Like Paracelsus, the Swiss alchemist who, towards the end of his life, wandered from inn to inn across Europe, paying the innkeepers with gold coins that later turned into sea shells, Alicia Beerle, a girl from Zurich who went to New York to study modern dance, dreamed of drifting from apartment to apartment in Manhattan, paying the landlords with charmed money.
The taxi from the airport dropped her at number 17 Bleeker Street, where a Spanish woman called Pati lived. Pati was ten years older than Alicia, a friend of a friend, and had offered to put her up for a few days, while she looked for an apartment. Alicia rang the bell, and before long Pati leaned out of the window—her loft was on the seventh floor—and dropped a key to the street door, wrapped in a sock.
“Welcome to New York,” said Pati as she opened the door of the loft, and Alicia walked in, somewhat breathless from the climb. Then and there she began to realize that young artists in New York did not necessarily enjoy all the comforts of modern life: the buildings were old, many had no lift, the furniture was often primitive, and mattresses rested directly on the floor. She also realized, a few days later, that hospitality soon ran out, and that the quickest way to find a place to live in the bohemian East Village was by looking on the notice boards in certain restaurants and bars.
Serious artist looking for studio space. How to find your spiritual guide. Percussion classes. We’ll walk your dog. Massage: home visits. Bicycle for sale. Dancer looking for an apartment to share.
“Yes, Alicia speaking.”
It was a guy with a southern accent, who had a two—room apartment to share. His name was Daniel and he suggested they meet the next afternoon at the Veselka, a Ukrainian restaurant.
“I’d be wary of sharing with a guy,” said Pati later on, over dinner. “But of course it could turn out fine. Meet him and see what you think.”
Alicia had taken a number of Martha Graham classes in Zurich, so she was familiar with the school’s etiquette. She arrived fifteen minutes early with her monochrome unitard. The academy was an elegant four—storey brownstone in the Upper East Side, completely covered with ivy. After a brief interview with a severe—looking secretary, she was sent to an intermediate class in a salon on the first floor. To her surprise, almost all the other girls—there was only one boy—were Asian, and not at all friendly.
When she got back to the loft in Bleeker Street, Alicia went straight to the answering machine, but there were no messages for her or for Pati. So she made herself a light lunch and took a shower before going out to meet Daniel.
Perhaps Daniel Harkowitz would have been a different person if he had not been exposed to the concept of a personal, omnipotent deity, but from an early age he had been obsessed by the idea of the Christian God. “Religious delusions,” said the forensic psychiatrists who examined him when he was ten, after he had tried to drown another boy of the same age during a baptismal ceremony on the banks of the Mississippi. However, instead of committing him to a psychiatric hospital, the judges at the Juvenile Court sent him to a reformatory, where he was kept until the age of fifteen.
There were times when he thought he was the Son of God and times when he thought he was Satan. There were also long periods during which he descended to the world of mortals and was subject to the laws of so—called reality. It was during one of these intervals that Daniel, who must have been about twenty-eight at the time, decided to move from Arkansas to New York City, which he did by hitching rides and jumping trains like a hobo.
For his first few months in New York he was more or less homeless. He soon assumed the role of spiritual guide for one of the little groups of young nonconformists who were then camping in Tompkins Square Park. As winter approached he began to look for a place to live, since unlike most of the homeless people who spent summer in the square, he had no desire to lead a nomadic life and migrate south. With one of the girls he had met in the park, Mary Cohen, who was quite a successful beggar and an occasional prostitute, he took a two—room apartment at number 700 East Ninth Street, but they never mentioned this to their vagrant companions, so as not to make them envious.
For almost two years they shared the apartment. They lived in relative harmony, although they didn’t see much of each other. Mary used to go to bed and get up very early, spending her days begging in the streets, while Daniel never rose before midday. In the afternoon he would go to the Tompkins Square library and assiduously read books about magic and religion, and at night he attended the cenacles regularly held in the park, where, for the benefit of a generally receptive audience, he set out his ideas on all manner of subjects and his plans for saving the world.
But one day in spring Mary disappeared without a trace or a word of explanation, and Daniel had a nervous breakdown. He didn’t leave the apartment for fourteen days; he endured hunger and thirst; he grew very pale and thin. Two things were revealed to him during that crisis: he would have to find someone else to help him pay the rent; and he had to lay the foundations of the new religion that he would begin to spread—like Christ—at the age of thirty.
That was when Daniel began to appear in public with a little black chicken he called Poco on his shoulder, to which he spoke in a constant whisper. The Latinos who frequented the park gave him the nickname Poco—loco, by which he is still remembered in the neighborhood.
It was beginning to pour with rain when Alicia arrived at the restaurant. There was no one there waiting for her, but she sat at the bar and ordered a coffee.
“Hi,” said Daniel and sat down on the stool next to her. He was wearing green camouflage pants and a little leather waistcoat—no shirt—against his grimy, pale, damp skin. He had a beard, long hair the color of dishwater and opaque eyes. The little black chicken was perched on his shoulder, with a red crest that looked like a punk hairdo.
“You’re the one looking for an apartment? Sorry I’m late but. . .” He looked to the right and the left, and so did the chicken, pecking at its owner’s ear and hair. “Poco’s not allowed in here. Do you want to see it?”
When they went out into the street, it had stopped raining and the wet pavement was giving off a smell of tar. Daniel walked quickly with Alicia following two or three steps behind. They crossed Tompkins Square: a sound of drums and kids yelling, people throwing frisbees and walking their dogs. As they left the park, Daniel pointed out a three—storey building on Avenue B and said: “That’s where Charlie used to live.” They continued east along Ninth Street to number 700, an apartment building on the corner with Avenue C, opposite a vacant lot surrounded by a high, blackened wall covered with old posters, reminiscent of a Rauschenberg.
It was an iron—framed brick building dating from the middle of the nineteenth century, with masonry cornices and the standard fire escape on the outside. In the little entrance hall, up six decrepit steps, were three bicycles chained to an iron rail. Daniel’s apartment was on the fourth floor; it didn’t look out on the street but into a small interior courtyard, so there was little natural light. It was much smaller than Pati’s loft, and once again Alicia thought that this was not the place for her. Daniel showed her one of the rooms—a dark cubicle where everything was covered with a layer of grey dust—then the bathroom and the kitchen, where the layer was composed of dust and black grease.
They stood facing each other in the little living room, and Alicia was impatient to be out of there.
“What do you think?” asked Daniel.
“I’m not sure; I’ll need to think it over.”
“The rent’s good; I can’t do it for less. You’ve got my number. Call me when you make up your mind, but don’t take too long, OK?”
The next morning Alicia went to see another apartment in Noho, two streets away from Bleeker Street. But it was more like a broom cupboard, and she rounded furiously on the agent who was trying to tell her it was a bargain. Two days later, after a series of similar let-downs, she rang Daniel and agreed to share the apartment with him from the following day, the first Thursday of the month.
Although she had prepared herself mentally, the sight of the place was just as dispiriting as before. Daniel greeted her coldly, strangely. After she had handed over the money—the first week’s rent plus a bond—in exchange for the keys, he told her that he didn’t use the telephone; if she wanted, she could keep the line, and pay the bill, but she’d have to get another handset, because the one that was there belonged to a friend and he had to give it back. Then he went out, saying he wouldn’t be home until late.
As soon as she was alone, Alicia started cleaning. She worked for two hours in her room, then extended the operation to the living room, the kitchen and the bathroom. Having completed this task, she felt slightly better. She had filled three big bags with all sorts of rubbish. She would have to ask Daniel to follow certain basic rules, like cleaning up in the kitchen after meals, urinating into the toilet, and not letting Poco make a mess everywhere.
She was about to go into the bathroom and take a shower to wash off the sweat and the dirt, when it occurred to her to clean up Daniel’s room as well. It had a sweetish smell; he was in the habit of burning incense. His bed, like hers, was a mattress lying on the floor. The window gave onto the fire escape, where Poco was standing on one claw, attached to the iron grille by a fine chain, staring off into the distance over a dark sea of rooftops under the evening sky. On the wall above the bed was a poster of Baphomet, the Judas Goat, and against the adjoining wall, on the ground, a row of old books. She decided it would be wiser to leave it all as it was. She went out of the room and shut the door.
After a long shower, she went down to the nearest store and bought coffee and a tub of yoghurt for dinner. It would have been eleven by the time she got into bed, feeling tired. Now that it was cleaned and aired, her new bedroom no longer seemed a hostile place. It wouldn’t be too hard to live there for a couple of weeks. If she wanted a place of her own, she’d have to work long hours just to pay the rent. When she fell asleep, at midnight, Daniel still hadn’t come home.
Living with Daniel turned out to be easier than she had imagined, since they were hardly ever in the apartment at the same time, but she didn’t feel at ease with him. She had the impression that he was doing his best to avoid her. On two occasions she saw him in the park, in the afternoon, with a group of young misfits who gathered under the trees as if to enact some scene from tribal life. Sometimes Daniel didn’t come home until the morning, when Alicia was getting ready to go off to class. And in the afternoon, when she returned, Daniel was already gone or on the point of leaving.
Out of curiosity, Alicia had gone into Daniel’s room two or three times and taken a look at some of his books: The Autobiography of Anton S. Lavey; Real Magic by Isaac Bonewitz; The Ultimate Evil by Maury Terry; Paracelsus by Robert Browning.
Even before opening the weekly paper she was depressed; she knew that the sort of apartment she wanted was beyond her means. She had two job offers, one as a waitress in a French restaurant, the other as a nanny for a German family, but even if she took both she wouldn’t be earning enough to pay the rent. Nevertheless, she went through the advertisements for apartments to rent, column by column, noted telephone numbers and made up flyers.
The following afternoon, when she came back from her dance class, she found Daniel in the apartment. He was sitting on the battered black sofa, next to the telephone table, while Poco ran back and forth on the floor.
“There were calls for you,” he said, by way of a greeting. “I didn’t know you were looking for another apartment.”
Alicia felt disproportionately guilty, as if she had committed some unforgivable offence. “Oh, yes. No, I didn’t tell you,” she replied. “I haven’t seen you for a while. . .” She went to the door of her room, slipped the bag off her shoulder and let it fall onto the rumpled sheets of her bed. Then she crossed the living room to the kitchen, where she opened the fridge, took out a jug of water and poured herself a large glassful. She drank and looked at Daniel again. His gaze had followed her; it was hostile.
“When were you thinking of moving?” he asked.
Alicia put the glass down beside the sink.
“I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m going to move. I’m just looking, that’s all.”
Daniel lowered his eyes and started following Poco’s movements.
“Do you have a complaint? Is something bothering you?”
“No, I really like it here,” said Alicia. “It’s just that I’d prefer to have a place of my own, you understand.”
“The people who rang were talking about sharing, but never mind.” He handed her a piece of paper, on which he had written down the names and numbers.
“You’re free.” Poco had stopped running around, and was now moving its head from side to side, as chickens do when they are scared. “But you’re not free to go into my room and nose around.”
Daniel made a guttural noise and looked up at Alicia.
“Don’t lie to me. I know you were in there. You left prints everywhere.”
“Oh, but that was days ago.” Alicia blinked. “I was going to sweep the floor. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you.”
She turned on her heel and was heading for her room when Daniel added, “And why were you snooping through my books?”
Alicia stopped in the doorway, confused, angry, feeling herself blush. She hung her head and took a breath before looking at Daniel again.
“I’m sorry,” she said again. “I did have a look at your books. I couldn’t resist.”
“Poco, angel,” said Daniel. “Come here.”
The chicken obeyed: with two flaps it hopped into Daniel’s lap and kept climbing until it came to rest on his shoulder. Then Daniel looked at Alicia again and said, “Bad, very bad,” but as if he were not talking to her.
He turned to Poco.
Alicia went into her room and shut the door. She locked it as quietly as she could, lifting the handle so the latch wouldn’t make a noise, but she was sure Daniel had heard. Then, with a swarm of premonitions buzzing in her head, she sat down on the edge of the mattress.
Night fell, and Alicia, who had been sitting still for a long time, listening to the noises from the other side of the door—Daniel walking around in the living room, switching on the light, Was he washing dishes? Talking to Poco?—pushed her bag aside with one hand, smoothed the sheets and got into bed. She was scared, and cursed herself for having moved in there. She would leave tomorrow without fail; if Pati wouldn’t have her, she’d go to a hotel.
It must have been around two when Alicia woke up.
She was still dressed; she felt hot and thirsty. The light in the living room was off and the apartment was quiet. She got up. She needed something to eat and drink. She went to the window, opened it wide and stood there listening to a police siren rapidly receding. A neighbor coughed. She went to the door, turned the key and stepped out. There was no one in the living room and the door to Daniel’s room was shut. Gingerly, she made her way to the kitchen and switched on the light.
There was a big pot on one of the burners; her breath stopped dead. The pot contained Poco’s entrails—intestines, liver, heart—floating in a swill of semi—congealed blood. Alicia’s hand flew to her mouth; she looked away. Next to the sink was a black bowl full of black blood. She turned to the fridge and opened it. On the top shelf, sitting on a china plate, was Poco’s head, with one eye open, staring indifferently; and underneath, on a chopping board, the plucked body, belly down. The chicken’s white skin was covered with signs—crosses, circles, diamonds—drawn with blue ink. Alicia shut the fridge; she felt sick.
She went straight back to her room and locked the door behind her. It was the first time she had felt this kind offear, like a living thing crawling all over her skin. She knew that her life was in danger and would be as long as she stayed in that apartment.
She looked at her watch: almost three o’clock. That didn’t matter, she would leave straight away. She packed her bags and was ready to go in fifteen minutes. She didn’t have her toiletries, which were in the bathroom, and although she had thought about calling for a taxi, she decided not to: above all she wanted to avoid another encounter with Daniel. Once she crossed that threshold, once she was out of that apartment, the nightmare would be over and she would be safe.
She heaved the travel bag onto her shoulder, picked up her handbag, the empty sponge bag, and left the room. But there, between her and the front door, stood Daniel, arms crossed, staring at her.
“Have you seen Poco?” he asked.
Alicia started walking towards the door, making a detour to get around Daniel. But he moved quickly to block her way and shoved her back against the wall.
“You’re crazy!” shouted Alicia. “Let me out!”
“Sure,” he said, but he was holding a long-bladed bowie knife.
The legend that circulated around Tompkins Square, according to which Daniel fed his followers for several days on Alicia’s flesh, may or may not be true. But Daniel himself was certainly the one who spread the rumor, and the police got wind of it. When they arrested him in his apartment, Alicia’s head was still in a pot, in the freezer. Daniel did not deny his crime, but at the trial he declared that he had committed it in the name of God, who had ordered him to found a new religion and designated Alicia as a sacrificial victim. So he was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sent to a mental asylum in Syracuse, New York.