By Dan Bevacqua
I happened to run into that annoyingly perfect woman everyone goes to high school with, the one who, years later, has a panic attack aboard a flight to Buenos Aires, the 737 forced down in a llama preserve. It was something like that with Tracy Hammersmith. Maybe it was Rio de Janiero. Not that it really matters. I was back in Greenwich when I’d heard, visiting so as to maul a turkey with Mother and my stepfather, Gary—and it was just like a dream: striding across the Whole Foods parking lot, can of cranberry sauce in my hand, when I spied an old childhood pal, Jake Little, a vacant-eyed two-year-old under each of his arms.
“Paul,” he said. “You son of a bitch. These are my sons. Come on over and say hello to Mary. The twins are fun. They have their own weird language. Nobody understands what the hell they’re saying.”
I followed Jake in my M-Class through the gates of his community. He did his parenting from the comfort of a swank basement: pool table, flat screen, sub-zero stocked with a special order Belgian microbrew. The twins sat naked on the hardwood floor. You could feel the telepathy pass between them.
“Look at those two, “ Jake said. “What did I do to deserve that?”
“Something terrible,” I said.
“You need to move out of the city,” he said. “It’s making you bitter. You need to come back home, marry a nice girl, and settle down.”
We both let out hard, maniacal laughter until we began to cry. The twins loved it. They started clapping.
“God,” Jake said, wiping his eyes. “Kill me.”
Mary was the one who told me about Tracy Hammersmith. I’d been a guest at Mary and Jake’s wedding, the reception for which was held at The Tamarack Club. Everyone got drunk in a creepy way, and the one distinct memory I have from that night is of Jake’s mother slapping him in the face over and over again, trying to poke him in the eye. Mary is as thin as she was in high school, and you can tell she’s proud of that. She’s one of those women who move around too much, early-morning-cokey-all-day-long, like a brick of C-4 is about to go off inside her.
Jake and Mary’s Trinidadian nanny came down to change the boys, and Mary hovered over the woman’s shoulder, squinting.
“Hammersmith had a total freak out,” Mary said, peering at a tiny groin. “We might have a rash situation here, Jakey.”
“Awesome,” Jake said.
“She started screaming that the plane was going to crash, and that if the pilot didn’t land she was going to open the emergency door and parachute down.”
“She had a parachute?”
“No. She didn’t. I guess when they went to sedate her, she got the needle somehow, and stabbed the flight attendant with it.”
And that was it. We didn’t talk too much more about Tracy’s episode, probably because it was old news to Jake and Mary, and I definitely didn’t tell them how a thing like that made total sense to me—that, yes, of course: a woman we’d gone to high school with had lost her shit mid-air, and now she was nothing more than a story we poo-poo’d at as the twins got wiped, trying on earnest looks of regret, thinking, isn’t that the way life is?—not a single one of us actually believing it.
Four days later, on Monday morning, Rhinegold said, “You’ve seen this coming. This is the reality of finance. You’re one of many. Don’t make me say it.”
We were in a giant conference room on the 47h floor. In the building across the way, a guy I went to Yale with had his cock out, and he was smacking it against the window, laughing, and mouthing my name.
“I slept with your wife, Rhinegold,” I said. “She calls me in the middle of the night from your downstairs bathroom. She tells me horror stories about her impoverished girlhood in Kentucky. It’s Gothic stuff.”
“Real funny,” Rhinegold said. “Don’t say things you’ll regret. If June had relatives in Kentucky I’d know about it. Let’s talk severance.”
It was just the one cardboard box with a pair of red suspenders I’d gotten as a gag gift last Christmas, and the HR envelope to set me up nice for half the year, but still I took a company stretch home. My co-op is deep inside the bowels of the city, nooked among the cobblestones, and steam, and the unmarked iron doors where movie stars are left alone. I was not worried about finding another job. Making money is like making war. Not enough of either and America gets bored. In due time, I thought. But (and did I ask myself this?) was I upset? I don’t know. My loft was airy and dead. We were out of sync with one another. There is always the disappointment at encountering yourself again. As in: you? still?—laugh out loud. That was something, I guess. But I wouldn’t call it upset. Not yet anyway.
I could not recall the last time I’d ridden a city bus.
I walked the block and a half, and leaned against the Plexiglass cube to wait. In a doorway behind me crouched a woman in a shroud of many sleeping bags, green and red and navy blue, her face a black mask of total grinning insanity. A pair of cops stood five feet away from her, looking put out, and talking code into their shoulders. The woman asked for the time. I thought about telling her, but then the bus came.
I looked out at the city as we went north. Mother’s fourth, and current husband, Gary, had some sort of Prince-Hal-maybe-drug-period in the early ‘80’s that he likes to allude to on Sunday afternoons while he doesn’t really watch football. He gets loaded on bourbon, and speaks of drag queens, and little black kids dropping high tops stuffed with “horse” from Alphabet City windows. He claims to have dated a woman named Lee. He calls her a Catholic worker, whatever that is, and says she was killed on 8th Street for a hot bag of peanuts. All of that’s over now, of course (and “Toodaloo,” as Mother says), but still, like any man after anything, I feel as if a truer reality has been lost. There are certain corners above the Bowery now where, if this weren’t New York, it might be any other place.
The bus plowed through a yellow light at Houston, and some nerds got on. Three boys college age with the minor hairline acne. They sat across from me still wearing their backpacks so that their bodies pitched forward into the aisle. I couldn’t remember if you were allowed to stare at people on the bus like you are on the subway. To be safe, I pretended to check my phone.
“You have to get the PH levels.”
“For the kidneys?”
“Overall. Then order a diagnostic on the liver. Laser out a hunk. Run those against the previous.”
“Maybe do a body scan.”
“I say biopsy.”
“Listen to this guy. ‘Invasive’. You’re invasive. You’re going to fail this exam, flunk out, and become a veterinarian—get drunk one night, and hit a kid with your car. Fuck you, invasive. Invasive buys me a house.”
I imagined a future where the angry one had his hands wrapped around my heart in an operating room. It doesn’t work out for me. “We did all we could,” he tells wife-number-whatever, and then goes home to the UES, runs a dozen miles on his treadmill.
Maybe it was the day dreaming of death, or just their youth, or my looming, predictable self-pity, my jobless shame, coming over the horizon, but I hated those kids in the old-fashioned way of hate, where it’s total righteous self on your end, and the world a bunch of Nazis. For a brief flicker, I understood terrorism. And what’s worse, I’d been that kid, the angry one. Born to money, I’d wanted more—and soon had it—and now it seemed wrong, hollow. Sitting on the bus, I wished for time back, for some sort of long chat to take place with me, a talking-to, get my future straightened out. It was totally stupid.
I stood up, and teetered, hanging onto the rail above the boys. To my right stood a young pregnant woman. Beside her was an art school type girl with the glasses. She made a concentrated face like she was trying to decide whether or not to get bangs. I actually thought (I was suddenly upset, it turned out): who are these little fuckers to not get up for such beauty? The bastard-carrying Madonna? The shy, secretly into S&M girl who works at the Strand? These were two of the more prominent borough female archetypes. The kind of women that, in place of God, a civilization had been built around. Now they were the whole lot of everything good forced to live in Jersey. It occurred to me that, since I had been fired, I was no longer part of the problem. I could change, redeem. You hear about these guys. They do radio shows, weird Internet podcasts. “I used to be a gun runner in Sierra Leone. Now I teach high school math in Queens.” That could be me. At the very least, I should support the arts. I could marry a painter, or a struggling ceramicist. I was very upset, indeed.
“Why don’t you three get off your asses, and let those ladies sit down?” said a woman’s voice behind me.
I recognized the Greenwich lilt, knew it was Tracy Hammersmith’s, and when I arced myself out to let the exchange of bodies occur, I saw her in profile. She was successfully avoiding the angry kid-doc’s glare. It gave me first sight advantage.
I’d made with Jake and Mary like I hadn’t thought of Hammersmith in seventeen years, not since high school, or some keg and bonfire’d excuse for an orgy the week before college, but that was shit. I’d thought of her, and often, like I think of all the women from my past who I wanted to sleep with but hadn’t. Everyone has a list like this, whether they cop to it or not, and you always think it will shrink with time, with age and fat and etcetera, but it never does. If anything, it just gets longer, and the dialing up of it more absurd, since you’ll never see most of these people ever again, let alone fuck them. “You know, I always wanted to screw her/him/them,” being the story of most of our lives.
Tracy didn’t look fat or etcetera. She looked pale in a paycheck-to-paycheck way, like there was a cubicle downtown taking up space in her brain. Her hair was ducktailed in the back, shorter than I normally like, but she pulled it off. Her nose was long and pretty. When she turned to notice me, the first thing that came to mind was how her father had been investigated by the SEC when she was nineteen, and pretty soon after that blew his head off.
“Paul?” she said.
Tracy seemed surprised by the fact of my continued existence.
“Hey, Hammer,” I said, because of course we called her that. She cringed at the nickname, maybe thinking about the straight-A+, starting field hockey back she used to be, her blonde, high ponytail flopping around like a belly dancer’s.
“You live in the city?”
“Twelve years,” I said. “You?”
“Ten,” she said. “On and off.”
In my memory, while cute, Tracy had never been beautiful. It was a shock to find that time had made her so, had friction’d against her bones and skin to give her whole seeming a gentle curve. I could tell that she’d be understanding—up to a point. When the time came she would know how to leave. Tracy was a woman truly in her middle thirties. They’ve heard it all before. It’s one last rehearsed speech with that bunch, not much fanfare, and out the door they go.
She asked me what I was doing on the bus, and the truth came unexpectedly out.
“I was fired today. There’s some kind of thing going on with me. It’s hard to explain. I needed people.”
“Like what kind of thing?”
“Like, ‘Aaaahhhhhh’,” I said, quietly. “Like, ‘Get me out of here.’ ”
We each thought of the airplane, her freak out, all those scared llamas.
“I get that. Sometimes the world comes rushing through you, all its immensity and death at the end,” she said. “A friend once wrote that to me in an email. I found it incredibly erotic.”
We got off at 116th—she lived near Morningside Park—and went for a drink. It had been forever since the Upper West Side for me. I texted it now and again, like: ur where? uws? why? But physically it was lifetimes. We cut across Columbia, dodging early December students, all of them thinking, “Get out of my way! I am the change I want to see in the world!” and went down Amsterdam, to a leftover pocket of real, and found a hole in the wall with one old, sad as fuck-all Dominican lady sitting at the bar. It was four o’clock, and felt like early September outside. We took a booth near the front window.
“I have a friend whose mother died, and she said there was a period of time after that, maybe six months, where she saw and felt everything more clearly,” Tracy said. “She left her husband, who was a twat, and got a new job. She went to the Galapagos. Now she’s happier than she’s ever been. She said it was almost instinct. All at once she knew what to do. But it wasn’t like that for me. It was just the opposite. My head was foggy—I mean for years.”
She spoke to me as if our shared childhood implied an intimacy I hadn’t been aware of. I listened, and sipped at my drink in a cautious, Monday way. I tried to keep my fantasies of her down to fragments, to still-shots only: exposed thigh, half-open mouth, the purple blossom of a shoulder bite.
“I think I’d call it cracking up,” Tracy said, “if this was Fitzgerald.”
“Which it isn’t,” I said.
“No, it isn’t. And that’s too bad,” she said. “Psycho-therapy has deadened our terms. PTSD means nothing. It’s too logical. The poetry’s gone. It doesn’t account for, ‘I saw my father’s brains.’ ”
She’d gone to Princeton, dropped out, and returned—and left again in some kind of half-assedly brilliant fashion, two credits shy of a degree. There followed a phase she coined “montage”, telling me to think of men, and tiny, dark rooms, and a smell like plastic left out on a radiator. Then a bad stint in Nairobi, the Peace Corps (“Like I was born in another age”), some ill-advised months back in Greenwich, other pointless destinations. She couldn’t explain to me the nature, or count the number of temp jobs. She was at a box manufacturer’s now. There was more, but Tracy was bored with the re-telling, and left it alone. In the end, she said, she loved New York, the fight against the bitterness with rage.
“I somehow have roommates that I tolerate,” she said. “It’s like a gift from God.”
I could tell she knew everything there was to know about me from Facebook, but she asked anyway. We were surprisingly members of the old generation, it turned out, where representation is assumed as lie. There were still mysteries in us, Tracy thought, true selves to uncover. I think I believed this too, or wanted to believe, so that she might let me touch her. At that moment, her life story was everything I longed for in a woman. I hoped to feel what she’d survived. I should have told her that my particular truth right then was nothing, that it had been fired alongside me, and wasn’t that the sort of thing that turned her on?
“I’m not the enemy,” I said.
“Yes you are,” she said, smiling. “In one way or the other.”
“Does this even happen?”
She knew what I meant. There was only the two of us there.
“Eventually,” she said.
We exchanged numbers, finished our drinks, and said goodbye out on the street.
“I’m having a party Friday night,” she said. “I just decided. You’re coming.”
That night in bed, staring at the smooth white gloss of the ceiling, my phone went buzz.
“I have to be quiet,” Rhinegold’s wife said. “He might not be asleep. I just remembered this.”
She changed her voice over to a southern accent, real soft and Confederate, knowing how I liked it.
“Now, Mama had a second cousin named Clare Munroe who lived over in the next county, and Clare had a sick chile named Roscoe. Roscoe had hydrocephalus. Folks used to call it ‘water on the brain’. He shoulda died at birth, but didn’t. He just went on livin’, eighteen years or so, in this teensy side room off the main house that Clare’s dead husband built. Word came that God was callin’ Roscoe, and that he didn’t have much more time. Daddy didn’t wanna to go, and no way Mama could go alone cuz she didn’t know to drive, and so I told Mama I’d bring her all right, but could my best friend Sissy come along too? And Mama said fine. It was about a half-day’s drive, but we got sidetracked on account of Sissy. She had a constant urge for farm stand peaches. She was pregnant with her first-born, but didn’t know it. We got to Clare’s ‘round supper. She took down the good plates from the cupboard. While we ate, Mama and Clare got to gabbin’ like girls, and that was somethin’ to see. This whole time no one said boo about Roscoe, just every now and then Clare went off to his room. There was no door, only a sheet tacked up. The night went like that. It was only after dessert Clare stood up from the table, and said to Mama, ‘Here, cousin. Say yer goodbye,’ and led Mama by the hand. Sissy and me stayed put. It was real quiet in the parlor. It must’ve been a half hour when Mama came out, all tears, but happy too. Her face was glowin’ like she’d seen an angel. ‘He looks comforted,’ Mama said. ‘Soon enough he’ll be with Him.’ They all prayed for Roscoe—even Sissy—but I couldn’t bring myself to do it, and I guess I don’t know why, or maybe it was just cuz I’d never seen Roscoe before, and that made him not real, and it seemed like I would be prayin’ to someone I’d never seen for someone I’d never seen, and that didn’t feel right. It seemed a lie. I couldn’t shake the idea. Me and Sissy went to bed on the parlor floor, but I was fitful. The same particular worry kept comin’. Nearest way I can explain it is: it was like I knew, or didn’t know somethin’, and I needed to find out which was which. That’s the best way I can put it. I was close to fifteen, I think. I got off the floor real quiet so’s not to wake Sissy and made my way through the parlor, and then I pulled the sheet aside, and went into the room where Roscoe was. There was an orange lamp burnin’ on the nightstand. It was an old kerosene model set to low, the flame teasin’ out the dark. Roscoe was just a form on the bed, nothing much more’n a shadow. It was three steps to the nightstand, but I made it take forever, and then I stuck my hand out, and turned the key on the gas valve, and I saw. Roscoe’s head was the size of my whole torso, and it was stretched out like a triangle, or like an alien’s head, and it must’ve weighed sixty pounds. Hairless, it looked about to burst. The veins were like roads on a map. I wanted to scream, but I think he was more scared than I were, though not of me. Roscoe’s eyes were wide open, and blinkin’, and lookin’ out at me, and I knew what he saw, and somehow I saw what he thought. Here was a whole life spent trapped and wonderin’ what I’d only begun to, and—close as he was to knowin’—no better off for the thought.”
I listened as Rhinegold’s wife cleared her throat, and took a sip of water.
“How was that, creep?” she said. “Did you like that? Is that what you like?”
“Yes,” I said, out of breath. “That was great. I just came.”
“You’re sick,” she said. “This is killing me. I don’t think I can do this anymore.”
As usual, the week progressed chronologically. To lunch that Thursday, Mother wore a boxy red dress and pearls. She kept glancing around the restaurant, ignoring people she recognized.
“Have you spoken to your father?” she said. “How is he?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “He’s in China.”
“Always working,” Mother said. “Always in China. At least once a week a young man walks up to me and says, ‘Your ex-husband was in China before anyone.’ They very much admire him.”
“At the club. Hungry corporate types.”
“Those guys hate him,” I said. “They want to kill him.”
“They really do,” she said. “It’s such a compliment.”
I can’t remember my parents ever being together, but my theory about them is spot on, I think. They divorced in order to pine for one another, to live their lives in the natural, selfish way, while always having a tragic love in the background, an itch to set them free of boredom and routine. For all I know, they may hotel once a year, all their heat stored up from business as usual, and tryst.
“Send him my love, will you?” Mother said. “Will you do that for me?”
I told her about the job, my letting go.
“What does that even mean?” she said.
“Time on my hands. Change on the horizon. Leaf turn.”
“You’re hysterical, Paul,” she said. “You’re just too funny. Tell that one to your father. He’ll love it.”
Later, I did.
“What?!?” he shouted. The reception was bad in Jiangsu Province. “ ‘Wheat turn’?”
“Oh, God. That’s funny,” he said. “That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Though not always, he is often in China. He tells me things.
“Imagine you’re driving down the East Side Highway during the middle of the day, and the road’s full of street sweepers. Little guys with brooms and dustpans. They’re walking on the yellow line, picking up trash, not giving a great goddamn, and you’re driving eighty-miles an hour. It’s up to you not to hit them with your car—but there’s dozens of them, and they’re everywhere. This happened to me today. I’m being serious. That’s how it is here. That’s a job. ‘Highway Street Sweeper.’ You have to know someone to get it. I’m swerving around Party nephews.”
He was doing business with a coal mine, something about higher-ups investing in U.S. money markets leveraged against Beijing real estate bids.
“There’s a few hundred people making money out here,” he said. “Otherwise it’s black lung. Scrawny kids with shit all over their faces. We’ve got nothing to worry about.”
I’ve never quite understood how the imagination operates. What I mean is: how do you create an event? An event you’ve never seen? Is there some giant network of memory we’re all plugged into that goes back a billion years, and then we put the image together, like a composite? Like how exactly? Like what the fuck is going here? And why?
Over the phone, I heard a steam whistle blow. After that, the beating rhythm of a thousand workers trod the earth. I saw these people. In two and threes, they stepped through the mouth of the tunnel. From coal dust, their faces were as black as that of the lunatic at the bus stop. The skeletal workers filed down the road. Some were bent over, as if huddling the air. Others dragged three and four year-old children by the hand. A few dropped chest first into the dirt, and lay there. Ignored were the trees I’d planted and grown in the field. The sun was a black marble in the toxic sky. As I watched them, I understood these people to be the most miserable bastards I had ever imagined or pictured or whatever. Broken. Exhausted. Hopeless. Choose your own slave-adjective. As for myself, I kept it simple. I went with sad.
I lost my father to a Chinese telecomm blip. My screensaver was original factory setting, sort of a ripply water thing. I sat in my loft, and dreamt of the workers. I dreamt too of Hammersmith, who I blamed my sympathy—my leaf turning—on. Like any beautiful woman with a dark and troubled past, she was an expert texter. She understood entendre, ironic observation, odd hours, as well as not replying quickly enough, or at all. Over those last several days, I’d become enthralled by her through my device. Thumbing back through the communiqués, it isn’t hard to understand the attraction. After explaining to her what my job had been, she texted: Futures? Derivatives? So you rape people, basically? She wrote: ¼ life crisis sounds a bit optimistic. And: I’m wearing what I always wear to bed—my college boyfriend’s basketball jersey. It’s falling apart. I shower off pieces of it in the morning. Re-reading them now, I see the texts for what they were: flirtation, pomp, sexy fear. But no matter. She’d worked a psychic number on me. My fantasies of Hammersmith went quickly from the usual degrading to the softer kind. I prophesied glimmers of a timeshare kitchenette, the bronzed Mediterranean behind her. I witnessed small mammals of our own creation become ungrateful. Contextless, we laughed in the face of things. All of that dreaming rerouted my mind. That lost-in-space-feeling I’d encountered on the bus—that wait! I can change!—took on shape, Tracy’s, or the outline of her, and I tractor-beamed toward it. The instinct was ridiculous, of course. What I expected to find inside of Tracy was total invention, and who I was had been made a long time ago, my contours absolute, and rigid. But who cares? So we didn’t fit? What’s that matter? In the end, none of what I have to tell has anything to do with her.
Overnight, the city got all sorts of dumped on. Everyone went lunatic with snow. The mayor shoveled his own driveway. Trains were down. Homeless people went on television, and played it cool, their stoic faces marveling at the rest of us, who behave most days as if there’s no such thing as the outs-of-doors. Then Earth happens. The axis tilts. Panic of the citizen gets born.
I spent the day of Hammer’s party on the Internet. At noon, I felt a terrible boredom and sadness. I contemplated suicide. There’s an old schooner flare from my Maine summer days underneath the kitchen sink. People pull these sorts of stunts. Then they’re dead. They leave others to sit around and ask why. There’s no decent answer, but that they’re being normal and human. In any case, I didn’t. Instead, I loaded the dishwasher, and shaved. The ideation passed. By nine-thirty, the snow had stopped snowing. I called the weekend doorman, and asked him to bring the Sport Utility around. You couldn’t help but notice it was Christmastime in the city. Everything conspired to market joy. I took the long way, but caught the lights, and crossed 110th Street in half an hour. The GPS found a nearby garage.
It wasn’t any more than a ten-minute walk, but going from Broadway to below Morningside is a major real estate descent. The neighborhood between Harlem and the Upper West Side exists in a mood of untapped gentrification. We’re talking missing-stoop-poor, crackheads sleepwalking by, squad cars passing at two miles an hour.
Hammer’s building was one of those Central American prison inspired deals. It’s always the same story with these monsters. You creep up, the gate goes waaah. First there’s the short tunnel. Then it’s the long, enclosed courtyard, followed by the four sides of the interior rising up all around you. The windows appear blacked out. You encounter maximum oppression, darkness, and height. Surprisingly, the snow is gone. There is the stale smell of loneliness in the air, the feeling of shabby death. You think about turning around, just getting out of there, but then Tracy Hammersmith sticks her head and arm out of an eighth floor window—there’s light behind her, you notice, and music’s playing, the party’s going on—and whips her keys down at you.
“8-G!” Tracy yelled.
She still had her athlete’s touch, and the keys landed in a crisp, metallic swish at my feet.
I was out of my element. There wasn’t among that entire party a violence I could lay my hands upon, no cracks to put my fingers through so as to grip and hold, and know who I was. I was introduced to social workers and grad students and research fellows of a variety I couldn’t discern. The women smiled and said hello. They told me their names. Even the men, when they came out from behind their eyes, weren’t afraid, and what was I supposed to do with that? No one pumped my hand too hard, and leaned in, and when I looked past their glasses I saw how little they understood of the world.
Worst of all, Tracy had lost her edge. She handed me a glass of nog. Her dress was made of purple yarn. She introduced me as her friend. Among those white-collar-poor friends of hers, Tracy’s rottenness, her trauma, evaporated. It seemed a waste: I’d wanted her. It was like our post-bus flirtation—or her whole life—hadn’t happened. I thought maybe it was a game she was playing, like a choke-me-up-against-the-bathroom-wall-later kind of thing, but after she made a joke about mistletoe, I excused myself to the kitchen, concocted a real drink with the bourbon in my pocket flask, drank it, and quickly made another. I drank that too. Back in the living room, I sucked down a glass of Trader Joe’s Cabernet while pretending to admire the books on Tracy’s shelf. I waited until another bearded guy and his wife showed up. I smiled at them, set my empty wine glass down on a copy of The English Patient, and left through the open door.
Two little black girls ran by me in the hall. They were maybe seven and four, and playing a game where they would suddenly stop running so the older one could call the younger one “Trick!” and slap her, and then they would both sprint off again. It looked like a lot of fun.
The floors in that empty-feeling building were exposed concrete and there seemed to be decades of cigarette ash ground into them. The halls, too, smelled like a cigarette, as if I were down inside the filter of one. The light was mostly shadow. Several of the ceiling panels were missing or looked as if they had never been installed. It would have been impossible for me to count all the stickers half-scraped off the doors.
I hit the elevator button, and the sound of it churning to life was worthy of applause.
“What you clappin’ at?” a poor voice said.
I was surprised the man walking toward me was white. I was expecting a black or Latino guy, but I’ve never been quite sure how to attack that particular phenomenon of voice. In the end, it’s probably not about race; it’s about money, and what the lack of it does to vocal chords. I thought of June Rhinegold, and how she’d cleared her past right up, as if it were a rash. I had a weird pang for her.
The man was around my age and height. He wore a black Cincinnati Bengals hoodie, and jeans three sizes too big. His hair was at-home buzz’d.
“What you clappin’ at?” he asked again.
“Oh, the elevator,” he said, like that explained everything. “Shit’s always busted.”
He stood five feet away from me, apparently now waiting for the elevator himself. He put his lips together, like he was whistling, but no sound arrived. While he stared at the floor, I took in his face. His head nodded forward as if he were sleeping. I noticed a spot of black on his cheek that might have been frostbite. He smelled exactly like my father’s garage—like old, empty vodka bottles and the cold.
“Elevator’s for shit,” he said, his eyes opening wide, “but I’m tired-a-stairs.”
We waited for the elevator in silence. It was like any other awkward, standing-beside-a-possibly-homeless-drug-addict-moment—until another man walked up on my left. Here now was the black guy I’d mistaken the white dude’s voice for. He was shorter and had the thick build of a man you’d be surprised to find out was a point guard. It didn’t occur to me they might know one another, but then they traded subtle ‘yo’s. The black guy turned slightly so the dim blue light of the corridor hit his face. Something about his eyes—the way their milkiness washed over me before their gaze landed on the other man—made the bond between them apparent, historic: here were two men brought together by the missing-in-action quality of their lives, and who had, many times over, done terrible things in order to exist. The elevator door opened, and we three got on, and after the door closed, each of these men—the white one and the black—turned their face toward me.
The black guy hit the button, and the elevator went down, but slowly, as if it too were frightened, and crying in whatever mechanical language it knew, “No, no, no.”
“What you do?” the white guy asked.
I didn’t hear him, really, and then when I realized he was speaking to me, I didn’t understand.
“For work,” the black guy translated. “A job. What you do?”
“I work in futures. Finance.”
“Okay. Okay,” the white guy said. “I know futures.”
“It’s complicated,” I said.
“No it ain’t but,” the white guy said.
“The math maybe,” the black guy said.
“You do math?” the white guy asked.
“Long division,” I said.
“‘sactly,” the white guy said. “Computers do math. Motherfuckers don’t do math. You make money. Comin’ and goin’. Money. That’s a hustle.”
“It’s lucrative work,” I said.
“It’s a hustle,” he said and put a gun to my throat.
What’s up with death? Our knowledge of it? The fear and longing? Nowadays, gimping along, I think of it constantly, and I don’t mean remembering it, like, “Oh, yeah, death, right,” but am legit frightened and wish it would go away, the whole fact of my end, as it seems unfair. Early on, you seek out that knowledge, and tempt it with your ignorance (you do a bunch of drugs, you jump out of airplanes) and then it comes along, and you’re like, “I was just kidding.” But it comes.
“I hate this shit,” the black guy said to me. “Jus’ so you know.”
Out of the corner of my eye, like a tiny purple moth, I saw their relationship flutter between them.
“Man,” the white guy said. “I thought we said—”
“We ain’t said shit,” the black guy said. “You said shit. And I’m sayin’ I hate it.”
“Arright,” the white guy said.
“Act like you the only motherfucker in here,” the black guy said. “Please.”
The muzzle of the gun pressed itself into my skin, and time began to work like a mass, all stretched out and infinite, different from space only in name. In the elevator, no matter where I looked, there was nothing to see for miles.
“Give us your fuckin’ money,” the white guy said.
These days, I try to remind myself that my body is the same body I’ve always had. I have the same arms and legs. I have the same head. I’m not in a wheelchair, or anything ridiculous like that. While I use the cane, I don’t think I truly need it anymore, and I’ll soon stash it away, hide it like I do the schooner flare. Sooner or later, I’ll be back to my old self. I’ll gain muscle mass. My balance will return. Still, my body doesn’t feel like mine. Maybe it’s the Red Cross blood that’s thrown me off, all those strange, transfused coagulates. Or my organs. They aren’t in the exact same spots they used to be. My heart feels borrowed. My lungs too. Certain tissues have been realigned. There is the terrible sense that I am a thing on loan, and only for a short while. That might be an obvious, or ancient fact to most, but I don’t care. Each time the old truth is revealed to me, it shocks like something new.
I went for my wallet, which had, I knew, seven dollars in it. Who keeps—as the saying goes—cash on them anymore? There was a pause in the aggression. The white guy brought the gun down away from my throat. Like animals, we stunk up the place with our desperation. Everything’s a lifestyle, and theirs was an awful one: lots of shuffles across busy winter streets, I imagined, as they held up traffic with their pride. A score is a score though, no matter the type, and everybody works for a living. We are all tired.
“Seven fuckin’ dollars!” the white guy said.
The elevator made its final, terrified lurch into the lobby.
“What we ‘sposed—” the black guy said. “What the—”
“ATM,” I managed to say.
“Auntie Em?” the black guy asked.
“Oh,” the black guy said. “No time, you Wizard of Oz mother—”
“Credits cards,” the white guy said. “He’s got ‘em.”
“He’ll cancel ‘em.”
“Naw, he won’t,” the white guy said. As we looked at one another, I recognized him. I’d seen his kind before, noticed him seated across from me in boardrooms and train cars. I’d spotted his sort at parties. We’d maybe waited at the bar beside each other and not said a word, turned around and walked toward our similar destinations, self-loathing burned into our hearts at the sight of ourselves.
He raised the gun, stared at me coolly, and shot me in the chest three times.
There is the feel of heat, in case anyone wants to know. It is total pain, and, later, infection. Blood rushes from the holes.
I fell back and slid to the floor. I felt the men—and this was like it wasn’t my body—search through my bloody clothes. The elevator door opened, and they were gone. Out on the gray floor of the lobby, I saw that one of them, in their rush, had dropped my phone.
I was only able to pull myself forward. I didn’t know if I was breathing. I was sure I might be dead. I did not contemplate. I did not think: life’s the meanest joke. I pushed myself into the floor—“pressure, pressure,” I thought—and reached for what wasn’t there.
One of the girls had my phone. They were the ones from the game upstairs, and they held each other—not like friends or cousins will—but like sisters. I saw them as if each of their bodies were one and the same. The older one’s lips went tight. You could see her staring at the future and deciding to be strong. I looked at them, but didn’t speak. I couldn’t. They didn’t speak either. The lobby dimmed around me like at intermission. I managed a hand, and lifted it from the floor. As if I held a weapon, they stepped away. They were afraid of me, and I wanted to say no, and don’t be afraid, and help, please help me—but the words wouldn’t come. The phone was right there in the young one’s hand, but I couldn’t ask for it. All I could do was keep my fingers twitching in the air, and pray the sisters understood they were my last, and only hope. I saw myself reflected in their eyes. It was them and only them. There would be no other. They had the thing I’d come all this way for.
Originally published 3/22/15. See Dan's Awst Press webpage for more stories.