WHEN I WAS a young(er) woman, Henry Alcalay took me horse back riding. He took me swimming at a country estate and drove me to Queens in his navy blue vintage car to show me his childhood house. Back in Manhattan, he lived in a brownstone in the East Teens that had been owned by a gynecologist/obstetrician. It was full of old wooden contraptions that Henry told me they were birthing tables.
Last week I picked up an issue of Open City (26) and read Henry’s story Learn to Drive Trucks Big Money. His prose is delicious: dense, wry and slippery: full of sudden depths and emotional openings: a journey through a New York City both hideously slick and deeply jarring. Walter spends his days in suits and his nights wandering downtown, shy, removed and usually high. He is both intimate and close, and — at the same time — distant with opiates and a sort of gentle caution. The Vietnam War sits in the background like ash in a fireplace.
Walter meets Mary in a candy store and their perambulations are both superficial and painful, peaking with a white tablecloth dinner at a boxing match:
Two half naked men trying to kill each other, hot bright lights, everyone watching. There you are, on your own, with whatever you’re made of.
Other favorite lines: Their eyes sparkled like lakes on fire…
I lit two matches and with them lit the whole book. With a whoosh and some sparks it flared into a flame, which I held to my cigarette…Hurricanes don’t scare me, I said, tossing the matchbook away when it began burning my hand. Nine years ago Hendrix died.. You’re a good listener, I added, amazed she had hung around this long.
And an unforgettable rendering of the Apocalyptic:
“This was the year of the first big Vietnam movies… and like with all epics, romance and fantasy had been grafted onto what must have been a terrifying and sordid experience. But now the war was all romantic: trees the size of buildings, Jim Morrison crooning as jets dispatch napalm… The summer before I’d seen this guy, my age more or less, sitting shirtless on a couch in a sweltering tenement on the Lower East Side, both of us waiting for the dealer to return. He had the sort of stillness that has nothing about it of a conscious choice….(my italics) What happened? I asked. Vietnam, he said, no more intonation than if he’d said vanilla.”