an excerpt from THE HOLY BOOK OF THE BEARD
by Duff Brenna
New American Press
360 pp. $14.95
This is no wing for an unripe wit. If these feathers flutter too swiftly for you, put this page away, read Sports or Obits, or the gluttony of Heloise, Section E, p. 5. To such-a-one who lingers over these antique sounds, I offer clydesdales of affection, truth, honor, and courtesy. Answer soon, dear heart. Be virtuous of mind, no more than forty, no fatter than fat, have a voice that reminds me of doves mourning. To you, dreamed of love, I pledge my troth. I am SWM, 42, fading knight-errant of Lancelot gentilesse; I am a medieval scholar questing for one last bout of Courtly Love. Write Wolfram, in care of Adam and Eve Possibilities.
Jasper John reads the first ad on the board, smiles his appreciation, feels a kinship with Wolfram. Better than usual, this one, this knight-errant. Classy stuff Lancelot gentilesse. Fat Stanley could take a lesson there. Girls see knights in shining armor, white horses. Rescue. Fat Stanley could call himself Perceval—Perceval the Pure. Or better yet—Don Quixote. Hi-ho, Rocinante!
“Jasper! Ho, boy, over here.” The fat man beckons. Beside him is a woman in white blouse and blue skirt. Jasper is introduced to her. “This is Mary Quick. She’s going to work for us now.”
Mary Quick has tired aging eyes, Irish setter eyes. She extends a hand, holds on to Jasper as she says, “Nice to meet you.” Her voice vaguely raspy. No doubt a smoker. She’s looking at him as if she knows him.
Jasper wonders what now? He wanted Fat Stanley to hire a younger waitress this time. One that would wear a mini-skirt, chew gum, joke, flirt, liven the place a little. All Fat Stanley ever hires are women over forty. The last one was sixty-six, a real hustler, steady as could be. But she dropped dead in the middle of prime time. Place full of diners. Everyone so upset, Fat Stanley had to close down for the night. It takes Jasper a minute to recall the woman’s name. Louise Fish. Louise of the clicking teeth and tie-dyed hair. Louise of the lavish Max Factor, Fair Ivory #1 that he saw in her purse one night, alongwith the makings of her maroon mouth and desperately shadowed eyes. Six people came to her funeral. Six sad ones to escort you out. Brittle ivy clinging to your tombstone like the lines in your face. Is that it?
Helga comes by and gives Jasper’s bum a slap. “There’s a table ready for your expertise,” she says, pointing toward the dining room. She goes off mumbling about her feet. Her feet hurt her. Everything hurts her. Helga has had organs removed. She has had radiation treatments. Her remaining organs get by-weekly doses of chemotherapy. She is dying of cancer. It really pisses her off. She’s got three kids and no husband. She holds down two jobs, works mornings at the pancake house. Then comes to Fat Stanley’s from noon till nine. Her feet swell while the rest of her withers. She has chronic cystitis and lives on pyridium. She eats blender food, whizzed vegies with protein powder, soft white bread with Butter Bud sprinkles. On her biceps is a fading tattoo that says PROPERTY OF MIKE. She uses the f-word a lot. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” she says, banging through the double doors, into the kitchen. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” she says, coming back with drinks on a tray. A medicinal smell trails behind her like the sigh of a scarf.
Mary Quick is older and rounder than Helga, who is very geometric, sharp lines and bony angles. Mary Quick has big hips challenging the seams of her cuddling skirt. Heavy braless breasts list port and starboard, leaving a hollow of sun-coarsened skin in the middle down which a silver chain and a cross hang. The cross is Celtic, the circle of eternity connecting the hub where vertical and horizontal timelines meet. One of her best features is her hair, thickly Nordic blond, pulled back into a single braid knotted old maid style, like a bull’s eye on the back of her head.
She smells of lavender and cigarettes. Jasper thinks he likes her. Likes that certain sexiness in the heaviness of her hips, her moist hands clinging to his, her breasts leaning against satiny white fabric, nipples nudging, hips full of capacity. Marilyn Monroe was like that, a real woman flashing voluptuous curves. His love-flame Didi Godunov has that same capacious Monroe body, but not so luscious a mouth as Monroe had. An image of Didi Godunov with a cap of blond hair, a curl over her forehead, smiling lips, teeth dazzling flashes before his eyes—an iconic Andy Warhol silkscreen.
Didi, yum, thinks Jasper, still looking at Mary as she finally lets go of his hand.
“Dishes,” says Fat Stanley, pointing toward an unbussed table.
Fat Stanley starts thumbing steaks again, his large buttocks perched on a stool in front of the flaming grill as he monitors a pair of sizzling t-bones and hums a tune from some opera. Occasionally he breaks into song, something Italian, high tenor sounding better than able. His voice fills the air, arrests the heart a moment, surrounds the kitchen with a sense of suspension. It has the brown color of a deeper voice at first before it ascends an octave. Pure as a celestial sphere, his heavenly voice rises, like a flute or a piccolo soaring, until it picks off a high C as if the note itself is a prize perched at the top of a tree. Then the voice dives down to earth again, settles back humming.
On slow nights Fat Stanley comes out of the kitchen and plays the role of the strolling troubadour, pausing at tables to sing. He knows he’s a hit. He knows his patrons come back again and again just to hear him sing. They want to be entertained. They want to feel special. They want to go home and tell their friends of the tenor chef who sings to them. Pavarotti in a grease-stained apron. The man should be on the stage, or at least he should be recording his voice for posterity. Fat Stanley agrees with their assessment. He knows that with a voice like his more should have happened.
Jasper stops by the board again to read the second and third clippings his boss has tacked to the cork. Fat Stanley has been searching for someone to really care for him ever since he came to America from England, a little boy, a refugee of the war, sent to live with a dour uncle in New York. He is fifty now (though he tells everyone he is forty-five) and longing for one true love. He has been putting ads in the lonely hearts column of the Union for months: “Spherical Chef, 45, SWM with Renaissance mind and civilised British background. Opera buff. Golden-throated tenor. Capacious ability to love deeply. Seeking female for relationship with intent toward lasting commitment.”
Woman after woman has answered the Stanley ad, but he has had no luck except with prostitutes who write for a date, do things to him, then charge him a hundred bucks and try to add him to their stable of regulars. To his constant remorse he goes back to them, pays them to lust him somemore. Whores and want ads have become a way of life. He reads the other lovelorn articles every day, and under the heading EEK!! he pins his favorites to the board.
SWM, 39, one-legged warrior of V-War, purpleheart, bronze star with cluster, combat badge, parachute badge, expert rifleman badge, wishes to have searching relationship with wife-minded, nurse-type. Moral Majority background a plus. Be ready to wrap yourself in stars and stripes. Write Green Beret, c/o Adam and Eve Possibilities. No gooks, spics, or spades need apply.
“Verdict,” says Fat Stanley.
“Asshole,” says Jasper.
“Did you read them all?”
“Just a sec.”
Open-minded SWM, 32, and too much. You won’t believe what you’re getting. Picture Adonis with shoulder-length hair and witty smile, packerman arms, washboard waist, thighs like oak beams. I work out! I want girl of dreams, 18-25, petite Californian blond. Good teeth a must! Be nubile. I drive a yellow Porsche. Write Spider, c/o Adam and Eve Possibilities. No big feet, no big honkers, no porkers.
“He’ll get laid,” says Jasper.
“Think so?” says Fat Stanley.
“Oak thighs? Porsche! Oh-yeah. Girls go for that.”
“Not the good ones.”
“Who wants a good one?” Jasper says. He heads for the table Helga pointed to, starts sweeping the dishes into a tray. Whistling, hands working deftly, expert busboy fingers doing their thing, he looks up to see a man in black open the door and lumber bowlegged toward the counter. Mary Quick is behind the counter, pad in hand, taking an order from Godot wearing his usual white suit. The bowlegged one in black lurches toward Mary, reaches across the counter. Rips her blouse open. Buttons fly like BBs, plink! pe-tew!
“Jesus, son of a—” she says.
She drops the order pad. Wallops the guy with a left hook, followed by a right cross. He steps back blinking. Godot scurries out of the way. Mary comes across the counter like a hurdler, her arms in continuous motion, her breasts bubbling over the edges of the torn blouse and into light, nipples jiggling like hot eggs in a pan. Jasper sees brown yolks. A raspberry on top.
“Henry!” she yells. “Henry, you—” she yells.
She pummels him. Her blouse gaping. Her breasts saucy twin devils.
Fat Stanley waddles through the double doors, his monstrous belly leading the way. He booms his belly into the Henry you, knocking him backwards, causing him to whirl like a novice on roller skates.
“Whoa!” he says. “Hey!”
While Jasper opens the door, Fat Stanley gives Henry you two more staggering belly blows. Sends him reeling outside, onto the sidewalk.
“Flamin legs, fellas!” says the Henry you. “Flamin legs!”
He falls. Rolls onto his back, spreads his arms, palms warding off wrath. “Ease off, boys,” he says. “Don’t kill the Hank. It was on accident, fellas, I swear by Mama Kabonga’s whim-whams!”
“You want bedlam, I’ll give you bedlam,” Fat Stanley says. He puts his fist right to the man’s nose.
“A very unpromisin beginnin,” says the man. “I spose this means youse won’t gimme a job?”
Fat Stanley’s eyes widen. “A job? A job? You hear this blighter, Jasper John?”
“He wants a job,” says Jasper.
Fat Stanley shakes his head. “Some people.”
“Awww,” says the man.
“He comes in. Rips my girl’s blouse off. Then asks me for a job.”
“Some whim-whams, huh? Bet youse didn’t spect that treat today.” The man wiggles his painted eyebrows lasciviously.
Fat Stanley shows his fist again. He shuffles like a boxer, does a little dance around the prone figure in black. “Come on,” he orders. “Come on, you, you youse!”
The man grins gums and a tooth at Fat Stanley. “Easy now, easy there, boss. The Hank ain’t lookin for trouble. The Hank has a snootful and needs no trouble today. Look here, boss, quit dancin. She knows me, boss. Mary knows her man. Tell em, baby. Hey, who loves you, who loves his Punkin?”
Mary stands on the step, one hand gathering the edges of her blouse. She is breathing hoarsely. Making little grimaces with her eyes and mouth. Jasper watches her, sees visions of brown yolks on a pair of ponderous souffles. He wants to see them again. He peeks at the bubble of skin poking from her unhinged blouse. He sees trimmings of blue veins and freckles.
“He’s drunk,” she says, pointing. “This is Henry Hank, fellas. He and me . . . we live together.”
“Oh,” says Fat Stanley.
She tells Henry Hank he shouldn’t come around making scenes during working hours. What’s the matter with him, does he want to get her fired?
“I wanna a job too,” he bawls.
“You don’t want no job, you liar,” she says. “Henry Hank with a job—that’ll be the day!”
“Awww, nothing. Go home, go sleep it off.”
Inside a frame of black hair and a Lincoln beard, Henry Hank has an old face, a face full of lines, deep creases on the brow and around the eyes. His nose is monumentally pitted. One stained tooth thrusts itself over his upper lip. Black sweat trickles down behind his ears and down his neck. His hair and beard look painted on, as if he has soaked them in shoe polish. The sun beats on his head, making it shine like tar.
Mary looks at him with sadness, her eyes drooping like dog eyes, an old Irish setter weary of the chase.
“Aww, Punkin,” says Henry Hank.
“Some days you tick me off,” she tells him. “When you gonna grow up, Henry? All this endless stuff, it’s gotta go. We’re too damn old, Henry. Too old.”
Jasper sees a tear dribble from her eye. He slides closer to comfort her. He sucks deep lavender and female B.O. He pats her between the shoulder blades, a light, sympathetic gesture that brings a wan smile to her mouth. His eyes keep watch on the freckled, blue veined bubble of breast peeking out. “Poor Mary,” he says, rubbing round her back. Her blouse in back is damp.
“This is nothing,” she tells him. “I seen some things in my day.” She rubs her left arm as if it pains her.
Henry Hank has rolled forward and risen on his knees. He bows down and kisses Mary’s foot, then looks at her. “Forgiven?” he asks, grinning like a Hollowean pumpkin.
“Nut,” she replies.
“I need a little somethin, Punkin. A couple bucks, ten, fifteen. Look here, I’m sweatin like a hairy hawg, Punkin. I’m gettin sun-stroked.” He looks left, toward the bar across the street. The sign says TEXAS STYLE. “C’mon, gimme your tips, Punkin. I need foam of the beer, mmmwah.”
“I haven’t gotten any tips yet,” she says.
“What? Geez, Punkin, geez. Not tip one? Flamin legs, Punkin, youse got to be nice to the customers. Am I right there, boss?”
Fat Stanley is calmer. He looks at the man and smiles slightly, a little upper lip quiver. “How long you known him?” he asks Mary.
“Too damn long. I’m sorry about this, Mr. Lipton.”
Fat Stanley waves his hand dismissively. He takes proud breaths. At his feet Henry Hank sits up, elbows on his knees. Runs his hand through his hair and comes away with black palms, which he wipes on his black trousers. He’s wearing cowboy boots with chrome toes.
“I don’t mean to bust her blouse,” he says, his voice whining at them like he’s the victim, the one abused here. “My hand slipped is all. I mean to give her a kiss, is all, to pull her up. And then my hand slipped and the buddons go all-flyin. She knows I would’na harm a flea on her head. This is the Hank, ain’t it, Punkin? If she lived on Nob Hill, I’d kiss the ground she walks on. That’s how I feel about her. Tell the fellas, baby. Who loves his Punkin?”
“Go sleep it off,” says Fat Stanley cracking his knuckles. He goes back into the diner. Once inside he starts whistling.
A bus goes by, gears clanking, exhaust spraying diesel fumes into the air. Leaning out a window is a long-haired punk wearing a baseball cap backwards. “Fuck her, daddy! I did!” he yells. He flips the bone and guffaws.
“Ah, the mating call of the sapsucker,” says Henry. “Stay out of my garden, youse little fucker!” he shouts at the diminishing, grinning head.
Mary says she is going in and she doesn’t want to see Henry’s face till quitting time. Her tone is no nonsense and whiskey bitter. She nudges him with her toe. Henry salutes her. His painted eyebrows wiggle like ticklish caterpillars. To Jasper he says, “When the fem kicks youse, it means she’s not indifferent. Remember that, kiddy.”
“Yessir,” says Jasper.
Henry’s bottom tooth spars with invisible atoms. “Pee-lite boy. Says yessir.”
“Are you going?” Mary asks.
“I’m goin, I’m goin,” he answers. “I’ll juss crawl into a Dempsey dumpster and die.” He pouts. Holds a stained palm out like a homeless beggar. “Juss two bucks, hey Punkin? Juss a buck. Fifty cent. Have moicy!”
Mouth pinched, a slow sick-of-it-all squint, she goes back inside.