Summer Session, 1989
Benjamin talks to Galindo
I knew my mother’s body. I knew where the scratchy hair was even when she covered it with bubbles and the purple wash cloth. Kittens came out of cats was something I knew and babies out of mothers. Did I come out of you? I asked her, and she said yes. Who in hell knows what I thought? Maybe I slithered out of her right there in the bathtub, as slippery as we were, as easy as it seemed. There were no mysteries. There were no fathers. How I got inside her in the first place didn’t come into it. I was part of her. Where she began and where she ended. Her long hair was mine to grab hold of, her big tits to suck on if I wanted. Just for a minute my teeth wouldn’t hurt her. Her stomach and thighs were mine too. I knew the feel of them as she slid me down and set me on the bathmat. While she dried me off and dressed me she was naked, she was my naked mother, soft and squishy, skinny, smelling good. We were like complete in the bathroom with the sharp cabinet edges and the hard cold tile, the water you could drown in, even a teaspoonful, she told me. No fooling.
The truth is I don’t remember my mother very much at all.
Maybe I’m telling Galindo all this because he comes from El Salvador and sees me down on my knees practically, begging, until finally they say I can audit Levant’s class. Dr.Levant like everybody calls him. Because he has a PhD and it’s Upper Division, whatever that is. Seems like he’s some kind of top professor and Galindo’s already in the class which is another weird coincidence I try to tell him about, but I don’t think he gets it. Just follows me out to the parking lot, calls me amigo, all the time telling me the story of his life. Kind of a mournful guy, if that’s the word. I kind of picture him having a mustache later on. Not one of those macho Spanish guys. He’s pretty, he’s got eyelashes like a girl. He dresses in a clean white shirt, and inside it his body looks like it could bend in a breeze. Galindo has a mom and dad, but they’re split up. His dad’s an officer in this fanatic battalion they call the Eagle, his mom’s in San Francisco, and he’s got different brothers and sisters stashed away in boarding schools they slipped into with the English they learned at some American high school down there. He lives with his cousins, all very sad for the Patria, for the land they lost in some reform, sad for the fincas untended and going to ruin, sad to have to work for the first time in their lives. Poor leetle El Salvador, she ees the baby of the Americas. Is he kidding me or what? He talks to his white BMW in Spanish. Makes love to it practically. Rubs it down with Turtle Wax.
The earth is scorched here. People say it hasn’t rained in months, or if it has it’s been a shower, a sprinkle, just enough to turn the dust on your car to mud. All speckled and spotted, that’s how it looks the day after. You can sense ruin here, you can sense neglect. They’ve mostly given up on lawns. Check out the various stages: gone dry, gone yellow, gone completely back to dirt, black, all cracked. No startling freshness, no clarity in the air, though there is the shock some days of seeing the mountains, remembering they’re there. Sheila would die here. We’re all going to die here, that’s the feeling. Only with Galindo I don’t feel it. Galindo doesn’t notice weather, doesn’t see the town. He’s used to exhaust fumes and sweating through more than one shirt in a day. What else? Oh, plenty. Like shoot’em-ups in some big hotel, like people begging in the streets. He doesn’t even see the winos we pass, reaching out with their paper bags. Chicks, or maybe a couple of sports cars, he spots. MG sounds completely different in Spanish. That’s one he’s seen before in El Salvador. What do they have down there anyways, two or three sports cars, all sabotaged by now, all blasted to smithereens.
Galindo’s pale and fragile, but he doesn’t give a damn if he’s going to die, not like Sheila, gloom and doom. Galindo wants to fuck the planet. He has that perspective Sheila’s always talking about. Hardly reacts when they’re dumping Malathion, doesn’t start squealing and cursing, asking what kind of government? Even when I tell him it’s poison to little babies and old people with respiratory diseases. What a sad look he gives me then. Pobrecitos, he says. Always he can find a place in his heart for their sufferings while he focuses on his car. I have purchase a cover for it, he tells me. That way no nasty orange spots will turn up when they get done spraying.
I love Galindo. He might be way ahead of me in school even though he can’t speak English and half the things I tell him he doesn’t get and we don’t agree on anything. It’s the way he likes to cruise through Beverly Hills where they can still afford to water the lawns, how he listens when I tell him what it was like growing up on the Russian River. A bunch of laid-back grown ups smoking dope, kids running wild, a lot going down that you didn’t understand, changes in the food you ate and the hours that you ate it. The guys in Sheila’s bed changed and the smells and the noises all around. Something you liked, the way a certain guy talked to you or the food the barefoot woman cooked, one day they were gone and someone you didn’t like as much took their place. After a while, though, it thinned out. After a while it was just me and Sheila in the house with the river out back. I don’t know what happened. Did Sheila cop out, or did she see the light?
Sheila is acquainted with your mother, correct?
Nah. Not. Incorrect. When my mom took off for El Salvador, she left me with Fay, the lady next door who was Sheila’s mother, see? Fay couldn’t handle it, so quick as a wink she shipped me on up to Sheila.
You traveled in a boat?
Nope. On a bus.
Galindo lets out a little sigh. Sheila, Fay. It’s a lot to keep track of. It’s summer and we’re lazy, but at the same time we want to press on into the future, to the end of the century even, when we won’t be kids anymore. AIDS, LESBIANS, SAVE THE WHALES, FMLN. Sometimes when I pass these tables on campus, I think I could get into it. Even though it’s a circus and they’re trying to catch you in a hurry, unsuspecting, get you to sign their petition and make you feel ashamed that people are dying down there and you’re doing nothing about it. Maybe they’re just a bunch of bandits like Galindo says with their red bandanas and these banners that look like they’re written in blood, but is there a cause I would die for?
Galindo looks at me with those spaniel’s eyes. Maybe not thinking of me and my weird foreign childhood, thinking instead of his English teacher Mary Ann or Mariana like he calls her. How young she was, and such a cool deal, muy, muy jovencita. He could never believe a teacher could be so young, so gorgeous, so available. Still, I bust right in on his dream to tell him that my mother was a jerk. She disappeared, she got blown up in a bus, she was never coming back, but did that stop me from missing her, from thinking every day a letter would come and I’d get to ride in an airplane? See what I mean?
Wow! You were not joking me. Wow!
That’s what Galindo says when I get him to meet me in Venice on Saturday after work. We sit on the curb and watch girls jogging and skating and rolling by on their bikes, trying to catch all the rays they can before it goes down, and they don’t even notice us because they’re too busy keeping their balance or shouting fuck to their girlfriends or their ears are plugged up with a walkman and they’re concentrating on that. Galindo’s all excited, but then he feels sad because back home in El Salvador he used to sleep with that English teacher, an American with long blond hair like these girls around here. Galindo started learning English and Shakespeare just to please her and he’d hang around after class and offer to carry her books or a ride home in his Karmann Ghia and after a while she said yes. He fed her up on pupusas and beer and pretty soon they were fucking every day in the room she was renting far away from where he lived with his parents.
I am living the life of a double face, he says.
Yeah. I know what you mean. A double life, that’s how we say it.
The poor guy’s homesick. Years have gone by, but he can’t go home. Sounds like down there there’s only a few people that really count, and the whole thing blew up because he left his car parked overnight in front of her house.That was enough to get the poor girl fired and him sent away and while he was gone the war got bad and most of his family left. Now suddenly he’s interested in El Salvador like he never was before. He’s all on fire to do something for his con tree , stop the war, but that’s a problem because of his dad.
Me and Galindo have a lot of fights about that. Galindo counts a lot on respect. All profesores, all fathers automatically respectable. That’s in his book. Look, I tell him, maybe I can respect Levant for what he knows but not for fucking my mother. Anyway you look at it, he fucked her. He didn’t marry her. He didn’t keep her safe. He took advantage. He fucked her and he messed up her life.
Don’t give me those baleful looks, Sheila used to say to me. These are the looks Galindo is giving me now.
Nevertheless, Galindo says.
A big word he just learned. Nevertheless.
Ted Levant, Teddy, heads for the park in his neighborhood. Full of young mothers. Where the grass is alive. Close clipped, he notes, lying down in it, the air still and smoggy. Children dodge him on their way to the sandbox, the jungle bars, the glinting slide. He pictures the dried up patch of earth outside his bedroom window, hemmed in by walls for privacy. Maybe he should plant a tree. An apricot tree from home, from Lebanon, like his mother always wanted. Not so fast. Not so fast. It’s important for a tree to be a tree. Important to think that his heart functions well, and so does his liver. That he’s getting along all right with Stein out of town. Nursing the germ of an idea for a book he might write. Not drinking. He breathes in a time or two. Breathes out. Brush off your coat, Jack has to tell him later. Jack loved her too, like an uncle. Don’t be such an old woman, Jack.
That evening he locates the boy at the back of the room. In his lit class where he used to be Dr. Levant. Professor. But the boy sees through all that, matches him glare for glare. Serious. Determined. BENJAMIN YOUR SON, like a tattoo on his forehead. Not so easy, Teddy thinks, not so easy as he imagined at first to scare him off. Who does he think…? Without veneer, like his mother. Without sophistication. Pah. A punk. Though that means something else now. Her steamy breath, the rush of her being. Down there, she said. Impossibly willing. Searing his brain, her breasts two birds nesting under her sweater, careless, loose-limbed, lovely. Expecting what sweet talk, what palaver, what caresses? Where were we? he asks. He can feel the sweat standing out on his forehead. He pulls out his handkerchief to wipe it away. But the room is air-conditioned, man. So it is. You’re right, you’re right. Breathing. Being in the moment. The boy wears his hair too long, his jeans too low. Mindful of the smallest things. Too soon Ted starts in on Kafka who doesn’t come next. Are they paying attention? Who is he kidding? Try to picture Kafka’s father stretched out diagonally across a map of the world. Kafka couldn’t get married, he tells them. Marriage was the father’s domain. What was his point? Who knows? Who cares? Teddy registers TERROR. Registers JOY. He’s alone in the room with the boy. Whose hair is blond. Whose eyes are blue.
Ever notice? That’s what he was going to say. Had been going to. How they treat the guy in the movies who’s about to be executed? The guards, I’m talking about. All of a sudden, no matter what he’s done, he’s a murderer most likely, but that’s no matter now. They walk him down death row, and he says goodbye to his fellow prisoners who tell him a lot of lies. He’s bound to get a stay, they’ll be seeing him again in no time. To them he’s ordinary, one of themselves, a sinner. But to the guards he’s a holy man. They get him a priest, a glass of water, strap him into the chair, want to know if he’s comfortable. How are you, they ask, everything OK with you?
Except that I have bad dreams, Teddy thinks. Scribbled down in a notebook he keeps on the back of the toilet, damp pages saved up for Stein, airplanes in free fall, naked in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Heading home now on foot to his apartment where Mozart is waiting. His books and papers, the notes he’s been making. Piles of records. Everything on the floor. He’ll calm down, he’ll wait till he’s hungry, small rituals of the pipe, packing, sucking with measured breath. release, aroma. He will scour his bowl, who cares, eat something light.
Kafka foresaw it all, emaciation, nakedness, tattoos, but once he was a young man in a bowler hat whose ears stuck out, with slender white hands in a picture with his dog. Young Kafka went to the movies, kinematographs they called them, in Prague, trashy romances and slapstick comedies, to an airshow in Italy in company with other idlers. Ordinary diversions of a man of his time. Middle class, middle European. He was innocent, impressionable, happy to see those planes going up and down. Kafka was happy. Teddy laughs, seeing the shape of the book he could write if he doesn’t grow impatient with Kafka, for what? For being himself, for being Kafka. Hyper-intelligent, ambiguous, neurasthenic, suffering…
Maybe he took it headlong like an athlete the first time, but just for a minute I knew, like he was suspended in air before he landed safe on the other side: Mr. Holt. First time in my life anybody called me that. Sounds OK. Mr. Holt. Didn’t expect my father to be such a dark old dude. At least now I know where I got all the curly black hair on my legs. I figured fifty, but Sheila says it’s more more like sixty. His skin is yellow and his teeth are rotten, his eyes sunk into his face, hairline receding, and on top of that I can see there’s another person in there waiting to get out. Behind the eyes, he’s the one who sees, who knows. Maybe when he comes to my mother’s name on the list he says Mr. Holt, just like that, like it’s nothing, but I saw. So good for me and cool deal. Even if he sets himself against me. Even if he finds out all the shit I haven’t read.
But for two weeks now it’s been nothing but cat and mouse. Sheila says get back up here out of the smog. Smog’s perfect for me, I tell her, the way things are going. I see him In the library, in the student union where professors never go, at a poetry reading listening to a woman from El Salvador, dressed all in black with a saucepan on her head, recite this awful torture stuff which is pretty hard to take, a mishmash of Spanish and English, and I’m thinking she could sit in on one of Levant’s classes to improve her accent. Some of her poems sound kind of crazy like there’s one about falling in love with the guard who raped her, like she’s the one who committed crimes. I don’t know, she affected me like music and after a while I didn’t need to understand. Afterwards I follow him to see where my father eatssleepsshitsfucks, so close he could crawl there, a slicked up place with a swimming pool, but like a prison with a wall around a dinky yard. That was it and the next day I quit doing the reading because I thought he was a person, this underground man Levant talks all about and is the name of the course. Shows how dumb I am because it’s just an idea it turns out, a way to link all these guys together, these anti-heroes like he calls them. So I just show up. I audit, which means I listen. Yeah. A kid in a t-shirt and ripped up jeans, a no-nothing right out of high school who talks like every other kid even though he knows better. Want to break your silence, Mr. Holt? Favor us with an opinion? Essence existence and which comes first a sliver of nothingness God is dead, all in a rush, all over my head, because summer session will be over soon and he won’t wait a second for me to figure out what I want to say, just goes on to the next person with his dumbass question.
I even tell Sheila she was right. I should have done my homework instead of hauling my canoe down to the river, sneaking off, playing hookey. I think about performing every action as though I was doing it for the whole world and sometimes I almost feel sorry for the guy like when he arrives disheveled and maybe he hasn’t shaved. Calls people Jack, but there is no Jack. Lets the guys in our class bullshit the sessions away, even Galindo, pretending to be all cool with God is dead, breaks off in the middle of a sentence, lets us out early. Always quoting something, like his own words wouldn’t be good enough. This is no country for old men, he says. He’s one of them, burrowing in his hole. Underground man is him.
They flee from me that sometime did me seek.
Conducting, ruler in hand, Ted has them thundering the iambic line. He makes them shut up for a minute and clap the beats. Weak/strong, weak/strong. weak/strong, weak/strong, weak/strong. It’s our natural rhythm, he tells them, it’s the way we talk. Pah! I could give you the opening line of twenty sonnets, but would you hear it? He bores them with a long explanation of the difference between metric and syllabic verse. We’re counting stresses here, not syllables. You know all that, you had it in high school, right? Of course you didn’t. Pah! Just follow me. He draws it out of them, dividing the room, over here in a whisper, now you, as loud as you can, OK, now all together, let it all hang out. That’s it, you lousy bunch of foreign illiterates, now you’re talking, now you’re speaking English, and we’re going to stay with it until everyone can say it, no trace of an accent, no dey instead of they, and it’s from with an m, not fron.
His remedial class. Armenian girls with hairy arms and upper lips in short tight skirts. Too much eye makeup. A know-it-all from Columbia who hates homosexuals, a couple of rowdy Chicanos. Eh, Profesor, what’s witchoo this night, eh? Tonight I’m sober, he tells them, and they all laugh, even the pale Asian girl who is pregnant. They chant. They work up a sweat. Did you think I would trust you with the rest of the poem? Pah. Get out of here!
But the new woman stays behind, stops at his desk. Poesìa, she whispers. Translation: poetry. Sniggers from the Chicano boys sidling past. They wait till they get out in the hall to snap their fingers, screech pendejo. He knows what that means. A poor coward they think he is with nothing but poems for his sex life. But how easy,Teddy thinks, to humiliate them next time in class, to get them on their feet stuttering in front of the girls, curling their tongues around something difficult to pronounce. Like the days of the week. Like Wednesday. Yet something always holds him back.
One of those impassive Mayans. Straight black hair caught up in a barrette of some kind. Carries a saucepan like a purse, sets it down gently beside the desk. Same as last week. He refuses to pronounce her name, but by now it’s a regular thing. He wishes she wouldn’t. He makes a show of straightening some papers, heads for the door. Look, Señorita, he leers. I don’t want to hear it. You’re not even registered for this class. Out of my way.
If she misses a step, if she falls down, she will brush off her skirt and keep going, compose her face, as she has already reconciled herself to some tragedy. She knows how to manage. Don’t, he says, I can do nothing for you, but the speckled pamphlet is already lying neatly on top of the books he is carrying. She’s underlined the title, Madre. English and Spanish side by side. On the cover, a rough map of Central America inked in with lines and scratches, superimposed on this a rifle supported by a pair of spidery hands. Made in USA. On the right, a face, heavily shadowed, blackened eyes. Some hero, he supposes, the fine print runs off at the bottom, too small for him to read.
It isn’t poetry, it’s propaganda, he calls over his shoulder. Black hair bobbing. She has a compact figure. A stubborn step. Cadavers in the waves… the mother searching for a birthmark through a pile of torn limbs. He ponders these images as she hurries to catch up with him, the saucepan dangling from her left hand, reciting, switching back and forth between Spanish and her halting English. Some pretty strong stuff here, I’ll admit. Still hoping to lose her, to make his getaway down the stairs and out the door. You shouldn’t give it to me, though.You should give it to… Her poems invaded by a terrible homesickness, Los Angeles a desert, maze-like, surreal. There’s one in which she seems to have used as many words as possible with a double r. And for an instant (he must be going old and soft) Teddy sees the girl, Melinda, with her face wide open, waterfalls she was going to show him, himself festooned in native garb. Almost in step now. Rolling the words around on his tongue: chorros, arroz, horror.
So like I wasn’t hurt already? That’s what I tell Sheila when she says the bastard’s making a goop out of me and how you can start to feel sorry for Nazis when you see them on TV when they’re old and brought to trial for crimes they can’t remember. We show up anyways, me and Galindo, early on a Saturday at the end of October. Taking the enemy by surprise. What do I have to lose now that summer is over and the burger joint closed and I’ll be clearing out of here soon. Hey, what’s up? I ask him, and it really makes him laugh. Or maybe it’s Galindo being so reed-like and mournful looking, ready to blow away in the first wind.
You got a shovel? Damn if he didn’t. Leaning against the wall of the garage brand new, plus we’d brought along a spade and a trowel. Just give us a couple of trash bags and we’ll get to work. He hands them over, sleepy, chest hairs sticking out of his bathrobe, rubbing his eyes.
Sure, man, Galindo says. Good things happening all over the place. First, because there’s nobody in there with him. If he can still get it up. Second, it’s an easy job. The yard’s so small the two of us bump into each other, and the weird clots of grass are hardly even in the ground. They’ve risen up out of it brown and ugly with their roots showing on top of the hardened dirt. One whack, that’s all it takes. So we go at it, grabbing up powdery fistfuls and stuffing them into the sacks which are the only green thing around. And I get to teasing Galindo about working with his hands which I happen to know he’s never done in his life before. Hey, campesino, looks like you could use a cervesa, but nothing doing, down on your knees. What a lousy worker, always leaving a trail behind for someone else to pick up. Galindo is giving me that baleful look and slipping grass down my neck.
Cut it out! I mash a clump of dirt in his hair and we roll around on the ground, fantastic, first time I’ve seen Galindo when he wasn’t stiff and sad and we’re done anyway. The yard is bare and I’m already thinking of rototilling and adding some nutrients to this crumby soil before planting whatever we’re going to. Something fast-growing, smog eating. I have the greatest go-ahead feeling like my father owns some kind of plantation. And right then Galindo spits out his idea, what do you say, amigo, we take the guy for pupusas. I don’t know, I just let Galindo take over. Maybe because I was thinking I butt in too much, that I can’t expect Levant to let me come around whenever I feel like it. I’m all mixed up. I have the idea he’s watching us out the window, putting us down for fooling around. But Galindo just asks him and pretty soon we’re in Galindo’s car with me looking at the backs of their heads, Galindo’s long, black, and smooth, Levant’s short, gray, and curly.
Around the corner on Brooklyn we run into mobs of Mexicans all dressed up for the Day of the Dead and headed for the cemetery with everybody honking their horn and Galindo getting into it and honking back and telling Levant he’s going to like to see something of the Latin culture and maybe you will pay your respects.
Hey, Galindo, I don’t think so. This is pretty morbid. But I say it too late because by now we’re out of the car and part of it, the spooky teenage kids in white face, little old Indian ladies with wrinkles and braids down their back, the three of us milling around, not heading to any certain grave, the only ones with our arms empty in the jumble of heat, food, bright orange flowers, kids shrieking. There’s one hell of a gigantic picnic going on, but strange, strange, because they’re stomping on tombstones. We stand out like intruders, we’re not a family with women and children and I can’t get into it like Galindo with his memories of how it is in El Salvador, even today with the war going on they’re camping out in the cemeteries and bringing more pictures and food and flowers than they ever did before. Jesus, it’s making me sweat and Levant too and I say we should leave, but Galindo goes, pupusas is a promise we make to the guy.
The scene’s more normal back on the street with only a trickle of people in costume, mostly little kids with chalky faces eating colored ices along the curb. But then Galindo has to step into an art gallery to cross himself in front of these altars made out of bread, all dripping with wax from the lighted candles. He buys a cookie, a death’s head with his name on it, Carlos, swallows it whole. Wish me luck, he says, but I have a horror of it and of the mothers looking for cookies with their kids’ names on them, handing them around. It seems like temptation, like treading on a snake you find sleeping in your path.
I’m starting to feel low and bad, completely losing track of Levant. By the time we go into a restaurant, alls I want to do is put my head down so I can think about Concepción Hermosa.There was a yellow flier with her picture on it wearing the saucepan back there in the gallery, an ad for one of her readings. It’s like she’s everywhere, all over the city. She could be crazy like Galindo says, but to me she’s a breathtaking person because of the things she’s seen. Meanwhile Galindo has Levant by the arm to steer him through, has his ear to give him the dope on the things we’re seeing, a bride and groom in the booth across from us. She’s grinning, bucktoothed, the groom in a top hat and tails with a jazzy skeleton front and his coat’s too small for him so he looks all skinny and elongated as though a set of bones is wearing it. His partner in life is his partner in death, her eyes gouged out with makeup, her bold red lips completely out of place against her whitened skin.
No, no, Galindo says, this is no macabre. This says, look to the face of death, look friendly. Even to make fun of death is permitted once in a year. To take him for your lover. Even this is OK.
You’re full of it, I tell him, thinking how it could have been Galindo’s father who tortured Concepción Hermosa or at least some soldier under his command and just for a minute I hate him. My best friend. Galindo. Taking bribes from his father, faking it, agreeing to become a lawyer like his father wants.
Something is dissolving here in this cantina, the whole student professor thing, and I can see the hand Galindo’s placing on Levant’s shoulder is a different hand now, more equal, let’s say. Instead of steering Levant around, it’s more like Galindo’s getting in close so he can talk to him about his application to UCLA. And when Levant takes off his coat to roll up his sleeves, Galindo leaps to hang it up and when the pupusas come he teaches him the tricks, the finer points, how to split the thing open, how not to lose the chicharrón insides, how to stick in two fingers of cabbage soaked in vinegar. So fine. So I have a few beers which I’m not that used to and even a shot of tequila to return to life, but I can’t go with it the way I could before. With the smoky center of the room where a couple of bright-eyed women are slapping away at the masa, making that pat-pat sound Galindo loves to hear, throwing the rounds of dough down on the comal, fanning the smoke away, sparks flying up from the charcoal underneath. I know this place. I know how to flirt with the sexy waitresses, which ones will serve us a drink without asking and which mariachis charge too much for their songs and I don’t get jolted anymore when a deaf and dumb beggar or a sunburnt filthy homeless person goes from table to table hoping for some change. Hell. In some weird bloated way I know just about everything. Piece of shit, I say it under my breath. Piece of shit. Piece of shit. She was blown up in a million pieces, she couldn’t even get buried. She was eaten by birds.
That night Teddy muses, paces, puts on a record. Dad. Dad. Ridiculous name. But what’s the choice? Papa? Pop? There’s nothing else, so leave it. Not now. It was over and done with. It was too long ago. She has no name, no smell, no clothes.That’s what he wants to say. It’s an interruption. It’s disturbed his train of thought, the opera he’s playing too loud for the neighbors. Pah. They’re lucky, it’s the Magic Flute. It’s Mozart. Who cares. Teddy’s a little deaf, and sometimes he likes the idea of enforced isolation, though it’s frightening, still hard to imagine. In some unformulated glimpse of the future, he sees a woman, who? Coming and going, dusting, emptying the stinking ashtray, cooking a meal though he doesn’t eat much. He hardly eats anything, leaves the food untouched on his plate. That’s what she’ll tell him, a good woman if she didn’t talk so much. Do what you have to. Make eggs. That’s what he’ll say in the future when he’s old. He was already old when he met her, when he went down there where he had no business. It was late. It was after a party. Drugs, alcohol. She came to me with garlic on her fingers from an aphrodisiac stew she was making. What could he tell the kid? Who cares. Tomorrow he thinks he’ll begin making notes. A thousand details about Kafka are here in his books, in this room. Kafka turned up his nose at the opera somewhere he read, he was modest and shy. She knew Rigoletto he remembers, knew the words though she’d never seen it. She covered her breasts with her elbows. In the beginning he turns his back. He leaves the room. She waits for him beneath the sheet. He sees the root of himself planting and replanting itself in that blondness, in those woods. What was it she wanted? Something rare, private, noble, all consuming. She would take flight, come to the rescue. What was the story? A child gone missing, a mother, some woman who worked for her, wild with fear. Getting nowhere, or getting closer? Closer. Closer to Kafka who courted a woman but never had a son. Come now, he whispers. He will write it in secret until he is certain. Can he keep it from Stein? Pah. Teddy shuts off the machine. Goes to bed hungry thinking I have a son, and for days it’s the same as the writing takes over, as he sneaks up on Kafka watching movies in the dark. Kafka, becoming Kafka, creator of K. That’s what his book will be about.
Ah, Benjamin. Alls he says practically when he sees me, when me and Galindo stop by a couple of Saturdays later. Ah, Benjamin. I think he’s pleased, but I can’t tell. I feel like I’m gonna run out of reasons to be near him now that we’ve finished the yard. Like something you’d find on the moon, he says, and Galindo says we should have given him the grass and trees he wanted, but they take too much water. He even starts to tell me how he bargained half a canteen of sugar for a ring in Japan when the war was over only three days. When he was my age. Dumped the rest of the sugar on some railroad tracks and watched while old men and children ran to scoop it up. He sweats. He gets pissed off at every little thing, and I can see how useless and hopeless my whole big idea was, like it was up to me to make sense of their lives. Like no hard feelings is what I want to say. I know he watches me too. We look at each other when the other isn’t looking. We look for hints, we look for signs. Of what? We’re taking a long time chewing in some lousy coffee shop which is the only place he’ll go to and he and Galindo are going on about one of those underground guys called Harry and I want to say what a jerk Harry sounds like to me and what’s the point if nothing means anything and it’s all an illusion, but since I never read the book probably I don’t know what I’m talking about so I concentrate on my burger.
I used to go dancing with your mother, Levant says suddenly, not even looking at me but thinking back, at a ritzy hotel in Pasadena, smelled of old money, where she belonged and I dressed the part. God help me, I liked the combo they had there, tunes from before she was born. Did you think I was like Harry? Did you think I never danced?
Well, yeah. No. I mean I never thought about it. Go on, I say, because at last I’m getting it. She’s got long blond hair swinging down her back, she’s not a very good dancer, like she’s nervous, too eager, and he…
Pah! What am I doing here with you two kids?
Patricia’s her name. That’s what I want to tell him. And how I might want to study political science. Something real. And maybe I’ll take her dancing even though I don’t know how to dance. Patricia, that is. Pronouncing her name the Spanish way with all the syllables. A Chola from East L.A. with braces on her teeth and the handle of a turquoise comb sticking out of her back pocket. Yeah. Sitting right next to me at the poetry reading and together we got acquainted with Concepción Hermosa who works in a bar in Echo Park. It protects her, she says, the pot, she calls it. She could use it to pee in, to keep her brain from floating off like a balloon in the zoological garden. Guys in the bar call her La India on account of she’s short and dark and we make up our minds, Patricia and I, to stay close to her because of the things she can tell us about the world.