sitting under the shade of a large oak tree, thinking. “The professors at
I haven’t really lost myself in mathematics for ... God, has it been ... three years? Since my grandfather died in 1964?
Two young women came into view about a hundred yards away. They climbed the gray, painted wooden stairs slowly, languidly and when they reached the top of the stairs they saw me. Anne, my girlfriend, raised her arm high in the air and waved. The blonde girl next to her was her closest friend, Marlo. I had seen them walking together many times, in the distance, and Anne had told me a great deal about her but we had never met. They approached and I got up from the wooden picnic table. Looking at Marlo, I said, “Hi.”
Anne said, “Brad, I want you to meet Marlo.”
“Glad to meet you Marlo, finally. Anne talks about you all the time.”
Marlo smiled and her hand moved gracelessly at her side, as if she weren’t sure what to do with it. I reached out my hand and hers rose quickly to meet it, and we held hands for an awkward moment.
She said, “I’ve heard so much about you, I feel like I know you already.”
Her voice was very light, and high-pitched like a child’s. Her faded blue jeans and paint-stained, pin-striped man’s dress shirt didn’t completely hide her voluptuous body. She was about 5’10”, a couple of inches taller than Anne. Her skin was light gold and flawless.
“Anne says you’re a painter. I can see it.” I smiled and looked at the paint stains on her shirt. “It’s all over you.”
Her face brightened. “I’m majoring in art.” She did a little unselfconscious pirouette, and I admired the graceful movement.
Anne said, “Three of Marlo’s paintings are on exhibit in the College Gallery.” There was a hint of condescension in her voice.
Marlo’s face colored. She raised her hands to her temples quickly, and made a motion to draw back her blond hair from her forehead, even though it was already drawn tightly into a pony tail. She exclaimed, modestly, “Only two! I’m not very good.” She paused. She added with a deliberate tone, “Yet.”
Anne was 19 but she was very serious and literary. She had won a National Merit Scholarship but attended Hayward State, a second rate college, as a protest against higher education in the United States which she said valued “where you go to college more than what you learn.”
Anne’s hair was dark brown and her skin was smooth and brown, and when viewed from profile, her features were classic. Her body was well proportioned but she was large boned which caused her to look overweight, although she certainly wasn’t. Her glasses were not unattractive, but they made her dark brown eyes look small. When she took them off, her eyes were beautiful. She complained that her intelligence scared away men of her own age and she liked older men because they weren’t as afraid of intelligent women.
“I would like to see some of your paintings Marlo,” I ventured.
Anne frowned reflexively but quickly hid it.
Marlo said, “The exhibit is in the Liberal Arts building.” She hesitated, cast a sidelong glance at Anne and added, “I sign my paintings, M. Phillipe.”
“I’ll look for your signature.”
Anne asked, “How did your draft status turn out, Brad?”
“2s. The graduate school deferment.” I watched her expression change into disbelief, and I added, almost growling, “The draft board lied to me.”
She said, “Fucking pigs.” Her faced colored, and her eyes narrowed into a squint. She looked up into the leaves of the large, live oak tree that spread its branches over our heads. “Lyndon Johnson is a pathological liar and so is everyone connected with his war.”
Marlo looked down at her tennis shoes, and I admired the fine line of her neck. She held her hands together in front of her, demurely, and I was struck by their strength and delicacy. Anne had told me that Marlo was 19, the same age as she was.
Anne's hands were balled into fists. Her face reddened and she looked at Marlo. “They threatened to draft him because he is one semester behind where he is supposed to be and they said they wouldn’t give him a graduate school deferment. One of the best mathematicians in the country.”
“No, not anymore. I haven’t done mathematics for three years.”
Anne said, “Why did they give you a graduate school deferment? I can’t believe they would lie like that.”
“Well, at least I got it. I’m not going to complain at this point.”
Marlo blinked. She said, in her high, soft voice, “I’ve never been good at mathematics. But I admire people who are.”
I studied her face until I was convinced that her admiration was genuine. I said, “I’m not really that talented at mathematics.”
Anne said, “Oh no, he was only
the first person ever, in the history of the
“I haven’t done mathematics for three years. I can’t do it anymore.”
“Because you’re grandfather died and you can’t do mathematics on your own.” Her words were sharp and accusing.
“I don’t like mathematics anymore.”
I added, “You could have gone
to any college in the
Anne stared at me malevolently and there was a long, uncomfortable silence. Finally, she said, “I don’t give a fuck about Harvard or Berkeley or Stanford.”
“At least he has the courage to tell the truth,” Marlo offered. Her face turned towards Anne’s face and then back to mine.
We had had many fights, slamming doors behind us and yelling. It was always I who telephoned to make up. She never did.
Anne said, “He isn’t telling the truth anyway. They would still let him in to any university in the world, but he won’t apply.”
“I don’t want a Ph.D. in mathematics anymore, Anne. I’ve told you that.” She stared at the ground and her face reflected anger and hurt. Marlo reached out her arm and placed her hand delicately on her shoulder.
“He’s trying to make up,” Marlo said. Anne stared steadfastly at the ground.
I guessed that Anne was thinking about the date we had made for that night, to listen to some records and have cake and coffee at the cottage. Her face softened a little. I moved closer and put my hand on her other shoulder and Marlo moved away a few feet. I kissed Anne on the cheek, and she smiled. A tear escaped from one eye and disappeared into her cheek on its way down to her chin.
“Are you two OK?” Marlo asked.
I put my arm around Anne’s waist. “I think so,” I said.
Marlo said, “I’ve got to be going,” but didn’t move. She looked first at Anne, and then at me.
“We’re OK.” Anne said in a low voice, staring at the ground, “You can go. If you want.” Marlo waved her hand awkwardly and smiled wanly. She turned and left.
We walked in silence, arm in arm. I asked, “What time do you want me to drop by?” Her body relaxed.
“.” She looked up at me warily. “Like we agreed.” Her eyes insinuated that I had merely pretended to forget. She was too honest for social niceties.
“OK,” I said.
“There’s something I want to say.” She paused. “Maybe I shouldn’t say it.” Her expression transformed itself to that of a child about to say something naughty. My stomach tensed.
“Go ahead, tell me.” I tried to sound nonchalant, but my voice was irritated. “What is it?”
“I didn’t like the way you looked at Marlo.”
“What do you mean?” I said. Her fingers disengaged themselves from mine, and we walked on in silence. She walked ahead.
She wheeled around. “Don’t you think I know that Marlo is beautiful? Everywhere we go, men fall all over themselves and slobber over her. I thought you would be different.”
“Anne, you’re beautiful.” I said in a soft, surprised voice.
Her eyes became half-veiled, and she smiled enigmatically. She looked down, bashfully, but a foreboding thundercloud was gathering on her forehead. I leaned across and kissed her cheek again and when she didn’t pull away I kissed her ear and neck. Our mouths came together and then our bodies and her breasts pushed against me.
By then, we had made love five or six times. Our lovemaking had been very good for her, but not for me. The tension in my stomach always remained and the last time, lying next to her, I hadn’t slept all night.
We stood there in each other’s arms for a long moment and then parted silently with a squeeze of the hand and a smile.
That evening, as I turned from the road onto the gravel driveway leading to Anne’s cottage, the large, white house, where Betty and Roxanne lived, loomed over the trees in the pale moonlight. The big white façade was only a long stone's throw away from Anne's cottage. While I waited at the door for Anne, my mind went back to that early morning and the girl in the backseat of Lyle's car.
A tall, blond-haired young man with regular features opened the door. He was about 18. He fit Anne's description of her roommate's
boyfriend. He was wearing a charcoal
gray sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off a few inches above the elbows. I knew that he was Mary’s boyfriend because
Anne had described him as a harmless paranoid schizophrenic who looked like
He led me down a long hall that smelled of dirt from potted plants. We entered a large room that, except for the kitchen, was the only room in the cottage.
Anne stood in front of her bed. A purple bedspread hung on the wall behind her. Next to it was a large, colorful poster of a levitating swami. The living room was separated into two bedrooms by a vanity with a large mirror on it.
Her roommate, Mary Bernstein, had contracted polio when she was 8 years old. It left her legs withered and paralyzed. Her steel braces lay at the foot of her bed, which was covered with a bright red bedspread. She lay on her back, under the covers, propped up on a pillow. Her black eyes shone against pale white skin, and her face was framed by long pleats of straight black hair that fell onto the pillow.
Anne said that Mary preferred to spend most of her time in bed, reading. She was 28, and was working on her Master’s Degree in English.
Mary said, looking up at her boy friend, who was standing by the bed, “He has a mother complex.” Her eyes narrowed, and when they found mine they were piercing and malicious. “He thinks he’s Jesus Christ.” She looked up at him and her face softened into a questioning expression. He looked down at her and smiled.
“Maybe he is,” I said with an ironic laugh. Marijuana and incense were mixed with the smells of potted plants and flowers and a cloud of smoke clung to the ceiling.
His eyebrows knit together and he said, “I am Jesus Christ.”
“Pleased to meet you. I’m Lyndon Johnson the Baptist.” I got up, walked towards him and reached out my hand. He shrank back slightly, maybe intimidated by my size, and extended his hand cautiously.
Mary said, “I feel guilty, like I’m robbing the cradle.”
I asked, “What is your real name?”
“I mean your... other name?”
Mary said, “We call him J.C. for short. He likes it.”
He stared down at her. She looked like a 19th century demimondaine, dying of tuberculosis. Her face was pale-white and her eyes were enormous and sad.
Her hands moved on the covers, very slowly. She fixed her black eyes on mine as she pulled the covers down and tucked them carefully under her feet. She lay back against the pillow and sat motionless for a moment. Deftly and quickly, she lifted her nightgown and exposed her shrunken legs.
Anne said, “Mary!”
Mary flicked her tiny legs apart with one hand, exposing her vulva. “He likes to eat pussy,” she announced. “He thinks I’m a reincarnation of his mother, and....”
Anne said sharply, “You promised you would behave yourself tonight.”
She cried out, “Shit!” and fell into broken, angry laughter. “He likes it because…” She began to laugh uncontrollably and couldn’t finish her sentence. She rolled over on her side. Her body shook, silently and I couldn’t tell if she were laughing or crying.
J.C. stood motionless, staring down at her. Their eyes met. Her voice was strangled with emotion. “Because he likes to feel ... what it’s like ... to be born, like ... normal people are born.” She shrieked the last four words in peals of laughter.
J.C. picked up one of her silver crutches and raised it over his head, slowly, as if he were going to hit her with it. My body tensed and I made a movement towards him. Anne caught me by the arm and whispered into my ear, “Don’t worry. He’s always threatening to hit her with her crutch and she begs him to hit her but he never does. Sometimes, when they get on my nerves I tell him to hit her with it.”
Mary shrieked, “Hit me! Hit me!” He held the crutch over his head for a long time and then lowered it, slowly, until it dangled at his side. He tossed it on the bed, at her feet. She screamed, “Take off your pants lover boy and show them what you’ve got.”
Moving towards her, Anne yelled, “Mary. You said you were going to take him to the library.”
She screeched, “Shit!” and pulled the covers over her head. After awhile, she pulled the red covers back a little so that they exposed her hair and eyes, like a large veil. Then she pulled the covers down to her shoulders and said, in a small voice, as if she were talking to herself, “I haven’t been out of bed for two days.” She made a long, theatrical sigh, “I guess it’s about time to go to the library.”
She leaned over the side of the bed and picked up a jug of red wine. She pulled out the cork and there was a hollow, squeaking sound. Holding it up with two hands, she took a swig. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and holding it by its neck, extended the jug to J.C. “Take a swig.” We watched in silence as J.C. threw back his head and drank for a long time. When he was finished, Mary looked at me and jerked her head and nose upward disdainfully. She said, imperiously looking into my eyes, “I don’t want him to see me getting dressed.”
Anne whispered in my ear, “Go outside for a few minutes, Brad. She doesn’t like people to see her putting on her braces.”
Mary's eyes were blazing with emotion.
“Fine,” I said.
In the hallway, Anne whispered in my ear, “She says they transform her, make her look ugly and little.”
“Sure,” I said. I trudged through the rest of the long hall past another reproduction of the floating swami. Wrinkling my nose in contempt, I gave him a sidelong glance and went outside.
I wandered around to the side of the cottage and saw two women carrying groceries from the trunk of a 1953 Imperial. I watched unobserved in the darkness. They were older women, almost 40, and even at 100 yards I could see that they were wearing a lot of makeup and funny looking wigs.
The front door of the cottage opened and banged shut, and I heard the sound of crutches picking through loose gravel.
Mary’s voice was high and shrill. “Jesus Christ, open the door like a gentleman. Don’t just stand there.” There was a sound of a door opening and closing, and the grinding sound of a starter that wouldn’t turn over.
I thought, “Shit. I’m going to have to give them a jump-start.” There was more grinding, and then, finally, the engine turned over.
I said, in a loud voice, hoping they would hear, “Thank God.” The car moved down the gravel driveway and turned onto the road. With the whine of her 1957 Volkswagen in my ears, I walked back towards the front door of the cottage. Anne was standing in the doorway.
“I’m sorry Brad. She gets like
that when she drinks. And Jesus Christ
just got out of
She grabbed my shoulders playfully and shook me. “You’ve got to admit he’s a hunk.” She dropped her hands and scampered away. “I’ve felt like fucking him myself a few times,” she said, and a playful smile danced around the corners of her mouth.
I said, dryly, “I’m not the jealous type.”
I said, “Why don’t we go inside and have our coffee? And listen to the music.”
While she was in the kitchen, I took out a bag of marijuana and stuffed a generous amount into my pipe. She came back with a pot of coffee and two cups on a tray.
“That was fast.”
“It was already made. It’s still hot.”
I lit the pipe and took a long drag. She didn’t like marijuana. She gave me a disapproving look. I held my breath, allowing the smoke to saturate my lungs. “Come on. Take at least one hit. It won’t hurt you. One hit is like one bottle of beer.”
She said, “I don’t like to drink either,” but looked at the pipe, curiously.
I said, “It won’t hurt you.”
She sucked on the stem but the fire had gone out. I produced a match and she inhaled deeply but exhaled immediately. I said, “So Jesus Christ likes to eat Mary’s pussy?”
She didn’t laugh. She said, “Mary feels guilty about him when she’s sober. But you should hear them when she isn’t. When she drinks she gets depressed too. I’ve never seen her so depressed as she was tonight. I’m worried about her.”
“She sure laughed a lot for a depressed woman.”
“She’s been talking about suicide lately.” She paused. “More than usual.”
“Suicide has never interested me.” I said.
She was silent.
I said, “Fucking a crazy man must be depressing.”
She was silent for many long seconds, and then she said, “You should hear them.”
“I hope I won’t have to.”
“I’m ashamed to say it turns me on sometimes.”
In the darkness, she didn’t notice my mocking smile.
She continued, “I try not to be here when it happens but I can’t always predict when he’ll be here. They surprised me one night last month. She can’t move much in bed you know, and so he has to do everything. He gets....”
“Can we talk about something else? You’re putting me on a bummer.”
At 22, I felt much older than Anne and when we were alone, I occasionally ordered her to do things and she usually complied, like a small child. She lowered herself to the floor and began looking through her library of long playing records. We both liked Beethoven and she selected the Ninth Symphony.
As the music filled the air, I felt the marijuana taking effect. The white house appeared in my mind’s eye, like a ghost-moon rising. I saw J.C holding the crutch over his head again, and I began laughing. I was carried away on Beethoven’s music and became an ecstatic, laughing Buddha.
“What’s so funny?” she asked.
My face was frozen into a painful grimace. I lay back against the wall, and tears formed at the corners of my eyes.
Anne peered at me curiously. After a few moments, she reached across and shook my shoulders, vigorously. “What’s so funny?” she demanded again, and there was a hint of anxiety in her voice.
I squeaked, “Jesus Christ,” and was gripped again by spasmodic, silent laughter. I recovered suddenly, sat upright and wiped the tears from the corners of my eyes. “Sorry. Marijuana does that to me sometimes.” I was suddenly sober. “But you’ve got to admit they were funny.”
She said, “I was thinking about last Thursday night; the two of them. It was really tragic. But it was awesome too and kinda funny....” She paused. She had lit a brightly painted kerosene lantern and its colored lights danced in her smiling face. It seemed as if she were a great distance from me.
I asked, “Awesome?”
“Well,” she said and smiled. She reached out her hand and two fingers darted into my ribs. I grabbed both of her wrists and pinned her to the bed. A flicker from my fingers sent her into a writhing spasm of laughter and, still pinning her to the bed, I kissed her. She resisted for a few seconds and then swooned backwards and I knew that she was ready to make love. She had put on the last record, and we lay together listening to Hymn to Joy. When it was over, we sat up and drank our coffee and ate our cake.
“I feel like I could eat three pieces,” she said.
“Marijuana does that.”
“Makes you hungry.”
She said, “I hate Beethoven.”
“You hate Beethoven?”
“I like Mozart.”
“I can’t stand Mozart. I mean Beethoven is so much more...”
She completed my sentence with a haughty toss of her head, “Louder.” Her eyes became very serious and she said, “I want to try something.”
“Turn your back. I’m going to play some music and I want you to tell me what you think about it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t ask questions.”
“Fine.” I lay back on the bed while she put another record on the turntable. We listened without talking, for about twenty minutes. I took another long hit from the pipe. When it ended she asked, “Well, what did you think?”
“Whoever wrote that was in agony,” I said, expecting that she would be insulted.
Her eyes were curious and there was no anger in her face. I continued, “Whoever the composer was, he was struggling with more pain than I can even register.” I laughed to myself in the dark. “It was almost unbearable.” Her eyes grew tender and encouraging and I became lyrical. “I felt the pain, awesome pain. Great, unbearable pain ... and then, after following him into labyrinths of tortured fear and abandoned hope and onto mountain tops of agonizing solitude and places of complete abandonment... I couldn’t stand it any more, and my body became numb, unable to feel or hear anything but discordant, cacophonous noise.... And just as I was about to give up on him, at the extremity of black chaos and despair, a star was born, a dancing star ... born in ecstasy, in ... emptiness ... and it seemed to be ... it was ... I was ... it was just....” I felt her body straining towards me, expectant. “It was ... the transformation of pain into joy. A miraculous, impossible joy, but there it was.”
“Do you know who the composer is?” Her voice was dry and a little harsh.
“I have no idea. Probably some twentieth century guy. Shostakovich?”
She said, “So you are telling me that you don’t know who the composer is?”
“Well, yes. What’s wrong with that?”
“You know who the composer is.”
My stomach tensed and my mouth opened but I couldn’t say anything.
“You must know who the composer is, because you described the music perfectly.”
“It must be because I’m stoned.”
“You know, it’s Beethoven.” Her voice was accusatory but tinged with sadness.
“Yeah, sure, Beethoven.” I laughed.
“You lied," she said.
“What are you talking about? Lied about what?”
My stomach churned. There was a silence.
I said, “Who is the composer? For real.”
“Stop trying to put me on.” Her voice was shrill. She jumped up and stood by the bed, looking down at me menacingly.
I covered my astonished and wounded feelings with defensive anger. I said, trying not to sound too angry, trying to mix wary humor with irritation, “What in the fuck are you talking about?” I felt my hands balling themselves into fists. Her body jumped as if I had screamed at her. I relaxed my fists and said softly, in a soothing voice, “What in the hell am I lying about? I haven’t even said anything. How could I be lying?”
“You couldn’t possibly know all of that if you didn’t know the composer was Beethoven...." She stopped, in mid-sentence and stared down at me like a lawyer cross-examining a witness. “Do you know the life of Beethoven?”
“Of course not. I mean, no. NO.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Look Anne, would you stop... ” I couldn’t find any more words.
Suddenly it occurred to me that Beethoven had, in fact, composed the music we had just listened to, as unlikely as it seemed. I asked, “Are you trying to tell me that really was Beethoven’s music?”
“Of course it was. It was from The Last String Quartets. He wrote them when he was totally deaf and he was very depressed. Near the end of his life.”
“Why did you get so angry?”
“I find it impossible to believe that you could know all that about the Quartets without knowing you were listening to Beethoven's music.” She began to cry. “It was a perfect description of his mental state.” Her voice broke and tears jumped down her cheeks.
I put my arm around her and said, “And you thought I was just trying to impress you.”
She shook her head up and down and gasped, “Yes.” She cried silently for awhile and then said, “You’re so intelligent Brad.”
“That’s ridiculous Anne.” I didn’t have the courage to tell her what I was thinking, that most people would be able to hear what I had and that she must simply have a tin ear. We lay in each other’s arms for a long time and I drifted into sleep. She shook my shoulder.
“There is something I have to tell you.”
“I acted badly this afternoon.”
“No you didn’t. You were emotional, that’s all.”
“Marlo likes you.” The lamp was out and the room was full of dark shadows and our silence. “You met her once before. Remember? That time near the elevator?”
“We only talked for a few minutes. It was before I knew you and Marlo were best friends. It wasn’t anything.” Her head was a few inches from mine but it was too dark to see her expression. “You’re jealous.”
“Maybe.” The silence and darkness was there again. “But I want to say something else. I’ve been trying to find the right time to say it but it never comes.”
“She hitchhikes.” Her voice stopped and we lay still in the silent darkness. “She hitchhikes at night too.”
“That’s bad. She’s a real dish.” I blushed, ashamed that I had used such an old expression. “Is she a hippie?”
“No. Why do you ask?”
“I’ve seen her wearing a flower dress and walking in her bare feet.”
“You should talk to her about it, Brad. She’ll listen to you.”
We fell asleep in each other’s arms and I was awakened in the early morning by Jesus Christ and Mary making love, very loudly, as I deduced, in the sixty-nine position. When they finished, J.C. clattered down to the side of the bed, fell onto his knees, and said Hail Mary Full of Grace three times. He lumbered back onto the bed, and within minutes, they were snoring, peacefully. I whispered in her ear, “Anne. Are you awake?”
“Remember what I said about my grandfather?”
“I dedicated the Fields Medal to him. Without him I never would have proved the theorem.”
“You proved the theorem Brad, not him.”
“The newspapers tried to make me into a child prodigy but I wasn’t. He deserved the medal.”
She kissed me on the cheek. “I love your false modesty. Someday, I’ll make you believe that you’re a genius.”
“Why do you have to believe I’m a genius?”
She pinched me hard, and I felt like slapping her. After a silence, I said, “When my father died, my grandfather became my father.”
“He used to say that his mind was no longer supple enough to do real mathematics, but that he could transfer his knowledge to me, and that my young brain would make the discoveries for both of us.”
We listened to the snoring on the other side of the room.
“I was only 4 years old when he first said that and I thought he meant that my brain was more like an apple than his!” I laughed.
“Shhhh! You’ll wake them up.”
I whispered, “He taught me mathematics as if it were the key to the universe. A part of me will always love mathematics, but when he died, the magic died with him. I’ll never forget the look on his face when I came up with that ridiculously simple proof. He stayed up all night verifying that it was correct and I snored away blissfully like those two animals.” We listened to their ridiculous, sawing cacophony for awhile. “He sat there at my bedside waiting for the first rays of the sun. He shook my shoulder and told me that I was famous.”
“Brad. ” She groped in the darkness for my hand. “Don’t forget.”
“I won’t forget.”
“I’m worried about her.”
“It isn’t smart for a woman who looks like a Playmate of the Month to hitchhike.”
She was silent.
“What does her father say?”
“She doesn’t have a father.”
I was seized by an absurd, lonely sadness that was a gypsy moth in the lightened corners of my mind, sinking and rising against the dark hope for the oblivion of sleep.