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Jul/Aug 2012 Fiction

How Arthur Met Janet

by Will Lasky


Getting off at Dekalb, not riding the train all the way in to Manhattan, gave Arthur Wobach the sense that he hadn't quite made it in New York.

He walked down past the hospital into Fort Green, where he turned right, heading up the street half a block to the brownstone where he worked for Mr. Harrister. After a month of employment, Arthur ascertained that the ancient Mr. Harrister mediated estate law cases using the methods and technologies of the mid 20th century. It appeared that Mr. Harrister was a legal middle man who over the years had crafted an obscure niche for himself itemizing the possessions of the dead. Although Arthur wasn't totally certain about how this worked.

Once he asked Mr. Harrister to explain. "You see that great grandfather clock and that old stack of magazines?" Mr. Harrister asked. "These may look like things to you, but that's where you're wrong, jimbo! Ever try to read a clock by the fire in 1936? Boy, let me tell you, you've got another thing coming!"

Much of his work for Mr. Harrister consisted of running errands like going to the grocery store to purchase bottles of prune juice. He also spent a lot of time wading through Mr. Harrister's lengthy verbal explanations. For example, how to get to the copy store: "Go down to the corner of Dekalb and Fort Greene. Turn left on Dekalb. Keep walking past where Giuseppe's Pizza Parlor used to be. Did you know J. Edgar Hoover used to eat there the first Tuesday of every month? Keep walking, then go up. Cross the street and go up, farther and farther, until you pass the place Micky's Barbershop used to be. Go past Micky's Barbershop..." Arthur already knew where the copy store was, but he accepted the directions as part of Mr. Harrister's reminding himself of a sacred geography.

Mr. Harrister sat at his desk stooped over his papers. He hand ruled his own paper in order to make long lists of the possessions of the dead. The light projected by his desk lamp made the remains of his hair transparent, revealing his blessed, antique skull ready for tagging. An exemplar. Why did he keep working, at ninety? There he was, stooped at his desk, hand ruling another page, his handwriting expertly warbled, every letter a masterpiece of a dying nervous system. When he wanted to write an official document, he used a huge electric typewriter.

"Go to the store. Get me some prune juice and a bagel. Save the receipt."

Arthur ran these errands for Mr. Harrister, down past all the ghost shops from Mr. Harrister's childhood to the copy store, into Manhattan to a stationary shop that was the only stationary shop in the city that sold the kind of paper Mr. Harrister liked. Sometimes, Mr. Harrister told Arthur to go to a place called the "Hall of Records."

"Go to the Hall of Records," Mr. Harrister would bark. On these occasions, Arthur took his laptop to the coffee shop and found the information Mr. Harrister desired on the Internet. It was usually information about the values of things—furniture, watches, ephemera.

Daily at 11:30, Mr. Harrister paused in his work, turned in the old swivel chair to Arthur, who sat perhaps doodling or sketching out a plot for a one-act. Mr. Harrister looked lost in thought, as if he was gradually arriving at a conclusion. "Go to the store," he would say. "Get me some prune juice," and then after several more seconds of thought, "and a bagel."

New York elated and depressed Arthur, an unwitting addict to a state of limbo. It was unhealthy for him, but he couldn't leave. He had come here with a vague dream of becoming an actor, but upon arrival he had immediately realized that it wasn't a realistic ambition. He didn't understand how he hadn't noticed before, why he had never before seriously assessed his strange, sainted virginity: the white lint balls that gathered on his black sweat pants, the sweat pants themselves linked ever so incongruously with the Clark shoes. His resume meant nothing. His senior thesis: a monologue from the perspective of HP Lovecraft, was a sad joke. And he only wore Clark shoes. Why? But somehow none of that mattered. The desirability of New York sustained.

New York was a kind of profession in and of itself, and Arthur felt proud when he told his friends back home that he was living there. No one asked him about acting, presumably because no one had believed he would ever become an actor. He himself no longer inquired deeply into his own potentials because somehow, in New York, his own potentials no longer mattered.

He got up in the morning in his little Neck Road apartment and took the Q Train to Fort Greene, where he worked all day doing odd tasks for Mr. Harrister. Then, in the evening, he took the train home. Sometimes he went to a poetry reading. He sat in coffee shops milking drip coffee. He had no friends. He solved the riddle of his desire by self-servicing once or twice a week. He threw away his sweatpants and bought a pair of Chinos that went better with the Clark shoes. He was not lashed by the fire of desire, rather muffled by the cotton balls of desire's absence. Every Sunday evening, he cried for a long time. He didn't know why.

Then one day Arthur arrived at work to discover that Mr. Harrister was not there. In his place was a good looking woman, 40ish, dark hair, slender in a preserved girlish way. "Who are you?" she asked.

"I'm Arthur."

"And?"

"I work for Mr. Harrister. Who are you?"

"Who am I? I'm Mr. Harrister's daughter, Janet Harrister."

"Nice to meet you."

"Nice to meet you?"

It was as if Janet Harrister was offended by everything Arthur said.

"Where is Mr. Harrister?"

"Where is Mr. Harrister? Mr. Harrister died of a heart attack last night. Now Mr. Harrister is at the undertakers."

"Really? I'm sorry to hear that," said Arthur.

"Sorry to hear that? Who are you, anyway?"

"I work for Mr. Harrister."

"Work for Mr. Harrister? He hasn't practiced in 25 years, ever since his first stroke."

Later that night, Arthur tried to fantasize about Janet Harrister, but he couldn't find a way into the fantasy. She was so mean. Wasn't that supposed to be alluring? A kind of meanness? Isn't that what women liked? Wall Street commandos, or whatever they were called, brokers, men who broke the things in their life, beat them into submission? Men who would do anything? Isn't that what men liked as well? Ice princesses and dominatrices? The distant vision? The whole edifice of man-woman relationships came crashing in, a harsh and ritualistic culling of the herd. Within this ritual, Janet Harrister was clearly at the top of the pyramid.

 

After Mr. Harrister died, Arthur Wobach decided to isolate himself to see if life would come to him. He sat in his apartment as still as he could, and then he would go for walks with the intention of making eye contact and speaking with no one. His lanky legs carried him all the way up to the Metropolitan, where he viewed an exhibit of Indian sculpture, the intricate monstrosities of the Mughal period reminding him of his HP Lovecraft days, an underpinning cosmic terror.

On the third day of his experiment, Janet Harrister called.

"Is this Arthur?" she asked patronizingly.

"Yes."

"Well, as long as you worked for my father, at least you could come and help me clean up his possessions."

Summoned by life, Arthur took the train to Fort Greene. Janet Harrister was dressed in spandex. Her long, dark hair was smooth and straight, like a Chinese woman's. Her slightly bulgy eyes were her only defect.

"I run a non-profit for the homeless and the environment," she said.

"What's it called?"

"What's it called?" Janet Harrister repeated Arthur's question, a sense of outrage creeping into her voice.

"Yes, what's it called?"

"Well, it's called the Social Justice Foundation, but that's kind of beside the point, don't you think?"

"I don't know, is it?"

Janet Harrister irritated him. "Yes," she said. "It is."

They were going through Mr. Harrister's papers. Endless papers all filled with his chicken scratch. His apartment could have been an art project, something called "Life's Work."

"So what did your father do, if you don't mind me asking, if he wasn't working?"

"I don't know. I don't know what he was doing. Do you?"

"I thought he was practicing some kind of estate law."

"Estate law? Really? I don't know what he was doing," said Janet Harrister. "Listen. Could you run an errand for me?"

"Okay."

"Okay. Go to the store. Get me an Odwalla raspberry smoothy," said Janet Harrister, pausing, as if lost within a Rolodex of wants. "And a bagel."

 

The following day, he went to Mr. Harrister's house again, and there was Janet Harrister, this time in what appeared to be some kind of super hero costume. Provocative workout gear, with thick-soled boots.

"You just come from the gym?"

"The gym?"

"Yes, the gym."

"Uh, this is how I dress," she said, huffing into the living room.

They spent the day cleaning Mr. Harrister's apartment. Arthur couldn't help but notice Janet Harrister's tight body, like a girl's, but middle-aged. It was a desirable body. The desirability of Janet Harrister's body could not be approached, and yet it reached into him, reproaching him with his own muffled, ambiguous wants.

"What's wrong with you?" asked Janet Harrister. "Are you retarded or something?"

"Retarded?"

"Yes, are you mentally retarded?" she asked him, relieving him of a stack of life magazines he was boxing. "These are garbage."

"Really?"

"Trash."

The following day, Janet Harrister called him. "Listen," she said. "Have you ever been to Yossel's Knishes on Houston?"

"No."

"Do you want to meet me for a knish?"

"Where is it?"

"Look, it's easy. I'll give you directions even a blind man could follow."

Even a blind man could follow. The expression seemed antique, channeled from her father's past. Arthur took the B train to Broadway Lafayette and walked over to Yossel's. There was Janet Harrister in her workout gear. This time, a black leotard with spandex leggings and a pair of those furry, barbarian boots complimented her glossy hair, making her seem clean in a way that bent the mind.

"This is Yossels," she said.

"Cool."

Yossel's felt like the 1930s. It felt like one of those places Mr. Harrister said once existed on the route to the copy store. Go past the place Yossel's used to be.

"So, what are you going to get? A knish? It all comes with pickles, so you don't have to worry about not having enough. Don't worry about the pickles."

"I'll have a knish," Arthur said, feeling the sound of his own voice, rounded and full yet also self-swallowing, inward turning.

"Okay, great. You'll have a knish."

Arthur ordered. They sat down.

"You don't get out a lot do you?" Janet Harrister asked.

"I take walks. I move around from place to place."

"Place to place? Where do you live?"

"Out by Neck Road, on the Q."

"Neck Road?"

"Yeah."

"Forgive me for saying so," laughed Janet Harrister. "But that's way out there! I mean, that's way out there. The commute must take hours. The commute must take something like two hours!"

"Well, I would only have to go as far as Dekalb..."

"Oh, that's right. You worked for my father. How silly of me."

"Yeah."

"So, it's not that bad. Okay. Neck Road. I mean, forgive me, but I've never really met anyone who lived all the way out there. Wow. That's crazy."

Arthur retrieved his knish. Janet Harrister was already finished.

"So, you go to musicals? Plays?"

"Not really."

"So, Arthur, what are you doing in New York then? I mean, you don't go to musicals, plays...you obviously, I mean, forgive me if I say so, but you are obviously single, and so what are you doing here in the city? Why did you come here?"

"I'm not sure. I guess I wanted to see what it was like. Why are you here?"

"Why am I here? Okay, fair enough. I ask you about you and you ask me about me. Okay, well, Arthur, I'm a social activist. I care deeply about the homeless and the environment."

"Oh, cool."

"Cool? We'll, pardon me if I tell you that I find that slightly offensive. I mean, I wouldn't call any of it cool. It's more of a cause. Saving the homeless and the environment. I'm a social activist. I feel very strongly that humanity should stop polluting its environment and that everyone should have a home."

"Any progress?"

"Progress?"

"Yeah, like what have you done lately?"

"I don't know, Arthur. I don't know about you. I don't know if I appreciate that question."

"What? What did I say?"

"What did you say? I don't know Arthur. I don't know if I appreciate this."

"What did I do? I'm sorry."

"You know, I don't have time for this. I'm leaving."

Arthur watched Janet Harrister get up and walk out. Her middle-aged body, fit and dark, reproached him.

On the way back home, Arthur thought of the necessity of continuing his isolation experiment. It had been a mistake to meet Janet Harrister for knishes. Janet Harrister obviously had mental problems. He needed a greater degree of silence and isolation in order to court the world.

 

On the fifth day of his experiment, Arthur woke up no longer wrapped in a shell of invisible cotton. He felt like he could breath. He walked down the street, beneath the train tracks, down to the beach. He didn't understand why he never went down there where the tawdry world's guises disintegrated and the ocean sustained its one luxurious note. He returned around one o'clock. His phone rang. It was Janet Harrister.

"Arthur," she said. "You're kind of a naughty boy, aren't you?"

"Naughty?"

"You're kind of a typical man, aren't you? I mean, you're not exactly aware, are you? Aware of what is going on here."

"What's going on?"

"Do you think you could please a woman, Arthur? Do you ever think about what it might take to please a woman?"

"Sometimes."

"Well, I"m free after five."

"Uh, huh."

"What? Uh, huh? Are you retarded, Arthur?"

"No Janet, I'm not retarded."

"Ugh," said Janet Harrister, hanging up.

 

Arthur went to the Goodwill in Midtown. He purchased a German military overcoat. He noticed that when he wore the military overcoat, people looked at him as he passed in the street. In his military coat, he walked all the way up Riverside Drive into Washington Heights where, in a park, a police officer questioned him.

"What's your business here?" asked the police officer.

"Just resting."

"Just resting? Where do you live?"

"In Brooklyn."

"In Brooklyn? Well, my advice to you is to go back to Brooklyn."

"Why?"

"Why? That's my advice to you."

Then Arthur walked all the way back to Brooklyn on his long, tireless legs.

 

Arthur lay in bed staring at the ceiling, trying to become more aware of the things inside his mind, guiding his more conscious mind to pick out faces in the shadows that scrolled over cracks.

"Arthur..."It was Janet Harrister.

"Yes?" Arthur asked.

"Arthur, do you know where I am?"

"Where are you?"

"In the bath. I'm covered with soap and bubbles and my breasts are just above the surface. I can feel the water around them."

"Hmm. That's nice."

"Do you want to come over here? Do you want to get in the bath with me?"

"You're insane."

"Ugh," said Janet, Harrister hanging up.

 

"What's your problem Arthur? You're so... ugh. I can't even begin to describe it. You're just the typical man."

"I am?"

"Yes, you're just the typical man. The problem with you men is that you don't know what we need. You don't know what women need."

"What do they need?"

"Ugh!" said Janet Harrister, hanging up.

 

"Hi, Arthur. This is Janet. I'm just calling you to tell you that I won't be calling you anymore, and that you can go and fuck yourself. Goodbye..."

 

Arthur got used to Janet Harrister calling him. About twice weekly, Janet Harrister called him, said some insulting things, and hung up.

During the winter, he got several temp jobs, once with Fed Ex for the Christmas rush. The Fed Ex warehouse was near his neighborhood, in Bensonhurst. He walked there through the crisp winter evening and walked home on bitterly cold yet festive mornings.

 

"Why do you insult me all the time?"

"Insult you? I don't insult you. You insult me!" said Janet Harrister. "You insult me with your existence! Ugh..."

 

Janet Harrister was the only person from whom he received calls. Sometime after Christmas, he began to welcome the calls. Once, when the weight of the universe settled on his shoulders and he seriously considered hanging himself with an extension cord, he thought about calling her and unveiling himself before her, a creature of solitude and silent sadness. But then he thought against it. To do so would be to break the spell. She would never call him again.

 

"Hi Arthur."

"Hi, Janet."

"How are you, Arthur?"

"I'm fine, Janet. How are you?"

"I"m fine, Arthur. How are you?"

"You're repeating yourself, Janet."

"I'm repeating myself? Ugh! Arthur, I'm just trying to have fun with you, to be playful! Is that so hard to understand? Ugh!" And she hung up.

 

In early February, down to his last two grand, Arthur took the census test with a dozen other unemployed people at Brooklyn College. The test proffered simple arithmetic with institutional illustrations, as if subtly probing the minds of the test takers to see if they could count. At the beginning of March, he got a call from someone who spoke in an extremely loud, muddled voice.

"You wanna be censitus? You wanna be censitus?" the voice asked.

"What?"

"Waza madda, you godda hearin problem or sumpin? I said, you wanna be a census taker?"

The census class was very much like the census test: plying the room for people with extremely low IQs. In particular, Arthur relished a moment in which a raucous controversy erupted in regards to the direction in which the census taker is supposed to circle the block. To the right facing the houses, making left turns at corners? Or to the left when facing the houses, making right turns?

"And just remember," said the census instructor. "We'll be watching you, so don't think about sitting on your couch watching TV, checking off the boxes."

He found the classes exhausting, taking the train way out to the Baptist church where they were held, but he liked the sense of camaraderie. The people there were like him. They were old and young, attractive and ugly, and they didn't fit. He felt a sense of acceptance among the poor and discarded.

 

"Guess where I am, Arthur."

"Hey, guess what? I got a job!"

"I'm standing on my balcony, naked."

"With the census."

"Aren't you? Aren't you at all interested in what I am saying? Don't you even care, Arthur, about anything other than your census job? Ugh!"

 

In the springtime they met in Prospect Park. Arthur had just knocked off work and had his census bag slung over her shoulder. Janet Harrister wore yellow spandex pants with a black halter top and brought different varieties of salad: potato salad, bean salad, mayonnaise salad. She had changed, aged over the winter, although her spandex-clad body had contracted even further into its ageless sense of tension. Arthur had also aged. His face had become sallow, gray, and the skin beneath his eyes had darkened.

Approaching Janet Harrister across the green, springtime grass, he felt as if he was treading their mutual battlefield, the battlefield of life, and that this was the same as it had always been and always would be.

"I just don't know," she said.

"Know what?"

"I just don't know why people are so, ugh... Difficult! Why is the world like this? Why are there so many homeless people? Why do people pollute the environment?"

"I don't know, Janet," said Arthur, putting his arm around her shoulder.

"At least I have you," she said. "At least I have my boyfriend."

Arthur hadn't seen her in six months, since that day at Yossels. He did not dispute her words. He did not care to dispute life. He held her, and as he held her, he felt a warm, caramel, molten sensation.

 

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