John Shirley, William Gibson. The Belonging Kind
© Copyright John Shirley, William Gibson
It might have been in Club Justine, or Jimbo's, or Sad Jack's, or the
Rafters; Coretti could never be sure where he'd first seen her. At any time,
she might have been in any one of those bars. She swam through the submarine
half-life of bottles and glassware and the slow swirl of cigarette smoke . .
. she moved through her natural element, one bar after another.
Now, Coretti remembered their first meeting as if he saw it through the
wrong end of a powerful telescope, small and clear and very far away.
He had noticed her first in the Backdoor Lounge. It was called the
Backdoor because you entered through a narrow back alley. The alley's walls
crawled with graffiti, its caged lights ticked with moths. Flakes from its
white-painted bricks crunched underfoot. And then you pushed through into a
dim space inhabited by a faintly confusing sense of the half-dozen other
bars that had tried and failed in the same room under different managements.
Coretti sometimes went there because he liked the weary smile of the black
bartender, and because the few customers rarely tried to get chummy.
He wasn't very good at conversation with strangers, not at parties and
not in bars. He was fine at the community college where he lectured in
introductory linguistics; he could talk with the head of his department
about sequencing and options in conversational openings. But he could never
talk to strangers in bars or at parties. He didn't go to many parties. He
went to a lot of bars.
Coretti didn't know how to dress. Clothing was a language and Coretti a
kind of sartorial stutterer, unable to make the kind of basic coherent
fashion statement that would put strangers at their ease. His ex-wife told
him he dressed like a Martian; that he didn't look as though he belonged
anywhere in the city. He hadn't liked her saying that, because it was true.
He hadn't ever had a girl like the one who sat with her back arched
slightly in the undersea light that splashed along the bar in the Backdoor.
The same light was screwed into the lenses of the bartender's glasses, wound
into the necks of the rows of bottles, splashed dully across the mirror. In
that light her dress was the green of young corn, like a husk half stripped
away, showing back and cleavage and lots of thigh through the slits up the
side. Her hair was coppery that night. And, that night, her eyes were green.
He pushed resolutely between the empty chromeand-Formica tables until
he reached the bar, where he ordered a straight bourbon. He took off his
duffle coat, and wound up holding it on his lap when he sat down one stool
away from her. Great, he screamed to himself, she'll think you're hiding an
erection. And he was startled to realize that he had one to hide. He studied
himself in the mirror behind the bar, a thirtyish man with thinning dark
hair and a pale, narrow face on a long neck, too long for the open collar of
the nylon shirt printed with engravings of 1910 automobiles in three vivid
colors. He wore a tie with broad maroon and black diagonals, too narrow, he
supposed, for what he now saw as the grotesquely long points of his collar.
Or it was the wrong color. Something.
Beside him, in the dark clarity of the mirror, the green-eyed woman
looked like Irma La Douce. But looking closer, studying her face, he
shivered. A face like an animal's. A beautiful face, but simple, cunning,
two-dimensional. When she senses you're looking at her, Coretti thought,
she'll give you the smile, disdainful amusement or whatever you'd expect.
Coretti blurted, "May I, um, buy you a drink?" At moments like these,
Coretti was possessed by an agonizingly stiff, schoolmasterish linguistic
tic. Um. He winced. Um.
"You would, um, like to buy me a drink? Why, how kind of you," she
said, astonishing him. "That would be very nice." Distantly, he noticed that
her reply was as stilted and insecure as his own. She added, "A Tom Collins,
on this occasion, would be lovely."
On this occasion? Lovely? Rattled, Coretti ordered two drinks and paid.
A big woman in jeans and an embroidered cowboy shirt bellied up to the
bar beside him and asked the bartender for change. "Well, hey," she said.
Then she strutted to the jukebox and punched for Conway and Loretta's
"You're the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly." Coretti turned to the woman in green,
and murmured haltingly:
"Do you enjoy country-and-western music?" Do you enjoy... ? He groaned
secretly at his phrasing, and tried to smile.
"Yes indeed," she answered, the faintest twang edging her voice, "I
The cowgirl sat down beside him and asked her, winking, "This li'l
terror here givin' you a hard time?"
And the animal-eyed lady in green replied, "Oh, hell no, honey, I got
my eye on `im." And laughed. Just the right amount of laugh. The part of
Coretti that was dialectologist stirred uneasily; too perfect a shift in
phrasing and inflection. An actress? A talented mimic? The word mimetic rose
suddenly in his mind, but he pushed it aside to study her reflection in the
mirror; the rows of bottles occluded her breasts like a gown of glass.
"The name's Coretti," he said, his verbal poltergeist shifting abruptly
to a totally unconvincing tough-guy mode, "Michael Coretti."
"A pleasure," she said, too softly for the other woman to hear, and
again she had slipped into the lame parody of Emily Post.
"Conway and Loretta," said the cowgirl, to no one in particular.
"Antoinette," said the woman in green, and inclined her head. She
finished her drink, pretended to glance at a watch, said
thank-you-for-the-drink too damn politely, and left.
Ten minutes later Coretti was following her down Third Avenue. He had
never followed anyone in his life and it both frightened and excited him.
Forty feet seemed a discreet distance, but what should he do if she happened
to glance over her shoulder?
Third Avenue isn't a dark street, and it was there, in the light of a
streetlamp, like a stage light, that she began to change. The street was
She was crossing the street. She stepped off the curb and it began. It
began with tints in her hair at first he thought they were reflections. But
there was no neon there to cast the blobs of color that appeared, color
sliding and merging like oil slicks. Then the colors bled away and in three
seconds she was white-blond. He was sure it was a trick of the light until
her dress began to writhe, twisting across her body like shrink-wrap
plastic. Part of it fell away entirely and lay in curling shreds on the
pavement, shed like the skin of some fabulous animal. When Coretti passed,
it was green foam, fizzing, dissolving, gone. He looked back up at her and
the dress was another dress, green satin, shifting with reflections. Her
shoes had changed too. Her shoulders were bare except for thin straps that
crossed at the small of her back. Her hair had become short, spiky.
He found that he was leaning against a jeweler's plate-glass window,
his breath coming ragged and harsh with the damp of the autumn evening. He
heard the disco's heartbeat from two blocks away. As she neared it, her
movements began subtly to take on a new rhythm a shift in emphasis in the
sway of her hips, in the way she put her heels down on the sidewalk. The
doorman let her pass with a vague nod. He stopped Coretti and stared at his
driver's license and frowned at his duffle coat. Coretti anxiously scanned
the wash of lights at the top of a milky plastic stairway beyond the
doorman. She had vanished there, into robotic flashing and redundant
Grudgingly the man let him pass, and he pounded up the stairs, his
haste disturbing the lights beneath the translucent plastic steps.
Coretti had never been in a disco before; he found himself in an
environment designed for complete satisfaction-in-distraction. He waded
nervously through the motion and the fashions and the mechanical urban
chants booming from the huge speakers. He sought her almost blindly on the
pose-clotted dance floot, amid strobe lights.
And found her at the bar, drinking a tall, lurid cooler and listening
to a young man who wore a loose shirt of pale silk and very tight black
pants. She nodded at what Coretti took to be appropriate intervals. Coretti
ordered by pointing at a bottle of bourbon. She drank five of the tall
drinks and then followed the young man to the dance floor.
She moved in perfect accord with the music, striking a series of poses;
she went through the entire prescribed sequence, gracefully but not
artfully, fitting in perfectly. Always, always fitting in perfectly. Her
companion danced mechanically, moving through the ritual with effort.
When the dance ended, she turned abruptly and dived into the thick of
the crowd. The shifting throng closed about her like something molten.
Coretti plunged in after her, his eyes never leaving her and he was the
only one to follow her change. By the time she reached the stair, she was
auburn-haired and wore a long blue dress. A white flower blossomed in her
hair, behind her right ear; her hair was longer and straighter now. Her
breasts had become slightly larger, and her hips a shade heavier. She took
the stairs two at a time, and he was afraid for her then. All those drinks.
But the alcohol seemed to have had no effect on her at all.
Never taking his eyes from her, Coretti followed, his heartbeat
outspeeding the disco-throb at his back, sure that at any moment she would
turn, glare at him, call for help.
Two blocks down Third she turned in at Lothario's. There was something
different in her step now. Lothario's was a quiet complex of rooms hung with
ferns and Art Deco mirrors. There were fake Tiffany lamps hanging from the
ceiling, alternating with wooden-bladed fans that rotated too slowly to stir
the wisps of smoke drifting through the consciously mellow drone of
conversation. After the disco, Lothario's was familiar and comforting. A
jazz pianist in pinstriped shirt sleeves and loosely knotted tie competed
softly with talk and laughter from a dozen tables.
She was at the bar; the stools were only half taken, but Coretti chose
a wall table, in the shadow of a miniature palm, and ordered bourbon.
He drank the bourbon and ordered another. He couldn't feel the alcohol
She sat beside a young man, yet another young man with the usual set of
bland, regular features. He wore a yellow golf shirt and pressed jeans. Her
hip was touching his, just a little. They didn't seem to be speaking, but
Coretti felt they were somehow communing. They were leaning toward one
another slightly, silent. Coretti felt odd. He went to the rest room and
splashed his face with water. Coining back, he managed to pass within three
feet of them. Their lips didn't move till he was within earshot.
They took turns murmuring realistic palaver: saw l~is earlier films,
"But he's rather self-indulgent, don't you think?" "Sure, but in the
sense that.. And for the first time, Coretti knew what they were, what they
must be. They were the kind you see in bars who seem to have grown there,
who seem genuinely at home there. Not drunks, but human fixtures. Functions
of the bar. The belonging kind.
Something in him yearned for a confrontation. He reached his table, but
found himself unable to sit down. He turned, took a deep breath, and walked
woodenly toward the bar. He wanted to tap her on her smooth shoulder and ask
who she was, and exactly what she was, and point out the cold irony of the
fact that it was he, Coretti, the Martian dresser, ~he eavesdropper, the
outsider, the one whose clothes and conversation never fit, who had at last
guessed their secret.
But his nerve broke and he merely took a seat beside her and ordered
"But don't you think," she asked her companion, "that it's all
The two seats beyond her companion were quickly taken by a couple who
were talking politics. Antoinette and Golf Shirt took up the political theme
seamlessly. recycling, speaking just loudly enough to be overheard. Her
face, as she spoke, was expressionless. A bird trilling on a limb.
She sat so easily on her stool, as if it were a nest. Golf Shirt paid
for the drinks. He always had the exact change, unless he wanted to leave a
tip. Coretti watched them work their way methodically through six cocktails
each, like insects feeding on nectar. But their voices never grew louder,
their cheeks didn't redden, and when at last they stood, they moved without
a trace of drunkenness a weakness, thought Coretti, a gap in their
They paid him absolutely no attention while he followed them through
three successive bars.
As they entered Waylon's, they metamorphosed so quickly that Coretti
had trouble following the stages of the change. It was one of those places
with toilet doors marked Pointers and Setters, and a little imitation pine
plaque over the jars of beef jerky and pickled sausages: We've got a deal
with the bank. They don't serve beer and we don't cash checks.
She was plump in Waylon's, and there were dark hollows under her eyes.
There were coffee stains on her polyester pantsuit. Her companion wore
jeans, a Tshirt, and a red baseball cap with a red-and-white Peterbilt
patch. Coretti risked losing them when he spent a frantic minute in
"Pointers," blinking in confusion at a hand-lettered cardboard sign that
said, We aim to please You aim too, please.
Third Avenue lost itself near the waterfront in a petrified snarl of
brickwork. In the last block, bright vomit marked the pavement at intervals,
and old men dozed in front of black-and-white TVs, sealed forever behind the
fogged plate glass of faded hotels.
The bar they found there had no name. An ace of diamonds was gradually
flaking away on the unwashed window, and the bartender had a face like a
closed fist. An FM transistor in ivory plastic keened easy-listening rock to
the uneven ranks of deserted tables. They drank beer and shots. They were
old now, two ciphers who drank and smoked in the light of bare bulbs,
coughing over a pack of crumpled Camels she produced from the pocket of a
dirty tan raincoat.
At 2:25 they were in the rooftop lounge of the new hotel complex that
rose above the waterfront. She wore an evening dress and he wore a dark
suit. They drank cognac and pretended to admire the city lights. They each
had three cognacs while Coretti watched them over two ounces of Wild Turkey
in a Waterford crystal highball glass.
They drank until last call. Coretti followed them into the elevator.
They smiled politely but otherwise ignored him. There were two cabs in front
of the hotel; they took one, Coretti the other.
"Follow that cab," said Coretti huskily, thrusting his last twenty at
the aging hippie driver.
"Sure, man, sure. . . ." The driver dogged the other cab for six
blocks, to another, more modest hotel. They got out and went in. Coretti
slowly climbed out of his cab, breathing hard.
He ached with jealousy: for the personification of conformity, this
woman who was not a woman, this human wallpaper. Coretti gazed at the hotel
and lost his nerve. He turned away.
He walked home. Sixteen blocks. At some point he realized that he
wasn't drunk. Not drunk at all.
In the morning he phoned in to cancel his early class. But his hangover
never quite came. His mouth wasn't desiccated, and staring at himself in the
bathroom mirror he saw that his eyes weren't bloodshot.
In the afternoon he slept, and dreamed of sheepfaced people reflected
in mirrors behind rows of bottles.
That night he went out to dinner, alone and ate nothing. The food
looked back at him, somehow. He stirred it about to make it look as if he'd
eaten a little, paid, and went to a bar. And another. And another bar,
looking for her. He was using his credit card now, though he was already
badly in the hole under Visa. If he saw her, he didn't recognize her.
Sometimes he watched the hotel he'd seen her go into. He looked
carefully at each of the couples who came and went. Not that he'd be able to
spot her from her looks alone but there should be a feeling, some kind of
intuitive recognition. He watched the couples and he was never sure.
In the following weeks he systematically visited every boozy watering
hole in the city. Armed at first with a city map and five torn Yellow Pages,
he gradually progressed to the more obscure establishments, places with
unlisted numbers. Some had no phone at all. He joined dubious private clubs,
discovered unlicensed after-hours retreats where you brought your own, and
sat nervously in dark rooms devoted to areas of fringe sexuality he had not
But he continued on what became his nightly circuit. He always began at
the Backdoor. She was never there, or in the next place, or the next. The
bartenders knew him and they liked to see him come in, because he brought
drinks continuously, and never seemed to get drunk. So he stared at the
other customers a bit so what?
Coretti lost his job. He'd missed classes too many times. He'd taken to
watching the hotel when he could, even in the daytime. He'd been seen in too
many bars. He never seemed to change his clothes. He refused night classes.
He would let a lecture trail off in the middle as he turned to gaze vacantly
out the window.
He was secretly pleased at being fired. They had looked at him oddly at
faculty lunches when he couldn't eat his food. And now he had more time for
Coretti found her at 2:15 on a Wednesday morning, in a gay bar called
the Barn. Paneled in rough wood and hung with halters and rusting farm
equipment, the place was shrill with perfume and laughter and beer. She was
everyone's giggling sister, in a blue-sequined dress, a green feather in her
coiffed brown hair. Through a sweeping sense of almost cellular relief,
Coretti was aware of a kind of admiration, a strange pride he now felt in
her and her kind. Here, too, she belonged. She was a representative type, a
fag-hag who posed no threat to the queens or their butchboys. Her companion
had become an ageless man with carefully silvered temples, an angora
sweater, and a trench coat.
They drank and drank, and went laughing laughing just the right sort of
laughter out into the rain. A cab was waiting, its wipers duplicating the
beat of Coretti's heart.
Jockeying clumsily across the wet sidewalk, Coretti scurried into the
cab, dreading their reaction.
Coretti was in the back seat, beside her. The man with silver temples
spoke to the driver.
The driver muttered into his hand mike, changed gears, and they flowed
away into the rain and the darkened streets. The cityscape made no
impression on Coretti, who, looking inwardly, was seeing the cab stop, the
gray man and the laughing woman pushing him out and pointing, smiling, to
the gate of a mental hospital. Or: the cab stopping, the couple turning,
sadly shaking their heads. And a dozen times he seemed to see the cab
stopping in an empty side street where they methodically throttled him.
Coretti left dead in the rain. Because he was an outsider.
But they arrived at Coretti's hotel. In the dim glow of the cab's dome
light he watched closely as the man reached into his coat for the fare.
Coretti could see the coat's lining clearly and it was one piece with the
angora sweater. No wallet bulged there, and no pocket. But a kind of slit
widened. It opened as the man's fingers poised over it, and it disgorged
money. Three bills, folded, were extruded smoothly from the slit. The money
was slightly damp. It dried, as the man unfolded it, like the wings of a
moth just emerging from the chrysalis.
"Keep the change," said the belonging man, climbing out of the cab.
Antoinette slid out and Coretti followed, his mind seeing only the slit. The
slit wet, edged with red, like a gill.
The lobby was deserted and the desk clerk bent over a crossword. The
couple drifted silently across the lobby and into the elevator, Coretti
close behind. Once he tried to catch her eye, but she ignored him. And once,
as the elevator rose seven floors above Coretti's own, she bent over and
sniffed at the chrome wall ashtray, like a dog snuffling at the ground.
Hotels, late at night, are never still. The corridors are never
entirely silent. There are countless barely audible sighs, the rustling of
sheets, and muffled voices speaking fragments out of sleep. But in the
ninth-floor corridor, Coretti seemed to move through a perfect vacuum,
soundless, his shoes making no sound at all on the colorless carpet and even
the beating of his outsider's heart sucked away into the vague pattern that
decorated the wallpaper.
He tried to count the small plastic ovals screwed on the doors, each
with its own three figures, but the corridor seemed to go on forever. At
last the man halted before a door, a door veneered like all the rest with
imitation rosewood, and put his hand over the lock, his palm flat against
the metal. Something scraped softly and then the mechanism clicked and the
door swung open. As the man withdrew his hand, Coretti saw a grayish-pink,
key-shaped sliver of bone retract wetly into the pale flesh.
No light burned in that room, but the city's dim neon aura filtered in
through venetian blinds and allowed him to see the faces of the dozen or
more people who sat perched on the bed and the couch and the armchairs and
the stools in the kitchenette. At first he thought that their eyes were
open, but then he realized that the dull pupils were sealed beneath
nictitating membranes, third eyelids that reflected the faint shades of neon
from the window. They wore whatever the last bar had called for; shapeless
Salvation Army overcoats sat beside bright suburban leisurewear, evening
gowns beside dusty factory clothes, biker's leather by brushed Harris tweed.
With sleep, all spurious humanity had vanished. They were roosting.
His couple seated themselves on the edge of the Formica countertop in
the kitchenette, and Coretti hesitated in the middle of the empty carpet.
Light-years of that carpet seemed to separate him from the others, but
something called to him across the distance, promising rest and peace and
belonging. And still he hesitated, shaking with an indecision that seemed to
rise from the genetic core of his body's every cell.
Until they opened their eyes, all of them simultaneously, the membranes
sliding sideways to reveal the alien calm of dwellers in the ocean's darkest
Coretti screamed, and ran away, and fled along corridors and down
echoing concrete stairwells to cool rain and the nearly empty streets.
Coretti never returned to his room on the third floor of that hotel. A
bored house detective collected the linguistics texts, the single suitcase
of clothing, and they were eventually sold at auction. Coretti took a room
in a boardinghouse run by a grim Baptist teetotaler who led her roomers in
prayer at the start of every overcooked evening meal. She didn't mind that
Coretti never joined them for those meals; he explained that he was given
free meals at work. He lied freely and skillfully. He never drank at the
boardinghouse, and he never came home drunk. Mr. Coretti was a little odd,
but always paid his rent on time. And he was very quiet.
Coretti stopped looking for her. He stopped going to bars. He drank out
of a paper bag while going to and from his job at a publisher's warehouse,
in an area whose industrial zoning permitted few bars.
He worked nights. Sometimes, at dawn, perched on the edge of his unmade
bed, drifting into sleep he never slept lying down, now he thought about
her. Antoinette. And them. The belonging kind. Sometimes he speculated
dreamily. . . . Perhaps they were like house mice, the sort of small animal
evolved to live only in the walls of man-made structures.
A kind of animal that lives only on alcoholic beverages. With peculiar
metabolisms they convert the alcohol and the various proteins from mixed
drinks and wine and beers into everything they need. And they can change
outwardly, like a chameleon or a rockfish, for protection. So they can live
among us. And maybe, Coretti thought, they grow in stages. In the early
stages seeming like humans, eating the food humans eat, sensing their
difference only in a vague disquiet of being an outsider.
A kind of animal with its own cunning, its own special set of urban
instincts. And the ability to know its own kind when they're near. Maybe.
And maybe not. Coretti drifted into sleep. On a Wednesday three weeks
into his new job, his landlady opened the door she never knocked and told
him that he was wanted on the phone. Her voice was tight with habitual
suspicion, and Coretti followed her along the dark hallway to the
second-floor sitting room and the telephone.
Lifting the old-fashioned black instrument to his ear, he heard only
music at first, and then a wall of sound resolving into a fragmented amalgam
of conversations. Laughter. No one spoke to him over the sound of the bar,
but the song in the background was "You're the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly."
And then the dial tone, when the caller hung up.
Later, alone in his room, listening to the landlady's firm tread in the
room below, Coretti realized that there was no need to remain where he was.
The summons had come. But the landlady demanded three weeks' notice if
anyone wanted to leave. That meant that Coretti owed her money. Instinct
told him to leave it for her.
A Christian workingman in the next room coughed in his sleep as Coretti
got up and went down the hall to the telephone. Coretti told the
evening-shift foreman that he was quitting his job. He hung up and went back
to his room, locked the door behind him, and slowly removed his clothing
until he stood naked before the garish framed lithograph of Jesus above the
brown steel bureau.
And then he counted out nine tens. He placed them carefully beside the
praying-hands plaque decorating the bureau top.
It was nice-looking money. It was perfectly good money. He made it
This time, he didn't feel like making small talk. She'd been drinking a
margarita, and he ordered the same. She paid, producing the money with a
deft movement of her hand between the breasts bobbling in her low-cut dress.
He glimpsed the gill closing there. An excitement rose in him but somehow,
this time, it didn't center in an erection.
After the third margarita their hips were touching, and something was
spreading through him in slow orgasmic waves. It was sticky where they were
touching; an area the size of the heel of his thumb where the cloth had
parted. He was two men: the one inside fusing with her in total cellular
communion, and the shell who sat casually on a stool at the bar, elbows on
either side of his drink, fingers toying with a swizzle stick. Smiling
benignly into space. Calm in the cool dimness.
And once, but only once, some distant worrisome part of him made
Coretti glance down to where softruby tubes pulsed, tendrils tipped with
sharp lips worked in the shadows between them. Like the joining tentacles of
two strange anemones. They were mating, and no one knew.
And the bartender, when he brought the next drink, offered his tired
smile and said, "Rainin' out now, innit? Just won't let up." "Been like that
all goddamn week," Coretti answered. "Rainin' to beat the band." And he said
it right. Like a real human being.