Fiction - Summer 2012

Archy and Mehitabel

By Jerome Charyn | June 1, 2012


I had never heard of Archy and Mehitabel. The idea of a cockroach who could write poetry would have appealed to a kid from the Bronx. But I had to wait until I attended high school in Manhattan before I would learn about that cockroach and his companion, an alley cat who thought she was Cleopatra. The kids at Music and Art would quote line after line of Mehitabel’s meditations while I nodded my head.

“Toujours gai, kid.” That was her love cry to the cockroach.

I was smitten by Archy and Mehitabel, and by the swagger of all those M&Aers from Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The boys wore white bucks, shoes that looked like anteaters or rumpled rats, and were the favorite footwear among Ivy Leaguers. Those boys had one ambition: to get into Harvard or Yale.

The girls weren’t that different. They scribbled poems at night and practiced their acceptance speeches for the Pulitzer Prize. I had a secret crush on one of them—Merle Messenger. It happened in the fall of  ’53. We were both sophomores in the same English class. She was tall and zaftig, with the ripeness of an opera star. She sang in the school choir and could have walked right into Juilliard. But Merle didn’t want a career in music. She wanted to teach world literature at one of the Seven Sisters. She read with a terrifying appetite. She had lavender eyes, like Elizabeth Taylor’s, and when she talked of Mehitabel or Natasha in War and Peace, those lavender eyes had all the little explosions of the Milky Way.

I was mute around Merle. The Bronx had very small purchase on West End Avenue. And I was startled when she asked me to study with her.

“You’ll give me courage,” she said. “I always shiver before an exam.”

And so I visited Merle on a Friday night in November. It was like entering Ali Baba’s den. The building had a doorman in a gray uniform, and elevator operators in identical gray. I had to announce myself. I was summoned into the lobby. One of the elevator men pulled on a golden lever, and we shot upstairs in an ancient, shivering car.

Merle’s mother met me at the door. She was president of the PTA at Music and Art. Her name was Yvonne. She wrote novels for young adults. Merle’s father was a book critic for the World-Telegram & Sun.

He clapped his hands, and Merle came out of her room. She was wearing slippers and gorgeous blue pajamas under a silk robe—that’s how she dressed for a study date. Her mom and dad didn’t even notice.

“Yvonne,” said the book critic, “look what Merle has done. She’s brought us Jerry Salinger’s double. Doesn’t he have Jerry’s big ears?”

It’s true. I did have big ears—and Salinger’s brooding, dark demean.

“Ah,” said Mrs. Messenger, “leave the kid alone. He’s interested in your daughter, not J. D. Salinger.” Salinger reigned over the Upper West Side; half the kids at M&A knew his stuff by heart. But it took me an entire month to grasp that “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” and “The Laughing Man” were short stories rather than pickle merchants at the Jennings Street Market.

I walked hand in hand with Merle through an endless maze of dark rooms—West End Avenue had all the light of a sepulcher. And finally we came to her room, which was almost as large as our apartment in the Bronx. It had two beds, a sofa, and a desk near the window. Merle didn’t believe in preludes or preambles. She undid her robe and let me glimpse her partial nakedness in pajamas that almost served as a second skin.

She meant to play Manhattan’s own alley cat and seduce a cockroach from the Bronx, but I was as much of a trickster as Merle. I moonlighted after class. I was a male model for a Seventh Avenue clothing cataloger, Rosenzweig & Co. Girls were always running around the showroom in their panties and peekaboo bras. Romances would flare up behind a photographer’s curtain. The whole place was a tinderbox.

It took me a while to understand the mechanics of Merle’s household. Her mom and dad didn’t like her running around to parties with college boys and coming home after midnight, smothered in mascara. They weren’t snobs. I went to Music and Art and looked like J. D. Salinger. That was enough of a résumé.

I saw Merle once or twice a week, stayed over, and had breakfast with her mom and dad. But I was on a tightrope, since I had no time to read the books they talked about at the kitchen table—Kafka and his castle, Cervantes and his crackpot of a knight, James Joyce and the river that rattled through his bones.

Merle was the snob, not her mother. Whatever delight we took in the wonderful warp of our bodies didn’t carry over to M&A. I wasn’t included in that web of friends she had. She mocked me in our English class when I fumbled for the right word.

“What Jerome is trying to say, Dr. McCloud, is that Hamlet is dangerous to all mankind—he kills on the advice of a ghost. He’d marry his own mother if he had half the chance.”

No one could argue with Merle. Literature was her own private tablet and proving ground. She could talk about a text as if she were in the middle of making love. Her sentences were a kind of intelligent delirium.

My hair began to fall out. Rosenzweig, the catalog king, gave me a special shampoo. He sniffed the air with his huge nostrils, looking like Count Dracula with a whitewashed face. But he was gentle with me. I was his most successful protégé.

“I’m in love,” I said.

Rosenzweig had a quick solution. I should overwhelm my sweetheart with his largesse. It sounded like a military operation. But I was desperate and listened to Dracula. I announced to Merle that we were going on a real date—beyond her bedroom. She wasn’t very pleased, but she must have been curious. I showed up on West End Avenue in a maroon sport coat from Rosenzweig’s racks. Merle was waiting for me in high heels and a miraculous silver gown. Her lavender eyes weakened whatever will I had. I was her Archy, the cockroach who couldn’t type capital letters. And she was my myopic Mehitabel.

“Toujours gai, kid,” she said as we approached the elevator. But she was suspicious of Rosenzweig’s chauffeur and limousine.

“Am I your gun moll? And is this an armored car?”

She couldn’t have realized how prescient she was. The limo and its driver had once belonged to Frank Costello, who was the cataloger’s silent partner.

Rosenzweig had picked the restaurant, a Florentine dive on Ninth Avenue that didn’t have to troll for customers. Costello himself dined there whenever he wasn’t in the clink. The waiters, who wore blue bowties and tight little jackets, treated Merle like Cleopatra. They brought flowers to the table. They lit a long red candle. They served us wine, even though we were too young to drink in public. They wouldn’t let us order from the menu.

“Darlings, you’ll eat what Mr. Frank eats.”

We had a Tuscan appetizer—crushed tomatoes and olives on flat bread. We had a salad of tiny green and yellow stalks. We had linguine cooked in the chef’s own white wine sauce. We had chicken breasts baked with onions, walnuts, and diced ham …

Merle may have been myopic, but she wasn’t blind. The restaurant was a haven for top-tier gangsters and their madonnas, or mistress-wives. Some of these madonnas were even younger than Merle. She never asked me who “Mr. Frank” was. But her lavender eyes were like needles after her second sip of wine. I was heartsick. There wasn’t any way to win. I couldn’t woo her with literature. I’d taken her out of her own little cave and had revealed nothing but a garish world of gunmen.

We rode back to West End Avenue in utter silence. She wouldn’t even let me hold her hand. And she didn’t invite me upstairs. I’d disappointed her more than I could ever have imagined. And she was quite cruel.

“Jerome, I think you’d better stick to your armored car. If you cruise long enough, you might find some poor Ophelia … and maybe the two of you can run off together and drown. Goodnight, my sweet, sweet prince.”

There were no more study dates. Merle never glanced at me once in the halls of Music and Art. Her lavender eyes went right through my skin and bones.

Still, I was probably the richest kid at M&A. Rosenzweig cheated me, but he couldn’t afford to cheat me too much. The catalogs were his bread and butter, and I was his most popular item.

But I felt cheated out of my childhood. I slaved like a dog after school. I wore white bucks, but the time I spent in the showroom kept me from my studies and pulled me far, far from New Haven and Harvard Yard.

I heard through the grapevine at M&A that Merle Messenger had fallen in love with a Harvard frosh. She arrived at school in a crimson sweatshirt, wearing a Harvard pin. She’d snub her friends, stare at the ceiling, yawn while Dr. McCloud talked of Thomas Hardy and Jude the Obscure, and then she didn’t come to school at all.

The West Siders swore she had eloped with that crimson boy and was living in a cabin on Mount Rainier. I didn’t believe a word of it, but I couldn’t borrow Rosenzweig’s limo and ride to Seattle. And the farther away I was from Merle, the more I missed our nights together and my breakfasts with the Messengers.

And then, six months after Merle disappeared, I saw Mrs. Messenger at Music and Art. That should have been enough of a hint that Merle wasn’t on Mount Rainier.

“Mr. Salinger,” she said with a teasing smile, “Merle would like to see you.”

I started to shiver in my pants. “I don’t get it. Hasn’t she gone away?”

“She never left Manhattan. She’s been hospitalized, but now she’s back home. She was suicidal—for a couple of weeks.”

At first I thought the crimson boy had broken her heart, but there was no crimson boy, according to Mrs. M. It was all part of Merle’s “liquid imagination.”

I didn’t know what to bring—candy or flowers? I brought nothing at all. I didn’t want Merle to feel I was visiting a mental patient.

Her face was as white as Count Dracula’s. All her fleshiness had disappeared in six months. But her lavender eyes still bled with the fierceness of the Milky Way. She had gates on her windows now. And the shadows of buildings across the street overwhelmed her room. We could have been in some netherworld.

I had to break the ice. “How is tricks?” I asked in Archy’s vernacular. She began to purr like an alley cat. “Still a lady,” she said. “There’s a dance or two in the old dame yet.” Then the purring stopped, and I could see the taut lines under Mehitabel’s mask. “You should have socked me. That might have pulled me out of my delirium.”

“But you weren’t delirious.”

“Yes, I was. That’s why Daddy never liked me to go out on dates.”

“But you functioned beautifully at school. You’ll be our valedictorian.”

“School,” she said, frowning a bit. “That’s like brushing my teeth in the dark. It’s a part I’ve been playing since kindergarten. All Mommy had to do was wind me up—darling, haven’t you ever noticed the key carved into my back?”

There was no key, and there had never been. But I wouldn’t contradict her.

“Merle, your father should have told me, and I wouldn’t have taken you to that awful restaurant.”

“But Daddy adores you. And I adored the funny little men who served us.”

“You didn’t have such a hot time,” I said.

“But it wasn’t the restaurant—it was the light.”

I didn’t understand. That Florentine dive was like a dungeon, because Mr. Frank and his lieutenants preferred not to be seen around strangers.

“The candles,” she said. “It hurt my eyes to watch them flicker on the wall. I was irritable. I took it out on you. I turn into a witch whenever I’m away from this room.”

“Then it’s a good geography lesson. We’ll limit ourselves to this terrain.”

She frowned again. “There are no limits, dear Jerome. Haven’t you heard of William Blake? You can hold Infinity in the palm of your hand.”

And I had my Infinity in a dark room on West End Avenue with gates on the windows. There were no sentinels outside Merle’s door. Her mom and dad never spied on us. I spent as many nights with Merle as I could. Dracula’s driver delivered me from the showroom to West End Avenue. I’d become the paterfamilias of my own little tribe in the East Bronx. Rosenzweig’s accountant handled all my bills. And I explained to my mom and dad that it was much more efficient for me to reside in Manhattan overnight.

I borrowed Merle’s liquid imagination and recast the Messengers into my own parents. It was a dangerous high-wire act. Young J. D. Salinger in their daughter’s bed. But they weren’t shopping for a son-in-law, just a guy who kept Merle out of harm’s way.

I loved her, even with her face as white as chalk. I cherished every scrap of flesh on her bones. She was hungry all the time. Merle ate two meals for every meal I ate, and she was zaftig again after a month.

It was only then that she confided in me and confessed what the hell had happened. She hadn’t tried to kill herself, not really. She’d just scribbled on the bathroom wall with her own blood:

Toujours gai, kid

Mommy and Daddy sent her to the sanitarium. And there had been a crimson boy, but he wasn’t from Harvard. He was an orderly, fond of wearing a red hospital coat. His name was Marvin, and he was from Brighton Beach. He read poetry to Merle while she was strapped to a bed. Marvin knocked her up. She had an abortion and was shipped home to West End Avenue.

“I wanted to marry him,” she said. “Marvin made love to me, right after he fed me lunch. Daddy had him sent to some kind of Siberia for disgraced orderlies.”

I was broken with jealousy. I envied that crimson boy and the time he had with Merle in the madhouse.

“Marvin still writes. But Mommy tears up all his letters.”

And then she took me inside her blue pajamas as if we were comrades in arms, and I had my own small portion of Infinity with Merle. I was like some pale replica of that crimson boy.

She talked of going back to M&A. Some mountebank of a doctor was called in. He examined Merle for two hours.

“Jerome,” Merle whispered after the mountebank left. “We’ll study together.”

I knew what would happen next. Her lavender eyes seduced everyone in sight. She didn’t even have to make up the term she had missed. She sang in the school choir. We were in Dr. McCloud’s creative writing class. Her stories and poems were chiseled dreams from her days and nights in a madhouse. None of us could compete with Merle. And I couldn’t write about Rosenzweig & Co., or I would have been chucked out of school.

Merle was back with her old clique. They smoked in the toilet, talked about Radcliffe. And soon she was much too occupied with choir practice to have study dates.

I realized I was out on my ass after Mrs. M.’s maid returned the underwear she had ironed to my Bronx address. I worked more hours at the showroom. Other catalogers tried to lure me away.

“Over my dead body,” Rosenzweig said, sniffling into a handkerchief. But it was a big act. Nobody would have been insane enough to mess with Mr. Frank’s silent partner.

“Ingrate,” Dracula said, tossing a wad of hundred-dollar bills at me. “Eat my heart out.”

I stopped wearing white bucks. I fell away from that elite gang of West Siders. Yale was just another school in some wilderness of towers. I thought of dropping out of M&A. Rosenzweig began to pull out my hair. And I was precious to him. He might have ruined his own product.

“I don’t have dropouts in my stable. Stupidity is not an option for one of my models.”

“Big talker,” I said. “What if I should get into Harvard by some stroke of luck?”

His nostrils were flaring again. “I’ll feel as proud as if it was my own son.”

“Ah, but it’s not so simple to commute from Seventh Avenue to Cambridge, Mass.”

And he mocked his protégé. “With my drivers, kid, it’s a piece of cake.”

I didn’t have a real home—not the garment district, not the Bronx, and not West End Avenue. My grades suffered. I avoided Merle and her whole clique. If we happened to pass in the corridors, her eyes would scrape the ceiling and mine would scrape the walls.

I was going to skip graduation, but I didn’t want to disappoint my mom and dad. They arrived on Convent Avenue in one of Dracula’s limousines, Mom clutching a cane. I couldn’t sit with them; I was up front with all the graduates, in my gown. We had a guest speaker, some Manhattan potentate, but I didn’t listen to his blather. I was waiting for the valedictorian. She strode to the platform like the Valkyrie she had become in her senior year. She’d been accepted at all Seven Sisters and chose Barnard, because she wouldn’t have to give up her lair on West End Avenue.

And she spoke to us with all the aplomb of her new sisterhood. She sang about the goodwill of graduating seniors—our desire to serve. She even mentioned bomb shelters and the Cold War. But I could feel her body breathe under the maroon graduation gown with a wildness of its own.

Merle winked at us and said, “Now I’d like to talk about Archy, a cockroach who was punished for having been a poet in his former life. Poetry matters to him. And it matters to his companion, Mehitabel, who would rather be ‘rowdy and gaunt … than slaves to a tame society.’ ”

Merle stared down from the lectern, into the dimmed lights. “That is our credo at M&A. We prefer dissonance and cacophony to familiar sounds.”

Merle’s classmates whistled and tossed their graduation caps into the air—that is, all her classmates except one. I couldn’t gamble as much as Merle did. I was already an entrepreneur, under Rosenzweig’s wing. But I disappointed Dracula. I hadn’t applied to Harvard or Yale—I needed a sabbatical year between high school and college. I had to break my addiction to the Ivy League.

I tried to sneak out of the ceremonies, but Merle’s own mom blocked my way. She was sniffling into a handkerchief. “Wasn’t that a gorgeous speech, Jerome?”

She must have noticed the darkness under my eyes.

Suddenly her shoulders were trembling.

“It’s my fault. I encouraged Merle to bring you home. You weren’t part of her usual crowd. There wouldn’t be any complication with parents.”

“Yeah,” I said. “It was a lark. I could sleep over, comfort Merle.”

“It was better than having her run around with strangers.”

“And I was her trusted rag doll. I was crazy about your daughter. I would have learned to disappear with much more gusto and grace. But you should have told me about that crimson boy.”

Her eyes bulged. She looked like a bird of prey. “What crimson boy?”

“The orderly who knocked up Merle.”

“Young man,” she said, “I’ll have your diploma rescinded if you breathe another word. My daughter loves to lie.”

And Mrs. Messenger vanished into that maroon world of graduation gowns.

I didn’t ride home with my parents in the limousine. I strolled through West Harlem in my cap and gown. I followed Broadway down to the garment district. Men on milk boxes saluted me. A housewife with wondrous hips flirted with the young graduate. I danced with her for a second in the street. She licked my ear. All I could think of was Merle in her blue pajamas.

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