What Does God Care About Your Dignity, Victor Travesti?
Thomas E. Kennedy
Happy is the man whom God correcteth; therefore despite not thou the chastenings of the Almighty.
–Eliphaz, Job 5:17
Victor Travesti stood beneath the bus shelter, tall, hands easy in the slash pockets of his trenchcoat. The coat hung open on him, exhibiting the hand-stitched lapels of his silver suit. He watched for the bus, thinking ruefully of the copper Mercedes XL25 which Jewish people had sent an ape to take from him.
Seated on the bench at his back, two women in their late sixties chatted. Rain drizzled from the grey sky onto the pavement and slicked the road.
“It’s sad for all the little boys who wanted to play ball today,” one of the women said.
Let them drown, thought Victor Travesti, watching for his bus.
“And just think of all the families who planned to go on picnics,” the other woman said.
“Such a shame.”
Let them eat grief, thought Victor.
The broad glass face of the bus appeared at the corner. The vehicle slid in alongside the curb, wheezed to a halt, clapped open its doors. Victor Travesti turned and with his arm swept a gallant, imaginary path toward the bus to usher the women ahead of him.
“Ladies,” he said, and bowed to them.
“Such charms,” said one. The other giggled, fluttered her eyelashes, plumped up her thin, red-black hair. “Sidney Omar said my stars showed a tall dark handsome fella,” she said.
“Your Stars Today,” pronounced the first dreamily, with a smile of mystical ignorance.
Victor Travesti winked, poker-faced. Then his strong white teeth flashed as he guided the ladies up the steps of the bus, averting his eyes from the rolling masses of their flowered backsides.
“My mother always said to beware the Latin charm,” the balding red-headed woman said, glancing sidewise and up into Victor’s dark face, which replied with graceful forebearance.
Yes, he had charm. And scorn, too. He knew how much hand to give, and to whom, and how. For the upstart, for the Irish fornicator, two fingers, while the eyes look elsewhere. Full clasp for peers, for men of respect. He had all the tools of a good paysan. His people had been Calabrese. He thought it sad that a man of his dignity should have to ride the public bus with balding old ladies.
The reek of a rainy Saturday hung over the seats and passengers inside the bus–wet corduroy, yesterday’s onions, breath. Victor Travesti sat by a window and watched the streets and neighborhoods of Queens roll past. Corona, Jackson Heights, Woodside, Sunnyside, the chintzy optimism of a people who would call their main road “Bliss Street.” He watched the shops and houses and apartment buildings of people who were doing better than he, people whose dusty shoe shops and dry cleaners hung on, decade after decade, despite the neglect and sloth of their owners, while to Victor, who rose early and worked hard and bore himself with the dignity of a Calabrese, fate had dealt failure as a crown upon his efforts.
Victor Travesti signalled his stop and rose, thinking of his wife and two boys and the Irishman who now lived with them, sleeping in bed with the woman who had pledged herself to Victor at the altar of God, sharing her marital bed in the same house where his children slept, eating food at the table with them. Victor’s family. With whom a court had told Victor he had no right to be except twice a month at a time chosen by the wife who had violated her pledge. This they called justice. A woman spends afternoons in secret meetings, becomes drunken in public in company with a lecherous man in a business suit, and the court gives to her Victor Travesti’s sons.
The judge had been a Jew. Silvermann. A tuft of dark hair jutted from each of Silvermann’s nostrils and his eyeglasses had been dirty, speckled with dandruff and grease. When he informed the family of his decision concerning the fate of Victor Travesti’s sons, Victor had clamped his jaws tight and risen. He had gazed upon the woman and her Irish lawyer in his shiny three-piece suit, forced them to observe the smoldering of his eyes, his dignity in the face of indignation. He raised his index finger to his eye and smartly drew down the underside of the eyelid: I see this outrage. I see your deceit. Victor Travesti sees.
Things had not gone well for Victor Travesti. Tribulation was upon him. His business had failed. He had had to go out begging to work for other men, companies. Victor Travesti had had to offer his skills and wisdom for money, payable by the hour, by the day, the week, to offer himself as a laborer in another man’s vinyard, and even that was denied him. No one was left whom he even could beg. He had had to return to live again as a boy in the house of his mother. To see his sons, he had to ride in a public bus and wait with his hat in his hand in the foyer of the Irish fornicator who had cheated him of his family. A man named Sweeney with green creases between his teeth and the red veins of drunkenness across his nose.
The bus slowed. One of the old ladies, moving toward the rear doors, weaved off balance. Victor Travesti’s hand leapt to her aid, steadied her by the elbow. She fluttered her eyelids at him. He nodded, dealt her a small, firm smile, held her elbow while she descended before him to the street.
The instant’s delay which his courtesy produced decided the course of the brief remainder of Victor Travesti’s life.
As he stepped off the bus, he heard a strange sound, very slight, yet somehow foreboding, a kind of hiss, a plop, and there was something familiar and strangely taunting in the sound. He heard the wings of a bird shiver overhead, the mocking scream of a gull, as he stood at the curb, hands in the slash pockets of his trenchcoat. Two men standing beside a carpet truck laughed raucously. Lettered on the side of the truck were the words Kipling Karpet Ko. The men were thick and red-faced. The one smoked a cigarette and smirked. The other wheezed with laughter. Pointing a thick hair-knuckled finger at Victor Travesti, he said, “I want to sing like the boidies do, tweet tweet tweet.”
Victor Travesti clamped his jaws shut. The old woman he had helped off the bus was pushing a fistful of tissues at him.
“You poor dear,” she said, “Don’t you pay them no mind.” She dabbed at the lapel of his raincoat. Victor Travesti tipped his chin toward his throat and strained his eyes to see. Something green and white was sketched down its front. Victor grimaced, looked about him with chill fury. The red-faced man stood with his palms on his thighs and wheezed.
Victor Travesti took the Kleenex roughly from the woman’s hand, wiped at his lapel. He pitched the crumpled, slimy paper into a refuse basket, shook his hands as though to shed water, fumbled into his pocket for his handkerchief. The stuff was streaked on the lapel of his silver suit as well as on his Sardinian silk tie.
The old woman was shoving more Kleenex at him.
“Please!” he snapped, palming her hand away from him.
“Well!” she said. “Some people.”
The hand-stitched lapel of his silver suit was blemished with an ugly stain even after he had scrubbed it with his handkerchief, spit on it, scrubbed more. He could carry the raincoat over his arm, but the jacket and tie were just as bad, worse.
The carpet man watched with unconcealed pleasure. Victor Travesti looked at his freckled pugged nose, his sandy-red, close-cropped hair. The man seemed to be laughing on behalf of all of Victor Travesti’s enemies and tormentors: Judge Silvermann, the Irish fornicator, his adulterous wife, those who had taken over his business, those who had forced him to demean himself requesting permission to labor for their enterprises at a wage and then sent him away with no work. The blood raced to his face, his temples. A brilliant pain seared his skull.
Victor Travesti stood his full height and gazed with chill ferocity from the one carpet man to the other. The smirking one shrugged his shoulders and turned away, but the thick, red-faced man met Victor’s gaze with a fury of his own. Victor found it necessary to avert his eyes, to turn away and walk from them.
A bitter taste rose to his mouth as he heard the man speak viciously to his back. “That’s right, Salvatori, just keep walkin. That’s what ginzos are good at: walkin.”
“And fartin,” the other added.
“Yeah, that’s right. And fartin.”
Victor’s face burnt with shame. It was difficult for a man of culture and dignity to deal with rabble. Personally, he felt no shame over it, but he had begun to imagine how his sons might have felt had they witnessed the mockery of these orangutans. That they were strangers frightened him vaguely. That strangers should laugh in his face, select him as their target. Why? On what basis?
He remembered the woman at the bus stop with her smile of weird, dreamy ignorance: Your Stars Today. He kept walking, quickened his pace toward a sign in pale red neon script that said, Fortune Dry Cleaners–French Method. Inside, a tall Negro in a white short-sleeved shirt worked the presser, while a man in a lavender mohair sweater did paperwork at the counter.
Victor Travesti laid his coat and jacket on the counter, unknotted his tie and removed it carefully, trying to avoid touching the stain. The man in the mohair sweater took up each garment, examined the stains, laid them gingerly down again. He thrust out his underlip and shook his head. “I don’t know about this,” he said.
“I need it right away,” Victor Travesti said.
The man laughed, tongued the fronts of his upper teeth. “You can have them next Monday.”
“I need them now,” Victor Travesti said. “As soon as possible.”
The man looked at him with a smirk. “I could bulk them for you. You’d have them in a hour. But you’d need to pay a surcharge of twenty-five percent. Standard for a rush job. And no guarantees on that there Eyetalian necktie.”
“Do you mean I have to pay a surcharge of twenty-five percent,” Victor Travesti asked, “and still get no guarantee?”
The man shrugged. “Take em somewhere else.”
“I need them now,” Victor Travesti said.
The man said, “The labor’s the same whether I succeed or not.”
Victor Travesti emptied the pockets of his jacket and coat. He could not allow his wife or the Irish fornicator to see him like this. It would kill him.
“Come back in an hour,” the man said and returned to his paperwork.
The Negro drew down the lid of the presser; steam hissed out around the edges.
Outside on the sidewalk, Victor Travesti lit a cigarette. The carpet men were feeding a long rolled-up carpet onto a pile of similarly rolled-up carpets in back of their van. Victor Travesti turned his back on them, walked past an Army & Navy Store, a cake shop, a glass doorway at the foot of a flight of stairs. Lettered across the glass was:
Madame Esth r Fo tun s While U Wait One $/One Fight Up
Victor Travesti looked at his watch, flipped away his cigarette, opened the door. He didn’t believe in such superstitious nonsense, although he had an aunt who could predict the weather by flinging drops of scalding olive oil across a scrap of red silk. He just wanted to get off the street, to sit, to have a woman hold his hand and purse her lips and touch his palm with the tips of her fingers and care for a moment or two about his fate. The miraculous medal around his neck jangled as he climbed the wooden staircase two steps at a time.
On the landing were three doors. The first two were locked. He turned the shaky knob of the third and entered a room which was empty but for a ladderback chair in which an old man in a flannel shirt and mustard-colored necktie sat gazing out the window. His hair was white and trimmed close at the back and his body looked as though it might once have been powerful, barrel-chested, his hands thick and large, the skin now freckled and puckered with age. The room itself looked as though it were in a building that had been bombed. Plaster had fallen away from the walls in several places, showing the woodwork beneath. The floor was covered with dust and plaster flakes from the ceiling and rubbled with bits of wood and glass, broken bottles, a newspaper which looked as though it had been soaked in water and dried and yellowed in the sun.
“Pardon me,” Victor Travesti said. “I was seeking Madame Esther.”
The old man said, “I can’t even bear to look at it anymore. It’s no good. There’s no pleasure left in it.” He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands, then ran a palm over his entire face. “I could as well put it all to the torch.” He sighed, clasped his hands across his stomach, closed his eyes. A tubular flesh-colored wart hung from one eyelid.
Victor Travesti waited for a moment to see if the old man would say anything further. He glanced around the room. Apart from the rubble, it was empty. No chair, no other furniture. Against one wall was a gutted yellow plastic radio with a crack in the casing.
As he began to turn away, the old man said, “Shut the door. There’s a draft.”
Victor Travesti hesitated. “I cannot stay,” he said.
“Young men are impatient,” the old man said. “It makes them uninterested and therefore uninteresting.”
Victor shut the door, put his hands in his pockets, jingled his change, considering how he might amuse himself with this old man. He said, “Thank you for the compliment, sir. In fact, I’m hardly young.”
The old man’s eyes turned upon him in their pouched lids. “Ha!” he said. “You’re all of what? Forty-two.”
The old man snorted, reflected, looked sad. He said, “I had such hopes for you.”
Victor Travesti inclined his head in dignified query.
“You were so much greater than the monkeys,” the old man said. He hawked gravel from his throat, spit it into a handkerchief which he returned to the pocket of his khaki trousers. “The monkeys were so stupid,” he said. “All they ever did was fiddle with themselves and giggle and throw their crap at each other. Never much cared for the monkeys. What can you do with a great ape that does a cross-country hike just to find some bamboo to chew on? Stupid, vulgar creatures, really. But you,” he said and smacked one palm with the back of the other hand. The report was startlingly loud. Victor Travesti flinched, wondered if the old man might get violent. Old as he was, he looked as though he still might have some power in his body, and Victor wasn’t in the mood for a confrontation.
“You and all your kind,” the old man said. “You had advantages. You had capacities never seen before.”
He rose from his chair, crossed to the window, stared down over the elevated train tracks. Without looking from the window, he said, “What good does it do me? What can you do? You try your best, and it all goes bad. Then you start to question your own motives. Who or what was it for? It was sport, too. I was young. It seemed exciting. I liked them to be brave. I liked the men to be brave, and the women to be nubile. They were men, not rodents. I liked them to make spears and run after the tigers.” The old man’s deep blue eyes lit for a moment, staring into an invisible past which Victor Travesti could see only in the reflection of sudden vivacity of the man’s face. “You should have seen them. Three men, naked in the woods, holding big javelins over their heads and chasing one of those great big tigers right through the trees. This was sport: See that big cat go down roaring and the three of them waving those bloody spears in the air, yelling out praises. Praise to the Lord! Hosannah on highest! That’s how it was then. That’s how it was back then. Once there were such gods …” The old man paused and his eyes grew distant as his mood seemed to slide downward. His eyes were very blue beneath his white eyebrows, his eyesockets deep in sculpted pouches so that his gaze was like a pale blue shadow. The old man sat again, turned his chair toward Victor Travesti.
Victor Travesti’s mind had begun to work hard as he listened to the old man’s story. Slowly it had begun to occur to him that everything that had happened to him today, all his life, from the instant of his birth, every chance turning and decision, had been leading him to this moment.
When the old man had ceased to speak for some moments, Victor Travesti dug his handkerchief from his pocket, dusted a spot on the bare wood floor. Then he genuflected onto the handkerchief and bowed his head.
“My Lord and my God,” Victor Travesti said with humble dignity.
The old man wet his thin purple lips with the tip of his tongue and watched this man on one knee before him.
“Dear Lord,” Victor Travesti said. “I have a favor to beg of you. I have been to the courts and have had no satisfaction. My wife is an adulteress, and the man with whom she fornicates has been given to live with my children, my fine young boys, and I can receive no legal satisfaction. Now I am on my way to visit my children, and I cannot let them see me as I am. I must have some clothes. And if I could rent–or buy–a car, could show up in an expensive car, it would win their respect. It would refresh my dignity. But I have no money, dear Lord. Dear Lord, I need money. Very badly. I am really on my backside.”
The old man gazed upon Victor Travesti and the light blue shadows of his eyes darkened.
“You. Ask. Me. For. Money,” he said, his voice faint with incredulity. “You ask me for money!” As he repeated the question his face began to grow larger, his eyes flashed, and his hands swelled. The old man’s face became the face of a radiant beast, huge and furious, blazing.
Victor felt his underpants get wet. He began to weep and dropped his other knee to the floor and clasped his hands together to beg for mercy, but the old man’s rage continued to grow. The ceiling lifted above his head to accommodate it, and the walls bulged outward as the waves of fury radiated against them.
“You ask me for money!?”
He was on his feet now, bellowing. Victor slipped onto all fours and crawled wildly toward the door, but the old man caught him by the seat of his pants and the scruff of his neck, lifting him with enormous hands, his voice now a wind tunnel of rage, the words no longer distinguishable. Victor was flung against the door, knocking it off its hinges. It toppled, smacked the floor with a hard flat report. Dust rose in small clouds around its edges.
Victor tried to scramble to his feet, but the old man was on him again, picked him up by his shirt front like a suitcase and chucked him down the stairs. Victor Travesti tumbled, feeling the wooden edges of steps punching his kidney, his ribs, the bones on his cheek. He rolled to a stop against the entry door, which shattered, raining shards of lettered glass upon him. In terror, he looked up the staircase, but the old man did not pursue him. He only stood on the top landing, glaring with enormous eyes of fury down upon the heaped body of Victor Travesti.
Victor crawled out the door, took hold of a fire hydrant and hoisted himself to his feet. His one hand was pulsating. He cradled it in the palm of the other. The middle finger lay at a sharp angle from the middle joint and throbbed painfully. He tucked his shirt into his pants, buttoned the collar at his throat, tried to smooth down the torn flap that hung from his hip pocket.
Cradling his injured hand, he shuffled toward the bus stop, uncertain what to do. He would go home to his mother. She could call Dr. DiAngelo. Dr. DiAngelo would splint Victor’s finger. He would drink an expresso and anisette and eat some Stella D’oro bread. He would take a nap and when he woke again, his mother would have baked some ziti for him, and he would be calm.
The carpet men stood in his path.
Victor Travesti drew back, tried to circle around them, but they stepped to the side to block his way again. “Leave me alone,” he whimpered. “I broke my finger.”
“Oh,” said the thick-bellied red-headed one to the quiet, smirking one. “He broke his finger.”
“Yeah, gee, poor guinea broke his finger. He wants us to leave him alone.”
“Have you no culture?” Victor Travesti inquired icily. “Are you animali?”
The redhead cupped a hair-knuckled paw behind his ear. “Come again, Salvatori? You said what to me?”
“That is not my name,” said Victor Travesti. “Leave me alone. My finger!”
The carpet man reached for the lapels of Victor Travesti’s shirt.
“I’ll leave you alone,” he said. “Come ‘ere, Salvatori.”
Victor shrieked with indignation and fear as he was dragged down, kicked in the thigh, shoved and stuffed by the two men into a half-rolled synthetic Persian carpet. He flailed, was kicked hard in the buttock, the arm; he caught his injured finger, cried out with exquisite pain.
The thick man knelt with one knee on Victor’s gut, pinning him, as the other, snuffling with laughter and excitement, began to roll the carpet. Victor kicked and twisted, and just before the carpet roll closed over his face, he saw, watching from the window above the street, the old man’s blazing eyes.
Then the carpet was over his face, was lifted and tossed onto the stack of other carpets in the back of the van. Victor could not move. He felt another carpet tossed on top of his. The air was very close and tight. He could not fill his lungs. He realized even as he heard the ignorant muffled laughter outside, as he heard the van’s rear door smack shut, as he heard the ignition wheeze and catch, and his consciousness slowly began to dim from lack of oxygen–that he was going to die. He realized that he was going to die and that these two carpet men, when they found his body, would be stricken with terror, would be baptized with a terrible guilt that might change the rest of their lives. All because of their stupidity in not realizing he would die if they did this to him.
It hardly seemed fair. Any of it. He had done nothing to deserve this. Nothing. Perhaps it was stupid of him to have asked for money, but he needed money. Very badly.
His eyelids lowered in the wooly, airless darkness, and he knew that he was crossing the border to whatever awaited him–nothing or something, disintegration or the reflection of spirit for a time or forever–as the humming motor of the van faded off into a sleep which slowly ceased to dream him.
Thomas E. Kennedy’s books include five volumes of fiction (the novels, Crossing Borders, 1990; A Weather of the Eye, 1996; and The Book of Angels, 1997; and the story collections Unreal City, 1996, and Drive, Dive, Dance & Fight, 1997) as well as four volumes of literary criticism, most notably studies of the short fiction of Andre Dubus, 1988, and Robert Coover, 1992–both published by Twayne/Macmillan. In addition he has edited anthologies of New Danish Fiction (published as a special issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1995) and New Irish Poetry and Prose (a special issue of The Literary Review, 1997). Kennedy teaches at the Ploughshares/Emerson College International Fiction Writing Seminar in the Netherlands. He lives in Denmark, where he serves as International Editor of Cimarron Review and Potpourri, and Advisory Editor for The Literary Review, to which he has contributed fiction, translations, essays, and special issues.
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