RACHEL AND ALICE


Amos descends the solid stone steps of St. John the Divine on a rainy November morning. Churchgoing for him has always been an awkward mix of duty, habit and pleasure. He reflects that attending services has become much more pleasurable since the church has begun ordaining women.

 

To get a good look at the new Dean of the Cathedral he had actually come to the early service and claimed a spot in the front pew among the reverent older ladies and homeless fanatics.

 

It was worth it to get a close-up look at the elegant contours and striking profile of the perky young clergywoman. During the mercifully short homily he hung on every word, dreamily wondering in what European finishing school she had gotten that seductive accent, whether she tinted her hair, whether it was true that the prominence of the nose in the gentler sex was in direct proportion to the degree of sexual appetite.

 

Amos estimates her age at about twenty-eight, certainly not above thirty. She is a fresh graduate of Yale Divinity School, having received her Master of Divinity degree only the previous May. The Episcopalians had apparently spotted a winner and the New York Diocese had snapped her up on the spot.

 

Stoltzfus actually doesn’t know a great deal about the inner workings of the Anglican ecclesiastical establishment, having grown up in a rural Mennonite community, where, as late as his father’s generation, the selection of clergy was performed in a mysterious ritual known simply as “The Lot.” His father himself had been ordained a Mennonite preacher in rural Ontario by the divine intervention of God Himself in the form of a slip of paper in a hymnal.

 

How the sophisticated Episcopalians anoint their clergy is still a mystery to Amos. He doubts that they simply leave things to chance or to Divine Providence. For one thing, the stakes are higher; they simply can’t afford to. Even their humbler sacred edifices, like St. Mark’s in the Bowery, are cathedrals compared to the simple brick Mennonite meetinghouses set among cornfields.

 

And St. John’s is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. The Dean of the Cathedral drives a BMW, for heaven’s sake. And her residence is a veritable palace. No pie in the sky by and by for these fancy Episcopalians. They wisely get their heavenly mansions here on earth, where they can enjoy them in the here and now.

 

So Amos has only dim and lurid notions of the process that must have led to the appointment of the first woman Dean of the Cathedral of the Diocese of New York. He knows that the Catholics select their Pope amidst myriad Machiavellian machinations, with hushed conspiracies among the red-cloaked Cardinals, and a puff of colored smoke up the Vatican’s chimney to announce the coronation of the new Holy Father. In his strict Anabaptist mind it reeks of intricate and pagan Mafioso rituals.

 

With all that money at stake, he doubts that the Episcopalians leave things to chance. The search procedure was not public, not even as transparent as the selection of a president for his university, which is currently underway. At least in the latter process, a committee was announced, consisting of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male trustees, but also in the spirit of the times a prominent black politician and two women, one the heir of a vast Ketchup fortune and the other a Nobel-winning physicist. Plus a token graduate student of English literature (Pakistani) and the president of the undergraduate assembly (Jewish).

 

As Amos walks slowly down the massive stone steps of the Cathedral in the early November gloom and a light drizzle he tries to clear his mind of the last hour’s meditation on things of the spirit in the soaring sacred edifice and adjust again to his mundane life as a graduate student and to the daily grind in store for him back in his meager apartment. Amos is writing his dissertation, and to fulfill his quota of pages he will need to put in at least five hours of concentrated work during the rest of the day.

 

He stops briefly at the Hungarian pastry shop to pick up a couple of plum Danishes, then strolls three blocks down Amsterdam Avenue to his building. Salsa music blares from the loudspeaker inside the bodega on the corner of 109th Street. Or perhaps it is meringue. Amos feels that, living among the wretched of the earth, many of them Dominican and Puerto Rican, as he does, he has a vague sort of ethical responsibility to learn the dialect of the people, to become aware of the intricacies of the native aesthetic, including the wretched music that seems to infest the neighborhood like a virus.

 

Frequently, laboring long past midnight on his thesis, the primitive beat of the salsa, or meringue, or whatever the hell the genre is, will push him to the breaking point and he will gently beat the walls and scream wordlessly at the neighbors to turn it down. Only once, on a summer Tuesday, at four in the morning, has he become exasperated enough to actually call the police and lodge a complaint. But he felt guilty for days afterward, feeling that he had betrayed the revolution by exercising his petit-bourgeois privilege, appealing to the oppressors to squelch under their filthy jackboots the legitimate aesthetic expression of el pueblo, who, unido, will never be defeated.

 

Si, he sighs to himself as he turns the corner onto 108th, after he finishes the thesis he will throw himself impetuously into the study of the Spanish language. Maybe take a Spanish lover. Even now, he takes every opportunity to tutor himself by translating the Spanish advertisements in the subway:”

 

“Las cucarachas entran, pero no pueden salir”. “The roaches check in, but they don’t check out.”

 

Spanish is a loving tongue, but also eminently poetic in its practicality. Even those mundane lines conjure for Amos visions of the Alhambra, dusky maidens, Moorish cavaliers, Valencia oranges.

 

The lobby, redolent of frying onions and urine, is dim; another of the bare light bulbs in the cracked ceiling has burned out. Amos methodically but rapidly checks for muggers, then ascends the marble steps to his first-floor apartment. He sets his bag of pastry on the floor while working at the three locks, then touches for luck the mezuzah that some former tenant has installed on the doorframe.

 

“Honey, I’m home,” he calls as he walks into the bedroom. Raven-haired Rachel is sitting up in bed, perusing the Sunday Times crossword and smoking an unfiltered Gitane.

 

“OK. Who’s a son of Judah, four letters, first letter “O”?”

 

Onan. He spilled his seed on the ground and God smote him.”

 

“Right. Bring me anything?”

 

“Danishes. I’ll put on some coffee. But you have to come to the table.”

 

Rachel is not as fastidious as Amos would desire in a sexual partner, spilling her ashes on the sheets and prone to drink her coffee in bed. But they have got a sort of regular thing going, one which fits into his demanding schedule of work and dissertation writing. She shows up on Friday or Saturday nights, they go out to a movie, make love. Fortunately by Sunday noon she has voluntarily departed for her apartment in Brooklyn Heights, leaving Amos to his work.

 

This arrangement satisfies Amos’ current desires for companionship and libidinal expression, and Rachel seems okay with it. What she does for the rest of the week is a mystery, but as long as she doesn’t bother him on weekdays Amos could not ask for a better partner.

 

She stands, stretches, flexing her spare, economical breasts, with the tantalizing nipples that stand out like jujubes. Fleetingly Amos wonders why it is that he never attracts the full-breasted women he lusts after. His girlfriends have to a person been women with high round breasts, at best, with tits like small hard apples rather than the voluptuous bosoms he covets. Rachel’s spartan mounds are almost boyish, except for the startling, jutting nipples. Still, he reflects, you can’t always get what you want, and Rachel’s heavy pear-shaped bottom churns up enough lust in him to keep them in bed long enough to satisfy his needs. Besides, he has a dissertation to write.

 

Rachel pulls on a Columbia tee-shirt and wanders out to the kitchen where Amos is boiling hot water in a battered sauce pan on the gas range. He places two cracked ceramic mugs on the creaky table, spoons out a large tablespoon of Boriquena Instant into each.

 

Rachel seats herself and yawns. “One of these days I’ll buy you a coffee-maker. And some decent beans. And a grinder. You’re such a hick.”

 

“Not a hick, just rustic. Bohemian. It’s the beatnik in me.”

 

“It’s the hayseed in you. So what did you learn in church today?”

 

“Not much. The new Dean’s accent is fascinating. Tantalizing. I just can’t place it. One second I think it’s just a whiff of deep South blended with Connecticut Yankee. Then all of a sudden it sounds like Babu English. I’ll have to take a tape recorder in one of these Sundays and bring a sample home for analysis.”

 

“So where’s she from?”

 

“Well, that’s the thing. She went to Swarthmore for her undergrad work, did three years in the Peace Corps in Tanzania, then Yale for her M.Div. But I’m not sure where she’s *from*. You know, *from* from. If she’s from anywhere. Her father was some mysterious import-export man and apparently they lived all over the map.”

 

Rachel takes a sip and grimaces. “You really find her quite intriguing, don’t you, you lecherous slob. Maybe I need to spend an additional night or two in your bed next week. Satiate you.”

 

“Oh my, I do believe you’re jealous.”

 

Heh. Just want to make sure I satisfy your every need. I mean your *every* need. Now that I’ve taken on the role of muse. I take my responsibilities quite seriously, you know. To inspire you in your writing. To keep your nose to the grindstone. To keep you off the streets.”

 

“Well, you’re doing a marvelous job. Really. How long have I known you? Three weeks – a month?”

 

“Oh you bad bad boy. You don’t have the first time engraved in your memory?

 

She takes her cup to the sink and empties it.

 

“Yecch. Finish your nasty coffee and come back to bed. I’ll give you something to remember me by this week.”

 

“Um. Look, it’s almost one. Shouldn’t you be going? You know I really need to get down to work. You know how difficult it is for me to regain my concentration after – a distraction.”

 

She fondles his thigh meaningfully. “Come along buster boy. I know you’re anxious to get rid of me – just a quickie.”

 

Her tongue is in his ear. Amos gulps down his Danish and follows her back to the bedroom.

 

*     *     *     *     *


Saturday night Rachel rings the doorbell at seven. She has tickets to hear some avant-garde Japanese composer down in the Village. Amos opens the door and she walks in, dressed up in some sort of Tibetan knit jacket and tight black leather pants and boots.

“Like it?” she asks, pirouetting, and eyeing herself in the tall narrow mirror at the end of the hallway.

“Very nice,” says Amos.

She strides into the living room, perches on an armchair, and looks herself over.

“Don’t say I never did anything for the world. I’m supporting a free Tibet.”

“Lovely,” says Amos. “Shall we be going?”

“We’re in good time. Let’s get naked and smoke.”

She pulls out a small hash pipe and a foil-wrapped package, breaking a tiny brown crumb into the bowl of the pipe.

Amos looks at her with exasperation. He has given up dope and even alcohol for the duration of his writing project. Rachel knows this, and likes to tease him.

She touches a flame to the hashish crumb with her lighter, carefully inhales, and sits back expectantly as a sweet and pungent odor begins to meander across the cramped room with its modest furniture gleaned from second-hand shops and the streets.

Amos sits down on the sofa to wait. Rachel inhales again, motions with the pipe to him to have some. He shakes his head. She exhales slowly and looks up at the wooden cuckoo clock his parents brought him as a souvenir from Switzerland.

Ticky tocky, ticky tocky.” She giggles.

“One more hit for the road.”

Rachel breaks off one more corner of her wafer of hash, lights it up, breathes in, then holds her breath. Amos watches her, and she smiles at him and puffs out her cheeks. Her shoulder-length black hair highlights her dark Sephardic eyes, touched up with a hint of mascara on the lids and brows. She wears little in the way of cosmetics, almost like a Mennonite girl, and for a moment Amos thinks of his mother, with her unadorned face and shining brown eyes. Then he feels guilty, and makes the thought pass. His mother has been dead for almost a year now.

Exhaling with a flourish, Rachel winks and asks “Quickie?”

Amos throws her a disgusted look and goes to the closet for his jacket.

“Let’s go.”

Rachel is examining a small green jade turtle, given to him by a previous girlfriend from Taiwan. She turns it over in her hands, studying the plastron.

Oooh, lookie. It says ‘Made in Japan’. “

“It does not. Let’s go.”

“How was she in bed? On a scale of one to ten, with one being lamentable and ten being impressive?”

Cut it out. We’re going to be late. Let’s go, already.”

Amos has a low threshold for teasing, and Rachel knows how to push his buttons. His previous girlfriend, Aihwa, is a sore spot, having left him several months ago for a professor of anthropology at Berkeley.

Rachel slowly stands and gives him a look of mock severity.

“You need to put that chick right out of your mind. Wash her right out.
It’s the only way to true happiness. Live for today, my boy. Love the one you’re with!”

Amos has had enough. He goes to the door to the hall, and holds it open.

“Coming, coming. Rachel’s coming,” she prates as she picks up her bag and follows him out.

“Don’t you wish, don’t you wish,” she sings as she pats his bottom and they hustle down the stairs. A middle-aged Puerto Rican woman glowers at them as they burst into the lobby, Rachel chanting loudly, “Rachel’s coming, Rachel’s coming, don’t you wish, don’t you wish!”

The chill November air greets them and Rachel clutches her coat to her tightly as they walk over to Broadway to catch the subway. Broadway is crowded with festive weekend crowds, Columbia students out for the evening, Dominican families, Korean greengrocers arranging their vegetable displays

Down in the subway Rachel clutches his arm, suddenly meditative. The Number 1 roars in and they board, holding onto the pole in a very crowded car. The train roars and screeches down the track. Conversation is impossible.

They get off at Christopher Street, then walk west toward Washington Square Park. Although it’s getting to be winter, the Park still has a hardy crew of open-air performers – a saxophonist, a juggler, a guitarist. But the chess tables are empty.

As they stroll through the park, huddling together against the cold, a young man greets them with a friendly “Hash, acid, ludes.” Amos waves him away. A sudden gust stirs the dry leaves into a miniature whirlwind.

The concert is in a basement on Spring Street. Rachel hands their tickets to the ponytailed young Japanese man at the door, and they descend rickety wooden stairs. About three dozen folding chairs are arranged in a circle around a koto, suspended from the ceiling, lit by a purple spotlight and draped with seaweed. Behind the chairs, in the corners, stand a variety of amplifiers, the largest about the size of a refrigerator.

The audience is a mixed bag of Asians and whites, younger people with cropped haircuts and a few older men with beards and long hair. They sip wine from paper cups and the room fills with a conversational buzz as newcomers make their way down the creaking stairs.

At eight-thirty precisely, a young Japanese man with a wispy black beard and shoulder-length hair stands and waits for the crowd to be silent.

“This pa-foam-ance is ‘Undersea Koto’,” he announces in thickly accented English, then sits down at a control panel with a small keyboard and a large number of gears and levers. The house lights dim, until only the purple spot remains focused on the hanging instrument.

Gradually a low humming noise surrounds the audience. It slowly develops into a deep-throated roar, as in a jet rushing down the runway getting ready for takeoff. Rachel hugs Amos, wrapping her right arm around his left.

The show lasts about an hour, the deep bass roars alternating with high shrill squeaks and squeals, ululating women’s voices, and snatches of what sounds to Amos like Russian Orthodox church music. Throughout the hour, the lights flicker, dim, strobe, fade to blackness, but always return to the purple spot. As the noise finally dies away the audience applauds enthusiastically, the composer takes a bow, and Rachel and Amos ascend the stairs to the street.

Brrrr. Let’s go back to your place.”

“You don’t want coffee or something?”

“Nah, let’s get home and get under the covers.” Rachel links her arm in his and they walk rapidly back across the Village to the subway.

“How’d you like it?” asks Amos as they wait for the train.

“Trippy. Trippy indeed. The light show was fantastic. But the music sucked. If it was in fact music. How about you?”

I was expecting something like Kitaro. This was a lot of noise.”

The train roars into the station. At 110th Street they hurry up the stairs to Broadway, then along 108th to the apartment.

Inside, Rachel heads for the bathroom. Amos makes instant coffee in the kitchen. Then they sit on the sofa in the living room. Rachel takes out her pipe.”

Wanna puff? To warm you up?”

Amos just sips his coffee.

“Sex is soooo much better stoned. You don’t know what you’re missing. Or maybe you do. You haven’t forgotten, you big dummy, have you?”

Amos finishes his coffee and regards Rachel thoughtfully.

Oooh. I bet you’re still thinking about Aihwa. Come on, admit it. You really miss her.”

“Okay, I admit it. Big deal.”

You are soooo sensitive. You really are. But listen – I know what you’re going through. I really do. When Jamie and I broke up it really hurt me. Honestly. I cried for days. But eventually it was over. Time – the great healer.”

Yeah, I suppose.”

Rachel puts her pipe back into her bag, then kisses him lightly on the cheek.

“Cheer up, buddy. Things ain’t so bad. You got me now. Come on, I’ll make you forget all about that dumb chick. Come on.”

She stands, pulls his arm, and leads him to the bedroom. She undresses rapidly and throws her clothes onto the chair. Amos goes back out to the bathroom, flosses and brushes his teeth. He folds his pants and hangs them in the closet, tosses his shirt into the laundry basket, searches in the drawer of the beside table for the condoms.

“Come ON, already, stupid. Quit messing around. This train is LEAVING the station.”

Finally Amos crawls into bed. Rachel rolls over onto him and begins stroking his cheeks, working her body against his.

Amos lies motionless. Rachel stops and looks down at him.

Whatsa matter? Not horny?”

She begins rhythmically grinding her hips against his, peering down at him. Amos gently pushes her to the side.

“God, I hate inept men. What is it with you? Thinking of that Chinese chick? Cat got your tongue?”

With a show of impatience she reaches to the bedside table for her Gitanes and lights one.

Amos stands and pulls on his robe.

“Hey, where are you going? Did I say something to offend you?”

“No,” he replies. “I just thought of something I have to fix in Chapter Three.”

He walks into the living room, turns on the light and sits down at his desk, opening a folder.

“Jeez!” says Rachel loudly from the bedroom. “I can’t believe this!”

*     *     *     *     *

Amos walks down the massive stone steps of the cathedral on a chilly Sunday in late November. Today his congressman, Charlie Rangel, has been the guest preacher, the first in a series of famous public figures who will be preaching during Advent. Attendance was huge this morning, and Amos was too late to claim his seat in the front pew.

The text was Matthew 25, concerning the sheep and the goats. The congressman has made it clear that the Republicans in Washington are the goats. Rangel himself is a Catholic, but the Cathedral is taking a broadly ecumenical approach in their guest speaker series. Next week the preacher will be Leonard Bernstein.

As Amos picks up his plum Danishes from the Hungarian Pastry Shop he mulls over the Matthew text in his mind. Are the Republicans indeed so evil as to merit eternal damnation and hell-fire? Is the sovereign God of love and compassion indeed planning, at the end of all time, to cast ANY pathetic human into the fiery pit?

It is a question that has vexed Amos from his adolescent years at the Mennonite high school back in Indiana. Or rather, one that had vexed him until he moved away from his cloistered community into the great and glorious secular city, where such theological imponderables have taken a back seat to more immediate concerns. His studies in Japanese Buddhism have introduced him into a far vaster cosmos, one which admittedly encompasses hells of all types, fiery and otherwise, but whose Mahayana deities radiate an infinite compassion so much more profound than the God of his Mennonite fathers as to render the theological question of infinite destinies moot.

And he has always thought of his new Episcopalian fellow-believers as remarkably tolerant. So the Congressman’s passionate, scorching diatribe this morning has left Amos somewhat bemused.

He trudges down Amsterdam Avenue in the drizzle. Meringue music blares from the bodega. Puerto Rican and Dominican churchgoers are returning home from Mass.

“Honey, I’m home.” He drops the bag of pastry on the kitchen table and puts a pan of water on the stove to boil. Hanging up his coat in the hall closet, he suddenly notices that the apartment is preternaturally quiet. He peeks into the bedroom. Rachel’s ashtray is there beside the unmade bed.

“Rachel?”

The living room is dark and empty. He switches on the light. No Rachel.

Odd, he thinks, she doesn’t usually get up this early. He walks back to the kitchen and pours the boiling water over his powdered instant coffee.

Then he sees the note on the kitchen table.

“By the time you read this, Richie and I will be married. Well, not really married, but you know. Amos, it was fun while it lasted – sorta. But you really should find yourself a nice Mennonite girl and settle down. You are SO not cut out for life in the fast lane – know what I mean?”

Amos feels a sudden pang in the region of his solar plexus. Who the hell is Richie? What the fuck is going on here? Is this Rachel’s idea of a joke?

He sits down slowly at the table and rereads the note. He tries to remember whether Rachel gave any clue of leaving him last night. Last night was one of their regular Saturday nights at home. The sex was cozy and comfortable, if not stellar. Rachel had actually seemed satisfied for a change, or as satisfied as she seemed able. In fact she had been distinctly cheerful as she lit up her hash pipe in her post-orgasmic haze.

So what is this note all about?

Sipping his coffee, he calms down a bit. Rachel loves puzzles. Maybe this is in fact some sort of joke, or a riddle, or perhaps she’s just trying to get his attention. But who the hell is Richie?

For a moment, Amos is bewildered. Their relationship has certainly not been a close one. In fact, Rachel shows up Friday or Saturday night, calling ahead to announce whether they will be going out for the evening or spending it in his apartment. Amos has only a vague idea of what she does for a living. The rest of her life is, not a mystery, but simply a grey area where Amos has never thought of intruding.

And thus far their arrangement has seemed to work out well for both of them. Amos has had the time and solitude necessary to his concentration, and sex on the weekends. He has never felt any particular need for companionship beyond this. And Rachel has never demanded his attention beyond their weekend trysts.

Perhaps he should try to call her. Amos intensely dislikes phone conversations. The only time they talk on the telephone is when she rings to arrange their weekend visit.

Amos thinks he has her phone number written down somewhere. But then he notices that it is almost one o’clock. He really should be getting down to his work. He finishes his Danish, and Rachel’s for good measure, then walks to his desk in the living room. He opens the folder with his material for Chapter Four. Soon he is deep in concentration, with his dictionaries at his elbow, flipping through his file cards.

*     *     *     *     *

In the dream Amos telephones his psychiatrist, but his daughter answers. Then his shrink’s wife comes on the line. She sounds very childish, and informs him that the doctor is not available and will have to reschedule the appointment. Amos is tremendously disappointed. But then a letter arrives from the psychiatrist. It is written in a very elegant script; the style is rich and baroque, and Amos is excited again because it seems that the doctor is in fact sensing some of the intricacies of his situation.

 

Then Amos is attending an elementary school. The pupils are all younger, and Amos is acutely aware that he has only been accepted into the school by masquerading as much younger than he really is. It is a special, elite school and Amos feels very fortunate to be attending. At times it seems to be an institution where all the students have very complex psychological problems, but even at those times Amos feels accepted, and grateful to be participating in the routine and understanding the meaning of the rituals.

 

In the dream Amos is walking through a small village, and comes to a ruined house, an old mansion. There is an Asian woman sitting on the porch who looks very familiar. With her is another woman, darker, with long black hair and large breasts. Perhaps she is Eurasian. This woman has come back to the house to restore it as a museum. Amos lies in the long grass, sobbing, looking up beseechingly and with considerable awe at the naked woman. He can tell that she is pleased to be affecting him in this way. She asks “What have you come for? What do you want?” Amos feels suddenly smug, that he is just performing, miming these emotions, that in fact he is not truly moved by her presence and that he is deceiving her.

 

Amos is running to catch the subway. Aihwa is in the last car as the train pulls out of the station, and she motions urgently to him to meet her at the next station. He catches the next train, but she is not waiting there. He wanders out into the high craggy mountains. There are streams of fresh, foaming water winding down from the peaks, and a high narrow waterfall. Amos sits in the swirling water and feels refreshed. Then Rachel comes along. She is very irritated that he didn’t meet her at the station.



The rain is drumming on the windows. Amos gradually becomes aware that he is awake. He looks at the alarm clock and notices that he has missed the last service at St. John’s. His body feels heavy and he rises slowly from the bed. For a minute he wonders where Rachel is. A pack of Gitanes is lying on the floor. There is one cigarette left. He picks it up, puts on his robe and slowly walks to the kitchen.

 

It is almost one o’clock. Rachel’s note is still lying on the table, where he has secured it using the salt-shaker as a paper-weight. He rereads it carefully, as he has done every morning for the past week.

 

 “By the time you read this, Richie and I will be married. Well, not really married, but you know. Amos, it was fun while it lasted – sorta. But you really should find yourself a nice Mennonite girl and settle down. You are SO not cut out for life in the fast lane – know what I mean?”

 

He ponders the message, trying to find any hint that may have escaped him as to what could possibly have gone wrong. Finally, sighing, he stands up and walks to the living room, opens the file cabinet and finds the manila folder marked “DEAR JOHN LETTERS” in black magic marker. In the folder are Aihwa’s letter, the one from Harinder, two from Alice, and the scribbled note from Babs. Some of the letters are quite eloquent, but at the moment Amos does not have the stomach to look at them.

 

Back in the kitchen Amos puts water on the stove to boil. He takes the cigarette out of the pack and contemplates it, then holds it under his nose and takes a whiff. How long has it been since he gave up smoking? Eight months? At any rate a record. He looks for a book of matches, finds them in the drawer next to the stove, turns off the boiling water. He puts a large tablespoon of Boriquena Instant into his Columbia mug, pours in the water, and stirs it. He lights the Gitane. Inhales. Feels a bit light-headed, but finds it enormously satisfying.

 

He stares at the smudged window, with the rain pouring steadily down, savoring the smoke.

 

For the past week he has gotten very little work done on his thesis. He finally finds Rachel’s phone number, on a scrap of postcard in his Japanese dictionary. He calls twice and leaves a message on the machine. Thus far she has not returned his calls.

 

The cigarette is finished and he stubs it out in the lid of the coffee jar. He sips his coffee and thinks about what he needs to accomplish today. Chapter Four is a mess. He can’t bear to reread it again. He sits at the table, listening to the rain drum on the dirty window.

 

*     *     *     *     *

It’s five o’clock in the library on a Friday afternoon. Amos takes his stack of books to the checkout desk and hands them to Bill.

 

“That’s it for the week?”

 

“I guess that’s it. I’ll be working at home tomorrow.”

 

“How’s Rachel?”

 

“Oh, yeah. Rachel. Well. Rachel done gone and left me.”

 

Bill grins. “Another one bites the dust?”

 

“Left me for another man.”

 

“You don’t look so good. How’s church?”

 

“Oh, well, you know.”

 

“I heard Lenny Bernstein was in the cathedral last week. Getting to be quite a showcase, there. How was he?”

 

“I slept in. Didn’t make it.”

 

Bill lifts his eyebrows. “You? St. Amos the Devout? Not going to church on Sunday? You surprise me, man.

 

“Well. What can I say? Somehow it doesn’t seem worth it to get up in the morning these days.”

 

“That bad, huh? Don’t have Rachel to come home to? Lost yer fizz? Lost yer inspiration?”

 

Amos looks at him in disgust. “Just gimme my books, yo.”

 

“Oh boy, you *do* have it bad. Them breakup blues is hard to lose.”

 

“Tell me about it.”

 

“Look,” says Bill, looking up at the clock, “look, it’s almost quittin’ time. What say we go out for a beer?”

 

“C’mon. You know I’m on the wagon.”

 

“I’ll tell you something man. You sure look like you *need* a drink. Let’s go get a pitcher at the Gold Rail, grab a burger. Chicken soup for the soul, man. Good for what ails ya. And listen – I’ve got a few people stopping by later tonight. How long has it been since you partied hearty?”

 

“I got a dissertation to write.”

 

“Don’t we all, man? Don’t we all. Anyway, by the sorry sadsack downtrodden bedraggled way you look, I’d be willing to bet you’re not getting a whole lot of writing done anyhow. Let me just finish up here and we’ll hit the road, Jack.”

 

Amos shakes his head, puts his books in his briefcase.

 

“C’mon, man. No ifs ands or buts. You need some buck-me-uppo. Just what the doctor ordered. Just two seconds here and we’ll be out the door.”

 

Bill bustles around, says a few words to Karen who’s just coming on for the night shift at the library counter, grabs his jacket from the closet, and steers Amos out into the November darkness.

 

“You know what your problem is? You’re fucking antisocial, that’s what your problem is. When’s the last time you saw Rachel?”

 

“I don’t know. Maybe two weeks ago.”

 

“And I’ll bet you haven’t said two words to anybody outside the library for the last two weeks.”

 

“Saw my shrink last Tuesday.”

 

“Uh-huh. Uh-huh. See, that’s your problem. You don’t talk to anybody but a shrink, you *definitely* got problems. That’ll drive you crazy, man.”

 

The Gold Rail is filling up with the Friday supper crowd, but they find a table in the back.

 

“Funny thing. You know, the first time I came in here they carded me.”

 

Bill tells the waitress to bring a pitcher. “No way.”

 

“Way. I was sixteen. It was my first time in the city. These guys brought me in and the waitress took one look at me and asked for ID.”

 

So’d you show her your boy scout card?”

 

The waitress puts a pitcher of draft and two glasses on the table.

 

“I was embarrassed as hell. These dudes made a fuss, but she refused to serve them either. We finally walked out.”

 

“Jeez, you really have lived, haven’t you? Did you look pretty young at 16?”

 

“Nah. That’s the thing. I’d go to bars down in the Village, no problem.”

 

Bill pours them each a glass.

 

“To your health, man. Cheers!”

 

“You know, I really shouldn’t do this. It’s gonna wreck my concentration for a week.”

 

“Fuck your concentration, man. The sad old way you look, you’re not concentrating on anything much but Rachel anyhow.”

 

“Well, I suppose I could take a break.”

 

“Yeah. Drink up, man. Tell me all about your sorrows.”

 

Amos raises the glass to his lips and takes a sip, puts down his glass.

 

“You know, this makes me want a cigarette.”

 

“Uh-oh. Look out. Here, have one of these.”

 

Amos takes a second sip, a bigger one this time, in fact almost a gulp. He sits back in his chair, beginning to get more comfortable.

 

“You’re still smoking Camels. That was my first brand. Thanks.”

 

Bill lights their cigarettes, pushes the ashtray to the middle of the table, and opens the menu.

 

“I’m gonna have the blue cheese burger. What about you?”

 

“Sounds good. I’ll have what you’re having.”

 

“That’s the spirit. Yo, Patsy!”

 

“You know her name?”

 

“Do I know her name? Listen, not only do I know her name, but I know her carnally. In the flesh.”

 

Amos giggles, then takes another drink.

 

“I’ll bet you say that about all the waitresses on Broadway.”

 

Patsy comes over. She is a buxom cheerful redhead, looks about 19. She takes their order, pats Bill on the head and pushes through the crowd to the kitchen.

 

“She looks much too young to be working in a place like this.”

 

“She looks young, but she’s an old lady. I met her when she started her first year at Barnard. Love at first sight. Gave her the bone the first night.”

 

“Jeez, Bill, you amaze me. How’d you get to be such a ladies man?”

 

“An innate talent, my boy. I was born with the gift of pleasing women.”

 

“Yeah right.”

 

Patsy brings their burgers, winks at Amos.

 

“See, she likes you, man.”

 

Amos looks down, embarrassed.

 

“So, tell me all about your lost love. The latest lost love, that is.”

 

“Not much to tell. I came home from church two Sundays ago and she was gone. Left me a note on the table.”

 

“She left you a note on the table?” Bill guffaws in disbelief. “What’d she say when you called her up?”

 

“Nothing. I got her machine. She didn’t call back.”

 

“Oh my my my. She didn’t call back. Did you go over and confront her?”

 

“That’s the thing. I don’t even know where she lives. Somewhere in Brooklyn. She never took me over there.”

 

Whoo-ee. She gave you the royal treatment, didn’t she? How long did you know her, anyhow?”

 

Amos starts into his hamburger, takes another sip. Bout a month.”

 

“What’d the note say? Did you keep it? Can I see it?”

 

“Oh, some shit about how I wasn’t ready for life in the fast lane. Told me to find a nice Mennonite girl.”

 

Bill chokes slightly, spews out a bit of beer.

 

“Excuse me. Pardon me, man. Nice Mennonite girl, huh?”

 

“You find that humorous?”

 

“No, no. Pray continue narrating your tale of woe.”

 

“That was it, basically. Said she’d met a guy named Richie. Said they were getting married, but that was obviously and patently false.”

 

“Richie, huh?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

The pitcher is empty. Bill orders a second. They sit silently finishing their hamburgers.

 

“Well, life is a bitch. And then you die. Dostoevsky said that.”

 

“Really. Dostoevsky? I don’t recall ….”

 

“Well, maybe it was Shakespeare. Anyhow, you really need to get back into circulation. That’s why it’s so fortunate that you’re coming to my party tonight. Some dynamite chicks are gonna be there, man.”

 

“I dunno, Bill. I really have to get Chapter Five started.”

 

“Don’t we all, man. Don’t we all.”

 

“How late is it going to run?”

 

Bill stares at him in disbelief. “Jeez, man. How long has it been since you been to a party? Not one of those Episcopalian tea parties. I mean a *party* party.”

 

“I guess it’s been awhile. Might do me good to get out a bit.”

 

Abso-fuckin-lutely. You’re gonna have a blast.”

 

*     *     *     *     *


Amos wakes up in a strange bed, light streaming through the sky. He immediately closes his eyes, wincing. His head is throbbing like a bomb.

He knows there must be an explanation. He opens his eyes slowly, squinting at the light. He is lying on a soft mattress in a big four-poster bed. An immense teddy bear is staring at him from the foot of the bed. He closes his eyes quickly.

Gradually, very slowly, it begins to come back to him. The party at Bill’s house. The friendly woman doing her doctorate in cyberlinguistics. The brandy.

So far so good. But what is her name?

“Amos, are you up?” a silvery voice calls from the next room.

Ummm….”

Alice comes into the bedroom carrying a glass full of red liquid.

“Hair of the dog that bit you?”

For a fleeting terrifying moment as Alice peers down at him Amos imagines that the glass is full of blood.

Ooohhhhhhh……”

“Got a nasty nasty morning head? Poor baby. Sit up, try to drink this.”

Ummmm. What’s in it?”

V-8, Worcestershire sauce, a pinch of chili powder, and a raw egg.”

Oooohhhh…..”

Come on. It’ll help. I promise you.”

Far from convinced, Amos slowly struggles to a sitting position, and realizes he is completely naked. He pulls the blanket up to his chin. His head is throbbing like a bomb.

Aaaaarggh……”

“Come on. Just a little sip. Here you go.”

Amos forces himself to take a sip, and finds the concoction surprisingly palatable. He takes another sip, then a gulp, and suddenly has the sensation that someone is strolling down his throat with a lighted torch.

“Bottoms up! Drink it down. Finish her up. There’s a good boy.”

Amos empties the glass, closes his eyes, and waits for the room to stop rocking. He burps, and suddenly the urge to die leaves him.

“God. What was I doing last night?”

“Oh my. It’s quite a long story. Do you remember singing Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience back in Bill’s apartment?”

“Oh, shit.”

“No, you were actually quite good. Made quite a hit with the assembled throng. Professor Barzun in particular was quite impressed.”

“What? What was he doing there?”

Hanging out. He came in towards the end.”

“Oh shit. The last thing I remember we were back in Bill and Dina’s bedroom, and then . . .”

“Yes, and *then*.” Alice laughs and her silvery tinkle is like the noise of ice cubes in a mixed drink.

“Jeez, Alice. I’m so sorry. I must have made an ass of myself.”

“Oh no, everyone found you quite amusing. Where *did* you learn to sing Blake like that?”

“From the Fugs first album, if I remember. And their second album. Did I sing ‘How sweet I roamed from field to field…’

“Oh, *yes*!
They loved that one. And then there was ‘Winter is icumen in, lhude sing goddam.’ Didn’t really sound like Blake, though.”

“No, that was Ezra Pound. Oh man, my head is throbbing like a bomb. How did I get over here?”

Well, you were still mobile, and Bill didn’t really want you on his floor over night, so you staggered over here, mostly on your own steam. I helped you, of course.”

“Oh, Alice, what you must think of me!”

“I think you’re a little sweetie!”

“Oh, shit!”

*     *     *     *     *

Amos and Alice are sitting upright on the sofa of her elegantly appointed though cramped apartment overlooking Broadway. The Sunday Times is spread over the coffee table.

“How’s your head, dearie?”

“Much much better, thanks. I think I may go on living for a few days yet. Look, do you have to call me ‘dearie’?”

“I’m just being affectionate, lover-boy.”

“Yes, yes, I understand. But I find it a little cloying. And after all, we’ve only known each other for – let’s see – less than twenty-four hours.”

Amos looks at his wrist for his watch.

“Where’s my watch?”

Must be back in the bedroom. Don’t worry, you can get it later.”

Amos starts to get up. “I really feel positively naked without my watch. Just let me go get it.”

Alice pulls him back down to the sofa. “You can get it later, dumpling. Don’t spoil this perfect moment.”

But…but…oh alright. This is Sunday, isn’t it?”

Alice laughs her tinkly laugh, which is already beginning to grate on Amos’ nerves.

“Of course, dear one. It’s only two o’clock.”

“Two o’clock already? Damn, I really should be getting back to my dissertation.”

“ ‘Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.’ “

Amos looks at her, surprised. “Ecclesiastes. You know your scriptures!”

“Oh yes, I once won a prize for scripture knowledge back in my Sunday School.”

“Sunday School? Funny, somehow I didn’t figure you as the religious type.”

“Well, of course that was many years ago. Are you the religious type?”

Amos looks down at his wrist. “Actually, this is the third Sunday in a row that I’ve missed services.”

Really? Where do you go?”

“St. John the Divine.”

Oh, an Episcopalian, are we? No buttered scones for me, mater, I’m off to play the grahnd piahno.”

“Well, Mennonite by upbringing actually. In fact, those Episcopalians *are* a little high-church for my tastes. But I like the smells and bells.”

“Huh. I was raised Methodist. But it’s been a long time since I darkened the door of a church. Look, how’s the tummy? Do you think you could handle some coffee?”

“Yes. Yes, I think I could. In fact that’s just what the doctor ordered. Do you have any Boriquena Instant?”

Alice laughs her silvery laugh.

“No, dear one. But I have something much, much better. And I’ve got an Entemann’s coffee cake to go with. Be right back.”

*     *     *     *     *

Amos and Alice sit on the sofa munching coffee cake and drinking Panamanian coffee which Alice has ground fresh in her silver grinder from beans obtained at Zabar's. A Dittersdorf oboe concerto plays elegantly on her stereo in the corner.

"Isn't that so much better than that disgusting Boriquena Instant?"

"To tell the truth, I can't really tell the difference. It's all about the caffeine as far as I'm concerned. But yes, it's good. Thanks."

"Oh dear, I suppose good taste is an acquired taste. We'll just have to *educate* your palate. And do something about your clothes. Those bell-bottomed corduroys are just so passé. And you could use a haircut."

"Kind of you to be concerned. But you know, I like it like that."

"Well, some of these things just take time. Don't worry about a thing. With my help you'll be all spiffed up before you know it."

"Spiffed up? Say, it really is getting late. You know, I've been stuck on Chapter Four for several weeks now. Just can't seem to make any progress."

"Oh, I know. The diss-diss can be so frustrating. Or so I've heard. I'm still doing coursework."

"What exactly did you say you were studying? Cyberlinguistics or something? Is that in the Engineering school?"

"Well, technically, 'cyberlinguistics' is sort of a nickname. I'm actually in the English department."

"I see."

"But we have this new interdisciplinary project that is *so* cutting edge. It's a little hard to explain, but we draw from linguistics, philosophy, anthropology, comparative literature, psychology, and of course English lit. It's a sort of unified field approach. But the exciting part is that we're adding some computer science. Not only that, but we’re beginning to use fMRIs in the analysis of the reading process."

"Computer science and English lit? I don't get it. And MRI – that’s ‘magnetic resonance imaging, isn’t it? I had one of those tests back in Japan and it was a very painful process. Strapped me to the gurney and wheeled me into this sarcophagus and subjected me to half an hour of ear-splitting squeaks and bangs. It was like a Def Leppard concert, only in Japanese."

“You poor baby! But the technology has improved so rapidly that now an MRI is practically painless. And of course these days we sedate the subjects beforehand.”

“Still, I really don’t understand how computers and MRI machines can aid in the understanding of say, Jane Austen.”

"Oh, I know it's hard to explain, but it is *so* terribly cutting edge. It’s the new frontier of the Neurohumanities – actually even on beyond cognitive science. We can watch where the male brain lights up when reading Pride and Prejudice. As opposed to the female brain. And we're starting to use computers to analyze texts like Shakespeare. Like using computers to make concordances - find out how many times words and phrases are used. Some really exciting stuff is coming up. Did you know that "of the" is the most frequently occurring pair of words in all of Shakespeare?"

"That's astonishing! But, you know, I really need to be getting back…"

Alice pats his arm. "Oh yes, dear one. I shouldn't be rambling on like this. Tell you what, it's such a nice day, why don't I walk you back - we can go down through the park on the way. And you can tell me all about your diss-diss on the way. Maybe I can even help you!"

*     *     *     *     *

Amos and Alice ride down from the twelfth floor in the elevator. Someone has hung small wreaths with bright red plastic holly berries on both sides.

Oooh, it’s festive!” exclaims Alice.

“Getting to be the season.”

“Now the only thing they need is to put some mistletoe up on the ceiling. I’ll ask the doorman about that. Hee hee. Maybe I’ll kiss you anyway. I know you find elevators quite erotic.”

Later, Alice.”

They walk over to Riverside Drive and descend the solid stone steps into the park. The late afternoon sun is still bright in a cloudless sky, and although it is chilly there is no wind.

“Gosh, it’s such a perfect afternoon. This is the kind of December weather I love. But no snow yet. Back in Minneapolis we’d have a couple of inches by now.”

“You’re from Minnesota? I thought you had a slight accent.”

“My great-grandparents were Norwegian pioneers. Where are you from, Amos?”

“Well, I was born in Ontario. So I guess we have in common growing up in snowy climates.”

“How many different words for snow do you guys have in Canada?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You know, they say the Inuit Eskimos have over a hundred different words for snow – like a special word for light snow, heavy snow, frost – haven’t you ever heard that?”

“Oh, you mean the great Eskimo snow hoax. Hey, you’re a linguist. You should know that that old chestnut was disproved long ago.”

“Huh, that hasn’t come up in any of my courses. Are you sure?”

“Yeah, some British linguistic genius disproved it in an article in National Geographic aeons ago. That’s a hoary old eggcorn. Actually, the Inuit only have *three* morphemes for snow. Also, another interesting fact is that they can’t even count past three.”

“What? You’re just making this up.”

“No, it’s true. Some Scottish brain surgeon spent several weeks doing research up in the Arctic Circle and found to his astonishment that the Inuit only have words for number one, number two, and number three. Interestingly enough, they have seventeen words for ‘fuck’.”

“Gee, Amos. I thought you were in Japanese history. Where do you learn all this stuff?”

Well, I try to read the New York Times every day.”

They come up out of the park at 106th Street and head for Amos’ apartment. By now the sun is going down over New Jersey and although it’s only 4:00 the sky is already darkening. As they reach the door, Amos turns and says “Alice, thank you so much for everything. Sorry for my brutish behavior last night.”

“Oh no, Amos, you were a little sweetie. Honestly. But don’t you want me to come in – just for a minute – to see your apartment?”

“Alice, I really would like to have you up sometime. But I’ve been having this terrible writer’s block. I really have to get down to work.”

“Oh come on, you – you Puritan! I promise I won’t stay for more than a couple minutes.”

Amos pauses, thinking hard. It’s true. He has been something of a Puritan these past months, slaving away on the dissertation. On the other hand, Alice is proving to be a distraction, and his deadlines have been all shot to hell.

“Look Alice. I promise to call you tomorrow.” He hugs her gently, and she kisses his cheek.

“Alright, honey. I understand. But call me tonight, okay? Promise? Double promise?”

She kisses him again, Amos promises, and watches her walk back toward Broadway.

to be continued . . .