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Phillip Lopate describes the shape of Manhattan Island as‘a luxury liner, permanently docked, going nowhere’. This feeling of being tethered to the land, unable to get to sea, was a feature of New York life for much of the twentieth century. New York was an island without a coast. The West Side piers that once welcomed the Lusitania spent most of the twentieth century crumbling or behind barbed wire, while the East Side’s coves and points were cut off from pedestrians by six lanes of the Robert Moses-designed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive. It wasn’t much easier to reach the shores of Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx, either: with a few exceptions, they were largely reserved for municipal or industrial use, and easiest to see from the Staten Island Ferry (en route to the borough with the most beaches). Now, slowly, the city is reclaiming its shoreline, with some spectacular results.

The Right Way to Tell a Story by Carolyn Ferrell

OBJECT: Piano

BODY OF WATER: Bronx River

 

November 24, 1993

Minutes before their first official date, Ralphie felt his confidence flag. He was standing on a street corner, and had to reach down to the hydrant for support. Why was he doing this? It was raining, just a touch, and the air was opaque; when he recovered, Ralphie walked into the bodega on 7th and sat upon a tower of rice bags. He closed his eyes. Any minute now she’d be coming, and he had to be ready.

Subrena Woods—it was her name that got him first.  Twenty-three, never married, one kid in hiding. Lovely brown voice, eyes that swept the room in one raging bound. Long legs, box braids, and golden doorknob earrings.  Technically, she was someone he shouldn’t have wanted—growing up on Sedgwick Avenue, he’d walked by girls who looked like her everyday. They were in the same graduate school; he, to finish his dissertation in psychology, she to quote unquote better herself. She wanted to be a schoolteacher. She loved action movies. She had a son she talked about in hushed tones. They couldn’t have been any more different than Manhattan and the Bronx. Quote unquote.

He wondered if this was him falling in love.

They knew each other from long afternoons in the Student Commons, where she would wax philosophical on 18th century women writers and he would remain mute in some corner, drinking a beer from a bag. One day she mentioned that she’d wanted to check out this one soul food place in the Village—chicken and waffles, hoppin john, cranberry collards—and when he looked up, he saw she was staring straight at him. Of course he didn’t tell her this, but he’d been to that very restaurant before, to disastrous results. Who the hell came up with the idea of chicken and waffles in the first place?

Let’s go out, you and me, he ventured. Let me find us a better spot.

His mother had always been of the opinion that he was not a soul food kind of boy, that he was, in fact, more like his Scandinavian ancestors on his father’s side, those people with their strange red berries and constant fish.  As far from the Bronx as you could get. You never found that sort of animal in the Bronx River—no sir.  Dexter, his mother’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, used to angle behind the stone mill at the Botanical Garden, catching an occasional trout, which she would then fry up just as lovely as chicken.

The day after his first date with Subrena, his mother listened and said, If you want this girl to stick, you better take her someplace like the Ikea restaurant in New Jersey.

What the hell did his mother know?

Her old boyfriend’s name was Dexter; and long ago, when he was about eight or nine, Dexter had taken him fishing in the Bronx River.  Late November, just before the first snow. A Botanical Garden guard came by after some time and told them to put out the fire they’d built on the river’s edge.

Why pick on us, Dexter shouted back. Why not clean up this place first before you start hollering?

You got a problem sir, the guard asked. His hand was on his hip flashlight.

Don’t you read the News, Dexter screamed. This place has gone to hell.  There’s nothing sacred anymore.

He was blue in the face. Ralphie tightened his grip, and soon the old man calmed down.

Stone cold crazy, the guard said, and kept walking, until he was a speck by the Conservatory.

Eventually the pair headed on home to his mother’s apartment on Sedgwick Avenue. Ralphie was sure he had frostbite. His mother scolded him and told Dexter to sleep on the fold-out.

Now the rain was getting worse. Ralphie got up off the rice bag tower and walked back outside. Subrena was supposed to meet him under the awning of GO SUSHI; hopefully she would know how to use chopsticks.

Hopefully she wouldn’t look too ghetto.

Hopefully she wouldn’t mention her son in that sad voice of unrequited love.

Hopefully he would look like someone she would perhaps admire, maybe want to kiss.

Was he a schizophrenic—why should he want her? He had no idea. The main thing would be to stay cool. To look like he was having fun. He was feeling something wide just then, unwieldy and yet tidy. Was this love? He looked around for a payphone.

And then, like a fairy tale, he saw her coming down the street, Subrena Woods, wearing a pair of golden ballet slippers, looking like someone he’d never seen.

November 23, 1979

It was the removal of the piano that had gotten Dexter so upset.

He’d been sitting in the kitchen of his girlfriend Candace’s apartment looking over the headlines in the Daily News when he came across the following: “Everett Upright Found at Bottom of Bronx River!”

Volunteers had offered to help remove the instrument from the water; there was a number listed that you could call to donate, time or money. Dexter closed the paper in disgust. A piano like that was a perfect starter instrument; it wasn’t something you’d keep around forever, but if you were just learning the notes, or the lay of the keys, you couldn’t ask for anything better.

How could someone go and kill an instrument like that? It was like killing the gods.

The doorbell rang, and Dexter shut his eyes. Let Candace see to that, he muttered. Then remembered she’d gone out.

About ten years ago he’d had a gig in the Amalgamated Houses—Jazz Saturdays, it was called at first, and then, when they couldn’t get the teen kids to attend: Senior Living Fun. The idea being to get the old folks—neglected by their families, left alone in overheated apartments—to stop wanting to kill themselves. Dexter knew jazz could calm any savage beast. Even the old folks at the Amalgamated Houses.

He knew this because he’d had always loved jazz, going back to the time he saw Lester Young at the Famous Door in 1946. He’d spent many years trying to impart to others the religiosity of that first experience, though his efforts were usually in vain. No one understood the real workings of jazz the way he did—no one saw its true origins not only in the blues and early black musical traditions—but also in the tonality and precision of Bach.

There, he said it: Bach—the first jazz musician. When he first told Candace how he thought jazz had come into being, she laughed.

Bach? Wasn’t he around with Beethoven and all them other white guy powderheads? Dex, you best do something productive with your time.

(Candace had never given him his true props as a jazz musician. If it had been up to her, he’d be working overtime at the janitorial gig over at P.S. 24 in Riverdale.)

Luckily the boy had shown a talent for loving music. Candace’s boy Ralphie.

Dex and Candace had been dating on and off for years, and for truth, he’d wanted to leave her many times. The thing that kept him was Ralphie.

Rafael, Dexter called him.

Dexter loved holding the boy’s hand and experiencing that child warmth he’d never known himself. He showed the boy the Bronx as if it were a treasure chest: the Paradise Theater on the Grand Concourse, where you could catch a great double feature. The toughened landscapes of the Botanical Garden, when they were still coaxing trees and shrubs into life. The wide-hipped boulevard of Mosholu Parkway, which in certain lights reminded one of a Parisian thoroughfare.

Paris in the springtime.

Once Dexter played a record album for the boy: Lennie Tristano at the Half Note. Rafael’s eyes nearly popped out his head. He was only six. You play like them, he asked. Daddy Dex, you play like that?

I play like that but don’t anybody really know I can, Dexter said. Nobody until you.

He had taken the boy everywhere by then, and would continue to do so, even well past the time the boy learned to be ashamed of him.

They traipsed all over the Bronx. Bruckner Boulevard—the old Estey factory. Longwood Avenue and Southern Boulevard; Hunt’s Point and its garrulous market. The Botanical Garden was the favorite destination. Is this your grandson, the ticket sellers would ask, and the boy would bow his head.

They spent time by the old stone mill standing in the Botanical Garden, trudging up and down the wooded cliffs, sliding into the banks of the River, where they came upon many things: a few abandoned cars and shopping carts, bicycle chains, dog skulls, broken bottles, tires, once a coffin. The boy—he was about eight—grew frightened at that coffin, but Dexter was able to calm him down. I think they was filming a horror movie here, he told the boy. One that might be playing up at the Paradise. You want to go and see?

They caught the last showing of Monster-A-Go-Go and The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu. They ate butter popcorn and drank purple soda. They came out and counted the early evening stars on the Grand Concourse.

The boy, he was practically Dexter’s own. Six, seven, eight, nine. Then Candace said she was thinking about moving down to Manhattan, where the sun seemed to shine a bit brighter than it did in the Bronx.

Dexter was thinking about her and the boy’s move on the day he picked up the Daily News and saw the photo of the crane lifting the piano out of the Bronx River. All the volunteers smiling at the camera, white people with nothing better to do, he thought. Shame that.

Footsteps approached; had Candace returned? Hopefully it was her, carrying a last tray of lunch. Maybe a few extra Tylenol. He was feeling pain in his piano fingers.

Dexter opened his mouth and felt the air come crashing in. Why you sitting like that, he heard a voice ask. Why you got your mouth open like that?  Are you in pain?

Dex sighed.  You didn’t need a heart for anything anymore. At every bend in the river there was a large crane waiting to scoop everything out.

He felt a hand on his shoulder, felt his insides grow cold. Where was the boy when he needed him?

November 24, 1993

Subrena hated it when her school friend Ralphie phrased her situation as “one kid in hiding.” That was so not the case. Her son—Jay short for Jayquan—was staying temporarily with her mother on Longwood Avenue; and in this case, temporary was going on four years, but so what? She was going to give him a better life, one so far removed from the Police Athletic League on Fox Street and the miserable public school on Southern Boulevard and the doctors wouldn’t stop going on about the boy’s fragile mind—their true life was just a graduate degree away. But the first step was getting Ralphie to stop saying she had a kid in hiding. He thought he was being quote unquote funny.

The outside of GO SUSHI looked paltry, with a tattered paper lantern hanging above the ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT sign. Jesus H. Christ.

She was so not into a man at this juncture in her life, though she did kind of get a kick out of Ralphie’s persistence. He was doing something in psychology, already at the end of his studies, a dissertation perhaps. He talked to her with his hands in his pockets, a shyness in the dark-ringed eyes.  She liked that about him.

She also liked that often, in the Student Commons Ralphie told her a few stories about his life. One was about an absent father—been there, done that, she’d wanted to say. Another was about a job his mother had taken working the night shift in the looney bin of Montefiore Hospital. You really had to be there, Ralphie repeated, which made Subrena roll her eyes in boredom. Wasn’t the point of a story so that the listener didn’t have to be there?

She planned on getting this English degree and teaching in the public schools. It didn’t matter which one. Jay could come back and stay with her. He could be her little boy again.

Not a thing in hiding.

A light rain had slowly begun. The air looked and felt like Milk of Magnesia. Ralphie was late. How she hated late.

There was something about him, though. Subrena started looking for a pay phone—she would quickly call Jay and ask him if he loved her—when Ralphie suddenly bounded down the sidewalk toward her, his faced fixed in glow.

And Subrena suddenly recalled a story he’d told her one afternoon, one that moved her. This was just after the other students had left the Commons and they were alone. Evening had started to pour into the plate glass windows and the old radiators hissed.

When I was a boy, Ralphie said, my stepfather took me to the Bronx River, to fish. Dexter, his name was Dexter. I last saw him when I was thirteen, but I remember feeling much younger than that.

We got to the old stone mill that stands on the banks of the Bronx River—before then, we used to just jump between rocks and count the trees. I never knew there was an actual Bronx River. I thought it was a made-up place, a fairy tale. But here it was—here we were, poles in hand, Dexter rifling through the tackle box, a chilly day.  I tore off my shoes and walked out to rocks in the middle of the water.

It was November, already winter cold. Dexter was on the shore building a fire. I was looking at the trees—the old oaks hugging the shore, the new chestnut trees buckling the earth, the needy birches grabbing hold of what soil they could in order not to drown. Everything pointed upwards. Dexter put on his transistor radio; he began telling me the story of how he met my mother at a dance, and the way she chewed him out for being so old, and the nice kiss he left that dance with.

I looked down at my feet in the stream; I’d never felt anything so alive, so tingly, so beautiful against my skin.

Dexter had promised me that there was winter flounder to be caught, striped bass in the river. Those names sounded so lovely. Though the river was really just a stream, Dexter came out in waders; his hat was full of beautiful flies—mostly for trout and minnows, but one crazy looking spider tie. Come on back, Rafael, he said to me, the only person on earth who ever used my real name. I think I’ve caught a beauty. Come on back and let’s get this party started.

Then he looked at my bare feet on the rocks. He removed his reading glasses.

Come on, Daddy Dex!

He screamed, dropped his pole, lurched over to me and swept me up into his arms: Leeches, he cried. I looked down and saw that three leeches had attached to my left foot, suckling the length of my toes.

Daddy Dex, I shouted.

Son, he said, trapping me in his arms, carrying me back to the fire. I never wanted to move again. I can’t remember if I ever did.

(At first she thought this story was corny as all get-out. And yet—years into their marriage, Subrena Walker never stopped feeling it kick in her ribs.)

THE FUTURE

They married. Years passed. They had two children, both graduating from the Horace Mann School; one later died in a car crash. Dexter passed away from a heart attack in 1980. His mother moved to a room in the Riverdale Manor, a nursing home just inches shy of the Yonkers border. More years passed. Decades. Who understands the passage of time?

Because then it was Rafael and Subrena Walker celebrating their diamond anniversary at the Kingsbridge Assisted Living Center, where a pair of ninth graders from Fieldston came to interview them. The kids had been summoned to do a community service project. They took out a list.

Question one:  Where were you born?

Question two:  What is your favorite part of the Bronx?

Question three: When did you know that this was your soul mate?

Raf and Subrena looked at each other. They could not, in good conscience, say it was love at first sight. But they also couldn’t remember when love entered the picture.

Question Four: Well then, what was it that got you two together?

It never occurred to them to say cheap sushi or 18th century women’s literature or the permanent institutionalization of Jayquan Woods or the deaths of their parents or subsequent life as two middle school teachers—one with a PhD, the other a mere Master’s.

Rafael said, I think we fell in love over an Everett piano. Me playing, her singing.

To which Subrena laughed, a mouthful of elegant dentures. Had she always been this beautiful, Raf wondered.

Husband, Subrena said, Just when did you ever put your hands on anything resembling music? Don’t confuse these girls.

(The couple laughed and held hands and the ninth graders took a photograph of them and left. Later that evening, Raf and Subrena looked into each other’s eyes. To have said they got together over a story about the Bronx River would’ve been such a sentimental piece of sap. Corny as all get-out. Yet had there ever been any other version?)

 


Carolyn Ferrell is the author of a short story collection, Don’t Erase Me. A recipient of grants from the National Foundation of the Arts and the Bronx Council on the Arts, Ferrell’s work has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories of the Century and This is Not Chick Lit: Original Stories by America’s Best Women Writers. For several years she worked at Bronx Educational Services in the South Bronx, where she led literacy classes for parents and children. She currently teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Ferrell recently moved to Yonkers from Riverdale, where she lived with her family for more than a decade.