SEND ME WORKby Katherine Karlin
Harriet knew the party was over two days before Christmas, 1983—the day her best friend, Israel the clown, unexpectedly blew in from Sarasota. Harriet had lost her job, her boyfriend, and her apartment in a single eight-hour span, so when Izzy appeared, as if summoned telepathically, she expected him to save what had been an exceptionally bad day. It was his occupation, after all, to restore good spirits: he worked for the circus. When they were kids, Izzy had tried to teach her to ride a unicycle in Prospect Park, his hand gripping the banana seat as she lurched forward and back. “Okay,” he had said. “I’m letting go now.”
“Don’t let go!” Harriet had squealed.
The job she lost was just a temp gig in an accounting firm where she operated an antique Burroughs posting machine, and although she loved its gunmetal smell and the red and black spool of ribbon, Harriet knew the accountants had to reconcile their losses by the end of the year, and she’d be canceled along with their other debits.
Losing the boyfriend wasn’t so bad either, even if he looked a little like Pacino. He called himself a writer, but he spent most of his days lurking around the Strand, checking out the first sentences of novels. The apartment, though, was a honey: a rent-controlled West Village one-bedroom overlooking a courtyard. Very Rear Window. When he evicted her, the boyfriend threw his keys on the kitchen table and said, “We seem to inhabit parallel versions of reality.” It was late afternoon. The sky hung low and pewterish, maybe about to snow. Harriet packed her belongings in a red, patent leather hatbox she’d found on the curb of Perry Street and smoothed her bangs on her forehead. She was going through a Louise Brooks phase.
But she realized she was at the close of an era not because she lost her job, or her boyfriend, or her flat. It was because, as she swung her hatbox on her way to a Hudson Street pay phone, taking inventory of her friends who had spare sofas or floor space, she couldn’t come up with a single name. At least, no one so intimate she could show up at his door, having squandered the last of her money on a bottle of tequila and a bag of limes, and say, “I just got fired and dispossessed; let’s celebrate.” Standing on the corner of Christopher and Hudson, she finally understood that all the boys had vanished, like children in a dark fairy tale. One by one, each of them had complained of a minor ailment—a scab on the knee, a tongue coated with thrush—and before Harriet knew it they had left town, retreated to the dreadful places they had once escaped. Dover, Delaware; Tupelo, Mississippi; Steamboat Springs, Colorado—if she sent a birthday card it returned unopened, sometimes with a frosty note from the boy’s parents scrawled on the envelope, and Harriet would study the return-to-sender stamp for some indication of whether the boy were dead or alive.
She felt like the last living girl in New York. She grieved for these boys, and shuddered to think of their last, lonely days. But more than anything, she felt abandoned. Standing on the corner beneath the low clouds with her hand on the sticky pay phone was like standing at the foot of a well with a girded, moss-slick bucket dangling over her head. Harriet looking up at it from the cold, muddy bottom, calling, Hello, hello? Can anybody hear? Hello?
She telephoned her sister in Brooklyn.
“You can stay for one week,” the sister said, before Harriet even asked.
Harriet heard the baby cooing in the background. Harriet liked the baby all right, and how her skull had the spongy texture of a pound cake; but she dreaded her sister’s disapproval.
“I know you’ve been thrown out,” the sister continued. “Israel already phoned here looking for you. He called your apartment and was told you don’t live there anymore.”
“Izzy’s in town?” Harriet’s mood lifted. Just when she was in free fall Izzy threw her a line. He had a spooky sense of when to call in the middle of the night or send a newsy letter.
Harriet wrote a phone number on the back of her hand and dropped another quarter in the slot. A young man answered, and Harriet asked to speak to Israel. The boy dropped the phone, and she heard what sounded like furniture moving on the other end of the line. Then she heard Izzy’s voice, that soft scratchy timbre that reminded her of old Victrolas.
“Well, he kicked me out, Iz.” With her toe she nudged one of the used rubbers that littered Christopher Street. “And I lost my temp job. If we’re going out you’re treating.”
“My pleasure,” he said.
“So who’s the boy who answered the phone?”
“You can’t say. Okay, buddy. Can you get away?”
“Any time you say.”
“Now would be good. Sheridan Square. Thirty minutes.” She didn’t even have to say which corner of Sheridan Square. He knew. Izzy came to New York several times a year, sometimes visiting his father, the rabbi, sometimes not; and sometimes dating some man or other he’d met on the road. But he always made time for Harriet so that they could roam around the city. With thirty minutes to kill, she headed towards Seventh Avenue to watch the holiday lights emerge against the darkening sky. The sidewalks were full, and she bobbed through the crowds like a cork. She passed a sex toy shop decorated for the season with a garland of red and green foil condom wrappers strung on a fake white tree. She got tangled in the leash of a Chihuahua that was tethered to a parking meter. On Washington Street, a fortyish man in a houndstooth coat sat behind a bridge table that was piled high with books and videotapes and milk crates crammed with record albums—another estate sale. Christmas shoppers were flipping through the albums. She picked up a book—something about the Harlem Renaissance—and picked up an album cover. Harry Belafonte’s “Calypso,” its edges were soft and frayed. With the record in her hand she tried to absorb the energy of its past owner. “He sure had eclectic tastes,” she said.
The man in the houndstooth coat waved his hand at her. “You don’t know the half of it.”
Izzy, she noted, would want to hear about the tables full of books and records—the sidewalk sales that were sprouting up around the neighborhood. He was lucky to be living in Florida, far from the plague.
As kids they used to spend every weekend rambling around Manhattan, or sitting like grown-ups watching Harold Lloyd one-reelers at a film lovers’ club in the basement of the Plaza Hotel. A red-headed waitress brought them ginger ale in highball glasses, each with a sophisticated maraschino cherry. As the afternoon closed in and dusk started to settle, they walked along these very streets of the West Village, peering into the warm, lemony windows of the brownstones, picking out which house they would live in when they were older. Who knew that at thirty she would still be looking in from the outside?
She decided to go to Sheridan Square to wait for him, like a girl waiting for a boy in an old wartime movie. She was even dressed for the part, wearing a nubbly, brown coat she’d gotten for ten dollars at a thrift shop in Gramercy Park. It had a faint stain on the lapel, but it was plenty warm and had a coffee-colored lining that she adored. Underneath was a 1964-era Mary Quant (six bucks), navy with white accents and perfect for work, with a retro touch that Israel would appreciate.
And there he was, punctual as ever. Izzy had reached their meeting spot first: she could pick him out from across Seventh Avenue. No mistaking that oversized army coat and the duffel bag at his feet. Israel may have been a Jewish boy from Brooklyn, but when he visited from out of town these days, he affected the look of a soldier on leave, or a rodeo rider lost in the city. The traffic light changed, and she surged forward with the crowd, eager to reach him. Then she stopped dead, right in the crosswalk. Maybe that wasn’t Izzy after all. The profile didn’t look right; his hair, thick and auburn, was cropped as short as a Marine’s, only uneven, with neglected patches here and there. And the face was too thin, actually gaunt. But the flattened tip of the nose was definitely Izzy’s—that and the way he leaned against the three-mouthed fire hydrant, one foot propped up behind him, his knee bent at an improbably flexible 180 degrees. The big army jacket looked bigger than usual. While she was frozen there, the traffic light changed again, and taxis honked. He turned to her, and his arm shot up in the air. It was Izzy all right. He had a scab over his eyebrow the size of a ping pong ball. Harriet had seen those contusions before and knew what they meant. The strength in her legs gave way, and she would have sunk to the pavement if a pedestrian hadn’t jostled her.
“Well, if it isn’t Harriet the spy,” Izzy said.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Wobbling, she threw her arm around him and pressed her face against his neck. He was as slight as a paper doll.
“Now, now,” he said, patting her on the shoulder. “Let’s have a lovely evening.”
“Evening?” she asked. She’d been counting on spending the next few days with him. “How long are you in town?”
“I’ve got an eleven-thirty flight out of LaGuardia.”
“Tonight? You’re only here for one day?”
“I’ve already been here for three. It’s all the excitement I can stand.”
“And didn’t call me till now, you bum?”
Izzy looked up Seventh Avenue. “Let’s get some dinner, hey?”
So that’s how it was going to be. He didn’t want to talk about it. They never did, these boys. It was some fraternity Harriet couldn’t join. He hoisted his duffel from the sidewalk and slung it over his shoulder. She took his arm, careful not to squeeze. She had long comforted herself by thinking that Israel was imperishable, always cautious and discreet—even a little prudish.
“Okay. So if you’ve been in town for three days, what have you been doing? Never mind. I don’t want to know.” She tried to tamp down the tremble in her voice.
“Actually, I’ve been a good boy.” He tapped her wrist. “Have to be. What have I been doing? This and that. I went to the new television museum. You can sit at a monitor and watch any program from any time, ever. I watched some old Red Skelton shows.”
“By yourself?” Harriet envied his capacity for solitude. When they were kids she used to call him with adventurous plans for the evening, and half the time he would decline, gently insisting he preferred to be alone.
They went to a Thai restaurant, warm with the smell of curry and hot peppers. It was still early, not even six, and the place was nearly empty. When the hostess looked at Izzy her face softened, and she led them to a booth by the window. Izzy shook off his army coat and sat opposite Harriet. He wore a red, flannel shirt, and its shoulder seams dropped halfway to his elbows. His adam’s apple was pointy. Izzy had been a pretty boy, with peachy cheeks and plush lips, and now his lips were thin and dry.
He leaned across the table and fingered the collar of her Mary Quant. “Look at you. So ‘That Girl.’”
“I thought you’d like it.”
“You should be prancing down Broadway with a parasol.” He shook out his napkin and laid it on his lap. “So what’s going on?”
“Come on. I don’t want to talk about me, Izzy.” Her troubles were pretty small.
“But that’s my job.”
Harriet took his hand from her collar and kissed it. “Golly, Iz. You seem a long way off.”
“Well, hell, then. Come and sit next to me over here.” He slid towards the window. She jumped up, moved his duffel to the opposite bank, and scooted in next to him. They sat hip-to-hip, like lovers, the side of her foot pressed against his.
“That’s better, isn’t it?” he asked. She nodded, reveling in his nearness. As kids they had had sleepovers, until they were ten or eleven and their parents started to object. They lay under the covers together, kicking the blankets to create sparks, giggling with the coziness of their limbs side by side. As long as they could sit this way, knee to knee, elbow to elbow, she could keep from flying apart.
“Okay,” he said, “gossip with me.”
“I’m starving,” she said. She opened her menu.
“How’s your career?”
Israel sighed, exasperated. “Your comedy career.”
“I euthanized it. I’ve come to the conclusion that you’re the clown in this partnership, not me.” She had actually liked writing the jokes, but the audiences were dense and brutal. Plus her long, intricately detailed stories made them impatient, and her Barbara Stanwyck impressions soared clear over their heads. Mostly, stand-up involved hanging out in bars with a bunch of belching, hetero jerks, waiting for three minutes at the mic.
“You were funny,” he said. “Not belly-laugh funny, but gentle, understated.”
“People don’t go to two-drink minimum clubs for 'understated'.”
“That’s their loss,” Izzy said. “Anyway, I think you and I have a duty to cheer people up.”
“You do,” Harriet said. “You’re the lucky one,” she said. “You were born with that clown gene. You always knew.”
“I’m lucky?” he asked. “Care to trade?”
Chastened, Harriet shut her mouth. For the first time in her life she did not know how to talk to him. The hostess came with two sizzling trays of curry, even though Harriet didn’t remember ordering.
“That looks really good,” Izzy said, half to the girl, half to Harriet. His voice was light. She knew he was reassuring her: it was safe to chat.
“Okay,” she said, “so there’s this disc jockey on BAI who plays a whole show of misconstrued lyrics.” Harriet sharpened her chopsticks. “Listeners call in with the lyrics they’ve always heard wrong, and then he corrects them and plays the record. Guess what his theme song is?”
Izzy shoved some food around his plate. “Excuse me while I kiss this guy.”
“Good guess! But no: There’s a bathroom on the right.”
“Precisely. So this guy calls in with the Springsteen song, the one about driving all night just to buy you some shoes.”
“Oh, I love that. So romantic.” Izzy twirled his chopsticks in the air, as if he were churning up some romance.
“Isn’t it? It starts out, ‘I wish God would send me word, send me something I’m afraid to lose.’ And this dude always heard it, ‘I wish God would send me work, send me something I’m afraid to do.’”
“I like that version better.”
“Me too,” Harriet said. “I’ve been singing it that way all week.”
“Very elegant. Very subtle.”
Slowly the restaurant filled up. Bridge-and-tunnel people. Kids from Brooklyn, like they used to be, firefighters with their families, Mafia ladies with spidery mascara. Also locals: gay couples on dates, law students, jewelers.
“Did you see your father this visit?” Harriet asked.
End of discussion. It was a sore point, Izzy and his father. Harriet wasn’t even sure if Izzy had come out to his dad, and she didn’t ask.
The rabbi had marched in Selma. A picture of him crossing the Edmund Pettis Bridge, locking arms with Martin Luther King, hung over the leather couch in his office, and as a child Harriet used to kneel on the sofa to study the photograph while Israel rehearsed pratfalls off the desk. The rabbi had pointy eyebrows and an eagle nose and long earlobes that seemed always to sprout a day’s growth of stubble (ear-shaving courtesy of Mrs. Rabbi Shapiro, Harriet assumed, since deceased). Harriet was always a little afraid of him.
Sitting next to her now in the light of the Thai restaurant, the rosiness gone from his lips and face, and his skin dry as paper, Israel had come to resemble his father in a way she would not have predicted. And she could see the middle-aged man Izzy wouldn’t become, principled like his father but milder and less disapproving.
She leaned into Izzy as he played with his food. Steam fogged the windows, and above their heads a tiny handprint emerged on the plate glass.
“Look at that,” she said.
Izzy looked up. “What do you know.” He reached to touch it. “So small. Must have been a baby.”
“How did it get all the way up there?”
“His parent must have lifted him,” Izzy said, “to look out onto the street, to watch the parade of people. Kids like that. Watching activity, bustling. That’s why they like clowns.”
Harriet watched the little handprint grow clearer as the mist thickened. The girl came to take their platters. Their food was mostly untouched. Harriet grabbed the lip of her plate and said, “Wait, I’m not done.”
The waitress took Izzy’s curry away, while another girl walked around the room lighting candles on the tables. Harriet’s face grew warm. She was suddenly flush with happiness. Her future came into sharp focus and it involved Izzy and palm trees and the blue Gulf of Mexico. The answer for both of them was simple. They had to go on sitting next to each other, arms and hips touching like twins.
“You know what?” she said. “Losing my job and my boyfriend and my apartment and all, maybe it couldn’t have come at a better time. In fact, maybe it’s a sign.”
Izzy took a tin of Drum tobacco from his jacket with some cigarette papers. “A sign?” He sprinkled tobacco leaves into a paper and rolled it, rocking the cigarette back and forth on the table.
“I can’t believe you’re still smoking. Everybody’s quit.”
“What’s it going to do?” He lit up. “Kill me?”
“Sorry. Gallows humor. It comes with the territory.” He let out a long blue plume of smoke. “A sign of what?”
“What I’m supposed to be doing. Taking care of you. What do you think? You and me in Sarasota.” It was an image so clear she could bite it: Harriet and Izzy, with her ministering to his needs, Lauren Bacall to his Bogart, Greer Garson to his Ronald Colman. She saw herself strolling him along the boardwalk, among the geeks and strongmen and bearded ladies, and the clowns in their stiff wigs.
“And you shouldn’t be alone,” she said.
“What makes you think I’d be alone?”
“What? Are you dating someone?”
He clutched his chest. “It’s a Christmas miracle!” He was kidding. He stubbed out his cigarette, laughing. “I’m moving into a retirement community for old clowns. The circus is very generous. I get full disability. And the old clowns are kind of cool. Some of them go back to the thirties. Boxcar days.”
“Sounds like fun. Take me with you.”
“Oh, Har,” he sighed.
She knew what was coming. Gay or straight, all men sounded the same when they were breaking it off.
“You’re such a sweetheart,” he said.“Oh, God. Don’t say that. All my life men have said that. Usually followed by but. You’re such a sweetheart, but I need some space. You’re such a sweetheart, but I got a job in Seattle. You’re a peach, but I met an aerobics instructor named Daphne.”
“You’re a funny girl.”
“Yeah, they say that too.”
“If you haven’t noticed, my dear, I’m not other men.”
“But still you’re leaving me.”
“Only in the sense that we all leave sooner or later.”
When they were fifteen, and just about this time of year, they both got their first pairs of eyeglasses. Later they would graduate to contact lenses, but they were thrilled with the adultishness of wearing glasses. They went out on the town, trying out their new look and feeling very cerebral. “Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby,” Harriet cried, so Izzy started talking like Cary Grant. They stood under the big tree at Rockefeller Center and discovered that, if they removed their glasses, the colored lights blurred magnificently. It was trippy. They stood for minutes, heads hung back, mouths open, dangling their new eyeglasses from their fingers. They felt sorry for anyone who wasn’t nearsighted.
And now she pulled back and socked Izzy in the arm. “Fuck you,” she said. “How could you?”
“Ouch. That hurts.” He flinched.
She socked him again. “Who was it? Some clown groupie you balled between the elephant cages?” Her fist landed in the folds of his shirt. “A toothless carnie, maybe? Threw him down in the sawdust? What did you do, screw the ringleader in top hat and tails?” She hit him again. “You’re disgusting.”
He cowered against the window, blocking her blows with his hands. “Stop it, will you? Cut it out.”
“You didn’t think about anyone else. You didn’t even think about me. What am I supposed to do now? Why won’t you let me take care of you?”
“Because! You’re hurting me. You’d serve me dead rats like Bette Davis served Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.”
Harriet started crying. “See? You know that, Iz. What am I going to do when no one else knows Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”
“You meet some new people. And it wouldn’t hurt to see some newer movies.”
“Well, here’s the thing” she said. “Remember we once spent a whole Saturday going from movie theater to movie theater, and all the projectionists knew our names and comped us, and we saw Orson Welles walking down Eighth Street, and that fat man at the restaurant in Little Italy treated us to a linguini dinner because we were such nice kids, and we were still eating our puttanesca when some gangster got his brains splattered all over the sidewalk right in front? Okay. Well, if that wasn’t supposed to be the best day in our lives, maybe you should have notified me or something, because it’s still the best in my life.” She cracked open a fortune cookie. “In the top five, anyway.”
“It was a fine day, wasn’t it?”
She dug her chin into his shoulder, and she could feel his bone cut through the flannel. Izzy signaled for the check. He was a sly dog—he was officially ending this line of conversation, and like a brat Harriet wanted to persist. It took everything she had to stop talking.
They paid the check and went for a long walk in the streets, speaking very little. She dragged her hatbox behind them. On Sixth Avenue a men’s choir sang “Sexual Healing” in three-part harmony. Some of the choristers had sunken eyes. A crowd of people gathered and threw coins and bills into an upended fedora. Harriet and Israel stopped briefly until the choir finished the song and received a scattered ovation, and then they started singing “Tainted Love,” and Harriet’s blood drained to her feet. They drifted by a Korean green grocer with pyramids of fruit on the sidewalk, casting yellow and orange light into their faces. A Dominican in an apron sat on an orange crate, watching for shoplifters with one eye open like a cat. “Hey mister,” he said, and pressed a tangerine into Izzy’s hand. Harriet didn’t know why. But things like that always happened to him. Panhandlers gave him single carnations, bouncers unlatched their velvet cordons, and vendors dropped extra falafel patties into his pita. Izzy thanked the Dominican, and as he peeled the tangerine a spray of juice burst from its skin. He handed her a crescent. The flavor flooded her mouth.
“This is,” he said, his mouth full, “the best tangerine I’ve ever had. And I’m from Florida.”
She would have to memorize all of this: the singing, the taste of tangerine and the seed he spit on the pavement, the fog his breath made. Someday she would need it. Holding his arm, she glanced up to see, on top of the buildings, the black silhouettes of water towers, staved and coopered and quaint. She shivered.
“This city’s full of ghosts,” she said.
“Doesn’t have to be.”
The sky was a slate-colored ribbon over the avenue. But as she looked specks began to spiral out of the clouds like badminton birdies. It was snowing. Big flakes, each elaborate as a doily, landing on her nose and on the sidewalk, where they clung for a second before disappearing. A Japanese girl in a long, maroon coat held her arms tight to her side, scrunched her eyes shut and stuck out her tongue; the two men she was with--a couple--started to laugh.
“Now you have to stay,” Harriet said. “At least until the snow covers all the garbage. It’s so pretty.”
He took her hand and thrust it into the pocket of his army coat. It was a deep pocket, and she could feel some items knocking around in there: a couple of tokens and a pack of cigarette papers. Neither of them wore gloves. Their hands were cold and spiny, and Izzy’s felt so frail in hers that she was afraid she might crush it. She wanted to believe they were simply wandering, the way they used to, with no particular destination, but she knew he was steering her somewhere, tugging her around corners and nudging her across streets. Finally they were at the Fourth Street subway stop, and his pace slowed.
“This is where I get off, sweetie,” he said.
“You’re taking the subway? For God’s sake, get a cab. I’ll go with you.”
“I like the subway,” he said.
They stood shoulder to shoulder for a few minutes, watching a pick-up game on the basketball court. Men dribbled and sprinted, rolling in unison from one end of the playground to the other. The snow fell on them, too. She pressed her fingertips against Izzy’s knuckles. As they stood there three subways came and left; she could hear the screeching of brakes beneath them. The smell of hot metal came up through the grate, mingling with the smells of chestnuts and snow and diesel.
“Okay,” he said, “give us a hug.”
As she held him, the marquis lights of the drugstore across the street splintered into shards. Her fingers probed under his jacket, pulled the tail of his flannel shirt from his jeans, and dug into his dry skin. He was nothing but bones. But it was him, it was Izzy, smelling of wool and tobacco and greasepaint and Brut. And as long as she kept her arms around him, she could keep him from disintegrating into dust.
“Don’t let go,” she said.
And of course, on cue, he drew away and held her at arm’s length. She looked at the blurry sidewalk, and he said, “Come on. Let me see your face.”
She bucked up. He wanted her to buck up. Then he said, “Hey. You used to be Norma Desmond. You used to be big.”
“I am big. The pictures got small.”
“There you go.” He kissed her on the lips, and with impressive grace for someone so sick, he ran down the stairwell into the mouth of the subway, not turning, not even once, for a last look.
“He’s gone, dear.”
She liked that he called her dear. She liked him, his voice soft and musical. She cupped the receiver. She had an apartment of her own, now, nothing fancy--a studio on Avenue D. She worked in the welfare office. She enjoyed telling people she was a civil servant; the sound of it made her feel as if she should be wearing a jaunty tri-cornered hat.
“It was peaceful. He was at home.”
She felt a pang of jealousy. “Was he—”
“In pain? You know how it is.”
But she didn’t. No one wanted her around for the final reel.
“And listen, dearie. He had a request of you.”
Harriet perked up. Izzy left her a message. He wasn’t quite gone yet.
“He asked that you tell the father.”
“Me?” It wasn’t the message she had hoped for.
“He was very specific. Harriet must inform the rabbi, he said.”
She took the subway to Brooklyn. She wore a business suit and rectangular black glasses, early sixties Paula Prentiss, sober as the situation demanded. In Brooklyn the locust trees were beginning to leaf. The rabbi’s secretary asked her to wait in his office, and Harriet sat on the leather sofa. She turned and kneeled on the cushion to look at the picture from Selma. There was a smudge across it, maybe something she or Izzy left when he practiced tumbles.
When she heard the door open, she tried to jump to her feet. Her heart drummed. The rabbi walked in, took a look at her, said, “Oh, God,” and walked out again. She sat and waited for what seemed like a long time, wondering if she should follow him. Then the door opened again.
“He’s gone, then?”
Harriet nodded. He still had those aquiline features, sharper with age. He sat behind his enormous desk and heaved his shoulders like a big bird of prey puffing its wings.
The rabbi sighed heavily. He pressed his eyelids with his fingertips.
His left arm in its blue jacket sleeve quivered. “I’ll have to make arrangements,” he said. “For the body.” The shaking stopped. “What an indignity, for you to have to come tell me.”
“I don’t mind.” Then she realized the rabbi meant it was an indignity for him.
“Who notified you?” he demanded.
“A colleague of hisan old clown.”
“You two,” he said, shaking his head. “Inseparable.”
“We were, weren’t we?” Harriet said, encouraged.
“Absolutely inseparable. I always thought it was unhealthy.” He aimed his face at her. How many bar mitzvah boys must have quaked with fear on this very sofa? “Of course that was before I comprehended all the—”
His lips straightened into a flat, bloodless line.
“All the implications,” Harriet offered. Fathers and sons. What a mystery. In the silence she felt the shifting of tectonic plates.
“I assume he told you I was a bigot. Let me assure you, young lady. I am not a bigot. I counsel families in these matters. Sexuality and what have you.”
“He never said you were a bigot.”
“No? I’m surprised. He said it to me often enough.”
His arm started to jerk violently. They both looked at it, as if a squirrel had scampered onto the desk.
“Anyway,” she said, when the jerking subsided, “you don’t have to make arrangements. Izzy’s being cremated.”
He lifted an eyebrow. “Of course he is.” It was hard to understand how someone so chilly could share Israel’s DNA, but he did, and Harriet found herself wanting to linger there. She figured if she stuck around long enough, Israel’s molecules might rise from the furniture and reconstitute themselves in the empty space.
“Yes, he specified cremation,” she continued, “and the remains--” Actually, Harriet wasn’t sure about the remains. The old clown neglected to tell her. She scuttled for something to say. “They’re going to shoot him out of a cannon.”
“Not a real cannon. You know, one of those little toys in the circus.” If his father understood him at all he would get it. “Clowns lighting the fuse. Instead of a boom it goes off with a pop, and Izzy’s remains plop into the sawdust, with the elephant dung and the straw.”
“Is that right?” The rabbi was smiling now, faintly. He was willing to play.
“Then the Shetlands and Clydesdales and pachyderms and dromedaries and all the animals walk around in a circle, gather their hooves on round little stanchions, and rear up and flash their mammaries in salute. An elegant tiger slinks into the ring with a lady tiger-tamer donning fishnets and a snapping a whip. And all the freaks drift in from the sideshows: the pituitary cases, the fat, the hairy, the slithery, dwarves and giants, playing bugles and hoisting umbrellas. I mean, it’s not exactly Talmudic, but it’s festive.”
Above it all the trapeze lady teeters on the rim of a platform. A platform with just a little bounce, like a diving board, with the same sandpaper tread. And still her footing is unsteady, the pink toes of her ballet slippers curling over the edge. She is long-waisted and agile and glittery, and she grabs the bar as it swings her way—one hand, two hands—and the platform falls away from her feet as she hurtles into the darkness. No net. Then her skin prickles in the sudden white spotlight, and from the opposite end of the tent the clown, in a red bulb nose and comical shoes and a crushed derby, flies toward her in a low nimble arc and catches her by the ankles just in time for her release.
Katherine Karlin’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in One Story, ZYZZYVA, the Alaska Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. She received a 2007 Pushcart Prize and studies in the PhD program for Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California.
In Posse: Potentially, might be . . .