Helga is dying of cancer ... [She] knows she could tell them a thing
or two about living, about not being coy with life. Grab it like a tit in your
teeth, suck every drop out of it. Anger enters her heart. She looks at buxom
Mary and feels an impulse to punch her right in the nose. What right has Mary
to be so goddamn healthy?
— Helga Martin, in The Holy Book of the Beard
Excerpts: The Holy Book of the Beard
From Chapter One: In Our Own Image
This is no wing for an unripe wit. If these feathers
flutter too swiftly for you, put this page away, readeth thou Sports or Obits, or
the gluttony of Heloise, Section E, p. 5. To such-a-one who lingers over these
antique sounds, I offer clydesdales of affection, truth, honor, and courtesy.
Answer soon, dear heart. Be virtuous of mind, no more than forty, no fatter than
fat, no uglier than doves mourning. To you, dreamed of love, I pledge my troth. I
am SWM, 42, fading knight-errant of Lancelot gentilesse; I am a medieval scholar
questing for one last bout of Courtly Love. Write Wolfram, in care of Adam and Eve
Jasper John reads the first ad on the board, smiles his
appreciation, feels a kinship with Wolfram. Better than usual, this one, this
knight-errant. Classy stuff Lancelot gentilesse. Fat Stanley could take a lesson
there. Girls see knights in shining armor, white horses, rescue. Fat Stanley could
call himself Perceval — Perceval the Pure. Or better yet — Quixote.
“Jasper! Ho, boy, over here.” The fat man beckons with
his finger. Beside him is a woman in white blouse and blue skirt. Apron over
abdomen. Jasper is introduced to her. “This is Mary Quick. She’s going
to work for us now,” says Fat Stanley.
Tired aging eyes, Irish setter eyes. She extends a hand, holds on
to Jasper just a second too long for comfort. “Nice to meet you,” she
says, her voice deep, almost baritone. She’s looking at him as if she knows
Jasper wanted Fat Stanley to hire a younger waitress this time. One
that would wear a mini-skirt, chew gum, joke, flirt, liven the place a little. All
Fat Stanley ever hires are women over forty. The last one was sixty-six, a real
hustler, steady as could be. But she dropped dead in the middle of prime time.
Place full of diners. They were so upset, Fat Stanley had to close down for the
Helga comes by and gives Jasper’s bum a spank. “That
table’s ready for your expertise,” she says, pointing. She goes off
mumbling about her feet. Her feet hurt her. Everything hurts her. Helga has had
organs removed. She has had radiation treatments. Her remaining organs get
by-weekly doses of chemotherapy. She is dying of cancer. It really pisses her off.
She’s got three kids and no husband. She holds down two jobs, works mornings
at the pancake house, then comes to Fat Stanley’s from noon till nine. Her
feet swell while the rest of her withers. She has chronic cystitis and lives on
pyridium. She eats blender food, whizzed vegies with protein powder, soft white
bread with Butter Bud sprinkles. On her biceps is a fading tattoo that says
PROPERTY OF MIKE. She uses the f-word a lot. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” she
says, banging through the double doors, into the kitchen. “Fuck, fuck,
fuck,” she says, coming back with drinks on a tray. A medicinal smell trails
behind her like an old scarf.
Mary Quick is older and rounder than Helga, who is all angles,
very geometric, very theorem. Mary Quick has big hips swishing inside a hugging
skirt. Heavy braless breasts list port and starboard and leave a hollow of
freckled skin in the middle down which a silver chain and a bloated cross
hang. The cross is Celtic, with the circle of eternity connecting its hub. It
laps the border of her blouse. Her best feature is her hair, thickly Nordic
blond, pulled back into a single braid that is knotted Swedish style, like a
bull’s eye on the back of her head.
She smells of lavender powder puff and cigarettes. Jasper
thinks he likes her. He sees a certain sexiness in shy smiles, moist hands
clinging a second too long, breasts leaning against white fabric, nipples
nudging, hips full of capacity. Marilyn Monroe was like that, a real woman
flashing those curves. His love-flame Didi Godunov has that same capacious
Monroe body, but not so luscious a mouth as hers. An image of Didi Godunov
with bouncy blond hair, pouty lips, and a blue polka dot dress flashes before
his eyes, an icon, an Andy Warhol silkscreen.
Didi, yum, thinks Jasper, still looking at Mary.
“Dishes,” says Fat Stanley, pointing toward an
Fat Stanley starts thumbing steaks again, his large left buttock
perched on a stool in front of the flaming grill as he monitors a pair of
sizzling T-bones and hums a tune from some opera. Occasionally he breaks into
song, something Italian, high tenor and awful good. His voice fills the air,
arrests the heart for a moment, surrounds them all with a sense of suspension.
It has the brown color of a deeper voice at first, then it rises an octave. It
keeps rising. Pure as a celestial sphere, his heavenly voice rises, like a
flute or a piccolo soaring, until it picks off a high C as if the note itself
is a plum at the top of a tree. Then the voice dives down to earth again,
settles back humming.
On slow nights Fat Stanley comes out of the kitchen and plays
the role of the strolling troubadour, pausing at tables to sing. He is sure he
is a hit. He knows his patrons come back again and again just to hear him
sing. They want to be entertained. They want to feel special. They want to go
home and tell their friends of the tenor chef who sings to them at their
table. Pavarotti in a stained apron. The man should be on the stage, or at
least he should be recording his voice for posterity. Fat Stanley agrees with
their assessment of him. He knows that with a voice like his more should have
Jasper folds his apron and ties it around his waist, so that it
forms a lap piece. He stops by the board again to read the second and third
clippings his boss has tacked to the cork. Fat Stanley has been searching for
love ever since he came to America as a little boy, a refugee of the war, sent
to live with an uncle in New York. He is fifty now (though he tells everyone
he is forty-five) and dying for love. He has been putting ads in the lonely
hearts column of the Union for months: “Bearded Spherical Chef, 45,
SWM with Renaissance mind and civilised British background. Opera buff.
Golden-throated tenor. Capacity to love deeply. Seeking female for relationship
with intent toward commitment.”
Woman after woman has answered the Stanley ad, but he has had
no luck except with prostitutes who write for a date, do yummy things to him,
then charge him a hundred bucks and try to add him to their stable of
regulars. To his constant remorse he goes back to them, pays them to love
him. Whores and want ads have become a way of life. He reads the other
lovelorn articles every day, and under the heading EEEK!! he pins his favorites
to the board.
SWM, 39, one-legged warrior of V-War, purpleheart,
bronze star with cluster, combat badge, parachute badge, expert rifleman badge,
wishes to have searching partnership with wife-minded, nurse-type. Moral
Majority background a plus. Be ready to wrap yourself in stars and stripes.
Write RA, c/o Adam and Eve Possibilities. No gooks, spiks, or spades need
“Verdict,” says Fat Stanley.
“Asshole,” says Jasper.
“Did you read them all?”
“Just a sec.”
Open-minded SWM, 32, and too much. You won’t
believe what you’re getting. Picture Adonis with shoulder-length hair
and witty smile, packerman arms, washboard waist, thighs like oak beams. I
work out! I want girl of dreams, 18-25, petite Californian blond. Good teeth
a must! Be nubile. I drive a yellow Porsche. Write Spider, c/o Adam and Eve
Possibilities. No big feet, no big honkers, no porkers.
“He’ll get laid,” says Jasper.
“Think so?” says Fat Stanley.
“Oak thighs? Porsche! Oh-yeah.”
“Not the good girls.”
Jasper shrugs. He heads for the table Helga pointed to, starts
sweeping the dishes into a tray. Whistling, hands working deftly, expert
busboy fingers doing their thing, he looks up to see a man in black open the
door and lumber bowlegged toward the counter. Mary Quick is behind the
counter, pad in hand, taking an order from a bearded man in a rumpled white
suit. The bowlegged man in black lurches toward Mary, reaches across the
counter. Rips her blouse open. Buttons fly like missiles, plink! pe-tew!
“Jesus, son of a —” she says.
She drops the order pad. She wallops the guy with a left hook,
followed by a right cross. He steps back blinking. The man in the white suit
scurries from harm’s way. Mary comes across the counter like a hurdler,
her arms in continuous motion, her breasts bubbling over the edges of the torn
blouse and into light, nipples jiggling like hot eggs in a pan. Jasper sees
brown yolks. A raspberry on top.
“Henry!” she yells. “Henry,
you —” she yells.
She pummels him. Her blouse gaps wider. Her breasts are saucy
twin devils tempting Jasper to iniquity.
Fat Stanley waddles through the double doors, his monstrous
arms pumping. He booms his belly into the Henry you, knocking him
backwards, causing him to whirl like a novice on roller skates.
“Whoa!” he says. “Hey!”
While Jasper opens the door, Fat Stanley gives the Henry
you two more staggering belly blows. Sends him reeling outside, onto the
“Flamin legs, fellas!” says the Henry you.
He falls. He rolls over on his back, spreads his arms, palms
warding off their wrath. “Ease off, boys,” he says.
“Don’t kill the Hank. It was on accident, fellas, I swear by Mama
“You want bedlam, I’ll give you bedlam,” Fat
Stanley says. He puts his fist right to the man’s nose.
“A very unpromisin beginnin,” says the man.
“I spose this means you won’t gimme a job?”
Fat Stanley’s eyes widen. “A job? A job? You hear
this blighter, Jasper John?”
The man grins gums and a tooth at Fat Stanley. “Easy
now, easy there, boss. The Hank ain’t lookin for trouble today. The Hank
has a snootful and needs no trouble today. Look here, boss, she knows me. Mary
knows her man. Tell em, baby. Hey, who loves you, who loves his
Mary stands on the step, one hand gathering the edges of her
blouse. She is breathing heavily. She is making little grimaces with her eyes
and mouth. “He’s drunk,” she says, pointing.
“This’s Henry Hank, fellas. He and me...we live together.”
“Oh,” says Fat Stanley.
She tells Henry Hank he shouldn’t come around making
scenes during working hours. What’s the matter with him, does he want to
get her fired?
“I wanna a job too,” he bawls.
“You don’t want no job, you liar,” she says.
“Henry Hank with a job — that’ll be the day!”
Inside a frame of black hair and a Lincoln beard, Henry Hank
has an old face, a face full of lines, deep creases on the brow and around the
eyes. His nose is monumentally pitted. One stained tooth thrusts itself over
his upper lip. Black sweat trickles down behind his ears and down his neck. His
hair and beard look painted on, as if he has soaked them in shoe polish. The sun
beats on his head, making it shine like steaming tar.
Mary looks at him with sadness, her eyes drooping like dog
eyes, an old Irish setter weary of the chase.
“Some days you tick me off,” she tells him.
“When are you gonna grow up, Henry? All this endless stuff,
it’s gotta go. We’re too damn old, Henry. Too old.”
Jasper sees a tear dribble from her eye. He slides closer to
comfort her. He sucks deep lavender. He pats her between the shoulder blades,
a light, sympathetic gesture that brings a wan smile to her mouth as she
glances at him. His eyes keep watch on the freckled, blue veined bubble of
breast peeking out. “Poor Mary,” he says, rubbing round her
back. Her blouse in back is damp with sweat.
“This is nothing,” she tells him. “I seen
some things in my day.” She rubs her left arm like it is sore.
Henry Hank has rolled forward and risen on his knees. He bows
down and kisses Mary’s foot, then looks at her. “Forgiven?” he
“Nut,” she replies.
“I need just a little somethin, Punkin. A couple bucks,
ten, fifteen. Look here, I’m sweatin like a hairy hawg, Punkin. I’m
gettin sun-stroked.” He looks left, toward the bar across the street. The
sign says TEXAS STYLE. “C’mon, gimme your tips, Punkin. I need a
foam beer, mmmwah.”
“I haven’t gotten any tips yet,” she says.
“What? Geez, Punkin, geez. Not a tip one? Flamin legs,
Punkin, you got to be nice to the customers. Am I right there, boss?”
Fat Stanley is calmer. He looks at the man and smiles slightly,
a little upper lip quiver of his mustache. “How long you known
him?” he asks Mary.
“Too damn long. I’m sorry about this, Mr.
Fat Stanley waves his hand. He takes proud breaths. At his
feet Henry Hank sits up, elbows on his knees. He runs his hand through his hair
and comes away with black palms, which he wipes on his black trousers.
He’s wearing cowboy boots with chrome toes.
“I don’t mean to bust her blouse,” he says,
his voice whining at them like he’s the victim, the one abused here.
“My hand slipped is all. I mean to give her a kiss, that’s all, to
pull her up. And then my hand slipped and the buddons go all-flyin. She knows
I would’na harm a flea on her head. This is the Hank, ain’t it,
Punkin? If she lived on Nob Hill, I’d kiss the ground she walks on.
That’s how I feel about her. Tell the fellas, baby. Who loves his
“Go sleep it off,” says Fat Stanley. He cracks his
knuckles. He goes back into the diner, whistling.
A bus goes by, gears clanking, exhaust spraying diesel fumes
into the air. Leaning out a window is a greasy-haired punk wearing a baseball
cap backwards. “Fuck her, daddy! I did!” he yells. He flips the
bone and laughs.
Mary says she is going in and she doesn’t want to see
Henry’s face till quitting time. Her tone of voice is low and whiskey
bitter. She nudges him with her toe. Henry salutes her. His eyebrows wiggle
like ticklish caterpillars. To Jasper he says, “When the fem kicks you,
it means she’s not indifferent. Remember that, kiddy.”
“Yessir,” says Jasper.
Henry’s bottom tooth spars with invisible atoms.
“Are you going?” Mary asks.
“I’m goin, I’m goin,” he answers.
“I’ll juss crawl into a Dempsey Dumpster and die.” He pouts.
He holds a stained palm out like a homeless beggar. “Juss two bucks,
hey, Punkin? Juss a buck. Fifty cents. Have moicy!”
Her eyes narrow. She puts on a pinched mouth, a slow
sick-of-it-all squint, then goes inside.
Mary retreats to the counter, where Helga holds a pair of
safety pins. “Lousy skunk,” she says as she pins Mary’s
blouse together. Mary says Henry is basically okay, just too rambunctious, far
too much energy for someone his age. “He’s fifty-eight, believe it
or not,” she says.
Helga chuckles. “My Mike used to have gumption like
that,” she says. “I know his type, oh yeah, them wild ones.”
She flexes her PROPERTY OF MIKE biceps. “We’re shmucks for the
wild ones, broads like us.”
Behind them, perched on his stool again, is the man in the
white suit. “Searching for truth in a bottle,” says the man,
gesturing with his thumb toward the bay window, through which they can see
Henry talking to Jasper. “But who can blame a man these days?
It’s a wonder we don’t all go around drunk as dopers these
“Personal experience, Professor?” says Helga.
“You know me.”
“Yeah, unfortunately I do.”
The man has a patriarchal beard, stooped shoulders, eyes big
as quarters, a forehead rippling with troubles. Pink scalp shows through
strands of hair plastered to his head. “Did he hurt you?” he asks
Mary. “I notice you rubbing your arm.”
“It’s nothing,” she says.
The professor nods. Mary notices his nose slopes slightly to
one side and is semi-flattened like a fighter’s. “You don’t
want to hear this,” he says, “but you women drive us crazy, yes you
do. Take me, for instance. I almost got married once. I thought about it. But
she could only speak in trimeters. She’d open her mouth and trimeters
would come out, layers of them, one on the other. I couldn’t take it. I
told myself, Just think of living with a woman speaking trimeters. Agh! The
more I thought, the grayer my hair got.” He points to his hair, takes a
strand, plucks it out, holds it to the light. It dangles from his fingers like
toy lightning. “This is the fallout from trimeters,” he says. His
face pinches up and he snickers.
“Never been married?” says Mary.
“Love the one you’re with,” he tells her.
“I’m Godot.” He holds his hand out and they shake. Mary feels
large, dry fingers full of strength. “I’m Fat Stanley’s
resident pundit. You got a question, you ask me.”
“I got a question,” says Helga.
“Not you — her.” Godot points to Mary.
Helga ignores him. “I see two rows of Godots. I see fifty
professors talking face to face. Now, what am I looking at?”
“Infinite wisdom,” answers Godot.
“A wind tunnel,” says Helga.
The pick-up bell rings. Helga and Mary head toward the sound,
their heads together. “He hates women,” says Helga. “All he
wants is you know what. Stay away from him.”
“He’s got an interesting face,” says Mary.
“Those big eyes.”
“Old devil. Don’t let him fool you, honey.”
She holds onto Mary’s arm, looks left and right, then whispers.
“He’s got one this long, I swear to God on a stack of
Bibles.” Helga’s hands measure off twelve, thirteen inches. Mary
giggles. She wonders how Helga knows the size of Godot’s penis, but she
“Hmmmm,” she hums, scanning Godot.
Helga winks. The bell rings again. They can hear Fat Stanley
yelling from the back. “Hey,” he says, “is this a
∼ ∼ ∼
On the sidewalk Henry reaches out a hand and Jasper helps him to his
feet. Henry scratches behind his neck, messing with the leaking shoe polish. He
runs his tongue round his protruding tooth. “Hot day,” he says.
“Whew, whew, is this town always so hot in May? Me be sweatin like a
hawg.” His voice has a gargling-with-gravel roll that Jasper enjoys
“East winds off the desert,” says Jasper, explaining
the heat. “They usually come in late summer or fall. Usually this time a
year, it’s cloudy.”
Henry puts his arm round Jasper buddy-buddy. “Gimme twenty,
I’ll turn it into a fortune, guaranteed definitely.”
Henry rubs his fingers. “I got the touch. I’m very
good with cards, a real chili pepper. These fingers is hot, kiddy.” He
wiggles tie-dyed fingers in Jasper’s face. “Point me to the
underground,” he adds.
“Market Street. Market and Tenth,” says Jasper.
“On the corner is a hardware store. Tell them Arthur MacArthur sent
“Vegas on the coast, they call it. Ask Arthur, the
bartender.” Jasper points across the street, towards Texas Style.
“Arthur knows?” says Henry. “My boy
Henry gives Jasper a wet kiss on the cheek. “Things is
lookin up. Lissen here, kiddy, you should know me better. I’m one hell of a
man, ask Punkin if I ain’t. The Hank has done it all.” He holds Jasper
in a grip and talks fast. “Once upon a time I was a bad motherfucker —
bad motherfucker, I’m sayin. I had a stable of fems pullin in ten K
a week, no lie, hope to catch the clap if I’m lyin. I was a high roller
oncet. They give me comp in Reno, comp in Vegas. ’Here’s the man,’
they’d say. Oh yeah. They’d say, ’Here comes the Hank! Roll out
the red carpet!’ You believe me, kiddy?”
“I still do all right with the fems, though. Charisma, I got
charisma. Look here, I been everywhere, did I tell you that? Done everythin. Been
a longshoreman in New York. Been a trucker in Tennessee. Less than legal age, I
sucked my first pussy in a barn in Kansas, a wheat farmer’s wife, he never
done it for her. She followed me around like a damn puppy after. You find me a man
doesn’t munch his lady’s pussy, I’ll show you a woman I can
steal.Munchin poon has been a forty-year habit. It’s why my voice sounds like
a toilet.” He probes Jasper’s chest with a blackened finger. “Hope
to catch the clap if I’m lyin. I been a prize fighter, went the distance with
the great Floyd Patterson back in 1960. You think I’m lyin? It’s in the
record, look it up. It’s from Floyd I learned my peek-a-boo style. And look
here, I been a lumberjack, a thief, a lovable scamp, an urban mystery, a hero in the
Korean War. I got a chest full of medals. You believe me?”
“It’s the god’s truth. I blew up bridges in the
war. I cracked safes after, did two-hundred jobs till I got caught. I took an
amateur fool with me, that’s why. He had bad nerves, blew himself up and blew
a wall out of the building we was in and damn near kilt me. See this notched ear
here? Yep, never fuck with amateurs, kiddy, they’ll kill you. But I still got
the touch.” He holds out blackened hands again. “Look how steady. Like
a brain surgeon.”
Henry looks around, makes a smacking sound with his lips.
“Sure thirsty,” he says. He pulls at the end of his nose, leaving a
streak of commando camouflage behind. “You twenty-one yit?” he asks.
“Twenty-three,” says Jasper.
“Lucky fuck. Twenty-three and free as a falcon’s fart.
Man, what I wouldn’t give to be that. Say, look here, let’s go have a
beer and talk some. I like you, c’mon.”
Jasper says he has to work, he has to get back inside.
Henry frowns at the diner. “What time is it?”
“Four fuckin thirty. Whoops! there goes nother second into
the eternal zero.” Henry’s hands flick at the air all around as if
he’s trying to catch flies. “Nother, nother, nother,” he
says. “Can’t hold em back, can’t catch Now for nothin. Look
there, kiddy, tick, tick, tick, Now is flyin by. Sure you don’t want to have
a beer with the Hank?”
“Tick, tick, tick.” The hands fly, the fingers grasp.
Across the street, a woman runs out of Texas Style and toward a
parked car. A man in a Stetson follows her. “Hey, baby, hey, baby, just
kidding, baby,” says the man.
“I’m no cunt!” she yells.
“Hey, baby, you know me, baby, all mouth.”
“That’s the trouble!” she says. She gets in the
car, starts the engine roaring, drives off in a whir of rubber. The man yells after
her, “Stankfinger! That’s all I said is stankfinger! What the goddamn
hell’s wrong with that? Who was to know in the goddamn booth back there
anyway? All dark and everything, we coulda. Selfish bitch.” The man holds
his middle finger up, looks at it, sniffs it. He turns around, looks at two
derelicts leaning on a rusty Ford. “What the hell’s the
problem?” he says to them.
“Got any loose change, man?” says one.
“Vietnam vets,” says the other.
“Fuck you,” says the man in the Stetson. He goes back
Stankfinger! Yeah stinkfinger. Jasper knows stinkfinger, she was
sixteen, seventeen, thigh drooping open, letting his hand rise. Molly, sister of
his buddy Art Trout. Sweet and gooey. Eyes like sapphires. First time. So special,
Henry is cackling. “Wisdom of the street,” he tells
Jasper. “Keep that in mind when they got you confused, kiddy.”
“I was born confused,” says Jasper.
“I bet you’re a ambitious young man, pride of
“Not at all.”
“I bet youz want to be a doctor or a lawyer.”
“Can’t stand that stuff.”
“I take classes out at State.”
“No shit? A college boy, huh?” Henry smacks his lips.
“You hear that, kiddy?”
“Nother second of dust on a dry throat, skittern into the
eternal zero.” He clicks his fingers. “Gone, gone, gone. You understand
my philosophics? I’m tellin you, it goes fast. Look here, gimme a couple
bucks, okay? Be kind to a vet. My ole wound is actin up. Oh me, oh my. Got shot
twenty-two times on Pork Chop Hill. Don’t be a noodle, son. I’ll pay
Jasper finds a five and a twenty in his pocket. He offers the five
to Henry. Henry snatches both bills. “Market and what?” he says.
“Tenth. The hardware store. Arthur MacArthur’s my
Henry Hank heads across the street, dodging cars. He goes past the
two beggars holding out their hands. He looks at the two bills, gives them the
five, then hurries into Texas Style. Jasper hears the Western whine of a fiddle
bleeding outward as the door opens. He watches the men examine the five dollar
bill as if they don’t trust it, like it might be counterfeit, his
five dollar bill. He looks at his palm smeared with black from when he pulled
Henry to his feet. He rubs his palm on his pants but the black won’t come
off. “Shit,” he says. He sniffs the chronic odor of sewer decay that
hangs in the air of east San Diego, and he wonders when somebody is going to come
fix that smell. Rot everywhere and nobody is doing nothing.
From inside the diner, he hears Fat Stanley yelling.
“Jasper! Where the hell is that kid? Ho boy, Jasper, the dishes!”
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