Our escape hit the papers yesterday, and the tabloids had a field day. On the second page of the Daily Press there was an old picture of me and a sketch of a white mouse. The headline read: Moron-Genius and Mouse Go Berserk. Nemur and Strauss are reported as saying I had been under tremendous strain and that I would undoubtedly return soon. They offered a five-hundred-dollar reward for Algernon, not realizing we were together.
When I turned to the later story on the fifth page, I was stunned to find a picture of my mother and sister. Some reporter had obviously done his legwork.
SISTER UNAWARE OF MORON-GENIUS’ WHEREABOUTS
(Special to the Daily Press)
Brooklyn, N.Y., June 14—Miss Norma Gordon, who lives with her mother, Rose Gordon, at 4136 Marks Street, Brooklyn, N.Y., denied any knowledge of her brother’s whereabouts. Miss Gordon said, “We haven’t seen him or heard from him in more than seventeen years.”
Miss Gordon says she believed her brother dead until last March, when the head of the psychology department at Beekman University approached her for permission to use Charlie in an experiment.
“My mother told me he had been sent to the Warren place,” (Warren State Home and Training School, in Warren, Long Island) said Miss Gordon, “and that he died there a few years later. I had no idea then that he was still alive.”
Miss Gordon requests that anyone who has any news about her brother’s whereabouts communicate with the family at their home address.
The father, Matthew Gordon, who is not living with his wife and daughter, now operates a barbershop in the Bronx.
I stared at the news story for a while, and then I turned back and looked at the picture again. How can I describe them?
I can’t say I remember Rose’s face. Although the recent photograph is a clear one, I still see it through the gauze of childhood. I knew her, and I didn’t know her. Had we passed on the street, I would not have recognized her, but now, knowing she is my mother, I can make out the faint details—yes!
Thin, drawn into exaggerated lines. Sharp nose and chin. And I can almost hear her chatter and bird-screech. Hair done up in a bun, severely. Piercing me with her dark eyes. I want her to take me into her arms and tell me I am a good boy, and at the same time I want to turn away to avoid a slap. Her picture makes me tremble.
And Norma—thin-faced too. Features not so sharp, pretty, but very much like my mother. Her hair worn down to her shoulders softens her. The two of them are sitting on the living room couch.
It was Rose’s face that brought back the frightening memories. She was two people to me, and I never had any way of knowing which she would be. Perhaps she would reveal it to others by a gesture of hand, a raised eyebrow, a frown—my sister knew the storm warnings, and she would always be out of range whenever my mother’s temper flared—but it always caught me unawares. I would come to her for comforting, and her anger would break over me. And other times there would be tenderness and holding-close like a warm bath, and hands stroking my hair and brow, and the words carved above the cathedral of my childhood:
He’s like all the other children.
He’s a good boy.
I see back through the dissolving photograph, myself and father leaning over a bassinet. He’s holding me by the hand and saying, “There she is. You mustn’t touch her because she’s very little, but when she gets bigger you’ll have a sister to play with.”
I see my mother in the huge bed nearby, bleached and pasty, arms limp on the orchid-figured comforter, raising her head anxiously. “Watch him, Matt—”
That was before she had changed towards me, and now I realize it was because she had no way of knowing yet if Norma would be like me or not. It was later on, when she was sure her prayers had been answered, and Norma showed all signs of normal intelligence, that my mother’s voice began to sound different. Not only her voice, but her touch, her look, her very presence—all changed. It was as if her magnetic poles had reversed and where they had once attracted now repelled. I see now that when Norma flowered in our garden I became a weed, allowed to exist only where I would not be seen, in corners and dark places.
Seeing her face in the newspaper, I suddenly hated her. It would have been better if she had ignored the doctors and teachers and others who were so in a hurry to convince her that I was a moron, turning her away from me so that she gave me less love when I needed more.
What good would it do to see her now? What could she tell me about myself? And yet, I’m curious. How would she react?
To see her and trace back to learn what I was? Or to forget her? Is the past worth knowing? Why is it so important for me to say to her: “Mom, look at me. I’m not retarded any more. I’m normal. Better than normal. I’m a genius?”
Even as I try to get her out of my mind, the memories seep back from the past to contaminate the here and now. Another memory—when I was much older.
Charlie lying in bed, with the covers pulled up around him. The room dark, except for the thin line of yellow light from the door ajar that penetrates the darkness to join both worlds. And he hears things, not understanding but feeling, because the rasp of their voices is linked to their talk of him. More and more, each day, he comes to associate that tone with a frown when they speak of him.
He has been almost asleep when through the bar of light the soft voices were raised to the pitch of argument— his mother’s voice sharp with the threat of one used to having her way through hysteria. “He’s got to be sent away. I don’t want him in the house any mote with her. Call Dr. Portman and tell him we want to send Charlie to the Warren State Home.”
My father’s voice is firm, steadying. “But you know Charlie wouldn’t harm her. It can’t make any difference to her at this age.”
“How do we know? Maybe it has a bad effect on a child to grow up with… someone like him in the house.”
“Dr. Portman said—”
“Portman said! Portman said! I don’t care what he said! Think of what it will be like for her to have a brother like that. I was wrong all these years, trying to believe he would grow up like other children. I admit it now. Better for him to be put away.”
“Now that you’ve got her, you’ve decided you don’t want him any more….”
“Do you think this is easy? Why are you making it harder for me? All these years everyone telling me he should be put away. Well, they were right. Put him away. Maybe at the Home with his own kind he’ll have something. I don’t know what’s right or wrong any more. All I know is I’m not going to sacrifice my daughter for him now.”
And though Charlie has not understood what passed between them, he is afraid and sinks beneath the covers, eyes open, trying to pierce the darkness that surrounds him.
As I see him now, he is not really afraid, just withdrawing, as a bird or squirrel backs off from the brusque movements of the feeder—involuntary, instinctive. The light through that door ajar comes to me again in luminous vision. Seeing Charlie huddled beneath the covers I wish I could give him comfort, explain to him that he has done nothing wrong, that it is beyond him to change his mother’s attitude back to what it was before his sister came. There on the bed, Charlie did not understand what they were saying, but now it hurts. If I could reach out into the past of my memories, I would make her see how much she was hurting me.
This is no time to go to her. Not until I’ve had time to work it out for myself.
Fortunately, as a precaution, I withdrew my savings from the bank as soon as I arrived in New York Eight hundred and eighty-six dollars won’t last long, but it will give me time to get my bearings.
I’ve checked into the Camden Hotel on 4lst Street, a block from Times Square. New York! All the things I’ve read about it! Gotham… the melting pot… Baghdad-on-the-Hudson. City of light and color. Incredible that I’ve lived and worked all my life just a few stops away on the subway and been to Times Square only once—with Alice.
It’s hard to keep from calling her. I’ve started and stopped myself several times. I’ve got to keep away from her.
So many confusing thoughts to get down. I tell myself that as long as I keep taping my progress reports, nothing will be lost; the record will be complete. Let them be in the dark for a while; I was in the dark for more than thirty years. But I’m tired now. Didn’t get to sleep on the plane yesterday, and I can’t keep my eyes open. I’ll pick up at this point tomorrow.
Called Alice, but hung up before she answered. Today I found a furnished apartment. Ninety-five dollars a month is more than I planned to spend, but it’s on Forty-third and Tenth Avenue and I can get to the library in ten minutes to keep up with my reading and study. The apartment is on the fourth floor, four rooms, and there’s a rented piano in it. The landlady says that one of these days the rental service will pull it out, but maybe by that time I can learn to play it.
Algernon is a pleasant companion. At mealtimes he takes his place at the small gateleg table. He likes pretzels, and today he took a sip of beer while we watched the ball game on TV. I think he rooted for the Yankees.
I’m going to move most of the furniture out of the second bedroom and use the room for Algernon. I plan to build him a three-dimensional maze out of scrap plastic that I can pick up cheaply downtown. There are some complex maze variations I’d like him to learn to be sure he keeps in shape. But I’m going to see if I can find some motivation other than food. There must be other rewards that will induce him to solve problems.
Solitude gives me a chance to read and think, and now that the memories are coming through again—to rediscover my past, to find out who and what I really am. If anything should go wrong, I’ll have at least that.
Met Fay Lillman, my neighbor across the hall. “When I came back with an armful of groceries, I discovered I had locked myself out, and I remembered that the front fire escape connected my living room window and the apartment directly across the hall.
The radio was on loud and brassy, so I knocked— softly at first, and then louder.
“Come on in! Door’s open!”
I pushed the door, and froze, because standing in front of an easel, painting, was a slender blonde in pink bra and panties.
“Sorry!” I gasped, closing the door again. From outside, I shouted. “I’m your neighbor across the hall. I locked myself out, and I wanted to use the fire escape to get over to my window.”
The door swung open and she faced me, still in her underwear, a brush in each hand and hands on her hips.
“Didn’t you hear me say come in?” She waved me into the apartment, pushing away a carton full of trash. “Just step over that pile of junk there.”
I thought she must have forgotten—or not realized— she was undressed, and I didn’t know which way to look. I kept my eyes averted, looking at the walls, ceiling, everywhere but at her.
The place was a shambles. There were dozens of little folding snack-tables, all covered with twisted tubes of paint, most of them crusted dry like shriveled snakes, but some of them alive and oozing ribbons of color. Tubes, brushes, cans, rags, and parts of frames and canvas were strewn everywhere. The place was thick with the odor compounded of paint, linseed oil, and turpentine—and after a few moments the subtle aroma of stale beer. Three overstuffed chairs and a mangy green couch were piled high with discarded clothing, and on the floor lay shoes, stockings and underthings, as if she were in the habit of undressing as she walked and flinging her clothes as she went. A fine layer of dust covered everything.
“Well, you’re Mr. Gordon,” she said, looking me over. “I’ve been dying to get a peek at you ever since you moved in. Have a seat.” She scooped up a pile of clothing from one of the chairs and dumped it onto the crowded sofa. “So you finally decided to visit your neighbors. Get you a drink?”
“You’re a painter,” I burbled, for want of something to say. I was unnerved by the thought that any moment she would realize she was undressed and would scream and dash for the bedroom. I tried to keep my eyes moving, looking everywhere but at her.
“Beer or ale? Nothing else in the place right now except cooking sherry. You don’t want cooking sherry, do you?”
“I can’t stay,” I said, getting hold of myself and fixing my gaze at the beauty mark on the left side of her chin. “I’ve locked myself out of my apartment. I wanted to go across the fire escape. It connects our windows.”
“Any time,” she assured me. “Those lousy patent locks are a pain in the ass. I locked myself out of this place three times the first week I lived here—and once I was out in the hall stark naked for half an hour. Stepped out to get the milk, and the goddamned door swung shut behind me. I ripped the goddamned lock off and I haven’t had one on my door since.”
I must have frowned, because she laughed. “Well, you see what the damned locks do. They lock you out, and they don’t protect much, do they? Fifteen burglaries in this goddamned building in the past year and every one of them in apartments that were locked. No one ever broke in here, even though the door was always open. They’d have a rotten time finding anything valuable here anyway.”
When she insisted again on my having a beer with her, I accepted. While she was getting it from the kitchen, I looked around the room again. What I hadn’t noticed before was that the part of the wall behind me had been cleared away—all the furniture pushed to one side of the room or the center, so that the far wall (the plaster of which had been torn off to expose the brick) served as an art gallery. Paintings were crowded to the ceiling and others were stacked against each other on the floor. Several of them were self-portraits, including two nudes. The painting she had been working on when I came in, the one on the easel, was a half-length nude of herself, showing her hair long (not the way she wore it now, up in blonde braids coiled around her head like a crown) down to her shoulders with part of her long tresses twisted around the front and resting between her breasts. She had painted her breasts uptilted and firm with the nipples an unrealistic lollipop-red. When I heard her coming back with the beer, I spun away from the easel quickly, stumbled over some books, and pretended to be interested in a small autumn landscape on the wall.
I was relieved to see that she had slipped into a thin ragged housecoat—even though it had holes in all the wrong places—and I could look directly at her for the first time. Not exactly beautiful, but her blue eyes and pert snub nose gave her a catlike quality that contrasted with her robust, athletic movements. She was about thirty-five, slender and well proportioned. She set the beers on the hardwood floor, curled up beside them in front of the sofa, and motioned for me to do the same.
“I find the floor more comfortable than chairs,” she said, sipping the beer from the can. “Don’t you?”
I told her I hadn’t thought about it, and she laughed and said I had an honest face. She was in the mood to talk about herself. She avoided Greenwich Village, she said, because there, instead of painting, she would be spending all her time in bars and coffee shops. “It’s better up here away from the phonies and the dilettantes. Here I can do what I want and no one comes to sneer. You’re not a sneerer, are you?”
I shrugged, trying not to notice the gritty dust all over my trousers and my hands. “I guess we all sneer at something. You’re sneering at the phonies and dilettantes, aren’t you?”
After a while, I said I’d better be getting over to my own apartment. She pushed a pile of books away from the window—and I climbed over newspapers and paper bags filled with empty quart beer bottles. “One of these days,” she sighed, “I’ve got to cash them in.”
I climbed onto the window sill and out to the fire escape. When I got my window open, I came back for my groceries, but before I could say thanks and good-bye, she started out onto the fire escape after me. “Let’s see your place. I’ve never been there. Before you moved in, the two little old Wagner sisters wouldn’t even say good morning to me.” She crawled through my window behind me and sat on the ledge.
“Come on in,” I said, putting the groceries on the table.
“I don’t have any beer, but I can make you a cup of coffee.” But she was looking past me, her eyes wide in disbelief.
“My God! I’ve never seen a place as neat as this. Who would dream that a man living by himself could keep a place so orderly?”
“I wasn’t always that way,” I apologized. “It’s just since I moved in here. It was neat when I moved in, and I’ve had the compulsion to keep it that way. It upsets me now if anything is out of place.”
She got down off the window sill to explore the apartment.
“Hey,” she said, suddenly, “do you like to dance? You know—” She held out her arms and did a complicated step as she hummed a Latin beat. “Tell me you dance and I’ll bust.”
“Only the fox trot,” I said, “and not very good at that.”
She shrugged. “I’m nuts about dancing, but nobody I ever meet—that I like—is a good dancer. I’ve got to get myself all dolled up once in a while and go downtown to the Stardust Ballroom. Most of the guys hanging around there are kind of creepy, but they can dance.”
She sighed as she looked around. “Tell you what I don’t like about a place so goddamned orderly like this. As an artist… it’s the lines that get me. All the straight lines in the walls, on the floors, in the corners that turn into boxes—like coffins. The only way I can get rid of the boxes is to take a few drinks. Then all the lines get wavy and wiggly, and I feel a lot better about the whole world. When things are all straight and lined up this way I get morbid. Ugh! If I lived here I would have to stay drunk all the time.”
Suddenly, she swung around and faced me. “Say, could you let me have five until the twentieth? That’s when my alimony check comes. I usually don’t run short, but I had a problem last week”
Before I could answer, she screeched and started over to the piano in the corner. “I used to play the piano. I heard you fooling around with it a few times, and I said to myself that guy’s goddamned good. That’s how I know I wanted to meet you even before I saw you. I haven’t played in such a goddamned long time.” She was picking away at the piano as I went into the kitchen to make coffee.
“You’re welcome to practice on it any time,” I said. I don’t know why I suddenly became so free with my place, but there was something about her that demanded complete unselfishness. “I don’t leave the front door open yet, but the window isn’t locked, and if I’m not here all you’ve got to do is climb in through the fire escape. Cream and sugar in your coffee?”
When she didn’t answer, I looked back into the living room. She wasn’t there, and as I started towards the window, I heard her voice from Algernon’s room.
“Hey, what’s this?” She was examining the three dimensional plastic maze I had built. She studied it and then let out another squeal. “Modern sculpture! All boxes and straight lines!”
“It’s a special maze,” I explained. “A complex learning device for Algernon.”
But she was circling around it, excited. “They’ll go mad for it at the Museum of Modern Art.”
“It’s not sculpture,” I insisted. I opened the door to Algernon’s living-cage attached to the maze, and let him into the maze opening.
“My God!” she whispered. “Sculpture with a living element. Charlie, it’s the greatest thing since junkmobiles and tincannia.”
I tried to explain, but she insisted that the living element would make sculpture history. Only when I saw the laughter in her wild eyes did I realize she was teasing me. “It could be self-perpetuating art,” she went on, “a creative experience for the art lover. You get another mouse and when they have babies, you always keep one to reproduce the living element. Your work of art attains immortality, and all the fashionable people buy copies for conversation pieces. What are you going to call it?”
“All right,” I sighed. “I surrender….”
“No,” she snorted, tapping the plastic dome where Algernon had found his way into the goal-box. “I surrender is too much of a cliche. How about: Life is just a box of mazes?”
“You’re a nut!” I said.
“Naturally!” She spun around and curtsied. “I was wondering when you’d notice.”
About then the coffee boiled over.
Halfway through the cup of coffee, she gasped and said she had to run because she had a date a half-hour earlier with someone she met at an art exhibit.
“You wanted some money,” I said.
She reached into my half open wallet and pulled out a five-dollar bill. “Till next week,” she said, “when the check comes. Thanks a mill.” She crumpled the money, blew Algernon a kiss, and before I could say anything she was out the window onto the fire escape, and out of sight. I stood there foolishly looking after her.
So damned attractive. So full of life and excitement. Her voice, her eyes—everything about her was an invitation. And she lived out the window and just a fire escape away.
Perhaps I should have waited before going to see Matt; or not gone to see him at all. I don’t know. Nothing turns out the way I expect it to. With the clue that
Matt had opened a barbershop somewhere in the Bronx, it was a simple matter to find him. I remembered he had sold for a barber supply company in New York. That led me to Metro Barber Shop Supplies who had a barbershop account under the name of Gordons Barber Shop on Went-worth Street in the Bronx.
Matt had often talked about a barbershop of his own. How he hated selling! What battles they had about it! Rose screaming that a salesman was at least a dignified occupation, but she would never have a barber for a husband. And oh, wouldn’t Margaret Phinney snicker at the “barber’s wife.” And what about Lois Meiner whose husband was a claims examiner for the Alarm Casualty Company? Wouldn’t she stick her nose up in the air!
During the years he worked as a salesman, hating every day of it (especially after he saw the movie version of Death of a Salesman) Matt dreamed that he would someday become his own boss. That must have been in his mind in those days when he talked about saving money and gave me my haircuts down in the basement. They were good haircuts too, he boasted, a lot better than I’d get in that cheap barbershop on Scales Avenue. When he walked out on Rose, he walked out on selling too, and I admired him for that.
I was excited at the thought of seeing him. Memories were warm ones. Matt had been willing to take me as I was. Before Norma: the arguments that weren’t about money or impressing the neighbors were about me—that I should be let alone instead of being pushed to do what other kids did. And after Norma: that I had a right to a life of my own even though I wasn’t like other children. Always defending me. I couldn’t wait to see the expression on his face. He was someone I’d be able to share this with.
Wentworth Street was a rundown section of the Bronx. Most of the stores on the street had “For Rent” signs in the windows, and others were closed for the day. But halfway down the block from the bus stop there was a barber pole reflecting a candy cane of light from the window.
The shop was empty except for the barber reading a magazine in the chair nearest the window. When he looked up at me, I recognized Matt—stocky, red-cheeked, a lot older and nearly bald with a fringe of gray hair bordering the sides of his head—but still Matt. Seeing me at the door, he tossed the magazine aside.
“No waiting. You’re next.”
I hesitated, and he misunderstood. “Usually not open at this hour, mister. Had an appointment with one of my regulars, but he didn’t show. Just about to close. Lucky for you I sat down to rest my feet. Best haircut and shave in the Bronx.”
As I let myself be drawn into the shop, he bustled around, pulling out scissors and combs and a fresh neckcloth.
“Everything sanitary, as you can see, which is more than I can say for most barbershops in this neighborhood. Haircut and shave?”
I eased myself into the chair. Incredible that he didn’t recognize me when I knew him so plainly. I had to remind myself that he had not seen me in more than fifteen years, and that my appearance had changed even more in the past months. He studied me in the mirror now that he had me covered with the striped neckcloth, and I saw a frown of feint recognition.
“The works,” I said, nodding at the union-shop price list, “haircut, shave, shampoo, sun-tan…”
His eyebrows went up.
“I’ve got to meet someone I haven’t seen in a long time,” I assured him, “and I want to look my best.”
It was a frightening sensation, having him cut my hair again. Later, as he stropped the razor against leather the harsh whisper made me cringe. I bent my head under the gentle press of his hand and felt the blade scrape carefully across my neck. I closed my eyes and waited. It was as if I were on the operating table again.
My neck muscle knotted, and without warning it twitched. The blade nicked me just above the Adam’s apple.
“Hey!” he shouted. “Jesus… take it easy. You moved. Hey, I’m awful sorry.”
He dashed to wet a towel at the sink.
In the mirror I watched the bright red bubble and the thin line dripping down my throat. Excited and apologizing, he got to it before it reached the neckcloth.
Watching him move, adroit for such a short, heavy man, I felt guilty at the deception. I wanted to tell him who I was and have him put his arm around my shoulder, so we could talk about the old days. But I waited while he dabbed at the cut with styptic powder.
He finished shaving me silently, and then brought the sun-tan lamp over to the chair and put cool white pads of cotton soaked in witch hazel over my eyes. There, in the bright red inner darkness I saw what happened the night he took me away from the house for the last time….
Charlie is asleep in the other room, but he wakens to the sound of his mother shrieking. He has learned to sleep through quarrels—they are an everyday occurrence in his house. But tonight there is something terribly wrong in that hysteria. He shrinks back into the pillow and listens.
“I can’t help it! He’s got to go! We’ve got her to think about. I won’t have her come home from school crying every day like this because the children tease her. We can’t destroy her chance for a normal life because of him.”
“What do you want to do? Turn him out into the street?”
“Put him away. Send him to the Warren State Home.”
“Let’s talk it over in the morning.”
“No. All you do is talk, talk, and you don’t do anything. I don’t want him here another day. Now—tonight.”
“Don’t be foolish, Rose. It’s too late to do anything… tonight. You’re shouting so loud everyone will hear you.”
“I don’t care. He goes out tonight. I can’t stand looking at him any more.”
“You’re being impossible, Rose. What are you doing?”
“I warn you. Get him out of here.”
“Put that knife down.”
“I’m not going to have her life destroyed.”
“You’re crazy. Put that knife away.”
“He’s better off dead. He’ll never be able to live a normal life. He’ll be better off—”
“You’re out of your mind. For God’s sake, control yourself!”
“Then take him away from here. Now—tonight.”
“All right. I’ll take him over to Herman tonight and maybe tomorrow we’ll find out about getting him into the Warren State Home.”
There is silence. From the darkness I feel the shudder pass over the house, and then Matt’s voice, less panicky than hers. “I know what you’ve gone through with him, and I can’t blame you for being afraid. But you’ve got to control yourself. I’ll take him over to Herman. Will that satisfy you?”
“That’s all I ask. Your daughter is entitled to a life, too.”
Matt comes into Charlie’s room and dresses his son, and though the boy doesn’t understand what is happening, he is afraid. As they go out the door, she looks away. Perhaps she is trying to convince herself that he has already gone out of her life—that he no longer exists. On the way out, Charlie sees on the kitchen table the long carving knife she cuts roasts with, and he senses vaguely that she wanted to hurt him. She wanted to take something away from him, and give it to Norma.
When he looks back at her, she has picked up a rag to wash the kitchen sink….
When the haircut, shave, sun treatment, and the rest were over, I sat in the chair limply, feeling light, and slick, and clean, and Matt whisked the neckcloth off and offered me a second mirror to see the reflection of the back of my head. Seeing myself in the front mirror looking into the back mirror, as he held it for me, it tilted for an instant into the one angle that produced the illusion of depth; endless corridors of myself… looking at myself… looking at myself… looking at myself… looking…
Which one? Who was I?
I thought of not telling him. What good was it for him to know? Just go away and not reveal who I was. Then I remembered that I wanted him to know. He had to admit that I was alive, that I was someone. I wanted him to boast about me to the customers tomorrow as he gave haircuts and shaves. That would make it all real. If he knew I was his son, then I would be a person.
“Now that you’ve got the hair off my face, maybe you’ll know me,” I said as I stood up, waiting for a sign of recognition.
He frowned. “What is this? A gag?”
I assured him it was not a gag, and if he looked and thought hard enough he would know me. He shrugged and turned to put his combs and scissors away. “I got no time for guessing games. Got to close up. That’ll be three-fifty.”
What if he didn’t remember me? What if this was only an absurd fantasy? His hand was out for the money, but I made no move toward my wallet. He had to remember me. He had to know me.
But no—of course not—and as I felt the sour taste in my mouth and the sweat in my palms, I knew that in a minute I would be sick. But I didn’t want that in front of him.
“Hey, you all right?”
“Yes… just… wait…” I stumbled into one of the chrome chairs and bent forward gasping for breath, waiting for the blood to come back to my head. My stomach was churning. Oh, God, don’t let me faint now. Don’t let me look ridiculous in front of him.
“Water… some water, please…” Not so much for the drink as to make him turn away. I didn’t want him to see me like this after all these years. By the time he returned with a glass, I felt a little better.
“Here, drink this. Rest a minute. You’ll be okay.” He stared at me as I sipped the cool water, and I could see him struggling with half-forgotten memories. “Do I really know you from somewhere?”
“No… I’m okay. I’ll leave in a minute.”
How could I tell him? “What was I supposed to say? Here, look at me, I’m Charlie, the son you wrote off the books? Not that I blame you for it, but here I am, all fixed up better than ever. Test me. Ask me questions. I speak twenty languages, living and dead; I’m a mathematical whiz, and I’m writing a piano concerto that will make them remember me long after I’m gone.
How could I tell him?
How absurd I was sitting in his shop, waiting for him to pat me on the head and say, “Good boy.” I wanted his approval, the old glow of satisfaction that came to his face when I learned to tie my own shoelaces and button my sweater. I had come here for that look in his face, but I knew I wouldn’t get it.
“You want me to call a doctor?”
I wasn’t his son. That was another Charlie. Intelligence and knowledge had changed me, and he would resent me—as the others from the bakery resented me— because my growth diminished him. I didn’t want that.
“I’m okay,” I said. “Sorry to be a nuisance.” I got up and tested my legs. “Something I ate. I’ll let you close up now.”
As I headed towards the door, his voice called after me sharply. “Hey, wait a minute!” His eyes met mine with suspicion. “What are you trying to pull?”
“I don’t understand.”
His hand was out, rubbing his thumb and forefinger together. “You owe me three-fifty.”
I apologized as I paid him, but I could see that he didn’t believe it. I gave him five, told him to keep the change, and hurried out of his barbershop without looking back.
I’ve added time sequences of increasing complexity to the three-dimensional maze, and Algernon learns them easily. There is no need to motivate him with food or water. He appears to learn for the sake of solving the problem—success appears to be its own reward.
But, as Burt pointed out at the convention, his behavior is erratic. Sometimes after, or even during a run, he will rage, throw himself against the walls of the maze, or curl up and refuse to work at all. Frustration? Or something deeper?
That crazy Fay came in through the fire escape this afternoon with a female white mouse—about half Algernon’s size—to keep him company, she said, on these lonely summer nights. She quickly overcame all my objections and convinced me that it would do Algernon good to have companionship. After I assured myself that little “Minnie” was of sound health and good moral character, I agreed. I was curious to see what he would do when confronted with a female. But once we had put Minnie into Algernons cage, Fay grabbed my arm and pulled me out of the room.
“Where’s your sense of romance?” she insisted. She turned on the radio, and advanced toward me menacingly. “I’m going to teach you the latest steps.”
How can you get annoyed at a girl like Fay?
At any rate, I’m glad that Algernon is no longer alone.
Late last night the sound of laughter in the hallway and a tapping on my door. It was Fay and a man.
“Hi, Charlie,” she giggled as she saw me. “Leroy, meet Charlie. He’s my across-the-hall neighbor. A wonderful artist. He does sculpture with a living element.”
Leroy caught hold of her and kept her from bumping into the wall. He looked at me nervously and mumbled a greeting.
“Met Leroy at the Stardust Ballroom,” she explained. “He’s a terrific dancer.” She started into her apartment and then pulled him back. “Hey,” she giggled, “why don’t we invite Charlie over for a drink and make it a party?”
Leroy didn’t think it was a good idea.
I managed an apology and pulled away. Behind my closed door, I heard them laughing their way into her apartment, and though I tried to read, the pictures kept forcing their way into my mind: a big white bed… white cool sheets and the two of them in each other’s arms.
I wanted to phone Alice, but I didn’t. Why torment myself? I couldn’t even visualize Alice’s face. I could picture Fay, dressed or undressed, at will, with her crisp blue eyes and her blonde hair braided and coiled around her head like a crown. Fay was clear, but Alice was wrapped in mist.
About an hour later I heard shouting from Fay’s apartment, then her scream and the sound of things being thrown, but as I started out of bed to see if she needed help, I heard the door slam—Leroy cursing as he left. Then, a few minutes afterward, I heard a tapping on my living room window. It was open, and Fay slipped in and sat on the ledge, a black silk kimono revealing lovely legs.
“Hi,” she whispered, “got a cigareet?”
I handed her one and she slipped down from the window ledge to the couch. “Whew!” she sighed, “I can usually take care of myself, but there’s one type that’s so hungry it’s all you can do to hold them off.”
“Oh,” I said, “you brought him up here to hold him offi”
She caught my tone and looked up sharply. “You don’t approve?”
“Who am I to disapprove? But if you pick up a guy in a public dance hall you’ve got to expect advances. He had the right to make a pass at you.”
She shook her head. “I go to the Stardust Ballroom because I like to dance, and I don’t see that because I let a guy bring me home I’ve got to go to bed with him. You don’t think I went to bed with him, do you?”
My image of the two of them in each others arms popped like soap bubbles.
“Now if you were the guy,” she said, “it would be different.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Just what it sounds like. If you asked me, I’d go to bed with you.”
I tried to keep my composure. “Thanks,” I said. “I’ll keep that in mind. Can I get you a cup of coffee?”
“Charlie, I can’t figure you out. Most men like me or not, and I know it right away. But you seem afraid of me. You’re not a homosexual, are you?”
“I mean you don’t have to hide it from me if you are, because then we could be just good friends. But I’d have to know.”
“I’m not a homosexual. Tonight, when you went into your place with that guy, I wished it was me.”
She leaned forward and the kimono open at the neck revealed her bosom. She slipped her arms around me, waiting for me to do something. I knew what was expected of me, and I told myself there was no reason not to. I had the feeling there would be no panic now—not with her. After all, I wasn’t the one making the advances. And she was different from any woman I’d ever met before. Perhaps she was right for me at this emotional level.
I slipped my arms around her.
“That’s different,” she cooed. “I was beginning to think you didn’t care.”
“I care,” I whispered, kissing her throat. But as I did it, I saw the two of us, as if I were a third person standing in the doorway. I was watching a man and woman in each other’s arms. But seeing myself that way, from a distance, left me unresponsive. There was no panic, it was true, but there was also no excitement—no desire.
“Your place or mine?” she asked.
“Wait a minute.”
“What’s the matter?”
“Maybe we’d better not. I don’t feel well this evening.”
She looked at me Wonderingly. “Is there anything else?… Anything you want me to do?… I don’t mind…”
“No, that’s not it,” I said sharply. “I just don’t feel well tonight.” I was curious about the ways she had of getting a man excited, but this was no time to start experimenting. The solution to my problem lay elsewhere.
I didn’t know what else to say to her. I wished she’d go away, but I didn’t want to tell her to go. She was studying me, and then finally she said, “Look, do you mind if I spend the night here?”
She shrugged. “I like you. I don’t know. Leroy might come back. Lots of reasons. If you don’t want me to…”
She caught me off guard again. I might have found a dozen excuses to get rid of her, but I gave in.
“Got any gin?” she asked.
“No, I don’t drink much.”
“I’ve got some in my place. I’ll bring it over.” Before I could stop her she was out the window and a few minutes later she returned with a bottle about two-thirds full, and a lemon. She took two glasses from my kitchen and poured some gin into each. “Here,” she said, “this’ll make you feel better. It’ll take the starch out of those straight lines. That’s what’s bugging you. Everything is too neat and straight and you’re all boxed in. Like Algernon in bis sculpture there.”
I wasn’t going to at first, but I felt so lousy that I figured why not. It couldn’t make things any worse, and it might possibly dull the feeling that I was watching myself through eyes that didn’t understand what I was doing.
She got me drunk.
I remember the first drink, and getting into bed, and her slipping in beside me with the bottle in her hand. And that was all until this afternoon when I got up with a hangover.
She was still asleep, face to the wall, her pillow bunched up under her neck. On the night table beside the ash tray overflowing with crushed butts stood the empty bottle, but the last thing I remembered before the curtain came down was watching myself take the second drink.
She stretched and rolled toward me—nude. I moved back and fell out of bed. I grabbed a blanket to wrap around myself.
“Hi,” she yawned. “You know what I want to do one of these days?”
“Paint you in the nude. Like Michelangelo’s ‘David.’ You’d be beautiful. You okay?”
I nodded. “Except for a headache. Did I—uh—drink too much last night?”
She laughed and propped herself up on one elbow. “You were loaded. And boy did you act queer—I don’t mean fairyish or anything like that but strange.”
“What”—I said, struggling to work the blanket around so that I could walk—”is that supposed to mean? What did I do?”
“I’ve seen guys get happy, or sad, or sleepy, or sexy, but I never saw anyone act the way you did. It’s a good thing you don’t drink often. Oh, my God, I only wish I had a camera. What a short subject you’d have made.”
“Well, for Christ’s sake, what’d I do?”
“Not what I expected. No sex, or anything like that. But you were phenomenal. What an act! The weirdest. You’d be great on the stage. You’d wow them at the Palace. You went all confused and silly. You know, as if a grown man starts acting like a kid. Talking about how you wanted to go to school and learn to read and write so you could be smart like everyone else. Crazy stuff like that. You were a different person—like they do with method-acting—and you kept saying you couldn’t play with me because your mother would take away your peanuts and put you in a cage.”
“Yeah! So help me!” she laughed, scratching her head. “And you kept saying I couldn’t have your peanuts. The weirdest. But I tell you, the way you talked! Like those dimwits on street corners, who work themselves up by just looking at a girl. A different guy completely. At first I thought you were just kidding around, but now I think you’re compulsive or something. All this neatness and worrying about everything.”
It didn’t upset me, although I would have expected it to. Somehow, getting drunk had momentarily broken down the conscious barriers that kept the old Charlie Gordon hidden deep in my mind. As I suspected all along, he was not really gone. Nothing in our minds is ever really gone. The operation had covered him over with a veneer of education and culture, but emotionally he was there— watching and waiting.
“What was he waiting for?
“You okay now?”
I told her I was fine.
She grabbed the blanket I was wrapped in, and pulled me back into bed. Before I could stop her she slipped her arms around me and kissed me. “I was scared last night, Charlie. I thought you flipped. I’ve heard about guys who are impotent, how it suddenly gets them and they become maniacs.”
“How come you stayed?”
She shrugged. “Well, you were like a scared little kid. I was sure you wouldn’t hurt me, but I thought you might hurt yourself. So I figured I’d hang around. I felt so sorry. Anyway, I kept this handy, just in case…” She pulled out a heavy book end she had wedged between the bed and the wall.
“I guess you didn’t have to use it.”
She shook her head. “Boy, you must have liked peanuts when you were a kid.”
She got out of bed and started to dress. I lay there for a while watching her. She moved in front of me with no shyness or inhibition. Her breasts were full as she had painted them in that self-portrait. I longed to reach out for her, but I knew it was futile. In spite of the operation Charlie was still with me.
And Charlie was afraid of losing his peanuts.
Today I went on a strange kind of anti-intellectual binge. If I had dared to, I would have gotten drunk, but after the experience with Fay, I knew it would be dangerous. So, instead, I went to Times Square, from movie house to movie house, immersing myself in westerns and horror movies—the way I used to. Each time, sitting through the picture, I would find myself whipped with guilt. I’d walk out in the middle of the picture and wander into another one. I told myself I was looking for something in the make-believe screen world that was missing from my new life.
Then, in a sudden intuition, right outside the Keno Amusement Center, I knew it wasn’t the movies I wanted, but the audiences. I wanted to be with the people around me in the darkness.
The walls between people are thin here, and if I listen quietly, I hear what is going on. Greenwich Village is like that too. Not just being close—because I don’t feel it in a. crowded elevator or on the subway during the rush—but on a hot night when everyone is out walking, or sitting in the theater, there is a rustling, and for a moment I brush against someone and sense the connection between the branch and trunk and the deep root. At such moments my flesh is thin and tight, and the unbearable hunger to be part of it drives me out to search in the dark corners and blind alleys of the night.
Usually, when I’m exhausted from walking, I go back to the apartment and drop off into a deep sleep, but tonight instead of going up to my own place I went to the diner. There was a new dishwasher, a boy of about sixteen, and there was something familiar about him, his movements, the look in his eyes. And then, clearing away the table behind me, he dropped some dishes.
They crashed to the floor, shattering and sending bits of white china under the tables. He stood there, dazed and frightened, holding the empty tray in his hand. The whistles and catcalls from the customers (cries of “hey, there go the profits!”… “Mazel tov!”..and “well, he didn’t work here very long…” which invariably seems to follow the breaking of dishware in a public restaurant) confused him.
When the owner came to see what the excitement was about, the boy cowered—threw up his arms as if to ward off a blow.
“All right! All right, you dope,” shouted the man, “don’t just stand there! Get the broom and sweep up that mess. A broom… a broom! you idiot! It’s in the kitchen. Sweep up all the pieces.”
“When the boy saw that he was not going to be punished, his frightened expression disappeared, and he smiled and hummed as he came back with the broom. A few of the rowdier customers kept up the remarks, amusing themselves at his expense.
“Here, sonny, over here. There’s a nice piece behind you ..”
“C’mon, do it again…”
“He’s not so dumb. It’s easier to break ’em than to wash ’em…”
As the boy’s vacant eyes moved across the crowd of amused onlookers, he slowly mirrored their smiles and finally broke into an uncertain grin at the joke which he did not understand.
I felt sick inside as I looked at his dull, vacuous smile—the wide, bright eyes of a child, uncertain but eager to please, and I realized what I had recognized in him. They were laughing at him because he was retarded.
And at first I had been amused along with the rest.
Suddenly, I was furious at myself and all those who were smirking at him. I wanted to pick up the dishes and throw them. I wanted to smash their laughing faces. I jumped up and shouted: “Shut up! Leave him alone! He can’t understand. He can’t help what he is… but for God’s sake, have some respect! He’s a human being!”
The restaurant grew silent. I cursed myself for losing control and creating a scene, and I tried not to look at the boy as I paid my check and walked out without touching my food. I felt ashamed for both of us.
How strange it is that people of honest feelings and sensibility, who would not take advantage of a man born without arms or legs or eyes—how such people think nothing of abusing a man born with low intelligence. It infuriated me to remember that not too long ago I—like this boy—had foolishly played the clown.
And I had almost forgotten.
Only a short time ago, I learned that people laughed at me. Now I can see that unknowingly I joined them in laughing at myself. That hurts most of all.
I have often reread my early progress reports and seen the illiteracy, the childish naivete, the mind of low intelligence peering from a dark room, through the keyhole, at the dazzling light outside. In my dreams and memories I’ve seen Charlie smiling happily and uncertainly at what people around him were saying. Even in my dullness I knew I was inferior. Other people had something I lacked— something denied me. In my mental blindness, I had believed it was somehow connected with the ability to read and write, and I was sure that if I could get those skills I would have intelligence too.
Even a feeble-minded man wants to be like other men.
A child may not know how to feed itself, or what to eat, yet it knows hunger.
This day was good for me. I’ve got to stop this childish worrying about myself—my past and my future. Let me give something of myself to others. I’ve got to use my knowledge and skills to work in the field of increasing human intelligence. Who is better equipped? Who else has lived in both worlds?
Tomorrow, I’m going to get in touch with the board of directors at the Welberg Foundation and ask for permission to do some independent work on the project. If they’ll let me, I may be able to help them. I have some ideas.
There is so much that can be done with this technique, if it is perfected. If I could be made into a genius, what about the more than five million mentally retarded in the United States? What about the countless millions all over the world, and those yet unborn destined to be retarded? What fantastic levels might be achieved by using this technique on normal people. On geniuses?
There are so many doors to open I am impatient to apply my own knowledge and skills to the problem. I’ve got to make mem all see that this is something important for me to do. I’m sure the Foundation will grant me permission.
But I can’t be alone any more. I have to tell Alice about it.
I called Alice today. I was nervous, and I must have sounded incoherent, but it was good to hear her voice, and she sounded happy to hear from me. She agreed to see me, and I took a taxi uptown, impatient at the slowness with which we moved.
Before I could knock, she opened the door and threw her arms around me. “Charlie, we’ve been so worried about you. I had horrible visions of you dead in an alleyway, or wandering around skid row with amnesia. Why didn’t you let us know you were all right? You could have done that.”
“Don’t scold me. I had to be alone for a while to find some answers.”
“Come in the kitchen. I’ll make some coffee. “What have you been doing?”
“Days—I’ve been thinking, reading, and writing; and nights—wandering in search of myself. And I’ve discovered that Charlie is watching me.”
“Don’t talk like that,” she shuddered. “This business about being watched isn’t real. You’ve built it up in your mind.”
“I can’t help feeling that I’m not me. I’ve usurped his place and locked him out the way they locked me out of the bakery. What I mean to say is that Charlie Gordon exists in the past, and the past is real. You can’t put up a new building on a site until you destroy the old one, and the old Charlie can’t be destroyed. He exists. At first I was searching for him: I went to see his—my—father. All I wanted to do was prove that Charlie existed as a person in the past, so that I could justify my own existence. I was insulted when Nemur said he created me. But I’ve discovered that not only did Charlie exist in the past, he exists now. In me and around me. He’s been coming between us all along. I thought my intelligence created the barrier—my pompous, foolish pride, the feeling we had nothing in common because I had gone beyond you. You put that idea into my head. But that’s not it. It’s Charlie, the little boy who’s afraid of women because of things his mother did to him. Don’t you see? All these months while I’ve been growing up intellectually, I’ve still had the emotional wiring of the childlike Charlie. And every time I came close to you, or thought about making love to you, there was a short circuit.”
I was excited, and my voice pounded at her until she began to quiver. Her face became flushed. “Charlie,” she whispered, “can’t I do anything? Can’t I help?”
“I think I’ve changed during these weeks away from the lab,” I said. “I couldn’t see how to do it at first, but tonight, while I was wandering around the city, it came to me. The foolish thing was trying to solve the problem all by myself. But the deeper I get tangled up in this mass of dreams and memories the more I realize that emotional problems can’t be solved as intellectual problems are. That’s what I discovered about myself last night. I told myself I was wandering around like a lost soul, and then I saw that I was lost.
“Somehow I’ve become separated emotionally from everyone and everything. And what I was really searching for out there in the dark streets—the last damned place I could ever find it—was a way to make myself a part of people again emotionally, while still retaining my freedom intellectually. I’ve got to grow up. For me it means everything. …”
I talked on and on, spewing out of myself every doubt and fear that bubbled to the surface. She was my sounding board and she sat there hypnotized. I felt myself grow warm, feverish, until I thought my body was on fire. I was burning out the infection in front of someone I cared about, and that made all the difference.
But it was too much for her. What had started as trembling became tears. The picture over the couch caught my eye—the cringing, red-cheeked maiden—and I wondered what Alice was feeling just then. I knew she would give herself to me, and I wanted her, but what about Charlie?
Charlie might not interfere if I wanted to make love to Fay. He would probably just stand in the doorway and watch. But the moment I came close to Alice, he panicked. Why was he afraid to let me love Alice?
She sat on the couch, looking at me, waiting to see what I would do. And what could I do? I wanted to take her in my arms and…
As I began to think of it, the warning came.
“Are you all right, Charlie? You’re so pale.”
I sat down on the couch beside her. “Just a little dizzy. It’ll pass.” But I knew it would only get worse as long as Charlie felt there was danger I’d make love to her.
And then I got the idea. It disgusted me at first, but suddenly I realized the only way to overcome this paralysis was to outwit him. If for some reason Charlie was afraid of
Alice but not of Fay, then I would turn out the lights, and pretend I was making love to Fay. He would never know the difference.
It was wrong—disgusting—but if it worked it would break Charlies strangle hold on my emotions. I would know afterwards that I had loved Alice, and that this was the only way.
“I’m all right now. Let’s sit in the dark for a while,” I said, turning off the lights and waiting to collect myself. It wasn’t going to be easy. I had to convince myself, visualize Fay, hypnotize myself into believing that the woman sitting beside me was Fay. And even if he separated himself from me to watch from outside my body, it would do him no good because the room would be dark.
I waited for some sign that he suspected—the warning symptoms of panic. But nothing. I felt alert and calm. I put my arm around her.
“Dont talk!” I snapped, and she shrank from me. “Please,” I reassured her, “don’t say anything. Just let me hold you quietly in the dark.” I brought her close to me, and there under the darkness of my closed lids, I conjured up the picture of Fay—with her long blonde hair and fair skin. Fay, as I had seen her last beside me. I kissed Fay’s hair, Fay’s throat, and finally came to rest upon Fay’s lips. I felt Fay’s arms stroking the muscles on my back, my shoulders, and the tightness inside me built up as it had never before done for a woman. I caressed her slowly at first and then with impatient, mounting excitement that would soon tell.
The hairs on my neck began to tingle. Someone else was in the room, peering through the darkness, trying to see. And feverishly I thought the name over and over to myself. Fay! Fay! FAY! I imagined her face sharply and clearly so that nothing could come between us. And then, as she gripped me closer, I cried out and pushed her away.
“Charlie!” I couldn’t see Alice’s face, but her gasp mirrored the shock.
“No, Alice! I can’t. You don’t understand.”
I jumped up from the couch and turned on the light. I almost expected to see him standing there. But of course not. We were alone. It was all in my mind. Alice was lying there, her blouse open where I had unbuttoned it, her face flushed, eyes wide in disbelief. “I love you…” the words choked out of me, “but I can’t do it. Something I can’t explain, but if I hadn’t stopped, I would hate myself for the rest of my life. Don’t ask me to explain, or you’ll hate me too. It has to do with Charlie. For some reason, he won’t let me make love to you.”
She looked away and buttoned her blouse. “It was different tonight,” she said. “You didn’t get nausea or panic or anything like that. You wanted me.”
“Yes, I wanted you, but I wasn’t really making love to you. I was going to use you—in a way—but I can’t explain. I don’t understand it myself. Let’s just say I’m not ready yet. And I can’t fake it or cheat or pretend it’s all right when it’s not. It’s just another blind alley.”
I got up to go.
“Charlie, don’t run away again.”
“I’m through running. I’ve got work to do. Tell them I’ll be back to the lab in a few days—as soon as I get control of myself.”
I left the apartment in a frenzy. Downstairs, in front of the building, I stood, not knowing which way to go. No matter which path I took I got a shock that meant another mistake. Every path was blocked. But, God… everything I did, everywhere I turned, doors were closed to me.
There was no place to enter. No street, no room, no woman.
Finally, I stumbled down into the subway and took it down to Forty-ninth Street. Not many people, but there was a blonde with long hair who reminded me of Fay. Heading toward the crosstown bus, I passed a liquor store, and without thinking about it, I went in and bought a fifth of gin. While I waited for the bus, I opened the bottle in the bag as I had seen bums do, and I took a long, deep drink. It burned all the way down, but it felt good. I took another—just a sip—and by the time the bus came, I was bathed in a powerful tingling sensation. I didn’t take any more. I didn’t want to get drunk now.
When I got to the apartment, I knocked at Fay’s door. There was no answer. I opened the door and looked in. She hadn’t come in yet, but all the lights were on in the place. She didn’t give a damn about anything. Why couldn’t I be that way?
I went to my own place to wait. I undressed, took a shower and put on a robe. I prayed that this wouldn’t be one of the nights that someone came home with her.
About two thirty in the morning I heard her coming up the steps. I took my bottle, climbed out onto the fire escape and slipped over to her window just as her front door opened. I hadn’t intended to crouch there and watch. I was going to tap on the window. But as I raised my hand to make my presence known, I saw her kick her shoes off and twirl around happily. She went to the mirror, and slowly, piece by piece, began to pull off her clothes in a private strip tease. I took another drink. But I couldn’t let her know I had been watching her.
I went through my own apartment without turning on the lights. At first I thought of inviting her over to my place, but everything was too neat and orderly—too many straight lines to erase—and I knew it wouldn’t work here. So I went out into the hallway. I knocked at her door, softly at first and then louder.
“Door’s open!” she shouted.
She was in her underwear, lying on the floor, arms outstretched and legs up against the couch. She tilted her head back and looked at me upside down. “Charlie, darling! Why are you standing on your head?”
“Never mind,” I said, pulling the bottle out of the paper bag. “The lines and boxes are too straight, and I thought you’d join me in erasing some of them.”
“Best stuff in the world for that,” she said. “If you concentrate on the warm spot that starts in the pit of your stomach, all the lines begin to melt.”
“That’s what’s happening.”
“Wonderful!” She jumped to her feet. “Me too. I
danced with too many squares tonight. Let’s melt em all down.” She picked up a glass and I filled it for her.
As she drank, I slipped my arm around her and toyed with the skin of her bare back.
“Hey, there, boy! Whoa! What’s up?”
“Me. I was waiting for you to come home.”
She backed away. “Oh, wait a minute, Charlie boy. We’ve been through all this before. You know it doesn’t do any good. I mean, you know I think a lot of you, and I’d drag you into bed in a minute if I thought there was a chance. But I don’t want to get all worked up for nothing. It’s not fair, Charlie.”
“It’ll be different tonight. I swear it.” Before she could protest, I had her in my arms, kissing her, caressing her, overwhelming her with all the built-up excitement that was ready to tear me apart. I tried to unhook her brassiere, but I pulled too hard and the hook tore out.
“For God’s sake, Charlie, my bra—”
“Don’t worry about your bra…” I choked, helping her to take it off. “I’ll buy you a new one. I’m going to make up for the other times. I’m going to make love to you all night long.”
She pulled away from me. “Charlie, I’ve never heard you talk like that. And stop looking at me as if you want to swallow me whole.” She swept up a blouse from one of the chairs, and held it in front of her. “Now you’re making me feel undressed.”
“I want to make love to you. Tonight I can do it. I know it… I feel it. Don’t turn me away, Fay.”
“Here,” she whispered, “have another drink.”
I took one and poured another for her, and while she drank it, I covered her shoulder and neck with kisses. She began to breathe heavily as my excitement communicated itself to her.
“God, Charlie, if you get me started and disappoint me again I don’t know what I’ll do. I’m human too, you know.”
I pulled her down beside me on the couch, on top of the pile of her clothing and underthings.
“Not here on the couch, Charlie,” she said, struggling to her feet. “Let’s go to bed.”
“Here,” I insisted, pulling the blouse away from her.
She looked down at me, set her glass on the floor, and stepped out of her underwear. She stood there in front of me, nude. “I’ll turn out the lights,” she whispered.
“No,” I said, pulling her down onto the couch again. “I want to look at you.”
She kissed me deeply and held me tightly in her arms. “Just don’t disappoint me this time, Charlie. You’d better not.”
Her body moved slowly, reaching for me, and I knew that this time nothing would interfere. I knew what to do and how to do it. She gasped and sighed and called my name.
For one moment I had the cold feeling he was watching. Over the arm of the couch, I caught a glimpse of his face staring back at me through the dark beyond the window—where just a few minutes earlier I had been crouching. A switch in perception, and I was out on the fire escape again, watching a man and a woman inside, making love on the couch.
Then, with a violent effort of the will, I was back on the couch with her, aware of her body and my own urgency and potency, and I saw the face against the window, hungrily watching. And I thought to myself, go ahead, you poor bastard—watch. I don’t give a damn any more.
And his eyes went wide as he watched.
Before I go back to the lab I’m going to finish the projects I’ve started since I left the convention. I phoned Landsdoff at the New Institute for Advanced Study, about the possibility of utilizing the pair-production nuclear photoeffect for exploratory work in biophysics. At first he thought I was a crackpot, but after I pointed out the flaws in his article in the New Institute Journal he kept me on the phone for nearly an hour. He wants me to come to the Institute to discuss my ideas with his group. I might take him up on it after I’ve finished my work at the lab—if there is time. That’s the problem, of course. I don’t know how much time I have. A month? A year? The rest of my life? That depends on what I find out about the psychophysical side-effects of the experiment.
I’ve stopped wandering the streets now that I have Fay. I’ve given her a key to my place. She kids me about my locking the door, and I kid her about the mess her place is in. She’s warned me not to try to change her. Her husband divorced her five years ago because she couldn’t be bothered about picking things up and taking care of her home.
That’s the way she is about most things that seem unimportant to her. She just can’t or won’t bother. The other day I discovered a stack of parking tickets in a corner behind a chair—there must have been forty or fifty of them. When she came in with the beer, I asked her why she was collecting them.
“Those!” she laughed. “As soon as my ex-husband sends me my goddamned check, I’ve got to pay some of them. You have no idea how bad I feel about those tickets. I keep them behind that chair because otherwise I get an attack of guilt feelings every time I see them. But what is a girl supposed to do? Everywhere I go they’ve got signs all over the place—don’t park here! don’t park there!—I just can’t be bothered stopping to read a sign every time I want to get out of the car.”
So I’ve promised I won’t try to change her. She’s exciting to be with. A great sense of humor. But most of all she’s a free and independent spirit. The only thing that may become wearing after a while is her craze for dancing. We’ve been out every night this week until two or three in the morning. I don’t have that much energy left.
It’s not love—but she’s important to me. I find myself listening for her footsteps down the hallway whenever she’s been out.
Charlie has stopped watching us.
I dedicated my first piano concerto to Fay. She was excited by the idea of having something dedicated to her, but I dont think she really liked it. Just goes to show that you can’t have everything you want in one woman. One more argument for polygamy.
The important thing is that Fay is bright and good-hearted. I learned today why she ran out of money so early this month. The week before she met me, she had befriended a girl she’d met at the Stardust Ballroom. “When the girl told Fay she had no family in the city, was broke, and had no place to sleep, Fay invited her to move in. Two days later the girl found the two hundred and thirty-two dollars that Fay kept in her dresser drawer, and disappeared with the money. Fay hadn’t reported it to the police—and as it turned out, she didn’t even know the girl’s last name.
“What good would it do to notify the police?” she wanted to know. “I mean this poor bitch must have needed the money pretty badly to do it. I’m not going to ruin her life over a few hundred bucks. I’m not rich or anything, but I’m not going after her skin—if you know what I mean.”
I knew what she meant.
I have never met anyone as open and trusting as Fay is. She’s what I need most of all right now. I’ve been starved for simple human contact.
Not much time for work—between the nightly club-hopping and the morning hangovers. It was only with aspirin and something Fay concocted for me that I was able to finish my linguistic analysis of Urdu verb forms and send the paper to the International Linguistics Bulletin. It will send the linguists back to India with their tape recorders, because it undermines the critical superstructure of their methodology.
I can’t help but admire the structural linguists who have carved out for themselves a linguistic discipline based on the deterioration of written communication. Another case of men devoting their lives to studying more and more about less and less—filling volumes and libraries with the subtle linguistic analysis of the grunt. Nothing wrong with that, but it should not be used as an excuse to destroy the stability of language.
Alice called today to find out when I am coming back to work at the lab. I told her I wanted to finish the projects I had started, and that I was hoping to get permission from the Welberg Foundation for my own special study. She’s right though—I’ve got to take time into consideration.
Fay still wants to go out dancing all the time. Last night started out with us drinking and dancing at the “White Horse Club, and from there to Benny’s Hideaway, and then on to the Pink Slipper…and after that I don’t remember many of the places, but we danced until I was ready to drop. My tolerance for liquor must have increased because I was pretty far gone before Charlie made his appearance. I can only recall him doing a silly tap dance on the stage of the Allakazam Club. He got a great hand before the manager threw us out, and Fay said everyone thought I was a wonderful comedian and everyone liked my moron act.
“What the hell happened then? I know I strained my back. I thought it was from all the dancing, but Fay says I fell off the goddamned couch.
Algernon’s behavior is becoming erratic again. Minnie seems to be afraid of him.
A terrible thing happened today. Algernon bit Fay. I had warned her against playing with him, but she always liked to feed him. Usually when she came into his room, he’d perk up and run to her. Today it was different. He was at the far side, curled up into a white puff. When she put her hand in through the top trap door, he cringed and forced himself back into the corner. She tried to coax him, by opening the barrier to the maze, and before I could tell her to leave him alone, she made the mistake of trying to pick him up. He bit her thumb. Then he glared at both of us and scurried back into the maze.
We found Minnie at the other end in the reward box. She was bleeding from a gash in her chest, but she was alive. As I reached in to take her out Algernon came into the reward box and snapped at me. His teeth caught my sleeve and he hung on until I shook him loose.
He calmed down after that. I observed him for more than an hour afterward. He seems listless and confused, and though he still learns new problems without external rewards, his performance is peculiar. Instead of the careful, determined movements down the maze corridors, his actions are rushed and out of control. Time and again he turns into a corner too quickly and crashes into a barrier. There is a strange sense of urgency in his behavior.
I hesitate to make a snap judgment. It could be many things. But now I’ve got to get him back to the lab. “Whether or not I hear from the Foundation about my special grant, I’m going to call Nemur in the morning.