The Love Song of Chester Whitherspoon
Copyright © by George Dickerson, 4/24/04
He was out there now. Out on the ledge. Seated, but teetering four stories
up. Drinking a cup of coffee. Waiting for lift-off. At first, it had been a
whim. Chester had crawled out to test his destiny.
He sat with his butt still inside the window, so he could lean over and watch the people passing on Bleecker Street far below. If he bent over enough, he could plunge, pushing past the fulcrum of balance into oblivion. He felt alive for the first time in months. His legs trembled. The thought of death made his scalp itch.
People started to gather. One bald man, wearing a bright red tee-shirt, pointed up. Others formed clusters to watch. He crawled back inside and shut the window, even though it was August and the heat in the apartment seemed to make the cockroaches slow enough to squash --if he had wanted to.
He couldn't let passersby think he was going to jump. The police would come and discover he was secretly camping in a dead man's apartment. He had seen the old man die, heard the rattle in his wattled throat, right there on the Emergency Medical Service gurney being trundled out the door of the red-brick tenement.
The ambulance driver was thickset, Irish. The other attendant, cadaverously thin. Both had eyes drugged with too much death. Burke and Hare, grave robbers time-warped to Greenwich Village.
Impulsively, Chester had flung himself over the frail body and kissed the dead man's sunken cheeks. "Oh, God! If only I'd gotten here sooner!" he wailed in as lugubrious a voice as he could muster.
The ambulance driver (Burke, or was it Hare?) patted his shoulder. "Take it easy, fella!"
The other EMS attendant grumbled: "Somebody oughta been here. There's crap all over the place. The floors. The old guy even crapped on the kitchen table."
Chester began fumbling in the dead man's pockets. "Let me get his keys, I'll clean up."
The driver laid a heavy hand on his arm. "I don't know, Mr....uh..."
A name scampered out of the mousehole of his mind: "Prufrock...J. Alfred Prufrock."
"That ain't Italian." The driver frowned.
"Is that a racist slur?"
"The geezer's name was Petrocelli. He's a Wop!"
The Roman nose perched between the dead man's raw sienna eyes --how could he have erred so badly?
Chester feigned anger. "Hey, that's my...uncle your talking about...my uncle on my mother's side. In his time he was a great Mafia don, a godfather...a poet of the criminal act! Show some respect!"
They assayed Chester's smudged shirt and the wrinkled, but once-elegant, pinstriped suit. A white middle-aged man who, at least at one time, was used to power. Hardly a thief. A two-day growth of beard. Perhaps an eccentric or a hit man. Someone not worth arguing with.
They gave him the keys, grumbled and shoved the already decaying Mr. Petrocelli into the ambulance.
With the coveted keys clutched tightly in his fist, Chester had watched the ambulance pull off down Bleecker Street, then darted into the building and found the malodorous haven for what might be his final days.
He scoured and scraped. Excrement was everywhere, except in the bathroom. Dessicated under the dusty rose-brocaded couch. Under the easy chair, with its tatted antimacassar (a woman's faded fingerprints on an old man's life).
A bloody pool of it on the cigarette-burned formica top of the kitchen table. He could imagine the old man, in pain, getting up on the wooden chair and squatting over the table, the corded veins popping out on his arms, in his exertion to hold himself steady there.
What a labor of whimsical perversity that must have been. Or a protest...against what? (There were no pictures of grandchildren in the dresser drawers, no letters, no sense of family. No connections.) Perhaps a last desperate outcry against the established order of a world that had discarded and abandoned the old man.
He scoured and was almost grateful for the sense of purpose it gave him. Very late at night, he scurried down the stairs with plastic bags full of Petrocelli's dying excretions. But, despite soap and sprays, the stench lingered, mocking his efforts to uncover a final secret cache of feces.
Under the sink, he found a nearly full case of canned dog food. Lamb and rice. He thought of lame pugs and spaniels with cataracts, fitting pets for a feeble old man. But there were no dog hairs anywhere in the apartment. He opened a can and tasted the dog food. He found some Ketchup in the refrigerator and splashed it on the meat. Lamb and rice and Ketchup. He ate and began to cry, mourning an old man he had never known.
But Petrocelli had left a message, a spidery scrawl on a little square of yellow paper, Scotch-taped to the face of the black-and-white TV set: "Make to watch!" To watch what? When? Was it a string tied around an arthritic memory? Or an admonition to anyone who invaded his domain? Hieroglyphics!
The old man's personal warning from the Book of the Dead. A possible connection.
He turned on the TV and left it on, not daring to violate Petrocelli's last words. Afraid he might miss a desperate straw of meaning, wafted across the vacuous airwaves. A revelation. A subliminal word of encouragement. A signpost to a future.
Repetitions of rape and bombings and murders. Flawed heroes blowing away cardboard villains. Politicians grinned. Just another maze. A palimpsest of programmed unreality.
Black-and-white images shadow-danced nervous patterns against the walls of the night-dark room. Chester tuned out.
He tuned in to the Morse code of someone pacing in the apartment overhead. Shuffle, thump. Step, shuffle, thump. Erratic. Indecipherable. Unless it was an S.O.S. from a wounded urbanite, lost and drowning in the rooms of New York's tenement sea.
Step, shuffle, thump. Chester dozed off in the easy chair, uneasy about occupying the dead man's bed. His nocturnal drool drenched the antimacassar.
The phone startled him awake. How could he have missed that plastic un-Delphic oracle? It rang and still he couldn't find it. Morning sunlight pounded through the window and made him squint in pain. Ring! He found the clamorous object on the closet floor, nestled between a pair of highly polished wing-tip shoes.
He silenced the ring without answering the phone. He waited. Ten seconds.
Twenty seconds. Finally, he picked up the receiver to make sure the line was clear.
"Is this the home of Carmine Petrocelli?" A shrewish, annoyed, female voice.
"I'm not sure."
"Well, is this 228-47..."
"There's no number on this phone."
"Look, sir, this is St. Vincent's Hospital and we need to know who's gonna pay for..."
"Bury him in Potter's Field, burn him, give his body away to science. Maybe somebody could use the parts."
He started to hang up, then caught the receding words: "Life support."
"Mr. Petrocelli's not dead. He's in our intensive care unit and..." ("I am Lazarus, come from the dead, Come back to tell you all...")
He yanked the phone cord out of the wall connection and sat there in the musty closet, holding the dead phone on his knees. Petrocelli's clothes cobwebbed his face and shoulders, reeking of mildew and stale cigarette smoke.
His boss's words leaked back through time.
"Chester, I'm afraid we have to let you go."
"Go? Go where? I don't want to go."
"We're downsizing and..."
"I'm upper management...
"We're reducing our..."
"I've been producing for twenty years, and now you're firing me?"
"Actually, Chester, we'd prefer to say we're shrinking our..."
"Downsizing, reducing, shrinking. You're not getting rid of me, you're diminishing me."
"We just want you to disappear, Chester."
Faxing and phoning. Finding that friends no longer wanted to try to help. Busy signals. Disembodied voices on answering machines. Disconnected. Isolated. Completely downsized. Wandering his mortgaged Port Washington home. Trying to figure out how to fend off foreclosure.
Blown from room to room like a mutating dust bunny, he cried out: "Christ!
I'm only forty-five and nobody wants me anymore."
His wife, settling a pillow by her head: "Actually, Chester, I don't want you anymore, either."
Throwing off a shawl: "You've become a drain on my liquidity and I'm leaving you."
"Have you found someone else?"
"She, Chester. She's very liquid." Beads of perspiration flecked the light brown hair on her upper lip. Her tongue darted out and licked them away. And he wanted her then.
How long had she had a mustache?
"Did you ever love me?"
Her head tilted back and she gave a trilling little laugh and turned toward the window. ("That is not what I meant, at all.")
And now, sitting on the floor of the resurrected Carmine Petrocelli's closet, he put down the dead telephone. There was no one to talk to, anyway. And, for the first time, he had crawled out on the window ledge. It was only after he had been embarrassed by the red tee-shirted man, pointing up at him, that he decided to visit Petrocelli. Perhaps Carmine
could clarify the message stuck to the face of the TV. Or why he had defecated on the kitchen table.
St. Vincent's Hospital. Riding the elevator up the floors of disease, derangement and decrepitude. His fellow occupant, a bathrobed, gnarled and wizened woman, glared at him, accusing him for her pain. He tried to picture the pretty, little girl she had been, before time had tricked her so.
"I'm sorry," he said. "If only I had..."
"Enemas and fruit," she cackled, toothless. "Eat a peach! It'll keep you regular."
He nodded in acquiescence, happy to be off the hook. Off the elevator.
Down the corridor of cubicled victims.
"Petrocelli?" he inquired of the first available body.
The nurse at her outpost: Steel grey hair. Steel-rimmed glasses. Steely eyes. (Steel wool pubic hair?)
"Only immediate family."
"Dead," he said. "All gone." (Steel yourself!)
"Who are you?" Probing like a scalpel.
Who was he, after all, after the...? Almost too late: "Eliot...uh...Eliot Petrocelli?" Betrayed by the rising inflection?
The nurse, doubtfully: "You related?"
"Cousin. Son of a cousin. On my father's side. Twice removed." The air conditioning was too cold for sweat.
An alarm went off on the panel of her work station. Someone's system had crashed. She ran off down the hall, throwing words back over her shoulder, pointing: "Down the corridor. First door on the right. You got five...." And she was gone.
Chester entered the room and closed the door behind him. The old man wheezed like a faulty suction pump. His eyes were closed. Tubes ran in and out of every orifice. And places where there was no natural orifice. Bottles gurgled with unseemly fluids. Were the machines living off the man? The man had a broken pug nose and a cauliflower ear. He had once been a fighter. But he was not Petrocelli, not the man Chester had kissed on the
Chester checked the chart at the bottom of the bed: "Carmine Petrocelli." He checked the plastic wrist bracelet: Ditto. An envelope was resting against a green vase of yellow roses on the table near the window. "C. Petrocelli" was scrawled on the front of the envelope. He opened it and read the typed note: "Carmine: In the end, we get what we deserve! Morte!"
Accompanying the note, was a yellowed, crumbling, newspaper clipping: A picture of the nude and mutilated body of Italy's World War II dictator, Benito Mussolini, hanging from a street lamppost. Had Petrocelli been a fascist or a partisan? Who had sent the note and the clipping from a war now more than fifty years past? Who deserved death--Pretrocelli? If the note was from an enemy, why the flowers? Who the hell was the man in the bed?
Chester sat down on the bedside chair. He listened to the old man's lungs struggle with the air. He listened to bodily fluids bubbling in bottles. He waited until the moribund impostor opened his eyes. They were pale blue buttons in yellow muslin.
"Mr. Petrocelli," he said. "I don't know if you remember me, but..."
"Aagh!" A voice out of a rusty tin can.
A claw-like hand scuttled across the sheet and clamped down on Chester's wrist. A raspy whisper of protest: "Not...Carmine..."
"Are you somebody else?"
"Do you have some message for me? Now that you've been dead and come back
to life in someone else's body, can you tell me what to do?"
The man's beady blue eyes glittered, watching him almost craftily.
"I have wept and fasted. I have eaten your dog food. I have wept and prayed. Can I make it, or should I just...you know...go off the ledge?" The old man pulled Chester closer with surprising strength. Chester put one ear close to the old man's fetid mouth.
A wheeze. Another whisper. "No........hope...."
Chester nodded. He kissed Not Carmine on his cauliflower ear and pried the yellow, nicotine-stained fingers from his wrist.
"It was nice to...to kiss you again, Mr....Mr...." And he went out.
Down the corridor. The nurse left her station and ran past him toward the attenuated beep of a flat-line on a heart monitor. Behind him. In the direction he had come from. He could not look back. Down Greenwich Avenue, into Washington Square. Passing through. On his way to Bleecker Street, to the room on the fourth floor, to the window.
He was distracted by an old lady feeding pigeons in the park. Why were there suddenly so many old people? He sat down next to her on the park bench. He was delaying his destiny. A pigeon pecked at the crumbs strewn on the sidewalk. Another pigeon pooped on his shoe. He looked down at the pearly blob and then up into the old lady's cautious eyes.
"I've been downsized," he said.
"That's nice, dear." She patted him pleasantly on the arm, then took more crumbs from her brown paper bag and scattered them out for her feeding flock.
"In fact, I've become almost lilliputian."
She clucked disapprovingly. "It doesn't do to boast about such things."
"Can I help you feed the birds?"
"Oh no, dear. That's my job."
The sky fell in on him. He tried to breathe. He looked at his wrist. His watch was gone. Lost. Stolen. Given away. There was no point, when you didn't have to be somewhere. When no one was waiting.
Two drag queens minced by, arm in arm.
Tap tap tap of spike heels: staccato sound bites from the broadcasting sidewalk.
Orange hair, bouffant. Black sequined evening gown with plunging neckline, revealing a bushy hairy chest. "Oh, my God!...the Sistine Chapel!" Spike heels. Pink hair, butch cut. White mini-shorts. Fuscia halter surmounting a navel pierced with a gold ring. "...never, never have cleaned it. ...colors now so...recherché!"
"Outré, dear, outré!"
They sauntered back. Pink hair pointing at him in mock accusation: "You! have birdie kaka on your shoe!"
"My mother told me it brings good luck."
Orange hair: "And who's your mother now, sweetie?"
He tried to smile, to make them disappear. And they did. A glitch. A hiccup in time. They might never have been there. Why couldn't he breathe? He turned to the old lady. "I've been to see a man who was dead and came back to life. Only he isn't who he's supposed to be. He's someone else.
Either I went to see the wrong man, or the wrong man came back to life, or... I can't think of the other possibility."
"Hush, dear. You'll scare the birds."
"I'm hungry," he said.
"Everything has to eat," she said, spraying crumbs at his feet.
He thought of Ketchup, and left the Empress of Pigeons to her ravenous, pecking pack.
Who was Carmine Petrocelli? These were his rooms. His note obfuscated the face of the TV. (And who am I but Carmine's reincarnated dog!) He opened a can of lamb and rice and immediately threw up.
Overhead: Shuffle, thump! Step, shuffle, thump! What strange, wounded thing was up there?
Coffee! Coffee would get rid of the taste of bile. While the water was boiling, he frantically searched through the pockets of the clothes in the closet. Searching for a clue.
Pocket lint. A snot-encrusted handkerchief. A book of matches from an Italian restaurant that no longer existed. A broken, used toothpick. The detritus of a thread-bare existence. After what heroism, what hopes and dreams? After what treacherous act? Had Petrocelli sided with Mussolini or helped to kill him? Or both? (I put on the jackboots. I gave the salute. But, sorry, paisano, you blew it, cozying up to Herr Hitler that way.) Playing both sides against the middle, as too many have. Deferential, glad
to be of use...
And in one pocket, a cautionary ticket stub. In large bold print: "VOID IF DETACHED." He needn't bother with the obvious permutations of detachment and being voided. He knew about those.
In smaller letters near the edge: "Not good for passage." That had a certain familiar feeling.
And on the back, large bold letters: "IL."
He could have lots of fun with this one. Spend days worrying over the meaning. Keep him away from the window and the ledge.
(No sugar or milk for the instant coffee. Bitter enough for bile!)
IL: Now here was a key to the mystery! If only he could penetrate the meaning of the runic signs, he might...disturb the universe...: Italian Line? Ill Lagomorph? Injured Lady? Ignorant Lizard? Impersonal Layoffs? Illustrious Lepidopterist!...pinned and wriggling on the wall.
He sipped coffee and sat down on the rose-brocaded couch, smelling of enough dust to last forever. He thought of a young, handsome Petrocelli, stranded on the shore of Lake Lugano, missing the last boat to Switzerland, his fiancee on the afterdeck, disappearing into mist...gunfire closing in behind him...
Benito Mussolini and the Marquis de Sade were playing cards, lakewater lapping at their feet. Mussolini was seated, straddling a naked Carmine Petrocelli, humiliated on hands and knees. De Sade straddled a naked and gonadectomized Chester Whitherspoon. Except it wasn't de Sade. It was Chester's boss. No, the features were too porcine, the hair too wavy and gray. It was Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House, playing to lose Chester.
De Sade/Newt: "Contract with America!"
Mussolini/Caesar: "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori!"
De Sade/Newt: "To die for one's country...it's sweet...yes! Better yet...End poverty: Kill the poor!"
They raised the stakes.
Chester was bleeding heavily between his legs: "No, no, I've already been..."
His wife was walking away, dangling his lost testicles in a plastic Zip-loc bag.
He screamed. He scrambled through the sand, desperately reaching for the bag. Newt laughed.
He woke up screaming. Lukewarm coffee from the dropped cup was bleeding into his crotch.
The hoarse voice of Not Carmine: "No.......hope...."
Chester left a note on the floor below the window: "If I jump, it's an accident. If I fall, it's on purpose. You figure it out, whoever you are."
He crawled out on the ledge.
He was out there now...leaning farther over...waiting for lift-off...aching for a gust of wind to help him. He dipped his foot in the sea of air, testing the temperature of the void.
He had asked: "Can I make it, or should I just....?"
And Not Carmine had whispered, in the gravelly interstices of groping for breath, "No! Hope!"
Was that it? Which was it: Hope or no hope?
He teetered. (Do I dare?) Passersby looked up. He waved the coffee cup at them. They strolled away. He swayed. About to....
And, from the TV in Petrocelli's room, he heard an androgynous voice say: "I was surprised at the baked-in flavor."
What the hell does that mean? He listened for more. Silence. There must be more.
He crawled back inside and looked at the now quiet TV. Where there had been a babble of voices, a succession of unending pictures, there was only a white kernel of light in a field of darkness. Had the TV been sacrificed instead of him? Had it given one last oracular message and died? Was it the voice of God distracting him from a desperate and unforgivable act? "Make to watch!" Carmine's note was still attached to the defunct TV. And listen?
"I was surprised at the baked-in flavor."
Maybe it was a password, something he could use to connect to the cognoscente, the initiated--a secret phrase passed only by word of mouth, causing acceptance, recognitions meant only for those courageous enough to be willing to defenestrate themselves. Fellow survivors of the American dream. He had to find them.
He went out to a bank on Broadway where he used to have an account, before his unemployment insurance had expired. Near doorways, where he had huddled away homeless nights, before Petrocelli. He had no money, but he filled out the deposit slip and wrote "0.00" in the box for the total. He waited on line and gave the slip to the teller--a brunette with glasses, breasts bound up in a business suit.
She glanced at the deposit slip and then looked up at him, a question in her eyes.
"I was surprised at the baked-in flavor," he said.
She date-stamped the deposit in her machine, tore off his receipt and handed it to him. A dazzling smile. "Have a nice day, Mr. Whitherspoon." He could feel her eyes follow him out the door. Yes! He had made contact.
She had noticed him. She had said his name--what used to be his name. And smiled. She knew. She cared. There must be others. At the chess tables in Washington Square. Indian Joe, with braided hair and a turquoise necklace around the collar of his safari jacket, was decimating the pawns of a young man with pimples and horn-rimmed glasses. Not Sand Creek or Wounded Knee, this time Joe had Custer trapped at Little Big Horn. He captured his horses. He went in for the kill.
Joe looked up at Chester.
"I was surprised at the baked-in flavor."
The Indian, startled, smiled at him, then nodded. "The tree tells the hunter where to find his food."
Yes! He had connected. Again. He was ecstatic. He felt feverish. He was faint with hunger. He followed the tree-lined streets westward, looking for a sawdust restaurant with oyster shells. A lonely man in shirtsleeves, smoking a pipe, leaned out a window. The evening was starting to spread out against the sky. He found the Singing Mermaid facing the Hudson River. Handwritten signs in the window offered: "Delicious Cow Feet--Rasta Style-- $7.95." "Virgin Tongue--Hill & Gully Style--$8.95." "Tripe--Tony's Girlfriend's Ex-husband's Recipe--$8.95." (A hundred indecisions... and visions and revisions.) Anything would be better than lamb and rice and Ketchup.
He entered. The place was deserted except for the owner/bartender/waiter, a heavy-set mustachioed man washing glasses behind the bar. Maybe there was a cook, out of sight, in the kitchen. He sat down on a wooden chair at a wooden table under a ceiling festooned with fishing nets.
He thought the ex-husband's recipe might be appropriate.
While the food was cooking, he stared at the large naked breasts of a mermaid, painted on one wall. Musical notes cascaded from her lubricious lips. Her fishy tail curled in invitation. When had he last made love? The tripe came and, after a few bites, he realized he couldn't stomach it. Maybe he was beyond eating anything.
He folded the napkin carefully and headed for the door.
"Hey, buddy, you just can't walk out without paying."
The burly waiter/owner approached, about to commit mayhem.
Chester spoke the magic words.
"Yeah, that's nice, but..."
"I have no money. I could work. I could wash dishes."
"We got somebody else." The owner shuffled uncertainly. The mustache bobbed and weaved. "What was that you said before?"
"I was surprised at the baked-in flavor."
"Yeah. That's good. I could use that in my window. Get the hell outta here and don't come back!"
He hadn't known the code, but Chester had initiated him. He was blessed. People would flock there now.
Back down Bleecker Street, past a yellow cat, past the drugstore. A large sign in the window asked: "If you donate your body to science, will anybody want it?" Well maybe not him, but somebody must have wanted Petrocelli. Messages were bombarding him now from all directions. He had to keep alert, ready for the nexus, the approaching epiphany. The game was afoot.
Nearing Petrocelli's tenement, passing the Perazzo Funeral Home with its red and yellow, illuminated, stained-glass sign. The large, storefront glass doors exhibited mauve upholstered chairs and a mauve leather couch next to a grandfather clock--a living room for the dead--furniture that might have been chosen by the woman who had decorated Petrocelli's flat. A skinny, ancient Italian in funereal clothes was sweeping the sidewalk out
front. Not the sort to try the code on.
"Did you know Carmine?"
The man's eyes got dreamy. "Si! The much important Carmine De Sapio, the last big capo of Tammany Hall. I rouged his cheeks. I polished his sunglasses. I lipsticked his lips." More politics. Another cover-up.
"No, I mean Carmine Petrocelli."
The man grabbed him by the lapel of his coffee-stained suit and pulled him close. Chester caught a whiff of rotten teeth, like tombstones in the graveyard of the man's mouth.
In a conspiratorial voice, the Italian said, "A great man! A giant! He killed Il Duce! He cut off his balls!"
"Do you know where his body is?
"Hanging from a streetlight. Forty-five, fifty years ago, maybe more.
Only the dying keep track of time."
"No, I mean Carmine's body."
"What you say? Carmine Petrocelli never dies! Il Duce dies. Carmine lives forever."
"But I saw..."
"Basta! Go away!" The old man swung the broom and smashed Chester in the head.
"Basta! Finito!" The old man chased him half a block down Bleecker. He ran around the corner and up MacDougal and onto Third Street. And there, Scotch-taped to a jazz club window, was a tabloid picture of Not Carmine, playing a clarinet. A clipping from a newspaper. The headline read: "Jazz Great Pugsy Spangler Dies at 90." The text announced a memorial service for the one-time boxer and famous jazz musician whose career had spanned seven decades. The service was to be held that evening at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Thousands were expected to attend...the rich and famous...old friends and colleagues. Jazz groups would play in loving memory. It would be an historic event.
It was all coming together now.
Wait! Spangler was still alive, or maybe alive, in the hospital, impersonating the nearly forgotten, Italian hero, Petrocelli. Their bodies must have been switched in the Emergency Room. They were having a memorial service for the wrong person. He had to go. He had to put things straight.
He had a mission now, a purpose, ordained by...the TV set? Maybe Newt was behind this, after all. Newt seemed to be in the know...seemed so sure of everything. Well, there were a few secrets he could tell Newt. But Newt wouldn't leave the corridors of power to pay homage to a truly great American, especially since it was the wrong body. He'd write Mr. Gingrich a letter later, explaining certain things. He had no token for the subways. A five-mile walk up Sixth Avenue, up Broadway, past Times Square, up to Morningside Heights, where St. John the Divine loomed over the reaches of Harlem, over clubs like the Red Rooster, where Pugsy might have jammed and riffed until morning wore the music out. He was on his way now. He would tell them all.
The crowd spilled into the doorways of the neo-Gothic cathedral. Once, in a side-chapel, he had gotten married there. To whom? He knew he smelled of vomit and coffee and unwashed sweat, but he belonged. He shouldered his way through the massing jazzerati. He edged and nudged towards the altar, the urn (Carmine's ashes?), nearing the assembled dignitaries. People backed away from the wild look in his eyes, the smell. A Black, Dixieland band was playing "Beale Street Blues." He waited for the music to stop.
"Pugsy Spangler lives," he shouted.
Several voices were raised in unison: "Amen, brother!"
"No, he's really alive, downtown, in a hospital, posing as another man. I mean, it's not his fault, but he's alive. You're mourning the wrong man. You're mourning the man who killed Mussolini. A partisan! A patriot who died in shit-filled anonymity!"
He grabbed the urn and hoisted it over his head. "Three cheers for Carmine Petrocelli!"
They asked him politely to be quiet. They tried to shout him down. They wrestled the urn from his arms. It fell to the floor, broken. Ashes spilled. They beat him senseless and threw him, unconscious, out onto the sidewalk.
He came to on a white table in a white room, where doctors and nurses, in green and white, consulted and conspired. His body was a multiple contusion, a metastasizing cancer of pain. He wished he'd been etherized.
"Where am I?" he asked a passing orderly.
"St. Luke's," the orderly answered, moving to a more deserving patient.
Too many saints, and he was in hell. A smudge of Carmine on his lapel?
"I'm in the wrong hospital," he said. "I have to get downtown."
No one was listening. No one was paying attention.
He eased himself off the table, stifling a moan. He wobbled out the emergency room doors. No one cared. He found a subway and crawled under the turnstile and caught the first train that would take him near St. Vincent's. He had one last thing to do.
He found Not Carmine where he'd last left him, tied to tubes, part of the machinery, gasping and gurgling.
The ancient eyes flickered open, sought him out. A string of drool dribbled down his chin and onto his neck. Chester wiped it away with a corner of the sheet. These were the lips that once played so sweetly. These were the fingers that caressed the valves that made the hearts of people sing. What use now?
"Mr. Spangler. I've been to your funeral...your memorial service. It was a gala event. Thousands came to honor your memory. They played your music.
They said fine things about your life. They spoke of love. They paid tribute. I wish you could have been there."
Pugsy Spangler frowned, then smiled. The bottles burped. A tear came to the yellow muslin corner of each eye. He moved his lips, but could no longer speak. The pale blue eyes went blank.
Spangler and Petrocelli...both gone now...both honored...in a way. His job was done. The covenant had been kept. What to do? Where to go?
He crumpled outside the door of Petrocelli's pad, too tired to turn the key.
Shuffle! Thump! The creature that lived overhead was now below, coming up the stairs to get him. Step! Shuffle! Thump! A head. Golden yellow seaweed of hair. Lovely, sad, green eyes. A bag of groceries clutched to a slender young body. Breasts bobbing with the effort of the climb. Legs meant for wrapping round a tree trunk or a man. A tortured foot in a black boot.
"Do you hurt?" she asked.
"I'm damaged," he said.
"I know about that," she said. "Would you like some toast and tea?"
"I've had a busy day," he said.
After she had bathed him and washed away the crusted blood, she took him to her bed and held him close.
"I have a withered foot," she said.
"I have a broken life and I have no home."
"That's all right, then," she said.
She let him ease his sorrow into her.
"Was it good?" she asked.
"I...I was surprised at the...at the baked-in flavor."
"That's the sweetest thing anybody's ever said."
"Would you sing me a song about forever?"
"Would you touch my foot?"
She sang in a gentle, tentative voice. He caressed her crippled limb.
"Someday, would you sit out on the window ledge with me?"
"You're a little crazy," she said.
"Yes," he said.
And because of their awkward circumstances--for that night and the next day and the day after and, maybe, the day after that--they found solace in each other.
[Reprinted from Rattapallax #1, 1999]
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