Edgar the King
has dropped his pile of things on my desk
and now holds my date book in his wide, pink
hands. Were on the 33rd floor, and over
our shoulders theres a sliver of view.
Today, its windy, the clouds flitting
like rags. I catch a glimpse even with Edgar
standing there, holding my date book like
a piece of fruit. You cant hear the
wind, mind you. But its out there.
"This is nice," Edgar says, talking
about the date book, and he follows that with
a short sentence I dont understand (Edgar
is frequently hard to understand). Then he
says, "Do you like it?"
I say right away, "Yeah," because
I dont go all formal with him. I dont
want to seem put on and say, "Yes, I
like it," as though in a foreign language
class, answering in a complete sentence. "Yeah,
its great," I say. "Its
great because its a calendar but it
has an address book in it, too."
I talk to Edgar, I speak politely and I smile,
a bit doggishearnest and true. Theres
one man in the office with a job like Edgars
and they talk to each other now and then.
Hes a little man named Charlie. When
he speaks to Edgar, he doesnt make a
sound. He only mouths the words. Charlies
been here a long time, too, like Edgar, and
he must have decided years ago that there
was no point in making a sound when youre
talking to a deaf man. To me, it is the whole
point. I speak the words, when I speak to
Edgar, beautifully. They fall out in a parade,
great syllables, masterly sibilants. But I
dont speak too loudly, since I know
raising my voice does not help him to understand,
and also probably because, though I hate to
admit it, our conversations can be a little
embarrassing and I like to keep it down.
this particular day, we have had only one
conversation so far, and then Edgar approaches
me about the date book. This is almost always
how it happens. He comes over to my desk in
his loose, expensive clothing, wearing a thin
gold chain around his wrist, and he talks
to me. I know a thing or two about Edgar by
now. He has a car, he told me once, which
he keeps parked in a clean and safe city garage.
Hes tall, taller than I am, which is
tall. And hes soft, sort of all oversoft
in the face, the head, the knees, soft across
the forehead where no ones ever soft.
Sometimes he comes back from vacations tanned,
or burnt, a slight pinkish change to his oblong
head. Edgar has only a sprinkling of black
hair and he keeps it a little long. He walks
on his toes. His job involves following ordersalways
given politely, Ive noticedto
bring materials to other people on other floors,
or to retrieve a pile from someone, to make
copies, to wait for information. Edgar talks
to me once, twice, three times, at most four
times a day. If I look busy, reading something,
staring resolutely at my computer screen,
Edgar walks off on his toes with his pile,
saving a conversation for a better moment.
But sometimes he surprises me. Like today
with the date book. Im looking hard
at the screen, but he wants to talk.
I flip the pages of the date book and show
Edgar how it works. I have appointments scrawled
through it, and various notes. Plenty of names
in the address book, so Im not ashamed.
My handwriting is a little messy. And some
of whats written was put in after the
fact. That is, if I went to a movie with a
friend on Friday, sometimes Ill write
that in on the Monday afterwards. Edgar likes
my date book. Hes still holding it,
turning it over in his hands now, clouds charging
soundlessly outside. Theres a man in
the building across from us looking out his
office window. Ive seen him before.
His hands are so far down in his pockets I
wonder what hes got in there. Edgar
is caressing my date book. I take a chance.
not that nice," I say, but he doesnt
get it, so I say it again. "Its
not really that nice."
take it from him and stroke the top of it.
not leather, see?"
thinks this is funny. "No," he says,
and in his excitement over it his voice has
risen more. "No, its plastic,"
should get one," I say.
not expensive," I tell him, but then
I dig my nails into my arm a little. I have
a feeling Edgar is a rich man, comes from
a rich family, and when he buys himself a
little black date book someday, I know hell
buy a leather one. The real thing.
he says, and walks off with his folders.
day is done and Im headed home. The
subway ride starts underground and emerges
for about ten minutes when it goes over the
bridge. On either side are other bridges and
the steely water below. The man at my elbow
is humming. We are in our winter jackets,
a little too warm, and pressed up against
each other because we have no choice. I press
a little more, knowing our jackets are so
puffy, big down-filled shiny coats, hell
never be able to tell Im closer than
I have to be. He hums and then he actually
mouths the words and next thing everyone knows,
to their great horror, he is singing. Toothless
creature Ive been leaning against has
a lovely voice. The hymn he knows he knows
only partly, and he never makes it past the
first three lines.
home, I eat my dinner and wash my green bowl.
I leave my building and walk the blocks that
lead me to the bar, and there I read the paper,
not sure where to look. My friend Eileen turns
up and sits by me. I was hoping she would
got a puppy," announces Eileen.
have a stone in my throatcold, smoothafter
hearing her say this. Can it be true?
was the one supposed to get a dog," I
respond, but I will try to be pleased for
her. Thats what to do. She removes the
animal from her tote bag and puts him on his
own stool. Hes half as big as the pint
of beer in front of me. She lights a cigarette
and blows smoke into the puppys splayed-back
name is Edgar," she says, though
the music has begun, and Im not
sure. "Like the king," she adds.
had enough of this.
I say to Eileen.
has ended and spring floods only briefly onto
the streets. Then I suspect something like
summer. Thats how it feels today. A
little like summer again. Edgar isnt
at work. I dont miss him at first, but
now I do. Im trying to conjure up his
long meaty jowls and his eyes deep within
but Im coming up with pencils in my
fists. Ive got a lot of work to do and
Im thinking of Edgar. By the time Im
on the train again, though, Ive forgotten
all about him.
thing about Edgar and how I think of him is
that hes an older sort of a guy. He
might be twenty years older than I am, but
I think of him as a boy. Edgar is not stupid,
he just cant hear. That man Charlie
who mouths to him and never speaks aloud when
hes addressing him, its as if
he thinks Edgar is stupidretarded. Maybe
someday Ill talk to that little Charlie
and say, you know, pay the guy some respect.
Hes not retarded. Hes just deaf
and imagine it, if you can, little Charlie
(would that I could call him that), what it
would be like to be a deaf man.
to be able to hear me now.
lips mold into shapes, one shape changing
into another, my mouth inside glistens, the
tongue works at it too, pressing up against
the teeth, the teeth come together, the teeth
part and a bit of the tongue is there, sprung
and waiting, tight. But there is no sound.
Silent frenzied details.
cant even imagine it, really. And the
more I tell myself Edgar isnt retarded,
he isnt slow, the less I seem to believe
it myself, because our conversations grow
more and more embarrassing.
for instance. Im eating crackers. Im
in the habit of starving myself, but its
nothing serious, and I always have a real
meal when I get home. Im eating crackers
Ive brought with me in a sandwich bag.
Its a sort of a lunch. Edgar comes by
on his way somewhere else and stops to say
are those?" he asks me, pointing to the
crackers. I tend to be a bit uncomfortable
when Im caught eating in any case, so
at first I think hes asked a reasonable
question and my face flares. But then I glance
at my bag and form a puzzled lookI feel
it happening to my foreheadand I say
to Edgar, "Im sorry?"
just repeats it. "What are those?"
a little edgy today, it seems, not enough
sleep maybe, and I dont have the greatest
reserve of patience for my deaf coworker.
crackers," I say, mouthing in exaggeration
the two words. I might have rolled my eyes,
but I dont know that he would have caught
it if I had. Can he detect sarcasm just by
watching my lips? I have a cracker crumb in
my throat and when Edgar continues our conversation
I am choking, so there is no way I can make
out his sounds, no way to turn them into words
for myself. He sees Im not catching
what hes saying, and he doesnt
want to make me work so hard, so he writes
it down. He reaches right onto my desk for
any piece of paper and a pencil, and he writes
down what hes been attempting to communicate.
This has happened before. While hes
writing, I glance out the window to the man
in the suit thumbing himself through his pockets.
I wonder does he know I see.
cracker?" Edgar has written.
tired. I want to rub my eyes and tell Edgar
to go. Its like that today, what a person
cracker?" says Eileen. "What did
meant matzo. He was asking was I eating matzo.
Edgar wanted to know."
what did you tell him?" Eileen asks me,
pug puppy bald-eyed in her lap trembling.
said, no, plain cracker, and then Edgar said
he liked matzo. I think he said he liked matzo
asks Eileen, rubbing the dogs velvet
ears inside out against her knuckles. It looks
was he telling you this? Youre at work,
right? Why out of the blue would he look at
your plain old crackers and begin going off
mouth is tight and her hair is short. Shes
an impatient woman, more so than I am, and
shes little. No one would mistake us
he said, Edgar did, that he likes to make
something with matzo and eggs. He soaks the
matzo and cooks it with eggs."
brie!" exclaims Eileen.
thats it. Edgar likes matzo brie. And
thats just what I said. I shouted it,
even, because I was so surprised. But he didnt
get what I had said, so I had to write it
down. I wrote down "matzo brie"
and then next to it "scrambled eggs and
broken up matzo."
makes matzo brie," says Eileen.
take a good long time to fall asleep at night.
When someone used to sleep next to me, it
was the same, but I didnt move around
so much, not wanting to disturb him. Now I
move around a lot. Its a sort of a freedom,
I guess. I like matzo brie too, Edgar, and
I like it with chicken fat even. I say this
into my flannel sheets and my breath turns
them warm. Lying in bed, I remember again
that Im under a flight path to La Guardia.
I forget during the day. The planes growl
above me, evenly, kindly, through the hours.
I have earplugs inserted and snug within my
ears, but I can still hear the planes. At
a certain point, I am out cold, seeing the
tiny black mound of a puppy like an animate
speck at the bottom of the coal Im falling
once in a while with Edgar, theres a
bit of a peak. A peaking of our friendship,
in a way, and it comforts me. I feel great
all day. Today is one of those days. Edgar
reveals to me more about himself, a little
more. And hes especially pleased he
doesnt have to write down many words,
that I seem to understand him easily. Eileen
says to me on the phone, as I foolishly attempt
to explain all this, they say, "Do you
mean, you think you feel great, or do you
actually feel great?"
rivers meet at the tip of the island in a
meeting of great force. Far below me in the
subway car where I am yet again, heading home,
a huge boat with hunched up shoulders and
a flat body eases forward. The flat part is
heaped with trash, city trash: rubber tires,
onion skins in greasy clear plastic bags,
yellowed houseplants in buckets, withered
flesh, dust now wet, now dust again. The boat
is nearing the tip, where the rivers meet
in a corrosive wash. You can make it out from
here, the noise, if you cover your face and
watch. You can make yourself hear it.
I dont want to go into it, I tell Eileen
on the phone. (You could call her my best
friend. Shes married but her husband
is always at work. He doesnt even know
the name of the new dog.)
dont sit there trying to hear things
I dont want to hear, I imagine telling
my best friend. I dont go through life
is what it is. I call Eileen, who thinks I
have a crush on the deaf man. I tell her I
havent seen him yet today, but just
after I say that, the top of Edgars
head appears at the other end of the office.
Hes standing and talking to someone
else. Sometimes he does that, but Im
convinced he only talks to others about the
work he has to do. They never go over crackers,
or Broadway shows, the way we do.
got to go," I say to Eileen. Shes
at home practicing the piano. Im supposed
to be writing quick essays about shopping
malls in Jakarta (a new project), but Im
weary with distractions. In a flash, I bite
the skin around my thumbnail and draw blood.
Edgar approaches and I jam my hand into my
morning, Edgar." His name I can enunciate
with such drama. Ed. Gar.
you busy?" he asks.
am a little busy. I should be busy.
really," I answer. "A little."
rushes off and comes back a minute later with
an envelope of photographs.
see?" he says, and he is pointing to
his face expectantly as he says this, and
Im wondering, is it something about
his hair? Is he growing new hair? Or is it
new glasses? I dont think so. The gold
bracelet he wears, I notice for the first
time, is a name bracelet. Its engraved
with "Edgar." Like a little boys.
is pointing to his face because he has a bit
of a tan. His long ears, I see now, traced
with white hairs, are scorched some. And the
pictures hes pulling out are pictures
of his recent vacation. The first days were
spent in Philadelphia, where I in fact grew
up, and then the rest of the time was in Key
West. Its a group trip, and the photos
are ones hes taken, so theres
no evidence of him being there. My father
always scolded me a little if I came back
from a holiday with masses of pictures, but
none showing me, no proof I was anywhere at
all. My father loves to see evidence of me
standing in an alleyway in Rome, for some
reason, or in a tiny piazza with my hands
on the decayed walls of a fountain. Its
best that way, I suppose. I can see what he
tells me the group is a deaf group. They take
lots of trips together. And then I remember
him telling me months ago about a trip he
made to St. Louis. He brought in pictures
then, too. A group of ageless men, all men,
with the arch in the background. The Arch
of St. Louis, Ill call it, though I
bet it has a real name. I never knew anyone
to take a vacation in St. Louis. This time
Im anxious to see the pictures of Philadelphia,
since I still sometimes think of it as my
city and feel a sort of sinking pleasure in
my gut when I say Im from there. Edgar
tells me a story.
know Mattys?" he asks. It takes
a while for me to get the name "Mattys."
After a few tries, he writes it down. Hes
talking about a bar in Philadelphia, apparently.
shake my head. "No," I have to tell
him, and Im disappointed in myself.
"I lived there quite a few years ago
gay bar," says Edgar.
all went to Mattys. You dont know
it? Its very famous."
Yeah, I think it sounds familiar to me, I
dont know." I have never heard
of Mattys in Philadelphia.
uses the word beautiful all the time. He describes
things as "not very good" or "not
very nice," and he wrinkles up his entire
face, not just his nose. Or else they are
"beautiful." I went to a bleary,
somewhat overdone production of "The
Cherry Orchard" one Saturday, and when
Edgar asked me what I had done over the weekend,
I told him about the play. He didnt
know the play, didnt know the name Chekhov
(I wrote them both down), but in the end he
asked if the play was beautiful. It wasnt.
I said it wasnt very bad, but
it wasnt beautiful. It was one of the
times talking to Edgar when I lowered my voice
almost completely, because I was so embarrassed.
Was it my fault, I wondered, that we were
having a conversation where things were only
bad or beautiful? Where there was no way of
describing what might be in between? I felt
responsible. Im good with foreigners
and old people. Im good at figuring
out the language thats required. Edgar
then told me he had seen "Cats"
again, and that it was beautiful. I began
to think he couldnt have understood
what beautiful meant to most people. I began
to wonder if beautiful might possibly just
mean "pretty good" to him. But I
doubted it. He was always so enthusiastic.
He thought "Cats" and Mattys,
the famous gay bar in Philadelphia, were beautiful.
Is Edgar gay?
I am interrupting Edgar now. He is telling
I didnt like about Mattys,"
he says, "was the upstairs."
upstairs?" I ask.
Upstairs there are sofas where people sit
and drink. They can talk there more,"
he says to me. "But also, upstairs there
are tables with computers. You know the Internet?"
have Web sites on the computers at Mattys.
Porno." He is bothered by this. He shakes
his head. I shake my head, too. He has manila
folders and a book in a plastic cover in his
hands. His hands are the hands of an unusual
rich man. They are scrubbed and pink and generous,
and the palms are puffy with fat. His wrists
too, one with its name bracelet. I try not
to look too much. But I want to.
say, "People were looking at pornographic
Web sites? At the bar?" It really does
seem a little strange. Or lets just
say its a new one on me. A new one on
Edgar, too. My phone rings and I hold up a
finger to Edgar, telling him to wait. Its
Eileen. Edgar cant see my mouth now,
cant read my lips. "Im going
to have to call you back," I tell her.
Edgar thinks its a business call and
no," I tell him, making those gestures
that suggest a lack of importance in a situation,
those "its nothing" signs.
thats the end of the story. He liked
Philadelphia and Florida, too. He didnt
approve of the computers in the bar. But the
bar, otherwise, like the rest of his vacation,
was beautiful. I steal a glance at his hands
again, the wrists. His sleeves are rolled
up a few times. Thick white-yellow hairs mixed
with black ones running up the arms. But the
wrists are ringed, especially when he bends
them a bit, with fat. Later in the day, someone
is telling him what to do and I am walking
behind them and notice his neck is that way,
toolittle glossy rings, the folds, the
fat. I walk into the bathroom and take down
my pants to sit there and plant my hands on
my knees. I can suddenly imagine Edgars
legs as well. The rolls around his stubborn
thighs, welling over the soft knees. I shudder
and go back to my desk. Jakarta.
and I are having trouble," says Eileen,
empty beer glass in front of her, unlit cigarette
between two fingers.
is her husband. She has said this before.
a Friday and Im tired. It was a long,
unsatisfactory week. I meant to finish my
project at work, and Im nowhere near
done. Ill have to face it again on Monday,
and Monday will happen so soon. Edgar the
puppy is on my lap and thats doing something
for me, as they say, providing me with something.
Hes gnawing my knuckles with his needle
teeth and Im letting him. His lips are
soft and whiskery. Eileen is now talking,
more or less, about the world.
took a walk today in the park, you know?"
of the fence is down around the ravine, so
I went in to take a look. Theyve been
working in there so long, I forgot what it
looks like. You know what it looks like?"
shake my head. Edgar looks sleepy now. His
breathing is slower. His tight little stomach
rising and falling in longer puffs.
dark in there, and the fall down to the water
is a long one. Its darker than other
parts of the park where there are trees."
look," I say. Edgar is fully asleep now,
curled into nothing.
colder there, in the ravine, you know?"
has massacred her bar napkin. Im sleepy
and warm with the dog unconscious in my lap
and the workweek done.
when Robert came home finally, long after
I had had my dinner, he saw that I didnt
even make the bed."
was the one supposed to get the dog.
bar is filling up. I think I know what Eileen
is talking about and I want to be sympathetic.
I look at her face steadily as she tells me
about Robert. She hears his key in the lock
these days, she says, and she has an overwhelming
urge to go stand in the closet. I look at
her face as she tells me this. I see her in
the closet, up against Roberts pressed
shirts, his ropes of ties tickling the back
of her neck, her skin prickled. Shes
happy in the dark there but it wont
last for long. She can still hear him, after
all. Hes still saying something. She
cant stand the sound of her own husbands
know absolutely for sure I have been here
before. Eileen sits straight up on her barstool
and I take a look at her sharp knees through
the fabric of her jeans. Im good at
this, I remind myself. I can find something
to say to Eileen, and its good for her
to talk, she begins to feel better, and finally
well talk about something else and we
might even end up having a very good timereally
laughing and enjoying each others company.
Eileen and I have known each other a long
time now. She moved to the neighborhood because
I did. She met Robert one night at the bar
when she was here with me. I introduced them.
After they got to talking, I left them alone
and stood under the TV everyone was staring
at but I could only hear. It was the chatter
of the local news. I remember. A policeman
had been shot. I watched Eileen and Robert
head out under the air conditioner together,
through the narrow doorway, and into hammering
was a bad rain, that night. Power lines in
the suburbs were downed. I can remember walking
its dry and warm. Im a few years
older than most of the crowd here. The place
has become too popular. Eileen and I, lately,
have been talking about finding a new place
to go. Its loud tonight, and growing
warmer. The music is too much, bouncing high
off the corners of the room, near the tin
ceiling. I feel it pulse in my throat, in
the dense folds of throat. The puppy sleeps
through it all. He must have had a hard day,
little Edgar. Little Edgar the dog.
first, I find myself thinking, this is loud.
Then: too loud. Im not going to be able
to stay for long. Then I finally wake to the
fact that Ive been thinking about the
noise for a while, and that time has passed
without my participation in it, and that Eileen
has been talking a long while. Shes
still talking? With the dogs velvet
ears slipped between my fingers, I look at
her face, study her moving mouth. She is saying
something, but the shapes her lips make say
nothing at all on their own. What flabby,
ambiguous signs she gives off. How could anyone
possibly understand her? The words she utters
and the music and the young enthusiastic voices
uttered in leaps and bounds of shapeless words.
Everything. Walking home on the echoes of
sidewalk and under an airplane-wracked sky,
I hear it still. Even the unashamed puppy
here and its a beautiful day. It has
truly become summer. Im hungry, but
during my lunch break, I decide to take a
good walk in the sun. Ill eat at my
desk when I get back, and by then Ill
be starved, and Ill really enjoy whatever
meager thing Im chewing. I wander the
city blocks in a short-sleeved shirt. Others
have had the same idea and the sidewalks are
crowded, but Im not going to let it
bother me today. Its a little windy
and Im sure its windier higher
up, and I look for signs. The buildings stretch
high and dumb up to the blue.
this? At Rockefeller Plaza, where they prop
up the giant Christmas tree each year, I peer
down and see theres still ice on the
rink down there, and still a few skatersin
short skirts and tank-topstwirling on
the ice, skating backwards and in loops and
figure-eights. Its late May. Im
looking at the skaters with a group of tourists
in sunglasses and Yankees caps when something
interrupts the scene. A noise. A body noise.
Body thumps and thin-throated grunts. I have
to wonder if its possible, this May
day around one in the afternoon in as full
a sunshine as I can remember, if its
possible that people are having sex. Somewhere
just out of view.
Its Edgar. Edgar the deaf man. I look
and see him by the glass elevator that goes
underground, close to where I stand. Hes
with another deaf man and they are having
a conversation. Theyre not having sex,
of coursenot even touching each other.
Theyre signing with great fervor, occasionally
knocking themselves in the chest as part of
a sign. Edgars friend is a black man,
and much leaner and more wiry than Edgar,
and when he bangs his chest, the thump is
loud. Othersthe tourists, a policeman
still in his winter coat, sweatinghave
turned to watch. Are they having a fight?
They stand at the same height, Edgar and his
friend, and I wonder how well they know each
other. The other man is younger, is in a suit,
and has, I notice once I finally look up from
their flailing arms, a beautiful face, cheekbones
that cream back hard from the eyes and toward
the small and hard close-set ears. Edgar doesnt
see me. I dont think he will. I stare
at his friend and listen to the pounding of
their conversation, the low grunts, the painful
sound of fingers hurled against palm. Im
as hungry as I can ever remember being. Ive
never felt so low to the ground, under the
height of the buildings and weight of the
birds, and Ive never been so dizzy with
occurs to me now that I have been ready for
Edgar the deaf man and his friend, ready to
discover them anywhere, like in the woods,
where they might stand by a small, muffled
campfire. I have almost seen it before and
I feel vaguely prepared for it. Other friends
might join themall menwith the
fires noise muffled even more by the
roughness of their signing, their fingers
winging in bony flight in front of their bodies,
their faces. The hard slapping of knuckle
against palm, one finger, two fingers, thrown
at the tight skin on the back of the hand.
The crowd of deaf men I have been waiting
for. I could step back and study it, or perhaps
I would be nowhere to be found. Edgars
face damp and orange from the fire. Sweat
rolling off his fleshy cheeks and forehead
and down his scrubbed neck, absorbed in the
crisp collar of his light pink shirt. His
shirt soaked now. Now the rest of the men
soaked and the fire grown higher. Still inaudible,
the flames finally becoming all that can be
seen. It would be recognizable. It wouldnt
be happening for the first time. We could
breathe a sigh of relief, at least, that the
encompassing fire would have nothing to say.
its bedtime. A weeknight. My apartment
is neat as a pin. There is nothing new in
this night. If I look outside, I see the traces
of planes, a calm blinking of lights. My downstairs
neighbor has his television on just loudly
enough to make my toaster-oven vibrate. I
do the usual rituals, check the locks a final
time, open the right window (the one with
the screen), and fold myself into bed. Lying
on my back with the light now off, I roll
the earplugs between thumb and forefinger
until they become small cylinders, then insert
them in my ears, holding them there for a
minute, one hand to each ear. When I let go,
they begin to expand inside. The droning of
the television grows more muffled. The refrigerators
hum, also, lessens, as though I am smoothly
and expertly turning down a dial. Wide fields
so recently choked with rockseconds
ago rising and falling in unexpected hills,
opening up in muddy holes here and there under
stubborn trees where animals take coverhave
become a landscape of simple and smooth black-green.
A pocked uneven world gone flat, except for
the rhythm of the airplanes. Im used
is the way to fall asleep.
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