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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.

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.  

These Three Deer by Devin Kelly

OBJECT: Deer

BODY OF WATER: Lower New York Bay


To say they swam is image enough. And it was

not still summer, the water cold and chopped

by some knife of wind. Their heads only

above water. And I no longer know what is

moving under the surface. But to say they swam

is image enough. Most things that have left me

in this life have not done so wrapped in twine.

Though maybe I have done the pushing gone

and the throwing away, and each morning

I still have hands to toss the sheets to side

and place my feet on ground. We are all

in this hurting thing. How it moves

like river water, all around, and how it settles

like the circle tides of bays. Two of those three

died that day, in that moment after journeying,

just after bleeding on the riprap and touched

by human hands. Is to say they swam

image enough? Their eyes wide and too white

like a stranger drunk who tells you he loves you

for the very first time. I do not know

how or why or who am I to play some part

in all this dying, only that, as a child,

I ran away from home so often my father

kept a banana packed and ready for my leaving.

And these three deer, and just one left

after such display of sorrow, weaving through

what trees still stand in this city, how it

must wonder what home exists for all its

swimming, as it dances through a city yard.

 


Devin Kelly is an MFA student at Sarah Lawrence College, where he serves as the nonfiction editor of LUMINA. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Armchair/Shotgun, Post Road, RATTLE, The Millions, Appalachian Heritage, Midwestern Gothic, Meat for Tea, apt, Big Truths, Kindred, Dunes Review, Steel Toe Review, Cleaver Magazine, Passages North, Lines & Stars, and District Lit. He co-hosts the Dead Rabbits Reading Series in Upper Manhattan, and teaches Creative Writing and English classes to 7th graders and high schoolers in Queens, as well as the occasional children’s poetry workshop at the New York Public Library in Harlem, where he currently lives. You can find him on Twitter @themoneyiowe.

 

Three Poems by Kristin Maffei


Portrait of the Artist as a Headless Dutch Boy

I carried pails of water once, too.
Seawater, up along the shoreline
to dryer sand.  I picked out seaweed and shells.                   
I do not pour my buckets
into troughs     feed cows         plant bulbs,
but I work in my own way.
I thought
I was a tulip once,
but now I think clearer,                       and I understand you,
small porcelain figure.
We are the same in our way.
White, bloated skin, you are cold and drowned.
Washing up you wanted                     some new life in a cabinet.
Painted smooth,                                  someone thought of art,
stability,          sent you on your way.
Your work is done. Now rest.


 Family-Portrait as Ellis Island Ferry

Call it demolition by neglect.
Call it how cruel can you be when you’re gone
if you’ve gambled that your wife will die
before you or that she won’t but
you won’t be able to care when you’re gone.
Call it my grandmother vomiting
into her bowl, two meals ruined:
the ship over before they flipped
her two eyelids over with buttonhook.
Call it the way my grandfather lost his boat:
low-tide went out and slipped
the bow under a dock. Crushed sails.
Rowing out to the middle of the early morning lake
steam rising off our wake, we stare straight
down in the brown glass-water, strain to see
the Dewdrop, old hotel ferry in our old hotel town,
call it what it is: sunken.


 Portrait of the Artist’s Father as Dentures & Toothbrush

You can get anything you want in Manhattan,
you raved, coming home with your new teeth
just in time for a family vacation to Florida.
Your teeth were like mine – soft, cavity-prone –
when you had them.  Lots of root canals
and bloody floss, but straight and small and white.
When the doctor took them all out, your mouth
swelled up like a drowned, red body. You gagged
until they cut away the back of the false teeth.
Then, you left them around the house tucked
into napkins at dinner or in the car cup-holders.
No one ever wanted to find them.
And when you lost them for good, just before
our trip, you called in sick to work and for $800
you bought a new set, rush delivered, in the city.
And when we came home, and grandma said
she’d found them, under the bed, next to the dog toys,
didn’t we all laugh at the dog wearing your dentures?


Kristin Maffei is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and a first-year MFA student at NYU.  She is an Associate Editor at Oxford University Press and co-founder of the collaborative literary ‘zine Call & Response (www.callandresponsezine.com). Kristin's poetry has been featured in qarrtsiluni, The Little Jackie PaperIn Flux, and on a few buses in Oxfordshire. Her nonfiction work has appeared in a variety of newspapers in Putnam County, NY, and she once wrote a book on horses.

Florida (Hurricane Andrew) by George Boorujy

OBJECT: Deer

BODY OF WATER: Lower New York Bay


florida by george boorujy.jpg

Editors' Statement

As the title of George Boorujy’s piece, Florida (Hurricane Andrew), underscores, we do not usually expect to see deer in New York City, let alone in the waterways of New York. And yet, in October 2011, three deer were found, frantic, at the foot of the Verrazano Bridge in Brooklyn, the first seen in the borough in many years. Naturally strong swimmers, they likely made their way over from Staten Island, but the circumstances of their journey are suspect: one of deer’s hind legs were bound with twine. Team UNY had no idea upon first encountering George’s show-stopping drawing at PPOW gallery this summer that we would soon have cause to publish it, but if we’ve learned anything in our two years at the helm of Underwater New York, it is that NYC’s waters work in mysterious ways.


George Boorujy was born and raised in New Jersey. Intending to pursue a career as a biologist, he ended up with a BFA from the University of Miami in 1996. This gateway degree predictably led to a MFA from the School of Visual Arts in 2002. He has exhibited widely, was a 2010 NYFA fellow in painting, and was a 2009-10 Smack Mellon resident. He is represented by P.P.O.W. Gallery in New York, and lives and works on the far western tip of Long Island. With all those other artists. Visit his website to see more of his work.

East River of My Devotion by Lindsay Sullivan


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

 

Lyrics

I took the sea to the C

searching for ghosts at Dead Horse beach

a ship appeared to me

I swam out so I could see

"Come aboard my darlin

it's the last time I'll be callin

come aboard and sail with me."

We sailed along the water's edge

Brighton Beach over Dreamland

cut right and towards the bridge

first Brooklyn then Manhattan.

"It wont be long my darlin

until you are drownin

and you belong to the sea."

Then the wind began to blow,

lightning struck and hit my boat.

I swam hard but fell below

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

"You are the waves to my ocean,

East River of my devotion

I'll drink your salt

I'll breathe your sea."

I sunk down onto my knees,

Threw my head down to Her Sandy feet,

I begged Her please to let me breathe,

one breath of Her Salty Sea.

"You are the waves to my ocean,

East River of my devotion

I'll drink your salt

I'll breathe your sea."

<>

And I became the River Bed,

Dead Fish, Stripped Cars and Soda Cans.

River City below Manhattan,

Piano Keys, Submarines and The Princess Ann. 

I am the waves to Your Ocean,

East River of our Devotion.

I drink Your Salt and 

I breathe Your Sea.

Yes I am the waves to Your Ocean,

East River of our Devotion.

I drink Your Salt and 

I breathe Your Sea.


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

Beside by Nicole Haroutunian


 Artist Statement

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


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

Runaway Giraffe by Nura Qureshi

OBJECT: Dead Giraffe

BODY OF WATER: Lower New York Bay


Qureshi_Nura-Runaway_Giraffe1.jpg

Qureshi’s range encompasses fine art photography as well as photojournalism. In 2008, she was awarded a grant to travel to Cambodia and document survivors of the Khmer Rouge. She has also documented medical missions in Ghana and Guatemala. Qureshi’s work has been featured in a number of group exhibitions: photographs inspired by unearthed histories around New York shown in the “Underwater New York” exhibit in 2009-2010 at Proteus Gowanus Gallery and the Frying Pan. In 2010 she was part of the Biennial Juried Photography Exhibit at the Edward Hopper House, exhibiting images from her current work of “The Itching Hijab” which explores the complexities of coming from the East while living in the West.


If You Look by Sarah Mostow


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

This is What Happens When You Stick Your Neck Out by Rebecca Resnick

OBJECT: Dead Giraffe

BODY OF WATERLower New York Bay


The giraffe is staring at him. All Johnson wants is a little peace and quiet, and this is the only tent where there isn’t an elephant raising hell, where he can escape the rank smell of horse shit and the constant screaming of children in juvenile amazement. Johnson doesn’t care if it is the circus – he had to find somewhere to take a break. And the blue tent of the giraffe enclosure is like walking into church when he was five, wrapped in utter silence as if God himself came and duct-taped Johnson’s two lips together. It is where he comes to think. But now the giraffe is fucking staring at him.

Johnson stands and walks over to the animal, roughly pushing his sleeves up as if walking into a fight. But the cuffs of these godforsaken coveralls are so tightly elasticized that the rough beige material rides up only to mid-forearm before abruptly cutting off his circulation. He yanks them back into place and looks up over the wire fencing and into the face of the giraffe, who towers almost five feet over his head. Johnson’s not a tall guy, damn his father’s genes. The giraffe blinks its big brown eyes and seems to frown in disapproval.

“Not you, too,” Johnson says to the silent animal, then swiftly turns and plunks onto a wooden crate, the motion kicking up tufts of hay. He was not expecting this. He joined the circus to get away.

Outside the tent Johnson can hear the Jack in the Box music, a sign the show’s about to start. He pictures parents ushering their sticky pink children into the bigtop, the clowns already in the ring honking their horns and doing aerial flips, caked on make-up cracking with every elastic face they pull. Johnson’s got an hour left to make a decision. He digs the toe of a crusty sneaker into the earth. The enclosure has been erected on a summertime athletic field, and the dry dirt is turning his shoes diarrhea-orange. Sandwiched between Manhattan and Queens, the circus set up shop on one of those piles of land New Yorkers call an “island” but is really just a swath of concrete slabs turned into a space to build condos and ballfields and make more money. Johnson doesn’t understand why  this hell-hole is called the greatest city in the world – it smells like trash. And it’s cramped. Johnson’s already spent enough time in cramped places. He needs space now. He needs freedom. Here, people move around on top of one another, in each others armpits, connected to one another without somehow ever really connecting. Smallest big city in the world. He shouldn’t be surprised that he ran into her.

Johnson hadn’t seen Jessica since Minnesota. Six Flags Over Rochester, four years ago. He was working the Kentucky Derby game for the summer, stuck all the way in the back of Arcade Alley, in the shadow of The Terminator – Fastest Rollercoaster On Earth! Johnson was saving up some money for community college maybe. Or a new X-Box.

“Step up, step up, come and play!” Johnson yelled it robotically five times a minute, thirty minutes an hour, eight hours a day. He didn’t have a megaphone, but back then he wasn’t smoking as much either.

“Lookit the prizes, only two dollars to play!” It was an easy game: up to 10 contestants, you get a water gun and have to aim at a target 8 feet away, horse-racing the shmoes sitting next to you. First to cross the finish line wins a big prize – Stuffed Sponge Bob or Giant Kangaroo.

“Only one person at the counter so far – one in two chance to win!” Player number one weighed 300 pounds and was chewing on a straw. Johnson looked him up and down wondering how long he’d wait for a competitor to show before giving up and going to get another order of fries.

That’s when Jessica walked up and slung her leg over the hard plastic stool. She was wearing that little jean skirt with a slit up the front, and when she sat she let her thighs fall slightly open so that Johnson caught a glimpse of lacy pink panties peeking out from under denim. He walked over to collect her two dollars and tried to remember if he had woken up with any zits.

“One in two chance,” he said, taking the money and shuffling it into an apron pouch at his waist.

“I’ve heard it before,” she said, picking up the gun. She had hair the color of popcorn and threw it over her shoulder before taking aim.

“You versus that guy?” He nodded his head toward the other contestant not-so-subtley. “No question.”

Johnson watched as Jessica snapped her gum and squeezed her left eye shut, wrapping a gnawed-on finger around the trigger. She had a face like a teenage pop star, all young and buttony, and the contrast with the gun and tight clothing made the blood in Johnson’s body course so strongly that when he hit the starting bell and water sprang forth from the two plastic nozzles, he had to move behind the arcade counter to keep from embarrassing himself.

And God she had good aim. Jessica seemed to possess this strange confidence, the way she held the weapon so casually yet hit the target evenly, straight on. He pictured himself on the other side of the counter, his fingers buried beneath that denim slit, hers gently squeezing the trigger with pleasure.

A cough from the fat man a few stools over brought Johnson out of his daze.  He looked up and saw to his dismay, despite the perfect aim, Fatty was in the lead by an inch. It was all over in another minute – Fatty took home the panda, then lumbered off to Chubby his wife and Porky his kid to show them his winnings. Johnson was so sick of it all. Always the same.

“Shit you almost had it.” Johnson shook his head.

Jessica put the gun down on the counter and turned toward him, her t-shirt doing nothing to hide the lacy bra underneath that, Jesus, matched the panties. “Better luck next time, right?”

“The trick is, aim about 3 inches higher than you think you should. Gravity and all.” Johnson picked up the water gun and pretended to shoot the nuts off a Giant Spongebob.

She smiled slyly. “You know all the secrets, huh?”

“Been here two years already,” he shrugged. “I could show you how to win at every game.” Johnson watched as across the arcade a ten-year-old’s dart narrowly missed the emcee’s head.

“You can leave the counter?”

“Well, no.”

“Another life, then.” She stood up and pulled down her skirt, Johnson’s eyes following the motion, stuck on the denim that now covered those soft pale thighs.

“Wait – I guess I could leave.”

“Really?” she smiled. “All right.”

Johnson nodded, but didn’t move.

“I’m Jessica, by the way.”

“Johnson,” he said.

“You’re probably going to want to take that off, Johnson.” She pointed at his money apron, an ugly beige smock the color of dust.

“Oh, right. Right.” He started fiddling with the tie around his neck.

“So, what’ll happen if you just take off like this?” Her dangly silver earrings swung as she talked, hypnotizing Johnson like that Maury the Magician act they brought in last year. That guy was a quack though. They all were.

“They’ll fire me, probably.”

She scrunched up her face in mock sympathy. “Just like that?”

“Probably. I don’t know, whatever. It would’ve happened eventually anyway.”

“Well. Then I have an idea.” Jessica plopped back down on the stool and leaned over the arcade counter so far her tits brushed the linoleum, and Johnson had to bend down to hear her.

“How bad are they here?”

“How bad?”

“I mean, do they ever come after people?”

He looked at her quizzically.

“You know, call the cops, whatever.” She pointed her chin in the direction of the money in his apron. “I’m sure we could put it to better use than they can.”

Johnson’s tongue twisted up against the roof of his mouth as he chewed over the suggestion. He’d never stolen anything before. Didn’t have the balls, if he was honest. But it’d be so easy – who knows if these clowns’d even notice. They had their heads up their asses anyway – his boss still called Johnson “Jonathan.”

“What if we get caught?”

She shrugged. “We lie. Fuck the establishment, you know?” Her candy apple lips curled around the word “fuck” and Johnson made up his mind.

He plunged his hand into the pockets of his apron, grabbing two fistfuls of cash. Then he took one of the Giant Kangaroos and hid the money in its front pouch. Shoving the dirty beige smock under the counter, Johnson hopped over to Jessica’s side.

“So where we going?” He took her hand, which seemed the natural thing to do.

“Anywhere but here,” she said.

So where did Johnson end up? God damn jail, that’s where. The pigs picked them up at Suds’ of all places. Squeezed next to her into that cracked green banquette, he saw the reflection of the blue and red lights in the diner window. Johnson’s hand, resting on her thigh, started to sweat, and he wondered maybe he could just get a quick feel – he was so close… But as his fingers twitched to life the door chimes jangled, and uniforms appeared in front of them before Jessica had even looked up from her Diet Coke.

Course the cops searched his car, and when they pulled out the brick of weed from the backseat, well that plus the theft just did him in. Not her, though. Hand-cuffed and pressed up against the squad car, Johnson didn’t see, only heard Jessica say, “officer, I have no idea where the pot came from.” He imagined the little baby-face pout, the silver hoop earrings swinging back and forth, back and forth, I’m innocent, I’m innocent.

“I just met him today,” she said, “I don’t touch that stuff.”

And behind them Johnson’s eyes got big and he started to sputter, because really it was her weed – sure, he paid for it, but she bought it – it was her dealer, he had just been there. But the words didn’t come out and when they finally did they sounded weak, half-assed. And he couldn’t afford a lawyer who believed him, or even name the dealer to buy himself a break. Fucking life.

So he went off to jail for two years and she disappeared into the chilly blue Minnesota sky, just like that, just gone – no sorry, no I’ll write.  And when Johnson got out it was all he could do to find this job literally shoveling shit for the circus. But it got him the hell out of Minnesota. And he liked animals better than people anyway.

So that was it. Til today, when in the middle of hosing down the elephant ring before the show he catches a glimpse of popcorn hair and candy-apple lips, and that face still soft and round and sexy – and there is Jessica, waltzing into the bigtop with the rest of the crowd, thinner than he remembers, and somehow taller.

Johnson almost drops his hose, spraying Pinky the female African with a shot to the eye. She rears her trunk and let out a trumpet and Johnson retreats quickly, more to hide from Jessica than the elephant. What is she doing here? He shakes his head. Going to the circus, obviously. Shit. Johnson slips between the folds of the tent and exits the bigtop, breathing hard, walking automatically toward the tall blue tent that signals the giraffe enclosure, and the peace within.

Except now the giraffe won’t stop staring at him, and he’s no closer to making a decision. Johnson takes out a cigarette and lights it. The rules no longer apply. He exhales slowly, a thick cloud of tobacco escaping his lips and circling in the air in front of the giraffe. She looks at him and blinks, but doesn’t make a sound.

“Well, what do I do?” He is, inexplicably, talking to the animal, who for all intents and purposes seems to be listening. “Do I say something? Or do I ignore her? Pretend I never saw her, go on with my shit-eating life?”

Outside on the fairgrounds the cries of children have died down and Johnson hears the telltale drumroll, the brass band playing Flight of the Bumblebee, signalling the clowns’ entrance. He has an hour to figure this shit out, before the show is over and Jessica is gone, out of his life again.

The giraffe bends down to eat some hay, chewing slowly. Johnson frowns. “Sure, it’s easy for you. You just stand here all day, like Miss High and Mighty. Your day consists of shitting and eating and sleeping. The biggest decision you have to make all day is where to take a dump.” As if on cue, the giraffe shifts its weight and drops two soft piles of maneure onto the hay. Johnson snorts. Since he’s been out of jail and with the circus his life hasn’t been much more exciting than that either. He would love to see the look on her face if he just popped up in front of her, said “Hey, surprise – remember me?”

Johnson closes his eyes. She looked different than he had pictured, something about her. She still had that confident walk, like she knew where she was going, everywhere she went. But her clothes, they were fancy – no more lacy pink bra and panties, or, if there were, he certainly couldn’t see them. The giraffe snuffs and Johnson looks over, reaching through the wire to stroke her long, sinewy haunch. He needs to see Jessica, needs to talk to her.

Striding out of the giraffe enclosure he makes his way toward the rear of the bigtop. Nodding to the guards, he slips through the folds of the tent and positions himself a few yards from the bleachers, behind a giant purple backdrop promoting the death-defying skills of Amos the Amazing. The asshole, is more like it. Johnson’s eyes rove the bleachers, skipping over fat ugly skinny freckled toddler and teen, until he spots Jessica, two rows in on the right, her silver dangly earrings swinging with laughter. She does look older, Johnson thinks, elegant almost, her shirt neatly tucked in to her jeans, her nails perfectly manicured… Which is when he notices the large diamond ring, her fingers interlaced with the fingers of someone much hairier, taller. A man. A fucking giant of a man.

What the fuck? Johnson says it out loud without realizing, then hears snickering not far away. Two parents are looking at him with narrowed eyes, and a pair of ten year old boys are giggling behind their hands. Johnson throws them a frown and beats a retreat back to the giraffe tent.

“Who the hell was that?” He almost spits his words, slamming the flap of the tent and wishing it were a door. The giraffe looks up, startled. “I mean, is she married?”

Johnson is pacing in circles now, and the giraffe begins to follow. He lights another cigarette, his anger collecting and pooling like the smoke filling his lungs. He spent two years of his life behind bars for this chick. Two fucking years. And what’s she been doing all this time? Fucking some other jerkoff, conning him to giver her all his money?

The giraffe begins to snuff, pawing her hoof in the dirt, dipping her head.

“We are so fucking stupid, you and I.” He looks up into the big brown eyes of the animal, towering over him, her small pointy ears twitching.

Without thinking, Johnson’s foot flies out, kicking the wire animal enclosure. The giraffe, startled, rears up briefly and then charges at the cage, slamming into the flimsey fencing. Johnson’s mouth drops wide, cigarette smoke falling out through open lips.  Holy shit.

He kicks the cage again and she flares her nostrils, her neck straining over the wire fence. He starts to shake a little. “Really?” She sticks out her long black tongue, licking her lips, ready for a fight.

Grabbing the animal prod, Johnson opens the cage and ushers the giraffe out. She leaves gracefully, quietly, and seems to stand there, waiting for him to make the next move. He reaches up, rubbing his hand against the base of her neck, feeling the short rough bristles of hair, like crab grass, scratch against his palm. “OK,” he says. And then the giraffe starts to walk.

Johnson moves behind her, the prod at her knees guiding the animal out of the enclosure toward the bigtop. She walks in a slow lope, her neck and head bobbing forward with each step. Johnson looks up and sees the giraffe, her brown and yellow mottled skin, her alien-like frame, silhouetted against the New York City skyline. He marvels at how she almost fits in, like a piece of the puzzle..

The main tunnel into the bigtop is deserted, with everyone involved in the show either backstage warming-up or cooling off in the mess. Johnson sees no sign of the front-post guard. They enter the tent without much commotion, and it isn’t until they reach the edge of the main ring that people start to point and whisper. Johnson watches Silky, the ringmaster, turn with an open mouth, the megaphone still poised in front of his face. The brass band jars to a halt in the middle of Wagner, and Johnson smiles and shrugs apologetically, as if the encroaching insanity isn’t his fault. They move into the center of the main ring, Amos on the trapeze swinging idly ten feet over the giraffe’s head. Johnson’s eyes roam the bleachers until they land on Jessica. He smiles. Waves a little. He sees her eyes focus and click with recognition, he watches as they grow big. Then in one swift motion he grabs the megaphone from Silky’s hand and turns, walking toward the audience. The giraffe, god bless her, stays right by his side like a pet. Johnson raises the megaphone to his mouth and starts to shout,

“Ladies and gentleman. Ladies and gentleman, listen up.” He has a strange feeling of deja vu, a flash of memory from the arcade and the robotic chanting that got him into this mess in the first place.

“Sorry to disturb you, but I have an important announcement.” The crowd has grown silent – confused, but interested. Out of the corner of his eye, Johnson can see a few guards entering the bigtop.

“It is because of this woman,” he points at her, “that I spent two years in jail, framed, for a crime I didn’t really commit.” Behind him Silky is frozen in place, a strange hacking sound issuing from his mouth– as if he could stop Johnson by clearing his throat like that.

“Who committed that crime? She did.” Johnson hears the giraffe next to him snuff, her hooves pawing at the ground. He watches as the people near Jessica start getting up and moving away, leaving her in a spotlight-like circle of empty seats.

“And after I was arrested, booked, sentenced to prison – did she say sorry? Did she come to my defense? No. No, this is the first time I’m seeing her in four years, since that fateful day–” Johnson can feel the guards closing in on him, but he’s on a roll now. He inches closer to the giraffe, as if for protection, or guidance.

“And I just wanted to say, Jessica–” Johnson smiles sardonically at her, giving everyone a moment to appreciate the dramatic pause. “Fuck. You.”

Some people in the audience gasp, a few start to clap and whistle. Johnson feels supercharged, and takes a deep breath. “FUCK. YOU!” The megaphone vibrates lightly in his left hand, and with his right he whaps the giraffe on the knees with the prod, sending her flying toward the bleachers, charging straight toward Jessica. Johnson watches as Jessica jumps up, her hands over her mouth, stuck to the bleacher floor either by sticky soda or pure fear. At the last minute the giraffe veers off to the left, leaving Jessica sobbing and shaking her head back and forth, as if trying to wake herself up. The beautiful animal lopes gracefully along the length of the bleachers, its head bobbing up and down with each step toward freedom, its hoofs kicking up dust as people in the seats reach out to touch her. She slips past the guards converging at the entrance, and as she moves out into the sunshine Johnson swears the giraffe turns her head back toward him, and blinks. And in that moment he feels euphoric, as if filled with ten-thousand helium balloons that carry him up, up over Jessica’s head, past Amos the Amazing, and through the small point in the cylindrical tent til he is flying, free, flying into that chilly blue sky.  And Johnson sees his giraffe running straight out of the bigtop, her long neck straining forward, her awkwardly bent legs beating out a rhythmic pat-pat pat-pat as she skirts the popcorn stands and cotton-candy machines, as she ducks under the giant outdoor marquee welcoming everyone to the Greatest Show on Earth! and heads out past the ballfields, not stopping, never stopping til she reaches the freedom of the East River. It is only as he is being tackled by the guards, as his face is being shoved into the dirt-and-shit-covered ground of the bigtop ring, that Johnson remembers a  painful fact: giraffes can’t swim.


Rebecca Resnick is a writer and television producer, directing and producing shows for The Travel Channel, HBO, and Animal Planet. When not on the road documenting Outrageous Animals or places to Pig Out, Rebecca enjoys documenting the even stranger oddities found under the rivers of New York City. “This Is What Happens When You Stick Your Neck Out,” is Rebecca’s first piece for Underwater New York. (Her story “Weight” was previously chosen as a finalist in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers.)

She Dreams of her Piano at the Bottom of the Bay by Nicole Miller

OBJECT: Grand Piano

BODY OF WATERLower New York Bay


The baby grand was a gift from a man she no longer knows – in any case, no longer wants to know.  He bought it at an estate sale and had it delivered to her apartment, where it now sits in the middle of the room, collecting dust and her unopened mail.  At the time, it seemed like a mad, improvisational gesture – something extravagant and wildly inappropriate, like a diamond tiara or a pair of antlers – a gift with no apparent use.  She should have known he was going to leave her.

She made a list, after he left, of all the things she intended to do.  “Get a dog,” she wrote at the top.  She didn’t specify what kind of dog, but something small, obviously, to accommodate the piano.  She’d call him Nipper and he’d lie at her feet while she took long naps in the afternoon.

“Spackle drywall” was next on her list.  For the life of her she couldn’t imagine why she’d written this.  Number three was just plain illegible, obscured where she’d spilled coffee on the page.  “Spfdnk?”  Spiffdunk?  It’s a shame, she thought.  Whatever it was I’d intended to do would never get its day in the sun.  Everything deserved its day in the sun, even the most reluctant desire.

He’s a man with cultish tendencies, she thinks.  She hears the phrase again in her mind and wonders what it means.  He’s a real estate agent, for crying out loud.  And here is another phrase that gives her pause: crying out loud, crying out loud.  Someone on the verge of hysteria.  But she refuses to get a job, so she probably deserves it.  Alone in the apartment with her plants.

There was something he’d said to her once, sitting in her apartment, listening to a recording of Mahler: “One bar derives from the last and leads to the next.”  Was he speaking of music or liquor?

Maybe this is what she meant by cultish tendencies – susceptible to coercive persuasion. One bar derives from the last. She herself had never managed this trick – the sort of charisma required by cults – though she’d once wanted him to worship at the foot of her bed – to light candles and perform obscene ablutions – to place clean hands on the top of her head.

Perhaps if she’d told him she had cancer?  Maybe he would have stayed.  If she’d said it was terminal – isn’t everything terminal?  She could’ve learned to be fevered and brave.  She’d grow frail and lose her hair.  She’d wear her bones like exquisite jewelry.  She’d make herself irresistible to him.

“Music lessons,” were next on the list, because she might still redeem the dark gift.  Under that, she wrote “Learn to crochet.”  It struck her, when she wrote it, as an appropriately serious scheme, but now, wrinkled – stained – the list seems dismal and slightly hyperbolic.

The piano, too, seems ridiculous to her – too big for her actual life.  It crowds the other things in her apartment – her sofa and the brass lamp, the easy-chair she can no longer sit in, wedged as it is against the coffee table.

“The piano is becoming a bother,” she tells her friend Louise.

Louise is pregnant by a man who is married.  She is not sympathetic to Marie’s complaint.  She lies on Marie’s floor, pressing the small of her back into the rug.   “Have you ever heard of sciatica?” she says.

When Louise learned she was pregnant, she called the married man and told him she’d changed the locks on her doors.  She would no longer do it, she told Marie – waiting up for his calls after midnight – watching at the window for his car.  There was not room in her body for both her child and her longing.  Besides, she said, he was never really hers.

Now she has something that is hers, Marie thinks.  She wants to be cruel to Louise, but she can’t.  She wants to say, “You fool.”   Louise would laugh if she said it now.

She regards her friend with skepticism.  “Some women look like they were born to be pregnant.  You look like you’re harboring a volley ball in your shirt.”

“I’m harboring heartburn,” Louise says.

Marie offers Louise the piano.  “I don’t even want any money for it.  Just take it off my hands.”

Louise suggests that she call Goodwill.  “I bet they’d come pick it up.”

In fact, Marie isn’t ready to part with the piano, though she can’t explain this to Louise – why its presence in her living room both harasses and reassures.  How its waxed surface and white keys remind her, somehow, of the pearls her mother once kept in the top drawer of her dresser.  She’s holding onto the piano, she supposes, for the same reason Louise endures her sciatica, bearing in her body her love’s affliction.

“I’m not even sure how to get it out of here,” Marie says.  “I know it won’t fit in the elevator.”

Louise says that if they got it in here, they can get it back out.

“Maybe they pried off the roof,” Marie says.

“Maybe they built it like a ship in a bottle.”

Marie surveys her living room.  She can’t remember what it looked like before the piano.  How were the chairs arranged?

“Lately, I’ve been dreaming of frogs,” Louise says.

“Are they tadpoles, or full-grown frogs?”

“Frogs,” Louise says.

“How biblical.”

Louise grunts and rolls onto her side. “What do you suppose it means?”

“It means you’re pregnant,” says Marie.  “Little swimmer probably still has gills.”

“Do frogs have gills?”

“Mmmm,” Marie says.  “Tadpoles do.”  Marie doesn’t believe in dreams.  At least, as bearers of meaning or sense.  Once, as a girl, her mother had taken her to the museum to see an exhibit of Surrealist paintings: liquid clocks, desert moonscapes.  “See?” her mother had said.  “Dreams are real.”  But Marie was skeptical of the chthonic figures casting long shadows at noon.

“I’m doing a Kegel right now,” Louise says.  “That’s what the instructions tell me to do.”

“What instructions?”

“On the internet,” says Louise.

Marie is thinking of how comic the piano looks in her living room – how ill-advised, its optimism floundering against her stained upholstery and mismatched end-tables, the chipped surfaces of the shabby room.  A doomed vessel, which once had raised its lid like a mast toward the future – toward children and grandchildren who gathered in the evening – recitals – fat fingers flubbing the keys.

But no, this is only wishful thinking, because what kind of man would give a gift like that?  So large and strange and perfectly useless – there was never any real hope in it.  Neither of them knew how to play it.

He’s a man with cultish tendencies, she thinks, and understands, now, what she means – a man who would give a gift like that – the obvious expense – the squandered pearls – the mystery and ego – required by the faithful of those whose garment they touch.

“Pull me up.”  Louise extends her arms to Marie, who hauls her into a sitting position.  “I’m also constipated,” she says.

No, Marie thinks, her condition is not like Louise’s at all.  Louise is growing larger everyday.  She is harboring something living and other.  There are two heartbeats in her chest.  One will take its place beside her.

Sometimes, at night, while she is sleeping, Marie thinks she hears the piano.  It is playing an old, remembered tune.  She can’t make out the words, but she knows that patient tempo, the tethered, steady progression of chords.  It’s a sad song, Marie thinks, like waves breaking against the pier.  Their constant, useless return.  Their repetition which quietly consoles, so that she almost forgets their armored depths and their terrible, stoic solitude.

And then, toward morning, waking in an empty bed, the song fading with the reluctant night, Marie knows the sound for what it is.  Come back, it says.  Come back, come back.  It’s only her heart, beating alone.


Nicole Miller’s fiction has appeared in the journals ImageAlaska Quarterly Review, and NANO Fiction. She lives and writes in Brooklyn.