Excerpted from the in-progress novel, Buffalo.
Because Bea’s collection consisted of more than what she could store in refrigerators or under the bed she took Kotter on a tour of Buffalo’s female body parts. Cities were, according to Bea, a patriarchal invention and the urban space was one in which women were forced to navigate in a way that was uncomfortable and unnatural. The Feminist’s Guide to Walking the City also encouraged an awareness of, and subsequent tribute to the working women enslaved throughout the urban landscape. This suggestion was contained within a chapter called “Stoned” which Kotter thought was funny and Bea did not. She put on her hat, a scarf and some waxy lip balm from a green tin. Her hands then black in leather gloves, she pointed a finger at him.
“You think this will be boring.”
“I guess so,” he said.
“I think Geneva is a very feminine city,” she told Kotter as they left. “Amsterdam too, it’s kind of circular.”
The morning sun was yellow and nothing seemed settled or dim enough. He hadn’t even slept three hours. Everything looked new, and so Kotter imagined, as he often did, that he was visiting the city. Today he was seeing his neighbors as he imagined Bea saw them. Winter jackets looked old—white parkas with neon zigzag patterns or stripes across the arms and unpainted zippers. People wore brown corduroy, jeans that tapered at the bottoms and all white running shoes with grey laces. The snow was there, ignored. The dirt from the road made everything brown and nothing about the red brick of his apartment building seemed like what he wanted. No one would take photographs of his home or want to remember standing where they stood now. He felt poor, and realized this feeling was because of Bea. It was her gloves.
“Those aren’t walking gloves, he told her. You’ll be cold.”
She said, “they’re new. My driving gloves.”
“Oh,” he said. “You don’t have a car.”
“My parents do. The steering wheel is cold in winter.”
Kotter had learned to drive in his mother’s white cleaning van. It had no windows and on the dirt of the van Kotter and Michael would write Blow Me or someone else would write Wash Me and in the night they would take the van around to the health food store where they would imagine throwing a brick through the window, and in remembering all this Kotter thought he must have been young—younger than sixteen and perhaps he was.
Often they sat with feet up on the dashboard and Michael would say how many words for pussy can you think of? Or sometimes he would say how many words for cock can you think of, and Kotter would say,
and then Michael would say spam javelin or lunch meat truncheon or he would say beef curtains, or piss flaps Kotter would giggle and they would smoke more. He said this vocabulary was because of playing hockey—team spirit and male bonding and wayward hormones. One away game motel room rally involved the team masturbating in a circle onto a piece of toast, or post-game: having 40 ounce beers taped to your hands while you were naked and drinking to get your clothes back. Queers, Michael called them, thoughtfully.
What’d you do with the toast? Kotter wanted to know.
Were they fourteen then? Or younger?
Michael had not played hockey for very long, and instead bought black denim jackets with roses stenciled on the back and Madonna cassette tapes. Kotter had played baseball for about the same amount of time but catching had made his knees feel funny. So after the cock and pussy game they would smoke and cut their fingers to be blood brothers and play cards and buy air fresheners shaped like trees and empty the ash tray and pick at the flat grey leather with hard yellow foam underneath and then Kotter crashed the van one day as he backed up into a wall, and his mother smacked him but she died three weeks later and so it never really inconvenienced her that much. Eighteen. He was eighteen then. He had to pick it up from the shop on his own, and when the collection agency started calling about the seven hundred dollar bill, Kotter got a phone in the van and disconnected the house line.
The toast was eaten, Kotter remembered. The last one to cum.
He wondered about male hormones and testosterone, and he wondered if Red was using turmeric in the muffins he was making. Bea told him that he hadn’t been listening, and that turmeric wasn’t used in baked goods at all.
Outside, the cut of the sun was bright. Behind his eyelids, it burned still, white. Round was difficult, that perfect O. He’d tried in school with a compass, the pencil attached to tracing up and across. He stabbed his pink eraser instead, cleaned his mails, punctured the rubber soles of his shoes. But there was never a real circle, not like this. The clouds came, thankfully, and they walked away from the apartment towards the women Bea wanted to look at and the man on the corner asked if they were looking. Kotter shook his head no. Bea did smoke, Kotter knew, but only the safe green leaves from university friends and perhaps from the front seats of cars in parking lots.
The traffic was loud and Bea wanted coffee. Inside COFFEE DELI DONUTS NEWS the line shifted and the tile floor was wet with sludge and the metal chairs loud as old ladies settled with egg sandwiches and the coffee came in a thin cup that leaked from the top.
He followed her along wet sidewalks, past Sunbelievable Tanning, Quick Cash 2 Go, Starpolski’s Bridal Shoppe and the lawyer who advertised on a big billboard over on the I-95. The rhythm of everything was off, and he felt tired while she pointed out the women:
The heads of women. The torsos, faces, and bodies of angels, nymphs and goddesses. The hands all holding scales, holding shafts of wheat, holding shields, holding books, holding urns, jugs, vases and children. Or they were bending to buttress the corners of buildings or lifting clocks or spouting water. All shaped by careful craftsmen: carved nipples and gentle slits. All smooth and hairless rendered in the black gloss of marble or the yellow-pale of sandstone or the meat of cold bronze.
In Lafayette Square was the column topped by a ten-foot-tall woman who represented the concept of genius. Kotter had eaten his lunch on the steps below.
In the cemetery at Mirror Lake, the Three Graces washed their feet in a fountain. Slender girls really, naked. Standing on the damp ground, he wondered why ice hadn’t formed on their bodies. They looked wet, their bronze flesh slick and brown.
In Delaware Park near the expressway was the spirit of womanhood on a cement plinth, and Bea said that an elongated naked body holding a hoop did not represent womanhood, and that the artist was a man anyway.
“There’s lots of male statues,” Kotter said.
“Of men,” Bea said. “Real people. The women are always concepts.”
He thought of Fillmore, and the bust of JFK and then the hoop-holding woman and thought she could be right. They walked, and everybody had full hands, gesturing, holding keys or tablets and representing Justice, Liberty, Victory. Greek, neo-classical, French, and Kotter wanted to know about the American women, and why weren’t they on buildings.
“American women aren’t on buildings,” Bea told him. They’re on beer bottles and commercials. Everyone here is made in the style of someone else. A lot of artists were inspired by Paris.
But it was his city and it could only be his properly at night. When he knew they were there below him, underneath him--at desks, composing postcard thoughts and noticing differences that made this city not a home. Not for them.
Wish you were here.
He knew the street they followed now but was tired of looking upwards and tired of looking at doors and not walking through them into the warmth, and tired of looking for meaning in stone. He went carefully inside himself, still nodding at Bea while he pondered something that bothered him.
The Statler Hotel
Here I am staying at this hotel for a few days, and so far the weather hasn’t been good but I am enjoying the rest as I haven’t been feeling well lately that’s why I haven’t come to visit you,
Why the excuses Lou? he wondered. The hotel was only blocks from Martha’s address. He could have walked to her in minutes. She would have known this. Why mention the weather? He wished it were a code and took the first letter from each word, then every other word to form new words but there were a surprising number of F’s and B’s when he did this. He read backwards, then tried word association—the weather a warning? A hint? A reference to a government operation dependent upon ignorance amongst the general population?
“You never see uneven breasts,” Bea said. “Always both sides the same.”
Kotter said it was the same with testicles, and that maybe statues looked better with everything even.
No code then, perhaps only what was there. A note from a man, sent forty years ago and only paper. Not written in stone. While Bea talked he looked across the street at the welcome absence of construction. Underneath the snow he knew was not even grass, only blank pavement with nothing to redeem it. It used to be a bank forty years ago, when the city was still full. Back when America’s need for grain necessitated the construction of vaults in the basements of Buffalo, and it wasn’t wheat that sprung up along city streets but the result of it, an economy that welcomed workers and everything getting bigger—the largest flour processing city in the nation. Where Wonder Bread was made! Forty years ago when the shipyards were penetrated daily by vessels from other countries--some with women fastened to the prow and some newer, alone in the water without a mascot.
His mother made him eat cereal as a tribute to her new home.
Those big grain elevators out by the highway, she told him. That’s where your cereal started. Kotter imagined a massive frosted cavern filled with marshmallows in the shape of monsters. He ate obediently and often upon invitation with a large helping of Irish Cream liqueur, he and his mother licking the bowls clean in unison. Had he stopped to reflect on the pleasure this gave him (alcohol aside), he might have wondered about the idea of consuming a city and if that was why, so much later in life he couldn’t seem to get outside of Buffalo, even when he left.
But that was back when he was young. Back before the city began to dwindle, shrinking in its importance. Families needing perfection now went to Rochester, Albany or Chicago, wanting no association with something damaged, lost.
When the grain industry collapsed and the granaries closed, all one or two of them empty, Kotter drank plain milk from a bowl, without the liquored monsters, instead.
One of the last left in operation, he thought he could smell now, sweet.
Bea talked, still, and he left the postcard code and looked at the vacant lot standing building-less. Inoffensive. He thought perhaps that the idea of nothing really wasn’t so bad. Who knows what the bank might have revealed had it still stood, and what even-titted figure might have been employed in its decoration? Now it was one less thing to analyze, and he might get to bed sooner.
“Smell that?” he said.
She stopped and sniffed.
“Cheerios,” he told her. “They’re baking Cheerios.”
“General,” she said.
General Mills, he said.
“What’s in a name?” Bea asked, raising her eyebrows at him.
And so in her way, she had ruined this too.
They went home and Kotter had two beers which made him warm again. In the just-before space of sleep the vacant lot still seemed to be the most memorable part of the afternoon. The opposite of stone. Just air.