by Bill Bowler
|Chapter 5: Work and Play|
Young Walter Wobble quits school to go out into the world and find the People. With no money or prospects, he works as a busboy while writing poetry and dreaming of success. Through his tenement window, he watches from afar a young woman who lives across the street until, one day, they meet. Unfortunately there is already another man in Cynthia’s life, a man Wobble knows: he is Josef Mrak, and he has some very bad karma.
The next night at Paulie’s was rockin’. The place was full, a happy hectic buzz of good food, fine wine, and (was it light-hearted? or deadly serious?) chatter. Ex-Governor Cartwright had come in with Judge Edgar Perez, the first Dominican justice on the New York State Supreme Court; Al Pasquale, the actor, was dining quietly in the Debartolo Room, the private side room reserved for VIPs. The front doors opened, and in walked a big Mafioso, Vinnie the Horse, with two bodyguards, his lawyer, and two girlfriends: party of six.
The Horse sat where he always sat, next to the side stand in the far corner of the dining room, with his back to the wall, facing the front door. The Horse was a big, fat, greasy sleazeball. He must have weighed in at around 350 lbs. He owned part of a well known tourist trap Italian restaurant on Mott St. and some nude review gentlemen’s clubs on Times Square. The Daily News had run a story on him a few years ago, calling him the “midtown porno king.”
I was at the side stand putting clean glasses on the shelf, trying to eavesdrop. I considered The Horse an interesting subject to observe and perhaps transform into a character in a verse narrative. He was tucking a napkin into his collar and talking to his consiglieri.
“But duh guy owes me money. I just wan’ my money.”
The Horse’s girlfriend, dripping with diamond jewelry, was slightly burnt-out and must have been quite attractive in former years before the wear and tear started to show.
“Vin-nee,” she whined.
“Jus’ a minute, babe.” The Horse rose and walked away from the table with his arm around his young, balding lawyer, out of earshot of the other two gentlemen.
“Vincent,” the lawyer was saying, “you know I wouldn’t do anything without your permission.”
The Horse exchanged a few private words with his attorney and they returned to the table.
“Vin-nee,” the girlfriend began, “what about my birthday present?”
“Later, babe. We’ll talk about it later.”
Listening intently to their conversation, I wasn’t paying attention to what I was doing and dropped a glass. It broke with a loud crack. Vinnie the Horse lurched back and threw his hands up in front of his face. The two body guards rose and reached into their jacket armpits. The lawyer disappeared under the table.
Paulie was there in a flash.
“Gentlemen, I’m sorry. The kid’s green. Wobble, in the kitchen. Gentlemen, will you have a cordial with us?”
On my way into the kitchen, I cut the corner too close and bumped head-on into Carlos the waiter, who spilled Shrimps Marinara down the front of my new pants.
Paulie was on me like a hawk. “Wobble! WAH-BUL!!”
“What am I going to do with you, Wobble?”
“Your pants are filthy. Filthy. What is that all over your pants?”
“It’s all over your pants, Wobble. You can’t appear on the dining room floor and give proper service to our customers with marinara sauce all over your pants, can you?”
“No. You’re right, Paulie.”
“Don’t you understand? You want to be a waiter? A busboy has to remember one or two things. A waiter has to remember a million! Look at you. Did you shave today?”
I reflexively rubbed my whiskers. “Yes,” I lied. Paulie knew it.
“And have I talked to you about your hair? How many times?”
“I don’t know, Paulie. You have talked to me about it.”
“It looks like a wig, like you’re wearing a wig. How much did that haircut cost?”
I grinned and said proudly, “Three dollars. I went to the barber shop in the subway station at Broadway-Lafayette.”
Paulie winced. “Listen, spend some money. Go to a good place. No part, all right? You want to be a waiter?”
“Yes, Paulie. I will.”
Paulie sniffed and looked more closely at me. “What do I smell?”
I moved away to get back to work. “I don’t know, Paulie.”
They were never going to make me a waiter at this rate.
* * *
I came home to find a rejection slip from Poetry magazine in my mailbox. I was entering a period of depression. I had started out with such high expectations, such high hopes and idealism. But every day, New York pisses on your ideals. You’re not a great poet, you fool. You’re not Blake or Dostoevsky. You’re just another anonymous shmoe. Nobody cares if you’re sensitive. It could be a sign of weakness. If you’re not careful, you get pushed in front of a subway train or you slide down into the gutter with a pint bottle of cheap wine.
But there is another side, the beautiful and tender. I was already thinking about moving in with Cynthia. Why pay the rent on two apartments? I admit the prospect was frightening. There goes my independence, for one thing. And what if things didn’t work out? Then what? I’d have given up my own place and be out on the street with no place to go.
But who would care for her more devotedly than I? Who was more suited to her, more compatible? No one but me. Yours truly was ready to give up his freedom and accept responsibility. It was a difficult decision, but one I was making. I was ready to open up with her in a way I had never done before. I wanted to weep in her embrace, protected from the rude world. She pulled it all out of me without trying.
In the grip of her personal magnetism, my emotions spewed out in her direction. Her face was like a flower. Her lips were little red rose petals, puckered to kiss...
A shout broke my reverie. Cynthia was out on her fire escape, calling to me. I stuck my head out the window.
“Now?” I asked.
Her apartment was a mess. Books and papers were strewn on the floor. There was a three-week stack of newspapers in one corner. Flat surfaces were covered with piles of stuff. The rug was in serious need of vacuuming. In the bedroom, an unmade bed and a tall pile of clothes tossed on a chair.
Cynthia was very pale, smoking a cigarette with an ashtray full of butts. “I have to talk to someone! I’m going crazy!”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
She took a drag. “I need something to drink first. My throat is dry.”
I couldn’t imagine why. She pulled the ice cube tray from the freezer and dropped it, spilling ice cubes all over.
“Relax, relax. You’re all worked up.”
“I’ve been like this all week. I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. I’ve been throwing up. At least I’m losing weight.”
“But what’s wrong?”
“I have no one to turn to. No friends. I’m completely isolated.”
“What about your family?”
“My parents live in Jersey. They have their own problems.”
Well then, she had me to turn to, didn’t she? It was a flattering thought. She put out her cigarette butt and lit another.
“You’re sweet. You have a nice smile.” She poured two glasses of ice tea and we sat in her little kitchen, the very room into which I had gazed from across the street earlier in our relationship.
“My father is very puritanical. He can’t handle the sight of a woman’s breasts in a movie. It drives him crazy.” (Me, too, I thought.) “He’s ultra-conservative. I’m his favorite. That’s why my brother and sister moved away as soon as they could.
“I remember, when I was very young, at meals, my plate and silverware had to be just so. All the food had to be separate and in its own section of the plate. I’m still like that. Daddy is such a slob! He mashes his peas into his potatoes. It makes me ill.”
“It’s better not to look. Just eat and enjoy.”
“I had asthma as a child. I was born with it. I came out gasping.”
“Asthma is a classic psychosomatic ailment.”
“You wouldn’t understand! I don’t want to hear your Freudian bullshit! Freud is passé. I’ve gone way beyond Freud. I don’t want to hear about it.” She twitched as a nervous tremor ran down her spine. She began to bite her fingernail.
“Stop that,” I said gently, although I bite my own nails.
She twitched again. “I’m afraid you’re going to hurt me. I feel so vulnerable. Whenever my father saw I was vulnerable, he hurt me. I’m terrified of being hurt. I’m not crazy. I put on a big act at school. Successful and self-confident. No one suspects how scared I am of being hurt, how much I’ve been hurt.”
As she spoke, she shifted nervously with more little twitches. “I have a recurring nightmare. I’m swimming and rats underwater attack my vagina.”
“That’s horrible! You may be hurting yourself as much as anyone is hurting you.”
“No I’m not!”
“It’s all sexual.”
“Don’t give me that crap! You can’t fix my head!”
“I don’t want to. But when was the first time you had sex? When did you first do it?”
“My uncle took off my blouse when I was twelve. I was raped when I was sixteen. We were in Amsterdam, my sister and I. We were with this dope dealer smoking Lebanese hash. He gave me some pills. I didn’t know what was happening. It’s probably better that I didn’t.”
I didn’t know what to think. Was she making it all up, or part of it? Or had she really experienced these things?
Cynthia took a last drag on her cigarette, snubbed it out in the ashtray, and picked up the pack. It was empty.
“You have beautiful red hair,” I said.
“It’s blonde.” She looked at her watch. “I didn’t realize how late it was. God, I have an eight o’clock class tomorrow morning.”
“No. I can’t.” She rose from the table, “You better get going.” She walked me to the door. “Thanks for being such a great listener. I feel better now.”
I leaned towards her to kiss her.
She turned away. “Please don’t.”
* * *
How should I interpret her behavior? What thoughts did her words mask? I sat on my fire escape, watching her silhouette flit to and fro behind the translucence of her lowered curtains. I was stung by her rejection of me. And if she was so tired and had an early class, why were her lights still on an hour after I left?
I surveyed the street. A group of Latino teenagers was congregated at the corner by the social club. Across from them, some domino players were having a midnight game under the street light. In the middle of the block, a group of elderly Italians was sitting out on lawn chairs. Two winos were snoozing in a pool of urine across the street.
A taxi pulled up. A man got out of the cab and let himself into Cynthia’s building. My eyes tried to see through her drawn curtains, but it was no use. I was left to the torments of my own jealous imagination.
I climbed inside from my little perch on the fire escape and paced back and forth in my apartment, wrestling with myself. I considered going back over and demanding an explanation. But of what? Better never again to allow myself to get involved one-sidedly and open myself to this pain. No more stupid infatuations! Independence and self-reliance, the two pillars of the fortress of personality. Most women are drawn to the strong, independent man. No woman wants a weakling, an indecisive, cringing, whining insecure little boy who needs his mommy.
The harsh ring of the buzzer interrupted my thoughts. I considered not answering it and pretending no one was home. Who could it be at this time of night, anyway? There was no one I cared to see at the moment. The buzzer rang insistently.
I pressed the speaker and shouted, “Who is it?”
Cynthia’s voice sobbed in response. “It’s me. Please!”
I buzzed her in and she came up to the apartment and fell into my arms.
“I HATE him! Everything he says is a lie!”
Good, I thought. Perfect.
She looked up at me with moist eyes. “Are you angry with me?”
“No, babe.” I was smooth. “You don’t even have to ask.”
She opened my shirt and ran her fingers across my chest.
“You like that?”
“When we first met, I was terrified of you.”
“This makes no sense, but... I was afraid you would leave me.”
“Never! You don’t have to worry about that.”
I made some hot chocolate for us. We were very brother-and-sisterly. She had been so upset when she came over and, considering the circumstances, I didn’t want to make any dumb sexual advance and ruin everything. It was almost four in the morning when we kissed goodnight, and she went back across the street to her place.
Copyright © 2009 by Bill Bowler