From FUN IN 1981 (With Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning)
Elizabeth Barrett examines her powders and oils arrayed on the white enameled mobile surgical table. Around her neck she has draped a black silk scarf which hangs below her breasts. Her nipples stiffen beneath the brushing of the silk that, to her mind, becomes as muffled cries in the room, or birdsongs like Messiean’s piano keys to her one hand that reaches to touch her right breast while the other plucks the vial of vetiver brought back one weekend from Hove’s in New Orleans. She releases herself and opens the glass bottle bringing it to her nostrils which distend. The opening of the crow’s wings.
She must close her eyes. The blonde field opens. Elizabeth’s lips part to loose the word, a name from before, perhaps from the dream. But her murmur is covered by the blast from a shotgun from somewhere below.
Elizabeth turns to the steel door, the entrance to her warehouse room. The sheen of its surface holds a column of fluorescent light. The column is steady. No one, nothing is out there behind her door to disturb the reflection. Elizabeth is satisfied only after some moments more of even gazing.
She tips the vial of oil with a revolve of her hand, one finger, the nail painted Prussia blue, covers the orifice. Elizabeth daubs the oil from her finger between her breasts and the lengths of black silk. She revolves her hand once again from drops of the vertivert to place below each earlobe, allowing her finger to trail the line of her jaw, pressing just enough to limn the bone.
They are one of her fondnesses. Her bones.
Elizabeth may think to herself that one day, after she has died, of course, these bones supporting Elizabeth flesh through this world should one day soon, after her assured death, be carefully removed one by one and boiled in fragrant oils…even, perhaps, this vetivert or some other lost, forgotten only but to the few, essence from the earth…then removed one by one and dried carefully in late afternoon sunlight, then arranged one by one carefully in a silk-lined, deep oxblood leather valise.
Then, what? Elizabeth may think. Then, who? Who would the valise be carefully handed to?
With this perhaps in her mind, Elizabeth idly travels her gaze over her white enameled mobile surgical table arrayed with oils and powders and dusters and nail paint and brushes and combs and two mirrors and her pistol, where Elizabeth’s eyes come to rest and read etched upon its bright nickel between receiver and trigger guard: BROWNING.
(We come upon Browning shortly after he has stabbed a beggar in an alley in Part One.)
The street lamps burn within a flesh-toned haze, mercury arcs like hot mouths in the city night. Browning seems to think he is dreaming as he walks, hands jammed hard into his coat pockets, his right fingers curled around the gravity knife, shoulders pinching up into his neck, tongue stuck tight against his palate behind clenched teeth.
Browning needs a respite. Browning needs some breathing room. Browning needs a lift from these hunched shoulders and cold steel blade. Browning needs romance. And, Browning may even need love.
Browning begins to speak.
“He wants to stab a flitting shadow. The leaves, bright autumn, birds thrown against the weighty sky. He wants to stab a flitting shadow. My mercury mouth, my sorrow of….”
Browning reels, one, two steps back. Browning reaches toward a cement retaining wall. It is wet, clammy to his touch as his stomach convulses and Browning then vomits down the wall and over his feet.
Browning stares down at his old Cordovan brogues now splattered with pinks and greens, panting. He hears footsteps behind him and jerks about much too quickly, slipping in the spew and sliding down the wall to a sitting position, legs splayed before him.
Browning furiously claws for his gravity knife, finds it cool in his grip and with the other hand starts to push his body up from the ground. But his hand slides in the hot fluid and Browning slumps to his side, his hand frantically trying to find purchase. The footsteps are now upon him, but all that Browning can do is flail and batter uselessly. A study in convulsion.
The footsteps pause. Tears fill Browning’s eyes. A voice somewhere above him laughs.
“Asshole drunk. Here you go, Rover.”
Several coins ring and splatter about Browning’s face, now on the pavement, running tears. Another burst of laughter and the footsteps resume, growing distant as Browning manages to regain a sitting posture. From there he makes his way to his feet by bracing his heels and carefully catching his butt up the wall.
Browning wipes his face against the sleeves of his coat, blinking and sniffling. The gravity knife still in his hand, the blade caching the mercury arc light. Its glistening brings Browning comfort, brings Browning the light.
Browning is walking now, his left hand melded to his mouth, refusing to loose the scream that circles his interior like a bird caught in a room. Browning is looking for water with which to wash his shoes, now crusting with the pink and green upheaval from his stomach. Not lacking a residue of fortune, Browning spies a car wash in the block ahead. He releases his mouth and begins striding with a firmer step toward the empty bays of the car wash, sorting through his pants’ pockets for a dollar coin. Very nearly the boulevardier, Browning produces the coin with a flourish recalling a fictional time of gaming tables of green baize and scented wrists. He flips the coin into the air with his thumb.
The sudden high keening of a rocket splits the sky and the coin dully clatters to the pavement. Browning tries to follow the trajectory of the coin as the scream bursts from his throat followed immediately by the thudding explosion of the rocket. It’s all one. Browning seems to be the war itself, on his hands and knees now, reaching for the coin, slightly shining in a pool of oil.
“I only have a knife. I just want to clean my shoes. I didn’t do it. I just want to clean my shoes.”
Browning addresses these words to a reflection n the oil and water shimmering with mercury arc light. He picks up the coin and rises from the ground for the third time this night.
Browning walks now, much less like the boulevardier, to the coin box in a bay of the car wash. Browning takes up the washing wand, a long thin pipe with a rubber hand grip from its rack and drops the his coin into the slot. He has nothing on which to place his feet and so simply bends and points the wand straight down to his shoes. The coin triggers a velocity of water from the wand and Brownings’ boots and pants are immediately, utterly soaked. Browning whips the wand and points its jet to a pool of oil producing waves of iridescence. Browning curls his toes in the water that now fills his shoes and watches the oil recoil from the powerful spray from his hand.
Browning stands like this, staring until the timer on the machine shuts the flow. He looks down at his shoes, thinking I suppose that’s better. At least for the time being.
Meanwhile in the warehouse, Elizabeth Barrett turns over in the dream’s finale. A carriage loses a wheel. The crow drops the dice. They rattle over the walnut floor into a pool of Bordeaux. The crow curses and pulls a fan of intricately worked silk and vetivert, a gift of the Dahomey prince. A crackle in the moonlight and Elizabeth awakes.
The traffic lights change along the beams of the ceiling. Elizabeth Barrett turns in the sheets, twisting them through her ankles. She thrashes them free, rolls her body from the mattress and sits to look through the dull light from the steel mesh window. Elizabeth runs the fingers of both hands up the nape of her neck and through her hair, tossing her head back with a shrug of her bare shoulders. The gunfire can be heard from downstairs. A muffled cry. Elizabeth strikes a match from the tray and lets it burn before blowing it out. She reaches for a mentholated cigarette and places it between her lips. Elizabeth caresses her right breast, then lights another match, firing the cigarette. A louder cry comes from below. The sound of splintering wood. A siren. She rises and walks to the window. The traffic lights change across the delicate features of her face, the green eyes with dried mascara flaking on the lids below, the freshly scabbed cut rising diagonally from the bridge of her nose to her hairline, the vermillion lips. The fiction of her face changing in the traffic lights.
Robert Browning finishes his coffee and thinks of other things than this. There is a disturbance in the front of the food service center. Browning doesn’t turn around. Two voices rising against one another seem to be coming closer to Browning with the scraping of the tied flooring by the metal chairs, the rattling of formica and plastic utensils. A sharp command. Browning falls to the floor, rolls under the table and hugs the wall, one hand to his crotch and the other to his face as the first shot fires. The ringing in Browning’s ears, the desperate scream of the victim, the cursing gunman. Police or thief. Browning clutches himself closer and closer.
Elizabeth Barrett remains nude in the warehouse. She curls her toes across the oaken floor which she keeps mopped, hygienic and smooth. Her shoulders and back arch as her toes curl and Elizabeth’s head lolls from shoulder to shoulder and she may hear drifting music. Elizabeth returns to the bed stroking gently, exploring the brittle line of the cut on her forehead. She sits on the bed and lets herself fall the length of her torso back, raising her knees to her breasts then stretches her legs out slowly, toes pointing, her feet slightly pawing the air out out out and down to the floor. Elizabeth’s green eyes to the ceiling where only steel beams are visible. The beams carry the changing traffic lights from the window along their length to just above Elizabeth’s down-flecked belly. The fiction of her body sighing from amber to red.
Robert Browning stands on the street in front of the food service center prying a piece of quasi-burger from a cavity with his tongue. He watches the attendants load the body. A food service worker comes out and stands next to Browning. Browning’s mouth jerks taut convulsively. This is a recently acquired tic of Browning’s and only serves to further infuriate him. The proximity of the worker, the youth’s unfortunate appearance. A mottled skin condition covers the boy’s face like a caul. The boy pulls absently at this face with one hand while the other scratches and pulls about beneath his vinyl apron. Browning’s mouth twitches twice again and he reaches to his shirt where the gravity knife waits.
Browning is distracted. Two police are still in the food service center. Browning sees them through the red glass, drinking cups of coca-coffee and discoursing loudly quarterbacks, off-time and pussy with gestures. They stop, as though cued, and turn to gaze back out through the glass directly into Browning’s eyes which begin blinking. Browning moves back out and through the blue light of the ambulance thinking of drugs.
Elizabeth Barrett stands before her mirror, her belly cold against the white porcelain sink. Elizabeth looks to her reflection. Her eyes might blur in the mirror. A weakness in the ocular muscles. A troubled flickering from side to side. Vexing. Completely new. Another discouragement, along with the cut on her forehead, that keeps Elizabeth from belief. The sadness of it all, the ineffable diffusion of her body, her sorrows now quietly curled within like and elderly dog in sleep. Murmuring in dreams, kicking occasionally, a hind leg. A rabbit on the run. The crow beating into the air from a blonde field. A shout from somewhere below. Elizabeth notes her eyes are now in focus, steady in the filmy mirror, the only unpolished surface in her room.
Robert Browning muses on his reflection in a tawdry arcade window smeared with orange and blue neon. From behind this glass the slow movements of an old woman fuse with Browning’s pale features. She is cleaning the screens of video machines with a cloth and her body sways with each stroke.
—A shadow mocking a reality whose truth avails not wholly to disperse the flitting mimic called up by itself and so remains perplexed and nigh put out by its fantastic fellow’s wavering gleam.
Browning winces, his brow furrows, his lips purse and he jams his fists hard into the pockets of his jacket. The pain burns behind his tightly shuttered eyes.
Opening his eyes, Browning finds he is looking into those of the old cleaning woman. With rheumy cast she looks at him with regret. She looks at him with resignation. She looks at him with effacing pity. She looks at him with smoldering hatred. She looks at him with hunger. She looks at him with brooding wonder. She looks at him without rhyme or reason. Browning closes his eyes, counts to twenty slowly . The phosphenes shoot across his retina making swastikas, triangles and arcs of bright vermillion and green. When he opens his eyes, a sign has appeared. The sign is pink, lettered in green.
TROLLOPE’S TOPLESS BOTTOMLESS
OVER & UNDER LOUNGE
NEW HOURS NOON TO 4 AM
YOU’LL COME AND COME AGAIN!!!!!
THE GIRLS ARE READY FOR YOU!!!!!
ARE YOU READY FOR THE GIRLS ????
GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS!
EAST 4TH & SADAT
The old cleaning woman is gone, nowhere to be seen. Browning peeps to one side of the sign on the window to see if perhaps the crone is hiding there. But she is not. Browning takes note of the address. A portent perhaps.
Elizabeth moves through the street with firm strides into the hungry mouths of the mercury arc lamps. For it is not the darkness that swallows Elizabeth, but the light. In it she becomes transparent, a cellophane figure suddenly fading, an erasure in other eyes of the street. But in the darkness Elizabeth gives luminescence, a bright fish of the deep pools. She could be seen as a warning or a promise but she moves so swiftly, leaving no time for the mind to do more than wonder. Elizabeth is a fiction of this city, a fiction itself, gone awry.
Elizabeth glances once to her left and spies a figure, a bundle of clothing flapping and struggling against a wall across the street. There is a pool of color beneath the figure, a blaring of pink and green. Then suddenly, a flash of light from the bundles’ sleeve which reflects in Elizabeth’s eye. Elizabeth pauses and touches her left eye where the light had been, exploring with same curious fingers she keeps for her scars. Then, she walks on and is swallowed beneath a lamp.
Elizabeth Barrett walks into a bath of red and green neon beneath the marquee of Trollope’s under which two soldiers, callow-faced and smelling of patchouli, stand , eating chicken. They are drunk and they bob and roll against each other like boats moored on a turbulent backwater. On sighting Elizabeth they animatedly gesture with their chicken parts and smile still chewing the meat. Elizabeth walks past them and nods to Ramone, the cancer-laden refugee who serves as streethawker for the club, and enters the darkness of Trollope’s.
–(FUN IN 1981 (With Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning,Copyright, All Rights Reserved Joseph Michael Reynolds 1977/2012)–