Karl Muhlbach decides, after reading a passage from Saint Augustine’s Confessiones (397-400; Confessions, 1620) dealing with the tension between flesh and spirit, that the celibacy enforced by the death of his wife should end. Barely more than forty years old, Muhlbach rebels against his ordered, ascetic life, presided over by his housekeeper, Mrs. Grunthe, and decides to cross the river into Manhattan one Saturday evening in search of a mistress. His choice of that word is significant; it reveals how out of touch with the mores of his society Muhlbach has become.
The carefully structured life that Muhlbach leads, with dinner each night at eight and wine with it only on Sundays, stifles both body and soul. He silently assures Mrs. Grunthe that he intends this evening to go to Hell. Showering in preparation for the journey, Muhlbach admits that he looks “professorial” but hopes that his chances will be improved by the fact that he has plenty of money in his pockets. He is looking for a sophisticated woman, somebody uninhibited sexually. Muhlbach admits that what he wants is a companion as unlike himself as possible. With his children Donna and Otto safely occupied and Mrs. Grunthe prepared to mount guard over the home, Muhlbach takes the first step on his descent into the underworld by taking a subway ride to Manhattan.
Muhlbach is convinced that the type of woman for whom he is looking is not that represented by Eula Cunningham, who had called while he was in the shower. Eula confesses to thirty-two but reminds him of thirty-eight, and Muhlbach finds her too ordinary and domestic to tempt him. Getting off the subway, he thinks that he sees the profile of Blanche Baron, an elegant redhead whose husband has killed himself. The sight of her sparks his imagination, so Muhlbach telephones her apartment. The fact that a man answers the phone discomfits him a bit, but it also encourages him in his quest. If Blanche Baron can find a new companion, so can Karl Muhlbach. It is clear, however, that he has no strategy in mind to accomplish this purpose. Muhlbach is carried along the street by the crowd and ends up in a bar on Lexington Avenue that he has not visited for nearly a year. There he is eyed by a Hollywood actress whose name he cannot quite remember, but he recognizes that she has no real interest in him. Her glance suggests that he must content himself with somebody ordinary and unimaginative, such as Eula Cunningham.
Stung by this rejection, Muhlbach takes a bus to Washington Square to try his luck among the bohemians of Greenwich Village. He literally bumps into a teenage girl named Rouge, who takes him to a coffee shop called the Queen’s Bishop. Both confused and attracted by her language, a mixture of French and contemporary English slang, Muhlbach accepts Rouge’s challenge to play chess. He recognizes too late that she wants to win the game. He initially thinks that the hamster nibbling his trouser cuff is Rouge’s foot expressing sexual interest. He takes the appearance of her friends Quinet and Meatbowl as a sign of acceptance. The shop manager brings four bowls of soup, and Muhlbach takes this as an indication that he has fit in at the Queen’s Bishop—until the manager makes it clear that he is expected to pay for all the food. Muhlbach concludes that he is paying for intruding into a place where he does not belong. A passage from Saint Augustine’s Confessions comes to his mind. It discusses serving one’s fellows, seeing them as pilgrims like oneself, in order to live in God’s sight.
Outside the coffee shop, Muhlbach feels a renewed sense of sexual deprivation, and it seems to him a kind of illness. “Yet the cure is absurdly simple,” he thinks: “The body of a woman, that is all.” Muhlbach takes a taxi to the Club Sahara, where exotic dancers with names such as Nila, Lisa, and Riva perform for patrons in need of fantasy. He finds these performers, especially Nila, attractive; they appeal to his imagination as much as to his sexual appetite. As time passes and he continues to drink, their attraction diminishes, so Muhlbach leaves the Club Sahara, meeting on the street his old college roommate, Puig, a career navy officer out on the prowl for a woman.
Puig does not have scruples about his behavior, nor does he worry about his dignity. As a result, when Muhlbach and he go to another bar, Puig finds a woman named Gertie who, despite her drunken claim that all men want is sex, leaves the bar with him. Muhlbach admits to himself that he would have shared her bed if he had been asked, and he recognizes how far toward Hell he has descended during this evening’s journey. The driver of the taxi Muhlbach finds outside this bar, looking “like a messenger of God,” takes him back uptown toward Times Square. Muhlbach recalls another passage from Saint Augustine, this one about the imperfectness of perception through the flesh, and finds its truth confirmed by the fact that his wallet is missing. Only by reassuming his identity as an insurance company executive and insisting that the desk clerk at the Tyler Plaza awaken the manager to authorize cashing a check does Muhlbach begin the upward journey back toward the world that he normally inhabits.
His night in the hotel is a painful one. Resolving to drown his lust in alcohol, Muhlbach goes to the cocktail lounge and makes a pass at a waitress named Carmen. His attempt to restore pride and self-confidence leads to a potentially violent confrontation with her boyfriend Porfirio, and Muhlbach recognizes, in Saint Augustine’s words, that he has exceeded the limits of his own nature. The next morning, he sees Rouge and her companions Quinet and Meatbowl outside a bookstore across the street from the Tyler Plaza, and he hurries toward her, in a final attempt to make a connection with some woman, only to have a pigeon relieve itself on his hat. Rouge and her two friends laugh hysterically, and Muhlbach’s illusions about himself come to an end.
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