I ’m a writer — at least I’m trying to be a writer. I haven’t made any money at it since I won fifty cents in an insult contest with Gabe Kleinman in fifth grade. This was an encouraging success, however: all writing is a form of insult. Good writing, anyway.
Camus said, “There is no fate that cannot be overcome by scorn.” I used to have that taped over my desk. Then one day I tore it down. Some fates, I decided, require a power even greater than scorn. I refer, of course, to the power of love.
But neither love nor scorn buys rice, so I’ve been cornered into working. And sometimes I crave a vocation other than sweeping basketball courts. (For some reason, I keep finding jobs as a janitor in a gymnasium.)
So I load up my car — a ’74 Malibu — drive until I’m in a new place, and look for work. This is the story of one such trip. In September of 1980, I rode west out of New York City on Route 80.
I love riding on interstates, especially at night. It’s so easy. You hold the wheel and lights pass. You sit, and nothing happens. Nothing happens, except by the end of the night you’ve crossed a third of the continent.
The radio is a wonderful diversion. It brings out strong opinions in me. Anything by the Moody Blues I immediately turn off, but I always listen to Jackson Browne out of a sense of duty. Nat “King” Cole singing “In Other Words” will cheer me up for about an hour, and Leslie Gore makes me laugh out loud. “Incense and Peppermints” by the Strawberry Alarm Clock sounds much better than it did in 1967. Lately, my favorite song is “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool” by Tammy Wynette and George Jones. My favorite singer is Elvis Costello.
Sometimes, I leave the dial between the stations, and listen to distant ballroom music from Baltimore crashing into disco from Philadelphia, resolving into recent Syracuse baseball scores. An excited voice on a late-night talk show out of Cincinnati announces, “I have three pieces of trivia from the movie Superman . . .” and disappears into the void. “Gee, it’s great to be back home,” sings Paul Simon, sounding pleased with himself. “The second one involves Lois Lane’s dress . . .” continues the man from Cincinnati, doggedly, then explodes into atoms. “I’ve been branded, libelled; I’ve heard words I never heard in the Bible . . .” Paul Simon sings, still pleased. The man from Cincinnati tries to reconstitute his shattered atoms. He fails. Paul Simon triumphs. “I’m so tired . . .” he sings gaily. The news from Detroit drifts in, full of four-alarm fires.
I made Minneapolis by dawn. The sun reflected off the skyline, which was formed by twenty buildings, all clean rectangles of glass. The city looked like it had been built sometime in the last three weeks.
I decided to have Chinese food for breakfast. After a considerable search, I found the Kwan Yin Restaurant, next to a pool hall. Despite its illustrious namesake — the Queen of Heaven — the place was quite simple: no tables, only a counter with eight stools. Three feet behind them was a wall of artificial wood paneling. On it were two narrow Oriental paintings, of the type one sees in Chinatown stores. One showed a smiling dragon, the other a modest woman with a fan — perhaps Kwan Yin herself. At the far end of the room was a waist-high partition, beyond which several woks rested on a stove.
There were no customers, but an Oriental woman stood behind the counter. She wore a yellow blouse and designer jeans.
“Hello,” she said. “How can I help you?”
“I’ll have some vegetable chow mein, please,” I said.
She went back to the kitchen to make it. I turned around and looked at Kwan Yin. Her face was white and her eyes black. She smiled a heavenly smile.
“Do you like Minneapolis?” I asked the woman when she returned with my meal.
“Oh, yes, very much,” she said. At that moment, I decided to move there.
“Where did you live before?” I asked.
“I lived in New York City for a while,” she said, frowning slightly.
“I know,” I said. “Me, too. It’s like everybody in that place has the same disease.”
I drove around the city till I found the Collegetown, which had all the ingredients one would expect: slate sidewalks, cast-iron streetlights, Domino’s Pizza. I even saw what could only be a Collegetown dog: oatmeal-colored, completely relaxed, lying alone on the sidewalk.
What caught my eye was an abandoned shop with the legend “Gail’s Flowers.” A “For Rent” sign was in the window, and a phone number. I wrote it down.
It happened that I had some money then — I’d helped a friend sell some rocking chairs in New York City — and this seemed the chance to fulfill a cherished dream: to open a photographic studio. I’d call it the Heavenly Smile Studio, I decided.
Later that morning, at the Student Union, I dialed the number and spoke to a Mr. Jessup. He was an amiable gent, and agreed right then to rent to me. I dropped off the deposit at his office that afternoon. (Every surface in the room was covered by a shag carpet.)
Next, I went to the Woolworth’s downtown, and bought the kind of frames that come with sample photographs — two of them. One showed a bride and groom trying to look happy. The other showed a very red sunset, with almost the same forced smile.
Then, at Mary’s Fabric Store, a motherly woman sold me a polyester version of crushed velvet.
After that, I bought a camera. It was big and old-fashioned, with a tripod and a curtain to hide under — the kind they used to take pictures of little boys on ponies with. The salesman was bald and cadaverous.
“They don’t make them like this anymore,” he said, wrapping it.
“Do you think it would be hard to find parts?” I asked.
“Oh, I’m sure you could find them . . . somewhere,” he answered, dreamily.
“Do you know how to work it?” he suddenly asked.
“Sure,” I lied. The only camera I’d ever used had one button — and it wouldn’t even press down if there wasn’t enough light. Still, I was confident.
He sold me some film, too.
Before I left, I asked for his Yellow Pages, and looked up “Sign Painters.” I copied down the number of Lester Ogg.
Lester was enthused when I told him what I wanted — a deep blue sign with the words, “Heavenly Smile Studio,” written in clouds across it. He said he’d have it Monday.
It was Friday. I went to set up my new shop.
The key Mr. Jessup gave me turned easily in the lock, and I had my first good look at the store. It wasn’t very large — about ten by twenty feet — with one long glass counter, an exploded chair, an antique cash register, and a parchment smell. In back was a kitchen with a bathtub — this would be my home.
I gave the place a perfunctory sweeping, flopped on my sleeping bag, and began a book I’d been meaning to read, Warm Boy by Willa Cather. I was instantly engrossed.
The “Warm Boy” is Will, a young Midwesterner who moves to New York City to become a writer, and learns a few months later his father is dying. The story takes place on the train back to Indiana. It’s unlike any book I’ve ever read. It’s not a symbolic novel, yet you learn about Will by the way he sees what he sees. The way he looks at mountains, you know his mother. By the smell of rain, you know his father.
One morning, in the dining car, Will orders two fried eggs. They make him so happy he wishes he knew someone with yellow eyes.
I read until I fell asleep. The next morning, I jumped up and started cleaning. I shined all the glass, dusted, mopped the floor three times, and almost got rid of the smell. All day, Minneapolis peered in the window.
That night, I read more of Warm Boy. Will noticed how telephone poles are lashed together — taut, yet rigid and alone. What does it say about us, that we speak to our lovers over these bound poles?
Sunday, I set up my display. I tried to make the velveteen ripple, like waves under the sunset. Then I made a sign:
and taped it to the glass. Afterward, I took a walk.
I found a copy of the college newspaper, The Crimson Tide, in a laundromat and read about a basketball game. There was a nice photo of a man standing in the air, holding a basketball.
That evening, I prepared the first meal in my new apartment: tomatoes, corn, green beans, cheese, and Rice Krispies, all cooked together. It became a favorite of mine, and I was to have it many times in Minneapolis.
The next morning, I took a hot shower, and the little mirror over my tub filled with steam. In it I looked like a pink earthworm. Is this my true face? I wondered.
Then I opened for business. I went to the front of the store, sat in the green upholstered chair, and watched the students go to class. It was the third week of school, I’d learned from The Crimson Tide, and I could see it in their faces. They still looked surprised — even idealistic. Everyone carrying books looks a little idealistic.
Exactly at eleven, Lester Ogg arrived with the enormous Heavenly Smile sign. It was, in fact, a divine vision, the perfect blue of the middle of the sky in the middle of a day in the middle of the summer. Lester, too, was rather a vision: bulging eyes, and a Sacco and Vanzetti moustache.
“I loved painting this sign,” he shouted, as soon as he saw me. “I just loved it.” An edging close enough to tickle me with his moustache, he whispered, “You know, while I was painting it, I felt a presence in the room with me.”
“Yeah?” I replied. “Was it a woman?”
“I think so,” he said quietly.
“Have you ever had that feeling before?”
“Once. When I painted a picture of Abraham Lincoln.”
Lester and I hoisted the huge sign and hammered it in. Then we shook hands and he left.
“Take good care of that sign,” said Lester Ogg.
There was no business that day, as I’d expected. Around three, however, an unusual event occurred. A big head with gold spectacles ventured in the door and spoke, with a mixture of brashness and timidity: “I was just looking to see if you had a March of Dimes can. Every time a store opens, I look to see if it has a March of Dimes can. They’re wonderful cultural artifacts, and also rather Good.” With that, the head receded, apparently satisfied that the search had been fruitless.
I was so affected I immediately closed the store, went to the corner, and dialed the Chamber of Commerce.
“Do you have a can for the March of Dimes?” I asked.
“Yes, we do,” a gentleman replied.
“May I come and get it?”
“Yes, you may.”
It was even more beautiful than I’d expected: clear plastic — not a can — backed by a blue card full of pictures of football players and quarters and signatures of celebrities. I thanked the Chamber of Commerce man — a Mr. McKinley — returned, and set it proudly on the case.
The next day, the head reappeared atop a long body.
“That was fast,” it said. “Good work. To inaugurate this March of Dimes container, I have acquired a brand new 1980 quarter.”
He produced the coin, which made a satisfying click against the plastic. Then he turned to me.
“My name is Eddie,” he said. “I study philosophy. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“My pleasure as well. My name is Ben. I take pictures,” I said. We looked at each other, and after a moment he walked out.
On the third day, my first customer arrived, a sandy-haired fellow I took to be a freshman. He alternated between staring me in the eye and tracing his finger on the counter.
“I need a picture for my girlfriend,” he said.
“A picture of you?” I asked.
“Yeah.” He grinned a little.
“Fine,” I said. “Just sit over here.” I indicated a stool in front of the camera.
He sat and began looking uncomfortable. I went behind the magic curtain and snapped his picture three times in quick succession. Immediately afterward, a smile filled his face. He even shook my hand. “I’ll have it Saturday,” I said.
On the corner I turned to “Photographic Developers” and had an odd conversation with No Light Labs:
“Do you develop those . . . uh . . . film like in the big cameras they used to photograph boys on ponies with?”
There was a pause. “We should,” said a deep voice.
I ran to the Heavenly Smile, pulled out the cartridge, and slammed the door behind me. My hands were trembling. I hadn’t thought it would come to this — that someone would actually want a photograph.
The man at No Light Labs looked at the film as if it were a letter that had taken two years to arrive from Turkey.
“OK,” he said finally. “Friday.”
The next day, I started writing. A writer is always thinking about something, and I’d been thinking about Cow Mines. A mile below the earth, I saw cows living in narrow tunnels. The walls were wet and shiny. (I knew these walls from a Walt Disney movie.) When the cows mooed, it echoed strangely.
“I’m the most popular photographer in Minneapolis,” I told Eddie on Sunday. He looked at the ground as if he’d seen a millipede. “Of course,” he said slowly. “Because you didn’t intend to be.”
The cows didn’t seem to realize they were underground. They were white with black spots, or black with white spots — you couldn’t tell which was the color and which was the spots. Every day men came down to milk them.
But why were they there? Had there been a war? (I hoped not; After-The-War stories are so constricting.)
I spent a lot of time staring off, wondering why the cows were there.
Friday, I picked up the freshman’s picture. All three exposures had come out together, so he appeared to be vibrating. Also it was very light. He looked something like a lily.
Saturday, he saw it and raised his eyebrows. But he paid the five dollars — a profit of two dollars and eighty cents for me.
That day, I had my second customer: a small Oriental woman with black bangs.
“Hello. How may I help you?” I asked.
“I need a photograph for my parents.”
She didn’t smile and she didn’t not smile. This time, I just took one exposure.
“Wednesday,” I said. She nodded.
The man at No Light Labs gave me a suspicious glance.
Sunday, Eddie came by, holding Thus Spake Zarathustra. “I’m stuck on the line, ‘Man made religion when he lost the courage to eat his enemies,’ ” he said. We sat for a moment.
“Doesn’t it take courage to eat your friends?” I asked.
“C’mon, let’s go Think,” he said, waving me out of my chair.
In my Malibu, we watched the city peter out, the way cities do: transmission shops, palmists, then fields. He pointed down a dirt road: “It’s an abandoned apple orchard.”
The trees were too complex; the fruits had grown small again. We climbed two neighboring trees. Eddie thought about Nietzsche and I thought about Cow Mines. As we thought, we ate; the little apples tasted like sweet wood.
Should a cow be the narrator? I wondered. I’d always wanted an animal to tell one of my stories. “Call me Elsie,” she could begin. After three hours I decided no.
At night, we split a pizza; Eddie had mushrooms on his half and I had green peppers.
“What do you think the March of Dimes does with the money?” I asked.
“At the very least, they make more of those little containers, which is enough for me,” he said. “The point is we give intending to help kids in wheelchairs, and in some way that helps the kids in wheelchairs, even if all the money goes to expense accounts.”
“Hmm,” I said.
Tuesday, I picked up the Oriental woman’s photo. It was dark — so dark the whole background looked like her hair — and there was a bolt of light through her eyes.
Wednesday, Eddie came by at 10:30 and asked, “Do you want to go to Mass?”
I made a sign, “GONE TO MASS,” taped it to the front door, and left. There was a lonely old church three blocks away — Our Lady of Perpetual Return. We sat in the back row. It was dull and dim, and I fell asleep, until Eddie nudged me awake for communion: “I want you to see this.” A lady in black was opening her mouth.
Afterward, we went to a diner — which was actually called Joe’s Diner — ordered orange juice, and watched. Near us a man had four cheeseburgers lined up in front of him on the counter. He had the cynical look of a used car salesman.
“I want to see if it takes more courage to eat a cheeseburger or Jesus Christ,” Eddie whispered.
The man ate four burgers one after the other.
“It never take courage to eat,” I said, “unless you’re nauseated.”
The man wiped his mouth.
“I think the woman struggled with the feeling of unworthiness.” Eddie said.
I went home, and the Chinese woman came for her photo. She didn’t smile and she didn’t not smile. I made another two dollars and eighty cents.
There was only one other customer that week: a balding man with a moustache, who looked like John Q. Public. “I need a photo for my son in California,” he said.
So I had plenty of time to read Warm Boy. Why would anyone paint “Drink Coca-Cola” on the side of his barn? Will wondered. There must be a tragedy behind each of these signs — a baby coughing blood, or a bull with a broken leg.
Sunday, Eddie knocked and said, “Let’s go!” Back in his tree, he was pensive. “The final issue is Personal Identity,” he said. “Not so much why do we exist? as why do we believe we’re a particular person? Courage, religion, hamburgers, all come down to that.”
“I’ve always thought I’d be a better photographer if I didn’t have a head,” I said.
That’s when I thought of The Man With No Head. He was born with a head, but he lost it as an infant, in a fire. He could still hear, see, and smell, but he couldn’t speak. The children teased him: “Will can’t get ahead.” (His name was Will, too.)
But he didn’t mind. The advantage of having no head is you can laugh at people all the time and no one knows.
That week, I became the most popular photographer in Minneapolis. Tuesday, John Q. Public arrived and I had his photo for him: a dark line down the center of his face. For some reason he liked it.
Wednesday, a fraternity came. “Beta Beta Beta” they were called, or so they said. They rushed in the door, with one of those oatmeal-colored dogs, which jumped around as they all talked at once. They constantly used a piece of slang I’d never heard before, the word “detailed,” which seemed to mean what “groovy” once had. “Take a group shot,” they said, so I pulled back the camera and they pushed their heads together.
“Do you know the record for guys in a phone booth?” asked a fellow in a fresh college beard, who looked like the ringleader.
“Eighteen?” I guessed.
“Do you do that?”
“No. It isn’t very . . . detailed,” he said, and everyone laughed.
I took the picture.
Then, one by one, they posed. Some shouted, some whirled, some raised their middle fingers, some ducked out of the frame entirely. They were all drinking a red liquid. “We loved Crane’s picture,” the ringleader said as they left.
Afterward I read Warm Boy, to relax. Will was passing through a flood. Everyone smiles when walking through two feet of water, he noticed.
Crane must’ve been the freshman, it hit me.
Thursday, a sorority arrived. They were much more composed than their brethren — even stylish, with crinoline dresses, tiaras, TV antennas, voodoo necklaces, and lipstick in such profusion that it overflowed onto several foreheads, where “THINK,” “UP,” and “KNOCK” were written backward. They didn’t say “detailed,” I noticed, but they used “clubfoot” as a predicate noun: “That was really clubfoot.” (An insult.)
Each sat demurely and smiled — even the one who’d blacked her teeth. “Say ‘vicious,’ ” I said, for the group photo.
“What’s the name of your sorority?” I asked as they left.
“Epsilon,” said the tallest one.
“We had other letters but we dropped them — they were too bulky,” she said, and glided out.
The next day, the hockey team came.
“I’m the most popular photographer in Minneapolis,” I told Eddie on Sunday. He looked at the ground as if he’d seen a millipede.
“Of course,” he said slowly. “Because you didn’t intend to be.”
In his tree he was restless: “I just can’t get Personal Identity!” I didn’t know what to say.
I thought about The Man With No Head, and I thought about a strange sound the camera had made in the middle of the hockey team.
Over pizza that night — he had anchovies, I had green peppers — I explained my story. “. . . So the headless man descends every day to milk the subterranean teats. Only in the Cow Mines is a faceless man safe.”
Eddie thought. “And does The Man With No Head ever go to the photographer?”
“And when the photographer asks him to smile?”
“He spreads his arms.”
That week, my business grew and diversified. There was another fraternity (called “Fiji” — they wore grass skirts), two punks, the owner of a health-food store, Morning Drops, students dressed as clowns and airline stewardesses, the Tycho Brahe Astronomy Club, and the Chairman of the Art Department. “When the faculty comes, you know you’ve made it,” I thought gravely.
And the previous crop of photos returned. Beta Beta Beta had stimulated my camera to new limits. Dark shapes hovered around mouths, as if their words had taken form — ships, tigers. Several boys had halos, and the ones who’d ducked out of the frame actually came out clearer.
Tuesday, they poured back in, laughing, pronounced the pictures terrifically detailed, and paid. Afterward I realized they’d been on drugs, and washed the floor.
Epsilon came out realistic, except for flames in the background. And I’d been right about the hockey team. Midway through the pictures, their noses began to grow and their eyes disappeared. The last few were just triangles.
Friday, an unexpected customer came in: a Presbyterian-looking woman with a small child. When she saw the March of Dimes container, she smiled: “My husband works for the Chamber of Commerce — Mr. McKinley.”
“Yes, I remember him. I’m sorry my can is filling so slowly.”
“People can’t be bothered these days,” she said. But I noticed she didn’t give either.
Eddie stopped by that afternoon, and I mentioned her. He gave that millipede-on-the-ground look.
“I was expecting this,” he said. “I’ll explain what you have to do.”
Sunday was one of those days that comes every ten thousand years. The earth, for once, was clearly turning; clouds spun through the sky, which was the color of the Heavenly Smile sign, only with an autumn hue. And everything was happening; each acorn and bee was in process. It took all one’s intelligence just to see them.
“You know, when I was twelve,” Eddie said mid-afternoon, “I used to practice the smile of this kid, Stickey, in the mirror. The Man With No Head would do the same thing. He would make himself a head.”
“You’re right,” I said. “He’d probably model it after Hank Aaron’s.”
That night, after pizza — we both had green peppers — we walked the crooked alleys of Minneapolis, and Eddie told me his life story. When he was six, he’d become devoted to goldfish — he didn’t know why. He spent hours in the Aquarium. (His parents wouldn’t buy him one.) “It wasn’t their beauty,” he said. When he was nine, the passion ended.
Around that time, his best friend died. His name was Eric; he had leukemia. Eddie became obsessed with death and spent months designing his own gravestone: two gray pillars, a half-mile apart, that no one was allowed to walk through. When his father pointed out the inconvenience, he said, “That’s the idea.”
Then he took up astronomy. (Ten-year-olds have a gift for the eternal.) He particularly liked dwarf stars — he felt sorry for them.
When he was twelve, he met Jane in a bookstore. “It’s always a surprise to fall in love with a girl named Jane,” Eddie said.
When he finished his story, I told mine. There wasn’t much to say: just names of classes I’d taken and the good teachers — then, after I left school, names of classes I hadn’t taken. Soon, the eastern sky was plum.
Sunday was one of those days that comes once every ten thousand years. The earth, for once, was clearly turning; clouds spun through the sky . . . and everything was happening; each acorn and bee was in process. It took all one’s intelligence just to see them.
Monday, the balance of photos was picked up: one punk had come out as just a nose, the other as everything but a nose, and the Art Professor so resembled a Matisse that he insisted on paying ten dollars. Mrs. McKinley, though she looked like a pair of pliers and her daughter like a piston ring, flashed an American smile and said, “Thank you very much,” as Eddie had predicted.
And there was one new customer: Lester Ogg. “I’m going to Grenada to help the revolution,” he said. “I need a passport photo.” His eyes seemed to have gotten bluer.
Eddie came by in the evening. “Lester changes everything,” he said. “We must take each other’s picture.”
We had dinner — Rice Krispies Casserole — took the photos, and Eddie called his friend, Becky. “She’s staying with her boyfriend tonight, but she says we can come over.”
Hers was a dusty Collegetown house, with a huge margarine poster on one wall. We used the darkroom, and watched the faces appear in the black water. Eddie came out surprisingly like a rabbit. I won’t say how I looked. Lester Ogg didn’t appear at all; in his place was a white form, distinctly female.
We spent the rest of the night in the Malibu behind my store. We didn’t speak much. I read some of Warm Boy: Will was passing a field where dogs devoured a dead horse. They looked exactly like they were trying to wake it up.
We woke and slept, woke and slept. Suddenly I realized I loved Eddie, as he had loved those goldfish.
In the morning, he taped Lester’s picture to the front door. An hour later, he went back.
“They’re here,” he said. He meant the police.
Eddie passed my belongings through the back window of the store, and I loaded the car. “Salaam,” he said, and bowed. “Salaam,” I said, and drove off.
I threw the quarter from the March of Dimes container onto the shoulder of the road; I hoped a bum would find it. Eddie would understand.
Next time I’ll be a fisherman, I thought.
I moved to another city and tried to finish “The Man With No Head.” But I couldn’t, so I wrote this instead.