A CAUTIONARY TALE
"STOP THAT, STUART," PATTY said as Stuart struggled with the suitcases, which were way too heavy for him, she thought. (Almost everything was way too heavy for Stuart.) "Just put those down. Besides," Patty said, "where will you go? You don't have anyplace to go." But Stuart took her hand and held it for a moment against his closed eyes, and despite the many occasions when Patty had wanted him to go, and the several occasions when she had tried to make him go, despite the fact that he was at his most enragingly pathetic, for once she could think of nothing, nothing at all that he could be trying to shame her into or shame her out of, and so it occurred to her that this time he really would leave--that he was simply saying goodbye. All along, Patty had been unaware that time is as adhesive as love, and that the more time you spend with someone the greater the likelihood of finding yourself with a permanent sort of thing to deal with that people casually refer to as "friendship," as if that were the end of the matter, when the truth is that even if "your friend" does something annoying, or if you and "your friend" decide that you hate each other, or if "your friend" moves away and you lose each other's address, you still have a friendship, and although it canchange shape, look different in different lights, become an embarrassment or an encumbrance or a sorrow, it can't simply cease to have existed, no matter how far into the past it sinks, so attempts to disavow or destroy it will not merely constitute betrayals of friendship but, more practically, are bound to be fruitless, causing damage only to the humans involved rather than to that gummy jungle (friendship) in which those humans have entrapped themselves, so if sometime in the future you're not going to want to have been a particular person's friend, or if you're not going to want to have had the particular friendship you and that person can make with one another, then don't be friends with that person at all, don't talk to that person, don't go anywhere near that person, because as soon as you start to see something from that person's point of view (which, inevitably, will be as soon as you stand next to that person) common ground is sure to slide under your feet.
Poor Patty! It hadn't even been inclination or natural circumstances that led her to Stuart--it was Marcia. And perhaps if it hadn't been for Marcia, Patty and Stuart never would have carried their association further than their first encounter, which took place almost exactly a year before the sweltering night when Stuart packed his things and left.
Patty had been in Manhattan for several weeks, living in the ground-floor apartment that Marcia had sublet to her, but Patty had been too shy to go down the hall, as Marcia had instructed her, and knock on Stuart's door, so she didn't meet Stuart until one evening when, on her way out for an ice-cream cone, she found two men chatting above an immense body stretched out across the hall floor. Bodies! she thought. Chatting! Marcia had not prepared her for this.
"Relax," said one of the men, calling Patty's attention to the thunder that reverberated around them. "She's snoring. It's a vital sign. I'm Stuart, by the way, and this is Mr.Martinez, our superintendent, and that's Mrs. Jorgenson down there. I bet you're Marcia's friend."
"Nice to meet you," Patty said. "Should we call an ambulance?"
"Marty and I used to," Stuart said. "But it just makes her mad."
"She get so mad," Mr. Martinez said. "The mens come, they put Mrs. Jorgenson on hammock, she bounce up like Muhammad Ali."
"Maybe we should try to get her to her apartment," Patty said.
"You can try," Stuart said. "But she lives on Three, and she's even bigger when not all of her is on the floor."
"Is nice girl!" Mr. Martinez announced happily, pointing at Patty.
In fact, Patty had been ready to abandon Mrs. Jorgenson and go about her business, but Mr. Martinez's praise revitalized her concern. "There must be something we could do," she said.
"Not really," Stuart said. "She just does this for a while, and then she goes back upstairs. But she could probably use a blanket." So Patty went back into Marcia's apartment and got her Hudson Bay blanket, which the two men gently tucked around Mrs. Jorgenson.
"Nice young girl come to make home," Mr. Martinez declaimed accusingly to the hallway, "but what she see? Is Mrs. Jorgenson and floor." He turned grieving eyes to Patty and made a tiny gallant bow. "You need something, miss, you come to Marty."
"Well," Stuart said. He moved slightly, buffering Patty against the dismal spectacle of Mrs. Jorgenson. "I was just looking for a girl to make cookies with anyhow."
"So Marcia was right," Stuart said as he set the cookie ingredients out on his counter. "She told me you were nice. 'Caring,' actually, is the word she used, which I have to say is a word that makes me fundamentally throw up. You know, I watched you dragging in all those cartons, and I figured you had to be you. I've been waiting for you to come say hello. I thought maybe you were avoiding me."
Patty was puzzled by Stuart's probing pause. "Of course not," she said.
"Well, here we are, anyway. Yeah, Marcia talked and talked about you. Patty this, Patty that."
"Really?" Patty said. Certainly Marcia could talk and talk, she thought, but it wasn't usually by way of praise for her female friends. "Marcia and I used to be in the same dormitory. She was a few years ahead of me."
"I know," Stuart said. "You'd be surprised the things I know about Marcia. We're very tight. In fact, there was serious consideration put into my going out to Austin with her while she set up her practice."
"Oh?" Patty said. She wasn't sure why she'd expected Stuart to be glamorous, although, now that she thought about it, Marcia's descriptions of him had been studded with words like "artistic" and "unpredictable." Well, he might be artistic and unpredictable, but he didn't seem glamorous enough even for Marcia, whose tolerance had been widely remarked upon at school. But perhaps Marcia and Stuart's relationship had professional roots. "Are you involved in therapy, too?" Patty asked.
"Therapy," Stuart said. "All right. Let's get it over with. Let's just concede that therapy's the most revolting expression of the hydra-headed pragmatism of our times." Patty picked uneasily at the chocolate chips while Stuart pressed forward with the tedious sifting. "Of course, Marcia always thinkswhat she wants," he said, "but, between you and me, that's actually why I let her go out West alone. Total misappropriation and subversion of the insights of a few geniuses."
"But therapy can be very helpful to people," Patty protested.
"Yeah, to would-be thieves and assassins crippled by restrictive superegos," Stuart said.
"Well, I don't really know much about it." Patty felt she'd become lost on some twisting private path. "I studied graphic design."
"Uh-huh," Stuart said unreceptively.
"Actually, that's why I've come to New York," Patty said. But Stuart maintained a bristly silence as he spooned dough onto tins, so Patty glanced around for clues. "Are you ..." She noticed stacks of paper and a typewriter. "Are you a writer?"
"In the sense that I sometimes write things," Stuart said. "Here. Or are you too mature to lick the bowl?"
"Well, what--Thanks," Patty said, accepting the bowl. "What sorts of things do you write?"
"A little of this, a little of that. Look, I really don't want to get into this thing of 'I do this' or 'I write that.' If you develop a stake in some rickety prefab construction of yourself, you have to keep shoring it up."
"But that's an unproductive way to think, isn't it?" Patty said. "I mean, people have different things to contribute. Everybody's part of a system."
"I agree," Stuart said. "And I'm the worthless part. I'll tell you something. I think that every really good system has a significant worthless sector. The rotting leftovers on which the healing penicillin mold grows. That's me. Except that now greed is shrinking the world--you know what I mean? Desire for personal gain is collapsing the entire range ofhuman activity into, essentially, resale value. So at this moment in history there's no room for people like me, who don't contribute anything that's recognizably salable."
Patty hesitated. Was she being criticized? "But graphic design is something I enjoy," she said. "And I might be able to succeed at it."
"Ha!" Stuart said. "Maybe what you consider failure I consider the milieu of freedom."
"Look--" He was smug, Patty thought. "I understand that you think there's something wrong with my career choice, but I don't understand why."
"That's cute." Stuart leaned back and squinted at her. "That's sweet. You're earnest, you know that? You look like a Girl Scout, with your little face, and your little sneakers and stuff. But the problem is, you're going for the wrong merit badge. Yeah, Marcia warned me I was gonna have to take you in hand. And the first thing is, it's that word is what I'm saying; that word 'career'--it's a meaning substitute used to camouflage a trench. I mean, that's exactly what I'm saying: the more you identify yourself with a set of economic expediencies, the greater your interest in rationalizing indefensible practices. And that's why people whose jobs yield a large income or a lot of prestige are usually incapable of thinking through the simplest thing. In fact, in my opinion, abstract ability decreases in direct proportion to prestige and income."
"Stuart"--Patty was held in check by the tranquilizing aroma seeping from the oven--"that is absurd. That is absolutely ridiculous. Take me, for example. I don't have any job at all, but I don't think more clearly than anybody else."
"True," Stuart said. "But that's because you want a job. You've been corrupted by desire."
"Desire has absolutely nothing to do with me and jobs at this point." Exasperation empowered Patty to bound with unaccustomed agility across clumps of thorny concepts. "Atthis point, the relationship between 'me' and 'job' is 'need.' I need a job!"
"See?" Stuart nodded triumphantly, as if apprehending some brilliantly crafted but specious argument. "You've already found a way to construe this degraded appetite of yours as need."
"Then how do you suggest I pay the rent, please? I've been scraping and scrimping since December so I'd be able to get here and have some time to find a job--"
"Since December?" Stuart said.
"That's right." Patty was far too annoyed to remark Stuart's sudden attentiveness. "No movies, no dinners out, no--"
"You and Marcia planned this out in December?"
"What's the matter?" Patty said. "Is something the matter?"
"Listen," Stuart said. "I apologize. I don't know why I'm such an asshole. It just sort of comes over me from time to time." He looked around restlessly and tapped his foot. "Just standard-issue archaic bohemian bullshit."
"Wait--" Patty was stricken. "You have a right to your opinion."
"By the way," Stuart said. "Just what, exactly, is Marcia charging you for her miserable sty?"
"Well, I know it's a lot more than she pays for it herself," Patty admitted, "but it's still way under the open-market rate, because it's rent-stabilized. So even if she makes a big profit from me, it's still much cheaper than anything else I'd be able to get. It's the only way I could afford to come to New York and the only way Marcia could afford to leave." ("One hand washes the other," Marcia had remarked cheerfully when she explained this to Patty.)
"Yeah," Stuart said. "Marcia. I should have guessed. It was Marcia who actually drafted the Hammurabi Code of Friendship, did you know that?"
Considering that he'd almost gone to Austin with Marcia,he was being kind of nasty about her, Patty thought. But she had to remember how quickly it had become understood in the dorm that when Marcia appeared at the door of one's room gripping a six-pack or offering the loan of her car, she had probably just slept with one's boyfriend.
"And you know what she's going to do next," Stuart continued ominously. "The instant this building goes co-op, she'll reclaim her apartment, buy it at the insider's price, and sell the tiny squalid treasure for a king's ransom."
Why was he talking about Marcia's apartment like that, Patty wondered. It was no more tiny, no more squalid than his own! (And it was true that while Marcia's apartment was now bare except for Patty's few things and Stuart's was cozy with layers of an accreted past, and Marcia's faced the airshaft and Stuart's faced the garbage cans that lined the street, the two were virtually identical.) Besides, it was Stuart's problem if he was living like that at his age, Patty thought--he must be at least thirty-five. If Marcia could do better for herself, why should he hold it against her? "Well, it seems fair enough to me," Patty said.
"Oh, Jesus," Stuart said. "I suppose. No wonder I drive everyone nuts. No wonder everyone can't wait to get rid of me."
"Stuart--" Patty said. "Hey, you should try one of these cookies! And some of what you were saying is very interesting."
"Let's just drop it," Stuart said. "I'm an asshole."
"Oh, look"--Patty cast about--"you've got Sprouse's Tented Desert!" What luck to have recognized the title among all those books; as she remembered, her English Lit teacher had said it was fabulous. "Could I borrow it?"
"Sure," Stuart said listlessly. "Whatever you want."
"People say it's fabulous," Patty said.
"People who admire it," Stuart said.
Patty looked at him warily. "You don't think Sprouse is a good poet?"
"He's an 0. K. poet." Stuart picked a crumb from the table and glanced around for someplace to deposit it. "A small poet."
But gradually Stuart's gloom cleared, and Patty found that she was grateful for his company: she'd been lonely. When she went back down the hall, there was no sign on the floor of Mrs. Jorgenson or her blanket, but as she passed the spot where they'd lain a psychic net seemed to be cast over Patty, and later, trying to sleep, she flopped about, struggling, unable to disengage her mind from the phantom form of supine Mrs. Jorgenson. How tender Mrs. Jorgenson's puffy ankle had looked, where it was exposed by her rolled-down stocking. From the shadowy crevasse there, demons now leapt to haunt Patty.
Patty had assumed, until this night, that she'd been drawn to New York by a lodestone buried at the core of her unexplored life. And images had seemed to shimmer out from the direction of its pull--images, for instance, of gleaming white drafting tables accoutred with complex systems of shallow drawers; a wineglass, held in a powerful, manicured (ringless) hand, which cast a bouncing patch of brightness on table linen; the balcony of a brownstone where a marvelous man lounged while he waited in the surging twilight for the woman inside to finish dressing.
But now, as Patty lay in bed, what she saw was herself--herself as Mrs. Jorgenson, distended and bleary from poverty's starchy diet; herself weeping into her gin at a darkened bar while some grimy bore expatiated incoherently into her ear; herself standing over the stove while she ate, straight from the pan, her scrambled eggs. Oh, were they scrambledeggs? Dear Lord, she prayed, let that stuff be scrambled eggs. And all around Patty's little bed circled the terror that perhaps those former shimmering lures had not been signs of some central imperative but were instead the snares of a mocking siren; that perhaps she was soon to be dashed, like Mrs. Jorgenson, against the rocks (so to speak) of the hall floor.
The weeks that followed were truly disheartening. By August, Patty had exhausted the heady sensation of exerting mastery over a new apartment, the temperature fluctuated between ninety-eight and a hundred and two degrees, and she had sat through numbers of futile interviews and sent out numbers of futile résumés. The city, in fact, appeared to be quite overstocked with women, each more ornamental and accomplished than any nineteenth-century young lady, huge quantities of whom, Patty noticed with growing terror, were waitresses.
It would be a temporary necessity, she reasoned; she would have to support her job hunt by waiting on tables. And soon her days were occupied with getting rejected for two entire lines of work, one of which she had recently despised. So in the evenings she was glad when either Stuart or Mr. Martinez would open his door to her, expanding the city that seemed to have no room for her by day.
Often Stuart was eager to share his views and his casseroles of vegetarian oddments with Patty. On other occasions, Mr. Martinez would hear her footsteps in the hall and invite her in. He would alternately extol and revile the United States while he and Patty sat together at his kitchen table eating slabs of a gelatinous confection with a plantlike undertaste and drinking a clear, stinging beverage that implied unregulated domestic production. Patty suspected it was this beverage, rather than his heavy accent, uneven grasp of English,or discursive approach to conversation, that made Mr. Martinez so difficult to understand, but after she'd had several glasses herself she could easily follow his tortuous Delphic outbursts. And she would watch, rapt, when he became agitated, either with despair or with gaiety, and swelled slightly, turning a deep translucent red, like a plastic bag filling with wine.
One evening Mr. Martinez, unsteady in his doorway, beckoned to Patty. "Miss, miss," he whispered. His apartment was dark except for the flickering of a few candles, and it was saturated with the fragrance of his arcane beverage. "Come, missy," Mr. Martinez said, drawing Patty over to a photograph that was propped up on a shelf between two candles.
She glanced at Mr. Martinez, but he only stared at the picture, breathing heavily and holding her hand in both of his. She peered back through the darkness and scaled herself down to enter the picture. Oh--there was a field, a great golden sweep of field distantly edged by tiny pointed mountains, and there were people sitting at a table in the foreground: an elderly couple, a young woman, and four or five children. They all had broad, appealing faces, like Mr. Martinez's, and black hair that gleamed in the sunlight. Sunlight poured down. The people smiled into the sunlight--dazzled, yielding smiles. Sunlight poured down on them and out from the picture into the dark room where Patty's hand, in Mr. Martinez's, was beginning to register discomfort.
"Mr. Martinez," she said, but he was transfixed, and tears ran down his face in rivulets. "What is it, Mr. Martinez? What is that picture?"
"But this is--" His eyebrows flew up, his arms dropped to his sides in helpless incredulity. "You do not know this? This is ... Colombia." He sat down at the kitchen table,and, laying his head upon his folded arms, he sobbed. "This is my wife ..."
The next day Patty filled out yet another job application and waited in a line of girls that snaked up several flights of stairs. Clearly her chances were poor. But she didn't really care--she was back in the dark room where she'd stood the night before next to Mr. Martinez. She had remained with him for a time, patting him on the head, but the rhythm of his sobs did not alter, and eventually she tiptoed out, closing the door behind her.
After reaching the front of the line she entered a room, where a man sitting at a wide desk took her application and put it aside without glancing at it. "What do you want," he said, looking all the way up, then all the way back down, her, "days or nights?"
"Nights," she said.
"I don't have nights," he said.
"Days," she said.
He looked up, then down, her again. "I don't have days," he said, and turned away.
Maybe she'd had enough. The thing to do was to sit down, get a bite to eat, and think rationally about her next step. It had come as a jolt that life was something to be waged, rather than relied on. And yet, Patty reminded herself, everyone on earth must have the wherewithal for it. Even Mrs. Jorgenson had the presence of mind to exist; Mrs. Jorgenson, in fact, had so developed the knack of being herself that she could fall down on the floor and lie there snoring. Whereas if she, Patty, were to fall down on the floor, Patty thought resentfully, she would only have to pick herself up again, feeling foolish.
Just who were all these people in this city? And how did they survive? The stakes were so high, the margin of comfort so slim, and yet Patty was surrounded by people who had managed to find a place for themselves here. Look at Mr.Martinez. How incredible that he was in New York, Patty thought as she entered a restaurant that had just opened up near her apartment. Something was working in the depths of her brain, churning up disturbances that broke as they surfaced, like muddy bubbles rising from a swamp. Yes, how incredible that all of them were here: herself, Mrs. Jorgenson, Stuart, the girls waiting in the line today, Mr. Martinez, the bulky, bearded, pear-shaped man with tiny feet who stood near the jukebox now, in the otherwise unpopulated restaurant, staring at her. Here they all were, an entire--well ... confraternity, sort of, of strangers, all brought together here by ... by what? What was it they had in common? Was it something fundamental--something too profound to be grasped? Or was it something ... extrinsic, manifest in, for example, er--she studied the bulky man, who was ambling toward her--frayed belt loops?
"Want something to eat?" the man asked. "Or did you just drop by to admire me?"
"Oops," Patty said, shifting her gaze to the menu he offered. "I'd like--" Right. Who cared why they were there? They were there because ... because they were there. "O.K. A beer and a medium-rare Jarlsburger."
"I haven't got my liquor license yet," the man said. "And the meat hasn't been delivered today."
"Uh-huh," she said. "Well, how about orange juice and scrambled eggs with bacon?"
"Meat," the man said, poking his large haunch. "Have an omelette. You'll like the Chive 'n' Chèvre." He wandered off through a swinging door, from behind which awful metallic crashings began to issue, and returned to Patty's table at a rather faster rate. "He says I've wrecked his pans," the man announced cryptically just as a shockingly tall and starved-looking man burst through the swinging door.
"And what else, Arnold," the tall man raged, "is where'smy check, huh? Where's my check? You promised! Can I have it? Are you going to give it to me? No? O.K. That's it." He paused on his way out to kick the jukebox.
Arnold watched the door close before sitting down at Patty's table. "Always in a hurry," he said. "I would have had it for him tomorrow." He regarded Patty, chin in hands. "Can you cook?"
"No," Patty said. "But I'm not really hungry."
"Too bad," Arnold said. "I need a cook."
"I can waitress," Patty said. "Do you need a waitress?"
"What don't I need?" Arnold rubbed his eyes. "Do you have a lot of experience?"
"Actually--" It was futility that kept Patty honest. "I don't have any experience."
"So what?" Arnold rubbed his eyes again. "I don't have any business."
That was not an idle boast, as it turned out. Arnold kept the restaurant open all night in hopes of compensating for his lack of a liquor license by scooping up, while his competitors slept, the restless wanderers disgorged from the bars at closing time. Thus far, however, Arnold's business had remained conceptual, and Patty had emerged virtually empty-handed every morning at six o'clock after a long night of staring toward the door. Occasionally, of course, someone would come in, causing both Patty and Buddy, the new cook, to panic from overexcitement and inexperience. Errors leapt from them like sparks from struck flint, and they would soon exhaust the self-conscious customer with nervous attentions.
Stuart reassured Patty over a celebratory sunrise supper he prepared for her during her first week of work. "Listen," he said. "By the time the place gets busy, you'll be an ace." As he reached over to pour her a glass of fancy fizzy grape juice that had set him back substantially, Patty noticed the tiny trucks emblazoned on his matted flannel pajamas.
"Stuart," she said fondly. "But you shouldn't be so proud of me--I can't even make enough to live on, you know."
"Well, you can't interpret that as a personal shortcoming," Stuart said. "It's just the fiscal structure of the city these days--Manhattan isn't going to just hand itself over for any little bag of beads now. All these rich bastards driving up the property values have kind of made it impossible for everyone else. I used to be able to scratch up a living with enough left over to do stuff--go to movies, eat out, spend the day observing humanity. Now you want to sit someplace for more than five minutes you got to slap down forty bucks for some kind of noodles with duck feet and grapefruit."
"I don't know." Patty was a bit irritated by Stuart's display of sourness just at the moment she was beginning to feel up to New York's idiosyncratic rigors and to adapt to the glare of its treasures. "Actually, I'm getting to like it."
"It's still New York," Stuart said. "But it's changed. You're practically a kid, so you don't know. Besides, you've just gotten here. And, believe me, you're lucky, because you're one of the last. No one except millionaires can afford to come here. Or stay, if they get here. Manhattan's just a playpen for rich people now, but it used to be paradise, Patty, I'm telling you--a haven for the dispossessed. People used to come here who couldn't go anyplace else on earth--stainless, great-souled, fucked-up fugitives, who woke up somewhere one morning and said, 'Hey, who are these people who call themselves my parents? These people are not my parents.' 'What is this place that's supposed to be my home? This is not my home.' This city was populated by a race of changelings, Patty, who kept things new, people who can't be replicated, who are really alive while they're alive--a dying race. And now it's being overrun by gangs of plundering plutocrats, the living dead, who clone themselves in bank vaults."
"Stuart--that is completely illogical. You want somethingthat's always new but you don't want anything to change. And I think you're being horribly unfair to all businessmen and professionals on the basis of a few overeager examples."
"'Examples,'" Stuart said. "'Overeager.' 'Examples of a few overeager Storm Troopers.' Listen, I'm not talking about Ben and Jerry, I'm not talking about Jonas Salk, I'm not talking about responsible 'businessmen and professionals.' I'm talking about tunnel-visioned profiteers and parasites--and they're surrounding us right now, munching mâche with walnut oil. You think it takes Alaric or a fleet of nuclear submarines to destroy a city? I'm telling you, Patty --destruction is irreversible, I don't care what its source is. You're very casual about this because you don't remember anything."
"Of course I remember things, Stuart. I'm not an infant. And I'm not as ignorant as you think, either."
"You don't remember anything," Stuart insisted. "How could you? You don't remember Jean Seberg, you don't remember Joris-Karl Huysmans. I bet you don't even remember semiotics--"
"Everything changes, Stuart. It's not a tragedy if something changes--"
"As to particulars, not as to value! We were proud to be wretched refuse. We had bookstores. In the fall old men sat under the gray sky on benches littered with gold leaves and played chess. Girls wearing plaid skirts carried flutes and sheet music. Back then people thought about sex--"
"People still think about sex," Patty objected involuntarily.
"You call that sex?" Stuart said with bitter, preoccupied opacity. "And you could drink O.K. cheap wine at tables with checked cloths."
"So what! Who cares what kind of tablecloths were in fashion when you were my age? All I'm saying is that aftertwo months of crawling through the streets I'm a waitress in a restaurant with no customers!"
"And you should be unbelievably Goddamned grateful," Stuart shouted, "to have been blessed with a job that won't cheapen your mind!"
But business remained slow, Arnold was no more forthcoming with his paychecks than formerly, and the paychecks that law obliged him to dispense to a waitress were close to meaningless anyway. The restaurant had acquired one steady customer, George, but George was too poor to leave much of a tip. Still, Patty was pleased to wait on someone who endured with unsatirical equanimity the storms of cutlery that rained from her hands. And Buddy was thrilled to have a subject of refined tastes on whom to perform culinary experiments (gratis, when Arnold wasn't around).
"Oh, my, Patty," George said one night. A slightly soiled gentility permeated his soft speech, and his elegant face changed constantly under fleeting shadows of emotion. He was certainly from America, but from what part or circumstances Patty was unable to guess. Even George's age Patty couldn't pin down to the decade. "All this standing around must be very tiresome for you."
"It is, really," she admitted.
"I know." George brightened. "Why don't we play a game?"
"All right," she said.
"That's the spirit." George beamed expectantly. "Shall we play 'What Famous Monarch'?"
"O.K.," Patty said. "How do you play?"
"Ah," George said. "Well, for instance, I think of a certain famous monarch, and I think of something about that monarch, and then I say to you, 'What famous monarch blah-blah?,' for example, or 'what famous monarch blah-blah?'"
"Maybe you'd better go first," Patty said.
"Very well." George gathered himself into thought. "What famous monarch ..." he said meditatively, "preferred being under a horse to being on one?"
Under a horse ... under a horse ... Patty ransacked her crated-up years of education. "Oh, George," she said with disgust, "Not Catherine the Great!"
"Well, that was an easy one," George said primly. "Just to show you how to play.
"Your turn," George said later, as Patty cleared his plate and wiped his table, scattering crumbs all over his trousers.
"Well ..." Patty said. Besides, she didn't know anything about history. She didn't know anything about monarchs. Ah! (Hee-hee.) "O.K., what famous monarch is ahead of the times in a German museum?"
"Ahead of the times ..." George looked pained. "Hmm.
"Well, I give up, Patty," he said some minutes later. "That's a toughie."
"Nefertiti!" she announced.
"What?" George said. "But Patty--that doesn't make any sense, dear. I mean--well, a head, after all. That is, naturally I could have mentioned any number of royal portraits. But 'ahead' of the times--I mean, whose times, exactly? Do you see? You see, it's a pun, dear, but it doesn't make any sense."
Patty slunk around cleaning tables and consolidating bottles of ketchup until George's good humor reasserted itself. "Speaking of ahead," he said, "what famous monarch became a head of a church because of a child?"
"Mary?" Patty ventured unhappily.
"Mary?" George said. "Which Mary? I'm afraid I don't understand."
"Well ... the Virgin Mary?"
"Gracious, Patty, I really don't think you could call theVirgin Mary a monarch. Or the head of a church, exactly. I was referring to Henry VIII, of course."
"O.K.," she said. "So then what famous monarch lost her head over a child?"
"Anne Boleyn," George replied, giving Patty's hand a consolatory little squeeze.
Arnold's business eventually began to pick up, and Patty felt that she could repay some of Stuart's generosity. He was beginning to look a bit mangy, in fact, so she took to inviting him over for breakfast before she left for work in the evenings. Besides (she had to be honest), she was a terrible cook, and Stuart actually enjoyed cooking.
"Guess what," Stuart announced one night as he broke eggs into one of Patty's bowls. "Rand fired me today."
"What?" Patty said. Rand published a small magazine, for which Stuart wrote about film. "I thought you and Rand were buddies. Doesn't he take you out drinking with him?"
"Yeah," Stuart said. "He's really upset about this, but apparently he and his wife had a big fight."
"So I don't get it," Patty said. "What's that got to do with it?"
"Well, I was trying to do him a favor," Stuart said. "I feel so sorry for him. His wife's absolutely nauseating, you know--and one thing is, she likes to have these parties to show off people she's met to people she's met, and she makes Rand bring someone from the staff each time. So last month I was the sacrifice. And she grabs me, and she's telling me that Devereaux is 'a genius,' 'the only American auteur,' and what do I think of him. And I try to be noncommittal, because I don't want to be forced to say, 'But lady, he's just one more crypto-fascist Hollywood cowboy.' So she tells me I've got to write about him. She's met him. He's 'a remarkable man.' So'penetrating.' And then she turns that cash-register face to me and she says, 'He doesn't suffer fools gladly.' Well, that's something that gets to me, Patty. It just does. When someone looks at you like that and says, 'He doesn't suffer fools gladly,' what they mean is 'He doesn't suffer fools like you gladly,' or maybe only 'He doesn't, like you, suffer fools gladly,' but in any case it's definitely a challenge, don't you agree? Still, to be accommodating, I go to this screening of Pulsepoint, only it seems like Devereaux does suffer fools gladly. In fact, it seems like fools are Devereaux's favorite thing. So that's kind of what I wrote my piece about."
"Good going, Stuart." Patty sighed.
"And she sort of took it out on Rand, because I guess she'd planned this big party especially to invite Devereaux. Poor Rand. Here, I think this is done."
Patty was just about to start in on the plate of fragrant French toast Stuart had put in front of her when a small commotion erupted in the hallway. Stuart opened the door to inspect, and Patty, hovering behind him, saw Mrs. Jorgenson sprawled out in front of the mailboxes while a well-dressed man and woman bickered in undignified descant over her stately snores.
"Phyllis," the man was saying, "I really don't think this person ought to be lying here like this."
"We're going to be late," the woman said. "Why do you always have to be Mr. Nice Guy?"
"She wants a blanket," Patty said thickly from behind Stuart, and two sets of icy blue eyes stared up at her.
Mr. Nice Guy went upstairs to get a blanket, and Patty realized that he and the woman (who now stood next to her in uncomfortable silence) must be the art dealers who had recently moved into the apartment above Marcia's. Mr. Martinez, in whose view their arrival represented an influx ofundesirables, had informed Patty that the couple had taken the apartment--small and shabby as it was--in anticipation of a move to co-op. "Now you will see," Mr. Martinez had predicted grimly, "they make takeover." And certainly the first sounds of renovation were already militating against Patty's daytime sleep.
For an instant Mrs. Jorgenson stopped snoring and opened her eyes, exposing a malevolent but impersonal irony--the expression of a tough old animal in a sprung trap. "Bugger," she said obliquely. As she resumed her snoring, Mr. Nice Guy returned, bearing a blanket, which he draped ineptly over her while his wife fidgeted with distaste.
Patty and Stuart went back to their breakfast, but the inky cold pressing in at the window had contracted the apartment; the chairs and table felt cramped and brittle.
"As you said, Patty." Stuart nodded morosely at his French toast. "Everything changes. It's not a tragedy."
Patty looked at Stuart closely. "Your apartment is rent-stabilized, isn't it?"
"Yeah," he said. "Of course, I'm due for an increase in November. But it is rent-stabilized."
"You're due for an increase? In November?"
"It hardly matters," he said. "I'm a couple months behind anyhow."
"You're behind?" Patty put down her fork.
"Well, Marty intercedes for me with Mr. Feltzer."
"But that can't go on forever, Stuart." Stuart was just sitting there, watching the butter and syrup congeal on his French toast. "Stuart!"
"I know. It's my own fault. You don't have to tell me, Patty. I ought to have done things differently."
"Now, just relax, Stuart. Let's think this out. There must be something--I mean, you can always--"
"See, Patty? I've made my own bed here. No one owes me a thing."
"But you could always ..." What could he do, Patty thought. There would be no point in his looking for a cheaper apartment--people had to scheme and connive for apartments ten times the price of Stuart's. "Well, you could just for a while ..."
"No, Patty," Stuart said, hollow-eyed. "You want your own life. You don't need me around."
"But actually, Stuart--" Oh, why her? Why her? "Actually, I think you'd better."
So Stuart set up his little bed in Marcia's kitchen and fitted his belongings in among Patty's. At first Patty felt as if she were in the eye of some oddly dissipating hurricane. Stuart was jumpy and he hankered after physical activity, but he was also frail and cursed with notably poor coordination. He would leave eagerly for a little run or to shoot baskets with the towering boys who hung around the lot on the corner, only to return almost immediately, fretful, winded, and streaming with sweat. It was Patty who opened stubborn jars, while Stuart, in an unbecoming agony of humiliation, shook out his cramping hand.
Still, he was clean and tidy, although one wouldn't have guessed it to look at him, and he good-naturedly performed the household chores, at which Patty was useless anyhow. The standard of Patty's meals rose, while their cost fell, and for a while Stuart had a run of luck with part-time jobs--he worked happily for a small press until it went out of business, and he received several checks when some of his writing was performed as "soundscapes" at a club, before he told the owners they were pretentious--so he was able to manage his share of the rent.
When Patty returned from work in the mornings, Stuart would wake up long enough to read her to sleep. If it had been an ordinary night at work, he would pick up whatever he himself was reading, and Patty would soon be bored into somnolence. But if it had been a busy night and Patty was wide awake, Stuart would read old, strange, majestic tales of princes turned into swans; swans believed to be second-rate ducklings; suitors who would be magically invested with insight that enabled them to choose the correct path, door, direction, or answer; nearly blameless girls imprisoned within evil trances; and soldiers or poor boys whose wits were to secure them brilliant futures. And as Stuart read, Patty would glide into sun-dappled dream forests where she encountered these creatures, known so well to her, though they were hidden temporarily, in their false conditions, from themselves.
But the independent unit created by two people is an unstable compound, a murky bog in which wayward growths flourish, and it was not long before Stuart decided that he and Patty ought to be sleeping together, a view he began to express (as Patty experienced it) with mosquito-like persistence.
"No," Patty said.
"Why not?" Stuart said.
"Because." Where were all those marvelous men she'd been promised by herself? Why did she have to discuss this with Stuart?
"So why because?"
Patty fixed him with a look intended to fracture his cheery insensitivity. "Because I'm not attracted to you, Stuart."
"You would become attracted to me if you were to sleep with me," he argued affably.
"But I'm not going to sleep with you," she said.
"Don't you see the beauty of it, Patty? It's sound in every way--politically, economically, aesthetically. You and Iwould be an entire ecology, generating and utilizing our own energies."
"I'm not here to ... to provide physiological release for you," she said.
"Why not? I'm here to provide it for you. Listen, you're going to start suffering from pelvic distress one of these days. There could even be colonic or arterial consequences, you know."
It wasn't fair, Patty thought--Stuart obviously felt entitled to win every argument just because he knew more words than she did. She could only repeat herself stubbornly while he continued to whine and orate, disguising his little project in various rationales, until it seemed that one wolf, in different silly bonnets, was peeping out at her from behind a circle of trees.
"All right," she said to Stuart one night. It was miserably cold outside, but she was off work, and she just couldn't face the harangue that would flow unobstructed if she stayed in the apartment with Stuart. "All right. I've had it. This is it. Out."
"What?" Stuart said, having been halted in midsentence.
"Out." She reached for one of her own suitcases and started loading it with Stuart's neatly folded clothing.
"What are you doing?" he said, aghast.
"Out. Now. Out, out." She picked up the suitcase in one hand and shooed Stuart to the door with the other. "This is enough to get by on for a while. Let me know where you are and I'll send the rest on to you."
"You know," Stuart said as he trotted down the hall in front of her, "Marcia kept saying 'Oh, Patty is so centered. Patty is such a woman,' but actually, Patty, you're a very nervous person."
On the street Patty flagged down a taxi. "Take this guy toPort Authority," she said, giving the driver a ten. She shoved Stuart into the back seat next to his suitcase and ran along behind the taxi as it took off, flapping her skirt.
As she walked back down the hall, whimpering, Mr. Martinez peered out from his doorway. "The mens--the mens --" he said, his voice vibrant with commiseration. "They must do this thing. Do not cry, missy. He will come back."
But, back inside the apartment, Patty did cry. She cried and cried, from exhaustion, rage, loneliness, remorse, and relief. And when she'd finished she walked slowly to the phone and dialed the number Marcia had given her.
"Hello, Marcia," she said stonily. Patty was not sure why she had called, but she knew, with a weariness that must accompany the end of a lengthy and sordid police investigation, that it was necessary. "How are you?"
"Fine," Marcia said. "I'm feeling very good about myself."
"Splendid," Patty said.
"Good Lord, you sound awful," Marcia said brightly, and instantly sobered. "There isn't some problem about the apartment, is there?"
"Marcia," Patty said, becoming fully aware of her own suspicions as she voiced them, "you promised me to Stuart."
"I did not!" Marcia said. "Heavens, Patty, what can you mean?"
"He never even knew, the poor sucker, did he! For six months you plotted to palm him off on me, and he never even knew."
"Calm down, Patty." Hah! At least Marcia sounded alarmed--undoubtedly she'd expected Patty to remain a credulous, pitiful schoolgirl forever. "I'm serious, Patty. You'd better learn how to deal with your feelings before you do something really self-destructive."
"And furthermore, Marcia"--the room swarmed with visionsof pores, ducts, glands, nodes, hairs, and membranes --"he's disgusting!"
"He's only as disgusting as you are to yourself," Marcia said serenely. "Honestly, Patty--I simply thought you two would enjoy one another."
Even in the airshaft the weather was dismal, and Patty sat and watched a cruel sleet slide down the windowpane, until Stuart showed up, a few hours later, looking as if he'd been fished up from the Styx. Patty opened the door without a word, and without a word Stuart came in. He parked himself in front of the cold stove, his eyes fixed unseeingly on the filthy puddles forming around him.
Patty experienced a wrenching meld of triumph and defeat. If it had crossed Stuart's mind (and it certainly must have) to seek refuge with Marcia in Austin, he, too, would have had to face the grim truth that Patty had been lured to this apartment so that Marcia could (and with a clear conscience!) leave him behind. Well, Patty thought, she had been set up, but in point of dreadful fact she was fiercely glad to see Stuart.
Later, as they lay in their separate beds, Patty spoke gruffly into the dark. "Are you all right now, Stuart?"
He hesitated, but misery conquered pride. "I'm cold."
He snuffled, and when Patty climbed in with him and he turned his back to cuddle his bony shoulders against her, he was indeed shivering. "Want to read to me, Stuart?" she said.
"O.K.," he said, gladdening instantly and switching on his light. "Let's see. O.K., this is Tristes Tropiques. And right here Lévi-Strauss is propounding his interpretation of the face and body paintings of the Caduveo, some of the last living Brazilian Mbaya-Guaicuru:
"But the remedy they failed to use on the social level, or which they refused to consider, couldnot elude them completely; it continued to haunt them in an insidious way. And since they could not become conscious of it and live it out in reality, they began to dream about it. Not in a direct form, which would have clashed with their prejudices, but in a transposed, and seemingly innocuous, form: in their art. If my analysis is correct, in the last resort the graphic art of the Caduveo women is to be interpreted, and its mysterious appeal and seemingly gratuitous complexity to be explained, as the phantasm of a society ardently and insatiably seeking a means of expressing symbolically the institutions it might have, if its interests and superstitions did not stand in the way. In this charming civilization, the female beauties trace the outlines of the collective dream with their make-up: their patterns are hieroglyphics describing an inaccessible golden age, which they extol in their ornamentation, since they have no code in which to express it, and whose mysteries they disclose as they reveal their nudity."
How happy Stuart seemed, Patty thought despairingly, to be back from his banishment, to have the little glow of his reading lamp around him. How happy he was with this damned book--his constant companion these days.
By the time Patty woke, Stuart was out and about, but the depression beside her in the bed was still warm. She thought of her own cold bed in the next room, and without taking the time to change or make coffee she climbed up to the third floor and knocked on Mrs. Jorgenson's door. People had pushed her around, she thought--people had taken advantageof her. "Mrs. Jorgenson," she called. The peephole underwent a telling alteration as Patty stared into it, but all she could hear was a peculiar sibilance, as of Dobermans running lightly through crumpled newspaper. "Mrs. Jorgenson--listen, Mrs. Jorgenson. This is Patty, from downstairs. It's winter, and I'm cold. You have enough blankets now, Mrs. Jorgenson, and I want mine back." She put her ear to the door, but there was only that continuous rustling sound. "That's my good Hudson Bay blanket," she called into the doorframe, "that my parents gave me when I was little to take to camp. It's mine, Mrs. Jorgenson, and I want it!"
"Whore!" Mrs. Jorgenson yelled from inside. "Prostitute!"
In December, Arnold acquired his liquor license, and business increased radically. By that time, practice had eroded Patty's gross incompetence, but no one would have been equipped for the onslaught of customers that poured through the doors all night long. Soon it became necessary for Arnold to hire reinforcements, and with other waitresses working on her shift Patty's job, now lucrative, became more or less bearable as well.
Most of the cooks, bartenders, and waitresses with whom Patty worked took the grueling terrors of restaurant life in good part. Together they would fear, face, endure, and fear afresh the Sisyphean ordeal of customers in exchange for the flexible schedule that allowed them to continue their dancing classes, their short runs Off Broadway, their studies of Indo-European, or the pursuit of voluptuous amusements.
Patty, who had intended to strike no such bargains with life, became increasingly impatient with the easygoing attitude of her co-workers, but there was one waitress, Donna, by whom Patty was deeply impressed. Donna was a tall, good-looking woman around Patty's age, who during the week superviseda direct-mail campaign for a knitwear empire and on the weekends moonlighted as a waitress. "But not for long," she told Patty. "And you'll get out of here soon, too."
"I hope so," Patty said. "But look at Buddy and Menlo and Sheila--they've been here almost as long as I have."
"Don't be so hard on yourself, Patty," Donna said. "Those guys are lifers."
Lifers. Yes, Patty thought, compared to Donna the rest of them were children, playing. And perhaps in twenty or thirty years they would still be clustered near the waitress stand, and she with them--wrinkled children, playing.
The customers, in contrast, seemed veritable incarnations of passing time. Someone would come in every night for a month and then disappear altogether. Romances would blossom and die, people and their involvements would develop in unpredictable directions.
"Isn't that the truth, Sugar?" said Ginger, a customer to whom Patty commented one evening on this phenomenon. Ginger was the gorgeous but moody prima of a troupe of huge male dancers engaged for a long run at a nearby theatre. They danced as women, and they came in often after work, sometimes in dashing rehearsal sweats, but more frequently in full flamboyant costume and makeup. Tonight, the yellow gossamer wings attached to Ginger's gown set off his pearly black skin and imperious, fantastical beauty. "Yes, things sure do move along in Manhattan. You drop by your favorite boîte one time, and you say, 'Where's Hank?' And they say, 'Hank?' And you say, 'Hank, you know, sweetheart, the guy who sits here every night?' And they just shrug, like they never heard of him. I go home and see my momma, Sugar, she's still chasin' the same chicken around the yard." Ginger allowed his slanting lids to dip for an instant in dismissal.
Almost the only one of the pioneer customers who stillappeared with frequency was George. "Tell me, Patty," he said one night, "what famous monarch ... gave forth a fatal dazzle?"
"I really don't know, George," Patty said testily. "I'll think about that while I wait on some of these other people."
Everything was going wrong that night. Toast was too dark, drinks were too light, customers temporized over the tiny menu while the second hand sped, but if Patty told them "Let me give you a moment," they would grab her wrist. "Don't move!" they'd say. "I know what I want. Um, Lois, you go first." Arnold cowered in the basement abusing substances and gloating over the books, even though the kitchen was running out of soup and potato skins and ribs. And it was near Christmas, so nobody was tipping and everyone was upset, and it was a long time before Patty got back to George. "I give up, George," she said.
"Spoilsport," he teased. "Just guess."
"I don't know, George. Oh, all right--Marie Antoinette."
"Marie Antoinette?" George looked stunned. "Marie Antoinette was a famous monarch, Patty, but she did not give forth a fatal dazzle. The famous monarch who did give forth a fatal dazzle was Louis Quatorze, the Sun King."
"What about the affair of the diamond necklace?" Patty demanded. This was not how she had imagined her adulthood. "What about that?"
George balanced his chin on a finger and thought. "Well," he said, "I suppose that counts. But do you know, Patty"--he improvised a rueful smile, and his tone was light, although vitality was draining rapidly from his face and voice--"I don't think you care about Louis Quatorze. I think you only care about female monarchs."
"Actually ..." Patty said. All around her, people were demanding food, drink, clean spoons, napkins, the fulfillmentof infantile fantasies, sweets, smiles, anything they could get away with. "Actually, I don't really care about any monarchs, to tell you the truth."
But when things calmed down, Patty returned to George's table penitent. "How're you doing here, George?" she asked.
"Fine, Patty," he said with awful self-possession. "Please tell Buddy it was delicious. Patty, do you know what George III's mother said to him?"
"No, George," she said. "What did she say?"
"She said, 'George, be a king.'" George gazed out over Patty's head at a distant empire. "'George, be a king.' ..."
And when Patty returned to George's table later, she found only more change than he could afford, she knew, and on his plate a pile of little bones that suggested he'd curled up there and died.
One night at work Donna announced to Patty that she was quitting. "I've met this man, Fletcher. Some corporation has hired him to develop a magazine about the media, and I explained to him that he should put me in charge of circulation."
"That's great, Donna." Patty sighed.
"And it's just about time for you to start leading a real person's life yourself. Listen, Patty, keep in touch. You never know--something just might turn up at the magazine."
At least Patty had the opportunity, while she languished at the restaurant, to scrutinize the apparently inexhaustible parade of customers for information that would lead to her missing drafting table, her brownstone, her escort. It may seem that because there is not much room for certain kinds of elaboration in the act of ordering something at a restaurant little is expressed by it. But in fact the very restriction of thesituation is the precondition of deep grooves through which individual personalities are extruded with great force. "You do that?" is what your waiter or waitress or bartender is thinking as you place your order. "You're like that?" And although you may assume that you are behaving pretty much as everyone before you has behaved in a similar situation, that is a serious misconception, one not shared by those who stand and face you.
Patty had no leisure for the random yield of disinterested science, but as the months slid by she was able, through diligent observation, to harvest a crop of utilitarian specifics from the people who paused in front of her, in unwitting demonstration of the selves they had tended and grown in the extreme climates of the city. In spite of Stuart's alarmist denunciations, Patty persevered in maneuvering her appearance from undistinguished wholesomeness to the assertively stylish, with only several errors, such as the silk-wrapped nails, acquired at great expense, that felt like lobster claws extending from her fingers as they clicked against her tray.
Still, Patty was forced to note, while many of the customers were graced with beauty or wit or marvelous clothing, few seemed to have achieved a far-reaching or reliable measure of the success that she had assumed New York offered for the asking. Luck must be in scant supply these days. On the other hand, perhaps people came to this restaurant during some sort of interim stage, or limbo; certainly Patty never knew how people fared before they started coming to the restaurant or how they fared after they stopped. People seemed simply to appear and then to vanish. She hadn't seen George, for instance, since the night of the unpleasantness. Life had moved on for him. Or, as she once shamefacedly reflected, she had forced it to move on.
And then, at the beginning of summer, Ginger told Pattythat he and his company were going to California. "I just hate to leave, Sugar. But, Lord--the overhead these days! It's just too steep for an artist. Here, don't you look so sad now. Take a load off your feet for a minute."
It was a slow night, and Patty let Ginger lift her onto his lap, where she nestled contemplatively against his papier-mache breasts and admired the steely sheen of his arm, folded so gently around her. His arm was as smooth and hard as steel, too, as Patty's finger, trailing idly along it, discovered, but its surface was as welcoming as satin. And this surface --which seemed more lovely to Patty than skin, less perishable, just as precious--raised on her own a velvety nap as she shifted, straining for some position of perfect rest.
"Oh, look," Ginger said, while Patty let the back of her hand enjoy the delicious indentation from which the curve of Ginger's shoulder flared. "Look how sweet! Look at those tiny pink nails, that little milky face. And freckles." Patty closed her eyes to better appreciate Ginger playfully favoring one freckle, then another. "Long, long lashes." Ginger brushed his cheek against Patty's lashes, and when she opened her eyes again the eyes that gleamed back were feral and slanting. "Little flower mouth," he said, and Patty's mouth opened, too, as he arched, letting her glide it from his jeweled earlobe down his polished neck and along the sweep of his collarbone, but there was a quick explosion in her brain as "Waitress! Waitress!" someone called, and Patty scrambled trembling to her feet, scraping her shoulder against papier-mâché.
Patty had developed the habit of routinely clambering in with Stuart when she got home, for warmth and company, but that morning she prowled back and forth across the apartment. Stuart didn't wake up, so eventually Patty poured herself a glass of cranberry juice and drew up a chair across from his bed, where he lay in a little humid wad, wheezing, appearingto become more and more exhausted as he slept, like a shipwreck victim unconscious on a seaborne plank. How painful a sight it was! How painful it was to be reminded that Stuart's helplessness was something beyond a manipulative ruse! Patty and Stuart had laid to rest the question of sex (sex between the two of them, that is), and although Stuart raised it from time to time, he did so clearly in the spirit of commemorative iteration. It almost made Patty sad that he had come to be as uninterested, actually, in the prospect as she was herself. She sipped at her cranberry juice, watching him, thinking.
Her presence must have made itself felt, because Stuart wheezed mightily, thrashed, and flung himself into a sitting position. "Patty," he said.
"Stuart," she said, "what famous monarch gave forth a fatal dazzle?"
"Come here and give me a hug, Patty-Cake," he said. He moved over to make room and politely turned his back to her.
"Come on," she said. "Please guess what famous monarch gave forth a fatal dazzle."
"Well ..." He sighed. "O.K. Jupiter, then."
"Jupiter," she said. "That's a stupid guess. Jupiter isn't even a monarch."
"Oh, yeah?" Stuart cleared his throat. "Well, listen to this, Miss Smarty:
"Oh, thou art fairer than the evening's air, Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars.Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter. When he appeared to hapless Semele: More lovely than the monarch of the sky. In wanton Arethusa's azure arms, And none but thou shalt be my paramour."
When Stuart stopped, a spectral resonance hung in the room as if a cello had been playing.
"So?" Patty demanded, forcing back tears.
"So Jupiter's the monarch of the sky," Stuart said. "Get it? And he also fries Semele, which, in my opinion, is, like, an irrefutably fatal dazzle. Anyhow, what do you care?"
"It's just a game," Patty said miserably. "What Famous Monarch."
"Oh," Stuart said. "Trivial Pursuit for right-wing extremists. Anyhow, all monarchs give forth a fatal dazzle. Fatal dazzle is the sort of sine qua non of monarchy. The steady effulgence of enlightened self-government, for example--"
"Stuart," Patty interrupted, "I don't want to talk about this." Morning had arrived in the airshaft; a thousand stars had dimmed. Mr. Nice Guy and his wife would be waking just above Marcia's ceiling, and, above theirs, Mrs. Jorgenson. "I'm tired, Stuart. I'm lonely. I want a real boyfriend."
"Well, Patty," Stuart said softly. She could feel his laborious breathing behind the fragile arc of his rib cage. "I just can't help you there."
Customers generated themselves from air; where there had been one, now there were twenty. Patty rushed back and forth in terror, first for menus, then, thinking better of it, for knives and forks.
"Don't fret, Sugar," said a man, putting a calming arm around her. From the prodigality and exquisite subtlety of the painted designs that covered his body, Patty realized that this man was a chief.
"Take a load off your feet. We Brazilians tend to be hunting-and-gathering peoples." And the band was indeed now plucking burgers and drinks and platters of ribs from under the tables, from out of the waitress stands and light fixtures.
"I never thought of looking there!" Patty said, astonished, but the chief was moving off with his band as they continued their hunt into the forests of the ever-expanding restaurant. "Wait," she wheedled. "Please--I'll get your bread and butter ..." But the wonderful painted people who had paused so briefly in her sleep on their way off the face of the earth were disappearing through the trees. "Please don't leave!" she cried loudly, waking herself up.
"I'm here for you, baby," Stuart murmured from out of his own dream.
Baby! Patty propped herself up on her elbow and stared at Stuart's pale, knotted face. Who in God's name could Stuart be calling baby?
"Stuart," she said that afternoon over coffee. "I think I've let myself get sidetracked somehow."
"Hey, are you wearing some different kind of eye makeup these days?" Stuart asked.
"No," Patty said. "Listen, Stuart. It's time for me to start doing something interesting."
"You are doing something interesting," he said.
"That's not what I mean, Stuart, as you know."
"If you're not careful," he said, shaking a finger, "your wish will come true and you'll wake up one morning shackled to some corporate cutthroat who cracks jokes about his interior designer."
"Slurp slurp," she said.
"Look, you're too poorly informed to be familiar with the behavioral and attitudinal alternatives that are history's legacy, but trust me, Patty. You're at a crossroads here. We're all soldiers in the battles between historical forces and you'd better look down at your uniform to see what side you're fighting for before you do something you'll be sorry about."
"Stuart, are you telling me that I ought to be a waitress for the rest of my life?"
"It's honest work," he said.
"Honest!" Patty said. "It's funny. TV and books and movies are full of waitress jokes. But it's extremely hard work!"
"What do you think work is?" Stuart said. "What do you think people have been doing all these millennia? What do you think less privileged people do? Not less intelligent, not less attractive, not less deserving--less privileged. Just because history has tossed a bouquet to your weensy little culture, you think actual work is an ignominy, a degradation--"
"You know"--Patty was not going to let Stuart outtalk her--"considering how ... how entranced you are by the sanctity of toil, it's a wonder you never indulge in any yourself."
"I've tried," said Stuart, instantly in the right.
"I know." Patty held up her hand. "I take it back."
"I've tried waiting on tables, I've tried moving furniture ..."
"I know," she said. "I know I know I know I know, never mind. Yaargh." He had tried. It was indisputable. He had tried waiting on tables, but, being Stuart, was confined to low-income jobs in dingy coffee shops or delis, where he was fired before his first shift was out, having kindled, to his own perplexity and the manager's fury, little feuds that sprang up like brushfires at the tables and in the kitchen. He had tried moving furniture--for three days he'd gone off in the mornings with fear in his eyes and returned in the evenings looking shocked and broken. On the fourth day his body had refused to raise him from bed and reproached him with racking pains. He would have tried, gladly, to drive a taxi, except that he couldn't drive and no instructor would let him learn, andwhen occasionally Patty had insisted that they travel by taxi, Stuart wedged himself back in his seat, peeking through his fingers and gasping in such a way as to provoke the driver into a murderous bumper-car rage. "But you know what, Stuart?" Patty bore down on her powers of expression. "It seems to me that if it's a foregone conclusion you're going to fail at a given undertaking you might examine your own motives to see whether there's something hypocritical about them."
"Hypocritical!" Stuart said furiously. "And you used to be nice."
"Caring--a word that makes you throw up! I used to be caring."
"Nice. You used to be pretty nice. Nice. A little, pretty nice glob of unformed humanity who couldn't put two words together. Now, barely one year later, slimy sophistries drop from your lips like vipers and toads."
"Wait!" Patty said, standing. Because the most incredible thing had just occurred to her. If she was going to get on with her life, it was not only she who had to get a job--Stuart would have to be gotten a job as well! As things stood, he couldn't possibly afford an apartment of his own, and she couldn't just put him out on the street to starve. Even Marcia, after all, had left him provided for, and now it was Patty who had to help him, whether he wanted help or not. "That's not what I meant, Stuart," she said ingratiatingly. "I expressed myself poorly. I only meant why should you wait on tables or move furniture when there are so many other, better, things you're suited for?"
"'Better.'" Stuart sniffed.
"Better paid, then, if you prefer."
"Patty," he said, "just what are all these things I'm so well suited for?"
"Well, I don't know, Stuart. How should I know? Why couldn't you ... write copy, for example?"
"What is copy, actually?" Stuart said. "Is it anything like prose?"
"Or be a reviewer again, for some publication. Or get something done with some of your poems? After all, you're an artist, really."
"Yeah, and why don't I rack up a bunch of grants while I'm at it, and have my picture taken for magazines? 'Artist' --you know what you think an artist is, Patty? You think an artist is some great-looking big guy in a T-shirt, with a bottle in one hand and a paintbrush in the other, who has five hundred thousand dollars zooming around the stock market, and a car like a big shiny penis."
"Stuart," Patty said patiently as she tried to inhibit a telltale blush, "please don't be revolting. The point is that I have complete respect for your convictions, no matter what they might be. It's just that I worry."
"Don't worry," he said.
"Well, I do worry. And I'll tell you one thing I'm especially worried about right now. The Nice Guys. Yesterday Mr. Martinez told me they want a duplex. And you know what that means. That means they're going to have to get someone out--either us or Mrs. Jorgenson. And Mrs. Jorgenson isn't going to go without making trouble. We're an illegal sublet, Stuart. We're not supposed to be here. Especially you. We could get Marcia evicted!"
Stuart sighed. "I'm sorry, Patty. I know you want me to leave."
"Oh, Stuart," she said guiltily. "I just want you to find something that will make you happy."
"But Patty." He looked at her. "I am happy."
Patty, however, had stumbled upon a decision lying in her path, and during the next few days she treated Stuart with the solicitude due to the condemned.
But when she called Donna, there was a bad moment. A minuscule silence preceded Donna's first words. "Oh. Patty," Donna said then. "Right."
So Patty judged it best to come straight to the point: she wanted to talk to Fletcher at the magazine. She was aching for an outlet for her talents. She had developed a feverish interest even in layout, which he could surely exploit. If there was nothing open in that line at the moment, perhaps she could meet him, in case something were to open up in the future. Or in case there was anything. Anything at all.
"Unfortunately, it's not the greatest timing," Donna said. "Everything's all sort of set up now."
"But if we could just meet," Patty said.
"I could give Fletcher your number," Donna said.
"And you know what?" Patty said. "My roommate's a writer. And he's had a lot of journalistic experience."
"Well," Donna said, "the problem is, Fletcher already has a lot of writers."
"I understand," Patty said. She took a deep breath to clarify her mind. "Anyhow, it might not work out with Stuart. He's like a lot of artists--very unpredictable, if you know what I mean. Kind of dangerous."
"Mmm ..." Donna said. "Dangerous ..."
And when Patty finished talking (talking and talking) Donna said, "Well, we might as well all have dinner one night when you're not working. At least we'd--at least we'd get a chance to, you know ... meet."
"Patty," Stuart said. "Why do I have to do this?"
"You just have to, Stuart, you have to." Oh, God, Pattythought. If she weren't careful, Stuart's suspicious nature might lead him to the conclusion that she was trying to market them both. "Donna's asked me to do this, and I can't go alone, because she's just ... finding her way around with this guy, who also happens to be her employer, and who, I understand, is a very serious and profound person, incidentally, so she wants to be with some people who are ... pleasant. And ... pleasant to be with. And, by the way," Patty said, to change the subject, "you're not planning to wear that shirt, are you?"
"What's the matter with my shirt?" he said. "I thought nerds were considered fashionable these days."
"Not actual nerds, Stuart. Just people who look like nerds."
"Patty," he said. "I really don't want to do this."
"Forget about the shirt, Stuart. However you're comfortable. I just don't want to walk in looking pathetic and desperate."
"Desperate about what?" Stuart asked shrewdly.
To pacify him, Patty agreed to forgo a taxi. They picked their way uncompanionably in the steaming evening through a cluster of shapeless creatures who sat at the subway entrance, surrounded by bags that appeared to be stuffed with filthy, discarded gifts, muttering to themselves in garbled fragments of some lost language. Mrs. Jorgenson would undoubtedly be joining them--assuming Patty could protect herself and Stuart--when the Nice Guys got their duplex. Well, Patty thought, good riddance.
Patty grew increasingly ill-tempered as she and Stuart sweltered underground, waiting for the shrieking train. And by the time they reached the restaurant her mascara was creeping downward and she was cross through and through. So this is it, she thought, looking around at the mirrors and linen, atthe graceful sprays of freesia. So this was where everyone had been while she'd been eating Stuart's barley-and-zucchini casseroles.
Donna was already at a table with Fletcher--a man, as it turned out, of unparalleled presentability. "Hello," Patty said.
"Well, well," said Donna, across whose face was written "I thought you said this guy was an artist." But Donna was not one to let the failings of others cloud her mood, Patty knew, and by the time drinks had been brought she was mollified.
Donna had buffed herself up to a high gloss in the months since Patty had seen her (nothing wrong with her mascara), and she was talking with Fletcher of matters entirely foreign to Patty. But strangely, Patty realized, Stuart could manage this conversational obstacle course strewn with technical matters peculiar to periodicals and the private lives of various people involved with them; Stuart knew how to join in.
Obviously, however, Stuart participated entirely without pleasure. It was for her sake, Patty thought, because of her injunctions, and therefore the situation was--Heavens! The situation was dangerous!
Just as Stuart began to fidget noticeably, a new waiter appeared, to deal out menus.
"Oh--" said Fletcher, evidently startled to have been faced with someone as handsome as himself. "The pasta's excellent, incidentally, but I'd avoid the fish."
Patty looked at him bleakly. Why were they all here? This wasn't an interview; it wasn't--it wasn't--She couldn't even think of what it was that this wasn't. She looked at the prices on the menu, and she looked at Donna and at Stuart and back at Fletcher. Fletcher didn't care what this was or wasn't; he was just having dinner!
Nerves had dismantled Patty's appetite, and the menuseemed to be written in Esperanto, so when the waiter returned Patty simply tagged along with Donna and Fletcher. "Fine," she said. "I'll also have the salade panachée and then the perciatelli all'amatriciana."
The waiter turned and stared at Stuart. "O.K.," Stuart said hopelessly. "What the hell."
"Certainly," said the waiter with deferential contempt.
"Who does that kid think he is?" Donna said as the waiter left. "He's a waiter."
Fletcher continued the line of thought he'd been pursuing with Donna as the waiter returned with their salads. "So my point is that Jay Resnick is doing a feature series on Saffi Sheinheld for Dallas by Daylight. And Saffi happens to be the senior vice-president of SunBelt, Dallas's biggest account. Now, I would consider that ethically questionable."
Ethically questionable--That fool, Patty thought. There'd be no holding Stuart now. "Hey, Stuart"--she foraged wildly in her salad--"this purple thing is a pepper."
For a while Patty struggled to match the fun bits of her salad with his, and although Stuart suffered quietly, he looked like a rag doll that had been thrown over a cliff, and soon Patty felt that she, too, was teetering on the brink.
"Donna tells me you're in graphics," Fletcher said, flinging Patty a rope.
"Terrific field." Patty swung to safety. "So incredible, for example, how design, or even layout, can send these tiny, subtle signals. 'Buy me,' for example, or--"
"Visual appeal," Fletcher agreed, glancing up as the waiter arrived with their pasta. "Crucial." The waiter smirked.
"Is that bacon?" Stuart demanded, pointing at his plate.
"It's only a little pancetta," the waiter said.
"I understand you're into film," Fletcher said obliviously to Stuart.
"'Into'?" Stuart said. "'Film'?"
"Look," Patty said, plunging into her salad and unearthing a greenish disk rimmed with hair. "I bet no one else has one of these!"
"Or have I misunderstood?" Fletcher said to Stuart as if Patty hadn't spoken.
"Kind of," Stuart said with an equability that made Patty's heart plunge. "What I really 'am,' see, is mentally ill."
"Yes?" Fletcher was guarded but ready to be amused.
"Yeah," Stuart said. "Mental illness. An exacting mistress. It doesn't leave me a lot of time for other things to be ... 'into.' Like racquetball. Or parenting. Or leveraged buyouts."
Patty looked down at the table, struggling against an untimely smile, and then looked meekly back up at Fletcher. But Fletcher had been enveloped, during the silence, by a glacier. His disapproval gleamed faintly out from behind centuries of ice, which Donna's voice splintered like a hatchet. "I don't think that's very funny," Donna said. "A lot of people actually are mentally ill, you know."
"Patty--" Stuart yelped.
"All right, Stuart," Patty said, getting to her feet. "Stuart, you didn't eat any of that pancetta, did you? Stuart has a ... a sensitivity to various additives used in pork products." She was sick of this; she didn't care how ridiculous she sounded; these people had never intended to help them. "And you can just never tell when it might--Listen, Stuart, we'd better get you home before you--Here, this should cover our share." Stuart in tow, she made her way clumsily to the door.
On the way back to Marcia's in a taxi, Stuart was oddly tranquil. And it was he who, after minutes of silence, spoke first. "I'm sorry if I put a crimp in whatever the hell you were trying to accomplish," he said quietly.
Contradictory responses raced through Patty's brain for expression, and clogged. "Give me a break, Stuart," she managed to say.
"I understand," Stuart said. "Your better judgment's been under a lot of pressure."
"Stuart--" Patty was gratified to find that indignation was the attitude forceful enough to distinguish itself from the mute tangle choking her. "Please don't talk to me as if I were a criminal. Don't talk to me as if I were a psychopath. I know the difference between right and wrong. It was wrong of me not to be more forthcoming with you. It was wrong of me to wreck a good opportunity through carelessness. It was wrong of me to waste all that money. I know that what I did was wrong, and I'm trying to apologize." But Stuart just hunched over and looked out the window, where the lights were streaming by. "Stuart--"
"Take it easy, Patty," he said. "I'm not angry."
"Then don't act like this," she said. "Just criticize me, please. Give me a lecture."
But Stuart only patted her hand as if she were an overtired child, and it was when they got back inside the apartment that he himself took his things from the closet and packed them up. "Where will you go?" Patty said. "You don't have anyplace to go." And when Stuart took her hand and held it for a moment against his closed eyes, she might have been touching a fallen leaf or petal, or the wing of a chloroformed butterfly.
After Stuart closed the door behind him it was very quiet. And then it kept on being very quiet. Patty had to force herself to stand up and go to the door.
Outside, the evening trembled with threats of a summer storm, and the air was alive with residues of color. In thegrowing dark the sky was beginning to twinkle with a thousand little windows.
Mr. Martinez smiled up at Patty from the stoop, where he sat watching a bunch of spindly, raucous, big-eyed children as they danced in some sort of circle game, playing with a violent urgency, competing against the approaching storm for what was left of the evening. "Hello, miss!" Mr. Martinez said.
Patty smiled at him absently. How beautiful that restaurant tonight had been! And now, of all things, she was hungry. If Stuart hadn't left, they could at least have gone someplace, for a cheap bite. Well, it hadn't been her fault that he'd left--it hadn't been her fault.
As Patty stood, lost in thought, she saw George walk by. "George!" she cried, clattering down the steps. "George!" She tapped him on the shoulder, but the creature that turned around was not George--oh, surely not George--but some awful ghoul with sunken cheeks and stained, broken teeth and eyes that burned as she shrank back. "Sorry," she breathed. "A mistake."
"Mistake!" he shrieked. "Sorry! Always sorry, sorry, sorry. Well, I do life, and I do death. Pass this block, blah-blah, blah-blah. Pass this block, we never see you again." A flash of lightning illuminated the awful creature as a contraption of bones in retreating white silhouette, and her own eye sockets flashed white, too, around her, before she blinked and looked back over her shoulder.
In an island of street light Mr. Martinez still sat blissfully watching the ring of dancing children. Everything was just as it had been a moment before: the little scene, the street, the building where Patty had lived for a year; everything was just the same, of course, yet it all looked slightly uncanny --looming and mutable--as if it were something she'd known only from photographs.
"Mr. Martinez," she tried to call, though Mr. Martinez himself seemed newly a stranger, and her voice, hoarse and ghostly, hardly carried back to her own ears. The smallest of the dancing children spun, and leapt into the center of the circle. Street light glanced off the child's tiny gold earring, and Mr. Martinez, with narrowed eyes, rocked back in delight, flinging his arms wide in a tap dancer's gesture of embrace. But for what? Just what was the guy so pleased about, anyway, Patty thought irately, but his arms stretched wider and wider, and he smiled as if he were smiling at the sun.