Blood and Water and Other Tales
YOU KNOW THE BOWERY, I presume? It was on the Bowery that I first caught a glimpse of Harry Talboys. I was a writer in those days, and I lived in a five-story walk-up by the men’s shelter. I didn’t realize at the time that Harry Talboys lived in the same building, though of course I was familiar with the powerful smell of incense that contaminated the lower floors. It was high summer when I met him, high summer in Manhattan, when liquid heat settles on the body of the city like an incubus, and one’s whole activity devolves to a languid commerce of flesh and fluids, the ingestion and excretion of the one by the other, and all sane organisms quite simply estivate. I was certainly estivating; I rose late in the day, and after certain minimal ritualistic gestures of the writerly kind made my way to the liquor store. It was on one of these errands, on a garbage-strewn and urine-pungent sidewalk, beneath a blazing sun, and slimed in my own sweat, that I first encountered Harry Talboys.
He was making stately progress down the Bowery with a cane. Let me describe him: a tall, thin figure in a seersucker suit the grubbiness of which, the fraying cuffs, the cigarette burns and faded reddish wine stain on the crotch could not altogether disguise the quality of the fabric and the elegance of the cut. Very erect, very tall, very slow, on his head a Panama hat; and his face a veritable atlas of human experience, the nose a great hooked
bone of a thing projecting like the prow of a ship, and the mouth — well, the mouth had foundered somewhat, but the old man animated it with lipstick! He must have been at least eighty. His shirt collar was not clean, and he wore a silk tie of some pastel shade — pale lilac or mauve, I seem to remember; and in his buttonhole a fresh white lily. (I never saw Harry Talboys without a fresh flower in his buttonhole.) And as I say, he was making his way down the Bowery, and the men from the men’s shelter drinking at the corner of Third Street greeted him warmly. ‘Hey, Harry!’ they called; ‘Yo, Harry!’ and he moved through them with all the graceful condescension of royalty, briefly lifting his Panama to reveal a liver-spotted skull devoid of all but a last few wisps of snow-white hair. Watching this performance I was much taken with the dignity of the old fellow, and with his lipstick. Was there, I asked myself, a story here?
• • •
Our friendship began well: he asked me into his apartment for a drink. Such a hot day, he said, hanging up his Panama in the hallway and leaning his stick in the corner; productive activity, he said, was quite out of the question. His accent, to my surprise, was old Boston. (I’m from the North End myself.) The odor of incense was strong, and so was the perfume he wore. He was very liberally scented and smelled, in fact, like an old lady, but there was, I detected it even then, something unpleasant about it, a nuance, a suggestion of overripeness in the bouquet.
Are you familiar with die apartments of the Lower East Side? Designed essentially as holding tanks for wage laborers, they do not err on the side of expansiveness. We entered Harry’s living room. Crowded bookshelves, a pair of deep seedy armchairs that faced windows with a dear prospect north to the Chrysler Building, and between the windows, on a rounded, slender-stemmed table of varnished black wood, a vase full of lilies.
Directly above the lilies, and between the windows, hung a large crucifix, the body of the Saviour pinned to a cross of white ivory with nailheads of mother-of pearl. Hanging from the ceiling in the far corner of the room, on a length of copper chain, was the censer whence the fumes emanated. No air conditioner, no fan. There was, however, ice in the kitchen, and Harry made us each a large gin-and-tonic. Then he lowered himself stiffly toward an armchair the final stage of this operation being a sort of abandoned plunge followed by a long sigh. ‘Cigarettes,’ he murmured, rummaging through the pockets of his jacket.
‘You have no cats,’ I said.
‘Dreadful creatures,’ he said. ‘Can’t abide them. Your very good health, Bernard Finnegan!’
We drank. He asked me about my writing. I began to explain, but he quickly lost interest. His gaze shifted to the window, to the glittering blade that the Chrysler Building becomes in the shimmering blue heat of certain summer days. His books impressed me. A good many classical authors – Petronius was represented, Apuleius and Lactantius, and certain of the early Christian writers, Bede and Augustine among others. When I rose to leave, he asked me for my telephone number. Would I, he wondered, have a drink with him again? Yes, I said, with pleasure.
• • •
The censer was, as before, smoldering gently on its chain. It reminded me of my childhood, of chapels and churches in which I had fidgeted through innumerable interminable Masses. Harry’s perfume, slightly rotten though it was, one grew accustomed to; not the incense. The stink of it was apparent as soon as one entered the building. I asked him why he burned it.
‘Does it disturb you?’ he said. He was slicing a lemon on the
kitchen counter, very slowly. I was in the other room. The Chrysler Building was glowing in the dusk, and there were red streaks to the west, over the Hudson.
‘It makes me feel like a schoolboy.’
He looked at me carefully then, those watery blue eyes of his fixing me like a pair of headlights. ‘Are you a Catholic?’ he said.
He sighed. He became preoccupied. He appeared to be pondering our common connection to the Roman faith. ‘When I was a young man,’ he said, when we were settled in our armchairs, ‘I called myself a Catholic but I lived like a pagan. Oh, I could drink in those days, Bernard! I could drink till dawn. Today, as you see, after one gin I become’ – here he smiled with gentle irony ‘desperately befuddled. But then! I was happy with my gods, like the ancients. Do you know what we thought the body was, Bernard, back in the Twenties? A temple in which there was nothing unclean. A shrine, to be adorned for the ritual of love! We lived for the moment, Bernard – the purpose of life was to express yourself, and if you were unhappy that was because you were maladjusted, and if you were maladjusted it was because you were repressed. We were excitable, you see, and if there was one thing we would not tolerate’ – he turned toward me in his armchair – ‘it was boredom! Dullness! Anathema!’ He gazed off into the night. There was a silence.
‘Go on,’ I said.
‘It didn’t last. I remember coming back to New York in 1929 . . . My friends all seemed to be dead, or married, or alcoholic . . .’ Another pause. ‘I don’t suppose you know the Rhapsody in Blue?’ He hummed the opening bars, and there was suddenly a tone, in the thickening and aromatic dusk, of intense melancholy, rendered all the more poignant by the slow, faltering cadence of the old
man’s melody. He said little more that evening, and when I rose to leave he was distant and abstracted. He did apologize, though, for being ‘such a wretched host’.
• • •
The summer progressed. In a gin-blurred heat haze we slipped into August. I spent two or three hours a day at my table and told myself I was working. In fact I made several verbal sketches of Harry Talboys; to what use I would put them I had no clear idea at the time.
The thunderstorms began – brief showers of intense rain, with lightning and thunder, which did nothing to disturb the pall of stale heat that clung to the stinking city. They ended as suddenly as they began, and left the streets still steaming and fetid. It occurred to me that I should more actively prompt Harry to reminisce. I wondered if, between us, we might not produce a memoir of the Twenties? We would call it An Old Man Remembers the Jazz Age, or something of the sort; lavishly illustrated with photographs from the period, it would stand as an expressive personal document of modern America in the innocent exuberance of its golden youth. The more I thought about it, the surer I felt that such a book was needed. I mentioned the idea to Harry when next I saw him. ‘I knew an angel once,’ he murmured. ‘That was in the Twenties.’
• • •
It was, they said, the hottest summer in thirty years, and there was a distinct possibility that the garbage men would go on strike. A rather grisly murder occurred in an abandoned building over on Avenue C; the body was mutilated and drained of all its blood. The New York Post suggested that a vampire was on the loose. My own habits became increasingly nocturnal, and my productivity declined still further. I did manage to spend one afternoon in the public library looking at material from the
Twenties, and made up a list of questions to put to Harry, questions which I hoped would release a rich flow of anecdotes. I felt like a prospector: if only, I thought, I could sink my probe with enough precision, up would gush the stuff to make us both some real money. The times were right, I became more certain than ever, for An Old Man Remembers the Jazz Age.
But Harry was harder to draw out than I’d anticipated. When next I broached the topic – it was a Friday evening, and the sunset was gorgeous – he spoke again of his angel. He was relaxed and affable, I remember, and I humored him. ‘You mean metaphorically he was an angel, Harry,’ I said. ‘You mean he was a very good man.’
‘Oh, no,’ said Harry, turning toward me. ‘No, he was not a good man at all!’ The armchairs were, as usual, facing the windows, angled only slightly toward each other, so we sat as if piloting some great craft into the darkling sky. ‘But he was a real angel, absolutely authentic.’
‘Who was he, Harry?’
‘His name,’ said Harry, ‘was Anson Havershaw.’ He sat forward and peered at me. ‘You do want to hear the story?’ he said. ‘I should hate to bore you.’
• • •
When was it, precisely, that I began to take Harry’s angel seriously? I suppose there was something in the tale that caught my imagination immediately. He described to me how, as a very young man, and fresh from Harvard, he had glimpsed across the floor of an elegant New York speakeasy a man who bore a striking resemblance to himself. ‘An uncanny physical likeness,’ said Harry. ‘Perfectly extraordinary.’ He had lost sight of the man, and spent an hour looking for him, without success. He returned to the speakeasy night after night; a week later he saw him again. He introduced himself. The other was Anson Havershaw, a
wealthy and sophisticated young dandy, ‘a much more polished character than I,’ said Harry, ‘and he recognized the similarity between us at once; it amused him. He asked me to lunch with him the following day at the Biltmore, and said that we should become friends.’
All light had faded from the sky by this point. There was a long pause. ‘Well, we did become friends,’ said Harry at last, ‘very good friends indeed. Oh, enough, Bernard!’ He was sitting with one long leg crossed over the other, ankles sockless, his left hand clutching his right shoulder and his gaze fixed on the distant spire, which glittered in the darkness like a dagger. All the tension, all the vitality seemed suddenly to drain out of him. He sat there deflated and exhausted. The room was by this time full of shadows, and Harry was lumped in his armchair like a corpse. The exertion involved in his flight of memory seemed to have sharpened the foul smell that clung to him, for the perfume could no longer mask it at all. I moved quietly to the door. ‘Call me,’ I said, ‘when you want to continue.’ A hand flapped wearily from the arm of the chair. I left him there, alone in the shadows.
• • •
‘It was some weeks later, when we were on terms of intimacy,’ said Harry, when next we met, ‘that Anson first invited me to his house. The front door was opened by his valet, an Englishman called Allardice. He showed me into Anson’s dressing room and left me there.
‘I settled myself to wait. After a few minutes Anson entered in a silk dressing gown of Chinese design, followed by Allardice. He greeted me warmly and asked if Allardice could get me anything; then he told me to talk to him while he dressed – or rather, while Allardice dressed him.’
A long pause here; Harry’s fingers were kneading the arm of the chair. Then he began to speak quickly and warmly. ‘Anson
stepped up to the glass and slipped the gown from his shoulders; he stood there quite naked, with one foot advanced and turned very slightly outwards, and his fingers caught lightly on his hips. How tall and slender, and hairless he was! And white, Bernard, white as milk!’
Harry at this point sat up quite erect in his armchair and lifted a hand to sketch Anson’s figure in the air before him. ‘He had a neck like the stem of a flower,’ he said softly, ‘and narrow shoulders; and his chest was very flat, and very finely nippled, and merged imperceptibly into a belly punctuated by the merest suggestion of a navel. He stood before the glass and gazed at himself with all the impersonal admiration he might have expended on a piece of fine porcelain or a Ming vase, as though he knew he was quite beautiful, and suffered no impulse to humility on the point
Harry turned to me and held out his glass. There were pearls of perspiration on his forehead, and his smell was very bad. I gave him more gin. ‘Then,’ he went on, ‘he had me come close and examine his body. There was a slight flap of skin midway between his hipbones, and believe me, Bernard, a flap is all it was; there was no knot to it. It was’ – Harry groped for words – ‘vestigial! It was . . . decorative!’
Silence in that gloom-laden and incense-reeking room.
I asked him what he was. “I have not your nature,” he said quite simply. “I am of the angels.”?’
Harry’s gaze shifted back to the open window. ‘The dressing proceeded,’ he whispered, ‘and when Anson looked upon his final perfection, Allardice came forward with a flower for his buttonhole – an orchid, I think it was; and then at last the hush and reverence were banished. “Come, Harry,” he cried, and together we glided down the stairs, with Allardice, close behind, intent upon the flurry of instructions Anson was giving him with regard to the evening. I was, I suppose, utterly mystified, and utterly intoxicated by this
time, for I followed him; I followed him like a shadow . . .’
Harry fell silent again. His hand was still lifted in the air, and trembling, as he stared out of the window. As for myself, I felt suddenly impatient of this talk. These, I said to myself, are nothing but the gin-fired fantasies of a maudlin old queen. I muttered some excuse and left; Harry barely noticed.
• • •
There comes a day, in the ripe maturity of late summer, when you first detect a suggestion of the season to come; often as subtle as a play of evening light against familiar bricks, or the drift of a few brown leaves descending, it signals imminent release from savage heat and intemperate growth. You anticipate cool, misty days, and a slow, comely decadence in the order of the natural. Such a day now dawned; and my pale northern soul, in its pale northern breast, quietly exulted as the earth slowly turned its face from the sun. This quickening of the spirit was accompanied, in my relationship with Harry, by disillusion and withdrawal. Oddly enough, though, I spoke of his angel to no one; it was as though I’d tucked it into some dark grotto of my brain, there to hold it secret and inviolate.
The murder victim of Avenue C, ran the prevailing theory, was a double-crosser involved in a major drug deal. The nastiness was presumed to be a warning to others not to make the same mistake. The garbage men went out on strike for three days, but a settlement was reached before things really began to go bad, and the trucks were soon rolling again — stinking ripely and clouded with insects, noxious monsters trumpeting and wheezing through the midnight streets. The one that serviced my block was called The Pioneer, and on the side of it was painted a covered wagon rumbling across some western prairie. When I found myself downwind of The Pioneer, I thought, unkindly, of Harry.
It was at around this time that I began to toy with the notion of a historical novel about heretics. I’d chanced upon a gnostic tale in which Satan, a great god, creates a human body and persuades a spirit called Arbal-Jesus to project his being into it for a few moments. Arbal-Jesus complies with Satan’s seemingly innocent request, but once inside the body he finds himself trapped, and cannot escape. He screams in agony, but Satan only laughs; and then mocks his captive by sexually violating him. Arbal-Jesus’ only consolation is that another spirit accompanies him in the body, and guarantees his release. That spirit is Death.
But then the brief taste of fall vanished, and the heat returned with greater ferocity than ever. On my way out one morning I met Harry. ‘Bernard,’ he said, ‘why do I never see you now?’ I felt guilty. He looked rather more seedy than usual; his jaw was stubbled with fine white hairs, and traces of dried blood adhered to his nostrils. His bony fingers clutched my arm. ‘Come down this evening,’ he said. ‘I have gin.’ Poor old man, I thought, lonely and shabby, scraping about in two rooms after all these years . . . why does he still cling to the raft?
I knocked on Harry’s door around seven. All was as usual – the smells, the gin, the Chrysler Building rising like a jeweled spearhead against the sky, and upon Harry’s wall the crucifix shining in the shadows of the fading day. Poor old Harry; I sensed immediately he wanted to continue with his story, but was holding back out of deference to me. I felt compelled to reopen the subject, though not simply out of courtesy to an old man’s obsession. I had been thinking some more about this shadowy figure, the beautiful, decadent Anson Havershaw, he of the milk-white flesh and the nonexistent navel, and about Harry’s cryptic but no doubt carnal relationship with him. It was, I felt, a most bizarre fiction he had begun to weave about a man who, I
presumed, had in fact actually existed, and indeed might still be alive.
So Harry began to talk. He described how Anson swept him into a summer of hectic and dazzling pleasures, of long nights, riotous and frenzied, when all of America seemed to be convulsed in a spasm of fevered gaiety, and the two of them had moved through the revels like a pair of gods, languid, elegant, twin souls presiding with heavy-lidded eyes over the nation’s binge. That summer, the summer of 1925, Harry often found himself leaving Anson’s house in the first light of dawn, still in evening clothes, and slipping into the welcome gloom of St Ignatius Loyola on Park Avenue. ‘You wouldn’t know it, Bernard,’ he said; ‘they tore it down in 1947. A lovely church, Gothic Revival; I miss it . . . at the early Mass it would be lit only by the dim, blood-red glow from the stained-glass windows, and by a pair of white candles that rose from gilded holders on either side of the altar and threw out a gorgeous, shimmering halo . . . The priest I knew well, an ascetic young Jesuit; I remember how his pale face caught the candlelight as he turned to the congregation – the whole effect was so strangely beautiful, Bernard, if you had seen it you would understand the attraction Catholicism held for so many of us . . . it was the emotional appeal, really; disciplined Christianity we found more difficult to embrace . . .’
Harry rambled on in this vein for some minutes, his eyes on the spire and his fingers curled about his glass. My own thoughts drifted off down parallel tracks, lulled comfortably by his voice. As a raconteur Harry was slow and fastidious; he composed his sentences with scrupulous care and lingered indulgently over his more graceful phrases. ‘I doubt I would have done well in business,’ he was saying, inconsequentially; ‘I just haven’t the kidney for it. One needs strong nerves, and I was always much too effete. Anson used to say that the world was a brothel, and he was right,
of course. So where is one to turn? I can tell you where I turned: straight into the arms of Mother Church!’ He swallowed the rest of his gin. ‘But that’s another story, and forgive me, Bernard, I seem to be digressing again. All this happened so very long ago, you see, that I tend to confuse the order in which things occurred . . .
‘There are two questions, Bernard, that have to be addressed to an angel. One concerns his origins; the other, his purpose.’
• • •
At these words I began to pay active attention once more. This angel business was, of course, nonsense; but I had come to suspect that something rather fantastic, or even perverse, might lie behind it.
‘About his origins I could learn almost nothing,’ Harry continued. ‘People said he arrived in New York during the last year of the first war; he had apparently been raised in Ireland by his mother, who was from Boston and had married into an obscure branch of the Havershaws of Cork, an eccentric family, so they said; but then, you see, well-born Europeans with cloudy origins have always been drifting into New York, and so long as their manners and their money are adequate — particularly the latter — they’re admitted to society and no one’s very bothered about where they’ve come from. We are, after all, a republic.’
Boston! At the mention of Boston an idea suddenly occurred to me. Harry was old Boston, this I knew, and I wondered whether this angel of his might be nothing more than an elaborate sexual disguise. Anson Havershaw, by this theory, was simply an alter ego, a detached figment of Harry’s neurotic imagination, a double or other constructed as a sort of libidinal escape valve. In other words, Harry transcended his own guilty carnality by assuming at one remove the identity of an angel – this would explain the physical resemblance between the two, and the contradictory
themes of hedonism and spirituality; what Catholic, after all, lapsed or otherwise, could ever believe the body was a temple in which nothing was unclean? I watched Harry smiling to himself, and his expression, in the twilight, and despite the patrician dignity of the nose, seemed suddenly silly, pathetic.
‘And his purpose?’ I said drily.
‘Ah.’ The pleasure slowly ebbed from his face, and he began to make an unpleasant sucking noise with his dentures. ‘Who knows?’ he said at last. ‘Who knows what an angel would be doing in a century like this one? Maybe he was just meant to be an angel for our times.’ There was a long pause. ‘Immortal spirit burned in him, you see . . . Sin meant nothing to him; he was pure soul. This was his tragedy.’
Harry nodded. ‘To be pure soul in an age that would not believe its existence.’ He asked me to give him more gin. I was feeling very irritable as I poured his gin.
• • •
We sat there, Harry and I, in silence, he no doubt contemplating these spurious memories of his, while I wondered how soon I could decently escape. Harry had taken from his pocket a small jade compact and was powdering his face with rapid, jerky movements, his eyes averted from me so I had only the beaky profile. ‘Pure soul,’ he repeated, in a murmur, ‘in an age that would not believe its existence.’
‘What happened to him?’ I said wearily.
‘Oh,’ he replied, snapping shut the compact, ‘I lost sight of him. I believe he came to a bad end; I believe he was sent to prison.’
‘No he wasn’t.’
Harry looked at me sharply. There was, for the first time in our relationship, a genuinely honest contact between us. All the rest had been indulgence on his part and acquiescence on mine.
‘Am I so transparent?’ he said. ‘I suppose I must be. Dear Bernard, you’re angry with me.’
I rose to my feet and moved to the window and stared into the night. ‘I don’t think Anson Havershaw ever existed,’ I said. ‘There was instead a man consumed with guilt who created a fairy story about angels and spirits in order to conceal certain truths from himself.’ Why, I thought, do old drunks always choose me to tell their stories to?
‘I haven’t told you the complete truth,’ said Harry.
‘There was no Anson Havershaw,’ I said.
‘Oh there was, there was. There is,’ said Harry. A pause. Then: ‘There was no Harry Talboys.’
I turned. This I was not prepared for.
‘I am Anson Havershaw.’
He nodded. ‘I shall show you,’ he said, and rising to his feet, he began laboriously to remove his jacket, and then to unbutton his shirt.
• • •
In the middle of Harry’s ceiling was a fixture into which three light bulbs were screwed. A short length of chain hung from it; Harry pulled the chain, and the room was flooded with a harsh raw light. Beneath his shirt, it now became apparent, he wore a garment of some sort of off-white surgical plastic. Slowly he removed his shirt. The plastic, which was quite grubby, encased him like a sleeveless tunic from his upper chest to a line somewhere below the belt of his trousers. It was fastened down the side by a series of little buckles, and a very narrow fringe of dirty gauze peeped from the upper edge, where the skin was rubbed to an angry rash. Harry’s arms were the arms of a very old man, the flesh hanging from the bone in loose white withered flaps. He smiled slightly, for I suppose I must have been gazing with horrified
curiosity at this bizarre corset of his. I was standing close to the incense, and as Harry fumbled with the buckles I brought the censer up under my nose; for the smell rapidly became very bad indeed. He dropped his trousers and underpants. The corset extended to his lower belly, forming a line just above a hairless pubis and a tiny, uncircumcised penis all puckered up and wrinkled in upon itself. He loosed the final straps; holding the corset to his body with his fingers, he told me gently that I must not be shocked. And then he revealed himself to me.
There was, first of all, the smell; a wave of unspeakable foulness was released with the removal of the corset, and to defend my senses I was forced to clamp my nostrils and inhale the incense with my mouth. Harry’s flesh had rotted off his lower ribs and belly, and the clotted skin still clinging to the ribs and hipbones that bordered the hole was in a state of gelatinous putrescence. In the hole I caught the faint gleam of his spine, and amid an indistinct bundle of piping the forms of shadowy organs. I saw sutures on his intestines, and the marks of neat stitching, and a cluster of discolored organic vessels bound with a thin strip of translucent plastic. He should have been dead, and I suppose I must have whispered as much, for I heard him say that he could not die. How long I stood there gazing into his decaying torso I do not know; at some point I seemed to become detached from my own body and saw as if from high up and far away the two figures standing in the room, the flowers and the crucifix between them, myself clutching the censer and Harry standing with his opened body and his trousers at his ankles. It took long enough, I suppose, for the full horror of his condition to be borne home to me. This is what it means to be an angel, I remember thinking, in our times at least: eternal life burned in him while his body, his temple, crumbled about the flame. Out there in the hot night the city trembled with a febrile life of its own, and somewhere a siren
leaped into sudden desolate pain. All I saw then was a young man standing in the corner of a shabby room watching an old man pull up his trousers.
• • •
As I write this it is late January, and very cold outside. Snow lies heaped in filthy piles along the edge of the sidewalk, and the Chrysler Building is a bleak gray needle against a thickening winter afternoon sky. The men from the men’s shelter huddle in the doorways in the Bowery, selling cigarettes from off the tops of plastic milk crates, and the smell of incense still pervades the lower floors of the building. I can’t help thinking of him as Harry – it seems somehow to suit him better. He asked me to write an account of our friendship, I wouldn’t otherwise have done it; writing seems futile now. Everything seems futile, for some reason I don’t fully understand, and I keep wondering why any of us cling to the raft. The one consolation I can find is the presence of that other spirit traveling with us in the body – a consolation denied my rotting friend downstairs, whoever, whatever, he is.