In early 2008 I finished a 41,000-word novel (c. 200 pages?) called The Bomb Collector. I wrote it with the goal in mind of writing a book with a secret layer, a secret layer that would remain absolutely detachable from a “normal” reading of the book. That is, one could get quite a lot (I hope) out of the book without needing to uncover its secret. Which is like Life itself, no? You can eat your favorite meals, argue facetiously with your colleagues, go swimming on Sundays and collect door knobs or key-chains quite happily without guessing at any of the twinkling layers of profound secrets enveloping your journey, secrets cosmic or local. How many people, in the centuries prior to DNA testing (and, even, still) went through life with a factually inaccurate sense of their biological father? Who was behind JFK’s assassination, or the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa? And so on. The germ of the book’s inception was a random thought I had one day: how many times have I been physically near to, or actually spoken to, someone who has literally gotten away with murder?
What I wanted from The Bomb Collector was a book hiding its actual genre (murder mystery). It appears to be a roman à clef or a bildungsroman for the middle aged. Regarding technical matters, I decided to adapt a variant of Paul Auster’s conversational, after-dinner, story-telling voice, the ease in its delivery, while, at the same time, making a point of undermining/ contradicting Auster’s brand of terrible reliance on narrative cliché (his detectives, doubles and shopworn metaphors). I engineered the book to tease and invert cliché, while also building it around its luminous black secret, using it also as a delivery system for philosophical detours, many of them about “men” and “women”. One of the book’s foundational metaphors: men vs women = Arabs vs Jews… the seething sibling antagonisms of the Near-Other. But I also peopled my ruminative narrative side-streets with thoughts on “transitioning” from Not Old to Almost Old… the weird vestibule one enters after the age of, say, c. 45. From one’s mid-20s onward, one will reach various milestones, feel “old,” look back five years later and realize one wasn’t “old,” yet, really, at all. This will go on for quite awhile and then it will stop; no one sane, at the age of 65, will look back, wryly, at “60” as any degree of youth. When one has washed entirely clear of youth’s residue, one is ready (or should be ready) to address certain questions. Not with infallibility but with utter confidence. The confidence is Philosophy itself.
Well, I love this old-ish book of mine (the final edit must be the age of 10, by now). I’d written, and scrapped, more than one long-form project before it but The Bomb Collector was my first “successful” novel: it does what it sets out to do and is not unreadable; its “postmodern” tricks are unobtrusive to a fault. I was always (in the shadow of Underworld and Infinite Jest and Against the Day) in the habit of calling The Bomb Collector a “novella” but 200 pages is about standard, for a novel, these days and will probably end up, a few years from now, seeming rather longish. My novel This Incredible Sex Comedy is c. 400 pages; Kootchie Towers will be about 400 pages; The Brotherland Miracles is looking to end up in that range as well. Germantown (interconnecting stories in novel form), I’m afraid, is nudging closer to 600 pages but The Bad Czech is c. 220 pages and Jesus in Vegas, FIRE PAPER GUNS THE INTERNET and Radiance are each a reassuringly breezy 100 pages long. I have no idea how long We Do Not Die (another collection of linked shorts) will end up being.
In the excerpt from The Bomb Collector, below, the protag has recently broken his ankle while living in a “strange, foreign” city (my city, Berlin). He only “knows” three people in town, three women, but knows none of them well. He’s a writer ruminating on the book he’s been trying, for so long, to write, a book about a worldly and well-educated man he knew in America, an Algerian. This Algerian client (the writer was also a house painter) was an elegant and erudite “womanizer” who shared his prize tales, never suspecting that this material was going to be appropriated by the writer, years later…
This excerpt concludes with one of my credos, shared by the protag: “I could only allow myself to write something in the evening if I had earned the right to do so with a bold action during the day.”
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Being bed-ridden for two weeks with a broken ankle in a small flat in a foreign city with a little food, some money, a cell phone (though, who the hell would I call?) and a few dozen empty Evian bottles was not as bad an experience as one would think. The first few days were the worst, before I got used to (and then bored by) the pain, and before it was even possible to half-stand and hop or even crawl to the bathroom. The Evian bottles filled up, one after another along the wall like some kind of ancient or conceptual clock, each bottle the slightest gradation of acid orange darker (as I dehydrated) than the bottle immediately preceding it. I had only as much sense of the shifting hours of the day or night as I could gather from the snow-muffled traffic sounds that filtered in from the living room windows. I became intimately familiar with certain patterns of my Christian neighbor upstairs.
Every morning I listened to her watch some chatty chirpy German version of an early morning wake-up show (chit chat, introduction, applause, chit chat, introduction, applause, on-location segment, national news, local traffic report, weather, musical interlude, wrap up, applause… all in a language I’m 99.99 percent deaf to). Then an excercise show that had her hopping up and down (with her light frame) on the floor directly over my head. Then a morning movie (during which can be heard the three classes of water-based event a morning’s toilet consists of), an afternoon talk show (introduction, unprofessional voice modulations, shrieks, boos, cheers from the audience, moderation), and a German-dubbed American sitcom rerun from the ’80s or even the ’60s… sometimes it was the ‘The Love Boat’ and sometimes it was ‘Hogan’s Heroes’. Both shows I recognized, of course, from their theme music; the dialogue was dubbed entirely in German. In the case of ‘Hogan’s Heroes’, the show came without a laugh track. In other words she was watching, in German, an American sitcom about a German prisoner of war camp during the Second World War… with ominous dead air where there would have been canned laughter. The philosophical implications were weighty. Not that ‘The Love Boat’ generated no food for thought itself… especially when Nico, four out of five times, sang along (in a surprisingly strong voice) with the theme song. Being an invalid in that room under her bedroom was like living with her. Or, more like: being the ghost assigned to haunt her.
She would leave the flat so late every day (and often not at all), and return again after so short an interval, that it seemed unlikely that she had a job. Early afternoon (at which point on a winter’s day it’s already dark in Central Europe) I’d hear her strap her wooden-heeled boots on, hammer across her uncarpeted floor and hammer down the stairwell and out the door, clop clop clopping up the street. ‘Observing’ her served to keep my mind off of my awful physical circumstances, and off of Moth as well. Moth I was thinking of less and less frequently.
Considering the shocking intensity of the ‘love’ I felt for her at the moment she dumped me, my relative ambivalence towards the very notion of her existence just a few days after the break caused me to examine the nature of this post-hypnotic suggestion called ‘love’. In the absence of species-propagating hormone surges… at the age of forty two, that is… what is it, somewhere in my head, that still has the power to drive me to the brink of madness, or self-destructive obsession, in the name of it? And how does this tie in with that other mystery I tried to tackle the night of my injury… the mystery of human/non-human?
The answer can only be that a man in love; a man who is loved; is certain of his humanity. In the absence of love, the certainty vanishes. I’m quite sure, thinking back on it, that my real panic as I stood on the fourth floor of the open construction site next door and listened to the passionate narrative of Moth leaving me was the fear that my humanity was being rescinded. Even lying on the futon with my broken ankle under a bare bulb in a narrow room the walls of which were gradually being circumnavigated by bottles of my urine and facing this philosophical problem head-on, there was no guarantee that I wasn’t not human. Of course I panicked when Moth walked out on me. And that’s why some men (and even some women) will kill to prevent the leaving.
El-Hadi once told me, while we were replacing the hundreds of framed photographs on his freshly painted wall (referring constantly to a chart we’d made to make sure the photos returned to their original spots), of an ex-lover who had attempted to poison him a few weeks after the affair was called off. What made this even more extraordinary was the fact that she, not El-Hadi, had been the one to call things off. So why the vengeful act?
“It wasn’t vengeance motivating her,” said El-Hadi, handing me a large black and white portrait of the would-be poisoner herself. “She wanted to make sure that I remembered her for the rest of my life.”
“By killing you?”
He shrugged. “The reasoning is sound, if less than ethical.”
The photograph was in the High School yearbook modus of the early ’60s… an off-the-shoulders gown, pearls and a towering blonde ‘beehive’ hairdo. The smile seemed to tilt subtly under the weight of the hairdo. I hung it on its nail. El-Hadi frowned at it, adjusted it so it hung a bit straighter, and said,
“She invited me to dinner a few weeks after breaking things off with me. I was pleasantly surprised by the invitation, though slightly nervous, despite assurances that her husband, a computer scientist working for Univac, was overseas at a conference on artificial intelligence, delivering a paper. He was in Germany for two weeks. I accepted the invitation. Perhaps it was the superstitions that surround the act of making love to a married woman that kept me on my guard.”
“I’d never been to their home before, as you can imagine. I got lost twice trying to find it, but I avoided asking directions, for obvious reasons. The house was an isolated and imposing structure on a very large plot of land, the perfect place, I realized, in retrospect, for getting rid of someone.”
“I was late in arriving for dinner. She’d been afraid I wasn’t going to show up, she said, and had been preparing to throw dinner away when I rang the doorbell. I remember thinking: these Americans! So rich they can throw food away!” He chuckled.
“I was quite ready to eat. As a precaution against her cooking being mediocre or even bad, I had starved myself before dinner. I was hoping to be led directly to the dinner table, but she wanted to make love, ‘one last time,’ before eating. I have to confess that at that point, I was so hungry, the offer of making love before dinner was not the most attractive proposition.”
“In the interest of not being rude, however, I allowed her to lead me by the hand, up a carpeted flight of stairs such as were often depicted in movies of the era… a thoroughly upper-middle class staircase… to the master bedroom. I was wearing a dinner jacket and penny loafers if I recall and she was wearing the gown you see here in this picture.We weren’t Rock Hudson and Doris Day but you get the idea. She threatened to rip my clothes off. I performed heroically, under the circumstances. She was blonde… my first blonde… but not beautiful. Exquisite body, yes, but she had a squint and a bit of an underbite that made her look permanetly resentful. But I did my duty… spurred on by the unusual degree of passion on display. She behaved as though I were to be shipped off to the war in Indochina at dawn the next morning. The war was just beginning to get public attention back then and I imagine there were many such dramatic partings. In this case, obviously, it was different.”
“Have I mentioned that she was a brilliant woman? Before marrying, she’d been some sort of scientist, or mathematician, herself. She had a mathematician’s quantitative interest in the Arts that passes for being cultured in some circles. But she was quite brilliant… intimidatingly so… nervous, neurotic, cold at times and given to strange moods, sudden outbursts of temper. I was extremely suspicious when I sat down finally to dinner. The brilliant ones are the ones to watch out for, and they are the most likely, as it turns out… I’ve done some research on the matter. The ignorant use knives, the stolid, church-going middle class have their guns but the clever usually opt for poison. I stared long and hard into my cream of mushroom soup… it had come out of a can, by the way.” El-Hadi made a face as though the fact that the soup had come out of a can was more distasteful to him than that it was laced with poison.
“A strong chemical odor rose from my bowl. So strong in fact it stung my eyes. It was a very poor job… an impulsive attempt at a poisoning. I pushed away from the table and began to laugh. And so did she.”
“I said, Marion… is it possible that you’ve tampered with my soup?”
“Her laughter became hysterical, shading into tears… very theatrical. And not very convincing. She was having her moment in the spotlight, I suppose.”
“I stood from the table and said, My God, you meant to poison me! I was quite obliging in those days, you see. Playing my role to the hilt. I was a pretty good sport, considering the fact that she’d emptied half a can of rat poison into my soup.”
“That’s when she stopped laughing and adopted the sly look of a Borgia, or the cat who swallowed the canary. ‘And how can you be sure,’ she said, ‘that I didn’t poison my pussycat too?’ She was, of course, referring indirectly to a sexual act I’d been known to experiment with, in those days, in a misguided effort to be modern.” El-Hadi chuckled again and handed me another picture to hang on the wall: an open-mouthed young redhead in tennis whites, posing with her racket as though it were a guitar.
“I saw myself to the front door and said, before making my exit, I’m fairly sure that if you’d really poisoned your pussycat, my dear, you’d have taken the trouble to wash it first. It was quite a zinger, as you say. She threw a wineglass at the door as I closed it, sealing my triumph. But halfway home I began to feel quite ill. There was a strange, metallic flavor in my mouth.”
“I had to pull over twice, on the road shoulder, to be violently ill. I felt feverish, dizzy, my heart was racing… I thought I was dying. You can imagine how frightened I was. I thought: my god! The madwoman really did it! She poisoned her private parts before inducing me to put my mouth on them! I’m going to die!”
“This was when I lived in a neighborhood of L.A. which was not too bad then, although today it’s a notorious ghetto; a no-go area. Back then it was a mildly integrated neighborhood of working class Mexicans, shabby-genteel white professionals, a few beatniks, artists, and some college students. To be honest I wouldn’t have been comfortable living in a suburban enclave of privelege. I drove myself to the Queen of Angels Hospital.”
“I had to fill out a form and sit in the waiting room along with the typical assortment of injured Americans. Household mishaps and matrimonial assaults… in decades to come, one supposes, self-mutilators and the morbidly obese would come to rule the territory. After filling out a form and while waiting in great discomfort to be seen by a doctor, I took note of the most beautiful colored girl; a sort of dream-Negress. This is far from a politically correct term and I trust you not to repeat the story, but we’re men of the world and you’ll know what I mean when I describe her as such. She was a living breathing daydream, with long legs and an exquisite small bosom. She had wrapped up her visit with the doctor and emerged looking a little shaky. She was gathering her coat and purse from the chair beside me… I still marvel at the social trust… the civility… in that gesture: imagine leaving a purse or a wallet unattended anywhere in America today! Not even in a jewelry store on Rodeo Drive, my friend. It could only mean the purse contained an explosive device!” Laughing a smoker’s hacking laugh, El-Hadi offered me a cigarette, which I declined, and lit one for himself.
“She put her coat on but sat down to tie her shoes… I noticed that she was wearing the same sort of white, crepe-soled shoe as the nurses wore, despite the fact that she was otherwise outfitted in ordinary street clothes… a pleated skirt and a sleeveless blouse. Her outfit was about ten years out of fashion but this was clearly not an eccentricity on her part. No, it was the sexual spice called poverty. After tying and re-tying her shoes, she slumped in her seat, her dark elbows on her skirt and her head in her hands… as though her thoughts were too heavy for her to hold her beautiful head up unsupported.”
“By now I was fascinated, and my own medical problems were the last thing on my mind. Who was this dusky vision, lovely enough to have been Shakespeare’s dark lady, and why did the weight of the world seem to be on her shoulders? There was some mystery as to her background, as well, I might add. She didn’t look entirely Negro… her nose was blunt, but her hair was lustrous and long. Staring at her flattened profile I thought I could detect an Asian, or even Mexican, influence. It struck me that an opportunity for adventure had dropped in my lap, give or take a few centimeters, and I decided to seize it. ”
“Can I offer you a ride?”
“Ain’t you sick, baby? Don’t you want to see the doctor?”
She gave me a skeptical smile, said El-Hadi. But I told her, “I have the rest of my life to be sick.” I knew there’d be only once chance at this. She let me help her gather her things and we left the hospital together. I showed her to my car. I took the trouble to put the top down on the convertible; it was a beautiful evening.
“Nice.” She ran a finger along the contours of the dashboard and then clawed at and shook her hair out in the wind as though washing it. “Nice to ride in a car once in a while. I showed up at the hospital tonight on a bus. Shoot, I had to walk six blocks to the goddamn stop, too. Pardon my French.” She sank back in her seat with a chuckle and closed her eyes and when he asked her Where to? she responded, with a drowsy smile and a far-off voice, Anywhere but home sweet home, baby.
Her profile was more mysterious than the full-on view of her face, with its soft-spread Negro features. In her profile El-Hadi decided she was Polynesian, one of Gaugin’s black virgins, the lustrous mane and perfectly tooled white teeth. He pictured her topless, a flimsy skirt around her cool dark legs, with less than subtle results in the crotch of his trousers. He felt none of the shame about this that he would’ve felt with a white woman riding beside him in the car, and no shame, in turn, about his lack of shame about this frankly racist distinction. You were allowed (even expected) to be a racist in deed in hysterically egalitarian America, El-Hadi had observed, but never a racist in principle. In the Old World, he’d been with black North Africans of both sexes and in every case they’d been servants or of the servant class and pragmatically interested in pleasing him. El-Hadi sensed that with Americans, one could persuade them to go along with nearly any idea as long as it remained unspoken.
El-Hadi said, “Then we drive to the beach.”
“Why not?” she cooed. “It’s your gasoline.”
El-Hadi switched on the radio and lucked out with a favorite song, played from a point very near its beginning: Nat ‘King’ Cole singing Ramblin’ Rose. Steering with his arm at rest on the driver-side door, El-Hadi reached over and took possession of her hand, which was hot to the touch, and lifted it gingerly to his side of the car seat, her arm offering only the slightest resistance. He placed her hand between his trouser legs, where it added heat to the pressure, and stroked it like a smooth little cat in his lap as he drove. Glancing, he noticed that although she still hadn’t opened her eyes, the drowsy smile on her lips of a moment before had been replaced with what one could interpret either as acceptance of the inevitable or the burden of knowing precisely how every such situation in life would turn out, long before it came to pass. As if she could already quite clearly see El-Hadi doing the trivial thing he wanted to do to her and disappearing very soon afterwards, never to be heard from again. Still, her little black hand remained where it was, sandwiched between his arousal and the hand with which an Algerian eats… alive with fine tremors, riding the force of his heartbeat.
This was still several years before the Johnson administration’s Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Azzedine took note of the heady feeling this entailed. Of course, back in Algiers, he’d had his social inferiors, but it was really a matter there of the aristocracy, the Europeans, and everyone else. An Algerian of Azzedine’s class rarely enjoyed this Lord of the Manor feeling in Algeria. It was profound to contemplate that here he was, in America, the shining Atlantis of the West, where even the poor lived better than many merchants could afford to in the land of his birth, and riding beside him in his car was this beautiful American native, an order of magnitude below him on the scale of the human, by law. El-Hadi’s passport stated his race as Caucasian, though he was sure that the darkest part of his body… the part he meant to acquaint her with soon… wasn’t much lighter than the lightest flesh on hers. She was biting her lower lip and her upper lip curled back in a sexual sneer.
“Fuck the beach,” she said, suddenly. “Buy us a six-pack and we can party at my place.” She removed her hand from between his legs to point at a neon Liquor sign, blurry and red, blinking on the other side of the wide and complicated road. He changed lanes and waited at the next light with the turn-signal ticking while she watched him in a strange state of suspense. As though she’d made a joke, or set up a prank, that he was yet to pick up on.
“Well?” she said.
“What?” he said, as he leaned into the left turn.
“You didn’t say ‘thank you’.”
Azzedine laughed. “I’ll say ‘thank you’ when I see where you live.”
She laughed with him. “No you won’t.”
This remark worried him but he pulled into the lot beside the little stucco building (barred windows and door; a hand-painted cardboard sign in the window reading The Cashier is Armed) and sent her inside with a five dollar bill.
El-Hadi had noticed before in neighborhoods like this that as soon as the speed of your auto dropped under a few miles per hour you were overwhelmed by cooking odors, commercial and private, and as he sat there waiting for his Gaugin to fetch their drinks and his change, a powerful odor of fried onions wafted from the stucco building on the other side of the lot. He remembered that he hadn’t eaten dinner; that less than an hour before he’d been driving himself to the hospital with sharp pains in his gut as a result of a psychosomatic poisoning.
When she came out with a six-pack of edible-looking beer bottles under one arm and a grocery sack under the other, she was grinning widely. He opened her door for her and she slid onto the seat with the bundle in her arms like a baby. El-Hadi nodded towards the source of the food odor. “Are you hungry?”
“That place? That place is a dump. We can do better than that.”
The convertible eased out into traffic like a boat with her as its navigator. What El-Hadi liked was their tacit adherence to a rule he’d never before realized was one of his sweetest fantasies: no names. A short while later, two king-size fried shrimp dinners to-go sat steaming on the space between them. He was in a part of the city he’d never seen before, surprising not so much by its poverty but because of how rural it all looked. White clapboard houses and red dirt roads and shirtless black boys peddling ‘no-hand’ on their bicycles. Under the harsh glare of streetlights their black flesh looked to be made of the asphalt missing from the roads.
She said, “You know what this here little party of ours is lacking?”
“What?” El-Hadi found himself growing impatient.
“You’d like her. I like her too. Verna’s my cousin and we’re so close we kiss goodnight on the lips.”
Despite his impatience, El-Hadi’s sexual greed got the better of him, and he soon found himself turning left and right and then left again on roads that were sometimes dirt, sometimes gravel. The first house they stopped at produced no results; the Gaugin girl ran back down the front steps to the car and informed El-Hadi that Verna was at church, so they drove to church.
“I was under the impression that Americans only went to church on Sunday.”
“You ain’t in America right now, baby,” she laughed, pulling a fried shrimp out of its greasey white box and re-sealing the box lest El-Hadi consider doing the same, “This here is a suburb of Africa.”
How ironic that of the two of us, I’m the actual African, thought El-Hadi.
They pulled up in front of the church, a dark box of a building with lavender curtains in all of its windows and a white cross each painted on two of them; a building, minus the detail of the windows, which might just as easily have been another liquor store. There was no boisterous music or primitive ululations, despite his expectations; the only sound was the wind whipping a chain against the aluminum flagpole in front of the building.
The temperature had been dropping gradually all evening and El-Hadi felt a chill setting in. But his resolve to have his sexual experience only solidified as the minutes turned to hours. He’d never had relations with a genuine American colored girl and this intersection of opportunity and desire (she was more attractive than the few of her race that he sometimes came in contact with… shop girls and meter maids, mostly) would most likely never repeat itself. So he waited.
By the time Verna Williams emerged from the building in a thick plug of people, followed by a trickle of stragglers, a light drizzle turned the sidewalks into a dark cloth and beaded on the windshield, and El-Hadi had had to put the top on the convertible up again. When Verna came out the Gaugin said That’s her and stretched provocatively across El-Hadi and honked the horn. The girl who ran towards the car in response was heavyset and darker than her cousin, medium height and somewhere in her middle twenties, although El-Hadi, of course, had been fantasizing about a younger, more slender and sloe-eyed version of the Polynesian. Verna’s dark dress hid neither the round weight of her stomach nor that of her breasts, which bounced in a Disney ballet as she skipped towards them with a grin that struck El-Hadi as their only common feature. Verna leaned into the window and the cousins kissed, as promised, on the lips.
“Girl, how you doin’? I was gonna call you later to see if everything turned out okay.”
“You know me, Verna.”
“Too well, child.”
“Verna, this is my friend Rudy. You wanna come with me an’ Rudy to my place an’ celebrate?”
El-Hadi got out and opened the Gaugin’s door so she could get out in turn and let Verna Williams push her way onto the back seat. Close up, he noticed that Verna was a pretty girl, though heavyset, and his disappointment healed itself. He developed a wolfish interest in seeing all that flesh unpacked and set in contrast with the slender form of her cousin. He even got a hand on her hips as he helped her into the car and this re-animated his dozing erection. He glanced at Verna in the rearview mirror and wondered how far the two girls had gone in the past. The trick would be to get them to exceed the previous limit without calling attention to the moment of truth, and the beers they had with them would no doubt play a role. El-Hadi’s dark beauty handed one of the shrimp dinners back to her cousin and they ate the food quickly while chatting, polishing off two handfuls of shrimp, some coleslaw and their complimentary Saltine crackers.
“How long you got off now, girl?”
“He said I could come back to work on Monday.”
“A four-day weekend. That ain’t bad.”
“Least he could do, considering.”
Verna curled her lip and cocked her head. “Considering. You sure you okay?”
“Okay as I’m gonna get.”
Verna licked her fingers and met El-Hadi’s eyes in the rearview. “Rudy, what do you do?”
“He’s a male nurse,” answered the Gaugin.
“Oh. Should would be talking about… ?”
“Different hospital. He just started working at St. Luke’s.”
“That’s right,” said the Gaugin girl.
“How you like working there, Rudy?”
“I love it,” said El-Hadi, and all three of them laughed, each for a different reason.
They drove up a very long gravel alley and parked behind a tilted garage so weathered that it had nearly managed to unpaint itself. The Gaugin girl was through the gate and up the walk to the back door of the house before El-Hadi could help Verna out of the back seat. The Gaugin had either run ahead to warn someone about this unexpected arrival or to hide something El-Hadi shouldn’t see, he thought, but still he was surprised that it was a house and not a wretched little apartment after all. It was Verna who led him up the uneven walk in the rain, speaking in a museum-goer’s hush.
“Maybe Mr. Reyes home,” she said.
“Who’s Mr. Reyes?”
When they entered the kitchen through the screen door the air they met was the sealed air of a sickroom, though the lighting was over-bright as on a stage in a theatre as the curtain rises. There were four unshaded table lamps glaring from various spots around the kitchen. Seeing El-Hadi squint, Verna whispered, “The poor man losin’ his vision.”
A gray-haired man of indeterminate race slumped at the kitchen table with El-Hadi’s sixpack in front of his downed head and the pillow of his folded arms. Tugged by Verna, El-Hadi followed the two women out of the kitchen into a dimly lit hallway, thence left into a doorless room. The room would have been just about a comfortable size for one adult, with its permanently unfolded and unmade sofa bed on the far wall and its two playpens, side-by-side, under the heavily draped window nearest El-Hadi. In each playpen stood a curly-haired child, wide awake but silent, the one aged two or three perhaps and the other three or four and resembling each other not very much at all. El-Hadi remained in the doorway with Verna while his Polynesian extracted two loud bags of cheesecorn from the Liquor store grocery sack and handed one to each. Whatever purchase remained in the sack, which she did not crumple but placed discreetly on a chair near the playpens, was clearly allocated for the night. She said, over her shoulder, “Y’all go on to the other room and I’ll be right with you.”
Azzedine, overwhelmed by the unpredictability of living things and stunned by the fact of the children, allowed himself to be tugged further by Verna into a large, dark room at the end of the hallway. There was a massive console television set in front of drapes faintly aglow with streetlight and a sofa angled to face the television.
Verna came at him with the fervently awkward kisses of a twelve-year old. She placed his hands on her body and moved in them like a novice teaching the tango. He stumbled around the room with her like this, smelling the sweat baked in layers into her dress and the meal that he’d paid for on her lips, nurturing his arousal with brutal thoughts: he saw himself yanking her by her hair to her knees, forcing himself in her mouth. He fantasized pinning her belly-down to the floor and forcing an entrance or having both her and her beautiful cousin prone and compliant, side-by-side, like a buffet; anything to protect his arousal against her clumsy, giggly, anti-erotic behaviour. He unzipped her dress and gestured for her to pull it off over her shoulders, thinking, The important thing is to have her naked before the pretty one comes back into the room; if the line is already crossed, she can’t fear to cross it.
Under Verna’s dress was a tightly-packed slip instead of brassiere and panties. She backed away from El-Hadi and sprawled on the sofa in a gynecological posture. Her breasts were rounded slabs. He unzipped his pants and freed himself with a sigh of relief, pointing at the ceiling as though a string was pulling him. He knelt on the couch with one knee as she said, not in a whisper but in a very small voice, “I hope your cock bone strong… “
“Your cock bone… I hope it good and strong ‘cuz I got a hard cherry… “
“What are you talking about?”
“The bone in your cock… “
El-Hadi emitted an Algerian curse appropriate to being sold ten cracked eggs out of a dozen and dragged her up off the couch, to do a lurch-and-stumble tango of weak resistance across the room and up the hallway. Verna grunted and groaned, pleading No all the way. He dragged her to the doorway of the Gaugin’s bedroom. The light was off so he slapped on the light in the hall and he noticed that the bedroom smelled as though it had gotten a quick wipe-down from a kerosene-soaked rag by an arsonist: The Gaugin’s nightcap. She was snoring softly on her sofa bed between her doomed half-castes, one of whom blinked in the wedge of light that cut across his mother’s stockingless legs from the doorway as El-Hadi hurried to stuff himself back in his trousers.
She hadn’t even undressed; she was still wearing her crepe-soled shoes and Verna had Azzedine’s arm and pulled her mouth up to his ear and she said, “The poor thing had that operation today, you know what I mean. Let her sleep, Rudy. You can do it to me instead. Anything you want, I promise, I’ll take you to the moon and back just let my Raylene sleep.”
By the time El-Hadi had reached this part of the story, we were re-hanging the last of the framed beauties: a polaroid of a handsome gray-haired woman behind a desk, gesturing with a phone at the camera. Strange to say it but she didn’t look to me like a trustworthy woman. Something in her eyes caused the phrase “she’s lying” to pop, out of nowhere, into my mind. Not that I’d have been impertinent enough to say so to El-Hadi.
“My current love,” he said, wiping a smudge off the glass of the little gold frame. He kissed his bunched fingertips in a gourmet’s gesture. “Real Estate.”
“What about Raylene?”
“I never saw her again. But I bore her no grudge. What would youhave done in her place? She taught me a valuable philosophical lesson.” El-Hadi counted on his fingers, “She got herself a free ride home, a dinner for herself, a dinner for her cousin, an evening’s worth of cheap fuel for her step-father, dinner of a sorts for her children and a bottle for bedtime in the bargain. She knew how to take when the taking is good. She really taught me something.”
“Verna wasn’t twenty five. She was thirty seven.”
I laughed. El-Hadi got a wistful look on his face. “It took three separate attempts, over the course of a week or two, to relieve her of the burden of her virginity.”
It took me four days to record that passage in my notebook, piecing it together (as Azzedine had told it to me) from memory and polishing it into a style close to his speech patterns. I did this with a thought to working it later into The Bomb Collector somehow… an adventure El-Hadi recalls for Noa’s amusement, maybe, or an adventure he has in ‘real time’, behind her back, cheating on his three mistresses. I’d have to change the setting from early 1960’s Los Angeles to late 1960’s New York State, but the transposition wouldn’t be too technically difficult. The story would lose some truth in the process (the ironic evocations of innocence in the original setting would be totally misplaced just a decade later) but the loss would be ineffable; known only to me.
I had started writing again four or five days into my crippled state. On the morning of the third day already I forced myself to hop into the bathroom and take a painful, backed-up shit… my ankle throbbed while I slumped on the toilet, sick with pain. Still, I experienced something like the catharsis of giving birth when I finally cleansed my system of the dense black bomb that had boiled in my guts since the night Moth dumped me. On my way back to the sick room I had a drink of tapwater in the kitchen and grabbed a notebook and two pens, determined to make my incapacitation worth something.
The break in my ankle, I began to realize, represented a larger ‘break’ that had been necessary for a long time: a break with my past. Had I come all the way from San Diego to Berlin in order merely to continue the life of failure I had lived up until the point of departure? Transcribing El-Hadi’s tale in the state of my extremity caused me to reflect not only on myself but life itself… the realities versus the perceptions. Why had I, unlike El-Hadi’s Gaugin, never taken while the taking was good? I wasn’t an actor, I was a reactor. I was essentially passive, a failure of the ego typical of the thinking man. Even this grand and all-consuming project of the last few years, my book, The Bomb Collector… why was I so busy fantasizing about a life (or lives) when I should have been living one myself? Worse, it became clear to me that writing about Azzedine at all had been my vicarious method for living the life of a self-assured male. The only thing worse than a writer’s totalitarian dominance of a created character is his pathetic reliance on one.
After I transcribed El-Hadi’s tale of the white poisoner and the black con artist and the overweight virgin, I made a new rule: I could only allow myself to write something in the evening if I had earned the right to do so with a bold action during the day. To go into effect as soon as my ankle had healed to the extent that I was capable of leaving the flat.