“This is Paul.”
It’s ten AM, a Saturday morning, late December, the scent of snow in the air, and Paul Bowles has called eleven times in the last hour. Two times I let the answering machine go off. Three times I hung up. That leaves five conversations prior to this one, each of them the same. We are going to the mall: Christmas shopping. It is these plans we discuss, these plans he forgets. “Craig,” he says, “Oh, Craig, Craig, Craig!” He tells me of the sun planing through his window, and of the plant, an African violet, dried and shriveled now, the color of a long sleepless night, unable to survive the harsh climate of his windowsill. “What do you make of this?” he says, though he does not wish to know the answer.
I suggest that plants need water, regularly. “Once a week,” I say.
In Tangier, he tells me, his voice desolate, windswept, swallowed by grief and bleached white like bones, you come to realize there is no point in any of this, “Death is imminent.” Yes, I say, filling the pause. “It stands behind you,” he goes on, “utterly still, peering over your shoulder, the tickle of breath on your neck: foul, rank, sinister. Patient as a lioness.” Yes, I say again. I wait until the silence is complete then I ask if he is ready and he assures me he is.
The odor comes in a rushing tackle. There is a moment of adjustment at the door. I take shallow, well-spaced breaths, primarily through my mouth, gasping really, my head down and my hand clutching the threshold, trying to stem the tide of gagging while supporting the weight of my body, which has gone feeble and weak kneed, as though hit in the stomach with a bowling pin. It’s an amalgam of old-man smells I’m acclimating to, a tumbling nausea of must and ammonia: vomit and pillow drool, heat and urine, food crusted to plates, unopened mail, the dried cinnamon of parchment-like newspapers and moisture-bloated magazines gone crispy, as well as a half-dozen items I cannot identify. Paul smiles from the vestibule. “Well!” he says, voice steeped in surprise, “come in.”
As I step inside, I ask the time. His face brightens. He extends his arm, pushes the sleeve of his robe to his elbow, exposing a pale and emaciated forearm, its skin sickly and bluish, the color of a gradual asphyxiation, the fingers of time closing around his throat, and presses the button of a wristwatch that lights up with Flintstones illustrations. “Midnight!” he shrieks. “What are you doing about at this hour? It there unrest?” He wants to know if I’ve been visiting the room of the wife of the handsome but weak-chinned American industrialist and I tell him I haven’t. I tell him it’s noon. “Ah!” he says, nodding. “Yes, that explains it.” He asks if I want a drink as I help his legs out of a pair of pajama bottoms—patterned in palm trees and coconuts, some of them halved, their insides gleaming with meat and milk—and into a pair of trousers with pleats and a sewed-in belt, and his arms into a button-down shirt which is white, though stained at the elbow with a greasy patch likely to be cat food. We search up and down for a handkerchief for the breast pocket of his jacket, a hound’s-tooth pattern, handsome if a bit glossy at the elbows, opening and closing drawers, before sifting through the bedlam of his closet. We stumble on a burgundy number cut from silk but Paul insists on a cream one not to be found. “The burgundy is nice,” I tell him. Nice is nice, he says frowning, but that doesn’t make it suitable. I distract him with a mention of Jack, who is waiting I say, then hold up the burgundy scarf once more, waving it back and forth, this new discovery, before touching it to the lapel of his jacket. Paul looks down. “What about this one?” I say, as I tuck it into his breast pocket.
Before we leave I wander his apartment, opening blinds, cracking windows, checking the stove, while Paul cradles the cat to his face and, between kisses, tells him he will be back soon. He says he is the worst father in the world for leaving. He says to atone for this shortfall he will bring back a surprise, a mouse perhaps. Just as we step out he decides to feed the cat, a jovial gray fellow with a nick on his ear, who goes by the name Mr. Whisker Face, and who, judging by his portly physique, is at small risk of starving. As Paul turns toward the kitchen I grab hold of his sleeve. I give a sharp tug, then another, and when he looks I point to the kitchen floor where there are four dishes of food already. “I love-love-love you Mr. Whisker Face,” Paul says again and again as I pull shut the door behind us.