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Authors: Michael James Rizza

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Cartilage and Skin

CARTILAGE AND SKIN

A novel by

Michael James Rizza

 

Starcherone Books      Buffalo, NY

Table of Contents

Dedication

Epigraph

Part One: Cartilage and Skin

Part Two: Mothers and Whores

Part Three: Boys and Men

Part Four: Shadow and Act

Part Five: Goats and Monkeys

About the Author

For My Brothers

Carmen, Joe, and Dave

“But the infant had survived, by nursing from her corpse.”

—Thomas Pynchon,
Gravity's Rainbow

PART ONE: CARTILAGE AND SKIN

I was coming down the hall behind him, when my landlord paused before a door and rapped two times, hard, with the butt of his palm.

“Claudia,” he called, leaning his head near the door. “Claudia.”

Then he turned toward me and smiled. He was a short, balding man with tiny black eyes, like a rodent's.

“She never gets her mail, so now the guy just leaves it on the floor.”

He walked a little farther and held up a set of keys, which I took out of his hand.

“If you're bringing in your things, don't prop the main door open,” he said. “Also, I saw you give money to that kid outside. It's not a good idea.”

“This is all I got for now.”

Looking down at my suitcase, he smiled again.

I watched him as he started down the hall. When he came to Claudia's door, he knocked once more and looked back at me, still with that smile on his face.

“A gross woman,” he said. “It's hard for me to even look at her.”

“Thank you,” I said, and he nodded.

It wasn't long before I had the little boy, “that kid outside,” fetching me coffee each morning from a store around the corner. I'd give him two dollars, and he'd pocket the change of course. Poverty had affected him in its natural way, turning him into a selfish thing that would grab at whatever it could, a quiet and secretive miscreant who would no more trust you with his name than show you the contents of his pockets. I had little concern for him because I was sure that he'd already rooted through and made his home out of the darkest and deepest city hole. It wasn't his youth, but rather something quirky in his gestures and sharp in his hazel eyes, that made me suspect he was unlike other boys who would hang out in bathrooms and on doorsteps, waiting for some nameless man to come along and buy their sex. A man warped enough to take that little boy to bed probably wouldn't have returned him too readily or in a condition too recognizable or whole. My landlord began to hate me on account of the boy.

I came into the hallway and stood my dripping umbrella against the wall, so I could look through my mail. Since I had fallen into the routine of picking up Claudia Jones's mail and slipping it under her door, the mailman began putting her mail into my box. Her most regular correspondent was somebody named W.McTeal, who never gave a return address. The day my landlord confronted me about the boy, McTeal had sent a manila envelope, marked “Photos. Do Not Bend.” I was holding the envelope up to the light, when my landlord appeared on the staircase.

“Dr. Parker,” he said as he leaned his stomach against the banister. “I need a favor of you.”

“What's that?”

“I need you to stop encouraging that boy. He lingers around the building all day, and I don't want it. I'm sure you know what I'm talking about.”

I nodded.

“I don't want that kind of element on my front steps,” he said.

“He gets me coffee.”

“I don't care what he does for you.”

“That's what he does.”

“Be that as it may—”

“No,” I said, taking up my umbrella. “I don't like what you're implying.”

“Understand my position, Dr. Parker. I don't want that element.”

“I understand.” I stepped forward and tapped my umbrella on the floor, to underscore my words. “Now understand me. I don't care for your position.”

I turned my back to him and started down the hall.

“Dr. Parker,” he said, but I continued forward. “I thought you had some morals.”

Without a word, I casually opened my door, taking my time, all the while aware that his rodent eyes were on me. My mail, along with Claudia's, was tucked under my arm.

“Dr. Parker,” he said, with something imploring and warm in his voice, which I didn't trust.

Although I had enough troubles not to worry about my landlord, I couldn't let the issue rest, so I began to hire the boy for other odd tasks. I would let him go to the convenience store for me and buy something, whether I needed the item or not. One time, on another rainy day, I came out of the front doors of the building and before I was ten paces into my errand, the boy was walking beside me, his dark hair matted to his wet head.

“I don't need you,” I said.

“Where you going?”

“To the library.”

“Give me a dollar.” He held out his hand.

“I don't need you.”

“Give me a dollar.”

“No.” I stopped and held the umbrella over his head.

“What book do you want?”

“No.”

“Come on,” he said, still holding out his hand.

I made the mistake of giving the boy a dollar he didn't earn, just so I could say, “Now get out of here.” Somehow, at that moment, although I didn't recognize it then, a new dynamic entered into our relationship; the power roles shifted just a bit. When the boy began knocking on my living room window, instead of waiting on the front steps of the building or across the street, I only saw his need for my generosity. Without realizing that he was overstepping his bounds, I'd hand him money through the open window. I even started to think that it was convenient that I didn't have to leave my apartment, but simply raise the blinds and open the window.

There was an alley outside my window, where some tenants hung their clothes on a pair of drooping lines. For the three months since I'd first rented the apartment, I would only see an overweight, middle-aged woman with a weathered face and bright red fingernails. If I opened my window, I was able to hear her humming Christmas carols, though the season was far off. I would watch her through the blinds as she lifted each garment out of her basket and gave it a brisk snap, before putting it on the line.
This must be Claudia Jones
, I thought. She had dark eyes, set deep into her face, and a fat tongue that rested continually on her bottom lip. I remembered that my landlord had called Claudia “a gross woman,” and this woman surely looked idiotic, if not gross. Watching her, I soon came to believe that it was out of stupidity, and not indifference, that her mail went so neglected.

The manila envelope from McTeal was the first of several pieces of Claudia's mail that I began piling on the corner of my desk. As I have hinted, I took the first piece by accident because my landlord had distracted me. I would like to say that I began collecting more of her mail simply as a sort of ransom, maybe as something that might have called her out of her apartment and made her acknowledge the living. The truth, however, is that I found a strange pleasure in the theft, the kind of pleasure found in vandalism: Sin for sin's sake, perhaps, where nothing is gained but a little sense of power, of the standing beyond good and evil. Interestingly, this petty violation of Claudia paralleled the boy's intrusion into my life. In fact, the day the boy first knocked on my window was the same day I picked up the manila envelope, which had sat untouched on my desk for several weeks, and opened it.

W. McTeal was a hairy man with a pocked face and thin wire frame glasses that sat at the very tip of his aquiline nose. He had a tuft of hair on the small of his back and a rotund stomach that seemed to be as hard as bone. He gave me the impression—whenever he leaned back against the headboard and planted his feet flat on the mattress, with his knees apart and his penis sleeping lifelessly on his thigh—that he was trying to give birth to something. His most absurd posture was apparently his favorite: He would get on his hands and knees, and point his ass toward you, always with his face between his thighs, peeping past his stomach, looking puzzled for some reason. The only part of his home that I knew was a sliver of his bedroom, simply a straight-on view of his bed and the wall behind it. The wall was barren, a plain off-white that told me nothing about the man. Because he was always naked, I wasn't able to make any judgment from his clothing. He had two sets of bed sheets, one aquamarine and the other light brown, which he would change about once a week. As bizarre as it might sound, he obsessed me for a while; I looked forward to getting the mail, just to see what new pictures he'd sent to Claudia.

I began an elaborate character study of him, although he offered me no more to build upon than silly poses of himself. Obviously, the ruling question, the key to the man, was why would he send these pictures to the idiot woman, who didn't seem to care about them at all. His skin tone, facial features, and the shape of his head suggested to me that “W. McTeal” was surely not Irish, but probably Mediterranean. Possessed as I was, I ignored my work for a while and spent my time trying to discover a clue in his pseudonym. The fact that a teal is a short-necked wild duck helped me in no way, so I played with anagrams. Considering the pictures, I found something in “cwt. meal,” namely that the man regarded himself as a hundred pounds of meat. This failed on a literal level because the man was clearly over a hundred pounds and cannibalism didn't seem likely—but in all probability he was speaking figuratively, as well as hyperbolically, about his penis, his hundred pound meal. Although it was fascinating to consider what kind of person would have such an exaggerated perspective, I ended up dismissing this anagram because he seemed more interested in his ass than in his sleepy penis, fellatio precluded. I arranged and rearranged the letters, and the only idea that made sense in the end was “wet clam.” I don't need to say what thoughts followed this discovery, what threads of speculation dressed the man.

The central question still remained: Why the idiot woman?

It was early July when I opened my window a crack to listen to her hum. She was bovine to the bone, moving slowly, stooping over her basket—then with sudden deftness—snapping out this or that garment and putting it on the line. When she finished, she stayed with her clothes to watch them dry and presumably to guard them from thieves. She sat on a turned-over milkcrate and hummed “What Child Is This?” Because she stared blankly toward the street, I saw no reason to continue watching her.

I went back to my desk and booted up my computer, figuring that I should get some work done. I had enough personal troubles and didn't need to worry about my neighbors. After a while, Claudia's humming became a soft noise in the background. I was reworking a paragraph in my manuscript and suspected that I had misquoted a source. The book was on the nightstand beside my bed, so I left my desk to get it. When I came back, the humming was stopped and the blinds were scraping back and forth over the windowsill. I was terrified for a moment, standing dumbly, feeling inexplicably vulnerable and powerless. Then I was at the window. The alley was empty; the bovine idiot and her clothes were gone.

I shut the window and locked it. My apartment seemed foreign to me as I turned and scanned it, although nothing looked out of place. Claudia's mail was still on the desk, my wallet still on top of the television. Soon I was giving my apartment a thorough search, thinking that maybe the boy had snuck in; lately he had been asking if he could watch my television and use my bathroom. But I was alone; nothing vile was coiled up in some dark corner; no monster crouched in the closet. The feeling of unease, though subsiding, didn't completely leave me. That night I lay in bed, feeling a bit displaced, wondering what had moved the blinds. I was certain that someone would have been in my home, standing among my belongings, violating my valuables with lustful looks and grubby fingers, if I hadn't been there.

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