فصل 09

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فصل 09

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Nine

“We got a complaint on you from the Board of Health, Reilly.”

“Oh, is that all? From the expression on your face, I thought that you were having some sort of epileptic seizure,” Ignatius said to Mr. Clyde through his mouthful of hot dog and bun, bumping his wagon into the garage. “I am afraid to guess what the complaint could be or how it could have originated. I assure you that I have been the very soul of cleanliness. My intimate habits are above reproach. Carrying no social diseases, I don’t see what I could possibly transmit to your hot dogs that they do not already have. Look at these fingernails.” “Don’t gimme none of your bullsh@t, you fat bum.” Mr. Clyde ignored the paws that Ignatius had extended for inspection. “You only been on the job a few days. I got guys working for me for years never been in trouble with the Board.” “No doubt they’re more foxy than I.”

“They got this man was checking on you.”

“Oh,” Ignatius said calmly and paused to chew on the tip of the hot dog that was sticking from his mouth like a cigar butt. “So that’s who that obvious appendage of officialdom was. He looked like an arm of the bureaucracy. You can always tell employees of the government by the total vacancy which occupies the space where most other people have faces.” “Shut up, you big slob. Did you pay for that weenie you eating?”

“Well, indirectly. You may subtract it from my miserable wage.” Ignatius watched as Mr. Clyde jotted some numbers on a pad. “Tell me, what archaic sanitary taboo have I violated? I suspect that it’s some falsification on the part of the inspector.” “The Board says they seen the vendor with Number Seven… that’s you…”

“So it is. Thrice-blessed Seven! I’m guilty on that count. They’ve already pinned something on me. I imagined that Seven would ironically be an unlucky cart. I want another cart as soon as possible. Apparently I am pushing a jinx about the streets. I am certain that I can do better with some other wagon. A new cart, a new start.” “Will you listen to me?”

“Well, if I really must. I should perhaps warn you that I am about to faint from anxiety and general depression, though. The film I saw last night was especially grueling, a teen-age beach musical. I almost collapsed during the singing sequence on surfboard. In addition, I suffered through two nightmares last night, one involving a Scenicruiser bus. The other involved a girl of my acquaintance. It was rather brutal and obscene. If I described it to you, you would no doubt become frightened.” “They seen you picking a cat out the gutter on St. Joseph Street.”

“Is that the best that they can do? What an absurd lie,” Ignatius said and with a flip of his tongue pulled in the last visible portion of the hot dog.

“What was you doing on St. Joseph Street? That’s all warehouses and wharfs out there. They’s no people on St. Joseph. That’s not even on our routes.”

“Well, I didn’t know that. I had only feebly shambled out there to rest a while. Occasionally a pedestrian happened along. Unfortunately for us, they did not seem to be in hot dog moods.”

“So you was there? No wonder you not selling nothing. And I guess you was playing with that goddam cat.”

“Now that you mention it, I do seem to remember a domesticated animal or two in the vicinity.”

“So you was playing with the cat.”

“No, I was not ‘playing’ with the cat. I only picked it up to fondle it a bit. It was a rather appealing calico. I offered it a hot dog. However, the cat refused to eat it. It was an animal with some taste and decency.”

“You realize what a serious violation that is, you big ape?”

“No, I am afraid I don’t,” Ignatius said angrily. “It has apparently been taken for granted that the cat was unclean. How do we know that? Cats are notoriously sanitary, continuously licking at themselves when they suspect that there is the slightest cause for offense. That inspector must have some prejudice against cats. This cat hasn’t been given a chance.” “We not talking about this cat!” Mr. Clyde said with such vehemence that Ignatius was able to see the purple veins swelling around the whitened scar on his nose. “We talking about you.”

“Well, I certainly am clean. We’ve already discussed that. I just wanted to see that the cat got a fair hearing. Sir, am I going to be endlessly harassed? My nerves are nearing total decay already. When you checked my fingernails a moment ago, I hope that you noticed the frightening vibration of my hands. I would hate to sue Paradise Vendors, Incorporated, to pay the psychiatrist’s fees. Perhaps you do not know that I am not covered by any hospitalization plan. Paradise Vendors, of course, is too paleolithic to consider offering its workers such benefits. Actually, sir, I am growing quite dissatisfied with conditions at this disreputable firm.” “Why, what’s wrong?” Mr. Clyde asked.

“Everything, I’m afraid. On top of that, I don’t feel at all appreciated.”

“Well, at least you show up every day. I’ll give you that.”

“That is only because I would be beaten senseless with a baked wine bottle if I dared stay at home. Opening the door of my home is like intruding into the den of a lioness. My mother is becoming increasingly abusive and vicious.” “You know, Reilly, I don’t wanna fire you,” Mr. Clyde said in a paternal tone. He had heard the sad tale of vendor Reilly: the drunken mother, the damages that had to be paid, the threat of penury for both son and mother, the mother’s lascivious friends. “I’m gonna fix you up with a new route and give you another chance. I got some merchandising gimmicks maybe help you out.” “You may send a map of my new route to the mental ward at Charity Hospital. The solicitous nuns and psychiatrists there can help me decipher it between shock treatments.”

“Now shut up.”

“You see that? You’ve destroyed my initiative already,” Ignatius belched. “Well, I do hope that you have selected a scenic route, preferably something in a park area where there are ample seating accommodations for sufferers from tired, stunned feet. When I rose this morning, my ankles gave way. Fortunately I grabbed for the bedpost in time. Otherwise, I would have landed on the floor in a broken heap. My tarsi are apparently about to throw in the towel completely.” Ignatius limped around Mr. Clyde to illustrate, his desert boots scuffing along the oily cement.

“Stop that, you big slob. You ain’t crippled.”

“Not completely as of yet. However, various small bones and ligaments are beginning to wave a white flag of surrender. My physical apparati seem to be preparing to announce a truce of some sort. My digestive system has almost ceased functioning altogether. Some tissue has perhaps grown over my pyloric valve, sealing it forever.” “I’m gonna put you down in the French Quarter.”

“What?” Ignatius thundered. “Do you think that I am going to perambulate about in that sinkhole of vice? No, I am afraid that the Quarter is out of the question. My psyche would crumble in that atmosphere. Besides, the streets are very narrow and dangerous there. I could easily be struck down in traffic or be wedged against a building.” “Take it or leave it, you fat bastard. That’s the last chance you get.” Mr. Clyde’s scar was beginning to whiten again.

“It is? Well, please don’t have another seizure. You may tumble into that vat of franks and scald yourself. If you insist, I imagine that I shall have to trundle my franks down into Sodom and Gomorrah.”

“Okay. Then it’s settled. You come in tomorrow morning, we’ll fix you up with some gimmicks.”

“I can’t promise you that many hot dogs will be sold in the Quarter. I will probably be kept busy every moment protecting my honor against those fiends who live down there.”

“You get mostly the tourist trade in the Quarter.”

“That’s even worse. Only degenerates go touring. Personally, I have been out of the city only once. By the way, have I ever told you about that particular pilgrimage to Baton Rouge? Outside the city limits there are many horrors.” “No. I don’t wanna hear about it.”

“Well, too bad for you. You might have gained some valuable insights from the traumatic tale of that trip. However, I am glad that you do not want to hear of it. The psychological and symbolic subtleties of the journey probably wouldn’t be comprehended by a Paradise Vendors mentality. Fortunately, I’ve written it all down, and at some time in the future, the more alert among the reading public will benefit from my account of that abysmal sojourn into the swamps to the inner station of the ultimate horror.” “Now listen here, Reilly.”

“In the account I struck upon an especially suitable simile in comparing the Scenicruiser bus to a loop-the-loop in a surrealistic amusement park.”

“Now shut up!” Mr. Clyde screamed, waving his fork menacingly. “Let’s go over your receipts for today. How much did you sell?”

“O, my God,” Ignatius sighed. “I knew that we’d get to that sooner or later.”

The two haggled over the profits for several minutes. Ignatius had actually spent the morning sitting at Eads Plaza watching the harbor traffic and jotting some notes about the history of shipping and Marco Polo in a Big Chief tablet. Between notes, he had contemplated means of destroying Myrna Minkoff but had reached no satisfactory conclusion. His most promising scheme had involved getting a book on munitions from the library, constructing a bomb, and mailing it in plain paper to Myrna. Then he remembered that his library card had been revoked. The afternoon had been wasted on the cat; Ignatius had tried to trap the cat in the bun compartment and take it home for a pet. But it had escaped.

“It seems to me that you would be generous enough to give some sort of discount to your own employees,” Ignatius said importantly after an audit of the day’s receipts showed that, upon subtracting the cost of the hot dogs he had eaten, his take-home pay for the day was exactly a dollar and twenty-five cents. “After all, I am becoming your best customer.” Mr. Clyde stuck the fork in Vendor Reilly’s muffler and ordered him out of the garage, threatening him with dismissal if he didn’t show up early to begin working the French Quarter.

Ignatius flapped off to the trolley in a dark mood and rode uptown belching Paradise gas so violently that, although the car was crowded, no one would sit next to him.

When he walked into the kitchen, his mother greeted him by falling to her knees and saying, “Lord, tell me how come you sent me this terrible cross to bear? What I done, Lord? Tell me. Send me a sign. I been good.”

“Stop that blasphemy this moment,” Ignatius screamed. Mrs. Reilly was questioning the ceiling with her eyes, seeking an answer among the grease and cracks. “What a greeting I receive after a discouraging day battling for my very existence on the streets of this savage town.” “What’s them bo-bos on your hand?”

Ignatius looked at the scratches he had received in trying to persuade the cat to remain in the bun compartment.

“I had a rather apocalyptic battle with a starving prostitute,” Ignatius belched. “Had it not been for my superior brawn, she would have sacked my wagon. Finally she limped away from the fray, her glad rags askew.”

“Ignatius!” Mrs. Reilly cried tragically. “Every day it seems you getting worst and worst. What’s happening to you?”

“Get your bottle out of the oven. It must be done by now.”

Mrs. Reilly looked at her son slyly and asked, “Ignatius, you sure you not a communiss?”

“Oh, my God!” Ignatius bellowed. “Every day I am subjected to a McCarthyite witchhunt in this crumbling building. No! I told you before. I am not a fellow traveler. What in the world has put that into your head?”

“I read someplace in the paper where they got plenty communiss at college.”

“Well, fortunately I didn’t meet them. Had they crossed my path, they would have been beaten to within an inch of their lives. Do you think that I want to live in a communal society with people like that Battaglia acquaintance of yours, sweeping streets and breaking up rocks or whatever it is people are always doing in those blighted countries? What I want is a good, strong monarchy with a tasteful and decent king who has some knowledge of theology and geometry and to cultivate a Rich Inner Life.” “A king? You want a king?”

“Oh, stop babbling at me.”

“I never heard of nobody wanted a king.”

“Please!” Ignatius pounded a paw into the oilcloth on the kitchen table. “Sweep the porch, visit Miss Annie, call the Battaglia bawd, practice with your bowling ball out in the alley. Let me alone! I am in a very bad cycle.” “What you mean, ‘cycle’?”

“If you do not stop molesting me, I shall christen the prow of your broken Plymouth with the bottle of wine in the oven,” Ignatius snorted.

“Fighting with some poor girl in the street,” Mrs. Reilly said sadly. “Ain’t that awful. And right in front a weenie wagon. Ignatius, I think you need help.”

“Well, I am going to watch television,” Ignatius said angrily. “The Yogi Bear program is coming on.”

“Wait a minute, boy.” Mrs. Reilly rose from the floor and pulled a small manila envelope out of a pocket in her sweater. “Here. This come for you today.”

“Oh?” Ignatius asked with interest, seizing the little tan envelope. “I imagine that you have memorized its contents by now.”

“You better stick your hands in the sink and wrench out them scratches.”

“They can wait,” Ignatius said. He ripped at the envelope. “M. Minkoff has apparently responded to my missive with a rather frantic urgency. I told her off quite viciously.”

Mrs. Reilly sat down and crossed her legs, swinging her white socks and old black patent leather pumps sadly while her son’s blue and yellow eyes scanned the unfolded Macy’s bag on which the letter was written.

Sirs:

Well, at last I heard from you, Ignatius. And a sick, sick letter it was. I won’t go into the “Levy Pants” letterhead on that stationery. It is probably your idea of an anti-Semitic prank. It’s a good thing that I’m above attack on that level. I never thought that you would stoop so low. Live and learn.

Your comments about the lecture showed a very petty jealousy I didn’t expect from someone who claims to be so broad and non-committed. Already the lecture is beginning to interest several dedicated people I know. One person who has promised to come (and bring several sharp friends, too) is a brilliant new contact I made during rush hour on the Jerome Avenue line. His name is Ongah, and he is an exchange student from Kenya who is writing a dissertation at N.Y.U. on the French symbolists of the 19th cent. Of course, you would not understand or like a brilliant and dedicated guy like Ongah. I could listen to him talk for hours. He is serious and does not come on with all of that pseudo stuff like you always did. What Ongah says is meaningful. Ongah is real and vital. He is virile and aggressive. He rips at reality and tears aside concealing veils.

“Oh, my God!” Ignatius slobbered. “The minx has been raped by a Mau-Mau.”

“What’s that?” Mrs. Reilly asked suspiciously.

“Go turn on the television set and warm it up,” Ignatius said absently and returned to his furious reading of the letter.

He is not a bit like you, as you can imagine. He is also a musician and a sculptor and spends every minute in some real and meaningful activity, creating and sensing. His sculpture almost leaps out and grabs you, it is so filled with life and being.

At least your letter let me know that you are still alive, if you can call what you do “living.” What were all these lies about being connected with the “food merchandising industry?” Is this some attack on my father’s restaurant supply business? If so, that didn’t get to me either because my father and I have been at ideological odds for years. Let’s face it, Ignatius. Since I saw you last, you have done nothing but lie around rotting in your room. Your hostility to my lecture is a manifestation of your feelings of failure, nonaccomplishment, and mental(?) impotence.

“This liberal doxy must be impaled upon the member of a particularly large stallion,” Ignatius mumbled furiously.

“What? What’s that, boy?”

Ignatius, a very bad crack-up is on the way. You must do something. Even volunteer work at a hospital would snap you out of your apathy, and it would probably be non-taxing on your valve and other things. Get out of that womb-house for at least an hour a day. Take a walk, Ignatius. Look at the trees and birds. Realize that life is surging all around you. The valve closes because it thinks it is living in a dead organism. Open your heart, Ignatius, and you will open your valve.

If you are having any s@x fantasies, describe them in detail in your next letter. I may be able to interpret their meaning for you and help you through this psycho-s@xual crisis you are having. When I was at college, I told you many times that you would undergo a psychotic phase of this sort.

I thought you might be interested in knowing that I’ve just read in Social Revulsion that Louisiana has the highest illiteracy rate in the U.S. Come out from under the mess before it’s too late. I really don’t mind what you wrote about the lecture. I understand your condition, Ignatius. The members of my group therapy group are all following your case with interest (I have told it to them chapter by chapter beginning with the paranoid fantasy, adding certain background commentaries), and they are all rooting for you. If I were not so busy with the lecture, I would take off on a long-overdue inspection tour and come to see you personally. Hold on until we meet again.

M. Minkoff

Ignatius folded the letter violently; then he rolled the folded Macy’s bag into a ball and heaved it into the garbage pail. Mrs. Reilly looked at her son’s reddened face and asked, “What that girl wants? What she’s doing nowadays?” “Myrna is preparing to bray at some unfortunate Negro. In public.”

“Ain’t that awful. You sure pick up with fine friends, Ignatius. Them colored people already got it hard, boy. They got a hard road, too. Life’s hard, Ignatius. You’ll learn.”

“Thank you very much,” Ignatius said in a businesslike manner.

“You know that poor old colored lady sells them pralines in front the cemetery? Aw, Ignatius. I really feel sorry for her. The other day I seen her wearing a little cloth coat full of holes, and it was cold out. So I says to her, I says, ‘Hey, honey, you gonna catch your death of cold wearing that little cloth coat full of holes.’ And she says…” “Please!” Ignatius shouted furiously. “I am not in the mood for a dialect story.”

“Ignatius, listen to me. That lady’s pitiful, yeah. She says, ‘Oh, I don’t mind the cold, sugar. I’m used to it.’ Ain’t that brave?” Mrs. Reilly looked emotionally at Ignatius for agreement but was treated only to a sneering moustache. “Ain’t that something. So, you know what I done, Ignatius. I give her a quarter and I says, ‘Here, darling, go buy you a trinket for your little granchirren.’” “What?” Ignatius exploded. “So that is where our profits are going. While I am almost reduced to begging on the streets, you are flinging our money away at frauds. That woman’s clothing is all a ruse. She has a wonderful, lucrative location at that cemetery. Doubtlessly she makes ten times more than I do.” “Ignatius! She’s all broke down,” Mrs. Reilly said sadly. “I wish you was as brave as she is.”

“I see. Now I am being compared to a degenerate old female fraud. Worse, I am losing in the comparison. My own mother daring to malign me so.” Ignatius thrust a paw onto the oilcloth. “Well, I have had enough of this. I’m going into the parlor to watch the Yogi Bear program. Between wine breaks, bring me a snack of some sort. My valve is screaming for appeasement.” “Shut up over there,” Miss Annie screamed through her shutters as Ignatius gathered his smock about him and swept into the hall contemplating his most important problem: organizing a new assault against the minx’s effrontery. The civil rights assault had failed because of defections in the ranks. There must be other assaults which could be launched in the fields of politics and s@x. Preferably politics. The strategy deserved his full attention.

II

Lana Lee was on a barstool, her legs crossed in tan suede trousers, her muscular buttocks pinning the stool to the floor and commanding it to support her in perfectly vertical form. When she moved slightly, the great muscles of her nether cheeks rippled to life to prevent the stool from leaning and tottering even an inch. The muscles rippled around the cushion of the stool and grabbed it, holding it erect. Long years of practice and usage had made her rump an unusually versatile and dexterous thing.

Her body had always amazed her. She had received it free of charge, yet she had never bought anything that had helped her as much as that body had. At these rare moments when Lana Lee grew sentimental or even religious, she thanked God for His goodness in forming a body that was also a friend. She repaid the gift by giving it magnificent care, expert service and maintenance that was given with the emotionless precision of a mechanic.

Today was Darlene’s first dress rehearsal. A few minutes earlier Darlene had arrived with a large dress box and disappeared backstage. Lana looked at Darlene’s gadget on the stage. A carpenter had made a stand that looked like a hatrack but instead of hooks there were large rings attached to the top of the stand and three rings on chains hung from the top at different heights. What Lana had seen of the act so far was not promising, but Darlene said that the costuming would transform the performance into a thing of beauty. Lana couldn’t complain. All things considered, she was glad that she had let Darlene and Jones talk her into permitting Darlene to perform. She was getting the act cheap, and she had to admit that the bird was very good, a skilled and professional performer who almost made up for the act’s human deficiencies. The other clubs along the street might get the tiger, chimp, and snake trade. The Night of Joy had the bird trade in the bag, and Lana’s peculiar knowledge of one aspect of humanity told her that the bird trade might indeed be very large.

“Okay, Lana, we’re ready,” Darlene called offstage.

Lana looked over at Jones, who was sweeping out the booths in a cloud of cigarette smoke and dust, and said, “Put the record on.”

“Sorry. Recor plain star at thirty a week. Whoa!”

“Put down that broom and get on that phonograph before I call up the precinct,” Lana hollered at him.

“And you get off your stool and get on that phonograph before I call up the precinc and ax them po-lice mothers make a search for your orphan frien who disappear. Ooo-wee.”

Lana studied Jones’s face, but his eyes were invisible behind the smoke and dark glasses.

“What was that?” she asked finally.

“The only thing you ever be givin the orphan is siphlus. Whoa! Don gimme no sh@t about no motherfu@kin record player. As soon as I crack open this orphan case, I callin a po-lice myself. I sick and tire of workin in this cathouse below the minimal wage and getting intimidatia all the time.” “Hey, kids, where’s our music?” Darlene’s voice called eagerly.

“What can you prove to the cops?” Lana asked Jones.

“Hey! Then they is somethin crooker with the orphans. Whoa! I knowed it all along. Well, if you ever plannin to call up a po-lice about me, I plannin to call up a po-lice about you. Phones at po-lice headquarters really be hummin. Ooo-wee. Now lemme in peace with my sweepin and moppin. Recor playin pretty advance for color peoples. I probably break your machine.” “I’d like to see a jailbait vagrant like you trying to get the cops to believe you, especially when I tell them you been dipping into my cash register.”

“What’s happening?” Darlene inquired from behind the little curtain.

“The only thing I been dippin in around here is a mop bucket fulla dirty water.”

“It’s my word against yours. The police already got their eyes on you. All they need is to get the word about you from an old pal of theirs like me. Which one you think they’ll believe?” Lana looked at Jones and saw that his silence had answered her question. “Now get on the phonograph.” Jones threw his broom into a booth and put on the record of Stranger in Paradise.

“Okay, everybody, here we come,” Darlene called, bumping on stage with the cockatoo on her arm. She was wearing a low-cut orange satin evening dress, and at the peak of her upswept hair there was a large artificial orchid. She made several clumsily lascivious motions over toward the stand while the cockatoo swayed unsteadily on her arm. Holding onto the top of the stand with one hand, she made a grotesque pass at the pole with her pelvis and sighed, “Oh.” The cockatoo was placed in the lowest ring, and with beak and claw began to climb up to the next highest ring. Darlene bumped and ground around the pole in a sort of orgiastic frenzy until the bird was on a level with her waist. Then she offered the bird the ring sewed in the side of her gown. He grabbed at it with his beak and the gown popped open.

“Oh,” Darlene sighed, bumping down to the edge of the little stage to show the audience the lingerie that showed through the opening. “Oh. Oh.”

“Whoa!”

“Stop it, stop it,” Lana screamed and, leaping from her stool, snapped off the phonograph.

“Hey, what’s the matter?” Darlene asked in an offended voice.

“It stinks is what’s the matter. For one thing, you’re dressed up like a streetwalker. I want a nice, refined act in my club. I got a decent business, stupid.”

“Whoa!”

“You look like a whore in that orange dress. And what’s all these sounds you’re making like a slut? You look like a drunk nympho passing out in a alley.”

“But Lana…”

“The bird’s okay. You stink.” Lana stuck a cigarette between her coral lips and lit it. “We gotta rethink the whole act. You look like your motor’s broke or something. I know this business. Stripping’s an insult to a woman. The kinda creeps come in here don’t wanna see a tramp get insulted.” “Hey!” Jones aimed his cloud at Lana Lee’s. “I thought you say nice, refine peoples comin here at night.”

“Shut up,” Lana said. “Now listen, Darlene. Anybody can insult a tramp. These jerks wanna see a sweet, clean virgin get insulted and stripped. You gotta use your head for Chrissake, Darlene. You gotta be pure. I want you to be like a nice, refined girl who’s surprised when the bird starts grabbing at your clothes.” “Who says I’m not refined?” Darlene asked angrily.

“Okay. You’re refined. Then be refined on my stage. That’s what gives a turn drama, goddammit.”

“Ooo-wee. Night of Joy be winnin a Academy Awar with this ack. The bird get one, too.”

“Get back on my floor.”

“Right away, Scarla O’Horror.”

“Wait a minute,” Lana screamed in the best tradition of the director in a musical movie, She had always enjoyed the theatrical aspects of her profession: performing, posing, composing tableaux, directing acts. “That’s it.” “That’s what?” Darlene asked.

“An idea, moron,” Lana answered, holding her cigarette before her lips and speaking through it as if it were a director’s megaphone. “Now see this act. You’re gonna be a southern belle type, a big sweet virgin from the Old South who’s got this pet bird on the old plantation.” “Say, I like that,” Darlene said enthusiastically.

“Of course you do. Now listen to me.” Lana’s mind began to whirl. This act could be her theatrical masterpiece. That bird had star quality. “We get you a big plantation dress, crinoline, lace. A big hat. A parasol. Very refined. Your hair’s on your shoulders in curls. You’re just coming in from a big ball where a lot of southern gentlemen were trying to feel you up over the fried chicken and hog jowls. But you cooled them all. Why? Because you’re a lady, dammit. You come onstage. The ball’s over, but you still got your honor. You got your little pet with you to tell it goodnight, and you say to it, ‘There was plenty beaux at that ball, honey, but I still got my honor.’ Then the goddam bird starts grabbing at your dress. You’re shocked, you’re surprised, you’re innocent. But you’re too refined to stop it. Got it?” “That’s great,” Darlene said.

“That’s drama,” Lana corrected. “Okay, let’s give it a try. Music, maestro.”

“Whoa! Now we really back on the plantation.” Jones slid the needle across the first few grooves of the record. “I’m pretty stupor to open my mouth in this miser cathouse.”

Darlene minced out on the stage, sashaying demurely, and making a rosebud of her mouth, said, “There sure was plenty balls at that beau, honey, but…”

“Stop!” Lana hollered.

“Give me a chance,” Darlene pleaded. “It’s my first time. I been practicing being an exotic, not a actress.”

“You can’t remember one simple line like that?”

“Darlene got Night of Joy nerves.” Jones clouded the area in front of the stage. “It come from low wage and high intimidatia. The bird be gettin it, too, pretty soon, be snarlin and clawin and fallin off its stan. Whoa!”

“Darlene’s your pal, huh? I see she’s always passing you magazines,” Lana said angrily. This Jones was really starting to get under her lotioned skin. “This act is mostly your idea, Jones. You sure you wanna see her get a chance on the stage?” “Sure. Whoa! Somebody gotta get ahead in this place. Anyway, this ack got plenny class, bring in a lotta trade. I be gettin a raise. Hey!” Jones smiled a yellow crescent that opened the lower part of his face. “I got all my hope pin on that bird.” Lana had an idea that would help business and hurt Jones. She’d let him go too far already.

“Good,” Lana said to him. “Now listen to me, Jones. You wanna help out Darlene here. You think this act is good, huh? I remember you said Darlene and the bird was gonna bring in so much business I’d need a doorman. Well, I got a doorman. You.” “Hey! I ain comin around here at night below the minimal wage.”

“You’re coming out on opening night,” Lana said evenly. “You gonna be out front on the sidewalk. We’re gonna rent you a costume. Real Old South doorman. You attract the people in here. Understand? I wanna see a full house for your pal and her bird.” “sh@t. I quittin this motherfu@kin bar. Maybe you gettin Scarla O’Horror and her ball eagle on the stage, but you ain gettin a fiel han out front, too.”

“The precinct is gonna be gettin a certain report.”

“Maybe they be gettin another orphan repor, too.”

“I don’t think so.”

Jones knew that this was true. Finally, he said, “Okay. I be here on openin night. I bring in some peoples. I bring in some peoples shut down your place for good. I be bringin in peoples like that fat mother got him the green cap.” “I wonder where he went to,” Darlene said.

“Shut up and lemme hear you say your lines,” Lana hollered at her. “Your friend here wants to see you get ahead. He’s gonna help you out, Darlene. Show him how good you are.”

Darlene cleared her throat and enunciated carefully, “There sure was plenty beaux at the bowl, honey, but I still got me honor.”

Lana grabbed Darlene and the bird off the stage and pushed them out into the alley. Jones listened to the loud sounds of argument and pleading coming from the alley and heard one plop of a slap land on someone’s face.

He went behind the bar to get a glass of water and contemplated means of sabotage that could finish Lana Lee forever. Outside, the cockatoo was squawking and Darlene was crying, “I ain’t no actress, Lana. I already told you.” Looking down for a moment, Jones saw that Lana Lee had absentmindedly left the door open on the little cabinet under the bar. All afternoon she had been preoccupied with previewing Darlene’s dress rehearsal. Jones knelt down and, for the first time in the Night of Joy, took off his sunglasses. At first his eyes had to adjust to the brighter but still dim light that revealed crusted dirt on the floor behind the bar. He looked into the little cabinet, and there he saw neatly stacked about ten packages wrapped in plain paper. Piled in the corner were a globe, a box of chalk, and a large, expensive-looking book.

He did not want to sabotage his discovery by taking anything from the cabinet. Lana Lee, with her hawk eyes and bloodhound nose, would notice that right away. He thought for a moment, then he took the pencil from the cash register and, running his hand down the side of the stacked packages, wrote as minutely as possible on the side of each package the address of the Night of Joy. Like a note in a bottle, the address might bring some reply, perhaps from a legitimate and a professional saboteur. An address on a package wrapped in plain brown paper was as damaging as a fingerprint on a gun, Jones thought. It was something that shouldn’t be there. He stacked the packages back carefully, straightening the pile to its original symmetry. Then he placed the pencil on the cash register and finished his water. He studied the door of the cabinet and decided that it was open at about the same angle at which he had found it.

He came from behind the bar and resumed his desultory sweeping just as Lana, Darlene, and the bird, looking like a small unruly mob, burst in from the alley. Darlene’s orchid was hanging, and the bird’s few feathers were ruffled. Lana Lee, though, was still well groomed and looked as though some cyclone had miraculously missed only her.

“Okay now, Darlene,” Lana said, grabbing Darlene by the shoulders. “What the hell are you supposed to say?”

“Whoa! You sure a understandin director. If you be makin big movies, half the peoples in it be dead.”

“Shut up and get on my floor,” Lana said to Jones and shook Darlene a little. “Now say it right, stupid.”

Darlene sighed hopelessly and said, “There sure was plenty bones at that ball, honey, but I still got my honor.”

III

Patrolman Mancuso leaned against the sergeant’s desk and wheezed, “You gotta tage me oud thad badroom. I can breed no more.”

“What?” The sergeant looked at the wan figure before him, at the watery pink eyes behind the bifocals, at the dry lips through the white goatee. “What’s wrong with you, Mancuso? Why can’t you stand up like a man? Getting a cold. Men on the force don’t catch cold. Men on the force are strong.” Patrolman Mancuso coughed wetly into the goatee.

“You haven’t picked up nobody out that bus station. Remember what I told you? You stay there until you bring me somebody.”

“I’b getting pneumodia.”

“Take some cold tablets. Get outta here and bring me somebody.”

“My at says if I stay iddat badroom, I’b gudda die.”

“Your aunt? A grown man like you’s gotta listen to his aunt? Jesus. What kinda people you know, Mancuso? Old ladies who go sit in strip joints all alone, aunts. You probly belong to a ladies’ sodality or something. Stand up straight.” The sergeant studied the miserable figure that was shaking with the aftereffects of a dangerous cough. He didn’t want to be responsible for a death. It would be better to give Mancuso a probationary period and kick him off the force. “Okay. Don’t go back to the bus station. Get out on the streets again and get some sunshine. But listen here. I’m giving you two weeks. If you don’t bring in nobody by then, you’re off the force. You understand me, Mancuso?” Patrolman Mancuso nodded, sniffling.

“I’b gudda try. I’b gudda brig you subbody.”

“Stop leaning over me,” the sergeant screamed. “I don’t wanna catch your cold. Stand up. Get outta here. Go take some pills and orange juice. Jesus.”

“I’b gudda brig you subbody,” Patrolman Mancuso wheezed again, this time even more unconvincingly than the first. Then he drifted off in his novel costume, the sergeant’s ultimate practical joke on him. He was wearing a baseball cap and a Santa Claus outfit.

IV

Ignatius ignored his mother’s pounding on his door and crying in the hall about the fifty cents in wages that he had brought home for the day’s work. Sweeping the Big Chief tablets, yo-yo, and rubber glove from his desk, he opened the Journal and began to write: Dear Reader,

A good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose for a life beyond.

— Milton

The perverted (and I suspect quite dangerous) mind of Clyde has devised still another means of belittling my rather invincible being. At first I thought that I might have found a surrogate father in the czar of sausage, the mogul of meat. But his resentment and jealousy of me are increasing daily; no doubt they will ultimately overwhelm him and destroy his mind. The grandeur of my physique, the complexity of my worldview, the decency and taste implicit in my carriage, the grace with which I function in the mire of today’s world — all of these at once confuse and astound Clyde. Now he has relegated me to working in the French Quarter, an area which houses every vice that man has ever conceived in his wildest aberrations, including, I would imagine, several modern variants made possible through the wonders of science. The Quarter is not unlike, I would imagine, Soho and certain sections of North Africa. However, the residents of the French Quarter, blessed with American “Stick-to-it-tiveness” and “Know-how,” are probably straining themselves at this moment to equal and surpass in variety and imagination the diversions enjoyed by the residents of those other world areas of human degradation.

Clearly an area like the French Quarter is not the proper environment for a clean-living, chaste, prudent, and impressionable young Working Boy. Did Edison, Ford, and Rockefeller have to struggle against such odds?

Clyde’s fiendish mind has not stopped at so simple an abasement, however. Because I am allegedly handling what Clyde calls “the tourist trade,” I have been caparisoned in a costume of sorts.

(Judging from the customers I have had on this first day with the new route, the “tourists” seem to be the same old vagrants I was selling to in the business district. In a stupor induced by Sterno, they have doubtlessly stumbled down into the Quarter and thus, to Clyde’s senile mind, qualify as “tourists.” I wonder whether Clyde has even had an opportunity to see the degenerates and wrecks and drifters who buy and apparently subsist on Paradise products. Between the other vendors — totally beaten and ailing itinerants whose names are something like Buddy, Pal, Sport, Top, Buck, and Ace — and my customers, I am apparently trapped in a limbo of lost souls. However, the simple fact that they have been resounding failures in our century does give them a certain spiritual quality. For all we know, they may be — these crushed wretches — the saints of our age: beautifully broken old Negroes with tan eyes; downtrodden drifters from wastelands in Texas and Oklahoma; ruined sharecroppers seeking a haven in rodent-infested urban rooming houses.

(Nevertheless, I do hope that in my dotage, I will not have to rely upon hot dogs for sustenance. The sale of my writings may bring some profit. If need be, I could always turn to the lecture circuit, following behind the ghastly M. Minkoff, whose offenses against taste and decency have already been described in detail to you readers, in order to clear away the boulders of ignorance and obscenity which she will have strewn among the various lecture halls of the nation. Perhaps, however, there will be some person of quality in her first audience who will wrest her from the podium and lash her a bit about her erogenous zones. In spite of whatever spiritual qualities it may possess, skid row is definitely sub-standard in the matter of physical comfort, and I seriously doubt whether my substantial and well-formed physique would easily adapt to sleeping in alleys. I would definitely tend to hang over park benches. Therefore, my size itself is a safeguard against my ever sinking too low within the structure of our civilization. [After all, I do not believe that one must necessarily scrape bottom, as it were, in order to view his society subjectively. Rather than moving vertically downward, one may move horizontally outward toward a point of sufficient detachment where a modicum of creature comforts are not necessarily precluded. I was there — on the very rim of our age — when my mother’s cataclysmic intemperance, as you well know, catapulted me into the fever of contemporary existence. To be quite honest, I must say that since then things have been getting worse and worse. Conditions have deteriorated. Minkoff, my passionless flame, has turned upon me. Even my mother, the agent of my destruction, has begun to bite the hand that feeds her. My cycle is dipping lower and lower. Oh, Fortuna, you capricious sprite!] Personally, I have found that a lack of food and comfort, rather than ennobling the spirit, creates only anxiety within the human psyche and channels all of one’s better impulses only toward the end of procuring something to eat. Even though I do have a Rich Inner Life, I must have some food and comfort also.) But back to the matter at hand: Clyde’s vengeance. The vendor who formerly had the Quarter route wore an improbable pirate’s outfit, a Paradise Vendor’s nod to New Orleans folklore and history, a Clydian attempt to link the hot dog with Creole legend. Clyde forced me to try it on in the garage. The costume, of course, had been made to fit the tubercular and underdeveloped frame of the former vendor, and no amount of pulling and pushing and inhaling and squeezing would get it onto my muscular body. Therefore, a compromise of sorts was made. About my cap I tied the red sateen pirate’s scarf. I screwed the one golden earring, a large novelty store hoop of an earring, onto my left earlobe. I affixed the black plastic cutlass to the side of my white vendor’s smock with a safety pin. Hardly an impressive pirate, you will say. However, when I studied myself in the mirror, I was forced to admit that I appeared rather fetching in a dramatic way. Brandishing the plastic cutlass at Clyde, I cried, “Walk the plank, Admiral!” This, I should have known, was too much for his literal and sausage-like mind. He grew most alarmed and proceeded to attack me with his spear-like fork. We lunged about in the garage like two swashbucklers in an especially inept historical film for several moments, fork and cutlass clicking against each other madly. Realizing that my plastic weapon was hardly a match for a long fork wielded by a maddened Methuselah, realizing that I was seeing Clyde at his worst, I tried to end our little duel. I called out pacifying words; I entreated; I finally surrendered. Still Clyde came, my pirate costume so great a success that it had apparently convinced him that we were back in the golden days of romantic old New Orleans when gentlemen decided matters of hot dog honor at twenty paces. It was then that a light dawned in my intricate mind. I knew that Clyde was really trying to kill me. He would have the perfect excuse: self defense. I had played right into his hands. Fortunately for me, I fell to the floor. I had backed into one of the carts, lost my always precarious balance, and had fallen down. Although I struck my head rather painfully against the cart, I cried pleasantly from the floor, “You win, sir.” Then I silently paid homage to dear old Fortuna for snatching me from the jaws of death by rusty fork.

I quickly rolled my cart out of the garage and set out for the Quarter. Along the way, many pedestrians gave my semi-costume favorable notice. My cutlass slapping against my side, my earring dangling from my lobe, my red scarf shining in the sun brightly enough to attract a bull, I strode resolutely across town, thankful that I was still alive, armoring myself against the horrors that awaited me in the Quarter. Many a loud prayer rose from my chaste pink lips, some of thanks, some of supplication. I prayed to St. Mathurin, who is invoked for epilepsy and madness, to aid Mr. Clyde (Mathurin is, incidentally, also the patron saint of clowns). For myself, I sent a humble greeting to St. Medericus, the Hermit, who is invoked against intestinal disorders. Meditating upon the call from the grave which I had almost received, I began to think about my mother, for I have always wondered what her reaction would be were I to die in the cause of paying for her misdeeds. I can see her at the funeral, a shoddy, low-cost affair held in the basement of some dubious funeral parlor. Insane with grief, tears boiling from her reddened eyes, she would probably tear my corpse from the coffin, screaming drunkenly, “Don’t take him! Why do the sweetest flowers wither and fall from the stem?” The funeral would probably degenerate into a circus, my mother constantly poking her fingers into the two holes dug in my neck by Mr. Clyde’s rusty fork, crying an illiterate Grecian cry of curses and vengeance. There would be a certain amount of spectacle involved in the proceedings, I imagine. However, with my mother acting as director, the inherent tragedy would soon become melodrama. Snatching the white lily from my lifeless hands, she would break it in half and wail to the throng of mourners, well-wishers, celebrants, and sightseers, “As this lily was, so was Ignatius. Now they are both snatched and broken.” As she threw the lily back into the coffin, her feeble aim would send it flying directly into my whitened face.

For my mother I sent a prayer flying to St. Zita of Lucca, who spent her life as a house servant and practiced many austerities, in the hope that she would aid my mother in fighting her alcoholism and nighttime roistering.

Strengthened by my interlude of worship, I listened to the cutlass slapping against my side. It seemed, like some weapon of morality, to be spurring me toward the Quarter, each plastic slap saying, “Take heart, Ignatius. Thou hast a terrible swift sword.” I was beginning to feel rather like a Crusader.

At last I crossed Canal Street pretending to ignore the attention paid me by all whom I passed. The narrow streets of the Quarter awaited me. A vagrant petitioned for a hot dog. I waved him away and strode forth. Unfortunately, my feet could not keep pace with my soul. Below my ankles, the tissues were crying for rest and comfort, so I placed the wagon at the curb and seated myself. The balconies of the old buildings hung over my head like dark branches in an allegorical forest of evil. Symbolically, a Desire bus hurtled past me, its diesel exhaust almost strangling me. Closing my eyes for a moment to meditate and thereby draw strength, I must have fallen asleep, for I remember being rudely awakened by a policeman standing next to me prodding me in the ribs with the toe of his shoe. Some musk which my system generates must be especially appealing to the authorities of the government. Who else would be accosted by a policeman while innocently awaiting his mother before a department store? Who else would be spied upon and reported for picking a helpless stray of a kitten from a gutter? Like a bit@h in heat, I seem to attract a coterie of policemen and sanitation officials. The world will someday get me on some ludicrous pretext; I simply await the day that they drag me to some airconditioned dungeon and leave me there beneath the florescent lights and sound-proofed ceiling to pay the price for scorning all that they hold dear within their little latex hearts.

Rising to my full height — a spectacle in itself — I looked down upon the offending policeman and crushed him with a comment which, fortunately, he failed to understand. Then I wheeled the wagon farther into the Quarter. Because it was early afternoon, there were few people stirring on the streets. I guessed that the residents of the area were still in bed recovering from whatever indecent acts they had been performing the night before. Many no doubt required medical attention: a stitch or two here and there in a torn orifice or a broken genital. I could only imagine how many haggard and depraved eyes were regarding me hungrily from behind the closed shutters. I tried not to think about it. Already I was beginning to feel like an especially toothsome steak in a meat market. However, no one called enticingly from the shutters; those devious mentalities throbbing away in their dark apartments were apparently more subtle seducers. I thought that a note, at least, might flutter down. A frozen orange juice can came flying out of one of the windows and barely missed me. I stooped over and picked it up in order to inspect the empty tin cylinder for a communication of some sort, but only a viscous residue of concentrated juice trickled out on my hand. Was this some obscene message? While I was pondering the matter and staring up at the window from which the can had been hurled, an old vagrant approached the wagon and pleaded for a frankfurter. Grudgingly I sold him one, ruefully concluding that, as always, work was interfering at a crucial moment.

By now, of course, the window from which the can had been sent flying was closed. I rolled farther down the street, staring at the closed shutters for a sign of some sort. Wild laughter issued from more than one building as I passed. Apparently the deluded occupants therein were indulging in some obscene diversion which amused them. I tried to close my virgin ears to their horrid cackling.

A group of tourists wandered along the streets, their cameras poised, their glittering eyeglasses shining like sparklers. Noticing me, they paused and, in sharp Midwestern accents which assailed my delicate eardrums like the sounds of a wheat thresher (however unimaginably horrible that must sound), begged me to pose for a photograph. Pleased by their gracious attentions, I acquiesced. For minutes they snapped away as I obliged them with several artful poses. Standing before the wagon as if it were a pirate’s vessel, I brandished my cutlass menacingly for one especially memorable pose, my other hand holding the prow of the tin hot dog. As a climax, I attempted to climb atop the wagon, but the solidity of my physique proved too taxing for that flimsy vehicle. It began to roll from beneath me, but the gentlemen in the group were kind enough to grab it and assist me down. At last this affable group bade me farewell. As they wandered down the street madly photographing everything in sight, I heard one kindly lady say, “Wasn’t that sad? We should have given her something.” Unfortunately, none of the others (doubtless right-wing conservatives all) responded to her plea for charity very favorably, thinking, no doubt, that a few cents cast my way would be a vote of confidence for the welfare state. “He would only go out and spend it on more liquor,” one of the other women, a shriveled crone whose face bespoke WCTU affiliation, advised her friends with nasal wisdom and an abundance of harsh r’s. Apparently the others sided with the WCTU drab, for the group continued down the street.

I must admit that I would not have turned down an offering of some sort. A Working Boy can use every penny that he can get his ambitious and striving hands on. In addition, those photographs could earn those corn-belt clods a fortune in some photographic contest. For a moment, I considered running behind these tourists, but just then an improbable satire on a tourist, a wan little figure in Bermuda shorts panting under the weight of a monstrous apparatus with lenses that certainly must have been a CinemaScope camera, called out a greeting to me. Upon closer inspection, I noted that it was, of all people, Patrolman Mancuso. I, of course, ignored the Machiavel’s faint mongoloid grin by pretending to tighten my earring. Apparently he has been released from his imprisonment in the rest room. “How you doing?” he persisted illiterately. “Where is my book?” I demanded terrifyingly. “I’m still reading it. It’s very good,” he answered in terror. “Profit by its lesson,” I cautioned. “When you have completed it, I shall ask you to submit to me a written critique and analysis of its message to humanity!” With that order still ringing magnificently in the air, I strode proudly off down the street. Then, realizing that I had forgotten the wagon, I returned grandly to retrieve it. (That wagon is a terrible liability. I feel as if I am stuck with a retarded child who deserves constant attention. I feel like a hen sitting on one particularly large tin egg.) Well, here it was almost two o’clock, and I had sold exactly one hot dog. Your Working Boy would have to bustle if success was to be his goal. The occupants of the French Quarter obviously did not place frankfurters high on their list of delicacies, and the tourists were not apparently coming to colorful and picturesque old N.O. to gorge themselves upon Paradise products. Clearly I am going to have what is known in our commercial terminology as a merchandising problem. The evil Clyde has in vengeance given me a route that is a “White Elephant,” a term which he once applied to me during the course of one of our business conferences. Resentment and jealousy have again struck me down.

In addition, I must devise some means of handling M. Minkoffs latest effronteries. Perhaps the Quarter will provide me with some material: a crusade for taste and decency, for theology and geometry, perhaps.

Social note: A new film featuring my favorite female star, whose recent circus musical excess stunned and overwhelmed me, is opening shortly at one of the downtown movie palaces. I must somehow get to see it. Only my wagon stands in the way. Her new film is billed as a “sophisticated” comedy in which she must certainly reach new heights of perversion and blasphemy.

Health note: Astonishing weight increase, due no doubt to the anxiety which my dear mother’s increasing unpleasantness is causing me. It is a truism of human nature, that people learn to hate those who help them. Thus, my mother has turned on me.

Suspendedly,

Lance, Your Besieged Working Boy

V The lovely girl smiled hopefully at Dr. Talc and breathed, “I just love your course. I mean, it’s grand.”

“Oh, well,” Talc replied delightedly. “That’s very kind of you. I’m afraid the course is rather general…”

“Your approach to history is so vital, so contemporary, so refreshingly unorthodox.”

“I do believe that we must cast aside some of the old forms and approaches.” Talc’s voice was important, pedantic. Should he invite this charming creature to have a drink with him? “History is, after all, an evolutionary thing.” “I know,” the girl said, opening her eyes wide enough so that Talc could lose himself in their blueness for a moment or two.

“I only wish to interest my students. Let’s face it. The average student is not interested in the history of Celtic Britain. For that matter, neither am I. That’s why, even if I do admit it myself, I always sense a sort of rapport in my classes.” “I know.” The girl brushed gracefully against Talc’s expensive tweed sleeve in reaching for her purse. Talc tingled at her touch. This was the sort of girl who should be attending college, not ones like that dreadful Minkoff girl, that brutal and slovenly girl who had almost been raped by one of the janitors just outside of his office. Dr. Talc shuddered at the very thought of Miss Minkoff. In class she had insulted and challenged and vilified him at every turn, egging the Reilly monster to join in the attack. He would never forget those two; no one on the faculty ever would. They were like two Huns sweeping down on Rome. Dr. Talc idly wondered if they had married each other. Each certainly deserved the other. Perhaps they had both defected to Cuba. “Some of those historical characters are so dull.” “That’s very true,” Talc agreed, eager to join any campaign against the figures of English history, who had been the scourges of his existence for so many years. Simply keeping track of all of them gave him a headache. He paused to light a Benson and Hedges and cleared some of the phlegm of English history from his throat. “They all made so many foolish mistakes.” “I know.” The girl looked into her compact mirror. Then her eyes hardened and her voice grew a little surly. “Well, I don’t want to waste your time with all this historical chatter. I wanted to ask you what happened to that report that I handed in about two months ago. I mean, I’d like to get some idea of what kind of grade I’m going to get in this course.” “Oh, yes,” Dr. Talc said vaguely. His hopeful bubble burst. Under their skins students were all alike. The lovely girl had turned into steely-eyed businesswoman checking, adding the profits of her grades. “You handed in a report, did you?” “I most certainly did. It was in a yellow binder.”

“Let me see if I can find it then.” Dr. Talc got up and began to look through piles of various antique term papers, reports, and examinations on the top of the bookcase. As he was rearranging the stacks, an old sheet of wide-lined tablet paper folded into an airplane fell out of one binder and glided to the floor. Talc had not noticed the plane, only one of the many that had come sailing through his transom and window one semester a few years earlier. As it landed, the girl picked it up and, seeing that there was writing on the yellowed paper, unfolded the glider.

“Talc: You have been found guilty of misleading and perverting the young. I decree that you be hung by your underdeveloped testicles until dead. ZORRO” The girl reread the red crayon message, and as Talc continued to press his search on top of the bookcase, she opened her purse, dropped in the airplane, and snapped the clasp.

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