Archive

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.

You Will Not Find Her at the Bottom of the River on Whose Shores Your Life Has Been Squandered by David Hollander

OBJECTStripped Cars, Dead Bodies, Formica Dinette, Teredos and Gribbles, Heavy Oil

BODY OF WATEREast River, Gowanus Canal

 

Well then down you go.  Spiraling into darkness with the regulator hissing and the funk of the Hudson clinging to your suit like rime, the spotlight held at arm’s length and advancing its bad joke into a slurry of black mud and pollution, the bubbles racing from your mouth toward a theoretical surface as you penetrate deeper into that living darkness which cinctures the earth and makes a mockery of your personal ephemera, of the husband you no longer recognize, of the advanced degrees that belie your fecklessness, of the psychotropic prescriptions that mediate your pain, of her empty crib with its bone-white spindles, of the lewd smile of the young man at the dive shop, of the dappled morning sunlight outside your bedroom window and the ferocious joy it has occasionally instilled, of your fear of spiders and your fear of bridges and your fear of stained glass cathedrals—the darkness making a mockery of love.

Your heart punching at the wetsuit as you sink to the bottom of this urban river on whose shores your life has been squandered, this river which preserves that original conundrum from which the entire cosmology was birthed in an unfathomable instant of fire, pushed from some icy womb of Nothingness so as to spread out virus-like and then die its slow death.  The depth gauge glows green in the murk, fifty feet, then sixty and then yes, as promised, here is the oily bottom rising up to meet you and you lay your belly down in the earth’s black blood, indulging in the deep gulps of air you’ve been counseled against taking, your body hot and electric within the suit as if the neoprene enclosed only pulsing organs and circulatory twine.  You peer out across the riverbottom and down a corridor of visibility above which the particulate matter hovers like smoke in a housefire, then you kick hard once and glide out above the planet’s bottom where creatures deformed by metropolitan poisons live out their sorry half-witted lives.

You sail into a strange dreamscape, as if the Hudson were articulating the collective remembrances of those countless cadavers drifting through the roiling current, skeletons and zombies conjuring up a limbo of fantastic design: Here a freight train ten cars long, half buried in the mud yet still endowed with illusory motion by the visibly streaking current, the penumbral forms of phantom hobos slithering back within the enormous cargo boxes as your spotlight rotates.  Here an ice cream truck whose former delights are yet promoted on a side panel, Ice Cream Tastes Good!, alongside a grisly portfolio of the truck’s one-time wares, treats now betumored by bulbous mollusks that shrink eerily beneath the light.  Here a collection of ten-foot ivory worms attached—at their gaping mouths—to a wooden beam weighed to the bottom by a thick iron chain, the worms stretched taut and wavering like the stripes on some wind-stiffened flag and each thick as a thumb.

She can’t be that sick.  Just look at her. Oh but she was, goddamn you all, she was even sicker than that.

Here now a grand piano, squatting perfectly upright in the black mud and so you pause at the keys, adjust your buoyancy, one hand holding the light and the other reaching slowly through the water, fingers splayed to tap out the opening bars to Fur Elise, and though no sound issues forth you nevertheless hear the notes as played by your own mother whose warm smile and warm heart only served in the end to foster those illusions to which the river is antithetical.  You push gently back from the instrument and the keyboard’s perfect teeth seem to smile grotesquely and something silver flitters in your periphery, reminding you of your own alienness and of the demons that lie in wait for those who would search out angels here in the darkness of the river on whose shores your life has been squandered.

Here now an old muscle car, a painted eagle splayed across the hood and a small spiny fish behind the spiderwebbed windshield.  Here a formica dinette, several chairs upset in the mud as if an aggrieved family had only just departed, their accusations already regretted, their long-pent rage now spent on internecine resentment.

She can’t be that sick.  Look at her.  It’s impossible. Sleeping peacefully among a menagerie of stuffed animals whose dead eyes stared back at you with an absolute detachment that you would remember later, when she was in the tiny casket with her own eyes sewn shut but surely aghast beneath the tiny lids and you ran your hand over that dead face and found yourself unable to make the connection between this pale corpse and the little girl asleep in the white crib who could not be that sick just look at her it’s impossible and already there before the casket you were thinking of the river on whose shores your life has been squandered, because she had asked you from her hospital bed if this meant she wouldn’t get to go paddling with you, Mommy can I still go when I get better?, and even then you knew that you would make this one and only dive and that you would tell no one, not the doctor nor the university colleagues nor the husband you no longer recognized, down you’d go into darkness just as your own father had those many years ago and you had seen the man swim,Captain Tuna, his navy buddies had called him, and men like your father did not succumb to rivers though they might choose them.

And now the wreck of the Princess Anne, just as they’d promised at the dive tutorial, a 350-foot side-lying behemoth with an enormous iron smokestack embedded in the slime like the barrel of some doomsday weapon.  You peer into a cabin porthole half expecting an ulterior world to fashion itself from the ship’s debris, your breath hissing and the bubbles racing upward toward a surface you remember and long for and despise. What accompanies your exhalations and dissipates into this idiom impervious to language?  What will remain of you to drown?  And is she after all at the bottom of the river on whose shores your life has been squandered?  Is she here where the dream symbols incubate, where the dead are born and the living perish?  Is she here among the refuse of a city that never gave a goddamn about you, that inflicted its own tidal erosion upon your soft and ill-prepared heart, that wore away at your every desire before destroying the one thing it could not take by simple attrition?

Maybe you ought to have climbed our tallest remaining skyscraper instead, scanned the windows as they rushed past for some fleeting glimpse of her brown-blond hair.  Or you might have searched the expression of a subway conductor as you hovered before his brighlit onrushing cockpit in one last, enduring caesura, looked there for meaning or for forgiveness.  (The crunch of bones, the explosion of light and blood.)  Or you might have done what the others do and just endured, the way he was enduring, you might have lived with her ghost always just outside your periphery, always waiting for you to alight upon the secret spell that would drive the marrow back within her phantom bones so that she could again embrace your legs and giggle, and fall, and laugh with a joy that ripped your heart in two.

You push now within the hull-split wreck.  Ruptured plates and once-inhabited cubbies.  Horizontal movement through the ship’s vertical layers. You take enormous breaths.  Your thoughts race for the surface of the river on whose shores your life has been squandered.  Her tiny body on a tiny bed.  Tubes and wires.  Monitors with their bright peaks and valleys.  Her blood a poison to itself, her blood not unlike this dark river in whose downdraft you now coast.  Up there on earth there were people moving about, surefooted and unapologetic.  Up there they ate and drank, they laughed and made love, they suffered and died.  The river does not care.  You hear it now… Fur Elise… drifting toward you on a wave of pure light, an anti-oblivion that will preserve you—as if in amber—here at the bottom of the river on whose shores your life has been squandered.  You turn back toward the wreck’s sundered hull and you see the colors rush toward you, a many-hued brightness with the notes spinning visibly within the blinding quanta and the river now an empty channel through which this deadly beauty flows and you, down here, sorry at long last that nothing, not even this, will restore you to yourself.

The sleeping child in your arms, her warm breath on your neck, you turn to face the crib with its bone-white spindles and you suck in her smell and you hold it deep within your aching lungs and you do not exhale, you will choke on it, goddamn these goddamn people who never lost a thing.


David Hollander is the author of the novel L. I. E; his short fiction has appeared inMcSweeney’s, Post Road, Unsaid, Swink, and Best American Fantasy.