Impatiently and with increasing irritation, Michael sat in a bar he did not care to be in, waiting for a man he did not really care to see, living a life he could scarcely believe was his own. It was 4:30 on a rainy Tuesday afternoon in May and as he fluctuated between pacing himself or drinking into afternoon oblivion, so too did he fluctuate between cursing himself for not simply weaseling out of the meeting and his simple curiosity. “I’d like to tell you something,” Percy had said mysteriously. But Michael did not need mystery any more than he needed the old man boring him with gossip or disturbing him with unwanted declarations of affection. Good God!
For a moment, when the hour of their meeting came and went Michael contemplated simply getting up and leaving, but he could not bring himself to do it. Given Percy’s age and the need Michael thought he had heard in his voice, it would be like denying a condemned man’s last request. Besides, although Michael didn’t even know if he truly liked Percy, they had had some kind of relationship. But that was all so long ago. Another country. Another life. “I’d like to see you before I go,” Percy had said. “I’d like to tell you something.”
With one large gulp, Michael drained his second pint. Well, Percy was an old man who knew he would soon die and die alone so…What was an hour or two of Michael’s time if it made the old goat happy? Besides if Percy was not a friend, and there were many things that prevented Michael from calling him that, he was at least a fellow outcast, a pilgrim of sorts, and a part, albeit parenthetical, in the craziest, freest, wildest time he had ever known. He deserved more than abandonment. Even if Michael didn’t really want to know whatever it was that Percy wished to tell him. Even if he was a half an hour late and counting, Percy was a kind of comrade.
The enormous room fell into silence broken only by the sound of rain. Michael looked at the two old men staring into their drinks and at the face of the perpetually pissed bartender. Well, for all his foibles at least Percy had not degenerated into one of these interchangeable characters. Percy, for all of his weirdness, had kept his wits and curiosity and, Lord knows, had more energy than the three of them put together. Blurry figures rushed past the windows. He wished Percy would arrive and arrive soon so he could get this over with and get the fuck out of there.
It was 4:30 on a rainy Tuesday afternoon in May and beneath his pugnacious appearance, Michael was fragile. At 42 he knew he had entered the afternoon of his own existence and had begun to encounter the first intimations of his own mortality. With these came his first serious sizing up of his life so far and he found it painfully, terribly, wanting. For years he had comforted himself with the notion that he’s stayed true to his own principles and that he’d brought no harm into the world. But something had changed and these notions brought comfort no more.
Acutely Michael felt the immense chasm between what he desired and what he lived, between who he wished to be and who he was. And in these moments it was as if the full weight of his truncated life bore down on him like a faceless, formless, nameless beast whose whole desire was to rip his soul to pieces and laugh at him.
For reasons that he could not fully understand or understood all too well, Michael had, as yet, failed and failed utterly to become what he desired to be; had failed and failed utterly to do what he desired to do. He had come to know only too well the horror that ensued when he lay his head down to sleep only to stare blankly at a mute wall, trembling at what had become him and what had not. More and more often he found himself questioning his very sanity. But these, he told himself, were moments of exhaustion and weakness. Moments of faithlessness and its consequent fear. Moments of the void within allowing the deluge without to enter and define and defile. And if the moments came more frequently these days…Well, they came more frequently, that was all.
Two years earlier, desperate for work, Michael had been sucked into the ever expanding corporate vortex where he was well paid to debase his mind writing drivel and lies for an immense, ever-enlarging record conglomerate. Six months of that had made it painfully clear to him that he could not exist within that world. And yet daily reminders tormented him with the fear that he could not survive outside of it. No one could. And he had watched as others he knew were sucked into similar degradation, listened as they told themselves that it was just a job, shuddered as he saw them stripped little by little, compromise by compromise, deference by deference, of any spirit, or beliefs or desires they once possessed. He avoided them when they inevitably mutated into cynical, ironic jackasses too tied up and bound, too defeated and empty to look squarely or at length at anyone or anything lest they encounter the mirror. But Michael knew that, no less than them, he too feared the mirror.
Somehow the meeting with Percy only intensified these feelings: Somehow Percy himself had become some kind of a looking glass. Michael heard the sound of the door and looked anxiously down the bar. A man and woman entered laughing and calling out for margaritas. Michael glanced at the clock and called for another pint.
It had been ten years or more since Michael had returned to America and at least that since he’d actually seen Percy, and he wondered, if after a decade, he’d even recognize him. The fact was that, for Michael in any case, they hadn’t ever had much of a relationship and if they never met again, he’d not feel much if anything at all. And yet, he could not shake the sensation, however strange, that he had been infinitely more important to Percy than Percy could ever have been to him. And that somewhere, deep inside the old man, Michael sensed that part of Percy hated him for this. They had met when Michael had ignorantly entered one of the scores of gay bars that dotted Barcelona and found the old man by the door. He was a young expatriate and Percy an old one; they had nothing more in common than American passports and a love of literature. In the beginning, they would sometimes find themselves in the same cafes or bars discussing writings and writers and initially Michael had enjoyed these encounters.
But it was not long before Michael realized that, for all of his erudition, Percy’s love of the written word was an almost entirely formal affair, nothing more than a game of technical perfection. Everything was about the mystery of a certain meter or style which provided Percy the opportunity to display the fruits of the classical education he had received at Exeter and Harvard and of which the old buzzard was ingenious at reminding one of while clearly expecting deference to. Thus, their talks rapidly degenerated into games of intellectual ping-pong which an increasingly hungover, bored, and offended Michael had no stomach for. Yet Michael had sensed too that a far greater offense had also been taken on the other side and that his refusal to defer had somehow insulted the old man’s pride and wounded his sense of who he thought he was or desired to be.
Thus intellectual ping-pong became a psychological chess and to Michael’s initial disbelief and gradual amusement, Percy began a campaign of subtle insults meant, he knew, to put him in his place by exposing his ignorance. One day the old man showed up in a café with a ragged manuscript of his exegesis on the Gospel of John and inquired if Michael would be so kind as to copy edit it for him. Michael had no more read the incomprehensible opening paragraph when Percy slapped his knee theatrically and snatched it from his hands. “I’m sorry!” he bellowed. “I’ve forgotten you can’t read Greek! Without a firm knowledge in Greek, you see, you’d merely be wasting my time.”
At first, Michael found the whole act amusing and oddly endearing. Percy had even somehow obtained a ridiculous maroon Harvard baseball cap that he took to wearing in all seasons. In time, however, traits once amusing became, when not pathetic, obnoxious and annoying. For the life of him, Percy could not hold a public conversation in less than a shout and no matter how politely or angrily you informed him of this, he’d continue bellowing on. “Have you seen little Matthew lately?” he might thunder, “he’s losing his boyish glow.” Entire bars or cafes would stop and look. And soon, too, the man revealed himself to be a world class gossip hound and for reasons that were not yet clear to Michael, an almost Pollyanna-like cheerleader for all things American.
Whenever he could, Michael began to avoid old Percy, but in a city as public as Barcelona this was no easy thing. Inevitably they would meet and occasionally even enjoy each other’s company. Still, now and then Michael could not help but note a subtle, inchoate bitterness emanating from the old man. From what cause he knew not. But what the fuck did he care? Michael had discovered that Barcelona was a vast international smorgasbord of beautiful and available women and Old Percy and his bitterness could not have been further from his thoughts.
And so it went over the next four years. They would meet on occasion and Michael simply came to accept the old man for what he was: an often snobbish, sometimes spiteful, amusing enough fellow of whom no one could accuse of lacking intelligence. Little by little, and by no volition or interest of his own, Michael learned the facts of Percy’s odd existence. How he had come from what he called an old WASP family and how upon his father’s early death he inherited a sizable amount of money which afforded him the luxury of never needing to work, a fact to which he had sworn Michael to silence.
Once or twice in passing, Percy mentioned teaching literature at Yale or working as a journalist and Michael augmented by cryptic desires for vengeance upon unnamed enemies. Indeed, for a man who was not objectively paranoid, the old man seemed to feel he had a lot of enemies. His obsession with his own physical degeneration, which for some reason he described in gruesome detail made parts of his letters unreadable. “Lost three more teeth. That makes ten in four years,” he’d say.
In between such descriptions, Percy sometimes wrote of his life. Somehow he had continued his relationship, be that what it was, with little Miguel, who over the years had married and fathered three children now supported by the state. Percy considered himself their grandfather and wrote of the miracle of holding a tiny perfectly formed infant in his arms and of his joy of playing Santa Claus for them at Christmas. And last week came a proud letter from Cambridge where Percy had attended his famous Harvard fundraiser where, he wrote, over one billion dollars had been raised. Percy had placed three exclamation point after the amount.
Michael feared that Percy’s isolation and age would have magnified their chumminess of ten years hence beyond all reality and all comfort but at the same time he could not help but be curious as to the urgency in his voice. Perhaps, Michael allowed himself to think, the old man wants to leave me some money. After all, Michael had witnessed the imminent encounter with death transform several once swaggering assholes into sentimental slobs.
Once again the sound of the door broke Michael from his increasingly drunken reverie. There, appearing ever so fragile, stood a stooped, bearded figure in a soaking old raincoat and a Harvard hat dripping with rain. As Michael watched Percy craning his neck around the bar. "How fantastic! The lights! The mix of races! You know, this morning I purchased a subway token from a man wearing a turban! And the sheer amount of people! It’s just amazing!” “You know,” he suddenly lowered his tone, “the whole time on the bus downtown I was thinking of how I wish I were forty years younger so as to make a go of things here. It’s still the only place on earth where an individual can make it no matter where they come from, don’t you think?”
Percy paused. “It’s not that way in Spain you know. There everyone’s the same. And the energy here…why it’s almost overwhelming!” Percy leaned back slightly against the bar, began chewing his pipe and looked long into Michael’s face. “I fear you don’t agree,” he said smiling strangely.
Michael was caught off guard. He had the overwhelming sensation that he was listening to a rehearsed speech and sensed something malevolent behind Percy’s words, something directed at him and meant to diminish and humiliate him. All feeling of compassion vanished as rapidly as they had arrived. Shallowly buried memories of Percy’s silly or sinister mind games of long ago welled up within him. He was tempted to tell Percy that he sounded exactly like every jackass tourist on a two day tour, that the energy he raved about was utterly one dimensional, that the turbaned subway clerk was likely too exhausted to give a shit if Percy died right in front of him, that the sheer anonymous mass of the place would crush someone like him with as much thought as a man stepping on an ant.
Instead he answered tonelessly, “You don’t live here and you have no idea of what’s it’s like.”
“Quite so,” replied Percy, pausing to sip his water before launching into reports on the lives of mutual acquaintances in Spain. How this one still had rosy cheeks, that one was now perpetually drunk, and another still hadn’t admitted to himself that he was gay. No longer concerned with his finances Michael drained his pint and called not only for another but for a shot of Jameson to boot. The alcohol had kicked in, allowing Michael the not unpleasant sensation of detachment, of watching an absurd and pointless play in which fate or passivity or a perverse deity had cast him to play himself. Michael acknowledged Percy’s words with nods and smiles and began plotting his escape.
“You know,” Percy bellowed, fearing losing Michael’s attention, “this was a week that brought me a moment of supreme satisfaction. I was up in Cambridge, as you know, and…” Percy commenced into a convoluted story of how he had at last avenged himself against a classmate who slighted him somehow or other and damaged his reputation some forty or fifty years ago; of how during the weeks festivities he had cleverly planted the right seeds in the right places and so on. Michael watched as Percy’s mouth moved, his eyes bulging with this word, squinting with another, meaning while happy that the noise of the now crowded bar drowned out even Percy’s shouting.
Michael sat looking at Percy and not hearing him, wondering why on earth he was sitting there, wondering why he had agreed to meet this old bore, wondering, why and how he had ever though Percy was a decent and interesting man, wondering if he had squandered his life listening to fools and being a fool, wondering how he would get away, politely if possibly, rudely if necessary, get on the subway and go home. Michael noted that Percy’s mouth had stopped moving and that he was staring at him triumphantly and concluded that the tale of vengeance had ended.
With difficulty, Percy moved his stool closer to Michael’s. “I tell it,” Percy declared, “only to show you that the Old WASP can still sting!” Percy laughed so hard he began to cough up phlegm. Around him people stopped their conversations and looked. Michael decided he had had enough.
“Percy,” said Michael at the conclusion of his fit, “what is it you want to tell me?”
“Oh yes,” said Percy, “I’m getting to that.”
“Please do,” said Michael, “’cause I got to get going.”
“Well,” said Percy looking at his watch, “I too have another engagement in an hour, you see, and I should like to visit the Strand before so…I’m just staying around the corner you know. With one of the editors of Forces Magazine and…” Percy must have seen something in Michael’s eyes that made him realize he was about to lose his audience before the finale and he grew suddenly silent. Speaking softly he began, “You remember San Pedro’s Chapel off the Ramblas, yes?” Michael nodded. “Well, I’ve arranged with the Fathers there that they’ll hold a service for me after I die.”
Michael was surprised at his admission and wondered if this was the old man’s way of telling him that in his hour of death or something very near to it he had found religion. “Don’t tell me,” said Michael half jesting, “that you’ve converted? That you’ve become a believer.”
“No, no, no,” Percy replied, smiling. “It’s just that I like to keep all bases covered, you see.” Michael felt Percy searching his eyes for a reaction but Michael remained silent. “But that’s not what I wanted to tell you.” Percy drank down the last of his water and turned to look Michael straight in the face. The humility so recently evident in his voice and face was gone. “I’ve made another decision and I’d very much like to know what you think of it.” “Shoot,” said Michael.
Percy straightened his shoulders and said “I’ve written my will, you see, and I’ve left all my money to Harvard.” Percy leaned his back against the bar and smiled.
It was a moment before Michael registered what Percy had said and a moment more before he understood why it was so important for Percy to say it to him. All the while he watched as Percy anxiously searched his face and eyes for a reaction. But Michael said nothing.
“Well,” said the old man, “what do you think of that?”
Before words formed in Michael’s mind, they were squelched. He did not want to give the perverse old man the satisfaction of his disgust. “I think,” Michael said, “that I have to go.” Percy laughed. And then Percy did not.
They stood at the door of the bar peering out at the wind and rain. No sooner that Michael had gotten up to leave had Percy grabbed hold of his arm imploring Michael to at least see him to the door so he would not have to negotiate the now overflowing crowd by himself. Silently, resentfully, Michael complied.
“Now, if you would be so kind as to remind me of the exact location of the Strand, I’d…”
“It’s just across the Square and two blocks down Broadway,” said Michael looking into the rain.
“I see,” said Percy softly, “But you know I had not anticipated this rain and…”
Michael could not believe himself. With his resentment of Percy’s helplessness and his anger at himself for feeling it growing with every step, Michael marched on through the rain with the old man stumbling beside him under his umbrella. Percy’s asinine words and disgusting last gesture echoed in his head and it pleased him greatly that the old man had to struggle to keep up. Suddenly in the middle of the Square Michael was seized by a thought and came to a sudden halt. A startled Percy wheezed out the words, “What’s wrong?”
“Wrong,” said Michael, “What could possibly be wrong? We’re standing in the energy capital of the universe in the freest nation in the history of the sperm cell! What could possibly be wrong?”
“Please,” said Percy, “I’m getting…”
“Do you know what this place is called Percy?” Michael asked, ignoring him. “This place is called Union Square and right here people put their lives on the line for what they believed in. And now… Look Percy! Look! Barnes and Noble! Look! Staples! Look! The Wiz!” Oblivious to the rain and the people who stopped and stared at them, Michael spun in a circle pointing all around him, pulling Percy like a doll. “Look,” said Michael, “Toys “R” Us! Look! Staples! Look at your fucking freedom Percy! Look at your fucking individuals! Look at your fucking energy! Look at it Percy! Look at it!” Michael’s voice had reached the horrible tone of a command and when he stopped shouting and looked into Percy eyes he saw that the old man was terrified. But Michael did not feel pity.
Michael shook the rain off his umbrella under a wooden construction platform in front of the Strand. “Well,” said Michael coldly, “here you are.”
“Yes,” Percy replied so faintly that Michael could barely hear him, “here I am…and...I…thank you for accompanying me.”
Michael beheld in front of him a frightened old man clutching a cane in a soaked raincoat wearing a ridiculous Harvard hat. His watery brown eyes had lost their arrogant glow. He looked to the younger man in all ways as fragile and as helpless as a new born. “Goodbye, Percy,” said Michael turning to leave and not awaiting a reply. Michael heard his name called out in a high hysterical voice and Michael continued walking. He heard Percy’s voice cry out into the New York night and he steeled himself not to turn.
“Michael take care of yourself,” Percy shouted after him. “Take care of yourself!”
Michael knew he would never see him again and Michael did not care.
The L stop at Union Square was packed with soaking, exhausted humanity. Somewhere to the right of Michael unseen hands beat a simple rhythm on a plastic bucket and the monotonous sound echoed through the station. On every side of him, people stood, waiting, staring into nothing, waiting. Rain had seeped through the pavement and concrete of the street above and Michael watched as it ran down the subway's walls to form little puddles on the tracks. Somewhere along the line something had seeped into Percy’s soul and overtaken him. And Michael saw that as he looked into his eyes for what they both knew was the last time that Percy knew it too.
Somewhere along the line Percy had chosen foolishly and the choice he had made had made him a fool and worse, a blindly destructive and vengeful fool. Percy would die, and die soon, and die alone in a foreign country, unmourned and unloved, ministered over by a priest of a faith he did not believe in, a ritual witnessed by few, if any. Harvard would receive the remains of his money, add it to their immense account, register the name Percy Edmunds III wherever such names are registered and close the book. Soon it would be as if he never lived.
A wave of pity fretted Michael’s heart but it was a pity quickly tempered by a sense of justice and the instinct to survive. This man had tried to hurt me, he though, and he tried to do so deliberately and insidiously. That is for certain. Maybe, just maybe, Michael thought, when he called out his name and told him to take care, he meant to warn him. But warn him against what? It was 6:25 on a rainy Tuesday evening in May and as the L train arrived, Michael stepped within it and set out on his journey to the place where he lived.
Patrick Walsh is a writer and contributor for the Brooklyn Rail.