The snake lay across his chest, brown and rotund. It had eaten. No, that was wrong. It was an arm. Her arm. A woman’s arm. Fred could make it out in the fitful light coming in through the window, four floors up over Charles Street. He listened to the sounds of the advancing night, speculating on how much time might have passed. The arm was sinuous and graceful, yes, but that was not what had confused him. It was the snake tattooed around it, an expert and expensive job: the tail toward her wrist (her left arm), so that the beast’s head could poise alert behind the woman’s shoulder. Sally? Harriet? Something with that short “a” sound.
It was the snake that had wakened him, as they used to do in the narrow space underground he would not think of. And that explained his sweat—too much for this cool room—and the stealthy, trembling quiet that had come over him. They only wanted company. Once they had enjoyed it they would slither off again, passing through openings too narrow for him even to imagine escape.
The woman’s arm was lovely, like the rest of her. Earlier, as the occasion warranted, they’d thrown her covers off to the warm breeze of Boston’s late May evening. She lay on her front now, as naked as he was, and as naked as either of them had ever been, one arm, the one with the snake, across his chest, and her left leg cocked across his groin, its weight on his bladder. She breathed as placidly as any snake. Her face he could not see. Her black hair swirled away across the pillows. The window was on his side of the bed—Jackie?—no more than two feet from the bed. The smell of the river came in, cool and a little wild, given how tamed the river was. Tacita? Catherine? Katrina?
He wouldn’t sleep again now, and the woman’s living space contained nothing to read, not even a house or fashion magazine in the john. His watch, and his left arm, were imprisoned under the woman’s body. The dusk of whatever time of night this was allowed him to see the room’s spare furnishings. It was as if she lived here only occasionally. Besides the bed, barely big enough for the two of them, there were the bureau holding the small TV, and the big chair where he’d piled his clothes; a little table with two straight chairs next to the doorway leading into the kitchen alcove. Her clothes he couldn’t see. They were in a bureau or in the closet he hadn’t looked into. He hadn’t seen her take them off. She’d taken care of that while he’d stepped into the john. They could be under the bed for all he knew.
Alison? She shifted slightly, becoming both more comfortable, herself, and heavier on his bladder. Live as she was, and large as she was, and heavy as she was on his bladder—her name should be somewhere. It happened still, scraps of things he cared about, disappearing.
The room was painted a dull yellow, somewhat leonine.
He’d never had anything to feed them, nothing they wanted at least, or nothing he could spare. Twice he tried saving wads of his meager portion of rice. But the snakes disregarded rice. The bits of fish or pork, when they came, he could not do without. No, if they wanted anything aside from company, it was the rats he was too slow and weak to catch. The rats against which he must protect his rice.
His trembling was subsiding. Some women it would have awakened, but this one slept on. She was not made uncomfortable by adjacent fear. Her bag was on the table. If he looked through it he would learn her name. But if she opened one glazed round eye and found him looking she would feel betrayed, thinking he meant to rob her. Fred was already easing out from beneath her before he realized his decision to be away. Their odors mingled with those of the river, imitating its murky depth. All life embraces its own decay. Find a French name for that scent, market it in a bottle, and eliminate the need for intercourse. For almost any human contact.
The gallant thing might be to cover her. But she seemed more comfortable nude. As Fred came out of the john again and started to collect his clothing she turned over and sprawled to take full possession of her bed. She was quite a spectacular animal, and she’d known enough to stop and let nature have a chance. Other than the snake tattoo there was no other interference, no other mark or piercing: nothing but woman. Janet? Was there a “j”? Luxuriant black hair curled at her groin and under her arms. The snake was coiled now, languidly, above her head.
Fred slid into his clothes, khakis and a blue Oxford shirt, and the loafers he had started wearing without socks once the season permitted. Had he been carrying anything? What did he have? The blue windbreaker on the chair’s back must be his as well. Yes, it felt right.
“Fred?” the woman said as he opened the apartment’s door. “Make sure you pull the street door closed until you hear it lock behind you, Honey, would you?”
“I don’t want to wake up and worry.”
Fred pulled the street door to, firmly, behind him, and checked that the catch was set before he looked at his watch. Just shy of midnight on a mild night. Though the neighborhood’s commerce had dwindled almost to a halt, enough people occupied the sidewalks that the place seemed inhabited, if not frolicsome. The pedestrians were mostly young, in couples or in groups. Taxis moved along the street, looking for late fares.
The air smelled of raw sex, because it was spring, and there was a river a block away. In spring a river turns, and its mud basin starts to think of the next generation. Charles was a funky, formerly seedy street running along the foot of Boston’s Beacon Hill, separating it from the Charles River. The street was lined with restaurants behind whose locked doors the staffs were mopping up; and with closed shops that sold antiques, or soaps, or the many gift items that fall into the chasm between those two categories.
The woman he had just left—Bambi? No, he would remember that; it would come in time—lived three flights above an antique store whose windows were well lit, either to discourage, or to assist, marauders. The night’s thin mist billowed against the lighted plate glass. Fred paused to look. Earlier, his need, or hers, or both, had been too pressing. The shop contained the usual disappointing jumble of pots and crocks and somebody’s uncle’s hand-done oil painting of a lighthouse or a waterfall: a sword, a Japanese kimono, bird prints back of dirty glass. But nothing sang, or lived; nothing betrayed an intimate connection between the maker’s spirit and the shape or marking of the thing that had been made. A work of art should be as wild, and as alive, as was that snake tattoo, racing around the woman’s arm before it froze time in its risky grip. You knew a work of art in the same way you recognized the killer’s scent, because it made your hair stand up, and brought back the fear. It should be real, too real.
The night was mild enough. If he chose, he could sleep on the bank of the river. He would wake damp, no worse. Or, if he wanted cover, Fred could sack out in Bernie’s place. He’d finished the job for Bernie, he and Bernie had hit it off; and Bernie had said, “I’ll be in India for a month, maybe two. Use the place if you want to. Keep an eye on the Lagonda.” Fred had the keys, and he’d drop in now and then anyway. If he felt like walking, he could walk back to his own place in Charlestown. Or he could exercise past skills and let himself back into the woman’s place. But no, she’d feel betrayed. She’d believe, when his weight changed the balance of her mattress, that while he was gone he had left her and her building vulnerable, allowing the street door to remain unlocked.
He’d walk until he found himself doing the next thing. If he found himself stopping at Bernie’s, he’d know that’s what he was doing, when he did it.
He turned in the direction of Charlestown, walking more briskly than the other pedestrians, who had something to say to each other, or display windows to study; and against the vehicular traffic of the one-way street. If the next thing was to take a taxi somewhere, one was pulling into the curb two blocks ahead. It paused while a man got out and stood swaying, taking support from the taxi’s roof while, inside, a second man managed the fare. When the second man reached the sidewalk, he undertook to substitute his own support for what had been offered by the taxi, and as the taxi rolled cautiously in Fred’s direction, its two ex-passengers began to grapple clumsily as if they were fighting and neither had ever tried to fight before; or as if they were making love and, again, it was each one’s maiden attempt. Neither, both being in business suits, was dressed correctly for either activity. Fred drew nearer to the struggling couple. At the same time, his fellow travelers on the street crossed to the opposite side.
The men were matched in height but not in age. Both were clumsy, the younger appearing to be clumsy with drink, and with the loutish self-confidence drink can exacerbate. The elder man, on the other hand, looked clumsy almost as a matter of policy, like a large flightless bird compelled by circumstance to try a turn in the air. His movements expressed a native diffidence that might have been embedded in the steps of an ancient, very formal dance the other man did not know. As Fred approached them, the younger man took a flobby swing at the older one, whose shock of thick white hair was flung back dramatically when the blow connected with his cheek. Still, at the same time, the elder man struggled to keep the younger from falling into the street or through the plate glass window of a store specializing in old maps.
Fred reached them on the run, propping up the younger man while keeping his flailing arms from making contact. “…into my goddamned britches,” the young man was muttering. He fixed Fred with a glassy eye, then lost focus entirely and slumped as far as Fred would let him.
“His keys,” the older man said, jingling a small set. “His place should be around the corner. He deserves it, but we can’t leave him in the street. It’s a great deal to ask. But he’s too much, is he not? for one Samaritan.”
His speech, though over-precise, did not suggest inebriation. The suit he wore, of a dove gray cut usually reserved for movies depicting the halcyon days of the 1930s, showed no sign of rough weather. The passersby, seeing that things were both apparently under control and potentially interesting, were starting to form small groups across the street, from which to observe events without getting wet.
“Where do we take him?” Fred asked. “What do we call him?”
The older man looked vague. “He did tell me his name,” he started. “When we talked. And it turned out we were going in the same direction. Why not share a cab, he said.”
“Fourteen Pekham, second floor,” the younger man said. He gulped, retched and wobbled. “Love nest. Franklin. ’Preciate it. I answer to Franklin.” The man’s accent, when he spoke, was soft and rounded. From his accent he might well be from the south, having spent enough time in the north to have the southern excess beaten out of him. Or vice versa.
“We’ll get him to bed. Do the keys,” Fred told the older man. “I’ll do the man. What the hell. When he pukes, keep your suit clear if you can.” They got him around the corner and six doors uphill, skirting a row of elegant brownstones, until a polished brass plate at the top of a flight of stone steps told them they’d reached number fourteen. “Figure the keys out, then I’ll bring him up,” Fred suggested. “That way I’m not waltzing this joker at the top of the stairs. Come to that, I’d just as soon he doesn’t puke on me.”
Once the older man had found the key that opened the street door, Fred got Franklin up the inside stairs and held him on the landing outside the apartment’s door while the other man selected and applied the key. Franklin wobbled and wavered, then stiffened abruptly and powerfully in Fred’s grasp. “Alarm,” Franklin gulped, lurching forward as the apartment’s door opened inward. “You’re sweet. The code. My birthday. Let me do it.” He jerked away.
Fred’s quick foot jabbed into the doorway kept the apartment’s door from slamming closed with Franklin inside, leaving the two Samaritans gaping at each other on the landing. Fred followed his foot fast into the dark room.
“What’s going on?” all three men said.