Alfie and Joe

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Alfie and Joe by Deb Margolin  

I don’t want to know, honestly I don’t. When I’m going away somewhere, I don’t want to know where it is; I hate maps, I hate the relativism of Location. The travel agent will say: Let me show you where it is on the map, and I just say: I can’t read, I can’t write, I’m incapable of this information, I don’t want to know where I’m going. Part of

what defines a vacation for me is a freedom from the sense of belonging anywhere, of knowing anything, of having any sense of responsibility for where the fuck I am.


So I don’t know where Murfreesboro, Tennessee, is, and don’t try to call and tell me. I know it’s south of where I live; I don’t know by how much. I know the original Ku Klux Klan headquarters is a scant thumbnail-moon thirty miles out of it somewhere. I know that the lights of Nashville obscure the darkness of Murfreesboro; that there’s a state university somewhere there; that the food in that town, free of charge, couldn’t lure a beggar. I know that some native folk stake a claim to Murfreesboro in general, and to a town convenience store in particular, as the literal center of the universe. And for folks in Murfreesboro, it definitely is. I can’t tell you another thing about it.


Except that my cousin lived there. My cousin Alfie. I had just gotten out of college, where I read a thousand books and smoked ten thousand cigarettes, had a job and lost it; decided to go visit cousin Alfie. Alfie was a renegade who made a living suing people and driving a truck for the mob on movie sets and garbage routes. He had a girlfriend, an apartment and a ton of drugs, and he

was real gung-ho about the thought of a visit from me. He admired me for being the “black sheep of the family.” I never told him how much of a projection I thought that was.


I arrived there in the late summer. I love the late summer, when even the heat feels cool because it’s tired of itself; kind of going cool around the edges in preview. Murfreesboro had the stillness of a rattlesnake before the strike; nothing ever happened there except in the obituary section. Alfie picked me up at the airport, and after slamming me on the back a couple of times with genuine affection, he asked me how I was doing, and when I told him how thirsty I felt, he opened a small vial and held out a little white pill. Do this, man! he said. Alfie had a pill or powder for every possible sensation, craving, yearning or biological requirement: if you were hungry you took this, if you were tired, you took that; he was pharmacologically equipped to do away with almost all human experience.


Alfie was so glad to see me that he had absolutely nothing to do with me. I had slated myself for a week in Murfreesboro, but as I write this I can say it was a week of months. I was there forever. Part of me died there, sweetly died. I spent the days wandering the streets. Time was hot and meaningless. I’d leave early in the morning while Alfie and his girlfriend were asleep. His girlfriend hated me the minute she saw me. They had a passionate, violent, friendly relationship, and while I was doing nothing at all, she went to work, came home, smoked, cursed, cut vegetables with a very sharp knife, cooked pork, dyed

her hair and read girl magazines. I was told never to touch those.


One night Alfie broke his hand hitting her square in the jaw. I got home late and took an anti-hunger pill, having not found one palatable thing to swallow all day. Back in my room, on this, the penultimate night of my tender visit with Alfie, I heard the fight start up slowly, like a lawn-mower far away, and the sound rose in mass and energy until it turned into swooshes, the sounds of bodies moving, of flying bodies. I think I heard his bones crack, but I could be wrong. I thought I heard her crying, but that wouldn’t have been much like
her. All I know is, within a short time, she had left with the hair dryer and all the money, and Alfie was sitting in my room sharing his anti-pain medications and showing me the new contours of his fist. It had the shape of a heart in congestive failure.


I took Alfie to the hospital. He told me to get lost, so I left him there. At this time it was 12:20 in the morning, and I had no pills for my sadness, the tainted, maudlin kind you feel in a playground empty of children. I walked then, for miles, many miles; I walked for hours and hours, twenty miles maybe, all the way to some little hamlet just outside Nashville. The walk was one of the most exciting I ever had. It was absolutely without promise; it was at the very boundary of meaninglessness. In that state all desire, all sex, all requitedness, all Heaven, is suddenly palpable, audible.


I arrived at the Bickford’s Coffee Shop at 5:10 A.M. Bickford’s are everywhere. Outside the store was a map, a big map of all the Bickford’s Coffee Shops all over the country; green mountains and blue seas punctuated only by the little thatched roofs of Bickford’s Coffee Shops. I studied the map with great interest, and I can say to this day it is the first map I ever understood. I understood it deeply, with my body. I realized I hadn’t eaten in six days and was literally starving, and I lurched in with a new, profound sense of enfranchisement. I picked a seat in the horseshoe formation of the bar area, picked it the way I’ve seen kids pick their horses on the carousel. The smell of ammonia and coffee. Bickford’s is green, like the face of someone sick; it’s lit up without light; it’s desperate. I was never so happy to be anywhere in my life. I could sense my proximity to Nashville, my proximity to the rest of my

life, my distance from Alfie, my nearness to the woman he just hit, who escaped in a fashion both ancient and heroic. And I was on vacation.


Joseph was in there, dear friends, Joseph. I don’t know how I could have missed it: Joseph, Christ almighty, Joseph was in there. I didn’t know him, his name, but he was there, sitting directly across from me, staring at me. Staring in general is not erotic to me, but he sucked me with his eyes, pulled my body volume full to the surface. It’s 5:20, don’t forget; I’m nothing but thirty miles, I’m nothing but cows and stars, and there’s Joseph, the only other patron in the place. Joseph’s looks are not important, not important at all. Someone with that degree of sexual power doesn’t look like anything. You can’t see them, only feel them, experience them; I doubt Alfie would have had any pill that could have gotten me out of this one.


We took our time, we had nothing but that. I asked for coffee, but the waiter didn’t seem to know that word, so I mimed holding a cup and bringing it up to my lips, and he suddenly understood. For Joseph the little pageant was obscene; his eyes showed me that. Gravity behaves just this way: powerful, impersonal,

supremely unavoidable, the pull of a body on another body, the compulsory fall to the deepest possible level. Gravity lets you roll down a grassy hill; I belonged to this man without speaking to him. A long time went by. I noticed he had a piece of cherry pie in front of him, and that seemed cartoonlike and ridiculous, and I burst out laughing. That passed, and it was silent again. At that moment the waiter put coffee in front of me in a chaste white cup and Joseph got up and was near me in an instant, against me; he put his hand between my legs, whispering in my ear. I didn’t even turn to look at him. He picked up my coffee cup, drank a slow draught of it, then pulled my face to him and kissed me, so I could taste the burnt, the unsweetened. He deprived me of his tongue, which was curious; he was flirting with me, he was teasing me, he wanted me to suffer. That kiss was an enactment of all my hunger and when it was over I somehow knew his name without his telling me. He pulled me up off my barstool and dropped some bills onto the counter. It took the bills forever to fall, like leaves from a great height; that was my last image of Bickford’s. The rest was all him.


He took me outside and pressed his body against me. I hadn’t understood how tall he was. His crotch was against me; it was volcanic. He owned me, and that gave him great gentleness, like God’s. Slowly, involuntarily, I reached up, stood on tiptoe and got my arms around his neck; this caused me to cant dangerously, and he caught me before I fell. It had begun to rain. I begged him

for his tongue, but he started talking. He put his hands under my shirt, underneath my shirt, on my breasts. Heat flowed into his hands like milk. He started talking. He said:


My parents are coming today. I want you so badly. You’re Jewish, I know that. I want you. I’m a friend of Isaac Bashevis Singer, I know him, I’m a writer, I love you, I wish my parents weren’t coming or I’d take you to meet him, you’re a writer, I can tell that, don’t say anything, he’s old now, I’d like you to see him, his eyes would glow, he would steal you. My parents are coming today or I’d take you out of here, take you down to Memphis where we could just live and die as long and as hard as we chose to, baby, you’re a writer, I know that, don’t say anything.


And he finally gave me his tongue. He put his hand behind my head, pulled my hair from its ponytail, a gesture I’d seen in a thousand movies and never understood before. My hair fell like light from a source, down to the ends of itself, and bounced like water, and he pulled me to him with the force of the tide and gave me his tongue. It was a terrifying, beautiful muscle that moved like a fish. I felt it in my stomach, my esophagus. It was spiny, riddled, like a wall with bullet holes. It burned. It went around me and around me until I came to know it, the second map I ever understood. His tongue was a condition, it was a cartography and it hurt me, it made me want more, I was lost, I just wanted. I said:


Your tongue is spiky


And it hurt him to hear my voice, he wanted silence and he said:


Does it pierce you?


He took me in his car. Before we got in, I asked, Are you a rapist or a murderer? and we laughed.


I love Isaac Bashevis Singer, with his dybbuks and his spirits and his quaint way of lusting and Chekhovian sense of loss, but Henry Miller was the writer who made me want to write. In one of Hen’s exuberant Tropic novels, he sang of wanting to fuck a woman


so she stayed fucked


And that’s the image that made me see language, or what they call a tongue, as the means to that kind of fucking, that kind of fuck that never leaves you, that’s fixed like a town on a map, that sets the standard, that fixes the nature of one’s hunger. He did that to me, Joseph; he marked me; he promised me things. He fucked me so I stayed fucked. People see that, just looking at me; it makes them want to do it again.


I called him from the airport, my beauty, he gave me his phone number, which shocked me. He didn’t want me to speak, he wanted to be the one who helped me from speech like a grand dame from a prop plane. I called him from the airport. When he answered the phone I heard Yiddish being spoken, an old lady’s voice speaking Yiddish . . . I said Joe? but he didn’t say anything and I hung up.


On the plane there was a map of the airline’s hubs and stops and other places, with arcs connecting dots to show aviation routes. I wiped my mouth with that when I lost my napkin.

For more Deb Margolin, read:

Dateline: Fire Island
Two on One: Survivor
Till Death Do Us
Heaven Is a Cliche, So Is Cyberspace
Alfie and Joe
Handling the Curves: The Erotics of Type
I Am Monica Lewinsky
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©1999 Deb Margolin and