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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.

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

 

 

 

 

 

Found in Nature by Barry Rosenthal


In today’s world, consumer goods are increasing in volume. At the same time, their useful lives are shorter and shorter. Consuming without a thought of what is left behind is what we are taught. Found in Nature spotlights the remnants of consumer goods in the context of ocean borne pollution. The viewer confronts collections of found objects pulled from the shores of New York Harbor and experiences the way humanity is managing its relationship with nature and the oceans in particular.


Barry Rosenthal, a fine art photographer, is also an urban archaeologist and sculptor. He studied photography at the Dayton Art Institute in Dayton, Ohio and at the Apeiron Workshops in Millerton, New York with notable photographers Emmet Gowin and George Tice. Barry‘s fine art images can be found in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Springfield Museum of Fine Art Springfield, Massachusetts. Barry is a resident of Lower Manhattan, along with his wife and daughter.

Found in Nature, started in 2007 as an offshoot of his botanical work, has evolved from miniature collections of found objects into large-scale images that represent ocean borne trash. By using a combination of sculpture and photography and breaking down the found object trash into themes of type, color or whimsy, Rosenthal is able to bring awareness to the global issue of ocean pollution.

His project Found in Nature has a worldwide following and has created opportunities for Barry to talk about his work to a larger audience. His photographs have been published in arts and culture magazines as well as general interest news publications around the world.

In the fall of 2010, Rosenthal became a resident artist at chashama in the Brooklyn Army Terminal in Brooklyn, New York. It was then that he was able to refine his vision of his project to where it became socially and environmentally conscious.

As If Waiting to be Set: the Whirling Lost Objects, in Space by Rebecca Pyle

OBJECT: Formica Dinette

BODY OF WATER: East River


There is a Formica dinette in the East River
Manhattan
Sitting upright
As if waiting to be
Set. 

Right off 16th Street.

But carry me to the logic
Of the table:  it is the compass
Whether it is square, or round, or oblong
Or patterned with fake pearl or wild mica bits
Making it here, everywhere, like
Flattened sheared gem.

Set the hands, like the long ends of mustache
Working their way all over the table-clock
Clock, celebrating the earth-and-ground-glory of the train:
The locomotive the steam engine headed anywhere to the
Railmen’s tune:  Greenwich Mean Time.

All the train-men always checking their watches; they’ve
Systemized the world.  Dinner’s on time, so’s surly breakfast,
So’s travel. 
Forget the sun making its dimple biscuit somewhere or
The moon larding us with its cold-plate oyster-cream;
Pity the sun and
Moon, they’re the whirled or whirling lost objects
In space.

We have math, we have time.

Oh, we had time. 


Rebecca Pyle graduated from the university beloved by the Wizard of Oz, the University of Kansas, where she very long ago won the Edna Osborne Whitcombe, Edgar Wolfe, and William Herbert Carruth writing awards:  three first prizes.  Thank you, Mr. Oz.  Her work appears lately---as poetry, short stories, or paintings---in Constellations, Stoneboat, Wisconsin Review, New England Review, Hawai’i Review, Indian Review, and Raven Chronicles Journal, among others.  Her art website is rebeccapyleartist.com; she lives in Salt Lake City, Utah---the Great Salt Lake visible, not too distant.

Wonder by Robert Brown

BODY OF WATER: Atlantic Ocean 


You dive off the boat tank first.
The flippered feet lie flat then flip
a half circle, like a rush hour fuel gauge
falling from Full to Empty. The fall

should stop on the ocean surface,
but this once I carried too many weights,
and I crashed through 70 feet of sea
water at nine and a half knots,

kicking my fins against the fall,
backwards into my own garden of

seaweed swinging like party streamers,
connecting finally to the the ocean floor.
I nearly stepped on, but did not see,
two crabs pinching claws at one another,

their spidery legs stirring silt, engraving
a cyrillic calligraphy into the dense sand–
an ordinary wonder like an inch-thick
wetsuit and how it compresses at depth,

squeezing me from boot to hood,
or my aluminum air tank, manmade

from melted metal, and how it sinks
softly into my shoulders. I took a deep
breath—of air, 70 feet south of the ocean
surface—I saw and ignored a 7-legged

starfish, and I flipped the release latch
on my weight belt so that it fell to the floor
and I fell upward. I fought against my fall,
again, my ascension this time, trying to slow

down as the water turned from grey to jade,
and my sinuses and ears popped.

The air in my lungs expanded from a deep breath
taken under great pressure so I could breathe out

while my lungs filled up, a banal miracle—like air
travel, printing presses, syringes, cellular

phones: baskets for unending loaves and fishes—
I'm always too mixed up to appreciate.

 


Robert grew up with a hundred-dozen-an-hour donut machine in his basement and has lived in some of the great donut cities in America*, so it's no small thing that his favorite part about coming to NYC, besides the esoterica dredged from the waterways, is the preponderance of great donut shops.

*Los Angeles, Seattle, and Washington DC

Formica Dinette by Taylor Bond

OBJECT: Formica Dinette

BODY OF WATER: East River


Grandpa taught me how to fish between Fourteenth and Broadway

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

tide breaking upon the backs of the sleepless city.

 

The tips of the Empire State Building scraped

the soles of my feet as I swam in the Atlantic

metal spilling salt to the Sound, gliding

above Bowery and boroughs alike.

 

High tide snuck beneath the subway,

lifted it whole off the tracks,

careened it through currents like a toy train

tugged by kelp and seaweed.

 

“Wait to see what bites,” he said,

luring pelagic people

with dreams and nets of steel

and I could see

this was a city of air

above water, roots drilled deep

 

I became a disciple like him

devout to green and blue passages

and the ocean of New York City.

 

We watched as the water became a home

to upright dining chairs and dinner plates

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

and still we fished.

 


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


Newtown Creek Burning by Aileen Bassis

OBJECT: Toxins

BODY OF WATER: Newtown Creek


(for my mother-in-law Marija)

 

He said, ma, the water is burning

but how can water burn?

 

But then, I smelled and saw 

smoke outside this Blissville apartment

with my children on the floor, cardboard

in their shoes.  Outside 

are words jangling.  I knew 

German Russian Polish

Lithuanian and now this lumpy

English with its sticky spider letters 

climb and make my tongue

stumble and knock into my teeth.  

The creek is burning.

 

I remember

my father’s house built brick 

on solid brick and I thought nothing 

could move this house.  

I didn’t know that I would move

and run west holding my husband,

my daughter’s hand, my pregnant belly,

across Lithuania, into Germany, across

the Atlantic to live beside a smoking 

creek of burning water.  

 

I only know this 

street, these thin

walled rooms, my walk 

to the factory of cursing 

women filling bottles. 

I don’t call this home.

See 

there, 

water burning

 


Aileen Bassis is a poet and visual artist in Jersey City working in book arts, printmaking, photography and installation. Her artwork can be viewed at www.aileenbassis.com.  Her poems are published currently and upcoming in Mobius, Haggard and Halloo, Marco Polo Arts Magazine, Eunoia Review, Blue River Review, Untitled with Passengers, Gravel Magazine, River Poets Journal, SPECS Journal of Arts and Culture, Spillway and Still Point Arts Quarterly. 

Cedar Grove Beach by Alexander Rabb


Artist Statement

I learned about Cedar Grove Beach reading Underwater New York and immediately made plans to go visit. I wanted to see the area the way I like to photograph our amazing city – in the early morning light, when nobody else is around and everything is quiet and still. The next morning I was up before dawn to ride the bus from Flatbush to Bay Ridge to New Dorp. These 35mm shots were taken using my well worn Nikon F SLR and Canonet rangefinder.  I don’t do much digital processing, so the colors you see here are the happy result of film reacting to early morning light filtered through a dense fog.


Born and raised in New York City, Alexander Rabb now lives in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. Alex spends his days as a lawyer for labor unions and progressive political organizations, working to make the city a little more decent for the people who keep it going. At night and early in the morning, he can be found exploring and photographing New York’s lonely and forgotten corners.

Water (Upper New York Bay) by Lee Arnold

OBJECT: Currents

BODY OF WATER: Upper New York Bay


Twenty polaroid images taken from Governors Island (26″x18″, 2010)

Twenty polaroid images taken from Governors Island (26″x18″, 2010)

Artist Statement

Water (Upper New York Bay) consists of twenty Polaroid images taken while I was in residence on Governors Island between August and December, 2010. During my time on the island I became fascinated by the changing currents and tides of the waterways surrounding New York City. I wondered how much the constantly shifting salinity levels of the water at the meeting place of the Atlantic and the Hudson affected the character, and more specifically the color, of the water. Inspired by Goethe’s scientifically incorrect exploration of the nature of light and color, this work is an attempt to capture what the water feels like. I was also interested in what was left out of the frame. There are no images of the major sights a few degrees away: the towering architecture of lower Manhattan; the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg, Verazano and Goethals bridges; the Statue of Liberty; the shore lines of Brooklyn, Staten Island and New Jersey; and the constant boat traffic carried along by the currents.


Lee Arnold was born in London in 1972 and lives in Brooklyn. In his work he explores the nature of time and perception through drawing, photography, film, video, animation and sound. He has exhibited in the U.S. and abroad at such places as the DUMBO Art Center in Brooklyn, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, the Bridge Art Fair in Miami, SIGGRAPH in Los Angeles and the Berlinisch Galerie in Berlin. In 2010 he received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. Visit his website at http://leearnold.net.

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.

An Oral History of Atlantis by Ed Park


Illustration by Adrian Kinloch

Illustration by Adrian Kinloch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Downstream by Kris Percival

OBJECT: Toilet Paper

BODY OF WATER: All Over


Kris_Percival-downstream1.jpg

Artist Statement

I wanted to explore the ‘preciousness’ of knit goods within the proscribed aquatic theme. Many people think of knitting in terms of quaint baby gifts or treasured sweaters that someone’s grandmother toiled over. When I saw ‘toilet paper’ as one of the Underwater New York objects, I immediately thought ‘why not?’ I used thin cotton yarn and a variety of differently sized needles and stitches to create the distressed fabric I had in mind. Then Keith Carver cut the fabric into pieces, floated them on the water, and photographed them. When I was in my late teens, I was lucky enough to see an exhibit of Mike Kelly’s work at the ICA in London. He had taken heaps of hand knit and crocheted stuffed animals and amassed them in different configurations. Upon seeing them I immediately burst into tears – and I didn’t know why. Later, as I furthered my art history studies, I began to realize that I had responded to what he refers to as ‘the emotional usury’ of the handmade item. I come from a family where it is stressed that true love is displayed by making, not buying, a gift for a person. How I struggled to love some of the resulting gifts! The mixture of guilt and anguish at not being able to do so – after someone had spent so much time and effort on their creation – is what Mike Kelly’s work dredged up in me. But I can’t help myself. I knit for people all of the time and I cross my fingers that they truly like what I make for them. So it was balancing and cathartic for me to knit something as repugnant and ugly as toilet paper, something that has no use or value whatsoever except as a thought.


Kris Percival is an unabashed reader, secretive writer, and discreet observer of the minutiae of everyday life, Kris Percival earned an MS in Education from Hunter College and an MFA in Film from Ohio University. Her knitting books, published by Chronicle Books, have been praised in publications ranging from O Magazine to The Wall Street Journal. She has an extensive background in teaching as well as film production. You can monitor her obsessions (both healthy and unsound) and take a gander at the things that catch her eye at http://www.tumblr.com/blog/lightandtexture.

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Hog Island by James McCloskey

OBJECTHog Island

BODY OF WATERThe Rockaways


In 1893 they were already hurting. Boss Tweed had died of pneumonia down in a jail cell on Ludlow Street fifteen years earlier, and even though the Tammany Machine still had plenty of juice to it you could feel them losing their grip: Charles Parkhurst was making noise from the pulpit and the Lexow Committee was gearing up, and they weren’t fucking around. Not to mention a new Grand Jury investigation and all the so-called “reform candidates” making a fuss.

The island wasn’t even really an island, nothing more than a glorified sandbar really. A barrier island, sandy, low to the water and flat, like poured gold. Some said it was shaped like a pig and that’s how it got the name. Other said that way back when the Poospatuck had raised hogs there and farmed. Either way the Indians were long gone and the name had stuck by the time the War Between the States was over, and then some of the boys came home and took it into their heads to turn that little useless spit of sand into a resort – the same idea was working over in Coney Island, so why not Hog Island too? Wasn’t the city full enough of people looking for a quick close getaway? Even the most average of average men could afford the train fare and ferry ride.

The sea grass glinted green and white when the wind blew, and you could pick up dry, pristine sand and let it run through your fingers while you looked back at the coal soot hanging over the city. The smoke from the Sag Harbor Branch. The Central Railroad of Long Island.

One restaurant opened up, then another. Then a bathing house. Then a casino, and another restaurant. Just the average Joes taking the ride out at first, but then, who knows how these things happen, the pols starting arriving. They’d touch their fingers to their bowlers or straw boaters, flip their nickels to the ferry captains and wink and ride on over for the day.

Women tiptoed daintily into the water in their bathing gowns, weights sown into the hems to prevent lifting. They’d shiver in the cold Atlantic while on the beach the men smoked cigars, itchy and hot in their long wool swim trunks, talking about the next election. About graft. About politics.

Patrick Craig’s place was the one they all ate at. The Irish Saratoga, they called it, though that wasn’t its name. At night when paraffin lamps were mounted on drops hanging from the ceiling and the oysters and steaks were eaten and the bellies full, as the last of the liquor was sipped and calmly made its way down the men’s gullets and back up their spinal columns, you could meet just about everyone you had to, if you were so inclined to a career in that direction. Robert Van Wyck, Lewis Nixon, a young Charles Francis Murphy. Even Richard Crocker, heir to John Kelly and Boss Tweed’s throne, though not half the leader of either if you asked some, privately. They talked politics. They murmured, they muttered, they grumbled. Susurrations low and quiet and steady as a heartbeat.

“Look, Roswell Flower is up in Albany, and while that ungrateful Presbyterian pussy certainly isn’t going to do anything to stop the Machine he sure as shit isn’t going to stand up to the troublemakers down here, either. Can’t count on his support if the shit really starts to fly. No, no, it’s up to us city boys, up to Crocker, and he is a tough old Mick. You can count on him. Keeps his finger thoroughly on the pulse of the city, that one does. Knows who gambles, knows who visits whores. Hell, the man owns the owners of half the brothels south of Central Park! He knows every secret you need to know to run the big town and that is what is important. Once the Panic is over and the Democrats have an edge again, Tammany will be right back where it ought to be: in control.”

The men of the machine leaned back in their chairs and stuck their thumbs under their suspenders. They blew smoke in powerful, languorous clouds. In their hearts they knew Crocker wasn’t up to the job, not really. But the Machine had been through tough patches before and they believed this one could be rode out, too. Out in the dark of the night, just beyond the reach of the lamp light, the waves shushed-shushed on the smooth sand.

News started coming up that morning, the wires humming hot with cables from Norfolk, D.C, Baltimore. They called it a Class Two hurricane, a gale, a cyclone. It was a Wednesday and lucky for that: most everyone was back in the city.

At two in the afternoon the clouds came in dark and low from the south. Lighting  silhouetted the Statue of Liberty. At eight that night the storm hit. It hit hard. In parts of Brooklyn and Queens surges of up to thirty-feet were recorded, covering homes and apartment buildings. Dead police horses floated through the streets. Dozens of boats along the banks of the Hudson sank, and hundreds of sailors with them. The East River crested its seawall for the first time in memory. One newspaper dubbed the storm “The West Indian Monster.”

On the Hog, whitecaps hit the shore and you could almost see the beach disappearing, getting pulled back under, grains of sand dispersed in the ocean like dandelion spores on a stiff wind. Scattered and insignificant. When the rain hit Caffery’s Cosmopolitan the roof sprung a thousand leaks. Water came through as if it was nothing more than a sieve. Nearly everyone abandoned the island.  Packed themselves into small rowboats, tiny rafts not meant for those waves, but they fought their way through the surf to the dunes of Rockaway, then stood and turned back and looked. Watched as flashes of lightning revealed the crumbling casino and restaurants. The Irish Saratoga washing away. The Atlantic gorging itself. They watched. The rain stung their faces. The politicians were in the city. Crocker himself huddled by a fireplace in his townhouse just north of Hell’s Kitchen and, after the storm, sent a pittance to Patrick Craig to “help him get back on his feet.” A fucking joke, really. A sum of money so small it might as well have been an insult for all the good it did.

Generally speaking, in life things are here and then they’re gone, and any attempt at transcendent meaning is nothing but a lie. Still and all, it makes you wonder.

Within a year Tammany Hall’s chosen man Tommy Gilroy would lose the mayoral race to that hick on the Fusion Party ticket William L. Strong. Seth Low, a Republican of all things, would win after that. Crocker retired and went back to Ireland to raise thoroughbreds and nothing was the same, or so it seemed.

The New York Times said that the chimneys of the businesses and handful of homes on Hog Island “were tossed down like playthings,” that the telegraph wires “fell like cotton strings.” After the storm you could hardly call the island an island: it was more of a spit, something children could walk to over sandbars at low tide. By 1902 the island had disappeared entirely. Boats might get caught up in the shallows where it used to be but from the looks of the surface it might as well have never existed.

And every now and then someone will find an old, cheap porcelain plate, or a bottle with a stamp on it – “Trenton Glassworks, 1884” – embedded in the sand on Edgemere, and maybe they’ll think about it for a moment. Maybe they’ll turn it over in their hands. Run their fingers over the date. And then forget about it entirely.


Bio forthcoming. 

Anhook and the Eskimo Caddie by Adam Sexton

OBJECTDead Body

BODY OF WATER: Little Neck Bay


Her home lacks clocks.

But the woman knows what time it is, at least to the half-hour; she tracks its passage via programs on the living-room TV, her family’s focus, its jabbering blue hearth.  And when Geraldo appears and her baby hasn’t, she knows that something is amiss, that He been beat up after school.  Or maybe one a them Dominicans in they big cars, like a old Lincoln or something?  With the windows open and they music turn all the way up, down from Washington Heights?  Maybe they runned over my baby in the street like he nothing, the woman thinks, like he a animal.

The News 4 New York theme plays, the phone jangles in her kitchen, and when the woman lifts the receiver the little boy is somewhere crying and another voice wants half a million dollars in ransom money.

The kidnappers are, indeed, Dominicans.  They are rivals of the child’s brother, a neighborhood entrepreneur who sells $50,000 worth of crack cocaine each week.  (It’s the Nineties.)  He has been arrested repeatedly, though convicted but twice: of drug possession in April five years ago and weapons possession the following November.

But it’s like yo, he ain’t got the money, a’ight?  Know what he’s saying?

Spewing Spanglish and bile, the boy’s captors say to look for a coffee cup in the men’s room of the Mickey Dee’s on 125th, and on a December afternoon, brumal and bitterly cold, the dealer locates the cup atop a sweating urinal past the swinging sign there (MEN), past the How may I help you?s and Happy Meals.  He peels the membraneous plastic lid from the foam container and sees an unlabeled audio cassette, a Maxell XL II 100-minute tape.  Also what appears at first to be a broken stick of blackboard chalk, gray.  It is a finger from his brother’s hand.

Outside the restaurant, the sticky steering wheel of his Nissan in a bear hug, the dealer plays the tape, punches the REWIND button, plays it again.  The car’s windows remain obfuscated by his own humective breath, even though he has forced the lever that protrudes from the dashboard all the way across its slot to DEFROST.

They cutted my finger off, the child whimpers in stereo from his brother’s Canal Street-purchased loudspeakers.  Please help me.  Get the money.  I love you, Mommie.

Three days later, on a steep sidestreet in upper Manhattan, a woman hands a folded sheet of pink paper to a girl in goldplated ram’s-head earrings and a goosedown coat.  It is a flyer trumpeting Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater, a handwritten message scrawled in blue ballpoint ink below its Chicago-typefaced announcement.  The woman instructs the girl in goosedown to deliver it to her aunt, who lives in the neighborhood.  The note reads,

Your boy “N” pain, he need a Dr.

Send money (the 1/2 Million $s) NOW!!

The dealer is last seen just after New Year’s, parking by payphones, huddled in doorways, gesturing.  He is calling in debts.

#

The time: 1643.  The place?  A forest clearing in the Dutch New World, on the mainland northeast of Manhattan Island.

The Siwanoy Indians live along the nearby shore in summer, the water there bounteous and generally clement; they move inland for protection from the winds off Long Island Sound when the weather cools.  Siwanoy homes provide ample shelter from all but the harshest of winter storms, wigwams and longhouses constructed of hickory saplings driven into the ground, their tops bound together to form a frame then covered with chestnut bark and insulated with cornstalks.

The fields of the tribe, cleared by strangling trees with dead vines, are tilled by women, the very young, and old men with hoes of stone or shell bound to wooden handles; in soil fertilized with fish carcasses, they raise corn, beans, and squash, also tobacco.  Siwanoy men, who with hot stones singe off all the hair on their heads save a black brush, a kingfisher’s crest that terminates in a drooping forelock, fish and hunt and build the castle of palisaded logs contrived to protect their settlement from Iroquois attack.  Blessed by plenty, the tribe is a peaceful one, but in these times of invasion from the north, defense is obligatory.

It has been nine years since Anne Hutchinson, second cousin of the poet John Dryden (I am as free as Nature first made man,/Ere the base laws of servitude began,/When wild in woods the noble savage ran), sailed from England to the town of Boston in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Though admired at first by the Puritans for the acuity of her thinking, soon Hutchinson was convoking extracurricular meetings of her parish’s goodwives and espousing theological positions deemed revolutionary.  A former Governor of the Colony called Hutchinson a blasphemer.  An ecclesiastical synod condemned her opinions.  Hutchinson and her adherents were banished from Massachusetts Bay, for life.

They fled to Rhode Island (founded by fellow-outcast Roger Williams), but in an extraordinary measure, the Puritans threatened then to extend their control over the neighboring colony.  So Hutchinson and her sixteen followers moved on, moved west — into New Netherland, where in 1642 they settled a fertile riverbed tract granted to that colony by the Siwanoy Indians two years earlier.  The Dutch called this area Vredeland, Hutchinson learned, meaning Land of Peace.

The following February, New Amsterdam Director General Willem Kieft dispatched his soldiers across the North River one night to slaughter eighty Indian men, women, and children in their sleep, displaying the heads of many atop poles at the foot of Broad Way the next day.  One captive was castrated, skinned alive, and forced to eat his own flesh as Kieft looked on, laughing.  The action was ostensibly in response to the murder in ’41 of a Dutch wheelwright by a local tribesman, who in turn was acting to avenge the death of his uncle at the hands of whites sixteen years before.

Area Indians retaliated with raids on European homes throughout southern New Netherland, sparing only a handful of the forty-odd bouweries in the vicinity of the region’s capital.  Houses were torched, livestock was slaughtered.  Settlers were slaughtered.

And still a decommissioned British army officer, Captain James Sands, begins construction on a Vredeland house for Hutchinson, his great aunt-by-marriage.  Shoulders soaking with perspiration, the Captain labors at his saw-goat; no longer in combat trim, he gasps and wheezes with the effort.

Five Siwanoy Indians stalk from the woods in deerskin loincloths, their greased coxcombs like the reflection of night in still water, their tawny skin glinting with bearfat bug repellant.  Wordlessly, they hoist Captain Sands’s tools — his polless broadaxe; his draft shave and bowl gouge, his carpenter’s adze; the Captain’s wide-eyed rabbet and his twibil; his burl hammer and stock knife — to their shoulders.  They file mutely toward the trees at the southern edge of the clearing, backwards-glancing as they go.

The Siwanoy reprise their performance from the beginning, dumbshow and threat at the same time, then lay down the foreign implements and retreat.  The next day Captain Sands flees his Aunt Anne’s settlement forever.  The others, however, remain.

And late in August, the Vredeland settlement is eradicated in a midnight tempest of fire and flesh.  Afterward, no trace remains of Hutchinson, six members of her family including a son and a son-in-law, and their two servants.  No trace remains of eighteen neighbors.  No trace but their smoldering homes, their burned barns — and Hutchinson’s eight-year-old granddaughter Susannah, borne by the Siwanoy to their seaside summer encampment.

As custom dictates, the Siwanoy sachem Wampage takes the name of his enemy’s vanquished chief, at least to the extent that he can pronounce it; henceforth he will be called, variously, Ann Hutch, Ann Hoeck, Ann Hook and Anhook, with the spit of land his clan inhabits going by the name Ann Hook’s Neck.  Wampage is an appropriator.  The short, ectomorphic man also wears a belt of bearclaws and a ragged neck-frill once belonging to a local burger, as talismans.

By the terms of a later treaty with the Dutch, Susannah is “restored” to those of her race in a ceremony at the New Amsterdam fortress four years after the raid, the proceedings conducted by a bald and breastplated man standing on one leg and one dowl of South American mahogany banded with silver: the colony’s new Director General, Peter Stuyvesant.  Attired in a buckskin dress, the girl is barefoot and filthy, and her waist-length sunbleached hair is a matted, flaxen tangle; yowling, flailing, she resists her return to Civilization with all her strength.  Stuyvesant shrugs his sloping shoulders, pivots on his pegleg, and hobbles from the Indian delegation without a word.

Bidding a final farewell to the town’s windmills and Dutch-gabled houses and New Amsterdam’s lone church spire, the girl embarks among a flotilla of birch canoes for the return trip to the mainland, where she’ll live and die a Siwanoy.  In fact, Wampage — Anhook — has already taken Susannah Hutchinson as his wife, though she is only twelve years old.  She will bear him nine children.

#

Fin de siecle: The residents of City Island cast their ballots in a referendum on the future of their home south of Ann Hook’s Neck.  By nine votes, they elect to secede from the village of Pelham Manor and merge with the borough of the Bronx in New York City — an unnecessary step, it turns out, since all territory south of the middle of the channel between Hunter’s and Locust Island soon will be annexed by the City anyway.

Vacation mansions once owned by Iselins, De Lanceys, and Roosevelts will be razed to clear land for a park by the Sound, planned as the largest on City property.  Nature is cherished in these last years of the nineteenth century.  A word, conservationist, is even coined to denote those who value natural resources, and it is affixed to the big-game hunter who will be President of the United States soon, the very man whose Walloon forebears settled Harlem and summered here on the Pelham Manor shore.

And so the Anthropologist — another term newly-minted, to describe practitioners of another new discipline — inquires of his friend the Commodore, Can you bring one of these Esqimaux you tell of back from the Arctic to be interviewed, examined and measured?  Back to the Museum at Manhattan Square — in the name of Science?  Generous almost to a fault in matters such as this, the Commodore returns to the City in October of 1897 with not one but six Esquimaux: three men, two women, and a young boy.  Before being transported uptown to the Museum via omnibus, they are “exhibited” to paying customers aboard the Commodore’s ship, the Hope, moored alongside a pier in the North River, and the New York Times reports that

The unfortunate little savages have caught cold or warmth, they do not know which, but assuming it was the latter, their sole endeavor yesterday was to keep cool.  Their efforts in this direction were a source of amusement to several scores of visitors.

By February, the savage known as Qisuk has succumbed to tuberculosis in a ward at Bellevue.  The others, coughing blood, are transferred by the Museum to an upstate farm to convalesce, but three more expire soon, and the last surviving adult, Uisaakassak, is repatriated to Greenland via boat.  Qisuk’s six-year-old son Minik, however, remains behind, as alone now as an albatross migrating or a polar bear adrift on a solitary iceberg, its coat matted and yellow.

He is “given” to the Superintendant in charge of construction on the Museum’s burly new south wing — the man who, unknown to Minik, processed and bleached the bones of his father and the others in a Westchester macerating plant before returning them to the Museum for study.  For display.  For taking kickbacks from contractors, the Museum soon dismisses the Superintendant from his post.  He retains custody of the boy.

The Superintendant and his wife raise Minik alongside their own son in an apartment on West Tremont Avenue in the Bronx.  The boy was born among hunters and fishermen, active pursuers of life’s necessities, but in his new home, everything is delivered, brought to the family’s very doorstep by the coal truck, the milk man.  The ice man.

Minik attends school and Sunday school nearby, where he is known as Mene Peary Wallace, and presently the boy announces his desire to attend college someday as well.  His adoptive father approves, suggesting part-time work to raise the necessary funds.

And so each afternoon when school is done, Minik boards a trolley, migrating miles to his job at the Pelham Country Club.  There he is known as Chink-of-the-Links, or just Chink.

– Chink, my boy, be so good as to handle my clubs today, won’t you?  There’s a handsome tip in it for you.

– Look alive, Chink!

– Poor Chink-of-the-Links, covered with brambles and no ball to show for it.  Shame, isn’t it?

– Savage.

Recently introduced to Westchester and thus to America by the Scotsman Alastair Reid, the game of golf is wildly popular, and the prodigious courses required for playing it are metastasizing, multiplying throughout the area like a land-borne virus, an epidemic of groomed grass.

The land is changing.  Daily, Minik/Mene/Chink-of-the-Links traverses acres of what were Northeast climax woods, lately transformed to ape the hillscape of the Scottish highlands — an idealized, abstracted geography, and a foreign one at that.  Sometimes, toting a rattling oblong bag across the greens’ clean carpet, he hears voices rising towards him from beneath the turf, voices no one else apprehends.  The language these voices speak is unfamiliar to him — Greek to me, Minik thinks (the Superintendant’s phrase), though in fact it is Algonkin.

The walrus-whiskered President — the Progressive, the Conservationist — presents the Commodore with a gold medal for his achievements to date.  Minik visits the Museum on his day off.  Wandering down a looming gantlet of totem poles into the Hall of North American Indians, he stops to examine the mounted contents, shellacked and pinned, of a wood-and-glass case.  It takes him only moments to realize he is looking at the bones of his father.

A  New York World feature called “Give Me My Father’s Body” describes Minik’s fight to possess Qisuk’s remains, and for the next two years, articles are published around the country — around the world — describing Minik’s plight as well as the Museum’s bored boilerplate refutation of his charges.  It is the Golden Age of Muckraking, after all.  Called by one paper the first Eskimo to go to college in any country, Minik enters Manhattan College to study civil engineering.  Estranged from the Superintendant and his wife, he lives in a roominghouse and pays his first semester tuition with money earned in Pelham Manor, on the murmuring links.

Shortly thereafter, Minik retains a press agent, who calls his client suicidal, then reports his disappearance.  The Press Agent threatens the Commodore with the following statement released to the papers:

Mene is as you know somewhat of an Indian, so he can hate, and I do not think he has too much love for Commodore Peary.  Bearing that in mind I am not so sure but that he has some scheme in mind to try and defeat Peary in his hunt for the North Pole.

Commodore Peary reaches the Pole, the first white man to do so, and becomes the most famous human of any color on the planet.  Fearful that the Commodore’s affair with a married Eskimo woman who has borne him two children will somehow come to light in the ensuing media maelstrom, Peary’s wife offers Minik a one-way trip to Greenland aboard the ship of another explorer, in exchange for the boy’s promise never to return.  Before boarding ship, the son of Qisuk calls a press conference.

You’re a race of scientific criminals, Minik reads from a prepared text, the North River slapping at pier pilings behind him.

What’s that, boy? a reporter for the Herald-Tribune calls out over the waterfront bustle: the tramp of stevedores’ boots against damp wood, the hoot of tugboats.  The yelping of gulls disputing scraps of trash.

Minik raises his voice.  I said you’re criminals!  He inhales deeply and returns to his notes, typewritten in brown ink on the custom-printed stationery bearing the Press Agent’s Park Row address.  I know I’ll never get my father’s bones out of the American Museum of Natural History.  I am glad enough to get away before they grab my brains and stuff them into a jar.

Arriving in the Greenland village of Qunaaq just as the Commodore is returning to Civilization, Minik learns eventually, as he has learned English and mathematics and the principles of elementary engineering, to hunt and fish and to speak the language of his people.  Summers, he works as a guide.  In the wake of the Commodore’s triumph, polar expeditions have grown popular.

D.W. Griffith is making motion pictures on City Island, awarded a bridge to the mainland upon its annexation by New York.  Due north in the Sound, Locust Island Amusement Park is inundated each weekend with visitors who make the pilgrimage by steamer from as far as New Jersey.  The park actually comprises five separate islets, each emulating a different foreign country, a different world culture: German Beer Garden, Castle in Spain, etc., etc.  Popular interest in such things, in exotica, is keen these days.  The islands have been joined together, concatenated, by landfill — that is, for the most part, garbage.

All the way from Greenland, Minik visits friends in New York City.  Minik repeats his charges against the Museum in another press conference — this one sparsely attended, as Minik’s story is old news.  He rides a train from the great new Terminal in the City, its vaulted ceiling a riot of painted constellations, to Pelham Manor one night in springtime and walks the Country Club golf course in the dark, listening.  This time he hears nothing.

Minik’s life ends neither here nor there, so to speak, but in New Hampshire, south of Lake Winnepasukee, where, employed as a lumberjack, he sleeps in a shack he has built of woodscraps salvaged from a sawmill.  Shortly before the Armistice that will end the Great War in Europe, Minik contracts the influenza virus during a worldwide pandemic of the disease.  He dies, aged 28, to be buried not in his native Arctic but in the Granite State, beneath a small gravestone of that material.

#

The parkland has lain within the City limits for a hundred years now, since its annexation from Pelham Manor in the 1890s, but along its shore in summertime, hard by lapping Long Island Sound, you can still see bayberry, violet ironweed, yellow goldenrod.  Further inland, black locust trees flourish alongside white oaks, white poplars, white pines.  Indian grass is everywhere.

Recently, Park rangers have happened upon evidence of a variety of religious ceremonies in these East Bronx woods, including still-burning candles, and of animal sacrifices: chicken carcasses, and once, a freshly-slaughtered German shepherd.  The West Harlem drug dealer’s corpse is found near the beach north of the NYPD firing range at Ann Hook’s Neck, on a thawing patch of ground beneath the now-bare and indifferent Park trees.  The dealer has been shot several times in the head and chest, and wadded in the right front pocket of his capacious Hilfiger jeans is $2,239 in small bills.

An account of the case in the news includes the following:

There are a number of possible reasons why Pelham Bay Park has become such a popular area for disposing of human and animal remains.  Sergeant Larkin said that the most important are isolation and location, near the Hutchinson River Parkway, the Bruckner Expressway and the New England Thruway….

But Officer Kozlow suggested a second theory: the place is haunted.

Three weeks later, a homeless man canvassing a cracked-asphalt bike path for aluminum cans to redeem discovers a Hefty trash bag scintillant with drops of snow-melt unevaporated by the sunshine of a January thaw.*  Cars fly past him in gossiping clumps, and the wind off the Hutchinson Parkway is brisk.  When the man pulls open the bag to peer inside, he falls backward as if struck, thinking — saying — Mary mother of Jesus.

With weatherblistered hands he folds back the black sack’s black lip to reveal the body of a boy, showing some evidence of decay but remarkably well-preserved by the long cold spell, knees against the front of his white shirt.

The homeless man can’t take his eyes off the child’s sneakers.  They are boots, almost, and awesomely clean, refulgent as rural snow in the daylight of this New York City winter.  So it is a moment before the man realizes that the otherwise-intact body is lacking one of the fingers on its right hand.

(Thanks to Donatella Lorch, Ian Fisher, and Michael T. Kaufman of The New York Times.)


Adam Reid Sexton's features, reviews, essays, and fiction have been published in the New York Times, the Village Voice, the Boston Phoenix, the Philadelphia City Paper, the Mississippi Review, the Bellevue Literary Review, and other publications, as well as on various websites.  He also is the author, editor, or adapter of more than ten published books on subjects ranging from tennis to Madonna, which have been translated into Japanese, Indonesian, and Farsi.  With a team of visual artists he adapted four of Shakespeare’s tragedies as manga (Japanese-style graphic novels), and his anthology Rap on Rap was acquired by Harvard's W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research.  He has been interviewed about teaching, writing, and literature by the New York TimesTime, the Washington PostPoets & Writers, and npr.com. He teaches at Yale.

East of the Eye by Katie Arnold-Ratliff

OBJECTFormica Dinette

BODY OF WATEREast River


A note from the author: while this story veers considerably from its intended milieu—i.e., the waterways of New York, and what lies beneath them (that is to say, they don’t appear apart from one opaque mention), I like to think that the spirit of the project is faithfully represented, insofar as New York is made up of the people who escape to it, and the buried things they bring with them, and the things they bury in the places they’ve left behind.—K.A.R.

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I was six years old when I first saw the hole in the lake, out near the dam—that was the year we left the campsite at Putah Creek to be closer to Spanish Flat; that was the year I saw my mother for the last time. Auntie and Uncle parked the camper, disallowing us kids to sit inside it during daylight, and backed the orange speedboat into Lake Berryessa before driving out to the dam in the brown pickup. The hole went unexplained. It interrupted the placid surface, water entering its maw, as though the earth had given way with geometric precision—a bending of physics; a miracle shoved where no one would see.

The hole terrified me. It was too extraordinary. I opened my mouth to ask questions but was quieted by their silence. Then I forgot. We went out on the boat that afternoon, and won candy for every second we stayed up while waterskiing. They shouted out the count—1! 2! 3!I swallowed so much lake water I couldn’t stand. You’re gonna live with us now, Auntie said. She handed me another sour candy, the kind that stung. You don’t live with your mom no more. I opened up to ask questions but the silence won out again. I paused and the pause lasted years.

Auntie was a better cook than my mother. The mother she and my mother shared had loved Auntie most, or only; had sat her in the kitchen as she cooked, blithely explaining the movements of her hands. Only my mother had chores; Auntie didn’t know what the word meant until she was a teenager. Fold the laundry, wash the silver. Set the plates. They had a beaten Formica table, deeply scratched by a pair of wrought-iron candleholders that were never used. Auntie told me about the time she and my mother swung on the door of the refrigerator for hours, having been left home alone. They swung until the door handle fell off. Auntie was sent to her room. My mother was hit across the softest part of her head—that place just east of the eye—with an open hand until a dim small light appeared on the periphery of her vision, and stayed. She told me this when I was small; it’s the last thing I can hear her voice saying. She followed that phantom light like a beacon, trailing it right out of the world.

One camping trip, the drought was especially bad—the falling waterline left ever more dire rings on the rocky rim of the lake—and the lost city emerged. A compromised bridge, with arches like the Roman aqueducts; the dead fingers of a tree left to drown; the damp spire of a church. The dam had killed the city, once known as Monticello, a hundred years ago—the lake was manmade. What looked natural could be false. Some team of builders could mimic God. Someone in a pickup truck drove over the ancient bridge, and we watched, waiting.

Auntie wanted to stand in Times Square on New Years Eve. It was her dream; she talked about it every year, her cigarette exhaling its blind smoke above the stained lampshade, the mirrorball slipping down into place. When I moved to New York twenty years later, she refused to visit. Instead she sent food in boxes. Not even overnight, just in a box, regular post, shipped 3,000 miles—mashed potatoes in plastic wrap, leaking like a burst organ, little paper towels full of ham-stuffed won tons. The boxes arrived filmed with grease. The smell was absurd. My Aunt stopped eating entirely but continued to feed everyone. She bought a $10,000 watch and an elaborate fur and wore neither; she got a job she didn’t need, and lost it.

When I married, my husband and I received a Formica table that had belonged to his grandparents. We placed it in the dining room that wasn’t one, was in fact just the passage between the living room and kitchen. The surface was bluish gray like an old woman’s hair rinse and we set it every night with paper plates and cans of Coke. It stayed in California when we moved away—to the land of the dropping balls, the land of Times Square, the land where water halts one’s footpaths in every direction. The table was left beneath some boxes in my mother’s house, forgotten.

Her house had never been sold, once she was sent away—to the land of quiet halls, the land of the endearingly named restraint harness, the Posey. Auntie took me along when she looked in on the place, on rare afternoons. Uncle would work on the boat at home. He couldn’t bear it, I understand now—watching Auntie sit me in my old room as she stood in the doorway, until my time was up. I was allowed to stroke my old dolls, but had to leave them there. The house remained, I guess, because no one had the stomach for paperwork. I would talk to the house. It was close enough. House, I would start. My mother was all the way gone by then, fully asleep inside her body, dead and alive both.

I forget the name of the hospital now, where my mother lives. It’s not one you can visit. Better to think of it as a breathing graveyard. Auntie sends me cards on Christmas that are sprayed with perfume, but smell instead of cigarettes. Uncle works on the boat but it looks the same each time I visit. We went back to the hole once when I was ten, the kids all nearly grown and no one willing to ski but me. I stood for four seconds and refused the candy. Bravery was its own reward. In those four seconds I looked into murky nothing, and considered the absence of that water. In the water’s absence I would be flying over the eroded town, sinking toward it when my feet found me again and I slowed, and could no longer stay up. In the water’s absence I would be above the world, and no longer of it.


Katie Arnold-Ratliff received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and is the author of the novel Bright Before Us, published by Tin House Books. Now on the editorial staff of O, the Oprah Magazine, she lives in New York.