Read Spread Online

Authors: Malzberg, Barry

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Barry Malzberg

THESPREAD

a division of F+W Media, Inc.

Table of Contents

Cover

Title Page

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

VII

VIII

IX

X

XI

XII

XIII

XIV

XV

XVI

XVII

XVIII

XIX

XX

XXI

XXII

XXIII

XXIV

XXV

XXVI

XXVII

XXVIII

XXIX

XXX

XXXI

XXXII

XXXIII

XXXIV

XXXV

XXXVI

XXXVII

XXXVIII

XXXIX

XL

XLI

XLII

XLIII

XLIV

XLV

XLVI

XLVII

XLVIII

XLIX

XLX

LI

Also Available

Copyright

I

To come to the point (such as it is), I publish a dirty newspaper: a pornography sheet which sells approximately 100,000 copies an issue. This does not mean, however, that my intent is purely sexual. On the contrary, I devolve upon simpler, darker matters: returns, distributor weakness in the Bronx, judicial reform, the interpreted limits of the First Amendment and so on. Sex is peripheral to all of these issues although without it, of course, none of them could exist. Sex put us to 200,000 copies a week in the first four months and would have taken us further yet had it not been for certain illegal maneuvers in the office of the District Attorney, certain pressures, that is to point out, on wholesale outlets and so forth. Even at our present standing, we make money although things could be considerably better. They could also be considerably worse, matters in this business being relative.

I concede the value of sex while unwilling to be entrapped by it. This is not to say that I lack normal tendencies, normal outlets, I am a devoted husband, a careful adulterer, an admirer of many of the photographs we print and so on. What must be cultivated is a sense of perspective, an awareness of a larger scheme in which we are but one minor facet. The system is breaking apart: somewhere between scatology and revulsion lies the truth around which we will reassemble. I am devoted only to illuminating one pole to the limits of my ability.

In this sense, I have a certain assurance of mission although the realization that I have more in common with those on the opposite pole than with anyone in the middle occasionally induces a complicating headache, a dismal woe. It is not easy. Nothing is easy. But in fifty years, all of these will be artifacts, frozen in perfect and contained time, available to all of those who will care to investigate a past that made them whole. All passion spent, allamicus curiaedenoted, the pages alone will speak, and they will speak in the calmest and most level of tones: tones of reassurance and hope. Souvenirs of the tour available in the gift shop below; facsimile prints carved upon stone, the stone cool and timeless in the suspended palm.

II

I have no sense of guilt. All of that was overcome a long time ago. It is a business like any other business. I am performing a service. Masturbation is a harmless outlet for unrelieved sexual tensions; masturbatory materials lend harmless pleasures to lonely millions while saving any number of attractive girls from violent and bestial rape. I see my audience as gentle men in small rooms, surrounded by haze, sinking into wonder as they stare at my pages and with sure, ample strokes, bring themselves past desire to the perfect abscess of memory.

III

I am having an affair with the secretary in my office. It is a small office consisting of only four full-time employees plus a number of freelancers who provide photography, text, layouts and so forth. The other two members of the staff are homosexuals, I believe, although I am not absolutely sure of this; in any event they pay no attention to the secretary, leaving me a clear, unembarrassed field.

The secretary is named Virginia Nelson. She is twenty-three years old and very pretty, attended graduate school for a while but grew tired of the academic life and came to New York in order to make entrance to the world. Being of a new generation, she suffers from neither guilt nor stifling cultural taboos and took this job when offered because it paid well and was interesting. In addition to taking my dictation, filing correspondence and running the subscriber service, Virginia writes text for the newspaper under a pseudonym, talking about the female attitude toward orgasm, penetration, breast-play, etc. I have no idea whether she has the experience she claims but find her columns consistently rewarding and they are one of the most popular features in the newspapers, judging from the small quantity of reader mail we receive. For these services I now pay her $200 a week plus occasional bonuses. I also copulate with her often, sometimes in the offices after working hours and sometimes, for atmosphere, in a large nineteenth-century hotel several blocks from this building into whose canopied beds we can literally sink, moaning and descending against one another. We are not able to go to her apartment since she lives with two roommates whose hours are unpredictable, and we cannot go to my own apartment since my wife lives there and would be likely to interrupt us just when things were getting started. Also, she would ask questions which I do not care to answer at this stage of our relationship.

Hovering over Virginia — who is really a terrific fuck, the tone of my description of her notwithstanding — feeling her breasts, tonguing her neck, preparing to make that first and last of entrances, I sometimes think that I am on the verge of making some enormous equation; something which will connect the real and the illimitable so tightly that never the gap to be broken again … but then, as the first sureties of orgasm overtake me in the familiar way, I realize that it was all a cheat and that as ever I am suspended, caught in the trap between heaven and earth, trying to piece out that small beneficence which is all we can know of the final connection.

IV

The office contains a huge bulletin board on which are thumbtacked selections of our best pictures. Often, while fucking Virginia, the angle of our conjoinment has me facing this board; prowling into her I see the gape of newsprint cunt, newsprint tits, the open, stunned mouth of a model as she holds her breath, the desperate cleavage of a male ass as it constricts against thighs pinned below. The pictures, at these times, lend urgency to my coupling, and gasping, flowing, unwinding within her, I think of the stricken eyes of the masturbator as, fistward, he plunges himself home over and again toward the very pictures I glimpse and yet, prowling her, can never touch.

V

My wife does not approve of what I am doing. Our original plan, when we married some years ago, was for her to finance me through graduate school while I took a master’s degree in business, but a false pregnancy and a siege of academic panic spelled the end of that; also I did not want to attend school. Instead I obtained a job as an editor of a men’s mazagine and that led in turn to an executive capacity at a whole chain of men’s magazines until I decided, two years ago, to take the plunge into publishing myself. Now my wife does not know what is going on. “Don’t bring it home,” she says, “that’s all I ask of you, don’t ever bring it home. I don’t want to know what you’re doing.”

“But you’ll take the money, right?” I say, not tactfully. “The proceeds are all right as long as you don’t have to grapple with the source.”

“I never asked you to do this. It was going to be entirely different. You did this on your own.”

“You’ll take the money,” I say. “The money doesn’t worry you in the least.” In the last few years, my wife has picked up rather expensive habits. To a certain degree this is a compensation for loneliness and the loss of central urgency in our marriage which is why I do not begrudge her any of this. Nevertheless, I sometimes like to tease her. “You’re like anyone else,” I say, “as long as you don’t have to face the consequences of your acts or the source from which they come, you’ll do anything. But you’re on a higher emotional plane, of course.”

“You are a disgusting cold man. You have no feelings. All the feelings have been squeezed out of you a long time ago. All you do is analyze; analyze and torment. How can you take yourself seriously? Don’t you know what I think of you?”

“I’m tired,” I say. “I don’t want to discuss it. Am I not entitled to some relaxation on a night home? Do I have to start all over again with pain and accusation? Get me a drink. Give me the newspaper. Sit by and comfort me with caresses. What’s wrong with you?”

“Oh, Walter,” she says and something breaks slowly within her; I can see her surfaces waver, reassemble at a different point, “Walter, I can’t stand this anymore. What’s happened to us? Where are we going? What is to become of us? Oh, Walter, I want children. We must have children, Walter, before what has happened becomes solidified in the cells and then our children would be monsters. We must — ”

“Now you are being naive and sentimental,” I say and stand, go to the sideboard, mix myself a drink. Straight scotch and drink it slowly, feeling the even fires of alcohol burn me cleanly, sever me in two. “We must work out our fate in the present time; it is too late to pass on solutions to the next generation. We live here in this world and in this world we must make our accommodation. I will not allow you to ease the problems along, shelve them once again on abstractions. Do you understand? live in this world.”

This is cruel of me and I am not so beyond feeling for her that I do not know it, that I fail to see what saying this does to her. Nevertheless, I cannot become sufficiently interested in the situation to retract what I have said; the concern that gave me patience is long gone and now, more and more, I feel that we must hasten in our marriage toward endings. Past the balance wheel of a relationship, this always happens. When you get to the center, the urgency is to get outside again.

VI

Pausing at a newsstand to admire the prominent display given our current issue and its competitors, I see my newspaper in the process of being bought. A small, scholarly man carrying a briefcase leans over toward the newsstand, plucks my newspaper from the top of its pile and reaches to hand fifty cents to the dealer. The dealer, however, is engrossed in a magazine and does not, for the moment, see him, inducing a kind of restlessness that verges on panic. The purchaser grunts, shrugs his shoulders, leans forward to tap the dealer on the shoulder. Before he can, I intervene.

“Pervert,” I say in a monotone, pulling the brim of my hat all the way down to the eyeline. “Fool. Idiot. What are you buying that stuff for?”

“Please,” the purchaser says, trying to stuff the paper under his arm, “I’ll thank you to — ”

“Don’t kid me,” I say, implacably. “I saw. We see everything, you know. We’ve got our eye on you people, every single one of you, and we have for a long time. There’s a special branch which does nothing but keep up files on you people. You’re heading for trouble sooner than you think.”

The purchaser puts the paper atop the pile, trembling, and turns to flight. “Hold on,” I say, seizing the sleeve of his overcoat between thumb and forefinger, nailing him into place with a single determined yank of the head. “It’s too late now. You can’t run away, not ever. You might as well buy it. Take it home and perform upon it your unspeakably brutal acts while dreaming of the limbs of the untouched child. Do you think that it would make any difference at this point?”

“You’re blocking my newsstand,” the dealer says, looking up from the magazine. “That’s not allowed.”

“Please, my friend,” I say, taking the newspaper back from the pile, handing the dealer fifty cents and putting it in the purchaser’s arm all in a swift, blurred series of motions, “please take it with my compliments. We want to do everything to ease your burden in this world.”

He takes it, mouth compressing, and turns to run, his shoulders hunched against the cold. I watch him go while standing in place, then take a copy of our largest competitor and give the dealer his money before withdrawing to a more neutral position under a streetlight. There I open the newspaper to an innocuous inside spread featuring lines of text, turn it around and shield my face while I watch the newsstand further.

Three more purchases of my newspaper are made over the next hour. One is by a cleric in full dress, one by an ambiguous middle-aged man with a pained and convulsed face and one by an elegant Negro lady who thrusts it into her armpit and goes tap tap tapping down the avenue, heels hitting the pavement like glass, ass high, wide and handsome to the avenue, the compressed features of her face like stone as they recede. I think of common destinies and then think of nothing at all, leaving the demographics of the issue to our circulation manager who is trying to open up certain outlets in the midwest.

VII

A short story is submitted to us for our consideration. From time to time we run an appeal for material from readers; our own capacities for invention are almost nil after two years of publication, and most of the scripts and photographs submitted to us through the agencies lack vitality, lack any kind of conviction other than the writer or photographer’s need for money at the given moment. Our regular contributors, sad to say, are a group of weary hacks and now, after over a hundred issues, the same models are beginning to reappear in the photographic submissions; blond for black, smirk for sneer, the familiar attitudes remasked. For all of its seeming pervasiveness, this is a small repertory theater which we run, and most of the actors have reached that stage where they are completely dependent upon gesture.

The short story is by a young man whose covering letter states that he is an unpublished writer but has been following our newspaper for a long time and is now eager to break into print via the wealth of experiences he has had. The story describes his first sexual experience at the age of fourteen with several animals and a parish priest and then goes on to detail an orgy which the writer visited two years later and at which he had the act of sexual intercourse fifteen times within twelve hours with ten female partners. As we are entitled to hope, the script does have a certain conviction and vitality, and we decide to publish it although not quite in its submitted form, we change the names of all the characters since the author has used his own, and we relocate the events from the east coast to the rural south. One section, in which the writer describes masturbating a rooster to climax, we decide is not credible and we eliminate this although we do leave in his description of his fifteenth orgasm at the orgy which he describes as “ferocious and stupendous and almost the very best of them all although I thought that my prick was going to fall off inside her with the force of my desire.” Virginia, signing herself “associate editor” and using a pseudonym, types a letter of acceptance to the author and advises him that our payment of $10, due thirty days after publication, will reach him with a complimentary copy of the newspaper in due course.

Afterward, perversely excited, for reasons I do not understand, I level her panting on the office couch and have her not once but twice within a span of fifteen minutes. At the peak, I hear a dim clucking and seek to shelter her with my feathers, feeling the stir and rustle of her body trapped below.

VIII

In the army, many years ago, a vision assaulted me during the nights and the vision was this: somewhere up on the hill, within the very sight of the barracks, the captain’s wife was lying with the captain, and he could be, at any instant, entering her groaning; the knowledge that the captain’s reality and my own could coexist within such a small area was astonishing, and toward the dawn it seemed that all things were possible, even that I, a private in basic training, could fuck the captain’s wife if only I had the strength to demand it. Knowing the captain’s limitations from close association with him, sensing the psychic impotence that oozed like slime from every crevice of his being, I could not believe that she found him desirable or her life with him happy; if it were only possible for me to carry my gifts up the hill and attend to her alone for an hour I could have everything that I wanted. Lying in the barracks toward the dawn, hearing the groaning of sleeping men around me, I felt that I could see her flesh, know the angle of her breast, know the slick tension of her thighs as they encircled to grasp but then reveille would come, and after reveille the pain and standing in the company street at noon, wincing against the sun, the day not a third over, listening to the captain scream, I knew that all of this was misdirection and lies and that no matter how close I came to her in the night, I would never have her in the real. Sometimes we would see her in the company area, coming to pay the captain a fast visit, exchange a quick confidence or two, and a gaze of perfect blankness would pass between us; her wide and empty eyes staring past the assembled troops and then to the greenery and then to the gardening orderlies picking up weeds outside the orderly room, and for all the discrimination she made between the three, she could have been in my bed that night, and I reaching out to overcome her.

IX

At the track: noise, color assault me. I am here to play a tip given me by Tony, one of the wholesalers for the Bronx district whose brother runs a handicapping sheet out of his home in Bay Meadows and who claims that he could make a small, effective living out of the racetrack if it did not fundamentally bore him. The tip is on Gemini, a bay filly out of Revoked who has been running in straight claimers but is today being dropped into a filly maiden for the first time; the word is that today, and with blinkers, she will atone for past deceits. I am here to play $50 for Tony and anything I wish for myself.

Unfamiliar with the races, I am nonetheless eager to learn. What marvelous passions, what heights of misdirection, what strange peace seems to afflict these people as they wander in the grandstand between bar and restaurant, tote board and window, rail and garden! Everything seems simple here; none of the complexities of the social organism and all of it reduced to figures, besides, in a paper which I can comprehend and worked out in races which I can see. Not for a long time have I permitted myself to believe in immediate outcome, but I am interested, hopeful; the office can wait for two hours and the payoff from the tip will more than cover me for my time. As I wander down toward the rail, a blond woman in a tight dress gives me an absent look compounded of desire and fear; vague but constant adulterous impulses churn, I wonder if I should ask her the time. I decide not to. I intimate from other sources that sex is nonexistent at the track.

By the rail, jammed cheek to shoulder with hundreds of others, I watch the running of the second race. My tip is on the third and for interest I have bet $2 on the longest shot in the race to show. The horses break from the gate opposite us and run down the backstretch, into the turn, and all the way through the unfolding stretch, hitting the finish wire some yards from where I stand. This is a simple enough act; as basic and straightforward in its convolutions as fucking or sleep but it seems to overwhelm the crowd; they scream and curse, shake their fists into the air and pray, do everything within their power to urge their horses on. A small man beside me seems to faint but before his head has even hit the rail he is awake again, bright-eyed and desperate, saying something about the seven horse. I try to clear a little space around me with knees and elbows, looking for my own number, but it seems hopeless. The race is over before I am even acclimated and I have no idea how my horse has done. Numbers come on the board and it turns out that my horse has placed. The numbers turn the screams of the crowd into dull rumbles, analyses, excuses. The race is declared official and my horse has paid thirteen dollars and eighty cents to show. I get in line to collect.

In the line I find further mysteries: no one seems particularly happy. Some feel that they should have bet their horses to win, others are convinced that they did not bet enough. They know that some person or forces have done terrible things to them, but I can see their advantage over me; they feel that this person or force is at the track this very afternoon and that there is still the possibility of intercession or, at least, of divining motive. It is something like being at God’s elbow while the Book of Life is made out for the coming year and you are able to discuss the issue with him as slowly the names of friends, acquaintances and relatives are written in, along with those of several enemies. Perhaps your name will not appear. Then again, very possibly it will. The book is open and God is writing; he is willing to hear your position on the matter.

I take my thirteen dollars and change and go forward to the seller’s area, seeing the blond woman for the second time that day. Her glance is more meaningful; there is no question now that she is trying to get my attention. She is not particularly attractive but there is a demented tilt to her breasts under the tautness of her dress which excites me, and I go to her side, ask her if she has any ideas on the next race, explain that I have come out to bet it. She touches my wrist and leans against my elbow, whispers something that I do not hear. We then make arrangements to meet by the rear grandstand cigarette counter, ground level, after the race. She shows some interest in staying with me, but I explain that I have to meet associates on important business before the running of the race and she is content. I hand her a cigarette and she leaves.

I go to the $50 window and bet Tony’s money on the horse to win. Then, abstracted, I move over to the $100 window some feet down and, under the glum face of a Pinkerton, bet $200 on the horse to place. As I do this, feeling a faint warmth to the tickets, I feel a distant excitement within me, but the excitement is hardly enough, and on the instant I decide that I will play the horses no more. It does not seem worth it.

The betting completed, I return to the rail and watch the horses circle the paddock and then move to the track for the post parade. The jockeys sit uneasily on the horses, shake their heads, look at the sky while around me people make comments on their riding in the last race and beg them to do better or worse. Gemini turns out, through some error in Tony’s information, to be not a bay horse but a roan, a series of uneven red blotches marring what would otherwise be a dirty gray. She moves unsteadily, her feet trembling on the dirt, her head tossing now and then to the opposite of her stride. I decide on the basis of the little I know about horses that she is probably hurting, but for this too there must be a reason; possibly only the question of pain will inform the horse with terror and the need to run. I think of a veterinarian creeping into the horse’s stall at midnight to inflict brutalities upon her hips and hocks, a cigarette dangling unhealthily between his lips as he cunningly inserts nails into the bottom of each shoe. There is a certain air of disreputability to the track which I like, although most of the people who surround me seem to think that it is killing their chances.

In due course the horses get into the starting gate and across the track break for their seven furlongs. The filly is on top all the way but begins to stagger in the stretch and barely hangs on to finish third, beaten by several lengths by the second place horse and only a nose in front of the fourth horse. For the first time it occurs to me to look at the toteboard, and it turns out that the horse was 25–1, certainly enough to make a show bet very profitable. Sullenly I hope for a disqualification but this is not to be and once again the race becomes official. Gemini pays $14.60 to show, meaning that I would have won $1260 for my $200 if I had only been cautious as I had been the first time. It is, however, too late for considerations of this sort.

I begin to wonder why I am at the track. I decide to leave. I have forgotten the woman already but passing the Stevens cigarette stand I see her by herself, casting darting glances through the crowd, her hands fluttering as she reaches into her handbag for a cigarette, a certain fine beam of despair in her glance. I find that I have no stomach to leave her there and instead go over and tell her that I am now ready to leave but have lost several hundred dollars on a bad tip and am therefore unable to entertain her.

She gives me a complex look of bitterness, pain, and communion and says that I have obviously had the situation all wrong. That she is not that kind of person at all. That she would not permit herself to go around with a person who saw her in that way. That I have done nothing less than cheapen her in such a way that she literally is ashamed of herself for ever having spoken to me.

She moves to slap my face but I dodge agilely enough and move quickly down the stairwell and to the ground level, then out to the parking lot. My stride is loose, easy, a certain space seems to lay between my feet and the asphalt; unforeseen, a strange, manic tune begins to burble out of my throat. If I did not know better — but surely by this time I know better — I could almost swear that I have had a good time at the races and that like everyone there, I have found exactly what I was looking for.

X

Not since our fifth issue have we run pictures showing couples actually engaged in the act of sexual intercourse. The law of the land, as interpreted through the Supreme Court, seems clear enough: nothing that has socially redeeming value may be denied the rights of publication and mass distribution and all published materials have this socially redeeming value since they are an expression of certain phases of the culture, social obsessions, so to speak, and an index of the taste of thousands. Despite this, the District Attorney of Kings County, through his minions, seized several thousand copies of our fifth issue, the centerfold of which showed a man and woman lying side by side, his erect penis in the act of penetrating her vagina. The contention of the District Attorney was that this picture was pornographyper seand unentitled to the protection of the First Amendment, and the efforts of our attorneys to block the action at the level of the first hearing were unsuccessful. The case went on appeal to the next highest court, but in the meantime the District Attorney carried an injunction enjoining all newsdealers in his borough from carrying further issues of our newspaper since the offending publication indicated that we were likely to print pornography in the future. Because of this, several of our outlets in the other boroughs became panicky and substantially cut down their orders for issues, while all hopes of out-of-town distribution were lost. Our attorneys stated that the action of the District Attorney was illegal and the case, when it got into the higher courts, would certainly be decided in our favor, but in the meantime we were faced with the possibility that the actions of the District Attorney could put us out of business. Sales of our sixth issue were off 75 percent from those of the fifth and of the seventh were even worse, and the clearest projections showed that we would hardly last another month unless the pressure on us was removed.

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