A young writer who lives in Iowa City, Iowa, ANDREW FETLERis at present enrolled in Paul Engel’s writers’ workshop at the State University of Iowa, where he has a fellowship.
A CAR drove by in the rain and splashed his feet. He touched the wet cello case for the bow. It was there.
On the far side of the street another young man came out of a novelty shop, recognized Longface, and ran over. It was Spine, Longface saw with annoyance. Not since college, Spine said, and four long years. They had not been close friends in college, but to Spine the passing of four years meant being in a far country, and he was hugging a fellow tourist.
Could they get out of the rain? Had Longface eaten? Spine’s car stood parked around the corner. What was he doing with a fiddle? Spine himself had turned professional. Did he remember Spine’s column, “File 13,” in The Shaft? Well, Spine was writing copy for Basco Wishbone — Wishbone’s Complete Creative Service. Wishbone knew technique when he saw it and paid very good money, by the way. Longface used to make witty jingles, Spine remembered. Did he still make them?
Spine laughed. “You haven’t changed a bit. You’re not playing in Orchestra Hall?”
Longface turned to see if the streetcar was coming. Rain. Spine hopped and began to pull at his arm. He did not have to go home yet. A reunion, after all. After dinner at Le Bistro, Spine would give him a ride home. “You’re not married?” Spine asked.
Longface shook his head.
They turned the corner to Spine’s car, a new model that looked like a fish. Spine flicked on the radio as they drove off. Pardon, but Longface did look run-down. Was he working or having a good time? Spine was working and even thinking of getting married. Can’t fool around all your life.
Longface enjoyed the car. He sat feeling the rain in his left shoe. His girl Wildeyes waited for him in his basement. She was cooking Russian meat dumplings. There would also be cake and hot chocolate, she had promised, and green paper napkins to celebrate the start of a new life.
They drove to Le Bistro. As they went in, Spine clapped the doorman on the back. In the cloakroom he patted the cheek of a rouged woman who held her head like a camel. Under his coat Spine wore the uniform of his profession, chocolate trousers and jacket buttoned very high that year. Could Longface eat a steak? A drink first? He led him to the bar.
“Can’t they serve at a table?” Longface asked.
“Sure.” But Spine, touching his tie, saw a face at the bar and excused himself for a moment.
A hidden mechanical system in the dining room cooled in the cold autumn, and another system hummed music for everybody’s dining pleasure. Longface felt a hot spasm in his stomach. He sat down to a table in an icy draft and clasped his hands. He looked up. Spine stood leaning over a man at the bar, his hand on the man’s shoulder.
Wildeyes would be sitting on his bed now, watching the dinner go cold. A new day, she had hugged him. Regular practice now, and sleep. No more nights abed looking at the ceiling. She believed he would be seated in the orchestra. His wet feet felt numb.
SPINE was sorry he had kept him waiting. Some business was too important for the office. Had he ordered? He must try a nice big juicy steak — what did he say? He was Spine’s guest, of course. Not like school days, Spine said, looking about for other faces and smiling. They’d had a good time, though. Were women still chasing him?
“What’s brandy like?” Longface asked.
“Haven’t you ever had brandy?”
“I’d like a little brandy, please,” Longface said to the waiter. “And coffee.”
Spine ordered the steaks bloody. “Well done for you? That’s ruining it.” He sat back in his chair. “But tell me about yourself. What have you been doing?”
“You work for Wishbone, do you?”
Spine talked. He had an idea what Longface thought of places like Wishbone’s Complete Creative Service. He used to think so himself in college. But let’s face it; it does keep our economy going.
Longface sat turning the water glass as Spine talked. He had caught a chill. He crossed his arms and held himself tightly. The waiter served the brandy and coffee and salad. The brandy had a revolting taste, bitter and sticky. Longface drank it all. Then he bit into a shred of lettuce, cold and tasteless like ice.
“Don’t you want salad oil?”
Spine watched him. “Getting any kicks lately?”
“You should know more about kicks. Kicks and tricks.”
Spine wiped his lips. Longface had cocked his head to one side. An unpleasant smile wrung his mouth.
Spine said, “You had a very serious ambition once, didn’t you? In college?”
“Was it your ambition to work for Basco Wishbone?”
Spine looked over his shoulder to see where the waiter was. “Some more brandy for you?”
“No, thank you.”
Spine leaned forward, smiling. “Say, remember the time we picketed the president’s house?”
Longface rubbed his eyes. He was cold. But he did not want to see Wildeyes yet. She had said he would save money and move out of that miserable basement to a room aboveground. A window to the sun. In time he would see how amusing it is to be normal, sleep nights and work days, cut his hair short, squander an hour bathing, and put on a laundered shirt with cuff links. You don’t know how good you look when you take care of yourself, she said.
He clawed at the salad with his fork. Spine talked. The waiter brought the steak, a slab of meat with small mouths oozing and bubbling hot blood. Longface put down his fork.
“Doesn’t that look good? You can’t beat this joint for steaks. I’ve tried them all.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Well — would you like something else? How about a nice lobster tail?”
“No, nothing. Thank you.”
The steak was very good, really, Spine remarked, chewing. Wouldn’t he try just a little piece? Hate to waste a perfectly good steak, and it would do him good. He looked underfed. He did it very well — Spine winked — that lean look. Women went for it.
Four years had been one moment of waiting. Nothing had happened in four years. Spine’s jaw looked heavier, and under his belt was probably a round belly. Longface remembered stopping at North Hall and looking out over the empty quadrangle. Nothing was changed and everything was gone.
“I know you never liked me,” Spine said suddenly.
“Can I have a cigarette?”
Spine reached his pack and fumbled with his lighter. Longface lit the cigarette with his own match.
“It used to bother me in college,” Spine said. “I thought you were very smart, one of those people who have something on everybody. Would you like a hamburger? Another coffee?”
“Was it also your ambition to be everybody’s friend?”
Spine sat looking at him. Then he said, “I try to like everybody. I think it’s a sign of maturity.”
Longface felt the air conditioning on his wet feet. There was plenty of air in this windowless cave of plastic upholstery and indirect lighting, but it was cold and stale, as in a morgue.
“How do you like Le Bistro?” Spine asked politely.
Spine laughed again, jabbing at his mutilated steak. “Excuse me, I don’t really know why I’m laughing. I guess it’s your hair.”
Longface disliked barbers, and let grow. He had combed today, but the rain had curled his hair. Wildeyes had pleaded with him to get a haircut, but he had gone off to Orchestra Hall knowing he would fail and refused a haircut out of spite. After months of erratic practice he had wanted to fail brazenly. Nobody had noticed, of course. In Le Bistro his style was out of place, but in the music hall the heads of ten of thirty cellists were overgrown, all competing for one vacancy in the city’s orchestra. The disgrace was not unique, but still delicious, to toss about such a bushy crown and be dismissed after sixteen bars of the allegro. Miserable hair, and the conductor yelling “Thank you!” to stop him.
“How about some dessert?”
“No, thank you.”
Spine called for more coffee. He was in no hurry to get the reunion over with. Longface accepted another cup and another cigarette. This time Spine did not offer his Ronson Varaflame.
“You never told me what you’re doing these days. What are you doing these days?”
“Aren’t you playing?”
“Just an audition. I didn’t make it.”
“I’m sorry. For the symphony orchestra? Kind of steep, isn’t it?”
“Any other place you can try? I mean, something with less competition?”
“No. Shall we go?”
Spine passed a finger over the bill to verify the sum cost. Longface went to the men’s room. His legs were stiff and cold. Washing his hands, he avoided the mirror. He stood undecided for a moment, his hands dripping, his face turned to the cold white tile. There were no towels in the washroom, only a machine with a nozzle that blew air. a Dri-O-Matic for his sanitary comfort. The electric wire within was shot, and the air, blown out with a whine, was icy.
SPINE drove him home in the rain. Night had come, and the rain fell heavier. Streams washed over the sidewalks under the lighted lamps, and Spine drove slowly, his eyes peering through the running windshield.
“Turn left next corner,” Longface said.
The houses became squalid after a while. Small taverns appeared, then an expanse of darkness, a park, and a brick clubhouse with smashed windows. Then miles of tenement houses. They turned into a narrow street and came out on one of those obscure broad thoroughfares that are used mostly by commercial vehicles. Dirty small shops, their windows showing auto tires and used office machines, had been abandoned years ago, it seemed. They passed an old movie house, scratched and defaced; the ticket box was fashioned to resemble a clown’s head, and in the grinning mouth sat an old woman nodding over a newspaper. A drugstore shone yellow in the rain, its window cluttered with dusty bottles, empty toothpaste cartons, and plastic bow ties.
Longface never left this hinterland unless he had to. The direction of life was reversed here, and he watched it with satisfaction. An oil burner set fire to a house and firemen controlled the blaze and let the house burn to the ground. A roof collapsed and a grandmother was carried out and the walls were razed. The rubble was not cleared, but patted down and left. He liked to see Negroes of a winter dawn, picks in their paws, crawling over a smoking ruin like black maggots.
So there were gaps in the street past which the trucks took marvelous speed to the shining downtown. In some blocks no more than three or four houses remained. From ashes and debris sprang grass, and sometimes flowers. The city was crumbling, and the prairie was coming back.
“You can always reach me at Wishbone’s,” Spine said. “If you ever need anything.”
Longface got out of the car and walked to the house in the rain.
“Don’t hesitate,” Spine called.
Longface ducked down a passage between two houses and emerged in the backyard. He turned down the steps to the basement door. In the glass of the door was the face of Wildeyes.
“You promised you’d come right home.”
She was a small girl with narrow shoulders and thin arms, pretty as a child. When she braided her hair she looked fourteen.
“The finals dragged,” he said.
“You made the finals? Have they decided?”
“Next week,” he lied.
“No, no. There was an old cellist, some refugee. Very good. Wish you’d have heard him. Close the door.”
“I bet he thinks the same of you.”
They stood in the laundry room under a bare light bulb. Her brown hair touched her shoulders. She concealed her small breasts by stooping slightly. She had put on a blue wool dress. He liked her in this dress, a Peter Pan collar and satin belt. He moved to close the door.
She held him. “You see what you can do when you try. You won’t knock yourself down again, will you?”
“I haven’t got the job.”
“Even if you don’t get it, you won’t lie down again. It doesn’t matter, baby. You tried and I love you. If you don’t make it this time, you’ll make it next time. But you’ve got to keep trying, and I love you.”
“I’m tired. Damn streetcar.”
“Poor baby. I’ll heat the dinner. Do you love me?”
From the dark passage between the houses came the voice of Spine: “Hello!”
Spine came in the rain carrying the cello wrong side up.
“You forgot your fiddle. God, it’s like the Casbah,” Spine said, coming carefully down the steps. “You should put a light in that tunnel.”
Longface introduced Spine as an old school friend.
“I’m very pleased to meet you,” Spine said to Wildeyes, showing his teeth. He shook her small hand vigorously.
“Are you also a cellist?” Wildeyes asked.
“God, no. Wishbone’s Complete Creative Service. A lot of plain hard work, that’s all.”
“It must be interesting work,” Wildeyes said. She closed the door.
“He doesn’t think so,” Spine said, smiling. “But everybody can’t be a genius. Somebody has to do the dirty work and keep things going.” Neither Longface nor Wildeyes made answer, and Spine said, “Well, I hope we can have dinner again soon — both of you. Maybe next time he’ll have a better appetite. He wouldn’t touch the steak.”
Wildeyes looked at Longface. Then she nodded to Spine and walked out of the laundry room into the basement.
Spine looked around. “Wonderful tubs. My mother wore herself to death over a sink like that. You don’t live here?”
“My room’s up front.”
Longface turned to the window. The glass was dirty, and he could not see through. It was raining hard and steady.
Spine tried to see where Wildeyes had disappeared. Beyond the laundry room the basement fell into darkness. Wash lines were strung within, heavy with wet sheets, and the air smelled humid and sour.
“Spine, would you mind taking her home? The streetcar runs only on the hour.”
Spine said, “Glad to. Where does she live?”
“Elmview. Can you wait a second? No, come in.”
Longface took the cello and slipped in ahead. Spine followed slowly. They bent low to clear the wash lines, ducked between sheets, and stepped around ashcans. At the boiler Longface halted and listened. They moved on past a row of stalls in which tenants kept their rubbish under lock. A light showed in the cracks of a partition at the far end, next to a coal bin. Longface opened a small door and they went in.
Wildeyes sat on a narrow steel bed. She had pulled a blanket over her shoulders and held the ends in her small fists. A pot of coffee simmered on a two-burner gas range, a bridge table was laid prettily for two. The glasses sparkled. A line of books and some stacks of music were arranged neatly on a large desk under the window. Tacked to the wall was a print cut from a magazine. The sound of rain beat on the window.
“Wildeyes,” Longface said. He stood the cello in its corner and sat down beside her.
The girl showed no surprise at seeing Spine again. Her eyes turned to the window, and there they held.
Longface reached for her hand, but she pulled it away. “Later,” he said. “Spine will take you home now.”
Spine fidgeted with his car keys. Longface fetched her coat. As he held the coat for her she let go of the blanket and stood up on unsteady high heels. He brought her handbag and white gloves.
“Lucky thing, Spine driving you home. You won’t need your boots after all. But wear them next time.”
“My car’s double-parked,” Spine said. “I hope it’s all right.”
“They don’t bother you here.”
Wildeyes ran out of the room. She knocked into something, picked herself up, and ran on. The yard door opened, and she was out.
Longface climbed up on the desk and, standing on his knees, opened the window. As Wildeyes passed on the sidewalk he called her name. She did not stop.
He closed the window and came down and stood listening to the rain. A kitchen clock on the dresser showed twenty minutes past nine. The streetcar would not come for forty minutes.
“Nothing, don’t worry,” Longface said. “She’ll be standing three blocks down, where the streetcar stops. Will you pick her up there? I’ll appreciate it.”
Spine looked at him.
Longface tossed his hand. “She may not want to come at first. Will you do that?”
“Aren’t you coming?”
Longface uncased the cello and commenced to dry it with a rag. The cello was not wet, only its back was damp. He rubbed it all over. He said aloud to himself, “Won’t be in a hurry this year.”