After my workout, while knotting the towel around me, I take a look through the long glass window of the sauna to see what I am in for before entering. Four of the usual suspects were seated on the two perpendicular benches.
There’s the pasty upper-middle aged guy who likes to talk money and has been daily predicting the ruination of anyone foolish enough to think that the dollar in his pocket will be worth a dime on tomorrow’s headlines. He seems to have been drained of whatever ruddy color he may once have retained. A drizzle of white hair frightened away from a blanched banker’s face. His knobby knees spread apart to reveal a sleepy little vagabond dick that seems to have crept into a pale nest to nap next to a couple of bleached quail eggs.
There’s the tiny Asian man also lost in mid-life but with a boy’s slender and smooth body, and the sweet haircut of a Catholic school lad circa 1955. His towel is wrapped twice about him with ritual neatness and his eyes roam the ceiling. He rarely speaks, but the other three know him to be an active listener.
There’s the black man with the pendulous breasts and the twenty-ounce spray bottle of water with which he frequently douses the glowing coils. Some say he is crazy for he spends many hours in this locker room without holiday. Some say he has lived on an upper floor in a single room for decades and that he never ventures outdoors. That he lives by vending machine and disability check. But, mention baseball in his presence, and all will fall silent as he speaks. He knows everything there is to know about its history, and his opinions about its living players are irreproachable.
There’s the Hispanic fellow, a remnant of an athlete with good looks still peeking through the folds of time. Lean and powerful legs supporting a torso that seems to be stretched over a padded square end table, perhaps one of a pair that had once flanked a sofa. The droop of what had once been a massive chest rests on this ungainly cube and sometimes I check it out for white rings left by beer mugs or maybe party mix crumbs from the watching of a game on TV. While he talks, he runs his hands constantly over this bloated cube as if mystified about how it came to contain his viscera, while just below it, the strangled bright purple head of his dick occasionally surfaces, gasping for air. This guy is a storyteller of high rank, and we leave him in mid-memory only when the heat of the sauna overrides our curiosity about what he will recall next.
As I push open the door, Whitey is in mid-sentence.
“Asperagus’ll do it. And broccoli. Yeah, broccoli will make make your piss smell somethin’ awful.
“Oh yeah? Broccoli too?” answers the Cube.
Baseball grunts in agreement, and I wonder how he would know this, given that his food choices are limited to things sealed in mylar and fished out of a slot after pressing E5.
“And beets!” says Whitey.
“Oh Jesus, beets” whistles the Cube. “I ate beets once and I had blood in my urine. Jesus Christ, I had to go to the hospital. I was there for three weeks. Three. Weeks. Blood every time I pissed.”
“Was it really blood or just red from the beets?” wonders Whitey.
“Oh it was blood. Hell, yes it was. They kept me in there for a month. Couldn’t figure out what was wrong. All them doctors lookin at me.” The cube lifts a hand off his gut and strokes his chin to imitate a doctor looking perplexed. He continues.
“And every day them nurses would come to my room and draw blood. Two. Three times a day. And I hated it. I was just a kid. Think I was seven years old. And the only way I could deal with those needles was to tell myself that I loved it. And I’d see that nurse comin at me and I hold out my arm and say ‘Here it is! Stick it in.’ You know I just convinced myself that I really loved it cuz that was the only way I could deal with it. I hated that place but after a few weeks I told myself that I had to make myself think that I loved it and that the hospital was better than being at home and that is how I survived it until my daddy came and took me out of there because not one of those doctors could figure out what was makin me piss blood. Six years old and then it went away and I never had that problem again.”
This is where I enter the conversation. They know I don’t make small talk and that I will always wait until something captures my curiosity to the point where I can’t remain aloof. They don’t at all mind this dynamic. In fact, I think they unconsciously ratchet up their fabling to see how much it will take to break me down.
“I find it rather hard to believe that a six or seven year old would know how to practice that kind of mental positioning to deal with a traumatic situation. Did someone tell you to do that?”
“Hell no. My idea.”
“Well then you were a most precocious child.”
“Yes I was.” Says the cube proudly. “Had me my first woman when I was four years old. Or, she had me is how it was.”
“Really? And how old was she?”
“Oh, she was my age, maybe a little older. But she had this older sister, see, and that one was telling her what to do and they both were always trying to get my stuff but they had this little toy airplane that I wanted. So the deal was I’d let em play with what they wanted but they had to let me play with that airplane, and damn if I didn’t know it even then. Give it if you wanna get it. That’s how them bitches work. That’s how they all work. I knew it even then. Yeah I started early. I was dancing at the Audubon Ballroom up on 165th Street and I wasn’t even half legal. And then down at the Palladium. All hookers there. But they knew I loved to dance and I was a real good dancer. I remember one night this cop comes in and he’s gonna raid the place and he flashes this silver badge. And three guys dancing with the ladies look at him and they flash their gold badges and tell him to shut up and drop it. But they let him stick around and never had any more trouble. I remember one of them ladies. Name Lupe. I saw her thirty, forty years later. She married a lawyer. He knew what she was, but he didn’t care. She was something. Thirty, forty years and she’s still living high on Central Park South. Still lookin good, but she had a price like all them bitches. You gotta give something to get something. That’s how it works. Bitches.”
“Bitches” echoes Whitey.
“Bitches” whispers Baseball to the floor between his feet.
And the Asian gives up his one word of the day to the ceiling, “Bitches.”
They reverently and silently share the different but probably similar memories of the women in their lives. Women who were to them like sea monsters described by sailors who came back alive from treacherous voyages. Women so enthralling that even now each of these men would gladly take to the open sea again for the scent of one. Women, the invoking of whom halts all other words.
I must confess that I love these guys. I love the look of them. The sound of them. Even the smell of the sweat running off their weary shoulders. These are the men, the real ones, who crawled up out of the primordial ooze. Who invented the wheel. Who followed the leader who killed the beast and wore its teeth. Who built the bridge. Who burned the bridge of that other tribe. Who stole their women. Women fated to these men. For dancing. For company. For coupling and for the fathering of men like me. How could I not love them all, these awful men and their wonderful bitches? I am all of them. I am made of them, and will never be more than them.