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Blood and Water and Other Tales THE ANGEL
YOU KNOW THE BOWERY, I presume? It was on the Bowery that I first caught a glimpse of Harry Talboys. I was a writer in those days, and I lived in a five-story walk-up by the men’s shelter. I didn’t realize at the time that Harry Talboys lived in the same building, though of course I was familiar with the powerful smell of incense that contaminated the lower floors. It was high summer when I met him, high summer in Manhattan, when liquid heat settles on the body of the city like an incubus, and one’s whole activity devolves to a languid commerce of flesh and fluids, the ingestion and excretion of the one by the other, and all sane organisms quite simply estivate. I was certainly estivating; I rose late in the day, and after certain minimal ritualistic gestures of the writerly kind made my way to the liquor store. It was on one of these errands, on a garbage-strewn and urine-pungent sidewalk, beneath a blazing sun, and slimed in my own sweat, that I first encountered Harry Talboys.
He was making stately progress down the Bowery with a cane. Let me describe him: a tall, thin figure in a seersucker suit the grubbiness of which, the fraying cuffs, the cigarette burns and faded reddish wine stain on the crotch could not altogether disguise the quality of the fabric and the elegance of the cut. Very erect, very tall, very slow, on his head a Panama hat; and his face a veritable atlas of human experience, the nose a great hooked bone of a thing projecting like the prow of a ship, and the mouth — well, the mouth had foundered somewhat, but the old man animated it with lipstick! He must have been at least eighty. His shirt collar was not clean, and he wore a silk tie of some pastel shade — pale lilac or mauve, I seem to remember; and in his buttonhole a fresh white lily. (I never saw Harry Talboys without a fresh flower in his buttonhole.) And as I say, he was making his way down the Bowery, and the men from the men’s shelter drinking at the corner of Third Street greeted him warmly. ‘Hey, Harry!’ they called; ‘Yo, Harry!’ and he moved through them with all the graceful condescension of royalty, briefly lifting his Panama to reveal a liver-spotted skull devoid of all but a last few wisps of snow-white hair. Watching this performance I was much taken with the dignity of the old fellow, and with his lipstick. Was there, I asked myself, a story here?
· · ·
Our friendship began well: he asked me into his apartment for a drink. Such a hot day, he said, hanging up his Panama in the hallway and leaning his stick in the corner; productive activity, he said, was quite out of the question. His accent, to my surprise, was old Boston. (I’m from the North End myself.) The odor of incense was strong, and so was the perfume he wore. He was very liberally scented and smelled, in fact, like an old lady, but there was, I detected it even then, something unpleasant about it, a nuance, a suggestion of overripeness in the bouquet.
Are you familiar with die apartments of the Lower East Side? Designed essentially as holding tanks for wage laborers, they do not err on the side of expansiveness. We entered Harry’s living room. Crowded bookshelves, a pair of deep seedy armchairs that faced windows with a dear prospect north to the Chrysler Building, and between the windows, on a rounded, slender-stemmed table of varnished black wood, a vase full of lilies. Directly above the lilies, and between the windows, hung a large crucifix, the body of the Saviour pinned to a cross of white ivory with nailheads of mother-of pearl. Hanging from the ceiling in the far corner of the room, on a length of copper chain, was the censer whence the fumes emanated. No air conditioner, no fan. There was, however, ice in the kitchen, and Harry made us each a large gin-and-tonic. Then he lowered himself stiffly toward an armchair the final stage of this operation being a sort of abandoned plunge followed by a long sigh. ‘Cigarettes,’ he murmured, rummaging through the pockets of his jacket.
‘You have no cats,’ I said.
‘Dreadful creatures,’ he said. ‘Can’t abide them. Your very good health, Bernard Finnegan!’
We drank. He asked me about my writing. I began to explain, but he quickly lost interest. His gaze shifted to the window, to the glittering blade that the Chrysler Building becomes in the shimmering blue heat of certain summer days. His books impressed me. A good many classical authors – Petronius was represented, Apuleius and Lactantius, and certain of the early Christian writers, Bede and Augustine among others. When I rose to leave, he asked me for my telephone number. Would I, he wondered, have a drink with him again? Yes, I said, with pleasure.
· · ·
The censer was, as before, smoldering gently on its chain. It reminded me of my childhood, of chapels and churches in which I had fidgeted through innumerable interminable Masses. Harry’s perfume, slightly rotten though it was, one grew accustomed to; not the incense. The stink of it was apparent as soon as one entered the building. I asked him why he burned it.
‘Does it disturb you?’ he said. He was slicing a lemon on the kitchen counter, very slowly. I was in the other room. The Chrysler Building was glowing in the dusk, and there were red streaks to the west, over the Hudson.
‘It makes me feel like a schoolboy.’
He looked at me carefully then, those watery blue eyes of his fixing me like a pair of headlights. ‘Are you a Catholic?’ he said.
He sighed. He became preoccupied. He appeared to be pondering our common connection to the Roman faith. ‘When I was a young man,’ he said, when we were settled in our armchairs, ‘I called myself a Catholic but I lived like a pagan. Oh, I could drink in those days, Bernard! I could drink till dawn. Today, as you see, after one gin I become’ – here he smiled with gentle irony ‘desperately befuddled. But then! I was happy with my gods, like the ancients. Do you know what we thought the body was, Bernard, back in the Twenties? A temple in which there was nothing unclean. A shrine, to be adorned for the ritual of love! We lived for the moment, Bernard – the purpose of life was to express yourself, and if you were unhappy that was because you were maladjusted, and if you were maladjusted it was because you were repressed. We were excitable, you see, and if there was one thing we would not tolerate’ – he turned toward me in his armchair – ‘it was boredom! Dullness! Anathema!’ He gazed off into the night. There was a silence.
‘Go on,’ I said.
‘It didn’t last. I remember coming back to New York in 1929 . . . My friends all seemed to be dead, or married, or alcoholic . . .’ Another pause. ‘I don’t suppose you know the Rhapsody in Blue?’ He hummed the opening bars, and there was suddenly a tone, in the thickening and aromatic dusk, of intense melancholy, rendered all the more poignant by the slow, faltering cadence of the old man’s melody. He said little more that evening, and when I rose to leave he was distant and abstracted. He did apologize, though, for being ‘such a wretched host’.
· · ·
The summer progressed. In a gin-blurred heat haze we slipped into August. I spent two or three hours a day at my table and told myself I was working. In fact I made several verbal sketches of Harry Talboys; to what use I would put them I had no clear idea at the time.
The thunderstorms began – brief showers of intense rain, with lightning and thunder, which did nothing to disturb the pall of stale heat that clung to the stinking city. They ended as suddenly as they began, and left the streets still steaming and fetid. It occurred to me that I should more actively prompt Harry to reminisce. I wondered if, between us, we might not produce a memoir of the Twenties? We would call it An Old Man Remembers the Jazz Age, or something of the sort; lavishly illustrated with photographs from the period, it would stand as an expressive personal document of modern America in the innocent exuberance of its golden youth. The more I thought about it, the surer I felt that such a book was needed. I mentioned the idea to Harry when next I saw him. ‘I knew an angel once,’ he murmured. ‘That was in the Twenties.’
· · ·
It was, they said, the hottest summer in thirty years, and there was a distinct possibility that the garbage men would go on strike. A rather grisly murder occurred in an abandoned building over on Avenue C; the body was mutilated and drained of all its blood. The New York Post suggested that a vampire was on the loose. My own habits became increasingly nocturnal, and my productivity declined still further. I did manage to spend one afternoon in the public library looking at material from the Twenties, and made up a list of questions to put to Harry, questions which I hoped would release a rich flow of anecdotes. I felt like a prospector: if only, I thought, I could sink my probe with enough precision, up would gush the stuff to make us both some real money. The times were right, I became more certain than ever, for An Old Man Remembers the Jazz Age.
But Harry was harder to draw out than I’d anticipated. When next I broached the topic – it was a Friday evening, and the sunset was gorgeous – he spoke again of his angel. He was relaxed and affable, I remember, and I humored him. ‘You mean metaphorically he was an angel, Harry,’ I said. ‘You mean he was a very good man.’
‘Oh, no,’ said Harry, turning toward me. ‘No, he was not a good man at all!’ The armchairs were, as usual, facing the windows, angled only slightly toward each other, so we sat as if piloting some great craft into the darkling sky. ‘But he was a real angel, absolutely authentic.’
‘Who was he, Harry?’
‘His name,’ said Harry, ‘was Anson Havershaw.’ He sat forward and peered at me. ‘You do want to hear the story?’ he said. ‘I should hate to bore you.’
· · ·
When was it, precisely, that I began to take Harry’s angel seriously? I suppose there was something in the tale that caught my imagination immediately. He described to me how, as a very young man, and fresh from Harvard, he had glimpsed across the floor of an elegant New York speakeasy a man who bore a striking resemblance to himself. ‘An uncanny physical likeness,’ said Harry. ‘Perfectly extraordinary.’ He had lost sight of the man, and spent an hour looking for him, without success. He returned to the speakeasy night after night; a week later he saw him again. He introduced himself. The other was Anson Havershaw, a wealthy and sophisticated young dandy, ‘a much more polished character than I,’ said Harry, ‘and he recognized the similarity between us at once; it amused him. He asked me to lunch with him the following day at the Biltmore, and said that we should become friends.’
All light had faded from the sky by this point. There was a long pause. ‘Well, we did become friends,’ said Harry at last, ‘very good friends indeed. Oh, enough, Bernard!’ He was sitting with one long leg crossed over the other, ankles sockless, his left hand clutching his right shoulder and his gaze fixed on the distant spire, which glittered in the darkness like a dagger. All the tension, all the vitality seemed suddenly to drain out of him. He sat there deflated and exhausted. The room was by this time full of shadows, and Harry was lumped in his armchair like a corpse. The exertion involved in his flight of memory seemed to have sharpened the foul smell that clung to him, for the perfume could no longer mask it at all. I moved quietly to the door. ‘Call me,’ I said, ‘when you want to continue.’ A hand flapped wearily from the arm of the chair. I left him there, alone in the shadows.
· · ·
‘It was some weeks later, when we were on terms of intimacy,’ said Harry, when next we met, ‘that Anson first invited me to his house. The front door was opened by his valet, an Englishman called Allardice. He showed me into Anson’s dressing room and left me there.
‘I settled myself to wait. After a few minutes Anson entered in a silk dressing gown of Chinese design, followed by Allardice. He greeted me warmly and asked if Allardice could get me anything; then he told me to talk to him while he dressed – or rather, while Allardice dressed him.’
A long pause here; Harry’s fingers were kneading the arm of the chair. Then he began to speak quickly and warmly. ‘Anson stepped up to the glass and slipped the gown from his shoulders; he stood there quite naked, with one foot advanced and turned very slightly outwards, and his fingers caught lightly on his hips. How tall and slender, and hairless he was! And white, Bernard, white as milk!’
Harry at this point sat up quite erect in his armchair and lifted a hand to sketch Anson’s figure in the air before him. ‘He had a neck like the stem of a flower,’ he said softly, ‘and narrow shoulders; and his chest was very flat, and very finely nippled, and merged imperceptibly into a belly punctuated by the merest suggestion of a navel. He stood before the glass and gazed at himself with all the impersonal admiration he might have expended on a piece of fine porcelain or a Ming vase, as though he knew he was quite beautiful, and suffered no impulse to humility on the point
Harry turned to me and held out his glass. There were pearls of perspiration on his forehead, and his smell was very bad. I gave him more gin. ‘Then,’ he went on, ‘he had me come close and examine his body. There was a slight flap of skin midway between his hipbones, and believe me, Bernard, a flap is all it was; there was no knot to it. It was’ – Harry groped for words – ‘vestigial! It was . . . decorative!’
Silence in that gloom-laden and incense-reeking room.
I asked him what he was. “I have not your nature,” he said quite simply. “I am of the angels.” ’
Harry’s gaze shifted back to the open window. ‘The dressing proceeded,’ he whispered, ‘and when Anson looked upon his final perfection, Allardice came forward with a flower for his buttonhole – an orchid, I think it was; and then at last the hush and reverence were banished. “Come, Harry,” he cried, and together we glided down the stairs, with Allardice, close behind, intent upon the flurry of instructions Anson was giving him with regard to the evening. I was, I suppose, utterly mystified, and utterly intoxicated by this time, for I followed him; I followed him like a shadow . . .’
Harry fell silent again. His hand was still lifted in the air, and trembling, as he stared out of the window. As for myself, I felt suddenly impatient of this talk. These, I said to myself, are nothing but the gin-fired fantasies of a maudlin old queen. I muttered some excuse and left; Harry barely noticed.
· · ·
There comes a day, in the ripe maturity of late summer, when you first detect a suggestion of the season to come; often as subtle as a play of evening light against familiar bricks, or the drift of a few brown leaves descending, it signals imminent release from savage heat and ...
From Publishers Weekly
Mixing the macabre, the fantastical, the gruesome and the illusionary with a lush and word-loving style, McGrath conjures up an extravagant selection of worlds in which to set his modern, psychological stories. In "The Lost Explorer," a little girl finds an anthropologist from Africa dying of malaria in the garden behind her London home and manages to keep his existence, his death and burial a secret from her parents. "Blood Disease" describes the subterranean methods by which a group of English villagers afflicted with pernicious anemia alleviate the symptoms of their affliction. In "Marmilion" a photographer specializing in monkeys spends a few harrowing nights in the ruins of an old Louisiana mansion, while "The Hand of the Wanker," set in an East Village nightclub, is a cautionary tale: not even cutting off this hand will hinder its compulsive activity. With elegance, humor and respect for the dark side of human nature, McGrath also offers an angel, an hermaphrodite and the ghosts of the world's great psychoanalysts in the polished and entertaining, eminently readable stories in his first collection.
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