This story is part of the novel, The Sleep-Over Artist
Arnold Gerstein often took friends to his father’s club, the Harmonie, on 61st Street just off Fifth Avenue, where they could “use the facilities” (as Arnold’s father put it) for free. They would shoot hoops on the small basketball court, whose wooden floor had taken on a yellow-orange patina from years of use. Then they would smash a squash ball around in one the bright cubelike squash courts, and when they got tired of that, spend some time heaving barbells in the weight room. From there they hit the sauna and then, after showers, went downstairs to the dining room for lunch, which Arnold signed for on his father’s account. (Arnold usually had turkey with mayo, on white.)
Arnold had been going to the Harmonie Club on and off all his life, at first with his father and later with friends. There was some sort of formality about checking in that his father never observed; instead he just nodded to the men at the front desk, a curt but friendly nod accompanied by an equally curt and slightly facetious salute. It was an acknowledgment that these men at the front desk existed, that they were manning the ship, keeping at bay the hordes that thronged through Fifth Avenue and Central Park. Arnold absorbed this gesture thoughtlessly; everything he absorbed was as though through osmosis, so that the things he was good at, such as math, or wearing an expression that combined elements of sweetness and hostility in such a way as to make everyone around him seem beholden to him, he understood intuitively, without any sense of struggle up from a base of ignorance towards a peak of understanding, and those things he did not understand intuitively, such as English, or having any kind of emotion that was motivated by something other than greed, he did not absorb. “English,” for Arnold, was just a subject in school, but his inability to understand it was symbolic of his inability to understand or have any natural affinity for such things as memory, feeling, camaraderie, compassion, curiosity, and even love, all of which were out of sight, shrouded in a fog bank of ignorance, and therefore didn’t bother him.
When Arnold entered the Harmonie Club he gave the men at the front desk the same vague nod as his father, and walked by without giving it any thought.
Alex Fader, who accompanied Arnold on some of these visits to the Harmonie Club, gave it some thought. That nod was like a secret password that no one had told him about; it was a key which, by his witnessing it, had accidentally fallen into his possession. He pocketed it coolly, knowing that he would one day put it to use.
He put it to use one Tuesday during spring break of his Freshman year in high school, when, having confirmed that Arnold was absolutely definitely not going to be at the Harmonie Club–he was on a family vacation in the Bahamas–Alex paid a visit on his own.
Although the building’s limestone façade was quite grand, the entrance was a small discreet door above which sat a little blue umbrella of an awning on which was the letter “H” in old English script. Across the street from the Harmonie was the grand empire of the Metropolitan Club, which, even at a glance, suggested power and prestige and, with its forbidding black gates and arched doorway, the kind of exclusivity that advertises itself. The Harmonie’s exclusivity, being more covert, seemed more potent. Alex didn’t know that the Harmonie had been founded over a hundred years earlier by group of German Jews whose chances of gaining membership to a place like the Metropolitan were approximately zero. It didn’t occur to him that the old limestone facade of the Harmonie was a gesture of discretion, something low key. For Alex it was just a different kind of opulence from the one across the street. It was a place where you could swim, squash, shoot hoops, sweat, and sign for sandwiches (Alex usually had a BLT). It had an elevator and thick carpets and a huge empty ballroom through which Arnold and Alex had once wandered, stoned (it was Alex’s pot, he was the instigator, it is true, but he was not Arnold’s corrupter to the extent that Abigail Gerstein, Arnold’s mother, later contended. Once the shortcomings of her youngest, blue-eyed son began to manifest themselves in his deteriorating relations to the rest of the world, Mrs. Gerstein became obsessed with the idea that everything that went wrong with Arnold was all Alex’s fault, so that by the end of eleventh grade she was to become so obsessed with Alex Fader’s satanically negative influence on her innocent son that while watching a television documentary on voodoo she gave passing thought to buying a small doll in Alex’s likeness and sticking pins in it). For Alex the Harmonie wasn’t a place to be occupied so much as infiltrated. It would never have dawned on him to think of it as a haven for outsiders. It was the inside towards which he felt compelled, with a peculiar reflexive intensity, to burrow.
Alex often used the city’s semipublic property for his own private use. He frequently took the elevator of the Plaza Hotel to the top floor, walked up another flight of stairs, wound his way through a storage room of beds and bedding, and up through a trapdoor that led to the roof. He used the roof of the Plaza as a sort of personal clubhouse, and had twice done the same at the Essex House up the block, whose towering sign (“Essex House”) was visible from almost everywhere in Central Park. But the Plaza and the Essex House were large institutions whose staff were used to strange faces sauntering into the lobby as though they owned the place. Their lobbies were teeming with anonymous faces, while the Harmonie Club’s lobby was funereally sparse. It was an institution whose entire point, as far as Alex could tell, was to provide a small number of people the opportunity to see nothing and no one they hadn’t seen before.
Alex arrived at the front door to the club and marched up the few steps and then into the lobby. It was a cold, rainy, and for the most part gloomy day, and the trees on Fifth Avenue were all still barren. The doorman let him in with a tiny but perceptible bow, the same one he offered everyone. Alex walked straight to the elevator. At a certain point he turned his head in the direction of the front desk and offered a slight nod. The men nodded back. He hit the elevator button–the small, black, upward-pointing arrow became illuminated by an orange glow–and waited to ascend to the locker room. He felt their eyes on his back. When the door closed behind him he breathed a huge sigh of relief.
The locker room was empty. He undressed, balling his clothes up in the corner, since he didn’t have a locker. He had shorts on beneath his pants, and he wore his T-shirt, so it was just his coat and pants in the corner.
He went to the basketball court and shot around for a while. Usually, when shooting around alone, he drifted into an elaborate fantasy about a tense game, dramatic buzzer-beating scenarios, and so forth, but today the place seemed too barren and empty and he couldn’t relax. The old leather ball was brown with age and bounced funny. From the squash courts he could hear the distant thwacking of the little black ball bouncing against the white walls. The basketball got louder with each bounce. Alex was seized by paranoid feelings. He headed for the weight room but then decided to go straight to the sauna.
The sauna had made a strong impression on him during his previous visits. It was populated by nude men, sometimes rather old ones, all perched like walruses on the reddish wood, reading the paper or sitting, head bowed and still, while fat drops of sweat dropped to the wooden floor one at a time and began to evaporate. Alex and Arnold had been hairless, thin, and insubstantial presences amidst these hulking mounds of prosperity, worry, fat, and back hair.
He arrived in the sauna equipped, as was the custom as far as he could tell, with absolutely nothing save a copy of the newspaper. The room was occupied by two men sitting at opposite ends, on the upper benches. Alex took a seat between them, on one of the lower benches. One of the men was muscular and hairy in that peculiar way that involves nose hair, ear hair, chest hair, back hair, but nothing on top of his head. He sat with his elbows on his knees, his torso almost entirely obscured by the Wall Street Journal. The other man read the Times. Alex had with him the Times business section, and he began to read it. But he couldn’t concentrate, because the man reading the Wall Street Journal had an enormous penis. It hung down from the bottom of the page like a thick heavy rope, and it was as though the Wall Street Journal had an enormous penis. Alex stared at it blankly. Then he stared at his own forearm and saw tiny beads of sweat appearing there. He did not sweat in the same way as the men, who secreted moisture in fat drops. Alex secreted moisture as though it were being pushed through a very fine sieve. After a minute, the Wall Street Journal was abruptly folded, and it and its penis exited the sauna.
The sauna was now occupied by two people reading the business section of the New York Times, and a big wet spot on the opposite bench, delineating two cheeks and a lump of flesh in between. It was evaporating quickly.
After a few minutes of scrutinizing the paper, which included a feature on an up and coming steel executive Alex turned to the man and said, “What do make of the steel guy?”
The man was middle-aged and had a bit of paunch, but was self contained and prim; he had none of the spilling-over qualities of the departed Wall Street Journal man. This man, the Times man, had salt and pepper hair cut short, side parted, and very white skin with relatively little hair.
The man looked over with a friendly and slightly incredulous smile.
“You follow the steel business?” he said.
“Not very closely,” said Alex. “But I keep my eye on it.”
“Tough business,” said the man. He said it in a tone of voice that suggested that further conversation, while not likely, was nevertheless possible.
“Why?” said Alex. “Why is that?”
“Steel? In America?” He chortled inwardly, as though appreciating his own joke. “It’s not what it used to be, I’ll tell you that. A different ball game now. If you’re in steel,” and here he cast Alex a confiding glance, as if this were just a secret for the two of them, “get out. That’s my call.”
The man’s body was covered with fine hairs and a very thin layer of sweat. The hairless body and the white skin and the oily moisture made him seem a bit like a new-born baby. His fat was innocent fat. His fingernails were carefully trimmed. He was younger than the fathers of Alex’s classmates, and yet he had the glow of prosperous male adulthood about him. He was energized, distracted, slightly irascible. He gazed at Alex over his paper, or rather he let his paper fall moistly onto the leg that was crossed over his knee, and turned his head to regard the young newcomer more carefully. Alex looked back. He saw the man’s fingers (he wore a ring), his stomach, his hair, yet there was an odd disconnected aspect to their exchanged stare. It was as though the two naked men were looking at each other without actually seeing anything.
“What do you do?” Alex said.
“I’m in the insurance industry,” said the man. “How about you?”
“I’m in high school,” said Alex.
“Then why aren’t you there?” said the man. It wasn’t a hostile question. He smiled a little as he said it, as though he were sympathetic in advance to whatever explanation Alex would provide. He smiled the smile of a potential co-conspirator.
“I’m taking the day off,” he said. It was a perverse lie, considering it made him sound as if he were playing hooky when he could just have explained that it was spring break, but Alex was finely tuned to the needs of whoever was asking him questions, and this man seemed to need him to be a little bit out of bounds.
“Wanted to make a visit to the Harmonie Club for therapeutic purposes. I understand. I’m doing something a bit like that myself. Is your father a member here?”
Alex stared at him blankly as if he had just spoken a foreign language. A wave of fatigue came over him; he could feel, for a few beats, his own pulse. The man looked at him curiously, but with a slight penetrating edge to his stare.
“I just had the day off and wanted to come by,” Alex said.
“You a member?” the man said.
“My father is a member,” said Alex.
Alex didn’t think his father would have been a member of the Harmonie Club. There was, within the deep grooves of his father’s pensive forehead, a certain refinement that would have been ignored here, and that would in turn have found distasteful the whole acquiring ethos that pervaded the place like cheap perfume.
But he also fantasized, vaguely, about his father’s being a member of this club, and many other such institutions through which he could cruise without having to feign prerogative; it would be the real thing.
Alex was adept at a particular bit of emotional gymnastics in which he would enshrine his father in that sanctifying halo of nostalgia reserved for the dead; once this reverent shrine was sufficiently beatific, he would trash it with all the vigor and bile to be expected of any fourteen-year-old dead set on proving that everything his parents stand for should be thrown in the gutter.
So he was his father’s chief guardian and chief assaulter, a double duty that didn’t trouble him except in moments like this, when he saw his desire to both protect and attack his father for what it was: his ability to do neither.
The man smiled at him, as though he knew Alex was telling a lie, and in that sweaty little instant his civilized and pleasant aura fell away and something more primitive and vicious peeked out. It leered at Alex for a split second, a smug gleeful acknowledgment of its own power and prerogative, and in that split second Alex’s spirit collapsed, and he wanted to call time out and restart the day, the week, the year, his whole damn life all over again, so that it could wind its way down a different path and leave him somewhere other than where he was right then, naked and sweating in the presence of an authority figure who was devolving predictably into dickishness. For some reason he shot a glance over to where the Wall Street Journal had been sitting. The wet spot had completely evaporated.
“What’s your name?” said the man.
“Alex,” said Alex.
“Alex what?” said the man.
“Alex Fader,” said Alex. He felt helpless and terrified, and half imagined he was about to be marched, in his moist nudity, back down to the very front desk he had sauntered past a hour ago.
“Well, take care of yourself, Alex.” With this he stood, folded his paper, raked Alex with one last leering glance, and departed the sauna.
Alex sat in there for a long time afterwards in the hopes he wouldn’t have to see the guy again in the locker room. When he couldn’t take it anymore he emerged and found himself standing by the pool, dazed, watching an old man swim laps. The old man swam very slowly. He was doing the crawl. His palms slapped the water, and each time he lifted his head for air he gasped terribly, as though this breath would be his last.
This story is part of the novel,