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Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night

She talked about dances she had been to, clothes that her friends had bought, boys who had left her, a dog she had once owned. She talked about home and work, and the rain came down in a steady stream. Ten minutes passed. She said she wanted three children.

At last the door opened and Vincent came out, ducking his head against the downpour. The light fell full on Donna’s face; she tried to smile. Her hair was slicked flat against her skull and Vincent looked her over with a look of vague surprise, as if he couldn’t quite place her. Her makeup was smudged; the tip of her nose was red. She was fat. Vincent walked straight past her.

He went off down the street, moved out of sight, and Donna remained behind, still standing on the sidewalk. “Oh,” she said, and she brought her hand up out of her left coat pocket, loosely holding the packet of unused condoms.

She opened it. Gently, methodically, she took out the sheaths and dangled them, squeezed between her forefinger and thumb. One by one, not looking, she dropped them in the wet by her feet. Then she went home again, back to sleep.

Another Saturday night. The man in the tweed suit was sitting in the bleachers, around one o’clock, when Eugene approached him and sat down at his table. “Are you really going to write a story?” Eugene asked.

“I think so,” replied the man.

“There are some things I want you to put in. As a favor,” Eugene said. “Things I’d like to say.”

He was learn and wiry, vaguely furtive, in the style of a human stoat, and his yellow shirt was emblazoned with scarlet fleurs-de-lis. His voice was high-pitched, squeaky; his left eye was forever squinting, half shut, as if warding off an invisible waft of cigarette smoke. At first glance he might have passed for an overgrown jockey. But his real ambition was to become a disk jockey, or possibly a TV quizmaster: “Something daring. Anything. It doesn’t matter what,” he said.

Now he wanted to declare himself, to make a statement, his testament.

“Go ahead,” the man said. “Tell me.”

“First,” said Eugene, “I want to mention my mother and father, my brothers, my uncle Tony, my grandmother. Also, Roy and Butch at Jones Beach, and Charlie D. in Paterson. And Alice, she knows why.”

“Anyone else?”

“And everyone, as well.”

The way he spoke, measured, remote, it was as though he addressed them from a very great distance, an alien world. From prison, perhaps, or an army camp. Or some secret underground, a Saturday-night cabal, known only to initiates. “Is that all?” asked the man in the suit.

“Just tell them hello,” said Eugene, “and you can say I get by.”

On Wednesday evening, to help time pass, Vincent went to see The Man Who Would Be King, and rather to his surprise, he liked it very much. On his own admission, he did not understand it, not entirely, for India and the Raj were too far away, much too unreal to make any practical sense. Still, he enjoyed the color and flash, the danger, the sense of everything being possible, all dreams of adventure coming true.

Afterwards, he sat on a low wall outside a basketball court, across the street from the high rise, and considered. The man in the suit was there again, asking more questions. So Vincent talked about living on the eleventh floor, his windows that looked out on nothing, the smell. And working in a housewares store, selling paint and climbing ladders, grinning for his living. “Stuck,” he said. “They’ve got me by the balls.”

“How about the future?” asked the man in the suit.

“What future?” Vincent said, and he looked askance, as though the man must be retarded to ask such a question. This was not the Raj; he was not floating in a film. There were dues to pay, people to support. That took money. And money, in this place, meant imprisonment.

Still the man persisted, asked him to imagine. Just conceive that he was set free, that every obstacle was suddenly removed and he could be whatever he pleased. What would he do then? What would give him the greatest pleasure of all, the ultimate fulfillment?

Vincent took his time. This was another dumb question, he knew that. Yet the vision intrigued him, sucked him in almost despite himself. So he let his mind roam loose. Sitting on the wall, he bent his head, contemplated the cracks in the sidewalk. Pondered. Made up his mind. “I want to be a star,” he said.

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