The Greenwich Village Cuckoo
by Joseph R. Quinlan
It’s a talent my father had. Okay, I can’t really know: my widowed mother refused to speak of him. Let’s say I strongly suspect he had it. I’m not proud of it, this talent. But we’re all compelled to make use of our advantages.
I don’t seek them out. I swear I don’t. They find me. Moths to a flame doesn’t begin to describe it — except in my case the flame is an illusion. The other night was a perfect example. Well, not perfect. A perfectly representative example. Let’s say that.
She found me in a dingy bar and grill on the lower east side of Manhattan, closer to what used to be called the Bowery than to the Village. A place where I used to go a lot for supper because it had always been a kind of refuge, a place where I would be unlikely to be able to exercise my talent. I don’t think I’ll be going back there anymore.
Just as well. The food was nasty. As far as I ever noticed, I was the only person who ever ate there. Everyone else exclusively drank. The ancient black man who did the cooking had patches of dry, flaky skin on his face and on the backs of his hands, and he looked like he slept in the alley between shifts.
I say she found me. And that’s how it often feels at the beginning: before I pursue, I’m pursued. But that’s not exactly right. Fay wasn’t looking for me, specifically. I doubt she was looking for anything. She was just running errands, keeping busy, trying to get through a difficult time.
She came in because her Dan owed a bar tab in the place. The insurance company was being decent about things and had already given her an advance on the settlement. She was tying up loose ends before going home: somewhere in the Midwest — Decatur, Duluth — somewhere like that. I learned most of this later.
Her Dan was a regular at the bar, but I didn’t know him. He was a “day regular,” and I was, more or less, a “night regular,” but, beyond that, the bar was a place where unhappy middle-aged men came to drink by themselves and to hide. They didn’t make conversation; they pretty much never looked up from their beers and their shots of whiskey.
I say “they” but I might just as well say “we.” I’m near enough to middle-aged. I hid out there. I never used to look up from my food and my drink. I wouldn’t have recognized Fay’s Dan or any of the regular customers from the bar if I saw them out on the sidewalk right in front of the place.
And, of course, not a soul in the place would ever have recognized me — with the possible exception of the cook, seeing as how I was pretty much his only customer.
I was in a booth off in a corner with my back to the door when she came in. The bartender asked her to wait while he went into the office and looked up Dan’s bar slip. The decent thing would have been to tell her to forget about it. But maybe the bartender was just an employee. Maybe it wasn’t his call. Or maybe he owned the place but needed the cash. Or maybe he was just that much of a cheapskate. He asked her to wait.
She was worn and slumped. She’d seen better days. Obviously, life with Dan had not been easy. She probably once had a good figure. She was about forty, I would have bet, but if she’d told you she was fifty you’d have believed her. She evidently did her own fair share of drinking, probably alone. She glanced around the place with dull resentment: this was where her Dan had chosen to spend his time.
I was halfway through my food, ready for another beer. I downed the remains of the beer in front of me, slipped a ten under my plate, got up and got out of there. I kept my face expressionless and my eyes on the floor. It was a cool evening, as they tend to be in New York in November, and I had worn a jacket into the bar. I had taken it off and dumped it onto the cracked Naugahyde seat cushion when I came in. Now, rather than take any time putting it on, I slung it over my shoulder.
I felt her eyes on me then.
I opened the door and hurried out into the blare of a fire truck siren.
Did she follow me? She must have. I don’t believe in fate or e.s.p. or the supernatural, don’t believe in ghosts or in a life after death. I heard about all that stuff growing up, from my mother and from her family, but I don’t believe it. Never did. We’re creatures, like any other: no more connected to hidden realms, no more equipped for immortality than squirrels or lizards or fruit flies or houseplants. We are a product of the natural world, and there are natural explanations for everything that happens to us.
Why didn’t I just go home? I was restless, probably from having my meal interrupted, and I needed to walk. I could say that: there’s more than a small amount of truth in that.
Did I want her to find me? Maybe. I almost never do now, but I used to make money off these interludes — mostly given to me, but one way or another — and maybe the old entrepreneurial spirit was still at play.
Maybe what scares me most of all is the possibility that I might have dodged through the streets, given her no chance to follow, raced crookedly to my building, rushed up the stairs, got behind my double-bolted door, and later there would be a knock and she would have found me in spite of everything, and then how would I explain that from natural causes?
She found me in the East Village, in a used bookstore on a narrow street that’s bent like a beckoning finger. I was standing in the furthest aisle toward the back, pretending to be interested in a stack of old biology textbooks jammed sideways onto the creaky shelves.
She came around a corner. I never heard her come in. She didn’t seem to notice me at first, seemed entirely absorbed in the books.
“Excuse me,” she murmured. I shuffled backwards to let her pass.
Her presence made me fidgety. Made me tug my shirt collar, tousle my hair. Made me engage in a dozen little mannerisms, none of which are common to me: usually I’m as still as a statue. Made me rap on the side of a wooden upright three times, softly. The sound was distinct in the quiet shop: TAP tap-TAP.
She froze, turned, apprehensive and hopeful, gazed at the stand of books, then at me.
That funny little tap. Just like her Dan. Who knew what the circumstances used to be? Maybe that’s how he used to knock on the bathroom door to ask if she wanted company in the shower. Or how his knuckles played unconsciously against the bedpost after they made love. Or maybe they went all the way back to high school, Fay and Dan, maybe it was a private signal between them, tapped back and forth under their desks: I-(pause)-love/you.
My face ached. I felt the muscles under my skin writhing, contorting to make my features more like Dan’s. I really don’t know how the process works. I suspect it is somewhat similar to what a police criminal sketch artist might do. I think I throw out dozens and dozens of possibilities and look for minute responses from my — “victim” seems too harsh — let’s say, from my quarry. When a particular set of the mouth or flare of the nostrils or cock of an eyebrow gets the right response, is recognized, it freezes while the other facial features keep shifting.
It’s an unusual process, certainly, but still a natural one. There’s a sort of communication going on. But it’s subliminal, between two living human beings — it is not supernatural. Dan’s gone. He is not possessing me to communicate with Fay.
Phrases came swimming into my head. Things Dan used to say. Mostly simple phrases — Dan never was very good with words, and he probably got worse as the years wore on and the drinks kept going down. Where do they come from, these words of Dan’s? It must be that I create a kind of psychological portrait of Dan based on the image of him that Fay is drawing with my face. Does that make sense? Internally, I’m working out a problem: if I were a person who looked like this, what would I sound like, how would I speak?
It must be something like that.
Things didn’t really work out between Dan and Fay. But I knew that already from all the time Dan must have spent in the bar. Whatever dreams they started with had long ago faded away. Whatever attraction once existed between them had slowly been consumed by a thousand trivial resentments.
But I wasn’t becoming the Dan whom Fay had lost last week — or last month or whenever it was: she never told me since she assumed I already knew. I was becoming the Dan she desired. The Dan she had lost by infinitesimal degrees. The Dan that maybe only existed in some imagined future that never became reality.
And Fay was becoming the Fay whom that Dan would have desired in turn. Yes, she was changing too. She was a cup of muddy water turned to wine; a dove set free from the magician’s cape; a woman sawn in half, dramatically made whole again. Every miracle is metamorphosis. But so is every stage trick.
Fay’s apartment was nowhere near. She described it vaguely as being north of Columbia University, which I took to mean on some lonely avenue on the edge of Harlem. We walked to my place, off Houston Street.
Before we left the bookstore, I pulled Fay’s coat closed and buttoned it for her, top to bottom, like Dan used to do a long time ago.
When I was younger I was more careful to always go to the woman’s place. Obviously, escape is easier. That used to be important to me. To get out before the illusion wore off. To disappear, like a successful magician, behind the curtain while the audience is still wondering.
Fay and I went to my place. And I did my part to help Dan’s soul rest easy, to depart this pale with fewer regrets. I allowed Dan and Fay to properly say good-bye.
Afterwards, my voice cracking in the dark, I said, “I’m not him, you know.”
“I know,” she whispered.
I offered to walk her out, to pay for a cab. She snuggled against me, wound her arms around me. Her fingers dug into my back.
The darkness of sleep leaked away into gloomy dawn, and I opened my eyes to find Fay staring at me. If I have appeared as many men to many women, they all — the ones who stay too long — show me the same face: bleak, incredulous, searching. Desperately searching for some glimmer of miracle or magic. But there’s none to find.
The plainness of my face when I’m me is appalling. I’m utterly forgetful. Utterly mediocre. People turn away from me before they have looked. Not repulsed or disgusted, purely uninterested. I’m a blank. I’m worse than invisible. I’m no one when I’m me.
Fay did not turn away. Her face looked ashen in the feeble light. She saw now that Dan was truly gone. It was as if the Dan she dreamed last night was never here at all. And he wasn’t. Not last night, not ever.
She didn’t cry. She didn’t speak. I turned away as she dressed.
She walked into my field of vision on her way to the door. Methodically, she undid the locks: first one, then the other. She kept her back rigidly straight, seemed to be forcing herself to do it. She opened the door, paused, turned. She looked everywhere else but she didn’t look at me. The light was stronger in the room now. At first I thought she was trying to spot some bit of jewelry she’d been wearing, some missing object. But it was like she was trying to take in every detail of my squalid, unkempt place, trying to create some larger picture, trying to penetrate to some deeper level. I’m not sure what she was looking for.
She stepped into the hall, leaving the door open, and I heard her slowly creaking down the stairs.
The hall was empty. People were beginning to stir in other apartments; they would be passing by my door soon. I got up and closed the door. Out of habit, I flipped both locks.