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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.

Three Poems by Cameron Gorman


1.
pure silver

it only feels right sometimes
when the moon comes in and the concrete
swells like waves

the scent of inland grasses
much sweeter than this sand

sometimes when the summer feels
just so
and the wind catches you
by the ankles

your body remembers a time before
this one
a you before you are
now

who knew less about asphalt
and more about wood
and who knew
just when it felt right

to never lose that feeling again
who
on a brandy night
on a gin night
on a jack night

remembered how
to never lose
home

 

2. 
nosegay

she read in a book once
about the victorian ladies
stepping around dead
things holding kerchiefs to their
belladonna eyes

they would protect themselves
from the storm
from the sweaty humanity
by perfuming handkerchiefs

holding them to their
faces fanning the
sweet water to their
mouths

she wanted to try it
with other things
with sidelong glances
and eyes that
hitched on to women
like leeches as they walked

maybe the flowers would sweeten
the air the
feeling of the air
the feeling in the air

and she clipped them to try
she spent the money
for one rose
to add to the bundle
she held them to her breasts
she hoped they might
see the flowers first

 

3. 
unravel

it’s impossible to keep
all the tiny pieces of myself
in

and they drop through the sink
through the garbage
into your mouth

i am dirty, so i shower
i shave the hair from my arms
and it washes to sea

i stem the bleeding
and plastics litter the sand

i’m quite sure i have touched
myself, or a past echo of me
when i inhale the seawater
from under the riptide
wave

when i dig my toes into the
dirt, eat a mealy
apricot, drink cold
lemonade

i am already in so much
so heavy, that it makes me wonder
why they think we have to wait
to become one
with the earth

 


Cameron Gorman is a student at Kent State University in Ohio, where she works for student media outlets including KentWired, The Burr and Luna Negra. She is an aspiring writer and poet, and has or will have work in the Great Lakes Review, Work Literary Magazine, Bitterzoet and Better Than Starbucks. Living in New York City for the summer of 2018 has taught her a lot about the value of forgotten things.

Exodus of Dead Horse Bay by Julie Lunde


 

So it was written: the deeps covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone.

It goes like this. One person was chasing another. The sea split. There was a door. There was a crossing.
From one side to the other. Then the door slammed. It slammed in the face of the chaser.  He was hit.
He was sunk. He went down.

We were still running and we did not look back. Never look back. It slows you down. Distraction.
Face forwards. Run faster. It went like this. The sea unsplit. The stones went down. The deeps covered
them. They sank down to the bottom, trapped there like a hard word stuck in a tight throat.

So it is said. Memories of it washed up jagged on the shore. Like cracked glass, the edges healed.
Things tend towards smoothness. Things end. 


Julie Lunde is a recent graduate of the Northwestern University creative writing program. In June 2015, she was named the recipient of the Arch Street Prize for her essay "The Plural of Fish." Her poetry and prose have also been published in The Allegheny Review, 3Elements Review, and Prompt Magazine. She was also the founder of the Northwestern Jewish Writers’ Workshop. She is currently living in Manhattan and working on her first book.

Horse Seance by Meredith Drum

For all the ghost horses haunting Dead Horse Bay, this was made for an Underwater New York event as part of Marie Lorenz's Flow Pool at Recess Art in SoHo, April 21, 2016.


OBJECT: Horse Bones

BODY OF WATER: Dead Horse Bay


Follow the link to see images of Horse Seance floating in the Flow Pool. 


 

 

Meredith Drum’s most recent project is the Fish Stories Community Cookbook: a collection of seafood recipes, local histories, stories, drawings and ecological information contributed by people who live and work in the Lower East Side of New York City. The book was compiled and produced by the Oyster City Project (Rachel Stevens and Meredith Drum) for Paths to Pier 42 and distributed at the Paths to Pier 42 Fall 2015 Celebration in East River Park.

 

Ghost Horse, 2016 by Emily A. Gibson

Emily A. Gibson created this artwork for an event in collaboration with Marie Lorenz's Flow Pool at Recess. See pictures and read more about it here.


OBJECT: Horse Bones

BODY OF WATER: Dead Horse Bay


Photographs by Nate Dorr, Dan Selzer and Emily Gibson


I make portraits of phantoms to explore the connections between history, memory, and perception. My choice of materials is often intended to draw attention to the unstable nature of these entities.  The unwieldy form of the ghost horse is made out of adhesive and other transparent material. It references the horse refineries that were once prevalent in Dead Horse Bay.  The creatures inevitable transformation as it is submerged in water and mingled with other objects is similar to the unpredictable ways we recall the past.  Some aspects coalesce while others disappear altogether.


Emily A. Gibson has exhibited her work in New York, Boston, and Provincetown, and has received grants from the Berkshire Taconic Foundation, and the Leopold Schepp Foundation. Gibson holds a Bachelor's of Fine Arts from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and a Master's in Fine Arts from the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. As a graduate student, she received a scholarship to travel and to study art in Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto.

Glass City vs. Bottle Beach by Julia LoFaso

OBJECTS: Bottles, Horse Bones

BODY OF WATER: Dead Horse Bay


 

I once went to a New Year’s Eve party whose host, a burlesque dancer, handed each guest a dinner plate
to smash against a brick wall. I’ve never seen a roomful of people so suddenly awake, so reborn. Of course
that was years ago, before we lost Brooklyn, before they came for Queens.  

This city has a habit of killing its ghosts, but it hasn’t kept up with your haunting.
Even the water hasn’t managed to turn your bottles back to sand.  

Patti Smith protect us. Richard Hell forgive us. Lou Reed let us never forget your ripped nylons, your
drunken plans, how you woke up every morning to eviscerate horses to bone. We want to know how you
failed or succeeded at surviving whatever your life was. But even now, I don’t. All I can do is stab at truth,
waving a bottle, letting it fly, waiting for the head-clearing satisfaction of hearing it break. 

Because we don’t fear wilderness but its opposite: the stripping of secrets, the bleaching of bones, the
relentless building of buildings.

Because we don’t fear Batman but Bruce Wayne: champagne, handshake, deals
behind closed doors.

Warriors, come out to play. Bring back a little reckless to this brave new city. 

We’ve made it to the beach before you. We’re hiding in plain sight, magnified. So slow they can’t see us,
so low they’d never dream of our iridescence. But we are always here, always inching, always covering
ground. We are scrolled messages, signs, and you will come to read us. 

 


Julia LoFaso's writing has appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Conjunctions, and The Southeast Review, among other publications. One of her stories was a finalist in The Southeast Review's 2013 World's Best Short-Short Story Contest. She has an MFA from Columbia University and lives in Queens. 

Web Waters by Alice Neiley


There’s a perfect view of the ocean if I sit on the highest monkey bars of a Battery Park playground, or on one of the blue chairs that face north in the Poets House library across the street. Tree branches block the reality of an opposite shore. Green and yellow leaves catch Manhattan’s gauzy sunlight and the water appears endless; the Hudson River is the sea.

This won’t work in the winter of course, but for now, early October, my imaginary ocean and I still have another month or so together. Soon, I’ll just be watching as the river flows toward the New York Harbor, underneath the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and into the darker, truer sea I can’t see from here.

Sometimes I wonder if love is fate, a choice, or what. Can you make a list of what’s in it? 

*

Before moving to the city, I lived in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a small fishing village at the tip of Cape Cod. I jumped in the water every day my last year there—no wetsuit—even in January. Patchy sheens of ice over the beach some mornings, I’d dive in head first, breath leaving my body as if sucked through a vacuum. The quiet cold would tighten around me fast, squeezing all the energies I’d ever had through my body and just like that, I’d be wrapped in a rumpled towel, strangely warm. The whole experience never lasted more than five minutes. It was like being shot from the belly of a firecracker for the hundredth time—both mechanical and explosive.

I told people I did it for the invigoration, the kick-start to my day. But really it was for the moment between underwater and running to shore. When I’d burst back into the December, January, February air, only my skin noticed if there was sun, or snow, or waves. My skin woke up, questions disappeared, and for that moment there was nothing else to say or think, nothing else about me at all.  

 

Since moving to New York, I’m prone to anxiety attacks. Sweaty, chest tightening choke holds that seem to come out of nowhere—in the middle of a quiet stretch of Central Park, in the middle of a meal, in the middle of the night. I found Battery Park a few weeks ago, and watching the boats drift on their moorings, I can breathe.

I’ve started to make a mental list of all accessible bodies of water near the city, researched where the water is deepest, most swimmable.

“Hell’s Gate,” a portion of The Narrows tidal straight where the New York Upper Bay, Long Island Sound, and the Hudson River intersect, is 35’ to 40’ deep. But even though the tides keep the area relatively clean, I’d need a boat in order to take a dip out there, and probably a tether to attach myself to its cleat. That same tidal flow can speed up to 5.0 knots depending on the wind and lunar cycle, increasing the depth and current to a swirl unforgiving to swimmers.

When my girlfriend, Karen, and I are  apart, I think about her hands a lot. Even for the longer, three month stretches we’ve spent in each other’s company, I’ve never been able to stop looking at them: her long fingers typing, turning a key, braiding between mine like the beginnings of a web.

One winter visit to Ottawa, near sunrise, Karen threw on a giant hoodie sweatshirt and went downstairs to get a fire going. I got up, stood by the window, and rubbed my eyes. There. There was the ocean. I pressed my nose up against the snow spattered glass and almost yelled out why didn’t you tell me it was here!, when a pink and blue tinted cloud lifted, and the smoke stacks across the city appeared, the hard angles of houses.

“Hey do you think the almond milk from last week is still good?” Karen called up the stairs; she knows I like it in my coffee.  

I sat down on the bed. I covered my eyes with my hands and rubbed, trying to get the ocean back.

I sometimes still wish she would figure out a way to bring it to me, even just a little piece—a piece of my old self for this new, concrete self I don’t recognize at all.

“I’m never going to be able to buy you a nice sweater for a gift, am I?” she joked once. I wanted to tell her that of course she could. I wanted to say I’d love anything from her. A sweater, a bunch of flowers. I wanted to be an easier person. But what I wanted even more was proof that if I was to forget who I was, she would remember. I wanted her to know that one rose and a bouquet of carnations were found in New York City’s Dead Horse Bay, still fresh and colorful, probably not even a day old. I wanted her to know—osmosis, telepathy—that those flowers would be a perfect gift. Or a photo of those flowers, or even if she had been the person to tell me about them—how they survived underwater and died when they were pulled out.

 

There’s a tangle of cross currents known as the “The Spider” off Battery Park. The Hudson’s breadth and the East River’s fast flow converge at their worst about two hours after high tide. The current rushes north in the Hudson River and west from the East River. This spidery water movement can cause ships to be trapped, unable to turn or change course under their own power. For hours, no one realizes they’re motionless, stuck, even in the place they most understand how to navigate.

*

When I turn all the other lights off, my room is illuminated only by a string of Christmas lights, completely green. For a moment I’m not pretending to be somewhere else. I’m not wishing whatever I’ve left behind would come back.

The Hudson River is not the ocean, but they’re the same color, especially when the light hits at 6pm. My room is suddenly the flashing safety light on top of coast guard stations, buoys, lighthouses, ship masts, underwater forests. 


Alice Neiley has a BA in English from the University of Vermont and an MFA in Creative Non-Fiction from Hunter College in New York City. Her work has been published in Vermont Quarterly, Nashville Review, Eckleburg Review, Brandeis University’s Kniznick Gallery, ReSearch: Ezine of Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center, ReviewYou, Tottenville Review, ReviewYou.com, Tahoma Review, Provincetown Arts Magazine, and now Underwater New York. She currently works as a creative writing professor for undergraduates at Hunter College.

 

Because Water is Dutch for Water by Nicole Haroutunian

OBJECTS: Horse bones, Bottles, Shoes

BODY OF WATER: Dead Horse Bay


Editors' note: This story was written for Underwater New York's January 24 event at Winter Shack, a temporary exhibition space designed by Alex Branch and Nicole Antebi, who curate a series of site-specific installations/readings/exhibitions that encourage audiences to engage with one another's work and to build community in the darkest hours of the year.  


 

“Do you like the wine?” he asks and I swirl it, waft it towards my nose. 

“It’s oaky,” I say. “Or maybe I taste peat. Do you detect, what, a note of jam?”

Why do I flinch at his dimples? It’s his blue eyes, too, his complete edgelessness. I’ve never liked someone without a fight.

“Does that mean no?” he asks.

“In this case,” I say, “it means yes. But don’t think that’s what I always mean.”

Tomorrow, my coworker Jenny will throw her stapler at me. She’ll say, I heard how you behaved. He blushes and I say I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m just nervous, I tell him, and drink down that very good wine. 

He leans back in his chair to make room for the waiter to place a slab of lasagna in front of him. I receive my bowl of red-sauced gnocchi. Not that I didn’t want the blind date to be over too, as soon as it began, but still I was surprised when he ordered first and went right to the entrees. Who skips appetizers just like that? It was my fault it started off so poorly. I kept insisting that we’d met before. Jenny’s birthday? That barbecue at her brother’s? He got frustrated. No, he said. We’ve never met.

“So what did Jenny tell you about me?” I ask him, chewing a rubbery nub of pasta.

He plucks a strand of cheese, almost daintily, from his chin. “That you were her smartest coworker and have long brown hair. That you like to take pictures in your spare time. Oh, and that you’re thirty-two.”

I nod. “I think she covered everything. You know what she told me about you?”

“Probably that I’m not her smartest cousin and I’m in finance. And I’m twenty-nine.”

“Nope,” I say. “All she said was, ‘you’ll thank me.’”

“That’s really all?” he asks. He shifts in his seat and pours us more wine. I suddenly understand.

“You,” I say, feeling my body start to make a few adjustments as recognition dawns. I lean in across the table and study his bland, handsome face, less bland by the second. “Now I know where I know you from.”

He grimaces and nods, as if accepting the inevitability of it all. “Was it the Post?” he asks. “AM New York?”

“All of that,” I say. “The TV news, too.”

He puts down his fork. “People like you still watch the news on television?” he asks.

Part of my brain screams, people like me? while the other part is the one that says aloud, “Don’t tell me you’re embarrassed.” 

“I mean, no,” he says. “But I didn’t expect it to be such a…thing. All the interviews. I don’t know.”

I hold my arm over my face as if to block the paparazzi. “No pictures, no pictures!” I cry. He forces a smile and I feel like I should change my tune. “But really. You literally saved lives. It’s amazing.”

Now that I recognize him, it’s hard to even see him clearly. He’s dematerialized by all the associations I have with him, swirling and blurring and pixelating him. Bennett is New York City’s latest folk hero.

I’m not one to click on these amateur videos when they pop up online, but this one was unavoidable. It starts off following a tugboat on the Hudson, chugging along behind an improbably massive garbage barge. It’s both adorable and grotesque, the herculean effort exerted by that little ship in service of all of our trash.

Then there’s a flurry of activity in the bottom left corner of the video. On rewind, it’s a woman leaning on the railing beside the water. She’s unremarkable—not perched on a precipice, not teetering on a ledge. But then—then!—she hoists something into the air, something she’d been holding in front of her, and, with effort, hurls it into the water. As it makes its short, quick descent, it forms, there, in the air, into a baby. 

The camera phone operator, it’s clear, doesn’t notice. There’s no audible splash; the camera doesn’t waver. But then, Bennett enters the frame, jogging, almost the same instant the baby appears and disappears. He’s running straight and then makes a seamless right turn, sprinting to the edge of the river as the woman—the mother—goes up and over the railing. He disappears into the water, literally on her heels. It is so fluid it seems almost choreographed.

Bennett blinks, forks lasagna into his mouth. He shrugs. “I know it’s cliché, but anyone would have done it. It was a baby for god sakes.”

Does he get, in that moment, even more handsome? He does.

“I saw a man step in front of a bus once,” I tell him. “He was standing on the curb, just a normal guy dressed in a khaki colored coat and dress shoes. I’m not sure if this is a trick of memory or what, but I feel like I remember thinking, right before it happened, that he was about to do it.”

“Do you often have psychic episodes?” Bennett asks.

I squint. “Do you?”

He finishes his lasagna and shakes his head, his eyes twinkling. Thank goodness, I think, it wasn’t a serious question. But then he gets serious. “Wait, so what happened to the guy?”

“Well, he died,” I say, taking a long swallow of wine to get the gnocchi down. “There’s a reason you were the one of the two of us in the newspaper.”

“I hear the tiramisu is good here,” he says.  

 

After we leave the restaurant, we walk, aimless, up Vanderbilt. We split the bill but he let me have almost all of the dessert, so I have no idea where we stand. The night is new-summer warm; no one’s sick of the heat yet. 

“I could stay outside forever if the weather was always like this,” I say.

Bennett nods. “I’m from Maine, so.”

I don’t know what this means, but assume he’s agreeing with me. I want to grab his hand, so I do.

“There has to be a word for it,” I say, tilting my head up as a delicious breeze stirs around us. “Maybe in one of those languages where they combine a sentence worth of words into one. Something like: mildsweetnight.”

“In Dutch,” he says, “I think it would be mildsweetnacht.” A city bus is hurtling up the road, as city buses are wont to do, and, as if we hadn’t just been having a nice time, he jolts towards it, towards the street. He’s not that close, but I unclasp my hand. I mean, what am I supposed to do? Obviously, he stops short of the bus.

I fold my arms and we walk in silence. I’m going to let Jenny have it tomorrow.

I realize Bennett has been leading me in the direction of the subway stop at the corner. We pause in front of it and he says, “So you really wouldn’t have saved me?” I think he’s laughing but I can’t tell.

“I mean, if you were in real danger,” I mumble.

He’s three steps down into the train station before he says, “You coming?”

 

It turns out that a New York City hero’s apartment is much like the apartment of any other random twenty-nine year old guy who works in finance. It’s nicer than mine, to be sure, and he doesn’t have a roommate, which is a blessing, but there’s an expensive flat screen television positioned across from a blue futon that must be a college artifact, and the potted tree in the corner is halfway to dead. It’s tidy, though, I’ll give him that.

“Can I get your cleaning lady’s info?” I ask and he says okay, before pausing and saying, “What, you don’t think I could sustain this level of hygiene myself?”

“If it were me,” I say, “I’d have that Post cover story framed on the wall.”

“You and my mom both,” he says, which isn’t the most auspicious start, but we wind up on said futon, and our clothes end up on the dustless floor. Now I think that Jenny will be mad at me for a whole other reason. “What, you’re going to date after doing that?” she’ll say.

After, I just assume that he’s going to hand me my clothes and my purse, but then again, he’s not New York’s latest hero for nothing. “For sleeping,” he says, gesturing to his room, “I think the bed will be more comfortable.”

Streetlights stream in through his window, illuminating the spare room a sunset orange. I check the time—it’s two a.m. I turn and peer at Bennett, whose head is half-sunken into his very plush pillow. “You know what would have really impressed me?” I ask.

He looks nervous. “Not about the sex,” I say, and he relaxes. “About the rescue. What would have impressed me is if it was one of the scary New York waterways. The Hudson, that’s well trod territory. What if it had been, you know, the Gowanus Canal? Spuyten Duyvil? Dead Horse Bay?”

He brushes a piece of hair from my face and leaves his hand tangled there. “Dead Horse Bay,” he says. “What on earth is that?” 

What should I say? Bennett is a man who pulls living things from the water, but at Dead Horse Bay, it’s the bleached, bare bones of the horses once rendered there that draw people like me to the shore. I take pictures of them, and of last century’s trash strewn across the sand, still spilling from a burst landfill cap. “It used to be called Barren Island,” I say. “Because barren is Dutch for bear.” Then I close my eyes because barren is a worse word to say in bed than dead, than horse.

Bennett says, “I think you mean barrenislandnacht, sweetbarrenislandnacht.”

I open my eyes and, in this orange light, I can imagine us picking our way across Dead Horse Bay, the grey sand, the woody, striated horse bones, the rounded lips of milk bottles, the salt-water soaked leather shoes. Maybe I’d throw out my arm and stop him just as he was about to land, tender-footed, on a tetanal iron nail protruding from a weather-cracked wooden plank.

Goodnacht,” we say.

                                            


Nicole Haroutunian is an editor of Underwater New York. 

Cold by Nicki Pombier Berger

Editors' note: This story was written for Underwater New York's January 24 event at Winter Shack, a temporary exhibition space designed by Alex Branch and Nicole Antebi, who curate a series of site-specific installations/readings/exhibitions that encourage audiences to engage with one another's work and to build community in the darkest hours of the year.  


OBJECT: Green teacup with internal scene of house and people

BODY OF WATER: Dead Horse Bay


I remember when the cold hit Barren Island. It came from the east, across the open sea, and pressed like a hand at my back as I rode the Friday ferry, hurrying me home for the weekend. It seemed to still the smell, the cold, and hold it in one place. I could have drawn a line around it, or marked where it started and stopped. I suppose that’s what I do when I remember you, too.

How strange, that my world before was blank of you – no you to even lack. I think about that, sometimes idly yearning the world into symbols – trees with their vanishing leaves, the sudden mourning bay of a steamer receding – or else it hits me stripped bare, as when I watch my girls take their tea.  Is there any pain as sharp as what it costs a mother to bring, from a blank, life for another?   

There you were, half a cantaloupe in each hand, their sherbet fleshy insides flashing, stepping up the gangway like a poem. Where had you come from? You found me, wrapped to my chin in a flannel scarf from the island, breathing in its taste of the homes of my students, bacon and cabbage and brine. “I come bearing summer,” you said, and slipped. One half plunked over and floated there, gaping like a mouth around an “Oh!” In my memory, I’ve burrowed further into my scarf to laugh there in secret, but you see me – right away, you see me – and then you draw me out.

You were a journalist, trained to pin a story, hold it still – a fish caught and mounted, glazed to look life-like and whole. I was a teacher, a mother-in-training I suppose. A fish on a wall just a fiction.     

You had a hunger that spread the more you fed it. On our first ferry ride, you made me name the islands, Duck Point, Fish Kill, Bergen, and then you were there again the next week, ready with their legends and lore. On one, a whole meal once washed ashore, course by course, cheeses and linens, a fat roast and a full head of lettuce, a jar of soup screwed shut. Off one, the pirates Gibbs and Wansley scuttled a brig and waded in, laden with Mexican dollars. A local barkeep fed them, keeping his life, and after each bite Gibbs licked his fingers, pulled out a coin, shined it bright and swallowed it whole. On another you could hear nothing but the breathing of the sea.

You had a journalist’s insistence on fact, but in truth you were a believer. Of myths and wishes, of this and that. Your laugh. In this way you were like the fishermen we passed each week that fall, thigh high in the frigid marshland or rocked by our wake in their little boats, patient in some faith sometimes rewarded, or straining against its sudden proof. I can still summon them so clearly, in this my mainland life, with no view to the sea.

“You don’t need to have seen it to see it,” you would say.

“Is that what you tell your editor?” I would play along, and you would bring me books to prove me wrong: “Read these and you’ll see.”  

We sometimes have these talks. This one while I thumb the empty spines in my library. I can’t remember when I lost your voice, just the ache of the search for it since, and the drone of my own, thrown back and back to me, like a tide.   

All fall we rode the Friday ferry back to the mainland, finding each other at the Canarsie dock again on Monday to return to Barren Island, after our weekends at the homes we never mentioned. You with your notepad and a deadline like the horizon, always out there, never closer. I was the one whose life loomed. In December I would stop for the winter and the mainland would reclaim me. I would step off the ferry with my jelly legs and climb up for one last carriage ride to the Brooklyn Flatbush station, board the Brighton Line and watch the windows slowly fill with noise until, at Fulton and Franklin, there he would be, waiting, and you were a dream or invention, a tale of your own telling, and the whole of Barren Island would be erased with one wave of his hand, as a name etched in sand.

What’s there to remember? The stink, of course, though I can’t describe it. That was all they wanted to know, back home, about the smell. What could I tell them? The impatient captain rush rushing us aboard and then swaying there, starboard, staring at the sky. The sea oats weaving to some music we can’t hear. The bark of the immigrant mothers, calling their boys by their given names, not the ones we gave – Peter was Piotr, like a dishrag whipped, and more than once I saw her pull him in sweetly, lose her face in his hair. Yes they took our trash, but they had their own treasures. One man hammered stolen glass with brutal swings into shards he shaped to Celtic crosses, which he gave away grinning to any who asked. I left mine in the window of my boarding room the day I left, with no time to go back and get it. Every now and then I flush with shame that he thought me too haughty to take it ashore, and then the final sadness, that he does not think of me at all. None do, I am certain, or ever did. Another girl took my place the next spring, and another, and another, until it’s been ten years. Today my own little girl broke a teacup – the green one painted with a family on a hillside, all that space to breathe – and I sent it like a missive to the trash. Tomorrow a team of horses will cart it off to the island with the rest, and soon enough the horses themselves will be worn by life into bodies, borne to Barren Island, boiled into bone.   

The small grey space of my boarding room there, its bare walls and one little window, the angled square of sunlight that arced across the room, true as a clock. My simple desk with a sprig of some beach flower dying there, my thin, firm bed, the constant brush of sand on the floor, the twilit daytime indoor dark where you once appeared, still and grey and unreal as a photograph, silent while the room between us roared. I moved toward you and you moved away, as if we were locked those two yards apart, until – did this happen? – you slipped out the door and ran.    

For years I looked for your bylines, but they slowed to a trickle and stopped. Sometimes still I search the faces on the Fifth Avenue El, looking for you, perhaps, or more likely that old promise – that in a blink, from a blank, things can change. But I rattle along up there inside the train car, one errand to the next, the world the thing passing through the panes, sometimes nearly believing in the girl there beside you on the ferry, with her back to Canarsie, her face to the open ocean, the coming cold a kind of life she could not see.     

1899


Nicki Pombier Berger is the founding editor of Underwater New York. 

Dead Horse Bay by Adel Souto


I read about Dead Horse Bay while researching odd spots in NYC for my blog, This Hidden City. I had to see it for myself, and visited on Halloween, a little after low tide ended. It was a mild, but windy day. I parked too far, and it took forever for me to find an entrance to the bay. While I did take a few photos, I could hardly believe what I had seen. I returned with my girlfriend the following week, at the most extreme low tide. It was a colder, though less ominous day. I knew my way around this time, and did a bit more exploring. These photos are from both visits.


Adel Souto is a Cuban-born artist, writer, and musician, currently living in Brooklyn. He has released several books, including a “best of” chapbook on the subject of a 30-day vow of silence, and has also translated the works of Spanish poets. His work has been shown in galleries in NYC, Philadelphia, and Miami, as well as in Europe and South America. His music videos have been screened at NYC’s Anthology Film Archives, and he has lectured on the subject of occult influences in photography at NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development's Department of Art and Art Professions. He currently produces the public access TV show, Brooklyn’s Alright If You Like Saxophones.

["There was a young man from the Netherlands..."] by Anthony Madrid and Mark Fletcher



Anthony Madrid lives in Chicago. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013, BODY, Boston Review, Fence, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His first book is called I AM YOUR SLAVE NOW DO WHAT I SAY (Canarium Books, 2012).

Mark Fletcher is an illustrator and cartoonist. He designed the cover for Anthony Madrid's book I AM YOUR SLAVE NOW DO WHAT I SAY. Mark earned his BFA and BA in Art History from the University of Colorado. He lives and works in Colorado Springs, Colorado. 

Nothing Can Hurt Me by Molly Rose Quinn


WATER WATER EVERYWHERE my doll, my decapitation

 

is very political. My ass burns

 

on the roof of a Cadillac. My ele-

 

phantine limbs are basically done for.

Her shuttering lids kiss my pointer when I worry the lashes,

 

jerk her dull body up hard then down hard BIPOLAR WHATEVER

I discovered beer that year. I was Alexander I so discovered the world.

 

In my loot: the good erotics of hypoallergenic rubber. I keep feeling evil.

A core (detected) of fat girls and B.O. Can I continue being evil?

 

Can I continue being evil if the geography between my legs

 

is a holeless plain OOH SHE’S GOT IT BAD.

One girl (“jane doe”) wields a weapon.

One girl (“jane doe”) gives head.

One girl (“jane doe”) gums puny lacquered revolvers slung round her neck.

 

Its glint fulfills LOVE IS NOT A CONSOLATION

 

a heading via Simone Weil. I never do find it, so I have longed

 

to be consoled. The mystics holding their peculiar court,

salutations abreast, a groovy reckoning, white stallion, etc.

FOR THE TIME BEING I could not even bear myself

 

in any light. Henry and William and other Scholars,

 

I bow my own little crackled head at their sorry fantasies. And you

do nothing. How many shitty little kids will die before we finish, depends

on the rewards of girl-on-girl. OUTLAW don’t start WON’T YOU

 

she ends with a psalm of her own miraculous design: but now

in my very young age I’ve known little I shy away from much

all I’ve know so far of love is death which is a great deal to know

but not enough



Molly Rose Quinn was raised in Memphis, Tennessee. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Everyday Genius, Coconut, Two Serious Ladies, No, dear, Four Way Review, The Fiddleback, Singing Saw Press' Parallax, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn. She works for the literary programs at Symphony Space in Manhattan, and also with the Brooklyn Book Festival, the Moby-Dick Marathon NYC, and The Atlas Review.

Callisto's Flowers, via Dead Horse Bay by Mary Catherine Kinniburgh


 

Pink wind, cold sun. In this quiet light,

you watch her roam the bay. You produce

a solitary prayer—bodega rose, talisman.

 

She walks along the bones, ghosts of horses

etched on the frozen sand.

Imagine, you whisper, a coast

 

filled with yearning birds and her hair.

Wielding her limbs like loosed carnations

as you observe: the flowers drop along the shoreline.

 

When you retreat homeward, you affirm:

there is nothing in this life you want more

than to please yourself, and at night—sub rosa

 

you remove pieces of glass from a lonely jar,

placing them into the auric constellations

you’d like to turn her into



Mary Catherine Kinniburgh is a doctoral student at the City University of New York Graduate Center, where she studies medieval mysticism and imaginative landscapes. When she’s buried deep in the library, she writes poems too. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and four rescue cats.

(Untitled) by Melissa Murray

OBJECTS: Kangamouse, Monkey Blanket, Blue Crab, No Swimming Sign

BODIES OF WATER: Dead Horse Bay, Plum Beach, Hudson River



Melissa Murray is an up and coming artist living and working in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Her works are large scale mixed medium on paper, with concepts focused on the combining of multiple environments in one still image. Selected group exhibitions at the MOSI Museum in Tampa, Florida, the Target Gallery in Alexandria, VA, Chashama in New York, NY and Causey Contemporary, and 3rd Ward in Brooklyn, NY. Solo exhibitions at Fuse Gallery, AdHoc Art and Causey Contemporary and Gallery SAS in Montreal. Her work has been published and/or reviewed in The Wild Magazine,  L magazine, The Village Voice, The Montreal Gazette, Juxtapoz Magazine, Beautiful Decay Magazine, Muse Magazine, Big, Red and Shiny and the NY Arts Magazine.

She by Dianca London Potts

OBJECT: Mermaid Figurine

BODY OF WATER: Dead Horse Bay


The circumstances of separation, the severing of fin from torso, were simple. It began slow and subtle. The rot spread from scale to scale, made the iridescent shine of her tail dull. Summer slipped into fall, the rot continued its advance unnoticed. During winter, the cold slowed the process of decay. But as the waters warmed again, spring then summer, she could no longer ignore the rapid rate at which her body altered. How had it started, this change, this disassembly of parts?

The rot was finite like her seduction of wide-eyed wharf-boys and the weight of the tiny trinkets that she collected. The rot had become a part of her; inseparably organic. It redefined her anatomy. She swam the length of the island and it crept beneath her scales. She warmed her back with the sun, stretched out atop a large smooth boulder beneath the Brooklyn Bridge She combed the gritty floor of Dead Horse Bay, searching for necklaces, lockets, for thin crosses on delicate chains. She unpinned hair clasps of carved ivory from the tresses of women whose bodies swelled with water, who were placed there by jilted lovers or slipped beneath the surface willingly. She relieved them, these women, of their heavy woven bracelets cluttered with charms.  She considered herself a savior, preserving the memory of their passing. This was her sacred work. 

The rot grew heavy.  It became difficult to reach the women. Smooth faced as if they were her sisters, the maiden corpses were left lonesome in their adornment, visited only by fish that nibbled their flesh and once painted fingertips. Like them, she too was being devoured, immobilized.

Anchored to the surface, she sulked away the hours, imagined the women at the floor of the bay as they once were: warm, mobile, intact. The rot marched on.  She gathered the bay’s gifts, adorned her neck with silver rosaries and freshwater pearls. She placed rings on each of her fingers, nestled an ivory comb between the strands of her hair.

Sinking slow with her eyes open, she slipped from the surface of Dead Horse Bay, returning the scavenged goods to the women she once adored. Tailless, she lay there, in pearls, gold and silver, waiting for another like herself to claim the trinkets as their treasure.


Dianca London Potts is a writer, music blogger, and follower of the fictive craft. She is currently earning her MFA in Fiction from the New School. She is a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and VONA / Voices alumna. Her work has been featured in New Wave Vomit, APIARY Magazine, Bedfellows, theNewerYork, and the Village Voice. She currently resides in Brooklyn.


Horse Bone Bluffs by Nicole Antebi

OBJECT: Horse Bones

BODY OF WATER: Dead Horse Bay


I've been collecting horse bones at Dead Horse Bay for several months now, re-imagining the edges as Southern California cliffs holding up Mid-Century modernist houses. 


Nicole Antebi considers herself a student of animistic thinking and landscape. She works in non-fiction animation, motion graphics, installation while simultaneously connecting and creating opportunities for other artists through larger curatorial and editorial projects such as Water, CA and The Winter Shack.  Her work has been shown in many places including High Desert Test Sites, The Manhattan Bridge Anchorage, Teeny Cine’s converted trailer, Portable Forest, a Texas Grain Silo and in the cabin of a capsized ship at Machine Project, Los Angeles.

Meditations on Dérive and Grief by Cynthia Ann Schemmer


I call out that I’ve found a bone, a spinal vertebra perhaps, and I begin to pull away the seaweed and sand crabs from where the marrow once was. The friend I've brought here appears at my side and I hand him the horse bone. He turns it over in his hand; it looks more like wood than bone from years of being tossed and aged in the bay. We keep pawing through the broken bottles and tinker toys littering the shore and find a very bone looking bone: long and thin in the middle and bulbous on the ends, like a dog toy or a bone you’d see in a cartoon. We are preoccupied with this carnal treasure hunt. We have done the remarkable: we have found a certain joy in death.

Dead Horse Bay is in South Brooklyn, right before the Marine Parkway to the Rockaways. There is a path, entered from congested Flatbush Avenue, which leads you to the waterfront. The bay is kept hushed behind a ten-minute walk through thick blades of grass and twisted canopies of tree branches that cradle nests.  The warm breeze keeps things swaying to the panicked call of the red-winged blackbird, and though I haven’t seen one yet I know that they are out there. I’ve found blue curl, Queen Ann’s lace, the long-legged great blue heron, and weeping lovegrass along the walk. Eventually the grass and trees bow away and there you are, at the mouth of the bay, given its name by the horses processed into glue and fertilizer there during the 19th century. The boiled bones were expelled into the water.

Since the horses, more of the city’s refuse has wound up in the bay. There are dolls and other toys, milk bottles and green vials I imagine once contained elixers, potions. Inside some of the bottles are homes; I lift a cap-less Mason jar and examine its insides: crabs crawling through entangled and hairy roots the color of bile. They make do in this unnatural landscape while we crawl through and examine a hollowed out speedboat. I pick up a large brown jug with the word “Rose-X” embossed on the side, a beautifully named rat poison, and decide to take it home to create a vase. Bones are harder to come by; aged and rusty brown, they are camouflaged in the sand.

We’ve come here in the middle of summer, 95 degrees in Brooklyn, and we are young and broke. We spend our time on bicycles, finding things to do that don’t require money, exploring and figuring out this city we often feel so confused in. We seek the bones, the remains of places and beings that no longer exist, as an attempt to renew our affection for this city and understand what came before. I want to keep these hidden histories nestled in my skull and on a shelf above my bed rest my findings: the Rose-X, three green and brown vials, a lumbar vertebra, and a first phalange all next to a photograph of my mother, whose death prompted me to explore this place in the first place.

On Flatbush Avenue, as we leave Dead Horse Bay behind, our ears pulse with car horns, my sides drip with sweat, and I hear someone catcall. We walk past a group of young boys on bikes who ride by the path to the bay; I turn around to see if they make the turn, but they don’t. I think this path is missed everyday.

In the 1950s, Guy Debord theorized the concept of psychogeography, the study of the effects of urban geography on our emotions and behaviors. In his essay, “Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography,” Debord makes a list of the neglected phenomena of urban experience: “The sudden change of ambiance in a street within the space of a few meters; the evident division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres; the path of least resistance that is automatically followed in aimless strolls (and which has no relation to physical contour of the terrain); the appealing or repelling character of certain places…”  One act of psychogeography is urban exploration, the act of exploring your environment, natural or manmade; it is examining the normally unseen or off limit sections of an urban area and preserving history by a physical act. Philibert Aspairt, one of the earliest urban explorers, vanished in 1793. He had been exploring the Parisian catacombs, a buried cemetery contained within Paris’ underground quarries, by wavering candlelight; a precarious guide in that honeycomb of skulls. The missing features of the faces were illuminated in the grave hush of the tunneled tomb: bottomless eyes and upside down black hearts where noses once bulged. He moved quickly. A key ring jangled. A way was lost. And then, the light went out. 

Aspairt’s body was found eleven years after he disappeared. Withered to the bone and mingling with the rest of the catacomb residents, his body was identified only by his keys to the Val De Grace, the French military hospital where he worked as the gatekeeper during the French Revolution.  He is recognized as the earliest cataphile in history. Perhaps Aspairt’s reason for entering the underground cemetery is why we explore the ruins of our own cities today: no heart beats forever and no home is eternal.

*

Bart helps me into the canoe. He is thin, with jowls that swing from the bottom of his neck and white hair that hangs from under his baseball cap that reads, “The Gowanus Dredgers.” He volunteers here, at the Gowanus Canal, where he educates Brooklyn residents about the waterway by means of rowing. I step carefully onboard and sit in the front of the canoe, staring at the foamy water.

“Isn’t it nice to have such accessible nature right here in Brooklyn?” Bart asks as he kicks the canoe from the dock and I float away. A crumpled Frito Lay bag drifts alongside the canoe.

“How many people canoe the canal?” I ask.

“We expect around two thousand this season. Our biggest crowd yet.”

This is my first time in a canoe. It’s quiet as I move past the houseboats, one of which has charming lace curtains in the windows. Bart will later tell me that this is “Jerko the Gowanus Water Vacuum,” a salvaged houseboat that serves as a show space for do-it-yourself sustainability projects. I continue past and find a great egret standing atop a rotting barge, demolished cars stacked like silverware along the shore, a pussy willow releasing its gray blossoms into the edges of the canal and empty silos and heaps of trash casting shadows. The used condom count rises to eight.

There is no way to know this now, in this moment on the Gowanus, but in a year I will find myself canoeing on a river in Alabama with my Uncle Joe, my mother’s brother and the sole surviving member of her immediate family. The environment will be completely unlike Brooklyn: we will float through the emerald waters in which we will see the rocky bottom, laugh into the vast blue sky, and breathe in fresh air. But my intentions are no different. I will ask him about my mother’s youth, to learn about her younger days in Brooklyn, the stories and memories that will disappear when he too is gone. Here, in and about New York, I do the same as I collect all of these abandoned stories before they join my mother and her past. 

I can’t help but be intrigued by this grotesque urban “nature,” but when you get right down to it, the Gowanus Canal is toxic. It is known to be contaminated with typhoid, typhus, cholera, and even traces of gonorrhea. When I get back to the dock, Bart tells me that the Gowanus Dredgers hope that the canal, a Superfund site, will one day provide oysters like it did centuries ago. I think this over as I look into the pearly oil rainbow below and am quite certain that I will never eat anything that comes out of the Gowanus. Some things are ruined forever.

*         

The emotional response I have to New York often falters.  My favorite waterfront haunt is only beautiful until I remember that I will never be able to swim in the East River. The pixilated skyline on a clear night has only a pathetic marquee of sparse stars. And the new is constantly replacing the old. I walk and observe the ever-evolving city: tear it down, rebuild, repeat. But it is the overlooked or unknown terrains, small pockets of the crumbled and decayed, which keep me on foot and looking for more. It’s history not contained in a museum for a price and a crowd. It is independent and solitary, resistant and waiting to be found. This is my personal version of Debord’s concept of dérive, which means to explore one’s surroundings without preconceptions or limits. He believed that happiness comes from creative life experiences: “…wanderings that express not subordination to randomness but complete insubordination to habitual influences…” 

Consider this: paths do not always need to be followed and we creatures of habit can break our ritual ways of everyday.

I live only blocks away from where my mother was born as I write this. She grew up in a small railroad apartment with a fig tree growing outside the fire escape and a family of gypsies in the apartment below (or so my uncle tells me.) He said they could smell the hops from the Schaeffer Brewery that once existed on Kent Avenue between South 9th and 10th streets. The apartment was also a few blocks away from the now defunct Domino Sugar Factory, another place I found myself exploring upon moving to Brooklyn just one month after my mother's death. These are the streets I live in and wander, without preconceptions or expectations. I choose the ruins of the city because I myself feel ruined, stripped of my mother too soon. I feel most content in these places that thrived when she was young and alive, no matter how grief-stricken they, and I, may be.  

*

I walk the plank; a splintered piece of plywood guides me over the swampy landfill, littered with empty beer bottles and lost shoes in Arthur Kill, Staten Island. I am headed to an unusual graveyard, only a couple of hundred feet from the cemeteries Joseph Mitchell wandered. The ship graveyard provides a final resting place for scuttled tugboats and steamers. There is no path to get to the waterfront to view the dilapidated vessels, so one has to walk along Arthur Kill Road, a narrow street spotted with abandoned fishing shops and taverns that run parallel to the Arthur Kill. After the shops comes a boating dock and a small wooden house, where, rumor has it, a fisherman will chase you with a shotgun if he finds you trespassing on his property. Beyond the dock and the danger is a rusty rainbow: blue, purple, pink, green and the typical rust orange all cover the ships like a jewel-toned watercolor painting. The ships float in an endless purgatory, half submerged in Arthur Kill. Some are just skeletons, planks of wood jutting out like broken ribs. Others are in a less sorry state and may become donors of parts. 

In her book, “The Future of Nostalgia,” Svetlana Boym wrote, “In the nineteenth century the nostalgic was an urban dweller who dreamed of escape from the city into the unspoiled landscape. At the end of the twentieth century the urban dweller feels that the city itself is an endangered landscape.” We are left with historical specters--a beach of bones, a boarded up building, a canal of filth--that will not physically exist forever; they too will vanish, just like the things that they are now the remains of. Even though I am nostalgic for the past, I am also nostalgic for the present, which is constantly disappearing, and the future, which is defined by the past. I seek out these abandoned places in order to breathe life into the dead and dying.

Here is one breath: my mother once told me to use the past to push me forward. She is gone eight years and yet I am still finding her remains--a handwritten note, a recipe, a forgotten memory triggered by the senses. Like my mother, perhaps this city is just too large and intricate to cease to exist, at least psychically; looming over me like a shadow.

Psychogeography and grief seem to follow a similar trajectory: you have to take in the repelling, heartbreaking parts in order to feel the full affect, the full weight, of what it is you are trying to understand. Just like a city, grief is an enormous and difficult concept to accept. I believe that like the heart of the city, in the spaces between the skyscrapers and hidden in the neglected terrains, my mother is in these pages I write even when she’s not, in between words and hidden in the white space.

 


Cynthia Ann Schemmer is a writer and editor who currently lives in Philadelphia. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College and has been published in Philadelphia City Paper, Broken Pencil, Toska Magazine, and Connotation Press.  She has also co-authored a chapter in Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind, a collection of tips and narratives on ways non-parents can support parents and children. Her cat is her creative mews. (www.cynthiaschemmer.com)

 

 

A Waterside by Tobias Carroll

OBJECT: White Boat

BODY OF WATER: Dead Horse Bay


On the small kitchen table lay a set of objects: a vial of pills that looked prescription but bore no prescription; the scuffed cover of a punk CD of unknown origin; and one of the manuals, the writing on its cardboard cover Sharpie-scrawled and illegible. Like the pills, it had arrived from her mother the previous day. Vera Schiele Obek stood over it all, eyeing the items and wondering what the coming voyage would hold.

Her mother had the unified theory of nostalgia. Her mother toured obscure universities in Europe now, and would occasionally surface in interviews on cult website and newsletters. It was a kind of fame; she had opted for this shadow academia instead of the more accepted avenues in which she’d once traveled. Sometimes Vera would see her mother’s name listed on the covers of still-extant countercultural or psychedelic publications. Sometimes it seemed to her to be the stuff of crankery. On the other hand, the pills, and their undeniable effects. That cascade of memories, of knowledge, of some other self. She was never sure what they were meant to be: a past life, a parallel life; a vision of a life she could have had had she been born into a different skin, a different nation, a different waterside.

And so Vera lived out here on the borders of the Navesink River in a kind of exile. Low-slung buildings and boat slips and the sound of automotive traffic heard from across the water. Her last boyfriend had muttered, “I hate myself sometimes,” in his sleep, and she’d parted ways with him not long after the dozenth time she’d heard it in the midst of wracked snores. She had come to this place six years earlier and had stayed quiet, temping sometimes and sometimes accepting assignments from her mother: rites to be carried out on the water to stifle incursions, to wound the pockets of nostalgia that were born, shimmering, off the coasts of cities and slowly made their way towards buildings and trafficked avenues, promising docile nightmares.

When she had been a child, when her mother’s academic life had been a more traditional one, Vera believed in undiscovered blocks behind the shopping centers they frequented. She believed in gaps and cracks and archways; that there was something mysterious to be found there. A store that sold something unavailable, its proprietor just waiting for the right customer to walk under the jingling bell by the door; or a park on the shores of a secret river. A potentially private miracle. Instead, there was this.

***

The routine had codified by now: the arrival of a manual and the accompanying pills. Vera would drink down one or two of the latter and wait for the memories to come, first in dreams, then to walk among in meditation. And then, on the following day, she would take the boat out to whatever corner of the water had been specified, would carry out some action, and would have the beatific taste of another’s life to walk in, parallels to carry with her and fan out like a prognosticator’s deck.

Her mother had explained it to her once, or at least had gotten there halfway. Her mother had still been developing her theories then; was still salvageably normal. Vera remembered her in her workshop, gloved hands clutching compounds, powders; distilling and combining. “These patterns,” her mother had said to no one in particular. “You can chart them, I think.” At that age, Vera never knew if she was the recipient of these lectures or simply a bystander to something else, a secret progression, a war against a concept given form.

Vera sat at the table and read the manual. Theories of overlay and nostalgia; the notion of displacement, of collective memories, of incursion. Her mother was fond of the word, and had begun using it around Vera’s twenty-first birthday to describe the blossoming, burgeoning vessels that they sought to staunch. In the manual, Vera came across numerous references to ships unearthed from sea floors and ships rebuilt and lost again. Sweden raising the Vasa; the Bounty remade for a World’s Fair long past, then sunk again; tall ships in New York Harbor in 1992. The incursions, her mother wrote, came in the shape of sailing vessels, inconspicuous in their scale. They would reach the shores of the nearest city and spill out of their forms in cryptic light. And the minds of the cities would ebb and wander and grow archaic.

From reading enough of her mother’s handwriting, Vera understood that the pills were a sort of vaccine, an isolated dose of another’s past to keep the false ships’ charm from overwhelming her. She had never actually seen one of the phantom ships; she had seen discolorations in the water, a patch of fungal orange in the Atlantic’s familiar slate-blue, more than once. She didn’t know how she would recognize one if she did see it: from the type in the manual, they were indistinguishable from the real thing save to the touch -- and to touch one was to be bonded to it. The movements of the phantom ships’ phantom crews were sometimes sickly, their forms limited -- but how to judge that against ordinary sameness, ordinary flaws?

Vera swallowed the pill. She would read the manual in its entirety tomorrow. She folded the cover back, black industrial tape serving as binding and fulcrum of the cover’s text both. In the memories summoned by the pill. she stood on the Australian coast and watched an ancient fleet approach. She was herself and she wasn’t; soon, she knew, she would gaze in a mirror, would understand more of her face and her fate. The pills made it easier to understand the influx, the mid-water structures, and the threat that they caused, but the flood of memories that accompanied them left her disoriented, unsure of herself. Sometimes, she was unable to recognize half the items in her home for days.

***

Vera had bought the boat from a fisherman who had told her he was trading up. She had had it for as long as she’d lived there; it was white and fully open, a shade under twenty feet; fast. She lived walking distance from its slip. It could get her as far as she needed to go, which was local; trips that took her close to Manhattan or Long Island had never been required. The chop outside Staten Island echoed off the bottom; it never failed to raise her and drop her and leave her feeling wracked, her inner ear attuned to different rhythms. It seemed a sensible barrier.

Today, that barrier would be crossed. Inside the back cover of the manual, Vera’s mother had written “near Gun Hill,” and “look for the Ironclads.” And so Vera charted a rough course: out to Raritan Bay and north, tracing Staten Island’s coastline and passing beneath the Verrazano. Up the Hudson, past skyscrapers and maritime facilities, and north. And afterwards, refueling, somewhere safe on the trip home.

The following morning, she woke early, bought a sandwich and a few bottles of water from a nearby deli, and walked towards the slip where her boat was stored. The gas tank was full; she removed the boat’s cover and let herself sit for a few minutes, savoring the newborn moments of the morning, the sun still working its way up the sky. In the boat was the bag of food, a cup of coffee, her mother’s manual, materials for stifling the incursion, and the remaining pills.

Vera sat and opened the manual to its last section, the journal entries that her mother had Xeroxed, the usual prelude for manifestoes to come. The first line to catch Vera’s eye was this: “They always embraced the trickster, even when he unhoused them in the name of chaos.” Vera nodded; she would probably read this same sentence in a year or two as part of a properly bound tome. She liked to think of herself as her mother’s first reader, though she knew that this was not the case. A peer reviewer, then. Or someone to pull her from the brink, or someone to be pushed from some kind of precipice.

Soon enough, it was time to cast off, to start the engine, and to begin her journey north with a slow exit from the slips. Not yet a lot of boats on the river, she saw. Good. It would be an unpunctuated trip, at least for the first forty-five minutes: time enough to pass Sandy Hook and head north, into the chop.

The incursion, Vera’s mother had written, was triangulating itself around two sources: the display of a restored early submarine in a Chelsea art gallery and a museum exhibit on Civil War ships elsewhere in the city. This one, she had written, was different; this incursion might be in the early phantom stage, where an echo of a form, the outline of something old and familiar, might be rising.

***

She rode through the swells, shuddering with each of the boat’s collisions with the water’s surface. This was always the question when dealing with water this open: should you take it fast and risk the jostling, the uneasy quarrel from side to side? Or should you go slower and risk drift, aimlessness, a loss of position? She had never tried to reach the city from her home. These broken skips over the water’s darkening surface summoned fear. Her life jacket would certainly keep her afloat, but who might see her out here, stranded, miles from any shoreline, an anonymous crier on the open water? She had never capsized, and hoped never to capsize. She feared taking on water; she feared that one of the boat’s impacts after rocketing from a wave might split the hull open, might serve the same purpose as the capsizing she so dreaded.

Irrational, she knew. Still, rationality wasn’t why she was out here. If she wanted empirical evidence, there were better places to go than to stifle phantom ships looking to wear down the progress of cities. This was where she and her mother parted ways: Vera’s mother had devised measurements and measuring instruments to calculate the degree of the incursion, its rate, its purpose. Not for the first time, Vera wondered if her mother was mad, if the pills were placebo, if this weren’t some long con being pulled on her. Not the best anxiety to have as one’s ship was tossed on the open water.

The eastern coast of Staten Island drew closer, and she turned the boat slightly, her path curving to meet its jagged peaking arch. She hated this sound: the enraged burble of the engine and that rhythmic splash splash splash as she flew over waves and crashed down, again and again, her craft now wobbling, now proceeding straight ahead. It would lurk in her mind even more than the water’s lingering dizziness, the lasting sense of unsteadiness that would come when she returned to land.

Rituals were a large component of her mother’s manuals. They seemed at once ancient and hodgepodge, an improvisational riff on some half-formed idea of what an ancient rite might have been like. There were objects that she would throw into the open water, some of them common, some requiring research, trips to out-of-the-way groceries or orders placed by mailorder. And yet: she’d been told that her trips had been successful. It was, Vera thought, a strange way of being. There was nothing to lose her focus on here, the coastline and the water beckoned. There was never a question of bringing someone along on these trips: her mother, perhaps, but her mother was far away, living in Berlin or Tallinn on some obscure fellowship and fundraising and amassing the monies needed for these sorties. And no, there was no one else.

***

As she passed Governor’s Island, she had a thought that this might not go as easily as she had hoped. The sky seemed an odd shade of blue, saturated and hollow. Something seemed to loom there in the north. She’d checked the forecast, and had seen no sign of storms. As the city’s financial district rose to her right, she dry-swallowed two of the pills. Soon afterwards, she needed to blink before recognizing billboards and signs on Manhattan’s coastline. English, she realized; she was translating it out of English and back into it again. Again she wondered whose memories these were, if they even were memories or simply concepts, a distillation of an identity into something more abstract. A reshaping of her mind’s chemistry.

As she passed beneath the George Washington Bridge, she took another; thirty seconds later, the incursion seemed clear to her, a blossoming where before there had been only discolorations. A change much further along: a miscolored bubble or an egg or the tip of a clay iceberg awaiting form. It loomed; she could see, as she blinked, its afterimages, roots below the water’s surface. Cracks and fissures that spread, that reached out, waiting to envelop. Vera was a thousand feet from it now. She slowed the boat; it still tossed, but in the Hudson the cacophony was less pronounced. She took the ingredients assembled to dispel the incursion in hand and waited to approach.

And then the incursion vanished. No discoloration in the water; no roots or trails beneath her. She ingested another pill, and then another, and it returned to her. Its presence could again be felt; and so she turned the boat and proceeded towards it. As she looked around the landscape,  she noticed an abundance of grey; slowly, it came to her that she was now colorblind. Where once there had been red and green, now there was only an absence, a noncolor that was, in its own way, as disconcerting to her as the putrid shade of the incursion’s stain.

The documents of her mother’s that Vera had read over the years were inconclusive about the source of the incursions. There were hints that they came from some sort of collective mood.  Vera’s mother sometimes suggested other eras; even parallel worlds. Not for the first time, Vera wondered about the source of the pills and the memories that they brought. All of them seemed to come together in her: the Vera she knew; the colorblindness; the other languages that now swam through her mind. A delegation that made an outline around her, and a fluctuation that made that outline shudder.

Once again, the incursion vanished; once again, Vera swallowed a pill and waited for it to reappear, and for something else to follow it and live in her mind. This time, it was memories: a city block with roots rising from the pavement, and a child walking along those streets in early winter. Certain buildings resembled Astor Place; others seemed displaced from the streets around her own home. It was a new city or it was a lost city or it was a false city or it was something remaking itself, something assembling itself, something in the process of becoming. Or the landscape was overtaking her. Or she was being re-entered in the world, that space she once occupied revamped; she thought briefly of home, and four distinct front doors flashed through her mind.

Before her was the incursion. Fifty feet away it loomed, then flickered; another pill brought it back into focus. Vera saw it starting to ghost, saw its essence start to lift, beginning to approximate a ship’s hull, the brackish water lifting like a thin and awful mist. It would have been the hull of something huge, she saw. A tall ship or something stout and military or a fishing boat returning from northern waters. She was at twenty feet now; she pulled the materials from her bag and pitched them at the incursion’s center.

The incursion ossified for a moment: those reaching walls, the harbored structures that reached towards the sky suddenly becoming white, briefly solid, then crumbling into a saltish ash and falling back towards the water. It was done; her elements expired, her pills consumed, the manual no longer needed.

***

There was a slip on her way back, near Sheepshead Bay. She took the boat there slowly; there would be fuel, or there would be somewhere to stop and rest, somewhere to set foot on solid ground and abate the rocking, the constant rocking that pervaded her body. She saw it, that familiar space with Coney Island’s midway in the distance; a series of moorings and ladders and piers, and she recognized the space where her craft would go. She let it drift in, momentum bringing it to the dock; her hands found ropes and tied the boat loosely, foregoing familiar knots, and left it there to rest or to drift. She walked on the pier and she took the piers onto paved-over soil and she stood there in New York, feeling at home; she glimpsed her building not far away and walked towards it; and if someone had called out to her the name Vera Schiele Obek, she would have paid no attention. The day’s journey was over and the sea’s pull on her faded, ebbed, had never been. 


Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn. His fiction and criticism has recently appeared in The Collagist, Hair Lit, Vol.1, The Fanzine, The Paris Review Daily, Tin House, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter at @TobiasCarroll.

Asymmetrical Kicking by Steve Mentz

OBJECTBaby Doll Leg

BODY OF WATERDead Horse Bay 


baby doll leg.jpg

I knew she’d miss me.

Points of fingers digging slightly,

Varying pressure across my unfeeling thigh,

Holding whatever was around us.

Touch binds emotion to dead things.

It skates along filaments to sinews,

Plastic to skin to salt.

She brought me to the beach, into the surf, out here:

That was her mistake.

 

Beneath the surface flows another world.

Sideways I kick inside it,

Detached,

Solitary.

Lashing out, I move

Asymmetrically.

No longer attached to body or world or girl,

I swim alone.

The salt burns and trickles inside me,

Filling me up.

A dark motion holds me for a long time.

 

Returning is another leaving.

Never stepping twice onto the same sand,

Out of the same salt water, alongside the same

Dead things.

Air feels empty after so much water.

Now when I kick nothing moves.


Steve Mentz is Professor of English at St John's where he teaches Shakespeare, oceanic literature, and literary theory. He's written two scholarly books, including most recently *At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean* (2009), edited two more academic volumes, and also published many articles on literary culture and the maritime environment. His works in progress, performance reviews, and swimming autobiography can be found on his blog, The Bookfish (www.stevementz.com)

Antiseptic Six-Pack: Six Fragments from Dead Horse Bay by Nora Maynard

OBJECTBottles

BODY OF WATERDead Horse Bay


1.

It isn’t really a stop, but when I ask him to, the bus driver’s happy to drop me off just before the bridge, right across from the old airfield.

I follow the dirt path on foot. Dry grasses with dun-colored seed-fringes sway in the wind. Low bushes twist knee-height, laden with red winter berries. Everything here is sparse and tight. Salt-stunted growth. The way is turning to sand. I climb the hill and the sky opens to water.

I walk in thick-soled boots over rock and rubble. Stumble on a red brick, corners worn round like a bar of soap. This is not the kind of place where you want to lose your footing.

An alarm clock lies face down. Its winding knobs bubble with rust. A tangle of old nylons snakes through the bare branches of a fallen tree. Stretch and release, stretch and release while the waves lap. Magpie pieces of glass glitter everywhere. Clear shards. Milk white chunks. Cobalt blue. Amber. Bottles, jars. Lidless, neckless. Medicine, lotion, ink, perfume, soda, beer. Now half-filled with water and slick, green algae.

A word lies half-buried at my feet: LISTERINE. Sand-worn. Sea-tumbled. I dig the bottle out and it emerges like a miracle: unbroken.

I carry it home in my pocket, this dwarf vessel, only large enough to hold a few ounces. Sometime in the 1930s, it was somebody’s single morning swish and spit.

2.

The dentist tells him Only floss the teeth you want to keep. It bleeds when he does, but more when he doesn’t. Use mouthwash too. There are large spaces around that tooth where food likes to stick. Pockets.

He puts the bottle in the bottom of the plastic drugstore cart, below the six-pack of toilet paper and the shrink-wrapped duo of paper towels. Plastic, plastic, plastic. He can remember when Listerine bottles were glass. When they came shrouded in a protective cardboard canister and a veil of crinkly paper. When there were no store-brand look-alikes with labels like Duane Reade and Price Chopper and America’s Choice.

He was still married to his first wife then. He remembers the bathroom of their ramshackle newlywed apartment, how they once made love in that old-fashioned claw tub. She seemed to take delight in every single Victorian detail about that place. Wainscotting. Crown molding. Even the old stovepipe holes filled in sloppily with plaster.

When it ended, he replaced her with another lovely brown-haired girl, and then another. Each new love was a fair approximation of the last.

3.

“No, it’s true,” says Petra, staring at her own face in the medicine cabinet mirror. “If you swallow it all down, you won’t get bad breath for a whole week. And if you do it really fast, it’ll make you drunk too.”

She pinches the childproof cap between the fingers of one hand. Each nail is painted a different color, like jelly beans. With a twist of her wrist, the bottle of pale brown liquid is open, and the room fills with the after-breakfast scent of Jo’s father, the strange, distant one he wears each morning with his stiff, white shirt and creased wool trousers as he bends to kiss her before rushing out the door.

“What else is in here?” says Petra, using the toilet lid as a step stool to scale the vanity, then plopping her denim-clad butt down on the pale blue counter. She slides one of the mirrors to the side and pulls out a bottle of chalky pink liquid and then one crammed full of white tablets. “This one makes you poop and then, if you take too much, this one makes you stop pooping.” She slides the other mirror to the other side and grabs a pink razor and a pair of tweezers. “Girls have to use these after they get their period because they grow mustaches.”

“They do not,” says Jo, laughing in spite of herself.

“It’s true,” says Petra, plucking a silver tube from the middle shelf of the cabinet. She pulls off the top and swivels the bottom until a glistening column of pink rises from it. The same pink Jo’s mother leaves on coffee cups and wine glasses and on the scratchy tissues she uses to wipe Jo’s face when they’re away from home.

Petra leans in close to the mirror and Jo can see the brown curls of her hair bounce with each tiny movement. She tilts her head to one side, and then to the other, before lowering her sandaled feet to the tiled floor.

“So what do you think?” Petra asks, turning to face her with a sly, pink smile that widens into a vivid grin, baring gobs of fuchsia blooming on her teeth.

4.

Her heart is thumping. Pits and palms and groin. Sweat. Sebum. Vaginal fluids. The faintest trace of urine. All mixed together in a teeming, bacterial funk. The scent is rising, dampening her clothes. No. Stop.

She pulls away, releasing herself from the electrical-chemical wonder of his lips, from the magnetic mystery of muscle, skin, and sinew pressing beneath his summer suit. She excuses herself, taking pains to make her voice languorous and light.

In a few moments she’ll be ready for him. Clean.

She pulls the door shut and turns on the faucet, releasing a hushed waterfall of white noise down the porcelain sink. Oh, that she could take a shower now. But that would be a strange request in a stranger’s house. Not that he’s really a stranger after these two and a half days of movies and walks and dinners, but she does not want to get ahead of herself.

Listerine. Thank god. It’s here on the counter. That and a bar of Ivory soap. She slips out of her clothes and perches, one foot lifted to the vanity, the other planted on the tiled floor, careful, oh so careful, not to splash. Better now. So much better. She will not use one of his clean towels. She’ll let evaporation do the work.

And now her breath. Why did she order the souvlaki? She swigs the liquid back, and her mouth surges with a caressing, tingling warmth.

Her ex’s familiar voice rises up around her now, vaporous, as though embodied in and carried by the antiseptic fumes. He has a word for her: halitosis. He says it in his most emphatic, lecturing tone. An obscure medical term revived by pharmaceutical marketers sometime back in the 1920s. Until then, what we now think of as an iconic, brown mouthwash was largely used for the purpose for which it had been first created: a surgical disinfectant. Hard to believe now, but there was a once a time, not so long before, when surgery was performed with dirty hands on dirty flesh with dirty scalpels, when the deadly possibilities of bacteria and other tiny, invisible pathogens were something that not even doctors knew.

Dangers? Invisible pathogens? Is that what he’s shown up in this other man’s bathroom to warn her of? Or is it to politely inform her she now smells like medicine?

She tightens the cap, sealing the specter of her ex back in the bottle. She swishes again and spits everything out.

She slips into her sundress, then steps into her underpants. Completely clean. Bone dry.

5.

“Grenadine. Tangerine. Trampoline.”

“Oh, God,” she says, pressing the button to lower the car window. “I feel like I’m traveling with a toddler.”

“A toddler with a very advanced vocabulary,” he says, keeping both hands perched on the wheel, elbows up, as though performing some showy parody of driving. The green car that has been following behind them these past few miles now shifts abruptly into the passing lane and speeds away.

“Wol-ver-ine,” he whispers, mock-seductively.

She glances at the stream of traffic funneling around them. “Don’t you think we should try to get out from behind this truck?”

“What’s your hurry?” he shrugs. “Quarantine,” he adds, pleased with himself.

“Longfellow’s Evangeline,” she says, trying to make her voice take on a note of authority.

He just shakes his head.

“You’re following too close.” She can hear her own voice rising with irritation. “How can you even see the road?”

“Okay, okay. There. I’m hanging back.”

“Crystalline. Peregrine. Sistine,” she rhymes off. She can’t help it. The words are coming to her now unbidden, speeding, revving, careening through her mind. Tangerine. He already said that one, but it was a song too. If she sang the word, would it count as a something different? “Calamine. Valvoline. Listerine.”

The brakes squeal. Her body jerks forward, her right shoulder, chest and hipbones slamming against the seatbelt, then drops back against her seat. Her skin feels clammy. Her heart’s pounding hot and hard in her ears.

She sees now that the truck is a mere yard away from them, its dusty steel cargo doors rising high over the headlights of their car, like a towering concrete wall.

She turns to him and he turns to look at her.

“No,” he says. “There have to be rules to this. Proprietary names don’t count.”

6.

There is a hush in the operating theatre. The gaslight glints off all the scrubbed surfaces of this freshly disinfected room. It looks much the same as it has these past forty years, but today it seems to have been scoured of all familiarity.

The surgeon’s age-spotted right hand wields a scalpel. Ever the showman, he holds it aloft so that it catches the warm gleam of the lamp’s flame. His left hand longs to nuzzle and burrow into his waistcoat pocket to caress the comforting wooden shape. His fingers grasp reflexively, but find only starched, smooth emptiness. He is no longer wearing a waistcoat, but instead an unfamiliar white coat.

“Nurse,” he intones, sotto voce. “Fetch me my pipe.”

“Doctor,” she whispers. “I cannot,”

The patient lies motionless on the table. A splendidly muscled young man drowsing under ether, a small line like a cipher marked in India ink curling on his upper abdomen.

No one in the crowd says a word, but the old surgeon can now hear nothing but their collected respirations, their small, impatient stirrings. Leather-soled shoes scraping against linoleum. One silk-stockinged leg rubbing against another. Damp wool shifting against varnished oak.

“My pipe,” he pleads. If he could only taste its sweet smoke now, he would surely re-gather his wits.

“New regulations.”

The pretty nurse’s lips are covered today by a white mask, so he cannot fully discern her expression, but it now seems to mock him. When he draws closer to her, a harsh, unyielding scent masks her natural feminine one. It burns his nostrils with the same contemptible, newfangled sterility as the brown solution he is now required to wash his hands in, that the charwoman now cleans the floors and tables with, that the young nurse is just this moment using to stroke the patient’s sleek chest with a bleach-white sponge.

The surgeon’s hand trembles. He stands lost in a vast, brightly lit room.

“Nurse. Please.”

“I’m sorry, Doctor,” she says, her liquid brown eyes defiant. “I cannot.”


Nora Maynard’s recent work has appeared in Salon, the Ploughshares blog, Drunken Boat,Necessary Fiction, and The Millions. She has been awarded fellowships from Ucross, Blue Mountain Center, the Millay Colony, and Ragdale, and is a winner of the Bronx Writers’ Center/Bronx Council of the Arts Chapter One Competition. She is completing her first novel.  Visit: http://www.noramaynard.com/

Smile by Myla Goldberg

OBJECTDentures

BODY OF WATER: Dead Horse Bay


UnderwaterNY_Myla-560x430.jpg

Editors’ note: This story was written for an UNY reading in collaboration with the American Folk Art Museum’s exhibition “COMPASS: Folk Art in Four Directions” at the South Street Seaport Museum. 

“Open.  Open.”

In my dream, a rubber-faced man is rapping at my ribcage like he’s looking for the hollow spot in a plaster wall, like there’s a hidden door somewhere below my sternum waiting to crack open at his knock.  Then I wake up and the voice becomes my uncle’s.  It’s like this every first Saturday, and every time it happens, I always swear that next time I’ll convince Mara to let me sleep over at her house, but four weeks later, Mara and me are either not talking to each other again or I’m not watching the calendar, and it takes my uncle’s voice coming up through the vent to remind me that another month has passed and that me and my mom are still here.

My uncle is a dentist.  Not the kind that people go out of their way to see.  The kind that people go to because he’s in the neighborhood and takes their insurance.  There’s nothing technically wrong with him.  His breath doesn’t stink, and he’s not rough.  He’ll give you gas if you ask for it, and if you need Novacaine he always waits, tapping your gums until they’re all numbed up.  But I know that I wouldn’t go to see him if he wasn’t my uncle.  When he tells me to open, when he scrapes at my teeth, even when he raises up the chair so I can spit, his–I don’t know–enjoyment of it all rises off of him like the smell of something left out to rot.  It’s different from the way a normal dentist might like fixing something that’s broken, or helping someone to not be in pain.  The whole time I’m sitting in that chair, my uncle is smirking at me with his own perfect teeth, and it’s impossible not to feel like there’s some hungry part of him, deep inside, feeding off the fact that I have to be sitting there at all.

When it’s just me and my Mom in front room, sometimes I’ll turn the television up so he can’t hear us through his bedroom door.  “Not much longer,” my Mom will promise, and I know she means it.  She’s been working double-shifts for the past six months and we could move out right now if we wanted to stick around here, but Mom wants to make a new start in a new neighborhood, and that is fine with me.  Mara has started wearing acrylic nails that have a little silhouette of that trucker girl on them, like each of her fingernails wishes it was a mudflap on a semi, and I’m getting pretty tired of watching her shoplift tubes of Special FX Hot Tamale from the lipstick display at Imperial Drugs.  When we were little, me and Mara used to pretend we were horses with wings.  We’d practice flying by jumping between her father’s recliner and the orange bean bag chair, moving the bean bag a little further away each time and swearing that as soon as we really figured out how to do it we’d take off for China or California or her Aunt Sheri’s house, depending on how ambitious we were feeling.  I gave up on that before she did, so I suppose it’s only fair that she’s stopped hanging around the art room with me after school in order to hang around the gym while basketball team does four-on-three fastbreak drills, looking like she’d be more interested in something one-on-one.

I know I should feel grateful.  When Mom had to leave Larry in a hurry, things would have been a lot worse if my uncle hadn’t let us stay with him, but it didn’t take long for me to figure out he wasn’t doing it out of kindness.  I never met my grandfather, but I know that even while he helped my Mom with her acting classes, he wouldn’t give my uncle a cent for college and told everyone he knew that his son was a chump for not following him into a union job.

Before we moved in, I only saw my uncle for a check-up twice a year and once at Christmas.He would always tell me and my Mom what terrible teeth I had, how without a dentist in the family my mouth would have bankrupted my Mom by the time I was 10.  Whenever he said this, his upper lip would tighten, and the whole thing would raise up like he was Cujo.  It took me a long time to realize that was the way he smiled.  He must have trained himself to do it.  It’s like he’s raising a curtain on his whole upper jaw. His face is kind of small and his eyes are beady and too close together, but his teeth could belong to a movie star.

My Mom says she loves him and I believe her.  When my Mom and my uncle stand side by side, no one would guess that they’re related and I think that’s part of it.  The summer after she graduated from high school, my Mom got scouted when she was shopping with some girlfriends and after that she was in a few magazine ads and got some work as an extra on “All My Children.”  For the past six months, I’ve been helping her to do all the cooking and cleaning, and my uncle watches us like its primetime TV.  Between that and my Mom’s double-shifts, she’s pretty tired by the end of the day, which means that on most Friday nights it’s just me sitting alone on my uncle’s animal-print couch, watching The Wild Record Collection on public access.

Mara’s taste in fingernails may be seriously questionable, but I am forever grateful to her for introducing me to this show.  It’s hard for me to explain why I love it so much.  It’s basically two guys making stuffed animals dance to old records on their crappy couch.  One of them is almost always holding a small stuffed polar bear, and the other is usually holding a bird, and they just bounce them up and down on the couch cushions in time to the music, with the record album leaning against the sofa back behind them.  I’ve seen it stoned with Mara, which is her favorite way to watch it, but I like it best when all I am is tired.  Something about that show makes me feel like I’m little again and lying beside my Mom on her bed while she tells me a bedtime story.  I think if those dancing animals were on every night instead of once a week, I wouldn’t spend so much time worrying about the future.

It was a song from a Beach Boys album called Smile that made me think of it.  All of the sudden, I pictured my uncle’s face in my head and I knew.  I didn’t even wait for the bear and the bird to stop dancing.  I got right up and went over to my uncle’s bedroom door.  In the same way that my uncle leaves his dishes on the table and his empty potato chip bags on the sofa and his underwear on the floor of the bathroom for us to clean up, he never bothers to lock.  “Open,” I said really soft as I turned the knob.  I walked in a few steps and then waited for my eyes to adjust to the dark, until I could see him in his bed, off in slumberland.  When I moved closer, I understood how he felt, lording it over all those patients lying in his chair.  There was a water glass on his bedside table, and there were those perfect teeth of his, floating inside like a piece of something that had been pickled and dissected for third period biology.

I didn’t mind the sound of my footsteps on the floorboards as I made my way over.  I think part of me wanted him to wake up so I could see the look on his face.  But he kept on snoring, even when I took the glass in my hand and jiggled it so that those perfect movie star teeth of his rattled against the sides.  Without his teeth, his mouth was this sunk-in thing, like his face was collapsing in slow motion.  Without his teeth, I could picture the kid he must have been, with that small face of his and those ugly eyes too close together, and for a minute I considered putting the glass back on the table.  But that feeling didn’t last long.

PHOTO CREDITS

-Dentures, Dead Horse Bay, Nicole Haroutunian.

-Tooth Trade Sign, Artist unidentified, Probably New England, c. 1850–1880. Paint on wood with metal. 26 x 12 1/4 x 11 1/4 in. American Folk Art Museum, gift of Kristina Barbara Johnson, 1983.8.1

-Pair of Scrimshaw Teeth: Children Watching Sailboats on Pond and Family Generations Artist unidentified Nantucket, Massachusetts
1840–1860 Sperm whale teeth Children: 5 5/8 x 2 1/4 x 1 1/2 in. Family: 5 1/2 x 2 3/16 x 1 1/2 in. Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York

 


Myla Goldberg is the author of the bestselling first novel, Bee Season, which was a New York Times Notable Book for 2000, winner of the Borders New Voices Prize, and a finalist for the Hemingway Foundation/PEN award, the NYPL Young Lions award, and the Barnes & Noble Discover award. It has been adapted to film and widely translated. Her second novel Wickett’s Remedy grew out of her fascination with the 1918 influenza epidemic. Her third novel, The False Friend, concerns a woman trying to untangle a 20-year-old memory and explores the complexities of moral judgment, the fallibility of memory, and the adults that children become. Myla’s short stories have appeared in Harpers and Failbetter, among other places. Her book reviews have appeared in the New York Times and Bookforum. In addition to her novels, she has written an essay collection and a children’s book. She sings and plays accordion and banjo in the Brooklyn art-punk band, The Walking Hellos. She writes and teaches in Brooklyn, where she lives with her husband and their two daughters.