From “THE DEATH OF BELLMAN”, Ch. 1

In the middle of the night, the telephone rings.

Bellman is dreaming.  After a life’s haphazard misadventures, false identities and masquerades, skittering down mysterious corridors and in and out of doorways, he has arrived on the threshold of a sunny room high above the bright, excited sea.  A naked woman stands at the open window, gazing into the caramel light that burnishes the contours of her broad and shapely hips.  Slowly she straightens and turns to look at him over her shoulder in fetching contrapposto, her eyes glistening with invitation.  Bellman realizes he has known and loved her all his life, though, at the moment, he can’t seem to remember her name.  Moreover, the chaos and cockeyed episodes of his wanderings are vanishing from his memory like a vapor trail, but this is of no consequence.  All that matters now, as he soars toward her with his arms thrown wide, is this bliss, this rapture, this longed-for resolution.

Suddenly, to his horror, everything changes.  She is screaming – her eyes bulge and her hair stands on end.  She is being electrocuted.

Bellman’s heart slaps in panic like a blown tire on the highway as he lunges across the bed for the receiver.  And in the bottomless instant while the demon in the telephone draws breath, his memory scans the faces of everyone he knows.

Because nobody calls you in the middle of the night except to tell you that someone has died.

Who else could it be but his father?  In the pink but, at eighty-three, living on thin ice.  Beat cancer into remission, outlasted three business partners, a child, his wife, and the IRS.  But luck runs out on us all.  Oh, well.  A death in order, though so much unspoken, unresolved between them leaves a stain on memory.

But what if it isn’t his father?  Clenching as if he heard some dreaded arrow whisking towards him through the dark.  Wincing in anticipation of the sharp shaft chunking in.  Oh, God – in whom we do not believe because we were never the sort of people who believe in God – not Miriam, all of seventeen – or is it eighteen? – taken from him in the first flourish of adolescent repulsiveness by his now-ex-wife and last seen by him – how many years ago?  And, oh, God (see above), not Diana, aforesaid ex, whose demise would leave his beloved Miriam – lately an emotional suppuration, so Diana has told him – on his unskilled and recently tremulous hands (he has not told Diana about the tremor).

Bellman snatches the receiver, throttling the second ring.

“Hello?”

“Matey?”  A voice at once familiar and changed, slow and unnaturally husky, as if drugged.  All at once, this call has nothing to do with his father or Miriam or Diana.  A small flame ignites below his sternum.  “It’s Regina.”

Her name opens on the banked fires in her hair, her grave, resplendent eyes under charcoal brows.  The enameled luster of her loveliness, its urgent sweetness.  Emergency alarms go off in his nervous system.  Never, she has never called him, ever.  Only Leo calls, once a month, to talk about old times.

“Regina?”  Bellman bolts up in the bed.  “Regina?”  Something approaching, can’t tell from which direction.  Not her child?  Not Leo’s child?  Oh, God, as before, not Jonathan, the “miracle baby,” bestowed on Leo at the threshold of middle age.  Because it would destroy Leo.  Leo, the fixed star, the wishing star.  Leo, mahatma of charisma, whose friendship licenses Bellman to walk the Earth.  The only man he ever knew to get a table at Elaine’s.  Leo in ruins?  Impossible to contemplate.  Leo in grief?  Unbearable to behold.  Leo in devastation?  How should a friend – how should Bellman –  provide succor?

“Regina?  Why are you calling at this hour?”

“Leo died today.”

A stunner from the blind side.  He throws an arm over his face as if someone had brained him with a two-by-four.  Knocks him right out of bed.  Wobbles to the floor, sounds he cannot identify spilling out of his mouth.  There is silence on the other end of the line.  “Regina?  Regina?  What are you telling to me?”

She returns as if she had sleepwalked off stage before her scene was done and had to be gently led back by the stage manager.  To finish her lines.

“He was walking the dog in Riverside Park, and he had a heart attack at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument.  Someone with a cell phone called 911, but he was dead when they got there.  The doctors said it was unforeseeable, a time bomb in his chest.”

Bellman’s head frothing.  “I can’t believe it!  This can’t be happening!”
“You could set your watch by him, you know?”

“He calls me once a month.  Did you know that?  The first Monday of every month.”

“Home from his office at four-thirty, chats with Jonathan for half an hour, takes a shower, goes for a walk with Kiki.  I get home six o’clock, mix the drinks, six-thirty he walks in the door with Kiki, we eat at seven.  The man runs like a clock.”

Only it was a time bomb ticking in his chest.

“I can’t believe this.”

She goes droning on, as if she hasn’t heard him.  Bellman is irrelevant here.  Just someone to whom she has to tell this story.  “Sonia has the dinner ready, we’re waiting, Jonathan’s bouncing off the walls, Where’s Daddy?  Where’s Daddy?  And Leo’s not home yet.  The later it gets, the more I’m thinking … You want to know what I’m thinking?  You want to know?  I’m thinking, he’s got some cookie-pie on West End Avenue.  He’ll walk in smelling of somebody else.  And then what am I going to do?  These are the thoughts I’m having.  And he’s lying dead in the hospital morgue!”

From one moment to the next, a universe uncreated.  The old days.  Rays of light from a lost world, star retreating, star exploding.  End of star.  End of world.

Leo in his twenties, freshly showered and naked, tall, sleek, firmly distended to the outer limit of fitness, bearing like a trophy that large, shaggy wolf-like head furnished with a trimmed beard, a nose of noble length and angular distinction, and hooded, deep-set eyes full of secret knowledge and cunning and invitation.  Standing in the living room of the apartment on 122nd Street that he and Bellman share, his penis hanging from its collar of soft, fluffy hair like an elephant’s trunk, swinging over the fat cheeks of his balls.  As if inviting Bellman to imagine that trunk swelling and rising, curving gently upward, and suddenly firing off ten or fifteen mighty sneezes into the wet silk pocket of his girlfriend du jour.  What a force in those eructations!  And Leo himself has intimated he can do it three or four times a night!

Leo died today?

Next slide, please.

Another morning, twenty years later.  Leo in his prized pre-war co-op just off West End Avenue.  (”Look at those ceilings, Matey.  You could play basketball in here.  Look at this, wainscoting, hardwood floors.  The doorman’s name is Emilio, by the way.  Very important guy, he parks my car.”) A towel draped around his neck, wearing white briefs in which his legendary member lies lazily hammocked.  Smiling that sly, sleepy smile as Bellman is awakened on the couch by little Jonathan, miracle baby who came to them so late, like laughing Isaac, crawling up the bedclothes with his stuffed bear.

Bellman camping out with Leo and Regina during the mercifully brief ordeal that ends his marriage to Diana, his parents censorious view of his divorce (“What sort of people,” his mother wonders in acid tones, “do we know who get divorced?”) persuading him to seek sanctuary with his friends.  Who console him with Danbe de boeuf and a premier grand cru after a humiliating meeting with his soon-to-be-ex-wife in the offices of a lawyer Diana insists on retaining “for our mutual convenience.”

“Your daughter belongs with her Mom, don’t you think?” says the lawyer, younger than Bellman, but then Diana is the only grown-up at the table, really, in this, as in everything, sensible to a fault, seeking nothing but the personal effects she brought into the marriage.  And Miriam.

“I’m perfectly capable of supporting myself and my daughter,” Diana declares with a trace of exasperation that there might have been a doubt, and adds in acid tones, “without anybody’s help.”

What can he say after that but: “I’m not interested in contesting anything.”

“Kiss my beaw,” says Jonathan, holding out the suspiciously matted doll.

“Everybody has to kiss his bear,” says Leo.

“Evweybody ha’ to kiss my beaw.”

“O.K.”  Bellman reaches for the bear.  Jonathan pulls it away.

“S’my bear.”

“I just wanted to kiss it, like you said.”

The child clutches it moistly to his chest.  “Kiss my ass!”  And squeals delightedly at his inspired repartee.  “Evweybody ha’ to kiss my ass!”

“Spoken,” says Bellman, “like a true New Yorker.”

Leo grinds the coffee for the morning’s pot.  Regina comes in from her shower, in a short robe.  Bursting in like a predator, her beauty sending ripples of alarm and amazement through the room.  She crosses the floor with her dancer’s stately aplomb, her dark red ringlets scarcely stirring as she bends to scoop up the child, who has seated himself on Bellman’s impudent erection.  Bellman’s eyes wandering down Regina’s body to her knees, smooth as if stroked by votive hands.  Lifting his eyes, he meets hers with an almost audible snap as of a bolt being thrown.  Looking away from her quickly, he finds Leo’s smile waiting to meet him.

“And then the doorbell rings.”

“What?  I’m sorry … “

“The doorbell.  And I knew, that moment, Matey, I knew!  Why would Leo ring the doorbell?  Who could even get to the door without the doorman calling upstairs?  I knew.  And I couldn’t answer, I told Sonia, Get the door.  And there’s this cop standing there holding Kiki by the leash.  And the sweat just running off him, and the dog whining and whimpering.”

The way Leo bends over and kisses the dog and talks to the dog in comical voices.

“No, Mr. Kiki.  I took you out to the park already.  Now me and my friend, Mr. Matey, are going to walk on Broadway, where they don’t like dogs who poop.  You stay here and stand guard and keep the shmutzniks away.”

“Shmutzniks?”  Bellman asks as they ride down in the elevator.

“The junkies.  The winos.  The dirty ones who don’t care anymore how they look or smell and hold you up with rusty knives and runny noses.  The guys who hang out at intersections uptown and try to squeegee your car windows when you stop and kick a dent in the door if you don’t give them money.  Kiki scents them in a second, and he’s very protective.  Especially of Jon.  I could send him out with Kiki and no one would lay a hand on him.  Kiki would rip their livers out.  He gets the scent of these shmutzniks and I can hardly hold him back.  Sometimes, if I’m working on something, I won’t shower for a couple of days, and Kiki starts giving me the sniff test.  Believe me, we stay clean around here.”

And prosperous.  But, then, “the poor shall never cease out of the land,” as Leo is fond of quoting.

They pause at the front entrance to converse with Emilio the indispensable, who fills Leo in on his battle plan for moving the car from one side of the street to the other.  Leo slips him a five.

“Why don’t you just garage it?” Bellman wonders.  “Wouldn’t it be cheaper?”

“It’s better like this.  The doormen have an interest in you.  Much more than if you just gave them a fifty at Christmas.”

Walking on Broadway, Leo’s favorite recreation.  Surveying the neighborhood like the lord of this demesne, reviewing the street-vendors, window-shopping the girls, distributing quarters to the musicians.  Walking Bellman the way he walks Kiki, waiting for something, perhaps for his friend to pass some hard nugget of resentment.  Leo at the top of his game, five books behind him and his PBS series in production, radiant with the knowledge that, in a matter of months, everyone in New York will recognize him. Talking about the old times they have lived together that seem so close you could reach out and snatch them back, about the girls from their high school Leo still runs into, about the old classmates he keeps in touch with.  How well everybody seems to be doing.  Grumpy Bellman doesn’t care.

“When are you coming down to the city again, Matey?  I never see you anymore.”

“Give me a break, Leo.”

“I’ll show you the city you’ve never seen, you’ll meet new people.”

“Why should I want to meet new people?  I haven’t got a gallery, I haven’t got a dealer, I don’t have a collector.  I don’t even have a résumé.  I’m forty-four years old, and I never had a career.  What should I tell new people?  That I’m the world’s greatest undiscovered painter?”

“Exactly.  That’s what we’ll tell them, eh, Matey?”

“All I’ve got is my work, my painting, and that’s up in Vermont, which is where I ought to be.  My work isn’t here, and my work is all I have left in my life.  What’s to come down to the city for?”

“To visit me.”

“You could come up to Vermont and visit me.”

“It’s hard for me to get away these days, Matey.  Anyway, it depresses me to think of you living like that, all alone except for maybe the raccoons.”

“It’ll be good for me to be alone.  You know, I’ve always imagined myself living on an island.  There’s a lake not far from my house.  They call it Seven-Mile Pond, and there’s an island in the middle of it.  One winter when we didn’t get snow until February, the lake froze smooth from one end to the other, so I bought some skates – I hadn’t been up on skates since I was in the sixth grade – and skated out to the island, towing Miriam on a sled.  The island’s covered with pines and cedars.  Fallen needles all over the ground, a brown carpet.  It smelled so clean and crisp and rustic in the cold air.  I pictured a log house with big windows on the northern exposure, a dock with a little dory moored.  Oil lamps and candles and a wood stove for cooking.  All wrapped around with water and utterly remote.”

“Remote from what?  What do you want to be so remote from?”

It is a cool evening in September, the night falling, the streetlights shimmering on.  They have arrived at the corner of 96th and Broadway, watching the traffic rushing north and south in bright metallic streams, the busses pushing along like behemoths among the fleeter cabs that race each other from light to light.  Pedestrians stride along, narrowly avoiding body contact with subtle shoulder rotations, wearing the hardened New Yorker’s monitory glare.  Underground the subways are rumbling and squealing, discharging crowds that pour up into the streets, men and women hastening through the smoggy dusk to appointments, to home, to bars and brothels and assignations, and bands of teenagers fanfaring themselves along the sidewalks with loud barks and blaring boomboxes.  And in downtown office towers and cold ascetic galleries and at murmurous cocktail parties and catered openings, fates are being decided, fortunes cast and reputations canonized and hopes crushed underfoot like cigarette butts.

Bellman sweeping his arm over the scene.  “All this.”

“All this?  Why do you want to be remote from all this?  How can you live without all this?”

“It’s the way I am, Leo.”

“But this is life.  You can’t live without life.  This is energy!  This is other people.  People on the street every hour of the day, people having a good time, selling stuff, cruising each other, going out on the town, out to the bars, the movies, the theaters, the galleries!  Meeting other people, seeing what other people are up to.  Getting a hard-on for Chinese food, the Yankees, art, books, you name it.  This is the city of the perpetual hard-on.  Manhattan even looks like a hard-on.  Life’s a big hard-on, Matey.  That’s what humans are for, to have a hard-on for life.  Human beings are the universe taking pleasure in itself.  I don’t know, Matey, living all the way up there, alone in the hills.  Maybe you get a hard-on for raccoons.”

With a snort, Bellman takes off across 96th against the light.  On the opposite corner, he waits for Leo.

“Hard-ons a problem for you these days, Matey?”

Bellman feints at a reply, loses it, can’t fish it out.  Shrugs.

“You don’t have a wife anymore, Matey.  You can have sex with anyone you want to.”  His arm over Bellman’s shoulder as they stroll.  “It just didn’t work out with Diana, is all.”

“What do you mean?  The sex was OK.  Has she been talking to you?”

“Of course she has.  She and Regina go back as far as we do.”

“Well, the sex was OK to me.”

“When it comes to sex, OK is not OK.”

“Was she …?”

“Seeing someone else?  I don’t think so.  But she thought you should be.  She said you always had another woman on your mind, and that she’d have been happier and maybe the marriage would have been happier if you hadn’t been such a stickler about faithfulness.”

“She wanted me to have affairs?  With whom?  There’s nobody up there.  We hardly have any friends in Vermont.  Who am I supposed to have affairs with?”

“Raccoons?”

“Get serious, Leo.”

“She knew you didn’t love her.  Not the way a woman needs to be loved.  You loved her dutifully but not for fun.  A woman needs you to love her because nothing in the world is more fun than loving her.  Look at this one,” Leo says, “coming towards us.  In the leather pants?”

Half a block away, a small, dark, exotic woman with a hook nose.  Trim little legs.  Big silver earrings and, around her head, a gypsy scarf tightly wrapped, long black frizzy locks running out of it and down her shoulders like foam on licorice beer.

“Leo, for God’s sake, we’re married!”

“I’m married, Matey.  You’re divorced.”

“Give me maybe seven minutes to get adjusted to that, will you?”

“What’re you gonna do, Matey, go home and fuck the racoons?  Just say hello, to introduce yourself.  Go on.”

“She’s not my type.”

“Don’t give me that.  She’s into sex.”

“How do you know?”

“Look at her!”

“Leo … “

But Leo trots ahead.  The woman has stopped by a fruit stand to buy oranges.  Bellman having a hard time feeling his legs, can’t tell whether they’re moving too fast or too slow.  Finds himself floating along like an unmoored boat, bumping Leo from behind.  “My friend, here …” says Leo, bending over the woman.

How often, in the days they live together, has Bellman watched Leo prowl the upper West Side, angling for women?  The pick-up is like a high-dive into an unplumbed pool, fraught with danger, and Leo practices constantly, at every opportunity, accosting women on the street, in restaurants, bookstores, theaters; he’ll cross against the light, elbow his way through crowds, duck into a shop in pursuit of his preferred quarry.  Women who carry their bodies like banners.  I, and only I, says Leo with his lingering, steel-blue gaze, can love you more than you love yourself.  When such women enter Leo’s range, some internal transmitter begins to hum with male energy.  On long walks with Bellman along Broadway, Leo casts in all directions, interrupts his conversation to talk up one passing Barnard student after another, finding his rhythm.  Introducing himself, acknowledging his shy companion – this is Bellman – probing for a topic of common interest – the book in her hand, the poster she was looking at – to give his aura time to brighten and envelope her in its ectoplasmic shine.  They peer into his neon eyes and surrender their phone numbers, which Leo writes on the inside of matchbooks – he always seems to be well-supplied with matchbooks – along with her name and the place of meeting.  Back home, he tosses the evening’s matchbook collection into a bowl on his desk with all the other matchbooks, and when one love affair comes to an end, he reaches into the bowl.  It’s like the lottery.
He doesn’t understand it.  In this day and age, you’re not supposed to treat women like this, women aren’t supposed to stand for it?  How does Leo keep getting away with it?  Is he just that good in bed?  And how do they know that in advance?

“What’s good in bed?”  Diana scoffing.  “That is one of the great male myths.  It’s like dancing.  Everyone can dance, if they’re well-partnered.  Men think that big cocks make them better lovers, but the vital thing is to be sensitive, let the lead shift.  You know that, Matey.  Men who boast about being good in bed are usually brutes, going at you like a piston.”

“So what is it about Leo?”

“Jealous?”

“I used to be.  He picks up women so easily.”

“That’s because he tries.  He has nerve.”

“Did he, did he ever?”

“Try me?  Of course!  He tries everybody.”

“And did you?”

“Matey, I picked you.”

“But would you have picked Leo?”

“It isn’t as though Leo’s every woman’s first choice and every other man is second-best.  He does have a way of making you feel it’s your pick-up.  When he’s homing on you, it’s as if no one else in the world exists for him but you.  It’s very exciting to feel someone paying such attention to you.”

“Is there a message in this for me?”

“You are jealous!”

Leo stoops from his elevation to address this tiny, gypsy-looking woman, his neon eyes irradiating her.  One hand in his jacket pocket, checking for a matchbook.

The woman peeks at Bellman from around Leo’s broad torso.  Piercing eyes darting at him from under arching brows.  Face to his face, boldly.

“His friend?” she says.

It takes Bellman a moment to realize she is speaking to him.  “Yes.”

“Does he always bring you along, for an excuse?”

“He doesn’t need any excuses,” Bellman replies, walking away.  Leaving Leo to his recreations.  Leo catches up with him, hands him a matchbook with a name and a phone number written inside.

“Call her sometime,” he says.  Reproachfully.

Bellman hands back the matchbook.  “This game is not for me.”

“I keep forgetting.”  Leo smiles, that lazy, fond, disdainful smile.  “No games for Matey.  Always in earnest.”

And no more games for Leo, now.  Now, everything is utterly in earnest.  Death has imposed its gravity.  Leo died today.

“And the cop,” – Regina choking, recovering – “holds out his hand.  A wallet, some other stuff.  Leo’s wallet.  How did I know it was Leo’s wallet, Matey?  It was just him, like his hand, his eyes, a part of him.  Broken off.  And I said, I swear, I said, He lost his wallet?  He lost the dog?”

Bellman is there with her, in the white foyer, the polished parquet floor glowing in tawny warmth.  But he is not there, of course, because, moving about the Upper West Side like nomads, they no longer live in the last apartment he remembers.  They no longer live where he can picture them.  And Leo no longer lives at all.  Bellman holds his breath.

“And the cop told me.”

He breathes.

“They found him lying on the pavement with his arm under his head, like he had decided to take a nap.  And the dog sitting beside him, whimpering.  The cop took me to the hospital.  They told me they could show me a Polaroid and I could identify him from the Polaroid, but I had to see him, Matey.  I had to look at him.  And there he was.  They rolled him out of the refrigerator, and there he was.  Dead.  A dead body.  In khakis and a pullover.  He looked so clean.  There was no blood.  He just ran out of life and stopped.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Murray’s going to take me to the funeral home tomorrow.  We’ll have the funeral on Thursday.  We’re going to bury him.  We’re going to bury Leo.  I’m never going to see him again.  Oh, Matey, who will love me now?  Matey.  Matey!  Who will love me?”

“What can I do?”

“Yes.  Tell me you love me, Matey.  I need your help now.  I need your love.”

“Of course.”

“I have to go.  I have hundreds more calls to make.  Everyone in Leo’s Rolodex.  I have to repeat this over and over.  I have to get the details right.  Leo’s a stickler for detail.  Lists, endless lists, posted everywhere, on the refrigerator, the cabinets, the bathroom mirror.  Long lists with little tick marks next to each item as it gets done.”

“How did you tell Gertrude?”

“I didn’t.  God forgive me, I didn’t.  Murray went to see her.  I couldn’t, Matey.  I couldn’t.  Face her.  She hates me so much.  I’ve got enough.”

“Nobody can blame you.”

“With any luck, she’ll have a heart attack and drop dead.  She’s so crazy, Matey.  She would kill me, if she had a chance.”

“Don’t say that, Regina.  She loves Jonathan.”

“She can’t forgive me because Leo loved me.  He loved me, Matey!”

“She’s been through so much.”

“Her husband lived to be eighty-seven.  Eighty-seven!  Leo should have had another forty years, Matey.”

“Her whole family’s gone, Regina.  Now Leo.  Jonathan’s all she has left.”

“The war is over.  The Holocaust happened.  It’s no excuse to treat people like shit.  She’s a crazy old woman.  She wouldn’t even come to my wedding.  My fucking wedding.  Oh, Matey.  Matey?  Matey, I want you to wear the white suit.  The one you wore to the wedding.  I want you to wear it to the funeral.”

“The white suit?”  Bellman flailing about for balance.  “I don’t even know if it still fits.”

“I want to see it again.”

“But at a funeral?  I’ll look ridiculous.  You’re supposed to wear black.”

“Leo would love it.  You know he would.”

“I’ll see.  I’ll try it on.”

“You can’t have changed that much, Matey.  It hasn’t been that long, has it?”

“How long?  Twenty-five years?  Twenty-six?”

“How can it have been so long?  How can it have gone so fast?”

“You were happy.”

“I’ll never be happy again.  I have to go now.”

“I’ll be down tomorrow.  I love you, Regina.”

“I love you, too, Matey.”

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