1. People Recede
The woman’s trim green tweed back continued to recede so that Slurry was left looking at the brown facades of buildings down the avenue until a car, a car for hire, matte black from misuse and dented two-thirds of the way down the front passenger’s-side door, inserted itself into the (it was spring) green-brown visual tunnel and began to grow, this growth occurring most prominently in the front of the car, the matte black hood and the gleaming grillwork, the rear of the car meanwhile tapering in proportion with the buildings’ facades, receding brown facades whose upper-story windows arrogantly glinted, the grillwork also glinting, enlarging, the face of the driver blooming into focus as the insertion became total, Slurry feeling the drama of this enlargement, this blooming, the fragile tunnel of the moment, and as the face came nearly even with Slurry Slurry thought that the face might be swarthy, then worried that this thought had been an assumption, and so let go of the thought, only not quite: the idea of swarthiness tapped the roof of Slurry’s mind and hovered there, unconfirmed, as the man’s face opened itself to him, in full bloom now, perhaps in response to Slurry’s examining, the face seeming to peak in the instant that their eyes met, like a firework at its instant of furthest expansion, its climax of bloom, and there was a beard that for all Slurry knew had exploded from the man’s pores likewise in that instant of peak enlargement, yet still no evidence for swarthiness nor any evidence against.
Then the face shrank and the firework comparison became less apt, the face was gone entirely, though the car of course remained, receding now, and now the character of the face, the character of the beard were superimposed over the car’s frame. Slurry knew this without having registered any of the face’s details save the beard, which hung like moss, dark and ragged, wolfish strips to either side of the chin, and, as Slurry seemed to recall, a pair of eyeglasses with bottle-green frames, except that the woman’s tweed back, too, had been bottle-green so that Slurry found the memory of the frames suspect—he ought to leave the bottle-green frames out of it, Slurry decided with a degree of finality that he was tempted to call thunderous—and then all at once the license plate became important, its blue upper band curled back at the right corner toward the street, as if using its rusted nether-side to make some argument, an argument perhaps having to do with the car’s frame, the stacked rectangles, matte black, rectangle of glass, rectangle of license plate, all receding into the blue air blowing in from the waterfront, the beach where—
Slurry’s mind pivoted off the blue air, the wind from the ocean, and his thoughts seemed to rise and flutter hopefully above his head like grains of sand that had just a moment before been piled on his head, the hairless summit of his head—he understood that these figures of speech were at best imprecise and at worst a pathetic muddle—and a decision arrived without even voicing itself, only its rationale, which trailed behind it like a tin can tied to a car bumper (the car for hire had not had any tin can tied to it): the beach was a place where Slurry could crouch, sit, stand, or amble, watching people who, many of them at least, might not so constantly recede.
2. The Non-Standard Woman
Her short stiff hair was the color of canned tomato soup, her face soft, strong, and large-pored, assuming that there were no counter-impressions to be harvested from the eyes, which were currently locked behind mirrored glasses, her neck incongruously thin given the heft of the face and the head, though it was difficult again to know what the head’s rear might disclose, sunk as it was into the plastic tubing (lime-green, beige, white) of her beach chair, so that the impression of heft might be an illusion created by the face alone, the wide, soft, large-pored face, two dark moles, one to the left of the nose and so bringing the nostrils’ contents involuntarily to mind, the other mole a close companion just to the left of the first one and so both reinforcing the thought of nasal debris and leading one away from the thought, encouraging one to move toward the cheekbones, that is the cheekbone region, it was impossible to speak with confidence about actual cheekbones, there being no visible bones, rather there were wide, soft, strong pads under both eyes, or rather both mirrored discs, certainly it was possible that the under-eye pads might give a different impression once the sunglasses had been removed.
One might also profitably linger on the chin, which in its wide hard flattish rectangularity brought to mind a snowplow, except that as Slurry was crafting this figure of speech there came a grinding moment of stalled recognition, and then the flattish rectangles from earlier in the day returned to his mind, matte black, rectangle of glass, rectangle of license plate with curled-back corner, which movement of thought Slurry soon saw as an irrelevance, a sort of bait he ought to know better than to take, the snowplow being the correct association, the matte black car nothing but a distraction, and once the false movement of thought had been articulated in this way Slurry was able to watch it drift past, as if it were an actual object on the wind.
He looked up above the non-standard woman at the sky (the sooty brick of the apartment towers’ tips puncturing the gray floor of his visual frame, the towers’ shorter brethren present, in the lower left-hand corner, via a heavy-breathing absence), resisting the impulse to mash the sides of his head with his flattened palms. Palms like parentheses, Slurry thought, and felt instantly calmed, almost pleased, so that it was possible to recommence looking at the non-standard woman.
It was April, and the air temperature was not sufficient, according to the standard wisdom, to justify wearing a bikini, blue-and-green or any other color or combination of colors, and yet at the same time Slurry found the woman’s manner of wearing a bikini pleasing, not for sexual reasons, or rather not merely for sexual reasons, since she was not after all a standard sexual object, her body having a wide, soft, strong quality in keeping with her face. Though there were certain bulges, it was true, the standard sort of bulges under the blue and green stripes of her bikini top, there were also non-standard bulges, for example above the kneecaps and in the shoulder and upper-arm regions, even the ankles might reasonably be described as bulging, and these non-standard bulges, more than the standard ones, were, along with the disconnect between bikini and weather, the main sources of Slurry’s pleasure.
It was not simply a lack of shame about her non-standard bulging, it was an assertion, via restful posture and facial bearing, of pride in the totality of her body, its standard as well as its non-standard sectors, of imperviousness to standards both weather- and culture-related. Slurry did not mean to introduce any theories about the interrelation of weather and culture—no, there was something ancient about her attitude, Slurry felt, even if the bikini was a late-modern device: this was the subject he wanted to explore.
But perhaps predictably, this thought led Slurry into familiar trouble, a worry that his analysis was based on an assumption, a set of assumptions about Russian people, this being a Russian sector of beach within a deeply Russian sector of the city, and though Slurry imagined that the many Russians around him might take pride in the fact that they lived not merely according to the current standard wisdom but also atop the supporting wisdom accumulated, over thousands of years, in the form of Russian folkways (which had been standard wisdom once, certainly, but of a higher type, Slurry felt, than what currently passed for wisdom), Slurry likewise imagined that extrapolating bikini practice from such an assumption would be offensive to the individual Russian.
And now that Slurry put the matter in such stark terms he saw that it may have been offensive to assume that she was Russian at all, when perhaps she was simply married to a Russian, the man next to her, to whom for unknown reasons Slurry could with a clean conscience attribute Russianness, the man’s black hair combed drastically back and cemented in place by some Russian substance (animal cellulose?) or its nearest American substitute (made from inferior synthetics in China?), whose arms lay sunk into his own (red, beige, white) beach chair (China again?) to either side of his glistening thick trunk, like equipment that required a driver, or perhaps remote controls, for proper operation. The man’s eyes, significantly, were covered in mirrored discs identical to the non-standard woman’s.
As Slurry observed the man’s incongruously sleek, tan shanks, the widening at the waist and then, yes, retracing his visual steps to settle momentarily on the mashed genitalia (twig and berries, as a school friend used to say) in their red spandex pouch, the non-standard woman leaned up and raised her mirrored glasses with the back of her index finger, but of course Slurry had been on guard for just this species of movement since the moment he had decided to crouch in just this spot, halfway between the morning’s high-tide line and the zone likely to be reached by the current tide, on the cool packed sand pocked with cigarette butts and shards of shell and glass and (not today, but on more than one occasion in the past) the odd spent condom.
So Slurry was able to pivot, while still crouched, and to project himself down the mild packed slope, despite wearing wingtips and suit pants and a shirt whose collar buttoned down—but an open neck, at least—into the gray-brown, sewage-fortified surf.
The surf was frigid, which shocked Slurry at once into regret, regret that he had not taken at least a moment to examine the woman’s eyes, but he stood motionless, ankle-deep, wondering how quickly the numbness in his feet would travel up his shanks, wondering in the next instant how incongruous his own shanks were, before he found the correct path out of the moment: he was able to pair the woman’s face, finally, with its true corresponding object: one of those wide inflatable pads into which stunt men fell, or used to fall. Having accomplished this comparison, Slurry was glad that he had not seen the woman’s eyes.
Slurry walked across the sand toward the city, wondering whether stunt men still fell into the same pads they had fallen into when he was young. His shanks, he decided, were only mildly incongruous. The pads, on television, had been yellow.
3. The Magic Hour
Slurry’s mind continued to rock gently, as if in the shallow orange fiberglass bowl of the train seat he had just vacated, as if he had not yet left the air-conditioned lullaby of the almost empty car (to prove the point, there had been a man asleep with his head under a seat and one laceless tan boot on either side of the stainless-steel pole opposite, an arm hooked around the waist of his stuffed garbage bag). Shanks sweetly aching where they came together with his hips, Slurry ascended to the sidewalk, feeling that he had answered the day sufficiently and that he could, with a clear conscience, though it was still daylight, purchase beer.
“Hey you, buddy, hey, yeah, you!”
Slurry stopped. He understood what the tall white-sided trucks meant, the tent, the cables over which he had just unconsciously stepped.
The man was wearing black jeans, a mint-green t-shirt with some faux-antique silk-screening Slurry wanted to call—
“How would you like to do me a favor, here? You could get us out of a bind here. You don’t even have to change clothes or say anything.”
The man had a wide buoyant face, coppery stubble, short coppery hair cut in a way that emphasized the compactness of his entire structure. A thick neck, but he moved quickly, compactly, like a—
“What do you say? Two hours of your time is all. Let me go check with Missy. What about it? We had a no-show, if you can believe that. It’s your lucky day. Hold on just a second. You just have to be yourself, that’s exactly what we want from you, you don’t have to say anything, just stand there.”
Like a small water mammal, Slurry decided, a beaver, say, or a muskrat. No, Slurry thought, there was the question of teeth, teeth for the felling of trees. And did muskrats even like water? A marmot, Slurry thought, his chest swelling, the word itself rising then falling over a squat center, seeming to outline the man’s physique. Except that marmots did not like water, did they? Marmots lived in mountains, in exotic mountainous regions far from the urban American east, whereas beavers and muskrats and…But then water was not the crucial element, was it? Water had gotten mixed in willy-nilly, had it not? But still there was the following issue: could this urban man be straight-facedly compared to a mammal who lived in exotic mountain areas?
Of course he could, Slurry decided, thinking of the pads into which stunt men fell. It had been a fallacy to try and effect some regional overlap of man and word.
The marmot-man returned—his teeth were not beaver-like, which relieved Slurry greatly—he put a warm hand on Slurry’s shoulder, and they walked with synchronized steps down the sidewalk, in the shade of the tall white-sided trucks. Slurry reminded himself that he had answered the day sufficiently. There were dozens of people milling around in the middle of the blocked-off side street, but Slurry gave himself permission not to notice them.
Two hours, however, was simultaneously an eternity and nowhere near enough time, a familiar anxiety that Slurry was in the habit of muffling with beer, but now he had committed himself to two hours without beer at the end of a taxing day, and it was his impulse to extract himself from the marmot-man’s grip and continue on, running if necessary, to the store that had been his initial destination. Then it occurred to Slurry that there might be beer under the white tent past which they had just walked, the interior of which Slurry could not refrain from hastily examining (sandwiches and a large bowl of ice, several bench-sized coolers behind the thin long-haired man in attendance), and Slurry was just on the verge of asking the marmot-man whether there was any beer, but the marmot-man handed him off to a woman with headgear that enabled a small black bud to hang ominously, from a slender mechanical elbow, a half-inch below her lips.
The marmot-man spoke, but the words crossed in front of Slurry and escaped, the surplus of phenomena beginning to overtake him, so that the marmot-man was already receding before Slurry remembered to ask about the beer. Watching the marmot-man recede, Slurry likewise failed to understand the words emanating from above the black bud, which words slid past Slurry’s head on their way toward the brown facades, the arrogantly glinting windows, glinting orange streaks, sunset was occurring above the river—
The woman with the headgear held Slurry by the forearm with one hand, and with her other hand she placed something in his captive palm: a wrinkled paper bag inside of which there was a large beer bottle. Slurry looked at the woman with the headgear in near-amazement. It had been his plan, originally, to purchase two beer bottles of just this size. Slurry closed his hand over the bagged bottle.
“Just lean on the stoop over there,” she said. “Take sips. Keep doing that until Malcolm says to stop. Okay?”
Slurry walked over to the stoop, a buzzing sound in his head that betokened release, weightlessness, flight. So he leaned. He sipped, even though he did not yet understand the point.
Then the liquid did its work. It was water, cold and almost creamy, and it fell in a sheet against the bottom of his stomach—he had ingested nothing since breakfast—like a truer version of the frigid surf, but more than that, Slurry thought as he took another sip, feeling the coolness in his feet more vividly now, the sheet of weightless muscular relief in his stomach enlarging, the water remoistening his interior, oxygenating and energizing him, fundamentally changing his attitude toward the evening. With the third sip a strand of coolness climbed Slurry’s esophagus and passed through the floor of his mind, swirling upward and out through all the mind’s sectors until the relief became general, and Slurry saw that he would have no choice but to speak.
As the people around Slurry walked and slouched, fussed with costumes, adjusted lighting, and crouched before the distracted man behind the bank of screens, Slurry smiled and drank, drank and smiled, mulling the remarks he would deliver either to the marmot-man or the woman with the headgear, when one or the other of them, as was bound to happen, absolved him of his duties. Slurry knew that it was useless, that the words, upon leaving his mouth, would take on the qualities of other words entirely, but the water must be honored, and Slurry was not required to control what happened after that.