A Thursday, and Professor Dortmund was on his way to the Public Library to check three footnotes before sending his latest monograph off to the publisher. Trundling down the steps to the subway station, Dortmund imagined the pleased smile the woman would wear as she tore open the envelope, removed the rubber band from the protective cardboard sheets, and cast her first glance over the thick sheath of white pages, each with its twenty-seven perfect rows of black type.
It was as if this thought had generated momentum in the universe, for no sooner had Dortmund set foot on the platform than he spied the bright headlamps of the train coming through the tunnel. A few seconds later, he was speeding comfortably along in an air-conditioned car of silver metal and blue and pink plastic. Had this immaculate car even been used before? The pink floor was made of a glittering hard-rubber substance that reminded the professor of dish-detergent commercials.
With a seat, and the adjacent ones on either side, all to himself, Dortmund occupied his time looking across the car and out the window at the dirty sunlit cityscape. He also studied the other passengers, inwardly sighing with relief as he noted that the sparse midmorning collection of riders comprised exclusively people of an appearance every bit as law-abiding as his own. He noted further that there happened not to be a single so-called "person of color" in the car, but he was careful to classify this observation as chance observation, rather than an expression of racial chauvinism.
Twelve minutes later, the train pulled into a hub station, and a third of Dortmund's fellow passengers disembarked. Their places were taken by a larger number of newcomers, mostly Black, and the professor observed with pleasure that the group included neither rowdy young people nor anyone overtly intoxicated. His self-image of evenhandedness was enhanced by the fact that he was as pleased with this group of good citizens as he had been with the previous group.
When a large, muscular "ethnic" youth ("What am I, then," he chuckled, "an 'ethnic elder' "?) boarded at the last moment and took the one remaining place, to the professor's left, Dortmund really did not much mind. For one thing, the young man was deferential to his neighbor's prior claim: he sat compactly so as not to make contact. Even better, the newcomer immediately opened a paperback book, attesting not only to his literacy, but possibly even to an intellectual strain. What was more, now that the train had gone underground, the book would afford the professor a new diversion.
But what was this? With breathless glances, the professor found himself reading a narrative in which a young woman seemed to be disrobing in front of a male friend, meanwhile recounting a strange ordeal at the hands of kidnappers. In his own, more refined way, Dortmund was as absorbed in the story as was his seatmate, who read doubled over, his open mouth creeping closer and closer to the text, threatening literally to devour it.
"On her belly," the two passengers read,in a straight line running from the navel to the very edge of the pubis, were three large red dots.
"They look like blood," Dick gasped, unable to tear his eyes from the slightly protruding rosy lips of her vagina. His fingers trembled.
"They are," Maria said faintly. "They said it was a warning, that, unless we immediately broke off our effort to penetrate their network, they would catch me again and rip open three separate parts of my body." She shuddered. "I'd better go wash the spots off."
Dick watched the rich globes of her behind callipygiate toward the bathroom. When she had closed the door and he could hear the water running, he looked down at her panties, which lay crumpled on the floor where she had dropped them. With a mixture of disgust and fascination, he noted the spots of dried blood on them, obviously smears where the fabric had pressed against her body. As he heard the tub begin to fill, unable to control his mounting ardor, Dick bent to retrieve the flimsy garment with one hand, even as the other tremblingly unzipped his already burgeoning fly.
Like Dick, the professor had become very excited, indeed. "Well, well, this 'Dick' must be quite a contortionist," he joked to himself, trying to calm down. When his seat mate, by now bent almost double, quickly closed the book, the professor could not but inwardly applaud the decision, although he did feel a pang of disappointment not unlike that of a child who has had a delicious morsel of candy snatched by a bigger child.
The book was not reopened, at least not before the professor's stop had arrived, and, by the time he was disembarking, he could honestly say it was better this way. As he climbed the stairs into the hot August sunshine, Dortmund was once again ready for the task of checking the three footnotes to his monograph, which staked out a small corner in the large field of cetacean musicology.
Never content to devote all his energies to a single mundane task, Dortmund was planning the most efficient itinerary for checking the three notes even as his feet carried him to the correct subway exit. Coming up from the ground, he noted in the corner of his eye a poor man paying angry, mute courtship to a prosperous-looking woman, dancing around in front of her as she tried to avert her eyes.
And, with that, the day went wrong. Since the closer he came to the start of a task, the greater would wax the professor's enthusiasm, what was his chagrin when, reaching the library door, he did not find it in its normal, ajar position. With an implosive sensation in the vicinity of his heart, he read the funereal print of the notice on the closed door:
SUMMER HOURS: THURSDAY, CLOSED.
"Damn it to hell!" he transliterated. For the next few seconds, he just stood there, muttering further imprecations, as if the force of his will might change the words. Being a practical man, however, he managed to accept the setback, decided to treat himself to a new book, and concocted a few other errands he might run in this neighborhood. First, however, he must telephone his wife to announce his changed plans.
"Thus does adversity become the stepmother, at least, of invention." He chuckled at his own wit.
True it is, too, that a man makes his own luck, for, upon entering the phone kiosk, Dortmund saw neatly folded between phone box and plexiglass wall, a fresh copy of that day's paper. He chuckled again: more than 20% of his subway fares and incipient phone call had thus been effortlessly recouped. Not to mention the anticipated pleasure of reading a free paper on the way home.
An hour later, the professor was back in the train. Between his legs rested a shopping bag containing several small parcels, and across his lap was the spread-open newspaper. His only anxiety now was that he would reach his stop before he had time to complete his favorite sections: local news, including crime; sports; and classified advertisements, which he often found particularly humorous or poignant.
In the event, this fear was justified, for Dortmund never finished a single section of the paper. He had, alas, been exhausted by several days and nights slaving over his monograph, by the library disappointment, and, perhaps most of all, by the ridiculous, but prodigious, exercise of self-control that had been required while reading over the young man's shoulder. Before the empty train could creep past the first two stations, the professor had nodded off.
Not that he went without a struggle. Thrice did his leonine head droop and the top of his torso tack left toward an old woman. And thrice did he recover, blinking and shaking himself awake. But the fourth time that Dortmund began to nod, he knew he must sleep and so, with a sigh, he quartered the paper, put it into the shopping bag, and turned his body so that his head would most likely plop against the subway map, fortunately not too filthy, behind the empty seat to his right.
It began as a dream of trains. Night, and Dortmund stood alone on a dark platform. From the black tunnel there shone a single light, a beacon, and an equipment train rumbled into the station. This train consisted of a string of flatbed cars, each cluttered with machinery and other equipment of varied sizes and shapes. There were large generators that looked like cement mixers, piles of wire and cable, pipes, drums, and many other objects and materials.
The odd thing was that the train clattered silently: he knew it was clattering, but the dream was silent. Slowly, without stopping, the cars rolled past the professor, who scrutinized each with pleasure. It had the air of a display, and Dortmund's sleeping mind read the caption: THE CIRCUS IS COME TO TOWN. Like clowns, two or three men sat impassively among the equipment, their faces painted with grease, their limbs lolling in different directions dictated by comfort. They did not wave, and neither did Dortmund, who had perceived in the beacon a command to bear witness at a solemn procession. Finally, the last of the cars slid off into the tunnel.
Then, somewhere, a dog barked or, more likely, the sleeping professor heard a sound like barking. In this next part of his dream, he was back on the street, briskly gliding along two blocks from the library, trying to get there before it closed. His task was to look up the lyrics to a song he would use for an epigraph to his monograph, which he now carried in a big brown portfolio. But he could not think of the name of the song. The melody, he thought he had, but suddenly it was another one, and another and another, and all of them seemed appropriate.
Then (still on the sidewalk), he stumbled, and he noticed that his slippery shoelace was once again undone. This trouble had all come of stopping to shine his shoes the week before. Already late for a lecture, he had unwisely neglected to remove the laces. Since that error, the shoelaces had come undone at least ten times. The left one, especially, would not stay tied, and the left was the culprit now, just when he was in such a hurry. Executing a tricky maneuver, he managed to keep his portfolio leaning against his left thigh while he knelt on the right knee to tie the accursed shoe.
But what was this! Dortmund heard panting, and felt something warm and wet against his cheek. Raising his eyes, he found himself nose to nose with a brown and white cocker spaniel. The dog's big loose pink tongue flopped uncomfortably close to the face of the professor, who felt hot breath blowing into his eyes. He stared fiercely into the dog's own muddy eyes, feeling foolish, but full of offended dignity, which precluded his backing off.
Once again, the dream turned. Dortmund was back in the subway, this time in the midst of a rush-hour crowd. Now he was in a hot old airless train, caught in a press, his body welded front-to-front with that of a short young woman wearing a perfume smelling of primroses, edelweiss, or some other flower remembered from childhood. All he could see of this aromatic female was her golden hair, which hung well below her shoulders to the vanishing point, but her large, exciting breasts were digging into his navel, creating a natural, but highly embarrassing, temporary physical change in the beleaguered professor.
And what now? All at once a business card materialized in the air before his eyes:
DARLENE'S RUSH-HOUR SERVICES FOR GENTLEMEN
PAY WHAT YOU PLEASE
Rush-hour prostitution! What was the world coming to? And, bizarrely, he visualized a book that he knew to have been (co) authored by this same Darlene, prominently displayed in the store in which he had just actually purchased his own volume:
TIGHTLY PACKED PANTS: MEMOIRS OF A SUBWAY GEISHA
But, even as he read the title, he realized with fearful joy that an expert hand was unzipping his fly.
" 'Down, hysterico passio, down, I say,' " Dortmund quoted from Shakespeare's towering masterpiece, King Lear, as his head struggled to regain control of the underlings. With great effort, he managed to snuff out that naughty dream, but, alas, just as the train came up into the daylight, yet another swam right into the previous one's place.
Now he was in an establishment called the House of Aquarius, one of those big furniture stores in the slums, where one can acquire, at least temporarily, expensive pieces of furniture for a small down payment and several signatures on a complex document. As Dortmund scanned the piles of plush velveteen, the sets of chrome and glass, the mattresses and cushions still in their plastic wrappers, he sensed something anomalous. It was not the single salesman on duty, a thin middle-aged fellow with pencil mustache and eager-to-please eyebrows. Nor was it the furniture, the usual sad, garish jumble. Then he understood: it was the clientele. Every customer was known to the professor, at least by sight.
There was the big fellow he had seen the other day in front of the licensed betting parlor, a rascal with pug nose, square jaw and beefy arms, presently engaged in scrutinizing the price tag on a dinette set. There was the barber, from Dortmund's own corner, converted in the dream to a mob type who, Panama hat pulled low, was peeling bills from a huge wad and counting them with a thumb he kept licking. The barber was purchasing a living room set with an African motif: synthetic zebra-skin chairs and couch, red and black paintings of topless African maidens and long warriors in the sunset. Then, with a gasp, the sleeping Dortmund spotted Darlene, herself, arrayed in black slit skirt and red fishnet stockings. She was testing couches, perching on each for a moment before jumping to the next.
"Ah, eee, no, it's him!" exclaimed the professor at the sight of another familiar customer. For it was his seatmate with the book. But the young man had deteriorated since that morning. His hair was stringy and filthy with grease, his eyes red and furious, his brown pants shiny and frayed. Instead of the heavy mustard-colored work boots he had been wearing, he now sported down-at-the-heels black high-top sneakers with broken laces. And from the youth's back pocket protruded what the professor knew could be absolutely nothing other than a shiv.
As Dortmund watched in alarm, this young person, who was most certainly a mugger, began gingerly to sit down on a gigantic waterbed. Give the clientele, the professor hoped that management had possessed the foresight to stock only the most puncture-resistant plastic. By now, the young man was seated, and, as he leaned slowly backward, he seemed to be debating whether to take his sneakers off before fully reclining.
"Wait, wait!" cried the professor, rushing forward.
Too late! The mugger had made up his mind. With a big, happy smile, he swiveled around and dropped his legs onto the bed. Imstantly, there was a loud pop, and Dortmund threw up his arms as the room began to fill with water.
At that moment, he awoke with a start, acutely aware that he had reached the precipice of an acute embarrassment. As he ground his teeth and tensed his muscles, willing every nerve to remain perfectly still, Dortmund's eyes flashed to the three passengers opposite him. These were (and the catalogue was essential to the professor's efforts at self-control) a gray-suited business type lost in a (presumably normal) book; a thin old woman who blushed and averted her eyes; and a tall, fat, red-faced man with tiny eyes, pig snout, and a small pile of curly brown hair that resembled a potholder.
"It must not happen," the professor vowed with iron determination. And, after a few moments of perhaps the greatest exertions of his life, he knew that he had prevailed. "It" had not happened. Sighing deeply, he pulled out his handkerchief and mopped his face. He had won. The train stopped. Dortmund saw that it had reached the station before his own. He smiled coldly, glad that his will, his brain, or whatever it was that governed his life, had once again prevailed.
A few minutes later, he unlocked the door to his apartment.
"I'm home, dear," he called from the foyer, less heartily than usual, to his wife, who sat in the kitchen reading a magazine and eating a big peach.
"Good, good, you sound tired, Norbert," she mumbled, absorbed in magazine and peach.
"I am. A little," he admitted, trudging down the hall.
Relieved to be home at last, when he reached the end of the hall, he wearily lowered the shopping bag to the floor and entered the bathroom. Flicking on the light, he locked the door behind him and lowered both pants and underpants. After a thorough inspection, satisfied, he pulled everything up again. Next, he bent over the sink, opened the taps, and waiting for the water to warm, looked into the mirror. He was so startled by what he saw that he emitted a small cry.
For there, right there in the mirror, on his own face on his chin, forehead and left cheek, to be exact—were three large smudges. And these smudges gave him an uncanny resemblance to a common, disgusting bum. Undoubtedly, Professor Dortmund reassured himself, these marks had been caused by accidental contact with the newspaper print. But not only did this explanation lack any power to reassure him; it positively heightened his alarm.
"For who knows," he thought hysterically, "That paper may have previously been in the possession of some maniac who smeared it with deadly plague germs."
Snatching the soap from its nest beside the sink, Dortmund held it under the hot water tap for just a moment. Then, with vicious strokes, he began to rub the big green bar back and forth, up and down, all over his smudged face. The spots began to fade.
The Technicolor Meal
Mr. Peavis was a fussy eater. Everything had to be just so, or he simply could not eat. Furthermore, his fussiness was of an unusual type: each meal of the week had to be a different color. On Wednesday nights, for instance, he had his red supper, which might consist of tomato soup, red meat, cabbage (red), watermelon, and red wine. What is more, the table service had to be the same color as the food: red plastic cutlery, plates and cups; red paper napkins and tablecloth. Ketchup was the condiment on Wednesday night —no mustard or mayonnaise.
The regimen was hard on Mrs. Peavis. For one thing, red meals tended to cause heartburn; green ones, gas. Much of the time, the only way she could herself manage to eat "normal" meals was by using food coloring. On Wednesday night, this meant red dye number two. Red dye number two on rolls, on potatoes, on string beans, in coffee, on layer cake. Fortunately, for all his color fussiness, Mr. Peavis was also imperceptive about color. It did not take an artist's eye to see that the dyed cake was a brownish purple.
Besides the carcinogenic possibility, which she knew about and feared, Mrs. Peavis could not be said to enjoy these dyed meals. The eating experience had become confused for her. After seven or eight years of marriage, she had lost even the ability to enjoy an occasional restaurant meal with a friend. She had long since ceased complaining: anything for domestic tranquility. She was a thin, hard-bitten woman, in contrast with her short, plump, bald, florid husband. Once, by the way, Mrs. Peavis had suggested to Mr. Peavis that she color his food along with hers so that he, too, could enjoy normal variety (and so that she would only have to make one meal!). He had flown into a rage. He did not believe in food coloring. What could be more unnatural?
Saturday night was the technicolor meal chez Peavis, the one to which guests could be invited. Since the rule for this meal was "one, only, of a color," the guests were less likely to suspect that anything was amiss than they would have been at a monochromatic meal. Even Peavis was sensible enough to grasp this.
The guests this week were old friends, the Trilbys. Mr. Peavis rubbed his hands together proudly and greedily as his wife put the final touches on the cake, a chocolate layer with white icing. The meat was red, the wine pink, the vegetable yellow. The appetizer was a carrot mousse, molded to the shape of Mr. Peavis's favorite animal, the Bengal tiger —without stripes, however, to avoid color duplication problems.
"Wonderful, honey, wonderful," Mr. Peavis beamed, reaching up to pat his wife's shoulder. She smiled and started to say something, but just then the bell rang. Mr. P. bustled to the door.
"Bill, Phyllis," he said, shaking hands with the tall, stout Mr. Trilby and patting Mrs. Trilby on the shoulder. "Let me take your c... ."
He noticed the brown paper bag in Mrs. Trilby's hand.
"Here, Wally," she said.
"Oh, thanks, thanks," he muttered, snatching the bag.
And that should have been the end of it, for in a moment he would have spirited the gift away, to be produced again at the appropriate meal or, if necessary, even thrown out. But Mrs. Trilby was too fast for him.
"It's ice cream, Wally. Dinah said she was making a chocolate cake with white icing, and we thought vanilla ice cream would hit the spot."
With the announcement of the flavor, Mr. Peavis's last, slim hope melted into the air. The rule for the technicolor meal might have gone unbroken had the ice cream been any of a number of fruit flavors. Even raspberry might have been winked at —called a purple— in such an emergency.
He fished desperately for an excuse not to serve the ice cream: too many sweets (everyone knew he loved sweets), his wife's dislike of ice cream (she had eaten it often with the Trilbys), the harmfulness of artificial flavoring (this brand used natural flavors exclusively). He was stuck. Come to think of it, why hadn't this happened before? All those dinner guests, and never a contribution to a meal? Finally, he fell back on his first idea: to forget about the ice cream. So, without saying anything to his wife, he put it in the freezer, and only then did he remember to take his guests' coats. He also recovered his tongue.
"I won't offer you drinks because we're having wine with dinner."
The meal might have been pleasant, but Mr. Peavis was fairly dripping with anxiety over the ice cream. Now the dishes had been cleared, the cake and green herb tea (both couples were anti-caffeine) set out. He started to cut the cake, hoping his guests would be too polite or full to mention the ice cream.
"Big or small, Phyllis?" he asked by way of camouflage.
In the event, the betrayal came from an unexpected quarter. For, with a horrifying scrape, his wife pushed back her chair and uttered the dreadful words:
"Oh, we forgot the ice cream, Wally. I'll get it."
And, before he could recover, she was on her way to the kitchen.
"Delicious slab, Wally," Mr. Trilby remarked conversationally, leaning back and stretching. Beads of sweat appeared on Mr. Peavis's visible parts, and he clasped his hands tightly. He said nothing.
In a moment, his wife was back, carrying the ice cream in its original container, a blood-red little tub. She stood behind Mr. Peavis's chair. All eyes were on him.
"Big or small, Wal?"
Now the room began to spin, and he placed his trembling hands over his eyes and emitted a small cry not unlike a meow. Then, he ducked, because he saw a giant roast beef hurtling through the air right at him. It looked like a bottom round, or maybe a rump roast, and it must have weighed a good six-hundred pounds. Closer and closer it came, hissing, its juices dripping, until at the very last moment it veered, and shot out of his field of vision.
Then, one on each side, coming from the walls, there materialized two huge pieces of toast: eight-foot square slices of lightly- browned Wonder bread, the normally appetizing odor of which was magnified ten-thousand fold until it might have been the collective reek of history's atrocities. Closer and closer the big slices came, slowly, ever so slowly. Mr. Peavis was not aware that he had begun to shriek.
All the while, his wife stood behind his chair, the ice cream and scoop in her hands, a peaceful little smile on her lips. The Trilbys watched with detachment. Two minutes later, the room a shambles, Phyllis Trilby walked out to the foyer with measured tread and picked up the telephone.