Love, Sin, and Redemption



331 W 4th St, NY, NY 10014

Neighborhood: West Village

Twice Told Tales is a feature that asks authors to revisit previously published pieces and write a brief introduction from their current vantage point. Cycles of Love, Sin, and Redemption at the Corner Bistro was originally published in September, 2000. The introduction, below, was published in May, 2018.


You get to a certain age and many of the most vivid moments of your past start to look like a form of madness or a dream. You are remembering something that happened to you, that you underwent or participated in, that you quite likely initiated or enacted—but the you of that time and the you that is now remembering are so different as to introduce a queasy moment of dissociation, or to suggest a disintegration of personality.

Not so, I’m happy to report (happy for my sake, most of all) about the evening this story took place. It is the story of a night that started in a bar in the West Village and in which the narrator, which is to say, I, was introduced to his own well-established but previously unrecognized middle age. Middle age is a period in my life that’s now ending, and if you happen to be reading this while dreading your own middle age, take hope: I’m a better, stronger, healthier man now than I was then, though few would have predicted such. Most importantly, the me that I remember from that evening is not incompatible with the me of two decades earlier (when I would have been twenty-three) or the me of nearly that many years later (I’m now sixty-one). Such moments are rare and I’m grateful to have this one, bringing a hint of continuity to life. I call it a story because it is a story—written as fiction—but I think it’s clear from the construction and tone that it is an autobiographical story. It occurred at a crux in my own history and in the history of New York, a year and a bit before 9/11 and the permanent transformation of our city and our culture.

Something was coming to an end: the magazine I was writing for, my early life, and the last shreds of what had been a culture-wide sense of freedom that had been gifted to me when I arrived in New York in the middle 1970s. I was nearing the end of my first novel and nearing the end, too, of a long and by-then-failing marriage; I was careful in the story not to make the marriage explicitly appear to be failing, though I knew it was, and to that extent it is not entirely an honest story. But few autobiographical stories are entirely honest—not many of us are strong enough as writers, or sufficiently without vanity, to achieve pure honesty.

Autobiographical stories are in themselves rather ‘meta’, to use an adjective that is not as popular as it was a decade or two ago. This is one is even more meta than usual, for the narrator’s male friend in the piece is Tom Beller, after whom this website is named; and that evening, in summer 2000, was when he first told me about the website he was then launching, I went home that night and wrote this story over the next two or three days and it was my first offering to him.

Fortunately for me, the Internet was so low-impact at the time that regular print publications had no reluctance to publish in “first” serial form pieces that had already appeared online; thus I was able later to sell a revised version of the story to GQ, the editor of which had asked Walter Kirn, then acquiring fiction for the magazine, if there weren’t any more “Girls in Their Summer Dresses” stories to be found in the world.

The original mrbellersneighborhood site featured a gorgeous interactive satellite map of New York City which took, I do not exaggerate, twenty minutes to load on a typical modem hookup via AOL. Somehow the site survived that handicap and thrived. It became (as faster internet service came in) a crucial place of local reporting and storytelling. It was a salvation and a treasure in the days, weeks, and months after 9/11. It was a rarity then and now among publishing websites for it didn’t try to replace or imitate anything that had heretofore appeared in print form: it was its own new format. Click on the map and there was a story of something that had occurred in that place. Told by a person who’d been there. Personal, political, lyrical, memorial, blunt. No nice little Metropolitan Diary stuff either. The idea wasn’t to charm but to be art and to do what art does: recreate the world.

-Vince Passarro, May 2018


They were to be three for drinks: Ralph, a writer; his friend Alex, another writer; and the young woman from the magazine, Jessie, who was Ralph’s connection. It was a modern kind of connection — Ralph had never seen her, had only dealt with her over the phone, by fax, by e-mail; but they were great friends now; and she had wanted to meet Alex (his old friend Alex was getting to be very well-known these days) and so Ralph had invited her.

He arrived early, by almost half an hour, because he could and because part of the treat of the evening was to sit alone by the window at the top end of the bar, in the brightness of a late summer afternoon, and watch the people pass outside, and have a couple of drinks.

And he proceeded to have his couple of drinks: Wild Turkey on the rocks, in fact; and he bummed a cigarette from a shy, nervous, acne-scarred, gay man near him and the cigarette was luxuriously good with the whiskey; and though he’d aged (he was 43 and, what else, rising) and had gotten fat, he was still enough of a what — a mensch, perhaps? — that it was clear the brief conversation from the gay man’s side had not been unwelcome; and so he felt beneficent.

The bar was pleasant but crowded, one of those old places in the West Village where the last remaining working class men of the waterfront still felt comfortable enough to drink at the bar while the young and the prosperous and the profoundly underemployed came and went loudly all around them. It was called, with appropriate invisibility, the Corner Bistro.

These days Ralph and Alex saw each other only two or three times a year, usually at a literary gathering of one kind or another, when Ralph ducked away from his real life of demanding job and what he pleased himself to think of as wonderful children (because they were wonderful children, after all) and the endless stream of homework and housework and writing late in the night. On these rare occasions he ventured out to see the changing but unchanging faces of the New York publishing community, as he had done tonight — only tonight was different. It was one of those weeks in summer when his family was out of town and he was at loose ends. He was near the end of a novel he had been working on (he hated to admit the number) for nine years, and normally should have stayed home doing it, but tonight was a travel night, to join the family for a long weekend, and he was merely lingering for a couple of extra hours for one of these parties, thrown by the magazine.

– – –

Alex traveled in this world much more than he; Alex ran a small magazine of his own and had published two books, one very recently, and had remained a bachelor, a figure of growing reputation and notorious good looks. Ralph and Alex had known each other for a decade or more and they retained that comfort between them of instant familiarity. Ralph was Irish Catholic and had been raised in the suburbs; Alex was Jewish and ten years younger and had grown up on the Upper West Side; but despite the differences in age and upbringing they seemed to have been issued at birth similar formulas for seeing the world, a highly sociable mixture of melancholy, sarcasm, and affection.

And of course Alex, who lived a few doors away, was late; and arrived with the self-conscious air of rumpled disregard for society and appearances that, despite its self-consciousness, actually had taken hold as an integral part of his beauty.

“Is it really 7:25?” Alex said. He was looking with exaggerated shock at the clock over the bar. He was supposed to have been there at seven.

“I have twenty after,” said one of the old men behind Ralph.

“And I have seven-sixteen,” Ralph said, looking at the little four- dollar digital thing that he carried around. “Time moves backward at the Corner Bistro?. I’ve been waiting here since 1934, actually, but I’m younger now than when I started. Go figure.”

“How’ve you been?” Alex said, putting himself down on a stool.

“I’ve been fine.”

“You look good.”

“That’s a lie,” Ralph said. “What’s keeping you so busy these days? Every time I e-mail you or leave you a message I keep thinking I’m reaching into the maelstrom.”

“I keep as many fires burning as possible,” Alex said. “It fends off having to think.”

“Sounds expensive,” Ralph said.

“Oh it is. Absolutely,” Alex said. “In fact I was thinking, I should write a piece on how a hundred thousand a year not only isn’t enough for a family in New York, it’s not even enough for a bachelor. I’ll be a pariah.”

He was referring to a piece that Ralph had written a few years before, that landed him on television and made him the object of many denunciations. This led them to talk about money for a while, in the usual abstract ways, and about the financing for Alex’s magazine; money was a subject you could rely on in New York, a real fencepost for leaning during long conversations, though from such discussions one never learned a thing.

“You mean you’ve never met her?” Alex said.

“Not in person,” Ralph said. “I’ve talked with her on the phone. I’ve e-mailed her. We do a lot of e-mail.” Jessie did all the research and copy editing of Ralph’s monthly book pieces, and they had now had a long-running correspondence on a variety of topics, an exchange that of late had expanded (he knew but was not yet admitting that he knew) into realms of the dangerously personal. She had a modern-educated voice, which was to say he heard both culture and privilege in it — two attributes that when he’d been young had been merged seamlessly together in the voices of those who had been given them, but that now one almost always heard as distinct and competing influences. In the contest, privilege usually won, but it didn’t sound to him necessarily as if it would in hers, which was part of what he’d grown to like and respect about her. She had self-confidence, he discovered over time, and she had good taste, and she showed a kind of enthusiasm for ideas that didn’t go with the scenery of the New York publishing world. She had not yet picked up its expensive, super-scheduled world-weariness, its vulgarity, or, so far as he could tell, its distinctly off-center, flickering hungers; her ambitions seemed to be of a worthy kind. She presented a mind that yearned for knowledge; improbably, it might even have yearned for wisdom — counter to the times and certainly to the milieu.

And so in his way, vaguely but not altogether paternal, didactic, tentative but, he also knew, insinuating (like a Henry James character, an older American distant relation, the narrator) he had taken her up, and read her work, and given her things to read as well. She was grateful to him for his attention; it turned out that she was not a woman short of men’s attention but she had been short of the right kind, or of this kind in any case, and the quality of his was what he had to offer, that and nothing else. It cost him nothing, it came easily to him, it blended with his passions and, unquestionably, it fed his vanity and his soft messianic tendencies; yet, for all that his paying of attention did for him, he also enjoyed believing it did something for others, that the men and women who had accepted it from him in his life had known a certain value. His wife had taken it and made good use of it for almost a quarter of a century, since they had been, he knew now, children. She was accustomed to it; and he wondered with the usual boring and mild resentment that builds in marriage whether she even recognized it as exceptional anymore, or noticed it at all.

The young lady had reached the door. “She’s got a lot on her plate tonight,” Ralph leaned forward and said. “She’s fitting us in.”

“Kind of her,” said Alex. Ralph looked at him with an arched eyebrow. “I mean it,” Alex said.

She came inside then, and stood before them proud and nervous. He was shocked to discover that he could barely look at her: he had with ease been dealing with this woman for more than a year, writing her quite a bit in recent weeks on all sorts of topics, enjoying himself; he thought of himself as fearless and had earned the right to, it was one of his few strengths, real butt-hard nerve in the face of failure, humiliation, poverty, violence or worse. But — he could barely look at this woman. And bare, alas, was one of the operative words. She was showing a lot of skin and it was very beautiful skin, arms and shoulders and collar and chest and muscled neck, and he hadn’t been sleeping and he was very, very tired; too tired to brace himself into the relaxed pose of the accomplished and sexually mature older man; too tired coolly to withstand it. It was not arousal he had to contend with — he had contended with that every day since he’d been thirteen and it was as familiar to him now as his own belly and language and aching feet — no, it was the instant sense of fatigue he felt on looking at her, and the distant echoes of his predictable early failures in courtship and in sex. All of her — no, of course not all of her, but enough of her — the golden hair and skin, the cell phone and lipstick and cigarette, the black tube top and tan petal pushers, the lovely shoes and the slight tremble around her, like the shimmer of light viewed through rising heat — said trouble; trouble that had been cultivated with a knowing eye; trouble as a kind of personal philosophy, half humorous and half lethal * and she might, just might, grow out of it by the time she turned seventy. Was he really so far beyond having the strength for such things? He had married a woman like that; she rocked and she rolled; she had no settings below “intense” and she had, he liked to think, kept him alive and awake and at arms length from the world of gloom and death that would otherwise have been his habitat. Suddenly he wasn’t up to it anymore: that’s what this young woman made him feel. He tried to watch her eyes, which were a backlit, peacock blue, but found that looking into them was like staring through the windows of a burning house. “The fire burns as the novel taught it how,” was a line in a poem he’d passed along to her and another editor at the magazine at one point (they all shared a liking for Stevens, they discovered one day), and now here it was again, art come back to burn life onto itself, and onto him. It singed him.

She knew them both by sight, presumably from their pictures, which had been at one time or another in the magazine. “I decided to be late,” she said — she was quite late — “so you two could bond.”

“We don’t need to bond,” Ralph said. “We bonded fucking years ago. They had to use a solvent to get us apart. Jessie, this is Alex Peterman, Alex, this is Jessica Traut.” She took Alex’s long hand and held it before her momentarily and made a small move with her body that hinted at a curtsy, he had to smile to see it.

“Alex barely just got here himself,” Ralph said. “I was virtually stood up.”

“The great thing about this whole arrangement was that you knew at least one of us would show up,” Alex said.

They were both facing him then. Her mouth gave her face a look of permanent sardonic amusement, so that her smile, when it came, was a surprise, the delicate back of a tough-looking leaf. “Oh, no,” she said. “He knew both of us would show up.”

“Sure, sure,” Ralph said. “What are you having?”

She wanted some damn complicated thing — Alex seemed to know what it was, one of the benefits of being a man about town — that the bartender not only didn’t have, but clearly had never heard of; and then she asked for Guinness but they had only cans, which he thoroughly agreed with rejecting; so she settled for a vodka and soda. Ketel One it had to be. At least it wasn’t Absolut.

“You have very precise drink ideas,” Ralph said to her, handing the drink from the bar, over someone’s shoulder, toward the window where she and Alex were standing. “That’s good.”

“Why is that good?” she said. “It’s mostly a pain.”

“It means you’re a serious drinker,” he said. “One likes to see that in a young lady today.” They clinked glasses. He accidentally swished a little of his out and it spilled near her foot. He looked down to see if he’d hit her.

“Don’t worry, it won’t hurt my foot,” she said.

“You know,” Ralph said, looking up again, “I’ve been commuting by public conveyance all summer– ” he worked and taught at a university outside the city “–and because of the shoe fashions I’m seeing at minimum a thousand toes a day. It’s the Summer of A Thousand Toes.”

Alex swallowed his drink; he had a long neck and the Adam’s apple slid up and down like the counterweight on a doctor’s scale. He was looking off down the bar. “It has,” he said with placid thoughtfulness, like a farmer talking weather. “It’s been a very footy summer.” This made Ralph laugh and he spilled a little of his drink again; again it was near Jessie’s foot.

“You might think about getting some Totes,” Alex said to her.

“Shut the fuck up,” Ralph said.

She began telling Alex about people they knew in common, mostly, Ralph gathered, sensitive, unreliable body-pierced guys who on and off worked for Alex at the growing kingdom of his small magazine. (Ralph had an image, suddenly, of a gaunt, unwashed young man, walking into a body piercing shop — where? on the boardwalk in Wildwood, New Jersey? — and ordering up rusty spikes for his wrists and feet, and a lance for his side.) The young people and Alex were going to be launching a website very soon; Alex was outlining the basic premises.

Ralph half listened, drank his drink, stole one of her cigarettes, watched. And watching her, Ralph knew one thing… No, he knew two things, or three. Actually, it was a thousand. First (one always had to settle this question in one’s mind with a good-looking woman), he was not and never would have been the kind of man such a woman would be interested in; she was not interested in older men in any case; and even if he had been exactly her age, he would have been an older man, as it had always been in his nature to be forty. Her agenda of pleasure was clearly athletic and geographically wide and she was interested (he guessed) in rather sporty men who could keep up with her. If she had been one of those young women who openly pursued older men, women he invariably thought of as calculating, or at least misguidedly ambitious, he was not the right kind: he was very accomplished at this point in his life, a fact known to certain people in his field, like Alex; but had neither the money nor the standing to compensate for his age, for his marital status, or for his appearance.

More than that, he also knew something else: he himself was not interested. Or, he thought, to be more accurate, he was nothing more than interested. He and his wife — his wife of whom he still often thought with a small internal tremor of longing and desire — he and his wife were at this moment halfway across the river they’d been given to breach; they were up to their necks in hard current, in other words, with three children on their backs, and he understood, with an added, silvery light suddenly cast on the scene, that it was not a moment when he wanted to make any new fucking discoveries. Not when it meant — and invariably it would mean this — that the people he actually loved would be whisked off shrieking downstream.

Yet, that feeling he’d had when he saw her, it was like a little piece, of what? Masculinity vanity? Something just slightly more precious than that? Whatever it was, it fell to the floor of the bar at that moment like a loose lens from an old man’s cloudy eyeglasses and was crunched underfoot before anyone could retrieve it. Here it was in all its glory, the tragi-comic fucking midlife bullshit he’d always heard about… Well, it sucked was all he could say. It sucked inherently, like surgery sucked, and it sucked further than that: it sucked in its attendant meanings, it sucked that he, of all people, enlightened with hard-won self-knowledge, bloated with it in fact, a man who along with a few close friends stood — it was his great pleasure to think, especially after two drinks, or now he was just onto three — as a moral beacon in a corrupt world; it sucked to know at that instant that, even if it were it only for an evening, he would have to endure this, would have to be made foolish and ridiculous by it in his own eyes. He had a very high opinion of himself and this was an insult.

But they talked; they had to talk, after all, they weren’t all about to stand and stare at each other in glum silence. So Ralph told them of his walk down to the Village from Penn Station along Eighth Avenue, and of the assessing eyes of the gay men all along the way, and how amused he felt by it and how oddly confirmed, by frank sexual assessments that ranged from the mildly negative to the surprisingly positive with many stops in between; it made him feel, rare for him on the streets, as if he was being viewed as a living, breathing, sexually-active being. They talked then in comparison, about how men looked at women, about how women looked at women (the cruelest of all assessments, the two men believed, but she didn’t think so), and then two children slipped past them at the bar, followed by their father, to sit in the corner, which was empty; it was that kind of place, open to all comers; he helped the little girl up onto a stool. “Ralph is very experienced with children,” Alex said and she said quietly, “I know.” In this intensely crowded place, an absolutely grown-up place, with how many gallons of whiskey stained into the floor over the years, the two little children, a boy perhaps five and a girl no more than seven, showed that amazing courage that children display when they have no choice. Ralph was moved by it, and, as he made way for them and helped them up, he gestured to them by face and body and voice, in ways he knew they could take in, that this immense smoky crowd was actually safe and that their special status as children would be recognized and respected.

“So,” Jessie said. “What about you? Did you like any of the men? Encourage any of them?”

“Not a one,” Ralph said. Alex and she offered some cat calls on this. “Denial, denial, ” she said.

“I don’t like the whole Chelsea thing,” Ralph said, “They all look like Michael Medved, except with too much drug use in their pasts.”

“So what’s your type, then?” she said.

Ralph thought about it. “Brad Pitt,” he said. “Now there’s a guy you could tolerate seeing lying around the house scratching his balls.”

“Amen,” she said.

“Maybe he brings Jennifer Aniston to the relationship,” Alex said. “That could get interesting.”

“She could be the houseboy,” Ralph said. “She’d do the shopping and hang around scantily clad dealing with, like, all the recycling, you know, paper, plastics, metals.”

Long married and parental, Ralph was the rabbi’s wife in this trio; he had brought them together in an amusing little piece of matchmaking, to flirt; and they did flirt; but then, ominously, they kind of stopped, he noticed, or did so in ever more tentative little salvos. Being the matchmaker, he suddenly was able to see Alex as Jessie must see him; not merely good-looking but, to put it in a woman’s kind of word, scrumptious: tall , warm, smart, funny, self-deprecating, and highly unattainable. He’d been with some very serious women in his time, she must sense, or even know, and he was with one currently. Still, she had some tools, Ralph thought; she was good, it certainly wasn’t out of the question. Their slight, growing nervousness felt a little potent. And it occurred to him, with a jolt of surprise, that if these two actually hooked up his heart would give off a quick flame of jealousy — which was not the surprise; he was accustomed to that, he felt like that whenever anyone he knew got laid; the surprise was that he was uncertain suddenly which one he would be jealous of, or for, or about; he couldn’t even nail down the damn preposition.

Well, this was a brand new piece of self-knowledge he had suddenly to deal with, like the first time a woman slaps you. (Knowledge of himself was the problem: he would be sufficiently poisoned by it the next day that at one point his wife would look at his face and say, “What happened to you last night? Were you rejected?” And he would say, “I’m sure I was, but I didn’t think to check.”)

– – –

After Brad Pitt played himself out, Jessie went off to the ladies room, announcing that on her return they would have to go to this party because various people were actually waiting for her there. She turned and departed practically at a sprint; she did things quickly. Alex watched her until she disappeared. Then he looked at Ralph.

“So — you’ve never seen her before?”

“No. I had a feeling she’d be a knockout.”

Alex made a face, pulled his head back.

“What?” Ralph said. “You don’t think she’s–”

“Oh, don’t worry, she’s a knockout, she’s a lot more than a knockout,” Alex said. They were staring out the window again. “All I can say is, you show admirable restraint.”

Ralph wasn’t certain he’d shown enough restraint at all; Alex could see only the restraint that was left. Restraint was the air he breathed. Restraint made life possible. He thought again of his family and the river.

“That’s like saying the people who don’t use nuclear weapons every day show admirable restraint,” he finally said.

“They do, they do,” Alex said. “I admire them too.” They finished their drinks, and stood, like two rumpled gentlemen, as she returned to them.

– – –

She and Ralph took a cab to the party; Alex was going as he did everywhere, on his bicycle. In the back seat, each at a far end, Ralph said to her, “So, are you recovering from your day?” She had juggled about three hundred things that day, she’d told them, finishing up at work in the largest sense of finishing up, since the magazine was closing, kaput — that’s what this party was for, what gave the night it’s feeling of apocalypse — so this had been her last day, plus she’d been doing all the arranging for a long weekend to Nantucket with four young men, a trip on which she planned to depart at one in the morning, with the four men, what, in tow? Or was she in tow? It was part of her appeal, he guessed, that he would never know which, although if it was she that was in tow, he had to give at least one of these guys credit because this one would take some real towing.

“Oh, I still have to go see this drug dealer tonight,” she said quietly.

He looked at her. “You’re the one who has to score the weed for the trip, tonight?” he said.

“It’s not weed,” she said, “it’s …” but she was whispering now and he couldn’t hear her.

“It’s what?”

“Ecstasy,” she whispered it again. She had the most remarkable look on her face, fear squelched by defiance, as if she thought someone — specifically Ralph, as he was the only one there — was going to hit her, and she was going to be ready to take it. It caused him to shift himself even farther away. Another gesture of safety.

“Ohhhh, ex-stacy,” he said. “In Nantucket. Hmmm. Rave in the waves, you can call it.” A song came back to him, some mighty guitar anthem, what? Nantucket Sleighride… it was a heroin song, or a coke song, a celebration of some drug, he couldn’t remember.

She was backed into the corner of the cab with that semi-frightened look still on; it was mixed, though, with the other look she’d had all night of amusement; she was pleased by disobedience, he thought; he wondered who she was disobeying. Earlier that day he had glanced down at a picture that had turned up recently and that he’d left on his desk at work; it was of himself at five years old, and at the moment of seeing it — he had been reaching for the phone — he remembered the line of Flannery O’Connor’s, from “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” when the grandmother looks into the Misfit’s face and says, “Why you’re one of my babies… You’re one of my own children,” at which point, the Misfit, furious, shoots her. He saw himself at five that way because he did look in fact like his own children and because he’d been wounded then, deeply, and though he couldn’t remember what he had thought then or how he had felt, in this picture that wound showed clearly in his face (he could see it there in the picture as directly and immediately as he could see his own children’s pain), and right now, with Jessie looking at him that way — twenty-three going on twelve — the same feeling came over him and the same words, “one of my own children,” unspoken but palpable, rose in his throat. His children often did what she’d just done, dashed into crime with defiance and fear and wonder, and, because they felt safe with him, with a deeper pleasure, pleasure with themselves and their daring. He wanted to tell her that the stakes were rising, she was a child no longer; or he just wanted to whisper, oh, be careful Jess, but he said nothing. It occurred to him later (the thought gave away his age) that he should probably have offered to go with her, an amusing notion: You don’t let a lady visit her drug dealer alone.

The party was at a forgettable restaurant in Tribeca, nicely expensive looking and fashionably Asian. It was all pleasant, unnecessary, and free. There was an editor there he’d worked with more than the others, a warm and funny man, it was nice to see him (“Stop hitting on my staff,” he called out from the bar when Ralph walked in with Jessie; “Your ex-staff,” Jessie said, and bolted for the corner) and Alex was around, which comforted him. Alex had not intended to go the party, Ralph knew, and so must have done so to follow either him or Jessie; but now they all avoided each other. Ralph holed up with the editor for a while, who, it turned out, said he had enough money stashed away to live “for three years”, a numbing and, in some distant little hole of his resentment closet, infuriating concept to Ralph, who barely had enough money to get uptown. He met an older writer, much respected in the magazine trade, who had taken a highly commercial job and made some very internet IPO kind of money over the last three years, and looked like the boy who’d been forced to sit before the bowl of porridge from morning to afternoon — as if he were finally getting ready to have this arrangement of his life begin to appeal to him.

Other women he saw and spoke with that night struck him either as stupid, cynical or depraved — well there was one who was intelligently gracious and possibly nice but she wore a kind of high-fashion raincoat thing all evening, well cinched at the waist, over bare legs and high heels, and as it was a summer night and they were indoors, it had a feeling about it of Audrey-Hepburn-goes-flasher, and she was altogether too voluble and active for this late in the evening, at this late date in his life. By the time the party was well along he had joined the stupid. He would have preferred to be on the other side but he never could get himself there. He drank too much for one thing, always a sign of sentimentality run amok… He was not capable of cynicism, though some people thought he very much was; nor was he depraved, though he heartily — too heartily — approved of it: he had spent some fruitless hours of his life in a supplicant’s relationship to depravity, kneeling before it, tossing offerings down into the swirl of lava and smoke and flames; he was davening at the rim of that hole again tonight. Afterward he always ended up back home, doing something ordinary, making a pot of rice.

And so he would again. Jessie, on the other hand, would be traveling to South America shortly, now that the magazine was finished, where her sister, an anthropologist, was on a dig. She would be stopping at Machu Piccu in Peru, she was telling someone this, in the darkness Ralph didn’t even take in who it was as he walked up to them, a small and somehow weary-looking woman being his only sense. Jessie was saying that Machu Piccu, with its soul-shattering views, had been a holy place, and he said, suddenly interrupting, “Well, maybe you’ll have an experience like Eliot did. One of the Four Quartets is about him being at a place where prayer has been valid.” It was a drunken thing to say.

“Exactly,” she said. She was a little drunk too now, he realized. “The women who lived there were holy women, they spent their whole lives apart, meditating and making sacrifices on behalf of the people.”

“May it not happen to you,” he said.

“May something happen to me,” she said quietly.

“Something will,” he said. “It always does.”

“Your friends are all going downstairs to smoke,” she said.

“Ah,” he said, and followed them out. Alex was outside with Francis, the editor, and another young editor named Lawrence, and off to the side some of the women. The men were warm to him and handed him the joint as he walked up. Alex was not unused to seeing him this way, passionate and lost. They stood on the sidewalk smoking the joint and joking; eventually more of them came down, Jessie among them. He checked his watch. Time was coming for him to go, to catch ‘the last bus out’ as he had taken to calling it; he wanted to be early, he wanted there to be no chance of missing it, none; no chance of opening a chasm of time and doubt in his life, a lost night, which this would become if he didn’t get on that bus; so he went up for his bag and descended again and said goodbye to the men and was confused for a moment about which way was east and which west until they pointed him off in the right direction, and away he went, a rotund middle class Chaplin figure with his bag, toddling off drunk. He remembered her then, as he was walking away. He was going home. He was, with a great sense of relief, only thinking of that, of going home, and so had forgotten for a moment all the lovely turmoil of youth. He looked back, and there she was — under the silver streetlight, against the brick wall, her eyes still burning; she was literally surrounded, almost penned in by people and chatter and smoke; she stood at the center of them and either they were her audience or they were a group of hungry primates, wanting to pick her bones clean, but whichever it was, he thought with a bit of affection, she can handle it.

He got himself a cab on the avenue and felt the exhaustion begin to overwhelm him. He hadn’t been able to sleep — for days, for weeks it seemed, always a problem when his wife was away but now worse. Something was working on him these days, some slow enormous transformation. His accommodations of his age, his circumstances, his successes and failures, all of it was occupying his mid section; he was like a snake in the first hours after swallowing a gopher. And this was when snakes slept, no? — but he could not, not until now, in the swaying taxi, when he began to fall under, aided by too much whiskey and a bit of weed. He was on his way out of town — get out of town! — to a little house in the Pennsylvania countryside, or what had been countryside until recently, when the boom time finally reached it. Something wrong with this gopher, he thought, it was a terrible fucking gopher — This gopher sucks! and he must have said it too, because the driver leaned back and said, “What sir? What did you say?” Ralph just waved his hand, “Nothing…” and put his head back onto the vinyl seat.

He would wake up in the morning with the arms of an eight-year-old boy around his neck and the lips of the boy on his cheek, the youngest of his children, one of the beautiful in the world. “I missed you, Daddy,” his son would say in a cheerful, utterly-not-hungover tone of voice. “Do you want to say hi to doggy?” Doggy was a favorite stuffed animal. This boy would need his own phone, hell, he’d need his own apartment, by the time he was fourteen? And he would wake this morning too with his wife’s legs entwined with his – legs rounder than they had been in youth but with a strong, fine shape and smooth skin that still drew his hands, his mouth, his body to hers, that body which despite pain and disappointment and betrayal and fatigue still answered him. And through the quiet day with them, his family – or through most it, anyway, when no one was fighting or hungry or wounded in play – the time would be full of jokes and stories and little errands and walks, some good cd’s from the library, and a couple of mighty embraces, including one in which his wife would turn to him with a sexy kiss, and as he leaned into it, would drop an ice cube down his shirt, making the children laugh. Through all this he would know the force that Hopkins said charged the world – god’s grandeur – and know too a small piece of what that grandeur stood upon, the inevitable, hard ground of mercy and love.

But that would be tomorrow; for now he slept.

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§ One Response to “Love, Sin, and Redemption”

  • Kristy says:

    This is so ridiculously well written I don’t know how to express my admiration. This captures so many things so well. I felt everything in the story — I was every character — except maybe the brilliant, beautiful Alex. The dynamics of a young woman with a much older man are rendered with scorching exactitude. The sense of weary reckoning — the beautiful receptiveness to age despite a fierce battle. The ending stunned me, it took the most gorgeous leap.

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