Authors: Tom Spanbauer
Maroni is reading. And I've made a fuss and interrupted everything. Ursula puts her finger to her lips, shows me the pile of shoes and coats, and motions with her bright red fingernails to come into the circle and sit down. I take my Peterbilt off and my platforms, grab my pages out of my coat pocket and fold them into the back pocket of my Levi's. Leave my hat on.
There are a bunch of people crowded in the room, twelve to fifteen. Most of them from Jeske's class. Randy Goldblatt's there, and David, Gary, and Lester, too. In the middle of the room is a fireplace and in front of the fireplace a Persian carpet and on the Persian carpet is a stool. Maroni is sitting on the stool. Everybody else is sitting and lounging around on colorful pillows
and ottomans. On a long low coffee table thing is a feast of broccoli and carrots and celery and cauliflower and avocado dip and Lay's potato chips. Jugs of red wine. Jugs of white wine. Jugs of rosÃ©. Entenmann's. Pepperoni pizza. The thin kind of pizza. Real Italian pizza. My favorite kind of pizza. Not the gobbed-on American kind of pizza with layers of sticky cheese.
I sit down cross-legged as quiet as I can, but when my ass hits the floor, the pages in my back pocket crunch. So then I have to take my pages out of my pocket. Then in my hands, the pages. Fucking paper, man, can make a racket. I want to unfold my pages to see what I've brought, but already I'm over with the crunching paper. Besides my ears are immediately listening hard to Hank because what Hank knows I want to know too. His story is a story about a guy who works in a carnival. Then I notice something I wish I'd never noticed. My right sock has a big hole in it and there's my big toe poking out. With green glitter on it. Then there's the smell. Wet socks and sweat from the platform shoes. I'm sure the smell isn't half as bad as I imagine it. But still, the rest of Hank's story, I don't hear a word because all I can think of is the smell coming off my feet.
Funny, now that I think about it, in Portlandia that first day I introduced Hank to Ruth, I took Hank up to her house and we walked up to the front door and the door was open and I called in but Ruth didn't answer. So Hank and I walked around the side of her house and Hank stepped in a big pile of dog shit. So when Hank first met Ruth he was scraping dog doo off his shoes. Took me years to understand that something like that could happen to
, Hank Christian. That he could be a dork too. A Soul Brother of Outrageous Predicaments. Come to think of it, Ruth Dearden was pretty outrageous herself.
Back in Ursula Crohn's artist's loft, twenty-three years earlier, I'm busy trying to stuff my green glittered toe back into my smelly sock when everybody starts clapping. Hank's sweet lips are smiling that damn smile of his. He bows a little. Something
about him, despite all the big to-do people made over him, Hank always seems humble.
That's when Ursula Crohn, Mistress of Ceremonies, gets up and says, Why don't we hear from Ben Grunewald?
Clapping. I look around. It's Randy giving me a big smile. He's waving his big fist in the air and he calls out an affectionate grunt. David and Gary and Lester say
Fuck. I haven't even checked what I've brought to read, or even if I have all the pages. I sit my ass down on the stool on the Persian carpet in front of the fire with all those young cool Jeske
people looking at me. When I look down there's my big toe sticking out of my stinky sock. The green glitter. Really, the fear literally clogs up my throat and I can't think straight. Thank God I have text in front of me. Without text I'd be totally fucked.
My voice: Catholic Boy with a big apology. Trembling and shit. I read my story about the jerk-off club and the guy in the stupid underwear and the little weenie. When I finish, there is that long pause and silence again. A big turd in a crystal punch bowl. Randy, David, Gary, and Lester clap a couple of times and stop.
Ursula Crohn gets up and tells us about the avocado dip and invites us to partake of the refreshments. Randy's the first guy up to the table with a plate.
That's where I am sitting. On that stool on the Persian carpet in front of the fireplace one thousand stories up. Everybody else over at the table pouring glasses of wine, grabbing slices of pepperoni pizza. Hank walks right up to me. Big and beautiful. His chest pumping up the way he does. Maroni's body â when his body gets close to mine, it gets too close. Propinquity.
“You see what you did?” Hank says.
Some kind of mint aftershave. His eyes that should be blue but aren't, they're black. His straight Roman nose. Mustache. Those sweet lips that someday I am going to kiss.
“What?” I say.
“We had to break,” Hank says, “After what you read, none of us could breathe, let alone speak.”
Â Â Â Â Â Â
SOMETIME IN THE NEXT WEEK FOLLOWING URSULA
Crohn's party, Hank called me. At first, I couldn't believe it was
. I didn't have anything written down, so I didn't know what to say to him. I'm lost without text. Plus telephones freak me out. At a certain point, I took a deep breath and pictured myself back on that stool a thousand stories up on the Persian carpet in front of the fireplace at Ursula's artist's loft and looked right into Hank's black eyes as he spoke to me. What he had said that night had really shocked me. The fact that people couldn't speak or even breathe once I had finished reading was preposterous, and I'd looked hard into Hank's eyes for bullshit. But there was no bullshit.
Usually we have to hide a little when we risk saying something true to someone we don't know. So I looked for Hank to make himself distant, for irony, for where he would go in himself so he could say something raw like that and still have protection. Propinquity. But it wasn't only his body that was too close, the spirit inside him that made him say what he said was way close, too. It was a feeling I'd never felt before. Hank's black eyes, the way they took me in. How
I felt. Suddenly I was a child and Hank was a real old man with cataracts and mostly blind so he was unaware of himself looking, or I was a child and Hank was a child too, and since we were children we could simply look. Felt big. The way Buddha, or Jesus, or Rumi might feel.
Then less than a week later, there we were on the phone,
and Hank and I were just two awkward guys who didn't know each other, trying to have a conversation. So I suggested he come over to my apartment that Friday.
Silence on his end of the phone. Then:
“I'll have to talk to Mythryxis,” Hank said.
“Ma â¦ what?”
“Myth â¦ rix â¦ is,” Hank said.
“Who's that?” I said.
“She's a fellow traveler of mine,” he said.
MYTHRYXIS, HANK'S GIRLFRIEND
. I never got her real name. And I never met her. All's I knew was she lived in New Jersey and she was a nurse. The whole time I knew Hank he always had a woman, and it was always just one woman, until, that is, he found another. For some reason, though, I got the feeling that Mythryxis was
girlfriend, maybe his first love from college, and she was waiting for Hank to marry her.
Mythryxis only lasted maybe those first six months I knew Hank. I always tried to get Hank to talk about her, but you know Hank. Kept his cards close to his chest. When he did talk about her, she sounded more like a student of his â not a writing student but like somebody broken he'd taken under his wing and was taking special care of. Then one night, after I asked, Hank just up and said that Mythryxis had moved on. Said it like she'd graduated. Like she was a doctor now instead of a nurse. I turned to look at Hank when he said that, into his black eyes. By six months, I thought we knew a lot about each other, and so when he said that I made a special point of looking at him, because right then I realized I didn't have a clue about him and Mythryxis. We were sitting on the stoop of 211 East Fifth Street. The night was muggy and from under the stairs you could smell the piss. McSorley's was just two blocks away and the way those boys drank they never could make it very far. The air was so thick in the mercury vapor light you could damn near set your beer can on it. Hank and I were brown-bagging a couple Rolling Rocks. I
had my boombox in my window and we were listening to those eighties tunes that still can stop my heart.
Rapture. Every time you go away, you take a piece of me with you
. Hank is sitting on the step just above me. We're stripped down to loose fitting T-shirts and shorts, sandals. My whole body feels like crotch rot. Every once in a while, Hank's bare knee touches my bare arm and it sticks. I'm on my third or fourth beer and Hank's still nursing his second. Hank usually didn't drink more than a couple beers. He didn't get marihoochied either. That's what Hank called it,
On the stoop, when Hank said that about Mythryxis, I had to turn and look up at him, and the porch light was right there, so I had to put my hand up to shield my eyes. Hank's black eyes again. It never ceased to startle me the way he and I could look at each other. They were kind of misty, his eyes, as if the whole Mythryxis thing was a whole lot tougher than he'd ever let on.
“Are you sad about that?” I said.
Hank rolled the bottle in the brown bag around in his big hands. Looked at that bottle the same way he's looking in his author's photo on the back of his book.
“It's all sad, Gruney,” Hank said. “If we let ourselves know how sad it really is, there wouldn't be anything left of us.”
Just after he spoke, I swear a big gust of wind blew by. Like a semi truck on the freeway. It was
wind â but still it was moving air, and it blew back our sweaty Eighties hair and then made a mess of the garbage all the way down East Fifth Street.
Sometimes I think Hank Christian,
, was magic. Or we were. Really, I loved that guy so much.
SOMETHING I'D LIKE
you to notice, though. The Enigma of Hank Christian. When I asked Hank about Mythryxis, he did something he always did. He answered with something pithy and true and in such a way that it makes the saying beautiful, but after you think about it, he actually hadn't told me one specific thing about himself or Mythryxis or the situation he was in with her.
There are two ways I feel about this. Now that I am old and sick and Hank is dead, sometimes I wonder if I knew Hank Christian at all. Before his death, all those years we didn't speak. No deathbed reconciliation.
. Believe me, the shit that went down with Ruth could tear anything asunder.
Years passing can do other things as well. Shit that before I didn't know even existed, let alone try and understand, I'm beginning to make sense of now. Which I'm thankful for. Still, change like that ain't easy, especially when you're sixty.
Hemingway called it
the black ass
. Virginia Woolf put herself in the hospital after every one of her books. Except the last one. And the book about New York and AIDS I was writing was, on purely a physical level, only prolonging the horror of the Eighties one decade further. Once is enough with depression like that.
THE SECOND WAY
I feel about the Enigma of Hank Christian is
. So I didn't understand it all. The glorious mystery of the man who touched me in a place that wasn't there before he touched it. I want to dance my ass off in some naked-pagan-by-the-bonfire drum chant, screaming thanks at the universe for the blessing of that hole his black eyes burnt into me. So what if he didn't spill all his beans. So what if he was a persistent, obdurate, goddamn goat. I'll never be the same after Hank Christian, and thank God for it.
THAT FIRST FRIDAY
night Hank came over felt like a blind date. Hank and I both were freaked. Neither one of us knew what the fuck we were going to say or do with the other. I was freaked because of what I did know. Hank because of what he didn't.
My radar for Hank â something, I figured,
overwhelming could only be sexual. Don't get me wrong, that was good, way good, in fact dream come true good. But dream come true good, the very perfectness of Hank Christian and his buff Italian body and black eyes, his
status with Jeske, his beautiful sentences and the way he uttered them; instead of a dream come
true, the prospect of sitting face to face with Hank Christian in my tiny apartment with the bed right there â I couldn't imagine. As soon as I hung up the phone after I invited him over, I couldn't fucking imagine. That's when the nightmare started. My body morphed into a skinny, zitty, gawky, tongue-tied Idaho teenager. A complete fucking flaccid fraud.
MY BROKEN DICK
. Such a long sad story. It started when I was born and just never got better. I thought after leaving my wife things would change. And they did there for a while with Bette. When I started walking on the other side of the street, though, I thought that would solve the problem. I had high hopes for my hard-on. But the Brotherhood of Homosexual Men I'd been yearning to find turned out to be me standing solo in bars with loud disco music. Bars with friendly names like Hell Fire, Rawhide, or The Anvil. They were all the same. Dark with dramatic lighting and shadows. Every man wearing the same outfit. Like we were all straight guys on a construction crew who were having beers after work. Or we were miners. Or we were cowboys. Nobody talked because the music was too loud to talk and if we talked we'd no longer be the hardwired sex machines we were posing as.