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

The Lonely Hearted Living by Rena Priest

This work was created during the WoW/UNY Governors Island Residency. Rena Priest was in residence on Governors Island in 2018.


When the outbreak started, I was alarmed enough to start taking action.  Although I hated to think of myself as a doomsday prepper, I bought a canoe and outfitted it with survival gear, then motored to a lonely island cove where I used to picnic with my family every Memorial Day as a child. The cove had been my great-grandmother’s sanctuary, where she brought her children when the Indian agent came to take them away to boarding schools. They stayed on the island through the fall season and returned to the village when the weather turned bitter. Soon after, the agent returned and took the children away to educate the Indian out of them. Kill the Indian to save the man. The youngest didn’t survive. We returned to the cove every spring to remember.

My grandmother would grieve, saying, “They insisted we learn how to stitch prayers into cloth instead of letting our mother teach us how to make baskets. They insisted we learn cursive, while they refused to learn our language with all the words for how to live a beautiful life.”

***

As the weeks passed, the news brought reports about people going cannibal. Then came reports of the National Guard being deployed in urban neighborhoods. Stories about towns on lockdown. The whole time, I had been stashing food and supplies on the island. I bought it all on credit cards, not planning to ever pay it back. Less than three months after the first reports, there was a grizzly account of a mother eating her screaming baby in a mall parking lot. I closed my laptop, drove to the harbor, motored to my cove, set up camp, and waited. From the island, I could see the lights of my city. I was there three nights before they went dark.

People like to believe we are beyond the reach of dangers sensationalized in headlines. Those horrors are happening to other people, in other places. There’s no real news anymore, though we have outposts where people leave old clippings about the outbreak. It’s nothing we don’t know. Keep your distance from people. Don’t eat food from industrial farms. Don’t use electricity or motors of any kind… Someone left a bunch of handwritten copies of the Chief Seattle speech. It resonates:

“At night when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them.”

Now here I am, waiting for someone to find a cure; waiting for the lights of my city to flick back on, waiting for the pulse of helicopter blades; pushing my canoe away from the shore every night. The nights are quiet except for the loneliness that howls inside me, and sometimes the overplayed songs of my youth play in my mind. Sometimes I forget myself and sing. It’s easy to get careless, to think I’m alone.

“In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude.”

Sleeping in my canoe, anchored past the drop-off, is the only way I get a good night’s rest. The GMOs don’t like the water. At night, I sometimes hear people speaking up in the hills. Their voices find me in my lonely canoe, but I can’t understand what they’re saying. Sometimes I wonder if they’re real. They’re not like the voices of my memories.

My dad had a fisherman’s dialect. I can hear his voice as clear and bright as day. It feels so close that I want to talk back; tell him I’m sorry that I drifted away. When I grow tired of my circumstances, I think of a story he told while we were mending net, he and his crew and I, standing in a line and pulling the web, arm length by arm length in search of holes to mend. He didn’t like the crew cursing and telling their raunchy stories around me, so he’d either forgotten I was there, or at that moment, just didn’t care.

Some of those fishing grounds up there are so lonesome and remote, he told us, they make you feel like ain’t nobody else on earth. It gets spooky. Our first go up, we didn’t even have our sea legs yet. It was me and Joe on with Skip Walker’s crew. It was stormy, and all the way up, Joe was drunk on cheap wine and sea-sick as hell. He puked all over one side of my bunk, turned it over and then later puked on the other side. I couldn’t have slept anyway. It was too rough a ride.

By a few days in, the booze was gone, and we were in a calm patch. I felt like I could hold down food, so I went into the galley and saw that all the jelly jars and canned food had fallen to the floor, from the boat being tossed sideways and back. We were trying to put things right when old Skip came in and said, Don’t bother. It’s rough up ahead. So we left it, and sure enough it started to storm again.

When we finally got up to the fishing ground, it was calm as glass, which means no fish, but the damn season wasn’t open yet anyway, and it didn’t open. We dropped anchor in an empty cove and waited for the go ahead to come over the radio, but all we ever heard was talk of radio fish in the straights; jumpers—thick schools swimming right past us. It got everyone edgy.

Finally, the guys elected me spokesman because they were all too scared. They said, Go tell Skip that we’re going to leave if it don’t open by the end of next week. I went and told him and he said, Okay. And during that week, we’s waiting it out there in the middle of nowhere, and there’s nothing to do but sit around starin’ at the four walls, and just when everyone starts getting cabin fever, a big beautiful fiberglass seiner called The Rejoice comes cruising in and ties up. That boat had whiskey, whores, pot, cocaine. It was a big old party boat. I think the net was just for show. I think it was a floating whorehouse.

At the end of the week, we’d spent all the money we’d brought up, and our season still wasn’t open, so we hitched a ride to the next port with The Rejoice and flew home.

Then sure as shit—soon as we got home, word came that the season opened, and here we were: broke, hung-over, and catching hell for bringing our wives the clap instead of a paycheck. Had to learn the hard way, I guess. Don’t get distracted. Be patient and keep about your business and don’t quit until your season opens. Most of the time you’ll do okay, or it used to be that way.

***

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t fanaticize about The Rejoice. In my daydreams, it’s not a floating whorehouse. It’s the U.S. Coast Guard with a handsome crew come to take me to safety, but I guess a floating whorehouse would be just fine. Survival’s got me tired.

Some days I think of motoring my canoe back to town, walking up the dock to the harbor store, and just ripping open a bag of contaminated corn chips, singing loudly as I wash it down with whiskey and cola and let come what may—just fling arms wide to the GMO fate. Some days, I walk along the shoreline looking at the stones, thinking about putting them into my pockets and walking into the waves. But I don’t.


Rena Priest is a writer and Lummi tribal member.  Her debut book, Patriarchy Blues, was released on MoonPath Press and garnered an American Book Award. Her most recent collection, Sublime Subliminal, was published in 2018. She has attended residencies at Mineral School, Underwater New York/Works on Water on Governors Island, and Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers. She is the recipient of a 2018 National Geographic Explorers Grant, and has taught various topics in writing, storytelling, and literature.




We Cross by Tobias Carroll

This work was created during the WoW/UNY Governors Island Residency. Tobias Carroll was in residence on Governors Island from August 6-19, 2018.


[excerpt from We Cross]

One day in the center of the season of autumn I was asked to go to a nearby harbor city, make contact with an associate of an associate of an associate, and camp out there for several weeks. This seemed agreeable to me. I liked the feeling of coastal towns in the off-season, and I generally savored the way the smell of the ocean blended with the breaths one took to experience the feeling of trees at that time of year.

And so I ended up at the bus station, sitting in a waiting room for a bus line on which I’d never traveled before. The room fit fifty comfortably and held perhaps thirty. I found a group of seats removed from the bulk of the travelers, sat down, and opened a magazine. I was wearing comfortable clothes, jeans and a shirt with a bit of text on it, an allusion to a local radio station whose esoteric broadcasts I enjoyed. Three or four minutes after I sat down, I noticed someone standing over me. I set down my magazine and looked up.

The man who stood there was of average height and seemed in early middle age. He had thinning hair and an athletic frame, and wore wire-rimmed glasses. He was pointing at my shirt. “Why do you have that on?” he said. “Letters and numbers on your person are how they get in, when we cross over.” I stared at him blankly. I expected him to hand me a pamphlet or other religious tract at any moment.

“We cross over unclaimed territory on the route,” he said. “Don’t you know that?”

I told him that I had no idea what he was talking about and asked him to leave. He glared at me for another few seconds and then walked away, shaking his head. I saw him sit with another man of similar age at the other end of the waiting room. I could see the two speaking, both men gesturing emphatically. Periodically the man who spoke to me would look over in my direction and point at me. I watched this for another minute or two and returned to my magazine. We had twenty-three minutes before boarding. The journey was slated to take four hours. I didn’t expect to sleep on the way, but there might be some blessings left to occur on this trip.

Twenty-two minutes later the bus began to board. In this way it was like every other journey by bus that I’d taken: we queued, we handed our tickets to the driver, we boarded. I found a seat towards the back of the bus, gathered together my reading material for the trip, and switched on the overhead light.

The bus pulled into a rest area ninety minutes into the trip. I had never traveled this way out of the city before, and I was savoring the route. We seemed to be traveling on smaller byways below the concrete infrastructure of the interstate highways. We maneuvered through marshland, past small radio transmitters whose call letters I didn’t recognize. I could see reeds fifteen feet away, and I wondered if this route was prone to flooding. It had been a dry season so far; the waters here were unlikely to overtake the pavement on which we drove.

It seemed as though this was a parallel route to some other, more efficiently crafted journey. But we were also making good time: we carried on at a rapid clip, and the road down which we traveled had few stop signs, traffic signals, or congestion. Eventually the marshes gave way to buildings with a more industrial cast. I wondered how near we were to the closest waterway. I saw fisheries nearby; some of the buildings nearby had signage evoking the bodies of fish, or the shells of clams and oysters. And then the bus stopped at a small building, roughly the side of my own apartment, on the side of the road. Waiting there was another man clad in a uniform similar to that of our driver. A few cars sat in the parking lot, and a vending machine out front promised effervescent beverages to those with the cash in hand. The driver fired up the PA.

“All right, folks,” he said in a jovial tone. “That’s it for me on this run. Mr. Bass will be taking you across the state line and through the unclaimed territory to our final destination. As always, it’s been a pleasure being your driver.”

The bus came to a stop, and this driver stepped off and the other man got on board. He settled into his seat and reached down to the microphone. His voice was needlier; it seemed less reassuring than that of his predecessor. “Good evening, passengers,” he said. “I’ll be completing the last leg of the journey. We should be at our final destination in approximately forty-four minutes. For those of you who have brought sacks or hoods, I’ll let you know when we’re in sight of the state line.” And with that the bus left the parking lot and headed back onto the road. In the seats in front of me, I could see the telltale signs of fidgeting, of passengers looking through bags or cases for something in particular. And, once they had each located what they sought, the satisfied postures of one with fewer cares than they’d had a moment earlier.

Ten minutes later, the new driver took to the PA again. “We’re about ninety seconds from the mark; those of you who have your hoods will want to put them on now. Everyone else, please avert your eyes and clear your mind, lest you end up fully fucked like me.”

At this point my heart began to wrack itself against my ribs. I had little sense of what was happening. Around me on the bus, I could see my fellow travelers each donning shapeless sacks over their heads, akin to hostages or journalists conveyed to unknown locations in some wide-screen melodrama. Across the aisle from me, a teenager paused in covering his face and turned to me. “What the hell are you doing?” she said.

“What are all of you doing?” I asked.

“Haven’t you done this route before?”

“No,” I said. Across the aisle, her posture softened.

“So no one told you,” she said. “No one told you about what happens when we cross.

“No,” I said. The feeling that I was confronting something wholly irrational continued, now abutted by the sense that there was actually something to fear.

“There are things that get in you when you cross,” she said. “If your eyes are open, they’ll get in you. If you’re thinking about something, they’ll get in you. Because there’s something on your shirt, they might get in you.”

The driver’s voice came over the loudspeaker again. “Thirty seconds to the state line.”

“Look,” my row mate said. “Close your eyes, keep your head down, and take deep breaths. Focus only on the breathing. That’s the best advice I can give.” She turned her face back to the front of the bus and pulled the sack over her head.

What else could I do? I closed my eyes, bowed my head, and breathed in and out as evenly as I could. I focused on the rhythm.


Artist Statement: During my residency, I found that the rituals of crossing the river to get to and from the island had gotten somewhat under my skin. I became interested in the rituals of traveling, and of the nature of liminal spaces. Cross this with my interest in weird fiction, and you get this novella-in-progress, tentatively titled We Cross, which is excerpted here.


Tobias Carroll is the author of Reel and Transitory. He lives in New York. 


Waste Collectors by Charulata Sinha

OBJECT: Tons of Silt

BODY OF WATER: Hudson River


 

No one thought much of it when the garbage men went on strike. They had a list of twenty demands pinned to every signpost and streetlamp. Later I would learn that it was a city-wide effort, but at the time, I thought it was only local. One demand was bolded and italicized: We prefer to be called waste collectors. I supposed this was valid in the same way prostitutes prefer to be called sex workers. Both groups wanted to do away with euphemisms and get down to the nitty-gritty: we collect waste; we have sex. I thought this was only fair enough. Everyone in my building figured it all would be resolved quickly. My landlord assured us these man-babies would cave for the right number. Mostly, people didn’t care about the waste collectors and their fledgling revolution. Evidently their demands weren’t met, because the flyers started multiplying on stoops and doorsteps, escaping their paperweights ten-fold and fluttering in the breeze like many-winged birds. And then there was the trash.

Piles of trash, abandoned on every street corner. Big, black-tar garbage bags down to tiny takeout boxes littered the sidewalk, spilling out of bulging bins. All manner of filth, strewn across the concrete, baked in the summer sun: fish heads, milk jugs, moldy bread, tampons, cheese rind, toilet paper, plastic coffee stirrers, socks, water bottles, beer cans, old sponges, mattresses, an entire toilet, prescription painkiller bottles, curtains, empty soap dispensers. Odd things. Things that used to be whisked away and sunk. After, I thought a lot about what a comforting bit of sorcery that was. What charitable magic the garbage men used to make of the trash, to disappear it. Now the trash sat gross and naked in the accusing light. Every piece was a tiny ghost. It was impossible to escape these reminders of what you had used or not used, but, in any case, had thrown away.

That first week, it was summer. The sun was insistent. The light would glint off the garbage, sparkling and burning. It hurt to look at it. The smell alone; street hawkers began selling nose-plugs. People walked around with scarves wrapped around their faces or else balaclavas, so you could only see eyes, scanning for trash heaps, watering from the fumes. I wore a surgical mask for a few days, then ripped it off in frustration. It didn’t matter. Think about if your smelliest pair of socks or shorts or whatever was large enough to cradle an entire island in its girth. Now, think about going grocery shopping in that clammy, yeasty biodome. Think about three million people and think about that insistent sun and also the sweat. This is what it smelled like.

The mayor released a spineless statement. Something about the concerns of the garbage men being heard, some plan in place for city-workers to sweep up the trash. Soon after his office was swarmed with garbage. Protestors stormed city hall, heaving their Glad bags and Amazon boxes with Styrofoam peanuts through the heavy windows, blocking the entry and exit-ways, setting off the fire alarms, which then set off the sprinklers, which then sprayed tinny water on the trash, which made it soggy and solidified and even more impossible to circumnavigate. Those poor civil servants in that building. This was probably when the first undocumented death occurred. We didn’t hear from the mayor after that. The remaining city-workers quietly quit their jobs. No one wanted to take care of the trash. It was already filling the streets, pouring into parks and highways and every inch of public space. It became impossible to drive a car. People deserted them in the streets, and they too would fill with garbage, stale noodles decorating the headlights, plastic cups pressed up against windows.

The garbage men were somewhere laughing. Think about the profession that we value most. Neurosurgeon, maybe. But what do we stand to lose if neurosurgeons stop doing their job? A couple thousand lives, tops. Probably your grandmother. Sad, but workable. What we stood to lose if the garbage men stopped doing their jobs—this is what we found out.

People tried staying indoors, holed up in their apartments, faces turned resolutely towards the hum of tired fans. Then we lost power. The trash had toppled the wires, destroying the electrical exoskeleton of the city, phone lines curving artfully out of their posts. The Internet disappeared not long after. Still, like children, we curled up in our tiny rooms high above the streets, which were, by this time, completely covered with a brown-red mass of filth, hardened, mold-like. But the garbage soon forced its way into every building, knocking down doors, squeezing people out of windows and onto fire escapes. The sheer force of the trash cannot be overstated. The garbage flood flung us out of our rooms and back into the streets. Those that didn’t escape their apartments were buried alive in the garbage, limbs sticking out of the plastic-cardboard-glass mishmash. This is how my brother died.

Those first few days without power, without Internet, and without roofs over our heads were terrifying. Crowds of people gathered in the streets, dumbfounded, all of us walking aimlessly on top of the trash, which was piled on the concrete about 15-feet deep, forming a squishy but stable ground. I roamed for hours, unsure of what to do with myself. In most places, the trash had completely coagulated, so that you could walk on it like you would a beach or marsh. In some areas, though, the garbage melted into something more liquid than solid. In these cases, you had to swim, holding your breath, hoping a piece of plastic didn’t lodge in your throat. Enterprising young men built makeshift boats out of old bed frames and cardboard boxes and maneuver them through these tricky spots like gondoliers in some terrible Venice.

I met Henry while scavenging for a pair of shoes. I lost mine to a trash rivulet. He handed me a pair of men’s dress shoes, fancy with soft interiors. For a time, we sat wordlessly on a pile of old picture frames, fishing spare goods out of the rubble. It could have been two hours or three days. A middle-aged Slovakian woman named Bubba joined us. She didn’t speak English and this absolved us of small talk. We slept in a row, curled like question marks around each other.

People constructed tiny forts out of sheet metal and cloth, families huddled inside. In this way tent cities popped up in the more populated of areas. They were no match for the angry rain that beat against us as summer slumped into fall. The rain filled even the most solid of trash heaps, so they wept a strange pus if stepped on. Children began to get sick, the babies crying loudly and angrily as the storm grew deeper and more Biblical. Thunder struck a particularly oily spot of old Chinese food and electrocuted everyone within a block radius. Eventually the babies stopped crying. I saw a toddler who had forgotten what food was chewing contentedly on a flip-flop.

Food was everywhere and nowhere. Mold grew on every surface. Each potential meal was covered in the stuff. Fruits and vegetables were long gone, disintegrated into soupy sludge. Eggs lay cracked open, bleeding yolk onto old TVs and heaps of office paper. Bread was unrecognizable, radioactive. Our best hope was nonperishables—cans of preserved corn, chewy crackers in bulk boxes. But even those were overrun with roaches. The roaches, I think, had undergone some sort of rapid Darwinian transformation, discovering that this was indeed the environment to which they were most aptly suited. They grew wilier, smarter, scarier. They developed huge pincers, and would hide in boxes of cereal and wait for us, daring. When they bit, they drew blood, and did not run away but simply hung on, lodged indefinitely, their glassy black backs hard and smooth against our skin. The rats grew to the size of house cats. They lounged liberally in the middle of the street, stomachs distended and veiny, exhausted and satiated.

Neighborhood lines faded away. Each area was defined only by its trash. You could tell the higher-income districts by their specific garbage—organic linen instead of two-ply, artisanal jars of sundried tomatoes and wheatgrass concentrate. But high-class trash was still trash. This was at least an equalizer, which was comforting for some of us. We navigated the island by newly formed landmarks—the mountain of staplers and chip bags south of the waterfall of margarita mixer. It was quicker and easier to move by swinging from the sides of buildings using the high-fiber cable-wire Bubba had discovered by the heap of coffee stirrers. This was not as graceful, or as fun, as you might imagine. It was a complicated, fiddly piece of business, hooking the wire into our belt loops, securing it onto a fire-escape ladder. Henry nearly tumbled to his death trying to navigate off a high-rise which had no neighboring building because, as we later figured out, it bordered a park.

A new world order emerged from the trash. Tribes formed and warred. A favorite tactic was setting the garbage piles on fire. Sulfurous pillars of smoke marked the contested spots. Gormless, we stumbled headfirst into danger and each time extracted ourselves, sticky and panting. Henry once set up camp for the night, only to discover the next morning that his cable-wire had been stolen by guerilla fighters. A barter economy developed. One could trade a piece of cloth for a bag of gummy worms, but one couldn’t trade a bag of gummy worms for a toothbrush, because toothbrushes were now useless. These were the types of unspoken rules that we all had no trouble learning. Bubba was particularly adept at trading for food. She would leave with a single metal shower rod and come back beaming, arms stuffed with cans of sweet potatoes.

The days slid into months, which slid into years, and I discovered a slimy film developing over my skin, the result of hundreds of grease fires and the collective chemical oil of the island. I wondered if I would turn green, like a slice of supermarket sheet cake. Henry developed a hacking cough. Bubba and I worried for him. There was no time for sickness. We were always moving. We had to be smart and mean. If someone asked me for food, begging on the ground, crying, I turned away, eyes slanted towards my destination. Which is how I moved through the world before all of this happened.

One morning I heard a voice, ringing clear and true as a bell through the usual ruckus of the dawn. I crept up carefully, so as not to wake up Bubba and Henry. I followed the voice.

“You are good, you are motivated, you are helpful.”

I stepped around a corner, dodging a rolling ball of crusted-up underwear.

“Try to think of one positive change you can enact today.”

I discovered an old man in a lavender beanie, crouched with his knees pressed to his chest.

“You are a shining light of goodwill. Pass along a kind act.”

He was listening to a self-help book. Everyone’s electronics had run out of battery years ago. It had been so long since I had heard a voice from a machine.

“You are more than the sum of your parts.”

I slunk closer, and accidentally stepped on his coat. He flinched, drawing back to look up at me. He looked angry, as if I had stolen something that was intimately his.

“Fuck off,” he said.

“Okay,” I said.

That morning the sun rose like fire over the grainy horizon. Sunrises were beautiful here, it had to be said. The greasy air bent the orange into prisms of hollow, pure light. I nudged Bubba awake. We were moving further uptown that day. We each hooked an arm under Henry’s armpits, hoisting him up. By this point, he was too weak to stand. The sludge had found its way into his lungs, breaking apart cilia like matchsticks. We found a quiet spot underneath an old signpost. Caution: Slow Down, Children Crossing. Time unspooled, and the sky remained a fickle grey as weeks flickered past. It was impossible to tell whether it was night or day, the air so thick and opaque that Henry simply lay down and never got up.

About a year later, Bubba and I were scavenging for Nilla Wafers, since we had heard there was a box underneath a pile of child-size sneakers. This was when we heard the shouting. A monstrous ferry was nearing the island, the kind of big boat that seems like an affront to the laws of physics. A man in a hazmat suit motioned us towards the onboarding line, and, unquestioning, we shuffled into place. It was winter, and the snow crunched beneath our feet. It was a yellow-green color. We were careful not to sniff it or get the watery residue on our hands.

I hadn’t considered leaving the island before this. The rich had been air-lifted out of the city within the first week of the disaster, but the rest of us had stayed, through the garbage and the death. It’s not that we rejected the idea of leaving, only that we had never sought escape. It was part of an unwritten social contract that we had all signed upon moving to the island all those years ago, blithely unaware of what was to come. You move to this wretched place from your small towns, from your boring flyover states, determined to thrive, no matter what the stupid, unbearable cost. Once you get here, there is slim chance you will leave, because wherever you came from was decidedly worse than this, which is, after all, why you are still here, miserable, fishing spare change out of Swiss-holed-pockets to buy a twelve-pack of ramen at the bodega.

I stood with the rest of the exodus, pressed against the railings of the ferry, sailing across the river slick with silt. I looked out at the trash city, and mostly I was sad. Living inside the muck had flattened me, made me part of a collective, sinewy whole. For years, we had crouched in the heart of a massive and terrible organism and every breath we took, it took also. The city was the trash was us was the trash was the city. There was a poetry to it that I couldn’t name. I knew that I couldn’t go back now that I had left, that to do so was to violate something sacred. I peeled my fingernails clean from their nail beds and yielded each to the water below. For every fingernail, a navy funeral.


Charulata Sinha is a student at New York University. Her work has been featured in Mcsweeney'sThe RumpusAfropop WorldwideVice, and Write Bloody Publishing

 

 

 

 

 

Reaching Through Time by Tara Hempstead

OBJECT: Robot Hand

BODY OF WATER: Great Kills State Park


 EXT. ATLANTIC OCEAN-SUNSET

A large passenger liner slices through the waves of the Atlantic.  New York’s skyline as it appeared in the 1920’s disappears into the horizon.  

                                                                                                                                               CUT TO:
INT. SHIP’S DINING ROOM- NIGHT

ORCHESTRA MEMBERS TUNE and REHEARSE amongst themselves at the end of the dining room as a CROWD in eveningwear enters.

A FLUTE MELODY rises above the beautiful, disjointed sounds of the orchestra and soars across the dining room. PATRONS gradually separate from the CROWD to their dining tables, where WAITERS greet them with teacarts.  The sounds of PATRONS CHATTING and the CLINK of chinaware grow louder as PATRONS settle into the space.

The PRINCIPAL CELLIST and CONCERTMASTER nod to each other and stop playing.  Following suit, the ORCHESTRA falls silent and straightens their spines.

PATRON 1, who has a cup of tea pressed to his lips, becomes self-conscious and gingerly sets the tea on its saucer and onto the table.

PATRON 2 and 3, a couple, inch their bodies closer to each other in anticipation.

The ORCHESTRA stands as the CONDUCTOR appears on the stage. PATRONS watch as the CONDUCTOR steps onto the podium center stage and turns to face them.

He bows.  AUDIENCE, roused from their reverent silence, bursts into APPLAUSE.

The CONDUCTOR scans the ORCHESTRA through his wide glasses as they take their seats.  His lip turns upward to suggest a smile.  The room is at his mercy as he waits for an intangible sign to begin.

EVERYONE inhales as the CONDUCTOR raises his arms. There, holding the baton, his hand glitters, reflecting the light overhead.  The hand is not made of skin, but of metal and bolts.  

PATRONS breathe out as the CONDUCTOR dips his bionic hand and the MUSIC begins.  The MUSIC emanates such sweetness that PATRONS can’t help but sway, buoyed by each tender moment.

A VIOLINIST sitting near the middle of the ensemble fastens his gaze onto the CONDUCTOR, moving through each note as if it came from his soul.

The CONDUCTOR seems to look past the VIOLINIST every time.  The VIOLINIST’S fingers maintain a certain delicacy, but his gaze turns into a piercing glare.

The CONDUCTOR’S hands begin to tremble, and the ORCHESTRA slowly grows louder. VIOLINIST grunts as CONDUCTOR raises his arms higher. The TRUMPET PLAYERS lift their bells as the ORCHESTRA reaches the pique of the crescendo.

The CONDUCTOR beams as the ORCHESTRA triumphs at the climax of piece.  VIOLINIST closes his eyes in rage and buries himself in the music.

The ORCHESTRA strikes its final chord and the CONDUCTOR claws the air, as if to catch the piece in his hand.  He is frozen with his robotic hand clenching the baton above his head as the chord vibrates through the hall.

His hands fall to his sides, and the AUDIENCE rises to its feet, adorning the performance with thunderous praise.

                                                                                                                                               CUT TO:
INT. CONDUCTOR’S STATEROOM- EVENING

The CONDUCTOR trudges into his stateroom brimming with uneven stacks of music scores. His footsteps can barely be heard in the thick carpet, and his ears RING in the silence.

He removes his robot hand with a grunt and sets it on a piece of folded cloth on his desk.

He melts into the chair at his desk and rubs his temple. He blinks at the portal window, watching the noiseless waves.

There is a KNOCK at his door.

The room slips back into silence.

There is another KNOCK, this time, louder.

CONDUCTOR rises and crosses the room.  When he opens the door, VIOLINIST storms into his room.

VIOLINIST squares off with the CONDUCTOR, who’s still clutching the door open.  VIOLINIST’S eyes travel from the CONDUCTOR’S surprised face to his handless arm. He squints.

VIOLINIST
(Nods)
Maestro.

CONDUCTOR twists the lock into the doorframe.  The door hits the interfering lock with a CLUNK.

CONDUCTOR
(stepping toward Violinist)
Good evening.  Is there any trouble?

VIOLINIST frowns.

VIOLINIST
I’ve played under your baton for years. (Twisted smile) Surely you’ve at least noticed that?

CONDUCTOR
Yes. I remember your first rehearsal.

 

VIOLINIST
(giggling)
Yes, I bet.  In many ways, it’s like I’m still there.

CONDUCTOR
How so?

VIOLINIST
You see, I’m still in the same seat I started in.  Haven’t moved, haven’t gotten any better. But all of my peers have passed me by.

CONDUCTOR looks away from VIOLINIST and steps away from the doorframe. 

CONDUCTOR
I see.  

VIOLINIST
(suddenly stern)
Surely there’s a reason I’ve been overlooked all these years.

VIOLINIST starts circling the CONDUCTOR toward the desk with his hands in his suit pockets.

VIOLINIST
I work harder than any player here.  I would say that’s plain to see, but- well- that’s our predicament, isn’t it? I want to move forward- yes- be recognized. Finally. (Stopping at corner of desk) But, you’ve heard this all before, I’m sure.  And you don’t have an investment in a seemingly replaceable player like me.

VIOLINIST SIGHS, dropping his chin.  He sees the robotic hand on the desk.  He perks up.

VIOLINIST
Or maybe you do?

CONDUCTOR opens his mouth to say something and takes a step forward.

VIOLINIST gingerly plucks the robot hand from its resting place. Amused, he points a finger on robot hand and wags it at the CONDUCTOR.

VIOLINIST
Nuh-uh.

CONDUCTOR halts.

VIOLINIST LAUGHS and lunges.  The CONDUCTOR steps back in alarm.  VIOLINIST shoves the hand into his pocket and runs.

INT. HALLWAY- SECONDS LATER

CONDUCTOR stumbles into the hall as the VIOLINIST disappears around the corner.  

EXT. SHIP DECK- NIGHT

CONDUCTOR crosses the threshold into the night.  VIOLINIST stands near the rail at the edge of the ship, perfectly still as he battles with himself, searching CONDUCTOR’S face for an answer. VIOLINIST clutches robot hand to his chest.

CONDUCTOR stops, powerless for the first time.

CONDUCTOR
Please—

VIOLINIST
You won’t get any better.

VIOLINIST winds his arm back and throws the hand into the ocean.

CONDUCTOR runs to the railing and looks overboard. VIOLINIST grimaces and walks away. THE CONDUCTOR is met with a pool of darkness.

                                                                                                                                               CUT TO:
EXT. STATEN ISLAND NEIGHBORHOOD- PRESENT DAY

Dawn breaks over a row of antiquated single-family homes in Great Kills.

INT. BEDROOM-SUNRISE

A flashlight illuminates a desk with homemade musical instruments- an inventor’s workspace. A GIRL’S shadow is projected onto the chipping floral wallpaper of the old home.

GIRL, about ten years old, hunches into the flashlight’s glow.  Her hair is messy and her eyes are as wide as the bags under her eyes.  There’s an empty box of animal crackers nearby.  It looks like she has not moved all night.

She plucks a string on the instrument inches from her face and it RESONATES.  She grins.

Footsteps ECHO in the hall.  

There’s a KNOCK at GIRL’S bedroom door, which she has no time to answer before her MOTHER enters.

GIRL turns around and looks at her MOTHER in shock.  MOTHER takes one glance at her daughter framed by her inventions in the flashlight’s dome.  

MOTHER
(unsurprised)
Were you up all night again?

GIRL pretends to notice her workspace for the first time.

MOTHER
(laughs)
Right.

She crosses the room and throws the shutter shade back.

GIRL squints.  When her eyes have adjusted, she leans toward the window and looks down the block.

MOTHER
It’s Saturday.  Were you gonna go back to the park?

GIRL turns to her mother with a reassuring smile.

MOTHER
See, I know you!  I need to do some work today, so you’ll have to go by yourself this time.  Is that okay?

GIRL confidently climbs off chair and adjusts her bathrobe.


GIRL
Yeah! I got it!

                                                                                                                                               CUT TO:

EXT. NEIGHBORHOOD- LATER THAT MORNING

GIRL rushes out of the house and down the street

EXT. STRIP- MORNING

GIRL passes a row of storefronts, skidding to a halt in front of the music store to look at the violin in the window display.

After a few seconds, she adjusts the bag on her shoulder with resolve and continues running along the path.

EXT. GREAT KILLS PARK BEACH- DAY

GIRL kicks off her shoes at the edge of the sand and scoops them up.  The breeze HOWLS in her ears as she looks over the beach.  She steps forward, crossing into a peaceful place.

EXT. GREAT KILLS PARK BEACH- LATER

GIRL sits near a patch of green with her eyes closed, hearing COMPOSITIONS in her mind.  

She hears BEACHGOER’S VOICES as they pass, as well as the OSPREY CALLS and whisper of the rolling waves.  Each seems like a soloist as they move through her piece.

She opens her eyes, entranced by the BEACHGOERS. In the distance, CHILDREN SQUEAL and SPLASH in the water.  

TEENAGE GIRL passes with BOYFRIEND, carrying a bucket of shells.  The shells CLINK as she rummages through them.

After they pass, GIRL notices she is alone.  She reclines.

A metal object pokes out of the sand next to her head.  Noticing this out of the corner of her eye, she SCREAMS and shoots back up, sand flying.

The object doesn’t move.  She leans forward and the object reflects a ray of sunlight onto her face.

She brushes the sand away to reveal the CONDUCTOR’S robotic hand. Now, it is mostly dull and missing some fingers, but it is the most fantastic thing GIRL has ever seen.

She brings the hand close to her face.  Her eyes grow wide.

She slowly looks down at her other arm.  For the first time, we see she does not have a right hand.  She measures the hand against the end of her right arm.

GIRL GASPS.  She hops to her feet and runs off the beach.

                                                                                                                                               CUT TO:
EXT. STRIP- DAY

Running in the opposite direction as before, she passes the music store, grinning as she catches a glimpse of all the instruments in the window.

INT. BEDROOM- EVENING

GIRL, wearing the robotic hand, brings her arm up to her face and bites the excess banding on the mechanism she constructed to secure the robotic hand to her arm. 

As the banding drops to the floor, she extends her right arm in front of her and turns it to marvel at the hand from all angles.  She added extremities made from household materials to where they had been missing earlier, and the failed prototypes sit scattered across her desk. 

She uses her other hand to bend the robotic hand’s fingers around a pencil, which she pulled from the failed finger pile.

Satisfied, she glances at one of her music inventions standing nearby.

She reaches over and plucks the string on it. The string VIBRATES, and she glances upward as if she can see the sound rise.

                                                                                                                                               CUT TO:
INT. MUSIC STORE- THE NEXT MORNING

The bell above the door JINGLES as GIRL crosses the threshold.  Her new right hand is stuffed deep in her coat pocket.

She wanders the showroom, glancing up at the towering shelves of instruments.  A LUTHIER glances up from a violin he is repairing at his tall desk.

LUTHIER
(from desk)
What can I help you with?

GIRL jumps.

GIRL
I would like to try some violins.

LUTHIER
What kind of sound ar’ya lookin’ for?

GIRL
I dunno… I’ve never played before.  
(Confidently) But I want to learn!

LUTHIER
Well, I’m no teacher, but this is always a good place to start.

INT. SHOWROOM- LATER

LUTHIER supports the violin on GIRL’S shoulder as she presses the side of her face into the chin rest.

LUTHIER
Okay, hold it right there.

GIRL blinks at him as he steps back.  He examines the GIRL with the violin awkwardly protruding from her shoulder, standing stiffly because she’s too nervous to move.

LUTHIER nods, with a slight smile.

GIRL beams and rocks on her heels.  LUTHIER picks a bow from the collection he’s laid out on the table.

LUTHIER
Now, the bow is just as important as the violin.

GIRL watches with wonder as the delicate bow comes into focus before her. He kneels at her side to position the bow, and she lifts her arm enough for her sleeve to pull back. He stops when he sees her robot hand.

LUTHIER
Fascinating.

GIRL
(flexing hand)
I found it.

LUTHIER whistles.

GIRL
Do you think I can play with it?

LUTHIER, still kneeling with bow in his hand, looks up at her with warmth.  

LUTHIER
You wouldn’t be the first.

INT. BEDROOM- A FEW YEARS LATER

MUSIC fills the room as GIRL PLAYS the violin masterfully.  She abruptly sets her instrument down and picks up a pencil.

She leans into her music stand and scribbles music notes onto staff paper.  She HUMS the passage to herself then picks her violin up again and PLAYS the piece in its entirety.

It sounds similar to her beach compositions from years before, only more expansive in its emotion and the control she exhibits over her instrument.

She flings her bow off the string at the piece’s end.

                                                                                                                                               CUT TO:
INT. CARNEGIE HALL- YEARS LATER

LARGE ORCHESTRA REHEARSES as AUDIENCE shuffles to their seats.


CUT to GIRL sitting slightly off center from where VIOLINIST sat earlier, warming up and watching AUDIENCE settle into their seats in high spirits.

The lights dim and the AUDIENCE turns quiet.  CONDUCTOR takes the stage and the ORCHESTRA stands as the hall surges with APPLAUSE.  GIRL looks excited as he steps onto the podium.

As before, he bows to the AUDIENCE, but this time motions for FOUR SOLOISTS to join him. They file onto the stage, each holding one of the GIRL’S inventions.  She grins as they bow.

The FOUR SOLOISTS nod to CONDUCTOR that they are ready.

CONDUCTOR turns to ORCHESTRA and lifts his arms, baton pinched in a chrome hand. ORCHESTRA raises their instruments as one in response.  GIRL puts her violin on her shoulder and sets the bow on the string at the frog, robot hand framing her face.

CONDUCTOR and GIRL make eye contact.  She nods slightly.  He grins and thrusts his arms up higher still.  When he drops them for the downbeat, they start the piece.

End.


Tara Hempstead is a writer, violinist, and multimedia artist based in Brooklyn.  Her writing often builds on her background in music, which began fourteen years ago when she signed up for orchestra to get out of class.

She studied TV and film production in her native Florida, where a number of her comedy and drama scripts were produced.  Find more about her writing, music, and art at tarahempstead.com and follow her on Instagram (@popt_art.)

Scarlet Tanager by Nicole Haroutunian

This story is an outtake from Silent Beaches, Untold Stories: New York City's Forgotten Waterfront. Read more about the book, and order it, here


OBJECT: Scarlet Tanager, Oil, Toxins

BODY OF WATER: Newtown Creek


Sunday morning, we’re sopping up Heinz beans with toast, taking our eggs over easy, drinking down restorative pints of Guinness. The pub is cool and dark, shelter against the bright, beautiful summer day outside. It’s not the same spot we were drinking at last night, but it’s right around the corner.

Erin’s college roommate, Judy, is staying with us at our parents’. I couldn’t wait to have Erin back home again, but three of us girls in the bedroom I’d just gotten used to having to myself, well. The boys, Eddie and Ralph, aren’t staying there, too—God forbid—but they were here last night and are back this morning, so they might as well be.

Feeling ok? Erin mouths. Although she’s only a year and half older than me, college has made the gap more pronounced. I let her baby me the same way she let me tag along last night. I turned eighteen last month so it’s finally legal for me to trail her into a bar. I nod. My waking headache recedes with each greasy bite of breakfast.

“You do look alike,” Judy says, eyes flitting between Erin and me. “It’s just your hair is a different color.” She twists a piece of her long light hair with Erin’s: same-same. “People ask if we’re sisters all the time.”

I cram a piece of sausage into my mouth.

“I said that,” Eddie says. “Didn’t I ask you that when we met?”

“You make it sound so long ago,” Erin says. She’s practically fluttering her eyelashes. “It was just last night!”

This is news to me. I thought these boys were college friends, too.

“No, no,” Judy sets me straight. “They’re in the Coast Guard.” She says it as if there’s romance to this.

I raise two fingers to my brow, salute.

“Cute,” Ralph says. I see my sister and her friend exchange a look. “You girls up for a walk?” he asks. “Some of the guys spotted a crazy oil spill while they were on a patrol the other day. It’s near here. Me and Eddie want to check it out.”

“Gross,” Judy says.

I was focused on catching up with Erin last night, edging between her and Judy for a little of her time—well, that and drinking beer after beer—but I remember now, Ralph hanging around me, Ralph buying me some of those beers. He’s definitely the more appealing of the two boys, but I still don’t want to encourage it. What would Judy and my sister do with only one guy between them? I’m the obvious fifth wheel. “I should go home,” I say.

“Yeah, you don’t have to come,” Erin says to me, proving my point. A gold claddagh ring, her one adornment today, glints as she gestures for our check. The ring was our grandmother’s. I used to think that once I got to be Erin’s age, I would start to accumulate some of Nanna’s “special pieces,” too, but it turns out I will never be Erin’s age.

“She does have to come,” Ralph says. “Of course she does.”

We make our way out onto the sidewalk and let the boys lead the way under the pigeon-haunted looping arcs of the seven train, across the frenetic eight lanes of Queens Boulevard and down bustling Greenpoint Avenue, as if we weren’t the ones who are from here. Me, I don’t follow boys, but I do follow my sister. I always have. Some girls gain weight when they go away to school, but Erin, I see in the sunlight, casts only a sliver of shadow. Our mother, entranced with canned goods and proud of her perpetually full pantry, whispered to me on the way out this morning that I best make sure my sister finished her breakfast. I’ll report back that she did, although it was Eddie who ate the last of her eggs.

Ralph walks backward for a block, asking us how long we’ve lived here (forever), how we like it (it’s where we’re from, what does liking it have to do with it), if there were any good spots to buy comic books (what?). In the early summer sun, his eyes are dark and luminous, like Coca Cola in a glass.

He turns back around and I tug on Erin’s elbow. “Who are these people?”

Judy laughs, as if I’d been talking to her. She casts a pointed eye at the rear of Eddie’s tight jeans. “Like, do you need any more information?”

Erin wraps her arm around my neck, a brittle vice grip. “We’re just having a nice day,” she says, squeezing. We cross over the LIE, the traffic rushing underneath us, to and from Manhattan. We’re coming up on the cemetery where we’ve got a family mausoleum. It’s not one of the fancy ones with stained glass and carved angels, just a plain old grey stone box.

Opposite the cemetery is a crumbling brick school, sort of gothic with turrets at the top. It used to terrify us as children. Kids would sneak in to ghost-hunt at Halloween every year. When I was twelve and Erin was fourteen, she went with a bunch of older kids and I thought I would die waiting for her to come home. When she finally did, she had this story of how she hadn’t seen a ghost but had felt one, a cold cloak touching all of her body, an icy feeling she couldn’t shake. It was with her, she said, still with her, right there in our bedroom. She climbed into my bed and cried. I still don’t know what really happened in that empty building that night, but I know it didn’t really have to do with a ghost.

I sweep my hand across the landscape. “This is called Blissville,” I say. "Really."

Judy sniffs the air. Her nose wrinkles, porcine, unflattering. I am glad we’re moving toward the smell.

“That’s the Creek,” I add.

“Are you starting at New Paltz in the fall, too?” Ralph asks me. “Joining your sis?”

I shake my head; Judy slips her hands into her back pockets, pushing her chest forward. I almost say that she’ll have Erin to herself again soon enough but instead I pull my tortoiseshell sunglasses from my bag, slide them up my nose. “Nearby,” I say. “Vassar.”

Eddie laughs, nudges Ralph. “Girls school, huh,” he says. “Nice.”

“It’s been co-ed for nearly ten years,” I say. Eddie’s head is going pink in the sun, the skin exposed by his military shearing.

Ralph’s face is pink, too, but likely from the embarrassment of being associated with Eddie. That the pale buffoon is who my sister seems to have her eye on is a disappointment.

We’re coming up on a chain link fence. On the other side, Newtown Creek. Because the sky is a flawless blue, from here it sparkles like any normal body of water, despite the grey industrial tangle on either side of it. Ralph holds a piece of fence to the side so we can duck through. Some prior explorers or ne’er-do-wells have cut it with sheers. The ground is silty, strewn with broken glass, tires, jagged flinty rocks. Judy picks across it in her raffia platforms, fighting a scowl, trying to seem game. She lifts up her left foot, inspecting the sole. Erin and I are in matching blue Dr. Scholl’s, keeping us out of the muck. We head straight for the green-slimed pier at the water’s edge, trying to see below the surface.

“I expected black,” Erin says. “Plumes, streaks.”

“It just looks like water,” Judy says. “Regular, dirty, disgusting New York City water. I’m from Long Beach—we should go there next week.”

They retreat; Eddie follows. I crouch. It’s true that there’s no dramatic, see-it-from-the-sky oil spill evident, but up close, the water looks psychedelic, slicked with a purple-silver film. It doesn’t look regular. Ralph comes up beside me, hitches up his jeans and squats down to inspect.

“So, is it the oil spill that gives it that smell? No,” Ralph says.

“Our uncle worked at this factory,” I say. Erin perches on a slab of cement overlooking the water. I worry for tetanus, but join her. Eddie takes the corner on her other side, his thigh pressed against hers. I wish she were wearing jeans like the rest of us, but Erin is always in a dress—this one, red and blue vertical stripes with big white buttons down the front.

“More like a plant,” Erin corrects me. “Rendering animals for glue. For a while when we were little we thought he stole pets to burn up—it was explained to us too quickly.”

“Really, it was scraps from butchers, house pets that had passed, police horses,” I say. “He told us that once they even broke down a circus elephant.”

Ralph hovers between us and the water, toeing a role of waterlogged rug with his brown boot. Erin pulls her hair to the side, exposing her freckled neck. As Eddie eyes it, I notice that Judy is leaning on him, the curve of her hip, where her shirt is riding up, snug against his side. Erin tips her head closer to his, and he takes her hand. Together, they examine her gold ring, Erin explaining the Irish iconography, the clasped hands and heart.

I talk over her: “He lost his job a few years back when the place got caught pumping all kinds of rancid fat and stuff into the water. It’s still in there, I bet. Hence, the smell.”

“God, can we talk about something other than rotting carcasses?” Judy says. She is a breath away from a huff, a toe-tap away from a stomping tantrum. She wants attention and she is not getting it, not from anyone. I almost feel bad. Her eyes snap from Erin to Eddie at a dizzying clip. She tosses her head, looks to Ralph now. He’s still listening to me. “Like, anything?” she says. “Like, what should we do tonight?”

“Our uncle told us about an explosion that happened over here when he first started working at the plant,” I say. Judy wanting to change the subject is all I need to keep going. “The crew heard this terrific boom and then, sailing up three stories into the air, they saw a manhole cover. Flipping like a coin. They started calling heads or tales.” I point up at the sky, draw an arc with my finger. As I do, I actually see something in the sky. A glint of red.

Ralph squints up at where I’m pointing. “Is that a balloon?”

No one else sees it; they’re not looking hard enough. “Right there,” we say, tracing its flight. “There!” I shield my eyes with my hand, pick my way down the shore of the creek, following the little flutter. The smell of the water intensifies as I skirt a rusted cluster of rebar. This area is still active during the week, but on a Sunday, it’s just us, the charred, caustic smell, the water, the sky. The red flicker settles on the bare branch of a slim, gnarled tree.

“It’s a bird!” I say. It is palm-sized, if that, scarlet with black wings and a black tail. Its peppercorn eyes, level with its pale beak, give it a serious look, despite its festive plumage.

Ralph, right behind me, says, “Well, what did you think it would be?”

“It’s the end of June and that tree is dead,” I say. “The water is filled with oil and decay. I didn’t think it would be a perfect little bird.”

“I’m just teasing,” Ralph says. “Maybe it’s like a canary in a mine, you know?”

“Yeah,” I say. “If it dies, we’ll know that we need to get out of here quick.”

The bird makes a surprisingly throaty sound: chick-burr, chick-burr. Ralph says, “It knows we’re talking about it.”

“It must be used to being watched,” I say. “I don’t think there are many birds like this left in Queens.”

“Bird watchers call the bird that hooks them, that makes them want to buy their first pair of binoculars, their spark bird,” Ralph says.

I stare into those sugary eyes of his. “Are you sparked?”

He opens and closes his hands over his head, wiggling his fingers like fireworks. I laugh as he sparkles, drawing closer to me. I flash forward to the fall, to my own college roommate—who will she be?—asking about Queens, about my last summer there. Me telling her, “There was this guy in the Coast Guard…”

A low-flying plane roars by, descending into LaGuardia. The noise startles the bird as much as it does us. It has a bit of a false start, a stutter that gets it only as far as another branch on the tree, crying low—chick-burr, chick-burr—but then it is off, away and gone.

When the bird noise and plane noise clear, what is left is the whooshing of my own blood in my ears as Ralph leans in, the crackle of sparks, sparks, sparks. Then we hear a splash, a splash, a splash. Three in a row, or is it four?

Ralph takes off running. His strides are long and he doesn’t bobble as his boots crunch down on all manner of detritus as he flies along the shore. He is military after all. I follow, toes curled to keep my slides on.

Judy is wet, but it is Erin in the water. Eddie is in there, too. Ralph seems poised to jump in, but pauses, assessing.

“What the hell?” I yell. I am dizzy from the sparks, the run, the fumes, the worry. I hold my hands out to Erin as if she could reach.

Judy’s jeans are soaked from the knees down, a little higher on the left than the right, the water-weight causing them to droop on her hips. The tips of her blond locks are dripping and she is retreating from the water’s edge. Her eyes are wide and scared, but her mouth is set in a bitter line. “She pushed me,” Judy says. “Into that water.”

“Why is she the one in there, then?” I ask, as Erin’s head dips below the surface. She’s not drowning. She’s diving. Eddie is treading, groping under the surface, trying to get a grip on her. His face is red from the exertion and, it seems, from anger.

“You need me in there, man?” Ralph calls.

Eddie answers by kicking his way back to the water’s edge. “She’s crazy,” he says. “She won’t come out.” He uses his big arms to hoist himself onto dry land.

“Erin,” I scream, my hands balled up at my sides. “Erin, get out of there!”

“She’s crazy,” Eddie repeats. We watch, helpless, as Erin bobs up for breath, goes back under. “Goddamn it, my skin is going to fall off.” Eddie holds out his arms, examining.

Judy approaches, saying, “Let me look.”

“You,” Eddie says. To us, he says, “This one, too. She threw Erin’s ring in the water, is what this all is about.” He makes a terrible hacking sound in this throat, spits, repeats.

I feel bile rising in my own throat listening to him. I ask Judy, “Why would you do that?”

The corners of her mouth turn down. “I didn’t think,” she says. “I just saw her take it off to show Eddie and I grabbed it and threw.”

“When our uncle died,” I say, “the one who we keep talking about, the one who worked here before losing his job, he lived with our grandmother. Her gave her that ring and so she gave it to Erin. In remembrance of him. At the funeral.”

I don’t know why I say this, except that it works: Judy starts to cry. There’s no special story to that ring. There’s no way to explain what Erin is doing out there in the Creek. From here, the oil and the toxins, the heavy metals and the death, turn the water into a perfect mirror for the sky. Each time Erin dives under, it is like she disappears into the clouds. It must be deeper than it seems.

Later, after we’ve sent the boys back to the Coast Guard, after we’ve sent Judy back to Long Island, after Erin has showered, and showered again, and I’ve brushed her long blond hair, after she sleeps it off and a few days pass and we pretend what happened was funny, I go to the library and check out a field guide to birds of the coastal northeast.

I don’t know what Erin’s spark was, if it was in that empty school, or away at college, if it was stoked by the swirling oil swallowing her ring in Newtown Creek; I don’t know what she’s left looking for. But me? I lace up a pair of boots and tell my sister to do the same. We’re going to find that little red bird. 


Nicole Haroutunian is co-editor of Underwater New York. 

 

The Bicentennial by Claudia Isler

OBJECT: Eels, shoes, fish

BODY OF WATER: Hudson River


All these white people with blankets and bottles of wine and bits of cheese were camped out along the river to see the tall ships. It was hot as fuck, New York summer wet, with the stink of garbage and something worse, something I don't have a name for.

Mom took me and my little brother to the West Side to see them. The boats were pretty cool, from all over the world. The best was the Amerigo Vespucci, from Italy--I had just learned about that explorer at school. The ship was huge and had more sails than I'd ever seen before. The closest I'd ever been to a sailboat was the models people played with in Central Park. We just went over to a railing and watched for a while. While we were watching, all of a sudden it started pouring. It had been sunny but we were drenched. We ran for a bus, and when we got back east, we saw it hadn't rained there at all. For laughs we told our older brother we'd fallen in the river, and he believed us. Dummy.

Not everyone was excited about the boats and the Bicentennial, though. No flag-waving. Plenty of illegal fireworks lit on rooftops uptown later that night, but not patriotism, not hooray for America.

Sitting with Indira and Saribel that night, after the heat of all the July Fourth celebrations, talking a little but mostly listening to their parents, we heard about Ray and his family. Kids knew to shut up. It was the best way adults would forget you were there and say all kinds of stuff—gossip, curse words, dirty jokes. Saribel's dad, Mr. Desoto, was saying that Ray's mom never took good care of him and that his older brother was a waste of space. "Of course that kid died. Ain't nobody looking out for him." But then Mrs. Desoto and Indira's mom started speaking in Spanish, real fast, "takatakatakak" and I lost the rest. But we looked at each other, like, Ray died? What?
Saribel said, "Mamí, did you say Ray died?"
Mrs. Desoto looked at us then like she just noticed we were there. "Pobrecito," she said, "he fell in the river, mi iha. He couldn't get back out."

We didn't know what to do. We just sat. No more talking. Sounds of adult conversation, iced drinks, traffic, radios, and basketballs ran together into a peace of white noise that held us, suspended. Seems like we were always finding out stuff that way, overhearing our mothers. The only protection from bad news was to walk away, to do anything not to hear. My mother was always talking on the street to somebody, no matter where we were going or what kind of hurry we were in. We'd be standing there forever, but I'd hear how my friend's father was a drunk, how they all got in a big fight and even the women left with black eyes (somebody hit somebody with a big, heavy telephone receiver). How he'd been drunk when he drove us across town to the movies, how he'd drink in the bathroom in the morning when I was there for a sleepover. I heard about my own dad's cheating. I heard how my brother was selling drugs to my teacher.

It's pretty amazing that most of these people are still alive.

But not Ray.

They were messing around, Ray and his brother ’Nesto, and ’Nesto threw one of Ray's sneakers into the water. They were laughing and all, I heard. I guess Ray thought he knew what he was doing, and I know he would've caught hell from his mother over the shoe, so he jumped in after it. While I was looking at boats, Ray was drowning. Kids kept talking for months about how an electric eel came and wrapped itself around him, but that didn't happen. The kid drowned, is all. But there always has to be some story.

I looked it up the other day. There are eels in the river. But they're not electric eels. Those critters pack around 600 volts, get to be eight feet long, and live in the Amazon. Different jungle.

After the Bicentennial, I thought about Ray a long time, not with the eels, but what it must be like to drown. The river wasn't clean, for sure. Not like some blue Caribbean paradise. It was dark green, and it was hard to see anything moving in it. Except for its flow, it looked almost like a solid, like Jell-o made from the liquid that runs out of the garbage cans on the corner. When I lay in bed at night trying to go to sleep, I'd imagine Ray suspended there in the deep dark green, and I'd panic. He didn't struggle. He floated there in my imagination, wide-eyed, looking straight at me while small fish nipped at his shirt, at his sneakerless foot. It haunted me in the dark--during the day I could shake it off.

Raymond was the kind of kid you were friends with at school but not at home. You might invite him to your birthday party, but only if you were inviting most of the class. He was small boned and light brown, and he had a scar near his right eye in the shape of a crescent moon. I asked him a couple times how he got it, but he said he didn't remember. I didn't believe him. It looked like something anybody'd remember. His older brother was kind of a jerk. Ray was nice and all, but he was a little hyper, and that just got annoying sometimes. Thinking about it, it isn't so surprising he jumped in the river. But he was the first person I knew who died. And he was just a kid, a little kid, like me.

After a month or two, the dream of him floating there in the river didn't scare me anymore. It became like a visit we would have. He didn't look sad or scared, and sometimes he even smiled or waved at me, so I'd know he could see me, too. I started to look forward to it. I think it made me feel better, like he wasn't really dead.

And in the fall, kids at school talked like it was gossip, not like something really bad happened. None of the teachers said a word about it, and there was no assembly or grief counseling. It was one of those things that happened, like when Meryl's sister got arrested for beating Meryl so bad she couldn't come to school for a week, or when Cindy's brother went to jail and got disowned by his family for stealing from St. Francis, up the street. Cindy's mom crossed herself every five seconds, but she couldn't erase the shame.


Claudia Isler is a New Yorker living in the South. Naturally, she writes about the city of her memories. She's the Vice President of Seven Cities Writers Project, a non-profit bringing free writing classes to under-served communities in southeastern Virginia. Previous publications include five non-fiction books for children and young adults.

Written in the Air by George Estreich

OBJECT: Dead Giraffe

BODY OF WATER: Lower New York Bay


And everything in the river was reassembled

into a shining plane that surfaced,

its wings dripping light, and headed west:

the giraffe rinsed clean of its spots,

skin, bones, and heart, immaculate

at last; the real cars and the toy cars and the parts

they became and what became

of the parts, a vast becoming,

axles freed of rotation, bones of position,

everything polished and dissociated and new,

above the city and heading west

like a visible vanishing point,

the torn edge of a wing trailing long silver threads,

the fat nacelles leaving no vapor trail,

only a long flume of altered clarity

like the glass in an old house

where the daylight moon wavers, then solidifies.

It is going west, with everything lost, it is heading home.

I would like to be aboard, but my heart is in the river. 



George Estreich’s memoir about raising a daughter with Down syndrome, The Shape of the Eye, won the 2012 Oregon Book Award in Creative Nonfiction. His prose has been published in The Open Bar, Biopolitical Times,The Oregonian, Salon, and The New York Times. He lives in Oregon with his family.  

Black Sails from Barbary by Ben Greenman

OBJECT: Shipwrecks

BODY OF WATER: The Rockaways 


CHAPTER ONE: WATER, LILY

World of the usual kind. Sunset on the widest of oceans. The Captain was eating supper with the crew down below. The mate notched a piece of wood and his action was rather brilliant. Edwards watched the water. He was not accustomed to these pleasure cruises for the rich, to the beautiful strong-jawed ladies and the men concerned less with those ladies than with their own pocket squares. It was above all a comfortable business, and Edwards had said to himself “With these people the sea’s more a bed than a grave.” It was not a remark that interested him. He was equally uninterested in the remarks of other men, and history, and parliamentary politics, and Lily who he had married the year before, and the goods of the earth. Nothing stuck to him so long as the whole business remained so comfortable. This was an atrocity, really, to make of the sea something safe. Didn’t they know what was down there, the serpents that could wrap around a woman’s leg and drag her to the ocean floor, the massive bivalves that could swallow a man whole? When Edwards had first come to the sea he had lived for those moments of fear, when the enormity of it all would expand to fill him. But he grew older, learned to affect a certain calm, met Lily, bought a bed, hung up his boots.

For a while he had lived that way. He worked a series of jobs and then settled into a management position at a small grocery. He smiled in the morning and let himself go to Lily’s smile in the evening. The two of them talked about starting a family, conversations that lasted late into the night, and the talk frightened him enough that he was secretly relieved when it did not happen. Then a woman he had known in his youth saw him in the street and told him that he had become “sealed.” It was a strange word and he parried with what he thought was wit: “Envelope or coffin?” But she did not answer him. She turned her back and walked away. He called at her door that night but she would not let him in, no matter how many times he said her name. The next week he answered an ad in the newspaper to crew on an ocean liner. Over dinner, he told Lily he was shipping out. He thought she might cry but her broad pale face broke into a sad smile. “I know where your heart has always been,” she said, and tapped her own chest, which confused him. 

Edwards was not senior crew. He had been away from the ocean too long for that. He was assigned to work as a weather scout. It was what he knew more than he knew anything else, to read the sky for signs. He stood at the stern of the boat and watched the sun disappear into the water and counted the wisps and whorls of clouds and smelled the air for moisture and tried to figure whether the storm was moving toward him or moving away. He stood there for a long time, marveling at the vastness of the water.  The sense of isolation was majestic. It was then that he saw the black sail in the distance and a single word escaped his lips: Pirates.

As they drew nearer Edwards saw that the ship was not what he suspected. It was not fearsome, not even intimidating. It was not much of anything. Though its sail was black, it was no more than twenty feet from bow to stern, and the only people aboard were one man and one woman. The woman had one gold tooth that gleamed in the evening light. The man carried a big flat sword and seemed to be attempting a beard. The woman was slight, dark, and quick. The boat drifted within earshot.

“I’m going to tell them to prepare to be boarded,” the man said. He was threading a rope through one of the stern cleats.

“Avast,” the woman added.

“Not avast,” the man said. “That’s what you say when you want them to stop doing something, or when you’ve given an order and you want to rescind it and give a new order. 

“Oh.” The woman turned her head and Edwards caught sight of a fine profile. She had a small nose and an equally delicate chin; her mouth wore an expression of amusement. “So I should say, ‘Trim the sails,’ and then say ‘Avast’?”

“You should say nothing,” the man said. Edwards could see now that he was younger than the woman. “You should let me do the talking. We don’t want to be comedy marauders, do we?” 

“I’m not familiar with that term,” the woman said. “Your mastery of the technical language of this job is intimidating to me.”

“Shut up, Nancy,” the man said.

“Don’t you mean, ‘Avast’?” she said. “And please don’t call me Nancy. You know we had an agreement, Howard.”

It was then that the woman looked up and saw Edwards, who realized that he had not sounded any alarm or even alerted the mate who was on watch. The whole thing had the feel of an amateur theatrical. The woman smiled at Edwards, and because she was a pretty young woman the smile seemed sweet at first, but it quickly sharpened into something vicious. 

“Prepare to be boarded,” the man said.

“Yes,” Edwards said.

They were on the deck in a moment and into the society of the boat.  The man went straight for the mate and made him kneel and stabbed him right there and then, once in the shoulder, hard enough that the blade disappeared entirely into flesh. This got Edwards’ attention. He ran for the Captain, who came up with food still on his face. “We are pirates,”  Howard said, and the Captain fainted dead away. Howard went on, speaking loudly to the fainted Captain. “This ship is ours now. You’ve been sailing pretty until now. You’ve had some nice and merry living. But now you have to get acquainted with the dead. Do you know this man?” He pointed at the mate with the toe of his boot.

“Of course. That’s Loomis. He was the mate." 

“I am going to dump Loomis overboard,” Howard said.

“What?” Loomis said.

“I thought you said acquainted with the dead,” the woman said.

“Please,” the young pirate said. He sounded desperate. 

“I have a better idea,” Nancy said. “Why don’t you put Loomis in our terrible little boat and then blow a hole in the hull? It’ll sink and he’ll sink with it. He can be Captain for once.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Howard said.

She turned to Edwards. “Who else is on board?”

“Lots. It’s a liner.”

“I mean what other guards.”

“One always mans the safe. Most of the others patrol corridors.”

“Corridors?”

“Hallways,” he said.

“I know what corridors are,” she said, kicking out at him unexpectedly. “What I meant was that it’s good that they’re off patrolling, and that you should take me to the one who mans the safe.” Edwards did not know how he could possibly have been expected to understand what she had meant.

“How was I to know that?” he said.

This time, her kick landed on his shins. “Shut up,” she said.

Edwards could not. “I can’t,” he said.

“Can’t shut up?”

“Can’t take you to the safe. I don’t know where it is. Loomis knows.” But Loomis was unconscious again. “It was stupid to stab him.”

The woman’s eyes widened. Edwards wasn’t provoking her. He hoped she understood. It was just that he always said what he was thinking, and he never lied. Lily always told him that his life would be much better if he could just say something that wasn’t true every once in a while. He thought about what Lily would say if he told her that he had been captured by pirates. “Good,” she’d say. “You’re learning.”

Nancy produced a gun, a small stub-nosed thing, and stuck it in the Captain’s back. “I’ll take him downstairs and get the engine room squared away,” she told Howard.  

Howard moved quickly with Nancy gone. He hauled Loomis over the side, onto the pirate boat, jumped back onto the liner, and then cut the rope that held the two boats together. The pirate boat slowly drifted out to sea. “In ten minutes, that thing’s going to blow, and then it’s hello, bottom of the ocean.” Edwards could think of nothing to say to this.  

Nancy reappeared, gun still in her hand. “I found the Captain’s guards and then I gave them all a shot.”

“You killed them?” Howard said. His voice rose hysterically. 

“No, I didn’t kill them. What do you think I was doing this morning when I packed the syringes and the sedative? Did you think it was for me, in case I got so excited listening to your stories about robbing banks and needed to calm myself down so that I didn’t jump you right then and there?”

“Now my stories about banks bore you?”

“Let’s not fight,” the woman said. “I did my job. I sedated them and tied them up. The captain got a half-dose so that he can steer the ship. Now do what you’re supposed to do. Introduce us to the nice man.”

“Okay,” Howard said. “I’m Carter and this is Dowling. Those are our last names but you don’t need to know our first. We’re pirates. What’s your name?”

“Edwards.”

“Last or first?”

“Last,” Dowling said. “There’s no one whose first name is Edwards.”

“I knew a guy once,” Carter said.

“What was he in prison for?” Dowling said.

Edwards thought Carter would laugh it off, but he struck Dowling on the arm with the flat of his sword. “Ow,” she said. “That really hurt.”

“Next time I’ll cut it off.”

The woman smiled appreciatively.

“Now take Mr. Edwards downstairs and give him a shot of that sedative." 

Edwards followed Dowling downstairs. He briefly considered trying to overpower her but then he remembered that she had a gun. She led him past a berth, where he saw the captain and the crewmen tied up. Then she pulled him into a small berth and slid the door shut. “Look,” she said. “I’m only going to give you a half-dose too. I didn’t bring enough. Also, I don’t think I’m going to put tape on your face because you have a beard and it won’t really work. That good for you?” Edwards nodded. “Before I load up the syringe, just tell me one thing. Tell me that Howard didn’t kill the only person who knew exactly where the safe is.”

“I don’t know. I was a late addition to the crew. There’s one guy, Symons, who probably knows. He’s easy to spot. Tall and bald.”

Dowling took out the syringe and turned it in her hand. It reminded Edwards of Lily, and the way that she held a pen. “Elegant,” he had told her when they had first met, but the truth was that it was belabored, as if she was aware that she was being watched. He wasn’t certain if that made it less elegant, but it made it less compelling. Compelling was the way the lady pirate was holding the syringe, not looking at it or even near it, aware of it by touch alone, sensual with ease. Her fingers danced as if she were playing an instrument. She caught him looking and gave him the shot, not as nicely as she might have. “We’re going to make our getaway soon enough, and I want to make sure that we can do this quickly and quietly.” She jabbed Edwards again. “Soon, you’ll feel kind of heavy around the eyes and mouth. You might nod off. When you wake up, there’s a decent chance we’ll still be here, on account of the half-dose. But don’t worry. We’re not going to hurt anyone else. The one, Loomis, we’ll have to write off to Howard’s personality. He isn’t much under pressure.” She smiled, and this was the reverse of the smile she had given before: it started out sharp but softened. “Howard’s only mean because he cares too much. You know how people are: a flower in a garden where metal spikes are the rule.”

When the woman began to hum a lullaby, Edwards figured that he was hearing from inside the sedative. He let his eyes close and went to sleep. In there, he dreamed water, dark and lovely.


 

She by Dianca London Potts

OBJECT: Mermaid Figurine

BODY OF WATER: Dead Horse Bay


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

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

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

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

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


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


For Luck by Carlea Holl-Jensen

Drown the bird for luck, she tells me. It will keep him alive.

All right, I say.

The bird is small and yellow and white and grey, a songbird. When she puts it in my hands, I can feel its pulse shuddering against my palm. Tiny thing, I could crush it just as easily.

She holds the door to the birdcage open for me and I put the bird inside. Trapped, it beats its wings, quivering from one side to the other and twisting midair, crashing against the sides of the cage. Under the susurration and snap of its wings, a sound like breath leaving the lungs.

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Stacked by Jennifer Ray Morell

OBJECT: Two Shipwrecks on Top of Each Other

BODY OF WATER: Hudson River


From our beginning we've been joined, eager to take up the same space, breathe the same air. In our mother, we acted as one. We were almost born stacked, though that couldn't be. Instead we felt a moment of brief separation, a fissure. When the doctor plucked me from my mother, I reached out for my sister. I had never felt alone. 

As girls we slept in bunk beds with matching pillows and sheets, though the colors were transposed. We pulled pillows from the top and threw them to the bottom. We pulled blankets from the bottom and covered the top, until we forgot which set was ours. When I slept on the top, alone, I longed for my sister, throwing a blanket to the bottom bunk and feeling listless until she pulled to let me know she was still there. Sometimes she wouldn’t pull, pretending to be asleep or having vanished completely, and I would listen above the noise of the ceiling fan and cars driving past to hear her quiet breathing. 

If I were one, then I wouldn’t be on the top bunk. If I were one, there wouldn’t be two small desks lining the wall. If I were one, I wouldn’t feel like two. I was afraid to look over the edge to see if she was still there, to see if she ever was. Finally, she would laugh, but only when she heard my breathing change, small cries coming in waves.

I swapped cubbies in school so that ours would be stacked. Our lunches, sweaters, crayons would spill from above to below, mixing and always belonging to two. She would challenge me, trading with others to see if I would follow. High school was the same, and I wished that it was possible to remove the divider between the top and bottom lockers. 

One morning I tugged at my sister's lock after spinning right, left, right and felt resistance. She told me that it was new, that she would offer up the new combination, so I waited. It was our second severing. Later, she was not where we were supposed to meet: by the tree that looked like a deep V. I stepped up to stand in the crook between the two necks, hoping I would see her behind the crowd. I waited until the sky grew orange and pink, then dark, but my sister never appeared. When I got home, she was sitting on the couch, clutched by our mother who cried that I had been missing. “I was waiting for her!” I shouted over her wailing, and through the noise, I heard my sister’s laugh. I dragged my body, anchor and all, up the stairs and to our room. 

I saw that she had forgotten about me, like in those moments after birth when I reached for her, and she lay swaddled, alone. 

That night, in my bunk, the top bunk, I was quiet. I didn't have the words for her, and as I lay there, all I could think of was the bunk collapsing, crushing her beneath me. I thought I'd never be able to sleep. But then dreams came like flipping through a photo album: a wall being ripped from an apartment building like a doll house, people standing above and below but never knowing; a graveyard, coffin above coffin; and then, two ships in the Hudson, colliding and sinking, stacked. 

 


Jennifer Ray Morell is an MFA student in Fiction at The New School. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Sundog Lit, New School Writing, and xoJane.


More Manageable Space by Rebekah Bergman

OBJECT: Parts of Zone B

BODY OF WATER: Hurricane Sandy


 

When the rain starts, we don’t know each other’s names. We share a line on our address and assume that is all. We are an actor in 1J, a doctor in 3C, law school students in the large unit on the fifth floor. We’ve left dark pockets of tiny towns in the Midwest, the Deep South, the West Coast to emerge in this city. We thought we’d like to join its sprawling crowds.

We shape our mouths to speak in newscaster accents but have still not quite acclimated. We are awed by the night sky—how big it looks starless, how bright. We thought we could shed our hometowns like a snake leaves behind its old skin, but it is difficult to belong to a place that is even right now expanding. One neighborhood splits into two and the city grows like a cluster of cells, multiplying each time it divides. The city-natives harbor deep resentment for us, the non-natives. They blame us for the dense smog, the littered streets, the whole notion of urban sprawl. We find this confusing because we also miss the color green.

To belong here, we learn, you must dream of finding more room for your legs and your elbows—a secret closet, a hidden staircase, an extra half-bath. This is how we feel our foreignness; our preference for bounded landscapes, more manageable space. That ugly word “sprawl” makes us wonder: How can we live inside a place that has no edge? 

It is an autumn of beautiful sunsets that the weatherman says will bring rain. We breathe the chemicals that color the clouds and see how the city spreads into the atmosphere even. The season is warmer than we expected. We unlayer our scarves and wool sweaters, thinning ourselves to stay cool. 

The rain finally starts on a Sunday and at first it is only a misting. It gives us bad hair and shines in our eyebrows, glistening over our skin. We take umbrellas with us when we leave in the morning. But we carry them closed just in case it gets worse.

It gets worse. By evening we sit at kitchen tables but the noise of rain drowns out our chewing, our thoughts. We go to the roof for a closer view. It’s been a long time since we’ve watched nature run its course. We pass through the doorway one by one or two by two, until the whole building spills outward, emptied out on top. We congregate, squeezing shoulder to shoulder to fit. But we say little as the water soaks through to our bones. When night falls, we turn back inside.

The rain persists through the next day and we meet back on our rooftop at dusk. Tonight we scream over the wind, making small talk in big voices. We learn names and faces and when we return to dry beds and put on warm clothes, it is the blurred time between late and early.

The flood shows no signs of slowing. We keep going out to our rooftop all week, getting closer to the storm and each other. We line up around the perimeter, faces turned outward. Sometimes we hold hands. The world has flipped, we decide, and the ocean’s falling out of the sky. We notice the lack of both fish and of birds. There is no rail around us and we have the sensation of floating on a raft together, the street below carrying us like waves.  

Soon we speak softer, familiar with each other’s mannerisms, able to read lips and faces. Sometimes the old accents slip in. It is a comfort to know our neighbors. To know they are strangers here too. We discuss the size of our hometowns, saying: You could stretch out your arms and feel the width of it.

It continues. We don’t leave home for days. When we think of the city we picture only this rooftop and smile, remembering how the building unsprawled to concentrate up at the top. We sleep with our heads in the storm clouds and dream of removing the floors from our building. Everyone living between the walls together, heaped together in the hollowed out space.

When the city is flooding, we know its dimensions. Everything has a finite volume. Nothing that is drowning can grow. But if the rain stops we will step from this ledge of certainty into what exactly? It is foggy beyond the edge of our roof. The universe is expanding even as the rain falls. It expands now and now.

But the rain is still falling.

And it falls now and now.

And even right now.

 


Rebekah Bergman is an MFA candidate at The New School. She lives in Brooklyn and works as an editorial intern at Tin House Magazine and an associate editor at NOON. Rebekah has received grants and fellowships from Tent Creative Writing and Brown University and will be an upcoming resident at Art Farm in Marquette, Nebraska. Her recent work has been published in Banango Street and Spittoon. 



A Waterside by Tobias Carroll

OBJECT: White Boat

BODY OF WATER: Dead Horse Bay


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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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


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

They Come to Me by Allison Amend

OBJECTVoodoo and Santeria Objects

BODY OF WATERBronx River


They come to me, reeking of desperation, eyes glassy with tears, weak brown like coffee. Señor Gold, they say, can’t you help me?

Can’t you help me get my man to stay?
Can’t you help me find a job?
Can’t you help me make the demons go away? They burrow in my skin like snakes.

Of course, I always answer. Here, take this bat’s blood and mix it with Fire of Love Oil. Then add just a drop of Narcissus. Use it when you wash his pillow case. He will never stray again.

Take a bit of the Manteca de Corojo, yes, the same as you anoint Changó with. With your index finger, smear some on this candle. Let it burn to the ground. Here is a special holder that will make sure the Orishas see it, and also make sure the candle does not fall over and burn your apartment building down. You will have a job within two weeks.

Take this angelica root. Put it in your shoes and wave incense over it for an hour a day. When was the last time you went to a bembe? There is one on Friday in the basement.

When I opened the business, I was my only employee. I made up potions, invented love spells, picked unhexing herbs at random. But after a while I started to hear what works. And then I began to know.  Lemongrass helps joint aches. Mosaka Oil cures baldness. One customer arranged for ten chickens destined for sacrifice to be delivered to the loading dock in thanks for curing her husband’s stomach cancer with a mixture of apazote and star anise. I have heard of answered prayers for wealth, for vigor, for fortitude, for love. And while I’m sure there are scientific explanations for these coincidences, also, I’m not so sure.

So when he gets sick, my child who has my heavy brow, my brooding nature, I know what to do.  I leave the upstairs office and walk the long floor like I used to, taking inventory in my head out of habit.

“What you looking for, boss?” Teofilio asks me.
“Just making the rounds, Babalawo.” Ten years ago I advertised a janitor position. When I hired Teo I hired a priest, a bodyguard, a spiritual advisor.
“What his symptoms are?” he asks. And a psychic.

The next day, while my wife takes our son to the doctor I sprinkle calamus root on his bed. I take the palos and make an altar to Inlé, which my wife takes down when I go to work. She leaves a note: “We are Jewish, Josh.”

Now she says, “Go home, Josh. Take a shower. I’ll stay here.” I look up from the floor. The tile in the hospital looks identical to the store’s flooring, the same large white squares marred by black pock marks like finely shredded bladderwrack. Her eyes are dull, as though she’s wearing a film over them.

I don’t look at our son, breathing heavily in the too-big bed.
“And Josh,” she says, “If I come home and find any of that voodoo crap, I’m leaving you.”

I stop in at work. It’s a Friday afternoon and the Wiccans have the basement worship space. They sing in minor harmonies which drift like incense smoke up to the store floor.

I get what I need, and instead of going home, I take the 12 bus to the river. I pick a spot where I won’t be interrupted, and I toss the twigs, the bits of plastic, part of a sock, to the side. Then I rake the sand so that the undulations point toward the water, wiggling like something caught. I kneel on the bank and put the trident in the sand. Silver snakes climb its tines, and I stroke them to feel their cool scales. Around the base I arrange the three fish and I make Ochosi’s arrow point toward them. The wind lifts and sets the pendants swinging on their tethers, the fish hook balanced by the caught fish, writhing on its lure. I hurry to sprinkle the narcissus flower water before the wind dies again. Then I look at the river and in its rippling I see my desperate brown eyes glassy like coffee. I scoop it all up and throw it as far as I can into the middle of the river. It floats for a moment—silver plated only—then sinks slowly as it travels downstream. I use the sage brush to sweep the raked sand into the river.

And then when he gets better, I know.

 


Allison Amend, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is the author of the Independent Publisher Book Award-winning short story collection Things That Pass for Love and the novelStations West, which was a finalist for the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the Oklahoma Book Award. Her newest novel, A Nearly Perfect Copy, was just published to much acclaim. She lives in New York City, where she teaches creative writing at Lehman College in the Bronx.

The Right Way to Tell a Story by Carolyn Ferrell

OBJECT: Piano

BODY OF WATER: Bronx River


November 24, 1993

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

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

He wondered if this was him falling in love.

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

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

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

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

What the hell did his mother know?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hopefully she wouldn’t look too ghetto.

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

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

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

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

November 23, 1979

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rafael, Dexter called him.

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

Paris in the springtime.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 24, 1993

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

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

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

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

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

Not a thing in hiding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come on, Daddy Dex!

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

Daddy Dex, I shouted.

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

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

THE FUTURE

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

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

Question one:  Where were you born?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

Smile by Myla Goldberg

OBJECTDentures

BODY OF WATER: Dead Horse Bay


UnderwaterNY_Myla-560x430.jpg

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

“Open.  Open.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PHOTO CREDITS

-Dentures, Dead Horse Bay, Nicole Haroutunian.

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

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

 


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

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.

Division by Elizabeth Pickard

OBJECTDemolished Teapot

BODY OF WATERDead Horse Bay


Waves lapped at its rust and leaked out the spout.  Tepid where it used to boil.

The teapot had once lived in Brooklyn after it lived in New Jersey after it lived in France after it lived in Germany and so on back to the earth’s iron ore.  In Brooklyn, a woman’s fingers recovered moldy tea leaves from the kettle-sized space on the mantle.  She relit a joint.

Her phone vibrated faintly atop the glass coffee table.  It pulsed from beneath weeks of unopened letters and bills that were tossed there as they arrived.  She stabbed out the joint to smoldering.  Just glancing at the pile of mail prodded her with expectations from the other end of the line.  Tugged at her genes.  A mysterious split of a cell in an egg and then there were two.  Anna and Janna, names hooked by the “j” in their likeness.  Janna limped quickly in the opposite direction.  Past the coffee table.  Past books that would mostly go unread, toward the kitchen, gathering half-empty take out containers on her way.

She placed the containers in a garbage bag and threw in some crushed out roaches.   She scraped in this morning’s coffee grounds and suddenly recalled the used tea leaves dumped in the spot where the kettle should have been.  The realization wrenched an ache like a pulled tooth.  Another haze-induced mistake.  The loss thrust guilt at her through the fog, and she jerked the bag into the hall.  As she did every week, last week just after having tea, she left the garbage bag outside her front door.  The building had no bin.  Her landlord would drive the trash to the nearest harbor as his cheap father had and probably his father before him.  The trash would settle itself in marshes and bays, depending on the current, all along the Brooklyn coast.  Some families’ traditions continued.

The kettle had been her mother’s and her mother’s mother’s.  Passed to the eldest daughter.  Anna was older by seconds. On her last visit to New Jersey, Janna had taken the kettle from under the mirror on her mother’s mantle when no one was watching.  When she was a child, she hadn’t understood mirrors.  She would look into the glass and say, “there’s my sister.”

They had shared a room growing up and thoughts slipped between them on the air, in their smallest motions.  A touch from Janna sucked the sting Anna felt from their parents’ scrutiny.  A look from Anna re-firmed Janna’s footing after heartbreak, tugged her out of shyness and linked her to the world.  But adulthood brought with it physical distance.  Necessitated the ungainly use of words.  Anna had increasingly spoken of their differences, Janna’s missteps.

At first, details of Anna’s disappointment only occasionally traveled across satellites and wireless networks from the Midwest to the East Coast:  a misspelling on a gift card, over- or under- expressed enthusiasm, less and less frequently returned calls.  But during the year Janna tried to conceive a child, the exploration by experts of Janna’s unresponsive ova, Anna unexpectedly became pregnant.  Anna’s occasional criticisms became frequent, expectant lists.  After months of injections, extractions and ultrasounds, errant sleeping, crying and forgetfulness, Janna learned from the experts that she would never conceive at all.  And there was something else, a shadow they should explore.  Toward the end of her pregnancy, Anna called to say how hard she found it to express her needs, texted her disappointment, again, that Janna hadn’t called daily.  The “ah” that began Anna gaped unbounded before Janna.  Insatiable.  Janna suddenly saw the vertical line of her “J.”  Felt its shelter.  She unplugged her computer and began to ignore her phone.  She brought the teapot to Brooklyn.

Now Janna knelt over the garbage to catch her breath.  She leaned against a wall.  Sometimes the nausea slowed her, sometimes the ache in her knees.  Funny, it had begun in her womb but she mostly felt it in her bones.  At the doctor’s yesterday, she had watched a video of quivering cells.  Hollow-eyed pyramids and spheres caressed, merged, burst into vanishing specks and eventually filled the screen.

In Chicago, Anna looked at her hands as she cleaned and imagined Janna’s similar fingers making tea.  It was morning.  Janna would be cleaning, too.  Anna dialed again.

From the hall, Janna felt as much as heard her phone and it occurred to her that there were some things she might want to say.

Water leaked out the side of the teapot that once contained it.  Tides drew it deeper into the mud.  To the eye, it was barely distinguishable.


Elizabeth Pickard is a writer and librarian. She is currently working on her first novel. She lives in Chicago and can be reached at efpickard (at) gmail (dot) com.

Duwand Works for Good Humor, Inc. by Lashon Daley

OBJECT: Ice Cream Trucks

BODY OF WATER: The Rockaways


Duwand wasn’t the most disgruntled employee at Good Humor, Inc.  His position as a Quality Control Inspector at the conveyor belt had its benefits. He was never asked to lift anything like the stock boys who wore back braces, nor was he ever blamed for anything– his supervisor was held responsible for all of his mistakes and those of the other 19 employees just like him.

Duwand’s job description stated 2 things: 1) Verify that Good Humor, Inc. is properly spelled and punctuated on each ice cream sandwich package wrapper and 2) Notify your supervisor when it is not.

From the age of 14, Duwand worked for Good Humor, Inc. at the conveyor belt. Since 1929, when the company opened its New York distribution center, Duwand read and re-read the words Good Humor, Inc. 5,980,003 times. He could spell it backwards in 4 seconds. He created 213 words from the letters and composed several different jingles based on its spelling. My ice cream has a first name, it’s G-o-o-od…

So after forty-three years of uneventful service, it caught all of Good Humor, Inc.’s 147 New York employees by surprise when Duwand drove a fleet of Good Humor, Inc. ice cream trucks off of a pier.

He entitled his operation “They Should’ve Let Me Drive A Truck When I First Asked” and underlined it using a green plastic ruler and an black ink pen in his leather-bound pocket notebook. It took Duwand eighty-six-and-a-half days to plot his revenge. His plan was scheduled to take place on Sunday, July 13, 1975–almost fifteen years after he had received the first of many rejection letters denying him the opportunity to become a Good Humor, Inc. Ice Cream Transportation Engineer.

Good Humor, Inc. Ice Cream Transportation Engineers were the envy of most of the factory workers, especially Duwand. Since 1950, when Jack Carson starred in the featured motion picture, The Good Humor Man, Duwand felt cheated out of the role, stating in his letter to upper management: “It was unbeknownst to me that auditions for this role were happening. I would have made an excellent Good Humor Man.” Ever since then, whenever Duwand would see their freshly pressed white uniforms and police-style hats, he became even more dissatisfied with his ill-fitting factory uniform. “It’s downright unfair and foolish,” he continued in his letter. His oversized hair net and baggy white jacket made him feel so small. He had a nice frame, he thought, and it deserved to be showcased. Plus, the opportunity to drive a brand-new Ford truck (despite it solely being used to sell ice cream) was the icing on the cake. If Duwand had ever had his heart set on anything, this was it.

Duwand knew the rejection letter by heart, but read it all the same when he found it for the last time in his employee mailbox, addressed as always to his home, but never mailed there.

Dear Mr. Duwand Johnson:

As a valued employee of Good Humor, Inc., we recognize how important you are to this company.  Your dedication and hard work are what continue to make us a national success.  As a result, we regret to inform you that we cannot fulfill your employee transfer request.

We strive for continuity and consistency and as a result believe that it is better for our employees to remain in their current positions until otherwise promoted by management.

Sincerely yours,

Mr. Good Humor

Duwand folded the letter and almost placed it neatly back in the embossed envelope as he had with the fourteen that came before it. Then, suddenly, he balled it up and stuffed it in the crotch of his uniform pants. He stood a little taller walking back to his work station.

By day eighty-three of Operation “They Should’ve Let Me Drive A Truck,” Duwand knew the Sunday schedule of every Good Humor, Inc. employee. Sundays were his days off and during his three months of planning, he clandestinely had sat in his hot car outside of the factory’s gate monitoring the entrance and exit times of each employee.

He had noted that there was only one manager on duty, an assistant manager at that, in comparison to the four that were on duty during the weekdays. His Sunday counterpart’s name was Sue-Yang, but everyone called her Sue. She had worked at Good Humor, Inc. for at least five years now, but they had never met. She was strictly a Sunday worker. Duwand especially noted that there were two supply truck drivers who alternated weekly. The chubby one, who Duwand nicknamed Tub, for “tub of cream,” was always late for his deliveries. He sometimes ran up to thirty-nine minutes late to distribute the ingredients Good Humor, Inc. needed to meet their ever-growing demand for ice cream in the Tri-State area. Pick, short for “toothpick,” was always late as well, but never by more than twelve minutes. So, Duwand had picked a Sunday that Tub was working, counting on the distraction he would cause as the factory workers rushed to help him unload the supplies.

The morning of his revenge operation, Duwand went to church as usual. He dressed himself in his best suit and hat and drove 2.3 miles to First Baptist Church of Mary’s Holy Name Christian Fellowship with the Sunday Gospel Radio Show turned up just a notch louder than usual. During service, he worshipped the Lord fervently, feeling giddy like a child running down a hill.  He shouted amen at just the right moments during the sermon about the Resurrection of Christ and left before the after-service prayer had begun. He had work to do.

Duwand parked in the employee parking lot, swiped his employee card to unlock the side entrance and went into autopilot. He dressed himself in the men’s locker room, where he started off every morning at the factory changing from his civilian clothes to a clean uniform picked out of the large bins labeled “pants” and “jackets.” He grabbed one of the hundreds of hair nets from a torn cardboard box to cover his balding head and then placed the required disposable shoe covers over his Sunday best. By the time he walked out of the locker room, Duwand had forgotten it was Sunday.

“What are you doing here,” he called out to Sue Yang. For forty-three years, Duwand had completed the same preliminary tasks to start his day. Seeing someone else in his chair and at his work station was unprecedented. Had he been replaced? Had management finally had enough with his transfer requests and fired him without notice? He was only a few steps away, but with the hum of the machines and the earplugs in her ear, Sue hadn’t heard him until he was standing right next to her. His mouth opened slightly, waiting for an answer. She had no idea who this man was and wasn’t going to take her eyes off the conveyor belt. She had work to do and was only interested in doing just that.

Her look of disinterest set off something inside Duwand. He was twice her age and deserved respect, if not for seniority, then at least for being a senior. Who does she think she is, he thought to himself. This was his workstation and she was violating it.

Duwand felt powerful screaming at the top of his lungs about how he had given up his youth and dreams to work for Good Humor, Inc. How dare they replace him? He was the best Quality Control Inspector they had and he could prove it, which he tried to do by starting to recite the 213 words he created. But he could only remember the first seven.

From the corner of his eye, Duwand could see the assistant manager leaving his office to rush downstairs to see what all of the commotion was about. Out of fear, Duwand got louder.

Unsure of how to continue his rambling, Duwand began quoting the Ten Commandments and started to use large gestures to get his non-point across. He only got to commandment number three before he was wrestled to the ground by two security guards. They dragged him kicking and screaming into the parking lot and out the gate, where the assistant manager was hoping to get an explanation out of him.

Duwand sat on one side of the chain-link fence, sore from the tackle. He could feel the muscle throbbing high on his right thigh and knew that in a few hours there would be a bruise. He took in quite a few shallow breaths before he began  apologizing for his misconduct, while the assistant manager and security guards stood on the other side of the fence. They were unsure of what to do next. Duwand looked manic to them. They knew him as a quiet fellow and figured he was just having a bad day. The factory could do that to you, they told him, trying to give him the benefit of the doubt.

When Duwand finally settled down, they helped him up and took him through the back entrance to the offices where he could relax a little and get some water before he felt good enough to drive home. Plus, the assistant manager wanted to file an incident report for precaution.

The brown polyester couch looked brand-new, but smelled old to Duwand as he plopped himself down. He rested his head against the back and slouched with his legs stretched straight out. He was exhausted and disappointed in himself for ruining his own plan. But before he could wallow any more in shame, the supply truck arrived and just like he had once anticipated, the assistant manager hurried out of the office, leaving Duwand alone.

He sat for a minute before taking the clipboard off of the assistant manager’s desk. He looked at the form and what had been written. He felt compelled to write something profound to mark what he was about to do. He pulled out his leather-bound notebook from his uniform jacket pocket and read a few of his favorite movie quotes. “If you work for a living, why do you kill yourself working,” he recited from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. “Do you want to dance?  Or do you want to DANCE,” he uttered from The Thomas Crown Affair. But in the end, he found them all to be insufficient. Then he thought about some of the social justice chants he had come up with over the years like “Ice Cream, Yes!  Factories, No!” and found them to be insufficient as well. It was then that he realized he had neglected to prepare one of the most important parts of his plan: the note. Whether it was written for a ransom or suicide, or just a short letter passed between friends or lovers, the note was often used to symbolize the beginning of the end. The note was the catalyst that set flame to the conflict and here Duwand was without his match.

He put down the pen and quickly moved to the key box, removing 15 keys–one for each rejection letter he had received. He placed the keys in a small canvas bag and into his work jacket. He rushed to the door to check on how much time he had, then quickly sat back on the couch and picked up the pen.

Dear Duwand Johnson:

As a valued employee of Good Humor, Inc., we recognize how important you are to this company. Your dedication and hard work are what continue to make us a national success. As a result, we are accepting your transfer request and are making you a Good Humor, Inc. Ice Cream Transportation Engineer.

Congratulations on your promotion! Enclosed, you will find 15 truck keys for your use. Have a wonderful time driving them off the pier and be sure to notify us if you need any assistance.

Sincerely yours,

Mr. Good “Dirt Bag” Humor


Lashon received her M.F.A in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College in 2008 and plans to be an author when she grows up.  With a B.A. in English and a background in dance, she hopes to one day combine the two, somehow. Born and raised in Miami, Florida, she moved to New Orleans after graduating with her masters, hoping to get her hands dirty, to write some stories and to do some good. She now lives in California.

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.