From the Night Factory
43. The Arrival of the Monster
Claudette was voluptuous. She knew it, wearing clothes that fit her form, a magnet for eyes. Even so, she was embarrassed by her knees. She said they were badly scarred from childhood when she was a tomboy who played rough. She still played rough. When she found her boyfriend was cheating on her, she went to where he was having his tryst and, using the spare key, moved his car. Claudette was a colleague at AT&T Long Lines. We became friends while I was a clerk typist with a desk very near hers. We enjoyed conversing. Of African descent, her thick lips were enameled with dark lipstick and I, like every other male in the office, thought she was appealing.
I watched as every black male in the office found their way to her desk attempting to court her. She rejected them all with wit as far as I could tell. Some even expressed a grudge towards me because I seemed to be in her good graces. She talked about meeting outside of the office, but she lived faraway in New Rochelle and I never allowed myself to believe we were anything other than friends. What she and I found strange was the feeble efforts of James to seduce her.
The lanky James was stiff in gait and posture. Rigorously clean and neat in appearance, he would pose himself as if he was being painted. Although he was always polite in manners, he was unbearably pompous, bragging about his intellect. He made no secret of the disdain he felt for his colleagues. He regarded them as his inferiors, this despite the general opinion that James was not especially good at his job. He was not well liked.
Perhaps I would not have liked him either, but I found him fascinating. He avoided socializing with the men in the office and was more likely to be found gossiping among the women. I came to know him when he would visit our area to flirt with Claudette. He was more cordial with me then with the other men in the office. He paid me the honor of engaging in lengthy conversations, which is how I learned he spoke French, I think German and Italian, too, the languages of opera, of classical music, yet he spoke everything with a slight slur. That impediment undermined the impressiveness he intended in everything he declared.
James had the audacity to question Claudette as to why she displayed so much familiarity with me and didn’t prefer him. He did this blatantly, in front of me. I think he assumed Claudette and I were dating, which was never true. He went so far as to propose marriage to her, so off-the-wall we could never be sure if he was being sincere or humorous, especially because, in addition to everything else, the office was convinced he was gay.
He had been asked if he was gay by several of us. He would vehemently deny it. At the suggestion, his already stiff body would stiffen further and his voice would deepen, yet no one believed him. The impression I had is that he was afraid of being found out, but in our office no one cared if he was gay. There would have been lighthearted banter and ribbing perhaps, but that was characteristic of how we all passed the time making our monotonous jobs jollier. It was the sport of wits. But James was touchy and could not tolerate it even being said in jest. His intolerance led to others avoiding him.
It was at this time the unseen monster crept into New York City. What real monsters there used to be our ancestors took on with weapons of wood, stone, and bone. Our ancient predecessors effectively eradicated the world of monsters like sabertooths and cave bears, even the giants, like woolly rhinos and mammoths. What kind of god puts into operation a terrifying system of killing and eating as a means for transferring energy and nutrients across the food chain? By contrast, at this later time in history, when I was cultivating a friendship with the difficult James, a vaporous vampire slipped into the gay community where it was able to establish a foothold and feed undetected by the disinterested general population.
During meal breaks, I sometimes explored the AT&T building in which I worked rather than eat a meal. My job was upstairs in the Television Operation Center. Several floors down in the operators’ lounge I found a rickety upright piano. Upon discovering it, I sat at the keyboard and played the only piece I knew, Beethoven’s “Für Elise”. Years before, I had spent a summer deciphering the sheet music and teaching myself that one piece. I had just finishing playing the piece when a voice behind me said, “That was awful.” It was James. I apologized and explained I didn’t really know how to play piano. At this news, he was more impressed that I could play at all and expressed a bit of sympathy. “Here, let me show you how it’s done.” He took my place and performed the piece with fervent skill. He then went on to Chopin, his spidery fingers dashing along the keys. He treated me to a private concert. His skill was obvious, despite the off tones of the poor piano.
James was a concert pianist in his previous life, before coming to work at AT&T. He performed before small audiences, in churches and such. He never shared with me any great achievement; I do not know how highly his talent was regarded. He adored classical music and used to teach piano performance at a college. Poor James, he came to work for AT&T for more money. And he looked upon his workmates as unsophisticated boors. However, we became better friends after this meeting.
I learned of his many other interests. James was a gourmet, a lover of plants, and vain about his health and youthful appearance. That was until he caught a cold.
Over the months that followed, the “cold” stayed with him, he couldn’t seem to shake it. The unnamed monster had embraced him. The horrible thing ate him slowly over the year. He began seeing a doctor. Then more doctors, but none could cure him. They couldn’t even identify correctly what was wrong with him. His illness grew worse. He began losing his hair. Then strange rashes appeared. His once proud body became speckled with lesions. One of our colleagues recommended a dermatologist. We were all concerned. James might not have been liked, but he certainly wasn’t disliked. By winter, we noticed he had sessions during which he spaced out. He began to regularly show up late for work. Then he was found unconscious in the men’s room. His colleagues asked him to go to the hospital, but he refused. After that, he started missing days of work altogether.
A group of the guys at the office with the help of the union paid a visit to James’ apartment in New Jersey. They had to force their way through the door. Whether they did so because he refused to admit them or was unable to get to the door in his sickness, my notes from that time do not tell me. It was the union that finally insisted and carried him off to the hospital. James had hated the union. He had quit the union, had demanded and won back some of the dues he had paid to the union, yet the union protected him from being fired when he was sick. It was now the union that was trying to rescue him from his illness despite his self-exile.
The women in the office swapped stories. Joann said, “It was just a couple of months ago he said to me, ‘Joann, I don’t even got the strength to clean my apartment. It’s become a frightful mess.’” Shirley said, “Just a month ago we were walking together and he was doing a heap of scratching, and I said to him, ‘ James….’”
James deteriorated rapidly in the last three weeks of the monster’s grasp. He had become bedridden, could no longer control his discharges, could no longer feed himself, could no longer communicate or recognize anyone. His memory dissolved. Then came a heart seizure. Diane visited with a few others from the office. “I think he knew we were there,” she told me. “He opened his eyes and tried to see us, but he wasn’t really conscious.”
On the 21st of March 1984, Judy called the hospital at about nine o’clock at night. She was informed his fever dropped. She thought this might be a good sign, but James died before ten o’clock.
In our office, no one remembered the New York Times headline from 1981, “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals” We had not yet taken notice of the term AIDS that in 1982 had been proposed at some meeting in Washington D.C. when it was recognized this monster was not exclusively eating gays. We didn't know what Kaposi's sarcoma was. A week before James died, Gaëtan Dugas died. He was a French Canadian flight attendant who had been linked to the spread of AIDS in the U.S., but none of us took notice. And it didn’t seem Saint Vincent’s Hospital knew what the real monster was that possessed James. They reported the cause of death as encephalitis.
Everyone in the office was informed. I found a deserted spot concealed behind frames of telephone switches with a chair facing a pair of windows. The seat was low and I could only see the very tops of two skyscrapers and a clear blue sky. There were a couple of birds soaring about them. You see, I kept detailed notes from that day. James was an intelligent man, a talented man, but he had suffered too many disappointments. When I think of monsters, I think of the lurking monster that killed James before bursting into the public’s consciousness. I think how he was dying a painful and ignoble death for that long year and for no great sin. He was kind of a friend, or maybe at best I can only say I didn’t particularly dislike him. I was more amused than insulted by his arrogance and condescension.
A number of my colleagues attended the small service for James that followed. During the service was played a recording of James performing at the piano. My colleagues talked the next day in the office of their surprise at how good a pianist he was. I had known.
Mr Bentzman will continue to report here regularly about the events and concerns of his life. If you've any comments or suggestions, he would be pleased to hear from you.
Selected Suburban Soliloquies, the best of Mr Bentzman's earlier series of Snakeskin essays, is available as a book or as an ebook, from Amazon and elsewhere.