EVERYBODY LIVES AT 10 DOWNING STREET
by Michel Méry I thought I would always, among other things, remember the morning she and her uncle got off a Greyhound bus at the depot on Main while I was having my breakfast at Carl's Diner right across the street. Kenneth K. Killingston was to take over the position of headmaster at the Holy Redemption School, and his arrival had been announced in the local newspaper, The Hickstown Gazette. However, nothing in the article hinted at the joint arrival of his niece Samantha. A forkful of scrambled eggs remained suspended in mid air as she appeared in the frame of the bus door. At first, I thought she was just getting off for a cup of coffee or something, and would get back on soon to proceed on her voyage to the West Coast, most probably. She -- be it for a transient pee-stop -- seemed as out of place on Hickstown's Main as Jerry Brown was in the 1988 presidential campaign. She wore black netted stockings barely topped with a red velvet mini skirt that hid nothing of the perfect contours of her Calvin Klein behind, a tight black gauze blouse, and a wide black witch's hat such as the county girls dare wear only on Halloween nights. While they were both retrieving their luggage from the side of the bus and talking animatedly to each other, it became obvious to me that she, perched on stiletto heels and towering over him by at least half a head, was accompanying the middle-aged, burly, respectable looking gentleman, whose rosy face and sparse graying hair had somewhat reassured our community when his color photograph had been published alongside the article in the Gazette. For a few weeks prior to the arrival of our new schoolmaster, our town had been quite anxious about the matter. For some of us, it even verged on the worst of fears. Had he a subscription with The Village Voice? Was he gay? Would he try to enforce onto our school board new policies of student selection, brandishing the banner of Affirmative Action for a nonexistent quota of minority students? Such suspicions stemmed from the fact that his biography published in the Gazette -- despite its mentioning that he was a native of Syth's Cove, hardly fifty miles from here, and that his relocation was a long coveted desire to return to the home country -- had mentioned his former career as a principal at one of the New York City public schools. But our fears about his sexual preferences dissipated somehow when we had learned through hearsay that Kenneth K. Killingston was undoubtedly a straight man, since his endeared wife of twenty-five years had quickly passed away last spring in the hands of the finest cancer specialists at New York's Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. As for his political views, he soon proved them to be of the liking of most of our townsfolk, for he did not remove the JESUS RAVES and GUN BUFFS' FUN bumper stickers from the second-hand station wagon he bought at Doug's Automotive the day after his arrival, and he chose, on back-to-school day, Newt Gingrich's To Renew America as a reading assignment for his eleventh and twelfth grade English classes after ordering himself fifteen copies of the book at Jock's bookstore for those students who could not afford it. But it would take more time for people to accept the presence of his alleged niece. Even though he reportedly explained to some of his new neighbors on Faith Row that Samantha was the orphaned daughter of his sister Ruth and her husband Bill, both killed a few months before in a freak automobile accident on the New Jersey Turnpike, people could not help resenting the comings and goings of the seemingly idle and -- always -- skimpily clad young woman. Sure, the weather we were having here must have been there for something. Until around mid-September, the thermometer hovered between 85 and 90 degrees, and that alone was enough for the most liberal representatives of our community to not avoid greeting her as they ran into her on the street or at the mall, but as the temperature went down after a series of big thunderstorms and they met her as skimpily dressed as ever, having barely replaced her netted stockings with black satin tights and her gauze blouses with very fitting red or black cotton bodices, they, too, stopped civilities altogether. Not that the townsfolk -- especially the male half of them -- would never have, at some time or other, liked to address her in order to, at least, know more about her, but occasions to meet her out of neighbors' or friends' sight were practically nil, and none of us dared. Worst of all, she seemed not to be working, and, obviously, not looking for a job. None of the shopowners had turned down a job application from her, even though a couple of them had, just for the hell of it, posted help wanted ads in their window right when they spotted her coming down the street. She did not seem to be a student either, since she never left town for one of the nearby colleges. In fact, she did not even drive her uncle's station wagon, and when she was not on foot, she rode a black mountain bike or whooshed down the streets on roller skates as she had probably done in New York City's Central Park. When she rode, she wore a pair of loose black cotton shorts that the wind blew so far back on her hips that you could see her -- most frequently black -- panties, panties not wide enough to hide from view the edge of her -- shaved, as some football fans asserted at Joe's bar during commercial breaks -- pubic hair. The tension and uneasiness reached a paroxysm when she actually walked into Joe's bar. The first time she did, Joe kept wiping the same glass the whole time she stayed there, observing her reflection in the mirror over the bar, leaving it up to Cindy to wait on her. That evening, all conversations stopped as she pulled the door open, and even the erratic flight of the flies in the bar seemed to come to a standstill. Of course, for most of us regulars, this would have been the occasion to get a closer look at her, other than just oggling her from afar on the street, but no one even seemed to venture a quick glance. They kept staring at Joe's back, or at Cindy's plump forearms in the process of pouring her a glass of draft beer, or at the TV that was all the while blaring a Toyota, then a Ford, then a Subaru, then a Hyundai, and finally a couple of chicken and burger commercials. I was there that day, and I was the only one to stutter a "Hello", to which she answered with a very civil smile, which gave me the opportunity to better detail her face, since I was sitting on the stool right next to the one she'd chosen to sit on. She did not seem as young as she looked from a distance. She seemed to be closer to thirty than I had thought. As she smiled, nascent wrinkles at the corner of her lips and around her slightly asymmetrical eyes made her face even more mysterious and spellbinding. She had a slightly crooked nose and high cheekbones that, under the wide brim black hat she was wearing again that day, could reinforce the idea that there was a witchlike air about her. She had a tan skin, but her features were definitely those of a white girl, not of a remotely colored person like some of our townsfolk had suspected her to be. As she smiled at me, my stare plunged into her fairly small breast and I could notice for sure that she was not wearing a bra. Then my eyes plunged further down to her thighs, and that's when it happened. I mean an erection from her I could not get rid of for several hours, until I could, in the recess in my private chambers, release myself of the devilish tension. When she left the bar, Joe finally dropped the glass he was wiping, and the flies and conversations started to buzz again. Someone made the point that she looked a trifle too old to have just followed her uncle after the accidental death of her parents, and another added something to the effect that she probably could have made a decent living all on her own around Times Square. And then they started teasing me for having tried to socialize with her. She came again to the bar. Always in the evening at about the same time, around seven. And each time, the same thing happened -- or did not happen. No one present would dare or deign to greet her, and I, who had come at the same hour with the intention of striking up a conversation with her, wouldn't either. When she saw me, she would smile at me anyway, but, from fear of being badgered afterwards by the other regulars, and also from fear of being unable to utter anything other than some salacious remark about the way she looked, I would keep my mouth shut until the moment she left the bar, right after finishing her beer. Of course, I tried to approach her so I could talk to her out of everybody's sight. And I am pretty sure others did, too, since, while I was myself scouting Faith Row in the hopes of seeing her come in or go out of their house at number 50-62, I encountered sometimes an unexpected traffic jam there. When she was spotted out shopping, there was always a few of us to walk right on her heels into the same store, but, as soon as we saw that we were not alone in having had the same sudden urge to browse amidst paper towels and shampoos at Lee's pharmacy, or, elsewhere, amidst fruit and vegetables or tools and electrical appliances, we would slip out of the store and avoid each other's look back on the sidewalk, trying our best to look unconcerned and not show our demonic, beastly agitation. As was to be expected, this state of affairs created, as days and weeks passed, a somewhat uneasy -- and sometimes poisonous -- atmosphere in town. We all grew more and more suspicious of one another's unclean desire to socialize with her, and I am not just speaking of us young or youngish unwed males. A few of our elders also happened to put themselves in fairly uncomfortable positions. Didn't one see, for instance, Mike the butcher, a father of four and the Editor-in- Chief of the monthly parochial bulletin The Hickstown Christian Family Watch, walk straight behind her to the cigarette counter at the drugstore on the corner of Main and Pearl and come out with a carton of Virginia Slims, when everybody knew he was a fierce reformed smoker whose righteous pleas had contributed to the city council's decision to ban smoking in Wessutah Park that his house overlooked? Or Ol' Dan Tugger, a former long-haul trucker confined to a wheelchair since his involvement in a dreadful wreck up North, suddenly steer and wheel right across Main as he spotted her on the other side of the street, barely escaping being hit by an oncoming trailer? And the worst seemed about to happen the Sunday morning she stepped into the Lutheran church as Pastor Jeremiah Kossak was delivering his homily. The pastor stopped in the middle of a sentence and, pointing a finger at her, warned the faithful: "Beware! Here cometh the whore of Babylon!" As always, she was scantily wearing her devilish colors, and, in addition, she was toting a SLR camera. She probably intended to take pictures of the inside of the church, a fairly interesting late eighteenth century edifice, as she had been seen doing around other sundry spots in town. The truth be told, never before that day had she been seen in any church in town, even though her uncle was regularly attending Sunday morning service at The Heavenly Voice evangelical church. That alone, it goes without saying, would have explained people's reticence toward her and avoidance of direct contact with her, even if she had more inconspicuously dressed, filled out job applications, and bought the 1989 red Pontiac Trans-Am that Doug had had on display at his garage since the day her uncle had bought the station wagon. And there she was, entering a church for the first time since her arrival, and visibly not with the intention of paying her respect to the Almighty! When the young John Wayne Hobbitt, seventeen, son of Pete and Laurren Hobbit from Hoolalah Road, stood up, shouting: "You ain't gonna stay here, are you?" a somewhat keener observer could have noticed that the nine millimeter automatic he'd just pulled from his belt was not the only protuberance about him that was pointing in her direction. In the seconds that followed, several others imitated him, until the inside of the church looked more like the inside of a police academy shooting range. Surprised, she looked around and stood there for a moment, seemingly wondering if she was really at the origin of the commotion. She looked at the pastor, who was still pointing his finger at her, and then back at the menacing mob, and then back at the pastor again before she walked out of the church without even having tried to take a picture. I was there that Sunday morning, and I followed her outside. I had not pulled a gun, but my swollen member seemed so close to firing that I did not even think twice about it. If not in her, I had to shoot the salvo now, but it had to be anywhere but right there, in the face of the Lord. Once outside, I saw her jump on her bike and disappear down the street. As she pedaled away, hunched over her handlebar to gather more speed, I saw her naked crotch under her loose shorts. I dove into my car parked on the church lot, and, in a matter of seconds, the dashboard and the windshield looked as if they had been soaped up, but not rinsed yet. The incident at the church, added to my first attempt at striking up a conversation with her at Joe's bar, surely ostracized me quite a bit from the rest of the community. People would hardly talk to me at work at the local Wal-Mart, and most of those I came across on the street did not respond to my greetings. Then I would hear disparaging comments behind my back. I became so ashamed of myself that I stopped hanging out at Joe's bar, or at the mall, and I drove more than fifty miles back and forth to Painsville to go shopping, much as I had done the year before for several weeks after I got fired from my previous job at Miller's Mortgage & Loans. The next Sunday, I did not go to church. It was beyond my strength. And this made things even worse. Some started to openly bully me, and, one morning, I found my car with all four tires punctured with bullet holes and the hatchback sprayed with the explicit message: WHORE LOVER. There was at least one person in town who did not seem to acknowledge the presence of Samantha, be it with scorn, conceit, or mere feigned indifference. It was her uncle Kenneth, the school headmaster. In the first place, nobody ever saw him anywhere in her company. It seemed, in fact, that the only person who had seen them together was me, right after they had got off the bus at the depot on the morning of their arrival. That morning, when I motioned Bill, the bartender, a little belatedly I must say, mesmerized as I was by the disembarking apparition, to throw a glance at them -- and especially at her for that matter -- it took him too much time to revolve on his heels, busy as he was with the grilling of French toasts, to be able to see them before they disappeared around the corner. And I'm pretty sure no other customers noticed them since there were very few at that early hour -- I was going to start my morning shift at six -- and since I heard none of them talk about the event afterwards. Their neighbors on Faith Row, the McDonnels, who had allegedly launched the nice uncle and niece story soon protested, when pumped for more information, that they had never done so. They purported that, like everybody else, they had only come to believe in that story after hearing it from other people, be it from friends, or at church, or at the mall. But if their opinion should be asked, they were much more inclined to think, like anybody would have if the uncle story had not spread first, that the young woman was the older gentleman's mistress, which in fact tallied much better with their nascent animosity toward her. No, the headmaster had never spoken to them about a niece, and, even more suspiciously, when grilled more intently about the presence of a younger lady in his abode, the middle-aged academic would give them as a response a seemingly genuine questioning look and say that he wished he had a live-in parent indeed, as he'd felt so depleted and forlorn since the death of his wife, who, he alluded more convincingly, had left him with no children because of his own infertility. Whereupon he added that they may have been talking about Ms. Jenny Cogmus, whom he had hired upon his arrival as a cook and a cleaning lady. But everybody knew Ms. Jenny, who was already doing some cleaning at the Holy Redemption School and for a bunch of families in town, and her comings and goings did not go unnoticed by the neighbors, either. She came almost every weekday morning around nine o'clock and left around eleven, when the schoolmaster was at work. For all purposes, her looks did not fit the portrait of the person everybody had in mind. Ms. Jenny was about fifty, blonde, euphemistically pudgy, and nobody had ever seen her cruising around town on a bike, let alone on roller blades. Furthermore, didn't she herself affirm having repeatedly seen the "wanton lady" around the house, although never in when she was there, and that she never noticed any material traces of a presence in the house other than that of Kenneth K. Killingston? However, some people living across the street insisted that they had seen the "whore" open the door for Ms. Jenny, and, many a time, seen the two women talk to each other on the doorsteps or in the driveway! Go figure. After all, why would Jenny Cogmus lie about the presence of the young woman in the house, since she herself confessed a visceral dislike of her and had spotted her not only around the house but also, just like almost everybody else, in town on multiple occasions? So then, who had spread the rumor about Mr. Killingston having a niece? And who had named her Samantha? For my part, I had kept my mouth shut after my first glimpse at her that fateful morning, after my failed reflex attempt at sharing with Bill the discovery of her. Perhaps I had already decided to keep the secret to myself, to stay a little bit ahead of the other town boys in the courting contest that, to my sense, would most certainly ensue. I surely was mistaken, considering their subsequent incapacity to deal with her in a straightforward manner, but what I knew for sure was that the idea that had come immediately to my mind that morning of their arrival, the idea that the traveling companion of the new schoolmaster would fittingly bear the name of Samantha and could, after all, be only his niece, never exited my mouth. Things went on like that for another couple of weeks, during which I and many other people in town grew covertly more and more curious and overtly secretive -- and therefore less and less vociferous -- about the mysterious lady. We trailed her everywhere she went, through all her errands, as soon as we spotted her, trying our best not to be noticed by one another, which created at times inextricable vaudevillesque situations. For instance, one night around ten, there were a dozen of us, mostly males, but also a couple of female representatives of our community, lining up for a fill-up at Doug's Automotive because she had left her bike in front of the small convenience store adjacent to the service station. That night, I remember, there was a major football game on TV -- the Giants vs. the Forty-Niners -- on all available commercial channels, and each of us knew that none of us would have been there if not for her. I was in the middle of having my tank filled when she walked out of the store, and once again I made a fool out of myself. As she jumped on her bike and pedaled away from the store, I hurriedly pulled away from the self-service super unleaded pump. I had to stop again a couple hundred feet later after I heard people yelling and saw them gesturing at me in my rearview mirror. As I got out of the car, waddling along in the grips of another one of those indomitable hard-ons and wondering what the fuss was all about, I saw a piece of the gas hose hanging from the opening of my tank, with the nozzle still stuck inside it. Another time, though, we were only two of us, equipped with penlights, groping our way in counter-directional orbits around Kenneth Killingston's toolshed in the dead of night. At the second our noses rendezvoused, we both yelped "Jesus Fuck!", Reverend Jeremiah Kossak and I. All in all, I think nobody ever got to really talk to her. As it became more and more apparent, if we were going by what people insinuated, I was the only one who had come closest to having a conversation with her that evening at Joe's bar, even though the only response I had gotten from her was an enticing smile. I don't even remember hearing her order her drink; I think a mesmerized Cindy poured her a glass of draft beer without thinking about it. Be that as it may, none of the folks I knew ever boasted having heard her voice, and none of the shopkeepers in whose places she was spotted shopping time and again reported having heard any verbal enquiry from her either. They said she would walk into their stores, pick up what she needed from the shelves, and then walk to the cashier and pay her due without a word being exchanged between them. Of course, since they would not greet her mostly, because of the lurking presence of other customers, it is difficult to anticipate her reaction if they had. Would she have then only smiled her mesmerizing smile, or utter some expected human phonemes, or just looked away? Except for me, the only one who actually tried, to my knowledge, was Phil Schwartz. Himself an expatriate from New York City, Phil had moved to our town a few years before, and he immediately made himself a target for gossip and slander when, while trying at the same time to start up a small picture framing and furniture renovation business in town, he lobbied our school board to let a video of his own making about the paintings of Diego Rivera and other radical South American artists be shown to our students. And that, right in the middle of the Oliver North craze! I must say I liked Phil, or, more exactly, I think I would have liked him, if I had only ever dared call upon him, or just tried to speak to him. For Phil was attractive to me in his own way, with his Dustin Hoffman looks, his dark curly long hair, his diminutive stature, and his calm and corrosive look that he gave any of those big country Joes who tried to put him down. Of course, I never confessed that to anybody, and I would sometimes howl with the pack when it came to badgering him. Once I knowingly toppled over a parked cartload of picture frames and what-have-you's of his with my rear bumper as I maneuvered to back out in the Pizza Hut parking lot. I can still feel my right foot slip under my control to the gas pedal. But I felt so sorry right afterwards that I got out of my car and apologized to him, saying I had not seen him. That day, maybe, I could have tried to get better acquainted with him, but people were watching. The strangest thing is that I've blocked out for so long my memory of having done it on purpose that even now, as I am reporting the incident as I think it really happened, I feel like I'm boasting about it just like any other big Joe, and that I, in fact, did not really do it on purpose. Yeah. Just another blunder, another fit of mindlessness on my part. I definitely like it better that way. Anyway, the answer Phil Schwartz got from her when he tried to address her directly was none of those mentioned above. It happened one Saturday morning in early October at the alleged address of the woman on Faith Row where he had been requested by phone to visit in order to, as he reported later, examine an old piece of furniture and make an estimate for some renovation work on it. The voice on the phone had been Kenneth Killingston's. He had no doubt about that since he had himself some time or another shot the breeze with the headmaster, who appeared, it must be said, as long as you avoided prying on him on the subject of his presumed niece, as a rather sociable person who even sometimes showed some genuine dismay at not having his own greetings answered by some folks. So, just like everyone else who'd had to call upon the headmaster for business or official purposes -- not just Ms. Jenny but, as weeks passed, the mailman for registered mail, the plumber or the electrician for some house repairs, the tree pruners, etc. -- Phil expected to be ushered in by the apparently sole occupant of the house and see no trace of the lady Samantha, even more so since he had just seen her whooshing down Main Street on her rollerblades in the opposite direction to Faith Row a few minutes before, while he was on his way to her supposititious abode. When she opened the door, he could not at first utter a syllable. She did not ask any questions either, contenting herself with motioning him to come in and follow her to one of the second floor bedrooms, where she pointed at an old inlaid oak piece which, as he described it to me later, looked like a genuine French Louis the Fifteenth dresser, with its curved set of drawers and legs. Then, as he pretended to be absorbed by his close examination of the object, muttering now and then a few comments in regard to its state and antique value, he also took the opportunity to detail the lady who was standing aside and still not speaking. She was dressed more or less like usual, with a fitting red T-shirt and super-short leather hot-pants that let him experience from up close the arousing charm of her sinewy silhouette. She was barefoot, and her long black hair that she usually wore tied up in a bun when she was skating or riding her bike was flowing loosely about her shoulders. Her face, although delicately sculpted and bewitchingly handsome was, according to him, too, that of a slightly older person than her overall body contours would have precluded. She also smoked all the while he was examining the dresser, as she had been often seen doing everywhere in town, to the consternation of many for whom a hot butt was the utmost object of righteous reprobacy, be it of a cigarette or a human being. She produced a pack of Merit Ultra Lights and offered him one, which he took since he also smoked, although less ostentatiously than she in public places, especially since the day he had heard the town constable say behind his back something to the effect that, unfortunately, Jews only smoked through their mouth nowadays. So, since his rambling about the dresser had not elicited any response from her, he jumped at the occasion to strike up a conversation. Anything along the smokers' small talk line, he thought, would do. He asked her if she had ever tried to quit as he had so often tried himself. But instead of verbalizing an answer, she chose to jump on him and French kiss him, while, at the same time, she maneuvered to unzip his fly. What happened next, as he reported it to me, is not clear. What I could make of it is that he funked out and left the house. That's when he stumbled on me, who had been cruising up and down the street ever since I had seen him go into the house. He was visibly out of his wits, and as soon as he saw me, he walked up to my car and asked me if he could talk to me a minute, but not right there. As I was rather glad for his singling me out as a confidant and at the prospect of having a conversation with him, I said yes, but not right now, either, since they were probably observing us all around. He came on foot late that night to my rented basement apartment on Grant, where, before other things, he reported to me the above incident
I said before other things because we talked until well into the wee hours, and he told me much more, specifically about his New York days, before he wound up in our town, where, he thought, she would not pursue him. For Phil thought he knew the woman, although he was not exactly sure. He had fled from her, if she was her. I will report his story in much fewer words than he did that night, as words streamed for hours out of his mouth after, it seemed, years of retention. Back in 1988, or 1989, when he was living a solitary life among the bustling crowd of the Manhattan Upper West Side and earning a living as a pedagogical counselor at one of the city's public schools, P.S. 51, he had, out of sheer helplessness at finding a suitable mate at the work place, or around the Reservoir lake in Central Park where he jogged every morning, or in single bars, or simply on the street or in the subway, taken to the habit of mailing multiple submissions of his morphological and psychological profile in response to personal ads from the Village Voice or mere neighborhood publications. He said he would often mail more than a dozen word-processed letters a day, to which he dutifully attached a passport photo of himself wearing his best shirt and tie. He would actually get answers to some of these letters, and, except for some misguided loonies whom he had sometimes the curiosity to meet anyway, he would spend whole evenings talking on the phone with callers or callees, listening to almost always the same rant on the difficulty of finding someone "normal" in the city, the impossibility of even finding the time to meet someone altogether because of professional and other miscellaneous engagements, the mostly flesh directed expectations of men and their unwillingness to make a serious relational commitment. And also AIDS. Had he had a homosexual experience? Any dubious previous relationship? If yes, had he recently taken the test? And also... was he a smoker? Most of the time, that one was the killer, a final resistance test that some of them held until they got to the final item of their questionnaire, long after they had asked if he was a drug user or even if he was financially secure. He got to meet some of them anyway, mostly on Friday and Saturday nights, but it rarely went beyond a first encounter at a bar or a restaurant Uptown or Downtown according to their choice, where he was left each time with the bill no matter what the income or the degree of emancipatory conviction of his date. Bland dates, mostly. They all seemed to have no other interest in life than how much he or they made, his or their career development plan, their moving into a building with a twenty-four hour doorman security, or, at best, what blockbuster movie, trendy club, or showbiz happening he had attended lately. One of them, a leggy brunette about twenty-five who put out ninety hours a week at a law firm to pay for her fourteen hundred dollar rent studio on the Upper East Side and her student loans excited him quite a bit for a while, until he asked her what the hell she was carrying in a huge Sak's Fifth Avenue bag and she answered that, since she was going to Paris for a week's vacation starting Monday, she had bought six pairs of shoes before taking off since shoes were so expensive in Paris! (He had left that one without paying the bill, on the pretense of having to visit the bathroom.) One of them, though, stood above the crowd. He should have suspected something since she refused to meet him right away or even after a couple of conversations on the phone. The audio preliminaries went on for days, then for weeks, and she still stalled. But to him, she seemed fantastic, though, right up his alley. She could speak about anything affective, cultural, philosophical, or political with much insight and depth. They would converse for hours on end almost every night, and he would never tire of listening to her, sometimes even taking notes as he often did when listening to interviews and lectures live on the now much accursed public radio and television. More especially, she appeared to be immensely knowledgeable in theoretical physics and cosmology, his favorite reading topic, although she said she had never taken those subjects in college where, she admitted, she had never been and although she -- supposedly -- only made a living as a free- lance proofreader. In spite of that, her command of English and her choice of vocabulary were, he found, more of a leisurely European educated person than that of the average pragmatic professional American although her accent and her rapid delivery was definitely New York. She seemed to make a point, more often than not, of making sentences of more than half a dozen words, of using subjunctives, of substituting metaphors to adverbs, all of it naturally and with much humor, without sounding like she was trying to impress or lecture him. Her voice was soft and low-pitched, slightly crackling in time like the voice of the chain smoker she acknowledged to be, but not screechy, or cackly, or whiny like those he was used to hearing on the street, or the subway, or at the school board meetings. However, each time she would rightly feel that he was gearing up to ask her for a date, she would cut the conversation short, saying that, maybe, the time had not come yet, that he should be patient and not try to meet her until she let him know that she was ready, and then she would hang up. If he tried to call her back, she would not pick up for the rest of the evening and let her machine answer. But she had told him her name, Samantha Lickwitch, and, of course, her phone number. He had looked it up in the phone book and found that she was listed with an address in the Tribeca district of Manhattan where, after about three weeks of qualmishness, he rang a bell on the third floor of a walk-up building. It was late at night, one full hour after she had hung up one more time on him right when he had, with some insight, asked her why it actually seemed that she did not want him to see her rather than she not see him. At first, she refused to open up, saying through the door that she was in bed, that he should never have come, and that in so doing, he had screwed up everything. As he insisted, pounding on the door and starting to wake up neighbors' dogs, she jerked the door open, and there she was, facing him, her utter unsightliness hardly abated by the dimness of the stairway light and the vapor that was escaping from the apartment. At that point in his narration, Phil started to falter, almost unable to give me a real description of what he meant. The only words he could utter for a couple of minutes were: "so ugly... so ugly... and this gurgling noise, this steam... If I were like you and believed in hell.." Then, as I questioned him, I could, little by little, get a better picture of the apparition. The top of her head reached up to Phil's chin -- he was hardly five-seven -- and was partly bald with clinging tufts of reddish hair that were soaked in sweat. Her bloated face was pockmarked like the face of the moon as seen through a telescope, and a couple of big warts distorted the fold of the skin under her left eye so that she could not keep it fully opened. The rest of her body, totally naked, was that of a human-sized amoeba. There were folds over folds of wet rippling skin and flesh, in which he was unable for a while to make out the shape of breasts, belly, and thighs. Such a body was not meant to be functional, let alone showable. Yet there it was, alive and unveiled to his dumbstruck gaze. He could neither speak nor flee. She motioned him to come in, and, hypnotized, he followed her inside. The steam came from a room to the right of the entrance door, where she'd probably come to open up, and she sloshed back along a thickly carpeted corridor with him in tow. At this point, he could already not tame an inconceivable erection, and, right after they entered the huge bathroom with its oak barrel of a steamy and bubbling jacuzzi, he followed her up the rungs of a ladder to the rim of the gurgling barrel, his nose right up her drooling buttocks and his penis hurting through the fabric of his underpants. She splashed in, and, turning around, she grabbed him and started to rip the buttons off his shirt and pants, still to his incomprehensible delight. Half unclothed, he dived in turn, grabbed her from behind and mounted her in the midst of this artificial Old Faithful. He came into her almost immediately, and only thereafter did he flinch in a nauseous spasm that made him retch into the water. He climbed back out of the jacuzzi, gathered what he could of his soaking clothes, and, shrinking from the prospect of running away from the place in his wet state, he ran as far as he could in the apartment itself. It was in fact a huge renovated and glitzily decorated loft, with a saloon bar and rows of couches and antique furniture along the walls of the main room. Trying at first to hide behind the bar, he spotted a forest-like area at the other end of the room near the huge bay windows. He crawled to the forest's edge over a several inches thick Persian rug, and, in his panic, managed to climb right up to the top of the most leafy exotic tree, right underneath the two-floor high ceiling, and right at the moment that she, still naked and dripping, entered the room and came to sit on her heels at the foot of the tree. He stayed up there for a good part of the night, curled up on a branch like a hounded big cat until she decided to lift her squatting siege from under the tree in order to, maybe, go to sleep or make herself a cup of coffee. At least that's what he thought, because no words were exchanged between them all that time. He refrained from speaking or moving so as not to reveal his overhanging presence, and she did not utter a word, just as if she had not really tracked him there. Strangely, he was sure at that time that if he had tried to talk her into letting him go, he would have made things even worse. He managed to make it out through the window and down the fire escape during the time she was away. The days and weeks that followed were hell for Phil Schwartz. She kept calling him all times of the day or night, and unplugging his phone only deprived him of this means of communicating with the exterior world. Everyday he would find scores of messages from her on his answering machine, up to the end of the tape, as if she had spent her day calling him. The content of the messages was endless variations on the same desperate plea: Please give us another chance. The time was not ripe then, but we're meant for each other. Believe in us. If you could only see me with the eyes of love. Please call and tell me you love me. And, especially, if you can't get yourself to love me, who will, and how will I ever become what you'd love me to be? Sometimes, when he let her talk for a while, she delved into more convoluted rationalizing of creative visualization, quoting Carlos Castaneda and other bestselling proponents of the possibility of journeying beyond preconceived notions of the nature of reality. She would then lecture him on how to help her "undo herself" and then "tangibly dream her" to his liking, all that mixed up with quantum physics para-theories on illusional reality and multiple probable universes that they should both set off to explore. But despite his own curiosity about these subjects, he had, to his dismay, quite a hard time imagining how such theories, fascinating as they were, could be relevant to her case, or applicable to it in the way she seemed to expect. Of course, he ended up changing his phone number and paying an additional fee to NYNEX to become red-listed. That's when she started besieging his abode. Almost every time he left or returned home, she was there, pacing on the sidewalk or, when it was raining or too cold outside, standing between the building doors in front of the buzzers. Sometimes, when one of his neighbors had, inadvertently or obligingly, opened up for her, he would find her squatting on his doormat. In all cases his reaction would be to ignore her, shove her aside, bully her, or flee from her as fast as his jogger's legs would permit. He also disconnected his buzzer. Then he moved out. He took a new apartment in the North Bronx, in the Pelham Parkway area. He thought that even if she could track him there, she would never come up to the Bronx. He knew from experience that no Manhattanite ever traveled to the Bronx, except for urgent business and only if chaperoned by trusted Bronxites. Were it not for the fact that none of his friends ever came to visit him anymore -- including one of them, a journalist, who had been through months of bombing and looting in Sarajevo -- it did seem to help for a while. Until the morning he stumbled on her in a corridor at P.S. 51, when she was walking out of Kenneth Killingston's office. He stumped me there. So he knew Ken Killingston! Of course, he said, since Killingston was then the principal of the same public school where himself had worked! But why in hell hadn't he say so before? I asked. Because neither I nor anybody else had ever asked him, he said. But had he spoken to Kenneth Killingston since his arrival here? Of course, he had. Hadn't he mentioned it? He thought he had said so before. He had even been invited to the headmaster's house a couple of times for a cup of coffee. But had he ever seen his "niece" on the premises anytime before yesterday morning? Nope. He hadn't. Not any more than anybody else. Had Killingston ever mentioned her existence to him? Nope, never. Had he, Phil Schwartz, inquired about her to Ken Killingston? Yes, he had, indeed. And, geez! what answer did he get from him? The same as everybody else; that is, the older gentleman said that none of the female members of his family resembled the woman everybody thought was his niece, that all this was crazy small town gossip, and that he was living quite a lonely life since the death of his wife. But had Kenneth Killingston himself seen the woman around town? Nope, he hadn't, strange as it seemed. He had just heard about her. But who was he talking to when he was getting off the Greyhound bus from New York? I asked. As he got off the bus? Were you there? Phil asked, bewildered. Yes, I was, I said, right across the street, at the diner. And who was he talking to? asked Phil, in turn. That's what I'm asking you. Did you ask him? I asked. Ask him what since I didn't know he was talking to somebody? he said. He was talking to that rapist of yours, I said. It's crazy, he said. Never heard of such a thing. Oh, of course, since I never told anybody, I admitted. So, maybe, you should ask him yourself, he said. And as I realized that this conversation was getting us nowhere, I pressed him to go on with his story. As soon as he saw that he couldn't be mistaken, that it was really her, and that she was ogling him with her one and a half eye, his reflex was to enter the nearest office, which happened to be Killingston's. He actually stormed in and slammed the door shut behind him. At Killingston's questioning gaze, he blubbered an excuse to the effect that -- he didn't remember what -- and finally asked him rather abruptly who that woman was who had just left his office. Even though he looked surprised by such an overanxious inquiry, Killingston replied calmly that she was going to be their new junior high and high school English teacher. And he added with an audible irony that he would have never expected her to make such an impression on any male member of his faculty. The only thing he could then say to Killingston, as if to immediately try anything to sabotage her application, was: "But she doesn't even have a college degree!" Upon which, of course, Killingston asked him if he knew her. Pulling himself up, he said no, of course, and that he had meant that she just looked like she hadn't. To which Killingston retorted drily that one should always guard oneself from judging people on their appearances, that she had in fact a doctorate in medieval lit from the University of London, that she was fully certified by the Board of Education, and that she was probably going to become, after the kids had gotten used to her looks and learned to like her, their most intelligent and efficient teacher. The weeks that followed were, for Phil Schwartz, more hell than ever. At first, he thought she wouldn't dare. He was pretty sure she wouldn't try to speak to him. She had never spoken to him otherwise than on the phone. (Wondering for a while if she spoke to her students or taught through telepathy, he had even felt compelled to stop by her class door once and listen to her. Yeah, she did talk actually, and he found that she had the same voice as on the phone.) He thought he would only have to contend with her insistent ogling in the corridors, at the cafeteria, at the faculty meetings, or, at the worst, with her stalking him again at his new address in the Bronx. He reiterated his instruction to the personnel office to never give his new address to any private individual either directly or by phone, and urged personally all of his colleagues who had been entrusted with it to never do so either. And maybe, he hoped, she would soon give up in front of his unruffledness. She could even set her heart on somebody else. There were a bunch of cute guys among the staff, especially the gym teachers. But all that was just hope. Day after day, she became bolder and bolder. In the beginning, she contented herself with sitting right across from him at the cafeteria, occupying his favorite corner of the faculty lounge, waiting for him at the school gate in the morning and following him thereafter, and leaving written notes on his desk in his office. (The contents of these notes being quite similar to the messages she had left on his answering machine.) Then she started to brush him in passing, and, many a time, unbeknownst to other people, she would pretend she had not seen him, bump into him and deftly fondle him. So deftly that she would sometimes succeed in unbuttoning his shirt or unzipping his fly, and, to his awe, arouse him in a second. All this took a real bad turn the morning she walked into his office -- that he could not lock without arousing professional suspicion -- as he was receiving a most particularly learning disabled student and his single mother. On his desk was the loaded nine millimeter Magnum pistol that had been confiscated from the student the day before by the security guard at the metal detector. Still without even saying hello, she went to sit at another desk by the window behind him and started punching something on a computer as if it were her work station. He ignored her the best he could all the while the pair was sitting in front of him and tried to expedite them as quickly as possible. This time, he was determined to grab her and throw her out as noisily as he could to attract some attention and prove his point. He would spill out everything and he would get her fired for boisterous and unprofessional conduct and maybe, while he was at it, for sexual harassment. After all, he had nothing to hide, were it not for his shortcomings when it came to digging up Ms. Right. And yet this was nobody's concern at the Board of Ed. Godammit! He was only a high school pedagogical counselor, not a Supreme Court nominee or a presidential candidate. So, when the mother and son left, he accompanied them to the door, and, after delivering his last compliments, he turned abruptly around and swooped down on her, yelling with the door still open: "This is too much! Enough of your stalking me! What do you want of me?" But she sat there unperturbed, holding the loaded nine millimeter Magnum in both her hands. She motioned him with the gun to shut the door. Never in his life had he had a gun pointed at him, neither in Viet Nam since he had burnt his draft card and fled to Canada, nor here at the school. In fact, it was the first time he had ever seen a gun in somebody's hands. He had seen lots of naked guns from up close, but only on TV, and yet these were as fictional as the characters who were wielding them. Sometimes, he would even marvel at the de visu aspect of a true whole gun when he looked at their butts sticking out of cops' holsters. Once, in the subway, he had caught himself peeking over the shoulder of his neighbor, who was leafing through Guns and Ammo, and he'd blushed as if it had been a porn magazine. But now this one gun was out, all exposed in its true nakedness -- save, this time, for its butt -- and it was pointed at him. So he closed the door. Henceforth, everything went very fast. Still holding the gun, she moved to his desk, lay down on it on her back, and, lifting and opening her knees, displayed to his sight her naked crotch under her blue velvet skirt. Once again, he got immediately and unexpectedly aroused. An overwhelming tide of lust drowning all repulsion in him, he ripped open his corduroy trousers, pulled them down onto his shoes, and sunk into her. While thrusting and pumping and holding her legs straight up, he closed his eyes in order to not see her and concentrated his thoughts on a young woman whom he had seen in the subway the same morning on his way to the school. Geez! That one was something! Tall, sinewy, with lush long dark hair and a face like that of an Italian Madonna, at least after some paintings. Her small butt and lean thighs were sheathed in black satin tights, her waist bare at the navel, and her bust encased in a red tank top. She had looked at him for several stops and he had looked at her, and he thought she had even smiled at him. He had let her get off somewhere on the line, and now, here she was, yes, it was her. It was her lying on her back on his desk and moaning, yapping and squeaking, and it was her smooth muscular legs that were tightly wrapped around his neck, her flat belly he was probing with such might, her firm breasts and erect nipples he was grabbing and massaging with his fingers gone mad. She had not gotten off. She had stayed with him on the train and followed him to the school, and now he was fucking her. As he came, he opened his eyes and saw her, the sex pot from the subway line, her long sweaty hair hanging all over her face, her mouth agape, her red tank top torn up to her armpits. Appeased, he closed his eyes again. And he reopened them moments later on the bulging ripples of flesh and the one and a half eye of his tormentor! She'd gotten him again, the ugly fucking bitch! Suddenly nauseated and angered, while still in her, he grabbed the gun that she had dropped next to her on the desk. Was he going to blow her head off? At that moment, the door opened behind him, and in came Kenneth Killingston. She refused to bring charges against him, so he didn't have to be arrested. He just had to sign his resignation an hour later and collect his personal belongings from his office. As he was busy doing that, he saw something written in bold capitals on the computer screen: EVERYBODY LIVES AT 10 DOWNING STREET, OR AT THE WHITE HOUSE, OR AT THE SULTAN'S PALACE IN BRUNEI, OR, AND ALWAYS IN WINTER, IN A CARDBOARD BOX IN A STREET OF NEW YORK. EVERYBODY LIVES IN EACH OTHER'S BODY AND MIND. EVERYBODY IS SO BEAUTIFUL AND UGLY! He left the school through the back door. A month later, he was in Hickstown starting a furniture renovation business. Why Hickstown? He'd just dropped a ball point pen on a triple A U.S. road map, and he'd packed his stuff on a used Chevy wagon he'd bought with his severance pay. As he was drawing toward the end of his story, I questioned him again on what exactly had happened at Killingston's house that same morning -- had he told me everything? I suspected not. I also questioned him on the reason why he'd seemed to allude in the beginning that his repulsive paramour from New York and the devilishly attractive Killingston's "niece" were one and the same person. Answering first to my second question, he said that it was probably just an impression, like something in the very essence of her features, and, maybe, the way she behaved, like smoking, or never saying a word. He seemed to be eager to dismiss such a hypothesis, contending that the shock after his morning's adventure had carried him too far. And the more I insisted, the more he would renege his primary supposition, giving me all the obvious reasons. How could someone go through such a transformation? What plastic surgeon, even with an office on Park Avenue, could achieve such a miracle? No, it was just too crazy. How could it be? What about her height, for instance? The woman in Hickstown was at least five-ten. No treatment or surgery could give someone an additional nine or ten inches, huh? And on and on, with such insistence that I really came to suspect him of hiding something from me, something that he had decided not to tell me after all. Then I reiterated my first question about the morning's events, and he got angry, yelling that he had told me everything, and what the fuck else did I think had happened? And was he in a cops' den to be grilled that way? I gave up and we parted. Fortunately, it was early Sunday morning, and, that week, it was my day off at the mart. Going to bed, I promised myself to grill Killingston anyway. After all, if he had himself made the call to Phil, why wasn't he home at the time of the appointment? And also ask Phil -- which I realized I had omitted to do -- what he thought of the coincidental resemblance between that woman who was riding the subway on the morning of his final day at the public school and the one who was now skating and biking all around town. Unfortunately, the occasion to talk to Phil Schwartz never rose again. He must have left town that same Sunday after he confided his story to me. The next Monday evening, as I stopped by his place on Main Street with the intention of calling upon him, I saw a FOR RENT sign in the window of his second floor apartment. The landlord confirmed his departure for a destination unknown. I surely felt a little saddened, depleted. After all, Phil had looked like he was certainly going to become a good friend, something more than just that kind of "man's friend" I was accustomed to. Something in his liveliness, or spiritedness, or fervor, or finesse, or openness to me contrasted so drastically with what I knew! Also, I felt I had not apologized enough to him for having toppled his cart that day on the parking lot. At least, I wished I could have confessed to him that I actually did it on purpose. Now, I would have to turn toward Killingston. Since he was listed in the phone book, I made up my mind to call him a couple of days later. His answers to my questions perplexed me as much as I had expected they would. When he picked up, I immediately introduced myself as a close friend of Phil Schwartz who, I said upfront, had spoken to me about his past life in New York and his former career as a counselor in the same public school of which Killingston had been the Principal, before he got fired after an alleged bout of misconduct, which, I added, only he, Ken Killingston, and I now knew about in town. He did not deny any of that, although he impatiently pressed me to get to the point. I thought from the tone of his voice that he was about to hang up, so I moved on to ask him the questions I had taken the precaution of itemizing on a piece of paper, first harping on the fact that Phil had left town right after he had, or so it appeared, visited his house for some furniture repair. To that, I must say, Killingston sounded genuinely surprised. No, he hadn't made any business call to Phil, he hadn't planned any furniture repair, and it would have been foolish on his part to make an appointment for that morning since he was with his old mother in Syth's Cove for the weekend. And of course, he hadn't seen Phil since he was not at home. I was stunned, but I quickly apologized, saying that Phil must have confused his voice or address with somebody else's, and had probably visited another house and forgot to mention it to me afterwards, for I wanted above all to ask him those questions I'd had on my mind since that Saturday night with Phil. No, he didn't know that Phil was living in this town before he himself came here, and he was utterly surprised to meet him in a store a couple of days after his arrival. No, he'd had no idea, after all these years, where Phil could have gone either. He had left the school and never contacted either him or, to his knowledge, any of his former colleagues. No, the English teacher with whom Phil was caught on that fateful day didn't stay with them either. Although nobody did anything to openly dissuade her from staying at the school, she resigned a few days afterwards since as you would expect the rest of the staff and the students were growing more and more leery around the incident.
Then I finally ventured to ask him why he thought so many people in town were so stupidly intent on associating him with a conspicuous female character he must have heard about, and who had allegedly come to town in his company. (I did not dare go so far as to mention the gossip about their living together.) There, he got really angry. He bellowed that he was expecting that one from me, that it was getting a little bit too much, but that even though his private life was nobody's concern, he would still honor me with his reiterated assertion that he had arrived here alone, that he had not even had the occasion to be introduced to the "conspicuous female character" I was so deftly alluding to, and that he would be curious to, at least, take a peek at her who seemed to have bewitched everybody in the county. As he then seemed to indicate that our conversation was drawing to an end, I risked my all in dropping that I myself had seen him get off a Greyhound bus in her company on the morning of his arrival. After what I thought was a moment of shock, he declared: "Missed. I arrived here with a U-Haul moving truck I rented in Manhattan." And he added, alluding to the Greyhound motto: "I didn't leave the driving to anybody." Upon which he hung up. As one might guess, I was so dumbstruck after these last words that I started doubting my own sanity. I decided for my own peace of mind that he had lied to confuse me, that I should drop the Killingston connection altogether, and also forget about Phil Schwartz who, after all, had also probably gotten all worked up about nothing in his desire to brag about an otherwise disastrous attempt to have it off with the lady Samantha that Saturday morning that I saw him storm out of Killingston's residence. So, as soon as the occasion came up, I'd better corner Samantha herself and get her to spill everything about the game she had been playing on our townsfolk for too long already. But October drew along and I could not get to do so. Whenever I spotted her, Samantha was on the move, riding or skating, and never when I was in a position to follow her in my car. She also looked nervous, enraged, and, sometimes, sad. Once, as she rode by Carl's diner where I was having another breakfast, I -- and a couple of other customers with whom I spoke afterwards -- saw her crying. On the other hand, over the same period of time, her provocation escalated to the point that she managed to make even me feel uneasy and blush. She became more than ever the talk of the town, from the TV parlors to the pews. The police were submerged with complaints regarding her anti-family and ungodly attitude, and some parents stopped sending their children to school for fear of their innocent angels simply running into her on their way. For it must be said, she dressed more immodestly than ever in clothes that no store in the county people's knowledge would carry except for those erotic lingerie shops in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, at times with no bra under a loose netted shirt, or in scant black leather and chains, or in a fitting black silk outfit. She was seen once skating down Main in a floating black cape with reportedly nothing at all underneath! Some complained that she would openly twiddle her ass in the face of anybody on the street or in the stores, even children, bare her legs to the utter limit of decency when straddling her bike, and once, as the temperature, in a last convulsion of Indian summer, rose around 75 degrees in the mid- afternoon, kids on a nature trip from school saw her bathing topless in the nearby Hoolalah River, with a string so scanty that the back part of it, as I heard one of the kids say later in front of the candy display at Pete's pharmacy, "completely disappeared into her butt crack." Worst of all, she would be seen parading in front of various churches with a JESUS LIVES/VAMPIRES NEVER DIE T- shirt, sometimes reading aloud from a copy of the infamous Book Your Church Doesn't Want You To Read. I knew this book, since I had myself gotten a copy of it through mail order from an underground publisher in California, but reading it in public and out loud? I wished I'd dared myself. And also, I wished I had been there and heard her voice for once. Until, on the eve of Halloween, some resolute members of our local trainband seized her as she walked out of the post office. They had trailed her aboard a four-wheel drive truck and parked it right in front after they had seen her lock up her bike and enter. They punctured both her tires with a huge pair of scissors while she was still inside, and then, when she walked out, they grabbed her. In the middle of a small crowd of jeering gawkers, they cut her luscious hair with the same scissors and sprayed the front and back of the black woollen overcoat she was wearing over a red leotard with the letters R-A-W (for RENEWED AMERICA WARRIORS). That day, with a couple of other customers, I had been watching all along from behind the window of a store right across the way. I did not intervene, nor did I try to help her in any way afterwards, as she struggled to realign the handlebar of her smashed bike and tie a grocery bag back on the rack. Like I had done with Phil Schwartz, I thought it would have been the right time to walk up to her and speak to her, apologizing for all of us. But I did not. And the next night, the night of Halloween, contrary to what one would have expected, she was nowhere to be seen. Maybe, I thought, because our small community parade, with all those kids chaperoned by their elders, or their teachers, or their ministers, with its subdued and gentle disneyish characters and its sanitized pranks, was nothing compared to compare with the big Halloween parade of truer than life demons in Downtown Manhattan, with its iconoclastic chaos, its open sexuality, its political irreverence, and its blasphemous conduct. Maybe, I also thought she had left town, like Phil Schwartz, after the afternoon display of native inamity. Instead of hers, it was another wide brimmed witch's hat and another long black cape floating open over another netted leotard that were seen on another female body perambulating the streets that night. Nobody seemed to know her. Thank God that she was probably not from the county! The body was almost that of a midget, grotesquely fat, and looked more like it was itself an ingenious Halloween costume. As for the mask she wore, it was truly hideous, with that one eye half closed by two enormous cysts. I was probably the only one, in a lashing instant of irrational panic, to realize that the dreadfully beautiful Samantha had not snubbed our small town greetings to the netherworld. So, that morning, after I spotted her reading her copy of the "The Book" while sitting cross-legged on a bench at the church square, and when I felt again the irresistible gush of my blood, I knew I could not miss really connecting with her this time, and I walked straight up to her. She must have shaved her head completely after that demonstration of the town's righteousness, and, as befitted a now completely shaved skull, she wore a sort of loose Tibetan saffron robe which she had pulled up, in her sitting position, to the top of her luscious thighs. As I came nearer, she stood up, and, raising her open book over her head and holding it the same way that a street imprecator on an avenue of a Sodom of the coast holds the Bible, she proceeded to pronounce in a loud and low-pitched voice -- with a definite New York accent -- a quote from the book: "AND BERTRAND RUSSELL SAYTH: 'WHEN YOU HEAR PEOPLE IN CHURCH DEBASING THEMSELVES AND SAYING THAT THEY ARE MISERABLE SINNERS, AND ALL THE REST OF IT, IT SEEMS CONTEMPTIBLE AND NOT WORTHY OF SELF-RESPECTING HUMAN BEINGS." Once again disconcerted by her attitude -- and maybe by the sound of her voice -- and blushing because of my awareness of all those people's stares on her and me, I stopped short in my course. That gave her enough time to turn around, pick up her bike that was leaning on a nearby tree trunk, get astride it with the book still in her hand, and pedal away from the square. But this time I would not let her slip away from me. I definitely had to talk to her. That, at least. Like with Phil Schwartz, I was sure we had a lot to say to each other. Come on, I had that book, too! Without giving it a second thought, undaunted by the sneering gawkers, I ran to my car parked on the church lot, jumped into it, pulled away in a volley of gravel, and chased her along Faith Row. She never made a move to shake me off, so I could easily follow her to Killingston's house, a good straight mile down the street. Why was I still surprised? She leaned her bike against the house wall, unlocked the front door with a key she took out of a woollen banana purse and just walked in. I got out of my car, went directly to the door and rang the bell. This time, if Killingston opened up, he couldn't deny her presence there. And he did open up. Jolting him aside, I stormed onto the front porch, then into the living room whose door he'd left open, snarling: "Where is she?" As far as I could see at a glance, the place was a mess. Dust all over and books and magazines piled up everywhere, on the chairs, on the threadbare floor carpet, on makeshift shelves; and no antiques whatsoever. Only cheap and rickety pieces of furniture from the fifties and sixties that seemed to have belonged to the former occupant of the house, the late Will Spencer, who, while I was a student there, had been a math teacher and principal of the Holy Redemption school. Trying to prevent my intrusion, he chased me and grabbed me at the opposite end of the room, where I was going to enter the kitchen. "Where is she, godammit! I saw her come in! You can't hide her any longer!" I yelled again, shrugging him off me and throwing him to the floor. And I stumbled up a flight of stairs that led to the second floor bedrooms. In the time it took for him to get back on his feet and climb up the stairs, I could throw a glance at each of the three opened bedrooms. Nobody was there. Just more dusty shelves of books, wobbly chairs, box spring beds and an assortment of outmoded electrical appliances like metal window fans. No visible inlaid Louis the Fifteenth dresser, at any rate. I was going to visit the bathroom -- whose door was closed -- when he reached the landing. There, he grabbed the back of my leather jacket and tried to pull me back down the stairs, threatening to call the police. Instead, I made an about turn, pulled him up by his arms, and shoved him against the bathroom door, which, right when I was voicing that we were going to have a nice conversation, just the three of us, burst open under his weight. She was not in that room either, but, steaming and bubbling, her huge oak jacuzzi tub was. That's when I really started to understand who EVERYBODY was. And now, as I am desperately searching for another than just myself, hoping, at each street corner, or each open door, to look into a pair of eyes other than an endless series of replications of my own, or at a different silhouette, outfit, or attitude, I relish to retrieve in my memory every bit of earlier remembrances of my life before that day at 50-62 Faith Row. Problem is, they come all mixed up, and I have a hell of a time sorting out what bit of remembrance belongs to whom part of me. It's not been easy to piece this one story together. And why this one among so many others? Maybe because I have settled as the one character whose soul and body I would have all along chosen to inhabit, among billions of others, during my prior incohesive, discrete, non-sequential lyo- existence. After all, she, Samantha Dickwitch, was beautiful, not scared, and she was free. Also, I had to stick to one story line in order to simply enjoy the experience of the intricacies of primeval built-in linguistic programs and speak about myself in the third person singular under my various guises. Sometimes, as I roam the town on my bike or my roller skates, I wonder if an infinite series of otherwise wrapped up other me's, in some elsewhere of me, is not also trying to retrieve bits of remembrances from before the Big Merger. But I realize that I am not through with that one story yet. Of course, I know what happened next, and I shouldn't have to rerun the show over and over, all just for myself. But I enjoy it so much! So, in the form of this small town dude, who probably has a name of his own, I grappled for a minute with Ken Killingston, until at one point, when he was lying face down on the tiled floor of the bathroom and as I was straddling him and pinning him down between my thighs, he shape-shifted into Samantha the Beautiful with her irresistible and half denuded butt and loins, and this indomitable pang of lust exploded again at the base of my spine. I tore her stockings and panties down her legs, unzipped my fly to liberate my swollen cock, and entered her while she moaned and twitched, inviting me to thrust deeper and deeper into her. As I already suspected what was going to happen soon, I hurried to get it off before ... she shape-shifted again into her other self, the fat one-eyed scarecrow; which she did, right after I shot my load. I withdrew in horror and scuttled out of the house, still hoping to find someone else out there on the street to whom I could start bandying self-reassuring words like sorcery and dementia. I spotted a car parked right across the street with a man inside. It was my car. And the man inside was me, the small town dude. It couldn't be. And why was he calling me Phil? Terrified, I spun around and jumped on her bike that was still leaning against the house wall. Then my crotch started aching deliciously inside, and the bike seat was hard to it for a while. But I already knew that no one else would ever have to talk or stare at me anymore. And as I pedaled away, looking down at the muscles on my smooth naked thighs and lusting all alone over the sight, I became gladly aware that everybody lived -- also -- at 50-62 Faith Row.