The door opened with savage swiftness.
Crazily, I saw two things at once.
Beyond, on a small table in half-light, a stack of yellow and brown and red Clark Bar and Nestle’s Crunch and Power House wrappers.
And then . . .
The small shadow, the little man himself, staring out at me with stunned eyes, as if wakened from a forty-year sleep.
A. L. Shrank, in person.
Tarot card reader, phrenologist, dime-store psychiatrist, day- and nighttime psychologist, astrologer, Zen / Freudian / Jungian numerologist, and full Life Failure stood there, buttoning his shirt with mindless fingers, trying to see me with eyes that were either fixed by some drug or shocked numb by my inept bravado.
“Damn you to hell,” he said, quietly, again.
And then added, with some quick sort of impromptu quiver of a smile,
“No,” I whispered. Then I said it louder. “No. You come out.”
The wind was blowing the wrong way, or perhaps the right way, this time. My God, I thought, cringing back, then holding my ground. All those other days, how did the wind blow? How could I not have noticed? Because, I thought, oh damn simple fact: I had had a head cold for a solid ten days. No nose at all. No nose.
Oh, Henry, I thought, you and your always lifted, always curious beak, connected to all that bright awareness within. Oh, smart Henry crossing an unseen street at nine of an evening, and sniffing the unwashed shirt and the unlaundered underclothes as Death marched by the other way.
I looked at Shrank and felt my nostrils wince. Sweat, the first smell of defeat. Urine, the next smell of hatred. Then, what mixtures? Onion sandwiches, unbrushed teeth, the scent of self-destruction. It came like a storm cloud, full flood, from the man. I might have been standing on an empty shore with a ninety-foot tidal wave poised to crush me, for the sick fear I suddenly knew. My mouth baked dry even as sweat broke on my body.
“Come in,” said A. L. Shrank again, uncertainly.
There was a moment when I thought he might suck backward like a crayfish. But then he saw my glance at the phone booth directly across from his shop, and my second glance down the pier to the phone at the far end where my Mickey Mouse watch ticked, and he knew. Before he could speak again, I called into the shadows.
Dark stirred in dark. I felt Henry’s shoes scrape as his voice called back, warm and easy, “Yes?”
Shrank’s eyes jerked from me to where Henry’s voice stirred the shadows.
At last I was able to say:
Henry took a deep breath and let it out.
“Armpits,” he said.
I nodded. “You know what to do.”
“I hear the meter running,” said Henry.
From the corners of my eyes, I saw him walking away, then stop and throw his hand up.
Shrank flinched. So did I. Henry’s cane sailed through the air to land with a sharp clatter on the planks.
“You might need that,” said Henry.
Shrank and I stood staring at the weapon on the pier.
The sound of the taxi driving off jerked me forward. I grabbed the cane and held it to my chest, as if it might really work against knives or guns.
Shrank looked at the vanishing lights of the taxi, far off.
“What in hell was that all about?” he said.
Behind him, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and Spengler and Kafka all leaned on their mad elbows, sank in their dusts, and whispered, yes, what was that all about?
“Wait’ll I get my shoes.” He vanished.
“Don’t get anything else,” I cried.
That made him laugh a choking laugh.
“What would I get?” he called, unseen, rummaging around. In the door he showed me a shoe in each hand. “No guns. No knives.” He shoved them on, but didn’t lace them.
I couldn’t believe what happened next. The clouds, over Venice, decided to pull back, revealing a full moon.
Both of us looked up at it, trying to decide if it was bad or good, and for which of us?
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