In the cool blue bathroom of Provence, Barth stuck two fingers in his mouth and vomited. Rarely did he feel more optimistic about the upcoming hours than after emptying his guts into the toilet of a favored restaurant. A little trembly, he smiled at the passable mirror, rinsed his mouth and dried himself with the shitty brown paper towels. Outside the bathroom, Inez was waiting. She stared at the scrubbed corners and underbags of his eyes.
“Are giu a sad?”
“No, just allergies.”
She shrugged, the shrug of frank doubt.
“I am sorry that giu are so sad,” she said as she passed him in the narrow space. I’m not sad, thought Barth, why would she want to tell me I was? She wants me to be sad. Her frocked tits had grazed him, but because the secret caesura of vomiting had killed his nerves, he felt only default lust.
Outside Provence it remained hot. The idea that night makes it cooler was a canard.
“Guy,” Albert said to everyone, “let’s get to that party. Where’d Estella go?”
“I-nez,” said Patrice.
“I-nez,” said Griffin, stamping his foot and giving her the challenging smile that was characteristic of a belligeroid scam’s well-executed middlegame. Patrice giggled.
“You stop it,” she said and ran off to do girl pirouettes around the corner streetlamp.
“Whatever,” said Albert. “Here comes the other one. Let’s get out of here.”
“Sounds good to me, Bert,” said Haber.
“The come of my buzz,” Albert said savoringly, “is starting to drip from the pussy of my mind.”
“You’re insane, Bert.”
Albert’s buzz, thought Barth, was in no danger of dripping from his mind’s pussy. It appeared, in fact, that the nights of Albert and Griffin were evolving rapidly while his had suddenly stopped, as if these moments were the crucial millennia following the end of the Pleistocene Era, with his friends starting to discover metals and harvest maize in the plains and forests while he remained an aborigine, in the desert, with termites. Better to concentrate on the simple pleasure of feeling clean after vomiting. Patrice had grown still under the streetlamp and was listening with interest to things that Griffin was whispering into her ear.
Next to Barth, a short business kid was mouthbreathing and pissing at the trunk of the tree that grew outside Provence. American urine splashed the roots and came within an inch of Barth’s toe. Flanking the business kid were larger ones, each with lots of neck beef, four or five drunk meats. They hoarded the Spanish girls — a level of girl from which they were barred, Barth believed, even Inez.
“Making things grow,” Barth observed pleasantly, a genuine observation. One enjoys the human-ness of a weightless remark offered to a stranger under the seasonal constellation, Orion.
The short kid finished pissing, zipped himself, said something to his friends, turned back to Barth and asked:
“Are you some kind of faggot?”
The kid gestured to his meats.
“This guy,” he explained, “was trying to look at my dick.”
“Holy shit,” said Barth, looking down, shaking his head, smiling a little sadly.
The largest of the business kids stepped forward and grabbed a sleeve of Barth’s sweet rust-colored Irish linen shirt, his favorite linen shirt and the second-favorite of his summer shirts.
“Are you a faggot?”
This business kid wore a flapping suit jacket and an untucked flapping dress shirt and an untied tie. The face was flushed and straining with gross belligerence and a perplexity about all things.
“I said, are you a faggot?” he asked in a breaking voice. He appeared on the verge of weeping.
Griffin, Albert, and Haber had come over. The girls remained in the rear, fascinated and excited.
“Gentlemen,” Albert said evenly.
Albert’s outfit, particularly his all-the-way-pulled-up black socks and sandals, caused snickering among the meats.
“They’re all faggots,” said the brutal head that held Barth.
“You’re acting like hooligans,” said Albert. “Just let go of Barth.”
“That’s right,” Haber said nervously.
The short one (the Goebbels, thought Barth, the Goebbels) had taken from his pocket a kind of club, a white beertap handle.
“What you’re going to do,” he said slowly, “is walk to the end of the block and then walk back. You’re going to walk to the end and then back, because we don’t share our block with faggots.”
Albert laughed, the delighted laugh of real surprise at an insane suggestion.
“Guy, you’re being incredibly unproductive with your leisure time,” said Albert. “I mean, really, what’s the matter with you?”
The short one turned and mugged for his meats.
“I don’t think these fags are cooperating, what do you think?”
The meat holding Barth released him and stepped toward Albert.
“You have a problem?” he said, breathing rapidly, as tiny tears began to run down his hogcheeks.
“Guy, this is New York City,” Albert said in an explaining voice. “It’s not about that. It’s not a matter of asking someone if they have a problem.”
“Walk to the end of the block,” said the short one, tapping his palm with his weapon, “and then maybe, just maybe, we’ll let you walk back.”
Barth kept his eyes on the Goebbels. He imagined being cracked on the temple and freaked for life, fully chaired and unable because of lobe lesions to experience the feeling of Reluctance or perceive any shade of green. That’s when your real friends wheel you out to a sunny glade and give you the shotgun.
“You better start walking.”
“Whatever,” said Albert in disgust. “You’re absurd.”
“Faggot!” screamed the large meat, then swung at Albert and missed. With exactly the same degree of efficiency he employed in the making of grilled chicken sandwiches with mayonnaise, Albert hit the business kid twice in the face, two short blows delivered with the right fist. He fell at once, like a wriggler.
“Holy shit,” yelled Griffin, crazily waving a canister of mace. But the short meat and the kibbitzing meat behind him made no motion to pursue a brawl. They were completely demoralized, like the Arab States in 1967 after seeing the Egypt of their largest meat felled in the six days of two punches by the Israel of Albert, thought Barth. They helped their buddy up and left. From far down the block, one of them turned and yelled, “Faggots!” but that was all.
“Holy shit,” said Griffin. “Holy fucking shit.”
“Wow, Bert, that was really awesome,” said Haber — a little worshipfully, thought Barth.
Patrice was staring at Albert.
“Why,” asked Inez, “was there fighting?”
“What do you mean why was there fighting?” said Griffin, exhilarated. “Those fucking kids were incredibly sexually enraged by their meaningless night and then they see ungettable girls with guys like us. Amazing, strange guys so deeply essenced in our night. The whole arrangement’s violently intolerable to roving meat like that. Particularly me. Of course, I’m instantly noted and hated.”
Albert shook his head.
“Guy, what you have to understand about kids like that is that they’re the lowest level of a certain kind of retail broker. The market’s really shitty right now, they’ve gotten completely out of shape, and they have no real capital or access to capital. They don’t have necessary levels of disposable income and they run out of city pretty quickly. That’s what makes them violent.”
Patrice continued to stare at Albert.
“Did you see me take out my mace?” said Griffin.
Never in his adult life had Barth inflicted or endured face-hits. He calculated that he would have paid up to four hundred dollars to have been the one to punch out the large meat.
“I don’t like fighting,” Inez lied. “Let’s go away from this place.”
She hugged herself and affected shivering, as if she had just toured Belsen.
“Look,” said Griffin, “when you’re dealing with kids like that — holy shit.”
Patrice had taken Albert’s arm.
“What’s the matter?” asked Albert.
“Ha-ha,” said Griffin as he looked at the arm, bitterly, but not too bitterly, but bitterly enough. He returned the mace to his backpack, which also contained his walkman, John Leslie porn, saline solution, and The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, though that wasn’t all.
“Are we not going to a fiesta?” asked Patrice.
They started west, the girls skipping in front, all happy and excited with themselves.
“The sickest cockblock,” said Griffin, watching the asses. “The fight cockblock.”
“Guy, what are you talking about?”
“I give you credit, Albert. Ha-ha. Maybe now I’ll just have to deal with the other one.”
“Whatever,” said Barth, lighting a cigarette.
“Or maybe I’ll just do Barth a favor and take myself out. Ha-ha.”
Barth shook his head and began to smoke what he suddenly believed to be the fifty thousandth cigarette of his life.
“Guy, if you tell me you’re into her, I’ll step aside. But you have to say it.”
“Go to hell,” said Barth lovelessly.
“Guy,” said Griffin in the cautioning voice, “don’t be a jackass. I mean if you’re into that girl, then all you have to do is ask me to take myself out.”
“I’m not asking anything.”
“Barth, think carefully. If you ask me, I’ll take myself out.”
“The bleating of the Griffin lamb,” said Barth.
“Ask me nicely,” said Griffin, “and I’ll take myself out.”
“I don’t need to ask you anything. There’s nothing that could possibly happen now or in the future that could make me ask you.”
“You were warned,” said Griffin.
They stopped at the corner of lonely underlit Varick Street, now at 10:15 on a Sunday night resembling the widest boulevard of a medium-sized yokel town that had been taken by plague. A light rain began to fall.
“Where are we going?” Barth asked.
“What about the roof party, Bert?” asked Haber dutifully.
“Sí, a fiesta,” Patrice said.
“Forget the fiesta,” said Albert. “Let’s go to Tabac.”
“Guy,” said Griffin, “thank fucking god you’re not insisting on that meaningless party of funkid losers and mediocre pussy. It’s the smartest thing you’ve said in a year.”
Barth might have protested. Sometimes, when it seemed like the friends were making decisions without consulting him, he decided to protest, even if he happened to support the plan. You can’t let the ravening friends always take advantage of your good nature and your propensity for goodwill and silence. But now he wanted a place place, not a party where strangers and outsiders would bring about questions. What do you do? What do you do each day?
They hailed two taxis: Albert uncontested and sexually alone with Patrice in the first; Barth, Griffin, Haber, and Inez in the other. When Griffin immediately followed Inez into the backseat, Barth chose to ride shotgun because now the backseat held nothing but Griffin’s chattering head of taunts, ha-ha’s and jealousy teasers. He settled into the seat and noted the grimness of the driver. Nothing to be had from that guy and nothing to give him.
Better to imagine the phantazy of going back in a time machine to traumatize Nabokov, knowing that mowing Nabokov’s lawn was the only way to traumatize him. That’s right: you’d have to get with Vera. And after you finished mowing his lawn, you’d drink all of little Dmitri’s orange juice. I guess this is one day that baby’s not getting all the fresh-squeezed oj he can drink, right? Or when Nabokov comes home early from tutoring or giving one of his arrogant boxing lessons, you’re mowing his lawn on the bed of the flat where he’s writing The Gift, and he’s completely traumatized and you say: Now I guess you’ll have to find someone else to dedicate all your books to, right? Right?
The cab crossed Houston Street and a Griffin song came on the radio: “Weight of the World.”
“Sweet, a little obscure Neil Young,” Griffin said rigorously. “This is an amazing song.”
There was no traffic up Lafayette, and the song wasn’t even halfway done by the time the cab turned onto Tenth Street and came to a stop in front of incredibly crowded Café Tabac. The french doors were thrown open to the building rain, the front tables were packed with aggressive New York nightheads and Barth felt a strong wash of the old nervousness.
“The song’s not over,” said Griffin from the backseat, a slight brown drink’s break in his voice. “This is a song you hear out. Nobody leaves.”
When the driver saw that no one was getting out, he started talking to himself.
“I dropped the weight of the world,” sang Griffin.
The driver turned to give everyone the weary and accusing eye of the subcontinent.
“Blease bay and go.”
“Guy, just keep the meter running.”
“Come the fuck on,” said the driver. “This is a bullshit.”
“Barth, give the guy ten bucks.”
There was nothing in the air to suggest, by the common measure, that his friend’s proposal was anything but “offhand”; there was everything in Barth’s experience to indicate otherwise. When, on similar occasions, he chanced to be alone with Griffin, he was quite cheerfully incapable of refusing the request. He had, after all, many worlds of “tens” to give, and he felt — as one, properly, so often does — that the chief consideration of such a transaction was that they be parted with in the spirit of a happy, even a thoughtless, capitulation — and, if not in that style, then not at all. That they were so plainly now not by themselves was, as a mere circumstance, perhaps insufficient to dash that spirit, yet there had been — oh, it could not be denied! — a diminishment. For had he not detected in his friend’s voice the sharper, public note — the lower note, indeed — that convinced him that it was not unreasonable to assume that the question of whether he should give over the “ten” had taken on depths?
“I dropped the weight of the world.”
“Blease bay and go.”
Two truths warred in the mind of Barth, one dominant, one an underdog. The dominant truth: paying the driver on Griffin’s command was the will-less act of a lackey, and there’d be nothing from Inez but Galician scorn if she watched him hand over money so that they could all sit in a parked taxi, indulging the whim of Griffin. The underdog: paying the driver was a cool and unconventional, i. e. life-giving, wriggler; it didn’t hurt Barth, it helped his friend, and it was a happiness wriggler that might be recalled, later in the night or even later in life, as a touchstone wriggler of spirited youth.
Before Barth could decide, the driver switched off the radio.
“Okay, now you are out of this taxi, my friend! Now you are out!”
“That’s insane,” said Griffin.
“Let’s just go,” said Barth, relieved, paying the fare, overtipping.
“I wonder,” said Inez on the sidewalk, “where is Patrithia and your friend? They left before us and still they are not arrived.”
“Are you worried about your friend?” asked Griffin in the teaser voice as he expertly sidled and put his arm around her shoulders, a successful blitz move in the competition scam. Barth fancied that nightheads of Tabac were watching and judging him as he stood in the orangey rain light.
“Should we go in?” asked Haber.
“Why don’t you two go,” said Griffin. “Inez and I will wait out here. In the rain. Ha-ha.”
“I’ll wait with you,” Barth said immediately.
Griffin emitted a laugh of perfectly pitched minor condescension.
“You’re an intense kid, Barth.”
“Why would you say that? It has nothing to do with being intense. Maybe I just feel like waiting outdoors instead of in a room. The rain feels good.”
“Guy, you know why you want to wait here. You should have asked me to take myself out, but you didn’t ask me to take myself out, and you didn’t do the right thing and pay the driver. You should always listen to Griffin. You reap what you sow, guy.”
“Fuck you,” said Barth with real anger. It seemed then that some rebellion was called for. The option that occurred most readily was: no more money for Griffin for the remainder of the night. He thought this over with a small, sour thrill. He imagined making an announcement of no more cash for Griffin in front of the others, and how strange and bad this would make everyone feel, including himself; but then let it come down, thought Barth. It looks like rain tonight, says Banquo. Then let it come down, says the first stabber. No more money for anyone and maybe even no more speaking with anyone ever again. He would conduct an independent life in remote places. But immediately he was ashamed and his face got long; no, the money was not for venal wieldings and withholdings. It belonged to everyone, they’d found it together one day in the rain, in an enormous gray bag, half-buried in the dunes outside the mansion of convalescence.
A cab pulled up. Out of it came Patrice and Albert, strictly expressionless. Had they done anything in the cab? Certainly they’d kissed, perhaps more. Being fellated in a Bovarianly re-directed taxi by a hot non-professional you’d known for less than two hundred minutes, after winning a physical fight in which you had held the moral highground. Doing what’s right, thought Barth, doing what’s right.
“What’s up?” said Albert with mindless ease and goodwill.
“Look at this fucking place,” said Griffin, without irony, almost with respect.
Albert narrowed his eyes at the paradise and slowly nodded.
“Sweet,” he said slowly, really meaning it.
Barth watched everyone go into Tabac. Haber and the girls entered through the front door, like anyone else from the tribe of humans; Albert and Griffin stepped right up from the street and moved as conspicuously as possible between the closely set tables, like tribeless ones. Barth opted to give himself two minutes of alone-time smoking in the rain, with the possible benefits of rain ions. It was necessary to wait. Let the friends have their brazenness entrance. Why should he follow them, just to dole out apology smiles to the people he jostled and worry about judgments against him? And why should he immediately go in after Haber, thereby admitting that he was incapable of a brazenness entrance, and by implication incapable of so much else in the world of youthful primacy and pleasures? He lit his Marlboro with great skill against the weather. Rain began to darken the shoulders of his sweet linen, and he wondered if it was absurd to think that the manner in which a young man chose to enter a restaurant might betray a failure of nerve.
Barth was standing in the hot midships of Tabac, his legs shoulderwidth apart and his back braced against all the bodies of heads that would not stop knocking into his knapsack. He stood behind Albert, who, in turn, stood behind and inappropriately close to two girls sharing a plate of steak tartare at the bar. Albert stared at the dish, entranced by the highly seasoned raw beef.
“That’s a sweet plate of beef you’re running,” yelled Albert.
“Excuse me?” one of them screamed. The endproduct of Tabac’s noise comprised the loudest of european music with ambient laughter flarings — about seventy percent from women, most of the rest of it gay — and the breakage of glassware by incompetent and slightly less than clean waitstaff. Severe heads bobbed to this endproduct of noise in Tabac; it seemed that the noise was feeding the heads and that the bobbing showed that the heads were incubating properly. Heads were sown throughout the place like dragons’ teeth by the music of Tabac. A carthage of heads, thought Barth, and then he giggled to himself: “Heh, heh.” He was drinking a stoli rocks, wedge of lime, bumps of glass on the bottom of the glass. The stoli was from the freezer, not the shelf, therefore syrupy stoli, the best.
“I was just noticing that sweet tartare you’ve got going,” Albert shouted. “Could I get a little taste of that?”
Without hesitation, without even looking at her friend for oh-my-gawd giggles, one of the girls handed Albert a forkful of tartare. One wore black tights and the other had bare theighfleisch, and that was enough, that was enough.
“It’s a fairly high quality beef,” Albert said after a moment’s chewing, “but a little too lean.”
“Want some more?” asked the other girl in the voice of lewdness and promise.
Barth nudged forward, rather clumsily, but forward all the same.
“I’ll try some,” he said. Amiably but chargelessly, the girl handed him a beef-tipped fork. Barth ate the schmear and handed back the fork. No fingers touched. There was no using the prop of beef to get with them; but wasn’t it the role of objects to restore silence? Having thought of a Beckett quote, Barth stood a little straighter and shook off the first patchy inklings of being at sea with himself.
“That would be perfect beef for beefpacking,” said Albert.
“For what?” said one girl.
“For packing the head in beef,” shouted Albert.
“For a beefhead.”
“Albert,” said Barth.
“The concept of the beefhead is one of the sweetest concepts,” Albert told the girls, leaning in between them. They laughed — a little nervously, thought Barth.
“The concept is that you get together with your friends on a hot summer day and you get a hotel room in a certain kind of old hotel where the rooms are large and they don’t have A/C.”
The girls began to giggle meaningfully but Albert shook his head with impatience.
“No, it’s nothing like that. It’s not that kind of a thing. Anyway, you go to an old kind of hotel room. Like the Chelsea Hotel, right Barth?”
“Right,” said Barth cautiously. Was Albert really going to speak to them about beefpacking?
“So what you do, basically, is bring about thirteen pounds of eighty to eighty-five percent lean pure ground beef as well as a plastic squeeze bottle of medium quality olive oil and a brush — like a pastry brush that you’d use to put melted butter on dough, for example — and also scotch tape. Ideally, you’d want one of the friends to bring along a video camera, because it’s very creative,” Albert continued matter-of-factly, “and it’d be good to film something like that, you know what I mean?”
“So one of the friends strips down to nudity and sits in a straightbacked and not really comfortable wooden chair in front of the open window of the unairconditioned hotel room, while the other friends pack his entire head with beef. After you encase the head in a thin, light layer of beef, you apply the lightest sheen of oil, and you then wrap the beefhead with scotch tape to hold it together and also for extra depravity,” Albert admitted with a genial shrug.
He wasn’t smiling, and his eyes were focused on the imagined beefskull before him. As he spoke, his hands made cupping and smoothing gestures not far from the girls’ faces.
“Could you imagine having your head fully packed in pure ground meat? Of course, you have to leave holes in the beefhead for the eyes and nose, and maybe you’d stick straws into each ear, but there’s no mouth hole in the casing of beef. The reason you want it hot is to attract summer flies to the beef.”
“Albert,” said Barth, beginning to laugh but nevertheless starting to feel embarrassment quivers of the strange and bad.
“Why would you want to talk about something like that?” one girl calmly asked.
“I said: why would you want to talk about something like that.”
“Ideally, you’d film the wearer of the beefhead walking up and down Twenty-Third Street in the middle of a summer afternoon. People might start feeling weird and might even cry when they saw the walking beefhead.”
“And remember the old English gentleman,” said Barth, unable to help himself.
“Right. That’s sweet. A retired English colonel wearing an ascot would be walking by and he’d point at your friend with his cane: ‘Good God, that boy’s got beef to the skull! What a magnificent head of beef!’ ”
“ ‘Good God,’ ” said Albert, “ ‘that boy’s wearing a full head of beef!’ And at a certain point, you might start eating out the beefhead from inside. Because, remember, there’s no mouth hole in the beefhead. With all the flies buzzing and walking up and down the skull of beef.”
“It’s very weird,” the girl said — a little angrily, thought Barth. “Actually, it’s disgusting.”
“It’s not that upsetting, it’s not that weird. It’s just transgressive. In fact, it’s one of the most transgressive things you could do in a public environment that wasn’t a service-related or performance-related environment. Being weird isn’t particularly interesting, but being transgressive is proactive. Just imagine if your boyfriend was proposing to you in a prestigious restaurant and you opened the ringbox and instead of velvet the ring was imbedded in the thinnest layer of the most finely ground, barely sheened, ninety percent lean pure beef? Prime Angus, culled from the sirloin. Would you say yes?”
The girls stared back at Albert with the confusion and indignation that rise like floating wrigglers in the flood tides of the strange-and-bad.
“Why would anyone think of something like that?”
“It is a little bit crazy,” Barth middle-mindedly conceded.
“Don’t recant,” Albert said. “Don’t apologize for it, just because you’re talking to a girl. It’s an amazing idea. If we had any balls, we’d go and do it tomorrow.”
Certainly, one wouldn’t be so badly off remembering beefpacking on one’s deathbed. What else should you be remembering? Ginkgo trees, blowjobs, The Godfather parts I and II? Well, maybe. But four hundred feet beneath the beefpacking laughies, in Barth’s gloomier, lower layer, there existed a greedy and therefore shameful regret that Albert had abandoned the normal protocols with girls in order to pursue the comparative artistry of strange-and-badding with beefpacking.
“Where’d Patrice and Inez go?” Barth asked.
“Who knows? They’ll come sniffing around soon enough.”
Albert waved his hand. The trunk of the hand moved slowly but the fingers manipulated themselves with speed and complication. It was a depraved gesture of the hand, such as might be made by an athletic Dauphin after delivering a binding pronouncement of indolence and cruelty.
“Would you girls like to go to upstairs Tabac and play a little pool with me and Barth?”
The girls’ plate of half-eaten tartare had been taken away. They had paid their check and gathered their satchels to their laps. Clearly, they were ready to get the phuck out of there.
“I think we’re going to get going.”
“Why? Come on, you’ll love the sweet VIP room of upstairs Tabac.”
“We’ve got to go, we’ve got to work tomorrow.”
“There’s an incredible Zeppelin photo upstairs. You should definitely see it.”
“Sorry, it’s a schoolnight.”
“They’re standing on the runway in front of their private jet in the early seventies and Plant looks sicker and more amazing than any human being has ever looked at any other time.”
As the girls were leaving, Albert violently finished his drink. Lees of ice spilled down chin. His eyes looked a little smaller, and his face had babied in the low downlighting of Tabac.
“Sweet,” he said, to no one, about nothing. He gaveled the empty glass on the bar and a few people stared. Albert was in the early stages of losing his humanity. But why? He had won a physical fight of justice and partially gotten with a hot girl (that’s right, that’s right, thought Barth mechanically, doing what’s right). He marveled at a friend who could begin to turn unfit for human consumption so soon after triumphs.
“Their reaction was so fucking absurd,” said Albert in a volume higher than the endproduct of Tabac noise, causing a few more stares.
“Are you losing your humanity?” asked Barth. “It’s barely midnight.”
Albert slung the Burmese python of his forearm around Barth’s close shoulders.
“Barth, Barth, Barth: my good friend Barth. It’s not about losing anyone’s humanity. Get us another round and I’ll be right back.”
Barth ordered two more drinks. Albert took his place at the end of a long line for the Tabac single-occupancy unisex toilet chambers, which meant at least six minutes of alone time at the Tabac bar. Now it was time to think about objects and their relation to the history of man. Thousands of instructive objects were to be found throughout Tabac. The cellophane on his Marlboro pack, for instance. Mass-produced cellophane could not exist in a society that hadn’t constructed, say, a hydrogen bomb, in the same way that there would be none of those identical yellow pencils without the internal combustion engine, and here Barth let himself linger on a remark somewhere in the enormous country of Nabokov (crazy alps, birch forests, endless natural resources), where a pencil’s being sharpened sounds like “Ticonderoga, Ticonderoga.” Again, he stood straighter, and his love for Nabokov at that moment was as great and unforced as his love for the stoli’s syruppiness. Incidentally: there was a sort of cottony taste to the coldest stoli. There were other things, too. Considering the limes in the drinks, one might think about agribusiness. Momentarily, Barth thought there was a chance for him to become some kind of a Creator, because was it everyone who thought of something like this while awaiting a friend’s return from the toilet? And there was more. There were stories to be had about the people who came into contact with all the objects in Tabac, namely the patrons and workers of Tabac. Definitely, there were surefire interesting stories about sluts, but then you also had the illegal alien dishwasher story, too, with the five dollars an hour, the escape from El Salvador. Though it always came back to the objects and their relation to the history of man. Talking about some wriggler of a guy with a profession of some sort who’d happened to order the steak frites, you’d eventually drift into details about cattle and slaughterhouse workers, i. e. specialization of jobs, i. e. the history of man. And then one might consider the history of dentists, because who could eat a medium rare steak au poivre without strong chompers? Ancient man gummed his food.
Albert returned. He had water-gelled his hair. Barth handed the drink and examined his friend’s face for any change in babying or bloodying of the eyewhites. It was hard to tell.
“Have you regained your humanity? Seriously, have you?”
“Guy, I’m fine. Let’s go about our business and not worry about things like humanity. It’s not about that. I’m very up for a little pool in upstairs Tabac. Tonight should be pretty sick up there.”
“Yeah, but don’t you have to be on the guest list to get to the upstairs?”
“Guy, don’t worry about that. You think I can’t get us to upstairs Tabac? You’re a weird kid, Barth.”
Griffin had staked out the first step to upstairs Tabac, headphones on. His head made an occasional sharp dipping motion. He was singing Snoop to himself. Above him, actually smiling down on Griffin with a certain kind of benevolence that brought to mind the tired notion of gods protecting madmen, gamblers, and wrigglers, stood an enormous black bouncer with a shaven skull. Griffin and the bouncer wore similar black leathers. Definitely, Griffin had said something to the bouncer about Snoop, and probably the bouncer had responded with some sort of encouragement. Barth imagined his friend later bragging about the bouncer’s having understood what kind of a kid he was, and the thought irritated him unspeakably.
The bouncer had a clipboard, but he disdained looking at it. Others — a certain kind of shrill or oafish girl or a bony kind of eastern european girl with pointy elbows and lots of clean hard shiny pimples, along with desperate gays, goombahs and wrigglers — had pooled around the bottom of the stairs, but no one was being allowed into the magical pussy of the VIP room.
Barth made his way to Griffin.
“A little Snoop?” he asked. He tried to impart to his voice a sense of antibelligeroidism, i. e. goodwill and cheerful rationality. No reason to have hostilities with Griffin, especially with Albert perhaps about to lose his humanity. Worst case: you could always be friends again with Griffin if you told him that you respected his life.
“People,” said the bouncer, “people you cannot stand here. If you’re not going up my stairs, then get away from my stairs.”
Albert stood mesomorphically before the bouncer.
“Guy,” said Albert, “your name’s Bernard, right?”
“My name is not Bernard.”
“Come on, guy. You’re Bernard. I’m Albert, remember? I’m a friend of Roy’s.”
“I do not know you.”
“Guy, I’m Albert. I was here just a couple of days ago.”
The bouncer made a clacking sound from the side of his mouth where a toothpick lived. He cocked his head and shook his head and made all the muggings of amused disgust that he, by virtue of race, dress, and occupation, was obliged to display when confronted with the ingratiations of a smaller white. The bouncer saw and then refused to look further at Albert: the tee-shirt, the dress shirt over it, the shorts, the sandals with socks.
“Where’s Roy?” asked Albert, his voice a little higher.
“When and if Roy comes down,” said the bouncer staring above and to the northwest of Albert’s head, “you can tell him what you need to tell him.”
“Guy, you know your name’s Bernard. You know you know me. Why wouldn’t you let us up? It’s not about thinking that it’s in any way productive not to let us up to play a little pool.”
“Please move away from my stairs,” said the bouncer, looking way, way over Albert’s head.
“Just let me speak to Roy,” said Albert.
Griffin took off his headphones and descended the step.
“What the fuck is Albert doing?” he said to Barth.
A white funkid was coming down the staircase. He, too, carried a meaningless clipboard. His eyes were squinted, his lips pursed, and he was sucking in his cheeks, all of which conveyed the impression of both abject confusion and extreme physical vanity. He wore a goatee and his head was very, very small.
“Whassup, B,” he said to the bouncer.
“Roy!” cried Albert, his voice now really highpitched, as would befit an Albert one and one-half feet shorter than the real Albert.
“Woe,” said the funkid, “do I know you?”
“Roy! How’s it going, man? How you doing?”
“Woe: excuse me?”
“Roy?” asked Albert with a quaver, but the funkid was moving past, gone.
“Holy shit,” said Griffin.
“As I said, step away from my stairs,” the bouncer told Albert with finality.
“That’s really sick,” said Albert.
Griffin was nodding slowly, judiciously.
“Holy shit,” he muttered gravely to Barth, “Albert flew too close to the sun.”
“That’s fucking crazy,” Albert said after a moment. “That’s just really fucking sick. What a sick kid. That kid Roy is a dick. Of course he fucking knows who I am. Why would he pretend not to know who I am?”
“Guy, he didn’t know you for shit.”
“You just flew too close to the sun. You had your fight, you had your shot with Patrice, but then you tried for Roy and you flew too close to the sun. Don’t worry about it: you’ll get it back.”
“Griffin, seriously, shut up or you’ll be sorry.”
“Fuck Roy,” Griffin told Albert in a sudden tone of true friendship. He placed a hand on his friend’s back. “Who cares about that kid? This place is played. Let’s get out of here.”
“What about the girls?” Barth asked immediately.
“Fuck the girls,” said Griffin. “They’re upstairs with Haber and a bunch of european funkids.”
“God!” said Barth. “Seriously? You saw them go up with funkids?”
“Yeah, the worst version of semi-wealthy european funkid.”
“Did Patrice and Inez know the funkids? Were they Spanish? Did they ask you to come up with them? How did they get upstairs?”
“Who the fuck knows? Those girls are done. Everything about this place is played, right Albert?”
“Longinus,” muttered Albert, and Barth was sure that quarts of humanity were leaking through the soles of his sandals and evaporating on the dark red rug of Tabac.
“What about Haber?” asked Barth.
“Haber’s fine,” said Griffin. “He’s probably getting his cock sucked right now by that slut you were so into. Trust me, he won’t miss us.”
“Longinus!” Albert screamed at the bouncer.
“Anyway, who cares? You should have asked me to take myself out, but who cares! Albert flew too close to the sun and we’re getting out of here.”
Inez was no great shakes. Cosmology counted much more, and so did Nabokov. But ideally you persisted. You got yourself into upstairs Tabac and you found a way to get with Inez. And you forced yourself to deal in teasers and the unblinking world of silent, sexual complicity. Remember the Rilke poem: you must change your life. Barth could change. He might cut down on all the blinking and politesse, he might touch them without awkwardness. The first step, he decided, would be to run the rest of his night as pure alone time.
“I think I’m gonna call my night,” said Barth, but no one heard him.
“Chandelis!” Albert yelled at the bouncer in the strangulated voice of lapsing humanity. He was grinning wildly, without comfort. The bouncer’s toothpick grew still in his mouth.
“You better calm down, my man.”
“Barth,” said Griffin, “come on, it’s time for a new place. We’ve got to get that kid out of here before something really sick happens.”
Alone time could wait, Barth thought. Friends were the friends, the unfungible family.
Chapters 1–5 of SoHo originally appeared in Press magazine. They are available with Chapter 6 as a free pdf.