He walked. Late in the night he wrote long passages in his head, describing the world. Last night, for instance, after the midnight session with Brian, he took a subway uptown to the old neighborhood. Coming up the subway stairs and ahead of him the dark gray figures of the people leaving the station, silhouettes against a pearlescent sky tinged with lavender and paler grays and bright silver. After a day of rain, cloud cover thin enough to let a luminous glow of the moon come through; everyone and everything looked so beautiful — so erotic and infused. On the street, a lone parked car, from the 1960s, big and sleek and gleaming, evocative of the city at some other era. Broadway from 137th swooped downhill toward 125th, and then swung back up again into Morningside Heights and Columbia at 116th, and this descent and rise, stretching away from this hilltop, lined by white streetlights, looked like some sort of runway with the pilot on acid. He loved the city at these moments, the sheer force of its existence, its millions of existences, an enormous organism that fed on electricity and music and rumbling trains, on people fucking in quiet rooms and some guy shouting in the street, on tired Mexicans in work clothes drinking Negra Modela on the stoops and West African cabbies taking tentative sips of black tea from takeout cups, testing the heat, making their way back home to the Bronx with a night’s fares, which they’ll give to their wives, but not before skimming a little for play. Occasionally the city came to him whole like that, an unbelievable latticework of improvised imaginations, of endurance, of decency – no, you wouldn’t think so, but it was true, people in New York were generally kinder to each other than they were anywhere else he’d ever been, in circumstances of crowd and want and poor services, all arrayed perfectly against such kindness) — it was a well-protected decency, maintained in the face of the madness and mortality that comes when poverty must live alongside an untouchable, unimaginable plenty.
Oh Brian. Brian was married. To a woman. Brian had been married to the woman for thirty years but he looked so young — he was long and lean and a nice light brown shade because the Irish father had picked up a Tunisian wife in France after the war. For that too his body was almost hairless, just armpits and pubic hair and a bit on the lower legs. Louis slid along it and took that handsome cock in his mouth and felt — what? He felt beautiful, in congress with this beauty. You don’t think of a 52 year old man as beautiful but shit happens.
Hard to imagine, this beautiful man puts his pants and his workboots on and drives back to New Jersey, some little house in a clogged matrix of little houses. He said he liked to fuck his wife. She had a great ass and liked him to fuck her there. This drove Louis insane. For days he couldn’t eat after hearing this.
He had had lunch with Steven Burken finally, after turning down three earlier approaches, claiming schedule conflicts. Burken’s people to his people, Burken wanted him to write something moving and Jewish. Louis actually flew out to LA for this. (He stayed — he always stayed — in the Beverly Wiltshire because it was the only hotel in Los Angeles that had allowed Paul Robeson to sleep in it.) They lunched on Burken’s self-consciously austere second-floor balcony beneath a white awning that snapped from time to time in the Malibu breeze. A haze hung above the sea. You couldn’t get over the sunlight out there. Lunch came only after Burken showed him the art — the usual suspects from all the Met’s most money-making shows, Matisse, Matisse, Picasso, Monet and Matisse. Louis felt — wanted to believe, really, he was feeling a bit vicious — that Burken could barely restrain himself from saying how much each one cost. Louis knew he was being infuriatingly ungushing. He looked, he made small ambiguous sounds, he murmured quick remarks — hmm, that green — as he might at a mid-level new show at the Whitney. At the end he said, “Beautiful. You’ve been so very lucky.” Burken’s head went back two inches at this, his eyes narrowed. Then they ate. Somehow the melon and crab and haricote verte and sliced Japanese radishes, the baby greens, the view of the sea, the almost-purchased blue of the sky, didn’t interfere with Burken’s enthusiasm about heroic Jewish themes. His sense of Judaism and the suffering of his people came from family stories and a childhood exposure to Fiddler on the Roof and a reform suburban synagogue. Louis brought up the Warsaw ghetto. Burken was excited — then he wasn’t. (What would the title be? Warsaw?) You could see the idea pass out of his eyes after about 180 seconds of conversation, as if the light that diffused through the glowing white awning had suddenly darkened. It hadn’t. Burken was not into the Warsaw ghetto. Louis wanted to say, wait! Think Yentl, but with Tom Hanks! Daniel Craig! Polish people! So it went.
He sent a thank you note. He always sent notes. Inside he wrote: Dear Steven– Such a beautiful lunch and good conversation. Thank you so much. My regards, L. On the opposing side of the blank card in his neat hand he wrote:
Do not fret because of the wicked;
Do not envy those who do evil:
For they wither quickly like grass
And fade like the green of the fields.
Hurricanes tornados earthquakes tsunami – all this post-apocalyptic shit, Louis found each new developing and finally completed fiasco dramatically correct, all of it gratified his sense of narrative justice. He’d been brought up reading the Torah. You could feel it in the air, in the culture, in the universe’s underlying buzz, as when the birds in the woods get all hysterical then fall to stony silence. Everyone he knew was well-intentioned, sound and decent; after each of the school shootings and the parking lot shootings and the movie theater shootings and the mall shootings his friends all got worked up for a few days tweeting and posting on facebook their outrage about gun control. He didn’t care about gun control. When pressed he realized his reasons weren’t that strong — an implicit anti-government reality to a wildly armed populace, the general uselessness of such laws —all his reasoning was soft as could be, but the bedrock fact was that he didn’t care and wouldn’t care and he didn’t really understand why this was, until one evening in a bar with his agent and her husband and a boy named Rick and a book editor from Viking, all debating him in turn, a gantlet of liberals, he was forced to admit to himself and to them that these social band-aids annoyed him and really couldn’t everyone see that the patient was deeply sick? That these new lesions were side symptoms, distractions? Shouldn’t everyone join him in wishing the process of destruction speeded up somehow so the patient would finally stop draining him emotionally and just fucking die? He said this with proper drama, in resonant voice. He loved the sound of himself talking, especially after two martinis. Alas people knew him now, strangers knew him: Page Six got it: Just ****ing die! That’s what Pulitzer playwright L. C. Pennybaker says he wishes for America. Buzzing with friends at toney…. Etc. He was a famous gay playwright now! Look at that. They called him to confirm, to retract. He had never in his life denied saying something or taken it back so it proved a futile conversation in which he attempted to explain metaphor to a transplanted Australian girl. You said you wished America would die, she said. Die sounded like Dah with a tiny “i” thrown in. You don’t deny it. He told her he hoped her life would lead her away from pointless tasks such as this one, and hung up. In his mind he was still the man about whose pronouncements in bars no one gave a particular shit; anonymous and therefore free. But look: he was a public man: he’d show up at panels and conferences in his cowl-necked cape and with his funny eyeglasses like Ed Wynn meets I M Pei, and the unkempt academics and thin critics with big adam’s apples and the former wild girls now tenured and middle aged with at least one breast cancer scare behind them and in the aftermath a new Solara convertible that made them laugh with their diet-conscious friends – here he was, Queer-theory bait, half celebrity half deity and all around freak, as if he was a talking giraffe with a toupée. He made appropriately wise and outrageous comments and often collected a check right there, else the check was sent to his business manager who sent him a monthly statement and copies of his tax filings to sign. To sigh. To sigh and sign. Once you have money, he’d been sad to learn, you had to fret about people stealing it from you.
Not only when he traveled but every day he left the apartment, he carried with him his passport, an American Express card, a MasterCard, and a thousand or so in cash. He felt that he should be able to hail a cab and go the airport and leave the country at a moment’s whim or sense of alarm. The alarms had begun to outnumber the whims a good while back but he only rarely left the country. Major arrangements had to be made to get him out of the city never mind the country. The small bills, ones and fives and even tens that might come his way – he never told anyone this – he gave away. He didn’t like to be bothered with them. So he had a lot to lose in the coming eco-collapse but he was turning 50 soon so really it was a race to the finish-line as far as he was concerned. If he died first, he won.