|Jan/Feb 2008 Fiction|
Hieronymus sits quietly in the laundromat, watching the clothes spin round in the mammoth tumble dryer. He is transfixed as always, the bolted chair cutting into him, as he watches socks roll back on themselves like mouths in agony and red sleeves flail about in limbo.
As always, he is the only person in the laundromat save for the old lady with the lipsticked teeth and penciled eyebrows, who changes his dollars wordlessly and retreats to the back room and the blue-toned wash of its television. A storm outside, but inside is a womb of sorts, and he sits contentedly watching the tumble dry as is his ritual, experiencing it all as he was once taught to do in his stage movement class.
"Be the coffee cup," the professor had said. "Feel it," he had sniffed through his veined and horsy nostrils. So Hieronymus works at it now. Works on being the laundry, rises from the bolted block of orange seats to roll around the floor in fetal position, having dusted himself with detergent, remembering with some sadness the black room where Paul Times had told them that experimenting was OK. "Let go of all your hang-ups," Paul had said. "I'm not into these boujie pretensions. Just be the coffee cup, Goddammit. Experience it."
But now the old lady darts out of the back room again, a TV commercial on her heels, and, shaking her hands, yells, "No crazy! You stop or go," and Hieronymus is forced back into his orange chair and made to watch instead of be the laundry.
But no matter. For Hieronymus sees that glass orb as a lens onto the chaotic reality of life. And that is why he never separates. Blacks, reds, whites, blues. They all go in together. Sounds like, We're all in it together, he thinks with satisfaction.
And so he sits here now, imagining the blood-curdling cries the blacks let loose as the reds hover over them, then pounce. Loving the dissonance of the yellow shirt he found on the laundromat's floor and threw in at the last minute. Thinking how it lends the whole picture a frenetic rush-hour madness. How he can see the elbows and the edges of briefcases and the styrofoam cups rimmed with lipstick, the great exodus of worn heels and the ripped-tickets they trod on. Yes. YES. Live the rush hour. Experience it. The seersuckers and the pinstripes and the mobile phones so shrill. He thinks for a moment he can see his father in there, his wide wrist bone, the glint of a watch, but then he's gone.
A powder-fresh bouquet escapes the dryer, coming over him like a spell, and he glimpses his mother behind the glass, so pretty, so Georgia-peach, in a weathered deck-swing with Spanish moss lazing down behind her. Now the gloss-red of one perfect nail. Now the soft blonde billow of hair. Such a Goddess. Such a Deneuve. Yes, Deneuve. When he told Doris what his mother looked like, she had rolled her eyes and told him that all men think their mothers look like Catherine Deneuve. That Freud had said as much. But as much as he revered Doris and hung on every bit of bombast that fell from her lips, he is still certain his mother looks like Catherine Deneuve.
But God, he loved her. God, he loved Doris and the three stray hairs at either corner of her mouth and her heavy glasses and the taupe circles beneath her eyes. He can see them now through the steam-warped lens of his camera, bouncing off the perforated sides of the dryer.
He peels his eyes away for a fraction of a second to glance sideways at the TV screen wedged into the corner of the ceiling, the screen where he can watch himself watching the dryer. Na, he thinks to himself. Naaaah. That's not real life. This is, and he turns back to the dryer just in time to see a soft pelt of lint lift up into the dryer's eye, clothes tornadoeing around it, and thinks of Doris, thinks, that is so like her, the way that soft brown tangle used to break over him and dip down until he felt her egg-white thighs fold in around him.
Pudenda. Yes. Pudenda. He thinks he can hear it now. In the throttle and thrust of this great imitation of life. Pu-den-da. Pu-den-da. Pu-den-da. How it heaves and chokes in revolution and tumbles out this young man's mantra. Pu-den-da. Pu-den-da. Pu-den-da. He will slot quarter after quarter in just to keep it going. It doesn't matter that he's homeless. It doesn't matter that a week's worth of panhandling is only enough for one lousy load. It must keep going. Pu-den-da. Pu-den-da. Pu-den-da. OH GOD DON'T STOP!
Christ almighty, how he loves that word. And Jesus only knows how much he loved her pudendum. Loves her pudendum. LOVES IT. Even still. Even now. Even as he sits here meditating on life's similarities to the sartorial saga unfolding before him, he loves her pudendum. Because it makes him feel safe like the clean, warm, flowery laundromat air does every time he opens that reluctant glass door and it washes over him. Oh, yes. Pudenda. She had shown him, guided his hand. "This is my pudendum." They had been making love on a musty old quilt on the floor of Doris' mother's squalid Brooklyn apartment. It was the sort of quilt his own mother would have washed and ironed and folded neatly at the foot of his bed. But here, now, it was an old quilt, an earthy quilt, that slid back and forth on the wooden floor in tandem with their movements.
"My mother is a communist," Doris had said the first time he met her. And as he followed her up the tenement's cracked steps and into the grime-smeared apartment, Hieronymus decided that communist must be code for dirty. But they made love anyway, after Doris had raided what she called her "mother's stash" and rolled a joint naked, while he wondered if this is what it was like between John and Yoko. And it was when they made love again, three hours later, barely having moved from the spot, with her on top again but this time heavy-lidded, that they heard the keys in the lock. And just as Hieronymus tried with all his might to throw the great white hourglass that was now crashing, slo-mo, down upon him, Moon stepped over his legs en route to the freezer and asked, "Have you found her g-spot yet?"
Doris, feeling poor Hieronymus disappear from inside her, had whined, "Ma! You made him go flaccid."
"You should appreciate it, Doris. I'm looking out for your interests. Fifteen years ago, 90% of the male population didn't know what a clitoris was. Have you guys even talked about your g-spot yet?"
Hieronymus blanched and tightened the blanket around himself. Be the blanket, he thought. Feel it.
Moon watched him draw it around himself through narrowed eyes and said, "That quilt's a fucking legend, Man. Woodstock, Janis, Dylan, Jerry, you name it, it's been there. Doris was conceived on that, you know."
He let the quilt fall to his waist in dismay, glaring at it as though it had betrayed him. As if to say, "I thought you were just an innocent product of American craft, the handiwork of someone's prairie grandmother."
"So has she shown you where her g-spot is?" repeated Moon as she took what Hieronymus now knew to be her "stash" from the freezer.
"No, Ma'am," he croaked.
Moon let choke a hard laugh. "Ma'am? Ma'am? Doris, did he just call me Ma'am? Where the hell d'you find him? The glee club?"
Ignoring her mother, Doris steered the conversation back to the original question. "It's on the wall of my pudendum, Herry," she said, stroking his shoulder. Turning to her mother she hissed, "Happy now?"
"Don't worry. I'm out of here," said Moon, "I just came back to get something for Bobby. Just pretend I never came and continue pleasuring the preppie," and the door banged shut behind her.
Hieronymus remembered thinking at that precise moment that he could understand what the Red Scare was all about. What that woman had done to his member in just a matter of seconds! Christ almighty. Christ almighty.
But then Doris pulled him down towards her, and he saw the way her body spilled down around her sides, thick like buttermilk, and she took his pinkie in her mouth as though blowing him up and said, "At the back of my pudendum," and he heard it like the gospel because he felt saved.
And that's why now he loves the word. Because it makes him feel safe. As safe and warm as his bundle of clothes when he takes them from the dryer and carries them limp like a sleeping girl to the formica table. As safe as he felt when it rained and she lay on his futon with the gray-light almost reaching her and read him things from her books. From Marx and Jung and Sartre and always from de Beauvoir since second wave feminism wasn't until sophomore year. Oh, how he loved her jaundiced skin and her breath that smelled sticky like a sick child's. Loved how everytime she opened her mouth, there stretched a silvery web of saliva. Oh, how he adored her. Oh, how she could not read a word to him without him hearing it. Pu-den-da. And she was so good. She said such sweet things.
"I love your voice," she said one naked Sunday in April when the slanted rain hit his window in pellets. "I love your accent. Say rain, say Doris, say Mama, say y'all."
"Say pudenda," he had wanted to say. But instead he lay there and said everything she asked him to in his slow drawl. "I love your name," she said another afternoon. "Hieronymus." And he hadn't the heart or the guts to tell her he wasn't named after the artist at all but after his great, great grandfather, the 3-star Confederate general.
"Hieronymus Bosch," she would sigh. And he would let her. He would look at her, this plain, plastery girl, and think how unlike the girls he grew up with she was. The Laurelies and the Leslie Mays and the Scarletts and the Averies. The Abigails and the Charlottes. Their honeyed skin and dewy cheeks, their debutante postures and their painted toes that scalloped perfectly like pressed eyelet hems.
What would Mama think of her? And what would Doris think of Mama? But such questions turned his stomach so that he would banish them to the depths of his mind as soon as they surfaced, telling himself that it would be a long time before Doris and Mama met anyway. Instead he would satisfy himself with the knowledge that he had come a long way from home and had done things differently than everyone he knew. "He marches to his own drummer," he had heard his father say to acquaintances time and time again. Hieronymus swelled with pride just thinking of it.
And it was as though Doris was there to confirm everything his father had said. She was so different from everything he knew. She was so real. Which is probably why she wanted no part of him when she learned the truth.
And now he stands at the formica table, picking the lint from his steaming clothes, and the truth, silenced for so long, writes itself out before him. Fragments of his mother's letters emerge from the folds of his clothes, wrinkled bits of paper, softened, blue ink bleeding into parchment.
...please come home, baby... your Mama loves you... your Father is so sorry... he's working hard to rehabilitate himself... he even shares quarters with a colored man...
He smoothes out the pieces, spreading them across the sweaty table.
...he says it's not so bad... says there's golf at the prison, a tennis court, a trout brook... you could go fishing... you know how you love that...
He can almost hear Mama speaking the words as she writes them. The vowels bloated, her pen pausing as she roundly pronounces each word before tracing it.
...your Daddy loves you so. He is so proud of you. Off in New York, studying acting. Things he would have loved to have done—things that he would have done if he had been permitted. But things were different then. One left college and became a banker or a lawyer, that was it...
He finds himself torn over statements such as these, statements that pretend that all people of a certain era went to college and became either bankers or lawyers. What people? he wants to scream at her. Which people? To whom are you referring, Mama? But then, amidst the stop and start of the machines, the grind and halt, pu-den-da, pu-den-da, pu-den-da, he imagines the sugared-almond nail of one perfect finger rising up and resting its tip on the end of his nose, and is so overcome with love that he forgets to hate her for her ignorance.
He looks back at the fragments on the table and can hear each A, E, I, O, and U well up from inside her, can feel her gentle drawl blowing all around him, as though carried on a gust of wind.
He can smell her hair, can taste her perfume, as though she is here now, tucking him into a freshly made bed.
...come back home, baby...
She is like a warm ghost at his neck, or a voice-over, speaking above the narrative of his life.
Hieronymus remembers one cool, bright October day when the edges of sun and sky were so crisp they looked as though they could crack. The wind gushed down the corridors of city streets like water breaking through a dam, and a field of blue pushed between buildings, whole and still, in counterpoint to the tide of people below.
He was full of himself that day. The night before had been spent with Doris and Moon at an old theater in Harlem where they'd gone to hear The Reverend Marc Tomas speak. He had felt so soulful in his fold-up chair, amening and mmmhhhmmming with the people, so glad to be included in the category of "Brothers and Sisters" from which he'd felt so excluded in Georgia. Afterwards, while scuffling down the aisle of the splintered theater, he heard Moon whisper to Doris, "Maybe he's not so bad," and he felt the wash of relief as he watched Doris smile at her mother in response.
After they'd walked Moon to the subway entrance, Doris and Hieronymus strolled hand in hand down Amsterdam, beneath the murky night bled by streetlamps, the cool air hinting at vast expanses of space despite the shards of glass that blinked up from the pavement, and the bundled bodies that slept soundlessly over subway vents. Hieronymus held his girl's hand and thought of fields, the prickle of hay on bare legs, and the coolness of Sea Island sand, when Doris squeezed his hand, looked up at him and said, "I'm really glad you came with me tonight, Herry." She could not have made him more happy had she said the word itself.
Now he walked down Broadway towards Tisch, a quarter of an hour early, in a post-coital reverie that was steadily eaten away by the city's yellowcabs and relentless sirens, the grind of garbage trucks, the rush and quake of trains underground, the press of swarming pedestrians. He was defending himself against Broadway's onslaught as best as he could, when he saw it in the newsstand outside the steps of the N&R.
Front pages blowing, corners furling. His father's photo, head bowed, scalp shining through the crust of his comb-over, wrists cuffed, his staff standing dazed on the columned steps of Savannah Savings and Loan; Hieronymus could almost hear the shifting of their leathered soles on the steps. The same photo, published over and over, The Wall Street Journal, The Post, The New York Times. His father. Those broad shoulders that had balanced their canoe when they carried it to the lake, the thick fingers so able between football stitches, the fine profile he had studied through the flicker of Westerns. His father arrested. With his name beneath the picture. Hieronymus Dagonet Duke, Jr. WHITE COLLAR CRIME. TAX EVASION. FRAUD. THE LAST IN THE LINE OF A PROMINENT SOUTHERN FAMILY RUINED... A FAMILY WHOSE FORTUNE WAS MADE ON THE BACKS OF SLAVES... HIS FATHER A JUDGE, HIS WIFE A SENATOR'S DAUGHTER, ANTE-BELLUM, PHILANTHROPY, COTTON, TOBACCO, BANKING... HIS ONLY SON AN HONOR-ROLL STUDENT AT TISCH SCHOOL OF THE ARTS, NYU.
That morning, Hieronymus took one of his last inherited five dollar bills and bought a paper. And then he walked to his class. Silently, automatically, entirely impermeable to the city. The glass doors gargantuan, the guard surly, the elevator cramped. But Hieronymus noticed nothing. Not until he walked into the studio and Paul Times looked up and asked, "What on earth is wrong, Baby?" Paul Times called everyone Baby.
Hieronymus said nothing and slapped the paper onto a plastic chair so Paul could see it.
"Goddammit," said Paul Times. "That's your Dad? Goddammit," he said again, watching his interaction with Hieronymus in the studio mirror.
Hieronymus looked at Paul and blinked.
"Go home. Just go back to your dorm and take it easy. Come and see me tomorrow during office hours if you want to talk about it. I'm here for you."
Hieronymus turned on his heel and left the room with his eyes focused on the blackened plywood of the floor just as the other students filed in. "What's up with him?" he heard them ask.
He stands at the formica table now, folding the shirts his mother sent him a couple of months ago, sniffing them for traces of his father's scent. But they were washed and pressed before they arrived, taken from Daddy's drawers and packed neatly into a care package.
...i didn't know what else to do with them... your father might be at The Sunnydale Institute for a while... he says he does not need dress shirts...
...oh this silence! please call, baby... i don't care what kind of trouble you're in. come home. we can fix it, whatever it is... of course home might be somewhere new by the time you're here... the house is on the market for a song and i have been looking around at some sweet little condos...
...did i tell you i got a job? your mama, secretary at Dr Wilkins' office... can you believe it? and i love it... i'm good at it, sweet pea. really good at it...
...i'm a changed woman, Herry, i really am... you won't believe it until you see it, so come home and we'll have one of our long chats...
The shirts now folded, Hieronymus thinks back to that day, trying to remember how his 'silence' began. As he walks back to washing machine #17 to put in another load, he recalls that after that morning, he never made it back to the dorm again.
After leaving Paul Times that day, he walked west a couple of blocks and ran into his rooomates.
"Dude, we've been looking all over for you. Have you seen the papers? Your Mom's called like 50 times."
"Yeah, I know, totally fucked..." he sputtered, his toe tracing a crack in the sidewalk. They were standing outside a lingerie store and Hieronymus found himself staring at the mannequin with the tassles on its nipples, wondering whether Doris would tag lingerie as oppressive.
"Dude? Are you ok?" asked one of the boys.
"Yeah, fine. Sorry. I'm going back to the room to call my mom."
"Yeah. I'll see you guys later. He was about to turn down 10th when he saw Doris at the other end of the block, striding towards the entrance of the dorm with a newspaper under her arm. "Actually, where are ya'll going?"
"Over to Tyler's. Come with us if you want. You can call your mom from there," said Luke, his one long lock of hair sliding over his scalp. "You should probably hang with us right now anyway, so you don't get all depressed and shit."
Once at Tyler's, Hieronymus drank a couple of beers, smoked half a joint until he realized that a few hours had elapsed since his arrival.
Taking the cordless into the bathroom, he sat on the toilet lid, occasionally tapping his cigarette on the edge of the sink.
"Hi Mama, it's me," he said. The pipes seethed and his head spun.
"Baby? Oh honey! Where have you been? I've just been sick. I've left about a hundred messages for you."
"I was at seminars all day, I just got back."
"Oh, thank Goodness. I was worried you'd read about it in the papers. It's all so awful. Our whole life has been turned upside down in a matter of hours—and all because of some terrible miscommunication. None of your friends have read about it, I hope?"
"What's that echo?"
"Oh. I thought there was an echo. Must be the connection. Oh, Sweet Pea! I'm beside myself. They led him out of the bank like some sort of criminal. Imagine, treating a Duke like that! It's just small-mindedness and jealousy. Wilma called me right away and I was at the police station in no time. Your poor Daddy's face when he looked up at me! Like a fallen hero! And they've frozen all our bank accounts. Imagine that, Hieronymus. Like he's the I-talian mob. Thank God Aunt Ginny and Uncle Robert are here with me now. And I know it sounds awful to say it but thank goodness Grandpa Leath and Grandpa Duke aren't here to see it. They'd be rolling in their graves. The service they did this state, and now to have Daddy treated like this, why I am just sick! I can't see what all the fuss is about anyway. He was the president of the damned bank, so what if he did borrow a little money... Hieronymus? Are you there, honey? Say something. Speak to your Mama."
"I'm here, Mama."
"Please don't be upset, sugar. I know what a pedestal you put your father on. Your daddy is an honorable man. He just wanted to be a good provider. And he loves you so much. Your uncle Robert wants to speak to you. He's just going to the library to pick up. I love you, baby. I know we'll have this all corrected tomorrow. And heads will roll, I tell you. You do not mistake the Dukes for criminals and get off lightly. Anyway, Sugar, here's your uncle."
Hieronymus heard a deep throated sigh and then the rumble of his uncle's voice. "Hello, Son. How's the big City?"
"Fine, thank you, sir."
"Man to man, I've spoken to your daddy's lawyer and until we've got things fixed, there's going to be a bit of a cash flow problem. Your mama might have told you that all accounts have been frozen for the time being. Unfortunately, my money was tied up with your daddy's, so I can't be a big help on that front. He's real worried about tuition, you hear what I am saying?"
"You're just going to have to take this in your stride, but there is a fair chance you'll need to get a loan for next semester, and if you can't manage that, you may need to defer until September. Are you with me, son?"
"Good. Your father will be real proud to hear how level-headed his son's become. Now study hard, because that's how you get a good loan. And maybe play some football." And make sure you call your mama every day. Don't worry about your daddy; we'll get him out of this fix, it will just take a spell."
When Hieronymus reemerged from the bathroom, he must have looked a fright as the first thing the boys suggested is that they take a night out on the town to cheer him up. And later that night, stumbling from the bar, Hieronymus, imagining Doris' wide, pasty face awaiting him at reception, felt a heaviness come over him like locusts to a sycamore. "Tyler, can I hang at your place for a few days?"
"Sure, man. However long you want."
Hieronymus puts a quarter in the slot of #17 and listens to the kechink as it falls into the mammoth belly of the machine. He thinks that amplified, the sound might be likened to that of breaking glass, and he closes his eyes and listens intently as he drops three more into the slot, conjuring an image of aluminum breaking through glass, of steel bending, of headlights shattering. And when he opens his eyes again, he realizes he has identified the moment his 'silence' began.
Hieronymus watches the laundry go round again, seeing in its strewn colors the litter that trimmed the park as he walked through it that morning with Tyler. He sees the same wash of colors he saw when later that day (and indeed every day for the next week) they dropped acid and walked all the way uptown to Central Park. He sees the advertisements that smeared 5th Avenue on the sides of buses, the torsos of models shooting skywards, and the white smiles of Virginia Slim girls breaking into laughter. He sees the ceaseless throng of faces coming towards him, the limbs of strangers, seemingly severed, tangled in the crowds. He sees the two faces of the Flatiron Building and the bowed back of the ritual masturbator who spills his rapture onto the green at 23rd and Broadway. He sees the massive, sooty lions at the entrance of the library, and the veil of pidgeons that lifted as they walked to the steps to rest. He sees the circus that is Times Square, its neon and noise, its quivering XXXs, and sweating evangelists. And then he sees the florid canopy of green at the edge of the park, beckoning, and the Plaza, where his mother loves to take tea. He sees the dandelions on Strawberry Fields whispering and bending, and he sees the horse hooves and the carriage wheels on asphalt, and wishes he could be in one now, in another time, with Doris in some frilly suffragette number. He imagines the plum of her lips, the blush of her skin and the lace of her sleeve. All this he sees in machine #17.
And it is not until he ventures outside the laundromat with his plastic sacks of clothes and feels the rain cold on his skin that he remembers the day the LSD was gone, and he walked down the stairs of Tyler's building, falling out into the cold morning light as though he, like a stray sock, had been flung from a dryer. He remembers his striking clarity of thought, his crisp vision, his resolute decision that it was time to clean up his act, time to walk the seven blocks or so to Paul Times' office.
"It would be tragic, in my opinion," began Paul after a long exhalation, "to have you return to Georgia right now and lay it all to waste. You have a fabulous instrument, Hieronymus, are you aware of that?"
"No Sir. Thank you," said Hieronymus, as Paul tilted his head back and let stream another pipeline of smoke.
"Why not stick around until next fall? Ask your Profs for Incompletes for the time being—I mean—it's not like there are a whole lot of Heironymous Dagonet Duke, IIIs walking around campus—so they'll all be aware of your family's predicament. Apply for some scholarships, fill in some loan applications, and get a job here until September. Get some extra work. Employ your instrument. And for Christ's sake, stop calling me sir," Paul's laughter exploded into the room like a barrel on Niagara. "I mean, goddammit, this isn't West Point."
"You think I could do that? Extra work, I mean?"
Paul's nostrils narrowed as he inhaled again. "Yes," he choked before exhaling. "I'm telling you. Don't go home. You'll get wrapped up in it all. Remember that first and foremost, you're an actor, you're meant to be in New York, honing your craft. I mean, goddammit, so many students would kill for your kind of talent."
"How would I go about getting work as an extra?"
"I'm just about to tell you that. Do you have any money?"
"I've got about three grand."
"You boujie little bastard," said Paul. "I'm just kidding, Baby," he said, slapping Hieronymus' shoulder when he saw the look on his face. "Ok, now seriously. Join the Screen Actor's Guild—it will cost you about $100."
"And then what?" asked Hieronymus.
"Goddammit, Hieronymus. Don't interrupt. I'm going to tell you. Believe me, you're in good hands."
"No regrets, baby. Never regrets—it's terrible for your instrument—believe me. Now, I'll put you in touch with my director-friend, Ty. He's about to start shooting a low-budge feature, and he called me to let me know he needs a few extras."
"Thanks, Paul. I really appreciate it."
"No problem. And baby?"
"Get some rest. You really look like shit. The best advice I can give you is to embrace the hurt you are feeling right now and use it as a vehicle. As actors, our emotions and our bodies are our only resources."
"Ok, thanks, Man. I mean it," said Hieronymus, getting up from his chair to go. Paul swiveled around and faced the mirror on the back of his door as Hieronymus closed it behind him. "No regrets, baby, never any regrets," he repeated as he blew a kiss to himself.
Hieronymus bounded down the stairs of Tisch feeling better than he'd felt in what seemed a very long while.
Until he saw Doris waiting for him outside.
Her round, sallow face and tired cat-eyes which fixed his as soon as he pushed the door open. A pile of books cradled on one hip, an afghan hugging the other. A jaunty beret dipping downwards towards the fibrous end of a braid, her eyes narrowing as he dragged his feet towards her.
"YOU FUCKING POSER," she yelled, as he cut through the pedestrian traffic to near her. She was leaning against a phone booth and didn't move but simply screamed again. "You are nothing but a FUCKING POSER!" It was lunchtime, and the sidewalk was teeming with people, clotting in the space around them.
"Doris, I can explain," Hieronymus started, feeling his thoughts begin to trip over each other. His hand on impulse reached out to stroke the plain of skin that stretched across her cheek but she slapped it down before it reached.
"And then you just DISS me. You just fucking DISAPPEAR like I mean NOTHING to you. You BASTARD! You are such a BASTARD."
"Doris, I've been trying to come and talk to you, but I was afraid you'd hate me and..."
"GODDAMN RIGHT, HATE YOU! How dare you come and listen to the Rev Marc Tomas with my mother and me? How dare you pollute the meeting hall with your blood-monied little ass!"
"It's not my fault. I can't control what I am born into anymore than a woman born into the slums of Rio de Janeiro can. I was trying to change for you. "
"Don't you compare your BOUJIE little plight to that of my sisters. You COCKSUCKER."
"We are all prisoners," he tried.
"Prisoners my SWEET ASS. Just FUCK OFF. Fuck off and never speak to me AGAIN," she screamed, turning on her heel and walking east across Broadway. A surge of horns and tires burning asphalt and "try looking next time, sweethearts" engorged the space between them, and Hieronymus remembers bandying those last words about his mind with some bewilderment as he watched her slow gait fade into the traffic. It was times like these that he felt homesick for the Laurelies and the Leslie Mays and the Scarletts and the Averies. Their little noses and their doe eyes that only blinked and never questioned. He remembers standing on that corner and thinking all this when her voice came at him again from the other side of Broadway, where she stood on the curb, hurling her words towards him.
"And another thing! My mother was right! You suck in bed!" Once more she turned on her heel and headed down Bleeker, but this time for good, and Hieronymus felt oddly consoled by this last vindective, thinking that at the very least, their onlookers would look on him as a grown man.
A week later Hieronymus was on pier 58, threading his way through a clot of rubber-neckers coagulating in the shadow of the USS Intrepid's hull. He felt the wind pick up, whipping the ties of his windbreaker against his neck, and his eyes surveyed the scene until they landed on a bus parked on the tarmac, with a sign marked "Crew" duck-taped onto its side. Consulting the paper he'd folded into his pocket one last time, Hieronymus leaned his head through its door and asked a redhead with a clipboard where he ought to be. She pointed her ball point across the pier to a well-oiled set of legs forking out from a pair of daisy dukes. Hieronymus found himself admiring the dark, hairless calves and thighs that spanned smooth as teak between platformed heels and frayed cut-offs, when the head belonging to the legs turned towards him, muddied with stubble.
"Where you from, Sailor?"
"Shit," huffed Ty Fee when he finally responded. "He said your name was Henrietta and that you was a woman. He ain't getting NO commission."
"I'll take any part you can give me," said Hieronymus. "I really want to work on this movie."
"He even tell you what the movie is?" Ty stood with the sun square behind him, his peroxide curls blowing, the Hudson choppy.
"No, Sir," said Hieronymus, trying hard not to look at Ty's lean legs, go-go shorts and all. "But I am a great admirer of your work, Mr Fee."
"Isn't that nice," smiled Ty, while examining a long press-on nail."What a sweet young man," she continued. "But tell me, DO I LOOK LIKE A MR FEE TO YOU?"
Hieronymus took another look at the leggy creation who stood before him, platform shoes, pink jacket, trailing scarf, and cut-offs, and could only reply no, meekly, while agonizing as to whether or not he should have said "No, Ma'm."
"Good. We already agree on something. Now back to my work. You say you are an admirer. What actually have you seen?"
"What ACTUALLY have you SEEN? I mean, have you seen ‘Mo-fos in Space Part IV'?"
"I said, 'MO-FOS IN SPACE Part IV.' HAVE YOU SEEN THE FILM OR NOT? ARE YOU DEAF OR ARE YOU DUMB?"
"I loved that movie."
"Really. One of the best movies I've seen in years."
"Isn't that special. You really liked it."
"Oh yes. Immensely."
"Shit. White, male and stupid he send me when I told him Chocolate, fly, with attitude. It's getting REAL HARD to be a artist these days."
"I know what you're saying."
"NO YOU DON'T SEE WHAT I AM SAYING BECAUSE MO-FOS IN SPACE PART IV AIN'T EVEN BEEN MADE YET."
"Maybe I was confusing it with Mo-Fos I, II and III?"
"I DO NOT HAVE TIME FOR THIS BULLSHIT. THERE WAS NO I, II AND III, YOU FOOL. I am subverting a genre, OK? WE ARE PLAYING WITH SIGNIFIERS HERE. IT'S A SEMIOTIC JOKE."
"Sorry, sir. My bad."
"DO I LOOK LIKE A SIR TO YOU?"
"No. Sorry. I just really need this job. Sorry."
"Ok honey. Now you're talking straight. I got time for that. Just cut the bullshit and a pretty boy like you and me will get along just fine. Now you wanna do this?"
"Ok. Be on Spring St on Tuesday at 6 am. You seen the script? It's the scene right before the spaceship lands. Wear some 70's clothes. $90 a day plus breakfast, lunch and dinner. It'll probably be 2 or 3 days. That's all I can give you."
"Thank you so much. I really appreciate it."
"What's your name?"
"Like the painter?"
"No, like the guy who just went to jail for fraud."
"I like that," laughed Ty Fee. "Like the guy who just went to jail for fraud. That's good. You're OK."
Hieronymus left the pier that morning feeling larger than life, blading down the Hudson river bike path with the wind beating down behind him, and the November sun cold upon him.
Hieronymus finds himself longing for the sun now, as he shuffles from one garbage can to the next in Washington Square. But a freezing rain falls, has been falling, for what seems like days, and he is left to sift through their sodden contents as he stands shivering, hungering. Raindrops hit his plastic bags and roll down them, drenching his pantlegs, as he fingers the sodden hot-dog buns and pizza crusts, wraps them in paper napkins and wrings them dry, then stuffs them into his pockets. He fishes deeper, looking for something, anything sweet, a dollop of ketchup on a stray fry, or a thick mouthful of milkshake. He polishes off forgotten swigs of orange juice that pool stagnant in the corners of Tropicana cartons, and, closing his eyes, savoring the pulpy tang, thinks of breakfasts at home with Mama. Thinks of her padding around, fussing airily, a honeyed instep slipping out from under the hem of her nightgown. Or sitting down, cutting little squares of French toast sprinkled with sugar, while she eyes the crossword on the table beside her. He imagines her now; her hair down, her voice gentle with sleep, her breasts free.
Seven across, Sweetpea. A trading town in ancient Egypt. Third letter needs to be an A. Fourteen down, a lyric, a chanson of Co-wal Porter. Do you know it baby? What's that song your father and I used to sing? Twenty-two down, a Latin name for female genitalia, ending in A. Seven letters. Do you know it?
Oh he knows it alright. Oh, Mama. How he misses her. Oh that sweet voice. And oh that French Toast. What did she DO to it, he wonders. And then a whif of something, a citrus perfume wafting up from the trash.
I put a little bit of lemon zest in almost everythang, he can hear her say. It's my secret.
Oh how he'd like to be there now. In her kitchen, watching her peignoir billow out softly behind her. A ribbon of bacon, a well of maple syrup, a skin of butter over his french toast. Oh what he'd do to taste it, and to feel her hair, a flaxen shower, falling down around him.
He drops a hot-dog bun from his cold-cramped hand, watches it expand in a puddle, and feels himself pulled down the path towards a phone. He picks it up, smelling the oil on the earpiece, and dials home. Collect call from Hieronymus, please. Yes, Hieronymus. Thank you. And Oh how it rings and rings with the rain falling down around him. His breath fogs the booth, his body steams, and he can smell the mouthpiece, thinks he can hear the voices of the strangers he scents. But nothing happens. The phone rings, a faraway trill, the rain falls, and Hieronymus drops the headset and turns, leaves it swinging, spiraling, unreceived, behind him.
Hieronymus? Is that you, baby?
He walks to the fountain in the center of the park, dry with winter, pigeons daubing the ledge, dogs pissing around it. A madman swaggers in its eye, swigging from his paper bag, speaks, no screams his jokes, a sad routine, reeling with laughter before he finishes telling them. A crowd of tourists watch, wondering what they're missing, smiling at the absent punch lines, and Hieronymus remembers what it was to be a star.
There must have been a hundred extras milling around that day, crowded between the barricades on Spring St, and Hieronymus sensed his big break was to be unremarkable.
But he was wrong. For within twenty-five minutes of rolling, Ty Fee, who'd been strutting round the set all morning, her narrow heels slipping out of her patent-leather pumps as she walked, put the megaphone to her glossy lips, and screamed. "SILENCE P-LEASE! A artist cannot THINK with all this noise. Where is Hieronymus?"
Hieronymus felt his hand raise up and stood mute until Ty saw him. "Don't be shy, honey. I don't got time for shy. Now you come with me."
"This ladies and gentlemen, is how it's done. Do you see this man? I said to him, 'When I say "rolling" you walk from the mailbox to the other side of the street in a diagonal line, like an everyday guy just going about your business.' And he did it. None of this 'I'm gonna to be discovered' bullshit. I said 'regular guy' and he delivered. THAT'S how actors are discovered. Every little walk-on needs to be played with dedication. You got that? Hieronymus—show them how it's done. Regular guy—now do it. See that you asswipes? It's brilliant the way he puts that letter in the mailbox and just walks across the street. It's plausible. Unlike anything I can get out of the rest of you morons. He's just a regular guy."
Hieronymus looked at Ty and beamed. And then never came out of character again.
And that is why here, now, in the park, in the rain, having finished his laundry and eaten, he can be seen muttering it to himself, speaking it, saying his part. Into the ceaseless sea of faces he shuffles, up and down the paths, around the fountain, giving his his line, quietly at first, I am just a regular guy, his voice rising gradually, like a tide.
And walking now with his voice in his head, that credo playing and replaying itself, he thinks of her. Thinks of Doris. How he had said that to her, that last time he saw her, that he was just a regular guy.
He had gone to her that day. After Ty Fee had called it a wrap. He had bladed east through Manhattan, the wind ripping at him, the air buffeting his cheeks, he had glided across the bridge that afternoon with such noble grace.
How many blocks! He was going to reclaim her. And when he got there, when he arrived at her apartment he stood beneath her second story window and, meaning to win her with grand and heroic gestures, opted not to use her buzzer but instead to call up to her, his words sailing upwards, finding her, as his hands had once found her face.
"Doris," he had yelled. "Doris!" His words shooting skywards, rebounding off the edifices of the buildings that lined that narrow Brooklyn street.
But there was only silence in response.
"Doris!" he had called again.
Still there was silence, until he heard the grating of a swollen window-frame, suddenly heaved open, seemingly voluntarily, for he saw no one there, but sensed that it was she who'd opened it. That she was standing there, back to the wall, listening, waiting for him to explain. And so, tilting his head back on his neck he launched his convoy of words upwards, appealing to her.
"Doris! I got work! I got a job! I'm earning money and paying bills, just like everyone else. I'm a regular guy! Just an every day guy!"
This he cried, over and over, to a window that gaped half open, tantalizing him. But there was no response, only quiet, so he stood there, the light now fading, the purple bruise of evening settling over him, and spoke it until his voice grew hoarse.
Until, finally, there was a flutter at the window, a hummingbird of commotion, and he saw, through the dusk, a missive spiraling its way down towards him. And oh its descent was a long time coming! Oh how it seemed an eternity, standing there in the new chill of evening, waiting. That paper airplane, weaving its way downwards, crisp and sharp in the dim, until it landed finally, its nose plowing into the gleaming side of an aluminum garbage can.
He ran to fetch it, at last silenced, and snatched the little airplane up to unfold it and to read, DIE YUPPIE SCUM.
"Doris," he murmured, with a raw and leaky croon. And he backed into the street, again tilting his head upwards, to let loose one last long plea. But the window slammed shut, his sentence having reached it only in time to smack into the glass and fall downwards, breaking apart mid-air, his words hitting the pavement one by one, and cracking. So Hieronymus hurled himself across that bridge, back to the only home he now knew, Manhattan.
And here he stands now, in the street, his voice having raised itself eight octaves since we last saw him scuffling around Washington Square Park.
I AM JUST A REGULAR GUY, he screams, I AM JUST A REGULAR GUY. His arms stretched upwards, walking backwards, into the street, as though appealing to the entire human race. He screams it over and over, until some tired voice emerges from nowhere and yells, "GO HOME! GO HOME TO YOUR MAMA, LITTLE BOY."
And with her name Hieronymus is quieted. With that one gentle word he is calmed. Mama. Oh Mama. Where is she now, he wonders. And he thinks he can smell her. Thinks he can smell whatever that bouquet is that nestles itself in her clavicle, that roams her wrists. And so he goes to call her, finds a phone, stands there patiently, listening to it ring, thinking it's like his loneliness, that out-ringing into a wide aural space.
And then he hears her. That soft, sweet voice.
But he says nothing, just listens to her breath, waits for that voice to break him open again.
"Hieronymus, Baby, is that you?"
He thinks he can hear her breasts.
"Please talk to me, Baby," says her voice.
"Pudenda," he says.
"Say it, Mama. Say Pudenda," says Hieronymus, and scraping out from the silence, he hears a little cough.
"Well alright, Hieronymus, if that's what you want. Pudenda," she says, her words like syrup, every round vowel swallowed with an H. "Pudenda," she says again. "There, did I say it right?"
"Say it again, Mama."
And she does. She says it over and over, as many times as he asks, and Hieronymus thinks can taste her voice, thinks he can feel it in his mouth, like drawn butter.
He listens to her, his ear by her mouth, suckling, until he is full. And then, suddenly, the phone left swinging behind him, he is running screaming, leaping over puddles, yelling, "Pudenda, pudenda, pudenda," having left his mother say the same, to blow it into the air.
And now he feels the nightstick of a policeman crack against his legs. He feels his arms twisted up behind him, but he says nothing, just thinks of Mama. And oh how he misses her. Oh how he'd like to be in her arms, now, hearing her whisper it, feeling her brush the hair from his sweating forehead.
But he is cuffed and slammed into the back of a car instead, taken he knows not where, and locked into a cell.
Its doors roar shut, and he thinks of the last scene shot, of the spaceship doors closing behind him after Ty had called him back and asked him to be the stand-in for the star.
"You've got the right physique," she'd said. "Shot from behind, your body could belong to any man, and I am pretty sure you'll fit into his space-suit. He's already shooting another film so he can't come back and film the end. So we need you, Hieronymus. We need you to walk into the space-ship, and pause, your back to the camera, your arms raised, as the doors slide shut behind you. The credits will roll over the lifting ship. I want a sense of triumph, ok? You hear what I am saying? I want you to walk like him, and I want your body to evince a sense of victory."
Hieronymus had done it. Had acted the scene with a fluidity Ty Fee had claimed never before to see.
"If I ever need another stand-in," she said to him that last day, "You'll definitely be the one I call. You're lucky," she said, "You have one of those faces. You could be anybody."
But Hieronymus never heard from her again, and so seemed destined to remain himself.
When they let him out again it is warm. He no longer knows what month it is but it is balmy, the air swollen with humidity, and the streets diffused with a soft light. He has the $40.00 and the bus ticket Mama sent to the prison, and now wanders aimlessly through Soho, thinking he will slowly wend his way up and westward to Port Authority.
It grows dark, headlights and streetlamps gently flooding the night, and as Hieronymus comes to Houston he sees it, the block letters, the lights of the Angelika seeping out into the evening air.
MO FO'S IN SPACE PART IV.
His face tilted upwards, bathed in that glorious wash of light, he approaches the theater and is just buying a ticket from the box office when he hears her.
He turns around and she is there. Looking tanned and plump and prettier than he has ever seen her with her hair hanging in two thick braids. "Doris," he croaks.
"Hi Herry," she says, "how are you?"
"I'm in this," he says, his index finger moving up towards the billboard.
"You're in what, Herry?" she asks, putting a hand on one hip and shifting her weight into it.
"This," he says while pointing. "This."
"Uh huh. A bit part and a stand in. But you might not recognize me."
Doris rolls her eyes with exaggerated slowness. "Whatever, Hieronymus," she says. "Are you ever going to stop being a poser?"
At that, Hieronymus turns on his heel, hails a cab, and goes straight to Port Authority, where he boards a bus to Georgia. And taking a seat by the window, out through which he looks for the next sixteen hours, he finds consolation in the slur of the landscape, the sand on the shoulder of the road, and of course in the ceaseless movement of the wheels, in whose rotation he can hear his mantra so clearly: Pudenda, pudenda, pudenda.