Walt stared at the wall of his basement den. He had painted the concrete firebrick red. He sat on a cushioned seat which he had torn out of a '63 Ford. He then had cut up the Ford with his blowtorch and stored the steel in his driveway. There were few things he loved to do better than making metal sculpture. If he could get his hands on anything metallic, the more grotesque the better, he'd get it home somehow even if it was railroad track. He'd store it along the old crumbling driveway which ran the length of the house and which was useless for cars since it had been built more for a horse and buggy than a modern automobile.
He was pecking away at his Royal which he had bought from the first black guy he had ever been friends with. They had been reporters together on the Defender. When they walked together downtown people would stare. That was when State and Madison was the crossroads of the world and you wouldn't see five black people walking the streets of the Loop at any time. Then no one thought the South would ever change. Malls and Martin Luther King were barely known.
He loved words. His English teachers had urged him to go into literature. It's why the walls of his den were covered with bookcase shelves which he had hung. There were so many books so closely squeezed together that there was no way the color of the red wall could be seen. Centuries of thought, anguish, love, hate echoed on those shelves through the words of Kafka, Plato, Aristotle, Dryden, Baldwin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Malcolm X, Ibsen, Flaubert, De Maupassant, Chekhov. But he hardly ever picked them up anymore.
Who had the time? When he read a book worth reading, he really had to savor it. Skimming just wouldn't do the job for him. He looked at his books the way a hoarder looks at his stash of what seems irreplaceable, or the way a miser comforts himself feeling blindly into the shoeboxes where the crisp bills feel cool and green. One day the waiting and the amassing would bear fruit and would justify the accumulation of these silent, dust covered, drying out companions.
It was his job in the collective to keep the house in good repair. There wasn't a day when he didn't have long lists of chores. So he hauled and twisted new pipe replacing the old ones clogged with sediment so that hot water would not be siphoned into one shower while the other was left freezing with cold. He sliced and cut up the huge tomb of an oil tank with the blow torch and hauled it into the driveway. He hauled timbered railroad ties so his wife could build up her garden in tiers. He climbed on to the roof so he could mortar the chimney, clean the gutter, hammer the slates into place.
At night he did his photographic work. He almost didn't need a dark room because his vision and his veins would be filled with the hallucinations and the delusions which are bred in the long isolated hours of darkness and embellished with the light given off by Mexican hashish and the waves of synthesized music coming to him from the speakers from all directions with Phillip Glass riding the crest of them. Carol, his wife had hugged him and kissed him hours before, just before putting herself to bed exhausted after fourteen hours of administering the food and social service program on 56th Street. Whether she wanted to or not there was no strength left for love making until the weekend.
That night, like all nights, images rolled through his head like the on and off blinks of a flickering theater marquee. One image in particular held him fast. He was straddling his ten speed, two feet flat on the street in the Quadrangles. Connor was straddling his three speed Raleigh. There were tears in Connor's eyes. There were tears in his words which gurgled. Walt hadn't been able to get it all straight. Ellen, Larry's wife, had chewed Connor out over the phone. Larry was Connor's best friend. What had he meant by writing Shirley, her closest friend, those crazy letters? Long and involved plots about movies and then wanting to meet her in some Adirondack camping ground, five hundred miles away, for a weekend.
He had only been with her once and this on a hurried trip through Toronto. Besides, Connor was married. Wasn't life complicated enough trying to hold on to what he had without attempting to get involved with a woman more than twenty years younger? Even if Connor had stopped thinking Shirley hadn't. She wanted his letters stopped. They made no sense. Not to anybody, least of all to Shirley who had plenty of men and had more than she could handle in her work of organizing a peace museum on the outskirts of Toronto.
Connor was a baseball player. He had done so well at outfield and third base, he was perplexed by it. That this gift had elevated him to a rank above other human beings had made him uneasy. He had been like a rich person who easily could get whatever he wanted whenever he wanted it. Co¬nnor was fat with his ability. So much so that it began to take away his appetite for playing.¬
He had lasted into his fifties. Though he no longer could make the diving catches and no manager in his right mind would allow him to be at the front end of a hit and run play, he still could hit the ball out of the park when it was needed enough times around that it still could make a difference. He had lasted this long by stretching a minute at a time, every muscle from the back of his neck down to the pads in his feet. And while he jogged his four miles most days, he carried a rope which he would skip through for at least one of those miles. On the hot nights he would dive to the bottom of Lake Michigan and be hypnotized by the lights coming off the buildings on the other side of the Drive between 54th and 51st where he'd swim by himself if he couldn't convince anyone else of the powers of the deep.
Walt tried to coax Connor to unload his troubles. The anger and the hurt and the love bursting in him made everything come out mixed up. Walt decided to make contact with Larry. Even though Larry and Connor had lived in two different cities for years they still were as close as two lips with each other. Walt tried several times to reach Larry on the phone with no success. So he wrote him.
Dear Larry, 0
I never let my curiosity get between me and my friends. And you know how I hate writing letters. So you know I have to have something on my mind. And with whom else but you could I cut it with? Hey, friend, we lived together. We put this house together and kept it that way when collectives all over the city were talking loud but going belly up soon after. So what if you didn't know a monkey wrench from a fork and knife?
You made up for it at the parties. The way you'd roll down the stairs in a gunny sack on Halloween, the hot women you'd bring and ravage in the attic until their wanton, heedless moans brought Carol to the third floor to see if you were getting hurt. But specially, I love you, because nobody could find the kind of hash for my pipe you could, and you got to admit we had some exquisite raps about E. M. Eschar and his tesselations--I still remember the word. And even though I was stoned I had to look it up. I mean we've always have been able to talk about anything. So why stop now, right? Even if I ask you to be honest about what's gotten into Ellen about Larry over Shirley.
After he visited you in Toronto, Connor is glowing. I mean you could feel the eros for ten yards. I had to open the door to the dark room there was so much heat peeling off him. It got me sweating and you know we're into November and this old Kenwood basement has got walls eight feet thick so you could keep butter and eggs fresh like a vegetable cellar.
But who is this Shirley chick? The way Connor tells it he puts his hand on her fingers and she's into his mouth with her tongue. The next thing he knows they're rolling and tumbling on a couch eighteen inches wide and he can't believe it's happening. A woman with some brains and some face and some body is going after him hammer and tongs like he has been wanting to go after her for days only she's doing it first! Better than a dirty comic book. Better than Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe. At least as good as the movies. Only this time he's not only in the audience, he's become the star.
Whatever he has got becomes a promontory, a peninsula so swollen east and west there is no north or south. And he's tenderizing her with all he can muster and she's game to keep him going until he's into the county morgue or back to kindergarten. The man is so elated even the crinkles on the edge of his lips and his gray hairs giggle. This is what a creative woman can do to a man, and this is what she has done to our friend.
Can you believe it? He's past fifty and he can't stop thinking of her and that night. Like a teenager. As if he has never made love before. Maybe he's never received love before. It should only happen to everyone, including me. What's Ellen so hot over? Didn't she introduce them? You sure can talk. So talk to me. I know you'll never write.
Long live the herb,
I hate you. Who the hell writes letters this day and age? Nobody. Especially me. But since you have decided to become cute and literary I have decided I won't take that from no one. Not even someone, the only one whom I could rap with till the day cracks. Especially someone getting mighty curious about my mate.
Look. Ellen goes out of her way to introduce Connor to Shirley. Connor keeps talking about how his wife wants other men in her life and that nowadays people spend fifty and sixty years together and that no one, but no one couple, she don't care how close they are, can ever have so much to say to each other or do with each other in that period of time that is so stirring or provocative so as to cancel out the excitement of meeting other people, be they male or female. Be it having sex or not. Hey, there's five billion people on the planet and she only really knows him. You got to be kidding. So the thesis-antithesis goes.
And he keeps talking about it. And talking about how his mate really feels strong about it. And that once she makes up her mind about something she doesn't fool around. She goes after it. He says he's content though lately sometimes he can't do anything sexual satisfactorily, and on occasion he's as soft as a bog. Now that really gets him upset. What's the world coming to when the easiest thing in the world becomes the hardest? And the hardest becomes the softest. Like going to the grocery and there's nothing on the shelves. Or there's something on the shelves and you reach into your pocket and there's not even one coin, not even a green stamp. Not much left when the Department of Agriculture and Public Aid give up on you all in one fell swoop.
So after not a lot of soul searching, Ellen introduces him to Shirley. She knows Shirley since they were together at NYU. Both in social work together at the time. About the time Ellen starts getting interested in statistics, Shirley started branching out into raising funds. I can tell you, she's amazing at it. But that's another story. We have her over for dinner. And after dinner we play Scruples and suddenly Shirley has this crimp in her neck. Connor begins massaging it. Just before she leaves he says how impressed he is with her and was there a chance they could have a vegetarian meal together before he left in two days.
She accepts. He reaches over to shake her hand and tell her how glad he is to meet her. Before he knows it she is hugging him. What follows is history. They go out. He comes back to the house early in the morning. I know because Ellen has to get up to let him in because he's lost the key. He apologizes profusely at the same time he's full of glowing adulations about Shirley's generosity and womanness and yet how cold she was at the end. So he wonders what he might have done wrong.
Well, at five in the morning, Ellen, who has never been an early riser even when she has to, is feeling like he is giving her an ice bath. She drags back to the bedroom and drops back into the sack. At that point Connor starts the washing machine, the dryer and the shower. But first he has to walk through our bedroom to get to the spare bedroom. You remember we have only the one, and the only way guests can reach it is through our neck of the woods. Very cozy. It's what happens when you convert an old ice cream parlor into an apartment. You remember we still have the soda fountain in the living room. Lots of fun at some parties.
He is making so much noise with the breakfast dishes and opening and shutting the refrig door I finally get myself up and get him out to the car before Ellen eats us both alive. On the way to the airport he's like Quixote. What a night. What a woman. He definitely has to see her again. How is it possible that a woman like that is not married? There wasn't anything he wouldn't do for her. He was going to phone her at work when he got back to Chicago. And if he didn't reach her he was going to write her letters. This from a guy whose wife was meeting him at the airport in about two and a half hours.
I tell him that look Shirley is not looking for men and is not certainly looking to get involved with a married man. I mean he has got to have at least twenty years on her. I told him why didn't he just kiss her and say aloha. That's what they do in Hawaii. Aloha just means goodbye in a real nice way. Like gee, that was a great time but let's leave it there. You know. moderation, Connor. Please. He's awash in his hormones and I'm talking to the moon.
He starts leaving messages all over Shirley's agency. Maybe once she calls him back and tells him essentially she had a nice time but nice is nice. She doesn't want to hurt him but she is seeing someone. He tells her no problem. He doesn't want to interfere in any of her private life just like he doesn't want her to interfere with his. When he doesn't hear from her again he starts writing her about movies like The Third Man and Alfie. I mean what are they? A hundred years old? Here she is seven hundred miles away and writing these proposals so these community organizations can get some money and function, and here this guy from Timbuktu who is professionally playing a kid's game and isn't likely to be free to do anything unless he kills his wife, asking her to make all kinds of contrived plans to meet him several hundreds of miles from where both of them live and work.
So she tells Ellen what's happening. It's not only the letters which ramble on about old movie plots and his ridiculous need to be with her in some bizarre campgrounds in the woods where they could hold hands and he could teach her how to identify birds. But actually when he left her she was very glad to be rid of him. The early part of the evening had been interesting. She had never known a professional ball player. But she had read Ball Four and had always wanted to meet Jim Bouton. Now Connor was telling her the same frank and funny stuff. It was very entertaining.
But at the end of their pleasuring, Connor keeps waking her up and keeps trying to get her to promise to drive him to the airport and get him back to Larry's in time so he can clean his clothes and shower so's he'll be looking fresh when his wife picks him up. About three in the morning she finally caves in. On the way they get caught in this huge traffic jam in the center of town. The police are all over the place. Everyone and the janitor are out celebrating the Maple Leaf's winning of the Stanley Cup. Kids are all over the car trying to poke their heads in, filled with booze just having a good time acting big. Connor starts getting mad and tells them he'll bust them in the mouth if they don't get their boozed up faces out of his.
That goes over big with Shirley who works with a lot of kids like this. Then when they get to our place. he can't find his key so Shirley feels obliged to wait till someone lets him in. When he tries to kiss her goodbye she cold shoulders him but he doesn't catch her annoyance and still thinks the end of the evening has the same appeal to her as the start of it. But then Connor has never been all that marvelously sensitive when it comes to women.
So there you have it big fella. Just keep it to yourself. I don't mind telling him about it, but only if he asks. When he starts trying to tell me all the wonderful things that happened that night it's hard to take. Like a priest having his first love affair and wanting to unburden himself. Men are always seeing women as all powerful, all encompassing yet yielding. Connor is as Quixotic as any of them. Too old European for my taste. I hope this has taken the confusion out of your life.
With great hopes that this clarifies all, I bow to my old Byzantine brother, unsurpassed harlot herbalist,
Larry the Hairy
My Dear Old Weed Supplier, par excellence,
You have cleared up tons of confusion. What you have not yet done is given us a solution. I'm telling you, ever since, this Shirley he can't get out of his head. He goes over every stitch of her clothing, every phrase in the restaurant, what they ate, how she spirited him to the apartment, how the warped door stuck and how he was sure they were stuck in the hall until he accidentally gave the door a good whop in the right place so that it jumped open, when she went to the john, where he put his jacket, what kind of tea she made, what the extra large, hardbacked book on the table had to say about miso being one of the nuclei of macrobiotics and she wanting to know if he agreed, and when in his vest and rolled up to the lower forearmed cuff he put his fingertips on her hands.
So what if he writes her letters telling her how her beautiful face keeps waking him and writes her fifteen pages on ancient movies even the buffs don't remember anymore? And that isn't all. He interrupts her work in the middle of the day with clients, leaving message after message. So what?
Yeah I know he's married and twice her age. But he says he has been over the hill ten years because there is no excitement in the marriage for a long time. With a magician like Shirley, he is rejuvenated. All the creaks, stiffness in his joints disappear.True he doesn't know which end of a wrench to use, or can't figure how the tappets of a faucet are arranged so they won't leak, or how to cut plaster board, let alone lay it. And even after ten years of trying he can't properly thread thirty five millimeter film on a spool in the dark. For all these mistakes and clumsiness, every Thursday we get to talk. He knows nothing about cameras and film or tools. But he brings over these fat anatomy books and we pour over the muscles and joints like we were in a garage.
He doesn't know as much about them as I know about the Volkswagen, but I'm hypnotized by the arrangements of colors and names. And the next thing we're talking about are our families. Yeah, about our wives and how it is to make love to them, and how his spurns him and how he's come to the conclusion that no one woman could ever satisfy him, or he, she.
He and his wife have sex maybe once every three months. And he always has to initiate it. He knows she doesn't like it because she makes a continuous point that he is much too rough no matter how much lotion he puts on his hands and how many adjustments he makes to soften his fingers and bones. She can't even stand him linking his arm in hers. His always seems like a ton of stone and he never seems to know how to do it differently. The man louses up continuously. Story of his life. Almost as if he has never done anything before, though he does them all the time. He often even can't figure out which hand works the best so he has to straighten that out first before he does anything at all. A real palooka.
Not only are his hands too coarse for touching but bone chilling especially in the cool weather. And his toenails are antlers of barbwire. If he, finally in exasperation, insists on making love she much prefers Wednesdays and in the afternoon, as if it were high tea and finger sandwiches. Other days were impositions on her schedule and she wasn't gleeful that all he wanted to do was make love instead of cuddle and hardly ever said he loved her while using all sort of filthy, loud allusions.
Afterwards, he talks too much about his exercises and healthy eating and her cigarette smoking and how her skin and skinniness were turning him off. He keeps bringing up her mother who has died of stomach cancer from her junk food habits and her older sister who might just as well be dead of anorexia trying to maintain the figure of a nymph. All she wants to do is go to sleep and all he wants her to do is listen and shakes her if she is beginning to dose. Once, she raises up suddenly, like a sarcophagus from the grave, and hits him in the breastbone with her fist. She wants to know why he doesn't bring up some of these things at dinner instead of keeping her awake with all of this now.
Need I tell you this is a guy who's married thirty years, thereabouts. And maybe he's had extramarital relations twice? Maybe. I wouldn't be thunderclapped if he never had anybody. You know how really ugly his elbow of a nose is with that drop of moisture always at the business end of things, And his scraggly eyebrows and almost bald eyelids for all the picking and tearing at them when he gets nervous and can't figure out things, even at his age, which is almost all the time.
And he has this idea that he is irresistable to women. They just don't dare approach him because he is so self sufficient and they want a man who really needs them. If that isn't the limit. I could forgive him all that. But for Buddha's sake can't he ever cut the hairs pouring out of his nostrils? They are as long as tusks.
Still. I might as well tell you. I told him about all the affairs you were having when you were married to Diane. I don't know if I should believe him but he is telling me all about his exploits and I'm getting a little horny. So I have to return the favor, right? The guy's getting old. It's important that we keep the elderly entertained. I told him about when you were working nights for the City News and this married woman and you would meet in the parking lot after two in the morning when you both got off from work. You'd go to the forest preserve and do your things in the front seat of the car no matter what the weather was. She had this thing about motels. He shook his head in disbelief. I told him one of the wonders of the world is to be young and supple. Letting it all hang out in a kayak on the Snake River would not be a big deal.
Anyhow, the point is this guy really likes you. Maybe even loves you. He thinks you're his best friend. At least he felt that way when you were in Chicago, the way you'd go round and round the Point till three in the morning talking about how important it was to communicate. Your gestures were as loud as your mouths. People from the tall buildings across the park called the police, twice I remember, because you woke them up. They thought someone was being attacked in the dark on the other side of the Drive.
Anyhow, what I'm trying to say is will you tell Ellen not to be so rough on the old fart? He gets carried away, so do you when you dance and take pot. I know Shirley is her friend and it was through her that Connor met Shirley and then when he got to your house the night he was with Shirley he couldn't get in because he'd lost the key. I know it was four in the morning and Ellen couldn't get back to sleep after he woke her by screaming from the street and then insisted on running the washer which had a loose bolt and banged against the wall because he didn't have any clean underwear and insisted he had to have some and shower because his wife was meeting him at Midway at 8:30. After all, he did find the key and sent it back to Ellen. I watched him put it in the envelope. I put the stamp on and mailed it myself.
Try to make it to Chicago real quick. I sure miss the red blush on your bald head. Only you could get Carol to lose weight and start making love to me. She sure used to make love to me when you were around. What were you up to?
Love and kisses,
Walther von der Vogelweide