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“I daresay I look forward to each new volume of Arnold Schnabel’s mammoth magnum opus with the same level of excitement that eager Londoners used to feel on entering the Globe Theatre for the latest production of Mr. William Shakespeare.” -- Harold Bloom, in The Ring Magazine.
As I sat there getting my bearings the fly buzzed around my small attic room.
“So, I gotta say, pal,” he said, “I am not too overly impressed with the digs. I mean, I hope this is not the entirety of your abode is what I’m saying.”
“Well, this is my bedroom,” I said. “This house belongs to my three aunts.”
I was only wearing what I had gone to bed in way back when, that is my boxer shorts.
“Oh. So you got the run of the whole house then?”
“Well, no, not exactly.”
I almost reached for my night table drawer, for cigarettes, but I stopped myself.
“Whaddaya mean, ‘not exactly’?”
This could possibly be my first full day without a single cigarette. At least in this world.
“Pal, what do you mean, ‘not exactly’?”
“Oh, sorry. I mean this is a boarding house,” I said. “But I can use my aunts’ kitchen and living room, and also I like to sit on their front porch. Sometimes I sit in the yard out back.”
“Oh. Well, I guess that’s not so bad,” said the fly, but he didn’t sound too impressed.
I forced myself to a standing position and groaningly started to make my way over to the hook on the wall where my old grey corduroy bathrobe hung.
The fly accompanied me.
“And so we’re where did you say?”
“Cape May, New Jersey. It’s down on the southernmost tip of --”
“Oh, I know where Cape May is, pal.”
I took the bathrobe off its hook.
“That robe’s seen better days, ain’t it?”
I didn’t say anything to this. At least I had a bathrobe. Gritting my teeth, I pulled it on.
“And this is like, what, 1963?” said the fly.
“I certainly hope so,” I said.
I tied the bathrobe’s belt, took a clean hand towel off another hook and put it over my shoulder.
“Very inneresting,” said the fly.
I grabbed my toothbrush and toothpaste from the little shelf there on which I kept my few toiletries.
“I ain’t never traveled into the future before,” he said.
I started down the steps to the third floor. The fly came with me.
“So, what, is everybody got flying cars now and ray guns and shit?”
“No,” I said. At the bottom of the steps I opened the door to the corridor, but just a little bit, and peeked out.
“Did we send anybody to the Moon yet?”
The corridor was empty.
“No,” I said in a very low voice. “We did put a man in orbit in a rocket ship, though.”
I stepped out into the corridor.
“No kidding? We beat the Russians to it?”
“No,” I whispered, and began hobbling as quickly as I could toward the bathroom. “I’m afraid they sent a man up first.”
“Goddam Commies. So, you got your own bathroom here?”
“No,” I said. “I share it with the guests on this floor.
I made it to the bathroom door, and knocked. No one said anything, so I opened the door, went in, closed the door, shot the bolt.
“Hey, pal, can I ask you something?” said the fly, who of course had come into the bathroom with me. “Why is everything like a spy movie with you?”
“It’s too complicated to explain right now,” I said.
I put my toothpaste and toothbrush on the edge of the sink, then lifted the lid of the toilet bowl, and, with a deep sigh, I started doing what I had to do.
Outside the bathroom's open window the rain continued to fall.
“So,” said the fly, “let me get this straight: you, uh, you live with your three aunts.”
“Yes, and my mother.”
“And your mother.”
He was flying lazily about the bathroom, as if he were inspecting it.
“Yes. She brought me here to help me recover from a --”
“A nervous breakdown.”
“Well, it was more like a complete mental breakdown.”
“Yes, I was hospitalized for almost three months. I was released at the beginning of April --”
He landed on top of the mirror above the sink.
“Excuse me, pal, that means nothing to me because I have no idea what month we’re in now. Please bear in mind that I have just been thrust willy nilly from a supposedly fictional world into what is, at least in your opinion, the real world and the present time.”
“Oh, sorry, it’s August, the beginning of August, I’m not quite sure of the date --”
“Okay, so in other words you’ve only been out of the nut house a few months.”
“And please do not take this the wrong way but would I be correct in assuming that upon your release you, uh --”
“Yes,” I said, “I --”
“You were still a little screwy.”
“I was going to say I wasn’t able to go back to work.”
“Because you were still a little screwy.”
I said nothing, and continued to urinate. How much beer had I drunk the previous night anyway? But of course to answer that question I would have to decide which night in which universe I was referring to.
“And you were on the railroad, right?”
“Yes, the Reading, I was a brakeman.”
“Good job, union job. You ever gonna go back?”
“I don’t know. To be honest I don’t know how keen they are on my returning. Or how keen I am to return. Anyway they have me on a half-pay disability.”
“Half-pay -- and you get by on that?”
“Yes, I live pretty cheaply, really.”
“Uh-huh. And would I, uh, be correct in assuming you’re not married?”
“No. I’m not.”
“So -- and stop me if I’m gettting too personal -- have you always lived with your mother?”
“Yes. We have a row home in Philadelphia.”
“Just you and your mom.”
“Okay. You finished there finally?”
This was a voice from outside the door. It was my mother’s voice. She has always had an unerring instinct for instigating conversations with me when I am in the midst of bodily functions. I halted my current function in mid-stream.
“Yes?” I said.
“Who are you talking to in there?”
The fly made a slight hissing sound. I think he was laughing.
“What mass are you going to, Arnold?”
“Oh,” I said. I realized I was wearing my watch, and I looked at it. 10:01. “I guess I’ll go to the eleven,” I said.
“Do you want to have some breakfast first? Since you’re going to such a late mass.”
“Uh, sure, Mom, thanks.”
“You better hurry up then.”
“Okay,” I said.
“All right,” she said.
“Just give me a minute.”
“Okay,” she said.
“So that was your mom --” started the fly, who was sitting in my ear now.
I held my finger to my lips. My mother has a habit of lingering, of waiting until she’s sure that disaster is not imminent before leaving wherever she happens to be.
“I’ll be right down, Mom,” I said. “Just give me a minute.”
“Okay,” she said, not sounding very convinced, which to be honest, is often the way she sounds when I tell her something.
I waited, keeping my finger near my lips. Then I heard her soft steps walking away and finally fading away down the far end of the hall.
I proceeded to finish the last of my interrupted urination.
“Can I talk now?” said the fly.
He flew out of my ear and landed on top of the mirror again.
“Sure, go ahead,” I said.
“So I guess that was the old lady.”
“You guessed right,” I said.
I flushed the toilet, and its racket filled the little room, much as though an orchestra whose instruments were composed of various-sized pots and pans were playing a demonic symphony beneath the floorboards.
“She’s got a funny accent,” said the fly.
“She’s German,” I said.
I turned on the faucet and began to wash my hands.
“Not that I’m prejudiced,” said the fly.
I shook my hands into the sink, picked up my toothbrush and toothpaste.
“So,” said the fly, lifting off from his perch. “You had your own pad back on Bleecker Street.”
I squeezed some toothpaste on my brush and began to clean my teeth. The fly hovered between my face and our reflections in the mirror.
“Maybe it wasn’t the Ritz,” continued the fly -- he sounded in his tone a little like a lawyer in a movie, delivering his final argument to the jury -- “but it was your own ‘pad’ as the young people say, your own ‘trap’, or ‘digs’. You had dames crawling all over you, including your landlady. You had a book of epic poetry about to be published. Oh, perhaps it was not going to make Homer or John Milton uneasy with envy, but then who am I to judge, I am not Cyril Connolly but a mere fly. And also -- and don’t get me wrong now, I ain’t queer, far from it -- also may I say you were a devilishly good-looking young guy, you looked kind of like Montgomery Clift.”
My mouth was filled with toothpaste. I said nothing.
“And so,” said the fly, “here we are. You live with your three aunts and your mother. You sleep in the attic. You’re only recently released from the mental hospital and you’re unemployed. You’re at least ten or fifteen years older than you were last night, and, if you don’t mind my saying so, you don’t look anything like Monty Clift.”
I spat out the toothpaste, rinsed my brush.
“And this,” said the fly, “all this is what you were so anxious to come back to.” He paused. “And so, my question to you, my friend, is --”
“Look,” I said, I cupped my hand under the running water, rinsed out my mouth. “It may not seem like much, but this is my life. Okay?”
“Okay, okay, don’t get upset. You gonna take a shower?”
“No, I’d better take one later.”
“Don’t want to keep mom waiting, huh?”
I took my towel off my shoulder and dried my hands. The fly was sitting on the edge of the sink. I had an awful urge to swat him with the towel. But the urge passed. It was true, he was only a fly, but he was a sentient fly. And despite his many annoying qualities part of me felt a strange affection for him. I felt guilty. I tossed my towel back over my shoulder, re-capped my tube of toothpaste and picked up my toothbrush.
“Come on,” I said, “we’ll get some breakfast.”
“Now you’re talking, pal.”
I slid the bolt open on the door, opened it and peeked out.
“Still the cloak and dagger, huh?”
“Okay, here’s the thing,” I whispered. “There’s this woman who’s staying on this floor, and -- well --”
“Oh ho, now I get it. So even in this world you got the dames all over ya. Who is she?”
“It’s this lady writer I told you about. Gertrude Evans. The one who wrote the novel we were in.”
“Oh, that crazy bitch.”
He buzzed past my head and into the corridor. He looked up and down the hallway.
“Nobody out here, pal, come on.”
I went out, and, as quickly as I could, I limped back to my attic door.
But not quickly enough.
“Oh,” she said. “Arnold.”
I had my hand on the door knob. Another second and I would have been home free. Home free for the time being.
“Oh. Good morning, Miss Evans.”
“Please, Arnold. After all we’ve been through. Call me Gertrude.”
(Continued here, and at this rate well into the second half of this century.)
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