Madison Smartt Bell
"Get the number-ten breakfast if you want it," Stuart said. "Or anything else they got." He was in a slightly reckless condition and a lot of his concentration was being spent on keeping her from splitting into twos and fours.
"Hell, yes," she said, and shouted an order toward the counter. "I knew you had that money all along."
"Not that much," Stuart said, laying down his fork.
"Enough," she said, aiming a long fingernail at his nose. "Your trouble is you think you can't find what you need. You know I seen you looking. Up and down and up and down-" She slapped the table. "You might not think it but I can do it all myself, do it real well too."
"Breakfast only," Stuart said, and as if those were the magic words an oblong plate of hash and eggs came skidding into the space between her elbows.
"I got it now," she said, biting into a triangle of damp toast. "You not looking for some thing. You looking for some body, right?"
"Yeah, Stuart said. "Right."
"Have to be a girlfriend."
"As a matter of fact, no, Stuart said. "Just somebody I used to know."
"What for, then?"
"I don't know, Stuart said. "I think I got survivor syndrome."
"I feel responsible," Stuart said, hearing his words begin to slur. "For like . . . for everybody. Don't ask me why but I always felt like she'd be the only one I could do anything about." He elbowed his plate out of the way and clasped his hands in front of him. "It's got to be like a long chain of people, see? I take hold of her and she takes hold of somebody else and finally somebody takes hold of you maybe, and then if everybody holds on tight we all get out of here."
The hooker shoveled in a large amount of hash and eggs with a few rapid movements and then looked back up.
"Out of where?"
"Ah, I can't explain it," Stuart said, fumbling out a cigarette.
"Whose idea was this, anyway?"
The hooker stared at him, not smiling so much now.
"You be knee-walking drunk once you stand up, won't you?" she said after a while. "Man, where you coming from with this kind of talk?"
"Straight out of hell," Stuart said, trying to get his cigarette together with his match. "You familiar with the place?"
Over the winter he started going to the kung fu movies, across 42nd Street and around Times Square. It was a better time killer than drinking for him now; he'd tried getting drunk a few more times but he didn't much like where it took him. He went to the movies at night or sometimes in the afternoons, wearing a knit cap pulled down to his eye sockets so others couldn't tell much about him in the dark. It would take him a while, sometimes, to find a seat. Often whole sections had been ripped out, and also he liked to get one that put his back to a post or some other barrier. In the half-light reflected back from the screen, the rest of the audience milled through clouds of dope smoke, dealing for sense' or street ludes or dust, each cluster playing a different boom box, usually louder than the sound track. They only turned to the screen when there was fighting, but the fight scenes always got their whole attention, bringing screarns of approval from every cranny of the huge decaying theaters.
Stuart, on the other hand, always watched all the way through, even the tedious love scenes. He was not very discriminating, could watch the same picture again and again, often staying so long he would have forgotten whether it was day or night by the time he returned to the street. The movies were all so similar that there was not much to choose among them, if you were going to bother to watch them at all. He observed that the theme of return was prevalent. What the returning person usually did was kill people, keeping it up until there was no one left or he was killed himself.
Twisted among the lumps and rickets of his moldy ricket of a bed, Stuart falls into a dream so deep and profoundly revealing that at every juncture of it he posts his waking self a message: You must remember this. The dream is room within room within room, each suppressing its breathless secret, and on every threshold, Stuart swears he will remember. Each revelation has sufficient power to make him almost weep. When he sits up suddenly awake, the message is still thinly wrapped around him, a name.
Clifton. Stuart stared at a gleaming crack in the gritty windowpane, an arm 3s reach across the space between the bedstead and the wall. Clifton, that was nothing but nothing, and the dream was entirely gone. He flopped back over onto his side, eyes falling back shut, fingers begin to twitch, and a shard of the dream returns to him. The self of his dream comes hurrying from a building and in passing glances at a peddler on the sidewalk, a concrete-colored man propping up a dismal scrap of a tree. Its branches are hung with little figurines carved in wood and stone, and Stuart, hastening on his way, takes in as a matter of course that each of them astonishingly lives, is animate, moving toward the others, or away. In the dream he rushes past as though it were completely ordinary, but now he is transfixed by the gemlike movement of the tree, this nonsense miracle, a mere wonder outside the context of the dream, and uninterpretable. Stuart sat back up in the knot of his grimy blanket, muttering, Clifton. Surely, somewhere in all of this there must be some- thing to extract.
Back in Brooklyn, Stuart checked in Henry's old bar to see if anyone knew where Clifton was living now and found that no one did. He tried the old place up on Broadway and the super sent him back around the corner to a half-renovated building between two shells on South 8th Street. It was a sunny day, though cold, and even the well to the basement door was full of light. Stuart rolled his newspaper tighter in his right hand and rapped on the door with his left. It took five or ten minutes of off-and-on knocking before the door pulled back on the chain, then reclosed and opened all the way.
"You been a long time coming," Clifton said. Inside, the light that own from the street level was thin and watery. Clifton shimmered vaguely as he yawned and stretched; it looked like he'd been caught asleep, though it was well past noon. There was something that smelled to Stuart a little like old blood. He followed Clifton into the room and kicked the door shut behind him with his heel.
"The worried man," Clifton said, bending away from Stuart to get a T-shirt from the bed. "Well, babe, you ready for me to make your troubles go away?"
"Can you?" Stuart said. "Clifton?" When Clifton began to turn toward him, Stuart lashed at him with the rolled newspaper, and the heavy elbow of pipe he'd furled inside it knocked Clifton all the way over and sent him sliding into the rear wall.
"What in hell is the matter with you?" Clifton said. He sat up against the wall and stroked at the side of his mouth, his finger coming away red from a little cut. "Have you gone crazy or what?" Stuart looked down at him, trying to feel something, anything, but could not. He thought for no reason of the trench, bags jumbled into it, barely covered with a damp film of dirt.
"Just curious," he said haltingly.
"Yeah, well, are you satisfied now?"
"Not really," Stuart said. The newspaper hung at the full length of his arm, pointed at the floor. "I was thinking I might beat your face out the back of your head, but I don't really feel like it now."
"That's real good, Stuart," Clifton said. "I'm glad you don't feel like it now. You don't maybe want to tell me why you felt like it a minute ago?"
"I don't know why," Stuart said. "What happened to Natasha?"
"Man, are you kidding me, man?" Clifton said. "I'm going to tell you the truth now, okay, I don't freaking know." Stuart took a step forward, hefting the newspaper. Clifton raised one hand more or less in front of his face and pushed up into a crouch with the other.
"Hey, I would tell you now if I knew, man," he said. "You got the edge on me, okay? Besides, what would I want to hide it for? I don't know any more than you do, man."
"Okay," Stuart said, and let the newspaper fall back to rest against his thigh. Clifton reached into the side of his mouth and took something out and looked at it.
"This is my tooth I got here, man," he said. "I cannot believe you did this over that dumb freaking chick."
"I had a dream," Stuart said, "but maybe this wasn't what it was supposed to be about."
Clifton pushed himself up off the floor and stood, pressing the T-shirt over the bleeding edge of his mouth.
"Yeah, well, thanks for stopping by," he said, words a little slurred by the cloth. "Next time I see you I'm going to kill you, you do know that, I hope."
"No you won't," Stuart said.
"Maybe, maybe not," Clifton said. "Don't turn your back."
Almost every day he bought a paper and almost every day he didn't read much of it. He'd glance through quickly and then roll it and carry it all day, till the front pages began to curl and tatter and the ink started to bleed off on his fingers. After a while the feel of the rolled newspapers stopped reminding him directly of Clifton and only made him uncomfortable in a dull way he couldn't identify.
There was always too much news about missing people, and too many of the ones who weren't missing were dead. Every time he heard about someone else missing he wondered how many just vanished with- out being missed. Every third person he passed on the street was probably missing from somewhere.
Missing was no more than a whitewash; a better word would be gone. Gone people. Whenever Stuart looked at the faces on the milk cartons, he had a deep feeling the children were dead. He didn't own a picture of Natasha, but all the same he was convinced that if she'd died he would have known that too.
When it got warm enough to sit outside again Stuart sat in Tompkins Square with one more unread newspaper flattened on the bench beside him and watched Tombo coming across from the east side. He would have let him go on by, but Tombo saw him before he could get the paper UP, came over, and sat down.
"Long time," Tombo said. "I wasn't even sure you were still around."
"I'm here," Stuart said. Tombo leaned back on the bench, shooting his long legs out before him. He had on a nice pair of gray pleated pants, expensive-looking. None of it ever seemed to age or even touch him. He still had his dark and vaguely foreign prettiness, perfect skin, red pouty mouth, long eyelashes like a girl's. Stuart watched him blink his eyes and sniffle.
"Hey, you know Clifton's been talking you down a lot," Tombo said, shifting around in Stuart's direction. "He keeps on telling every- body he's gonna fix your business."
"Good," Stuart said. "If he's talking about it then he won't do anything."
"Clifton's got a temper," Stuart said. "But he'll never let it take him all the way to jail.
"Maybe not," Tombo said. He snorted, pulled out a handkerchief, and blew his nose.
"Allergies, man," he said. "It always gets to me around this time of year. "
"What are you giving me that line for?" Stuart said. "I'm not a cop."
"Right, I forgot," Tombo said, glancing over at him under his eyelashes. "You still clean?"
"Yeah," Stuart said.
"They do a pretty good job on you up at Millbrook, huh? It sticks?"
"So far," Stuart said. "One day at a time and all that kind of thing. "
Tombo shifted around on the bench.
"I'd been thinking maybe I might go up there sometime myself," he said.
"Well," Stuart said. "When you decide to go, then you'll go."
"People tell me you're looking for Natasha," Tombo said.
"Do they," Stuart said. "Everybody likes to talk to you about my business, seems. Why, you haven't seen her, have you?"
"Not in a year at least, nope. Sorry, bud ... What are you looking for her for? "
" I quit looking for her," Stuart said. "You can't look for somebody around here, it's ridiculous. I'm just ... I'm just waiting to find her, that's all. "
"Interesting strategy," Tombo said, standing up. "Well, good luck."
Stuart started making trips to Brooklyn, back to what had been Henry's place, though he didn't much like the feel of it, not after the remoeling. Why he kept going out there he didn't really know, maybe just for the inconvenience of it, for the journey. Clifton had stopped coming in, the new bartender was a stranger, there was seldom anyone he knew there except the dog. They still hadn't opened up the restaurant section. Sometimes Stuart's visit would coincide with Henry's, who tended to drop in most Thursday and Friday afternoons. He'd take Captain out around the block and then come back and sit at the bar, drinking white wine on ice from one of the old straight glasses they'd apparently saved just to serve him with. It pleased Stuart that this one little thing was still the same, and he felt happier in the place when Henry was in there too, though they didn't have much to say to each other past hello, and though the old man looked all wrong, sitting on the outside of the bar.
Whenever the weather was good enough he walked back across the bridge and caught the subway at Delancey Street on the Manhattan side. He was in a lot better shape than he'd been in the old days, but it was still enough of an effort that doing it fast set his heart slamming. That sense of an urge out in front of him was familiar, though now he wasn't going for a fix; the energy he set out ahead of him had become its own point. The walkway was a little more run-down than he remembered it. A lot of the tiles had come loose and blown away, and now he could look through cracks in the steel plating and see all the way down to the place far below the roadway where the water slowly turned and moiled. But the rise of excitement was the same as it always had been, as he pushed himself up to the crux of the span, where the howling of the traffic stopped being a scream and became a sigh. Arrived just there, with the afternoon barely past its daily crisis, he stopped and looked farther across at the tall buildings limned explosively with light, exult- ant, thinking, This is what you always will forget, this is what you never can remember, this is what you have to be here for.
It's not the first but the fifth or sixth day of spring when Stuart finally finds Natasha. All winter he's felt old and moribund, frozen half through, but now a new green shoot of youth begins to uncurl inside of him. It's a fresh and tingling day, the weather so very fine that it alone would be enough to make you fall in love. The people in Washington Square have bloomed into their summer clothes and they all look almost beautiful. Stuart walks around the rim of the fountain, hands in his pockets, a cigarette guttering the corner of his mouth, smiling a little as the fair breeze ruffles his hair. He's headed straight for Natasha before he's even seen her, and then he does: she's tapped out there on one of the benches just at the bottom edge of the circle, head lolled back, mouth a little open, hands stretched palms-up on her knees. When he gets a little closer, he can even see her eyes darting under the closed lids, looking at the things she's dreaming of. Man, she's way too thin, she's got bad- looking tracks, infected, and it's a fifty-fifty chance she's dying, but Stuart won't think about any of that right now, just keeps on walking, up into the moment he's believed in for so long.