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ALONE/TOGETHER

Barbarus stared at the floor; Bob had abandoned him on the threshold. He'd taken hold of Fran's elbow, offered her coffee, a seat in the chair beside his desk.

Fran withdrew her elbow from Bob's plump fingers which felt as though they were made of pastry dough. She glanced at Barbarus who stood listlessly in the doorway looking as though he'd received a blow to the belly, seated herself on the leather couch, and signed for Barbarus to join her.

If Fran had an egg, she would have smashed it on Bob's bald head, but she didn't; so she named him instead, dubbed him the flabby man without seasons or simply the seasonless man, because he didn't even know that spring had arrived.

Spring was imminent. The same force which called to tulip bulbs buried beneath the thawing soil in the gardens beside the Promenade to awaken and move toward the sun caused Fran's two front teeth to tingle.

Bob Schwartz the sole proprietor of Bob Schwartz Inc. - a one man - show plopped down in his comfy leather chair behind his teak desk lit a cigarette, and spent a moment reflecting on his triumphs.

In the past month, he'd sold a container full of socks to a chain of Japanese department stores, ten thousand fax machines to a dealer in Moscow, and arranged a bridge loan for the purchase of a second rate Mondrian, but he'd never done a toy deal. The numbers made his pupils dilate. The Ninja Turtles had made close to seven hundred million dollars in a single fiscal year.

Bob glanced at Fran and dove into the business at hand. "I gave Dwarfo to a friend of mine at the largest toy company in the world (Bob purposely omitted the name). My friend passed the property to the research division. They in turn performed a blind love test."

Prior to hearing the word `testing', Barbarus had been staring out Bob's window at an office across the avenue, wondering if anyone else thought about jumping when they looked down.

"What kind of testing?" asked Fran while jiggling her left foot. Her legs were crossed, and her left foot jiggled vigorously. Fran's jiggling foot, reminded Barbarus of a cat's tail. His cat, Frost, always gave her tail a few twitches before doing something vicious.

"The toy people," continued Bob, "placed Dwarfo in a room with a number of other unknown stuffed animals and a couple of dozen kids who were watched through one-way mirrors. Kids flocked to Dwarfo. The toy people want to talk about an option."

Bob paused and stared incredulously at Fran who should have emitted a squeal of delight or sat bolt upright as though she'd received an electric shock instead of tapping her finger restlessly on her portfolio.

Barbarus moved toward the edge of the sofa, fidgeted with Bob's paper clips, smiled at everyone, but managed to satisfy no one.

Fran had expected a special smile, not the same smile Bob received.

Bob felt as though Barbarus' smile was proprietary. Being present at the unveiling of big news means nothing, thought Bob as he placed his paper clips out of Barbarus' reach.

The abrupt way Bob claimed his paper clips disturbed Fran. She knew that Barbarus shouldn't be playing with them anymore than he should have come to the meeting wearing that hat he'd bought in Sicily. He looked more like a hit man than a purveyor of epiphanies.

Bob looked at a picture of his second wife as though it could offer him guidance; he'd arrived at the critical portion of his speech, but Fran wasn't drooling. He couldn't repeat himself. What good would that do.

Bob lit a second cigarette, fondled the plush blue Dwarfo Fran had placed on his desk, glanced at the photo of his wife, repeated to himself what he'd often told her: You can't make a deal unless you're brave enough to lose it.

Fran felt like a piece of Swiss cheese that Bob the rodent desired. She wondered if he had the guts to traverse the open space between the stove and the refrigerator.

Bob brushed some ashes off the sleeve of his suit, sucked down a lung full of smoke, and said "I'm going to make this simple. I can't tell you how the option will read. I'm a broker. But I can tell you this. If you want to make money, then you must surrender creative control."

"How much money?" blurted out sweaty-palmed Barbarus.

Fran looked sternly at Bob. She wasn't impressed. She'd heard all this before from other men who'd spent all their waking hours beneath fluorescent lights in offices that could belong to anyone. All you had to do was swap family photos and change the data in their computers; besides she had a direct line to a big guy at Mega Toys.

Bob was bitterly disappointed. He regretted having even mentioned creative control. He should have stuck with sales.

Bob lit a third cigarette; his hand shook; he felt like a driver desperately cranking the starter in a stalled car rolling backwards down a hill that lead to a major intersection.

Fran smiled compassionately at Bob; if he'd really been a rodent, she would have kicked the cheese in his direction. Suffering had that effect on her.

"My people have hit the last few times out," said Bob. Fran's smile had fired up his motor. "Everybody is watching them. We're talking about Dwarfo's picture on lunch boxes, sneakers, bed sheets, the works. I mean the entire gambit. If my people move with this property, everyone will follow. I'm talking about a feature movie timed to the world wide release of the toy. I'm talking about a television show.

"All I need is six weeks to place Dwarfo in the proper hands. Your property will be as big as the Ninja Turtles which have grossed as much as seven hundred million dollars in a single year. Do you understand me?"

Barbarus understood. He hadn't even glanced at Fran. His eyes were locked on an imaginary gusher of cash about to spew out of the blue Dwarfo on Bob's desk.

Fran scrutinized Barbarus, and wished he'd given her hand a squeeze when Bob had said seven hundred million. It would have made her feel safe. Seven hundred million was the most exciting number she'd ever heard, but she didn't trust Bob, not a bit, not after he pulled his paper clips out of Barbarus' hand.

Bob didn't want Fran to look at Barbarus. It pissed him off. That slumlord brought no added value to the project. He'd failed to seduce Fran. She wasn't staring at him, the wizard, with big moon eyes that said, What next, Mr. Bob; how should we proceed? Did you really say seven hundred million dollars?

Bob lit a fourth cigarette; he knew that Fran thought him an asshole. That smile had meant nothing to her. Alms. Nobody gave Bob Schwartz alms.

"I don't like working with artists," Bob said as though he were spitting out a rotten piece of food. "Artists have too many concerns. They want to know how the product is going to look, who will own it, if the owner will treat it right, if they buy stocks in companies that cut down rain forests. Those are not relevant questions. The relevant questions are who makes the most money, and how do we contact them?"

Fran didn't like business. She treated money like tampons. Money and tampons enabled her to do the important things: think about the water, the children, Barbarus, her art work, and prepare for surprises. Barbarus had been a surprise. So had James Flannery the toy man. He'd helped her build the first Dwarfo prototype and encouraged her to develop Dwarfo's Tale.

She looked at Bob and thought, He's not happy if his phone stops ringing, if someone isn't waiting in the vestibule. I'll bet he's got a hundred deals going. He juggles them like a circus performer, one, two, three, four, five deals all at once. Watch Bob go. Can he do it? We'll soon know.

Fran sat up straight and said to Bob, "I don't want to talk about money. I want to talk about the integrity of Dwarfo's character. I'd like to show you how I envision the toy. I j don't want anyone to put a gun in Dwarfo's hands. Dwarfo's not about that. He's nothing like the Ninja Turtles. Dwarfo has come to usher in the Wave of Beauty. I brought my portfolio along."

"What about a pollution zapper?" said Bob with an ironic grimace (Fran made no sense to him). "There's a gun that might suit the property."

"Are you telling me that if we can't equip Dwarfo with a gun, then the toy won't be profitable? Is that the implication of surrendering creative control?" demanded Fran, staring hard at Bob and thinking about her Aunt Irene whose attorney had swindled her father out of two fine houses in the Catskill Mountains and left the family destitute.

Barbarus strained to restrain himself. He didn't want Fran to alienate Bob, or Bob to alienate Fran or anybody in any way to interfere with the gusher of money which was about to spew out of the blue Dwarfo.

Bob gazed fondly at the fluffy blue Dwarfo on his desk, and gave it an affectionate squeeze. He believed in the little critters. They had charisma. Even his wife's wimpy kids liked them.

"I'm not saying that Dwarfo must have a gun to be a commercial success," said Bob apologetically. "What I'm saying is that the more restrictions you place on Dwarfo, the less it's worth in the market place. I'll give you an example: if I own a lot on Forty-Second street and Broadway and I say you can buy it as long as you don't breed horses there, well, nobody is going to pay much attention. Perhaps the property loses five percent of its value. But if I say you can't build a business on the lot, then the property loses ninety-five percent of its value."

Barbarus' averted eyes and his persistent silence warned Fran. They repeated over and over, I expect you to do this deal. I’m the only one with money in.

She scrutinized Barbarus while massaging her left temple, another headache, more memories, the bad ones: Aunt Irene and Father John. Old memories. Her long-nailed demon scratching her, right there, behind the left temple. Barbarus' participation in the deal awakened all her fears. She stood, politely thanked Bob, promised to think about his proposals and left the office.

 

"Can I trust you?" queried Fran as she and Barbarus stood beside each other in the vestibule of Bob's office.

Barbarus' body temperature increased as he swallowed his rage. His legs, his arms, even the top of his scalp heated up. Fran's question was irrelevant, out of place. Irrelevant because he was honest, out of place because he’d invested his entire nest egg in her project.

"Will you abandon me?"

Barbarus felt as though Fran were forcing him to judge her. He could almost hear himself declaring privately, she can't make money. He had that thought whenever she deflected his attention from the deal.

Fran knew what Barbarus was thinking. They'd visited this awful spot before. She wanted Barbarus to prove his love before proceeding with the deal, but he refused to do so. He looked at everything backwards. He'd withhold his final commitment until Fran proved she was capable of closing.

"Promise you'll never leave me," whispered Fran. "I'm very fragile."

"I'll marry you."

"No, marriage spoils everything," said Fran. "I want you to always feel like marrying me. Do you want to marry me now?"

"I can't; you're still married."

"No I'm not. I'm not married."

"Ask any court clerk."

"Bureaucrats don't know a damn thing about marriage. They think a record on a piece of microfilm equals a marriage. Are you going to ask me to marry you or not?"

"I said I'd marry you."

"Why haven't we made love in ten days?" A drop of sweat rolled out of Barbarus' armpit. He didn't know what to say. The sex thing had nothing to do with the deal.

The phone rang. Fran paused mid sentence. She'd been about to tell Barbarus for the tenth or eleventh time, that Bob was no good.

The phone rang a second time, louder, more insistently. Fran and Barbarus remained motionless, stymied by uncertainty. Who was it? Luigi, Bob, or the collection agency?

They had a stack of unpaid doctor's bills. Since the abortion, Fran had not been well. She complained of an uncomfortable bee-stingy feeling in her joints, and fatigue. She'd consulted with physicians, chiropractors, aura adjusters, astrologers, and even joined the local gym, but her health had not improved. The symptoms persisted.

The phone rang a third time. Fran crossed her fingers and prayed for the unexpected caller, the fortuitous wrong number, a laughing man who'd capitalize Dwarfo Inc.

James Flannery, who'd taught Fran all about the toy business, had been that way. She'd met him at the opera. He never, not once, brought her to a stuffy office with sheetrock partitions and sealed windows. They'd meet at McSorleys, drank ale, and ate crackers with hot mustard, onions, and thick pieces of cheddar cheese.

On the fourth ring, the machine answered. A little meter in a windowless brick building miles away began ticking, whirring around, billing: dividing minutes into milliseconds, counting, quantifying every word; it didn't even stop for the pauses or care if you were home.

The caller hung up.

The pine bookcase contained dozens of Dwarfos. Barbarus had been sleeping with Fran for six months before she'd pulled back the remnants of an old velvet theater curtain with gold tassels and revealed the bookcase full of stuffed animals in assorted colors and sizes. They looked like fluffy star-nosed moles with kangaroo tails.

"I don't want anybody cheating me!" shouted Fran from her eat-in kitchen so small that when they both sat down at the table the refrigerator door could not be opened. "Bob is a snake. He doesn't care about kids or Dwarfo.

“He doesn't understand the property. He never heard the word epiphany and he's proud of it."

"What's there to understand?" replied Barbarus in earnest. "Your landlord has already served a three-day-notice of eviction."

“I don't want to get any bad karma over this. You must understand the special circumstances of Dwarfo's creation.

"Come on, lie down. Bob is only thinking about the toy. It's nothing. An unsupported toy will only last a couple of seasons. Kids won't know what to do with it. A character without a world is nothing. James told me that. He taught me about play value. You have to study the successful properties. Barbie has Ken and they both have costumes and houses. GI Joe has guns and tanks and enemies, Lego can be anything and Dwarfo has a mission.

“Dwarfo can perform magic; he was raised by fairies. Bob doesn't get it. He's overwhelmed by the test results. He can't envision the national holiday. That's where the money is.

"Bob doesn't understand how many properties fail. A toy option is nothing without a media commitment and an aggressive licensor.

"People must see Dwarfo on the big screen. The character has to inflame the desire for connection. We're all reaching. Everyone wants to belong to something bigger than themselves. An unsupported toy won't do that.”

Barbarus was impressed. Fran made a lot of sense. He lay down next to her on their old purple sleeping bag.

"Are we okay? Do you still love me?" She asked in that timorous voice that made him very uncomfortable.

He couldn't just summon up his love, which meant Fran couldn't feel it, which meant either he'd have to fake it or confess to not feeling it, which in turn meant that Fran could easily determine that he didn't love her, he loved the deal.

Barbarus hugged Fran a few times, but they weren't convincing hugs. He was entirely preoccupied with the fate of his twenty thousand dollar investment. Fran had spoken out of both sides of her mouth. On one hand she saw a bigger deal then Bob ever envisioned while on the other she clung to reasons for abandoning immediate prospects.

She reminded him of his deadbeat tenants with their complex excuses and missing money.

After years of operating rooming houses, he'd devised a simple set of rules for dealing with the chest thumpers, cross kissers, ass lickers, and visionaries: A) only listen to one story; B) make a definite payment date; C) if the payment is missed, listen to one more story and make a second date; D) if the second payment is missed don't listen to any more stories (unless they're really good) and make a third payment date; E) if the third payment is missed hang the bastard: change the roomer's lock, stash his possessions in the cellar, then find another tenant.

He'd listened to the first story months ago: Dwarfos Tale. He'd called everyone he knew; Bob had most definitely taken a bite, but they weren't on the way to the bank. No, they were involved in a discussion about other worldly stipulations.

Fran didn't know any more about Barbarus' thoughts then those of her favorite blue Dwarfo, but she knew a limp dick when she saw one.

He hugged her again, this time more sincerely. He felt some pity, perhaps for himself.

He had accepted a weird deal which had nothing to do with Bob, Dwarfo, or the Wave of Beauty. He'd agreed to meet Fran in the space between her desire to dismiss Bob and his belief that they should proceed.

Barbarus clung to Fran. He joined her in that awful space between desire and negation. He chose to dive head first into an empty pool. He chose chaos. He chose Bob.

Fran squeezed his arm, "What are you thinking?"

Barbarus remained mute; he looked at Fran and twisted his face in such a way as to indicate that he had an explanation, but he feared the consequences of uttering it.

She smoothed out his twisted face with her warm fingers.

"I think you're being dramatic”, he mumbled. “Bob will introduce us to some people. We'll see if they're interested. We'll look at their work, and if we like it we'll go with them. Bob's only a broker. He's just testing us. Seeing how far we'll lean to get money. He doesn't trust artists. You heard him. He wants to make sure that you won't get in the way, but none of that matters because Dwarfo is only capable of certain things. He can't become a militiaman. It wouldn't fit his tale. It wouldn't fit his look. A good licensor is going to understand that."

Fran bit her lip when Barbarus said, Bob shouldn't be asking `us'. That `us', almost made her scream. Dwarfo wasn't his.

Barbarus shook his head in dismay. He hadn't meant to say `us'. It had just slipped out.

"Greed is sneaky," said Fran. "Remember you wouldn't even talk to Bob if he didn't have any connections. He's forsaken charmed moments. If we give up serendipity, what's left. A life full of passionless meetings in sealed rooms? You can't survive in that world. We'll find the right people. They'll come."

"What about James Flannery?" said Barbarus. "Can we talk with him?"

"He's dead."

"I am going to speak with Mr. Hoffman about Bob's proposal."

"It's not your project. You can't simply consult someone. It's not even that I would object, but you always forget to ask. Sometimes I feel as though you are just jumping into my life and bounding around like a big crazy puppy. I don't know if I can go on with you. You're out of control. Dwarfo is mine."

 

Barbarus paused on Canal Street and hollered, "Fuck creative control.”

A passing derelict paused to stare at him. "That's right," he shouted, "Seven hundred million dollars on the table and my girlfriend is talking about karma. What do you think about that?"

The derelict thought it might entitle him to a ten spot, but he was wrong.

Barbarus removed his green army surplus mittens. The chilly northeast wind had vanished. Frigid gusts no longer gnawed his nose or numbed his hypersensitive pinky, the scarred one on his left hand.

It felt good to be outside, anywhere except beneath Fran's purple sleeping bag tormented by vague reluctance, the impetus to judge . . . questions, and suppositions: Who is this stranger? (They'd met on the street).

He opened the top button of his second hand woolen overcoat. A garbage truck with a rearing stallion air brushed on its side rumbled down the street. The derelict dug through restaurant debris. Old newspapers, pieces of plastic, and other debris carried by the southern breeze blew around like tumbleweed.

The sky was an iridescent orange, neon lights reflecting on clouds. It felt very close. Barbarus could feel its cozy presence resting on his shoulders.

As he stuffed his mittens into the side pockets of his overcoat, the derelict tossed plastic bags out of the green dumpster, tore one open, and sorted through its contents. The garbage truck pulled up to the curb. Its chrome fenders sparkling beneath the streetlights. The derelict shoved a piece of chicken into the pocket of his shredded sheepskin coat.

Fred rolled down the driver's side window, leaned out and said, "Did the broker go for the doll? Are you rich? I'm in the mood for oysters.”

"It's not that simple. It doesn't happen so quickly," answered Barbarus as though he had become an authority.

"Did you make any money today?"

"No, In fact, I may have to borrow a couple of bucks. I haven't collected rents in weeks. Dwarfo . . . Dwarfo . . . Dwarfo."

"So what happened at the meeting?"

"The broker, spoke about big money. Colossal dollars."

"Don't be coy about money. That infuriates me. People will tell you who they're fucking before they tell you how much they make."

"Seven hundred million dollars," replied Barbarus as though he'd managed to defy gravity.

"From those stinking dolls."

"Did your kids like them?"

"How would I know? They're still in the trunk. I couldn't even pick up that pink crate . . ."

"What?"

"It oozes cuteness. What do you think of them?"

"Money. People say Fran's Dwarfos are charismatic."

"Stuffed charisma. I'm telling you this country is going down the tubes. Did you sign with this Bob guy?"

"No. Fran wasn't crazy about him. He doesn't want to save the planet."

"She's as bad as my wife. What are all these women saving the planet for? Get in the car! I'll take you to Nathans."

What's Bob like?"

Barbarus shivered. Fred's enthusiasm frightened him.

He regretted having mentioned Bob or the seven hundred million dollars. It wasn't a snack Fred desired; he wanted to sink his fangs into the deal.

"What's he want?"

"Six weeks to get an option from the biggest toy company in the world."

"The moment the doll hits, Fran's going to leave you. You must get a contract. You're going to get raped. You are responsible for the prosperity of Dwarfo. You've shown Fran the way, but you're not going to get a thing. Once this deal gets cooking, she's not even going to remember your name and then what have you got for your effort? You are hopeless, You're not going to cover your ass. You're not going to take my advice. You're not going to demand a contract."

"If Fran got sick I would care for her. She wouldn't owe me for that service. Lovers do that for one another," mumbled Barbarus.

"She should pay you like she'd pay any other consultant."

"I don't want to be Fran's employee."

"You're right, that's horrible. Your lover and your boss. What are you going to do?

Barbarus believed Fred wanted him to feel vulnerable. He believed Fred wanted to spoil the deal by having him make an inopportune demand on Fran.

He wanted to tell Fred to shut up, but he did not. Where's my anger? Am I a coward? wondered Barbarus as he recalled that time when he was just a boy that the local bullies had put firecrackers in the vent holes of his sneakers. He smelt the gunpowder each time he wondered if he were a coward.

Barbarus felt suspended between his impetus to love and his dread of being loved. His desire to hug Fran and his knowledge that her embrace would result in a craving to escape.

 

Barbarus returned to Fran's apartment at dawn. Doubt. The desire to be elsewhere. Lead-filled shoes. Fran's blemishes.

All the good stuff had vanished. It all went back to his desire for a boat.

Fran had said, A boat? No problem. Dwarfo will get you one. Then we'll build a summer camp on North Brother Island.

Doorway, key way, pins, springs, moving up and down. Medeco cylinders are the best. Pick proof. Fine devices. Tumbler turning. Dead bolt retracting. Door squeaking. Cheap hinges. Reluctance creating resistance.

Barbarus paused on the threshold. He knew his doubts had nothing to do with the deal. It was as though his very core resisted Fran's love. Her touch frightened him, her demands angered him, and worst of all he couldn't tell her how he felt because he dreaded rejection.

Every time he entered the sleeping stillness of her apartment, he felt as though the air lacked oxygen.

He moved into the darkened bedroom. Fran slept on a futon which rested on a pine frame that could be disassembled in about forty seconds, bound together with twine, and shipped anywhere.

He listened to the electric hum of a motor pumping freon through Fran's empty refrigerator, the elevator descending, the man upstairs coughing from deep within his chest (Barbarus imagined that he had TB).

Barbarus liked solid things, heavy things, bolted things, things which couldn't end up in the back of U -Haul trucks, headed for desert towns in the west. He turned off the radio.

Fran rolled over and exposed her naked flank.

He needed to justify his reluctance. Explain everything to himself; exonerate himself; prove that his doubts and consequent reluctance were all her fault.

Astrology. Past lives. Bullshit. He wanted to dance around on her arcane beliefs until he'd ground them into fine white mummy powder.

Lingerie, he'd get to that. He liked women naked. Panties, especially little red satin ones with nothing but a piece of string running up the crack of her ass, did nothing for him.

Oh yeah, and what about all that clutching, grabbing, that do you really love me stuff. I mean, woman, if you can't tell whether or not I love you, then what the fuck are we doing.

As Fran's three-legged cat wound itself around his leg and began purring, Barbarus' fear became anger. He placed the top of his foot in the space between Thumper's legs and lifted the cat into the air.

*

Meanwhile, Fran dreamt. A bird with a golden torso and orange wings flew toward her. It had human eyes. Eyes she'd never seen. Eyes coming. Eyes she'd soon meet. The bird became a ripe plum. Her favorite.

*

Thumper squirmed off his foot. The cat escaped, but Barbarus could not. His fear became uncomfortable memories. His mother's touch: clammy-handed and manipulative, asking him to say, Yes, I like school, or No, I won't stay out late. She begged him to make promises he had no intention of keeping. Promises she knew he had no intention of keeping. She forced him to lie. Forced him to placate her, and belittle himself.

He sat down on the oak floor, which needed another coat of polyurethane. It had many scratches, flesh wounds. Fran made them when she moved furniture. Her one bedroom apartment was in a constant state of flux, which was another thing that upset Barbarus, who was a creature of habit. He liked the book he was reading to remain on the left side of the armchair, because that's where he'd put it.

It was the first warm dawn. Humid. Foggy. Fran had tossed off the top sheet. Her breasts, her pubic hair, her thighs, brought to mind excuses, reasons he'd make up as he slipped from her grasp, avoided her kisses.

Barbarus wanted his freedom even though he had nothing to be free from. He had no family tradition to maintain, for his family - or better yet his knowledge of his family - ceased with his grandfather, who'd been a waiter. He had no religion to free himself from, for his religion along with the Yiddish, Polish, and Russian languages, had been casualties of his parents' assimilation. No one cared what he read, how he dressed, what drugs he took, where he went, who he fucked or whether he voted.

*

Fran squirmed around on the bed, grinned like a child who'd just gotten a bag full of pink cotton candy, another dream. She saw Dwarfos in Macy's windows, little girls wanting them, needing them, having to have them, tugging on their parents who reached into their pockets, because they stood for everything Dwarfo stood for.

*

Barbarus wanted to board a boat, search for the foghorn he could hear in the distance. It was a beautiful night. The street lights had halos around them, yellow halos. The fog was thick. Headlights couldn't penetrate it. Their light bounced back, illuminating the drivers. They looked like corpses.

He wanted to wander through the night, walk until something happened, until the fog lifted, until his fear passed, until his desire for Fran returned.

How could he get into bed, avoid her touch, avoid the conversation he couldn't have? She'd ask. She'd know something was wrong. He'd already put her off twice. What would he say?

Forgive me for all the poison thoughts in my mind, forgive me my doubts, my judgments, for the fact that I don't like country music. It will pass. Bear with me! I love you.

Barbarus sat in a blue plastic chair on the mezzanine. He gazed down at the dazed deluge of persons: old and young, tall and short, stout and thin, brown and white, round-eyed and slant-eyed, rich and poor, accompanied and unaccompanied who poured out of the gate of the International Arrivals Building at Kennedy Airport.

The asylum seekers, pleasure seekers, fortune seekers, and wanna-bes flowed in an endless stream, day in and day out, through a portal behind a metallic railing.

A dark handsome kid in his late teens had been traveling for a week. He'd started in a small farming village in Yemen; he'd come to study painting. A long-haired hippie type - the son of a banker - came first class from a suburb near Helsinki, seeking freedom; he'd had it. His parents were always looking over his shoulder and complaining; they accused him of smoking too much hashish. A woman of indeterminate age came from a hovel in Cracow. She'd lived for the past two years in an Italian refugee camp awaiting her right to enter the United States of America. She didn't speak a word of English; she had no skills, no money, and her one relative, a prominent physician, hadn't answered any of her letters.

Barbarus remained on the mezzanine thinking about what he should have said during his last visit.

You're full of shit. That would have been a good place to start, thought Barbarus as he lectured an imaginary Luigi. You invited me here to explore your land, to touch it with my American hands. I'd never visited a place upon which mythic characters had tread, but you didn't let me see Sicily. You wanted me to get discount software from America.

A couple of weeks into that last visit, Barbarus' wishes and his queries had infuriated Luigi. He'd thrown his flatware on the table and stormed out of the dining room when Barbarus asked his nieces and nephews (all of whom could speak English) if they knew where Odysseus had fought Penelope's suitors. Luigi had avoided Barbarus for eight or nine hours after he'd asked for a map to the Cyclops' cave. He'd told Barbarus that the only existing entities of mythic proportion are multi-national corporations. Luigi wanted an AT&T Calling Card. He’d developed a passion for gadgets. If it didn't have a plug, Lugi wasn't interested.

While Luigi had bent, twisted, and folded sounds with his Macintosh computer, Barbarus had sat in an exquisite leather armchair, sipped Armagnac, and stared out of the library window at that little garbage-strewn port where Odysseus had concluded his odyssey. He reached for something (he couldn't explain what) more significant than the fact: Odysseus concluded his odyssey here.

Luigi never left the villa. He sent the gardener to buy cigarettes; cooks purchased and prepared the food. A waiter in a white jacket with gold epaulets served it. The maid did the laundry. Luigi kept the only set of keys in his pocket, and he wouldn't let Barbarus take them. He made lame excuses about having to replace all the locks if the keys were lost. A twenty foot high wall with shards of glass cemented on the top surrounded the villa. A steel gate with barbed wire sealed the driveway. Barbarus couldn't get out.

During the quiet moments between disappointments, Barbarus had sat in the library surrounded by portraits of Luigi's ancestors and thought about himself. He felt like an animal. He spent most of his time foraging for food and worrying about predators.

He'd never sat in a comfortable armchair after a delicious supper eaten from plates which had stories. The plates had belonged to Luigi's grandmother, who'd been given them by her mother and so on back to the invasion by Garibaldi, during which they'd been buried along with other treasures.

No wonder Barbarus didn't know a thing about plates. His plates could have belonged to anyone. They'd come from a factory in Brazil.

He should have said on his final night in Sicily while they had sat facing one another on a warm night at a table that wobbled whenever the waiter put something down. You didn't give a shit about me. You couldn't perform without someone watching.

*

"Hey, what're you doing sitting here," said Luigi, a bean stalk of a foreigner with a huge hook nose, crooked teeth, and a massive wallet sticking out of the back pocket of his jeans. "I been looking all over. I called Fran's place. She sounds nice."

Barbarus struggled against himself. He could see the tenderness in Luigi's eyes. The part of him that called out for friendship. The man who'd come five thousand miles. The foreigner who wasn't getting a passionate welcome. He reached for the good memories, the ecstatic moments, but they’d all been tainted.

Luigi sneered. Barbarus saw his expression reflected in the cab window. "Enrico, that bastard," began Luigi, "accused me of killing Pietro. He condemned me in front of the entire city of Enna.

"I admired Pietro," continued Luigi, "for not sitting over a desk weighing his prospects, making pencil marks, little scratches he could erase on those awful sheets of paper with columns and lines like accountants use.

"Pietro begged her," continued Luigi. "I did nothing. He knew Andrica had AIDS. He choose to sit in front of her door for a week and plead for her love.

"Only a coward confronts you with ten rows of people between. Enrico yelled at the top of his lungs in the movie theater that I encouraged Luigi to inject her blood as proof of his love. Lies!

“Luigi knew she despised men; she mocked them aloud. Said they were only good at two things acquiring drugs and performing injections. Andrica has a terrible fear of needles.

“Luigi knew the stories. He’d heard the words Typhoid Mary. Everyone had. But he had the courage to know what turned him on. He wasn’t going to spend his life on the shadow line wondering and weighing.

“During the intermission while everyone was drinking coffee. Lugi accused me again. He said I had introduced my cousin to the German anesthesiologist.”

*

Fran had bought fresh flowers: cherry blossoms. She'd cleaned the bathroom and retiled the kitchen.

She'd been intending to do something about the kitchen for months, but Luigi's visit had transformed tepid considerations into an emergency. The floor must be done.

Fran never panicked about procuring stuff like linoleum, furniture, or clothing. She awoke early and went in search of tiles. She didn't go near the big discount place on Flatbush Avenue, any of the local hardware stores or crawl into a dumpster.

Fran purchased a cup of decaf coffee at the gourmet place down the street, tore a hole in the plastic top, and stood still in front of the shop as though she were sniffing for linoleum tiles.

She did not wiggle her behind or smile gratuitously at any of the other customers. Nonetheless, a few moments later a man in his fifties began chatting with her.

Five or ten minutes afterward, the conversation - without any evident manipulation on Fran's part - miraculously came around to linoleum tiles, which her gray-haired interlocutor happened to have. His brother-in-law was in the business.

Twenty minutes later, after a very pleasing conversation - the best one this Wall Street broker had had since his college days - about serendipity in which astrology, and the wonders of life were all mentioned, he found himself looking at the ring finger on Fran's left hand, and experiencing a good deal of pleasure from discovering she wore no wedding ring. He bought her a quart of glue, an exacto knife, and ended up chastising himself for the next week and a half for not asking her to dinner.

*

Luigi started right in. He stuck his big nose - with the black hairs sticking out of it - into the cherry blossoms, made some remark about how the color of the flowers suited Fran's eyes. Then asked how one called them in English.

Barbarus could barely speak. His tongue weighed a hundred pounds. Fran had never fixed the place up for him. He regretted telling her all those enchanting stories about his rich foreign friend.

He didn't touch the muffins Fran had baked. He simply noted that they'd come out of a can. He failed to observe that on two occasions she reached for his hand and that on five or six more she attempted to catch his eye. He was too busy.

Luigi sat down in the center of the couch and began removing his treasures from a fine leather suitcase: a laptop computer, a portable video camera (he wanted to make a short film; he'd written the story on the plane), and some very rare wine from a place called Montalcino. While removing the cork, he told Fran (he seemed to speak only to Fran) the story of how the farmer acquired the vineyard. It was a nice little fable involving many bags of gold and a spree.

 

Around noon the following day, Fran went to the Frick Museum to look at pictures painted when the acreage upon which Mr. Frick had built his palatial home were covered with elm trees so thick that three adults holding hands could not encircle them.

She didn't have a clue about what her ancestors were doing while Rembrandt listened to tales of the New World and Indians crawled around those thick trees in search of beavers, otters, and other furry creatures the white men desired.

She didn't know the name of the boat her grandparents had sailed on, what port they'd sailed from, who'd waved farewell to them, why they'd come to America, or what they'd left behind.

She paused at the threshold to search her pockets for the seven dollar admission fee. Seven dollars.

If Mr. Frick had been a sensitive man, he would have taken pleasure from having his books read and his art perused by people who nurture the spirit of creation, thought Fran. He would have left a codicil in his will to that effect. Seven dollars. What's seven dollars? Nothing. Anyone can get seven dollars, muttered Fran as she begrudgingly smoothed out the last of her bills and passed them to the cashier.

When Dwarfo grosses seven hundred million dollars, I'll build a palace where hungry souls can nourish themselves. I'll serve oysters and wine. Money won't get you through the door.

*

Fran moved quickly through the rooms between the Entrance Hall and the West Gallery; she hated Mr. Frick's crusty house. It was filled with objects that could not be touched, books that had never been read, chairs which couldn't be sat in.

She'd examined the binding of a leather-bound volume of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, her favorite book (Fran adored Heathcliff; he knew how to love). It had never been opened.

Fran breezed by the Polish Rider. She couldn't deal with his skintight red pants and his leopard tail hat, not today. She'd been horny for a week. All Barbarus wanted to touch was Dwarfo.

She stopped before Rembrandt's self-portrait dated 1658. He must have been in his fifties, thought Fran, who believed it took a lot of courage for him to paint himself year after year, to sit before a mirror and watch his face grow rounder. He was spreading out like a drop of ink in a glass of water, dissolving in time, surrendering to gravity.

She pinched her cheek, and wondered when her sinews would tire and the flesh on her face begin to sag. Her thighs were already a bit mushy.

She had a very simple approach to art: if she had nothing bad to say, if the work itself didn't bring to mind its own limitations, then it was good.

She liked Rembrandt, especially his self-portraits, because she didn't have anything intelligent to say about them.

Intelligence, words running through her mind like food running through her digestive system, sizing something up, shaving off the edges, the critical perspective, stripping away everything of value and tossing out the little brown remnant. She preferred awe . . . silence . . . wonderment.

The self-portraits inclined her to believe that Rembrandt was a man who knew himself. Fran admired that. She often wondered why it was so much simpler to know one's friends, one's family members, the tenants in the other apartments, or people on the street. She could size them up in a second. Her lover, Barbarus, she knew all about him, the selfish one, who never brought her flowers, who never took her to the opera, who didn't think Christmas, birthdays, or lingerie mattered. Dwarfo. Dwarfo. Dwarfo. That's all Barbarus speaks about.

Her passions were swirling around like a loose balloon caught in a cross wind. She believed Barbarus had let go of her string.

He comes to see me after Fred, after his boarding house, after God knows what. I hate being awakened. I can never go back to sleep, not after forty-minute speeches about what I must do to secure Dwarfo's future.

He used to wake me, sniff me like a big bear, and now he snores while I lay awake listening for Father John's stockinged feet, the sound of his belt opening, and loose change falling on the hardwood floor.

Would the man next to me listen if I told him about Eve? wondered Fran. Barbarus hadn't.

The man standing next to Fran wasn't telepathic, but he had his eye on this strange woman wearing a thigh length black silk skirt.

She's ripe. That's for sure, thought the man, but why's she staring at me with her eyes closed?

He put a stop to his perplexing musings by glancing proudly at his Rolex, and wondering if the Japanese have daylight savings. He had only two hours, by his reckoning, before he unloaded thirty thousand dollars worth of fine watercolor paper on a buyer from the East.

He seems gentle and attentive, thought Fran, who believed that the man was looking at his watch the way Barbarus should have been looking at her. It wasn't easy for her to describe, but she didn't feel Barbarus had any interest in her . . . Fran specifically, not a woman, not a companion . . . but Fran. Her thoughts. Her feelings. Her fantasies. Her sex.

Could Barbarus have said as much about her expression this morning as she could now say about the expression on Rembrandt's face? She doubted it. And even if he could, even if he managed to surprise her . . . well . . . so what. He hadn't done anything about it; he hadn't held her; he hadn't asked about her headaches or the bee stings in her joints. He'd never, not once, taken her to the movies. He hadn't made love to her since the Dwarfo deal got rolling. He'd abandoned her. Scorned her love. Given her to Luigi.

The man polished the tip of his cowboy boot on his gabardine trousers and considered having his secretary phone the buyer at his hotel. He didn't want to spend an hour hanging around the warehouse waiting.

The man didn't care about much. He had only one issue: panty hose. He hated them. They were too damn practical. They brought to mind marriage, old age, hair loss, buying a home, and babies.

He didn't vote. He never read newspapers. He wouldn't have spent thirty seconds discussing the merits of a college education, or kooks who cook up ideas like daylight savings time.

He'd made a quarter million dollars in the last eight months, and fucked more babes than all the professors at Princeton put together.

The man decided to take a stroll around the Garden Court. He wasn't sure about Fran. Her hat had glass eyes and antlers. Babes enjoyed hanging out on the perimeter of the fountain. They liked the way the cold marble benches tickled their tushies. Well at least, that's what that blond one had told him.

He seated himself on his lucky bench, and began wondering whether it's true that if you can see another person, a woman, she can see you. Ideally he would like to keep an eye on Fran, but if she could see him and if he happened to see another babe (babe B) and she (babe A) saw him looking at the other babe (babe B) all would be lost if that babe (babe A) felt that she - what's her face - wasn't the first and last female he'd ever look at. He had to know.

Mucus eating, thought Fran. It's true. She'd seen Barbarus sneakily eat his snot on the street. He'd picked a booger out of his nose, twirled it around in his fingers, furtively looked at her to see if she knew and then gulped it down.

What bothered her most about Barbarus' mucus eating was his sneakiness. If he could be sneaky about that, he could be sneaky about other things like visits to his old girlfriend.

The man hadn't had any luck. The only female who'd paid him any mind had sagging tits, tar-stained teeth, and rotten English. She'd grinned like a zoo monkey when he asked whether foreigners save daylight.

He decided to check in on Fran to see if he could wangle that hard-on inducing, confidence building, moist pussy smile out of her before he earned his six thousand dollar commission from selling art paper to the man from the East.

Fran couldn't help noticing the man's delicate hands; they reminded her of her friend Peter's hands. Peter, the poet, had died about a year before she'd met Barbarus.

A tear came to her eye as she recalled their last visit. Peter had just come back from surgery. It was a miserable operation. They'd cut out the brain tumor as well as that part of him that Fran loved most: his words, words that followed hers, his eyes that listened gently without judgment.

Peter had heard the peculiar way she paused, picked a word, and delivered it to him. He listened as though the things that upset her mattered. She could have told him about the bad things that happened in the spring, but she had not. She'd alluded to the season, the man. Once, she'd even spoken about attraction. Yes, she'd been drawn to men with malevolent eyes. They needed her, but there had been something else too . . something that made her pussy wet. Thoughts which could not be spoken.

Fran yearned to tell Barbarus about this moment, these thoughts. He would understand? But she could not speak of demon claws . . . only migraines.

The man stood a few paces to Fran's right. He knew she was admiring his well groomed hands, but this weird babe with the untamed hair had tears in her eyes. Normally, he would have stepped right up and introduced himself or smiled, but this woman frightened him.

Fran had tried, on numerous occasions, to tell Barbarus about Peter, but he never listened. She'd tried to read him Peter's poems . . . tell him about God. Explain that the real motive behind creating Dwarfo and his tale was to communicate God's message of universal love. But she couldn't bring herself to tell Barbarus about God, because she thought he'd laugh at her. Barbarus didn't care about the spiritual wound. He had his hands on the heating pipes. What happened the night Father John came into your room? Did he touch you? Those were the kinds of questions Barbarus asked . . . factual ones. Passions. My passions are facts which who did what in the dark will never explain, she concluded.

Fran wasn't sure, but she believed that she had acknowledged the man's glance, though she was undoubtedly wondering how he would look in a red hat with a leopard tail like the one the Polish Rider wears.

The man's penis stirred as though the look - which was more than a nibble but less than a bite - had given it a little tug. He shuffled timidly one step closer to her.

She wanted to speak with Barbarus, speak to him about things he never understood. Well, what about the things he does understand. What about the flowers in the center of his eyes. What does he understand? What do I have to say?

Peter had waited in the silence until her words tumbled out of her mouth. She'd expected Peter to rebuke her, contradict her, but he never had.

The man moved closer. She looked at his hands. They looked like the hands Peter might have had when he was in his thirties, not the hands that hung at his sides after the operation, hung like sails on a windless day. Barbarus would take her, grab her waist, hold it between those big clumps of beef - - those paws - - and attack her . . . spear her. She liked it when he grabbed her, took her, but she'd never told him so. It didn't seem as though she told him much. She saw the man with Rembrandt's hands searching, looking, waiting, finding the things that she found pleasure in.

That's my problem; I've done it again; I've made this stranger into Rembrandt; I've given him Barbarus' eyes; I've given Peter the stranger's hands; I've invited him - the horrible man - to smile, to move his lips as though he were going to ask me if I were hungry which I certainly am and offer to take me to the coffee house on ninety-sixth Street and Madison Avenue I've asked Barbarus to take me to on more than one occasion.

I want a cafe au lait and a piece of black bottom pecan pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. What would Rembrandt want? Peter had liked a double espresso and two cigarettes.

She smiled at the man. He was only a step and a half to her left.

He stepped up to her and said, "Don't you think this portrait is one of the most moving and impressive? I love the way it combines psychological penetration and monumental design.

He sounds more like a pedant than an artist, thought Fran, who didn't enjoy the fact that he spoke like a scholar. Her first husband had been an academic. Rembrandt would never have let a guy like that into his studio. Mr. Frick really was a fool. He never looked at his own pictures. Seven dollars. Van Gogh didn't have seven dollars; he couldn't have gotten in, but this creep did.

"What do you want!" said Fran as she stepped away from the man. She hoped those words would vaporize him.

"The time. The correct time. Do foreigners save daylight?" answered the man in earnest. He prided himself on being punctual.

Fran grinned. She always responded spontaneously to sincere gestures, "Where?"

"In jars, under rocks, in banks, how the hell should I know?" answered the man with an eager smile.

"Jars won't do. You'd have to paint them black. Where do Americans keep it?" she responded with a scintillating giggle.

"We sold it to the Japs. Told them to sprinkle some on Rockefeller Center every couple of years to keep it fresh."

She didn't have time to get nauseous. Two eyes, the eyes of the bird in her dream, the eyes stuck in Luigi's sockets moved toward her.

The man followed Fran's eyes with his. He felt as though he were being sucked in that direction by a powerful magnet like the ones at junkyards which can lift an entire car.

She watched as Luigi stared the man down; it only took a few seconds before he withdrew like a frightened turtle and vanished into the crowd.

Fran recognized those eyes. Her teeth tingled and her hands trembled.

 

While Luigi and Beth dined in a four-star, Mark sat on a green park bench fastened to the twenty-five foot wide concrete Promenade overlooking the East River, New York Harbor, and the Manhattan skyline thinking about Luigi's villa in Sicily with the tiled terrace and the purple flowers that lined the path to the sea.

A yellow ladybug with a black spot on each wing landed on the sleeve of his denim jacket. He smiled gently the way sad people do, sipped some tepid coffee from a cardboard container, and moved carefully toward the black steel railing bordering the Promenade.

He would have liked to catch a fish, build a fire, cook it on the sandy beach by Wallabout Bay, and hang out with the ladybug, but the fish were not be eaten for they contained poisons, and the ladybug opened its wings and prepared for flight.

His sleeve caught on the top of the railing. The threadbare jacket, which should have been thrown out the previous spring, tore. The ladybug disappeared on a puff of wind. And his face contorted as though he were trying to cry, but could not recall how it was done.

Barbarus wasn't going anywhere beautiful. He was broke. There was no ticket cheap enough. He had to cross Adams Street, a crossing during which he always thought in the voice of his mother. He heard himself say to himself in her voice that he should become an oceanographer and study coral reefs in the Red Sea.

Beauty can not survive in Barbarus’ neighborhood. Flowers are picked, stomped, or spray painted. Locals live behind barred windows.

*

The sole asset of the estate of the primary investor in Dwarfo Incorporated had been built a couple of years after the Civil War as a one-family home, but that was long ago, long before the white people moved to the suburbs of Long Island, before the marble mantels were painted and the parquet floors covered with linoleum, before the Brooklyn Navy Yard closed and drunken and otherwise infirm remnants of the work force moved into the brownstones and called them rooming houses.

Barbarus walked slowly, like a stalking cat down the dimly lit halls. The Greek had bequeathed him a lifetime supply of fifteen watt bulbs, and warned him, on the day he'd turned over the keys, about keeping the electric bill down.

He knocked on Beaulah's door. No one answered. He knocked again insistently with the flat part of his fist the way cops do, and then pried open the lock with a library card.

Beaulah's room - the back half of the parlor, the room in which the family who'd built the place fed their special guests - looked like a pistol range. Anton, her boyfriend, (who works as a prison guard) had hung targets on the walls. The bull's-eyes were full of holes.

Barbarus headed straight for the hollow behind the headboard where Beaulah kept the cash, but found instead five condoms, three paperback volumes lauding the pleasures of "bunghole fucking," and a diary. He searched inside the tampon box, and even held the ice cubes up to the light to see if she’d frozen any rolled up bills inside, but all he found was a subway token and a diary.

He sat down on the edge of Beaulah's bed. The sheets were gray. He made a face like hers. The one she made when perplexed: Beaulah placed her enormous lower lip over her upper lip and frowned. Then he opened her diary.

4/10

I woke up, watched TV, bathed, and dressed. I went to the video shop, came back, and watched one. Then I went back to the video shop and got two more.

Anton came home with beer. We ate popcorn and made love. Anton fell asleep. So I watched the movie alone.

4/12

I woke up at 9:00 a.m. and went to the store. Came back and ate a bacon sandwich, read my book, watched a movie, and went to sleep.

Anton came home. We had all the numbers of the winning lotto ticket, but they were all mixed up. We'll try again on Saturday.

I went to the video store, got three movies, and two orders of chicken wings.

4/14

I woke up at 7:00 a.m. I finished my book. The horror one.

4/15

I woke up at 10:00 a.m., turned on the TV, ate my hamburger from yesterday. I am waiting for Anton to call. I got five numbers in the lotto.

Anton came home. We went to Coney Island. He won a bank, and I won a jellybean jar. We got home in time for The Simpsons.

4/16

I am pregnant. I feel a little nauseous. Anton does not believe that the baby is his. I never slept with no one else.

I can't eat hot shrimp. No more hot dogs, pound cake, or frog legs.

When Barbarus finished reading, he picked up Beaulah's housedress, held it in front of himself, looked in the full-length mirror, placed his lower lip over his upper lip and frowned. He managed to capture her everyday expression which conveys an uncanny combination of boredom and innocence.

*

Cornelius M Crensaw the Second had been busy scraping his calluses and wishing he had more than forty dollars and two joints for a date with the guy who worked at the Pizza Hut on Flatbush Avenue when he heard the moneywalk.

CMC2 didn't remember calling the Health Department, complaining about poison water, or threatening Barbarus. He wanted some company; so he opened the door and shouted, "You can't be expectin' nobody to be livin' here with that bathroom all puked up."

You can't be expecting a clean bathroom when you owe me money."

"You makin' Dwarfo money, but you still harrasin' us poor black folks. When you gonna clean the bathroom?"

"You owe me three hundred and fifty dollars.”

"How's things with Fran?"

"I'm not talking about my personal life, your personal life, or anything else till you give me some money."

"You really tryin' to get all the roomers out? You give me two months for free, and I'll just slide on outta here."

"Where's Beaulah?"

"She says she's goin' to see some lawyer. You can't jus' put us all outta here in June. The lawyer told her not to pay you."

"But you're not on welfare. You have a job. You're not going to get any free legal services."

"You right! Ain't that something. Beaulah never worked a day in her life, her boyfriend works for the Department of Corrections, but they don't care. I told that to them legal aid people. I said, "that bitch is a welfare cheat, and you goin' to give her legal aid, and I'm a workin' man, and I can't get no help. I'm goin' back to North Carolina."

"Not before you pay me."

"I told you. I'm not payin' till you cleans the bathroom."

"You bring us even and I'll clean. Otherwise, I want to know who vomited on the toilet seat. It was you. It smells like that cheap wine you drink. I'll bet money it was you and ever since you've been using the bathroom downstairs and Crip is mad. He says you're a pig."

"What you goin' to do with Crip when you empties out this place?"

"I'll get him another room."

CMC2 put twenty bucks and a joint in his hand, patted him on the bottom, and shoved him out the door.

*

Barbarus lived in the apartment the Greek had occupied, the floor where the servants had cooked and informal meals were served. It still had the original cast-iron wood burning cooking stove.

He didn't own any furnishings except a hammock. He used what the Greek had left behind: a bureau, formica kitchen table, and a brown plastic recliner to which he’d kept his autistic son tied.

He lit the joint despite the knowledge that he'd feel his chest constrict and his pulse race. Heartattack. He'd suffered thousands of them. His father had died that way. It was the death he was familiar with. The death he knew how to die.

He yearned to reach the point at which he could acknowledge the possibility of a heart attack and yet remain at peace. He wanted to say to himself, yes, you will die. Somehow, someway, someday, you will die. It's the price of birth.

He could manage for a few minutes, not more than eight or nine at a stretch, to dispel his fear. Yet he could not dispel whatever it was that generated the fear, the peculiar fear of a heart attack, of falling down, of clutching his chest, turning purple, and gurgling. It was as though his repeated exposure to heart attacks ( the father had had four or five of them) caused him to be forever stuck between fearing a heart attack, dispelling the fear of one, waiting for the fear of having one to return, or fearing the constant fear of having a heart attack would in fact produce a fatal one. This fear stuck to his head like a mussel sticks to a rock.

 

Barbarus pulled another piece of yellow stuffing out of a hole in the arm of Fran's old leather saloon chair, and gave it a flick with his index finger. It bounced off a pudgy pink Dwarfo and landed on the floor next to a crumpled past due notice from the electric company. He'd been aiming for Luigi's luggage. Barbarus felt like breaking something: his own skull on the cast iron radiator.

The phone rang. Barbarus remained seated. He wasn't allowed to answer her phone. She'd gone to a matinee with Luigi; they should have been back an hour ago.

The answering machine took the call. "Hey, are you there. Pick up the phone. Hello. Hello. Hello. I know you're there. Pick up the phone. Hello. Hello. Hello," shouted Fred.

Barbarus slowly picked up the receiver. He was stuck between his need to tell someone that Fran was fucking up the deal, and his fear that Fred would pounce on him.

"Hey, I knew you were there. I met this kid, Simon; his father created Bozo. He's loaded."

Barbarus felt as though he were under siege. Luigi had Fran, and Fred had found a door into the deal.

"Hey, you there," continued Fred. "I met this kid in a cafe. He had a picture of a Rasta Dwarfo sprinkling fairy dust on the East River. That stinking doll changed an oil tanker into a school of singing dolphins.

"My wife is gonna love Dwarfo. She'll drag the kids to the movie. That's thirty-two bucks from my family. Where's Fran? This kid is ready to invest."

He knew Fran would drill Fred: Where did this kid get the picture; who's creating Rasta Dwarfos?

"She's out with Luigi," mumbled Barbarus.

"That cocksucker is ruthless. He came over last night, and took a huge shit. It clogged up my toilet. I had to call the plumber. Seventy-five bucks to get that aristocratic crap out of my pipes and while I'm shelling out the cash, he makes a pass at my wife. You better keep him away from Fran.”

Barbarus dangled in the silence which followed the warning. He hung by a single finger from a cracked beam suspended between two brick pillars which remained vertical from habit. The mortar had long ago turned to powder that blew around until it settled in the lungs of innocent pedestrians.

 

Fran paused to say, I'm in love with Luigi; he's waiting for me around the corner; please let me go, but the luminescence of Barbarus' glare frightened her. Barbarus concern about his investment made him unmanageable and secretive.

She knelt to smell a yellow tulip that grew in a patch of tired brown soil beneath a generic urban tree commonly known as the Tree of Heaven. Her teeth tingled as she put a dab of yellow pollen on the tip of her nose. She adorned herself with pollen and thought of the hyacinths around the corner that were brown and dead and reeking of dog pee after a resplendent week.

Deception made her superconscious. She studied every flicker of Barbarus' eyelashes, a sudden movement could portend anything.

He glared at her back. He failed to comprehend her. He couldn't believe she was sniffing flowers. They should have been discussing business. He wanted to tell her about the rich kid and the Rasta Dwarfo, but he feared an explosion. So he retreated into a waking dream and began a fantasy interrogation of Fran.

He wasn't going to start with general questions about the history of Dwarfo Inc. or settle for some dribble about Waves of Beauty composed of leper spoors. He'd start with the particulars.

Where's the missing fax, baby? He imagined himself saying. You know the one I mean. The last one Bob sent. Did it land in the crack between the floor boards?

What else is down there? A letter from your agent. Why did she remove herself from the loop?

Oh, my the floor boards move. Get a flashlight. Are you really ill? Do your joints ache? All the tests are negative. Six doctors have jabbed, poked, prodded, quantified, and come up with zip. Not one of them gave you refuge.

You've got a bellyful of indigestible cast-iron facts grinding up your guts. Can I talk to your husband; what happened in Oakland; why can't I answer the phone; is the best part of lying getting caught? We appear to be moving forward, but we're not.

Barbarus was so excited by his private monologue that he couldn't walk in a straight line. He veered to the left, pushed Fran toward the gutter.

*

When she opened her apartment door, Barbarus made a dash for the fax. She had received a critique based on some kitchen research (toy developers letting their kids play with a prototype) of Dwarfo's potential by an outfit called Kiddie Creations. A senior VP at Mega Toys (her friend) had commissioned the study and forwarded the conclusions to her. The critique was brief: Dwarfo only appeals to very young kids, primarily girls, below the age of four, which is unfortunate, because kids that age like or even love something without desiring to own it.

A handwritten note by the VP followed: I read your synopsis of Dwarfo's Tale; fax me your attorney's number. We're ready to discuss an option and strategy for media development. When can you come to LA? Do you have any story boards? If so, bring them along. I like the way you think.

Barbarus followed Fran into the bedroom. He required resolution, demanded acquiescence; he stared down at her as though he'd reach into her bowels and yank out the facts.

Fran trembled; the moment sparkled. Anything could come out of a pause.

"We need to choose an attorney and put him in touch with Mega Toys. All else is secondary. Don't you want a house?"

She considered telling him about Luigi and how bad she felt for their foreign guest waiting on a corner, about demon claws scratch, scratch, scratching, but she knew that would not win her a reprieve. No, any mention of a headache or aching joints would constitute one more proof, another black mark on Barbarus’ invisible list, a step closer to the final judgment.

"Answer me."

She studied his folded hands and diverted gaze and wondered if he'd ever looked her in the eye.

Dwarfo . . . Dwarfo . . . Dwarfo. She couldn't discern a single sign - a proof - that love and not mercenary motives compelled him to speak of home. He loves Dwarfo, she concluded. "No!" was Fran's simple and resolute reply. Barbarus had scorned her love.

Her utterance, or more precisely the resolution with which she uttered it, had an effect on Barbarus similar to that which jabbing a sharpened safety pin into an inflated balloon would have. All of his expectations rushed out of the hole.

Barbarus collapsed. He didn't fall onto the bed like a dropped object or an exhausted person, for his entire body expressed an incomprehensible sense of disorder like that of someone who had suddenly died.

She wept for her pathetic lover who lay on her bed thinking things too frightening to say. She knew about pain and secrets. He wanted to shout, the world is flat. We're going to fall off. Instead, he whimpered.

They embraced, he certain that she didn't want to hurt him and Fran sure that the violent prodding would cease, that she would board a plane for Italy, he would be justly compensated for his contributions to the deal.

She lit a candle. Fran loathed electric light. He felt a jolt, something akin to a mild electric shock, when she had gone into the kitchen in search of matches. He wasn't sure if she'd return. It had been that way with his father and his bad heart. You never knew.

She crawled into bed, and they squeezed one another until fears and priests and heart disease became desire.

The May breeze blowing through a partially ajar window made the candle flame flicker, which in turn tickled the shadow on the cracked plaster ceiling.

They lay on the bed moving their hands in the space between their bodies and watched their trembling shadows merge as their fingers laced together and their palms touched.

*

When Barbarus awoke Fran was wearing Luigi's sunglasses and putting the final dabs of flesh colored paint on a picture of a naked woman lying prone in the hand of a yellow demon with red eyes. "I'm going to walk out the door and leave you in bewilderment. In bewilderment, you'll find God."

Barbarus remained motionless. He should be doing something, thought Fran. What's he waiting for? Always watching. I would have never let Thumper's mom eat her leg. But he did. She turned toward her painting.

Frost eating her kittens hadn't surprised Fran. She never liked Barbarus' vicious cat, but how could he watch. Anyone with an ounce of humanity would have intervened. They wouldn't have dispassionately described the scene. It hadn't happened overnight. No, he had gone night after night and watched the runts, that's what he called them, weaken until they were motionless. Yes, he'd described it all. Even how Frost had pushed them with her paw to see if they stirred before she began. Hind legs first. It must have been true. She bit off Thumper's foot. A man like that can't be trusted. What kind of father would he make?

"I'm in love with Luigi," blurted out Fran as if her preceding thoughts had so filled her with doubts and misgivings that the Luigi sentiment had simply spilled out.

Fran pushed the sunglasses onto her forehead. His howl worried her. It came from the bottom of his gut. She resolved to administer the balm she'd prepared. Time was of the essence. She'd promised to meet Luigi in Rome. Luigi couldn't be alone on his forty-seventh birthday. "We'll continue doing business."

"Where is that sack of shit?"

"Where were you last night? Wandering around with Fred doing God knows what.

"And my sweet friend jumped in to fill the void. Did you fuck him?"

"No, I didn't fuck him. Luigi loves you. He expressed tremendous concern about your well-being. That's why he left. He wanted to give us the space to work things out."

"Luigi doesn't give a shit about you. He hates me. Where is he?"

"I cried and he held me. He listens to me."

"And Mr. Fantasy offered you everything you ever desired. Did he show you his huge dick? It frightens some girls."

"You are not very stable. You never fix anything in the house. I tiled the kitchen floor. We never eat together. Luigi is going to rent a big house. He took me to the opera. You've been promising for a year. We spoke about what I want. Yes we did. We spoke about babies."

"Luigi has a ten year old son he's seen twice. Babies! Bullshit! He wants your undivided attention, because it infuriates me."

"What I felt was real. I've got to investigate it."

"If I see you with him, I'll bite his ear off."

"We'll go to Europe."

"You'll end up sitting in a corner while he chats in French or Spanish or Italian to another woman."

"I don't believe you. You didn't tell me all this wretched stuff before. You told me about Mr. Fantasy, your friend, the man who is as old as the Coliseum and as current as yesterday's New York Times. Why should I believe you? I've got to find out for myself."

"Call my answering machine."

"Why?"

He grabbed her arm and hauled her over to the telephone. Fred's huge voice blared over the speaker.

"Luigi phoned me. He's been looking all over for you. He wants you to accompany him into some remote areas around Bangkok so he can buy a woman. Is that possible? What's he going to do, walk up to some farmer with a handful of cash and say, I'll take that one in the green dress? What are you going tell Fran? She's not going to let you wander off to Bangkok. You can't walk out on the Dwarfo deal. I got rid of that knucklehead Simon. He doesn't know anyone at Disney."

Fran's eyes flashed. She looked like a viper preparing for a strike.

"That's right, one of us is trying to make a deal."

"That's it," rejoined Fran as she began hauling Dwarfos off the bookcase and stuffing them into a pillowcase. "Dwarfo makes people greedy. I speak of Waves of Beauty and all anyone sees are piles of green. Luigi wanted me. He didn't care about Dwarfo. I thought you did, but you don't. You want Dwarfo. You want to build a house big enough to drive a dumptruck full of cash into the bedroom. That's all you want. You want to sleep in a dumptruck full of money.

"I don't care what he's done or thought of doing in the past. He asked me to marry him. He almost bought me a ring."

"But his credit card had some peculiar foreign restrictions. Get off it Fran, I've known him for years. He's a seducer."

"How many times have I told you about my grandmother's ruby ring that held the light in a way that could be trusted. I feel more than human in such a light. I can rest for a few minutes. You could have found a garnet that held the light properly. That might have done it. It would have pleased me. It would have meant something.