Welcome to Xanadu
In the beginning was the book. I found it in a dusty used book shop on Main Street where I was working, so to speak. The book was called The Pinch and subtitled a history. It was a bible-thick doorstop in a cheap cloth binding, its title and author—one Muni Pinsker—stamped on the cover in faded gilt lettering. I was shelving books for my boss, Avrom Slutsky, when he told me I was about to misplace it.
"It says 'a history,'" I countered, pointing to the subtitle.
"So don't believe everything you read," replied Avrom, who'd been watching me from between the stacks of books on his desk. A veteran agoraphobe, the old man never left his shop and the cave-like apartment behind it, which is why he'd hired me in the first place. I was basically a glorified gofer who fetched his coffee and fried egg sandwiches from a nearby greasy spoon; I took his smelly laundry to the coin-op and got his prescriptions filled. I also shelved his recent purchases, an activity he seemed to think was a privilege, so he watched me like a myopic hawk through his Coke-bottle lenses.
"If it's not history, what is it?" I asked.
Avrom shrugged as far as his red suspenders allowed. "It's a hybrid work."
"Okay, where's the Hybrid shelf?"
"So file under Fiction."
"Fiction." Again I examined the dull beige cover, opening the book's deckle-edged pages at random. What I saw, adjacent a page of ordinary typeface, was a garishly colored illustration. The plate, pasted onto powder-gray paper, depicted an oddly familiar urban street whose dowdy brick and wooden facades—their chimneypots resembling organ pipes—overlooked a parrot-green canal. There were a number of boats in the canal, as well as assorted sea serpents and semihuman creatures at play in the foam-flecked water. Venice it wasn't.
"What's the Pinch?" I felt compelled to inquire.
"It's where you live," said Avrom, wringing the end of a scraggly beard that often absorbed coffee and soup like a wick.
"What do you mean?" I figured he was being deliberately enigmatic. It was an aggravating habit of his.
"The Pinch. It's what they called the neighborhood around North Main Street. Used to be the old Jewish ghetto."
North Main Street was indeed where I lived, more or less, in a rundown railroad flat. It was to my knowledge the only occupied building (and I the only occupant) on an otherwise blighted street of abandoned structures and weed-choked vacant lots. At that point I began to fan the fawn-colored pages, browsing the weird illustrations and reading a line here and there. I could see at a glance that this was no conventional history. The language, for one thing, was fairly crude, the syntax somewhat out of whack, and nearly every phrase my eye lit on described some implausible event. Then, as was my custom, I flipped toward the end of the book. I began to peruse a passage in which a guy in a used book shop—a scrawny, hook-nosed dude named Lenny Sklarew—chances to open an undistinguished volume entitled The Pinch. I slammed shut the book.
"I'm a character!" I gasped.
"This is news?" said Avrom, dredging a hairy nostril with his pinkie.
"In this book. I'm a character in this book ..."
Avrom thoughtfully inspected the matter on his finger while, trembling, I reopened the cover to the copyright page, which was absent. But on the title page, under the name of some press I never heard of, obviously a vanity outfit, was the publication date of 1952. It was currently 1968.
My heart was beating like a speed bag.
I had a thing in those days for offbeat books, especially ones written by outlaw authors hell-bent on destroying themselves at an early age. While that wasn't exactly my plan, neither did I rule out the possibility. Having washed out of college, I was waiting to be drafted and sometimes thought, mawkishly, that I might do for myself before the army got its turn. I was living a dead-end lifestyle, subsisting on cornflakes and beer and no end of illegal substances. A closet romantic, I liked to think I was putting myself in the way of wasting diseases, flirting with disaster. But somehow that piece of my generation's program to live fast and die young—the one where you succumbed to the ravages of wanton debauchery—continued to elude me. Though not technically a virgin, I tended to have a self-defeating line with the ladies, owing I supposed to a rabbity heart.
Anyway, I'm still standing there paralyzed in Avrom's shop.
"You can take it with you the book if you want," the old gent advised me.
Like I needed his permission. I'd already filched a whole library's worth of books (albeit under his nose) from his establishment, called a bit infelicitously The Book Asylum. They lay in toppled stacks along with the odd orange rind and reefer roach on the floor of my apartment.
"You don't seem to get it—" I began, since he was determined to ignore the colossal freakishness of my discovery.
"What's not to get?" he interrupted, infuriatingly.
"Avrom, I'm in the motherfucking book!"
"So what does it mean?"
He pulled his Old Testment expression, the one where the wrinkles in his brow made a V like sergeant's stripes. "If you knew what means these things," he intoned, "you would rip down to the pupik your clothes for the grief of having lost in the first place this wisdom."
I gaped at him. "Oh, very helpful."
Avrom relaxed. "Boychik, you ain't in your farblundjit life doing squat." His pecan-shell eyelids were shut, which made me wonder if he was talking in his sleep. "So maybe in the book you're a hero."
Lying atop the heap of paperbacks on the floor of my apartment, that lackluster volume acquired a kind of hoodoo significance, like the sword in the stone or the bow that only Odysseus could draw. If I tried to open the book again, I might find the covers as immovable as the jaws of a trap. Then again, the jaws, yawning wide, might snap shut to swallow me whole.
It was February in the city of Memphis, matte gray and damp, the city stinking to high heaven in the throes of a garbage workers' strike. Plastic bags were piled in embankments on the sides of the streets like the body bags I'd have seen on the nightly news if I had a TV. Since much of my garbage was likely to accumulate in the apartment, and I was the only resident on the block, North Main Street was spared the mountains of refuse that burgeoned in other quarters. It smelled bad enough anyway, my street, what with its unflushed gutters and the fishy odor rising from the turgid river at the bottom of the bluff. The narrow two-story building I lived in, with its empty retail space on the ground floor, had been untenanted for years and probably should have been condemned. It stood on a corner next to an empty lot that bordered the jungle ruin of an old firehouse. My landlord, who was also my dealer, had purchased the building along with several others in the neighborhood with a view toward redevelopment, though nobody believed that would ever happen. In the meantime he'd had the street hooked up once again to the city's power grid, so I had faucets that coughed cold water, radiators that exuded no more warmth than expiring animals, lightbulbs that flickered like distant stars. For these amenities I was charged only pennies a month, as long as I also showed myself willing to peddle the landlord's unlawful wares.
The landlord, yclept Lamar Fontaine, liked to think of himself as an impresario. Toward that end he'd opened a seedy bar in another of his dilapidated properties directly opposite my apartment. My building and the bar were the only remaining signs of life on the street, unless you included the occasional raving derelict or river rat the size of a medicine ball. Because it had no name, the bar was referred to by its street address, the 348 North Main. Thanks to its reputation as a clearinghouse for all manner of illicit drugs, the 348 was a favorite port of call for what passed as the bohemian population of our provincial city. On any night of the week you were likely to see them: the knock-kneed, waifish girls with petals in their serpentine hair; the unshorn boys in leather vests and wire-rims, their glassy five-mile stares still visible through tinted lenses. You'd see me there too, guzzling Dixie beer and not-so-discreetly hawking Lamar's merchandise.
"Acid, mescaline, grass," I advertised sotto voce, though my voice tended to rise a decibel with every item I pronounced. "Nembies, bennies, crystal meth." I was a walking apothecary.
"You sure this stuff is pure?" my potential customer might ask, inspecting the tab of orange sunshine or windowpane in my sweaty palm.
"Pure as morning dew," I'd affirm, "if the dew was cut with a little strychnine." I couldn't tell a lie. But to reassure them I might pop a tablet into my mouth and chase it with a swig of beer.
Then I would look askance at Lamar, slouched at a table against the wall surveying his domain. He wore tropical suits even in winter and sported a drooping mustache, goatee, and shoulder-length chestnut hair like General Custer. A gentleman alcoholic, he drank whiskey from a silver hip flask, since the bar was only licensed to serve beer. A less scrupulous supervisor than old Avrom, he didn't seem to mind my unprofessional salesmanship; for all his pretensions he was a lousy businessman himself. He preferred being thought of more as a philanthropist than a merchant, so long as it was understood that I was his creature and the drugs had their source in him. Descended from old money, slaveholders, and cotton barons, Lamar liked to give the impression that his funds were unlimited. Whatever I rendered unto him when I turned out my pockets at the end of an evening, he considered gravy. Still, I made an effort after my fashion. I was grateful to him for the goods I was allowed to sample free of charge, to say nothing of the excuse the job gave me to approach the ladies.
On the night in question I'd already alienated several. When, for instance, a Pre-Raphaelite-looking young woman failed to guess my name (she hadn't actually tried), I introduced myself as Rumpleforeskin, to which she replied unamused, "Funny man." I asked another if she would like to swap her honor for some magic beans, and got a similar response. I knew, of course, that my brand of patter (call it a tic) was more apt to offend than intrigue, but if I disqualified myself first, you couldn't say I'd been outright rejected by the girl of the moment.
I had chased an assortment of pills with a couple of beers and was feeling pretty frisky when I saw her. She was a touch more put-together than the usual run of hippie talent in the bar. Her nose was of the chiseled variety (think Nefertiti), her umber eyes given to a feline narrowing when she spoke. Her hair was that shade of blue-black called "raven" in gothic novels, its texture fine as record vinyl. It was done up in a schoolmarmish twist, unlike the free-flowing tresses of the liberated types that swayed near the jukebox or conspired at the tables. Also, this one—when she'd removed her coat—was wearing a burgundy dress, a slinky vintage number at odds with the prevailing hip-huggers and miniskirts. A tourist, I concluded dismissively. She was engaged in lively conversation with a compact character in a navy blazer and a loosened necktie. He was smooth-shaven, with a shock of strawberry hair that hung like a breaking wave over an earnest eye.
I had hair like a burnt shrub.
"Acid, mescaline, grass," I interjected.
"No thanks," the dude replied, scarcely bothering to look in my direction. To his date he continued asserting, "Mayor Loeb will never cave in to their demands."
"But don't you think the mediation of the clergy will have an effect?" she wondered, batting her eyes contrarily. "They've got a pressure group that includes ministers and priests, even a rabbi—"
"The strike is illegal, Rachel. The city can't negotiate with the union until the men go back to work."
"Blue cheer, purple haze ..." I persisted, which finally got the guy's attention.
"Excuse me, we're having a private conversation here."
I nodded in sympathy till he turned away, but still couldn't bring myself to stop eavesdropping on their exchange.
"Who cares if it's legal, Dennis?" the girl Rachel was saying with some impatience. "I'm talking about fundamental injustice."
"And I'm talking about strikers in contempt of the Chancery Court. Their union is outside the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board—"
"There used to be a slave auction just down the street," I offered. I had this tidbit on Avrom's authority and thought it somehow demonstrated evidence of my social conscience.
Dennis turned back to me with a poisonous glare. He was very self-possessed for such a runty guy. "And this is relevant to what?" he asked.
"Also a tree that was used for lynchings." The tree was my own invention.
Rachel tilted her imperial head inquisitively.
"Exactly what part of 'fuck off' don't you understand?" wondered Dennis.
"Sorry," I said, but something about the girl (her flaring nostrils? the hand on a slightly canted hip?) kept me glued to the spot.
When I didn't move, Dennis feigned interest. "Just what kind of a nitwit are you?"
"I'm a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas."
Dennis sniffed. "Oh, an English major," was his derisive verdict. He turned away again, satisfied that he'd effectively put me in my place.
Continuing his defense of the municipality, he cited various health hazards that rotting garbage might breed: "Typhoid, cholera . . . ," counting off diseases on his fingers as Rachel made an effort to listen. But I could tell she was growing annoyed with him. As he persisted in ignoring my presence, I took the occasion to revise his original judgment, aware that I was crossing beyond a point of no return.
"Lapsed," I said.
He never looked at me, but Rachel did, once again staring quizzically.
"Lapsed English major," I clarified for her sake. Then I thought I saw the ghost of a smile flit across the girl's soft-hued face. That was all it took to light a pilot in the hollow of my rib cage. The unembellished barroom held a complementary warmth that made me feel as if its occupants were sheltering from a storm, though there was nothing but an icy drizzle outside. A lemony, fin de siecle-style ambience enfolded the place: I saw absinthe drinkers at the tables, the barmaid a dead ringer for the one in the painting by Manet. The chemicals were being gentle with me tonight.
"Reform takes time," Dennis was explaining, his tone level and instructive, but his voice broke off abruptly when he noticed that Rachel was no longer listening. He followed her gaze toward the object she seemed to be taking the measure of, that being myself. "And until the strike is resolved," he said, raising his voice to make sure he was heard, "trash like this"—indicating me with his chin—"will remain uncollected."
"And rats like you will grow fat from the swill."
The remark cleared my lips without premeditation, and while it admittedly didn't make much sense, it nevertheless had the ring of a rapier-like rejoinder in my ear. Not always so fast on my feet, I was pleased with myself. In the event, I didn't anticipate what came next, which was that Dennis, pint-sized as he was, knocked me down. He dispatched me handily with a one-two punch that consisted of an uppercut to the solar plexus and a roundhouse to the skull: I saw asteroids and imagined exes marking the spots that were my eyes, as the floor rose up to smack me as well.
What followed after that didn't figure in any category of possibility I understood. Because, when the pain had dulled enough to let me draw breath again, I found that my head was cradled against Rachel's genuflected knees. I heard sharp words exchanged between her and her date: he telling her in effect that she must choose between him and me. "What cornball script are you reading from?" she barked back at him, after which he flung a parting oath and was apparently gone.
Then, before a dozen onlookers who probably assumed I'd gotten what I deserved, she offered an apology. "I'm sorry," she said, releasing an essence like vanilla roses. The bar had grown silent but for the jukebox playing a rock anthem by Iron Butterfly. "He's a bit of a hothead sometimes," she explained.
Despite my acute discomfort, I felt jealous: I wanted to be the hothead. At the same time, humiliation notwithstanding, I was enjoying the humid warmth of her thighs through the thin fabric of her dress. The blood that pulsed so percussively in my temples throbbed as well in remoter parts. I opened wide the eye that wasn't already beginning to swell shut and asked her, God help me, if she'd ever been mounted by a troll. The cushion of her thighs was abruptly removed from under me as she got hastily to her feet, leaving my head to bounce on the sticky hardwood floor. Seeing that I was still prostrate, however, she relented, and with a charity that surpassed understanding leaned over to drag me upright and back to my feet.