Johnny America


Tow­er of Babel


A white man in corn­rows (I al­most said a white man in ridicu­lous corn­rows, then I re­al­ized that was re­dun­dant) sat at the counter next to me and said: “Turkey is the white man’s chick­en.” He didn’t say any­thing more but we were un­usu­al­ly com­mu­nica­tive in a re­served sort of way, and I knew he meant a great deal more than that. I was, of course, para­phras­ing Nick Car­raway in this re­gard, which seemed ap­pro­pri­ate since I was sit­ting at the Oys­ter Bar in Grand Cen­tral Sta­tion, and when­ev­er I sat at the Oys­ter Bar in Grand Cen­tral Sta­tion, I thought how it was like­ly Nick Car­raway sat at the Oys­ter Bar in Grand Cen­tral Sta­tion, on oc­ca­sion, on his com­mute from his job as a bonds­man in Man­hat­tan to West Egg.

“Does that make chick­en the white man’s steak?” I countered.

“There’s no such thing as white man’s chick­en. There’s. Just. Chicken.”

He had me there.

His name was Reuben Ru­bin, so nat­u­ral­ly I thought of Hum­bert Hum­bert, and I won­dered aloud if all of my fic­tion­al fa­vorites would come in­to play this day, like some sort of lit­er­ary mul­ti­ple orgasm.

“Mul­ti­ple or­gasm?” he in­quired. “What do you know about mul­ti­ple or­gasms?” I told him I bet I knew more about mul­ti­ple or­gasms than he knew about mul­ti­ple or­gasms, to which he sput­tered some ob­scen­i­ties and chal­lenged me to arm wrestling. But the wait­er came by and said there was to be no arm wrestling at the Oys­ter Bar, so we agreed to dis­agree. I’d have been fine if it all end­ed very neat­ly right then and there, but Reuben Ru­bin had oth­er ideas. He be­gan to speak, elo­quent­ly and at length, about the Tow­er of Ba­bel and its piv­otal role in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, posit­ing that if not for the Tow­er of Ba­bel and its mix­ing of the tongues of the an­cient peo­ples of the world, folks like Alexan­der Hamil­ton and Aaron Burr, Richard Nixon and Jack Kennedy, Bar­ry Gold­wa­ter and Hu­bert Humphrey, Mario Cuo­mo and George Pata­ki, would all speak the same lan­guage. When I point­ed out that, in fact, they all spoke Eng­lish, he mut­tered some­thing about my be­ing too thick for in­tel­lec­tu­al dis­course of even the low­est lev­el, and then quot­ed Emer­son. Since there was no arm wrestling at the Oys­ter Bar, we had to agree to dis­agree. But then I had an idea. Af­ter slid­ing the last of my Blue Points down my gul­let, I asked Reuben Ru­bin to ac­com­pa­ny me to the main con­course. He oblig­ed. We arm wres­tled on a bench near the big clock, best three out of five. He won the first two, hand­i­ly, but by his sec­ond win I had no­ticed he had a fa­cial tic that I was able to im­i­tate back to him near­ly per­fect­ly, there­by dis­tract­ing him in­to a state of self-con­scious de­spair. Hav­ing won the bat­tle, he called me a cheat and, worse, an in­cor­ri­gi­ble horse’s ar­se. I told him I ought to get some­thing for my vic­to­ry and asked if he’d ac­com­pa­ny me to the men’s room where I would like him to per­form oral sex on me. He obliged.

Af­ter that, we glad­ly part­ed ways, on­ly to find our­selves on the same plat­form wait­ing for the num­ber 6 train up­town. We both pre­tend­ed not to no­tice the oth­er. But when we both tried to be the first to squeeze through the sub­way door at 86th Street, the jig was up and we both laughed at our silli­ness. We walked to­geth­er to 91st Street and Park Av­enue. Reuben Ru­bin fol­lowed me in­to my build­ing and I ac­cused him of stalk­ing me. He said he lived in the build­ing. On the sixth floor. In apart­ment 611. I lived in apart­ment 612. I in­vit­ed him in.

Af­ter a cup of tea, Reuben Ru­bin no­ticed on the cof­fee ta­ble the copy of The Sun Al­so Ris­es I was re-read­ing. He said Hem­ing­way was the white man’s Dos Pas­sos. I told him for say­ing that I ought to punch him in the mouth. And then he kissed me, moistly and pas­sion­ate­ly. Af­ter that, we be­came in­sep­a­ra­ble lovers with a taste for the fin­er things. Af­ter a few months, Reuben Ru­bin gave up apart­ment 611, shaved his corn­rows to a shiny cue ball and moved in­to apart­ment 612 with me. In April I caught him cheat­ing with our tax pre­par­er, for which I for­gave him. In May he caught me cheat­ing with the Do­mini­can boy who walked our dog af­ter­noons, for which he for­gave me and then had an af­fair with the Do­mini­can boy him­self, af­ter which we de­cid­ed it was best to get rid of the dog. Dur­ing a va­ca­tion in Flo­rence, Reuben Ru­bin de­clared the stat­ue of David the finest of Michelangelo’s works, which I took as an un­kind com­men­tary on my re­cent in­crease in pant size and didn’t speak to him un­til long af­ter we’d left Pi­az­za del­la Signoria.

Our col­lec­tive mem­o­ry be­came that we had fall­en in love in­stant­ly, those years ago at the Oys­ter Bar; we thought, in­cor­rect­ly, we were so akin to one an­oth­er, un­der­stood one an­oth­er so well that we were clear­ly meant to be to­geth­er. But af­ter a while we were forced to reck­on that we had been speak­ing dif­fer­ent lan­guages all along, and we de­cid­ed it best if we part­ed ways. Then Reuben Ru­bin got sick, then got bet­ter, and the dis­cus­sion of part­ing ways was tabled and Reuben Ru­bin said he was trans­formed from his sick­ness and de­cid­ed to re­tire and live on sav­ings, which were not inconsiderable.

On our tenth an­niver­sary we re­turned to the Oys­ter Bar and shared a plate of as­sort­ed soft cheeses and a bot­tle of cham­pagne. I leaned over and said turkey is the white man’s chick­en and Reuben Ru­bin looked at me per­plexed­ly and asked what on earth that meant; I told him I’d arm wres­tle him for the check, and he told me not to be sil­ly. Five months lat­er, Reuben Ru­bin was found to be sick again. In his delir­i­um, he said to me “Je­sus don’t save the guys in the Tow­er of Ba­bel, no, no, no.” Two weeks af­ter that, Reuben Ru­bin was dead.

I eu­lo­gized him by telling the packed crowd at St. Bart’s that Reuben Ru­bin was a vo­lu­mi­nous man with healthy ap­petites for all things, ex­cept for oys­ters and Win­neba­gos, which he de­spised. His moth­er had flown the red­eye from Lake Hava­su and said hel­lo on her way to the buf­fet. Af­ter the crowd fi­nal­ly dis­persed, I went back to apart­ment 612 and sat on Reuben Rubin’s pa­pasan and had a good, long cry. I hadn’t a no­tion in the world what I was go­ing to do now; it seemed there had nev­er been a mo­ment of my life with­out Reuben Ru­bin, and I didn’t know if I could go on; quite dis­tinct­ly I re­mem­ber say­ing aloud to my­self: I sim­ply can­not go on.

But I did.

Filed under Fiction on November 20th, 2015

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