In the fall of 1975 I worked as a substitute teacher at South Boston High School. The city's school system was torn by busing riots. Poor white kids attended school in poor black neighborhoods and vice versa. No one went to classes, unless the TV crews showed up to interview a politician, then the white boys fought the riot squad. It was a bad scene, but I was getting $85/day to insure no one firebombed the empty classrooms. Most school days I wrote poetry. Some of it wasn’t bad.
I moved into a cheap Brookline basement apartment . Upstairs was a two-family commune. The parents believed in free love. I had dated one mother's second daughter. Hilde had told me that she was 18. We had lasted less than three weeks. Her parents said that the young blonde was too young for me.
"You're right." I was 23, but their daughter's next boyfriend was a 30 year-old car thief.
My best friend met Hilde’s older sister. Terri was almost twenty and was very sexy as to be expected of a Combat Zone stripper.
Two weeks later AK deserted his college girlfriend and moved into the commune's attic with Terri. We were one big happy family.
AK taught school during the day and played keyboards for a popular funk band at night.
The New Yorker was Jump Street's token white boy.
He dealt with the promoter.
When Jump Street were hired a weekend gig at a club in the West Village. AK invited me to join him. Hilde's sister was staying behind for a family gathering and AK confided in me, "I have this old college girlfriend in New York. Rose is an artist. She looks like an East European refugee.”
I painted my own portrait from this scanty description.
Dark-hair, thin, feminine.
That Friday night te band drove down in the van. AK took his Firebird. He wanted to impressed Rose.
"It's not a GTO."
"But it is fast."
We crashed at a friend's place in Harlem. AK invited several friends to the show. I knew no one in the city. Rose came up wearing a cotton shift complimenting her southern gracefulness. Her hair was cut short like she might have been a dyke in college. Her accent was Appalachian. She laughed at Ak's stories, until his girlfriend entered the bar unannounced. Terri had smelled a rat. Ex-strippers are sensitive that way.
“Pretend you're with Rose.” AK was plotting to meet her later.
His girlfriend was too smart to fall for such a simple subterfuge and after the gig I accompanied Rose to a late dinner at David’s Pot Belly Restaurant on Christopher Street, where she worked as a waitress. We had omelettes and spoke about art. Mostly I listened about her plans to study at the Sorbonne in Paris.
“Bette Davis’ character wanted to do the same in PETRIFIED FOREST. Lesley Howard has the outlaw shoot him, so she can collect his insurance. I thought it was very noble.”
“Anyone ever tell you that____”
“Tell me what?”
“That you like an angel____” she struggled for several seconds with the next words.
"No one has ever said anything like that to me."
She apologized for not finishing sentences.
"I have a speech defect too. S_s-s-stuttering."
She smiled at our shared failing and we went to her place in Brooklyn Heights.
55 Remsen Street.
Her apartment was one-floor above a Chinese whorehouse. A dragon lady in sheer silk stood at the door. I guessed her to be about 40. The red light over the doorway made her 20.
“You want good time?”
“No. I never paid for sex.
“Maybe sometime you not lucky. Come see me.” She hissed the invitation like a snake sliding through dry grass.
“I hate that____.”
“Woman.” Rose didn’t have to finish off that sentence.
Straight women hated those that aren’t and Ro opened the door to her apartment. She shared the space with a lanky West Virginian. He had a pad of paper in front of him on which he scribbled numbers. Rose introduced him as Bix.
He lifted sallow eyes from the scratching pencil point, but didn’t say a word, as Rose led me into the bedroom. I tried to be quiet, but she called out my name with each thrust nearing orgasm. Women were echoing other men’s names from the sex den below.
Every time I exited from the bedroom, Bix was at the kitchen table.
An unlit cigarette in his hand.
An empty beer to the left.
Several piles of paper were scattered about the table. Numbers filled them to the edges. An expression of hurt paralyzed his face. Words were lost in his mouth. Finally on Sunday morning he asked, “How does it feel to fuck another man’s woman?”
"Rose said nothing about being in a relationship."
"No, she wouldn't, but what can you expect from someone who can't finish sentences?"
"I don't know. I have a stutter."
"So I asked you before." Bix put down the pencil and picked up a knife. He probably used it for sharpening the lead points. "How is it fucking someone else's girlfriend?"
I didn't like his holding the knife and said, “Wait a few minutes and I’ll tell you.”
I locked the door behind me and said to Rose, “Your roommate said____”
“I know what he said. Don’t___” Her hands drew me back into bed to complete her sentence. Her first kiss swallowed my soul. “I love your lips.”
We made love twice more that day and on Sunday Rose escorted me to Penn Station to catch the train to Boston. I had no idea where AK and his girlfriend were. I kissed Rose on the platform and said, “I’ll see you next week.”
“I work on the weekends.”
“I’ll wait until you get out.”
“It will be late.” Hesitation rimmed her reply.
“I can wait.” The train conductor was calling ‘all aboard’. “After all this is the city that never sleeps.”
Back in New York AK grilled me about Rose."
"Did I what?"
"The answer is no."
"You're not lying?"
"No, nothing happened with us. Besides she has a boyfriend."
"Bix has been following her around for years. I don't know why she lets him do that."
Thoughts of Rose killed Boston. Its streets were empty after dark. The bars seemed provincial. None of the women possessed the beauty of Rose. The next weekend I trained south to Penn Station and took the subway to the West Village. I stood before David's Pot Belly. Rose waved from inside the restaurant.
The cook Michael served me a Gruyere and mushroom omelette.
Afterward I killed time at the Riviera Bar with a silver-haired jazz impresario. I recited a poem about hitchhiking. James said that I was almost a genius.
“How do you know?”
“I manage Cecil Taylor and Merce Cunningham.” He smoked a cigarette like Marlene Dietrich. The Riviera was loaded with gays, bi, straight. It was middle ground. James was 100% playing for the other team and proud of his sexuality. “I once made it with James Dean.”
“The movie star?” I had heard that he had been with Sal Mineo.
“He went with anyone. You care for a drink?”
"Yeah, why not?"
James and I drank too much, but I arrived at David’s Pot Belly at closing.
"I'm exhausted. Let's go back to my place."
There was no traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge.
I paid the taxi fare. We climbed the stairs. The dragon lady smiled at my passage.
“You lucky man.”
“Yeah, tell me about it.”
"This one never go home same man. You must be special."
"I'm an angel____"
Rose slapped my hand. She didn’t want me socializing with her downstairs neighbor. She opened her apartment door. The wall clock said 3:16. Bix sat at the table. Unlit cigarette in his hand. The numbers had spread to the walls. None of them were equations.
Rose and I retreated to her bedroom. She wasn’t in the mood for sex.
“I’ve had a long day______at work.”
“What’s with Bix and the numbers?” I had been a math major in university.
“He feels as if he can find the right number maybe he can turn back the hands of time and win back my heart.”
“And do you know the right number?” I had loved the poetry of math until LSD warped my perceptions of dimensions. Then words became my math.
“No, and neither will Bix. He’s crazy and that’s why I______stopped being with him,” she whispered from bed. We kissed under the sheets. She murmured with a cuddle, “I still love your lips. Go to_____sleep.”
I fell asleep reading TROPIC OF CAPRICORN. The profane writer had spent his childhood in Williamsburg. Brooklyn Heights was more for successful artists such as W. H. Auden, Truman Capote, Hart Crane, Bob Dylan, Norman Mailer, Carson McCullers, Arthur Miller, Walt Whitman, and Mary Tyler Moore. I woke to the screams of a Chinese woman fighting a man.
Not everyone was as happy as me in Brooklyn Heights.
The next day we brunched on Montague Street. Rose had to be a work at 4. We made love quickly on her bed. I liked her tongue more than her lips.
“That was better than good.”
"I can only try to do my best."
Saturday night was a repeat of Friday night. Dinner at the Potbelly and drinking at the Riviera. Ro was off on Sunday. We went dancing at the Limelight on 7th Avenue. James Spicer came along with us. He bought drinks and we shared a taxi back to Brooklyn. His apartment was in Park Slope.
“You ever need a place to stay call me.” James blew me a kiss, as the taxi disappeared into Brooklyn.
“You know what______he wants?”
“Same thing as everyone. A little love.”
I didn’t even notice the dragon lady or Bix or the cries of pleasure from below. Ro and I were the only two people in the world. I wrote several poems. Ro wanted me to read them to her. They must have made more sense than Bix’s numbers.
We ate in the city. I went to the train by myself, telling her that I would be back in two weeks.
She smiled and said, “I’d like______that.”
Throughout that fall and winter I commuted between Boston and New York. I’d phone during the week. Ro rarely answered the phone. She was either at art school or work. She told me that Bix never picked up the phone. He was even deeper into his numbers. They infected the hallways.
Friday nights the dragon lady greeted me. Her name was Lee.
She asked Bix for numbers.
He handed her a sheet of paper.
“If I like number. I make bet. Win big money.” Lee followed the twisting cortex of numbers for a lottery winner. “Open restaurant. Sell food. No pussy.”
I slowly plotted a strategy to quit teaching in June and collect unemployment through the summer. I informed Rose about this plan on several occasions.
"This apartment is small."
Bix could leave."
"No, it's his place."
"We can get another apartment."
Obviously Rose was stalling, but I didn’t care, because I no longer wanted to live in Boston.
My parents were sad to hear about my leaving.
AK said I should thank him for introducing Ro. “You owe me.”
"I'm not sure how to pay you back."
"I 'll think of a way."
Hilde's car thief boyfriend arranged a job driving a gas-guzzler to New York. The owner would pay me $300 to ditch the Oldsmobile and later collect the insurance, claiming the car stolen.
"It's easy," her boyfriend explained. "Once in New York park the car by the Hudson, throw the plates in the river, and leave the keys in the ignition. Joyriders will steal the car within minutes.
That Friday morning I phoned Rose several times. No one answered the phone.
After packing my bag in the Olds the two-family commune stood at the door and waved good-bye.
It was a little after noon.
“You be careful.” Hilde was a little teary-eyed.
"Don't break any laws." cautioned her boyfriend. He was glad to see me go.
I drove down the highway at 55. Everyone else was hitting 65 or better, but I didn't need a state trooper stopping me.
The trip from Brookline to the West Side Highway lasted 4 hours. It took five minutes to unscrew the license plates and toss them into the black water flowing past the desolate docks. I walked to her restaurant. I had $300 plus my savings in my pocket. A new life awaited me and I entered the restaurant with a smile.
She quit yesterday," Said Michael the cook.
“See say why?”
Brooklyn Heights was a couple of subway stops away from Christopher Street. On the way I reflected on the unanswered phone and her quitting her job. That one and one didn’t add up to two, but a myriad of possibilities. Too many to count. Numbers and more numbers.
Just like Bix.
I arrived at 55 Remsen at five. I rang the doorbell a number of times without success. I tried the buzzer for the whorehouse. The door clicked open. I climbed the stairway. The dragon lady waited under the red light.
“Today I lucky. Find good number.” She pointed to a scrawled number on the wall. “Tomorrow no work. You come back. Have good time. Okay.”
"I'm here to see Rose."
"Oh, yes, you." All Americans looked the same to Lee. "She not home."
"Not home. You ask Bix. He know."
The door to the apartment was open.
Bix sat at the table.
A burning cigarette in his hand.
“You know that Hitler was anti-smoking. So was Rose. When Hitler killed himself in the bunker, the first thing the Nazis did was light up a cigarette,” BIx inhaled deeply and then crumpled up several papers jammed with numbers. “Rose’s gone. Left this afternoon.”
“Off to Paris to study at the Sorbonne.”
“She said nothing about that.”
“I know. I was surprised too.”
“I don’t know, but I guess you’ll have to go to France to find out what it’s like to see another guy fucking your girlfriend. Not me. I already know.”
It was a shitty thing to say and I probably should have hit him, but I had said the same thing several months earlier, so I figured us even.
“You know she never kissed me.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“How was it?”
“Good.” I had no reason to lie.
“I thought so.” Bix took out his pencil and paper. The numbers were his friends. I walked out of the apartment with my bag. The dragon lady looked at me, “Look you not lucky no more.”
“No not lucky.” Fucked was a better word, except that word had only one meaning in Lee’s bordello.
I wandered onto Remsen Street.
A plane flew overhead and I imagined Rose looking down.
From that height people were not visible.
Somehow I had ceased to exist for her. I couldn’t say why.
I went to the corner telephone and called James Spicer. He answered on the first ring. I told him that I needed a place to stay.
“I thought you’d call me one day.” He sounded drunk.
“Why?” I wanted drunk too.
“Because that girl had heartbreak written on her face. More hers than yours. Get in a taxi and I’ll tell you more.”
“Okay.” I glanced back over my shoulder at 55 Remsen. A taxi came down Montague. I waved it down. Like Rose I was gone and I wasn’t coming back either.
I ran into Bix two months later. He was living on the street. I got him a job as a carpenter. He stayed about two weeks.
That winter the police found him dead below Brooklyn Heights.
Starved to death.
His ragged clothing was stuffed with paper.
No numbers on any of them.
He had buried that demon in the peace of his death, as I had tempted to excommunicate my pain by writing the same poem to Rose about a hundred times. Each ended as a crumpled paper. James Spicer called the pile of rejects 'the hill of THE END'. I didn't laugh at his joke. After that I stopped writing poetry. The words were simply letters, not magic.
Rose and I met each other years later. We had another affair.
Very brief. She was working at a fish restaurant. Her paintings were of fish. They were very good.
I mentioned Bix. She said that she had heard about his death.
"There was no helping him."
I waited for her to say more.
Rose was a woman of few words and I couldn’t bring myself to ask why she had left me or why she never kissed Bix, but then I had always known the answer.
It was in the movie PETRIFIED FOREST.
Art was more powerful than poetry and numbers. Only life was stronger, although sadly not for everyone and Bix knew that better than most.
I’m only glad not to discover the same.