Gay Talese: Thy Neighbor’s Wife (amazon / indiebound) / The Voyeur’s Motel (amazon / indiebound / ebook) / The Bridge: The Building of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (amazon / indiebound)
Tom Wolfe: A Man in Full (amazon / indiebound / ebook) / I Am Charlotte Simmons (amazon / indiebound / ebook) / The Electric Kool-Aid Test (amazon / indiebound)
Hunter Thompson: Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga (amazon / indiebound / ebook) / Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (amazon / indiebound) / The Rum Diary: A Novel (amazon / indiebound / ebook)
The Vale of Cashmere
While Floyd was out, Marcy tried to organize her mind. “You know, like those pill organizers they have, with the compartments for daytime and night? I wish sometimes I could organize my thoughts like that, seven days a week.”
She had said this while getting her hair done a few months ago and everyone had laughed, so when she got home that went in the book. She was writing down all the things she said that made sense to her, with hopes of putting them all on cards or maybe refrigerator magnets and selling them; they could always use the extra cash! Which reminded her, so she checked her secret stash, not the money Floyd gave her like it was killing him, but a little something extra she kept in her brassiere. Sure as hell nobody would be looking in there.
Truth was, she used to be able to organize her thoughts like that, until Floyd retired. Now he was always hanging around, talking to her, asking what she was doing. Every time he went out, which wasn’t often enough for her taste, he would ask her if she needed anything and then look angry if she did. Sometimes he’d look angry if she didn’t. Now she looked for errands for him, just to get a moment’s peace. When she sent him off for milk this morning she could have lived without it. But she couldn’t have stood listening to him complain about the bus ride to Atlantic City before it happened, not non-stop for the next two hours.
“You’re creating your future,” she told him. “Whatever you’re thinking and feeling, that becomes your reality.”
“Don’t give me that shit,” he’d said, putting on his coat and hat. He had been wearing that same damned hat with the stingy brim so long it had come back in style.
“It’s the law of attraction,” she’d continued. “You can deny it all you want but that don’t mean it’s not true. Everything coming into your life you are attracting into your life. You’re like a magnet.”
“Well, this magnet’s going to attract some milk,” he’d said before going out the door.
He had made fun of her ever since she first heard Oprah talking about The Secret but deep down she thought that maybe he believed her. Or would, if he would just give it a try. He would come home so angry about something that happened out there — the security guy asleep in the chair, or someone who wouldn’t give his seat up on the subway — and she would tell him, “Every bad thing that comes into your life, you make happen.”
Sometimes that really made Floyd angry. “Is that right? Every bad thing? I made happen every bad thing that came into my life, Marcy?” He would tower over her, breathing heavily, staring at the top of her lacquered hair until she was silent.
She looked closely at the big digits on the clock by the bed. It was almost 8:30 and she still had not done her makeup. From the drawer in the nightstand on her side of the bed she looked for her own pill organizer and then realized she had already taken it out. She put it under the light, right beside that picture of her two boys, smiling in the lap of a black Santa, and looked at Wednesday. There were still pills in the morning box but the evening box was empty. Maybe she took the evening pills by mistake. Not that it mattered ‘cause they were basically the same. Or maybe she hadn’t filled the PM part.
Looking at the rainbow-colored compartments (Wednesday was green, Thursday red) she thought of Wilson, who had the hardest time with his R’s when he was little — “Weeding Wainbow,” he would say about his favorite show, and his brother would laugh at him. She felt overcome for a moment and then heard her husband’s keys in the door.
She took the morning pills, four altogether, as Floyd shouted at her from the kitchen.
“Do you know how much they wanted for a half-gallon of milk?”
She imagined his face as he said the price and the way he would look at her afterwards. He might be looking that way right now, even though she wasn’t there.
“Cost of everything is going up,” she yelled back. Then she stood and headed for the bathroom. “I got to get a move on.”
“Ain’t you even going to drink your milk?” She heard him swear as she closed the bathroom door.
The bus driver turned out to be some white guy who’d been sleeping in the back while people waited outside. The whole bus was talking about it, even after they got out of the Holland Tunnel and were getting on the turnpike, people tsk-tsking and hmm-hmming until Floyd wanted to yell, “Who told you to stand out there in the first place? It’s not even cold.” But he kept quiet and sat by a window, alone thank you very much, though Tommy, who acted like he was Floyd’s best friend, insisted on sitting right in front of him, while Marcy huddled on the other side with a bunch of ladies. They outnumbered the men five to one anyway; he let Tommy represent, going back and forth across the aisle like some congressman making a deal. Each time he went over to the ladies he would say something so low that Floyd couldn’t hear and they would all laugh and holler.
“I think it’s about time for some music,” Tommy said after one of his sorties. He had a gym bag with him that said Mets on it, and from it he pulled a boom box that he tried to balance on the seatback in front of him. He pushed play and Johnnie Taylor started in on “Who’s Making Love” and the ladies all laughed, even though the sound was kind of wobbly. From the front of the bus the driver said something; they could see him looking at them in the rear view mirror, but no one tried to hear him. In fact Tommy stood up, with the boom box on his shoulder, and started to shake it in the aisle, which made the driver get on the mike.
“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to sit down.” He had some kind of accent, Russian or something, but no one really paid him any mind.
The hits kept coming; Tommy jammed the boom box between the headrest and the window so it wouldn’t fall down and turned around to look at Floyd, but not before looking at the driver, who had his eyes on the road again.
“How ‘bout a little taste?” Tommy said, taking a half-pint in a brown bag from the pocket of his jacket.
“Too early for me,” Floyd said, looking out the window. To him it always looked like New Jersey was halfway through being torn down.
Across the aisle Marcy was in the middle of a conversation with the other ladies but she didn’t feel quite right. It started as soon as she left the building; she had picked out a brooch to go with her blue blouse, a little gold tree with red apples on it, but she had left it sitting in front of the mirror. Now she felt naked, all that blue stretching out below her chin like an empty ocean almost and she felt like she was being pulled back from drowning each time one of them stopped talking. That meant somebody was supposed to say something; you were supposed to jump in like it was a game of double- Dutch.
“What I value most is the privacy,” Marcy said, but no one answered. She had a feeling she had said that before. The topic was assisted living and how to know when you needed it.
“Until you wake up privately dead,” said the lady in the Kente cloth. Marcy didn’t remember meeting her before, a friend of Helen’s was how she was introduced, but she didn’t like her now. She had these gray and white streaks in her hair, extensions by the look of it, but it reminded Marcy of mud. Besides, she was probably the youngest woman of the bunch, what was she talking about dying for?
“My boy checks in on us every night,” said Marcy and immediately wondered why she had. It wasn’t true. Most times she had to call Eric and he never sounded too happy to hear from her. He did come to visit though, once a month at least. They saw less of him after his divorce, though you’d think it would be the other way around.
“Where are we?” she said suddenly, looking out the window. Everything looked the same.
“You keep asking that,” the lady in the Kente cloth said, or maybe she said. Marcy wasn’t looking at her and the music Tommy was playing made her feel lost.
“Sending this one out for all you ladies,” said Tommy, like he was some deejay, and they all laughed but Marcy didn’t think it was funny. It was that song about sitting on a park bench that always made her sad. “I see her face everywhere I go/on the street and even at the picture show/have you seen her?”
There was a hospital up there high on a hill and for a second she felt that the bus was going to take off and fly straight up to its doors. She closed her eyes and felt herself rise.
They parked in the lot of the Showboat casino. Though they could have gone anywhere they wanted, the thirty-odd passengers that disembarked made for the Showboat as if summoned, shuffling and limping toward the entrance in a broken conga line.
“No one says we got to go to this casino,” Floyd said to the crowd of ladies leading the way.
“The Showboat has a Mardi Gras theme,” said the lady in the Kente cloth. She turned around to give Floyd the fisheye, pulling down her glasses as she did. “Besides, we got coupons for the Showboat.”
He fell in line sullenly beside Tommy who offered him another drink. Floyd took a swallow this time without pulling down the brown paper to see what it was. It tasted like mouthwash.
“Jesus, what the hell you drinking?”
“Little peppermint schnapps.” Tommy tried to slap Floyd on the back but the big man danced away, handing the bottle back as he moved.
“What she mean by a ‘Mardi Gras theme,’ anyway?” Floyd said.
Tommy shrugged. “As long as they got free drinks and blackjack I don’t much care.”
Seagulls screamed overhead. Floyd saw his reflection scowling in the window of a parked Humvee. He went to New Orleans during Mardi Gras when he was in the Navy, how many years ago? He got lost and someone stole his wallet. A man dressed as a woman tried to put beads around his neck, he remembered. You could have your Mardi Gras.
Marcy was among the first of the women to enter the casino and the air conditioning hit her like a cold wave. “Good thing I remembered my shawl!” she said but no one answered. The music and the sound of the slot machines, dinging and ringing with sirens going off every five minutes as if some crime was being committed, swallowed her voice.
Marcy had thought to bring rolls of quarters and silver dollars. While the other ladies were getting change she was already pouring her silver into a red plastic cup provided to her by a girl in the shortest skirt she had ever seen.
“You must be freezing!” Marcy said but the girl didn’t seem to hear her. Maybe she just got tired of people trying to talk to her.
The slots area had thousands of machines and at noon it was already half filled, mostly old-timers like her and Floyd. He and Tommy had set off in the other direction like there was a sign saying ‘Men, That Way.’ The carpets were in a pattern of red and orange and gold that reminded her of a kaleidoscope and the ceiling was made up to look like stained glass, though she knew real stained glass when she saw it and this wasn’t it. She felt like if she didn’t sit down she might just fall into the colors. She sat down at a quarter machine and began feeding it. She didn’t know where the other ladies had gone and looking over her shoulder left her none the wiser.
“Y’all gonna have to find me,” she said, and as if conjured, a different lady in a short skirt appeared.
“How you doing today?” she said. She had a tray filled with drinks and a notepad tucked into her belt. “Can I get you something to drink?” “Well I suppose you can!” Marcy turned in her chair to show her appreciation. “My name’s Marcy by the way, I come here from Brooklyn with a bunch of folks from my church group.”
“Now isn’t that nice? My name’s Kim Sue. What can I get you?”
Marcy smiled and opened her mouth. But she could not think of the names of any drinks, not just the fancy ones but any drink. She felt a trickle of sweat run down her back underneath her blouse.
“It’s funny,” she said, embarrassed. “My mind’s just a blank today.”
“Sure, no problem!” Kim Sue smiled back at her like one of those Chinese dolls, her name right there on her badge. “We have beer and wine and soda and mixed drinks.” She kept smiling at Marcy and continued. “I could make you a nice white wine spritzer, if you like.”
“Oh, that sounds nice,” said Marcy, and it did sound nice, like a sprinkler in the summer time, the kind the boys used to play in. Kim Sue left and Marcy returned to the machine. Cherries and plums rolled past, never stopping at the same time.
Eric used to chase Wilson through the sprinklers in the park and sometimes when Marcy wasn’t looking he would hold his little brother down and try to pull off his shorts in front of all the other children. She would get so mad at him, always teasing like that, knowing it would make Wilson cry and come looking for her, but she had a job then, looking after a little white boy named Oskar whose parents lived in Park Slope and worked all the time. Oskar’s parents didn’t mind too much when she brought her boys with her when she took him to the park. “As long as you remember,” the father said, “that Oskar is your first priority.”
Well of course he is, mister doctor man! Why would my own flesh and blood come before your little prince? Good gracious, the things that man would say. If the wife heard him she would weigh in and try to soften the blow. “What my husband means is that we don’t want you to get too distracted. Three children is a handful.”
Now that was the kind of thing only a white person would say. Where she came from, three children was just getting started, even if she was done after Wilson, something her own mother could never understand.
“Oh, don’t worry, ma’am,” Marcy would say. “I won’t ever let Oskar out of my sight.”
All these people thinking someone was going to steal their child, like the whole country had gone crazy. Soon they’d be putting their pictures on milk cartons and billboards and on TV during the news — “Have you seen Brandon?” Usually white kids. If a black kid went missing generally people knew who took him.
“Here you go, ma’am.”
Kim Sue was back with her drink. It was in a big plastic cup with a straw that went in curlicues, like a roller coaster, like this was for a child. She started fishing in her coin cup.
“Drinks are complimentary, ma’am.”
Like I didn’t know that. She pulled out a Susan B. Anthony and put it on her tray. “That’s for you,” she said.
“Very nice of you, ma’am. And if you need anything else you just let me know.”
She turned to leave and Marcy was afraid to see her go. “Kim Sue, it’s like your momma gave you two names.”
“Kim is my family name. Family name comes first in Korean.”
“Is that right?” said Marcy. “Well I think family should come first, don’t you?”
Marcy thought that was something else she should write in her book but realized that she hadn’t brought it with her, and then forgot what she had said. “But they probably don’t spell it like that in Korea, do they? The Sue, I mean.”
“No, ma’am, we have a different alphabet.”
“Now isn’t that something?”
She was balancing a tray full of drinks while she talked so Marcy let her go, disappearing into the big Tiffany lamp around them. A band was playing Dixieland and Marcy strained her eyes to see them. The music seemed to be coming from everywhere at once, “When the Saints Come Marching In.”
“Let me tell you another,” she said, sipping on her drink.
The lady at the machine next to her looked at Marcy and then moved away, taking her quarters with her. Marcy watched as the drink spun up the straw when she sucked. Here we go loop de loop.
Sometimes Eric would help her push the stroller as they went around the park, and Wilson would run so far ahead she would shout after him. “Don’t go where I can’t see you!” she’d holler, and Oskar, too big to be pushed around in a stroller, would try and stand up and yell after her. “Go where I can’t see you!”
Wilson would hide like that at home as well; hide so good she couldn’t find him sometimes. They were living in Prospect-Lefferts, more house than they needed but you could afford those big limestone buildings then, even on a Con Ed salary, and Wilson would go into different rooms and be so quiet that she would get hysterical, be practically beside herself by the time her husband got home. Then they would hear him laughing. “Got you!” he would say and emerge from the cupboard or from behind the sideboard and Floyd would get so mad. That one time he came out of her closet wearing her bra and Floyd just about went crazy; took off his belt and chased him.
She put in a coin and pulled the lever: a watermelon; a bell; the number seven in gold.
“What numbers are you playing today?”
She turned her head but nobody was there. Who had spoken? Just turning her head made the colors around her move and when she looked at the floor she saw the pattern there was moving too. It was like a flying carpet, the Vale of Cashmere —
The Vale of Cashmere! That was the name of that strange corner of the park where she took the boys now and then. They were getting older; other boys took the place of Oskar, and Eric got too big to want to be with them. But Wilson kept her company as she made the rounds, bought the kids ice cream and wiped their sticky hands. People used to call it The Swamp and there was a muddy pond okay and some hanging trees.
“How come you don’t play with boys your own age?” one of the kids had asked him once.
“I just like to help my momma,” he’d said.
He was the one who found out the real name of The Swamp, checked an old book out of the library and showed her on the map. There was a poem that went with it and Wilson stood up by the pond and put one finger in the air as he read: “Who has not heard of the Vale of Cashmere/With its roses the brightest the earth ever gave?”
Another babysitter saw them by the pond once and came over to warn them. “You shouldn’t be down in there,” she said, afraid to come too close with her stroller in front of her. “They say men get together down there.”
And after that Marcy noticed them, lurking about, standing in the trees. Once when she came down with Wilson and a stroller two men ran out, going in different directions.
She didn’t think about it again for years, until Wilson was grown and still living at home, and he came back one night that first time with his face all bloody, drunk or high on something and smiled at her, blood on his teeth.
“Hey, Momma, I been to the Vale of Cashmere!”
That’s when Floyd said no more.
“What numbers are you playing today?”
She turned and the colors whooshed like a scarf being wrapped around her head. She saw her this time, a little woman, no bigger than a dragonfly like the ones the boys chased in the park, Wilson would put them in a jar with holes punched in the top, while Eric tried to cover it up with his hand so they would smother.
“I’m looking for three sevens,” Marcy said to the dragonfly woman. “Are there some other numbers to play?”
“That is the question, isn’t it?” said the faerie. “Are there other numbers to play?”
And then she flew away, just like a little hummingbird, and Marcy got up to follow her, passing into the pattern of colors and leaving her cup of coins behind.
Floyd went through all his money the first hour. Not all his money but all the money he’d meant to spend, the money he put in his shirt pocket, seemed to fly off the table. Dealer beat him every time: if Floyd had 18, the dealer had 19; if Floyd sat on a 19, the dealer hit him with two bricks.
“I guess this lady feels like she has to show us what a blackjack looks like,” said Tommy, when the dealer drew her third in ten minutes. She apologized to them both, even though they didn’t tip her, and Tommy’s luck was better than hers: He doubled down twice and made a hundred bucks in the blink of an eye. All Floyd could do, once he had spent the money he had earmarked for this outing, was sit there and simmer in his resentment while Tommy’s chip pile grew.
That was when Helen, the lady in the purple pantsuit, came and asked if he knew where Marcy was.
“I thought she was with you,” said Floyd. It came out like an accusation.
“Well, we agreed to meet for lunch at three,” she said, “but then nobody could find Marcy. We figured maybe you two went off together.” And that’s how well you know us, Floyd thought. “Maybe she just went off to another casino by herself,” he said. Even though he was losing, and wasn’t even playing at the time, he didn’t want to have to leave his spot and go look for his wife. “There’s no law says we got to stay here.”
“Blackjack,” said the dealer, flipping another ace.
But after a minute he did get up to look, as he knew he would, leaving Tommy, who still had a hot hand and was no doubt wondered what all the fuss was about.
“Did you try the ladies’ room?” Floyd asked Helen.
“That was one of the first places we looked. They have sofas in there, you know.” She paused. “Do you think we should call security?”
The suggestion made his blood pressure rise. “No, I don’t think we should call security. Christ sake, grown woman goes off for a few minutes and you want to call the cavalry?”
“Does she have a cell phone?”
“Our son gave her one but she couldn’t figure out how to use it.” Eric had given them each one last Christmas, and neither of them could figure out how to use it. By the time Floyd got the hang of it he realized that the only person he would call was his wife, which was kind of stupid since he saw her all the time anyway.
They looked all the places that they had already looked and the lady in the Kente cloth joined them, acting more concerned than Floyd felt. “We need a system,” she said, as they circled the room for the second time. The place was more crowded than ever and Floyd could hardly hear what she was saying. “How about I go stake out the buffet and you stay here?” she suggested to Helen.
“How ‘bout I go stake out the buffet?” Helen said. “I haven’t had lunch yet.”
Floyd said they could both go feed themselves and take their time doing it; Marcy would turn up. He stood like a sentinel beneath the bells and sirens of the Mardi Gras slots, scowling most of the time. He hated slot machines; there was no sport in it, as he often told his wife. With blackjack at least you were playing the odds. Slots to him was just dumb luck, like a rabbit betting it wouldn’t get run over when it ran across the road. Twice he thought he saw his wife, and each time he took pleasure in anticipating just how much grief he was going to give her. But each time he was wrong.
By four o’clock they were back together, Tommy too, and they began to set out in search parties. They were a small group: most of the travelers didn’t want to leave their stations, since the bus was scheduled to leave at six and this whole business had already cut into their time as it was. The lady in the Kente cloth, who finally introduced herself as Niobe, took charge. She contacted hotel security, who seemed to have some experience with old folks wandering off, and as the witching hour neared, and the day-trippers started heading back toward the bus, she went out and argued with the bus driver, who was pretty adamant about leaving on time.
“You can’t just go off and leave an old lady alone,” she scolded him. The engine was already running, gently shaking the bus, while the AC gusted out the door in heavy welcoming breaths.
“I won’t be leaving her alone,” the driver said. “I will be leaving you to find her.”
He agreed to wait as they made one last search. A handful of them fanned out, going to neighboring casinos and restaurants, off the boardwalk and into the side streets. Floyd couldn’t help but think that Marcy was messing with him the whole time, and when he saw the impatient faces of the other folks on the bus — they’d lost their money and had their fill, they just wanted to go home — he couldn’t help but side with them.
As he wandered, most of the people he saw were wearing shorts and T-shirts. Used to be people would get dressed up to go someplace. And when did everybody get so fat? Walking down the boardwalk, bag of French fries in your hand, what did you expect? The new motto for the city was “Always Turned On,” which he found kind of creepy. There was nothing that he saw that turned him on.
Doors were open, air conditioning blasting out, cooling nothing. Floyd took to popping into places and doing a quick look around, not even asking half the time if they’d seen anyone who looked like his wife. One, they couldn’t hear you with all that noise and two, half of them couldn’t speak English.
“You seen an old black lady?” he shouted at one girl scooping ice cream. Her nails were so long he figured they might end up in somebody’s cone. “Blue shirt, about this high?”
She stared at him like he was the one with the language problem.
He kept walking. Going in and out of the summer sun was making him thirsty. He wished for the first time that Tommy was with him. That man would always stop for a drink. He saw people in those rolling chairs, being pushed by young people, girls sometimes. And you wonder why you so fat?
Down at one end of the boardwalk he found what looked like a real bar. The crowd had trickled off as the sun sank lower in the sky. Go on, get out of here. A lot of good you been. Floyd ducked inside and felt the rivers of sweat roll out from under his hat and chill on his face and neck. His glasses steamed as he took a seat at the bar and ordered a gin and tonic. He perched on the stool and looked up at the game on TV. The waitress brought him his drink and man, did that taste good. No skimping on the gin, either. He forgot to ask her about Marcy. His wallet was bothering him; he felt like he was balancing on it. When the waitress asked him if he wanted to start a tab he simply nodded.
“You got a phone?” She pointed to an old-fashioned booth in the back, the kind Superman used to change in. The place was filling up, young couples waiting for dinner. Once inside the paneled wood booth he forgot who he was going to call. Eric, right. He searched the scraps of paper in his wallet for the number he never had cause to memorize and let it ring, go to voicemail, and then dialed again.
“This ain’t no telemarketer.”
“Hey, Pop.” He did not sound happy to hear from him and Floyd had already put enough change in the machine so he cut straight to the point.
“We in Atlantic City and your mother’s gone missing.” He backtracked from there, explaining the whole afternoon in greater detail than Eric needed, but never did his son sound any more excited than Floyd felt. He asked the obvious questions — had they called the police? Who else was looking?
“Did she have her cell phone?” he asked, pointedly.
“That’s why I was calling,” Floyd said. “I figured maybe she’d called you.”
Eric was silent. Floyd imagined him at home, still in his work clothes, the sound on the TV muted, his eyes on the game. From his perch in the booth Floyd could see the TV over the bar. Jeter was trying to steal.
“I’m sure she’ll turn up, Pop. I mean, where’s she gonna go?”
“I know that.”
“You got your cell phone with you? So I can call you if she does?” Floyd muttered something and got off the phone. That boy would go to his grave asking about those damn phones. He should just wrap them up and give them back to him for Christmas. Turn ‘em into salt-and-pepper shakers.
When he got back to his seat at the bar Jeter got picked off and he ordered another drink. Now they could send the search party out for him. The tumblers were tall and when he turned in his seat he found he had company. Big old white dude with long hair and a pointed beard. He was sipping a Budweiser longneck and looking at the screen. His arms were covered in tattoos; dragons, snakes and skulls disappeared into his shirtsleeves.
“Fuckin’ Yankees,” he said and turned to look at Floyd. “Nice hat.”
Floyd turned to face his own reflection in the mirror behind the bar. “You wouldn’t believe how long I had this hat,” he said.
“There isn’t much I wouldn’t believe,” the man said.
They got to talking. Turned out he worked in a tattoo parlor on the boardwalk, which explained all the ink. Halfway through his second drink, Floyd was feeling generous in his opinions.
“Back in the day,” he said, “man had a tattoo it meant he’d been someplace. In the service, in the joint, you know.”
“I hear you,” the man said. “These days it just means you been to the mall.” He drained his beer and held up the empty. “Buy you a drink?”
“Let me buy you a drink,” said Floyd, and pulled out the fat wallet that had been giving him such a pain and laid it on the counter. Soon he had the pictures out and was showing him snaps of Eric, bragging on his son’s job even if he wasn’t exactly sure what he did. Then one of the whole family, when everyone was young.
“Where’s your other boy?” the stranger asked.
Floyd made a face like he was sucking on a lime. “Wilson got killed in a hold-up ten years ago,” he said.
“Oh, man, I am sorry. They catch the guy who did it?”
“No, it was in Prospect Park one night. Lot of crime in there.”
“That’s why I could never live in the city,” the man said, which struck Floyd as funny. Most people would be scared of this dude, even in Brooklyn. “So what happens when folks get old?” said Floyd, changing the subject. “Maybe they don’t want all those tattoos any more.”
“Shit, you don’t have to wait ‘til you’re old to regret something stupid you did.” The man laughed and Floyd got a glimmer of a gold tooth in his head. “People come in all the time wanting to have tattoos taken off, usually the name of some girl that don’t love them anymore.”
“Can you do it?”
“Sure,” the man said. “Hurts like hell and costs twice as much. But we can do it. Easier just to change it, though.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, there was this one girl who loved a guy named Chris and had it tattooed on her ass. Until she found Jesus and then we just added a ‘T’.”
He didn’t smile at first and it took Floyd a minute to figure it was a joke. “Hey, I got one,” Floyd said. The stranger’s eyes gleamed in anticipation. “There was this guy who loved this old girl so much he had her name tattooed on his johnson.”
“Now that’s gotta hurt!”
“Hell, yeah.” Floyd wiped his mouth. “Then they broke up, you know, and soon he started missing her real bad. So he went all over looking for her, from Wisconsin all the way down to Jamaica. Then he’s in the bathroom one day and he looks over and he sees this other guy’s dick.” He stopped for a minute. The stranger kept staring at him. “Now I can’t remember that girl’s name.”
“Is it important?”
“Yeah, it’s the whole punch line.”
“Uh, oh. Better have another drink.”
Floyd felt flushed and excused himself to go to the bathroom. There he stared straight ahead at the wall and read all the graffiti as if looking for a message. And by the time he got back to the bar, he was not surprised to see the stranger was gone and with him, Floyd’s wallet, though all Floyd could feel was a keen sense of disappointment: He remembered the end of the joke now. He had remembered that old girl’s name.
“The Vale of Cashmere” was originally published by Harvard Square Editions in Voice from the Planet.
Sean Elder’s writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, New York Magazine, Salon, Slate, Vogue, Elle, Men’s Journal, Men’s Health, O: The Oprah Magazine, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Details and many other publications. The essay he contributed to the collection of men’s writings The Bastard On the Couch (Morrow, 2004) was reprinted on three continents; his essay on ecstasy, included in the collection of drug writings entitled White Rabbit (Chronicle Books, 1995) was called “seminal” by Granta; and a piece he wrote about being a stay-at-home dad for Oprah was included in her best of O collection, Live Your Best Life (Oxmoor, 2005). He has co-authored several books, including Websites That Work with designer Roger Black (Adobe Press, 1997) and Mission Al Jazeera with former Marine captain Josh Rushing (Palgrave, 2007). He also works as a book doctor and helped edit the forthcoming Making Rounds with Oscar by Dr. David Dosa (Hyperion, 2010). He lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife and daughter.
Image: Flickr / Shinya Suzuki