issue 4: spring 2002

> Sarah Davis

Edgar the King

     "Is this yours?"

     Edgar has dropped his pile of things on my desk and now holds my date book in his wide, pink hands. We’re on the 33rd floor, and over our shoulders there’s a sliver of view. Today, it’s 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 can’t hear the wind, mind you. But it’s out there.

      "This is nice," Edgar says, talking about the date book, and he follows that with a short sentence I don’t understand (Edgar is frequently hard to understand). Then he says, "Do you like it?"

     And I say right away, "Yeah," because I don’t go all formal with him. I don’t want to seem put on and say, "Yes, I like it," as though in a foreign language class, answering in a complete sentence. "Yeah, it’s great," I say. "It’s great because it’s a calendar but it has an address book in it, too."

     When I talk to Edgar, I speak politely and I smile, a bit doggish–earnest and true. There’s one man in the office with a job like Edgar’s and they talk to each other now and then. He’s a little man named Charlie. When he speaks to Edgar, he doesn’t make a sound. He only mouths the words. Charlie’s 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 you’re 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 don’t 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.

     On 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. He’s tall, taller than I am, which is tall. And he’s soft, sort of all over–soft in the face, the head, the knees, soft across the forehead where no one’s 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 orders–always given politely, I’ve noticed–to 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. I’m looking hard at the screen, but he wants to talk.

     So 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 I’m not ashamed. My handwriting is a little messy. And some of what’s written was put in after the fact. That is, if I went to a movie with a friend on Friday, sometimes I’ll write that in on the Monday afterwards. Edgar likes my date book. He’s still holding it, turning it over in his hands now, clouds charging soundlessly outside. There’s a man in the building across from us looking out his office window. I’ve seen him before. His hands are so far down in his pockets I wonder what he’s got in there. Edgar is caressing my date book. I take a chance.

     "It’s not that nice," I say, but he doesn’t get it, so I say it again. "It’s not really that nice."

     I take it from him and stroke the top of it.

     "It’s not leather, see?"

     Edgar thinks this is funny. "No," he says, and in his excitement over it his voice has risen more. "No, it’s plastic," he says.

     "You should get one," I say.

     He’s nodding.

     "They’re 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 he’ll buy a leather one. The real thing.

     "OK," he says, and walks off with his folders.

     Another day is done and I’m 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, he’ll never be able to tell I’m 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 I’ve 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.

     At 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 come.

     "I got a puppy," announces Eileen.

     I have a stone in my throat–cold, smooth–after hearing her say this. Can it be true?

     "I was the one supposed to get a dog," I respond, but I will try to be pleased for her. That’s what to do. She removes the animal from her tote bag and puts him on his own stool. He’s half as big as the pint of beer in front of me. She lights a cigarette and blows smoke into the puppy’s splayed-back eyes.

     "His name is Edgar," she says, though the music has begun, and I’m not sure. "Like the king," she adds.

     I’ve had enough of this.

     "What?" I say to Eileen.

     Winter has ended and spring floods only briefly onto the streets. Then I suspect something like summer. That’s how it feels today. A little like summer again. Edgar isn’t at work. I don’t miss him at first, but now I do. I’m trying to conjure up his long meaty jowls and his eyes deep within but I’m coming up with pencils in my fists. I’ve got a lot of work to do and I’m thinking of Edgar. By the time I’m on the train again, though, I’ve forgotten all about him.

     Funny thing about Edgar and how I think of him is that he’s 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 can’t hear. That man Charlie who mouths to him and never speaks aloud when he’s addressing him, it’s as if he thinks Edgar is stupid–retarded. Maybe someday I’ll talk to that little Charlie and say, you know, pay the guy some respect. He’s not retarded. He’s 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.

     Not to be able to hear me now.

      My 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.

     I can’t even imagine it, really. And the more I tell myself Edgar isn’t retarded, he isn’t slow, the less I seem to believe it myself, because our conversations grow more and more embarrassing.

     Today, for instance. I’m eating crackers. I’m in the habit of starving myself, but it’s nothing serious, and I always have a real meal when I get home. I’m eating crackers I’ve brought with me in a sandwich bag. It’s a sort of a lunch. Edgar comes by on his way somewhere else and stops to say hello.

     "What are those?" he asks me, pointing to the crackers. I tend to be a bit uncomfortable when I’m caught eating in any case, so at first I think he’s asked a reasonable question and my face flares. But then I glance at my bag and form a puzzled look–I feel it happening to my forehead–and I say to Edgar, "I’m sorry?"

     He just repeats it. "What are those?"

     I’m a little edgy today, it seems, not enough sleep maybe, and I don’t have the greatest reserve of patience for my deaf coworker.

     "They’re crackers," I say, mouthing in exaggeration the two words. I might have rolled my eyes, but I don’t 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 I’m not catching what he’s saying, and he doesn’t 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 he’s been attempting to communicate. This has happened before. While he’s writing, I glance out the window to the man in the suit thumbing himself through his pockets. I wonder does he know I see.

     "Jewish cracker?" Edgar has written.

     I’m tired. I want to rub my eyes and tell Edgar to go. It’s like that today, what a person I am.

     "Jewish cracker?" says Eileen. "What did he mean?"

     "He meant matzo. He was asking was I eating matzo. Edgar wanted to know."

     "And what did you tell him?" Eileen asks me, pug puppy bald-eyed in her lap trembling.

     "I said, no, plain cracker, and then Edgar said he liked matzo. I think he said he liked matzo especially."

     "Why?" asks Eileen, rubbing the dog’s velvet ears inside out against her knuckles. It looks soft there.

     "Why what?"

     "Why was he telling you this? You’re at work, right? Why out of the blue would he look at your plain old crackers and begin going off on matzo?"

     Eileen’s mouth is tight and her hair is short. She’s an impatient woman, more so than I am, and she’s little. No one would mistake us for sisters.

     "Then he said, Edgar did, that he likes to make something with matzo and eggs. He soaks the matzo and cooks it with eggs."

     "Matzo brie!" exclaims Eileen.

     "Yeah, that’s it. Edgar likes matzo brie. And that’s just what I said. I shouted it, even, because I was so surprised. But he didn’t 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."

     "Edgar makes matzo brie," says Eileen.


     I take a good long time to fall asleep at night. When someone used to sleep next to me, it was the same, but I didn’t move around so much, not wanting to disturb him. Now I move around a lot. It’s 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 I’m 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 I’m falling through.

     This is sleeping.

     Every once in a while with Edgar, there’s 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 he’s especially pleased he doesn’t 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?"

     The 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.

     But I don’t want to go into it, I tell Eileen on the phone. (You could call her my best friend. She’s married but her husband is always at work. He doesn’t even know the name of the new dog.)

     I don’t sit there trying to hear things I don’t want to hear, I imagine telling my best friend. I don’t go through life like that.

     Work is what it is. I call Eileen, who thinks I have a crush on the deaf man. I tell her I haven’t seen him yet today, but just after I say that, the top of Edgar’s head appears at the other end of the office. He’s standing and talking to someone else. Sometimes he does that, but I’m 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.

     "I’ve got to go," I say to Eileen. She’s at home practicing the piano. I’m supposed to be writing quick essays about shopping malls in Jakarta (a new project), but I’m 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 pocket.

     "Good morning, Edgar." His name I can enunciate with such drama. Ed. Gar.

     "Are you busy?" he asks.

     I am a little busy. I should be busy.

     "Not really," I answer. "A little."

     He rushes off and comes back a minute later with an envelope of photographs.

     "You see?" he says, and he is pointing to his face expectantly as he says this, and I’m wondering, is it something about his hair? Is he growing new hair? Or is it new glasses? I don’t think so. The gold bracelet he wears, I notice for the first time, is a name bracelet. It’s engraved with "Edgar." Like a little boy’s.

     He 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 he’s 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. It’s a group trip, and the photos are ones he’s taken, so there’s 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. It’s best that way, I suppose. I can see what he means.

     Edgar 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, I’ll call it, though I bet it has a real name. I never knew anyone to take a vacation in St. Louis. This time I’m 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 I’m from there. Edgar tells me a story.

     "You know Matty’s?" he asks. It takes a while for me to get the name "Matty’s." After a few tries, he writes it down. He’s talking about a bar in Philadelphia, apparently.

     I shake my head. "No," I have to tell him, and I’m disappointed in myself. "I lived there quite a few years ago now."

     "Famous gay bar," says Edgar.


     "We all went to Matty’s. You don’t know it? It’s very famous."

     "Hmm. Yeah, I think it sounds familiar to me, I don’t know." I have never heard of Matty’s in Philadelphia.

     "It’s beautiful."

     Edgar 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 didn’t know the play, didn’t know the name Chekhov (I wrote them both down), but in the end he asked if the play was beautiful. It wasn’t. I said it wasn’t very bad, but it wasn’t 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. I’m good with foreigners and old people. I’m good at figuring out the language that’s required. Edgar then told me he had seen "Cats" again, and that it was beautiful. I began to think he couldn’t 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 Matty’s, the famous gay bar in Philadelphia, were beautiful. Is Edgar gay?

     But I am interrupting Edgar now. He is telling a story.

     "What I didn’t like about Matty’s," he says, "was the upstairs."

     "The upstairs?" I ask.

     "Yeah. 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?"

     I nod.

     "They have Web sites on the computers at Matty’s. 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.

     I say, "People were looking at pornographic Web sites? At the bar?" It really does seem a little strange. Or let’s just say it’s 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. It’s Eileen. Edgar can’t see my mouth now, can’t read my lips. "I’m going to have to call you back," I tell her. Edgar thinks it’s a business call and looks nervous.

     "No, no," I tell him, making those gestures that suggest a lack of importance in a situation, those "it’s nothing" signs.

     But that’s the end of the story. He liked Philadelphia and Florida, too. He didn’t 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, too–little 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 Edgar’s legs as well. The rolls around his stubborn thighs, welling over the soft knees. I shudder and go back to my desk. Jakarta.

     "Robert and I are having trouble," says Eileen, empty beer glass in front of her, unlit cigarette between two fingers.

     Robert is her husband. She has said this before.

     "Fighting?" I ask.


     It’s a Friday and I’m tired. It was a long, unsatisfactory week. I meant to finish my project at work, and I’m nowhere near done. I’ll have to face it again on Monday, and Monday will happen so soon. Edgar the puppy is on my lap and that’s doing something for me, as they say, providing me with something. He’s gnawing my knuckles with his needle teeth and I’m letting him. His lips are soft and whiskery. Eileen is now talking, more or less, about the world.

     "I took a walk today in the park, you know?"

     I nod.

     "Part of the fence is down around the ravine, so I went in to take a look. They’ve been working in there so long, I forgot what it looks like. You know what it looks like?"

     I shake my head. Edgar looks sleepy now. His breathing is slower. His tight little stomach rising and falling in longer puffs.

     "It’s dark in there, and the fall down to the water is a long one. It’s darker than other parts of the park where there are trees."

     "Eileen, look," I say. Edgar is fully asleep now, curled into nothing.

     "And colder there, in the ravine, you know?"

     Eileen has massacred her bar napkin. I’m sleepy and warm with the dog unconscious in my lap and the workweek done.

     "And when Robert came home finally, long after I had had my dinner, he saw that I didn’t even make the bed."

     I was the one supposed to get the dog.

     The 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 Robert’s pressed shirts, his ropes of ties tickling the back of her neck, her skin prickled. She’s happy in the dark there but it won’t last for long. She can still hear him, after all. He’s still saying something. She can’t stand the sound of her own husband’s voice.

     I 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. I’m good at this, I remind myself. I can find something to say to Eileen, and it’s good for her to talk, she begins to feel better, and finally we’ll talk about something else and we might even end up having a very good time–really laughing and enjoying each other’s 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 rain.

     That was a bad rain, that night. Power lines in the suburbs were downed. I can remember walking home.

     Tonight, it’s dry and warm. I’m 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. It’s 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.

     At first, I find myself thinking, this is loud. Then: too loud. I’m not going to be able to stay for long. Then I finally wake to the fact that I’ve 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. She’s still talking? With the dog’s 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 yawn.

     Monday’s here and it’s a beautiful day. It has truly become summer. I’m hungry, but during my lunch break, I decide to take a good walk in the sun. I’ll eat at my desk when I get back, and by then I’ll be starved, and I’ll really enjoy whatever meager thing I’m chewing. I wander the city blocks in a short-sleeved shirt. Others have had the same idea and the sidewalks are crowded, but I’m not going to let it bother me today. It’s a little windy and I’m sure it’s windier higher up, and I look for signs. The buildings stretch high and dumb up to the blue.

     What’s this? At Rockefeller Plaza, where they prop up the giant Christmas tree each year, I peer down and see there’s still ice on the rink down there, and still a few skaters–in short skirts and tank-tops–twirling on the ice, skating backwards and in loops and figure-eights. It’s late May. I’m 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 it’s possible, this May day around one in the afternoon in as full a sunshine as I can remember, if it’s possible that people are having sex. Somewhere just out of view.

     No. It’s Edgar. Edgar the deaf man. I look and see him by the glass elevator that goes underground, close to where I stand. He’s with another deaf man and they are having a conversation. They’re not having sex, of course–not even touching each other. They’re signing with great fervor, occasionally knocking themselves in the chest as part of a sign. Edgar’s friend is a black man, and much leaner and more wiry than Edgar, and when he bangs his chest, the thump is loud. Others–the tourists, a policeman still in his winter coat, sweating–have 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 doesn’t see me. I don’t 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. I’m as hungry as I can ever remember being. I’ve never felt so low to the ground, under the height of the buildings and weight of the birds, and I’ve never been so dizzy with hunger before.

     It 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 them–all men–with the fire’s 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. Edgar’s 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 wouldn’t be happening for the first time. We could breathe a sigh of relief, at least, that the encompassing fire would have nothing to say.

     But it’s 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 refrigerator’s hum, also, lessens, as though I am smoothly and expertly turning down a dial. Wide fields so recently choked with rock–seconds ago rising and falling in unexpected hills, opening up in muddy holes here and there under stubborn trees where animals take cover–have become a landscape of simple and smooth black-green. A pocked uneven world gone flat, except for the rhythm of the airplanes. I’m used to this.

     This is the way to fall asleep.


> Sarah Davis



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