During his first few weeks in the city Harold Fetch was generally turned around. He arrived in New York in the middle of a rainy, eerily warm winter, and when he emerged from the subway onto streets smoking with steam, and covered with dribbles of red light, it was often without knowing uptown from downtown. He would ask directions of a man and later on in another part of town believe he recognized that man’s face. But there are perhaps fewer faces to go around in a large city than there are people, and he could not be sure.
The offices at which Harold worked were on Irving Place, and every morning of the work-week he walked east from the 14th Street stop of the 1-9 line, and there he returned every night, late or early, sober or half-drunk, through the same set of turnstiles. Meanwhile he grew familiar with the shabby lateral mall of 14th Street, where men in thin shirts touted wool hats as he passed, if they saw he was cold, or pressed umbrellas at him when it rained. One evening a salesman looked at Harold with a look of recognition, but Harold couldn’t place the man and didn’t care for the umbrella he was offering. He wanted a solid, expensive, wooden-handled umbrella; he hated the pitiful look, like a crow’s broken wing, of those cheap black umbrellas, reversed in a flaw of wind, you saw people hanging onto at street corners, getting soaked.
The next night, Harold went to the Virgin MegaStore across from Union Square to buy a CD as a birthday present for his mother. He would have liked to find a gift rarer and more deliberate, but tomorrow was his mother’s birthday—even if he overnighted the gift in the morning, it would arrive late—and there was no time for inspiration. Feeling obscurely harried, he bought a Cat Stevens box-set—the largeness of the gesture (approximately $50.00) might make up for its vagueness—and had it wrapped at the store. As he watched the clerk sullenly wrap the box-set in shining gold paper printed with the Virgin logo, Harold experienced the tiny familiar fear that any gift will bear a inexpungeable psychic trace of its origin, and would, in this case, release an air of sullen perfunctoriness as soon as it was opened back home in Eau Claire. Harold’s parents had long ago been hippies—hence the Cat Stevens—but now they were just a man selling insurance and a woman selling real estate who bought organic tomatoes and listened to NPR. It could have been worse: Cat Stevens himself was now Yusef Islam, the ayatollah fancier.
Harold took the package, thanked the clerk, and, when he turned to go, saw, some ten feet away, behind a rack of T-shirts, a man regarding him with an ironical half-smile. Failure! This was Failure, with his wet vague eyes and a large pink scalp, like a newborn’s, pressing up through thinning hair. Harold somehow recognized the man as Failure without their having been introduced, just as one knows the meaning of a cry of pain or exultation without having to look it up. “Hey man,” said Failure, as if he might ask Harold for a light. “Hi, how are you?” said Harold, in general a polite person.
Walking away in the pixellated rain, Harold strung half a dozen faces into a unity: it was Failure, then, who had given Harold directions one night and whom Harold had also seen standing in a subway car, and seated at a table at El Famous Burrito; Failure who’d peered slyly at him from the steps of the public library, and who just two days ago had looked at him with ugly frankness from the other side of a bagel cart.
Harold decided to skip the subway and indulge in a cab-ride for the trip uptown. Harold lived near the corner of 109th and Central Park West, alone in a large rear apartment of a gut-renovated building populated mostly by students and professionals, as these were called. He rented the place for $1,600 a month. His occupation had been delayed by the eviction of the previous tenant. “This is one of the really up-and-coming neighborhoods in Manhattan,” the realtor had told him. Harold’s building enjoyed an awning and a part-time doorman; but looking out his bedroom window he had twice seen a shirtless black man snort something off the table in a dingy kitchen. The neighborhood was mixed, as Pam the realtor said. “New coffee bars, old dives. Chinese take-out stand, sure, but then a new bistro.” Police cruisers nosed quietly through the neighborhood while now and then you could witness a drug deal transacted with imperfect stealth beneath blue scaffolding.
“No question an up-and-coming neighborhood,” Pam had said. “Nice thing is, the shock troops of gentrification already did their work. You’ll hear it being called SoHa—South of Harlem. Myself I’d look here if I hadn’t already bought in Murray Hill where I’m happy. You know what a place top-floor like that would go for ten-fifteen blocks south? Practically on the park?” She’d squeezed his hand in an odd consoling way. Harold went ahead and signed the lease. “Congratulations!” Pam said. “In on the ground floor. You should buy yourself a bottle of Veuve Cliquot which I would recommend as a very nice champagne.”
So there Harold was. He had been in the city for ten weeks, in his apartment for six, and today he and Failure had recognized one another in a giant corporate music emporium. So what? A meeting like that didn’t constitute intimacy. Harold was doing fairly well for himself: in addition to monthly aid from his parents, he had, in his capacity as junior communications director for Synergos, almost $40,000 a year. Many of Harold’s college friends, who had collected in New York as in an enormous funnel, were not making so much (when they asked how much he paid in rent, Harold always claimed to be paying $400 less), and in addition to his salary there were, tied to performance, the possibilities of stock options and a raise.
The encounter with Failure had jarred him somewhat—Harold stood in the kitchen pouring himself three fingers of scotch—but it was not such a big deal. The thing was probably overdue. In fact it was a relief to have Failure in plain sight; he wasn’t as monstrous a figure as Harold had always imagined. If Harold was careful—this was his undefined idea—he ought to be okay.
Harold’s life didn’t especially change after the sighting. One morning he saw Failure standing on the opposite subway platform, reading a tabloid; this was during the bombing of the Serbs and the expulsion of the Kosovar Albanians: the headline read RUN OR DIE! So Failure reads the Post, thought Harold. He checked his watch; he might be a little late.
He usually arrived at work at 9:30 and left at 5:30 or 6:00. Afterwards he often had dinner or a drink with a friend. There were a number of friends in New York, people he knew from school. With Toby he rented, one Saturday, a sea-kayak from the Downtown Boathouse, and paddled around the bristling lower tip of Manhattan, its towers so bright and smooth that his thoughts seemed to squint and clutch at them with no result. The day was crisp and light as freshly printed money coming in uncut sheets off a press, and like new money these hours out on the brackish green water—clean for all the eye could see—seemed brilliant with possibility. It was as if Harold could come ashore as anyone, and do anything there. He fell behind Toby, paddling ineffectually and imagining himself as an Indian, with fringed leather pants and long hair.
“We should definitely do that again,” he and Toby said to each other afterwards. A month later they hadn’t so much as spoken. It was like that here. Harold had other people to see. Any number of them were here in consulting or new media. Harold went to their parties, where he made jokes and offered aperçus, was ready with a laugh or smile, and would speak, earnestly or with amusing cynicism, as the case required, about his job.
He could claim to be doing good work or bad at Synergos—“A disgusting name, I know,” he’d say. “And you have no idea what it might mean: emerging markets, independent film, the internet, bio-tech—” As for being junior communications director: “I’ve become one of those people I always used to meet whose titles sound like euphemisms.”
The idea of Synergos, which it was Harold’s job to sell, was to combine product development with charity: to wit, Synergos sponsored two camps, one in upstate New York, the other in southern Georgia, where troubled or challenged young urban men were fed and housed, offered leadership seminars and a small stipend, in exchange for helping to develop visions of new products. Not only had several saleable story-lines, one of them already turned into a film, unexpectedly come out of the camps, but a number of popular products as well. The new army-radio style cell-phones were one such product: large and padded, they were a rebuke to the slick discretion of the cell-phones preferred by professionals. Sprint had marketed them to young people of color with considerable success. The camps had led also to the development of Jiggy Juice, the popular if controversial carbonated malt-liquor beverage. Another result of Synergos’s symbiosis of profit and philanthropy was the rhino-style jacket, with its heavy plates of stiffened vinyl around the shoulders.
Of course very few of the young men employed by Synergos won permanent positions as visionaries. Harold knew that, and knew that the products developed were often unaffordable to those who’d conceived them. And, himself, he would like someday to be doing something else. But he was making $40,000 a year (as he never said except when asked) and doing a conceivable good (as he sometimes said but was never asked). It could have been very much worse, and he was still young.
“And what do you do?” he said one night after retailing his professional life to an attractive young woman. They were standing on a tiny Juliet-balcony looking out onto the street; the air was salmon-colored with streetlights.
“I’m in FX.”
“Wow,” Harold said. “Very cool. And it’s nice you don’t have to be in LA for that. Did you see The Matrix? I was really impressed with what they were able to do there, digitally.”
“I don’t do special effects,” she said. “I do foreign exchange.”
“Ah,” Harold said.
“Currency.” (She turned out to be Monica, and six days later she and Harold went on the first of many dates.)
“That’s very impressive too,” Harold conceded. “I mean I suppose particularly if you live in like Russia or Venezuela, you know, a catastrophic currency devaluation can be very impressive.”
“So what are you a Marxist publicist?”
This seemed unanswerable to Harold. He asked Monica if she would like another vodka gimlet. At the bar, at unnervingly close quarters, he saw Failure again, pouring someone a drink. This was a surprise. Failure was wearing a bartender’s tuxedo and looked as if he had somehow de-greased his face and focused his eyes; in all, he looked much better than before.
“Hey,” said Harold, meaning to be brave.
Failure nodded. “Hey, man.” It seemed his recognition of Harold had been delayed an instant. He handed the drink to a young woman. “Here you go.”
Then to Harold: “What’s your name again?”
Harold did not want to give his name; it might be like opening the security-grate and inviting the vampire on the fire-escape to come in. “I don’t think we’ve been introduced.”
“We must know some of the same people. You know Roger? Tammie?”
“No,” said Harold. Those were his parents’ names.
“Do you know anyone in Denver?”
That had been Harold’s last city, where he’d publicized a microbrewery, gone skiing and sat in traffic on the weekends, and lived in the Edgewater section until loneliness got the better of him.
“Well, I extend my hand whether or not you give me your name,” Failure said, mock-courtly.
The touch of the hand shocked Harold; it was not cold at all, or clammy, but dry and warm, and the grip was as firm and confident as a politician’s.
“You all right?” Failure said. “Well, see you later. Have a nice night.”
“Fuck your with you insinuations,” Harold said and made a fist. “You fuck! And if you so much as—”
“Whoa,” said Failure looking around the small staring crowd. “Some-one”—this in a scandalized sing-song—“is a just lit-tle bit touchy this evening.”
Harold was immediately out the door. The party had been on East 85th Street and, carelessly, Harold walked across the park alone, skirting the reservoir. He fingered and folded Monica’s business card insistently, and by the time he arrived home it had developed a cottony feel.
It included her home as well as business number. He supposed in FX you were always on call. The next day he dialed the number. She said, “You never came back with my drink.”
“Let me make it up to you,” he said.
“I rehearsed it.” Not true, but he was apparently going for broke, being childishly flirtatious, he didn’t know why. “Do you like hotel bars? I like them, they’re quiet, they’re well lit, the pianist—”
“They’re okay. Although a love of hotel bars seems a pretty deliberately cultivated quirk.”
“We don’t need to get a drink.”
“But I think we’d both like to.”
So Harold and Monica had made a date. This was a relief to Harold, for it canalized an otherwise diffuse anxiety, and supplied his life with a certain short-term narrative interest. He was very excited to see her again even if he had no precise recollection of her face and hoped that she would recognize him first.
Harold went down to SoHo to buy himself some new clothes in which to appear handsome and up-to-date. But the trip ended up distressing him. Suddenly, while standing on a corner of Mercer and Greene, he noticed that he was minutely adjusting his sense of worldly position according to each new person on whom his eyes lighted for even an instant. The data of superiority (to an overfed tourist, to a teenager marked with acne and dejection, to an immigrant kitchen worker outside on a break) and inferiority (to this or that walking harmony of bone structure and fashion sense) assailed him. The intricate shifting hierarchy overwhelmed him. He stood balked in meditation blocking the foot traffic while people flowed past knocking and jostling him indifferently or with scorn. He wanted to put down his two bags in a field and cover his eyes. He wanted neither to win nor to lose—not to pity or to envy. He would rather be blind and invisible, and go about the world dispensing and receiving anonymous kindnesses.
Instead he proceeded down Greene Street, flinching invisibly at the sight of everyone.
He stopped at a café to have a mochaccino and collect himself. He reminded himself he was being immature: life is individuation. That’s what it is. Outside of naked Eden is a crowd in SoHo shopping for clothes. Grown-ups, with real jobs, must accept this. Harold told the waitress he thought he would move to a table outside, if that was all right.
There he unfolded the Times in the sunlight. In the magazine section he found a two-page profile of a guy he’d known in college, now a producer of films pictured at ease in his sumptuous loft. This was Jeb Hodge, who apparently wanted “to return a kind of outlaw sensibility to American film that it hasn’t really had since the Seventies”; who always traveled with his two Persians, Kitty and Kat; whose wife the actress was hot property in Hollywood; who contributed substantially to the Democratic Party; and who was thinking of directing his first film, about the last days of the Romanovs.
“Way to go Jeb,” Harold said.
“Excuse me?” said Failure, causing Harold to choke. The effect of snorting hot mochaccino out his nose was painful.
“I’m sorry to startle you. It’s just I saw you sitting alone.”
Bad enough that Harold had blown mochaccino out his nostrils at an expensive café, but he did not want to be seen in public talking to Failure—who looked worse than ever in the sunlight, faint and pale like a life-sized cardboard display left too long in a shop window and bleached by exposure.
Failure had a newspaper of his own and Harold said to him, “Go! I don’t want to buy your paper, understand? Comprende?” He looked around as if to say What can you do? and Failure slinked away.
Five days later Harold and Monica met at the bar of the Gramercy Hotel. The pianist not only played old standards but arpeggiated versions of Billy Joel and James Taylor songs.
“I miss the singer-songwriter period,” Harold said. He was thinking of his mother, therefore of his childhood. He was imagining that if he sat down at a piano and began crooning his own words he might discover some important feelings he had.
“I love Cat Stevens,” Monica said, and Harold felt a twinge of destiny. “And Prada,” she added. “Don’t misunderstand.”
“That’s the thing,” Harold said. He extemporized a theory: “That was really our childhood wasn’t it, the singer-songwriter period? And if it seems contradictory to love high fashion as well as Cat Stevens, this is not only because it’s hard to imagine Cat himself in Prada, but also because as a kid you want to grow up to be something, not just to dress up as someone. If we had an inner child, awakened by hearing this music, it would be disappointed at us still playing dress up. As if we hadn’t become anything yet.”
This was the longest and most speculative speech Harold had made since arriving in New York.
“When did you graduate from college?” Monica said acidly.
“Let’s get out of here,” Harold said. “Let’s go sit in the park.”
“You need a key.”
“You need a key?”
“You need to be a resident of one of the buildings here to get a key to the park.”
“Why don’t you just privatize the water supply while you’re at it.”
“It’s a small park, Harold. So what do you say I take you out to dinner?”
On the threshold to Angelo and Maxie’s Steakhouse—Monica’s suggestion—Harold said, “You know I’m not necessarily against the whole foreign-exchange business.”
“Of course not,” Monica said. “I don’t think you know enough about it.”
“So what exactly do you do?”
“I guess you could say in general a lot of it is about correcting a country’s flattering self-image.”
“And you’re fairly good at that.”
“I don’t think this aggressive banter is such a bad sign at the beginning of things, but I hope we get over it.”
Over dinner Harold said:
“You wanted to see me eat a steak.”
“Rare,” she said.
He couldn’t tell if she was at all serious. He placed a chunk of medium-rare steak into his mouth and chewed. He didn’t yet have much to say to her. He wasn’t sure if she amused him. But she seemed to him animally correct, as it were: pretty, aggressive, and confident. She was unapologetic. She seemed to be a healthy creature flourishing in her natural habitat. Harold filled her wine glass, then his. He pushed his glasses up his nose and admired her smilingly—only there were no glasses there. A few months before he’d had his vision laser-corrected, and it was now with 20/20 vision, unaided, that he took in Monica. She was darkly blond, and her cheeks and nose were faintly dusted with freckles. She had a broad clear forehead, big brown eyes, then a somewhat narrow, tapering jaw.
“I’m a mutant,” she said. Harold was confused. “Blond hair but with brown eyes. A genetic mutation.”
“Oh,” Harold said. He was on the verge of remarking that without mutations, we’d probably all still be amoebas, when Monica said:
“You used to wear glasses. What else did you use to do?”
In this way bowdlerized life histories were exchanged.
It was a beautiful Sunday late in May. Harold had gone running in the park with his walkman on, letting the world pass in a happy dumb-show. He was listening to the mix-tape Monica had made him. He was pleased that this gesture central to the adolescent love-affair had been retained into adulthood, and liked to imagine that if he should someday retire a widower to an Arizona condominium complex surrounded with concertina wire in order to keep the—by then—enormous underclass at bay, perhaps after a flirtatious game or two of shuffleboard an attractive elderly lady would slip into his hand a tape she had made for him of her favorite songs.
Harold was strolling distracted through the woods in the rocky northwest corner of the park when someone rushed upon him, knocking him to the ground. A hard thing struck him in the back, a person scrambled over him. There Failure stood, armed with a rock. Harold took his headphones off. With that strange distended lucidity of dangerous moments, he contemplated whether he should attack at the knees or beg to be spared.
“You don’t dis me in public okay?” said Failure. “Understand?”
“I’m very sorry,” Harold said.
“I know where you live. Do you think I can’t get into a cab and say 4 West 109th Street?”
“What are you afraid of?”
Harold wanted to give the right answer: “That you’ll hit me in the head with the rock?”
“No. Are you afraid of starving? Being put out on the street?”
“Of course not. So tell me what you are afraid of. Okay? You better tell me and I better hear you’re honest in your voice or so help me and I swear to Christ the Redeemer I’d do it, I throw the rock.”
Harold pressed STOP on the walkman and the small treble music like a far-away festive scene abruptly quit.
“Careful,” Failure said. “No sudden moves. Now tell me straight. Your fears.”
“Let me think.”
“Don’t think. Fear!”
But Harold could not think how to put it. He seemed to know his fear well but obscurely: this fear was like a smooth cool object, radiating a mineral indifference to his affairs, whose contours he went over with his hands each night when he slept, and which he brushed against whenever he discovered the name of an acquaintance in some brilliant context; when the quality of light overlapped with that of certain high-school era spring days; when he examined people’s complexions on the subway, where everyone seemed to have a skin-disease uniquely his own; or even sometimes when he heard his mother’s voice on the answering machine. Harold was afraid of being excommunicated from the great American religion of success at the same time he feared becoming a regular khaki-clad well-to-do American white man absentmindedly putting out his cigars in other people’s mouths.
“Don’t waste my time,” Failure said.
“I guess what I really most fear÷” Harold said, looking imploringly up at Failure—then charged him, toppling him at the knees, and prying the rock from his hand and pinning him.
Failure turned his head to look at him and Harold shoved the rock into his eye, at which the man cried out. It was a thrilling sound and Harold dragged the rock across the enormous ear sprouting with wiry brown hair. This led to a more pathetic cry and Harold let off. He stood up.
“Don’t waste your time?” Harold screamed. “What do you get for your time? Five seventy-five an hour? Six and a quarter?”
He thought he might just go ahead and kill, but then he wondered if, as with killer-bees, the killing of one would incense the others. Perhaps if here in the park he finished off this balding shabby shit of a man who was Failure he would be torn to pieces on the subway. In any case, a pair of joggers was passing by.
Harold clambered down from the outcropping, over leaves and trash and shards of glass. Emerging onto a paved path he saw a white plastic bag, one of those ghosts of city life, seized in the wind and borne violently aloft until it caught in a tree. The wind was strong and above the playing field he could see three kites with blunt rocking heads and wriggling tails straining like lost spermatozoa in the light. Rounding the corner onto the street was the truck of Mr. Softee, the ice-cream man, with its mad repetitive jingle. Pop! goes the weasel! Harold felt vivid as the living grass, excited to have drawn blood.
Without changing clothes, he took the subway downtown and in less than thirty minutes he had rolled off naked Monica and was lying beside her, naked himself, in her big bed. He had taken the express.
Nuzzling into her, he asked again how it was that the lack of currency controls optimized everything.
“You just have this incredible liquidity,” she said. She put a hand on her belly, like a baby who’d been fed. “Wherever the money needs to be it can just get there very fast.”
Harold imagined roaming life-like figures suddenly sucked dry of animating capital and crumpling while, in far away time-zones, other figures jolted into motion with the sudden influx.
He ran his hand down Monica’s side. “You remind me of a knife.” She waited to hear why. “You’re so shiny and smooth. Unsheathed.”
She laughed. “Knives are good.”
And there is also, he thought, the knife’s admirable clarity of purpose. Yet just for this reason how would you characterize the character of a knife?
He got up and looked again at the pictures on her dresser. In years past she hadn’t been so pretty, so Manhattanized. She’d allowed many pictures to be taken of her with her rube-type family. And there had also been her slight drinking problem, now overcome. It occurred to Harold in a flash that his and Monica’s relative values on the love-market weren’t necessarily going to be equal forever—that right now he might even be selling high, and she low.
It was just when he turned around and said, “Am I getting a little chubby?” that she said, “Kind of fat, wasn’t I?”
Harold hadn’t been scheduled to receive consideration for a raise until the next fiscal year, but his supervisor, Rick, was quite impressed, so he told Harold, with the latter’s work. Synergos had been receiving some good press—in print, on-line, and even in a short segment on national television. “I hope you’ve had a chance to see the CNN piece,” Rick said. “They had a whole crew down at Camp Georgia. Anyway, we’re obviously pleased with your very fine work and would hate to lose you. We’d like to ratchet you up to 42.”
The extra two thousand dollars per annum would permit Harold to take Monica out to eat more often. That was his first thought. His second was that he ought to eat less. Of course he accepted the offer. He was flattered too that Rick and the other higher-ups feared losing him. But soon the raise acquired the character of a bribe: Rick would look puzzled whenever Harold left at 6:00. “Are you feeling okay?” he asked once.
Harold was quietly being pressed to produce one or two more press releases each week than before. (Sample titles: INNER CITY STREETS RECLAIMED IN RURAL GEORGIA; JIGGY JUICE CONTROVERSY KEEPS SALES BUBBLING.) Thus even if Harold returned directly from work he was often away from the apartment for twelve hours. Of the twelve hours remaining to him, he slept for eight, waking at 7:30 with news from the radio of earthquakes and hurricanes, civil war and failed efforts at campaign finance reform, mixing with the hypnopompic rubble of retreating dreams into a sooty lavender scene of generalized brokenness and disgrace. “I’m often depressed when I wake up,” he told the nurse practitioner who was evaluating his request for specialized care. She told him the depression might be the result of low blood-sugar and/or the radio station he listened to. She advised eating a little something before bed and tuning his clock-radio to another station. If the problem persisted he should consult her again. Harold didn’t feel, in getting such advice, that much luckier than those 45 million uninsured Americans he heard about on the radio.
He continued as before, waking sad and feeling a kind of small impersonal grief when he encountered the New York Times left each day like a changeling he couldn’t care for at his door. He would pick the paper up and drop it down unread inside the apartment. It was too cumbersome to read on the subway during the morning crush. On Saturdays it was a part of Harold’s odyssey of errands to bind the week’s newspapers in twine and place them mostly unread in the basement recycling bin. An odd guilt was attached to doing this, as if at once he were a passive accomplice to the drowning of a litter and had failed to make use of a distant relative’s birthday gift.
It was nicer to wake against the warm naked length of Monica, but this was the privilege only of Sunday and Wednesday mornings. Monica complained a bit of how little she saw Harold during the week, but he was busy and tired and, besides, he’d taken to spending the evenings reading popular works of economics. If work and associated transportation took twelve hours, sleep eight, and care of the body (eating, changing clothes, performing one’s toilette) another two, this left on week-nights only two hours of free-time. In two hours Harold could put earplugs in his ears (the walls in his gut-renovated building were thin, and hip-hop, with its heavy bass-line, remained popular in the neighborhood) and learn a little of currency speculation, interest-rate arbitrage, comparative advantages, international wage differentials, and the like. Had share-holders come to enjoy too commanding a position in the economy? Had we entered a new paradigm or at least a thirty-years boom? Was the country instead skating on an iridescent soap-bubble? Harold didn’t know, and Monica assured him of his incompetence in these matters.
“Even the experts aren’t expert in this. But you with no training even in econometrics÷”
Harold didn’t protest. It was a Saturday night, he and Monica had seen a movie, they were walking down a leafy Village street arm-in-arm. Still, he was glad to have become familiar with at least the vocabulary of economics; it was as if he’d been standing on a promontory in contemplation of a mountain landscape and someone had told him about geology. Just as the grinding collision of plates brings together stranded territories, so Harold felt he was now swimming with everyone in the same warm dirty bath. Why, it was a pleasanter sensation than he’d ever derived from reading before.
But between work, errands, love, friendship, transportation, shopping, and reading economics, Harold had run out of time. Summer—gone. He hadn’t swept or mopped in weeks, dishes had accumulated in the sink, he needed a haircut, as well as new socks and underwear, and he ought to call his parents. Several bills were overdue. His dishwasher needed to be repaired. His teeth had not been cleaned. Certainly there was no possibility of taking up aikido, learning Spanish, mastering HTML or doing the other things he had included on his to-do list—his list of good intentions.
“What’s the matter?” Monica asked. “You seem tense. Come on, it’s Saturday night.”
Harold was suddenly seized with the fear of lying in his grave in forty years listening to an alumni-magazine obituary—his—read to him incessantly as he rotted. Then it would seem as if he had never been discovered. He was running out of time, he needed to devise a means of success, of even a minimal fame, of a tiny acquitting degree of accomplishment; but his life was cumbered and stultified with errands and press-releases, and all he could see that was eliminable was Monica. If the dinners and weekend excursions with her were instead devoted to success, then Harold might hit upon some kind of entrepreneurial shtick or invention or insight, the thing would snowball, he would be gathered up in his own avalanching success as onto the shoulders of a cheering crowd, he could write in to the alumni magazine and quietly announce what he’d done, and this would be insurance against being pushed from the footlights and led by bouncers whimpering to his tomb.
Harold said, “I think we should talk.”
“I knew you’d do this,” Monica was saying when Harold saw Failure coming at him in a shapeless woolen overcoat, with a broad smile and a patch over his right eye.
“Harold, man! How are you? I’m so sorry, my depth-perception’s shot”—he had blundered right into Harold—“you know I had this accident, I must have told you, but is this Monica? The Monica?” He did not quite extend his hand far enough; she had to hold her arm out almost straight. “Enchant». I was wondering if I’d get to meet you. My goodness! Harold said you were a looker but he has a tendency to fib. I’m sure you know that.” Failure winked at her breasts with the one exposed eye.
“Frankly÷ Who is this person, Harold?”
As if it were the simple literal term, Harold said: “Scum.”
“I used to temp at Synergos,” Failure said.
Harold heaved a great sigh and then punched Failure in the face. The blow was not especially strong and seemed more to surprise than to hurt the man. He staggered back a few feet and then with a curious simultaneity both he and Harold began to cry. They cried very differently: Failure blubbered and Harold was perfectly quiet.
Monica took Harold’s hand and led him up the street, his head turning every few steps to look behind.
“You have to tell me who that was.”
“My stalker,” Harold said in the same voice of simple literalism.
Of course the talk Harold had proposed was tacitly postponed. He and Monica returned to her apartment—bright spacious Chelsea 1 BR, renovated, eat-in-kitchen—to go to bed together.
There Harold recounted three of his four previous encounters with the stalker, skipping the Central Park incident. “I don’t know if that’s actionable,” he said. His mysterious tears had dried up.
“You really have no idea who this guy is? You have no idea why you?”
“None.” He felt almost as if he were lying.
“I say call the police. He’s obviously found out about you.”
“What do you mean?”
“What I mean is he knows who you are. Ugh, and he touched me.”
At this she got up to brush her teeth. And in the morning she announced coolly that if Harold wasn’t really into it any more they could let things go for now, which was fine with her. Harold could not tell whether she genuinely wanted this or was just ratifying his own decision.
They had been together almost five months. That wasn’t so long, and Harold supposed they remained largely unknown to one another. Still, he couldn’t have said what parts of him were hidden. He was afraid that neither of them was very interesting. He was often surprised at the insipid words dribbling from the corners of his mouth, but they were the main words he could think of. All he could oppose to them was that vast posited aquifer of interesting-ness, deep inside and untapped, that allowed him to prefer himself to others.
He sat on her white queen-sized bed looking at his hands. Rain had beat the day to zinc. The wet traffic outside seemed to bear away in tiny pieces an antecedent sense of things. It had been nice to stand at the center of someone else’s little life and to have physical touch regularly confirm a common world. But ah, well. She wasn’t that interesting. She was pretty and sarcastic and had a kind of glamour. She also seemed basically kind, unless you took a macroeconomic perspective. Maybe once Harold became interesting and successful she would have found her own road-less-traveled-by to interesting-ness, too, and they could get back together then. FX would give her enough money for spa visits and breast lifts, so she would probably age well.
Harold and Monica said a sniffling good-bye at her door.
Harold took the elevator down to the street and went walking aimlessly around in the rain in the time-honored custom of disappointed lovers. How many times since the eighth grade had he parted tragically from a woman or girl? Each time felt like the diminished echo of his adolescent agony over Sheila Pettibone. Once Harold became a success, then maybe his romances would attain the stature of that success. It was a sensation of great definiteness: Harold wanted to be a successful and interesting person. Except that he had only two hours on some evenings and the bulk of each weekend—hardly even time for a hobby.
Harold continued to work fairly late. He would write a press release and then submit it via email to Simone, the vice president, whose office was next to his. Several hours later he might wander into her office to ask if she’d received the memo and attachment. “Yes. Thanks. Thank you. Thanks, thanks. Thanks.”
She would do that: scarcely raising her head, she would thank him five times, making up in repetition what she lacked in sincerity. Harold used to imitate this tic to Monica; the trouble was, he now found himself helplessly saying thanks in just the same repetitive absent way whenever he bought something at a store. At the deli, the dry-cleaner’s, the café, the multiplex or the subway station, he would hand over his cash or his credit card and then say, “Thanks. Thank you. Thanks, thanks.” He felt a mutual embarrassment he knew was not mutual. People in sales got used to transactions; that was their job.
Harold’s social life had naturally undergone some attrition during the Monica phase and he was now spending more time alone. Maybe it was the solitude that allowed him to develop a nagging set of fantasies? One had to do with cash-machines: Harold began to imagine upon approaching his bank that in the cash-machine’s place would be a man. This would be a tall man and Harold would have to stand on tip-toe in order to whisper into the man’s ear his PIN; and then from out of his pocket the man would produce a little sheaf of cash. Harold didn’t like to feel he was imposing on the man, but of course there was no such man. It was for a similar reason that Harold more and more often used the stairs rather than the elevator in his building. It seemed a lot for the elevator to have to do, grinding up and down simply to carry him. Now Harold pushed an elevator button or received fresh bills from an ATM with his head turned away in an attitude of ridiculous coyness. The great relief, however, was that even though he anticipated receiving a little shock of pain whenever he touched a product in the supermarket, this had never once occurred.
It was October now. Harold left work in the dark even when he left at 6:00 sharp. Arriving back at the apartment, he experienced a punctual loneliness. His program of becoming an interesting and successful person had yet to really take off. After a bachelor’s simple dinner spent watching TV, he would turn to economics again. He was reading, with his earplugs in (his breathing was loud and yet distant to him, as if he were snorkeling), a translation of Marx’s Capital. It was heavy going, but not unpleasant. Whether Marx’s theories were or were not true, Harold felt they put him in contact with the world. Capital was as vivid to him as a scratch-and-sniff book with swatches of fabric sown in. Reading it, he felt like a city-reared child visiting a petting zoo for the first time, with its touch of fur and warm smell of dung.
But Harold did not did not emerge from his hours with Marx with many pearls. He seemed to have lost his thinking chops since college. He was nodding off in his easy chair one evening with volume 2 on his lap when he heard a rapping at the bedroom window. Sleep-stupid, he figured it must be Monica, returning to him. Instead, of course, it was Failure, shivering and begging to be let in. The shock hardly lasted. “Go away or I’ll call the police,” Harold shouted wearily through the glass and security-gate. He went to the kitchen, picked up the remote phone from its cradle, and unplugged the line at the jack. He didn’t want any hassle with the police. He went to the bedroom and ostentatiously dialed 911. “Yes I’m calling to report—” Meekly, Failure clambered down the fire-escape.
A few weeks later Harold saw Monica for the last time. They ate cheap good Ethiopian food and got drunk on honey wine. She told him funny stories about her co-workers, and asked after his parents. She mentioned a friend who had sold her first screenplay for $725,000 and married a wealthy, handsome architect who had been the catch at Princeton. Nicely, she ignored Harold’s painful mental vacancy. As he walked her to the subway they held hands as in the old days.
But these were the nether days of November—a wafer of iron on the tongue. Harold kissed Monica on the cheek and they said good-bye. The trees on Broadway looked as if flayed. Nice fall weather in which Harold romps with Monica through the littering leaves of Central Park like a catalogue-model in a handsome turtleneck had been dismantled, packed-up, and trucked away.
Harold supposed he would just return to the apartment and read or watch TV, and become slightly fatter. But it had become painful to look in the paper or skip through the channels. He didn’t see why he, who in high-school and college had been considered smart and talented, could not have become a website entrepreneur; a movie-producer or screen-writer; a fashion-designer; a star of the golf circuit; even a journalist well-known in certain circles.
Would something please come from outside to seize and alter him? He didn’t want anymore to be a pisseur de copie for Synergos, a sinister propagandist in the exploitation of young black and Latino men. He was senselessly afraid of a socialist God who would punish particularly him in the end. But if there was no such God, which there wasn’t, then Harold wanted money: he wanted advertisements to become as pretty as in reality they were; he wanted to live with a beautiful woman, the subject of magazine profiles, in a house featured in Architectural Digest. He wanted to draw an enormous salary simply for being a good and famous person.
Horrible lucidity! What he wanted he could not get. He could see nothing to do with himself but to accept with religious humility a mediocrity unto death. Romantic adolescence must mortify itself in an adulthood pudgy, middle-class, obscure, and benign, or else—Harold feared—he would go mad with rage at his fate and do something bad and violent to someone or himself.
This side of 109th Street was a bank of stoops and on one stoop Harold set himself down, feeling light and odd. The abstract panic of ambition was familiar to him now; but there was also something else. He felt for all his panic marbled with solemnity as a bloody quarter of beef is marbled with white seams of fat. Okay, he thought, okay: he would let Failure just take him. He was going to close his eyes and breathe and sit here the simple prey of Failure, and when he heard Failure shuffling down the street he would not open his eyes. Failure probably wouldn’t kill him at all. He would maybe just sidle up to Harold and throw a rotten arm across his shoulder and be simply, rankly near him. Nothing might happen then but for Failure to become for the rest of Harold’s life like a burdensome relative paying frequent visits. Harold would neither die nor be beatified into success, but would pad around a carpeted life in the spiritual equivalent of a cardigan and slippers, maimed by his normality in no detectable way. Unless Failure took revenge and killed him!
Harold heard the quick minatory steps on the sidewalk and sprang up to run.
“Baby!” came a bright amused voice. “What can you be doing there?”
It was Monica—no doom or deliverance, but a reprieve.
“I came back to say I miss you. I’m confused.” She hiccoughed.
Harold sat down again then stood up. He and Monica embraced. Harold said he felt like she did. And it was true: the physical loss of her had been a poignant little exile.
She asked him to take him back with her. The request immediately brought before his eyes the dirty sheets, the foul sink, the unmopped, unswept floors, the porn magazine lying on the carpet—and the outrageous volumes of Capital. The bathroom mirror was dirty, the toilet had not been cleaned. Harold was reluctant to introduce Monica to this atmosphere of decay, but he didn’t know how to refuse. Perhaps he could simply spirit her through the living-room with the lights off, step into the bathroom, tidy it up, and hope the dirty sheets didn’t offend her.
“I know we’re not right for one another,” Monica was saying a bit boozily they walked down 109th. “But I’m not sure the messy break-up is such a good—I mean bad idea. It kind of devalues the romance so now it’s easier and less tragic to let go.”
So Harold would be a stop-gap measure. That seemed okay to him. Still, there was something he wondered about. “So when you miss me—what are you missing?”
“You’re a very curious person.”
“But I’m odd or I want to know things?”
She laughed. “All the above. But you want to know things.”
“What if the thing is that actually I don’t?”
“I don’t know then. I like you because you’re you. You’re Harold Fetch.” Tipsily she leaned in and kissed him. Harold didn’t feel drunk at all. Possibly he’d been drinking more scotch than he knew, reading Marx.
“I’m not saying love,” Monica said.
They had arrived at his building where the doorman sat nodding off in his collapsible metal chair. He stirred as Harold opened the door and said hello.
When the elevator closed on them, Monica said: “You’re successful at what you do.” Apparently she was still enumerating his good traits.
Arriving at his door Harold fumbled among his keys. He thought of pretending to have lost the necessary key, especially as he appeared to have left a light on in the living room. A wire of light was visible just above the sill.
“And some men smell, whereas you—”
“I’m afraid the whole place is really a mess,” Harold said, stepping inside. “I’ve been so busy at work and—”
There sat Failure in the easy-chair reading the Post. He was wearing nothing but an undershirt, an eyepatch, and Harold’s blue pajama bottoms. He looked up and smiled benevolently. “Monica,” he said.
Monica looked at Harold.
“I may not have mentioned how my uncle was staying with me?”
“I told you he was a fibber,” Failure said. “I’m not his—do I look like his uncle? Actually I wonder÷ Anyway, Harold and I are just friends. He’s a good guy, but unreliable.”
“This guy is staying with you Harold?” Now she sounded perfectly sober.
“He needed a place to stay.”
“Well I can’t stay here. What have you done to this place, Harold?”
“I don’t mind a night on the couch,” Failure said.
“This mess is not mine,” Harold said. “He made the mess.”
“It’s true,” Failure said. “Housekeeping is not one of my strong points.”
“Harold, who is this person? Isn’t he—aren’t you the stalker?” She had turned to Failure, who simply harrumphed at the thought.
“I don’t know his name,” Harold said.
“My name!” said Failure. “Harold, you’re crazy.”
“I agree.” Monica turned to leave, then turned back and shouted, “I agree! Harold, do you know how alone this makes me? A fucking tin miner in Bolivia is how much of a stranger you are to me!”
“Let’s talk soon,” Harold said. Failure started giggling. “Maybe next week.”
“I don’t think so,” and she was gone.
Immediately Failure had embraced Harold and begun blubbering. “Thank you, thank you. You stuck up for me there. Thank you from the genuine bottomlessness of my heart.”
They hugged one another, saying it all was going to be all right, and soon they were both standing in the living room patting each other on the back, just as thousands of men sometimes gather in football stadiums for this purpose.
“Shall I put on some music?” Harold asked. As he bent over the stereo, he heard the huge wooden-handled umbrella, a gift from Monica, open overhead as Failure gathered him under it.