Cover image for The black swan : a memoir
The black swan : a memoir
Charyn, Jerome.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Thomas Dunne Books, [2000]

Physical Description:
182 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
General Note:
Sequel to: The dark lady from Belorusse.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PS3553.H33 Z4615 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



A Memoir"It was easy to invent a fable.When the letters did come from school, I'd scratch out a note in my father's hand, talk of fatigue, visits to the brain surgeon, etc.The East Bronx was like the Sahara, where a child and all his records could get lost in some infinite sand dune."What does an 11 year-old boy do when his classmates call him "Dumbo" and his parents don't seem to know that he exists?His mother, the beautiful Faigele spends her days pushing her 2 year-old son Marvin around in a stroller and barely hears Jerome's clarinet playing. The answer for Jerome Charyn is to go to the local movie house and hide out for a few hours every day.At the movies, he can escape, not be himself for a little while. One day, while watching Samson and Delilah for the seventh time that week, he is suddenly grabbed from his seat, dragged down a flight of stairs and winds up being introduced to a whole new way of life by three "cellar rats," as Jerome likes to call them.They make him a part of their group and he soon finds himself dressed in a Feuerman & Marx suit collecting money for Farouk, the local gangster. Many of the men remember his mother, The Dark Lady, from her days as dealer of their local poker game.With his distinctive style, a deep and accurate feeling for time and place, and an uncanny ability to communicate the world as seen through the imagination of an unusual boy, Charyn has created another gem of a memoir, a worthy sequel to The Dark Lady from Belorusse.

Author Notes

Jerome Charyn was born in the Bronx, New York, in 1937. An author who primarily writes detective stories, Charyn's novels contain a wide array of characters ranging form a gorgeous, headstrong double agent to a greedy, corrupt lawyer. Charyn chronicles the life of Isaac Sidel El Caballo, the Mayor of New York City, in over half a dozen books, including El Bronx, Little Angel Street, Marilyn the Wild, and The Good Policeman. Among his latest novels is The Secret Life of emily Dickinson. The story is told from her point of view and incorporates both historical and fictional characters to tell what she may have been like. His next work was entitled Under the Eye of God.

Widely translated, Charyn's novels have broad readership in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Greece and Japan, as well as the United States. Charyn lives in Paris where he teaches cinema at the American University of Paris.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

A phantasmagoric medium by definition, movies appeal to us because they are literal projections of our deepest fantasies and fears, according to film critic and novelist Charyn. In a sequel to his acclaimed memoir, The Dark Lady from Belorusse, the author transports us to his early teen years in the Bronx, when he first discovered his obsession with the movies while seeking refuge from his difficult home life. Charyn's narrative resists the tired convention in which a misunderstood teen finds salvation in a fantasy world; instead, his memories of his early fascination with film unfold as a surreal, funny, often deeply disturbing reverie. Playing hooky from school, Charyn would sneak into the local movie palace to watch Hedy Lamarr and Victor Mature in Samson and Delilah until he met the theater's owners, three draft-evading, possibly gay gangsters who lived in the basement. Charyn regales us with stories about Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky, problems with Charyn's probation officer at school, a gay fireman named Dan O'Brian and the Black Swan, "the most celebrated casino and country club in the Catskill mountains." As the narrator dreamily reenacts plots from 1940s films, these characters and places move in and out of his hallucinatory reminiscences, while Charyn delicately weaves together movies, memories and intensely personal myths to re-create the daring and dangerous realm of his childhood imagination from the vantage point of an adult. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Charyn, who teaches film at the American University of Paris, returns to the Bronx to continue the story of his childhood, begun in The Dark Lady from Belorusse (LJ 9/15/97). With his mother occupied caring for his younger brother and bored with school himself, Charyn chooses to spend his days hiding out at the Luxor, a local movie house. There the three men who run the theater befriend him, and, through them, he becomes involved in the lives of local Bronx gangsters. The story involves secrets, fights, celery tonic, crime, bad clarinets, and family. Charyn is a skilled storyteller, and this is an easy and enjoyable read. Highly recommended for public libraries and for all readers who enjoy Charyn's novels (Citizen Sidel).--Linda McEwan, Elgin Community Coll., IL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One DELILAH I live on a hill overlooking the Montparnasse cemetery, but a hill is not a home. It's where I camp out, like some bedouin, whose only comfort is the darkness of desert sand. I have a tutor. Lil. A woman who suffered during the war, watched her own parents whisked off the street and sent to that strange eternity of a Jewish camp, while Lil had to live like a waif, hide her red hair from the police. Lil is another homeless person who happens to have an address. That's why we get along.     I can't seem to grasp the myriad spiderwebs of French grammar, so we study Baudelaire and his Spleen de Paris , hoping that some of the master's demonic graces will rub off on me. Why do I feel closer to him than any other writer? Perhaps it's because Baudelaire is the first poet to describe the city not as an emblematic series of masks, gruesome or profoundly picturesque, but as a living thing that breathes its own special fire. He understands the necessity and the sadness of urban life, where all of us are driven by "an invincible need to march and march," searching for our very own chimera....     I teach at a little university on the avenue Bosquet, talk about crime films and crime novels. Most of my students are wanderers like myself, misfits who probably couldn't thrive as well at another institution. Kids from Oklahoma, Istanbul, and Iran, who've come to Paris, sit in class with their nutty professor, who tells them that films belong to the night world of their dreams, that they themselves wear a cinematic face, like some chimera on a wall.     After my courses I catch a bus and climb off at Montparnasse. The cemetery is closed and I can't visit Baudelaire's tomb. It's my favorite pilgrimage in Paris. The tomb is tucked away, off the cemetery's little avenues. And Baudelaire's name is hidden on the tomb, sandwiched between his stepfather, General Aupick, and his mother, Caroline. Time has played its own dirty trick on the general. His glories are scratched into the tomb like a laundry list: senator, general, former ambassador to Constantinople and Madrid.... But he's only remembered now in relation to his sickly, impoverished stepson who suffered from aphasia.     I worry about my own aphasia. Sometimes I can't remember from moment to moment the words I write, as if language were taking revenge on a wild child from a little sand dune called the Bronx, at the other end of the world. My adulthood and identity seem to have collapsed into dust. My mother was an orphan from Belorusse. I miss the life she could have had if only she'd kept her promise and gone to school with me, from kindergarten to college. She might have become another Colette. But I'm the chronicler, losing language day by day. Each word Lil "lends" me cuts into my American vocabulary. A widow, Lil moves from one maid's room to the next, with her little bounty of books. She discovers that her latest address is a block from where her parents were snatched. Lil is like a somnambulist .... Her voyages across Paris bring her closer and closer to the irrevocable wound of her childhood. Pah! I don't want to learn French.     I shut my eyes and think of the pharmacies on every corner, with their twitching and twirling green and blue crosses that are like a psychedelic sign out of my own past, when giant posters of Gregory Peck would blink on some electric billboard attached to a moving truck. But these pharmacies are much more magical than any billboard. They have bandages and ankle guards and herb teas, syrups and potions that can bring the dead back to life. Is that why I live in Montparnasse, without the ghosts of Hemingway or Gertrude Stein? But I do have Jean Gabin. I remember him as Pépé le Moko, a caid who's trapped like a magnificent spider monkey in the Casbah. We can feel the pain of Paris in his eyes. "Paris, that's the dump where I used to live." Pépé's private hole in the wall.     And Paris is also my hole in the wall. I don't have a favorite haunt like the Dôme or Deux Magots. I eat at different dives with the restaurant tickets I get from my little university. It gives a wanderer the illusion that he's almost eating for free. But I didn't come to Paris to gather tickets. Paris is where the bedouin boy has his tent, because it does not tyrannize, impose its "aura" on you, make you feel picturesque. Paris presents itself like a series of magnificent crime scenes. And perhaps we're all criminals playing out our perfect little parts, like Pépé le Moko in the Paris of our dreams. I walk Paris like an invisible man, while I live with the fantasms inside my head.     A single word breaks through these fantasms. Luxor , a city along the Nile, and its temple of Queen Hatshepsut, where fifty-eight tourists were shot and hacked to death by Gamaa Islamya, a terrorist group, posing as policemen. There's a distressing irony to the killers' disguise. Queen Hatshepsut, Egypt's only female pharaoh, loved to put on a beard and walk among her subjects, masquerading as a man. But Hatshepsut brought delight, not butchery. And the Luxor terrorists weren't cross-dressers, like the queen.     I had a "Luxor" of my own, a movie house off the Grand Concourse. It wasn't much of a palace. It didn't have Egyptian gods in the walls. My Luxor had a candy counter and a dead beetle or two in its carpets, that's all. But it's the only home I ever had.     How the hell did it happen? I was a nervous child, caught between my mom and dad, their battles and their reconciliations. We had a new baby in the house. Little Marve. He was two years old in 1949. He'd already climbed out of his crib. Dad was much gentler with him than he'd ever been with me.     My older brother, Harvey, was exiled to Arizona at a school for asthmatics. Harve was outside the stream of our lives. I was called "Baby" until little Marve arrived. Dad had meant to belittle me, hold me frozen in short pants. But Marve was the baby now. And dad seized my nickname ... and my dog. Beauty. A Pomeranian--fox terrier who was the meanest little bitch in the Bronx. She would snap at me if I went near her. My dog. She was like a sister to mom. She would curl under mom's legs, follow her into the street. But Beauty disappeared when mom returned from the hospital with little Marve. Not a syllable was uttered about the little Pomeranian. I tried to worm the truth out of mom.     "Baby," she said. "We couldn't keep the dog."     "Why not, mom?"     And she started to cry. Mom was notorious in the Bronx. She'd once dealt cards for the Democratic Party. But she couldn't subscribe to the internecine wars. And the Democrats had banished her to the East Bronx, a land's end without a proper clubhouse or the least bit of patronage. She was still the most beautiful ex-dealer the Democrats had ever had. The dark lady from Belorusse, who was beginning to have a shock of gray in her hair. But no amount of gray could diminish her, make her less of a dark lady. And she missed my dog.     It was dad who unmasked the mystery. "Jerome," he said, "we had to get rid of her. Dogs aren't human. They can't control their jealousies."     "But ..."     "She could have scratched Marve's eyes out, eaten off his nose."     "Did you give Beauty away?"     "No," he said, like a military man (dad had been an air-raid warden). "We had her gassed."     "Gassed my dog? You couldn't have lent her to a neighbor until Marvin grows up?"     "Impossible," dad said. "She would have died of misery. She was devoted to Faigele."     Faigele was mom's diminutive. It means "little bird." Her official name was Fannie.     Why did I lament? I didn't even like Beauty. I hated her. I would have drowned her in the bathtub if I could. But no one had the right to gas my dog ... without my written consent. And I couldn't reconcile myself to dad's deadly arithmetic, that the birth of a little boy should produce a dog's end. I was powerless to alter such an equation. I took to Marve. I played with him. I mended the struts of his crib. I didn't have to endure any dog bites. But it was the principle of the thing. Beauty's death had enlarged her, made the bitch into some kind of Lassie, but this Lassie would never come home.     I lost my concentration. I was listless at school. My classmates began to mock me, call me "Dumbo," because I had very big ears and I mooned around like a baby elephant. They wouldn't have dared call me Dumbo while Beauty was alive, because I was much more alert and would have tossed back their compliments with my own poisonous tongue. But I couldn't counterattack.     I stopped going to school. I didn't tell mom or dad. I would carry my briefcase around with me, keep regular school hours, but I'd wander off to the West Bronx, where we'd lived when mom had been a card dealer, and I'd sneak into that little movie house, the Luxor, just before noon, when the cashier drifted into his booth. The Luxor didn't have any ushers or usherettes to peer at me with a flashlight, and I had all the seats to myself.     Was it some weird accident or twist of fate that my first film at the Luxor was Samson and Delilah by Cecil B. De Mille? I fell in love with that giant from the land of Dan with hieroglyphics on his arm and the hair of a girl. Samson, otherwise known as Victor Mature. He was against the Philistines, who wore gold helmets and ruled over Dan. But the Philistines couldn't conquer Victor Mature without their own little agent, Hedy Lamarr.     There was never much confusion in my mind about actors and actresses and the roles they played. Hedy Lamarr was only "lending" herself as Delilah; I didn't have to take her too seriously as a Philistine spy with curly dark hair. And how could I forget Victor Mature as Doc Holliday, the gambler who couldn't stop coughing blood in My Darling Clementine , or as the small-time hood in Kiss of Death , who gets caught between the law and Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark), the grinning gangster who became immortal in the Bronx after he hurled a grandma down a flight of stairs?     But Samson and Delilah was a little different. Mature was playing himself, a gentle giant on the verge of slumber (he could barely keep his eyes open on-screen), but the long hair gave him a touch of divinity, as if he were God's child, and the Philistines were only Philistines, fools in funny gold hats, while Delilah was a witch who fed Samson wine and got him to reveal the secret of his strength: his long, girlish hair. Delilah drugged him and cut his hair while the giant slept.     De Mille's Delilah is a very ambiguous girl. She didn't want the Philistines to butcher her favorite brute. They only blind him, cart him off to the prison house, where Samson is condemned to go round and round, pulling an enormous millstone, as he grinds grain for the Philistines....     It's Hollywood. And Hedy Lamarr can't play a slut. She falls in love with the giant she tricked. His hair begins to grow. But the Philistines are much too blind to see that. Samson is their mule. Delilah visits him at the prison house. "Your arms were quicksand," Samson says. "Your kiss was death." But he can't stop loving Delilah.     The Philistines bring him into their temple, so they can mock the brute, and his invisible God, and show him off to Dagon, their own fire god, who had an enormous furnace of a mouth. But Samson pulls two of the main pillars apart, destroys the temple and all the Philistines, including Delilah, who doesn't want to live without her brute.     I couldn't stop crying. Samson and Delilah was like a cautionary tale of the Bronx. Samson could have been my own miraculous uncle or long-haired older brother, fighting Philistines from Manhattan (or Ohio), who happened to hate our little borough. After all, he was a Jewish giant, even if De Mille made the Danites seem like any old tribe.     I returned to the Luxor five days in a row. I didn't have to worry about letters from my public school. I was the family scribe. (Mom couldn't go to school with me and master the alphabet while she had little Marve, couldn't become Colette.) I answered all our mail. I knew how to forge my father's signature, and I was already dreaming up a letter in my mind, about having some chronic bone or brain disease. I was shrewd as Delilah. Or so I began to think.     On my sixth or seventh outing, I got caught. The Luxor seemed to have a Samson of its own. He plucked me out of my seat in the dark, while Delilah was on the screen, carried me across the theater, down a flight of stairs, and into a little cave, where my eyes had to deal with a sputtering fluorescent light.     There were two other men in the cave. The three of them must have been in their thirties, though it was hard for a kid of eleven to judge the exact age of adults, particularly when he'd come blinking out of the dark.     "What makes you so interested in Samson and Cecil B. De Mille?" said the Luxor's giant, who was as burly as Victor Mature. "We don't mind you sneaking in ... but not every day."     "Should we give you an envelope, so you can claim the Luxor as your address?" said the second man, who was thin as a pencil and had a very pale face. The third man was quiet.     "I love Samson," I said. "And I live here between noon and three o'clock."     "Ah, so I was right," the second man said. "This is your address. You're a hooky player, aren't you? What's your name?"     "Jerome. But everybody used to call me Baby."     "Then we'll call you Baby," said the giant. He introduced himself as Everett Darling. The second man was Luke Goldberg. The third man, who was long and wiry, and had very beautiful lips, got out of his chair and slapped my face.     "I say we give him to the cops."     "That's brilliant," said Everett Darling. "We've been avoiding the cops for years. Should we invite them to the Luxor? Tell the kid you're sorry you slapped him."     "Suppose I slap him again."     "Then you'll have to face some thunder," said Luke Goldberg. "Ev and me will tear you apart."     "Apologize to Baby," said the giant.     "Bullshit."     "Then shake his hand and introduce yourself. We're not barbarians."     "I'm Murray Bell," said the third man, and shook my hand. "But you still haven't decided what we do with him."     "Nothing," said Luke Goldberg. "He's our guest."     "And we have to lose the price of a ticket to a hooky player?"     "We've been playing hooky all our lives," said Luke.     "That's different. We're professional hooky players."     "So's the kid. But he's just starting out."     "He's a snot nose. Only an idiot would see Samson and Delilah seven times."     "Did he have a choice? We haven't changed the bill in two weeks ... but why'd you pick our theater, Baby?"     "Used to live next to the Concourse," I said. "On Sheridan Avenue. My mom dealt cards for the Democrats. Faigele Charyn. Did you ever hear of her?"     "No," said the Luxor's three cellar rats.     "She was famous for a little while. But she wouldn't vote for Franklin Roosevelt."     "Why not?"     "Because Roosevelt betrayed Darcy Staples."     "He talks a mile a minute," said Murray Bell, "and makes no sense. Who's this Darcy Staples?"     "A dentist. He was king of the Grand Concourse. Don't you guys ever leave the Luxor?"     "We're draft dodgers, if you have to know."     "You wouldn't fight the Germans and the Japs?"     "Japs?" Murray said. He was the only cellar rat who wore a stylish suit. I wondered if he went to Darcy's tailor, Feuerman & Marx, who dressed the classiest people in the Bronx. But Darcy never sneered the way Murray Bell did. "Japs? We wouldn't touch the Pacific. We've never been south of New Jersey."     "Stop that," said the thin man, Luke. "You're misleading Baby."     "He's too big to be called Baby. I'm calling him Jerome ... what happened to your dentist?"     "He died in the Tombs. Of a broken heart. The Democrats sacrificed him, for Roosevelt's sake."     "Nobody dies of a broken heart," said Murray Bell.     "Darcy did."     "That's sentimental crap."     He was about to punch me in the face. But Everett trapped Murray's fist in his own paw.     "We're not real draft dodgers. We sat out the war. Luke has a little hole in his heart. The army would never take him. And it had to let Mur go."     Everett pointed to the photograph of a fireman on the wall. The fireman had blond hair and was holding a very big hook.     "Mur's fond of boys."     "That's none of Baby's business," Murray said.     "I still don't understand."     "He tried to make love to his own drill sergeant. The sergeant put him in the hospital ... the army doesn't like homos."     "Who's a homo? I'm an artiste."     And I looked at my Samson of the movie house, looked into his eyes. "What about you?"     "I'm a C.O.," he said. "I don't believe in rifles and bayonets. I spent six months in the Tombs ... but I never met your dentist. I would have remembered him. Darcy Staples."     "He didn't last very long. He was too refined to live in a cell."     "And I'm too vulgar to die," Samson said.     The three cellar rats had been classmates at William Howard Taft, the Concourse's very own high school. They'd all lived at one or another of the Art Deco castles on the Concourse. Their dads were successful businessmen. Everett's was practically a tycoon. The rats had applied to Harvard, and all three got in. But they weren't very comfortable in the Ivy League, with its privileged clubs and professorial teas. They studied philosophy, but they seldom went to class. They flunked out of Harvard and had to find some other anchor. They weren't businessmen or philosophers. There was nothing in the world that could hold their curiosity. They pooled their resources, borrowed from their dads, and bought the Luxor, an ailing movie house. They hired a projectionist, a couple of cashiers, and sat in their cave, when they weren't watching whatever "vehicle" was on the screen. They could call themselves entrepreneurs, and they didn't have to thirst for anything beyond the Luxor's doors.     They were dropouts, three rats in a cave, without children or wives, but Everett had shares in IBM, shares that he sat on and could use as collateral if an unexpected bill arrived. He and Luke were in love with their former high school teacher, a certain Mrs. Green, who had aroused their interest in philosophy and art, encouraged them to go to Harvard. Perhaps it was Mrs. Green's absence from Cambridge, Massachusetts, that brought them back to the Bronx. She was slightly alcoholic, had a husband and two boys, and "lived" with Everett and Luke part-time at the apartment the three rats kept on Marcy Place, a stone's throw from the Luxor.     I was dying to meet Mrs. Green, but Everett had to discourage her from dropping in on them at the movie house.     "Baby, if she sees you, she'll send you back to school."     "But couldn't you say I'm a cousin visiting from Appalachia?"     "She'd know it's a lie. And we'd risk losing her. You're my little brother, but I'd have to break your neck."     "It isn't fair," I said. "You shouldn't deprive me of an interesting person. I'm a kid. I haven't met that many people."     "Shut up," the giant said. "That's final." * * * It was easy to invent a fable. When the letters did come from school, I'd scratch out a note in my father's hand, talk of fatigue, visits to a brain surgeon, etc. The East Bronx was like the Sahara, where a child and all his records could get lost in some infinite sand dune.     Did Faigele suspect anything? I'd leave the house early and come back as late as I could, swearing that I'd joined the glee club and was taking music lessons with an instrument that the school itself provided, which was at least half true. There must have been a craze for music education in 1949, and P.S. 61 lent out little plastic clarinets, hoping to find a genius or two in our part of the Sahara. These clarinets were unplayable. But a music teacher would arrive from the Board of Ed and instruct us how to blow on this horrid plastic thing. I could never negotiate more than a couple of toots. And I dropped out of music class after the third or fourth lesson. How could mom have known? She was occupied with little Marve. But she'd sensed the estrangement between us.     "Play for me, Jerome."     "Ah, mom, we do finger exercises."     "Play for me."     And so I tootled on that impossible clarinet, like the Benny Goodman of the East Bronx, and mom began to laugh. After that she left me alone.     I'd become an addict. I couldn't survive without the Luxor seven days a week. I had to maneuver on weekends, pretend I'd become the music teacher's prodigy and was getting private lessons at her home in the West Bronx.     "What's her name?" Faigele asked.     "Mrs. Green."     And I ran off to my three underground men. They finally changed the bill to Twelve O'Clock High , a war picture with Gregory Peck. But I couldn't watch it in peace. The cellar rats kidnapped me from the Luxor, brought me out to their Nash, a car that reminded me of a big fat bullet with a bump on its back. Everett was the navigator. He drove the Nash. Murray Bell sat up front with him. He was excited. His shoulders began to shake.     I sat with Luke. Something was wrong. Luke's eyes were clouding. He didn't even watch the window.     "Who invited Baby?" he asked.     Nobody answered him.     "Don't you get it? He's from Internal Revenue. The tax man can't trap us, so they send a kid."     The giant didn't even look at him. "That isn't logical, Luke."     "Sure it's logical. They have a training school for runts like him. J. Edgar Hoover started it."     "Hoover isn't with the IRS."     "He offered his services," Luke said. "He volunteered. He's a federal agent. If he helps the tax man, his own tax bill is cut in half ... we have to get rid of Baby."     "Baby's one of us."     "I'll kill him myself."     I inched away from Luke. But I saw Everett's eyes in the mirror, and there wasn't the slightest alarm. I could swear he was signaling to me. He reached around and cuffed Luke on the forehead without taking his eyes off the wheel. The blow seemed to calm Luke.     "Baby," the giant said, in a voice that was half a whisper. "Empty your pockets, please."     I didn't have very much: the digger I liked to carry (it was my favorite top and could bite into asphalt with the most dramatic spin); the worn piece of string that went with the digger; and a clump of nickels I had for carfare.     "Luke," the giant said, "did you find a gold badge ... or any other evidence of a tax man?"     "What about Baby's briefcase?"     I opened the briefcase and took out the plastic clarinet I needed for my phantom music lessons.     "It's a dud," I said. "A public school clarinet. Not even God could play it."     Luke picked up the clarinet, fiddled with the finger holes, and started to play "Irish Eyes Are Smiling." He could pull the sweetest tones out of that pathetic thing.     "Baby," he said. "It's not a clarinet. It's a cross between an ocarina and a kazoo."     I didn't argue. He'd soothed himself with his own song.     "Luke," the giant said, "did you take your medication?"     "No, Ev. I forgot."     "And what happens when you forget? Will I have to wallop you again?"     "No, Ev. I'll be good."     I wasn't a scientist. I didn't know anything about manic-depressive maniacs. But it was curious. Murray ignored the entire escapade. He looked out the window, searching for something. We got to a firehouse across from Claremont Park.     "Dan," he said. "I need Dan ... will you tell that brat with the big ears to fetch him for me?"     "Baby doesn't have big ears," Samson insisted.     "Take another look. If you pitched him out the window, he'd start to fly. He comes right out of Walt Disney ... Ev, I'm suffering. I'm gonna die without Dan."     And Everett told me about the blond fireman, Dan O'Brien, and his relation to the Luxor. There'd been a very suspicious fire at the movie house a year ago. Had the Luxor's landlord started that fire to collect insurance money and chase out the three underground men? It wasn't clear. But the three rats were trapped inside their cave, while the fire roared. The heat scorched their eyebrows. They stuffed wet handkerchiefs into their mouths to avoid breathing in the black smoke. They couldn't pray. The rats didn't believe in God. They started to hallucinate. The door shivered and fell in front of their feet. And a god did appear in a thick rubber coat. A blond god, with blue eyes, and a long hook in his hands. Dan O'Brien from Fire Company 42. All the smoke in the world couldn't damage his blue eyes or darken his smile.     "Gentlemen, hold on to that hook."     For Murray Bell it wasn't a matter of survival. He fell madly in love, went gaga over an hallucination in a rubber coat. He would have fainted from the beauty of that boy if Everett hadn't grabbed his hands and placed them on the fireman's pole.     Dan O'Brien led the three rats through a maze of burning pillars and broken glass and brought them out to the street. Murray couldn't take his eyes off Dan, who was twenty-two years old, the son of a fire chief.     Luke and Ev wanted to sell out, give that burnt theater back to the landlord, but they had nowhere else to go. And for Murray the Luxor had become a shrine: it was where he'd first met Dan O'Brien.     Murray wanted to court the fireman. "Ev, do you think he'll mind that I'm a fairy?"     "He'll break your bones."     So Murray had to limit his romance to stealing looks at Dan O'Brien from the window of the Nash.     "Couldn't I bake him cookies?"     "You never baked a cookie in your life. And you don't bake cookies for a fireman. It would embarrass him around his mates."     So the three rats would follow Dan O'Brien from fire to fire, snap his picture as often as they could. And I was their secret weapon. They'd never had a kid in their fraternity. I could approach Dan. Who would ever think that I was amorous of him?     "I'm not gonna do it."     "Baby," the giant implored. "Look at Mur ... he'll drop dead in a minute. We're in a danger zone."     I got out of the car, muttering to myself. I'm not Cupid, I'm not Cupid . But I entered the fire company, asked the watchman inside the door if Dan O'Brien was there.     "And who's wanting him?"     "An admirer," I said. "Mr. O'Brien saved my uncle's life."     And the watchman screamed into an enormous foghorn. "Danny O'Brien, Danny O'Brien, you have a visitor, Danny-O."     The fire pole instantly began to shake. A man came riding down the pole in a blue T-shirt with the words ENGINE 42 emblazoned on his chest. It was midwinter, and he had nothing on but the T-shirt, white socks, and a pair of pants. The rats hadn't been wrong about him. He was like a walking hallucination, with biceps, blue eyes, and a boyish smile.     He shook my hand.     "I'm Jerome," I said. "You rescued my uncle ... about a year ago. At the Luxor fire."     "Luxor fire?"     "The movie house, next to the Grand Concourse."     "I remember now. I had to hack my way into the basement."     "Uncle's outside. He'd like to say hello ... and thank you again."     The young fireman strode into the winter streets in his socks. Murray was mortified. He was sure I'd fail. He hadn't expected Dan O'Brien to slide down his pole and come to greet him. Everett had to shove Murray toward the window.     "Mur, aren't you going to say something to Fireman O'Brien?"     Dan's blue eyes must have twisted Murray's tongue. But he did climb out of the Nash. He was paler than Luke.     "Fireman," he said.     We all waited. What could we do?     "Brave, brave fireman."     He began to cry. And Dan O'Brien took Murray Bell in his arms, rocked him like a baby.     "Sir," Dan said. "It must have been an ordeal. I'd invite you inside the station. But you know how firemen are ... like a private club. They're not privy to strangers."     Dan O'Brien said good-bye to us all and returned to Engine 42. It wasn't the end of our trip. We crossed into New Jersey, Samson at the wheel. Murray Bell was dreaming of Dan O'Brien. We didn't interfere with that dream. We stopped at a place called Union City. It was the capital of burlesque. I didn't know what burlesque was, except that it was outlawed in the Bronx. We arrived at the Tenderloin, which sounded like a steak to me, but it was a row of streets where sailors went. They flocked around theaters that had enormous billboards of half-naked women beckoning to the sailors with their backsides. I'd never seen such a spectacle. It was like traveling back through time, into the land of the Philistines.     We got out of the Nash. Murray retrieved a box from the trunk and painted a mustache under my nose, dabbed my eyes with a brush. I glanced at myself in Murray's mirror.     "What's this all about?"     "They don't let minors into the Martinique," Samson said.     "Then what am I supposed to be?"     "A very tall dwarf."     Samson put a cigar in my mouth, and we went into the Martinique.     "Where's Murray?" I asked.     "Minding the car."     The Martinique wasn't much larger than the Luxor. It was packed with sailors and college students and old men with raw, red noses and pink eyes. I couldn't find a lady among them.     A big fat announcer climbed up onto the stage, wheezing like a sick elephant. He started making jokes. I couldn't understand a word he said. But the audience laughed. And then he introduced the acts.     "From Pomona," he said, "the pom-pom girl, the delight of college campuses, Miss Teresa Taft. Let's give this lovely a big hand."     There was nothing lovely about Teresa Taft, the pompom girl. I couldn't bear to watch her undress. With each bit of unraveling she'd reveal a new world of wrinkles. Why had the cellar rats brought me here, stole me from the Luxor and Twelve O'Clock High ? I was curious about Gregory Peck and the pilots he had to send out on bombing missions, half of whom wouldn't come back. I couldn't imagine a general as young as Gregory Peck.     The acts at the Martinique went on and on, and I almost sank into oblivion. Then Samson nudged me.     "Baby, don't fall asleep."     The announcer grabbed his microphone. "And now, for the first time on the Martinique's stage, from the city across the river, Delilah, the delicious one. Let's all give her a Bronx cheer."     The sailors whistled and clapped. The college kids jumped in their seats. The old men remained skeptical, peering out from the perimeters of their red noses.     Delilah came through the curtain, bold as a Philistine princess. I started to shake. It was Hedy Lamarr, with her silver bodice, her amulets, her arm bracelet. Was Cecil B. De Mille sending out his actresses on the striptease circuit? Delilah didn't have to undress. The sailors, the kids, the old geeks were mesmerized. She walked the length of the stage in silver sandals and her Philistine helmet of curly hair.     "Delilah," the audience shouted, "Delilah."     I wasn't dumb. I knew Hedy Lamarr wouldn't come to a hole in the wall in Union City, no matter what De Mille demanded of her. This Hedy Lamarr was a "female impersonator," a man who could dazzle you with the arms and legs and bodice of a woman.     "That's Murray," I said. "He isn't minding the car."     "Shhh," said Luke. "It's a command performance."     "You can't have a command performance without a king."     "You're the king. You brought Dan O'Brien out of his fire station. So Murray's thanking you in his own fashion. He invented Delilah on the spot ... he's dancing for you, Baby."     "Does that mean he likes me now?"     "No," Luke said. "He'll never like you."     I thought of Queen Hatshepsut dressing as a man for her loyal subjects. Why couldn't Murray Bell do the reverse? But this wasn't Egypt. And we weren't near the Nile. This was a firetrap on the Jersey Palisades, without gods and goddesses. I was still grateful. And in the cramped kingdom of a child's heart, I wasn't watching a cellar rat in the middle of a masquerade. It was delicious Delilah, doing her dance.