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Authors: Jerome Charyn

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BOOK: Bitter Bronx
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“Toujours gai, kid,” she said as we approached the elevator. But she was suspicious of Rosenzweig's chauffeur and limousine.

“Am I your gun moll? And is this an armored car?”

She couldn't have realized how prescient she was. The limo and its driver had once belonged to Frank Costello, who was the cataloguer's silent partner.

Rosenzweig had picked the restaurant, a Florentine dive on Ninth Avenue that didn't have to troll for customers. Costello himself dined there whenever he wasn't in the clink. The waiters, who wore blue bow ties and tight little jackets, treated Merle like Cleopatra. They brought flowers to the table. They lit a long red candle. They served us wine, even though we were too young to drink in public. They wouldn't let us order from the menu.

“Darlings, you'll eat what Mr. Frank eats.”

We had a Tuscan appetizer—crushed tomatoes and olives on flat bread. We had a salad of tiny green and yellow stalks. We had linguine cooked in the chef's own white wine sauce. We had chicken breasts baked with onions, walnuts, and diced ham . . .

Merle may have been myopic, but she wasn't blind. The restaurant was a haven for top-tier gangsters and their Madonnas, or mistress-wives. Some of these Madonnas were even younger than Merle. She never asked me who “Mr. Frank” was. But her lavender eyes were like needles after her second sip of wine. I was heartsick. There wasn't any way to win. I couldn't woo her with literature. I'd taken her out of her own little cave and had revealed nothing but a garish world of gunmen.

We rode back to West End Avenue in utter silence. She wouldn't even let me hold her hand. And she didn't invite me upstairs. I'd disappointed her more than I could ever have imagined. And she was quite cruel.

“Jerome, I think you'd better stick to your armored car. If you cruise long enough, you might find some poor Ophelia . . . and maybe the two of you can run off together and drown. Goodnight, my sweet, sweet prince.”

T
here were no more study dates. Merle never glanced at me once in the halls of Music and Art. Her lavender eyes went right through my skin and bones. Still, I was probably the richest kid at M&A. Rosenzweig cheated me, but he couldn't afford to cheat me too much. The catalogues were his bread and butter, and I was his most popular item.

But I felt cheated out of my childhood. I slaved like a dog after school. I wore white bucks, but the time I spent in the showroom kept me from my studies and pulled me far, far from New Haven and Harvard Yard.

I heard through the grapevine at M&A that Merle Messenger had fallen in love with a Harvard frosh. She arrived at school in a crimson sweatshirt, wearing a Harvard pin. She'd snub her friends, stare at the ceiling, yawn while Dr. McCloud talked of Thomas Hardy and
Jude the Obscure
, and then she didn't come to school at all.

The West Siders swore she had eloped with that crimson boy and was living in a cabin on Mount Rainier. I didn't believe a word of it, but I couldn't borrow Rosenzweig's limo and ride to Seattle. And the farther away I was from Merle, the more I missed our nights together and my breakfasts with the Messengers.

And then, six months after Merle had disappeared, I saw Mrs. Messenger at Music and Art. That should have been enough of a hint that Merle wasn't on Mount Rainier.

“Mr. Salinger,” she said with a teasing smile, “Merle would like to see you.”

I started to shiver in my pants. “I don't get it. Hasn't she gone away?”

“She never left Manhattan. She's been hospitalized, but now she's back home. She was suicidal—for a couple of weeks.”

At first I thought the crimson boy had broken her heart, but there was no crimson boy, according to Mrs. M. It was all part of Merle's “liquid imagination.”

I didn't know what to bring—candy or flowers? But I brought nothing at all. I didn't want Merle to feel I was visiting a mental patient.

Her face was as white as Count Dracula's. All her fleshiness had disappeared in six months. But her lavender eyes still bled with the fierceness of the Milky Way. She had gates on her windows now. And the shadows of the buildings across the street overwhelmed her room. We could have been in some netherworld.

“How is tricks?” I asked in Archy's vernacular.

She began to purr like an alley cat. “Still a lady,” she said. “There's a dance or two in the old dame yet.” Then the purring stopped, and I could see the taut lines under Mehitabel's mask. “You should have socked me. That might have pulled me out of my delirium.”

“But you weren't delirious.”

“Yes, I was. That's why Daddy never liked me to go out on dates.”

“But you functioned beautifully at school. You'll be our valedictorian.”

“School,” she said, frowning a bit. “That's like brushing my teeth in the dark. It's a part I've been playing since kindergarten. All Mommy had to do was wind me up—darling, haven't you ever noticed the key carved into my back?”

There was no key, and there never had been. But I wouldn't contradict her.

“Merle, your father should have told me, and I wouldn't have taken you to that awful restaurant.”

“But Daddy adores you. And I adored the funny little men who served us.”

“You didn't have such a hot time,” I said.

“But it wasn't the restaurant—it was the light.”

I didn't understand. That Florentine dive was like a dungeon, because Mr. Frank and his lieutenants preferred not to be seen around strangers.

“The candles,” she said. “It hurt my eyes to watch them flicker on the wall. I was irritable. I took it out on you. I turn into a witch whenever I'm away from this room.”

“Then it's a good geography lesson. We'll limit ourselves to this terrain.”

She frowned again. “There are no limits, dear Jerome. Haven't you heard of William Blake? You can hold Infinity in the palm of your hand.”

And I had my Infinity in a dark room on West End Avenue with gates on the windows. There were no sentinels outside Merle's door. Her mom and dad never spied on us. I spent as many nights with Merle as I could. Dracula's driver delivered me from the showroom to West End Avenue. I'd become the paterfamilias of my own little tribe in the East Bronx. Rosenzweig's accountant handled all my bills. And I explained to my mom and dad that it was much more efficient for me to reside in Manhattan overnight.

I borrowed Merle's liquid imagination and recast the Messengers into my own parents. It was a dangerous high-wire act. Young J. D. Salinger in their daughter's bed. But they weren't shopping for a son-in-law, just a guy who kept Merle out of harm's way.

I loved her, even with her face as white as chalk. I cherished every scrap of flesh on her bones. She was hungry all the time. Merle ate two meals for every meal I ate, and she was
zaftig
again after a month.

It was only then that she confided in me and confessed what the hell had happened. She hadn't tried to kill herself, not really. She'd just scribbled on the bathroom wall with her own blood.

TOUJOURS GAI, KID

Mommy and Daddy sent her to the sanatorium. And there had been a crimson boy, but he wasn't from Harvard. He was an orderly, fond of wearing a red hospital coat. His name was Marvin, and he was from Brighton Beach. He read poetry to Merle while she was strapped to a bed. Marvin knocked her up. She had an abortion and was shipped home to West End Avenue.

“I wanted to marry him,” she said. “Marvin made love to me, right after he fed me lunch. Daddy had him sent to some kind of Siberia for disgraced orderlies.”

I was broken with jealousy. I envied that crimson boy and the time he had with Merle in the madhouse.

“Marvin still writes. But Mommy tears up all his letters.”

And then she would take me inside her blue pajamas as if we were comrades in arms, and I had my own small portion of Infinity with Merle. I was like some pale replica of that crimson boy.

She talked of going back to M&A.

Some mountebank of a doctor was called in. He examined Merle for two hours.

“Jerome,” Merle whispered after the mountebank left. “We'll study together.”

But I knew what would happen next. Her lavender eyes seduced everyone in sight. She didn't even have to make up the term she had missed. She sang in the school choir. We were in Dr. McCloud's creative writing class. Her stories and poems were chiseled dreams from her days and nights in a madhouse. None of us could compete with Merle. And I couldn't write about Rosenzweig & Co., or I would have been chucked out of school.

Merle was back with her old clique. They smoked in the toilet, talked about Radcliffe and the rest of the Seven Sisters. And soon she was much too occupied with choir practice to have study dates.

I realized I was out on my ass after Mrs. M.'s maid returned the underwear she had ironed to my Bronx address. I worked more hours at the showroom. Other cataloguers tried to lure me away.

“Over my dead body,” Rosenzweig said, sniffling into a handkerchief. But it was a big act. Who would have been insane enough to mess with Mr. Frank's silent partner? Dracula tossed a wad of hundred-dollar bills at me.

“Ingrate,” he said. “Eat my heart out.”

I stopped wearing white bucks. I fell away from that elite gang of West Siders. Yale was just another school in some wilderness of towers. I thought of dropping out of M&A.

Rosenzweig began to pull out my hair. And I was precious to him. He might have ruined his own product.

“I don't have dropouts in my stable. Stupidity is not an option for one of my models.”

“Big talker,” I said. “What if I should get into Harvard by some stroke of luck?”

His nostrils were flaring again. “I'll feel as proud as if it was my own son.”

“Ah, but it's not so simple to commute from Seventh Avenue to Cambridge, Mass.”

And he mocked his protégé “With my drivers, kid, it's a piece of cake.”

I didn't have a real home—not the garment district, not the Bronx, and not West End Avenue. My grades suffered. I avoided Merle and her whole clique. If we happened to pass in the corridors, her eyes would scrape the ceiling and mine would scrape the walls.

I was going to skip graduation, but I didn't want to disappoint my mom and dad. They arrived on Convent Avenue in one of Dracula's limousines, Mom clutching a cane. I couldn't sit with them; I was up front with all the graduates, in my gown. We had a guest speaker, some Manhattan potentate, but I didn't listen to his blather. I was waiting for the valedictorian. She strode to the platform like the Valkyrie she had become in her senior year. She'd been accepted at all Seven Sisters and chose Barnard, because she wouldn't have to give up her lair on West End Avenue.

And she spoke to us with all the aplomb of her new sisterhood. She sang about the goodwill of graduating seniors—our desire to serve. She even mentioned bomb shelters and the Cold War. But I could feel her body breathe under the maroon graduation gown with a wildness of its own.

Merle winked at us and said, “Now I'd like to talk about Archy, a cockroach who was punished for having been a poet in his former life. Poetry matters to him. And it matters to his companion, Mehitabel, who would rather be ‘rowdy and gaunt . . . than slaves to a tame society.' ”

Merle stared down from the lectern, into the dimmed lights. “That is our credo at M&A. We prefer dissonance and cacophony to familiar sounds.”

Merle's classmates whistled and tossed their graduation caps into the air—that is, all her classmates except one. I couldn't gamble as much as Merle did. I was already an entrepreneur, under Rosenzweig's wing. But I disappointed Dracula. I hadn't applied to Harvard or Yale—I needed a sabbatical year between high school and college. I had to break my addiction to the Ivy League.

I tried to sneak out of the ceremonies, but Merle's own mom blocked my way. She was sniffling into a handkerchief. “Wasn't that a gorgeous speech, Jerome?”

She must have noticed the darkness under my eyes.

Suddenly her shoulders were trembling.

“It's my fault. I encouraged Merle to bring you home. You weren't part of her usual crowd. There wouldn't be any complication with parents.”

“Yeah,” I said. “It was a lark. I could sleep over, comfort Merle.”

“It was better than having her run around with strangers.”

“And I was her trusted rag doll. I was crazy about your daughter. I would have learned to disappear with much more gusto and grace. But you should have told me about that crimson boy.”

Her eyes bulged. She looked like a bird of prey. “What crimson boy?”

“The orderly who knocked up Merle.”

“Young man,” she said, “I'll have your diploma rescinded if you breathe another word. My daughter loves to lie.”

And Mrs. Messenger vanished into that maroon world of graduation gowns.

I didn't ride home with my parents in the limousine. I strolled through West Harlem in my cap and gown. I followed Broadway down to the garment district. Men on milk boxes saluted me. A housewife with wondrous hips flirted with the young graduate. I danced with her for a second in the street. She licked my ear. All I could think of was Merle in her blue pajamas.

BOOK: Bitter Bronx
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