Somewhere in this world there exists an exceptional philosopher named Florie Rotondo.
The other day I came across one of her ruminations printed in a magazine devoted to the writings of schoolchildren. It said: If I could do anything, I would go to the middle of our planet, Earth, and seek uranium, rubies, and gold. I’d look for Unspoiled Monsters. Then I’d move to the country. Florie Rotondo, age eight.
Florie, honey, I know just what you mean—even if you don’t: how could you, age eight?
Because I have been to the middle of our planet; at any rate, have suffered the tribulations such a journey might inflict. I have searched for uranium, rubies, gold, and, en route, have observed others in these pursuits. And listen, Florie—I have met Unspoiled Monsters! Spoiled ones, too. But the unspoiled variety is the rara avis: white truffles compared to black; bitter wild asparagus as opposed to garden-grown. The one thing I haven’t done is move to the country.
As a matter of fact, I am writing this on Y.M.C.A. stationery in a Manhattan Y.M.C.A., where I have been existing the last month in a viewless second-floor cell. I’d prefer the sixth floor—so if I decided to climb out the window, it would make a vital difference. Perhaps I’ll change rooms. Ascend. Probably not. I’m a coward. But not cowardly enough to take the plunge.
My name is P. B. Jones, and I’m of two minds—whether to tell you something about myself right now, or wait and weave the information into the text of the tale. I could just as well tell you nothing, or very little, for I consider myself a reporter in this matter, not a participant, at least not an important one. But maybe it’s easier to start with me.
As I say, I’m called P. B. Jones; I am either thirty-five or thirty-six: the reason for the uncertainty is that no one knows when I was born or who my parents were. All we know is that I was a baby abandoned in the balcony of a St. Louis vaudeville theater. This happened 20 January 1936. Catholic nuns raised me in an austere red-stone orphanage that dominated an embankment overlooking the Mississippi River.
I was a favorite of the nuns, for I was a bright kid and a beauty; they never realized how conniving I was, duplicitous, or how much I despised their drabness, their aroma: incense and dishwater, candles and creosote, white sweat. One of the sisters, Sister Martha, I rather liked; she taught English and was so convinced I had a gift for writing that I became convinced of it myself. All the same, when I left the orphanage, ran away, I didn’t leave her a note or ever communicate with her again: a typical sample of my numbed, opportunistic nature.
Hitchhiking, and with no particular destination in mind, I was picked up by a man driving a white Cadillac convertible. A burly guy with a broken nose and a flushed, freckled Irish complexion. Nobody you’d take for a queer. But he was. He asked where I was headed, and I just shrugged; he wanted to know how old I was—I said eighteen, though really I was three years younger. He grinned and said: “Well, I wouldn’t want to corrupt the morals of a minor.”
As if I had any morals.
Then he said, solemnly: “You’re a good-looking kid.” True: on the short side, five seven (eventually five eight), but sturdy and well-proportioned, with curly brown-blond hair, green-flecked brown eyes, and a face dramatically angular; to examine myself in a mirror was always a reassuring experience. So when Ned took his dive, he thought he was grabbing cherry. Ho ho! Starting at an early age, seven or eight or thereabouts, I’d run the gamut with many an older boy and several priests and also a handsome Negro gardener. In fact, I was a kind of Hershey Bar whore—there wasn’t much I wouldn’t do for a nickel’s worth of chocolate.
Though I lived with him for several months, I can’t remember Ned’s last name. Ames? He was chief masseur at a big Miami Beach hotel—one of those ice-cream-color Hebrew hangouts with a French name. Ned taught me the trade, and after I left him I earned my living as a masseur at a succession of Miami Beach hotels. Also, I had a number of private clients, men and women I massaged and trained in figure and facial exercises—although facial exercises are a lot of crap; the only effective one is cocksucking. No joke, there’s nothing like it for firming the jawline.
With my assistance, Agnes Beerbaum improved her facial contours admirably. Mrs. Beerbaum was the widow of a Detroit dentist who had retired to Fort Lauderdale, where he promptly experienced a fatal coronary. She was not rich, but she had money—along with an ailing back. It was to alleviate these spinal spasms that I first entered her life, and remained in it long enough to accumulate, through gifts above my usual fee, over ten thousand dollars.
Now that’s when I should have moved to the country.
But I bought a ticket on a Greyhound bus that carried me to New York. I had one suitcase, and it contained very little—only underwear, shirts, a bathroom kit, and numerous notebooks in which I had scribbled poems and a few short stories. I was eighteen, it was October, and I’ve always remembered the October glitter of Manhattan as my bus approached across the stinking New Jersey marshes. As Thomas Wolfe, a once-admired and now-forgotten idol, might have written: Oh, what promise those windows held!—cold and fiery in the rippling shine of a tumbling autumn sun.
Since then, I’ve fallen in love with many cities, but only an orgasm lasting an hour could surpass the bliss of my first year in New York. Unfortunately, I decided to marry.
Perhaps what I wanted in the way of a wife was the city itself, my happiness there, my sense of inevitable fame, fortune. Alas, what I married was a girl. This bloodless, fishbelly-pale amazon with roped yellow hair and egglike lilac eyes. She was a fellow student at Columbia University, where I had enrolled in a creative-writing class taught by Martha Foley, one of the founder/editors of the old magazine Story. What I liked about Hulga (yes, I know Flannery O’Connor named one of her heroines Hulga, but I’m not swiping; it’s simply coincidence) was that she never wearied of listening to me read my work aloud. Mostly, the content of my stories was the opposite of my character—that is, they were tender and triste; but Hulga thought they were beautiful, and her great lilac eyes always gratifyingly brimmed and trickled at the end of a reading.
Soon after we were married, I discovered there was a fine reason why her eyes had such a marvelous moronic serenity. She was a moron. Or damn near. Certainly she wasn’t playing with a full deck. Good old humorless hulking Hulga, yet so dainty and mincingly clean—housewifey. She hadn’t a clue how I really felt about her, not until Christmas, when her parents came to visit us: a pair of Swedish brutes from Minnesota, a mammoth twosome twice the size of their daughter. We were living in a one-and-a-half-room apartment near Morningside Heights. Hulga had bought a sort of Rockefeller Center–type tree: it spread floor to ceiling and wall to wall—the damn thing was sucking the oxygen out of the air. And the fuss she made over it, the fortune she spent on this Woolworth’s shit! I happen to hate Christmas because, if you’ll pardon the tearjerker note, it always amounted to the year’s most depressing episode in my Missouri orphanage. So on Christmas Eve, minutes before Hulga’s parents were supposed to arrive for the Yuletide hoedown, I abruptly lost control: took the tree apart and piece by piece fed it out the window in a blaze of blown fuses and smashing bulbs—Hulga the whole while hollering like a half-slaughtered hog. (Attention, students of literature! Alliteration—have you noticed?—is my least vice.) Told her what I thought of her, too—and for once those eyes lost their idiot purity.