Monica, the woman in the cell with me, just laughed when I told her I took the plea bargain. “Honey,” she said, “it ain’t gonna be any better anyway, not if you’re going to the joint. We can’t not be who we are and that’s the problem, ain’t it?” But they’re giving me a couple of days, before I get sentenced. I wish I was like everyone else, on the boardwalk, going past Indiana Avenue and smelling hot dogs and raw clams. I’ll have to break the lease on my apartment in Jackson Heights. But the personal things . . . I’m sending you the keys. Take anything you want and give the rest to the Salvation Army. Beth is three? What have I been doing while you had two daughters?
And to think I came here to forget my crappy job. All I needed was Atlantic City and the sun and the boardwalk. I had a new Roxanne, shorts, sandals, a great sun hat. I figured if I meet someone, fine. I mean, it’s 1971. Anything can happen. The motel is right on the boardwalk, with an indoor pool. And terraces. And a lounge. I feel like one of those bees in Yankee Stadium, when the Jehovah’s Witnesses had their meeting, those bees swarming over thousands of plastic plants and phony yellow flowers and getting nowhere and getting angry and bunching up like tourists at a blocked exit at an airport. At third base there were two swimming pools where you got baptized. I don’t know what’s worse, being one of the bees or one of the Christians—buzzing around a fake chrysanthemum or being drowned in someone else’s ideas. What can you trust? Look at the man in Westchester who died from botulism in a can of vichyssoise. One paper says only 2% of our soldiers returning from Nam are addicted to heroin. Another says it’s 4.5 %. A Satan cult in Vineland is tying dolls stuck with voodoo pins to trees. Louis Armstrong is dead.
I expected Joshua to be someone I could sort of want or not. Look at how it all started. Just think when . . . (Just a minute. There’s something. I feel like I’m thinning out. I’m not real anymore. Not real. Real.) Okay. It’s okay now. (It’s like you can’t see me until you connect the dots. A pencil-point scratching down my side. Somebody drawing me. Maybe that’s why I stayed with him after I saw his explosives—to blow away the hand that was making me.)
I met Joshua on the second day. We sat in the sauna, then we ran and jumped in the pool—I wore the two-piece Elizabeth Stewart I’d bought for the trip to Puerto Rico. Remember? When I think about it now, I could laugh. I almost laughed in his face when I caught him staring at me. I was climbing out of the pool. We went back into the sauna and I let my sinuses dry out. You know how they’ve been since Mama died. He was telling me he was a lawyer, he might get a job with the Department of the Interior. He said it was a chance for him to get into politics. I almost fell off the bench, laughing, right there in the sauna house, with both of us sweating and a little fat man outside, rubbing the window, looking in (the way Mama would look into the car and count heads before we went to Palisades Park, and Richard would be telling you and me to cut it out because he had a headache and we were jumping up and down, and he’d be brooding, picking at his nails because who needs to go on rides with baby sisters?). It was very airless.
I hope I can breathe where they send me. I could be like the Apollo astronauts, wearing a bubble on my head, digging for rocks in the moon’s crust:
I can’t help thinking of Monica, the woman in jail, on her cot, laughing, saying, “That man was no good at all! He left me behind like a sack of bricks.” They’d been stealing a car on Ventnor Avenue, and her boyfriend Izzy was shaking all over he needed a fix so bad. He just drove off and left her there when the owner of the car came out and grabbed her. They found the car smashed into a pylon in Longport. I thought, that’s what Joshua did, just left me. But there’s not enough of him left to put in jail.
There I was laughing at him, seeing how his hair was combed to one side because he was getting bald, him behind his John Lennon glasses, always kind of sucking in air just before he made a fist and jabbed at you with something like, “People are basically selfish.” I wondered, why is this guy hanging around in Atlantic City? His convention (what a laugh) was not being held in the big Center where they have the Miss America pageant, where outside on the boardwalk there’s a row of Greek columns, and a couple of months from now Miss Congeniality and Miss-I-Screwed-the-Judge will pose in the wind, hair blowing across their mouths, their legs squeezed shut like virgins. Right now it’s just men going past pushing people in wicker roller-chairs. There are striped cabanas in neat rows on the beach and a lot of fat people from Philadelphia waddling down the slat-walk in the sand. The tide is pulling out. On the Million Dollar Pier you can see the needle tower with the doughnut car that slides up and down, up and down.
The Ice Capades were in the Center where the Olympic medal winners stick out their rear ends and scrape past you in red, white, and blue. Joshua took me. He took me to the ice show. He thought that was where he’d put the bomb, though I didn’t know that. I was thinking, how can this guy, being friendly and harmless with me in the sauna, ever get into politics? You can see right through him. I figured, okay, he’s selling himself as a big shot. He’s probably a salesman. But I was up for it. I wanted a little fun. When I asked him if he’d been in Nam, he said no. His brother was. Killed by a booby trip in a Vietcong tunnel. Dead—for a lot of peasants. He screwed up his face and you could see he wanted to spit.
I shut up and thought of Richard dying in Korea.
The students last year shot by the National Guard.
I looked into the souvenir shops along the boardwalk, the antique clocks in the windows, and they stared out at us, the ivory fat-belly gods, demons with weird faces and twisted mouths. (“Bye, honey,” Monica said. She leaned against the bars, on the outside, and grinned crazily at me. “Don’t let the bedbugs bite. Ha, ha!” Her sister had bailed her out, the way I know you would have, if I had asked you. But then, they remanded me without bail. Stupid. I mean it’s not like I killed anyone.) You could smell clams and hot dogs and taffy and pizza, while somewhere our soldiers were getting their legs blown off, and all these people from Montreal strolled past, pale from years of no sun, speaking French.
I knew if Richard had been our age, he’d have been in this war instead of the other one. But he would’ve been killed in this one, too. Then I think, look: the Selective Service just had their drawing for men born in 1952, the year Richard was killed. But 1952 was a leap year, so they have 366 birth dates to give numbers to, for the Draft lottery numbers for 1972. What if Richard had been killed on the extra day? What if it had been 1953 and that extra day didn’t exist?
They might as well give me the chair.
In Denver in five days they had thirty-six fire bombings and two dynamite blasts. I don’t know where Joshua gets off, talking about politics like it was just a job. We had dinner at the Traymore. I asked him what about the convention and he just shrugged. I wondered if he was just a vacuum cleaner salesman talking himself up. His eyes never had hardness in them but they looked away a lot. Once in a while, he jerked his head to the side and blinked. A real tic. So what, I thought. I could see he liked expensive places, with headwaiters.
Later, we went to the Steel Pier. But why go to the Traymore, this fake Arabic hotel, white and huge and old, with arches and tile mosaics in curved ceilings, why go there and then follow Joe Everybody in his wrinkled clothes to the arcades? Joshua was holding my hand and putting his arm around me in the crowds and telling me how good my hair smelled. Oh, brother!
We saw Cab Calloway and the Kane sisters—and I thought which one of us, you or me, would get the straight lines and who the yuks if we were up there wearing black taffeta and showing our polished teeth and talking it up before we held each other around the waist and sang up there on that slanty stage. (As if Mama would ever have let us do that, ever been fooled by those talent scouts who came around the neighborhood.) Calloway led the audience in his song and Joshua was shouting at the top of his lungs, hidee-ho, hidee-ho, hiddee, hiddee, hiddee.
I could see Joshua was into it, into screaming in an old theater with dusty drapes on the walls and broken-spring seats with bald velvet backs. Everywhere you could smell wet socks, crotches, sand, mildew, the dope in people’s hair. I could see something wild and violent in him, which you wouldn’t expect because he always talked so low, explaining things like some nutty teacher. Or a shrink. (When I saw Dr. Reister after Mama died, all he wanted was to give me pills. At first.) But inside. Inside Joshua was this man who listened to all the lawyers’ arguments, watched the stock market go up and down, who read about the underground tests in Amchitka, who heard the dykey woman marine captain talk about Alice America, the woman who doesn’t exist, who joins up the way I was joining up and didn’t know it. Inside Joshua is this man wearing glasses like Trotsky who I read about, his pig eyes hot, spit flying off the end of his little beard (inside himself he’s grown a beard, he’s yelling at crowds from a balcony), who thinks it’s better if the world ends. Meantime, he’s talking so low I can hardly hear him. He smiles, looking out at the sea, the dark hair on his forearms like little whirlpools. I saw a girl with legs like mine, like rails. I remember how Daddy slapped me the first time he caught me wearing make-up.
That night, after I found out about Joshua, what he was up to—what I thought he was up to—we went to the end of the Pier to see the circus acts and the diving horse. He kissed me, hugged me. We sat on benches built out over the ocean and I got so nervous I waited for all of us to fall into the surf, the circus people swinging on their trapeze way above the nets, somersaulting. Joshua bug-eyed. I thought, I bet acrobats are never bored. One slip, you’re dead. The diving-horse was a real horse, but he only slid down this tilted platform and fell into a tank of water.
Remember how Mama told us about love, how we thought it was great only because we wanted it that way, to be wonderful? If she had been here, she would’ve said, “But after the horse slides into the water, how does he get out?” And Reister with his hand on my knee telling me I had great hair and I told him it ran in the family, and he said, “There’s just one more thing we need to do,” moving his hand along, as if my mind was between my legs. But Mama couldn’t know. Mama was dead . . . When gelignite goes off, the horse flies up into the air, goes way up in the air and comes falling back like something Biblical, a horse falling from the sky, splashing down, even though you’re used to reading about the astronauts doing that, and this horse is like the red one falling off the Mobil sign, bleeding, floating, sinking. And bits of Joshua everywhere.
Once I asked him what color hair his wife had. “Almost black, like yours.” And eyes? “Brown. Like yours.” (I think maybe in prison there’ll be a counselor and we’ll talk about the future, like in that movie 2001. Maybe I’ll be working in a factory along a river somewhere. I imagine this Oriental woman, this planner, dressed like a warrior, with thongs criss-crossing her breasts. She has little beeping lights set into the rims of her ears. She tells me, “We can’t change your race or anything like that.” “What time are you from, originally?” I ask her. “Me?” Some of the lights twinkle and beep in her ears. “In the When I come from, the sun is beginning to swell.” “Is the world ending?” I ask. “Didn’t you think it would?” she says.)
I remember Mama just staring at the wall all that year after the divorce. I thought of it when Joshua told me about his marriage and he said he was a responsible person, he had a lot of insurance, no one would ever starve on his account. He didn’t tell me yet his wife had taken a lover. And he himself was taking this vacation, while his kids were with his mother. He leaned towards me and kind of hissed, making a fist, then dropped his hands, went limp, looked away.
I thought of the children in Korea that Richard used to write home about. I remember the day Eva Peron died in Argentina, the day that King Farouk abdicated in Egypt, and a woman was blown out of a plane at 12,000 feet when a door opened behind her and she was swept out, while her husband was next to her smoking a cigarette. The same day the enemy was attacking Richard’s aid station near Old Baldy, west of Chorwon. I remember going back to the Times for that day, where they always carried the war news on page two. I remember them saying the enemy artillery and mortars fired 6,510 rounds—2,317 more than the day before. (Me and numbers. Remember how I used to drive Mama crazy, telling her how many cars were waiting at the light, how many mints were in a box?) If there had been one less round that day, Richard’s day, one less shell . . . It makes you feel so hopeless. Like hearing we’ll be out of Nam in two years and then they give you the body counts. Or they tell you about this peasant and his wife working a rice paddy, how they return to their little house where they step on a mine. You see them burned into charcoal and kicked to the side of the road.
I cried when Joshua told me his story, the way his wife had left him. We walked towards Ventnor, the moon big enough to fall out of the sky and the tide crashing. I felt like someone in a novel. Like Joshua was Lord Rochester and I was Jane Eyre (remember Orson Welles as Rochester, his big eyes? That voice, oh, that voice . . . ) consoling him.
We went to a female impersonator show, “The Queens Are Wild,” at Fat Jack’s. They looked better than me, those men, with their make-up and falsies and black-net stockings, and boas, and tight asses. Joshua didn’t think it was so cute, so we left. I started to wonder about lawyers having conventions and about me staying another couple of days. Who’s going to miss me at the plant, in an office that smells of raw sugar piled in burlap sacks on the dock, all those workers in white shirts and white pants keeping themselves sterile as surgeons while they mix syrup in tanks big enough to float a ship, and pump it all toward the machines that fizz carbonated water and syrup into bottles spinning around on carousels? Joshua can’t be a lawyer. Maybe he’s not even married. (It’s now. I don’t know what’s coming, what’s happening. I feel like I’m coming apart. Can you read this? Am I writing this?) We were wrestling on the bed in my room, and I forced him down. I said maybe he should’ve been in the show at Fat Jack’s. But he didn’t laugh. His face turned red, and he was sweating, and he really was pissed. I almost laughed. MAN DEFEATED IN LA CONCHA MOTEL.
Then I found his black bag. The explosives. The detonators. I realized the quietness in him was like this stuff waiting to go off. And I never knew what I was looking at. Maybe when he frowned and threw up his hands, I should have said Richard died a long time ago in a different war and I’d forgotten about all that, how he got screwed when guys like you years later have a wife and kids and a good job. Maybe I shouldn’t have thought doing something now was for that time, for Richard’s dying. Maybe I should have known that all these years it was festering in me and I was bitter that Richard’s war in Korea just didn’t count. It was like it never happened. Everything was Nam. In your eyes, up your nose. The dead-meat smell of bodies in ditches at My Lai. (I really want to be writing this in the Submarine Bar at the Traymore that is having a Boardwalk Bonanza plan. I hear they’re going to blow the whole place up soon, to build casinos. Joshua could have saved them the trouble. I’m fading again. But let me finish. I’m almost done. My hair is a mess. I imagine this handsome busboy with white teeth and long legs. He probably won’t have his draft number picked for another year. They won’t touch him. The way he smiles at me. He’s leaving a note under my saucer with his name and the motel and everything on it. Maybe where they send me there’ll be a river and I’ll think I’m looking down at the Seine, I’m in Paris.)
Joshua wouldn’t have lost his wife if she hadn’t been so spoiled, so used to everything, waking up one day and blaming Joshua because he’d given her a home and a safe place. She gets a conscience. I can see her meeting a vet at some rally. He’s got a drug habit but he touches her heart (never mind her pants) because he’s angry and hurt, while Joshua (a car salesman? insurance?) is a man who always seems hurt somewhere but he won’t tell you he’s angry. Or feeling anything. And for some reason he can’t talk about his brother. But this quietness in him is just a way of controlling everything. He won’t tell about Trotsky inside him. He’s visiting the kids’ teachers, which his wife is not doing because she’s feeling everybody’s too privileged, and something has gone rancid inside her, something that wants to get out from under Joshua’s voice and his eyes. She gets involved with this Nam vet. She gets pure. She’s lucky she doesn’t get blown up herself, making bombs in a little house in Greenwich Village. You know this bitch is going to have a movie made from her life because she’s going to write a book about finding herself.
After learning about his wife, Joshua starts to mope. His customers thin out (clients, defendants, customers, what’s the difference?) because everyone sees he’s not into things. He buys one of those radical journals that have diagrams and instructions for a bomb. He puts on some raggy clothes and goes down to East Tenth Street and buys the stuff. Probably from his wife’s boyfriend without even knowing it. And he’s here, with me, proving that he can do this. Maybe he thinks his wife will come back to him. You just want to stop people having fun, he says. You just want to stop all this forgetting about what’s important. I don’t know that on our visit to the Steel Pier, just as the diving-horse begins his slide toward the water, Joshua’s going to stand up in the crowd, waving the detonator over his head, yelling.
(Now I’m wondering, what if he hadn’t given us time to get away from him, time for me to run into the roofed part of the Pier, and turn around to see the whole thing go off, Joshua, the platform with the horse, the horse, a couple of workers, everything blown up in the air, out to sea, people screaming everywhere, hot air blowing air into the Pier, almost tearing my clothes off, all kinds of stuff flying around us. I don’t know why I wasn’t hurt. I mean, really injured.)
I have to stop now. I have to go.