Perkus Tooth lived in 1R, a half- level up, the building's rear. He widened his door just enough for me to slip inside, directly to what revealed itself to be his kitchen. Perkus, though barefoot, wore another antique- looking suit, green corduroy this time, the only formal thing my entry revealed. The place was a bohemian grotto, the kitchen a kitchen only in the sense of having a sink and stove built in, and a sticker- laden refrigerator wedged into an alcove beside the bathroom door. Books filled the open cabinet spaces above the sink.
The countertop was occupied with a CD player and hundreds of disks, in and out of jewel cases, many hand labeled with a permanent marker. A hot- water pipe whined. Beyond, the other rooms of the apartment were dim at midday, the windows draped. They likely only looked onto ventilation shafts or a paved alley, anyway. Then there were the broadsides Susan Eldred had described. Unframed, thumbtacked to every wall bare of bookshelves, in the kitchen and in the darkened rooms, were Perkus Tooth's famous posters, their paper yellowing, the lettering veering between a stylish cartoonist's or graffitist's handmade font and the obsessive scrawl of an outsider artist, or a schizophrenic patient's pages reproduced in his doctor's monograph. I recognized them. Remembered them. They'd been ubiquitous downtown a decade before, on constructionsite boards, over subway advertisements, element in the graphic cacophony of the city one gleans helplessly at the edges of vision. Perkus retreated to give me clearance to shut the door. Stranded in the room's center in his suit and bare feet, palms defensively wide as if expecting something unsavory to be tossed his way, Perkus reminded me of an Edvard Munch painting I'd once seen, a selfportrait showing the painter wide- eyed and whiskered, shrunken within his clothes. Which is to say, again, that Perkus Tooth seemed older than his age. (I'd never once see Perkus out of some part of a suit, even if it was only the pants, topped with a filthy white T-shirt. He never wore jeans.)
"I'll get you the videotape," he said, as if I'd challenged him.
"Let me find it. You can sit down" He pulled out a chair at his small, linoleum- topped table like one you'd see in a diner. The chair matched the tablea dinette set, a collector's item. Perkus Tooth was nothing if not a collector. "Here." He took a perfect finished joint from where it waited in the lip of an ashtray, clamped it in his mouth and ignited the tip, then handed it to me unquestioningly. It takes one, I suppose, to know one. I drew on it while he went into the other room. When he returnedwith a VHS cassette and his sneakers and a balled- up pair of white sockshe accepted the joint from me and smoked an inch of it himself, intently.
"Do you want to get something to eat? I haven't been out all day." He laced his high- tops.
"Sure," I said.
Out, for Perkus Tooth, I'd now begun to learn, wasn't usually far. He liked to feed at a glossy hamburger palace around the corner on Second Avenue, called Jackson Hole, a den of gleaming chrome and newer, faker versions of the linoleum table in his kitchen, lodged in chubby red- vinyl booths. At four in the afternoon we were pretty well alone there, the jukebox blaring hits to cover our bemused, befogged talk. It had been a while since I'd smoked pot; everything was dawning strange, signals received through an atmosphere eddied with hesitations, the whole universe drifting untethered like Perkus Tooth's vagrant eyeball. The waitress seemed to know Perkus, but he didn't greet her, or touch his menu. He asked for a cheeseburger deluxe and a Coca- Cola. Helpless, I dittoed his order. Perkus seemed to dwell in this place as he had at Criterion's offices, indifferently, obliquely, as if he'd been born there yet still hadn't taken notice of the place.
In the middle of our meal Perkus halted some rant about Werner Herzog or Marlon Brando or Morrison Groom to announce what he'd made of me so far. "So, you've gotten by to this point by being cute, haven't you, Chase?" His spidery fingers, elbow- propped on the linoleum, kept the oozing, gory Jackson Hole burger aloft to mask his expression, and cantilevered far enough from his lap to protect those dapper threads. One eye fixed me while the other crawled, now seeming a scalpel in operation on my own face. "You haven't changed, you're like a dreamy child, that's the secret of your appeal. But they love you. They watch you like you're still on television."
Excerpted from Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem Copyright © 2009 by Jonathan Lethem. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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