled on him, so she figured he was fine beyond the obvious contusions and gashes. After Simon gave a blow-by-blow account of what had gone down in his family’s living room, Hilda said her newest boyfriend would be home from a night out with the boys soon and she’d sic him on Menard but Belinda said, “Shut the fuck up, Mom,” and that put an end to Hilda’s silliness. The cops were even more of a no-go given the sway Menard held over Wizard’s Stone. Hell, they might even lock Simon up for hitting Menard’s fist with his face.

As Belinda and Hilda dabbed Simon’s face and upper body with rubbing alcohol, soap and water, and Neosporin, Simon asked, “Where’d you get the magazine?,” the same magazine that was splayed out on the kitchen table now, not even eliciting so much as an arched eyebrow from either of the mistresses of the house.

“From Robert O. I told him about you and he put it in the mail.”

“Who’s Roberto?”

“Robert O. Remember that for when you meet him. Call him Roberto, he’ll scratch your eyes out.”

Belinda had known Robert O from way back when she was slinging coffee on Castro Street. Born Roberto Gutierrez in a tin shack outside Laredo, Texas, Robert O had made a beeline for San Francisco almost as soon as he’d heard such a place existed. One or two times, he’d heard his papa’s day-laborer vatos make mention of it while they were all hanging around their work truck, saying they wouldn’t be caught muerto going up to that maricón town for a job, but as soon as Robert O saw some of them mincing around with limp wrists, throwing invisible feather boas, to denote the kind that swooshes around the City of Freedom, Robert O knew it was where he had to be. Flamboyant as a cancan dancer’s flashing petticoats, even as a niño pequeño on his dirt-road habitat, Robert O took his lumps at home, school, church and everywhere in between until he could get his high-school diploma and say adios forever. By the time Belinda met him, Robert O had been in the Bay Area for 13 years. He used to stop by the Daily Grand to see her, at least once a shift, for his usual triple skim latte. “Hey, Mortitia, honey!” he would say, leaning across the counter to kiss the cheek she always had offered up to him. Belinda’s style had not changed much since those days, but Robert O’s seemed to change with each new edition of GQ or Details that dropped on his doorstep. It was a good thing he had been such a sought-after stylist or he never would have been able to afford his mercurial wardrobe. In fact, even working more than sixty hours a week as head stylist and co-owner of his Affito Alto salon, with high-end clients who had to schedule three months in advance for him to sneak them in, he was still always living in the red. Normally, Belinda would have abhorred such a trend-sucker, but they shared the same yen for ecstasy, clubs and cock and recognized each other on sight as equally over-the-top. In fact, Robert O was the one who had hooked her up with her night job at the Manly Pointer when she was having trouble scraping by in the Mission District.

“What do you mean ‘when I meet him’?” asked Simon, “Is he coming over?”

Belinda turned to Hilda, “Mom, keep Simon company, k?” She unclipped her cell phone from her bra strap and left the room. It was a good fifteen minutes before Belinda came back and answered Simon’s question, “No, I just talked to him. You’re going with me to his place.”

“Now?” Simon asked.

“No,” Belinda said, “In a couple days. It’s cool, you can stay here till then.”

“Does he live around here?”

Belinda burst with laughter, “Reverend Holmes picked up Simon’s twink rag!” Hilda tried to ignore her daughter as she looked at Simon’s cuts and bruises with misericordia eyes, but soon her face also split with laughter at this non sequitur. The laughter grew and grew, now that they could take in with a fresher perspective the living-room scene that Simon had sketched out for them at the kitchen table.

A lone voice of gravity in the hubbub, Simon asked, “Well?”

Belinda caught her breath, “He lives in New York.” She and Hilda were doubled over now, in a giggling fit that hurt their guts.

Simon screamed, “New York!”

Both women were howling like witches now. Belinda fell to her knees, crying tears of laughter at her mother’s tears of laughter and at the thought of Reverend Holmes looking at those naked boys. Belinda looked up at Simon, eyes awash with hilarity, “He broke up with his b-b-b, bahahaha, he broke up with his boyfriend and moved there a few years ago.”

“From where? What? Who is—?”

Belinda got off the ground, “Never mind. Just find a time when no one’s home and grab whatever shit of yours you can.”

After a couple nights on Hilda’s red velveteen couch, Belinda drove Simon, still icing the bruises on his face, to his house so he could collect his personal effects, but they were already out on the front lawn in four Hefty bags that his mother had packed up herself. Simon ran up, grabbed two at random and bolted back to the car. He told Belinda to gun it, lest the next thing they’d hear would be another round from Menard’s rifle. Simon hoped one of those bags contained some changes of underwear. He and Belinda had five-thousand dollars of get-out-and-stay-out money, which Hilda had given them out of her life’s savings, but still Simon and Hilda would have to make it last all the way to New York and after they’d get there. Simon did not know whether to wave goodbye to Georgia on his way out, to its gargantuan mountains, forever fields and tumbling green hills. He did not know whether he would miss them or even what it meant to miss a place since he had never been anywhere but home. And even for all her time out in San Francisco, Belinda had no idea how quickly New York could go through whatever money you bring to it. Yet she had committed to staying in her next stamping ground this time, almost as much as Simon had to staying out of shooting distance of Wizard’s Stone.

To this day, Simon has the same issue of Euro Boy. Over eight years later, it would be one of the things he decided to pack in the one suitcase he took with him to France.

Kyle Thomas Smith is the author of the novel 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010)He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his husband and two cats.

 

A Sorcerer on Montmartre – (Chapter Two)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on November 2, 2013

A Sorcerer on Montmartre

By Kyle Thomas Smith

(c) 2013

Montmartre photo

Bridge Chapter from the novel I’ve been working on

(Click the following for Chapters 1234, 5678910 (p. i)10 (p.2)10 (p.3)1112, 13)

CHAPTER TWO:

SORCERER

Simon the Sorcerer. That’s what Menard Jake Minshew had been calling Simon from the day Simon’s eyes had first seen shapes and his hands had first been able to grasp at the mobiles of Abraham, Moses and Isaiah on the plastic vane above his crib. Why they had to go and name him Simon, Menard never knew. Except that Menard’s wife had kept telling him that the Lord kept telling her to baptize the baby—who wasn’t Menard’s baby but some no-count punk’s—Simon. Menard had refused until his wife had argued that Simon was a good name since Simon Peter was the apostle who’d started the first church and, without the first church, there’d be no Calvary in Wizard’s Stone today. To this point, Menard had shown her the back of his hand, saying Simon Peter had founded a church of graven images and superstitions that the Reformation should’ve put an end to. But, almost in the same breath, he’d changed his mind and decided to go with his wife’s idea—which she’d said was the Lord’s idea—since Menard had wanted to get her in the habit of turning to the Lord. And so, with his own hands, in his own church, with his own water pitcher, Menard had taken it upon himself to christen his wife’s firstborn Simon. He rubbed the sign of the cross on the screaming infant’s forehead but something told him not even that was enough to save Simon.

And Menard had wondered again and again why Simon was his own lot when he was his wife’s mistake. It couldn’t have been so he could pass a test and get in good with God since, as far as Menard was concerned, he’d built Stone Mountain Calvary by the sweat of his own brow and, as such, was already in. It must’ve been there was something in Simon that God had given him to reform. So, maybe Simon was a good name. After all, his namesake, Simon Peter, was symbolic of an order that warranted reform (or, better yet, annihilation). However, Menard had gone on to rethink the matter and determined that he’d go his wife one better and nickname her son Simon the Sorcerer because, among the seven Simons in the Bible, one is a sorcerer who asks the apostles to let him share in their miraculous powers, only to hear from Simon Peter—the selfsame Simon Peter his wife had brought up—“thy heart is not right in the sight of God.” And Menard had not been able to think of a truer description of their own Simon, conceived in sin, unlike his three half-brothers, all junior preachers now with wives and legitimate children of their own. But it turned out, didn’t it, that Menard would never succeed in reforming Simon to his specifications though he’d been able to keep a church community of over 200, the largest in all of Wizard’s Stone, under his spell. Ergo, he’d failed the homework God had given him. Guess Providence won’t be setting him up with that megachurch he’s been praying for all these years.

This is what Simon had been thinking about as he stood at the mirror, combing his hair and smiling, the morning after his first night with Pascal at Soho Grand. Sorcerer—that’s a cheap shot coming from Menard but, for Simon, it’s an archetype of mystery and empowerment, which is probably why Menard and the Bible writers before him had made it into an insult, something thou shalt not be. After all, all of them wanted to be the ones plying the power, casting the hexes, the aspersions and that’s why thou shalt not. But it must have been by dint of his own sorcery, which he’d wielded unwittingly, that he had attracted Pascal, whom he was now watching in the mirror, asleep on his stomach, his bare back rising and falling in gentle undulations.

Simon had already showered and left a message on his boss’s voicemail saying he wouldn’t be in on account of a middle-of-the-night fever, which wasn’t a lie since the best fever of his post-virgin days had been spiking until about three that morning under the sheets that Pascal still was laying under, catching what z’s he could before he had to be up for his morning meeting downstairs in the breakfast room. Simon slowly combed back his brown, ear-length locks. He was wearing the same clothes that he’d made his grand Soho Grand entrance in, but soon he’d have to do the so-called walk of shame back out and make a trip back to Bushwick to change.

He wondered, what was it Pascal saw in him? He appraised himself in the mirror. His skin was copper now on the parts that showed, here at the height of summer, and his body was sturdy if a bit scrawny, still nothing he himself would turn down if it came strutting up to him in a bar or on a subway platform. But his clothes weren’t much to speak of, standard-issue, white-boy, twenty-whatever, Brooklyn: faded, holey jeans, black canvass Chuck Taylor sneakers—clothes that were both in style and didn’t cost much—though he preferred short-sleeved collar shirts to tight t-shirts, which might have made him look a little like a Bible salesman but at least differentiated him from the run-of-the-mill on the J train to and from work. And yet he’d bagged a filmmaker from France, who was laying right behind him.

How in hell’s bells could he have done that, except by some strange sorcery? Must be a new aura about me, he thought. Or, if there were any such thing as a presiding fate (he’d been on the fence about that since long before he’d dropped out of Reginald Hill Bible College), maybe it’d decided to throw him a bone. After all, it’d seen him work hard enough on his self-study French lit (translated) courses. It’d seen him study up so much on France that it’d rewarded him with the best Frenchmen he’d ever seen. Taken further, Pascal’s presence in his life must mean he’d gotten an A on his homework, unlike God’s own flunker-flunky Menard Minshew, with his sodomite stepson and no megachurch to call his own.

Before they’d fallen asleep, Pascal had told Simon he could come to his breakfast meeting if he wanted. It was just going to be Pascal and his co-director Luc, who was staying one floor up, and all they’d be doing was reviewing the interview and shooting schedules for the day. He’d also said he was sorry but he couldn’t take him on location, as he had a full day of meetings around town, some with researchers and historians way uptown at places like Columbia University and El Museo del Barrio. How did Pascal manage to get into this field?, Simon wondered. What strings did he have to pull? Was he the kind who always had been firmly on foot or squarely on horseback, unlike Simon, who seemed to be tripping his way perpetually down some unmarked path that could lead to nowhere? Pascal is 43 now, all established in a career, and he must have started out on the right rung in life to climb as high as he has, thought Simon.

Pascal had asked Simon what he does for a living, and Simon said there’s a big divide between what he does and what he wants to do, even though Simon knew full well he should thank his lucky stars that, after seven years of grunt-work jobs and no college that he’d ever admit to, he was lucky to land his communications assistant position at the August Strindberg Theatre on 38th Street. Simon came clean and told Pascal he was working in a theater, doing a lot of photocopying and mail-outs for new shows, and he wanted to write plays and books but he’d felt he still had a lot of living and learning to do and, he confessed, he hadn’t had any higher education—except at Reginald Hill, which he didn’t confess to, not to anyone, much less someone who travels the world over making films and being important. Simon had already done the math so it wasn’t lost on him that he was talking to someone who, by the time he was his age, had already earned a master’s from the Sorbonne (Sartre and Beauvoir’s alma mater, Simon had also noted) in film et médias électroniques and who, by that time, had already assisted film crews everywhere from Zanzibar and Botswana to Buenos Aires.

Pascal told Simon, “Paris wasn’t built in a day. You’re still in za possible.” Simon smiled, even though he knew Pascal was being a lot kinder than he was realistic, especially for a Frenchman. After all, he’d heard they give you a lot less of a window for getting your shit together in Europe, where you either inherit your profession or have to choose one when you’re barely old enough to drink, whereas in America, you can shoot from the bottom to the top overnight if you’ve got the right gimmick and, even more importantly, the right connections. How sweet, though, that Pascal hadn’t noticed (or wasn’t holding it against him) that his position at Strindberg was entry-level and about four or five years behind that of so many of the people his age who were already starting to tear up the town in whatever their industry.

Simon went with Pascal to his meeting, where he met Luc, a stocky guy with a lot of wispy white chest hair peeking out from under his long-sleeve charcoal gray shirt, unbuttoned down to his sternum. Luc said bonjour and opened a manila folder. From that point forward, Simon merely sat there, drinking black coffee and munching on a cherry Danish while Pascal and Luc conducted their entire meeting in French.

At one point, Pascal lunged at Luc, “Il est trop tard pour modifier le calendrier. Je me suis arrange tous les entretiens.

Oui,” Luc replied, “Sans me consulter.

They seemed to be at each other’s throats over each and every point of the itinerary, but half an hour later, they both glared at each other, albeit with a hint of le-faire collegiality, and got up to go on assignment. Pascal told Simon he’d call him at 4 o’clock and kissed both of Simon’s cheeks, as dispassionately as he would Luc’s, but this was business, so Simon didn’t take the impersonality personally. Simon said enchanté to Luc, gave his hand a solemn pump and took the subway to the Brooklyn Public Library to apply for his first-ever passport before going home.

Kyle Thomas Smith is the author of the novel 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010)He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his husband and two cats.