“You know Raskolnikov?” I said, in amaze.
“Almost before you were born. But that doesn’t buy horseflakes. Plead your case.”
“I’m a writer, I know more about feelings than you do.”
“Balls. I’m a detective, I know more about facts than you do. You afraid a fact will confuse you?”
“Tell me this, kiddo. Anything ever happen to you in your life?”
“Yeah, I mean anything. Big, in between, small. Anything. Like sickness, rape, death, war, revolution, murder.”
“My mother and father died…”
“Yes. But I had an uncle shot in a holdup once…”
“You see him shot?”
“Well, that don’t count, unless you see. I mean, you ever find anything like men in lion cages ever before?”
“No,” I said at last.
“Well, there you have it. You’re still in shock. You don’t know what life is. I was born and raised in the morgue. This is the first real touch of marble slab you ever had. So why don’t you quiet down and go away.”
He heard his own voice getting much too loud, shook his head, and said, “No, why don’t I quiet down and go away.”
Which he did. He opened the car door, jumped in, and before I could reinflate my balloon, was gone.
Cursing, I slammed into a telephone booth, dropped a dime in the slot, and called across five miles of Los Angeles. When someone picked up at the other end I heard a radio playing “La Raspa,” a door slammed, a toilet flushed, but I could feel the sunlight that I needed, waiting there.
The lady, living in a tenement on the corner of Temple and Figueroa, nervous at the phone she held in her hand, at last cleared her throat and said:
“Mrs. Gutierrez!” I shouted. I stopped, and started over. “Mrs. Gutierrez, this is the Crazy.”
“Oh!” she gasped, and then laughed. “Si, si! You want to talk to Fannie?”
“No, no, just a few yells. Will you yell down, please, Mrs. Gutierrez?”
I heard her move. I heard the entire ramshackle, rickety tenement lean. Someday, a blackbird would land on the roof and the whole thing would go. I heard a small Chihuahua tap-dance on the linoleum after her, built like a bull bumblebee and barking.
I heard the tenement outer porch door open as Mrs. Gutierrez stepped out onto the third floor and leaned to call down through the sunshine at the second floor.
“Aai, Fannie! Aai! It’s the Crazy.”
I called into my end, “Tell her I need to come visit!”
Mrs. Gutierrez waited. I could hear the second-floor porch creak, as if a vast captain had rolled out onto its plankings to survey the world.
“Aai, Fannie, the Crazy needs to visit!”
A long silence. A voice sprang sweetly through the air above the tenement yard. I could not make out the words.
“Tell her I need Tosca!”
“Tosca!” Mrs. Gutierrez yelled down into the yard.
A long silence.
The whole tenement leaned again, the other way, like the earth turning in its noon slumbers.
The strains of the first act of Tosca moved up around Mrs. Gutierrez. She spoke.
“I hear the music, Mrs. Gutierrez. That means ‘Yes’!”
I hung up. At the same instant, a hundred thousand tons of salt water fell on the shore, a few yards away, with exquisite timing. I nodded at God’s precision.
Making sure I had twenty cents in my pocket, I ran for the next train.
She was immense.
Her real name was Cora Smith, but she called herself Fannie Florianna, and no one ever called her otherwise. And I had known her, years ago, when I lived in the tenement, and stayed in touch with her after I moved out to the sea.
Fannie was so huge that she never slept lying down. Day and night she sat in a large-sized captain’s chair fixed to the deck of her tenement apartment, with bruise marks and dents in the linoleum which her great weight had riveted there. She moved as little as possible, her breath churning in her lungs and throat as she sailed toward the door, and squeezed out to cross the hall to the narrow water-closet confines where she feared she might be ignominiously trapped one day. “My God,” she often said, “wouldn’t it be awful if we had to get the fire department to pry me out of there.” And then back to her chair and her radio and her phonograph and, only a beckon away, a refrigerator filled with ice cream and butter and mayonnaise and all the wrong foods in the wrong amounts. She was always eating and always listening. Next to the refrigerator were bookshelves with no books, only thousands of recordings of Caruso and Galli-Curci and Swarthout and the rest. When the last songs were sung and the last record hissed to a stop at midnight, Fannie sank into herself, like an elephant shot with darkness. Her great bones settled in her vast flesh. Her round face was a moon watching over the vast territorial imperatives of her body. Propped up with pillows, her breath escaped and sucked back, escaped again, fearful of the avalanche that might happen if somehow she lay back too far, and her weight smothered her, her flesh engulfed and crushed her lungs, and put out her voice and light forever. She never spoke of it, but once when someone asked why there was no bed in her room, her eyes burned with a fearful light, and beds were never mentioned again. Fat, as Murderer, was always with her. She slept in her mountain, afraid, and woke in the morning glad for one more night gone, having made it through.
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