Henry was already famous for having used a logical argument to get out of church every Sunday and now look at him. Recumbent in the field beside his grandmother’s house at all hours and on this particular evening so late that most traffic of the day, rattling untouched china, rushing in either direction with little business to stop on 115th street, was by then elsewhere, at rest. Henry with a book in the tall wild grass of the ownerless field with a flashlight.
“Our Father,” said the lady, his grandmother, over dinner.
Of all the people who once sat noisily well-fed around that table, two were dead, two married and so the lady cooked only for herself and the grandchild. They had finally shrugged off most every pretense, the people and the meals. Cheese and crackers most nights for herself and sandwiches for Henry or a can of soup.
She couldn’t see Henry from her place at the kitchen table because the field he sat in was on the opposite side of the house. If she wanted to see she’d have to go in the bathroom and peep through the lifted window over the bathtub. Which meant climbing into the bathtub. Sometimes she did this. But all she could see from where she sat, that evening, with her cheese and crackers and a bottle of sticky fizz, a bottle she drank for the look of it, it cheered her up, the happy character on the label, was the rooted wire brush of her old black trees in the iron plate of the grassless side of the yard. Her trees half-hid the dreary squares of yellow life in the windows of the whoring neighbor’s duplex.
Henry sat up and switched off the flashlight and put the book down in his lap and when his eyes had adjusted he counted the surrounding drift of lightning bugs. What Henry loved was how the language of the intermittent light the bugs made was only for each other. He was in height and mass and relative reasoning capacity like unto a god to these trivial insects but these trivial insects went from birth to death completely oblivious to the human presence. They decorated the fields at dusk and darkness without a slight care regarding human needs, except when a kid like Nathaniel Mullins caught some and pinched the bellies off to brandish the posthumously radiant organs on his knuckles. Mullins chased the girls with hideously beautified hands and some would kiss him in the further-away fields. Henry would hear them squeal and laugh in the tall grass while he paced or drop-kicked clods to kill time and later walk Mullins to the train tracks to put pennies on them.
Now Mullins hadn’t done anything as innocent as that in years. Mullins was locked up for popping a working man’s lung with an ice pick. Henry pictured Mullins on his disciplined bunk with lightning-bugged hands, seventeen like Henry but well on his way and illiterate.
The book Henry was reading in the field was altogether incomprehensible to him. It wasn’t just the cultural differences between the author, D.H. Lawrence, and his reader, Henry, the only reader of such a book for square miles, which might explain Henry’s sincere bafflement in the face of the text. And it wasn’t merely that Lawrence was English and red-headed and white. It was the sinister nature of all interactions between men and women, in Lawrence’s book, that kept the book’s meanings mysterious to the boy in the field with a sandwich and a book, because the boy in the field was a virgin and nobody should know.
Henry often imagined hopping on a freight train as the last resort if his classmates found out he was a virgin. He often imagined sharing his tomato soup in a thermos with a grateful hobo. Not even the hobo should know.
“Nobody!” said Henry to Crip Beckett with a sharp whisper. Could he trust Crip Beckett?
Crip was Crip because of his foot. Had a foot that was more like a fist in a retarded shoe. Crip commuted with a roll and a drag that he tried to jazz-up, fooling nobody, which prevented Crip from studying team sports, not to mention his yellowness; Crip was literally yellow. The Pediatrician blamed Crip’s mother for the first problem and the neighborhood blamed Crip’s real father (the Pediatrician) for the second. Crip was yellow because his mother had opened her legs for a Jew named Doctor Gold. In the eyes of God and Crip Beckett, Crip was Crip Gold.
Crip’s bad foot and his coloration resulted in a default friendship between Crip and bookish Henry that soon enough outgrew its hurt beginnings and became authentic, despite the fact that Crip, who Henry called Charles, was ruining Henry’s chances of ever meeting a girl. Crip Beckett couldn’t even get near a basketball court or a softball diamond without asking for lingering trouble, so Henry steered clear of these places in deference to Crip, while regretting the fact that he was no longer friends with Nat Mullins. How was Henry ever going to meet a girl? Where Crip and Henry dared not go was where the girls of Golders Park only went. The girls congregated, honey-toned girls with good hair on the hallowed sidelines of the playing fields, excitable as innocent furies and dressed to the highest level.
The playing fields of Golders Park were dominated by a ruling class of flare-nostril athletes who thundered the trampled grasses with the terrifying excellence of Tyrannosaurus Rexes. You stood nearby at the shouting height of a big game in the highest pitch of girls glorifying every crunch of muscle-plated black exuberance in collision. It took you back in your imaginings to the great dark readings of the Homeric battles of a 19th century curriculum in lit.
“Not even to your sister,” added Henry but what he meant was especially not your sister. “Not even Chloe. Don’t you ever tell Chloe.”
“I ain’t tell nobody shit,” said Crip, golder than ever in a sunbeam. He was dismantling a bologna sandwich while they discussed the legendary word-of-mouth Monthly Parties on 111th Street. People came for miles around.
Chloe had come about in the days that Crip’s mother had more-or-less restricted herself to the rigors of her husband’s needs. The result being that Crip’s older-by-ten-months sister was exactly the right color for a child whose mother was black and whose father was that much blacker. Chloe looked like she belonged to both of her parents while Crip, the punchline of a post-natal exam, barely looked traceable to his mother. Still, he was beautiful. As was Chloe, in the opposite meaning and direction. Those high cheek bones and the flat little nose pressed in by a secret thumb. That narrow waist plus twenty pounds of punch-hard titty on her chest.
Henry trained a flawed glass moon on the cream-colored pages of his library book and tried to figure what the characters meant by what they said and did. He dug the name Gudrun. He tried to project Crip’s sister Chloe into the book. He tried to imagine Chloe as a girl in a huge hat in steam-train England. He heard his grandmother gargle and flush and go to bed and all he had to do now was wait. Wait for his grandmother to curl, kicked-dog up, and hone the old snore. Only then could Henry leave the book behind in the grass and sneak off to the famous Monthly.
Three times previous he’d planned to go to the Monthly and three times previous his courage had failed but tonight it wouldn’t. This month he would go. He went.
From the house on 115th street to the Monthly party at 111th and Throop was a good walk down streets that Henry had never seen after suppertime. Henry took comfort in the heavy silver cigarette lighter that he could feel in his pocket as he walked. He brought it along with the idea that an older woman at the party would come over to where he was standing and ask for a light. They would converse and Henry would tell the right jokes and she would tug him by the hand to the further-away fields to lay down with her. He would kiss her brown face and her breasts.
When Henry came up 111th he saw the house on the corner, lit very poorly from within. He could smell it all the way up the street. The house was a busted drunk on a grassless lot and Henry slowed in his approach on the uneven plates of the sidewalk. He came to a thinking halt in the dirt of the yard and wished Nat Mullins was standing with him. His hands were in his pockets and he rocked on his heels. The cigarette lighter had been his uncle’s who also did not smoke.
Wrapped in a mass of many male voices was the working man’s sound of a James Brown record. The sound was an improvement over the smell which was the breath of the house as it ate a bad dinner. The front room was dark and probably hid cringing mice and was cleared of all furniture; it was visible through a glassless window that opened into the porch and which figures climbed through in both directions although a door was available. Figures sat here and there against the old walls and what light there was, as Henry walked in through the proper doorway, came only from the kitchen’s entrance at the other end, a composite rectangular glow of emergency candles. A line backed all the way from the glowing kitchen through the front room to very near where Henry was stood in the moving jumble of the dark. People danced in this line but also were careful to keep their place in it. The line was obviously for beer but many in it clutched bottles already. Henry had seen fat kids do the same with cake.
James Brown, with his sweaty voice, was singing Love Don’t Love Nobody and then he was singing You Don’t Have to Go.
Henry had yet to detect any girls at this bash and the irony wasn’t lost on him that the greatest number of pretty girls he’d ever seen, gathered in one place, had been at the Church picnics he had long-since argued his way out of attending. All girls were either at the church picnics or the playing fields. The girls who were at both were probably Henry’s best chance and he fingered the lighter in his pocket, he rubbed it like Aladdin’s lamp and prayed for one of those girls to hurry over. Or he prayed for a divorcee. A pretty woman of thirty-five in a black satin dress and a pricey bobbed wig.
The divorcee would be slightly drunk. Henry would tell her three or four jokes and she’d tug him by the hand out the door on a long walk under the silent stars to the further-away fields. The divorcee’s name would be Irma or Denise and she would twist an ankle in her heels, stepping off a curb, being tipsy, and Henry would carry Irma the rest of the long way to the fields in his arms.
Side one of the record had started again and was well into Mashed Potatoes U.S.A. when Henry’s place in line advanced into the blazing kitchen. He came close enough to the sounds and smells at the heart of the meaning of the party to see what someone less literate would already have guessed. The oil-black girl on her back on the rickety kitchen table was painted by a dozen dancing flames, her wig on the linoleum under the table.
A boy or man would take his turn at holding her ankles high or wide and slamming the table competitively and the next in line would begin to prepare. Some of them had to jack off, a little, to get hard and they did so with competent, easy, crap-shooting wrists. Some just casually unzipped but others showed genuine enthusiasm. They stripped down to the level of black bare ass when they got to be second or third in line but Henry just couldn’t. He couldn’t.
He found himself a beer and nursed it experimentally in the furthest corner of the kitchen and watched when he could, leaning against the disconnected refrigerator. One boy smacked the ceiling-fixated girl on her face on his way out and the gesture struck Henry as a misguided declaration of free will. The girl said nothing and Henry felt nothing. Nobody had paid a cent to be there. To whose generosity were they indebted?
It would be too easy to say that girl was Chloe.
—written in 1999/ So Cal and rewritten 2017/Berlin