Desperate Characters

An excerpt from the 1970 novel by Paula Fox: Status-conscious Sophie and Otto Bentwood attend a dinner party in Brooklyn Heights in the late sixties, shortly after Sophie sustains a bite on her hand from a stray cat.

Paula Fox | Desperate Characters | W.W. Norton & Company | 1970 | 16 minutes (4,046 words)

 

Below is an excerpt from Desperate Characters, the novel by Paula Fox first published in 1970 and re-(re-)released this year on the 45th anniversary of its publication. Read Sari Botton’s Longreads interview with Fox about her book. 

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A few feet from the bottom step, Otto paused and turned, as he habitually did, to look back at his home. He was drawn toward it. He yearned to throw open the door he had only just locked, to catch the house empty. It was, he thought, a little like the wish to be sentient at one’s own funeral.

With one or two exceptions, each of the houses on the Bentwoods’ block was occupied by one family. All of the houses had been built during the final third of the last century, and were of brick or brownstone. Where the brick had been cleaned, a chalky pink glow gave off an air of antique serenity. Most front parlor windows were covered with white shutters. Where owners had not yet been able to afford them, pieces of fabric concealed the life within behind the new panes of glass. These bits of cloth, even though they were temporary measures, had a certain style, a kind of forethought about taste, and were not at all like the rags that hung over the windows of the slum people. What the owners of the street lusted after was recognition of their superior comprehension of what counted in this world, and their strategy for getting it combined restraint and indirection.

One boardinghouse remained in business, but the nine tenants were very quiet, almost furtive, like the last remaining members of a foreign enclave who, daily, expect deportation.

The neighborhood eyesore was a house covered with yellow tile. An Italian family that had lived on the block during its worst days, finally moving out the day after all the street lamps had been smashed, was held responsible for this breach of taste.

The maple trees planted by the neighborhood association the year before were beginning to bud. But the street was not well lighted yet, and despite phone calls, letters, and petitions to City Hall and the local precinct, policemen were rarely glimpsed, except in patrol cars on their way to the slum people. At night, the street had a quiet earnest look, as though it were continuing to try to improve itself in the dark.

There was still refuse everywhere, a tide that rose but barely ebbed. Beer bottles and beer cans, liquor bottles, candy wrappers, crushed cigarette packs, caved-in boxes that had held detergents, rags, newspapers, curlers, string, plastic bottles, a shoe here and there, dog feces. Otto had once said, staring disgustedly at the curb in front of their house, that no dog had deposited that.

“Do you suppose they come here to shit at night?” he had asked Sophie.

She hadn’t replied, only giving him a sidelong glance that was touched with amusement. What would he have said, she wondered, if she had told him that his question had reminded her of a certain period in her childhood when moving the bowels, as her mother called it, was taken up by Sophie and her friends as an outdoor activity, until they were all caught in a community squat beneath a lilac bush? Sophie had been shut into the bathroom for an hour, in order, her mother had said, to study the proper receptacle for such functions.

The Holsteins lived in Brooklyn Heights on Henry Street, ten blocks from the Bentwoods. Otto didn’t want to take the car and lose his parking space, and although Sophie did not feel up to walking—she was vaguely nauseated—she didn’t want to insist on being driven. Otto would think the cat bite had affected her more than it really had. It was usually more costly to make a fool of oneself, she thought. Her fatuity had deserved at least a small puncture.

Why do they drop everything on the pavement?” Otto asked angrily.

“It’s the packaging. Wrapping frenzy.”

“It’s simple provocation. I watched a colored man kick over a trash basket yesterday. When it rolled out into the street, he put his hands on his hips and roared with laughter. This morning I saw that man who hangs the blanket outside his window standing on his bed and pissing out into the yard.”

A car in low gear passed; a window slid down and a hand gently released a ball of Kleenex. Sophie began to laugh. “Americans . . .” muttered Otto, “softly dropping their turds wherever they go.”

They crossed Atlantic Avenue and started west, passing the Arab shops with their windows full of leather cushions and hookahs, the Arab bakeries which smelled of sesame paste. A thin Eastern wail slid out of a store no bigger than a closet. Inside, three men were staring down at a hand-operated record player. Sophie paused in front of a Jordanian restaurant, where the Bentwoods had dined with Charlie Russel and his wife only last week. looking past the flaking gold letters on the glass, she saw the table they had sat at.

“How is it possible? It all seemed so friendly that night,” she said softly.

“It was. When we first decided to end the partnership, it was friendlier than it ever had been. But this week . . .”

“It’s not that you ever agreed on anything—but it all seemed so set.”

“No, we didn’t agree.”

She exclaimed suddenly and held up her hand.

“What is it?” he asked.

“You brushed against it.”

They stopped beneath a light while Otto inspected her hand. “It’s swollen,” he said. “Looks awful.”

“It’s all right, just sensitive.”

The bleeding had stopped, but a small lump had formed, pushing up the lips of the wound.

“I think you ought to see a doctor. You ought, at least, to get a tetanus shot.”

“What do you mean, ‘at least’?” she cried irritably.

“Don’t be so bad-tempered.”

They turned up Henry Street. Otto noted with satisfaction that there was as much garbage here as in their own neighborhood. He wouldn’t consider buying a house on the Heights . . . horribly inflated prices, all that real-estate grinning in dusty crumbling rooms—think what you could do with that woodwork!—everyone knowing it was a put-up job, greed, low belly greed, get it while we can, house prices enunciated in refined accents, mortgages like progressive diseases, “I live on the Heights.” of course, the Bentwoods’ neighborhood was on the same ladder, frantic lest the speculators now eying property were the “wrong” kind. Otto hated realtors, hated dealing with their nasty litigations. It was the only thing he and Charlie still agreed on. He sighed, thinking of the cop who had been checking on voter registration last week, who had said to Otto, “This area is really pulling itself together, doesn’t look like the same place it was two years ago. You people are doing a job!” And Otto had felt a murderous gratification.

“What are you sighing about?” Sophie asked.

“I don’t know.”

The Bentwoods had a high income. They had no children and, since they were both just over forty (Sophie was two months older than Otto), they didn’t anticipate any. They could purchase pretty much what they wanted. They had a Mercedes-Benz sedan and a house on long Island with a long-term mortgage, which was hardly a burden any more. It sat in a meadow near the village of Flynders. Like their Brooklyn house, it was small, but it was a century older. Otto had paid for repairs out of cash reserves. In the seven years they had owned it, there had been only one disagreeable summer. That was when three homosexual men had rented a neighboring barn and played Judy Garland records all night long every night. They had set their portable record player on a cement birdbath in the old cow pasture. In moonlight or in fog, Judy Garland’s voice rang out across the meadow, driving into Otto’s head like a mailed fist. That September, he bought the barn. Someday he planned to convert it into a guest house. At present it housed the sailboat he shared with Russel.

“I think I’ll just give the boat to Charlie,” he said as they walked up the steps to the Holsteins’ door. “I don’t even remember how much money we each put in.”

“Where’s he going to sail it?” Sophie asked. “In the Bowery?”

The goddamn bite had made her nervous, he thought, and when she was nervous the quality he valued in her most—her equableness—disappeared. She seemed almost to narrow physically. He pressed the bell beneath the severe black plate on which was printed MYRON HOLSTEIN, M.D. Even if he was a psychoanalyst, he ought to know something about animal bites, Otto told her, but Sophie said she didn’t want to make an issue of it. It already felt better. “Please don’t bring it up. Just that I would like to leave early—” Then the door opened.

There were so many people wandering around beneath Flo Holstein’s brilliant wall lights that it looked as if a sale were in progress. Even at a glance, Sophie saw some among the multitude who were strangers to the house. These few were looking covertly at furniture and paintings. There wasn’t a copy of anything on the premises. It was real Miës van der Rohe, real Queen Anne, real Matisse and Gottlieb.

Flo had produced two successful musicals. Mike Holstein’s practice was largely made up of writers and painters. Sophie liked him. Otto said he suffered from culture desperation. “He can’t stand his own trade,” Otto had said. “He’s like one of those movie starlets who announces she’s studying philosophy at U.C.L.A.”

But at that moment Sophie—her face held in Dr. Holstein’s strong square hands—felt the nervous tension of the last two hours draining out of her as though she’d been given a mild soporific.

“Soph, darling! Hello, Otto. Sophie, you look marvelous! Is that dress a Pucci? What a relief that you don’t fiddle with your hair. That style makes you look like some sad lovely girl out of the thirties. Did you know that?” He kissed her in the manner of other people’s husbands, on the cheek, dry-lipped and ritualistic.

He didn’t know a thing about her, not even after ten years, but she loved the air of knowingness; the flattery that didn’t obligate her. And she liked his somewhat battered face, the close-fitting English suits he bought from a London salesman who stopped at a mid-town hotel each year to take orders, the Italian shoes he said were part of his seducer’s costume. He wasn’t a seducer. He was remote. He was like a man preceded into a room by acrobats.

Despite her resolve to say nothing, she found herself whispering into his neck. “Something awful happened . . . I’m making too much of it, I know, but it was awful. . . .”

As he led her toward the kitchen, a man grabbed Otto’s arm, shouted something, and dragged him into a group near the fireplace. In the kitchen, Flo kissed her hurriedly and turned to look at a huge orange casserole squatting inside the face-level wall oven. Two men, one of them turning the water tap off and on and staring pensively in the sink, did not look up.

“What happened? Do you want your gin on the rocks?” Mike asked.

“A cat bit me.”

“Let’s see.”

She held up her hand. The slack fingers looked somewhat pitiful, she thought. Since she and Otto had looked at it under the street lamp, the bump appeared to have grown larger. It was tinged with yellow.

“Listen, that ought to be looked at!”

“Oh, it’s nothing. I’ve been bitten before by animals.” But she hadn’t. “It was a shock,” she said, stammering slightly as if she’d tripped over her lie, “because I’d been feeding the damned beast and it turned on me.”

“I don’t think there’s been any rabies around here in years, but—”

“No,” she said. “No, not a chance. That cat was perfectly healthy. You know me. I want to be the saint who tames wild creatures.”

“Mike!” Flo cried. “Get the door, will you? Here, what are you drinking, Sophie?”

“Nothing right now,” Sophie answered. Mike left her with a pat on the back, a nod that said he’d return. One of the young men began to comb his hair. Sophie went into the long living room. A television comedian she had met before at the Holsteins’ was holding forth among a group of seated people, none of whom was paying him much attention. In a voice of maniacal self-confidence, he reported that since he’d grown his beard, he couldn’t eat cooked cereal any more without making a swine of himself. When no one laughed, he caressed the growth at his chin and on his cheeks. “No kidding!” he cried. “These kids nowadays are wunnerful! Hair is for real! I wanna live and love and be myself. That’s the message! Seriously.” He was short and pudgy and his skin glistened like lard.

“A very Gentile party,” someone said over Sophie’s shoulder. She turned and saw a couple in their early twenties. The girl was in a white leather suit; the boy wore an army fatigue jacket, on which were pinned buttons shaped and painted like eyeballs, staring from nothing, at nothing. His frizzy hair shot off in all directions like a pubic St. Catherine’s wheel. The girl was beautiful—young and unmarked. Her amber hair fell to her waist. She wore a heavy bracelet around one of her ankles.

“I saw at least three Jews,” Sophie said.

They didn’t smile. “Your parties are educational,” the girl said. “It isn’t my party,” Sophie replied.

“Yes, it’s yours,” the boy said judiciously. “Your generation’s thing.”

“Oh, for crissakes!” Sophie said, smiling.

They looked at each other. The boy touched the girl’s hair.

“She’s a wicked one, isn’t she?” The girl nodded slowly.

“You must be young Mike’s friends?” asked Sophie. Young Mike was lurching through C.C.N.Y. but each semester’s end brought terror into the Holstein household. Would he go back once more?

“Let’s split,” said the boy. “We’ve got to go see Lonnie up in St. Luke’s.”

“The hospital?” asked Sophie. “It’s too late for visiting hours.” They looked at her as though they’d never seen her before, then they both padded softly out of the living room, looking neither left nor right. “That’s a beautiful anklet!” Sophie called out. The girl looked back from the hall. For an instant, she seemed about to smile. “It hurts me to wear it,” she shouted. “Every time I move, it hurts.”

Otto was backed up against a wall, looking up at the chin of a powerfully built woman wearing pants and jacket. She was an English playwright, a friend of Flo’s, who wrote exclusively in verse. Otto, Sophie observed as she walked over to them, had one hand behind him pressed against the wooden paneling.

“We are all of us dying of boredom,” the woman was saying. “That is the why of the war, the why of the assassinations, the why of why. Boredom.”

“The younger ones are dying of freedom,” Otto said in a voice flattened by restraint. Sophie caught his eye. He shook his head very slightly.

“The young will save us,” the woman said. “It’s the young, thank the dead God, who will save us.”

“They are dying from what they are trying to cure themselves with,” Otto said.

“You are a square!” the woman said, stooping a little to look into his face.

“Hello, Suzanne,” Sophie said. “I just heard someone say, ‘I’m crashing.’ What does it mean?” She realized she had a fake ingenuous look on her face. It was obscurely insulting and she hoped Suzanne would feel the edge.

“In contemporary parlance,” Suzanne explained magnanimously, “it means either that you’ve come to spend the night in someone’s pad, or that you are coming down from a drug high.” She bowed to Otto and moved away. She rarely spoke to men when other women were around.

“Jesus!” Otto exclaimed. “Trying to stop her from talking is like trying to get a newspaper under a dog before it pukes!”

“I hate it when you talk like that! You’re getting worse as you get older. I can’t bear that mean reductive—”

“Where’s your drink?”

“I don’t want a drink,” she said irritably. He stood directly in front of her, blocking out the room. There was hesitancy in his look. He had heard her, hearing him, and he was sorry. She could see that, sorry herself now that she had spoken so meanly. For a second, they held each other’s gaze. “That button’s loose,” she said, touching his jacket. “I’ll get you something . . .” he said, but he didn’t move away. They had averted what was ordinary; they had felt briefly the force of something original, unknown, between them. Even as she tried to name it, it was dissolving, and he left her suddenly just as she had forgotten what she was trying to remember. She flattened her hand against the wall paneling. It looked like a tarantula. Her skin prickled. Rabies . . . no one ever got rabies, except some Southern country boy.

“Sophie, come here,” Mike said, and led her upstairs and into a large bedroom. A Greek rug covered the bed; a Mexican ceramic horse stood in front of the fireplace. On one of the bedside tables were piled paperback detective stories in their penny candy wrapper covers.

“Who reads those? You or Flo?”

“Me,” he replied, and he sighed and looked winsome. “They’re good for me. They ride roughshod over what I live with. Potent men. Palpitating women . . . a murderer’s mind laid out like the contents of a child’s pencil box.”

“You aren’t reading the right ones.”

“The new ones are the old ones. That false complexity is just another kind of pencil box.”

“What’s going to happen?” she burst out. “Everything is going to hell—”

“Sit down a minute and shut up! I want to call a doctor or two, see if I can rouse one. It’s a bad night for that.”

He sat on the edge of the bed and dialed, an address book held tightly in one hand, the phone cradled between his neck and shoulder. She heard him speak several times, but she didn’t listen to his words. She was wandering around the room. A green silk dressing gown was flung across a chaise lounge. On the mantelpiece stood a few small pre-Columbian statues, glaring with empty malevolence at the opposite wall, looking, oddly enough, as though they were outside the room but about to enter and sack it.

“There are only answering services,” Mike said, putting the phone down. “There’s not much point in leaving this number. listen, I want you to go to the hospital. It’s six blocks from here and they have an emergency room that’s not bad. They’ll fix you up and you’ll have a peaceful night.”

“Did you know?” she began, “that Cervantes wanted to come to the New World, to New Spain, and the king wrote across his application, ‘No, tell him to get a job around here’? Isn’t that a funny story?”

He watched her, unmoving, his hands folded lightly, his shoulders hunched—it must be the way he listened to patients, she thought, as though he were about to receive a blow across the back.

“Just a story . . .”

“What’s the matter?”

“I wish I were Jewish,” she said. “Then when I died, I’d die as a Jew.”

“You’ll die as a Protestant.”

“There aren’t many left.”

“Then as a Gentile. I asked you, what’s the matter? Are you working on anything?”

“I haven’t wanted to work; it seems futile. There are so many who do it better than I do. I was sent a novel to translate but I couldn’t understand it, even in French. It simply irritated me. And I don’t have to work.”

“Tell me a little Baudelaire,” he said.

Je suis comme le roi d’un pays pluvieux, Riche, mais impuissant, jeune et pourtant très vieux—

She broke off, laughing. “Why, you love it! You should see your face! Wait! Here!” and she snatched up a hand mirror from the top of a bureau and held it in front of him. He looked at her over the mirror. “I could smack you,” he said.

“No, no . . . you don’t understand. I like the way you looked. That I could just recite a few lines and evoke that look!”

“Helpless bliss,” he said, getting to his feet.

“You know that Charlie and Otto are ending their partnership?”

“Otto doesn’t confide in me.”

“They can’t get along any more,” she said, replacing the mirror and turning back to him. “It’ll change our life, and yet it is as though nothing has happened.”

“It won’t change your life,” he said with a touch of impatience. “Maybe your plans, but not your life. Charlie, as I remember him, which is vaguely, is a bleeding heart, dying to be loved. He has the face of a handsome baby, doesn’t he? Or am I thinking of one of my patients? And Otto is all restraint. So the machine stopped functioning.” He shrugged.

“The truth is—” she began, then paused. He waited. “It wasn’t a machine,” she said quickly. “That’s an appalling view of what happens between people.”

“What did you start to say?”

“But are you saying what went on between them was only a mechanical arrangement of opposites, Mike?”

“All right, then, it wasn’t. The words don’t matter anyhow. Otto didn’t seem distressed.”

“We’d better go down,” she said.

But he had left her and was standing near the window, staring at the floor. As he lifted his head, she saw what he had been looking at. She walked over to him. They both looked at the stone on the floor. There were a few shards of broken glass around it. Mike picked it up. It filled the palm of his hand.

“The drapes must have muffled the sound,” he said. They both looked down at the street; the broken pane where the stone had entered was at the height of Mike’s brow. “It must have been in the last hour,” he said. “I was up an hour ago, getting aspirin for someone, and I stopped by here, I’ve forgotten why, and I know the stone wasn’t here then.”

Someone walked by on the street below, a St. Bernard puppy shambling along beside him. In all the windows of the opposite houses, lights shone. Car hoods glinted. Mike and Sophie silently watched a man investigating the contents of his glove compartment. A news truck rumbled by.

“Don’t mention it to Flo. I’ll clean it up. Who could have done it? What am I supposed to do?” Then he shook his head. “Oh, well, it’s nothing.” He smiled at her and patted her arm. “Sophie, would you like me to send you to a friend of mine? A friend I think highly of? A first-rate man? Member of the Institute?” He hefted the stone, looked back out the window.

“Thanks, Mike, but no.”

“But at least go to the hospital,” he said, without looking at her at all. She stared at him a moment, then left the room. Otto was waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs, a glass in his hand. He held it out as she neared the bottom.

“Ginger ale,” he said.

* * *

Excerpted from Desperate Characters: A Novel, copyright © 1970 by Paula Fox. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Read an interview with Paula Fox