Authors: Tennessee Williams
Having spoken of dark, let me speak now of light. I have come up by long flights of stairs to the roof of the building, I am actually on the roof of it, and I find that the roof is much lighter than I had imagined it could be. It is light enough for me to sit here on a ledge above dockside West Eleventh and continue to write and to see what I'm writing if I write in bolder script with more pressure on the pencil as I am doing.
My heartbeat is quickened by the climb through the six dark, unoccupied floors, and sometimes I feel a premature or delayed contraction of that defective heart valve which Grandmother Ursula Phillips claimed that I had inherited from the Phillipses of Kentucky but which I think more likely to have been a consequence of one of those childhood illnesses so rarely diagnosed by small-town Southern doctors as rheumatic fever (or break-bone fever if the child is colored), and let go at that without informed treatment.
(I know that I had a long spell of illness at eight or nine which interrupted my schooling for a year and turned me to solitary diversions such as reading and fantasizing, and when the bedridden period was over my legs were weakened so that I slid on my ass about the floor and was given a child's vehicle called an “Irish Mail,” a three-wheeled thing that was propelled by pushing its handlebars back and forth, and I remember my first time outside on it I got as far as half a block and was suddenly exhausted and had nothing to lean back against and so began to cry, slumped over the handlebars, until my mother, who had watched me from a window, came rushing up to me and pushed me home on the thing and carried me into the house and said I mustn't go out again on it, but I was as stubborn as the damaged valve of my heart and went out on it again, despite her hysterical protests, and each time went a bit further on it until I could make a full turn about the block.)
While my heart slowly resumes a more natural pace, I think, “Well, so you are closer to eternity (that euphemism for lasting blackout) than most men are at thirty but you get about now without the Irish Mail, and anyhow, being bereft of your second love and a third one being inconceivable to you, why should you hang back at the turnstile of the subway?”
(Isn't there a subway station called
Sitting on the ledge of the warehouse roof with my legs dangling in air as casually as if I were seated on a fantastically tall chair, quite unsuitably clothed for the icy night, I know that I'm shivering but I don't feel cold. And I know this illusory warmth is that of fever (in which case the word “illusory” should be scratched out) or of an artificial state of mind induced by a white cross and quickened bloodstream and, whatever it is, I am indifferent to it as if it belonged to a stranger I've never seen.
Now back to the subject of light.
Some of it must come from the far-apart river-fogged streetlamps or even from a few windows across the way, lighted by monkish scholars or for love-partners who like to watch each other strip for action, but I suspect that it also emanates from the sky despite the fact that it is clouded or fogged over.
Moise called me “child of God,” a flattering appellation (when will He ever get into birth control?) and I am just high enough on this warehouse roof and that reliquary white cross to recognize this as a time for purification of my forsaken and ailing body by thoughts upon the absolutes of existence, and on the non of it before it occurs and after.
It's true that I feel something mystical on this rooftop.
Looking up from it, I observe little areas of lesser dark, almost of light, as if a number of clouded moons were suspended up there with that attention to “plastic space” which Moise observes in her distribution of slightly lighter or darker dabs of pigment when she has pigments to dab. She does it with great concentration, that of a chess player in a master tournament, and speaking of plastic space, I recall that, when I first knew her, she used that term in reference to a canvas which she had titled “Northern Limit of Ice Floe.” This was before I knew her well and at a time when I wished to impress Lance with my intellectual capacity, such as it was not, and when I was in the first full passion of that great love which must always include the ignoble element of unwillingness to share the object of it. And so I said, “I know what plastic means and of course I know what space means but what the fuck do they mean when you put them together in a term like plastic space?”
“Hey, li'l bit of white skin,” said the living nigger on ice, “just set there with your pretty teeth in your mouth without words when Moise discusses her work, or otherwise you'll make a li'l bit of Thelma, Alabama, asshole of yourself cause this girl here knows what she says although she rarely says it.”
“Then what is plastic space?” I persisted bristling with
“Let me inform him,” she whispered. “On a canvas there is always space and the space must be as plastic as the paint and you will notice that I always begin a canvas by covering it entirely with an off-white or off-black layer of pigment for beginning. Now this is space. And the space is plastic. Which means that it is as vibrantly alive as the dabs of paint applied so carefully to it. Space is alive, not empty and dead, not at all just a background. It's as much a part of the living canvas as the bits of color. As the student of Hans Hoffman, this mystery was made clear, the meaning and the importance of plastic space.”
She went on speaking but her voice had dropped below the decibel of the audible but her lips moved and her eyes were brilliant and I was so impressed that I
Lance drew me almost painfully close into his arms with his fingers on the lips of Moise, which was when I discovered that through their attachment he had learned the art of lip-reading by touch. .Â .Â .
The white cross has inclined me to long tangents of this nature but now I drift into consideration of the absolutes of existence as a paper kite at a time of listless air motion will catch just enough of the air to lift it a few feet over the earth or your head before dropping it back down as if it had found it unworthy of levitation.
“The absolutes of existence” is surely a much more pretentious term than “plastic space,” but back of their appearance of pretension there is important meaning if you want to sustain an existence above the surface of day-to-day and night-to-night submission to just going on. You consider them if you don't want that, and especially if you're alone, waiting to know if aloneness is not a life term that's been imposed on you but subject to clemency.
It's difficult, though, to consider those absolutes, even with flu fever and a white cross in you and the night sky above, and the more you consider them the larger they become and the less penetrable to the workings of that bewildered top-piece above the majority of your “li'l bit of white skin” which I think he really meant was penetrable white flesh, it being more flesh that he valued than the skin and its color.
Absolutes are deferred in our contemplation and understanding, they just peek through them as eyes in heaven, perhaps.
These absolutes (which are God) say to us, “Your payment is deferred till”
“Till I choose to be known to you.”
And so I think, “Arrogant old Absolutes” or, “Conceited Mr. E.,” which is my name for God.
But this is only a moment of anger at them and you return to the purifying spectacle of the night sky which is overcast but oddly lighter in places like blurred moons or dabs of paint in plastic space.
Your fever and the white cross lift you above the pettiness of your annoyance at what you can't know, now or possibly ever.
And so I look toward Bleecker Street where Moise announced her retirement from the world of reason which she mistakenly supposed to be outside of her room and corridor and her door without address and where she made her probably unheeded appeal to the bearded seer of South Orange, and where this announcement and this appeal were repeated with slight variation to the accompaniment of the delirious hissing of Skates and her attendant bitches. I looked that way and observed that it was no longer night. It is a winter phenomenon of the lower, the dockside, Hudson that morning hardly intrudes upon early morning. Streetlamps are extinguished as if the sun's light were present but what is present is the faintest concession to gray and
A sudden and very violent fit of shivers has sent me scurrying down those never-before-discovered stairs to the warehouse roof. On the way I descended at intervals on my ass and my Phillips of Kentucky heart performed several lickety-split palpitations but none of this mattered at all. It wasn't noticeable to me. Nothing short of a broken pelvis would have been noticeable to me, or a coronary such as my maternal grandfather suffered in the replica of the Blue Grotto in the replica of the new Babylon, or, more pertinent as an appellation, the new Sodom, oh, but to refer to it as that would bring down on my cracked head the wrath of all the Gay Libs to whom my heart is committed, categorically, in a bruised-ass way. .Â .Â .
A bruised-ass way is surely a half-ass way and yet I know that I am in favor of all conceivable libs this side of My Lai and of child-molesters in public.
Well, I had returned to the hooked rectangle, panting and palpitating and still shivering from rooftop exposure in winter, when I heard below the repeated honking of a cab like a flock of migrating geese out of season. This honking was at the curbside entrance to the first floor of the abandoned warehouse and naturally my first thought was, “Charlie's back in a cab unable to pay the fare and is summoning me down to pay it for him with a blood donation. Or have authorities come to take me back to that island resort in East River?”
Torn between these two speculations, I stand in the plywood enclosure, listening, quivering between apprehension and hope beyond despair, till a human voice calls out my name below, the voice of a female, not Charlie's, but nevertheless I clatter breathlessly down the flight of stairs to the street level, to find in the doorless doorway the Actress Invicta, heroically black-cloaked, with a face out of Greek tragedy, lifted as if for declamation on-stage.
With this powerful vocal instrument of hers, she asks of me, “Is he up there with you and who's it he cut out with, since he is not at Phoebe's or anyplace else I've spent the whole night searching?”
I was too breathless to say more than “Who?”
“I don't know who your God is.”
“The Big Lot of my life!”
“Please don't shout so. We are vis-Ã -vis with equal grievances: this is not a stage confrontation, you know.”
“What I want's information, not Cowardly one-liners at this hour!”
“Yes, night's full of hours, but Charlie is not in residence and Big Lot's never been on my visiting list since I dropped out of his.”
“Want to come up and see?”
She started to enter but retreated, probably for the first time in her existence.
Dramatically, she dropped her voice.
“You know that's not funny.”
“I didn't mean it to be and I do understand your protective feeling for Lot as well as I don't understand his exploitive treatment of you.”
“Then you don't know about love.”
“Let's not argue that point in this icy doorway.”
“A woman's love is different.”
“Are you going or staying?” shouted the cabman.
“Going, just a moment,” she shouted back to him, projecting her voice again as if to a second balcony of a large Broadway house.
Her eyes became huge as they faced mine once more.
“I've rarely been through such an awful night in my life.”
“Neither have I.”
“That thing at Moise's. I was so shaken up by her appearance, I mean her condition and that see-through rag she was wearing, that I couldn't make out much of her announcement, but didn't it contain an appeal to reach Tony Smith in South Orange?”