فصل 02کتاب: اتحادیه ابلهان / فصل 2
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“With the breakdown of the Medieval system, the gods of Chaos, Lunacy, and Bad Taste gained ascendancy.” Ignatius was writing in one of his Big Chief tablets.
After a period in which the western world had enjoyed order, tranquility, unity, and oneness with its True God and Trinity, there appeared winds of change which spelled evil days ahead. An ill wind blows no one good. The luminous years of Abélard, Thomas à Becket, and Everyman dimmed into dross; Fortuna’s wheel had turned on humanity, crushing its collarbone, smashing its skull, twisting its torso, puncturing its pelvis, sorrowing its soul. Having once been so high, humanity fell so low. What had once been dedicated to the soul was now dedicated to the sale.
“That is rather fine,” Ignatius said to himself and continued his hurried writing.
Merchants and charlatans gained control of Europe, calling their insidious gospel “The Enlightenment.” The day of the locust was at hand, but from the ashes of humanity there arose no Phoenix. The humble and pious peasant, Piers Plowman, went to town to sell his children to the lords of the New Order for purposes that we may call questionable at best. (See Reilly, Ignatius J., Blood on Their Hands: The Crime of It All, A study of some selected abuses in sixteenth century Europe, a Monograph, 2 pages, 1950, Rare Book Room, Left Corridor, Third Floor, Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane University, New Orleans 18, Louisiana. Note: I mailed this singular monograph to the library as a gift; however, I am not really certain that it was ever accepted. It may well have been thrown out because it was only written in pencil on tablet paper.) The gyre had widened; The Great Chain of Being had snapped like so many paper clips strung together by some drooling idiot; death, destruction, anarchy, progress, ambition, and self-improvement were to be Piers’ new fate. And a vicious fate it was to be: now he was faced with the perversion of having to GO TO WORK.
His vision of history temporarily fading, Ignatius sketched a noose at the bottom of the page. Then he drew a revolver and a little box on which he neatly printed GAS CHAMBER. He scratched the side of the pencil back and forth across the paper and labeled this APOCALYPSE. When he had finished decorating the page, he threw the tablet to the floor among many others that were scattered about. This had been a very productive morning, he thought. He had not accomplished so much in weeks. Looking at the dozens of Big Chief tablets that made a rug of Indian headdresses around the bed, Ignatius thought smugly that on their yellowed pages and wide-ruled lines were the seeds of a magnificent study in comparative history. Very disordered, of course. But one day he would assume the task of editing these fragments of his mentality into a jigsaw puzzle of a very grand design; the completed puzzle would show literate men the disaster course that history had been taking for the past four centuries. In the five years that he had dedicated to this work, he had produced an average of only six paragraphs monthly. He could not even remember what he had written in some of the tablets, and he realized that several were filled principally with doodling. However, Ignatius thought calmly, Rome was not built in a day.
Ignatius pulled his flannel nightshirt up and looked at his bloated stomach. He often bloated while lying in bed in the morning contemplating the unfortunate turn that events had taken since the Reformation. Doris Day and Greyhound Scenicruisers, whenever they came to mind, created an even more rapid expansion of his central region. But since the attempted arrest and the accident, he had been bloating for almost no reason at all, his pyloric valve snapping shut indiscriminately and filling his stomach with trapped gas, gas which had character and being and resented its confinement. He wondered whether his pyloric valve might be trying, Cassandralike, to tell him something. As a medievalist Ignatius believed in the rota Fortunae, or wheel of fortune, a central concept in De Consolatione Philosophiae, the philosophical work which had laid the foundation for medieval thought. Boethius, the late Roman who had written the Consolatione while unjustly imprisoned by the emperor, had said that a blind goddess spins us on a wheel, that our luck comes in cycles. Was the ludicrous attempt to arrest him the beginning of a bad cycle? Was his wheel rapidly spinning downward? The accident was also a bad sign. Ignatius was worried. For all his philosophy, Boethius had still been tortured and killed. Then Ignatius’s valve closed again, and he rolled over on his left side to press the valve open.
“Oh, Fortuna, blind, heedless goddess, I am strapped to your wheel,” Ignatius belched. “Do not crush me beneath your spokes. Raise me on high, divinity.”
“What you mumbling about in there, boy?” his mother asked through the closed door.
“I am praying,” Ignatius answered angrily.
“Patrolman Mancuso’s coming today to see me about the accident. You better say a little Hail Mary for me, honey.”
“Oh, my God,” Ignatius muttered.
“I think it’s wonderful you praying, babe. I been wondering what you do locked up in there all the time.”
“Please go away!” Ignatius screamed. “You’re shattering my religious ecstasy.”
Bouncing up and down on his side vigorously, Ignatius sensed a belch rising in his throat, but when he expectantly opened his mouth he emitted only a small burp. Still, the bouncing had some physiological effect. Ignatius touched the small erection that was pointing downward into the sheet, held it, and lay still trying to decide what to do. In this position, with the red flannel nightshirt around his chest and his massive stomach sagging into the mattress, he thought somewhat sadly that after eighteen years with his hobby it had become merely a mechanical physical act stripped of the flights of fancy and invention that he had once been able to bring to it. At one time he had almost developed it into an art form, practicing the hobby with the skill and fervor of an artist and philosopher, a scholar and gentleman. There were still hidden in his room several accessories which he had once used, a rubber glove, a piece of fabric from a silk umbrella, a jar of Noxema. Putting them away again after it was all over had eventually grown too depressing.
Ignatius manipulated and concentrated. At last a vision appeared, the familiar figure of the large and devoted collie that had been his pet when he was in high school. “Woof!” Ignatius almost heard Rex say once again. “Woof! Woof! Arf!” Rex looked so lifelike. One ear drooped. He panted. The apparition jumped over a fence and chased a stick that somehow landed in the middle of Ignatius’s quilt. As the tan and white fur grew closer, Ignatius’s eyes dilated, crossed, and closed, and he lay wanly back among his four pillows, hoping that he had some Kleenex in his room.
“I come about that porter job you got advertise in the paper.”
“Yeah?” Lana Lee looked at the sunglasses. “You got any references?”
“A po-lice gimme a reference. He tell me I better get my ass gainfully employ,” Jones said and shot a jet of smoke out into the empty bar.
“Sorry. No police characters. Not in a business like this. I got an investment to watch.”
“I ain exactly a character yet, but I can tell they gonna star that vagran no visible means of support stuff on me. They told me.” Jones withdrew into a forming cloud. “I thought maybe the Night of Joy like to help somebody become a member of the community, help keep a poor color boy outta jail. I keep the picket off, give the Night of Joy a good civil right ratin.” “Cut out the crap.”
“You got any experience as a porter?”
“Wha? Sweepin and moppin and all that nigger sh@t?”
“Watch your mouth, boy. I got a clean business.”
“Hell, anybody do that, especially color peoples.”
“I’ve been looking,” Lana Lee said, becoming a grave personnel manager, “for the right boy for this job for several days.” She put her hands in the pockets of her leather overcoat and looked into the sunglasses. This was really a deal, like a present left on her doorstep. A colored guy who would get arrested for vagrancy if he didn’t work. She would have a captive porter whom she could work for almost nothing. It was beautiful. Lana felt good for the first time since she had come upon those two characters messing up her bar. “The pay is twenty dollars week.” “Hey! No wonder the right man ain show up. Ooo-wee. Say, whatever happen to the minimal wage?”
“You need a job, right? I need a porter. Business stinks. Take it from there!”
“The las person workin in here musta starve to death.”
“You work six days a week from ten to three. If you come in regular, who knows? You might get a little raise.”
“Don worry. I come in regular, anything keep my ass away from a po-lice for a few hour,” Jones said, blowing some smoke on Lana Lee. “Where you keep them mutherfu@kin broom?” “One thing we gotta understand is keeping our mouth clean around here.”
“Yes, ma’m. I sure don wanna make a bad impressia in a fine place like the Night of Joy. Whoa!”
The door opened and Darlene came in wearing a satin cocktail dress and a flowered hat, flouncing her skirt gracefully as she walked.
“How come you’re so late?” Lana screamed at her. “I told you to be here at one today.”
“My cockatoo come down with a cold last night, Lana. It was awful. The whole night he was up coughing right in my ear.”
“Where do you think up excuses like that?”
“Well, it’s true,” Darlene answered in an injured voice. She put her huge hat on the bar and climbed on a stool up into a cloud that Jones had blown. “I hadda take him to the vet’s this morning to get a vitamin shot. I don’t want that poor bird coughing all over my furniture.” “What got into your head that made you encourage those two characters last night? Every day, every day, Darlene, I try to explain to you the kind of clientele we want in here. Then I walk in and find you eating crap off my bar with some old lady and a fat turd. You trying to close down my business? People look in the door, see a combination like that, they walk off to another bar. What I have to do to make you understand, Darlene? How does a human being get through to a mind like yours?” “I already told you I felt sorry for that poor woman, Lana. You oughta seen how her son treated her. You oughta heard the story he told me about a Greyhound bus. And all the time that sweet old lady sitting there paying for his drinks. I had to take one of her cakes to make her feel good.” “Well, the next time I find you encouraging people like that and ruining my investment, I’m gonna kick you out on your behind. Is that clear?”
“You sure you got what I said?”
“Okay. Now show this boy where we keep our brooms and crap and get that bottle that old lady broke cleaned up. You’re in charge of getting this whole goddam place as clean as a pin for what you did me last night. I’m going shopping.” Lana got to the door and turned around. “I don’t want nobody fooling with that cabinet under the bar.” “I swear,” Darlene said to Jones after Lana had swung through the door, “this place is worse than the army. She just hire you today?”
“Yeah,” Jones answered. “She ain exactly hire me. She kinda buying me off a auction block.”
“At least you gonna get a salary. I only work on commission for how much I get people to drink. You think that’s easy? Try to get some guy to buy more than one of the kinda drinks they serve in here. All water. They gotta spend ten, fifteen dollars to get any effect at all. I swear, it’s a tough job. Lana even pumps water in the champagne. You oughta taste that. Then she’s all the time complaining about how business stinks. She oughta buy a drink at this bar and find out. Even when she’s got only about five people drinking in here she’s making a fortune. Water don’t cost nothing.” “Wha she go shoppin for? A whip?”
“Don’t ask me. Lana never tells me nothin. That Lana’s a funny one.” Darlene blew her nose daintily. “What I really wanna be is an exotic. I been practicing in my apartment on a routine. If I can get Lana to let me dance in here at night, I can get me a regular salary and quit hustling water on commission. Now that I think of it, I oughta get me some commission for what them people drank up in here last night. That old lady sure drank up a lotta beer. I don’t see what Lana’s got to complain about. Business is business. That fat man and his momma wasn’t much worse than plenty we get in here. I think the thing got Lana was that funny green cap he had stuck up on his head. When he was talking, he’d pull the earflap down, and when he was listening, he’d stick it up again. By the time Lana got here, everybody was hollering at him, so he had both flaps stuck out like wings. You know, it looked sorta funny.” “And you say this fat cat travlin around with his momma?” Jones asked, making a mental association.
“Uh huh.” Darlene folded her handkerchief and slipped it into her bosom. “I sure hope they don’t ever decide to hang around here again. I’ll really be in trouble. Jesus.” Darlene sounded worried. “Look, we better do something about this place before Lana comes back. But listen. Don’t knock yourself out cleaning up this dump. I never seen it really clean since I been here. And it’s so dark in here all the time, nobody can tell the difference. To hear Lana talk, you’d think this hole was the Ritz.” Jones shot out a fresh cloud. Through his glasses he could hardly see anything at all.
Patrolman Mancuso enjoyed riding the motorcycle up St. Charles Avenue. At the precinct he had borrowed a large and loud one that was all chromium and baby blue, and at the touch of a switch it could become a pinball machine of flashing, winking, blinking red and white lights. The siren, a cacophony of twelve crazed bobcats, was enough to make suspicious characters within a half-mile radius defecate in panic and rush for cover. Patrolman Mancuso’s love for the motorcycle was platonically intense.
The forces of evil generated by the hideous — and apparently impossible to uncover — underground of suspicious characters seemed remote to him this afternoon, though. The ancient oaks of St. Charles Avenue arched over the avenue like a canopy shielding him from the mild winter sun that splashed and sparkled on the chrome of the motorcycle. Although the days had lately been cold and damp, the afternoon had that sudden, surprising warmth that makes New Orleans winters gentle. Patrolman Mancuso appreciated the mildness, for he was wearing only a T-shirt and Bermuda shorts, the sergeant’s costume selection for the day. The long red beard that hooked over his ears by means of wires did manage to warm his chest a little; he had snatched the beard from the locker while the sergeant wasn’t looking.
Patrolman Mancuso inhaled the moldy scent of the oaks and thought, in a romantic aside, that St. Charles Avenue must be the loveliest place in the world. From time to time he passed the slowly rocking streetcars that seemed to be leisurely moving toward no special destination, following their route through the old mansions on either side of the avenue. Everything looked so calm, so prosperous, so unsuspicious. On his own time he was going up to see that poor Widow Reilly. She had looked so pitiful crying in the middle of that wreck. The least he could do was try to help her.
At Constantinople Street he turned toward the river, sputtering and growling through a declining neighborhood until he reached a block of houses built in the 1880s and 90s, wooden Gothic and Gilded Age relics that dripped carving and scrollwork. Boss Tweed suburban stereotypes separated by alleys so narrow that a yardstick could almost bridge them and fenced in by iron pikes and low walls of crumbling brick. The larger houses had become impromptu apartment buildings, their porches converted into additional rooms. In some of the front yards there were aluminum carports, and bright aluminum awnings had been installed on one or two of the buildings. It was a neighborhood that had degenerated from Victorian to nothing in particular, a block that had moved into the twentieth century carelessly and uncaringly — and with very limited funds.
The address that Patrolman Mancuso was looking for was the tiniest structure on the block, aside from the carports, a Lilliput of the eighties. A frozen banana tree, brown and stricken, languished against the front of the porch, the tree preparing to collapse as the iron fence had done long ago. Near the dead tree there was a slight mound of earth and a leaning Celtic cross cut from plywood. The 1946 Plymouth was parked in the front yard, its bumper pressed against the porch, its taillights blocking the brick sidewalk. But, except for the Plymouth and the weathered cross and the mummified banana tree, the tiny yard was completely bare. There were no shrubs. There was no grass. And no birds sang.
Patrolman Mancuso looked at the Plymouth and saw the deep crease in its roof and the fender, filled with concave circles, that was separated from the body by three or four inches of space. VAN CAMP’S PORK AND BEANS was printed on the piece of cardboard taped across the hole that had been the rear window. Stopping by the grave, he read REX in faded letters on the cross. Then he climbed the worn brick steps and heard through the closed shutters a booming chant.
Big girls don’t cry.
Big girls don’t cry.
Big girls, they don’t cry-yi-yi.
They don’t cry.
Big girls, they don’t cry…yi.
While he was waiting for someone to answer the bell, he read the faded sticker on the crystal of the door, “A slip of the lip can sink a ship.” Below a WAVE held her finger to lips that had turned tan.
Along the block some people were out on their porches looking at him and the motorcycle. The shutters across the street that slowly flipped up and down to get the proper focus indicated that he also had a considerable unseen audience, for a police motorcycle in the block was an event, especially if its driver wore shorts and a red beard. The block was poor, certainly, but honest. Suddenly self-conscious, Patrolman Mancuso rang the bell again and assumed what he considered his erect, official posture. He gave his audience his Mediterranean profile, but the audience saw only a small and sallow figure whose shorts hung clumsily in the crotch, whose spindly legs looked too naked in comparison to the formal garters and nylon socks that hung near the ankles. The audience remained curious, but unimpressed; a few were not even especially curious, the few who had expected some such vision to visit that miniature house eventually.
Big girls don’t cry
Big girls don’t cry.
Patrolman Mancuso knocked savagely at the shutters.
Big girls don’t cry.
Big girls don’t cry.
“They home,” a woman screamed through the shutters of the house next door, an architect’s vision of Jay Gould domestic. “Miss Reilly’s prolly in the kitchen. Go around the back. What are you, mister? A cop?” “Patrolman Mancuso. Undercover,” he answered sternly.
“Yeah?” There was a moment of silence. “Which one you want, the boy or the mother?”
“Well, that’s good. You’d never get a hold of him. He’s watching the TV. You hear that? It’s driving me nuts. My nerves is shot.”
Patrolman Mancuso thanked the woman’s voice and walked into the dank alley. In the back yard he found Mrs. Reilly hanging a spotted and yellowed sheet on a line that ran through the bare fig trees.
“Oh, it’s you,” Mrs. Reilly said after a moment. She had almost started to scream when she saw the man with the red beard appear in her yard. “How you doing, Mr. Mancuso? What them people said?” She stepped cautiously over the broken brick paving in her brown felt moccasins. “Come on in the house and we’ll have us a nice cup of coffee.” The kitchen was a large, high-ceilinged room, the largest in the house, and it smelled of coffee and old newspapers. Like every room in the house, it was dark; the greasy wallpaper and brown wooden moldings would have transformed any light into gloom, and from the alley very little light filtered in anyway. Although the interiors of homes did not interest Patrolman Mancuso, still he did notice, as anyone would have, the antique stove with the high oven and the refrigerator with the cylindrical motor on top. Thinking of the electric fryers, gas driers, mechanical mixers and beaters, waffle plates, and motorized rotisseries that seemed to be always whirring, grinding, beating, cooling, hissing, and broiling in the lunar kitchen of his wife, Rita, he wondered what Mrs. Reilly did in this sparse room. Whenever a new appliance was advertised on television, Mrs. Mancuso bought it no matter how obscure its uses were.
“Now tell me what the man said.” Mrs. Reilly began boiling a pot of milk on her Edwardian gas stove. “How much I gotta pay? You told him I was a poor widow with a child to support, huh?” “Yeah, I told him that,” Patrolman Mancuso said, sitting erectly in his chair and looking hopefully at the kitchen table covered with oilcloth. “Do you mind if I put my beard on the table? It’s kinda hot in here and it’s sticking my face.” “Sure, go ahead, babe. Here. Have a nice jelly doughnut. I just bought them fresh this morning over by Magazine Street. Ignatius says to me this morning, ‘Momma, I sure feel like a jelly doughnut.’ You know? So I went over by the German and bought him two dozen. Look, they got a few left.” She offered Patrolman Mancuso a torn and oily cake box that looked as if it had been subjected to unusual abuse during someone’s attempt to take all of the doughnuts at once. At the bottom of the box Patrolman Mancuso found two withered pieces of doughnut out of which, judging by their moist edges, the jelly had been sucked.
“Thank you anyway, Miss Reilly. I had me a big lunch.”
“Aw, ain’t that a shame.” She filled two cups half full with thick cold coffee and poured the boiling milk in up to the rim. “Ignatius loves his doughnuts. He says to me, ‘Momma, I love my doughnuts.’” Mrs. Reilly slurped a bit at the rim of her cup. “He’s out in the parlor right now looking at TV. Every afternoon, as right as rain, he looks at that show where them kids dance.” In the kitchen the music was somewhat fainter than it had been on the porch. Patrolman Mancuso pictured the green hunting cap bathed in the blue-white glow of the television screen. “He don’t like the show at all, but he won’t miss it. You oughta hear what he says about them poor kids.” “I spoke with the man this morning,” Patrolman Mancuso said, hoping that Mrs. Reilly had exhausted the subject of her son.
“Yeah?” She put three spoons of sugar in her coffee and, holding the spoon in the cup with her thumb so that the handle threatened to puncture her eyeball, she slurped a bit more. “What he said, honey?” “I told him I investigated the accident and that you just skidded on a wet street.”
“That sounds good. So what he said then, babe?”
“He said he don’t want to go to court. He wants a settlement now.”
“Oh, my God!” Ignatius bellowed from the front of the house. “What an egregious insult to good taste.”
“Don’t pay him no mind,” Mrs. Reilly advised the startled policeman. “He does that all the time he looks at the TV. A ‘settlement.’ That means he wants some money, huh?” “He even got a contractor to appraise the damage. Here, this is the estimate.”
Mrs. Reilly took the sheet of paper and read the typed column of itemized figures beneath the contractor’s letterhead.
“Lord! A thousand and twenty dollars. This is terrible. How I’m gonna pay that?” She dropped the estimate on the oilcloth. “You sure that is right?”
“Yes, ma’m. He’s got a lawyer working on it, too. It’s all on the up and up.”
“Where I’m gonna get a thousand dollars, though? All me and Ignatius got is my poor husband’s Social Security and a little two-bit pension, and that don’t come to much.” “Do I believe the total perversion that I am witnessing?” Ignatius screamed from the parlor. The music had a frantic, tribal rhythm; a chorus of falsettos sang insinuatingly about loving all night long.
“I’m sorry,” Patrolman Mancuso said, almost heartbroken over Mrs. Reilly’s financial quandary.
“Aw, it’s not your fault, darling,” she said glumly. “Maybe I can get a mortgage on the house. We can’t do nothing about it, huh?”
“No, ma’m,” Patrolman Mancuso answered, listening to some sort of approaching stampede.
“The children on that program should all be gassed,” Ignatius said as he strode into the kitchen in his nightshirt. Then he noticed the guest and said coldly, “Oh.”
“Ignatius, you know Mr. Mancuso. Say ‘Hello.’”
“I do believe that I’ve seen him about,” Ignatius said and looked out the back door.
Patrolman Mancuso was too startled by the monstrous flannel nightshirt to reply to Ignatius’s pleasantry.
“Ignatius, honey, the man wants over a thousand dollars for what I did to his building.”
“A thousand dollars? He will not get a cent. We shall have him prosecuted immediately. Contact our attorneys, Mother.”
“Our attorneys? He’s got a estimate from a contractor. Mr. Mancuso here says they’s nothing I can do.”
“Oh. Well, you shall have to pay him then.”
“I could take it to court if you think it’s best.”
“Drunken driving,” Ignatius said calmly. “You haven’t a chance.”
Mrs. Reilly looked depressed.
“But Ignatius, a thousand twenty dollars.”
“I am certain that you can procure some funds,” he told her. “Is there any more coffee, or have you given the last to this carnival masker?”
“We can mortgage the house.”
“Mortgage the house? Of course we won’t.”
“What else we gonna do, Ignatius?”
“There are means,” Ignatius said absently. “I wish that you wouldn’t bother me with this. That program always increases my anxiety anyway.” He smelled the milk before putting it into the pot. “I would suggest that you telephone that dairy immediately. This milk is quite aged.” “I can get a thousand dollars over by the Homestead,” Mrs. Reilly told the silent patrolman quietly. “The house is good security. I had me a real estate agent offered me seven thousand last year.” “The ironic thing about that program,” Ignatius was saying over the stove, keeping one eye peeled so that he could seize the pot as soon as the milk began to boil, “is that it is supposed to be an exemplum to the youth of our nation. I would like very much to know what the Founding Fathers would say if they could see these children being debauched to further the cause of Clearasil. However, I always suspected that democracy would come to this.” He painstakingly poured the milk into his Shirley Temple mug. “A firm rule must be imposed upon our nation before it destroys itself. The United States needs some theology and geometry, some taste and decency. I suspect that we are teetering on the edge of the abyss.” “Ignatius, I’m gonna have to go by the Homestead tomorrow.”
“We shall not deal with those usurers, Mother.” Ignatius was feeling around in the cookie jar. “Something will turn up.”
“Ignatius, honey, they can put me in jail.”
“Ho hum. If you are going to stage one of your hysterical scenes, I shall have to return to the living room. As a matter of fact, I think I will.”
He billowed out again in the direction of the music, the shower shoes flapping loudly against the soles of his huge feet.
“What I’m gonna do with a boy like that?” Mrs. Reilly sadly asked Patrolman Mancuso. “He don’t care about his poor dear mother. Sometimes I think Ignatius wouldn’t mind if they did throw me in jail. He’s got a heart of ice, that boy.” “You spoiled him,” Patrolman Mancuso said. “A woman’s gotta watch she don’t spoil her kids.”
“How many chirren you got, Mr. Mancuso?”
“Three. Rosalie, Antoinette, and Angelo, Jr.”
“Aw, ain’t that nice. I bet they sweet, huh? Not like Ignatius.” Mrs. Reilly shook her head. “Ignatius was such a precious child. I don’t know what made him change. He used to say to me, ‘Momma, I love you.’ He don’t say that no more.” “Aw, don’t cry,” Patrolman Mancuso said, deeply moved. “I’ll make you some more coffee.”
“He don’t care if they lock me up,” Mrs. Reilly sniffed. She opened the oven and took out a bottle of muscatel. “You want some nice wine, Mr. Mancuso?”
“No thanks. Being on the force, I gotta make a impression. I gotta always be on the lookout for people, too.”
“You don’t mind?” Mrs. Reilly asked rhetorically and took a long drink from the bottle. Patrolman Mancuso began boiling the milk, hovering over the stove in a very domestic manner. “Sometimes I sure get the blues. Life’s hard. I worked hard, too. I been good.” “You oughta look on the bright side,” Patrolman Mancuso said.
“I guess so,” Mrs. Reilly said. “Some people got it harder than me, I guess. Like my poor cousin, wonderful woman. Went to mass every day of her life. She got knocked down by a streetcar over on Magazine Street early one morning while she was on her way to Fisherman’s Mass. It was still dark out.” “Personally, I never let myself get low,” Patrolman Mancuso lied. “You gotta look up. You know what I mean? I got a dangerous line of work.”
“You could get yourself killed.”
“Sometimes I don’t apprehend nobody all day. Sometimes I apprehend the wrong person.”
“Like that old man in front of D. H. Holmes. That’s my fault, Mr. Mancuso. I shoulda guessed Ignatius was wrong all along. It’s just like him. All the time I’m telling him, ‘Ignatius, here, put on this nice shirt. Put on this nice sweater I bought you.’ But he don’t listen. Not that boy. He’s got a head like a rock.” “Then sometimes I get problems at home. With three kids, my wife’s very nervous.”
“Nerves is a terrible thing. Poor Miss Annie, the next-door lady, she’s got nerves. Always screaming about Ignatius making noise.”
“That’s my wife. Sometimes I gotta get outta the house. If I was another kind of man, sometimes I could really go get myself good and drunk. Just between us.”
“I gotta have my little drink. It relieves the pressure. You know?”
“What I do is go bowl.”
Mrs. Reilly tried to imagine little Patrolman Mancuso with a big bowling ball and said, “You like that, huh?”
“Bowling’s wonderful, Miss Reilly. It takes your mind off things.”
“Oh, my heavens!” a voice shouted from the parlor. “These girls are doubtless prostitutes already. How can they present horrors like this to the public?”
“I wish I had me a hobby like that.”
“You oughta try bowling.”
“Ay-yi-yi. I already got arthuritis in my elbow. I’m too old to play around with them balls. I’d wrench my back.”
“I got a aunt, sixty-five, a grammaw, and she goes bowling all the time. She’s even on a team.”
“Some women are like that. Me, I never was much for sports.”
“Bowling’s more than a sport,” Patrolman Mancuso said defensively. “You meet plenty people over by the alley. Nice people. You could make you some friends.”
“Yeah, but it’s just my luck to drop one of them balls on my toe. I got bum feet already.”
“Next time I go by the alley, I’ll let you know. I’ll bring my aunt. You and me and my aunt, we’ll go down by the alley. Okay?”
“Mother, when was this coffee dripped?” Ignatius demanded, flapping into the kitchen again.
“Just about a hour ago. Why?”
“It certainly tastes brackish.”
“I thought it was very good,” Patrolman Mancuso said. “Just as good as they serve at the French Market. I’m making some more now. You want a cup?”
“Pardon me,” Ignatius said. “Mother, are you going to entertain this gentleman all afternoon? I would like to remind you that I am going to the movies tonight and that I am due at the theater promptly at seven so that I can see the cartoon. I would suggest that you begin preparing something to eat.” “I better go,” Patrolman Mancuso said.
“Ignatius, you oughta be ashamed,” Mrs. Reilly said in an angry voice. “Me and Mr. Mancuso here just having some coffee. You been nasty all afternoon. You don’t care where I raise that money. You don’t care if they lock me up. You don’t care about nothing.” “Am I going to be attacked in my own home before a stranger with a false beard?”
“My heart’s broke.”
“Oh, really.” Ignatius turned on Patrolman Mancuso. “Will you kindly leave? You are inciting my mother.”
“Mr. Mancuso’s not doing nothing but being nice.”
“I better go,” Patrolman Mancuso said apologetically.
“I’ll get that money,” Mrs. Reilly screamed. “I’ll sell this house. I’ll sell it out from under you, boy. I’ll go stay by a old folks’ home.”
She grabbed an end of the oilcloth and wiped her eyes.
“If you do not leave,” Ignatius said to Patrolman Mancuso, who was hooking on his beard, “I shall call the police.”
“He is the police, stupid.”
“This is totally absurd,” Ignatius said and flapped away. “I am going to my room.”
He slammed his door and snatched a Big Chief tablet from the floor. Throwing himself back among the pillows on the bed, he began doodling on a yellowed page. After almost thirty minutes of pulling at his hair and chewing on the pencil, he began to compose a paragraph.
Were Hroswitha with us today, we would all look to her for counsel and guidance. From the austerity and tranquility of her medieval world, the penetrating gaze of this legendary Sybil of a holy nun would exorcise the horrors which materialize before our eyes in the name of television. If we could only juxtapose one eyeball of this sanctified woman and a television tube, both being roughly of the same shape and design, what a phantasmagoria of exploding electrodes would occur. The images of those lasciviously gyrating children would disintegrate into so many ions and molecules, thereby effecting the catharsis which the tragedy of the debauching of the innocent necessarily demands.
Mrs. Reilly stood in the hall looking at the DO NOT DISTURB sign printed on a sheet of Big Chief paper and stuck to the door by an old flesh-colored Band-aid.
“Ignatius, let me in there, boy,” she screamed.
“Let you in here?” Ignatius said through the door. “Of course I won’t. I am occupied at the moment with an especially succinct passage.”
“You let me in.”
“You know that you are never allowed in here.”
Mrs. Reilly pounded at the door.
“I don’t know what is happening to you, Mother, but I suspect that you are momentarily deranged. Now that I think of it, I am too frightened to open the door. You may have a knife or a broken wine bottle.” “Open up this door, Ignatius.”
“Oh, my valve! It’s closing!” Ignatius groaned loudly. “Are you satisfied now that you have ruined me for the rest of the evening?”
Mrs. Reilly threw herself against the unpainted wood.
“Well, don’t break the door,” he said finally and, after a few moments, the bolt slid open.
“Ignatius, what’s all this trash on the floor?”
“That is my worldview that you see. It still must be incorporated into a whole, so be careful where you step.”
“And all the shutters closed. Ignatius! It’s still light outside.”
“My being is not without its Proustian elements,” Ignatius said from the bed, to which he had quickly returned. “Oh, my stomach.”
“It smells terrible in here.”
“Well, what do you expect? The human body, when confined, produces certain odors which we tend to forget in this age of deodorants and other perversions. Actually, I find the atmosphere of this room rather comforting. Schiller needed the scent of apples rotting in his desk in order to write. I, too, have my needs. You may remember that Mark Twain preferred to lie supinely in bed while composing those rather dated and boring efforts which contemporary scholars try to prove meaningful. Veneration of Mark Twain is one of the roots of our current intellectual stalemate.” “If I know it was like this, I’d been in here long ago.”
“I do not know why you are in here now, as a matter of fact, or why you have this sudden compulsion to invade my sanctuary. I doubt whether it will ever be the same after the trauma of this intrusion by an alien spirit.” “I came to talk to you, boy. Get your face out them pillows.”
“This must be the influence of that ludicrous representative of the law. He seems to have turned you against your own child. By the way, he has left, hasn’t he?”
“Yes, and I apologized to him over the way you acted.”
“Mother, you are standing on my tablets. Will you please move a little? Isn’t it enough that you have destroyed my digestion without destroying the fruits of my brain also?” “Well, where I’m gonna stand, Ignatius? You want me to get in bed with you?” Mrs. Reilly asked angrily.
“Watch out where you’re stepping, please!” Ignatius thundered. “My God, never has anyone been so totally and so literally stormed and besieged. What is it anyway that has driven you in here in this state of complete mania? Could it be the stench of cheap muscatel that is assaulting my nostrils?” “I made up my mind. You gonna go out and get you a job.”
Oh, what low joke was Fortuna playing on him now? Arrest, accident, job. Where would this dreadful cycle ever end?
“I see,” Ignatius said calmly. “Knowing that you are congenitally incapable of arriving at a decision of this importance, I imagine that that mongoloid law officer put this idea into your head.” “Me and Mr. Mancuso talked like I used to talk to your poppa. You poppa used to tell me what to do. I wish he was alive today.”
“Mancuso and my father are alike only in that they both give the impression of being rather inconsequential humans. However, your current mentor is apparently the type of person who thinks that everything will be all right if everyone works continually.” “Mr. Mancuso works hard. He’s got a hard road at the precinct.”
“I am certain that he supports several unwanted children who all hope to grow up to be policemen, the girls included.”
“He’s got three sweet chirren.”
“I can imagine.” Ignatius began to bounce slowly. “Oh!”
“What are you doing? Are you fooling with that valve again? Nobody else got him a valve but you. I ain’t got no valve.”
“Everyone has a valve!” Ignatius screamed. “Mine is simply more developed. I am trying to open a passage which you have succeeded in blocking. It may be permanently closed now for all I know.” “Mr. Mancuso says if you work you can help me pay off the man. He says he thinks the man might take the money in installments.”
“Your friend the patrolman says a great deal. You certainly bring people out, as they say. I never suspected that he could be so loquacious or that he was capable of such perceptive comment. Do you realize that he is trying to destroy our home? It began the moment that he attempted that brutal arrest in front of D. H. Holmes. Although you are too limited to comprehend it all, Mother, this man is our nemesis. He’s spun our wheel downward.” “Wheel? Mr. Mancuso is a good man. You oughta be glad he didn’t take you in!”
“In my private apocalypse he will be impaled upon his own nightstick. Anyway, it is inconceivable that I should get a job. I am very busy with my work at the moment, and I feel that I am entering a very fecund stage. Perhaps the accident jarred and loosened my thought. At any rate, I accomplished a great deal today.” “We gotta pay that man, Ignatius. You wanna see me in jail? Wouldn’t you be ashamed with your poor momma behind bars?”
“Will you please stop talking about imprisonment? You seem to be preoccupied with the thought. Actually, you seem to enjoy thinking about it. Martyrdom is meaningless in our age.” He belched quietly. “I would suggest certain economies around the house. Somehow you will soon see that you have the required amount.” “I spend all the money on you for food and whatnots.”
“I have found several empty wine bottles about lately, the contents of which I certainly did not consume.”
“I made the mistake of heating the oven the other day before inspecting it properly. When I opened it to put in my frozen pizza, I was almost blinded by a bottle of broiled wine that was preparing to explode. I suggest that you divert some of the monies that you are pouring into the liquor industry.” “For shame, Ignatius. A few bottles of Gallo muscatel, and you with all them trinkets.”
“Will you please define the meaning of trinkets?” Ignatius snapped.
“All them books. That gramaphone. That trumpet I bought you last month.”
“I consider the trumpet a good investment, although our neighbor, Miss Annie, does not. If she beats on my shutters again, I’ll pour water on her.”
“Tomorrow we looking at the want ads in the paper. You gonna dress up and go find you a job.”
“I am afraid to ask what your idea of ‘dressing up’ is. I will probably be turned into an utter mockery.”
“I’m gonna iron you a nice white shirt and you gonna put on one of your poppa’s nice ties.”
“Do I believe what I am hearing?” Ignatius asked his pillow.
“It’s either that, Ignatius, or I gotta take out a mortgage. You wanna lose the roof over your head?”
“No! You will not mortgage this house.” He pounded a great paw into the mattress. “The whole sense of security which I have been trying to develop would crumble. I will not have any disinterested party controlling my domicile. I couldn’t stand it. Just the thought of it makes my hands break out.” He extended a paw so that his mother could examine the rash.
“That is out of the question,” he continued. “It would bring all of my latent anxieties to a head, and the result, I fear, would be very ugly indeed. I would not want you to have to spend the remainder of your life caring for a lunatic locked away somewhere in the attic. We shall not mortgage the house. You must have some funds somewhere.” “I got a hundred fifty in the Hibernia Bank.”
“My God, is that all? I hardly thought that we were existing so precariously. However, it is fortunate that you have kept this from me. Had I known how close we were to total penury, my nerves would have given out long ago.” Ignatius scratched his paws. “I must admit, though, that the alternative for me is rather grim. I doubt very seriously whether anyone will hire me.” “What do you mean, babe? You a fine boy with a good education.”
“Employers sense in me a denial of their values.” He rolled over onto his back. “They fear me. I suspect that they can see that I am forced to function in a century which I loathe. That was true even when I worked for the New Orleans Public Library.” “But, Ignatius, that was the only time you worked since you got out of college, and you was only there for two weeks.”
“That is exactly what I mean,” Ignatius replied, aiming a paper ball at the bowl of the milk glass chandelier.
“All you did was paste them little slips in the books.”
“Yes, but I had my own esthetic about pasting those slips. On some days I could only paste in three or four slips and at the same time feel satisfied with the quality of my work. The library authorities resented my integrity about the whole thing. They only wanted another animal who could slop glue on their best sellers.” “You think maybe you could get a job there again?”
“I seriously doubt it. At the time I said some rather cutting things to the woman in charge of the processing department. They even revoked my borrower’s card. You must realize the fear and hatred which my weltanschauung instills in people.” Ignatius belched. “I won’t mention that misguided trip to Baton Rouge. That incident, I believe, caused me to form a mental block against working.” “They was nice to you at college, Ignatius. Now tell the truth. They let you hang around there a long time. They even let you teach a class.”
“Oh, it was basically the same. Some poor white from Mississippi told the dean that I was a propagandist for the Pope, which was patently untrue. I do not support the current Pope. He does not at all fit my concept of a good, authoritarian Pope. Actually, I am opposed to the relativism of modern Catholicism quite violently. However, the boldness of this ignorant lily-white redneck fundamentalist led my other students to form a committee to demand that I grade and return their accumulated essays and examinations. There was even a small demonstration outside the window of my office. It was rather dramatic. For being such simple, ignorant children, they managed it quite well. At the height of the demonstration I dumped all of the old papers — ungraded, of course — out of the window and right onto the students’ heads. The college was too small to accept this act of defiance against the abyss of contemporary academia.” “Ignatius! You never told me that.”
“I did not want to excite you at the time. I also told the students that, for the sake of humanity’s future, I hoped that they were all sterile.” Ignatius arranged the pillows about his head. “I could never have possibly read over the illiteracies and misconceptions burbling from the dark minds of those students. It will be the same wherever I work.” “You can get you a good job. Wait till they see a boy with a master’s degree.”
Ignatius sighed heavily and said, “I see no alternative.” He twisted his face into a mask of suffering. There was no use fighting Fortuna until the cycle was over. “You realize, of course, that this is all your fault. The progress of my work will be greatly delayed. I suggest that you go to your confessor and make some penance, Mother. Promise him that you will avoid the path of sin and drinking in the future. Tell him what the consequence of your moral failure has been. Let him know that you have delayed the completion of a monumental indictment against our society. Perhaps he will comprehend the magnitude of your failing. If he is my type of priest, the penance will no doubt be rather strict. However, I have learned to expect little from today’s clergyman.” “I’m gonna be good, Ignatius. You’ll see.”
“There, there, I shall find some employment, although it will not necessarily be what you would call a good job. I may have some valuable insights which may benefit my employer. Perhaps the experience can give my writing a new dimension. Being actively engaged in the system which I criticize will be an interesting irony in itself.” Ignatius belched loudly. “If only Myrna Minkoff could see how low I’ve fallen.” “What that girl’s doing now?” Mrs. Reilly asked suspiciously. “I put out good money for you to go to college, and you have to pick up with somebody like that.”
“Myrna is still in New York, her native habitat. No doubt she is trying to taunt the police into arresting her in some demonstration at this very moment.”
“She sure used to get me nervous playing on that guitar of hers all over this house. If she’s got money like you said, maybe you shoulda married her. You two might of settled down and had a nice baby or something.” “Do I believe that such obscenity and filth is coming from the lips of my own mother?” Ignatius bellowed. “Now run along and fix me some dinner. I must be at the theater on time. It’s a circus musical, a heralded excess which I have been waiting to see for some time. We study the want ads tomorrow.” “I’m so proud you gonna work at last,” Mrs. Reilly said emotionally and kissed her son somewhere in his damp moustache.
“Look at that old gal,” Jones mused to his psyche as the bus bounced and threw him against the woman sitting beside him. “She think cause I color I gonna rape her. She about to throw her grammaw ass out the window. Whoa! I ain gonna rape nobody.” He moved discreetly away from her, crossing his legs and wishing that he could smoke on the bus. He wondered who the fat cat in the green cap was who was suddenly all over town. Where would that fat mother show up next? There was something ghostly about that greencap freak.
“Well, I gonna tell that po-lice I gainfully employ, keep him off my back, tell him I met up with a humanitaria payin me twenty dollar a week. He say, ‘That fine, boy. I’m glad to see you straighten out.’ And I say, ‘Hey!’ And he say, ‘Now maybe you be becomin a member of the community.’ And I say, ‘Yeah, I got me a nigger job and nigger pay. Now I really a member of the community. Now I a real nigger. No vagran. Just nigger.’ Whoa! What kinda change you got?” The old woman pulled the bell cord and got out of the seat, trying self-consciously to avoid any contact with the anatomy of Jones, who watched her writhing through the detachment of his green lenses.
“Look at that. She think I got siphlus and TB and a hard on and I gonna cut her up with a razor and lif her purse. Ooo-wee.”
The sunglasses watched the woman climb off the bus into a crowd standing at the bus stop. Somewhere in the rear of the crowd an altercation was going on. A man with a rolled-up newspaper in his hand was striking another man who had a long red beard and was wearing Bermuda shorts. The man in the beard looked familiar. Jones felt uneasy. First there was the green-cap phantom and now this person he couldn’t identify.
Jones turned from the window when the man in the red beard ran off and opened the Life magazine that Darlene had given him. At least Darlene had been pleasant to him at the Night of Joy. Darlene subscribed to Life for purposes of self-improvement and, in giving it to Jones, had suggested that he might find it helpful, too. Jones tried to plow through an editorial about American involvement in the Far East but stopped midway, wondering how something like that could help Darlene to become an exotic, the goal that she had referred to again and again. He turned back to the advertisements, for they were the things that interested him in magazines. The selection in this magazine was excellent. He liked the Aetna Life Insurance ad with the picture of the lovely home that a couple had just bought. The Yardley Shaving Lotion men looked cool and rich. That’s how the magazine could help him. He wanted to look just like those men.
V When Fortuna spins you downward, go out to a movie and get more out of life. Ignatius was about to say this to himself; then he remembered that he went to the movies almost every night, no matter which way Fortuna was spinning.
He sat at attention in the darkness of the Prytania only a few rows from the screen, his body filling the seat and protruding into the two adjoining ones. On the seat to his right he had stationed his overcoat, three Milky Ways, and two auxiliary bags of popcorn, the bags neatly rolled at the top to keep the popcorn warm and crisp. Ignatius ate his current popcorn and stared raptly at the previews of coming attractions. One of the films looked bad enough, he thought, to bring him back to the Prytania in a few days. Then the screen glowed in bright, wide technicolor, the lion roared, and the title of the excess flashed on the screen before his miraculous blue and yellow eyes. His face froze and his popcorn bag began to shake. Upon entering the theater, he had carefully buttoned the two earflaps to the top of his cap, and now the strident score of the musical assaulted his naked ears from a variety of speakers. He listened to the music, detecting two popular songs which he particularly disliked, and scrutinized the credits closely to find any names of performers who normally nauseated him.
When the credits had ended and Ignatius had noted that several of the actors, the composer, the director, the hair designer, and the assistant producer were all people whose efforts had offended him at various times in the past, there appeared in the technicolor a scene of many extras milling about a circus tent. He greedily studied the crowd and found the heroine standing near a sideshow.
“Oh, my God!” he screamed. “There she is.”
The children in the rows in front of him turned and stared, but Ignatius did not notice them. The blue and yellow eyes were following the heroine, who was gaily carrying a pail of water to what turned out to be her elephant.
“This is going to be even worse than I thought,” Ignatius said when he saw the elephant.
He put the empty popcorn bag to his full lips, inflated it, and waited, his eyes gleaming with reflected technicolor. A tympany beat and the soundtrack filled with violins. The heroine and Ignatius opened their mouths simultaneously, hers in song, his in a groan. In the darkness two trembling hands met violently. The popcorn bag exploded with a bang. The children shrieked.
“What’s all that noise?” the woman at the candy counter asked the manager.
“He’s here tonight,” the manager told her, pointing across the theater to the hulking silhouette at the bottom of the screen. The manager walked down the aisle to the front rows, where the shrieking was growing wilder. Their fear having dissipated itself, the children were holding a competition of shrieking. Ignatius listened to the bloodcurdling little trebles and giggles and gloated in his dark lair. With a few mild threats, the manager quieted the front rows and then glanced down the row in which the isolated figure of Ignatius rose like some great monster among the little heads. But he was treated only to a puffy profile. The eyes that shone under the green visor were following the heroine and her elephant across the wide screen and into the circus tent.
For a while Ignatius was relatively still, reacting to the unfolding plot with only an occasional subdued snort. Then what seemed to be the film’s entire cast was up on the wires. In the foreground, on a trapeze, was the heroine. She swung back and forth to a waltz. She smiled in a huge close-up. Ignatius inspected her teeth for cavities and fillings. She extended one leg. Ignatius rapidly surveyed its contours for structural defects. She began to sing about trying over and over again until you succeeded. Ignatius quivered as the philosophy of the lyrics became clear. He studied her grip on the trapeze in the hope that the camera would record her fatal plunge to the sawdust far below.
On the second chorus the entire ensemble joined in the song, smiling and singing lustily about ultimate success while they swung, dangled, flipped, and soared.
“Oh, good heavens!” Ignatius shouted, unable to contain himself any longer. Popcorn spilled down his shirt and gathered in the folds of his trousers. “What degenerate produced this abortion?” “Shut up,” someone said behind him.
“Just look at those smiling morons! If only all of those wires would snap!” Ignatius rattled the few kernels of popcorn in his last bag. “Thank God that scene is over.” When a love scene appeared to be developing, he bounded up out of his seat and stomped up the aisle to the candy counter for more popcorn, but as he returned to his seat, the two big pink figures were just preparing to kiss.
“They probably have halitosis,” Ignatius announced over the heads of the children. “I hate to think of the obscene places that those mouths have doubtlessly been before!” “You’ll have to do something,” the candy woman told the manager laconically. “He’s worse than ever tonight.”
The manager sighed and started down the aisle to where Ignatius was mumbling, “Oh, my God, their tongues are probably all over each other’s capped and rotting teeth.”
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