lunes, 2 de abril de 2018

Kids of Appetite - Davis Arnold parte 2

MAD

Being born on December 31 meant watching everyone in the world celebrate a thing on your birthday that wasn’t you. Mom never saw it that way, though. She called me her New Year’s darling, said I was special, meant for great things. I was a little younger than most in my class—Mom said this gave me an edge. I’d finish school sooner, discover the world first, and maybe find whatever great thing I was meant for.
I lit my cigarette and wished she were here now.
Drag.
Blow.
Calm.
The snow kept falling, the wind from the river kept coming, and I stared at the submarine, pondering the intricacies of my past, but mostly, wondering about my future. Three weeks from now, happy New Year would be my happy birthday, and the freedom of eighteen would be upon me with all the honors and benefits granted therein. One benefit was the legal opportunity to get myself, and Jamma, out from under the iron fist of Uncle Les. Sure, I could sneak off now for days at a time, and he either didn’t notice or didn’t care. But I had to go back. Even though Jamma rarely knew who I was anymore, I always went back. I’d been thinking a lot about love recently, and how it wasn’t contingent on the person receiving it; it was contingent on the person giving it. Whether or not my grandmother recognized me didn’t matter. I loved her too much to leave her stranded with Uncle Les.
Enter the freedom of eighteen, with all those pesky honors and benefits.
The problem was, eighteen or not, I had no idea where we should go or how we should get there. I couldn’t choose a place too far away; the thought of being separated from Baz and Zuz and Coco was almost as difficult as the thought of losing Jamma.
Drag.
Blow.
Calm.
I often considered various situations as if they were sets of a Venn diagram. In this case, it was a supremely shitty Venn diagram where set A = {A Person Who Knows What Needs to Be Done}, and set B = {A Person Who Has No Idea How to Do What Needs to Be Done}, and the intersection = {Mad}.
I stomped out the last of the cigarette, pulled the edges of my knit cap over my ears, and blew warm air into my hands. There was something about sitting by the Ling at nighttime that helped me think, like the very heart and soul of the sub was here to keep me company. The black winter-water rippled as thousands of snowflakes dissolved the second they hit the Hackensack River. And I couldn’t help but wonder if it looked as beautiful in the daytime.
Just as I was about to stand and head back, I heard footsteps behind me.
The navy museum was currently closed, and though I’d never had trouble before, I wasn’t entirely sure my being here after hours was allowed.
There, about twenty yards downriver, someone approached. I stayed low, watched as the figure walked up to the fence that separated land from water, laced one hand through the metal mesh. A second later he looked around, and in the snowy moonlight I saw a familiar, unforgettable face: the kid from Babushka’s and Foodville.
Okay, look. I was no believer in a higher order of the cosmos. There was no evidence in my mind to suggest that fate interceded in our lives like some tragic demigod moving humans like pawns on a chessboard. So possibly it was the magic of the Ling that made me want to talk to this kid, or just the fact that I’d only seen him a total of maybe three times before today, and now three times today alone, or hell, maybe there was a tragic demigod moving me like a pawn, but whatever the case, I found myself approaching him.
The Madifesto dictates: when the order of the cosmos sets the board, position yourself as Queen.
I was feet away now, close enough to see white earbuds coiling up to his ears. He knelt on the ground and pulled something out of his backpack, a pot or a jar of some kind, then leaned over it.
“I hope you were right,” he whispered. “I hope there’s beauty in my asymmetry.”
Okaaaaaaaaay.
“You weren’t a nuisance,” he continued, his words growing louder in the cold, snowy silence. “You were the Northern Dancer, sire of the century, the superest of all racehorses.”
Without a doubt this was one of the more bizarre one-sided conversations I’d ever heard, and that was saying something, considering I lived with Coco.
I watched him pull back a piece of tape and open the lid of the jar. His body deflated, as if everything leading to this point had been full of air, energy, expectation—and now . . . not.
I turned quickly, quietly, suddenly feeling I shouldn’t be here. And then . . .
“Hey.”
Dead in my tracks.
I turned back around. “Hey.”
The kid stood clumsily from the snow. “What are you doing here?”
It struck me as an odd first question. What are you doing here? presupposed that the person asking it knew the you to begin with. As opposed to Who are you?
“I like to come here at night,” I said. Because that wasn’t creepy at all.
He let out an “Oh,” as if it really wasn’t, then bent down, put the lid back on the jar, and stuffed it into his bag.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, shivering.
The kid pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his mouth. “I can’t go home right now,” he said.
Me either. I nodded, brushed my hair out of my face, and thought about what he’d said when he didn’t know I was listening. I hope there’s beauty in my asymmetry. Maybe that was it: a slight asymmetry, along with a complete frozenness of features. It wasn’t ugly, or even unpleasant. Far from it, actually. His face was just wholly unique. And I couldn’t help being a little curious.
I pulled out my pack of cigarettes, offered one to him, but he declined. I lit up.
Drag.
Blow.
Warm.
“I mean—I don’t know where to go,” he said. “But I can’t go home.”
“Okay.”
“It’s a long story.”
“I have one of those too.”
Drag.
Blow.
Warm.
I watched my smoke in the cold night air. “I may know a place, though.”
* * *
I should really be dead.
The sentence basically lived on the tip of my tongue. Especially around strangers, which made sense, considering a person isn’t invested in a stranger the way they are, say, in a family member or a close friend. Maybe that’s why so many people ended up leaving their spouses for complete strangers they met online. It cost almost nothing to tell a stranger almost everything.
“So how about this,” I said, turning down Mercer. “I’m not going to ask you your name, and I’m not going to ask you why you can’t go home tonight. I’m not even going to ask you what’s in that jar.”
“Okay.”
“But I am going to ask you about Northern Dancer, and supreme racehorse and all that.”
“Super,” he said.
“Great.”
“Wait, what?”
“What, what?”
“No, I didn’t mean”—he shook his head, pulled out his handkerchief again, and wiped his mouth—“I meant, it’s not supreme racehorse. It’s Super Racehorse.”
“Okay then.”
“My dad used to call himself an equestrian sport enthusiast. Basically, he was obsessed with horse racing. He didn’t even bet on them, just loved the sport. At one point he got really interested in the actual horses and their lineage and stuff. Like, he could tell you all the fastest horses and who their sires and dams were.”
“Sires and dams?”
“Fathers and mothers. He took me to this farm once, like an hour away. What they do is they take horses that are too old to race, or injured, and they put them on this farm in hopes that they can, you know, produce an even better racehorse. Or—some places, um, harvest the sire’s goods, and then, um, inject them into the . . . dam.”
“Gross.”
He nodded, shifted his backpack as we walked. “Dad would fix a leaky faucet, or win a board game, or get a Jeopardy! question right, and then call himself a Super Racehorse. Anyway, to answer your question, Northern Dancer sired some of the most successful racehorses ever.”
As we turned right on State Street, passing the police station on our left, I noted the use of past tense when he referred to his dad. I said nothing, though. I didn’t much feel like talking about my past tenses either.
“So how about this,” he said. “I’m not going to ask you your name, and I’m not going to ask you what you were doing alone by the river at night. I’m not even going to ask you about the other kids I always see you with. But I am going to ask you about your sire and dam.”
“I don’t have any,” I said.
“I meant your parents.”
“I know what you meant.”
So much for not discussing past tenses.
“So the other kids you’re always with . . .”
“You mean the ones you weren’t going to ask about?” I smiled sideways at him. “It’s fine, man. They’re basically family. We’re undesirables, so we desire each other.” We were only two or three minutes away now—it would’ve been easy to leave it at that. But I didn’t. I blew into my hands to warm them up, then said, “All right, you told a story about your dad, I’ll tell one about my mom. She used to have this framed poster full of pithy inspirational sayings, which she’d ordered off some equally pithy website and hung in our hallway. She made it, like, her personal manifesto. Start doing things you love. All emotions are beautiful. When you eat, appreciate every last bite. That kind of shit. I used to come home from school and find Mom standing in the hallway by herself, reading the thing out loud.” We crossed over Banta, one more block to Salem. “So I started reciting them too. Got to where I’d memorized them, so I could lie in bed at night and stare up at the ceiling and just go with it, you know? I figured if Mom believed in her manifesto that much, there must be something to it. Then one day, we’re all in a car on our way to the mall when a drunk driver hits us head on, killing both my parents. I should really be dead.” There it was—the line, in all its glory, officially packed up and moved out. “But I only got this.” I raised my hat above my ear, pointed to the scar on the side of my head. I kept that whole side shaved for just such occasions, to show I wasn’t hiding it or ashamed of it, wasn’t afraid of who I was or where I came from. My scar was a battle wound, my very life proof of the victory. “Anyway. Mom’s manifesto was total bullshit.”
I stopped there, though that was hardly the end. I didn’t tell him about my Madifesto, the antithesis of Mom’s pithy poster, a banner I marched under proudly, one that called for independence, self-sufficiency, and the incessant pursuit of survival.
Stranger or no, those things were for me.
Between Banta and Salem, I veered into a little alleyway known throughout town as the Chute. Famous for drug busts and muggings, the Chute was a narrow stretch that connected Main and State Street, so named because of its lack of any windows whatsoever. It was as if the architects had simply forgotten to draw them into the plans. There were a few doors—exits for shops to dump trash and whatnot—but they were all locked from the inside. With no windows, and such little street visibility, it had become a veritable breeding ground for all sorts of criminals.
I walked up to one of the locked doors. “We’re here.”

VIC

“What. Here?
The Stoic Beauty pulled a key from her back pocket. “Please,” she said. “I wouldn’t wish an overnight in the Chute on my worst enemy. No, you’re just inside.”
It was dark out, the only light coming from a distant streetlamp reflected off the snow. I reached for my pocket to use the flashlight on my phone before remembering I had left it at home. As she fumbled with the lock, I pretended to watch the fumbling.
What I actually watched:
1.   Her yellow hair dripping out from under her hat like a leaky sun.
2.   Her pale cheeks, red from the cold.
3.   The outline of her shoulders under her coat.
4.   The outline of her waist under her coat.
5.   The outline of her ass under her coat.
6.   Her legs.
7.   Her inked-up Nikes.
I was a mess.
“It’s not the Hilton,” she said, opening the door and flipping on a light. “But it’s warmer than crashing down by the river if that sweetens the deal at all, which, you know, it should.”
I took in the stench of the room as we stepped inside. It was no big mystery why the place smelled the way it did, thick and substantial and rotten. Six swine carcasses dangled from the ceiling like used piñatas. On the floor, little pools of watery blood gathered in tiny red reservoirs. It was all quite good and gross. I pulled the collar of my shirt up over my nose.
“This has to be against some sort of FDA regulation or something.”
“Oh, it is,” said the Stoic Beauty, slipping the key back into her pocket. “It gets cleaned up before inspections, then falls back into . . . well, what you see here. But again. No hypothermia. So, you know. Win.”
In addition to dead hanging pigs, the room had an industrial oven, a dishwasher, and a large desk with papers and work orders strewn across it.
“All right then,” she said, turning for the door. “We’ll be back in the morning.”
“We?”
“Don’t worry. Norm doesn’t usually show up for work till midmorning.”
Suddenly things made sense. “This is the back of Babushka’s.”
The Stoic Beauty nodded. “Sleep tight.”
“Wait a second.”
I had serious questions. Big burning-a-hole-in-my-brain type questions. I started with the one that seemed most important.
“What’s your name?”
. . .
“That’s against the rules,” she said.
“What rules? There were no rules.”
“The rules of questioning. The rules we set forth during our prior conversation.”
I couldn’t tell if she was half joking or what. If yes, it was about the cutest thing I’d ever seen. If not—shit, it was cute anyway.
“I’m Madeline. I go by Mad.”
She pulled a pack of cigarettes from her back pocket and lit up.
“I’m Vic,” I said. That’s good. Keep that going. “People call me Vic, I mean.” Okay, that’s enough. “Which is to say, my name is Victor.” You’re done. “But, um. No one calls me Victor, really.” Abort! Abort! “Yeah, just Vic is good.”
I was quickly becoming an absolute ace at face-palming myself. But then, miracle of miracles: Mad smiled a little.
And I died a little.
And she left.
* * *
The slaughtered pigs of the alleged KGB let loose an army of stink.
I left on my coat and boots, tucked my backpack under the metal desk, and slid in after it. In the world of backroom butcher shops, the corner farthest removed from dripping swine carcasses was prime real estate. More cramped than cozy, I pulled four things from my bag:
1.   My Visine, which I applied and replaced.
2.   My earbuds, which I inserted.
3.   My iPod, which I turned on, turned up, and flipped to “The Flower Duet.”
4.   My dad. In an urn.
I kicked myself for leaving my phone at home, though I’m not sure who I would call, or for what reason exactly. There was a measure of comfort in knowing you were only a phone call away, exponentially true given my current locale. But I’d left in a hurry—according to the clock on my iPod, less than an hour ago if that was even possible—with only one idea in mind: get Dad out of that house. This turned into quite the Shakespearean notion of me tossing his remains into the Hackensack River, where he would rest with the Ling forever and ever, sparing him whatever catastrophic events were sure to occur during the coming months (and years?) within the tragic remnants of the Benucci residence. But then, on the banks of the river, the soaring sopranos in my head, I opened the urn. And I saw things I had not expected to see.
Consider this: among the billions of people on Earth, there is one you care about, live with, and love; that one person dies and is burned into billions of microscopic pieces; those billions of pieces are placed in one receptacle. Billions to one, one to billions, billions to one. Sometimes I think love really is bound by numbers.
Now, in the shadows of dangling pig carcasses, I stared at Dad’s urn, pulled back the tape, lifted the lid, and went to my Land of Nothingness . . .
Hey, Dad. You need anything in there?
No, V, my father’s ashes would say.
You good?
Yeah, V.
All right then. Good night.
Night, V.
As far as I knew, the average urn contained only ashes, nothing more. By those standards, this was no average urn. Because: in addition to ashes, my father’s urn contained a Ziploc bag, and in that bag, a photograph. An old Polaroid of my parents, fresh-faced, eager, young. They were high up somewhere, on the rooftop of a skyscraper, the New York City skyline behind them. Young Doris smiled at the camera. Young Bruno smiled at Young Doris.
Young Parents in young love.
It was the kind of happiness I barely remembered, the kind that felt foreign and far away, like Singapore. I knew people traveled to Singapore, and lots of people lived there. I’d seen Singapore on maps and globes and TV. I took this to mean that Singapore actually existed, even though I’d never been and had no idea how to get there.
This happiness was like Singapore.
In addition to the photo, there was one other thing that separated this urn from all the others. An open, blank envelope. It had no address, and no markings of any kind. From inside, I pulled out a single sheet of notebook paper, unfolded it, and read . . .
My Doris,
lt hardly seems fair that the only ones expected to leave notes are those who end things themselves. l haven’t chosen to die; death has been thrust upon me. As such, consider this my Terminal Note.
l think most people only have the capacity for one Great Thing in their lifetime. From the moment you and l jumped in that pool with all our clothes on (Emily Edwards’s house, 11th grade, you’d had a few too many—l know you remember even though you always pretend not to) to five minutes ago, when you kissed my forehead, promised to bring Vic by on Saturday, then, in true Doris fashion, tripped on your way out the door (and thought l didn’t see you, but l totally did)—and every flawed, real moment in between—you have been my Great Thing.
So many memories.
By the time you read this, will there be more? Are you smiling now, thinking of some hilarious or awkward or sad thing that happened between your tripping out my hospital door and my dying? l hope so. l really do. But l feel it, Doris. l feel it coming. l’m not afraid. l may wish for more time, more memories, but l have no regrets. You and Victor are my North, South, East, and West. You are my Due Everywhere.
How could l ever be lost?
You know the places on this list. Take me there, won’t you?
Till we’re old-new,
—B
1. Hang me from the Parlour
2. Toss me off the Palisades
3. Bury me in the smoking bricks of our first kiss
4. Drown me in our wishing well
5. Drop me from the top of our rock
The soaring sopranos filled my head, and I knew what needed to be done.
And I would not return home until it was finished.
TWO
IMPROBABLE THINGS

(or, The Sedative Properties of Green Bean Casseroles and Sideways Hugs)

Interrogation Room #2
Madeline Falco & Detective H. Bundle
December 19 // 3:53 p.m.
Detective Bundle is an atomic cloud personified. His feet are narrow, his ankles twiggy, his legs skinny; he wears a belt at the waist, and then—BOOM—stomach explosion like a mushroom cloud pouring over his belt so you can hardly see the buckle. His barrel chest, stubby neck, and sweaty red face only perpetuate the comparison.
“You left him where?” he asks.
“In Babushka’s. Well, the back of Babushka’s.”
“Via this, what’s it called . . .” Bundle shuffles through the files in front of him. “Chute.”
I shift gently in my chair. The bruises on my back, hip, left arm, and face make themselves known way down deep, like my actual bones got tattooed.
“You’re sure Jamma’s okay?” I ask.
“Madeline, we’ve been through this.”
“I know, but she gets confused.”
“As we speak, your grandmother is receiving the best possible care over at Bergen Regional, okay?”
“And you promise it’s not a complete shit hole?”
Bundle raises a hand as if swearing an oath. “Took my own mother there when she got shingles. Okay? Now. Tell me about the Chute.”
“Honestly, how do you not know about the Chute?”
Detective Bundle eyes the digital recorder. “Well, how do you know about it, then?”
“I’m telling you, man, everyone knows about the Chute. Wait, did . . . did you just move here, or something?”
“Madeline.”
“What?”
“Why even bother coming in if you’re just gonna jerk us around?”
By now Baz is most likely praying in a nearby cell, his only hope resting on our ability to tell our story truthfully, while Zuz and Coco and Jamma are depending on our ability to tell our story slowly. Here’s the thing: in a Venn diagram where set A = {Tell the Truth}, and set B = {Stall for Time}, the intersection is awfully cramped. But if things go according to plan, this is where Vic and I will live for much of the day.
“You’re right,” I say, sighing dramatically, regurgitating clichéd elements of suspects under harsh bare lightbulbs. “God, this is hard. Okay. The reason I’m here is . . .”
Detective Bundle folds his hands on the table and shifts to the edge of his seat, his chair creaking under such tremendous mass.
I lean in close to the recorder. “I wanted to see if you had any gum.”
Bundle lets loose a roaring sigh, his face cherry red. “Madeline, this afternoon you and Victor walked in here with Baz Kabongo, the three of you smelling for all the world like you just stepped out of a shit tornado—”
“I told you, there’s a good reason for that.”
“—insistent on Kabongo’s innocence, a man with means, motive, a history of violence, a man whose DNA was found on the murder weapon. Clearly, you feel some allegiance to him, and I can respect that, misguided though it is. We know your uncle was abusive. You’ve got abrasions up and down your face, you’ve been squirming in pain since you sat down, so what was it—self-defense? Kabongo tried to stop your uncle from hitting you, they fought, and Baz killed the guy. Just say the word self-defense, and Kabongo will get a deal, I promise.”
“Is self-defense one word, though?”
Bundle shakes his head. “You know what? I don’t give a shit. If it were up to me, we’d have kicked the two of you kids out on your asses from the get-go. Sergeant Mendes tells me your boy Vic claims the two of you were there, in the house when Kabongo did the deed. Now if that’s true, Madeline, you witnessed one of the grisliest murders I’ve ever heard of, read about, or seen the aftermath of. Not to mention it happened to your own uncle.”
“I’m glad he’s dead.”
The words are out of my mouth before I can stop them.
“That may be,” says Bundle. “But if Vic is telling the truth—if you saw it happen, and you don’t tell us exactly what you saw—you’re not facing a world of trouble, Madeline, you’re facing a whole universe of it.” He leans back in his chair, sticks his hand into his pocket, pulls something out, and tosses it across the table. “There’s your fucking stick of gum.”
I stare at the gum on the table for a full ten seconds. During that time it occurs to me that, until a few minutes ago, I’d been throwing the punches of the interview, little jabs here and there, either dodging or absorbing the meager returns of my opponent. But I’d misjudged him. Detective Bundle wasn’t weak. He’d been biding his time, waiting for his moment to land the knockout punch.
I reach my hand around the stick of gum, pick up the glass of water I’ve ignored thus far. The liquid feels good against the cut on my lip, clean and soothing. I lower the glass and clear my throat gingerly. “What time is it?”
Bundle checks his watch. “A little after four.”
In my head, Baz’s voice has the same effect as the water on my lips: clean and soothing. Let them think what they want. But do not lie.
It’s time to tell my story, cramped Venn diagram or no.
“The reason I took Vic to Babushka’s is because the owner is an early Chapter.”

MAD

The late morning sun shone through the back door of Babushka’s, its rays stretching like tentacles across the room. It could not reach underneath the table, however, where Vic lay fast asleep in the fetal position, curled around his backpack as if protecting it from a tidal wave.
“Is he dead?” asked Coco, who barely had to lean over to see under the desk. She scraped the bottom of her carton of ice cream with a spoon, having polished off the entire pint. It was a little before eleven a.m. “What’s with all the blood?” she asked, her mouth full, a ring of chocolate around her lips. “I mean, he looks dead, right? Do you think he’s dead? If he’s not dead, he sure is a late-riser. Wait, why’s he back here again?”
Coco asked questions the way most people took breaths.
“I told you,” I said. “I ran into him by the river. He said he needed a place to stay.”
Next to me, Zuz set down the bag of groceries we’d just purchased from Foodville. He was wiry but strong, and no one argued when he insisted on carrying the bag. I finished the last of my cranberry muffin, nursed my coffee while Baz approached Vic. He set a tray of coffee on the desk, bent down, and gently poked Vic in the arm.
“Rise and shine, little man.”
Vic jerked awake, ramming his head on the underside of the desk.
“Why’re you covered in blood, kid?” asked Coco. “And don’t lie to me. I’m from Queens.”
Vic looked down at himself, still rubbing his head. Blood had dried to the side of his jeans. Only then did we see it: the tiny red stream running directly from the floor under one of the pig carcasses to where he’d been sleeping.
“Motherfrakker,” whispered Coco, tossing her empty pint in the trash can.
“Coco,” said Baz.
“Hey, I’m sorry, but that is the grossest thing I have ever seen.”
Vic pulled himself out from under the desk, dragging his backpack behind him. He coiled the cable from his earbuds around his iPod and stuck it into a side pocket.
I grabbed the last muffin from the top of the grocery bag and held it out. “Here. There’s coffee too if you want.”
On the other side of the room, a door opened and in walked Norm. “Don’t mind me, don’t mind me,” he said, tossing unopened mail in a pile on his desk. “Aha! Small boy has met my friends, yez?”
Vic looked down at his boots.
Norm slapped him on the back. “You are the new Chapter, then?”
“The, um, what?”
Norm looked at us, pointed a thumb at Vic. “He does not know?”
Baz put an arm around the husky Russian and walked him back across the room. “Thank you for your hospitality, truly. You are a loyal friend.”
Norm’s chest inflated, his smile reaching from one ear to the other. He looked back at Vic, said, “These are good people, small boy. Very good people. You listen to them, yez? They will help you.”
Norm disappeared with an okeydokey. Vic looked around, accepted the muffin, and when Baz offered a coffee from the tray, he took it with a quiet thanks.
“Guys,” I said. “This is Vic. Vic”—I waved around at the others—“meet Baz . . . his brother, Nzuzi . . . and Coco.”
Vic nodded at everyone, and when it became apparent he was going to wait for us to speak first, Baz dove in. “I apologize for rushing this, but I’m late for work already. Normally, I’d like to hear more about your situation, your goals, but all that will have to wait. I have two questions for you, and the only wrong answer is a lie. First question. Do you need help?”
Not so long ago Baz had asked me the very same question. Shortly after moving in with Uncle Les, I took to sneaking through the back door of the Cinema 5 in Bergenfield. It was an old-school setup, incredibly lax, perfect for what I needed: a hideout. Sometimes I did homework, sometimes I watched whatever movie was playing, but usually I just fell asleep in the back row. It was during just such a nap, I’d heard the words . . .
“Do you need help?” repeated Baz in the here and now.
Vic rubbed his head, the spot where he’d hit the metal desk, and nodded slowly as if still considering the question.
Baz squinted. “I need you to say it.”
“Yes,” said Vic. “I need help.”
I remember how hot the Cinema 5 had been, how I used to push my sleeves up, and it always made me smile, because it was such a luxury being able to push up my sleeves, knowing it was too dark for anyone to see the bruises. Per usual, I had fallen asleep, and when I woke up, there he was, this employee carrying a sweeper and asking me if I needed help. I was still in the hazy fog of sleep, but I’m not sure it mattered. Yes, I’d responded. Then came the second question . . .
“Did you hurt anyone?” asked Baz.
Vic took a nervous sip of his coffee, and said the exact same thing I’d said when I was asked. . . .
What do you mean?
The employee had stood stock-still, sweeper in hand, and I’d wondered if I should be afraid. I honestly couldn’t remember where I landed then, because where I ended up wasn’t that far from fear: I grew to love Baz. It was an odd love, something between the love for a brother, a father, a priest, a childhood friend.
“What I mean,” said Baz, “is . . . did you hurt anyone?”
Vic sipped his coffee, holding the cup with both hands, as if concentrating on not spilling it. “No,” he said. It was quiet but resounding.
Baz nodded. “Good. You may stay with us if you like. We live on an orchard in New Milford. A bit of a walk, I know, but it’s warm and we have food. It is your decision, of course, but I do need an answer now.”
It was a rare offer, but when made, typically it was answered with a prompt yes. Most new Chapters were in such dire straits, they didn’t need much convincing, but with Vic it took a little longer. He looked around at all of us, his breath coming in long steady increments, his skull as good as transparent—those wheels were churning.
“Okay,” he said finally.
“Wonderful,” said Baz. “Nzuzi, Mad, Coco—can you take Vic back to the greenhouse? Get him settled in, cleaned up.”
“Oh, I can’t,” I said. “I was . . . gonna go to the library.”
Truth was, I’d been planning to go see Jamma, probably stay for a couple of days. Baz stood in the doorway and stared at me. He didn’t even have to say anything.
“Fine,” I said.
“Thank you. I get off at five. We can meet at Napoleon’s then, and discuss our new Chapter.” Then, to Vic: “The others will show you around. Please make yourself at home.” Then, to Zuz: “Do not forget Gunther’s bag.” Then, to Coco: “No cursing. Best behavior.”
And he was gone.
We stood in awkward silence for a few seconds until Zuz snapped twice, picked up the paper bag, and headed out the back door. “Hit the nail on the head, Zuz,” said Coco, following him outside. “Frakking babysitters all day.”
I looked at Vic, shook my head. “Don’t mind them. They always take a while to warm up to newbies.”
Vic redistributed the weight of his backpack to his other shoulder. “What’s with the word frak?”
“Ha. Right. You ever seen the show Battlestar Galactica?”
Vic shook his head.
“We had this Chapter once who was obsessed with it. I guess on the show, they all say frak instead of fuck, and Coco used to have a swearing problem, and Baz is a bit of a stickler. Anyway, this Chapter, he suggested Coco adopt the Galactican faux curse.”
Vic nodded. “And what’s a Chapter?”
It sounded like he’d been sitting on the question, pinning it down for the right moment to ask, only to have it pop out from under him like an overeager egg.
“I’ll let Baz explain. It’s a haul to New Milford, though. We should get going.”
Together we traded in the wilds of the backroom butcher shop for the winter-white streets of Hackensack, and I tried to remember the last time I’d felt a person’s thoughts so tangibly, floating and dancing and swirling through the air like the snow we walked through.

VIC

Both of my paternal grandparents died of heart attacks in April.
The same April.
People called on the phone to tell us they were praying for our family, or they were sending good thoughts our way. People brought green bean casseroles to the house. People squeezed our shoulders and gave us sideways hugs. (Sideways hugs are such bullshit. Hug me or don’t. The indecisiveness is a real problem for me.) I don’t know. When people think comfort, I suppose they think of these things. Either way, that April our house wasn’t full of people. It wasn’t full of love or heartfelt condolences or good thoughts. That April, our house was full of green bean casseroles and sideways hugs.
The whole thing really took its toll on Dad. But hey. Both of his parents had just died in the same month, of the same thing. That shit’s tough on anyone, especially a heart-thinker of his stature.
We used to visit my grandparents on the regular; being there was like being trapped in a house full of lovers. (Dad was never able to keep his hands off Mom, and it was no secret where he got it.) My grandparents would have blended in nicely in the science wing of my high school with all the other handsy teenagers. Which was really something, because my grandparents grew up in the day and age when husbands and wives slept in separate beds and called each other Mother and Father and the like.
My grandparents called each other Joe and Helen. And, despite the cultural milieu of the era, my grandparents slept in the same bed.
My grandparents were real Super Racehorses.
But yeah, it was pretty gross. And really, there wasn’t much for me to do at their house other than the following:
1.   Stare at a wall of photographs depicting my father from birth to age thirty. The pictures progressed chronologically, so I could actually watch Dad grow up before my eyes. They reminded me of those silhouette paintings that show the evolution of human beings from monkey to man.
2.   Wait for the quarterly chimes of the cuckoo clock in the living room while watching my grandfather fall asleep in a full upright position in his favorite armchair.
3.   Get my ass handed to me at the pool table downstairs. (Everyone in my family was an absolute ace at billiards. I sucked balls at billiards.)
4.   Count bowls of potpourri throughout the house. (Twenty-seven. There were twenty-seven. Twenty-seven bowls. Of potpourri.)
5.   Watch everyone around me happily paw at one another. (Like handsy teenagers in the science wing of Hack High.)
My grandparents lived in a small town on the outskirts of Hackensack called New Milford. Just to get out of the house, away from all the heightened geriatric sexual impulses, I took long walks. Suburban excursions, I called them. And I got to know those streets pretty well. My favorite spot was this old stone wall across the street from a disheveled graveyard, which was kind of beautiful in an overgrown, cinematic sort of way. Big mossy trees stretched their limbs, vines and foliage dangled over scattershot tombstones. I used to sit on the stone wall and think, Yeah. Okay. I could be buried here.
And in the plot adjacent to the graveyard, there was an orchard. An acre of well-kept plants, flowers, and trees made all the more immaculate given their proximity to the neighboring mess of graveyard moss. A tapered stream ran the length of the orchard; a vine-covered wooden bridge crossed in the middle. There was a giant barn with a sign that read GIFT SHOP, an old colonial two-story with smoke rising from the chimney, and in the back, a row of greenhouses.
That momentous April, we buried both my grandparents in the graveyard next to that orchard. Grandma went second, and at her funeral, Dad stood next to his parents’ joint tombstone, stared at the neighboring orchard, and swore he would visit at least once a week. And for a couple of years, he did.
And then he got sick.
And then he died.
And that was the end of him visiting his parents who had both died of heart attacks that one momentous April. (It was the end of a lot of things. Pretty much everything, actually.)
It was highly likely that my following these kids was a very poor decision. Certainly, I hadn’t planned on saying yes to Baz’s odd question. Until . . .
We live on an orchard in New Milford.
In that moment—and it’s quite possible I was wrong about this—I saw it as more than an opportunity to reunite my dad with his dead parents. I saw it as a sign. I saw it as Dad compassing me in the right direction.
As I walked down River Street, my backpack suddenly felt quite a bit lighter.
* * *
“You okay?”
I emerged from my Land of Nothingness to find Mad, her head turned, staring at me.
“What?” I asked.
What?
The most medium of words.
“I asked if you were okay.”
“Oh,” I said. “Yeah, thanks.”
The kids had their own rhythm. Nzuzi led the way, using the grocery bag as a barricade between his face and the biting snow; just behind him, Mad held Coco’s hand, carefully keeping her on the side opposite River Street traffic. Together they reminded me of a flying gaggle of geese turning in blind cohesion, and you don’t understand how those geese know the when or where of those turns, but they do. And you figure it must be a miracle.
I brought up the rear, wiping my leaky mug and trying not to feel like the straggler with the broken wing.
Mad’s blond hair lashed around under that yellow knit cap, and in the white winter light, it looked like a fresh slice of lemon, or the tip of a sparkler at night. My poor heart-thinking brain brimmed with frothy thoughts of Mad. But there was no chance she saw me the way I saw her. Far more likely, she saw me the way I saw me.
I am small boy.
I drained the last of my now-lukewarm coffee, and before long we veered off the road toward the Hackensack River, where a little field opened up with a sign reading HISTORIC NEW BRIDGE LANDING. I’d been here before, years ago, on a school trip. The site of a Revolutionary War battleground, it had a few city-protected houses scattered here and there. I looked down at our tracks in the snow and thought of what that must have been like at the time, and how weird that it happened here.
On this step.
And this one.
This one too.
We made our way toward the short pedestrian bridge connecting Hackensack to New Milford; a group of kids launched snowballs at one another from either side. As we approached, one of them raised both hands in the air and yelled, “Game off!” I recognized him from school. Roland, I think, but he went by some odd nickname I couldn’t remember. Roland always wore mismatched shoes like he got dressed in the dark or something. He and his friends belonged to that particular faction of kids at Hack High who did not leave me alone. (Being left alone at Hack High was essentially the goal, though an occasional hallway hello from the student council president, Stephanie Dawn—who was too nice to know how pretty she was, and too pretty to go anywhere but up the social ladder—could literally fortify me against a week’s worth of tongue-lashing.)
I kept my head down as we crossed the bridge, and thought about the war that had been waged in this exact spot hundreds of years earlier. From troops marching toward a bloody demise to Bruno Victor Benucci III marching toward, well, who could say really.
Land was weird. Unlike a person, it did not care who stepped on it.
. . .
Halfway across the bridge, it started. They were not words; they were wasps, stinging in all the soft, fleshy places. Buzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
A snowball hit my back.
Then my leg.
Then my face.
“Bull’s-eye!” yelled one of the kids.
I heard Dad from my backpack. Think with your heart, V.
I scraped the snow off my cheeks, tried not to let them see my eyes. This was key. If they saw my eyes, they’d know they’d gotten to me. From the side pocket of my backpack I fumbled for my earbuds, my empty heart begging to be filled by the soaring sopranos. Scroll, scroll, scroll, play—now, to disappear completely into an entirely other world.
In that world: every faction left me alone.
In that world: I was not one seven-billionth of the planet’s population.
In that world: I was one-fourth of the planet’s population: it was Dad, the two sopranos, and me.
In that world: we soared through the sky and clouds, above it all, not a care in the world, the most miraculous of gaggles, catching the souls of those rare, lovely heart-thinkers.
In that world: my wing was mended.

MAD


I didn’t know what Vic was listening to, but I sure hoped he had the volume turned up.

No hay comentarios:

Publicar un comentario