Against these fragments flies a giant asteroid of hatred, an overwhelming desire -- worth praying for, worth indebting himself to a cruel, flaccid God for -- to lift his hands to Charles' throat, to choke him back and not to stop until Charles lies dead on the floor.
Dolores must have fled, because something in Charles' face is different. The throttling stops, but not the pressure against Tristan's neck. Charles pulls him off the wall and holds him close enough to whisper at.
"So you want some black poontang, huh?" he leers. The p pops and sprays Tristan's ear with moisture; he cringes against both the word and the sensation. "You're one of those crackers who comes up here to chase after the colored whores, aren't you? Got dirty eyes, boy. Doesn't matter how polite you act. A man can't hide his dirty eyes."
Charles stares greedily at him, his own dark eyes grown huge, and Tristan has the feeling that if only he confesses he will be shown mercy. All Charles seems to want is for Tristan to admit the truth: that he's a filthy, skulking beast prowling Harlem, desperate to pay some invisible girl he hates for a few minutes of distant heat, a harsh, violent release. And when he met Dolores he smelled an ever better chance: the opportunity to stick his prick into something that wasn't spoiled by hardness, wasn't for him. The very fact that there are black girls in the world who are not whores had been a revelation, a wicked turn-on, and so here he is in her sweet bedroom, trying to charm or force or fool her into submission. Aching to turn her inside out and leave her ruined, humiliated, twisted to his will.
Tristan cannot give Charles this. He huffs down a fat drought of air, shakes his head and flails his hands at Charles' arms, trying to grab a hold, make a connection. But Charles shrugs him off easily, and Tristan's limbs lack the vigor to struggle long.
"You know what you white boys do when you catch a nigger with one of your women," Charles breathes in Tristan's ear, vicious and low. "You know what your daddy'd do if he found me with his daughter."
Yeah, Tristan thinks deleriously. He'd shake your hand, then go upstairs and scream at his wife about schvartzers and how she raised the kids wrong until he keeled over on his fat face with a heart seizure.
"He," Tristan gasps in pride and shame, "He wouldn't do anything."
"The hell he wouldn't!" Charles rams a granite fist into Tristan's stomach and lets go, and Tristan buckles and doubles and the next thing he knows his guts, tormented with alcohol and terror, knot and rebel. A torrent of vomit gushes out of him and splashes onto Charles and the carpet.
"Motherfucker!" Charles darts back too late, raises his hands to his shoulders and stares down at his ruined trousers. Tristan peers up, bent over with his hands on his knees, a long tendril of drool still connecting him to the reeking puddle, just in time to see Charles' fist arc down at him. The blow explodes against his cheek and spins him toward the floor, but Tristan stabs an arm at the ground and catches himself before he falls into the mess. He's bridged over it now, rump in the air like a center about to hike the football through his legs. His palm sinks into the drenched carpet, and he waits for another blow to come and drop him, hoping it will be the last.
Instead, there's a commotion. "Charles," says a commanding male voice, "get a hold of yourself." Tristan sees feet and bodies, a man dragging Charles backward by the waist, and then Dolores's stockings planted between himself and her father. Tristan pushes off the carpet with his fingertips as hard as he can, and it is just enough to tip his weight back onto his legs. He staggers backward. The wall catches him and Tristan straightens, stomach tight with nausea and pain.
In front of him, sure enough, is Dolores. Her face is streaked with tears and behind her is Charles, wrapped up in a pair of suitjacketed arms, violence still glowing in his eyes.
"Take it easy," counsels the man behind him, working to lock his hands around Charles' broad, heaving chest. Not for a second does it look like he is any match for Charles, if Charles will not allow himself to be restrained. "Don't do anything stupid. Just stop and think, man, stop and look around."
Tristan knows the voice. He has been saved by Peter Pendergast.
"I know what I'm doing," Charles says through his teeth. "I'm gonna kill this son of a bitch."
"No you're not," says Pendergast, calm but forceful. "You are not going to kill a white man in your own house with a hundred people downstairs dancing, Charles. Not unless you want to die yourself. Not unless you want your kids to lose their father."
"I don't care," Charles says. "I caught him up here trying to--" he glances at Dolores, who has turned toward him now to plead with her eyes, and Charles cannot utter the words. He looks away, glances over his shoulder at Pendergast. "Trying to--"
"No you didn't," the professor says. "Ask her yourself. They were only talking, Charles. You don't have to like it, but it's certainly no grounds for murder. Now. Here's what we're going to do, old man. You're going to go and change your pants, and I'm going to get this son of a bitch out of here, and that's the end of it. Come on. Calvin will walk you to your room." Only then does Tristan notice a short, stout man standing in the shadow just outside the threshold. Pendergast guides Charles toward him. And slowly, as if they are passing a delicate sculpture between them, Calvin's arms replace Pendergast's and he leads Charles away.
Dolores throws a final, inscrutable look Tristanís way, then follows her father, pulling the door shut behind her. And it is just Tristan and Pendergast in the room, the moat of vomit lying in between them.
Pendergast spreads his legs, sweeps back his suitjacket and drops his hands onto his hips. "I'm willing to let it go this time, Brodsky," he says. "But if you leave my class early again, I will have no choice but to mark you absent."
Tristan forces a smile, then winces at the pain it sets off in his jaw. "Won't happen again," he promises, and swipes his sleeve across his mouth.
"Good man. Now then. Let's get you out of here, shall we?"
A minute later they are standing on the curb. The tonic water Tristan guzzles splashes cold into his empty stomach, powerless to wash the bitterness out of his mouth. Pendergast sucks down another fancy cigarette, blinking up at his smoke as it curls in the beam of the streetlamp. He loves every single thing that comes out of his mouth, Tristan thinks, knowing he should be grateful. As soon as he polishes off the drink Pendergast was thoughtful enough to grab on their way out, Tristan will have to look the professor in the eye and thank him.
The bottle pops off of his lips and Tristan takes a deep breath. "I want to--"
"Don't bother." Pendergast glances out into the darkness from within his shaft of light. "Charles is my friend. I came upstairs to save him, Brodsky, not you."
Tristan mulls this over. "Well, at least now I'll have something to write about," he offers.
In one incredible motion, Pendergast flicks his cigarette into the shadows and spins on his heel to point the flicking finger at his student. "Don't you dare," he says. "But don't you waste this night, either. There a lot more inside you than ended up on that girl's floor, Brodsky, and what's more it's been thoroughly stirred up. If you want my advice, you'll find someplace quiet and empty your mind into a notebook."
The suggestion takes him by surprise, and Tristan feels his chest swell up with possibility again. His head throbs harder, not just from the pain but the blood coursing to it. "Yes, sir," he says. "That's just what I was thinking about doing."
"Good." Pendergast pockets his hands and wags his haircut at the ground. "I am not wholly unimpressed with you, Brodsky," he says. "I hope tonight's events have not soured you on..." Pendergast pauses and stares up at the light. "On adventure," he finishes.
Tristan clasps his hands behind his back. "No sir. Not at all. Although what happened with Charles was certainly a Von Hangman." When Pendergast's head snaps toward him, Tristan is already smiling.
One corner of Pendergastís mouth curls upward. "It rather was, Brodsky. It rather was." He slides another cigarette from his pack and taps it. The low moan of a saxophone escapes the house, and they both look up at it. "Well," says Pendergast, "I'd better head back in. You'll find your way home, I trust?" Tristan nods. "Of course. And since you departed Oswald's too early to record the class assignment, let's give you a different one, shall we? I want to see whatever you come up with tonight, Brodsky. I expect twenty pages isn't too much to ask from a prodigy such as yourself. Until Tuesday, then." Pendergast cups his hands, lights his cigarette, and walks back toward the house, receding into shadow.
Tristan's hand flutters and he remembers something. "Professor?" he calls. Pendergast stops, but does not turn around.
"I left my notebook upstairs. In Dolores's room. On the bed."
Pendergast drops his chin to his chest. "One moment." He disappears up the steps. The building bulges with people, music, laughter, and Tristan thinks of Moses standing on the mountain overlooking the Promised Land, forbidden to enter as punishment for his sins. A minute passes and then Tristan's notebook and pencil sail out of a top floor window and fall to the ground, paces from his feet. Tristan picks them up, rubs his aching head, and ambles in the best-guess direction of the train.
For hours he rides, down through Brooklyn and back uptown again, with his pencil clutched and poised over the page. His brain pulses in its sheath, and the entire left side of his face is tender to the touch, beginning to swell. It is an act of great willpower to avoid thinking about what his mother will do when she sees him, but Tristan manages. The darkness of the night grows dilute and he stumbles off the train, walks through the silent streets of the neighborhood until he reaches his building. He sits down on the stoop, wedges himself against a wall and finds his fatigue burned away, his mind clear, his frustration with himself acute.
There is so much he wants to write, but Tristan does not know what any of it is. He feels as if ghosts or elves or angels are following him, flitting in and out of shadows, giggling, and every time he stops and whirls around he's too slow and they disappear. The world feels heavy with life, the air thunderstorm-electric with a potence that won't last. He leans against the cold stone, and feels the desire to capture everything overtake and erode all heís ever felt -- his protector-love for Benjamin at its strongest, the most intense, restless, disgusted claustrophobia that has ever gripped him at his parents' dinner table, the lift-and-crush-the-world-and-let-its-juice-gush-down-your-chin rush of elation he's felt at the moments when his brain and body have best served him. Even Tristan's fresh-minted desires for mercy and revenge fade in comparison to the wild-minded, vague necessity of inscribing this blank page with something of the fire and bewitchment, the truth and drudgery of life.
The only thing that has the power to endow existence with meaning is the very game of trying to transcribe it, and nothing has ever pained Tristan like not being able to play. He squints against the predawn light, rubs the goosepimples from his arms, and catches sight of a ghastly future: a lifetime of sitting here, incapable of filling these pages and unable to stop trying, until he is catatonic, frozen on the outside and still burning uselessly within.
A Parable after my hard drive crashed
Christmas in Jerusalem
Dear Mr. Pinter
The Nuclear Physicist Gives his Son a Haircut
Brodsky Begins, Part Two
Our 870 Back Pages
Zeek in Print
From previous issues:
Bush the Exception
Three Jewish Books on Sadness
Bush the Exception
Three Jewish Books on Sadness