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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.

PURPOSE (or, the Great Subway Leviathan of 1904) by Jeff Tang

OBJECT: Subway Cars

BODY OF WATER: East River 


Such Strange Gravity, illustration by  Tomoyo Hirioshi

Such Strange Gravity, illustration by Tomoyo Hirioshi

SUCH STRANGE GRAVITY by Jeff Tang at National Sawdust

Get your tickets now for Jeff Tang's SUCH STRANGE GRAVITY, featuring PURPOSE, OR THE GREAT LEVIATHAN OF 1904

Use the promo code UNY and we will give you a free broadside featuring original artwork and poetry.

Saturday, August 11, 8:00 pm

Tickets ($15) here.  

Such Strange Gravity: Songs of Gotham” is a theatrical song-cycle that explores and deconstructs the mythology of home via the narrative of a “hidden” historical anthropology of New York City that spans from the first European contact with the Lenape tribe to the near future. Composer Jeff Tang has worked with a variety of lyricists, playwrights, and poets to interrogate how the identity of a city is created and evolves, the question of whose stories and histories persist or are expunged, and how the process of naming and renaming affects the dominant cultural memory. 

Making a necessary inquisition in today’s climate, Tang’s collaborators map to the multitudes of voices and issues of our city. Rigorously researched and inspired by factual events, the project uses some as jumping-off points to create new mythologies. Stories include the “sandhogs” who built the subway system, the spectacular 1911 fire that destroyed Coney Island’s Dreamland amusement park, the demise of the Collect Pond, once the primary life-source for generations of the island’s inhabitants, and more. Narratives both large and small from across time will form a mosaic of our great metropolis.

 

PURPOSE, OR THE GREAT SUBWAY LEVIATHAN OF 1904

Photo by Jeff Tang

Photo by Jeff Tang

 

From the New York Times, Sep 29, 1895: "Phillip N. Jackson, Vice President of the Newark Electric Light and Power Company, confirms the story told by Willard P. Shaw of 41 Wall Street, New York, last week, of the appearance of a sea serpent last Sunday off the shore at Spring Lake [New Jersey]. Mr. Jackson says he saw the monster with his naked eye a half mile from shore, and also had a view of it when two miles away, through Mr. Shaw's marine glasses. He says it was traveling through the water at a great rate of speed, and was about 100 feet long. A number of folds in his body were plainly seen as they rose and fell. At times the monster raised his body ten feet in the air, and it then presented a terrible sight. Mr. Jackson says that, so far as he is concerned, he has no doubt that the object he saw was a genuine sea serpent."

MAN
There once was a man in the ground        (CHORUS: Hmm…)
Some say he's wandering
Some say he drowned                                (CHORUS: Hmm…)
He grew up a sailor
On a Sag Harbor whaler
For forty long months her barrels sat dry
For the sea was fished bare
As the cold winter sky

He hitched from the coast into town        (CHORUS: Hmm…)
To help build the railroads that ran underground
He dug with the others
w/SANDHOGS
Called sandhogs, these brothers
At night each would dream what his purpose should be
MAN
But the man when he dreamed
Only dreamed of the sea
How the crew would sing

CHORUS/CREW
Hey ho
This sea is my home
A four-letter word that I learned to let go of
Hey ho hey ho

MAN
All aboard they sing
w/CHORUS
Hey ho
It's this ocean I love
The endless below and the boundless above, so
Hey ho
Hey ho

===

FOREMAN
The foreman that day, he was nervous and mad
Not enough track
Not enough rail could be laid in the time that they had
in that hey hey hole
SANDHOGS
Blasting a tunnel from asphalt to hell
Not enough air
Not enough pay in the world to be huddled down there
In that hey hey hole
All the sandhogs sing
Hey ho, this hole is my home / They sing
A four-letter word that I learned to unknow / so
Hey ho hey ho
MAN
All day long they sing
w/SANDHOGS
Hey ho
it's this mud that I know
The almighty above and the devil below, so
Hey ho hey ho

===

SANDHOG 1
Well he'd heard in the tunnels a terrible tale
A man fell thirty feet when they blew through a rail
And the sight of his fall
w/SANDHOG 2
And the sound of his wailing
Would haunt all the men in their dreams
SANDHOG 3
And yet he survived and called out
w/SANDHOG 1
Through the black
SANDHOG 3
So they lowered a lantern then watched
ALL 3      
As the water he'd landed in foamed
Then churned, then attacked!
And the memory's drowned out by the screams

SANDHOG 1
But the ones who were there
They gathered to swear
They'd never admit what they'd seen
SANDHOG 2
Yet whispers were heard
SANDHOG 3
They were twisted, absurd
ALL 3
For man is, by nature, a greedy machine
When they dug out the tunnels too quick and too deep
They awakened a thing that they should have let sleep

===

(IRT Ribbon cutting ceremony, October 27, 1904)
CITY SPEAKER
Ladies and gentlemen - the Mayor of New York City!
MAYOR MCLELLAN
I give to you the Interborough Rapid Transit railroad! 

(spot light up on SANDHOG GHOSTS)

Well they lost two more men by the end of the year
     (Hey ho hey ho) 
(MAYOR MCLELLAN: "City Hall to Harlem in 15 minutes!")
Then they lost twenty more when they quit out of fear
     (SANDHOG GHOSTS: Hey ho hey ho)
(MAYOR MCLELLAN: "The fastest and safest in the world!")
The mayor needed this monster -- he needed it dead
MAYOR MCLELLAN: "Put an end to it."

Is all that he said

====

(Months later, a subway car is sitting stalled in the station. It’s hot. PASSENGERS are agitated and waiting to leave. A busker enters the car. PASSENGERS groan…)

BUSKER
There once was a man in the muck
Some call it Providence
Some say it's luck
For only one sandhog at work in the biz
Had the right set of skills as specific as his
And the point of his resume
Was to chase that goddamn whale!

(The traincar revs and the lights flicker; MAN: "Stand clear of the closing doors!" The train is propelled into darkness. The passengers sing and sway rhythmically as the lights flicker on and off like a haunted carnival ride.)

CHORUS
Those so obsessed
They are blessed with a higher calling
PASSENGERS
I have a purpose - I just have to find it!
CHORUS
Find one or Gotham will swallow you whole!
ALL
Hey hey ho
CHORUS
Purpose will keep you alive…
MAN
---There she blows!
ALL
Hey hey ho

All aboard they sing
Hey ho, this city's my home now
A four-letter word
That I learned to outgrow
Hey ho hey ho

All aboard they sing
Hey ho, this rock is my high
We plant our dreams in the dirt
Pray to steel in the sky
Hey ho hey ho

(The train bursts through a wall and lands in the East River. Water floods the car and PASSENGERS scream. The lights flicker and die. BLACKOUT.)

====

MAN
There once was a train in the deep
Some say they searched
But rescue’s not cheap
So a small superstition persists to this day
When approaching a bridge your conductor might say
"There's traffic ahead and a minor delay."

And even the skeptics they don't make a sound
Just a nod to those lost on this merry-go-round
And the one who discovered his purpose
Deep underground

 


JEFF TANG is a Brooklyn-based music theatre composer and arts + culture producer whose work has been seen in New York, Chicago, London, Minneapolis, and La Jolla. Commissions include NYC's Leviathan Lab, the NYU Write/Act Festival, Music Institute of Chicago, Theatre Latte Da in Minneapolis, and St. Anne's School in Brooklyn. He is at work on a song cycle on the hidden history of New York City with a variety of lyricists, playwrights, and poets. He spends his days as a producer on the Metropolitan Opera's Media & Presentations team, and many evenings co-curating and producing National Sawdust+, a new performance and conversation series in Williamsburg. MFA, NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Writing. Find him at www.jefftang.com

“Some Words...” by Sarah Passino

BODY OF WATER: East River


excerpts from “Some Words From 40-Some Days Before the Eclipse Translating Lorca’s Danza de la Muerte By Writing It In Rice Flour Around 40 Wall Street Like A Crab Or Like a Whale But For Sure For the Ants & For Sure For a Sum of the _Waste_”


 

//

thirteenth day

a loom
a rag
a rug

the sky
a skydyed
blue theres

always a ticket
says the man
taking tickets

 

 

 

//

eighteenth day

today it is 92 degrees
the long line for the rockaways
a woman says the city

takes seats from trains
to put on these boats & i know it
i know accountants back in my office

in the middle of america i had
a picture of the formula for capital
tacked up on the wall next to the

lightswitch & all day i drew data
maps on the walls in felt tip
of sons of mechanics

sons of farmers sons of army
down long low certificate
hallways past zinnia past red

mulch to gap factory back
the school & up to cricket front
circle circuit on the bottom

of each map i wrote what everyone
says who knows capitals not capital
in your pocket
so map so fable

so see it move from my window i
think the green lawn would look so
nice if we let grass grow long brown

 

 

 

//

nineteenth day

heat & no shade & no trees
& the street looks upside down
women wear floral shirts

a man hands me a one dollar bill
& both my shoes have holes in the sole
overdressed on south street

underdressed by front i walk up
the eight blocks south to front to water
to pearl to hanover to william to broad

to new to broadway to trinity trinity
is a church like a church is a king
soot refers to soot this town

was built wait slaves built this town
trinity owns this town & any whale
that washes up to 14th street but 14th

street keeps washing up slaves
built this street just below the land
of the blacks untribed by wall

or wolf free but for the wall
& the wolf i look at my uncles
cherokee feather want to ask

do we have some black blood do
we have indian blood but i know
the answer get home google 

sandals then womens cutest
sandals then cutest sexiest
sandals summer 17
& fall asleep

 

 

 

//

twentieth day

i wake up in the middle of the night
& look out & see B working still
on the couch say sorry I thought  

your foot was a goose & fall
back asleep which i don’t remember
til he tells me in the morning

laughing on his way in the shower
i fry eggs crack rind watermelon write

ants see ants/ whale sea whale/ ants see whale

on scraps of paper & read it to him
through the bathroom door he trades
one year for 150000 dollars & i stay

making breakfast read him scraps
of poems & tonight i walk from wall
street to the hudson where a poet 

tells me the constraint is where
the ecstatic come from
& i remember
J telling me about that poem thats just

a list of names z is a rich poet y is a rich poet x
is a rich poet
& at home livings the constraint
but here           maybe i just cant see them yet

a german poet tells me writing in english
is her constraint and i wonder where she
got her earrings & if i wrote in other

languages would i be able to write about
more beautiful things battery park is full up of
fireflies & men with clipboards looking up

from artillery to tops of buildings scraping
that sky tonight that all look like jewel boxes &
the breeze is so nice & i can see from one scale

to the other from here remember the night
at home fireflies synchronize their firefly
lights & how big all of us get how limitless

for a flash & at rest & loose & solvent

 

 

 

//

twenty-fourth day

the water is rough
& mystics is just another
way to say famous

what did lorca know about
a man turned to thing of waste
A blasts out from blackallacia

yo this is what it looks like wipipo
when you throw your people away

& in brooklyn ten of us on a roof

worth all together in dollars
a hundred million dollars
& drinking smokey mezcal

one as a boy watched a french painter
paint his silk walls & who would not know
that now he decides things with money

one makes 40000 in dollars for one night
to take one picture to post so far my lorca

The pepper trees up and died
taking their light-lit little berries
Camels, flesh-lashed, left too
and the cob swan lifts the white sky in his beak

It was a time for brittle things
the firefox-scratched eye, the laminated cat
the decayed iron of the great bridges
and the perfect silence because cork

in white ink unless this is printed on black
paper then it is my Lorca in black & since
it cant come through i can say it plain

the water is rough today theres no away
away today all the jokes are in red
& of course in due course all comes back

 


Sarah Passino is a Nashville poet living in Brooklyn. Recently, her work has appeared in Broome Street Review, Poetry Daily, and The Hopkins Review and was awarded the Rachel Wetzsteon Poetry Prize for the 92nd Street Y. She writes occasional Tiny Letters about writing days, bread committees, and what love looks like in public. She has worked as a professor, an organizer, and currently works as an editor. She is on instagram @Small Takes.

 

 

 

The Rescue by Asya Graf

The man took off his white t-shirt, then removed what looked like a gold chain from around his neck. Balancing on one leg, then the other, he pulled off his white sneakers and lined them up on the wooden boardwalk. Lastly, he laid aside his cell phone, on which he had just been talking, vaulted over the railing, and jumped. We heard the thud of his body hitting the water and the shouts that followed. No one looked prepared to jump in, but everyone had their phones out, ready to call 911. If the police had cared to ask, I would’ve said he was in his thirties, black, thin and wiry, and here the semi-certainties would have ended.

We had been sitting on the strip of grass running down the middle of Christopher Street Pier. The sun was descending onto the rooftops of Jersey City, spilling a russet patina over our faces and the sheen on the water. A woman was lying near us face down on her towel, her bikini top untied. A pair of teenage girls sprawled on their backs, schoolbags serving as pillows, absorbed in their phones. A sunset tango class was in session at the end of the pier, and we could hear fragments of music, the poignant plaint of violin and bandoneon. Even though we had noticed the man’s careful undressing some way down the pier, neither of us thought to interrupt the halfhearted argument we were having until several beats after the jump. The man’s methodical actions had seemed scripted and distant, right down to the moment when he slipped beyond the railing, as though we’d seen it already, on Law & Order perhaps.

“He jumped,” you said and squinted into the light reflected off the water. You were still holding my hand but you let go absentmindedly, and at a really bad time, I thought.

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Formica Dinette by Taylor Bond

OBJECT: Formica Dinette

BODY OF WATER: East River


Grandpa taught me how to fish between Fourteenth and Broadway

salt-split line cast towards cement seas, sun-licked, froth spun

tide breaking upon the backs of the sleepless city.

 

The tips of the Empire State Building scraped

the soles of my feet as I swam in the Atlantic

metal spilling salt to the Sound, gliding

above Bowery and boroughs alike.

 

High tide snuck beneath the subway,

lifted it whole off the tracks,

careened it through currents like a toy train

tugged by kelp and seaweed.

 

“Wait to see what bites,” he said,

luring pelagic people

with dreams and nets of steel

and I could see

this was a city of air

above water, roots drilled deep

 

I became a disciple like him

devout to green and blue passages

and the ocean of New York City.

 

We watched as the water became a home

to upright dining chairs and dinner plates

life set to be lived on the rivers of 16th street,

and still we fished.

 


Taylor Bond is a 2014-2015 Lannan Fellow, a writer for FireBack Records, and a freelance photographer. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Anthem, Spilled Ink, Behind The Counter, Wimapog, and The Camel Saloon. Her latest focus is combining digital media with poetry to enhance the narrative experience. 


Crack and Break and Heal by Nicki Pombier Berger

OBJECT : South Street Seaport Museum

BODY OF WATER : East River


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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. She was inspired by the history of the Museum’s building and, among others, the works of art “Cane with Female Leg Handle” and “Noah’s Ark.”


 

1848

Of all us hotel souls, burdened and bound to the Parkers by birth or debt or a blindered need of work, you’re the one the world will fail. Like the headlines you hawked before you landed here – two cents a week, two weeks two weeks too many you said – chance and place will collude to kill you:

LABORER CRUSHED TO DEATH BENEATH BOULDER

CHILD DEAD FROM TEAKETTLE SCALDS

EXPLOSION OF A STEAM BOILER ON TWO-TON TUG

I hear the newsboys on Fulton each morning; the headlines are hungry, the teapots have teeth, the earth lifts its shoulders and kills with a shrug, and even the boats explode, fire eats its fill of the crew and leaves their ash to dirty the water that wouldn’t save them.

I would save you, my fool, from the sea.

*

I once broke my needle, split in the unforgiving sole of Mr. Parker’s boot, whose heel my knuckles know by heart. You stole a great bone from the hotel kitchen and shaved of it a fistful of needles thin as hair, strong as teeth. I suck the needles now, before I lick the thread to get it through.

Only you see my hands where the crushed bones heal and break, heal and break.

I don’t know what Mr. Parker does to loose his boot sole so. It’s there each week, slick with fish and stinking in my piles of mending, the tenants’ breeches and sheets torn or stained. Lemons for rust, butter for tar, boiled milk for wine, salt for coffee and for blood.

You sharpen your knife nightly with a piece of coral stolen from a sailor, a treasure from unreal words: Bora Bora, California. One day I’ll go, you say. Stay, I think. The coral pink as a tongue. A prick of blood the time I licked it.

*

A girl is staying here, her hair a weave of braids tighter than my stitches. She sits beside the window, taps it absently with her paintbrush, in the dirtied light grey as a corpse.

How can you stand it, she says, this endless day.

I move my broom, embarrassed by her insolence.

You, she says, are you dumb?

I’ve never been seen, am saved from speaking as her mother walks in. The girl becomes an angel, her face softened to an attitude of sadness, her hair like two hands folded.

I’m nearly done with the border, she says, see the boughs?

You have your father’s hands, the mother says, and runs a finger along some line I can’t see.The ship should be leaving, my dear, not coming.

It’s her, the angel cries, staring at me, I can’t think.

Crack and break and break and heal. A Captain’s widowyou stupid girl. I taste the fish of his boots on my knuckles.

And still I can’t stay away. I cup my ear to her door, to the silence of her painting, while her mother attends to the family affairs. Rosetta from the kitchen kicks me, shaking the tray of tea she’s brought, smacks me on her way out.

Later in the kitchen, we’ll sit by the stove and she’ll hold me in her lap and stroke my cheek with the cool hump of a spoon, she’ll tell me how the captain died, shipwrecked and starved until he ate his own flesh, finger by finger, down to the bone.


*

I find you, my fool, hunched over and fighting yourself where we all sleep. The pale daytime dark shifts with your short, hard breaths. Your teeth gleam and vanish, gleam and vanish. You look hungry, your face a rumpled sheet. I know your hungry face, the one you swallow to save the Parkers satisfaction from your pain.

How much hungrier you’ll be shipwrecked, my fool. I came to tell you. Get out girl, you shout, and tip onto your cot like the ship I know will fail you, sucking in the air the sea won’t share, calling Jesus Lord!

I know He’ll fail you, too. Fear closes my throat like a fist. Is this what it will feel like, sinking? On the cot, your back to me, your ribs lift and fall, lift and fall like the gills of fresh caught fish.

*

I know the world will fail you because it unfailingly holds you up, using up your store of luck on foolish foolishness. I want to shout it at you like a newsboy, Foolish Fool Wastes Luck on Foolishness!

There you are, walking down Fulton just out of reach of a workhorse straining at its bit, teeth the size of mallets that would crush you to the bone, and you laughing, skipping beside its blinders, flicking it with filched pepper until the fishmonger’s whip nearly snaps you.

There you are, standing just behind Mrs. Parker, fingertips in two pitted cherries, the red-black bulbs held up like a bust and my lips risking insolence, quivering back a laugh.

There you are, at The Bridge Cafe, an ear for some sailor, his back curved like a question over the dark shine of the bar, gripping his drink like an answer, yarning the night away, so far lost in the seas of his mind that he doesn’t see you’re the one tapping the street stones home with his scrimshaw cane.

You show it to me the next day – a backbent leg, smooth as a banister, dirty white as cream, the toes neat like nice teeth. You spin and slam it to the stone, you cock your elbow and feign fancy, give me your gentleman’s smile.

Needles from bone are nothing to what I’ll send you from the seas.

I pinch its thin ankle, want to snap it off. A whole lady, you say, running your thumb up and over the bend in the leg, slow so I blush and turn away. You laugh, and flaunt and vanish the cane the whole month of the sailor’s stay.

There you are atop the tumbler, one slip away from death. Come, you say, come see this.Shush, I plead, your unwhispered voice like a drape whipped open, like the sudden sun.

You sneak me from my corner, wrap me in your jacket and tuck up my braids under the hat I’m mending. The hat rank with unfamiliar sweat and the overripe fruit of an Argentine balm the sailors who live to tell say blocks the hungry sun. The balm and the danger, your calm, my sour milk coward’s stomach, the thrill rising in silence up my throat – is this what it would be like at sea, you and me? We sneak up the staggered servers’ staircase to the top floor, and then there you are in the dim heights where the Polacks crank the tumbler endlessly to shake each coffee bean from burlap sacks as big as beds.

For a moment we watch them from the dark of the stairwell, each bag smothering their chests and heads, entangling their thighs, as they sigh and lift each like a fainted woman, boneless and deadweight, up, up and over, into the giant wheel.

You step out and greet them and I cling to the shadows, watching as you reach and grab the wooden lattice and then, no, climbing as they start to crank, no, climbing, no, against the wheel, you and the Polacks laughing, the wheel spinning faster now and you at the distant ceiling, leaping from beam to beam as the wheel spins and the wood moans like the dying and the bags within shush shush like the sea, the hidden beans clatter to waiting trays in pops like Rosetta’s fry oil, and I’m laughing too, and crying at your grace, your long legs the legs of a horse, swift and unthinking or no, the grace of a sail that needs only speed to start and never stop, whose need is only and always to fill and fill, or no: finally, you’re a fool, and I’m not crying, I’m clawing with a bone needle at the soft brick. If I knew my letters I’d write it clear: Fool. Fool. Fool.

You steal from the Polacks, too, whole fistfuls of beans you roll over your tongue and crush with your teeth while you work. You smell like morning all day long.

There you are in the hotel parlor after the Parkers’ anniversary party, alone now in the room where all night we’d been locked in battle against the seaport elite, whose grip on the Parkers’ good glassware loosened as the night went on until the parlor looked bucked by the sea.

We were there to right things, to steady the china shivering in Colonel Hofsteader’s hand, palsied with brandy. To save from dripping the enormous candlestick Mr. Parker lifted and held with both hands beneath his belt, a roar like fire filling the room in one breath, and you there to smile along, to kneel before him and cup your hand beneath the candle, to catch the burning wax, to return it to its place among the ravaged platters of lamb.

We were there to offer our anonymous bodies to the midnight needs of their blinded hands, the round of Rosetta’s shoulder which my cheek knows by heart now home for someone else’s, the Irish girls brought in for the night locking eyes with one another while their milk white, freckled necks stiffen to the reaching fingers of the Parkers’ guests.

I sink into a corner and watch the Captain’s Widow want you, watch you know this and grow bold, watch you lift your fox face just so, so your trim nose and lean arms and neat black brows all seem to point to her, no matter where in the room you are.

I see her see only you, see her slide up beside you and lift from the table an empty oyster shell, see her point it at you like a tongue. You dip it in her brandy, feed her the little sip. Her lips open in a laugh I can’t hear over the riotous piano, the stomping feet of those still able to stand and dance.

And now all are gone but me unseen in my corner and you, unknowing fool. There you are, holding a dying candle beneath Mrs. Parker’s tin bonnet, an anniversary gift, a whole wardrobe of these intricate tin jokes lined up along the mantle, stiff as the dead.

You hold the bonnet head-high, the weak wick of candlelight bloomed to flame within the cave of polished tin. You sway to the music still ghosting the air, the same music I hear as real in my head as the face you must see in that empty bonnet.

You’re hearing the same music, I know because you dance in time to it, and it’s my face you see, I know this, too, it must be, and I nearly emerge from the corner but you spit on your finger, extinguish the flame with a hiss, replace the bonnet on the mantle.

You walk past me to the window, unknowing, and as you pull back the drape to let the dawn seep in, I see her broach pinned to your sleeve at the wrist. It bears her dead husband’s crest, the vessel that wrecked him, a small brass serpent wound up its mast. I’ve seen it in the girl’s painting, studied it while I dust. I know it means I’ve lost you.

It will vanish into the vault so hidden even I, your constant watcher, don’t know where you keep it. With your coral and your scrimshaw and your pennies, with your knife and your schemes, with your notion of leaving for the sea. Don’t you know you’ll need the one thing you fail to stow away – luck, wasted here on steady ground, you foolish unsuspected thief?

*

The girl and the Captain’s Widow stay on.

You’ve joined me in the listening, only you get through her door easy as a ghost, and then it’s you I’m hearing. In the morning you’ve brought her Turkish coffee, dirt thick in the Turks’ tulip glasses. Come noon it’s cucumbers, peeled how I like them and cut to glistening blooms. Later you ask me for a fistful of elderberries to take her. I’m in the kitchen washing up. I whip you with my wet rag and you catch my wrist and pull me to the stove, hold my hand above the rattling kettle until it starts to scream. Rosetta comes in and shrieks, you drop my hand and leave.

Rosetta pulls a spoon from the icebox and I hold it, thinking of the meadow you snuck me to last summer, as far north as I’ve gone, where the roads all think better of it and only Broadway goes on, up to the edge I’ve heard newsboys shout about, bears and falling boulders, some lunatic wants to make it a park.

It was thick August, the Parkers took to the sea, Rosetta was limp with fever and you took your time with our costumes, Mr. Parker’s hunting jacket, his spatterdashes hiding your bare shins. For me a lady’s shawl, left by some guest the winter past, too thick for the season but I won’t touch Mrs. Parker’s things, not for anything. A pair of gloves from the Irish girls, who give you anything you ask. The gloves to hide my bulging knuckles, hands no lady would ever have.

You sifted flour into your palm and with a feather from my duster brushed my face. Hold still,you said, your voice sterner than I’d heard you but I couldn’t help laughing, you looked so studied, your head tilted, a tip of tongue pulling back your lower lip, looking hard at my chin, my cheekbones, my point of pride, my thin lady nose.

I felt unseen, as when we’re at a window, when you’re looking at the river and seeing the sea.

You plucked a black berry from the boughs Rosetta keeps in a vase and crushed it, your fingertip bright with its blood. Like this, you said, kissing the air. It’s poison, I said, Rosetta says! Your finger shushed me, brushed my lips. Just don’t lick, you said. There. A lady. All day my lips dry as scones.

We walked west to where we wouldn’t be known, you hailed a coach and held my hand and I held my skirt and climbed in, just as I’ve seen them do a thousand times and more. To rattle and bounce aloft in the coach – is this what it feels like at sea? No grip on the ground, I held hard to the bench and tried to like it.

When we got there the air smelled nothing of the water, no whiff of fish or clam, no boat rope or balm and we couldn’t even see the river, I didn’t know up from down. The light spread thick as honey, soaked up by the brush and branches of the towering trees, not skittered and scattered, resisted by the river.  You spread out a borrowed quilt, one I’d bent over mending. I found a seam of my stitches and sat on it so not to see. We passed the day, me sitting prim and you like a puppy, up and down and sniffing about, laughing and jabbering and still and quiet for long moments, laying on your back and dreaming aloud of where you’ll go.

The light grew long and I didn’t know how we’d get home. You wandered off and came back with a fistful of elderberries, knelt down beside me, dead serious. You lifted my wrist with two fingers, undid the tiny buttons of my glove and pulled it off finger by finger, pinched my sleeve and pushed it up, up to my elbow, twisted my wrist to bare my forearm. Wait, you said, and pulled from your pocket a tin case blazoned with initials that couldn’t be yours, and from within it a long, curved needle, one I thought I’d lost.

Crack and break and break and heal. I wanted to smack you, whack you with my ugly knuckles.

You pulped the berries in your palm, you soaked the needle tip, you told me I’m true north for you, wherever you go you’ll return to me. You wanted to write your name there, in the plain of my arm, so I’d always know. You pricked my skin and nothing showed, you tried and tried, you said the sailors, whose tattooed bodies look blue with disease, told you this would work, and this, your first failure, is when I began the road to losing you. The Captain’s Widow is just the last stop.

What you bring her elderberries for I don’t know, but later as I’m dusting I see – their dried pulp in an oyster shell, the girl’s fine tipped paintbrush nearby, and laced on the waves of the girl’s painted sea, so small someone less studied in this painting would never see – the string of letters I know must be your name.

*

Even the Parkers see you’ve changed. All fall while the Widow lingers and her daughter pouts, your plot grows so clear it becomes ordinary, and before Christmas you’ve grown a beard and shed your servant’s brogue, you scold the girl behind the door with knowing, fatherly tones, you eat with them in the Widow’s room because while the Parkers won’t abide you at the guests table, neither will they deny a Captain’s Widow what she will. Only a fool mourns the living, Rosetta says over supper. Foolish Fool Mourns the Living. I pick at the bones in my stew.

Next day the new footman’s doing what just a month ago you would: packing up valises, filling up a coach. Pennsylvania, you say. The family estate. I’m stirring the fireplace coals, and you walk to the window, pull back the drape. A bright line of winter light slices the reddened daytime dark of the parlor. Pennsylvania Dutch.

You tap at the window, squint and scratch with a thumbnail at a warp in the glass, then clasp your hands behind you. I stand and wipe the coal off my hands, for one last time I slide up beside you, lean past you to look out. The winter shipyard looks like a painting, a line of steam puffing from a lone tug, the dockhands crisp little pictures of busy men, frozen in a moment’s work. The white sky, a bleak sun, Brooklyn the pale horizon and the river bleeding blue.

What time do you sail? It’s the first we’ve spoken since the kettle.

You laugh in your booming new fatherly laugh. You really know nothing. Pennsylvania? It’s west.

Near California? 

You begin that false laugh again but stop yourself, turn and look at me. For a moment I see the boy I knew, and then you let the drape fall and straighten your gentleman’s jacket, give each cuff a yank. California’s not a real place, you say, and I know as you turn away you think I believe it.    

I watch from the window as you and your Widow watch the footman work. I’m not mourning the living. You’re already dead.

*

Come spring the newsboys are screaming, and dumb souls by the thousands stream into the seaport, flood us with their greed and dreams.

There’s Gold in Them Thar Hills, they say.

One day I’m walking down Fulton, bustled and knocked, the fish I’ve got for Rosetta fresh dead and still rank with the sea. Some drunk pitches into me and I grip the hotel wall for purchase.


I see it then, a brick greened with brine and loose like a rotten tooth in its socket. I pry it out and there’s your store of treasures – the scrimshaw cane top, the Widow’s broach. A few pennies you stopped needing, the coral pink as a tongue. A thick kitchen bone I’ve never seen, half shaved into a flower.  I take the lot and throw all but the pennies in the river. Those I cup and shake like dice. I’ve saved my luck. I’ll shave off my braids, flatten my chest, make my way aboard like the rest. You missed your chance. I think I’ll take it.

 

PHOTO CREDITS:

-Noah’s Ark Artist unidentified Probably England 1790–1814 Bone and wood with iron, pigment, paper, and nails 8 1/2 x 14 x 9 1/4″ Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York Gift of Jane, Steven and Eric Lang and Jacqueline Loewe Fowler in memory of Robert Lang, 1999.14.1 Photo by John Parnell, New York

-Mourning Piece for Captain Matthew Prior and His Son Barker Prior Attributed to Jane Otis Prior (1803–?) Bath or Portland, Maine c. 1815–1822
Watercolor on silk 17 1/2 x 21 1/4 x 1 1/2″ Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York Museum purchase, 1992.25.1 Photo by John Parnell, New York

-Cane with Female Leg Handle and Cane with Female Leg and Dark Boot Handle, Artists unidentified, Probably eastern United States c. 1860. Whale ivory and whale skeletal bone with horn, ink and nail (left); whale skeletal bone, mahogany, and ivory with paint (right). 29 3/4 x 3 1/2 in. (left); 34 x 3 3/4 in. (right) American Folk Art Museum, promised gift of Ralph Esmerian, P1.2001.320, 321.

-Anniversary Tin: Man’s Top Hat and Eyeglasses, Lady’s Bonnet with Curls, Slippers, and Hoop Skirt Artist unidentified Gobles, Michigan
1880–1900 Tin Hat: 9 1/2 x 11 1/2 x 5 1/4″ Eyeglasses: 1 1/8 x 5 1/8 x 5 1/8″ Bonnet: 14 x 9 x 16″ Slippers: 6 1/2 x 9 x 8″ Hoop Skirt: 28 x 24″ diam. Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York Gift of Martin and Enid Packard, 1988.25.1, 2, 6, 9, 12, 19 Photo by John Parnell, New York

-Tattoo Pattern Book Artist unidentified New York City 1873–1910
Ink on oiled cloth, with buckram binding 4 1/2 x 3 1/4 x 3/4″ (closed) Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York Anonymous gift, 1995.29.1
Photo by Gavin Ashworth, New York

 


Nicki Pombier Berger is the Founding Editor of Underwater New York. She writes fiction, and works in nonfiction using oral history tools. She has worked at StoryCorps, and is Chair of the Board of Advisers for 3 Generations, a non-profit that curates stories from survivors and advocates working on human rights issues, connecting audiences to ways to action. Nicki has an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and a Bachelor of Science in the Foreign Service from Georgetown University, and will complete the Oral History Masters of Arts program at Columbia University in Fall 2013. Presumably she will stop going to school at some point. She lives in Brooklyn.

Poem for Allyson by Mike Lala

OBJECT: General Slocum

BODY OF WATEREast River


Watching the construction downtown from my roof

Allyson says it’s a fish decomposing:    

the spotlights a spine             

the floors rib bones piling up across the river.

Gabriel says 1904 the General Slocum caught fire                sunk

one thousand twenty-one of its passengers          

dead en-route to a picnic.

The cause in the forward section         

a lamp-room filled with oil                    rags          and straw.

Then a paint locker                a cabin used to store gasoline.

The captain steering into the wind as passengers moved backwards 

the few children donning life preservers

vanishing in a floe of powdered cork and rotted canvas.

In the 18th and 19th centuries British prison hulks held captives       

in the American      French    Napoleonic revolutions.

More Americans died aboard these ships than in the war itself.

On the shore a hole one or two feet         and all hove in[i]

I drive through Fort Greene on my way to the beach

eat lunch in the park under a column.

It holds a fraction of the dead. I leave bread crust at the base

and pigeons flock down from above Your crumbs for the living;

let the dead eat their own.       Before the fire         the Slocum

struck two ships and a sandbar             ran aground three times

and was the site of a revolt by some 900 Patterson anarchists.

What was recovered was converted into a barge. In 1911

it sank in a storm. Water swells over Battery Park and the Times

runs a photo of a cyclist in the surge. I hold the page above me

the ink runs            cross the bridge looking down on the river

and go unable to imagine the city submerged

the bodies from the HMS Jersey buried half-decomposed

at the level I lie in the sand    waving the flies off.

 

 

 

[i] Attributed to Christopher Vail of Southold, prisoner aboard the HMS Jersey in 1781

 


Michael Lala grew up mostly in the western United States and Tokyo, and studied writing in Michigan. He is the author of the chapbooks [fire!] (forthcoming, [sic] Detroit) and Under the Westward Night (forthcoming, Knickerbocker Circus New York). His poems and text art have appeared or will in the Red Cedar Review, Low Log, Asylum Lake, I Am a Natural Wonder, and GQ Italy online, among others. He curates Fireside Follies, is a founding member of 1441, and lives and works in Brooklyn.

Formica Dinette and Underwater Teapot by Alexis Neider


“Formica Dinette,” 2011. Monotype, Dypoint, Silk Screen.

“Formica Dinette,” 2011. Monotype, Dypoint, Silk Screen.

“UnderWater Teapot #1,” 2011. Watercolor.

“UnderWater Teapot #1,” 2011. Watercolor.

Artist Statement

During a particularly trying time in my life, my relationship to food changed. It was during this period that I realized the connection between taste and emotion. The series that emerged from this experience deals with the complex mixture of comfort, craving, and emptiness that food conjures.

The spaces we devote to food dually embody appetite and void. The ornate table is poised for celebration and fulfillment, yet fraught with the tension of absent dishes and absent guests. The delicate teapot hints at stories told, and perhaps since forgotten, over tea.


Alexis Neider loves NYC waterways almost as much as she loves NYC pools. She has a B.A. from Vassar College and M.S.T from Fordham College. She studied painting for four years at the Art Students League and now has a studio at WorkSpace Harlem. Alexis is a teacher by day at the Neighborhood School where she teaches the 3Rs along with wood-working, sewing, and movie-making. She is particularly proud of a movie her students made sawing a play-dough brain in half. Alexis’ work has been exhibited at Atlantic Gallery, ArtSpace, Umbrella Arts, and Local Project. Her work can be seen here: alexisneider.com

Formica Dinette by Nelly Reifler

OBJECTFormica Dinette

BODY OF WATEREast River


There is a definite trend toward making Mother a member of the family again.

With the use of lovely Formica colors and beautiful wood grains there is every reason to plan an open kitchen that is part of the dining room-living room.  A licensed Formica fabricator will aid you in matching the wood grain of your new counter-tops with the sheets of plywood covering your windows, and the metal cabinet fixtures–knobs, hinges, etcetera–will be custom picked to match the spikes affixing the plywood to your window frames.

If you indeed decide to begin including Mother in your everyday doings, your licensed Formica fabricator will assist you with the transition.  We at Formica always have grace and efficiency in mind, and we recommend timing the reintroduction of Mother to coincide with your kitchen renovations.

Family members, such as Mother, who live in basements for extended periods of time may develop unsightly and bothersome problems.  If you haven’t been supplementing her spaghettios and pinto beans with Vitamin D in tablet or capsule form, Mother may have acquired osteomalacia, a disorder of the long bones which hurts and can cause grumpiness.  She may have a serotonin imbalance, a condition that can easily be cured by prayer.  Renal malfunction, intestinal annoyances, and thinning hair are other possible maintenance issues that may occur with Mother.

Mother may be disoriented, mentally and spatially.  This possibility is just one more reason why we suggest timing Mother’s emergence with the kitchen redo.  We at Formica are sure you agree that it’s easier than having to deal with Mother being disoriented once now, and then again later.  Your Formica fabricator will be on call in the event that this is the case.  Your Formica fabricator is quite a mouthful, isn’t it?  Let’s call your Formica fabricator Trent.

As Mother will have been in the basement for such a long while, she’ll need some updating, too, just like your kitchen.  Trent is specially trained and certified to outline the facts about the world from which you have so lovingly protected her these past several or many years.  Trent will explain to mother, with great patience, about the coming revolution.  He’ll soothe her maternal worries by reassuring her that in these final days, good folk like Mother and her sons can survive with wiles and armaments until a greater power takes over.  If she furrows her brow, Trent will press his gentle hand to her hand and inform her that the house, the four point two acres upon which it sits, and the air that she breathes have been inspected and declared one hundred percent demon-free.  After all, he’ll point out, what’s the good of redoing a kitchen in a home that’s corrupted by evil?

“Look,” Trent will say to Mother.  “Here are your sons, your good sons.  David, there by the front door.  You named him for a king.  And doesn’t he look quite the king with his rifle at the ready?”  Trent will coaxingly turn Mother’s chin toward what used to be the laundry room.  “And there, see John, the youngest?  He’s grown up to be the handy one.  Isn’t it nifty how he fireproofed that chamber?  Aren’t those just about the nicest handmade grenades you’ve ever seen?”  If Mother can speak and Mother asks why John is dressed that way, Trent will explain about the lawless radicals plotting ill deeds in the woods, and the heathen county government, and the possessed schoolteachers drinking and contaminating children’s blood with that virus, and the encroaching foreigners and the infiltrating foreign-borns with the computer chips under the skin of their left forearms and the painted preteen sex robots planted in our midst by the Chinese, and Trent will remind Mother about Sodom and Gomorrah and assure her that our good God gave us camo for a reason.  “John’s a brave boy, too, Mother,” Trent will say to Mother.  “Every dawn and evening he patrols this parcel that was your father’s and your grandfather’s.  He’s silent as an angel, never rustles a leaf nor snaps a twig.  And you have young John to thank for the buried gas line encircling the land.  It will really come in handy when the final battle starts to rage in earnest!”

Then Trent will open his case and show mother the sample chips of Formica and let her decide whether she likes a solid color or something with an agate or granite look.

Mother may be distracted, though.  She may not be able to pull her gaze away from John in the former laundry room, John with the green and black greasepaint on his cheeks.  If she can speak she may say, “My boy.”  Or she may just shake for some moments.  If either of these things happens, Trent will beckon to John, and John will put down the fuse he was measuring.  John will wipe his hands on his pants and walk into the dining room-living room.  He will lower himself slowly–those boots aren’t made to bend at the ankle–and kneel before Mother’s chair.  “Welcome back, Mom,” he’ll say.  “We need you now.  And we need this open kitchen plan to fight for our family’s survival.”

“Where’s Peter?” Mother might ask at this point if she can speak.  Trent will look at John, John will look at Trent; they both will look at David, who will break his watch out the front-door peep-hole for just a second or two.  David will shake his head.  “I’ll explain,” Trent will say, or maybe, “I’ll take this one, fellas.”  Then Trent will tell mother, “Peter is no longer here.”

There’s only the remotest of chances that Mother will inquire, why have you brought me back upstairs now? She’ll be wondering in some abstract way, of course, but it’s unlikely that her mind will be able to engage in the sort of complex inquiry that would lead to this deceptively simple question.  Surgeries now exist to correct lifelong blindness in some people; the funny thing is that many of these people still can’t see afterward.  It’s not because anything is wrong with them, but because their brains and their eyes don’t know how to communicate.  Their brains have no idea how to interpret the visual signals that come streaming in all of a sudden.  We at Formica offer this as a metaphor for the sort of experience Mother will be having, and we suggest that you accept her bewilderment as a positive trait.  These past years she has lived in an internal theater where her fantasies rolled out, and where sleep and waking were indistinguishable, where she relived your births and cradled the phantoms of your infant selves.  You are the fat babies, the toddlers in the dandelions, the little boys on Bambi sheets, the tetherball-players with down on your upper lips.  And we at Formica doubt that Mother will let herself begin to ask why this or why that.

If she does, however, ask why now? Let Trent say that her help is needed with the remodel, that you miss her cooking, that her boys are finally big enough, strong enough and well-armed enough to protect her in the event of a siege.  If she does ask Why now? we highly discourage you from mentioning Deanna.  And take it from us, Mother will never ask what happened to the slim, pale girl who used to materialize out of shadows and deliver the spaghettios and pinto beans.  Mother will not leave the house to investigate the patch of newly turned-over earth next to the blackberry brambles.  It won’t be worth recounting the whole story of how you discovered Deanna was a traitor—and mother won’t understand how you sometimes must do something that makes you very sad and very sorry, something that makes you see pretty flashes like Tinkerbell accusing you from your bedroom ceiling, because a traitor is a traitor and you have to look out for your own.

Formica is unharmed by boiling water, alcohol, mild acids and alkalies.  Its smooth surface is pleasant to touch and wipes clean with only a damp cloth.  It can’t rot and never needs painting or refinishing.  Trent will recite these comforting facts to Mother.  John will remain kneeling on the floor, bowed as if he were proposing.  But David might take his eyes away from the scope once more and interrupt Trent’s speech.  “Mom,” he’ll say in the tone with which he’d address a doe.  “This is real life.  It’s all coming down.  Any day now, any hour.  They’re coming for us.  It’s a race between them and God.  We need to hold them off until the fires come.  Or the rains.  It’s going to be fire or flood.  We’ll go somewhere better, but these earthly things: they end up ashes, or they end up under water.


Nelly Reifler is the author of See Through and the recent novel Elect H. Mouse State Judge. Her work has been published in magazines and journals including McSweeney’s, Post Road, and Nerve. She lives in Saugerties.

Torch Song: Shipworm by Allyson Paty and Danniel Schoonebeek

OBJECT: Teredos and Gribbles

BODY OF WATER: Hudson River


Was a time what I took from you
I took into myself. My mouth
full of wood. Full of your bulk.
Now when I move, I remove you.
Nothing happens in which I don’t.
                       •

Where do I stand now the jetty
has buckled? Have heart, take after
the water. How it breaks against
itself and won’t wear out. Even this
scrap of wood—Taste. Just salt.


Allyson Paty was raised in New York City, where she continues to live. Her poems have appeared in Tin House and the text journal A Similar But Different Quality. She can be reached at: allyson.paty (at) gmail (dot) com.

Danniel Schoonebeek will be featured as the new voice in poetry in the Fall 2010 issue of Tin House. His essays and reviews have appeared in Publisher’s WeeklyTin House, and American Poet. He lives in Brooklyn and can be reached at danniel.schoonebeek (at) gmail (dot) com.

Torch Songs is a series of diptych poems on which Allyson Paty and Danniel Schoonebeek collaborate. There are many. For more information, please contact either poet.

Carcasses by Jill Allyn Peterson

OBJECT: Stripped Cars

BODY OF WATER: East River


carcasses by jill peterson 1.jpg
carcasses by jill peterson 2.jpg

Artist Statement

 Carcasses is about the various cars that have come to their final resting place in the waters surrounding New York City. The movement of the car-shaped plexiglas pieces strung together as a mobile is how I like to imagine these cars slowly sinking down to the bottom.


Jill Allyn Peterson is an artist and designer living in Brooklyn, NY. She received a masters degree in industrial design from the Rhode Island School of Design and a BFA in photography from the San Francisco Art Institute after attending Hampshire College and studying Fashion Design at the University of Northumbria in Newcastle, UK. Between earning degrees, she worked for performing arts and sustainable food non-profit organizations, and at Metropolis Magazine. Jill is currently working on a variety of entrepreneurial design initiatives that you can read about at jillallyn.com.

An Oral History of Atlantis by Ed Park


Illustration by Adrian Kinloch

Illustration by Adrian Kinloch

I have seen things I never wished to see, and every night I hear the ocean. If it seems passing strange for a short man to sport such a lofty tone, consider that the other venues of pleasure are closed to me. I stand 4 foot 8 in honest shoes—though hydraulic insoles and good posture get me to 5 even. I am not a true midget and am allowed passage on most major roller coasters. Here at the lighthouse on the island’s northern tip, I hang lanterns that mean “All Ports Closed,” and spend my days pitched somewhere between anticipation and dissipation. I study the forgotten chapters of the Chicago Manual of Style, with their helpful instructions on bookbinding, perhaps included so that civilization can start anew, after the bomb or the wayward comet, when absolutely everything needs to be relearned.

That task may fall to me. I am compact but I contain volumes. I know the lore of semaphore, the meaning of ship’s bells, and the beautiful Beaufort scale, running from 0 to 12, with which I rate the force of wind. Right now we’re at nil, the “sea is as a mirror.” I build drink after drink and wait for the rains to come.

My youth merits less than a sentence. At eighteen, when it was clear nature would not begrudge another inch, I stopped the height shakes, the protein packs, the kelp-based head balm that scented my sleep with sulfur and salt. My parents, those twin towers, proceeded to kick me out of the house, unconvinced to the end that I wasn’t some prolonged sight gag. I walked to Manhattan, arriving at noon. This was the day before the day the city blew up every bridge, back when they thought rats spread the dread metagenetic phoresis, or “Metaphor,” virus, which they wanted to contain or exclude, it was hard to remember which. By 1:30 I had found gainful employment as a messenger, by 3:15 a studio apartment six stories above Water Street. Such is the dedication of the tiny. My room fronted a parking lot, a bit of suspicious real estate that never held a single car. Beyond stood a disused warehouse, ampersand and ampersand, all its signage washed away.

Summer became winter without a fall. Night classes, situps, self-improvement. The room had come with a slight northward slant, a heap of broken seashells, and a heavy box of books. In those pages, as stiff and frangible as potato chips, I read of miniature races the world over, and of entire cities that rise from the sea at times of grim conjunction. I took notes, and took notes on my notes.

A neighbor helped install a rod across the bathroom doorway. Every night, after my lucubrations, I snapped into a pair of cunning anklets and hung from it like some hairless bat god, with a forbidden name full of diphthongs that would drive the pious insane just to say it. Thus I tried to touch the ground—secretly, shamefully—and dreamed my bones’ slow migration.

One night, hanging insomniac, I felt a light against my eyelids. I opened them to see my body squared in silver, as if ready for transfer to a larger canvas. Light splashed through my window’s grid, so strong it hurt to look. My ear flushed with cold night air, I discerned a formidable rattle. It was three in the morning and somebody was typing, hard strokes falling without a gap.

When I awoke, snow had gathered on the sill, and the books there had begun to ripple. The window across the lot was now quite closed. I studied the glass, but none of the dark shapes moved; below, the paving held no traffic. At two I broke for lunch: a plate of chops as big as my torso, a glass of Ovaltine the size of my forearm, and a side of potatoes only slightly smaller than my brain. Then, full of midget vigor, I ordered the same meal again.

At the other end of the counter sat a man of about forty, tall but not disgustingly so, who was reading a foreign paper. He had most of his hair, gold wire glasses, and an intellectual slump to his thin frame. Whenever anyone coughed, he would wince, but then, so did everyone else. No one cared to contract Metaphor.

It was only when the man got up to leave that I recognized him as Walter Walter, the exiled Dutch writer. I had never heard of him before Water Street. One of his early books had been among those left in my apartment; I’d read it on a thunderstruck Halloween, as the walls went white with lightning and every terse phrase sent a chill. The library had his other titles: a few bracing policiers that established his name in criminous letters, plus a fat volume of memoirs with the demoralizing subtitle “The Early Years.” There had been some Low Countries scandal to run him out of Europe. So here he was, Walter Walter. His recent outpourings predicted plagues and the rise of every atavism. The articles appeared only in obscure journals of the occult persuasion, some of which I’d found neatly twined at curbside. Now I began to wonder whether this was coincidence. If he lived in the area, perhaps I had been reading his trash. I decided to follow Walter Walter.

I made my last pass at the spuds, left a quarter tip, and walked outside. The street looked empty. One block east marched a conceivably Walteroid figure. The thickening snow made him look even thinner, as if ready to slip away between dimensions.

A crab of newsprint scuttled past. Every so often I’d maneuver behind a call box or dumpster, not that he ever looked back. He turned left where I’d turn left, then right where I’d turn right: Water Street.  He dashed up the warehouse stairs. I stood by the lamppost as though plucked from a dream, studying the silent door. In my room, waiting for him to appear, I eased myself into his later essays. It was writing as disease—a torrent of speculation and data, with no trace of the proportion or wit that marked his admirable detective fiction. The only thing that had carried over was the fear.

Around five, I thought I could hear typing again, at a less sure clip, the machine’s report larded with silences. The sound stopped two hours later. Night had fallen. I donned my foul-weather costume and nearly tobogganed down the stairs. I emerged to see Walter Walter, in derby hat and overcoat, heading north.

I kept a full block behind. Even if he slipped from sight, there were fresh tracks in the dusting of snow. I counted ten cross streets, then stopped counting. The snow fell harder and the wind moved higher up the Beaufort scale. We went west, a tall man and his shadow incarnate, hitting a region of mild industry—all flashing lights and mechanical pleasures. Every lurid satisfaction could be had. I began to think less of Walter Walter, not that a sleuthing lilliputian should judge.

The lights, the falling snow, the Pine-Sol reek of every slippery venue—it was Christmas Eve, I realized. Good God, what had I become? Even a minnikin should have standards. The dingy marquees and tattered banners touted assorted sordid scenarios, but in the most oblique possible terms. What did they mean by “Japanese Eggplants,” “Sitting Pretty,” “Bulbs While-U-Wait”? I couldn’t imagine—but of course I could.  Or was I just seeing what I wanted to see?

My quarry finally ducked into the Wandering Womb, the initials like mammaries. A little bell rang; I heard him stamp his feet. The blacked-out windows bore slopes of steam. I counted thirty Mississippi before following.

It was a gaslit room, diverging from the straight exterior walls to curve like a ship, with a plush green carpet and bespoke lowboys and a player piano doing the “Salt-Water Rag.” The walls were papered in velveteen, incised with anchors and fleur-de-lis. At the antique cash register stood an even more antiquated man. The clerk was kitted out in a trig dark suit with batwing collar and a cap that suggested a telegraph operator. I exchanged a ten, all I had, for a cup of  brass slugs. They were heavier and smaller than quarters, with double Ws raised on each face.

A dozen booths were set into the walls; a narrow staircase suggesting more underground. I kept to the surface. The doors were mahogany with black curtains behind, some with boot-tops beneath the fringe. Quaint signs said “fresh” and “hot” and “wet.” I could feel the clerk’s eyes on me, so I ducked into Booth 3 and shut out the world. It smelled of paraffin and hearts of palm. In the dark I could make out a weathered hand- crank and the stout shaft where the images lived, lunging up like a friendly seal. The bench was far too low, but a few phone books, concealed inside, made for an adequate perch: I was sitting atop all of Manhattan. Fitting a slug in the slot and my face to the eyepiece, I took a deep breath and manned the crank.

Somewhere in the shaft a bulb hummed on.  It was like light from the nineteenth century, unsure and shrouded. Now a few black cards clacked by in sequence, connected to the turning spindle. They were ink black, save the worn auroras at the corners. I spun faster, till the shadows gave up a shape.

But it wasn’t a woman at all. It was a whale.

That tongue of a body barrelled toward me, voluptuous tail held aloft, white fins fanning in tandem. I turned, harder.  Each image, I could now see, was stereoptically doubled, enabling an antediluvian 3D.  I gasped as it corkscrewed, the crank damp: then the picture froze. Before the bulb could simmer, or perhaps the cap snuff the candle, I entered another slug. A new set of cards came into play, whirring like wingbeats as I spun. The humpback rose and rose, through leagues of sepia, its body now caught in reticulations of light as sun met sea. It was coming up for air, while I merged with that ancient water.

The whale, my whale, largely traveled alone. For a time it joined a regiment of dolphins, and now and then cut through schools of smaller fry, dagger-shaped, that parted like a veil around it. My mind supplied a plot where of course none belonged, some briny threnody with unseen hovering harpoons, Moby-Dick from the beast’s point of view. I didn’t believe it myself when I began to cry, my tears falling directly on the quick-milling cards: fresh, hot, and wet. I spun and  blubbered, wondering what “Dutch treat” Walter Walter had come here to watch—whether the Wandering Womb was all whales, all the time, or if it offered deep-sea coelocanths, manatee matinees, self-propelled versions of the kraken.

The wind from the cards cooled my cheek, and I swear I felt a spray. To complete the cetacean sensorium, a medley of bovine moans and expressive hinges, perhaps etched on a wax cylinder, issued from a cabinet by my legs. Sometimes the view straddled the waterline, whitecaps like flame; other times it looked shot from a boat, as a school of humpbacks turned in sequence like the coils of a single vast serpent. But mostly things stayed underwater. My breathing adapted. Each slug seemed to last longer. The humpbacks sang in half-hour arias; my face was damp with sweat or spume. I woke when I started dreaming that the crank was an oar. The captain’s command to fire was a klaxon blast from the front desk.

I emerged at four bells, the last one out. I tried asking the clerk about what I’d seen, but he just glared at the grandfather clock and twisted his blond handlebars. I glimpsed myself in a pierglass, looking suitably depraved, with all the starch gone out of my shirt and the corners of my eyes as red as roses. Now it was a thousand blocks in the punishing snow. There were no footsteps to follow—the trail gone literally cold. As I turned onto Water Street, something glinted under the streetlamp: a pair of wire spectacles, like a crumpled insect, the lenses shivered in the snow. I put them on the handrail, where nobody could miss them.

I never saw Walter Walter again. I lost him in the chaos, as the city heaved under the rule of Metaphor. People acted out, walking pie-eyed in the middle of traffic, playing musical instruments they had no right even owning. All the dogs committed suicide; electricity was touch and go. There were fewer rats since the bridges went, it was true; but the ones that remained had developed antennae.

At night I’d float in my tub, head against the enamel. I could hear elevators plumb and launch, wind howling through the garbage chute, ghostly voices of tenants too tall to talk to. It was a direct line into hidden nerves, a blueprint’s subconscious filtered right through my skull, and it sounded like nothing so much as whalesong.

These private oracles served as a fix, but I passed my days in a benthic haze: I wanted to swim again, to be by my blowhole familiar. Unable to resist, abject as any addict, I finally made a return visit uptown, but the entire district had been rezoned; the mayor, linking Metaphor to vice, had decreed that only pizza parlors could operate there now. They’d renamed it MUNGO, for Municipality near North Grosvenor and Orange, as if that would make people forget.

It did. The Wandering Womb had wandered away. Everyone was new. They all wore clip-on neckties and couldn’t answer my questions. I was hungry but I didn’t stop. All the way home my mouth was open, and snowflakes fell in like krill.

I was seasick, but not from fantasy. The bridges, it seemed, had acted like stays securing Manhattan, and now it was moving south to freedom, while its edges slipped into anonymity. No more West Side Highway; no more FDR. And beginning that night, no more warehouse. An eraser-pink crane deleted it by a floor a day. As each level went, I could see nothing of human life but thousands of sheets of paper, perhaps all of Walter Walter’s hopeless writing, whirling like birds as they blew away.

The epidemiologists, at wit’s end, suggested things like “Smoke-a-Pipe Day” and “Make Fun of British People Day.” I knew from my reading that my time drew near: the little man, when not playing percussion and symbolizing the madness of World War II, was always a convenient scapegoat. So before the mayor could megaphone any anti-nanist propaganda, I threw out all my books and climbed as far north as the Manhattoes allowed.

Here I see no one, I plan for the flood, I do my mundane midget things. Some nights the hour advances in step with the Beaufort scale, so that at 7 “whole trees sway”; at 9 “shingles may blow away.” I could chart other events for you: the mylar hearts lost at the zoo, the gulls turning in wide circles like a planetary system. On the water to my left, on the water to my right, float barges so big they’re like pieces of the city, whole blocks wrenched loose with not a soul on deck. They continue at night, maybe the same ships in a hell of repetition. Their lights are orange and imploring, and glide in a line as steady as math: torches on some river whose name we’ve forgotten, whose name we were maybe never even meant to know.

Note: An Oral History of Atlantis first appeared in issue 35 of Columbia: A Journal of Art and Literature, in 2002.


Ed Park is the author of the novel Personal Days, a finalist for the PEN Hemingway Foundation Award. He is a founding editor of The Believer.

East River of My Devotion by Lindsay Sullivan


Watch video of Lindsay and her collaborator Doug Keith performing this song at the American Folk Art Museum here

 

Lyrics

I took the sea to the C

searching for ghosts at Dead Horse beach

a ship appeared to me

I swam out so I could see

"Come aboard my darlin

it's the last time I'll be callin

come aboard and sail with me."

We sailed along the water's edge

Brighton Beach over Dreamland

cut right and towards the bridge

first Brooklyn then Manhattan.

"It wont be long my darlin

until you are drownin

and you belong to the sea."

Then the wind began to blow,

lightning struck and hit my boat.

I swam hard but fell below

I sang out to the River, don't let me go.

"You are the waves to my ocean,

East River of my devotion

I'll drink your salt

I'll breathe your sea."

I sunk down onto my knees,

Threw my head down to Her Sandy feet,

I begged Her please to let me breathe,

one breath of Her Salty Sea.

"You are the waves to my ocean,

East River of my devotion

I'll drink your salt

I'll breathe your sea."

<>

And I became the River Bed,

Dead Fish, Stripped Cars and Soda Cans.

River City below Manhattan,

Piano Keys, Submarines and The Princess Ann. 

I am the waves to Your Ocean,

East River of our Devotion.

I drink Your Salt and 

I breathe Your Sea.

Yes I am the waves to Your Ocean,

East River of our Devotion.

I drink Your Salt and 

I breathe Your Sea.


Lindsay Sullivan is a student, yoga and meditation teacher, singer, songwriter and piano player living in Los Angeles. In 2008 she released her debut LP, Long Road Home with her band Clair. 

Waterside by Rick Caruso

OBJECT: Concrete Pilings

BODY OF WATER: East River


waterside_proteus.jpg

 Artist Statement

 

My initial idea was to use old ledger paper that I had to make a cityscape and a waterline and show an above and below water level view of the city. As I started to construct it, it became more fractured and formal looking. I used an old East German machinists’ workbook that I found in a free book pile when I was visiting a friend in Berlin and realized that buildings I was constructing out of the graph segments looked vaguely German and cold and also looked a lot like some of the buildings at a place called Waterside on the East River, right above Stuyvesant town in the mid 20′s. I was working there a lot this fall for a friend’s landscape design company who has them as a client. The Waterside buildings have their own weird history. They were built on top of World War II rubble from bombed houses and buildings in Bristol, England – shipped over here for whatever reason (there is a little plaque at Waterside talking about it being built upon England’s “Oaken hearted fortitude”). There are four huge buildings there that were built in the sixties in this really ugly and cold in post Bauhaus communist / projects like style. Everything is hard edged and cold looking and reminded me a lot of the buildings I was making out of the graph rectangles. The other weird aspect of Waterside is that it’s built on a platform jutting into the East river which is supported by – I think – hundreds of concrete pilings and they actually have a team of full time divers that dive everyday to check and fortify the pilings. So, as I was making the piece I was thinking about Waterside and the system of supports and structures underneath the water, and how the coast of Manhattan in general is strange in the way that the water doesn’t just meet up with a beach or pier but has the system where it grows out into the water in this layered way.


More information about Rick Caruso can be found at carusowork.com.  

The Waterpod and Other Photographs by Mary Mattingly

OBJECT: Stripped Cars, Waterpod

BODY OF WATER: East River, All Over



Mary Mattingly is a photographer and sculptor based in New York. Mary just completed “Waterpod," a floating sculptural eco-habitat in the New York Waterways, where she lived this summer. In 2009, she exhibited her work at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, the Tucson Museum of Art, and “Nomadographies” at Robert Mann Gallery, in 2008, she exhibited “Fore Cast”, a multimedia opera at White Box in Manhattan, in 2007: “Frontier” with Galerie Adler in Germany, and “Time Has Fallen Asleep” at the New York Public Library. In 2006 her photo work headlined “Ecotopia , the triennial at the International Center of Photography. She exhibits at Robert Mann Gallery in New York, and studied at Pacific Northwest College of Art, Parsons School of Design, and Yale School of Art. She has taught at the International Center of Photography, and co-curated several water-based exhibitions, alongside the Miami Basel art fair, the Venice Biennale and the Instanbul Biennale. She recently completed a residency at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and at New York University.

Beside by Nicole Haroutunian


 Artist Statement

One of my favorite things about Underwater New York is that all of these strange, evocative objects we collect in our list, objects that have no business being beside each other on dry land, coexist underwater. I sketched some of my favorites so they would be beside each other here, too.   


Nicole Haroutunian is an editor of Underwater New York. You can find her bio here.  

If You Look by Sarah Mostow


Sarah Mostow wrote and illustrated an artists’ book inspired by what lies beneath the surface of the river, and by her own personal history with the Hudson. Each page contains an original painting or drawing depicting such images as a dead giraffe, Henry Hudson’s ship the Half Moon, and a view of the River seen from Sarah’s childhood home.


Sarah Mostow is a painter, artist book maker and teaching artist living in Brooklyn.  She has presented solo exhibitions at Columbia Greene Community College (2006) and the Philmont Library (2011) in upstate New York, and participated in group shows at A.I.R., the Blue Mountain Gallery, and the Brooklyn Artists Gym.

At Me Too Someone is Looking by Alanna Schubach


When the greenish lights hit the smoke rising from the DJ booth, it formed a noxious cloud. If you dance inside it, you die, Alice decided. They were there at the behest of someone called Darien, a stick figure given life and stringy black hair. Elyse had sent him for drinks.

“He’s a millionaire,” she said. “We should pay for nothing.”

“How did that happen?”

“I don’t know, some Internet thing. He’s retired now.”

He returned with twin cylinders filled with neon.

“You know, Darien’s a town in Connecticut,” Alice told him.

“And also, my name.”

“How are you enjoying your retirement?”

“I don’t feel retired. I want to open a commune on City Island. I want to learn how to make my own compost—supposedly you need at least two years for everything to really ferment the way it should. I want to bring back the zine. Who can bear to read shit online? I’m concerned with the rise in intangibles. I really need to finish my screenplay. It’s a reimagining of Crime and Punishment, set in a Long Island high school.”

“I grew up on Long Island.”

“Qué fantástico.”

He spoke to her as though she could parse a thing he was saying. As if she wasn’t the sort of person for whom going to a club still held an odor of the forbidden. Everyone seemed older. There was the sense that they all owned the same kind of makeup, something you could only buy on the black market, something that filled in the crevices and caverns on your face, that smothered years rather than peeled them away.

Elyse asked, “Will you put your own shit in the compost?”

“Will you dance with me?”

Alice sipped her neon and tried to move her hips without thinking about it. She knew these first moments would be unbearable, to the point that she’d be wildly angry at her companions for plucking her out of the night and dropping her here. It was the challenge she knew she could not meet, to seem as though she were simply one of many of Elyse’s intimates, to bump hips and laugh with during an unexpected but welcome nighttime encounter, rather than a classmate invited out on a whim, probably with the sole purpose of self-amusement, someone who’d never be here if it weren’t for the accident of fate that the registrar placed their fraternal twin names side by side on a roster. She’d imagine smashing her drink in their faces, and that would calm her a little. Then finally the neon would reach her head and shift the crowded dance floor into focus, and all the silhouettes would be ringed with joy.

Elyse felt frantic. She sank her face into Darien’s damp neck to muffle it. She’d thought Alice might blossom into ebullience, but now she saw she was the sort to stand in the corner, fold her arms, send her sour expression forward, floating overhead like poisoned pollen. Darien’s erection poked at her thigh and she felt nauseated. “Alice,” she said. “You look like you’re watching a puppy being tortured.”

“I’m fine.”

Darien gave her a look that was too familiar: don’t get like that, Elyse, as though he really knew what she could get like. Fucking isn’t osmosis, she wanted to tell him. There was an aching bracelet around the meat of her upper right arm where he’d been squeezing. “Nick,” her mother used to say, when they rolled around on the floor, Elyse refusing to tap out even when her windpipe felt ready to fold in on itself, tissue paper in her father’s headlock, “you don’t know your own strength.” That was bullshit. Men knew their own strength exactly.

What was the consolation? To pretend she didn’t know, to agree in earnest to an arm wrestling match, poise her elbow on the table with great seriousness that belied a faith that it was possible, at least, to win, seated across from the guy with mirth stretched across his face like a second skin, him thinking he’d go easy but not so easy that she wouldn’t be slammed back to reality like her humerus hitting the table, her chest full of the bittersweet throb of secretly knowing more.

“Let’s go get another drink,” she said. As they walked to the bar Elyse could feel Alice’s edges soften and blur. Tenderness suddenly filled her chest, warming away the anxiety: she remembered a time when she craved female attention. Before she found all the things that would happen were she the one to give it. Leaning over, her tits resting on the edge of the bar, Elyse tried to think of who the bartender reminded her of, until she realized it was a character from her novel. The warmth fell away.

Last time she’d seen her dad they sat on the creaking back porch drinking beers out of a silver bucket of melted icewater as the day sizzled out around them. From inside the house his girlfriend, Beth, would occasionally peek out the kitchen window and smile, to the point that Elyse began to suspect it was some sort of Pavlovian response to the glassy clink of their bottles. Clink, smile. Beth had long straight gray hair and Elyse privately nicknamed her the Iron Curtain. Beth’s arm was in a cast, which went unexplained.

“I was worried this would be awkward,” Elyse told her father.

“Hey, I know you.”

“I’ve slept with like fifty guys. That I know of,” she thought of saying, but it would just upset him. Not the number: his failure to feel a snap of protectiveness at its announcement. So instead: “My workshop professor this semester is a complete douchebag.”

“When you were little you’d read your mom’s catalogs. You loved the names of the colors for the shoes and stuff. Salmon, burnt sienna, cerulean. Always loved words.”

Clink, smile.

“Right now I’d call the sky three-day-old bruise.”

“I wish Beth would stop buying this shit. She knows I prefer swill. She knows it, but she doesn’t like it.”

“Did you break her arm?”

“Elyse, I’m sixty years old.”

She even cherished foreign words with a similar sense of ownership: when she took high school Spanish she admired how there were words not only for this and that, but also for that over there, in the distance: aquella. She said it aloud into the deaf ear of the club.

“Huh?” Alice said. “Yeah, I’m okay,” though her face was worryingly flushed. Arthur Kill, she was thinking drunkenly, Arthur Kill as she adjusted the heavy bag (it contained a Moleskine, several pens, a short story collection entitled You Gotta Read This!) hanging from her aching right shoulder. Professor O’Neill had assigned her creative non-fiction workshop an article from New York (cue the quiet after-class hallway smirking that O’Neill read that: it explained her perfectly, the heavy Hoosier with dreams of spike-heeled Manhattan bitchiness) about the objects swallowed by city waterways over the centuries: the dinette set, the rebar, the cache of silver, the bountiful shipwreck sunk down in thick harbor sludge, water skinned by tar, disturbingly soft sand filling the cracks on the bow. They were to each pick an item and crack it open. A predictable contrivance from the woman who handed them lemons on the first day and asked them to practice sensory description. It was unbelievable that this was costing thirty thousand dollars a year. Arthur Kill was the narrow between Staten Island and Jersey where they’d lost all the silver, but it sounded to her more like the name of a Victorian child murderer. She thought briefly of writing a story about Arthur Kill but decided she would ultimately derive more pleasure from secretly turning the name over and over in her mind like a pearl. Alice had always had an excellent memory. She was sure Arthur Kill had stuck with no one else. The problem with her crystal recall, though, was that she was forever yanked by its monstrous grip backward—that is, whenever she wasn’t already drifting forward, sending her astral self floating ahead like a smoke signal, this vapor-Alice telling the story of now in a flickering far-flung apartment or hotel room. Tonight wasn’t even happening; it had already happened, crusted over into something for her to spit up for others, for whatever reason—probably to make herself seem exotic, appealing, a person who had lived.

“I’m a time traveler,” she told Elyse. “For real.” They were all sitting at the bar. She was sweaty, muscles popping satisfyingly inside her legs.

“That guy is checking you out. That one over there, the poor man’s Ethan Hawke.”

“Really poor. Like homeless man’s. But I only travel within my own timeline, so it’s not that interesting. I’m not that interesting.”

“Go over there,” Darien said, as though he had spent adequate time studying Alice and concluded she was the sort of person who needed some platonic male encouragement: he could really turn things around for her. You are pissing me off. It was a scream in Elyse’s head. Surely he could hear.

“I looked into the future and saw that it wouldn’t happen. I can’t do anything to change that.”

“Are you saying you want to leave?” Elyse said.

“Are you?” It was a trick Alice had learned from a college friend, to smoothly hoist the responsibility onto someone else’s shoulders without them even feeling it. Most people were just talking about themselves, anyway.

Elyse sighed harshly. “Fuck, yes.”

Alice had learned a lot in college. Then there had been the times when she would come home for visits, the weird backsliding of creeping late into her parents’ dark house after nights out with friends and their increasingly tenuous shared histories, gossip about post-high school activities of now deliciously remote people, her own sludgy feelings of disgust at engaging in these conversations at bars that now just seemed depressingly provincial, now that she was of age, her delight at the sinking stars of those for whom high school had been the zenith: because it hadn’t been for Alice and her friends, so clearly their time was now, with their impressive colleges, and beyond them smooth wide carpets extending into a future that knew nothing of Long Island.

Finally one night her mother told her: it wasn’t that she minded Alice’s going out, but wouldn’t she come up and let them know when she got home? She couldn’t sleep well until she knew Alice was safe and sound.

So she obliged, at two a.m. padding into the cave of their bedroom like her childhood self fallen out of time. She heard their paired steady breathing.

“It’s me,” she said softly.

Her mother snapped straight up and shrieked.

“Jesus Christ Carol,” her father mumbled through fog.

“You told me—” Alice began. Her mother’s white hand fluttered in the dark to her chest.

“She’ll give me a heart attack,” her father said. “One of these days I’ll wake up dead.”

Alice retreated, the room smelling of foreign sleep. It had been beginning to dawn on her for a while then that her mother was faintly ridiculous: she preferred the idea of herself as the mother who waited up to being the one who actually did. Alice had been supposed to know better than to follow her rules.

On their way out of the club, Alice was groped. A man reached over, took a breast in each hand, and squeezed as though that was what they were there for.

“What?” Alice said, as though it was a question she’d misheard. He was already turning away. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” It poured out of her, a liquid yell, consuming the bass thrum in her chest. It became its own energy source. People were looking at her with mild annoyance, sleepy cats roused by a slammed door.

“I’m sorry, but he should be shamed,” she told them. Elyse and Darien were pulling her away. They leaked out onto the street. A cold gust of wind unblurred the streetlights, righted the loose clusters of kids headed to wherever. She used to want to black out, honestly, in those headlocks squirming there at the end of a long tunnel of years. Not to chasten her father: to show him she could. How far she was willing—wanted—to travel. As a baby, her parents said, Elyse would hold her breath until she turned blue to get what she wanted, sitting in her high chair furious and violet, bulging eyes swimming with wordless extremism. She hadn’t asked to be here, to come out from death’s velvet enclosure, but since she had she would laugh at it. Her father was this way, so said the box of Purple Hearts tossed unthinkingly into the corner of his wardrobe, and she was the same, but there was no proof then, no way to reveal their communion other than to go gladly limp in his arms. To enter the black nothing of unconsciousness. Of course, it had happened plenty since then, but always out of his view.

“Holy shit,” Darien said, “Alice is fierce.”

“Alice is a second-wave feminist,” Elyse said.

“Alice once spit in John Updike’s face at a party.”

“Alice came up with Obama’s campaign slogan.”

“Alice is the Poet Laureate in perpetuity.”

“Alice is the leading cause of death in twentysomething men.”

They were all doubled over in the street, holding on to each other, and Alice was suffused with generosity for both of them, she could see now their essential humanness, and she saw the earlier tensed Alice of that night as pitiable, a petty fool. But there was the knowledge lurking beneath like a sea snake that of course she only felt generous when it was convenient for her: like riding the subway home from school at the end of a long day, the sun still up, surrounded by crumpled dusky people who unlike her had to work for a living: then, too, she would feel this way. And she recognized their laughter as the dangerous social laughter that when heard from outside feels like an assault. That is, certainly, a double laughter, not only at the actual funny event or thing but also at everything beyond the edge of the silvery bubble the laughter constructs. And then she thought, well fuck it.

“I’m not like this,” she admitted, gasping, gathering herself. “Usually I just ask, Will this suck?And if it’s a yes I don’t say anything.”

Elyse struggled past the initial shards of judgment that formed at this pronouncement, so certain and unaware, so—she tried not to think—repressed. Her ex-boyfriend used to ask her why she’d get so angry at people who did things differently, but of course he wasn’t really asking, he was telling her she was deeply insecure, she didn’t know what she was doing. Will this suck? Was the sucking worth it, worth some inner assurance? She had never known until the end. The night after the visit with her father, standing in front of the mirror in her underwear, Elyse had pinched at the pale flesh pooching over its elastic band.

“Sometimes I feel like a beast,” she told her ex-boyfriend, half-asleep on the couch. She felt all the beers with her father from that afternoon, the window of Beth and her broken arm, sloshing in her gut, an off-color sea. She lurched over to him in a way she might have designed, somewhat, to confirm her statement. “Do you still find me attractive?”

“Not at the moment, no,” he said.

“I would never say that to you.” It was true: he would have crumpled.

“I would never ask you a question like that. It’s wildly unfair.”

She filed it away, did not fight: she let the frustration mount silently in her chest like mucus and went to bed feeling restless, noble.

And months later, as they cleaned up the kitchen after a quiet dinner, he’d asked softly, barely audible over the running water in the sink, “Are you sure you’re not getting bored of me? Like—you still find me sexy?” The softness bothered her, like he wasn’t really sure he wanted her to hear, or he wanted her to have to lean into his orbit, a comforting satellite. And the unspoken nod to “her past,” which he thought of as still out there, a semi-separate entity living it up on night streets, outshining him.

It would have been easy to reassure him, it would have been easy to think instead of the way he’d gently push her hair back from her forehead as he kissed her so he could reach every part of her face, which he’d gaze at like it was something more than it was. But there was the fact that once, she had been punished by him, for a twinned moment of fear. And he thought he shouldn’t be.

So she’d had to bring it up and they’d had to fight. That was what it was like then, for them. She never told him what she had once seen: a small college town in the mountains somewhere, the two of them on a balcony, their lean faces, lined with character, turned toward peaked roofs, chimney smoke rising remotely away. She’d teach a couple classes a week, maybe; students would visit their drafty living room with its high ceiling, its wooden slats, the lofted bedroom overhead, and they’d admire the nest she’d made with him, to be seen but never quite felt, deliciously out of reach. A life that was hushed but thrummed with mystery, the echoes of a drunken stagger through city alleyways no longer needed. Things accomplished, consummated, to make way for this peace that was for them, the fresh hungry faces, decades away. But she saw this was to be Alice’s future, not hers. In some other pulsing cell of the city now he was pushing back another girl’s hair, learning the texture of another bedroom’s dimness. And if he imagined Elyse at all, she was doing exactly what he imagined, having merged again with that once-dancing once-distant past. There would be book parties in the spring, flirtatious young men with their own dreams to be beamed off her luminous flesh (already her classmates were hovering over the success-to-come, sharks pulled to bloody water), herself bounding through one portal after another, none of which emptied finally into the quiet country home.

Darien stopped short in front of them. They were standing in front of a narrow tall building, a muscular leg in black tights. The blinking sign said eep Show.

“A ghost of old New York,” he said. “From the age of smut.”

Elyse said, “I don’t remember any eep shows.”

“Come on, Lisey. We have to.”

“We don’t have to do anything,” Alice said.

Darien looked at her sadly. “That’s not true.”

It was all the clichés, sticky floors and old tobacco and the bleachy smell of come. Was this authenticity, then—depressing odors and the remnants of Type A influenza? As they climbed the stairs Alice’s buzz dissipated proportionately. You paid in a coin machine that looked like an antique. It was the sort of thing someone like Darien would have in a corner of his apartment. He’d stack the DSM-V on top of it for a high-low affect. Alice couldn’t have grasped after the diaphanous tails of her previous generosity had she wanted to.

They climbed into a booth and pulled the black curtain closed around them. There was just enough room for the three of them. Alice felt Elyse’s downy upper arm on one side and Darien’s pointy elbow on the other. Darien reached over and pressed a stamp into each of their hands. “It’ll make her look like the Loch Ness Monster,” he said. The complete blackness assured Alice it was all right. It seemed to hum with approval. The air inside was stale but hushed, reverent.

And then there was light on the other side of the glass. The girl, who was just a girl, started twisting around behind it.

“Oh God,” Elyse said. “I thought I could do this.”

“Don’t think about it,” Darien said. “Don’t think about how after work she has to suck off her boss and the dead look in her eyes makes it even better for him. It’s just a story you’ve heard a million times.”

Elyse tried to resist, because what Darien said was so often trite and clearly planned ahead of time—she imagined nothing but journals stacked against the walls of his apartment with “Conversations for Every Situation” scrawled inside—and because she wasn’t sure she only meant the booth, the blank sea creature inches away. But sometimes his words nevertheless resounded inside her till she began to vibrate. After the break-up he’d said, “But it’s also kind of beautiful, isn’t it?” so that she wanted to scream but also saw, captured in his voice, a reflection of the broken glass feeling, the way the light shone off it. She let him come toward her, let him think it was all his strength.

They were making out in earnest now. Alice fit herself into a corner of the booth and tried to enjoy it objectively: the writhing couple, their soft open-mouthed moans beside her, the sad bouncing titties on the other side of the glass, co-monologues of stale carnality. But their lips smacked together hungrily and she felt annoyance and something else flare deep within: she saw orange flame streaking through thick darkness. This was the sort of story (here again she traveled through time) book reviews and author profiles would one day yearn for, the wunderkind unmasked. And she would have, at least, the defense that she’d known Elyse before she became the first ever graduate student in the program to have a manuscript accepted before earning her degree: that it hadn’t been about being able to say she was the sort of person who knew intimately this sort of person. She could say she felt then no impatience, only detached happiness for Elyse and silent assurance that her time, too, would come, perhaps minus the fireworks but no less (in fact, probably more) worthy of them. Elyse turned her head toward Alice, lipstick smeared, ghastly, waiting, and Alice fell forward at her with her own mouth, as though she could communicate to Elyse that way how she saw her: how she saw through her. She tasted like secondhand whisky (Darien) and the waxy lipstick and under the lipstick—cherry. Elyse was a secret wearer of cherry gloss. Alice saw her as a little girl in front of a mirror, before consciousness. She pulled away.

Elyse turned back toward Darien, her eyes leaving an aura of mild disappointment, nothing more, hanging in the air. She was slapping at him, scratching, tugging his pants. He threw his head back and it rang loudly against the glass. Even the dancing girl’s expression registered surprise. Alice realized this would go on forever. They would devour each other, pick the strands of muscle from between their teeth, swallow the cartilage whole, watch it ripple down each other’s throats.

“Bathroom,” she muttered, the word utterly Dada inside the booth. She grasped the railing on her way down the stairs, which were squirming with amoeba, thinking vaguely about Purell. Before she opened the door she saw her face reflected in its cracked plastic from every angle, Picassoesque, jutting cheekbone and vertical eyebrow and slashed lips and thought, Good. Now they’ll know.

Outside the sun was coming up. The subway now would be insurmountable. She walked instead, amazed to feel her bag still swinging from her shoulder. I’m Old Faithful, she thought, and then, what was that other phrase I liked? Arthur Kill. Arthur Kill.

Alice reached the river. Beyond it, New Jersey: putting on the coffee, getting dressed for church, newsprint smudges on fingertips and faithfully chugging car motors. Sitting on a riverfront bench, disheveled and drugged as if that was who she really was, Alice longed for the imagined life.

That median strip of rippling gray began to churn. There was a noise like a monstrous burp and the seagulls stopped dead in the air at the sound of it. They hovered, watching, as the river began to vomit its contents, all of them: the dining room table and chairs, bobbing and waiting for their owners to take them home; the abandoned appliances, the building materials, the unfulfilled potential of a hundred objects buoyed by their own wordless yearning for use, the crest of a ship fallen into majestic ruin and then finally, the bars of silver, gorgeous gleaming rectangles floating in the water before Alice like so many false teeth.


  Alanna Schubach is a writer living in New York. She edits the website Such Sweet Thunder.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Resurfaced by Apryl Lee

OBJECT: Stripped Cars 

BODY OF WATEREast River


On a Monday morning in July, it is reported that a car has been sighted floating down the East River.  This is breaking news sandwiched between traffic reports and an interview with a couple who made a virally popular video of their wedding. Alex asks, “What are you thinking for dinner?”  He likes to plan his eating for the day.

I say, “I haven’t given it any thought.” Although I do plan to pick up meatloaf slabs from the grocery store after work, I like for Alex to leave some things up to chance.  He kisses us goodbye and leaves with the last banana.  I will try to remember to pick up bananas, too.

Sophie cries as I comb and braid her hair, Alex’s hair: thick and wavy.  She hates all the pulling, but I don’t know what else to do with hair like hers.  It makes me feel like a bad mother.  Between her sobs, I work through the tangles and watch the news.  The first image we see of the car nose down in the river comes from a cell phone video. From this blurry, shaking footage she calls “stunning,” the anchorwoman thinks she sees a person trapped inside.  The situation is christened: Terror on the River.  I am still waiting for the weather report.

During the commercial break, I pack Sophie’s backpack for the sitter’s.  She cries, No, as I shove in a pink lamb, a concession to her still missing Bunzy. Sophie tells me she hates that lamb.  I promise, promise, to get her a new stuffed rabbit from the stuffed rabbit farm. She does not know that Bunzy met with a mangling accident in the washing machine.

When the news returns, an expert, a Brooklyn fire captain, is on the phone explaining what a person trapped in car, traveling down a river should do.  He says, “Call 911.  Stay in the vehicle, and know help is on the way.” His voice, while trying to make viewers feel safe, makes me feel sexy.  Makes me feel like breaking shit.

I stand in front of the television holding the clicker, my keys, and Sophie.  “Most importantly,” he says.  “Remain calm.”  His name fades up on screen.

“Here.” I hand the clicker to Sophie.  “Wait for the weather.”

I find Ben, as most everyone can be found, online. There is an article about him and a woman he saved from a burning bed. A photograph in front of the firehouse shows a version of Ben I could never have imagined.  Ben is a hero, and he has assumed the character. Instead of the weaselly dyed-black hair I remember, his hair is now wise, flecked with confident greys.  His thin shoulders have grown into round, burly joints. His face is sharp, and he is not squinting, looking bad-ass for the camera wearing a baggy Violent Femmes T-shirt.  In this photo Ben smiles, still closed lipped and still letting his eyes do the work, but his stare, rather than invoking rebellion, inspires trust.  He is buttoned into his crisp dress uniform.  He still has that scar above his eye.  I look up the phone number for Engine Company 279 and dial, but I hear Sophie running down the hallway towards me.

“Mom,” she yells.  “It’s gonna thunder later!”

I store the number in my phone.

As we leave the house, Sophie plays the game where she is blind.  “Where are you Mommy? I can’t see you!”

“Here I am!”  I say walking ahead of her in the driveway.

She spins around with her eyes closed.  “Where, Momma?”

“Follow my voice!” I say, playing along.  “I’m right here!”

I grab her hysterically flapping arm and my blind daughter to the car.  “You’re always here,” she says.

“Is there somewhere else I should be?”

She opens her eyes. “At work.  Or with Daddy.  Or at the store.”

I drop Sophie off, and I call Ben at the firehouse.

“Hey Buddy,” he says, like he’s been waiting for my call.  I tell him that I didn’t know he was in Brooklyn.  He asks, “Why would you?”

I sit in the parking lot at work, sweating because I refuse to idle.  Ben asks, “What’s been going on with you all this time?” and I tell him about “all this time,” this fourteen years, that has passed since we very decidedly parted ways at an Arby’s in the mall.  “So, here we are,” I conclude after easily divulging secret feelings of contempt, which I have never before said out loud and don’t know if I mean for real. This is Ben’s effect on me.  Anger, anarchy and the like.  Ben is quiet. I repeat, “Here we are.” Am I fabricating unhappiness for Ben’s sake?  I get the loser chills.  The anxiety cringe.  Starts in my stomach, bleeds out my arms.  I have to shake my head to make it stop.  I hear the firehouse intercom echo in the background.  I ask, “Do you have to go?” hoping something is on fire somewhere.

Ben says, “You should ditch work and come see me.”  So, this is why I have never searched for him before. I call work and tell them I will not be coming in; I feel a migraine coming on.  I call and tell Alex the same.  I stop home, grab a toothbrush and run away.

I ride a train out of New Jersey and another through the city.  Perhaps I am passing under the floating car and the trapped woman.  I assume it’s a woman, one who drove her car off the highway.  We do things like that, big things to spark change.

The F train hurtles out of the tunnel and high up over a Brooklyn neighborhood, pocketed between industrial yards.  I come down off the subway and walk without knowing where I’m going. Brooklyn is the other side of the world, and I didn’t take the time to print out a map.  Instead, before I left I put on dramatic eyeliner in liquid black, and nice underwear: leopard print.

I make a left instead of a right and walk past nothing.  Vans and trucks lining sidewalks.  Coiled barbed wire.  Mostly anonymous edifices, and one massive storage facility, a place for keeping the things people don’t have room for.  It is beginning to smell like the asphalt of summer and my thighs rub together, sweaty under my skirt.  Finally, after circling the block I find the open bay door of Engine Company 279 with two tattooed firemen outside smoking cigarettes.  This seems ironic.

They have Ben paged, and invite me inside.  I drag my fingertips over the rig, all its compartments, thinking how perfect of the fire truck to have everything it needs tucked away inside.  I expect Ben to slide valiantly down the fire pole, but instead he comes out from the kitchen, a dishrag over his shoulder. “You found me.”

“I Googled you.”  We hug and he holds onto my hands, kneading his thumbs into my palms. My chin rests on his hero’s shoulder.  He smells like a grown-up workingman, like gasoline and rubber, and he tells me I look good. I do look good considering the last he saw of me, that day at the Arby’s, I was wearing overalls and a stripy shirt, my hair a shaggy, faded pink boy cut, stainless-steel ball chain choker.

Ben leads me through the firehouse like he is helping a woman in labor into the hospital.  We move past a row of boots with pants attached, limp jackets on hooks, helmets resting above, ensembles waiting for bodies. Ben hurries me to the kitchen where he’s in the middle of getting dinner ready for the house.  Irish beef stew and salad.  The other firemen eye us. I realize that this station is why firemen calendars are made. I correct my posture and bite my lower lip.

“Is it okay that I’m here?” I ask, hoping we were breaking some rules.

“Sure.  Why not?”

In the kitchen, the television shows the noon recap of the Terror on the River, and I say, “That was good advice you gave this morning.”

“Waste of time,” Ben says, slicing carrots for the stew.  After emergency crews had raced to the scene they discovered that there was actually no one in the car.  The Mayor, however, commended rescue efforts and response time during a press conference.  “Just another piece of junk in the river.”  Ben tells me, “There’s a whole graveyard down there, rotting.  Most of them are stolen, stripped down and sunk. This one must have come up somewhere near the Throggs Neck.”

“Or,” I say, “it was driven off the highway,” imagining the crazed woman who dropped a cinderblock on the gas pedal, threw it in drive and watched the car take off, driving on air just before gravity took hold and pulled the nose down.

“Either way, they’re going to have to trap that thing and pull it out of there,” he says. “Like roping a bull.”  They report that the car is sailing fast down river, moving at almost four knots.  It is identified as a Buick, a Skylark, an ‘82, maybe an ‘87.

I ask, “Do you think someone recognizes it?”

“What?  Like a long lost brother?”

“No, like their car.”

“Maybe, but so what?” he says, sweeping the carrots into the pot.

The news shows photos of what the car would look like out of the water. This car is the car of my dreams.  Not the car I want above all other cars in the world, but the car I am trapped in, the car that drives itself as I climb up into the driver’s seat.  In my dream, I have never taken the wheel.  I just sit, hug my knees, and watch the scenery because, apparently, the car knows where it’s going. But, I always wake up before we—me and the Skylark—arrive at our destination.

Ben asks, “Would you want that wreck back if it were yours?”

I think of a soggy pine tree air freshener hanging from the rearview, a rusting St. Christopher, and soaking wet maps.  I tell Ben, maybe I would want it back.

He cracks open two beers, tall boys.  I ask, but they aren’t for us.  The beers are what make his stew Irish. I lean against the counter with a smirk.  I never imagined Ben cooking anything other than Ramen noodles and bong hits.

“How are you with salad?” he asks.

I start with the cucumbers, peeling and slicing thick, bright circles onto a cutting board. They are sweet and dewy.  “I read somewhere once,” I tell him, “that the scent of cucumber is an aphrodisiac.”

He covers the stew and asks if I have any pictures of the family.  I open my phone and let him scroll through snapshots of Alex, of the cat, of Sophie.  “She’s cute,” he says.

“She looks nothing like me.  She’s all Alex.” I take the phone back; I don’t want him to see any more pictures of her.  For the first time ever, I think I’m feeling something like guilt about not having Ben’s kid.  (That kid, who would be starting high school in the fall.)

He hands me two heads of lettuce, bowling ball size, and I start peeling off leafy greens and ripping them into a bowl the size of a large pizza.  I ask about the article I read. “What was it like to rescue a woman from a burning bed?”

“She couldn’t walk,” Ben says.  “I mean, she was paralyzed.”

“With fear?”

“No,” Ben said. “Wheelchair. I don’t really know what it was like.  It’s just my job to make sure people are safe.”  He tells me she suffered second-degree burns across her legs.

I say, “She’s lucky.  At least she couldn’t feel it.”

Ben says that’s one way to look at it.  I’m an asshole, but I do think she’s fortunate to have been reminded of what it means to be safe.  I finish undressing the lettuce from its stalk and sink my hands down into the wet, shredded leaves. “This isn’t much of a salad.  Any croutons or something to gussy it up?  Carrots?”

“They’re simmering in the stew.”

“This is funny,” I say.  “Us making dinner.”  Had I been able to envision this, my whole life would have been different.  I think Ben knows that, too.

“So, what’s going on?  Why are you here?”

“You told me to come,” I say, tossing the cucumbers into the bowl.  “This is done.”  I offer him the dull salad like it’s a horn of plenty.  Really, I want to throw it.

“Did you want to come here?” He is staring with those squinty eyes.

I guess I did.  I shrug as he accepts my salad bowl offering.

He asks, “Why weren’t we ever a real couple?” We are face to face, and I can smell him again, industrial. I touch the scar above his eye.  It is white and smooth and my fault.  He could have used stitches, but we were drunk and in the habit of breaking shit, dropping bottles off a parking deck, kicking and skipping them across the empty parking spaces.  I hurled one.  It hit the divider, exploded, and gashed his head.

My fingertips trace the old wound and trickle down the side of his face and we kiss.  We share breath for moments. He asks, “Do you want to fuck me?” still trying to figure out why I came all this way.  He seems willing.  I imagine myself; a single mother dating a fire captain who saves crippled women from burning beds.  I will inform work, and friends, and the sitter.  I’ll tell the pond clean-up committee I volunteer for, and I will tell Alex that we are moving to Brooklyn. Me and the kid and the cat.  I will definitely take the cat.  But maybe Sophie will stay with Alex.  The thought of not being with my child isn’t as terrible as I imagined and for a second, I think it is because I don’t deserve her.

“You should go home,” Ben tells me.

But rather than leave, I kiss him again, press into him up against the counter.  I remember his body, his bones, the smooth places.  It has changed shape, but the core of him is the same.  I remember what will make him hold his breath, what will make him let go.  We were never a couple, not officially. We were not love poems and teddy bears and meeting parents and future planning. Ben and I just fucked around.  Low maintenance.  I never wanted more, now did I?

That time when he crashed his car, I took him out drinking and fucked him. He slept in a dining room with French doors and his roommate poured himself some apple juice and watched us from the kitchen.  That was the night I got knocked up.  That was the night our futures smashed into each other and a time line of surreal events was drawn out before us. We’d have to meet each other’s parents.  There were definitely going to be teddy bears. And for almost too long we accepted this newly inked map of our life together.  But, two months later, the afternoon at the Arby’s in my overalls, everything was over.

I smell the beer boiling in the stew, and I kiss harder.

He says, “Stop.”  He nudges me away from him and smiles in his way, closed lipped, his eyes doing all the work.  Loser chills.  My gut drops.

I ride the train back to New Jersey. Whizzing past graffitied walls and billboards, speeding by egrets nesting in marshlands outlined in rusted steel.  The train is quiet.  It is in-between time, mid-afternoon as we pull through stations: Secaucus, Newark Broad Street, Bloomfield.   My stomach cringes and I shake my head to make it stop. I take a pen out of my bag and scratch ink into the vinyl train seat:  “I wuz here,” and date it.

On my way to the house, I pick up the meatloaf at the store.  I don’t buy bananas.  I stop by the stuffed rabbit farm and finally replace Bunzy.  I get Sophie early. Her braids are undone leaving two, frizzy pigtails like white dandelion puffs.

“What happened to you hair?”

“I’m sorry,” she says, strapping Bunzy 2 in with the seatbelt.  “They’re too tight.”

I tell her, that’s okay.  “It looks pretty like that.”

At home, we make a salad with carrots and croutons and celery and even add garbanzos. When Alex comes in, I hug him.  He smells warm and tangy and kisses my temple, asking how my headache is.

“Better.”  I tell him that tomorrow I plan on making a lasagna even though I have none of those ingredients.

Before bed, I sneak my toothbrush out of my purse without Alex noticing.  I change into my pajamas while he flips channels.  I keep the leopard print underwear on, a little secret beneath his old boxer shorts and I wonder if in fact it is still going to thunder tonight.

We tune in to the East River Car Situation.  The Skylark, having dodged a few boating collisions and nearly making it out to sea is now floating up river.  An expert, (who I have no history with), explains that the East River is not even a river.  It is a tidal strait, just a channel between the Long Island Sound and the New York Harbor and under the influence of both asynchronous tides.  This is why when the Sound is pushing and the Harbor is still pulling, the East is still and why around midnight, as I sleep, my leg curled around Alex’s, the Skylark languidly drifts in the middle, safe, as tides are busy changing.

 


Apryl Lee teaches creative writing, composition, and screenwriting at Kean University, Bloomfield College and Seton Hall University, as well as at summer programs at Sarah Lawrence College. Currently, she is at work on her first novel. She received her MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College and has completed “Go Nowhere Girl,” a collection of short stories. Her screenplays and films have been selected for festivals including the Cannes Film Festival Short Film Corner, New Filmmakers at Anthology Film Archives, the IFP’s Independent Filmmaker Conference, and as a finalist for the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriter’s Lab.