Feed the Children

a story

by J. Orlin Grabbe

Lithgow first met Karen at The Delphic Oracle, a cafe-bar in the East Village, where she had listened to the bartender's tape: the one made an earlier night when the performer, a folk singer, had stayed on after closing time, and a few of the regular customers had had a sing-along, and--moved by the mood and the wine-- Lithgow had given an economic diatribe in the style of a Southern preacher. Something like:

Well, brethren, I have called this Council together because there is evil in the land, and we've got to root it out. Now there are those who talk about their multiple regressions. And econometric transgressions. But I want to tell you, I looked at the housing market, and--brother--I saw sin!

Oh, I say we got to get those interest rates down! Say Amen!

Oh, I say we got to get those interest rates down! Say Optimal! . . .

Something like that. A few days later Lithgow came in and saw a woman sitting across the corner of the bar. She stared at him and he said hello.

What do you do? he asked.

Guerrilla theater, she replied.

He sipped his wine, wondering what that meant.

I'm an unemployed actress, she said. I type 120 wpm and live in Indianapolis. My name is Karen.

I'm Lithgow. What brings you to New York?

Who is this guy? she asked the bartender.

He did the sermon on the tape, the bartender replied.

Umm, she said. I'm here looking for a job. I used to be with the Larouche organization, and we were trying to feed the starving children, before I was fucked over by some of the top people. Do you know anything about his theories?

Unfortunately, Lithgow said. Larouche is a fascist.

She looked at the bartender. Is he for real?

I think he's for real.

Okay, I guess I'll listen to what you have to say then.

She came around the edge of the bar and sat beside Lithgow.

What do you do? she asked.

I'm trying to write a play, but I do research to make a living. I took economics in school.

She looked at him with an open gaze that in another context he would have interpreted as a sign of sexual interest.

We need to have a discussion about what to do about the housing situation, and the homeless, and how we were going to feed the hungry of the world, she said. Do you know that six million children will die of starvation this year alone?

He didn't answer. He hadn't come to the bar to talk about global problems he could do nothing about.

Before you came in, the bartender related to Lithgow, Karen was having dinner with this social worker. And there were three Englishmen who had come in, and Karen says in a loud voice to the social worker that she had had no money the previous night and had to give someone a five dollar blow-job for cabfare.

Lithgow looked at Karen. She didn't seem to mind that the bartender was relating the story in front of her.

So the social worker starts yelling, the bartender continued, that she had promised to be decent in public and stomped out saying he would call her later.

What did the Englishmen say?

Two of the three Englishmen were having a good time, but felt inhibited in front of their boss. But they all turned to listen when Karen started talking about blow-jobs.

Karen looked at Lithgow with pride. I'm very good, she said.

Lithgow didn't know what to say. Are you always this way? he eventually asked.

As long as I've known her, she's always been Crazy Karen, the bartender said.

I'm crazy as my lord is insane. I've been fucked over a lot. Once I was grabbed by the Secret Service at a Dukakis rally. I had a sign, and I started yelling at him, asking him what he was going to do to feed the children, and the SS grabbed me and threw me in a car.

What happened then? Lithgow asked. But her attention was already elsewhere, and she began to talk to another person who had sat at the bar. A stranger, apparently.

After a while she turned back toward him.

Harry meet Lithgow. Lithgow is an economist. I don't know much about economics, but one thing I do know is when money cancels out debt, there will no longer be an excuse not to feed the hungry. Lithgow, would you be so good as to explain to Harry what MV = PT means?

Startled, Lithgow attempted a quick explanation, then felt foolish. He did not know why he felt a need to answer, or why Harry should care, or why an explanation was relevant.

What do you think, Karen asked Lithgow, if we had the Concord fly over Africa and drop tons of Wonder Bread?

He looked at her carefully. He decided she meant it as a serious question.

I don't know. I don't think it will work. Anyway, I'm not interested in solving social problems.

You're already on record! she screamed at him, slamming her fist on top of the bar.

Lithgow buried his attention in his wine glass.

How old do you think I am? she asked calmly.

Her age was indeterminate. Somewhere in the thirties, he decided. Early thirties.

I'm forty, she said. You know, it's getting past time for me to have a child. I want to have the first child born on the moon. Or conceived on the moon and born on Mars.

They then talked for a while in a manner that Lithgow found distressingly desultory. To have a conversation with this woman, he thought, I'll have to find a way to condense anything I have to say about any particular topic into a single sentence. That's all I get before the subject changes.

When he was ready to leave the bar, he told her he lived in midtown, and she said she was staying with a friend in the nineties. She asked if he would walk her by the cash machine on Second Avenue. They walked to the automatic teller near St. Marks, where her hometown bank balance stood at twelve dollars after withdrawing thirty in cash.

Why don't you come uptown and play pool with me, she asked. There's a table in a bar near where I'm staying. We can stop at your place on the way, if you want.

He shrugged consent and waved down a cab. She introduced herself to the cab driver, and asked him how he was doing. The driver complained there was no money in driving a cab all day.

This is Lithgow, an economist, she said. Perhaps the two of you should discuss the labor situation in this country.

Lithgow nodded at the driver but didn't say anything, and was grateful to receive silence in return. After a time, he put his arm around Karen. He wasn't sure why. It seemed natural and cozy.

She looked at him. Do you want to make love to me?

Maybe, he said. He didn't know if he did or not. He was embarrassed by the cabdriver's attention to the conversation.

You must, you have your arm around me, she said.

When they got out of the cab, he stopped on the sidewalk and kissed her with sudden passion. She felt his erection with her hand. Do you like oral sex? she asked. I'm not using any birth control.

I don't have any either, Lithgow thought to himself. He didn't do this often.

They walked along the sidewalk.

You know this may only happen once, she said, just this time.

I know that.

When they reached the lobby of his apartment building she looked around and said You must be rich.

I'm not rich, but I'm not poor.

This is just between me and you, right? she asked in the elevator. You aren't going to tell anyone?

He shook his head. He didn't know why she was so concerned. When they entered the apartment, he left the lights out, and they went out on the balcony and looked at the city. He kissed her again and she said Feel how wet you are making me. He felt her through her dress and she said No, put your hand inside my panties. Then she asked Do you want to make love now, and he said Yes and pulled off her panties, and then said Let's go inside. In the bedroom she said No, don't make me come, I want to be hot like this for the rest of the night.

Sometime later she said: I want you inside of me. Lithgow thought about the lack of birth control, and the people she might have been with, and then he entered her and didn't think about it anymore.

There was a full moon shining through the bedroom window. She said Oh I'm coming, and then lay strangely still. She lay inertly, without emotion.

There is nothing for you to do but come now, she said.

I came the same time you did.

She turned her face toward him. You shouldn't have done that. I told you I wasn't using any birth control.

It's a dangerous game, he said.

But you would support the child, she said, looking into his face and seeming to find something reassuring.

They took a shower together, and he soaped the blemishes on her back, and she wanted to know if she should put on makeup and he said he didn't care. She tuned in a rock station on the stereo, and then borrowed his hairdryer. He didn't like the station, and after a minute turned it off and put on a CD by the Doors. Then he watched her try to smoke the tail end of a joint using scissors as a roach clip. He decided it was futile, and rolled some pot of his own, and they both smoked it rapidly.

Why don't you give me a job, she said. You can dictate your plays to me, and I can type them.

I'm sorry, I can't work that way. I write and edit them directly on a word processor. It's the only way I know how to work.

They took a cab to the bar near where she was staying, and she ordered a sweet drink with tequila and madeira. The bartender was a big man, and fat, and wore a beret, and she knew him. When he was closing he stood beside them pressing his stomach into them like a barricade, and said It's time to go now. Lithgow was annoyed.

They decided to walk on down the street to another bar which was still open, as they hadn't had a chance to play pool. On the way there she said We could go back to your place and make love. He didn't respond because he wanted more time to think about it, and he was feeling very drunk. At the bar Karen ordered White Castle hamburgers, which were available for a dollar each, and he got a martini. At one point he ran his hand up her skirt and she said angrily Will you stop it.

Sorry, he said, taken aback by her shift in mood.

The fat bartender from the previous bar came in, and the familiar way he acted with Karen made Lithgow wonder if he was the recipient of the five-dollar blow-job of the previous night. Another man, a dancer in his early twenties came in also, and Karen started talking to him, and then the four of them paid for a pool table. But Lithgow was so drunk he decided to walk home.

I leave Karen in your capable hands, he said to the dancer.

The dancer followed Lithgow to the door. Who is the big guy? he asked. Is she with him?

Don't worry about him, Lithgow said. He's just a bartender from up the street.

Then Karen came to the door, and asked Lithgow if he would be all right.

I think so.

Will I see you again?

At the cafe.

I do want to get together for a serious discussion of economics, she said.

She's crazy, you know, the bartender at The Delphic Oracle told him the following night. I knew her when I was staying in Rome, and one night after she had come to visit, she ran naked through the streets and tried to hijack a bus.

Lithgow thought about his conversation with Karen, and then he realized the problem. The economic diatribe that the bartender had recorded and then played for her was actually an excerpt of a skit Lithgow had written a previous year. But-- listening to the tape--Karen had interpreted Lithgow's sermon as a spontaneous visionary possession, which made him a performance artist like herself: an agent for geo-political change through public scenes in establishments for eating and drinking. What was it she had said? One random statement without context: Draw people into the scene so they are at first unaware of what is really going on.

The bartender answered the phone and then handed Lithgow a note with a phone number. Call Karen at Samuel's apartment, it said.

Who's Samuel?

Samuel is the social worker who was here with Karen the other night. He's a friend of hers.

Lithgow called the number and a man's voice answered.

I have a note to call Karen, Lithgow said.

Well you can't call her at this number, the voice responded firmly, and then in the background, before the receiver clicked, he heard the same voice screaming: You have your lovers call here! After the way I loved you!

Lithgow returned to the bar.

What did Karen have to say? the bartender asked.

Samuel answered and said I couldn't call her there.

Well, that's Samuel. The bartender looked at Lithgow. Are you okay?

Lithgow was thinking about the previous night. It's just between you and me, she had said.

Would Karen set me up like this? he asked the bartender. Have me call her at Samuel's, just so some man would be calling her there when Samuel answered the phone?

No, I don't think so, the bartender replied. She doesn't want to deal with that.

Lithgow, preoccupied, forgot to ask him what it was she didn't want to deal with.

The following evening Lithgow found Karen sitting at the bar at The Delphic Oracle with a haggard, indifferently dressed man in his late thirties.

Lithgow, this is Samuel, Karen said.

Samuel didn't appear to recognize him as the person who had called the previous night.

I'm a psychologist, Samuel said. I'm working to prevent psychiatric abuse.

Like with Karen? Lithgow asked.

Karen is the Harry Houdini of institutions, Samuel said. She gets in or out whenever she wants.

I'm doing better, aren't I? Karen asked Samuel.

You're not crazy, Lithgow told her.

Thanks, she responded. How much sorrow has to be endured before you can say it is finished?

Two gay men, apparently friends of Karen, came in, and she went and sat with them at a table across the room.

Samuel looked at Lithgow. I was one of the first people Karen asked to marry, Samuel said. Did she say anything about that? Samuel searched Lithgow's face.

She didn't mentioned it to me, Lithgow said. Samuel looked relieved.

I guess you know I've had a thing for Karen for a couple of years, Samuel said. But now I've met this 21-year old Yugoslavian girl with long blonde hair who is helping me get over her.

That's good, Lithgow responded.

Karen told me you were her lover.

Lithgow shook his head at the question, thinking It's none of your business. He saw Samuel looking at him. Let him interpret the gesture however he wants, he thought.

She tells everyone that everyone is her lover, Lithgow said.

He saw Samuel was pleased with the response, a reaction that puzzled him for a moment. Then he realized that Samuel had probably never slept with Karen.

A pale woman in a flowered dress came in and sat by Samuel. She was one of Samuel's colleagues.

Lithgow knows Karen, Samuel said to the pale woman.

The problem with Karen, the woman said, is her praxis. For example, Karen is concerned about world hunger, but she still eats meat.

Hmm, Lithgow answered. He looked at both of them with distaste. There is a whole industry of problem solvers, he thought. Politicians, bureaucrats, demagogues, counselors, and charity workers who have found the way to power, fame, and wealth lies in championing lost causes and mucking about in other people's lives. They're really just parasites and vampires who are healthy only when others are sick, whose well-being increases in direct proportion to other people's misery, and whose chief occupation is giving the appearance of working on the problems of others.

What is your play about? the woman asked Lithgow, when he told her what he was doing.

It's a drama based on the Gnostic Gospels, Lithgow said.

Karen came back to the bar with the two gay men.

We're going out, she said to Lithgow. Will you still be here later?


Where are you going? Samuel asked. He looked distressed.

We're going down the street to play pool, Karen said. Why don't you stay here and talk to Lithgow? Lithgow is an economist, you know.

We were talking about the Gnostic Gospels, Lithgow said.

Why hasn't God forgiven Satan? Karen asked. His prodigal son? She turned toward the door without waiting for an answer.

Samuel watched them leave. I'm afraid she'll stop in every bar, he said to Lithgow. No telling what kind of trouble she'll get into.

Why don't we go to Blimpie on Sixth Avenue? the pale woman asked Samuel.

Lithgow stayed at The Delphic Oracle until closing, but Karen did not return.

The next morning was Saturday, and Lithgow slept until noon when he was awakened by the phone. It was Karen.

What are you doing? he asked.

There is nothing to do but make a joyful noise. I was calling because Samuel and I are going to have dinner at Cozy on Amsterdam at 5:45. Why don't you join us? Afterward maybe we can go to The Delphic Oracle and have Rolling Rocks or whatever.

Okay, he said, where are you now?

I am currently at the Helmsley Hotel with Freddy, she said.

Who is Freddy?

He is a rock singer who has several gold records. I sang for him. He says I have a pretty good singing voice, but it needs some work. Last night we made a tour of the drug scene in Harlem.

You've been up all night?

I want to experience what the children are experiencing. If they're shooting up, I want to shoot up. If they're smoking crack, I want to smoke crack.

Be careful, Lithgow said. It was the only thing he could think of to say.

How can anyone be careful when there is death all around? She hung up.

Lithgow showered and dressed and was making coffee when Karen called again.

Something's come up, she said. Samuel and I won't be going to Cozy after all. I apologize. Will you be at The Delphic Oracle later? I just want to spend time with cool cats who know how to hang out and stay calm and have a good time. Do you know what I mean?

Maybe I'll see you there, Lithgow said.

Karen came in to The Delphic Oracle at eight. She was wearing a Cleveland Indians T-shirt and baseball cap. Her face was covered with red makeup and she was wearing dark glasses. She said she had been doing coke all night with Freddy.

And I didn't sleep with him, she said vehemently.

I didn't ask, Lithgow thought. Why is she telling me this?

I'm just trying to get the rock music industry to focus on the starving children, she said. Live Aid--what was that? One day, one week. That isn't shit.

Come, and I'll introduce you to my friends, Lithgow said.

Later, she said. I have to go out. But I will come back and we can have dinner.

It was a hour or two later before Karen returned. The cap and dark glasses were gone, and she had changed her T-shirt. All that remained of the Cleveland Indians outfit was the red makeup still smeared over her face.

She slammed a manila folder down on the counter twice. This city is filled with nothing but hypocrites, faggots, and whores, she said to the bartender--the one she had visited in Rome.

The bartender looked at Lithgow. Sounds pretty accurate to me, the bartender said.

Lithgow opened the folder. Inside was a letter to George Bush. It was about world hunger.

What do you think of Karen's crusade? the bartender asked Lithgow.

I don't believe in crusades. My first responsibility is to take care of myself, so I won't be a burden to other people.

Can the children take care of themselves? Karen asked.

I don't believe in fighting evil. The universe disposes of its own evil. I think I read that in Dr. Sax.

It's disposing of the children. Are they evil?

You are controlled by what you love and what you hate. But hate is the stronger emotion. Those who fight evil take on the characteristics of the enemy and become evil themselves.

Would you just read the fucking letter? Karen demanded. Read it out loud so everyone can hear.

Lithgow read the letter silently and then replaced it in the folder. Someone was playing Streets of London on the piano.

Would you like to dance? he asked Karen.

No, she said. But after a moment she changed her mind.

Aren't I a good follower? she asked.


Isn't anyone going to cut in? I want to be had by all the men at the bar.

Lithgow looked at the bar. Anyone in particular? he asked.

That one, she said, pointing to a man with a long blond ponytail.

They returned to the bar, but the man with the ponytail was not interested in talking to Karen.

Lithgow was at The Delphic Oracle the following evening when the bartender passed him the phone. Karen seemed to be speaking with her head turned.

Ready to go? The brothers are ready? They want to see the children fed?

Now the voice came through distinctly.

We're having a demonstration. A midnight vigil before the UN. Food riots are happening all over the world. We're going to hold all things in common. You want to come to 42nd Street and join us?

He didn't. But what he said was: Maybe.

Is regurgitation biodegradable? she asked, and hung up.

After a while Lithgow walked up Second Avenue to 42nd Street and over to the UN building. There was a group of six or seven people on the sidewalk. They were watching Karen, who was in the middle of the street arguing with a policeman. The policeman put his hands on her shoulders and began pushing her back in the direction of the sidewalk. At the last moment she jerked away, then tripped over the curb and fell into a police barricade.

She sat up and Lithgow came and sat beside her.

Do you think there are politics in the Kingdom of God? she asked Lithgow. She seemed to be all right.

He knew what he wanted to tell her.

The universe is basically indifferent to human joys or suffering, he would say. What happens just happens. It doesn't warrant labels of "good" or "bad", or human reactions of sympathy or hatred. Effort to control or alter the course of events is wasted. One should cultivate detachment and learn to go with the flow. Because the sage strives not, no man may contend against him. He who attracts to himself all that is under Heaven does so without effort. He who makes effort is not able to attract it.

He wanted to say all these things, but he didn't. He didn't say anything.

Kill me or let me have my freedom, Karen said.

After a while she looked at Lithgow: Did I ever tell you I had an abortion? The doctor so fucking butchered me I'll never be able to have children.

Can I take you somewhere in a cab? Lithgow asked.

No, I have to stay here. I'm the only one who cares.

Lithgow did not see Karen at The Delphic Oracle the following night. But when he returned home there were two messages from her on his answering machine.

The first one said: I'm at Penn station. Amtrak fucked me over. The police fucked me over. The next stop is bus stop. I'd like to fly home United tonight. Tonight! In the flesh I'd like to kick up my heels. Tonight!

The final message was shorter: This city has defeated me. I've done all I could. Now it's up to you.


from Liberty, May 1995