Immoral Woman

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“We had entertained a hope,” said the old man, a peremptory quaver in his voice, “that you might allow your gazette to remain here, if our presumption was not untoward.”

My eyelids felt slightly sticky when I blinked, as if I were coming awake from a dream. “For the divertissement of the next visitor, you mean?”

“Quite.” He held the door open for me.

The razzing of the horn grew louder as I descended the stairs, jarring as an alarm clock in the morning. It belonged to the same taxicab that had taken me to the entrance of heaven, and the same driver sat behind the wheel.

Monkey’s hungry,” he shouted from behind the partition as I got into the back seat. The cab jerked into the street. The fare was $4.10.

“One hundred and four dollars, I suppose?” I said.

The driver’s laughter was as grating as his horn. “How long you think I’ve been here? Three hundred and four bucks” — the meter clicked — “and thirty-five cents.”

I glared into the rearview mirror, but I had forgotten that the driver had no reflection, and so I glared at myself.

The driver threw a thumb over his shoulder, toward the blindfold waiting in the money tray. “Rules are rules.”

He was not nearly so talkative as on the first trip, which was well. In midtown he permitted me to remove the blindfold, and left the meter running while I went to a cash machine.

I put money in the tray as the driver pulled to the curb at 8th Street and 6th Avenue. He took it, except for a ten-dollar bill which he left dangling toward me. “Wanna sell me back Pericles for it?”

“I don’t have that coin anymore,” I told him, I told him, not without a small sense of satisfaction. “I spent it.”

He turned around and braced his thick arm against the partition. “You spent it?” He shook his head. “Some people don’t know the meaning of money.”

I got out and ordered two hot dogs at Gray’s Papaya. Earlier I had stood behind the same greasy stainless steel counter on the same busy street corner, watching the same or interchangeable traffic pounding past and eating two identical hot dogs without tasting them; now I was lost in every hot burst of wet-salt-onion-garlic, able to think of nothing but the acidity of the mustard, the steam that rose into my nostrils and the wetness that spilled into my mouth when my teeth broke the skin of the meat, the crunch of the warm grilled bun. Perhaps simple hunger ran a shock of pleasure through my body, or perhaps heaven’s prices had made me grateful for earth’s, or
perhaps, as I had marked Ruan Lingyu’s flesh with my touch, so she had left her own mark upon me.

It was not until I stepped out to the intersection where I had begun my day that I realized I had returned with no proof of the existence of heaven. With deceptive ease I had collected three such proofs: an ancient gold coin, a cocktail stirrer, and a book of matches. Now each was gone, each confiscated from me by Ruan Lingyu. Heaven would suffer no physical evidence to cross customs, would tolerate no remainder or reminder of itself on earth; heaven must remain a colorful dream dissolving into shadow as the waking mind pursues.

And so it is that I come to you with this story of a day spent on heaven, hell and earth, disarmed of anything that might have convinced you of its truth; and so it is, powerless to convince, that I must tell my story anyway. For whether or not you believe I return from the realm of death, I return from the telling having won back a birthright: the greatest or the smallest thing — a hot dog, a stroll on the Asbury Park Boardwalk, a slice of ginger — may remain the thing it is, which is to say not a thing at all, not a thing experienced, but merely the name of that thing, alphabetized and
chronologized into the great catalog of a life, a catalog that remains as useless as a defunct telephone directory full of parties who no longer answer at any of the numbers; or an ordinary event can be transformed, wholly and without warning, by the alchemical processes of sensation and retrospect.



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