An excerpt from Dark Genius (Unpublished manuscript)
The last time Harper went out to Stone’s Island was in August, some years ago. He couldn’t remember exactly how old they were, or what year it was, but they’d gotten hold of Uncle Jim’s 15-foot Boston Whaler and headed out to explore the island. They discovered a cove on the lee side of Stone’s and pulled her up onto the rocks. Deciding to take a closer look at the estate, they walked along the rocky shore and discovered in the tide pools the headless carcass of a harbor seal, rotting in the morning sun. Instead of going to the house as planned, they took the carcass back to the boat and headed out into the shallows.
They hooked the carcass onto a drop line, cast it out, and let it sit on the bottom. After a few minutes they pulled it up, and with it came a mass of frenzied, feeding sharks. The sharks swarmed and dove and bit at the meat, breaking the surface as they gorged. Jimmy stood in the boat and smacked the bloody water with an oar, trying to bean one of the sharks. He frantically smacked the water over and over, but failed to hit anything. The spray got into their eyes and ran down their faces into their mouths. Harper remembered the taste of the salty red water and, even now, it turned his stomach.
Jimmy stood on the bow, feet wide apart, rocking the small boat back and forth, forcing the weight of his whole body with each push, laughing uncontrollably, until they started to take on water. Waves slapped up, into the boat. Bits of seal gut came aboard with each wave. The sharks circled and bit at the meat, swarming in a frenzy. Harper held on to the side of the boat, overcome by fits of uncontrolled laughter as it bobbed up and down, shark fins rising up, teeth mashing the seal flesh. Jimmy became brazen by Harper’s response, rollicking with laughter at his mad game, forcing the boat closer to the water with each push. Jimmy suddenly fell out of the boat, and into the churning sea. Harper had seen Jimmy swim fast before, but he practically leaped back into the boat. The image of a shark grazing Jimmy’s leg as he swam, the black shadow surging forward from the depths, was etched in Harper’s memory.
Harper fell to the floor of the Whaler, holding his stomach; the cold water and uncontrolled laughter caused him to pee in his pants. Watching from the floor of the boat, his body drenched in remnants of seal guts, seawater and urine, looking into Jimmy’s wild eyes, he knew; He knew Jim had fallen overboard on purpose. Had carried the little adventure as far as it could go. It struck Harper as such an obtuse thing to do, and he couldn’t understand why Jimmy always went too far.
I’m standing on dark brown linoleum, my foot narrowly escaping a cockroach as it scurries under the day bed. The room is dark, tall, with ten-foot ceilings. The beige paint is chipping out in large, continent shaped patches, little South Americas, Africa hanging by a thread. Shelves line the walls above the sofa. Good, a book case. The day bed comes with the room. A bent screen is jammed into the open window and I can hear traffic noise, but at least it’s on the ground floor. I look over at my potential roommate, Jim. He’s upbeat, about thirty five, good looking; almost game show host-like in his mannerisms and enthusiasm.
What the hell, “I’ll take it,” I say.
Three hundred and fifty a month, how can you go wrong? A bedroom with a private entrance connected to a small hall and bath. And the rooms are big, if not crumbling out of themselves. I convince myself that with a little bit of paint, it’ll be like new.
“Good!” he says, “Let’s get a drink.”
We wander across Second Avenue and up the hill to the Bull’s Eye tavern. They know Jim there and he seems to be well liked, this game show host roommate of mine. And why not, he’s athletic, got a great smile, dimpled chin, a full shock of hair. We sit in front of a couple of drafts and he casually asks, “By the way, you know I’m gay, right?”
A little twinge hits my stomach. Is he looking at my crotch? Why isn’t he effeminate? I never would have guessed he’s gay. Does he have orgies in his room? I look at the bartender. Now they think I’m gay, right? “Well, I’m not gay,” I say.
Oh, he assures me, I don’t flaunt it. I don’t care for fems, he says. Besides, this is strictly a business deal. Rent for a room. It wasn’t in the ad, but I don’t really care, “Sure, sure. No problem.”
After I pile in my few meager possessions, bags of clothes and my desk from home, I encamp on the day bed. First nights are always the hardest. Cramped and lonely in my little burrow, I learn not to be afraid of things that crawl in the dark and scatter when the lights come on. Lying in the blackened room, they crawl casually across my arm, and I fling the insects onto the wall or floor. I reach up with the side of my fist and pound them into submission, letting them fall where they may.
At four AM, the heavy cruisers arrive. I hear then scuttling and munching on God knows what. The armored division attacks my front. I brush my arm and a heavy thud hits the floor. That was no small insect. I turn the lights on. The floor and walls are alive with brown exoskeletons scattering in all directions.
September 24, 1983
My second evening is less strained. I take comfort in my newly purchased roach motels and poison traps. Already, there are fewer insects to be seen. Suddenly, I hear something at the window. A dark bare arm slowly reaches in through the curtains, fingers outstretched, reaching, ready to grasp. I yell, “Hey!” The arm jerks to attention and recoils as if wound back onto a human fishing reel. I close the window and lock the doors, unsettled, I’m feeling lost in the whirr of the city.
September 30, 1983
I wouldn’t say Jim is a health nut, but he sure does like to run. Right up to Central Park and back every day. Lifts weights in the kitchen, too. Breathes real loud and strong to get that energy flowing. One, two, three twist and turn, up and down, deep knee bends, come on, one and two, his thick boozy breath billowing into all corners of the room, like a steam bath in there when he gets going. It’s tough to swallow my scrambled eggs with all that going on. Amazing how he can stay up until three a.m. sucking up all that booze and pop right back up the next morning… two, three, and here we go and one. Shouldn’t complain, though. It’s tough to find a first floor apartment this cheap on the Upper East Side.
October 2, 1983
I’m waiting tables while I take classes in acting: Shakespeare, scene study, auditioning technique. I have a long way to go. Feel lost in a sea of false hope and groundless optimism leading nowhere. Auditions go badly. I’ve met a few girls in acting class. Made a few friends. I am building a life, my own life, while learning to be a good waiter.
Jan 7, 1984
Jim throws me a surprise party for my thirtieth birthday. Friends from work, some of his friends, they all chip in, buy me a mattress for the wooden frame that I had made from cut pine and bolts. Fits real nice. Damn nice of these guys, friends of Jim’s, mostly, acquaintances of mine. Damn nice.
We finished the evening with another bottle of wine. A girl from the tavern offers herself to me as a present. Can’t complain about that. Damned nice of her. Damned nice. Six months is a long time. Later, we talk on the stoop in front of her apartment until 3 a.m. I’ll have to avoid her for a while. Don’t want to give the wrong impression.
Jan 25, 1984
I come home unexpectedly and my private entrance is locked. I pound on the door, hear shuffling noises in the room and creaking from my desk chair. Jim calls for me to wait a minute. Finally, after several minutes, he unlocks the door. I hear them as they scurry into his side of the apartment, Jim and his secret guest. Later I learn he was glad I had arrived when I did, not knowing what the strange man might have done, Jim being naked and tied up in my favorite chair.
February 25, 1984
Jim has decided to kill himself. Seems he’s unhappy with his life. The booze and the cocaine, the anonymous sex, have all taken their toll. AIDS has crept into the picture. A nurse friend told us about hygiene and the treatment for the afflicted. She scared me half to death and I went out and bought some liquid soap for the bath. No more sharing bar soap for this kid. Jim was greatly offended by the soap, but I told him we always used the liquid at home, I’m just homesick for it. I know Jim doesn’t have AIDS. I think.
February 28, 1984
Three AM. Jim is weepy. He staggers into my room, wakes me up, and tells me he wants to kill himself. I ask him how and he tells me to mind my own business, but if I must know, he has a hoard of pills. I tell Shirley, our mutual friend from the Bull’s Eye and she comes over to search his room while he’s gone out. She finds pills, but there isn’t enough to kill him, just maybe make him sleep for a day or two.
March 3, 1984
I feel terrible about Jim. I confide in a friend at work. He tells me there is nothing for it, he had a roommate that killed himself and he was just a selfish prick, tells me people who off themselves are all selfish pricks. I worry anyway, thinking how unfair it all is.
March 5, 1984
Pills gone, Jim has decided to kill himself the slowest way possible. He stays up all night snorting cocaine, and drinking with his new buddies, the drug dealers. They play cards until morning light; argue about nonsense, thinking they are being clever when they are repetitive and shallow. They offer Jim money for my room; have them move in, me out. Jim turns them down, but likes to tell me about the offers anyway. I find a .22 caliber bullet on the kitchen floor.
Jim comes from a big, Irish Catholic family in the mid-west somewhere. His sister talks to me on the phone, thinks I’m his lover. She wants to know if he’s really all right. I lie; tell her he’s just fine. She seems relieved. What can she do anyway, I think. It’s not like she’s going to come rescue him. Yeah, he’s fine. Well, take care of him, she says. I don’t bother to tell her, he’s just my roommate and I try to avoid him as much as possible.
March 25, 1984
I am finally alone in the apartment! Some much needed alone time! My resentment toward Jim has peaked and I sing aloud, “Ding dong, the master baiter’s gone!” to the tune of “Ding dong the Witch is Dead,” while I make popcorn. I dance with delight at my free evening at home. Jim suddenly emerges from his closet. He’s been hiding behind his wardrobe and wants to spring out and surprise me. Now he wants to know what I meant by “The master baiter” crack. He pulls out his stash of gay porno mags, stained with some odd smelling oils, and asks me if this is to what I am referring. I don’t know what to say. The greasy stained magazines flop around in his hands. I look at the greasy bottle of corn oil I used to make the popcorn. Was that a pubic hair stuck to the label?
April 23, 1984
Jim’s friend Rico, the drug dealer from Brazil, and his heroin-addicted girl friend, Sheila, need a place to stay. Jim lets them put a mattress on the kitchen floor. Jim is very helpful like that. Rico has a lot of phone calls to make to his drug-dealing friends. They come to the door and he leaves with them. Sal, from New Jersey, came by the other day and he seemed quite angry about something. Sorry I answered the door, really. But Rico and Sal went for a walk and worked it out. Afterward, Rico bought a bunch of shrimp and cooked them in water and beer. He insisted I eat with him. They tasted pretty good, once I realized they weren’t poisoned.
May 3, 1984
Rico’s girlfriend, Sheila, is feeling pretty sick. They sit in the bathtub together for hours sometimes; they take the phone in there and make business calls. I hear that Rico has offered Jim lots of money for my room, but Jim says not to worry, he wouldn’t kick me out. Although, he hints, the extra money would be nice.
The landlady came down and asked me for the rent today. Seems she hasn’t seen any money for a few months. I told her I just give my money to Jim. It’s his place. He pays the rent. (I guess not.) I haven’t seen Jim for a while to talk to him about it.
May 27, 1984
Rico and Sheila finally move out. Am seeing less and less of Jim, now. He lost his job at the good restaurant and now he’s working for a not-so-nice place on the West side. Makes less money. I have been talking to the landlady about letting me move into an empty apartment upstairs.
June 15, 1984
I finally have my own place. Up five floors, but it’s worth it. Two bedrooms, kitchen and a bath! Jim knocked on the door the other day, but I pretended I wasn’t home. He scares me now. Not like the person I met at all. That far away look in his eyes makes me think he is the loneliest person on Earth. But I’ve made up my mind I can’t help him. I need to live my own life.
July 2, 1984
They finally came and took Jim home today. He’d been unable to function for about a month. He was too afraid to leave the apartment. His sister and brother bought him a ticket and he’s gone. I don’t even know who’s in the apartment downstairs now. Some creepy guy he had move in a while ago. Poor Jim, all he wanted to do was be an actor.