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The Rosy Crucifixion 2 - Plexus

Henry Miller



  IN her tight-fitting Persian dress, with turban to match, she looked ravishing. Spring had come and she had donned a pair of long gloves and a beautiful taupe fur slung carelessly about her full, columnar neck. We had chosen Brooklyn Heights in which to search for an apartment, thinking to get as far away as possible from every one we knew, particularly from Kronski and Arthur Raymond. Ulric was the only one to whom we intended giving our new address. It was to be a genuine vita nuova for us, free of intrusions from the outside world.

  The day we set out to look for our little love-nest we were radiantly happy. Each time we came to a vestibule and pushed the door-bell I put my arms around her and kissed her again and again. Her dress fitted like a sheath. She never looked more tempting. Occasionally the door was opened on us before we had a chance to unlock. Sometimes we were requested to produce the wedding ring or else the marriage license. Towards evening we encountered a broad-minded, warm-hearted Southern woman who seemed to take to us immediately. It was a stunning place she had to rent, but far beyond our means. Mona, of course, was determined to have it; it was just the sort of place she had always dreamed of living in. The fact that the rent was twice what we had intended to pay didn’t disturb her.

  I was to leave everything to her—she would manage it. The truth is I wanted the place just as much as she did, but I had no illusions about managing the rent. I was convinced that if we took it we would be sunk.

  The woman we were dealing with had no suspicion, of course, that we were a poor risk. We were comfortably seated in her flat upstairs, drinking sherry. Presently her husband arrived. He too seemed to find us a congenial couple. From Virginia he was, and a gentleman from the word go. My position in the Cosmodemonic world evidently impressed them. They expressed sincere amazement that one as young as myself should be holding such a responsible position. Mona, to be sure, played this up for all it was worth. To hear her, I was already in line for a superintendent’s job, and in a few more years a vice-presidency. Isn’t that what Mr. Twilliger told you? she said, obliging me to nod affirmatively.

  The upshot was that we put down a deposit, a mere ten-spot, which looked a little ridiculous in view of the fact that the rent was to be ninety dollars a month. How we would raise the balance of that first month’s rent, to say nothing of the furniture and other paraphernalia we needed, I hadn’t the slightest idea. I looked upon the deposit as ten dollars lost. A face-saving gesture, nothing more. That Mona would change her mind, once we were out of their ingratiating clutches, I was certain.

  But I was wrong, as usual. She was determined to move in. The other eighty dollars? That we got from one of her devoted admirers, a room clerk at the Broztell. And who is he? I ventured to ask, never having heard his name mentioned before. Don’t you remember? I introduced you to him only a couple of weeks ago—when you and Ulric met us on Fifth Avenue. He’s perfectly harmless.

  Seemingly they were all perfectly harmless. It was her way of informing me that never would they think of embarrassing her by suggesting that she spend a night with them. They were all gentlemen, and usually nit-wits to boot. I had quite a job recalling what this particular duffer looked like. All I could recollect was that he was rather young and rather pale. In brief, nondescript. How she ever managed to prevent these gallant lovers from looking her up, ardent and impetuous as some of them were, was a mystery to me. No doubt, as she had once done with me, she gave them to believe that she was living with her parents, that her mother was a witch and her father bed-ridden, dying of cancer. Fortunately, I rarely took much interest in these gallant suitors. (Better not pry too deeply, I always said to myself.) The important thing to bear in mind was—perfectly harmless.

  One had to have something more than the rent money to set up house. I discovered, of course, that Mona had thought of everything. Three hundred dollars she had extracted from the poor sap. She had demanded five hundred but he had protested that his bank account was almost exhausted. For being so improvident she had made him buy her an exotic peasant dress and a pair of expensive shoes. That would teach him a lesson!

  Since she was obliged to go to a rehearsal that afternoon I decided to select the furniture and other things myself. The idea of paying cash for these items, when the very principle of our country was founded on the installment plan, seemed foolish to me. I thought at once of Dolores, now a buyer for one of the big department stores on Fulton Street. Dolores, I was certain, would take care of me.

  It took me less than an hour to choose all that was necessary to furnish our luxurious dove-cote. I chose with taste and discretion, not forgetting to include a handsome writing desk, one with plenty of drawers. Dolores was unable to hide a measure of concern regarding our ability to meet the monthly payments, but I overcame this by assuring her that Mona was doing extraordinarily well at the theatre. Besides, was I not still on the job at the Cosmococcic whorehouse?

  Yes, but the alimony, she murmured.

  Oh that! I won’t be paying that much longer, I replied smilingly.

  You mean you’re going to run out on her?

  Something of the sort, I admitted. We can’t have a millstone round our necks forever, can we?

  She thought this typical of me, bastard that I was. She said it, however, as if she thought bastards were likable people. As we were parting she added: I suppose I ought to know better than to trust you.

  Tut rat! said I. If we don’t pay they’ll call for the furniture. Why worry?

  I’m not thinking of the store, she said, I’m thinking of myself.

  Come, come! I won’t let you down, you know that.

  Of course I did let her down, but unintentionally. At the time, despite my first misgivings, I really and sincerely believed that everything would turn out beautifully. Whenever I became a victim of doubt or despair I could always rely on Mona to give me a hypodermic. Mona lived entirely on the future. The past was a fabulous dream which she distorted at will. One was never to draw conclusions from the past—it was a thoroughly unreliable way of gauging things. The past, in so far as it spelled failure and frustration, simply did not exist.

  It took no time to feel perfectly at home in our stunning new quarters. We learned that the house had been owned formerly by a wealthy judge who had remodeled it to suit his fancy. He must have been a man of excellent taste, and something of a Sybarite. The floors were of inlaid wood, the wall panels of rich walnut; there were rose silk tapestries and book cases roomy enough to be converted into sleeping bunks. We occupied the front half of the first floor, looking out onto the most sedate, aristocratic section in all Brooklyn. Our neighbors all had limousines, butlers, expensive dogs and cats whose meals made our mouths water. Ours was the only house in the block which had been broken up into apartments.

  Back of our two rooms, and separated by a rolling door, was one enormous room to which had been added a kitchenette and a bath. For some reason it remained unrented. Perhaps it was too cloistral. Most of the day, owing to the stained glass windows, it was rather sombre in there, or should I say—subdued. But when the late afternoon sun struck the windows, throwing fiery patterns on the highly polished floor, I enjoyed going in there and pacing back and forth in a meditative mood. Sometimes we would strip off our clothes and dance in there, marveling at the riant patterns which the stained glass made on our naked bodies. In more exalted moods I would shuffle into a pair of slippery slippers and give an imitation of an ice-skating star, or I would walk on my hands whilst singing falsetto. Sometimes, after a few drinks, I would try to repeat the antics of my favorite zanies from the burlesque stage.

  The first few months, during which all our needs were met providentially, it was
just ducky. No other word for it. Not a soul popped in on us unexpectedly. We lived exclusively for each other—in a warm, downy nest. We had need of no one, not even the Almighty. Or so we thought. The wonderful Montague Street Library, a morgue of a place but filled with treasures, was hard by. While Mona was at the theatre I read. I read whatever pleased my fancy, and with a double awareness. Often it was impossible to read—the place was just too wonderful. I can see myself all over again closing the book, rising slowly from the chair, and wandering serenely and meditatively from room to room, filled with absolute contentment. Truly, I wanted nothing, unless it were a continuous, uninterrupted muchness of the sameness. Everything I owned, everything I used, everything I wore, was a gift from Mona: the silk bathrobe, which was more suited for a matinee idol than yours truly, the beautiful Moroccan slippers, the cigarette holder which I never used except in her presence. When I flicked the ashes on to the tray I would stoop over to admire it. She had bought three of them, all unique, exotic, exquisite. They were so beautiful, so precious, we almost worshiped them.

  The neighborhood itself was a remarkable one. A short walk in any direction brought me to the most diverse districts: to the fantastic area beneath the fretwork of the Brooklyn Bridge; to the sites of the old ferries where Arabs, Turks, Syrians, Greeks and other peoples of the Levant had flocked; to the docks and wharves where steamers from all over the world lay at anchor; to the shopping centre near Borough Hall, a region which at night was phantasmal. In the very heart of this Columbia Heights stood stately old churches, club houses, mansions of the rich, all part of a solid, ancient core which was gradually being eaten into by the invading swarms of foreigners, derelicts and bums from the outer edge…

  As a boy I had often come here to visit my aunt who lived over a stable attached to one of the more hideous old mansions. A short distance away, on Sackett Street, had once lived my old friend Al Burger, whose father was captain of a tug-boat. I was about fifteen when I first met Al Burger—on the banks of the Neversink River. It was he who taught me how to swim like a fish, dive in shallow water, wrestle Indian fashion, shoot with bow and arrow, use my dukes, run without tiring, and so on. Al’s folks were Dutch and, strange to say, they all had a marvelous sense of humor, all but his brother Jim, who was an athlete, a dandy, and a vain, stupid fool. Unlike their ancestors, however, they kept a disgracefully slovenly house. Each one, it seemed, went his own sweet way. There were also two sisters, both very pretty, and a mother who was rather sluttish in her ways but also beautiful, and what’s more, very jolly, very indolent, and very generous. She had been an opera singer once. As for the old man, the captain, he was seldom to be seen. When he did appear he was usually three sheets to the wind. I have no recollection of the mother ever cooking us a decent meal. When we got hungry she would fling us some change and tell us to go shop for ourselves. We always bought the same bloody victuals—frankfurters, potato salad, pickles, pie and crullers. Ketchup and mustard were used liberally.

  The coffee was always weak as dishwater, the milk stale, and never a clean plate, cup, or knife and fork in the house. But they were jolly meals and we ate like wolves. It was the life in the streets that I remember best and enjoyed most. Al’s friends seemed to belong to another species of boys from the ones I knew. A greater warmth, a greater freedom, a greater hospitality reigned in Sackett Street. Though they were about the same age as myself, his friends gave me the impression of being more mature, as well as more independent. Parting from them I always had the feeling of being enriched. The fact that they were from the waterfront, that their families had lived here for generations, that they were a more homogeneous group than ours, may have had something to do with the qualities which endeared them to me. There was one among them I still remember vividly, though he is long dead. Frank Schofield. At the time we met, Frank was only seventeen, but already man size. There wasn’t anything at all that we had in common, as I look back on our strange friendship.

  What drew me to him was his easy, relaxed, jovial manner, his utter flexibility, his unequivocal acceptance of whatever was offered him, whether it was a cold frankfurter, a warm handclasp, an old penknife, or a promise to see him again next week. He grew up into a great hulking figure, tremendously overweight, and capable in some queer, instinctive way, enough so to become the right hand man of a very prominent newspaper man with whom he traveled far and wide and for whom he performed all manner of thankless tasks. I probably never saw him more than three or four times after the good old days in Sackett Street. But I had him always in mind. It used to do me good just to revive his image, so warm he was, so good-natured, so thoroughly trusting and believing. All he ever wrote were post-cards. You could hardly read his scrawl. Just a line to say he was feeling fine, the world was grand, and how the hell were you?

  Whenever Ulric came to visit us, which was usually on a Saturday or Sunday, I would take him for long walks through these old neighborhoods. He too was familiar with them from childhood. Usually he brought a sketch pad along with him, to make a few notes, as he put it. I used to marvel then at his facility with pencil and brush. It never once occurred to me that I might be doing the same myself one day. He was a painter and I was a writer—or at least I hoped to be one some day. The world of paint appeared to me to be a realm of pure magic, one utterly beyond my reach.

  Though he was never, in the intervening years, to become a celebrated painter, Ulric nevertheless had a marvelous acquaintance with the world of art. About the painters he loved no man could talk with more feeling and understanding. To this day I can hear the reverberations of his long, felicitous phrases concerning such men as Cimabue, Uccello, Piero della Francesca, Botticelli, Vermeer and others. Sometimes we would sit and look at a book of reproductions—always of the great masters, to be sure. We could sit and talk for hours—he could, at least—about a single painting. It was undoubtedly because he himself was so utterly humble and reverent, humble and reverent in the true sense, that Ulric could talk so discerningly and penetratingly about the masters. In spirit he twos a master himself. I thank God that he never lost this ability to revere and adore. Rare indeed are the born worshipers.

  Like O’Rourke, the detective, he had the same tendency to become, at the most unexpected moments, absorbed and enrapt. Often during our walks along the waterfronts he would stop to point out some particularly decrepit facade or broken-down wall, expatiating on its beauty in relation to the background of skyscrapers on the other shore or to the huge hulls and masts of the ships lying at anchor in their cradles. It might be zero weather and an icy gale blowing, but Ulric seemed not to mind. At such moments he would shamefacedly extract a faded little envelope from his pocket and, with the stub of what had been once a pencil, endeavor to make a few more notes. Little ever came of these note takings, I must say. Not in those days, at least. The men who doled out commissions—to make bananas,: tomato cans, lamp shades, etc—were always hard on his heels.

  Between jobs he would get his friends, more especially his women friends, to pose for him. He worked furiously during these intervals, as if preparing for an exhibition at the Salon. Before the easel he had all the gestures and mannerisms of the maestro. It was almost terrifying to witness the frenzy of his attack. The results, strange to say, were always disheartening. Damn it all, he would say, I’m nothing but an illustrator. I can see him now standing over one of his abortions, sighing, wheezing, spluttering, tearing his hair. I can see him reach for an album of Cezanne, turn to one of his favorite paintings, then look with a sick grin at his own work. Look at this, will you? he would say, pointing to some particularly successful area of the Cezanne. Why in hell can’t I capture something like that—just once? What’s wrong with me, do you suppose? Oh well … And he’d heave a deep sigh, sometimes a veritable groan. Let’s have a snifter, what say? Why try to be a Cezanne? I know, Henry, what it is that’s wrong. It’s not just this painting, or the one before, it’s my whole life that’s wrong. A man’s work reflects what he is, what he
’s thinking the livelong day. isn’t that it? Looking at it in that light, I’m just a piece of stale cheese, eh what? Well, here’s how! Down the hatch! Here he would raise his glass with a queer, wry twist of the mouth which was painfully, too painfully, eloquent.

  If I adored Ulric because of his emulation of the masters, I believe I really revered him for playing the role of the failure. The man knew how to make music of his failings and failures. In fact, he had the wit and the grace to make it seem as though, next to success, the best thing in life is to be a total failure.

  Which is probably the truth. What redeemed Ulric was a complete lack of ambition. He wasn’t hankering to be recognized: he wanted to be a good painter for the sheer joy of excelling. He loved all the good things of life, and only the good things. He was a sensualist through and through. In playing chess he preferred to play with Chinese pieces, no matter how poor his game might be. It gave him the keenest pleasure merely to handle the ivory pieces. I remember the visits we made to museums in search of old chess boards. Could Ulric have played on a board that once adorned the wall of a medieval castle he would have been in seventh heaven, nor would he have cared ever again whether he won or lost. He chose everything he used with great care—clothes, valises, slippers, lamps, everything. When he picked up an object he caressed it. Whatever could be salvaged was patched or mended or glued together again. He talked about his belongings as some people do about their cats; he gave them his full admiration, even when alone with them. Sometimes I have caught him speaking to them, addressing them, as if they were old friends. What a contrast to Kronski, when I think of it. Kronski, poor, wretched devil, seemed to be living with the discarded bric-a-brac of his ancestors.

  Nothing was precious to him, nothing had meaning or significance for him. Everything went to pieces in his hands, or became ragged, torn, splotched and sullied. Yet one day—how it came about I never learned—this same Kronski began to paint. He began brilliantly, too. Most brilliantly. I could scarcely believe my eyes. Bold, brilliant colors he used, as if he had just come from Russia. Nor were his subjects lacking in daring and originality. He went at it for eight and ten hours at a stretch, gorging himself before and after, and always singing, whistling, jiggling from one foot to another, always applauding himself. Unfortunately it was just a flash in the pan. Petered out after a few months. After that never a word about painting. Forgot, apparently, that he had ever touched a brush…