FOUR FESTERING SORES
by Ricardo Nirenberg
1. LOCKER ROOM
"A hoondert eighty six tousand miles, Ja?" says the old man.
"Let's see, eight light minutes, if light goes at three hundred thousand kilometers a second," I reckon, sprinkling Dr. Scholl's powder in between my toes, "you've got to multiply this times five divided by eight you see and then times sixty times eight."
"Vel, I'm telling you, it's a hundert million tventy thousand miles to the sun and this here girl doesn't know it and she teaches math."
"First of all, she's only a graduate student, and secondly, that's not math," I say, rubbing a little Dr. Scholl's under my balls.
"Not math? Und vat is it?"
"Und she didn't know metod for finding sqvare roots either, isn't that math?"
"Not really... it's either ancient history or accounting," I say, perfidiously.
"I do sqvare roots of big numbers every morning you see, keeps the mind young, gut verkout. But nowadays these young people..."
When will you drop dead, old crapbag. At eighty-four, still trying to pick up girls at the pool. Tiberius, they say he liked to float surrounded by pretty young boys, his minnows. Old belly up like you, you dirty German shitbag. Last year when your son died, all rotten inside, you said how sad you know but look at me ha ha I'm eighty-four I svim a mile every other day I lead a healthy life ha ha ha. See, you say, I do sqvare roots, I'm stronger and smarter than a fifty-five-year-old. My son's rotting inside and look at me, the girls vel vat d'you vont they can't resist me. I spray Eau Sauvage on my chest and shoulders, put on my briefs and stand facing the old man.
"Now it's all calculators, calculators. But vot if you are on a desert island and you have to find a sqvare root. Ven I vent to school in Hamburg --"
"Listen, Helmut, you know the old American saying?" I interrupt, flexing my biceps and jutting out my pecs.
"Sure I know, sure I know. I came to America in 1926 and let me tell you --"
"The old American saying is this: if you're so damn smart how come you're not a millionaire? Eh, Helmut, tell me: how come you're not a millionaire?"
Upstairs, I stop to catch my breath. Despicable. How could I hit an old man like that? To hit him with a stick, or with a two-by-four, would have been all right, but not with America, for Christ's sake, not with America.
2. AT THE DRUGSTORE
Florence by the vitamin shelves.
"Well, hello, stranger, long time no see." Same girlish fall in pitch at word endings, same popsicle-sucking pursing of her lips. Mentally a five-year-old, complete with pleated skirts, hair ribbon. Physically, though, seventy-five.
"Two years, has it been?" I examine her. Could use a little more discretion when she dyes her hair. I didn't remember her arms were so lean. Hips not bad, but those shoes! Big, orthopedic, awful.
"Oh no, it has been more like four. Last time at the dentist, remember? No, wait, better don't remember: I had a swollen face."
Yes, I do remember, but her face was not half as bad as those arms and those shoes. She's finally got a divorce, she's kept the house, the calico cat has died but the canary's still alive, her daughter has dropped out of Geneseo State, daughter doesn't know quite what to do with her life. My son graduated from Harvard, works in New York now for a top investment bank. Florence doesn't listen. Her neurological condition has been getting steadily worse, eventually she won't be able to walk. When, I ask. "They don't know," Florence replies. "That's terrible," I shake my head, fixing my eyes on the condom display. The bitch has been saying that for the past twenty years; I'll be dead sooner than she'll start rolling around in a wheel-chair. Ribbed. Super lubricated. Contoured shape. For feeling in love. Those shoes. How could I ever. Think of it, ten years ago she was my passion.
"Saw your wife the other day at the mall," Florence coos; "she barely said hello though, she looked as if she was in a hurry."
"Poor Irene, she works very hard," I say. "We both do. I'm working very hard this semester: I've got two hundred students. And working out too, just came from the pool. Good day, a mile in twenty-eight minutes, that's pretty good, you know."
"But tell me about you," Florence whispers, as if she was asking about some shameful disease. "Still running around? Always unhappy?"
3. TWO A.M.
Beep. Beep. Bedlight on. My watch? It's two A.M. The kitchen stove? The VCR? The microwave? We live among benign beeping systems. Pantha beeps. All men naturally desire to beep. Or to be beeped. And the rest is beep beep beep. I stretch my left arm for some reading material. Here, on the floor, the New York Review of Books. Last page, personal ads, the rest unreadable. "Petite, gorgeous redhead has all but given up the search for passion and excitement." Su, coraggio, carrot-top, happiness is just around the block. "Woman looking for a fiftyish androgynous male to spend the summer with." Long-range planning broad, it's only January. Here's one calling herself truly pretty and intensely foxy. Foxed too, I bet, here and there. "Attractive bellydancer seeks physician, well-to-do businessman for platonic relationship." The bellydancer and the gastroenterologist. Platonic but mercenary, why not. But there's no age, she's probably in her 70's, the bellydancer. "Are you the man who will make this adorable, sensous, young 50's very special psychotherapist's life complete?" No measurements, no weight. Probably fully foulsome figured. And here we go, the goddam alliteratives. "Fetching, fit, frolicsome female." "Soft, sensual, sophisticated, sultry..." Irene next to me starts snoring. I look at her. Seems to be on another planet, her snoring the only perceptible attachment to this vale of beeps. In revenge I fart explosively. A twitch in her face, a catch in her breath in between snores. Must be dreaming of Dresden or Hanoi, bombs falling all around. Once I'm awake no chance of sleep for me. Maybe I'm overtraining. "If, in the still of the night, you ache to know a real woman, write to me." Should I? Let's try. Rhetoric has always been and will always be at the heart of those matters, the only ones that matter. "Dear 'Real Woman': I am fortyeightish, deeply sensitive, wonderfully creative, financially secure, laser-sharp intelligent, muscular, athletic, vastly yet tastefully cultivated, eminently successful, plumb-line centered, outrageously handsome man. Great sense of humor, incidentally. Oftentimes, in the still of the night, have I ached indeed and asked myself, what's this whole protracted sorry business all about. Then I read your ad, and lo, dear lady, new flames, fresh hopes spring up from my heart's woe-smothered embers." Jesus. I can see her devouring my letter, kissing it, slowly repeating my words, drooling over my adverbs. A reader like her is a writer's dream. Beep. Beep. I get up, stand naked at point zero, in the middle of the room, resolved to wait for the next beep so as to locate it. Nothing but grim determination occupies me. There it is, beep beep, down from the floor next to Irene's closet, yes, from her handbag, and inside her handbag I find the offender, Irene's cellular phone, and not only is it beeping, but it is impudently flashing a red dot. I don't know what all this flashing and beeping signify, but there must be a way, which I don't know either, to stop at least the beep, so I take it to the bathroom where there's more light and press the keys at an educated random, until a voice comes out of the apparatus and I stop punching. It's a man's voice, I'd swear it is the voice of Irene's boss. "Hon, give me a call when you get a chance." That's all. But "hon"? What's this, calling my wife "hon"?
4. GRAND CENTRAL
Ever since my early childhood trains have meant unstoppable fate, with their switches and junctures and their magnificent brutal force coming at you head on. A piece of wrapping, a button lying on the ballast of broken stones and coal dust, seemed like innocent victims abandoned to the ripping wheels of destiny; with a tragic shiver I identified myself with them, in the hope of escaping being crushed by dint of my small size. Love for trains amounts to a childish version of Amor Fati. When I was young, boarding a train was exhilarating because it was like boarding fate: I felt like an old Roman stoic, proud to be conveyed rather than dragged: fata volentes ducunt, nolentes trahunt.
There was an exhibit, "Post-modernism: a Retrospective," at the Museum of Modern Art, and a celebration of Bororo women's crafts at the Museum of Natural History. I drove to the R.R. station, parked the car and took the 8:25 to Grand Central.
This train came from Montreal and was fairly crowded. I sat on the first seat I found where I could face destiny rather than show it my back, and when, a few seconds later, I turned my head, I met the steady, lucid gaze of Professor Jerome Freitag.
We had not seen each other for fifteen years. The professor's hair and beard have become grey, his shoulders a bit more stooped. His face has always reminded me of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, except that Freitag's face expresses an infinitely higher status, and with more ease and naturalness, more secure of his titles. Titian's refined art could not help make the Emperor look, in comparison, like a self-conscious parvenu.
I said, "I've seen your photograph in the papers recently."
"Oh, you mean the National Merit Medal." He smiled with indulgence for things such as the Academy, the newspapers, the public, and other extra-scientific nonsense. Letting himself be honored and photographed shaking hands with the President of the United States merely bespoke his own modesty, patience and good nature. Jerome Freitag is one of the most distinguished mathematicians in the world, and I am proud to say that I have been his student at the university.
But now I did something appalling. The Professor's smile clearly meant that his photograph was not a worthwhile subject, yet I harped on, "You know, in that photograph your eyes look Jewish."
"I guess so," the Professor shrugged.
Of course Freitag's eyes look Jewish: he is Jewish, so what? I was under the impression that Freitag expected me to talk about his current research or, at the very least, about the prospects for basic science funding in the next federal budget. But I'm not up to snuff in any of those topics. I asked about the Professor's children.
"They are not intelligent in any strong sense of the word," he replied.
I proposed that when it comes to intelligence, no doubt genetics is important. "It's a lottery," he corrected me. We fell silent. Professor Freitag seemed absorbed in the contemplation of the Hudson river, the grass and the telephone poles, and I didn't want to disturb him. The relations and patterns he's able to discern everywhere I can only dimly imagine: likely the power cables were top heavy with hyperbolic cosines on the outside and circular ones in the inside, the serene blue sky must have suggested God knows what diffusion phenomena, and the barge tugging along the river, whether she liked it or not, was a great illustration of the Navier-Stokes equations. My heart went out to the Professor. Even though he had expressed no disappointment and his comment had been strictly matter-of-fact, I felt sorry for his failure to have intelligent children. Ridiculous as it sounds, I'd have liked to lay my head on Freitag's lap, since I'm too big to sit on it, and call him Poppa. Tell him how much I have always loved him, that I promise to do my best not to disappoint him, that I'm not that bright myself, but what the heck, perhaps I'd do in a pinch. The train rolled on.
"Let me ask you something," I spoke after careful thought, and Freitag turned his serene face, his right eyebrow ever so slightly arched. "A keen intelligence, wouldn't it recognize its own bounds, that, after all, it is attached to a human body, and that therefore it must leave some room for the free play of sheer stupidity?"
For a brief moment Jerome Freitag let his brow knit in disapproval. "Would you give incestual urges free play? If not, why give in to others?"
After that we were silent. At 10:55 the train arrived at Grand Central, we said good-bye and shook hands. A little further, in the great hall, there was a black man sprawled on the floor. I stopped to look at him. His face was a pulp, a grid of ecchymosis and eczemas, and he was clutching a bottle wrapped in filthy paper. I looked at him with a sort of savage envy: to think of myself was unbearable.
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