“Ah, that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth!
For your love is better than wine,
Your anointing oils are fragrant,
Therefore the maidens love you.
Draw me after you, let us make haste.
The king has brought me into his chambers.
We will exult and rejoice in you;
We will extol your love more than wine;
Rightly do they love you.”
—Song of Solomon
Harold stared at the plaque that had the first verse of the Song of Solomon written on it. The plaque had been given to his mom by “Uncle” Mo for her beauty parlor last Christmas, and since then Harold had been unable to sweep that part of the room without reading the passage. The letters of the verse were rendered in an ornate, Byzantine script and summoned up images of dancing girls in veils, harem pants, and silky scarves wrapped around breasts; clothing that, for the most part, covered them up, as befitted a Biblical passage. Tonight, however, on this hot, sweaty, last Friday night in August, when he knew he’d soon be off to Gotham on his first foray to a punk rock nightclub with Sal, he forgot the religious association of the poem and surrendered himself to a vision of a multitude of naked women in orgiastic abandon.
Harold stood lost in this reverie, leaning on the broom handle. As his mother and “Uncle” Mo were out on their date night, he was alone in the shop and, for the first time, moved to recite the poem aloud. “Ah, that you would kiss me!” he began in a declamatory tone. “Ah, that you would kisssss me!” he said a second time, sounding out the “s” with such excruciating sibilance that any passerby might have thought Hatty’s Hair Salon had released a case of anacondas. Harold repeated the phrase a third time, a warmth now radiating in his chest from the many repetitions of the word “kiss.” What a word, he thought. In a monotone he read the rest of the poem without stopping, punctuating certain words with jabbing motions of his broom; the word “oils” receiving a particularly strong thrust, for he loved the sticky diphthong “oi.” The poem actually seemed sexy, he thought, even if it was from the Bible. Harold started sweeping again. It was ten to nine, and he had much to do before Sal came by at nine to pick him up. He pushed his broom around the styling chairs, sinks, and dryers and soon had a mass of cut hair piled up in the center of the floor. He retrieved the dustpan from the closet.
“Rightly do they love you!” he whispered to himself just before he started to sweep up a mishmash of hair and dust, and then began to consider this line. Who are the “they,” he wondered—“maidens?”—and where are “they”? In the “chambers”? He thought about it as he scooped the hair up in the dustpan but could not, for the life of him, figure it out. There was a “me,” “you,” “we,” and a “they” in this poem, and he had no idea who any of them were. But still, he loved the last line of the poem, for he knew he wanted to be loved “rightly.”
Sal stood quietly outside the shop, watching Harold. When he’d first arrived and saw his friend sawing the air with a broom, for a brief moment he thought Harold was engaged in some sort of deadly struggle with a thief. But as no thief parried the thrust of his broom and Harold began intoning the word “kiss,” holding the “s” out so long it actually sounded like a deflating automobile tire (a sound so pleasing to Sal, he often contributed to the circumstances in which to hear it), Sal understood his friend was play-acting. But Harold? His friend had always been shy and undemonstrative, such that when spoken to, he only ever nodded a reply, and this was usually cut short somewhere on its way down.
Sal rang the doorbell. “Harold! Open up!”
When he heard the doorbell, a thought flashed through his mind that Sal might have heard him recite the verse, but he immediately dismissed it as too embarrassing to entertain. Harold dumped a dustpan full of hair into a large trash bin, then opened first the door and then the metal gate and let Sal in.
Sal could not help himself. “Hey, Al Pacino!” he jeered.
“What are you talking about?” Harold’s stomach turned as if he’d swallowed sour milk.
“What am I talking about? I’m sorry to have to inform you, Al, but the word ‘kissssssss’ made headlines all the way to Sixty-First and Seventeenth.”
“Sixty-First and Seventeenth?” Harold felt the milk curdle, release gas. “Sixty-First and Seventeenth?” He suddenly imagined old women running out of Gitzleman’s bakery on the corner there, holding their arms up to the heavens expecting a “kisssss.” “Oh, come on, Sal. That’s six blocks away.”
“Well, maybe it wasn’t Sixty-First and Seventeenth. Maybe it was just Sixty-Fifth and Fourteenth. But I sure saw you, and I heard you loud and clear.”
He saw me? What? Was he lurking around the picture window?
“Well…uh…yeah…well, I have to finish up here so we can get going, okay? I still have to put some stuff away.”
“Yeah. Well, I guess you got a little behind with all your emoting.”
Harold winced. “Hey! Why don’t you siddown on one of the chairs and have a smoke and I’ll be ready soon.”
Harold returned to his chores, trying not to think about lunging with the broom in front of Sal. He went from station to station and quickly filled a basket with styling lotions, cremes, shampoos, conditioners, and went to the little storage room at the back of the shop. The shelves were all color-coded for brand names. His mom was so organized, capable. Is that why “Uncle” Mo liked her? He understood that. But why did she like him? Over the past five years, Harold thought that Morris Gendleman seemed a bit much, occasionally telling Harold to mind Hatty. I mean, he wasn’t my father. But, for the most part, what his mother said was true—“Mo was a good man.” Occasionally Harold had even worked for this uncle—“uncle” being a euphemism first employed by his mother and dutifully accepted by himself. After school, for a few dollars, he would help Mo shift antique grandfather clocks around in his shop so that Mo could more easily repair them; and at those times, Mo was generous in his praise and kind. And sometimes “Uncle” Mo would talk to Harold about his childhood in Russia, where he lived in a small village called a shtetl and often ate only turnips or potatoes.
But now all that goodness was forgotten, because Mo was the donor of a plaque that read, “Draw me after you. Let us make haste.” Why did Mo have to give it to her, anyway? What was it all about?
And before his mom had hung it in pride of place in the shop, Harold had only brief, imagined flashings of Mo’s and his mom’s couplings. Now it seemed it was all he could think about—his mother’s large, capable body entwined around diminutive Mo’s. He sometimes laughed out loud at the outrageous thought that Mo perhaps risked a slipped disc for love of his towering mom. Even at school Harold’s mind raced with thoughts of the jumble of their disproportionate limbs struggling for parity. He even wondered what happened when they went to the movies. Did they kisssssss? Did they get chummy on their date nights to the Botanic Gardens or the Planetarium? And what happened upstairs, above the shop, when he wasn’t at home?
“Hey! Whatcha doin’ in there, guzzlin’ nail hardener?”
Harold had never grown used to Sal’s needling, and for a second time that evening felt severely embarrassed.
“I’m almost done. What time is it, anyway?”
“It’s after nine,” Sal replied, “and we gotta go soon if we’re gonna catch the first set.”
“After nine. God!”
Harold started rushing around the shop, collecting the rest of the hair products. He put the smaller items in the basket on his shoulder and cradled a few of the larger lotions in his arms. Heavily laden, he hooked his chin over one last bottle and scooched back to the storage area in a Groucho Marx crouch.
Sal laughed, “You’re amazing, man.”
Harold laughed too and, though not superstitious, he felt the fact that Sal and he had laughed together was an omen, perhaps auguring a change of fortune. And as he sorted the bottles faster than he’d ever done before, he called out, “Clairol! Nexus! Therappe! Natural! Helen of Troy! Take Notice!” and Sal echoed each shout, even louder than Harold, egging him on. It was a blast. While Harold put each bottle in its correct spot, he suddenly felt extremely competent. Even smooth. Maybe some “maidens” would love him tonight.
* * *
At 10:25 p.m. Sal and Harold stood outside Fractal’s, a punk rock club in Manhattan on 17th and Second Avenue. They’d been hangin’ there, waiting to see if there were any single girls going in for the first band of the night. Two “possibles” had just entered, and Sal wanted to follow them in, but Harold hesitated. All the kids entering the club wore some variation of goth clothes with leathers, studs, and chains, and Harold thought for sure he’d see gross mutilations, like cheeks holding enormous kilt pins or the like. And all the kids had a weird kind of pride in their outfits—the more murderous they looked, the better, as if they’d literally “dressed to kill.” Harold felt plainly out of place. He was wearing a plaid madras shirt and chinos, and why he wore these particular clothes, he couldn’t for the life of him fathom. He’d thought all week about buying some goth duds, but time seemed to run out, what with his homework and after-school job cleaning up his mom’s salon. Sal, on the other hand, had had the presence of mind at least to wear a tee, and not only was it black, but he’d strategically ripped it in several places, especially around his abs to show that he was ripped.
“Hey, man, let’s go in.” Sal was excited.
“Soon…” Harold demurred.
“Whadya mean, soon?”
“You know, like I’m kinda thinking about—”
“What? Whadaya talkin’ about? I mean, this is our chance! Didn’t you just see the ‘possibles’ go in there?”
“But what? You scared or somethin’? They’ll never check your ID. Just walk in there like you’re Al Pacino, you know…ain’t you an actor?”
“Come on, Sal. Gimme a break.” Would he never live it down? Harold felt sweat gather on his forehead and in the palms of his hands. “Look, I…I’ll just have a smoke and…and join you soon, okay?”
Sal shrugged and headed for the door. “Don’t be long, my man. It’s going to be great in there. The set is starting soon and nothin’s gonna happen ’cept you’re gonna meet a ‘possible.’ Got it? I mean that’s why we’re here, right?”
Harold nodded his characteristic half-nod and said, “Yeah, see ya soon, man!”
With that Sal gave him the proverbial high-five and joined the other kids rushing in to see the first set. Clang! The metal door of Fractal’s banged shut, and Harold was on his own.
Standing still for a few minutes, reviewing the conversation, he tried hard to make sense of it. The silent rehashing of their exchange stopped, however, when he caught sight of someone milling about out front whom he thought had heard it. He crossed the street to treat himself to a fresh pack of Kools. He always seemed to need a fresh pack, for the habit he had of smoking just one cigarette after school each day ensured him an unfortunate ten stale cigarette days out of twenty. He was going to quit soon, anyway, because his mom would kill him if she knew, and he really didn’t like the taste, despite what Sal said to the contrary. Harold dodged a car trawling for parking and walked inside a news store. Behind the counter a large German shepherd guarded the cash register. The owner was nowhere to be seen.
“He went out for some coffee.” This explanation came from a girl about eighteen years old, whom Harold recognized as one of the “Fractal people.” She was wearing a sleeveless, maroon mini dress that had a shiny, wide gold band zigzagging down the front. Harold thought the band was intended to resemble a lightning bolt, but the effect fell flat in the fluorescent lights of the store. He thought perhaps the band might glow in the nightclub, like certain markings on fish that phosphoresce in the dark.
“I’m watching the store til Manny gets back,” the girl volunteered. “He knows me ’cause I live in the neighborhood.”
Harold nodded his quick half-nod, wishing to give the impression that he’d soon be carrying out his business and had no intention of disturbing her. He turned back toward the counter and found himself facing the dog. The young woman continued to rustle through the magazines, noisily rejecting several of them. Finally she settled on one and there was silence. Unable to stop himself, Harold snuck a peek at her from the corner of his eye. She was absorbed in a copy of Sports Illustrated and seemed not so much to be reading the magazine as searing it, for the kohl lines circling her eyes gave them a terrible, piercing cast. He quickly turned back toward the dog. More silence. In his mind’s eye he saw her mouth, and it seemed less like skin than some scarlet inlay set in her pearl-white face. It reminded him of the rosewood inlays set in some of Mo’s grandfather clocks, except that the border around her mouth was haphazard, as if no attention had been paid to the boundaries of her lips. And then her silvery-blond, Monroe bouffant was such an old style, he wondered if she was making some kind of statement or if it was the only style she knew how to set. It was so perfectly done, even his mom couldn’t have done better.
“It says here that Carl Chase ran the mile in under five but then collapsed, and his lungs filled with fluid, so they took him to the hospital, where he turned purple because he had a heart attack but, at the last minute and with a lot of medical attention, he survived…and he’s running today. Whatdaya think of that?”
Taken by surprise, Harold turned to look at her and nodded vigorously, aware that he was executing no small half-nod, as was his usual wont.
“Not only that,” she went on, “at the same time that he collapsed, his wife collapsed in…uh…sympathy and she almost died too. And all their children…”
Though Harold knew there were strange phenomena in the world, he also knew it was not very likely that everyone in a family would collapse at once. But then he didn’t feel like contradicting anyone who stared at him with such a penetrating aspect, though with a hint of a smile on her lips.
“Ah, the children,” he finally answered, locating a thoughtful tone in his voice, a hint of smile now on his lips. “Always the children.”
Suddenly one of Mo’s stories about a child escaping a raving Cossack in Russia popped into his head and he decided to tell her about it. “I want to—”
“I work in the A&P on Broadway and Sixty-Seventh,” she interrupted. “I’m a cashier there.”
“Oh…pleased to meet you,” Harold said, lurching forward to shake her hand. From behind the counter the German shepherd stirred and began to snarl.
“Mitzi!” the young woman shouted. “No!”
This “no” proved only to have the effect of further exciting the dog, for it now broke into loud, sharp barks and assumed an attack posture.
“No!” the girl shouted again, her voice escalating.
“Arf! Arf! Arf! Arf! Arf!” the dog barked back, seemingly unimpressed by the young woman. She shrugged as if to apologize to Harold for the impending confrontation and approached the dog. “Mitzi!” she barked back. And then, transfixing the dog with her own fiendish look, she growled—“Arf! Arf! Arf! Arf! Arf! Arf!”
And that was that. The dog snarled a weak protest and heeled. The challenge was over. No real contest.
To say that Harold had been relieved when the young woman subdued the dog would be vastly understating the case. Harold had always been slightly afraid of dogs. But even more importantly, he’d been grateful, for he’d then been able to make the distinction between the severe look she directed at the dog and the subtly curious one she’d previously focused on him. Harold rushed in to congratulate her. He told her how amazing she was and took her hand, suddenly feeling a heat emanate from it which filled him with such a peculiar sense of well-being, he found himself wishing she’d stare at him again with her piercing, potent, unabashed stare.
At that moment Manny, the proprietor of the shop, entered carrying a styrofoam cup of coffee.
“Hey! What’s happenin’, Mary?”
Ah, her name is Mary, Harold thought. He should have known. She looked like a Mary with her pale-white skin. “Ethereal, honey,” he could hear his mother saying to all her clients with that kind of skin. “You look just like the Blessed Virgin!” Harold immediately started speculating on Mary’s blessed virginity, but just at that moment she let go of his hand to put the copy of the Sports Illustrated back on its shelf.
“Nothin’s happening, Manny. Mitzi’s going nuts as usual, and this guy wants to buy something.”
“Okay. Thanks,” Manny said. “You want a Malomar?”
Mary nodded her assent. Harold ordered his pack of Kools, pleased that the sound of his voice was authoritative and didn’t reveal a ridiculous desire to order a pack of Marys. Mary headed for the door, peeling off the Malomar wrapper.
“I’m going now. Bye!” Mary called to Manny.
“I’m going now too. Bye!” Harold announced, feeling extremely cordial.
Mary was a fast walker, and Harold had a hard time keeping up with her.
“My name is Harold,” he half shouted, slightly out of breath as she raced for the corner. “I’d like to tell you about the children in Russia.” What did he just say? The moment this was out of his mouth, Harold realized what an absurd opening for a conversation this was. He also realized that he really knew hardly anything about the children in Russia, save for the few stories Mo had told him about his childhood.
“What’s your last name, Harold?” Mary asked, easily dismissing what did not interest her.
By this time Harold had caught up with her, and they’d reached the end of the block. They stood there, waiting for the light to turn.
“My last name is Pohatch,” she said. “That’s Ukranian. It doesn’t come from eggs hatching or anything like that, though I’m teased, you know… Rapisardi,” she continued. “That’s Italian, right?”
“You don’t look Italian.”
“I would have guessed just half, cause you don’t look Italian,” she repeated.
“My mom’s English,” he replied. And then, not able to stop the pride from entering his voice, he said, “My grandmother’s from Cornwall.” Having Cornish ancestry made Harold feel somehow that he belonged to a noble tradition, a tradition that included King Arthur and the Beatles, and that deep inside he harbored a perfect English accent that would someday pop out full blown to lend his speech a terrific hipness, to the everlasting, asphyxiating envy of Sal. Harold blurted out, “What’s your telephone number, Mary?”
“My telephone number? Whatdaya want it for?”
Harold was nonplussed. Wasn’t this the correct procedure—“correct procedure” being an expression he heard often enough at home, as Mo had a “correct procedure” for everything including buttering his own slice of bread?
“Why do you want my phone number?” she asked again, and then joked, “You a heavy breather?”
Harold was horrified. He completely missed her attempt at humor and conciliation. He knew very well what a heavy breather was. Until just a few years ago, when his dad was really drunk, he’d call their house and tie up the line, breathing. His mom would just hang up on his dad, but if Harold answered, he’d leave the receiver on top of the fridge until he heard his father snoring.
“I live in Brooklyn,” he heard himself say stupidly, as if the distance somehow explained the reason he asked for her number.
“Yeah?” Mary answered. “Well, I used to live in Staten Island. Now that was a real commute!”
At this point Harold had no idea what they were talking about or where the dialogue was heading.
The light changed and Mary started walking again, heading toward the club. When they reached it, Mary opened up the wrapper of the Malomar and started wolfing it down.
“You goin’ in, Rapisardi?” she asked with a mouth full of chocolate marshmallow.
Harold nodded, no half-nod now, but a full weave of his head from side-to-side, as if drawing the figure eight horizontally in the air. Divining correctly that this was a “maybe,” Mary nodded back solemnly, then suddenly grabbed Harold’s hand and looked up at him with the same probing stare that she’d first levelled at him in the news store, and it distressed him now as it had then. Oblivious to his discomfort, Mary continued to scrutinize him. To his great chagrin, she stared in particular at his eyelids, which, he knew, were a shade of lavender because of his damned thin skin. He hoped she was thinking he used eye shadow like some bad dude, punking up his face, and that he actually wore his madras shirt and chinos on purpose, like she wore her bouffant, as a kind of crowning mockery. But he couldn’t tell, for she said nothing…just kept staring.
Suddenly Mary released his hand, reached up, and brushed his cheek with her lips.
A kissssss! Harold thought. A maiden’s kiss!
For a brief moment the amped music blasted the air and Mary disappeared into Fractal’s.
Clang! Harold stood still, aware that this was the second time that evening the metal door clanged shut with him on the outside. He lit up, a soft whish hardly heard against the sound of the pounding drums coming from the club, then raised his left hand to where Mary had planted her kiss. He felt a dab of melted chocolate on his cheek.
“Rightly do they love you,” he suddenly whispered. And for a brief moment, as long as it might take for a punk rocker to strike a pose, he thought he knew who “they” were and what the line meant…but then, it was gone.