lunes, 2 de abril de 2018

Kids of Appetite parte 3

VIC

“Straight to the back,” said Coco, lifting the bottom of the chain-link fence. Mad had already scrambled underneath and was currently reaching for the bag of groceries as Nzuzi handed it over the top. Across the street, I saw my old perch: the stone wall, the fig tree. I felt the presence of that little graveyard on the other side of the orchard, wondered how many times Dad had visited, and if he’d ever stopped by the orchard.
“Dude,” said Coco. “You okay?”
“What?”
She motioned under the fence. “Shit or get off the pot, kid.”
This little girl’s vocabulary, it seemed, knew no bounds. “How old are you, exactly?”
“I’m eleven,” she said. “But that’s, like, twenty-six in Queens years.”
“Right. Okay then.”
I handed my backpack over the fence, wincing as Mad dropped it carelessly onto the ground. After crawling under the chain link, I dusted the snow off my chest and legs, took a quick look inside the bag (luckily the tape on the urn’s lid held strong), and followed the kids down a path of thorny-dead rosebushes.
“What do you got in there?” asked Mad. “A cannonball?”
I let her words ring in the air, left them there.
“Well, whatever else,” she said, pointing to my bloody jeans, “I hope you have a change of clothes.”
I was about to ask what kind of kid carries around a change of clothes in their backpack when I realized I did, in fact, have my favorite sweatpants tucked away. During winter, the gym at Hack High grew incalculably drafty, ergo, our PE teacher allowed us to wear our own gym clothes instead of shorts.
“I do, actually.”
“Cool. After we get settled in, I’ll show you where you can change and get washed up.”
Snow was piled high on either side of the path. Ridged grooves ran up and down the embankments where someone had recently shoveled. It was bizarre walking through a place I’d only ever admired from a distance. I started across the wooden bridge, where a posted sign read: CHANNEL A LA GOLDFISH. Between the slats of two-by-fours under my feet, a giant goldfish swam idly in the narrow stream below.
Channel à la Goldfish was a very literal channel.
Once across, Nzuzi darted off toward the only house on the premises—the old colonial two-story. We waited by the bridge while he sat the bag of groceries on the porch, knocked on the door, and jogged back toward us.
“Let’s go,” said Mad in a shiver, leading the way down a row of greenhouses.
There was something Oz-like about the whole thing, as if I’d stepped into a portal and been transported to some bizarre world with an unexplained set of rules and a pack of reckless, parentless, wild kids. (So Oz with a dash of Neverland, I guess.) Even though these kids were effectively homeless, they had an air of pride about them, and I could see why. Like Oz, the orchard was beautiful and cozy in its strangeness. Most of the plant life was barren, but even so, it felt like a lush botanical garden, as if the outside of the orchard were incapable of reflecting its inside.
The orchard reminded me of this: an old man’s youthful heart.
Mad stopped in front of the smallest greenhouse, tucked in the back like an afterthought, half the width of the one next to it. Less a greenhouse, more the footnote of a greenhouse. Less the entrée, more the leftovers.
I loved it from the word go.
“Welcome home,” said Mad. A rush of warmth hit me in the face as she opened the door. The kids filed inside, took off their jackets, hung them on a coat rack, and walked down the center aisle.
I was wrong.
This place was stranger than Oz.
While the front half was full of typical greenhouse fare—rows of blossoming vegetation on waist-high tables, and potted plants hanging from the clear curved walls—the back half reminded me of a postapocalyptic movie I once saw about a family who lived in a bomb shelter for something like seven years.
There were bookshelves, for starters. I counted five of them—stocked with canned fruits and vegetables, bags of nuts, chips, beef jerky, gallons of water, stacks of books and vinyl records, and an old turntable. A space heater hummed from the back wall; just underneath, four sleeping bags were spread on the ground, neatly made, a pillow at each head. A green couch sat in the opposite corner, a coffee table in front of it (as if this were a perfectly normal living room, thank-you-very-much). On the coffee table was a stack of cards and a lamp. I spotted an outlet under the space heater, and a power strip for the lamp and record player.
“What about the owner?” I asked. “Or . . . orchard keeper, or whoever? The guy who lives in the house.”
Mad stuck her hands in front of the space heater. “Gunther doesn’t mind, so long as we bring him groceries and supplies so he never has to leave the grounds. Apparently he hit the lottery decades ago, figured he could wave good-bye to customer service. People stopped venturing onto his orchard, and Gunther stopped venturing off of it.”
“What about school?”
“Gunther’s too old for school,” said Coco, who burst out laughing. “Ha! Nailed it.” She kept laughing as she pulled a cup of applesauce off the shelf, opened it, and used two fingers to scoop it into her mouth. “Anyway, Mad’s done with school, Baz works at the Cinema Five until he and Zuz get their cab service up and running”—Nzuzi, who was debating which record to pull off the shelf, snapped his fingers once—“and that leaves me. And I’m an orphan.”
“So?”
“So, orphans don’t go to school. You gotta have moms and dads to sign shit. Plus, an address. What, I should write Eleventh Greenhouse on the Right, Maywood Orchard, New Milford? Might as well add Cupboard under the Stairs while I’m at it. It’s a public school, not Hogwarts. I’d get laughed out of the building.”
“Hogwarts is definitely the shit, though,” said Mad.
Coco nodded. “Oh, Hogwarts is the shit.”
“With the Cornish pasties and treacle tarts and all.”
“I don’t even know what the frak a Cornish pasty is, and I still want one.”
Nzuzi snapped once, pulled a record off the Shelf of Improbable Things, placed it on the turntable, and lowered the stylus. After the initial hiss of white noise, the music started and Nzuzi broke into dance. Strikingly nimble, he pulled his elbows in, cocked his head to one side, snapped his fingers on every upbeat. It wasn’t synchronized; it was authorized. As if each body part had given permission to the other body parts to go nuts as one.
Nzuzi was an absolute ace at jigging.
“‘Don’t Stop Believin’,’” said Coco, polishing off the applesauce. “His favorite. Hey, Zuz, you hungry?”
Still jigging, Nzuzi snapped a finger. Coco grabbed a plastic cup of peaches off the shelf, tossed it to him. He caught it mid-jig, tore back the lid, and dug in.
I was a real mythology-sucker-legacy-loving type guy. I needed history. I needed know-how. I needed origin. I had roughly one zillion questions, and planned on asking one after another until someone shut me down.
“What’s with the finger snapping?” I asked, as good a place to start as any.
Coco said, “One snap means yes, two means no. Zuz has plenty to say, you just gotta know how to listen.” She tossed the plastic cup into a nearby trash can, leaned back, and spread her arms wide. “So, what do you think, kid? Pretty sweet setup, right?”
I was done being referred to as “kid” by an eleven-year-old.
“My name is Vic,” I said. “Or Victor is fine.”
“You mean like—to the victor belong the spoils?” Coco let out a raucous, juicy laugh, little bits of leftover applesauce flying from her mouth. “Maybe we’ll just call you Spoils. How about that?”
Coco kept talking, but I really couldn’t say what about. Mad had just removed her knit cap; ergo, my head had just removed its eyeballs.
She’d shown me the scar on the side of her head last night, but even so, I found myself almost completely incapacitated right now, as if I’d had a blown fuse my whole life and someone had only now replaced it. On one side, her hair was long, wavy, unruly, exactly as I imagined; the other side was shaved right up to the top of the temple. Not bald, but buzzed, a total West Coast punk cut. The hair led to the eyes, which led to the lips, which led to the skin, which led to, which led to, which led to . . .
Mad was a map.
And I was Magellan.
I plotted my course, dreamed of uncharted territories and the glories found in each valley and crevice. I dreamed of the sloping, sensual summit, and of mounting its zenith.
“You can sleep on that,” said Coco quietly.
I am a Super Racehorse.
“What?” I said in a breath.
“The couch.” She pointed toward Mad. I stood there like a sideways hug, wondering if the couch came with the girl. “Chapters get the couch,” said Coco, tossing a bag of beef jerky to Mad.
I took a deep breath. “And what exactly is a chapter?”
“Not chapter,” said Coco. “Chapter. With a capital C.”
“How do you know I didn’t say it with a capital C?”
“I could hear it in your voice.”
Nzuzi grabbed a metal watering can and danced up and down each aisle of plants, watering as he went.
“Okay, fine.” I cleared my throat. “What exactly is . . . a Chapter?”
Patience, cockroach,” said Coco.
“Grasshopper,” said Mad.
Coco raised an eyebrow. “You sure?”
“Pretty sure.”
Coco shrugged. “Patience, grasshopper.”
. . .
The kids were more than just a gaggle. They were puzzle pieces, a well-packed trunk, as improbably organized as the improbable shelves in their improbable habitat. I stood there, wiping my leaky mug, a circle-peg-square-hole type guy saying sideways-hug type things like oh and what. Less a puzzle piece, more the box it came in.
I unzipped my backpack and pulled out my Mets sweatpants. Dad called them my Metpants, which I used to hate.
Now? Shit. Missed it.
“You said there might be somewhere for me to change . . . ?”
“Right.” Mad hopped off the couch. “Let’s go. I could use a smoke anyway.”
Metpants in one hand, I picked up my backpack with the other and was about to follow, when Coco said, “What d’you think, we’re gonna steal your stuff? Poor loathsome urchins that we are.”
I pulled my iPod and Visine out of the side pocket, put the bag back where it was, and tried not to imagine Coco stuffing her grimy little hands inside Dad’s urn. “I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
Coco smiled theatrically, put her hand on her heart. “Your vote of confidence means the world to us. Truly, Spoils. Actually, hey, you got a phone in there? With games and stuff?”
“Sorry,” I said. “Left it at home.”
Mad waited by the front door, rainbow coat on, hands stuffed into pockets. The knit cap was back too, and I had a sudden desire to paint her. I wasn’t an artist, so much as an admirer of art—just good enough to know I was no good at all.
She pulled a cigarette out of her pocket and stuck it behind her ear. Normally, I found smoking to be quite disgusting. However, it suddenly seemed sexy, though not in that sexy-smoker type sexiness. Mom and Dad used to watch Casablanca about once a week (which I used to hate, now I miss, etc., etc.), and the idea of Mad smoking felt more like that. Like a Casablanca type sexiness.
I don’t know.
At that exact moment I wasn’t really thinking with my heart or my brain. I was thinking with the deck gun of my USS Ling.

MAD

Drag.
Blow.
Calm.
“Hey, Harry Connick Jr., Jr. What’s the word on the stream?” Honestly, had the bloated thing not been upright, I would have assumed it was dead. I dangled my legs off the edge of Channel à la Goldfish and waited for Vic to finish washing up and changing. He’d been pretty surprised by the available amenities, and I can’t say I blame him. Unlike the greenhouse accommodations, though, these amenities were highly unauthorized. Gunther had no idea we’d figured out a way through the window and into the gift shop bathroom. Not that he had any reason to get upset; I couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a customer.
The sky was still that cold gray, the color of a slow death, but at least it had stopped snowing for a beat. I lit another cigarette just as Harry Connick Jr., Jr., reappeared, floating the other way now. “You taking shortcuts, Junior?”
“Who are you talking to?”
“Shit!” I dropped my lighter in a narrow gap between two beams of the bridge, heard it plop into the stream below. “Dude.”
“Sorry,” said Vic, sitting next to me, his bloody jeans wadded in his lap. “You shouldn’t smoke anyway. It gives you cancer.”
I smoke-glared at him as I took the next drag. Hold, exhale, keep up the glare. “Lots of things give you cancer.”
“True. But some things do so with a much higher rate of efficiency than others.”
“What would you know about it?”
He looked down at the stream when I noticed what he’d changed into: blue sweatpants. They had a Mets logo on the right thigh and elastic bands around his ankles that made the fabric bunch up like a bouquet around his lace-up boots.
“They’re my Metpants,” he said.
I laughed a little puff of smoke. “Your what?”
“Metpants.”
There was just something so patently awesome about Vic wearing these pants, as if he’d glimpsed the world’s stockpile of ammunition against him, shrugged, and tossed an extra crossbow onto the heap for good measure.
Metpants. Vic’s double-bird to the world. I loved it.
And just then I wished I’d given each of those kids on the bridge a swift kick in the junk.
He rolled his eyes around for a second, but only up and down, not side to side. I’d seen him do this a few times now, but it still took me off guard.
“Who’s Junior?” he asked.
As if summoned by the god of goldfish himself, Harry Connick Jr., Jr., appeared below our feet.
That,” I said, “is Junior. He’s our goldfish. I named him Harry Connick Jr., Jr.”
“After the singer?”
“Yep. And actor. That guy does not quit. He’s everywhere, especially during the holidays. Anyway, this summer there were dozens of goldfish, now this is the only one. Here, look.” I pointed about twenty feet upstream to a red object that resembled an upside-down salad bowl floating in the water. “That’s a de-icer. It keeps the water at a high enough temperature to not freeze over. The thing is Gunther only put in one de-icer this year, which isn’t nearly enough. So one by one the fish started dying until it was less Channel à la Goldfish and more Plague à la Goldfish. They just couldn’t survive.”
“Except Harry Connick Jr., Jr.”
I nodded. “The fish who does not quit.”
Drag.
Blow.
Calm.
“I like your greenhouse,” said Vic.
“It’s weird, I know.”
“Not that weird.”
I gave him a classic Are you kidding me? look.
“Okay.” He nodded. “It’s pretty weird. But cool.”
“Anyway, it’s not permanent—just until we can afford better.”
Drag.
Blow.
Calm.
“I used to stare at this place,” whispered Vic. He pointed across the street. “I sat right there on that stone wall and stared at this orchard.”
“Really? You ever see us?”
He shook his head. “It was a while back. My grandparents used to live in this neighborhood, but they’re—” He stopped abruptly, looked down at the stream. “Anyway. I thought it was kind of a weird bump.”
“Bump?”
“Coincidence.”
Vic pulled out his handkerchief, wiped the bottom corner of his mouth, and that was when I saw the scabs on his right wrist. There were five or six, varying in length, but all very thin. They weren’t scars like the one on my head. And I had a friend in high school who cut herself regularly—this wasn’t that either. These seemed duller, more shallow or something.
He pulled his iPod from his jacket pocket, pushed his long hair behind both ears, and stuck in his earbuds.
Conversation over, I guess.
Drag.
Blow.
Calm.
“Here,” said Vic, holding out an earbud.
“You’re offering an earbud,” I said.
“I am.”
“I thought that was just something people did in movies.”
“Are you suggesting we’re in a movie?”
“I wish.”
“Which one?”
“What?”
“Which movie do you wish we were in?” asked Vic.
I’d seen other people—usually in coffee shops, or that recently defunct outdoor café on Henley—speak to one another with this kind of fluid banter, as if the conversation had been all mapped out and memorized before the involved parties opened their mouths. I’d even been part of a few, but only with Coco—until now.
Apollo 13,” I said.
Apollo 13.”
“Sure. Tom Hanks in space. What, you’re too good for Tom Hanks in space?”
“Things go horribly wrong for Tom Hanks in space if I remember correctly. Come to think of it, things go horribly wrong for Tom Hanks on deserted islands, too.”
“Au contraire,” I said, “Tom Hanks survives both space and islands.”
“Survival. That’s your aspiration?”
“You bet your ass. Anyway, I love space.”
“What do you mean?” asked Vic.
“I mean, I love space. Black holes and dwarf planets and stars that faded to nothing decades ago but we can still see them—all that shit. Can’t get enough.”
Drag.
Blow.
Calm.
“That’s actually a common misconception,” said Vic.
“What is?”
“The idea that we’re looking at stars in the sky that have already died and faded.”
“No, I’m pretty sure it’s true. Because of the light-years, I mean—if a star died, we wouldn’t know for, like, decades I think.”
Vic was quiet, but sort of shook his head in that way people do when they’ve got more to say—or worse, when they know they’re right and you’re wrong.
“Okay, Spoils,” I said. “Out with it.”
“It’s just—most stars live for millions and millions of years. We live for eighty, give or take, and can only see around five thousand stars with the naked eye. The odds that one of them dies during my lifetime are pretty minuscule. Possible, I guess. But highly improbable.”
Drag.
Blow.
Calm.
“So I’m trying to decide if you’re a show-off or a nerd or both,” I said.
“Nah, I just like numbers. Anyway, what do you think?”
“Honestly, I forget what we were even talking about.”
He held up the earbud again. “Maybe it’s something people do in real life too.”
It was clear he wouldn’t take no for an answer. I sighed, snuffed out my cigarette, and took the earbud. “What are we listening to?”
“You’ll see.”
And he was right. I did see.
To say the song was beautiful was like saying the sun was hot, or the fish was wet, or a billion was a lot. It was opera, I think, or something like it, a duet, two ladies, both singing their hearts out, and even though it was in a foreign language, I almost cried because there was just something so familiar about their voices, like they understood my own personal sorrow on a molecular level.
When it was over, I handed the earbud back and was about to ask him what the song was called when he said, “I think we’re being watched.”
A dozen yards away a pair of piercing eyes ducked behind a high snow embankment. A second later they reappeared, trained on Vic.
“That’s just Zuz.” I smiled a little, wondering how long he’d been lying on his stomach in the snow. “He does that.”
“Does what?” asked Vic.
“He’s just—very protective of his family.”
“So Zuz is protecting you from . . . me?”
“He spies on all the Chapters for the first few days. And don’t call him Zuz.”
“Why not? You guys do.”
“First off, Baz doesn’t. I mean, he could if he wanted. He’s earned the right. You haven’t. Not yet, anyway.”
Vic stared at the embankment. “Okay. So how will I know I’ve earned it?”
“You’ll know.”
It was quiet again, the two of us sitting in the echo of a song.
“What about money?” asked Vic.
“What about it?”
“I mean, you have to have money to live, right?”
“Not as much as they’d have you believe.”
“Who’s they?”
“You know. They. Like, the government and media and shit. The consumerist mentality and our propensity to price tag happiness.” Honestly, I had no idea what bullshit I was spinning, but it sounded good saying it. “Anyway, we’ve got a few early Chapters around town who help out, and Baz’s job at Cinema Five covers the rest. He’s been saving for a while now. Plans on opening his own taxi service—Renaissance Cabs.”
“Cool,” said Vic. “Why a cab service?”
I pulled my hair around to one side as Harry Connick Jr., Jr., swam lazily under our feet.
“You sure have a lot of questions,” I said.
“You don’t have many answers.”
“I’ll let Baz tell you about it. It’s his thing.”
“Okay,” said Vic. “What about your thing, then? Coco said you just graduated?”
I smiled at him, grabbed his bloodied-up jeans, then stood and dusted the snow off my backside. “We should probably head back. I’ll take these for you.”
“Mad.”
“Yes?”
“What’s a Chapter?”
I turned and started back toward the row of greenhouses, Zuz close behind. “Patience, cockroach.”
* * *
It was a full ten minutes before Vic returned. During that time, I’d shoved his pants on the shelf next to the records, still unsure why I’d taken them in the first place. I then settled onto the couch, where I tried to immerse myself in The Outsiders, a feat that usually took very little prodding, but something about Vic’s song had crept inside my brain, my veins, now pulsing through my body.
Zuz had “’Round About Midnight” by Miles Davis cranked on the turntable while Coco knelt over Vic’s backpack, digging through his stuff.
“Coke, what are you doing?”
She pulled out some textbooks, set them on the coffee table. “Checking for contraband. I mean, we don’t really know the guy. He seems nice, but what if he’s one of those army-guys-turned-Taliban?”
“Coco, that’s ridiculous.” I set the book in my lap. “Vic is not Taliban, and whatever’s in his bag isn’t fucking contraband. Do you even know what that word means?”
She whipped her hair around. “Do you?”
Zuz snapped twice. He hated when we argued.
Coco went back to searching Vic’s bag.
“Coke, I’m really not comfortable with you nosing through Vic’s stuff. He could be back any min—”
“Aha!” she said, pulling out Vic’s jar.
In the light of day, it was obvious what it was. Coco set the urn on the coffee table.
“Contraband.”
“Sorry,” said a small voice. It happened just as I imagined: none of us heard Vic come in. He stood by the door, staring at us. “Guess I need to stop sneaking up on people.” In a daze he walked to the coffee table and stood over the urn like a predator about to pounce on its prey.
“Well, I suppose you were right,” said Coco. “I’m a no-good street urchin.”
We all moved toward Vic as if a massive invisible magnet pulled us in, then stood around him and peered down at the urn.
“What is it?” asked Coco. “What’s inside?”
Vic pulled out his handkerchief, wiped his mouth. “My dad.”
It wasn’t a whisper, but it might as well have been.
THREE
OUR PAST TENSES

(or, The Inevitability of Corresponding Units)

Interrogation Room #3
Bruno Victor Benucci III & Sergeant S. Mendes
December 19 // 4:21 p.m.
“Vic, you’re not listening.”
I stuff my handkerchief into my pocket, look around for a clock. As it turns out, time is hard to pass when you can’t see it.
“Sorry,” I say. “What was the question?”
“Did Baz ever mention why Nzuzi doesn’t talk?”
Mendes taps the edge of her file with her pen. She rarely writes anything, which makes sense, considering the whole conversation is being recorded. The pen she uses like a tiny drumstick, clicking it against the table, the pad of paper, the bracelet on her left hand . . .
Rhythmically. Rhythmically. Rhythm, rhythm, rhythmically.
Rhythmically. Rhythmically. Rhythm, rhythm, rhythmically.
. . .
“He did,” I say.
“And?”
Truth is, until the last twenty-four hours I didn’t know many details about the Kabongo brothers’ past life. But a lot has changed. And last night—or early this morning, I really couldn’t say which—I’d learned plenty.
“The Kabongos were born in Brazzaville, in the Republic of the Congo. Their whole family had to flee when Baz was ten, I think. Zuz would have been really young—and they had a little sister at the time too. They walked for months, ate and drank very little. People were dying all around them. Made it pretty far together until their father died of malnutrition.”
“That’s terrible. You said Baz was ten?”
I nod.
“About how old do you think Nzuzi and Nsimba were?” she asks.
“By then, probably three or—”
. . .
Shit.
. . .
. . .
“Vic, you okay?”
. . .
I stare into Mendes’s eyes, second-guessing everything. “How did you know about Nsimba?”
“What?”
“Before. Just now. You said, ‘Nzuzi and Nsimba.’”
Mendes flushes, flips through some papers in the file in front of her. “You mentioned a sister—”
“Not by name.”
“It’s common Congolese practice, naming twins Nzuzi and Nsimba. I just assumed.”
“I never said they were twins.”
It wouldn’t be that difficult to learn information about the Kabongos’ lives before resettlement in the States. Baz mentioned organizations like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Red Cross—certainly, there were records, documentation outlining their experiences. But it does make me wonder what else Mendes knows, and to what lengths she’s gone to gather information.
She sips her coffee, checks her watch. “Anyway, you were about to say why Nzuzi doesn’t talk.”
I run my hands through my hair. “I don’t really feel like talking specifics. The kid saw some pretty horrible things at a pretty young age, Miss Mendes. If he doesn’t feel like talking, I don’t blame him. To be perfectly honest, considering all he’s been through, I’d say he’s coping fairly well.”
Rhythmically. Rhythmically. Rhythm, rhythm, rhythmically.
. . .
Mendes pulls a manila file out of nowhere, drops it onto the desk. Something about it is terrifyingly simple, like a lone stranger’s face in your own family’s portrait.
There’s a knock on the door, quickly followed by the entrance of a guy in a suit, and a shock of red hair.
“Detective Ron,” says Mendes. “This is Vic Benucci.”
Detective Ron nods at me, his eyes landing on my face. In a matter of seconds, I see the forced casualness, the attempted internal explanation, followed by the nothing-to-see-here smile, and finally—the slow look-away.
If I had a nickel for every slow look-away . . .
“What’s up?” says Mendes.
“It’s not good,” says Detective Ron, totally avoiding eye contact with me now.
“Ronald, what?”
Judging from Mendes’s tone, I’m guessing Detective Ronald is the Hackensack Police Department’s resident Frank. He does seem to have a certain French poodle quality about him.
“We keep calling,” says Ron. “She doesn’t answer.”
Across the hall, I catch a glimpse of Mad’s yellow hair in the door window. It’s crazy: you can miss just about anything when it belongs to the right person. Mad is my right person, ergo, I miss her hair and her shoes and her just-about-everything, pretty much.
“Leave a voice mail?” asks Mendes.
“Tried. Her in-box is full.”
I feel a sudden dryness on the back of my tongue, a twitch in my ear, a mighty aplombness in my belly. I knew they were trying to get ahold of Mom, but the reality of seeing her here . . .
When she shows up, she’ll just have to wait. I’m not stopping now.
“Okay, keep trying,” says Mendes. “And let me know the minute you reach her.”
On his way out the door, Detective Ron gives Mendes a peculiar smile. Over the years, I’ve become something of an expert smile-reader, as if my own inability to grin affords me a heightened awareness of others’.
. . .
. . .
“So,” I say. “Detective Ronald.”
“What about him?” asks Mendes.
“He’s your bitch, isn’t he?”
Mendes crosses her arms, says nothing.
“Question,” I say. “Does he just relish being the dude outside the door? To be honest, I always thought it was a bit of a chump’s errand, you know? Hey, you know what you’d be perfect for? Sitting. In the hallway.”
Mendes unclasps the manila folder in front of her, pulls out a few sheets of paper. She flips them upside down, folds her hands across the top.
“Vic, have you ever heard of touch DNA?”
. . .
“No.”
She picks up her pen, holds it in the air. “We’ve been sitting here for just over an hour. During that time, my body has shed roughly thirty thousand skin cells. Now let’s assume only a fraction of those cells transferred from my fingers to this pen—maybe .01 percent. So about three hundred dead skin cells. Or we could be extra conservative and cut that by a third. Let’s say one hundred of my dead skin cells are on this pen. Do you know how many cells a lab needs to develop a person’s DNA profile? Seven, maybe eight. That’s touch DNA.” She slides the envelope across the table. “We pulled DNA off the murder weapon, compared it to nuclear DNA also found at the scene, then ran the results through what’s called the Combined DNA Index System—CODIS, for short. It’s an FBI database that contains DNA samples of known felons.”
She slides a photo of a man across the table. I don’t know him, or at least I don’t think I do. He’s so badly beaten, it’s hard to tell. The picture is a close-up of his face, his wounds and bruises so severe, you might think you were looking at a fresh corpse.
“Who is this?” I ask.
Mendes sips her coffee. “When they arrived in the States, Baz and Nzuzi were categorized as M4 refugee minors, meaning they had no relatives here and knew no one. They were placed in the foster care system almost immediately, with a family in Syracuse. Things go well for a number of years—Baz graduates high school, moves out, gets a job at a local electronics store. Eventually he meets some bad dudes who get him mixed up in their shit. The family says they’re done. They have a biological son and don’t feel they can trust Baz anymore.”
“You said he moved out.”
“He did, but Nzuzi was still there, so Baz was coming around all the time. So once the Syracuse family bows out”—Mendes nods at the photo in my hand—“Thomas Blythe steps in. Single father, decent home, decent job. Eventually the care is approved by Catholic Charities. By all accounts, Mr. Blythe did the Kabongos an incredible kindness, taking Nzuzi in.” She reaches out, taps the photo. “And this is how Baz repaid that kindness. Beat him within an inch of his life.”
. . .
“So he is alive, then?” I ask.
Mendes slides another photo across the table. In this one, Thomas Blythe is in a hospital bed, half a dozen machines around the room, tubes running along (and into) various parts of his body. His face appears to have healed for the most part, though there are some visible scars.
“This photo was taken a couple of months ago by a nurse who takes care of him. He’s in a coma, Victor. On life support. If you call that living.”
I am an eternal blank page.
“What makes you think it was Baz?” I ask. “This man—”
“Thomas Blythe.”
“He’s in a coma, you said. So we can’t know what really happened.”
Mendes slides the third and final sheet of paper across the table. This one is very different from the first two. Across the top, it states in bold lettering, CRIMINAL HISTORY REPORT. Below that, Baz’s face stares up at me. It’s him, but it’s not. There are no smiles from his mouth or his eyes. It’s a cold photo, gray and hard, hard and heavy, heavy and horrible. Baz-in-the-photo doesn’t require the truth, or speak of the provision of the Living God. Baz-in-the-photo doesn’t take the bread off the burger, or quietly pass on soda. Baz-in-the-photo breaks my heart.
To the left of his picture, a list of descriptions includes sex, race, place and date of birth, height, weight, and identifying marks.
“This is what I meant when I said he fell in with some bad dudes,” says Mendes, tapping a line halfway down the page. Prior convictions. There is only one: Grand larceny in the fourth degree (“Suspect stole a Lexus LS 600 value est. over 150K . . .” ). “That’s a Class E felony,” says Mendes, “which accounts for his DNA landing in the CODIS database. As I understand it, there was a bit of leniency with sentencing, considering he had no priors, but he did serve the minimum of one year in prison.”
Do you need help? Did you hurt anyone?
Baz’s questions weren’t conjured from thin air; they were pieces of his past. His no-stealing rule, too, now carried far more weight.
The document goes on to say Baz had been suspected of being involved in one case of assault and battery, and another case of kidnapping.
Mendes reaches over, picks up the picture of Thomas Blythe, stares at it while she talks. “There was no sign of forced entry into Blythe’s apartment. Nothing was stolen. No instrument or weapon was used in the assault of Mr. Blythe, and the wounds were consistent with those of a fist. Repeated and forceful blows by someone who possessed great strength. And I would guess—plenty of rage.”
Fingernails. Push. Deep into the skin of my right forearm.
Push and hold.
Harder now.
I am an old habit.
“Baz Kabongo is not who you think he is, Victor. And he’s counting on you to be a follower. To be his follower. He’s counting on you to be stupid. I’m counting on you to be smart.”
Mendes’s voice is dull, fuzzy, like she’s speaking through a walkie-talkie from some far-off land.
A bad connection from Singapore.
I stare at Baz’s rap sheet, my eyes focusing on a single word. “Kidnapping?” I say.
. . .
. . .
“Victor. Did Coco ever talk about her father?”

MAD

“It’s a tattoo shop,” said Baz.
Vic sipped his soda intentionally, angling the rim a bit off-center. “What is?”
Hang me from the Parlour. The Parlour is a tattoo shop—a friend of ours works there. It’s not far. We can head over when we finish eating.”
We sat in the back corner booth of Napoleon’s Pub, wedged between a pool table and a dart board, talking about Vic’s list and drinking sodas (except Baz, who always ordered water). Vic was nestled next to Coco and Zuz on one side of the booth, and I sat with Baz on the other.
“I still think we should have gone to White Manna,” said Coco. A Hackensack institution, White Manna was famous for its sliders. Just hearing the name of the restaurant conjured a Pavlovian response in my salivary glands; unfortunately for us, White Manna management had little patience for shenanigans, especially ones involving a short redhead stealing fries off the plates of other customers. “Best sliders this side of the Mississippi.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Have you ever been to the other side of the Mississippi, Coco?”
“I don’t need to. White Manna is the best, and you know it.”
“Well, you should have thought about that before you decided to go around jacking other people’s fries off their—”
As if on cue, a plate of steaming cheese fries appeared on the table before us. “Okay, guys, here you go. My world famous pepper jack fries.”
Margo Bonaparte was exactly as outlandish as her name suggested. She wore rain boots no matter the weather, tight-fitting bright-colored pants, and long pigtails (which looked more like flappy dog ears than hair), and seemed to have an endless supply of old Beatles T-shirts. Margo’s father, Hubert Bonaparte, was the owner of Napoleon’s Pub, so she could do pretty much what she wanted.
Except Baz. She couldn’t do Baz no matter how bad she wanted to. Currently, Baz was seeing Rachel-something, a girl he worked with at Cinema 5. Apparently they had things in common—namely movies and baseball—making her different from the others. Baz usually had a girlfriend, though they rarely lasted, and they never came around. He and Rachel ate out a lot, stayed at her place sometimes, and occasionally went to Trenton to catch a Thunder game. I could hardly blame Baz for keeping serious separation between his love life and Greenhouse Eleven.
“You lose my number again, Mbemba?” asked Margo Bonaparte. As far as I knew, Margo was the only one who used Baz’s full name. She pulled a pen and a slip of paper from her apron, wrote her number down, and handed it to him. “I swear, you’d lose that beautiful head of yours if it weren’t attached.” Then, to the rest of us: “Burgers okay? I can bring salads, too. We got an overload of lettuce in the last shipment, it’s all gonna go bad soon. But, oh! Guys. Listen. You have to save room, okay? I’ve got a special treat for dessert. Promise me.”
We assured Margo that we would save room for her special treat, and off she went, pigtails flapping behind her.
“But guys,” said Coco, in a singsong voice. “Listen. We simply must save room.” She stuffed a forkful of cheese fries in her mouth, continued to talk with her mouth full. “Freak show, that girl. Still. What do you think, Zuz? She got some ice cream back there?”
Zuz snapped once.
Despite the name of the establishment, the only thing French about the place (other than its fries) was the trademark greeting of its waiters and waitresses. “Bonjour, mes petits gourmands,” which translated to, “Hello, my small gluttons.” In a Venn diagram where set A = {People Who Speak French}, and set B = {Regular Patrons of Napoleon’s Pub}, the intersection = {Basically No One}. Napoleon’s Pub was preposterousness personified, which probably explained why we liked it so much.
The fries were gone in no time, and a few minutes later Margo brought the salads. It had been a while since our last Chapter, so we ate in silence for the most part, each of us acclimating to the presence of another person at the table. Once done with the salads and cheese fries, we passed around the two items from the urn: the letter and the photograph.
I read a portion of it aloud. “‘You and Victor are my North, South, East, and West. You are my Due Everywhere.’” What I wanted to say was, This is the sweetest fucking thing I’ve ever read, but all that came out was, “Doris is your mother?”
Vic nodded, and I read aloud the locations on the list. “‘Hang me from the Parlour, toss me off the Palisades, bury me in the smoking bricks of our first kiss, drown me in our wishing well, drop me from the top of our rock.’ Well, the Parlour we know. The Palisades are the cliffs, I assume.”
Baz nodded. “That one should be easy enough. We can get there from Englewood.” He looked across the table at Vic. “Do you have any idea about the other three places?”
“No,” he said, staring into his empty glass.
I passed the letter across the table; Coco grabbed it with cheesy hands and read it out loud between bites. When she got to the closing, she paused. “‘Till we’re old-new.’ What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s something they used to say,” said Vic. “I don’t really— I don’t know what it means.”
Vic’s mannerisms, the tone of both language and body, suggested some deep embarrassment, as if we’d just broadcast his personal diary throughout the country. Though there was something intensely personal about the letter, his father’s “Terminal Note.”
Zuz passed the Polaroid to me.
“Who put these things in your father’s urn?” asked Baz. “And why would they do such a thing?”
“Mom must have,” he said. “The list, the photo, the ashes. She needed to keep all of him together, I think. Everything in our house is different now. But those things are still him. Those things haven’t changed.”
In the photograph, Vic’s parents are on a rooftop, the familiar skyline of New York City behind them. There was a fair resemblance between Vic and his parents, but I wondered how much stronger it might have been were it not for the wall of hair he hid behind like a shield, a divider between himself and the world around him.
“They look really happy,” I said, looking back at the picture.
Vic pushed his glass away, reached across the table, took the Polaroid out of my hands. Just then Margo appeared with a tray full of burgers, setting a plate in front of each of us. She disappeared with an “Au revoir, mes petits gourmands,” but I barely heard her. I watched Vic as he stared at that Polaroid in his hands, and I wondered what he was thinking.

VIC

I bet Mom asked a complete stranger to take this picture. She was always doing that, asking strangers to take photos.
Strangers stared hardest.
It was a real problem for me.
“They were happy,” I said. “We were happy.”
I was happy.
Now? Shit. Singapore.
I put the photo down, stared at the burger in front of me. The weird waitress was gone, but no one was eating. I thought about what Baz had said, about the Parlour being a tattoo shop, and in my Land of Nothingness I saw two compasses pointed at each other. So we never get lost, Dad used to say.
I knew Baz was right about it being a tattoo shop. It made so much sense. Which meant we would calmly finish our food and make our way to the Parlour, where I would begin a process whose end was the end. Dad’s end.
And I felt like this: a shaken bottle of champagne; an angry volcano tired of humans building silly little houses on my arms and legs like I didn’t exist, like I couldn’t wipe them out whenever I wanted. I felt full of fiery things, and icy things too, things that bubbled and boiled and popped, things that begged for liberation.
“Mom and Dad started dating in high school,” I said. “Got married in college.”
I needed to be empty.
I needed someone to pour me out.
“They always said, ‘We fell in love silly young.’ And I really miss that, you know?”
I looked around the table. None of them seemed fazed, which made me want to give my bubbles and anger to these kids who would listen, kids who would finally fucking listen and see me for me, and not some statue on a street corner, holding a sign that says, Look at me, don’t look at me, look at me, don’t look at me, over and over, but it’s never over; it goes on forever, this desire to be both seen and unseen.
“Mom and Dad had all these sayings, all these sentences only they understood. Till we’re old-new. I have no idea what that means.” I was crying now—rare, but not impossible. I relished the moisture, and thought, Yes, this makes sense. Get it out, get it all out with the lava and the champagne. Liberate all things. “There are times when I think I knew him better than anybody, and then times when I feel I never knew him at all. And now it’s too late. And he . . . fucking promised me”—I shook myself up until the cap popped off, fizz, fizz, bubble, bubble, pop, take a breath now—“when I was little, Dad promised he’d never leave. He taught me how to think with my heart, how to hear the whispers—the really mean ones—how to take those and make myself stronger, how to be a Super Racehorse, and not some silly sideways hug. Well, how is he supposed to do all that when he’s dead?” I grabbed a nearby napkin, wiped the liberation from my face. “And now the whole stupid world has moved on, including my mom, who I barely even recognize.”
. . .
. . .
. . .
Say it.
I am Northern Dancer, sire of the century, the superest of all racehorses.
. . .
Do it.
. . .
“Dad died of pancreatic cancer.”
. . .
Five words I’d never said before.
The first two were the only ones that mattered.
. . .
“He died two years ago.” Again, the first two words rendered the others pretty impotent. “Mom just got engaged. To someone who thinks Tolstoy wrote The Brothers Karamazov.”
. . .
. . .
“He didn’t write it?” asked Coco.
The table breathed for the first time in what seemed like hours. I looked at Coco, tried to smile with my eyes, but I couldn’t be sure it worked. “No, Coco. He didn’t.”
Coco nodded in a very serious manner.
I looked across the table at Baz. “Yesterday I took the urn and ran. I was going to scatter him in the river, but then I found the note and the photo. I can’t go home. Not until I see this through.”
. . .
“Do you remember my first question?” asked Baz.
“Yes.”
“Do you remember your answer?”
“Yes.”
“Say it again,” he said.
“I need help.”
“And again.”
“I need help.”
“And once more.”
I hoped Baz could see the smile in my eyes; I certainly saw the one in his.
“I need help, Baz.”
“And we will help you, friend.”
Friend.
What a beautiful word.
Suddenly Singapore didn’t feel so far away.

MAD

Baz carefully removed the top of the bun from his burger, then the bottom, setting them both on the side of his plate. He ate meat; he ate veggies; occasionally, if Coco fell asleep before finishing her ice cream (so very occasionally), he would eat her leftovers. But never bread.
“You watching your carbs?” asked Vic.
“Baz is anti-bread,” I said, rolling my eyes.
“Anti-bread?”
I nodded. “He is against bread.”
Vic looked back at Baz. “I don’t understand.”
Baz took a bite of ground beef and lettuce, swallowed. “You do not have to understand everything.”
I couldn’t help but laugh at this. Baz had a way of taking very simple words and putting them together in a way that people weren’t accustomed to hearing. You do not have to understand everything. The problem was people didn’t know what to do with such forthright simplicity, because they had no practice with it. People expected backroom agendas, conversational Trojan horses that sneaked behind enemy lines and burned you from the high ground of moral ambiguity.
God. The longer I was a person, the less I wanted to be one.
Coco scribbled on her napkin while she ate—songwriting was a sort of hobby of hers, though I’d yet to actually hear a final product. Zuz looked over her shoulder, occasionally nodding or shaking his head at what she wrote. He was the only one privy to her creative writings, the only one she let in her circle of trust.
Eventually Margo brought out another plate of cheese fries, and we all ate while Baz told a story about the time the air conditioner went out at the Cinema 5. “People were yelling very loud,” he said. “They wanted their money back, and all the rest. Later I was on break with a coworker named Russ. Russ remarked how hot it had been. I agreed it had been very hot. He said, ‘Aren’t you from the Congo?’ I said, ‘Well, I am an American citizen now, but yes—I was born in the Republic of the Congo. Why do you ask?’ Russ said, ‘Oh, nothing, I just figured you would be used to the heat, having lived in the jungle.’ I looked Russ in his eyes, asked him, ‘Are you from New Jersey?’ ‘Yes,’ said Russ, ‘born and raised.’ I nodded. ‘So I assume you strip down to your underwear and make out with very tan girls in hot tubs.’ Russ raised an eyebrow and smiled. ‘No,’ he said, ‘why would you think that?’ I said, ‘I have seen the television show Jersey Shore, so I am educated in the way all people from New Jersey live. Admit it. You strip down to your underwear and make out with very tan girls in hot tubs, do you not?’”
The table chuckled, but I couldn’t. The day it happened, Baz had come back to the greenhouse in a mood, and when he told me what had happened, I really couldn’t blame him. The shit he had to put up with.
“So, what did Russ say?” asked Vic.
“He had nothing more to say on the subject,” said Baz, smiling sadly. “It was not the first time, it won’t be the last. People see movies or TV shows, and they think they know us.” He pointed to his brother across the table. “Nzuzi was too young to remember what we lost, praise God. I was also young, but I remember. Our mother was an English teacher, our father worked for the government. We had a nice house and nice things. It was a good life in Congo-Brazzaville.
“But war changes things. At nine, I did not understand oil or lust for power, or the measures countries would take to have both. At nine, I only understood that the light had left my mother’s eyes. I understood my father’s fear, so thick, I could smell it on him. I understood the sound a bomb makes in the seconds before hitting the earth. I understood that when soldiers enter your home, tell you they are taking your table and chairs, your father’s VCR and favorite movies, your mother’s best dresses—and tell you to be grateful for this—you keep your eyes on the floor and say nothing. I understood the truth about nighttime, the urgency in my brother’s and sister’s cries. And when my own head hit the pillow and I drifted asleep to the violent lullaby—pop! pop! pop!—I understood I would not live to see the sun rise.”
The table was quiet as we watched him recount his old life. I’d heard this much before, but it didn’t make the hearing of it any easier. If anything, the story grew considerably harder with each telling.
“You have a sister?” asked Vic.
Zuz put a hand on Vic’s shoulder, lifted his head high, and put his other hand on his own heart. Baz said, “My brother is telling you about his twin—our sister, Nsimba. When we were very young, Mother sometimes called me by both names, Mbemba Bahizire. When Nsimba tried to say it, all that came out was Baz.” He smiled for a moment, but it soon became a frown. “I do not know if it is better or worse that I remember our lives from before the war. But I do—I remember our beautiful life in the Congo.” He stopped, took a sip of water. “Anyway. No one was living in a jungle. Not where we come from.”
“It’s a shit job, the Cinema Five,” I said. “Plenty of places you could work until Renaissance Cabs is ready.”
Baz smiled again, but this one didn’t need to turn into a frown; part of it already was. “My father loved movies. Being there reminds me of him. And it’s a good place to find new Chapters.”
“Okay,” said Vic. He’d been holding his burger, but he hadn’t taken a bite for a while now. “So, what’s a Chapter?”
Baz wiped his hands on a napkin, pushed away his empty plate. “I collect stories. For a book I’m writing. And books need Chapters.”
“Okay.”
“With your permission, Victor, I would like you to be one of them.”
A bit of barbeque sauce squirted out the sides of Vic’s burger. He grabbed a napkin and wiped some off his shirt-sleeve, then looked back at Baz as if waiting for further explanation. Receiving none, he nodded once, said, “Okay.”
“I change names and places, of course,” said Baz.
“Okay.”
I understood Vic’s hesitation. Most people didn’t like the thought of their every move being observed, documented, organized, categorized—the idea that their actions and words might be recorded for all to read. I didn’t really mind so much, which probably had something to do with my wanting to leave a mark, something to let the world know I was here long after I wasn’t.
“So, I know I don’t have to understand everything,” said Vic, “but I’d really like to understand this.”
Baz laughed, nodded. “Fair enough. A while back, some kids from the Chute were vandalizing Babushka’s, breaking in after hours, smearing red paint across the windows so it looked like pig’s blood. And customers stop coming. Norm, the owner, he comes to me for help. So I helped him.”
“How?” asked Vic.
“Ooh, ooh, let me tell it,” said Coco, looking up from her napkin for the first time in ten minutes. “Okay, so get this. Baz takes his baseball bat and a single apple to the Chute. He asks around, ends up finding the kids who kept breaking into Babushka’s. It’s not hard, you know, they’re all bragging about it, the bunch of meatheads. So anyway, he finds them, takes off his shirt—”
“Coke, I didn’t take off my shirt.”
“Of course you didn’t, because that would be ridiculous. I’m saying—for the book—you should write that you took off your shirt. Makes it better. So anyway, Baz takes off his shirt, tosses the apple into the air, and hits it with the bat, smashing it to smithereens. Then he looks at the kids and says, ‘The next person who vandalizes Babushka’s will know what that apple felt.’ Ha! Classic, right? Anyway, Norm hasn’t had a single break-in since. In exchange, we get five pounds of meat a week, plus access to his back room.”
“And his story,” said Vic.
Baz shrugged. “We are all part of the same story, each of us different chapters. We may not have the power to choose setting or plot, but we can choose what kind of character we want to be.”
“So, where’s the book?”
Baz pointed to his head. “I am working on it as we speak. And in the meantime, I’m reading a writing instruction guide by Dr. James L. Conroy. You’ve heard of him?”
Of course Vic hadn’t heard of Dr. James L. Conroy. No one had heard of Dr. James L. Conroy, but that didn’t stop Baz from talking about the man like he was the definitive voice in the midlevel writing tutorial handbook industry.
“Is there a title?” asked Vic.
I said, “The Kabongo Chronicles.”
The Book of Baz,” said Coco.
Baz glared at us. “There is no title yet, but I have time. Nzuzi and I are saving for a car and, ultimately, a fleet of cars. Renaissance Cabs will be the premier taxi service in the greater Bergen County area. The way I see it, what better job for a collector of stories than a cabbie? Just imagine the Chapters.”
“Just imagine the freak shows, more like,” said Coco under her breath.
Vic looked at Coco. “What about you? Are you an early Chapter too?”
“No way, Spoils. What happened to me was my mom left when I was born, see. I never knew her. And her leaving, well, that made my dad really sad. Like sad in his bones, if that makes sense. The kind of sadness that takes time to really sink in, you know? Dad took care of me when I was little. He didn’t jump right into being a lazy bum, I mean. He eased into it until eventually he just stopped getting out of bed in the morning. I cleaned the house, got myself ready for school every day, all that stuff. He hit me sometimes, and out of nowhere. He just didn’t really wanna be a dad anymore, I don’t think. He had this pretty good job at a bank, which he lost. Went from that to working at a convenience store. We were barely getting by, so he started looking for other ways to make money. Found out you got paid if you took in foster kids. Or at least, the government gives your taxes a break, or something. It’s crazy, man. Anyway, Dad spent the next few days cleaning the apartment, cleaning himself, and stocking our pantry so full of food, I thought he’d hit the lotto. Then this lady is walking around our house taking notes, asking all kinds of questions, and the next thing I know—bam—I’ve got two brothers. Baz and Zuz. I mean, Baz didn’t actually live with us, but he was there so much, it felt like he did.”
“I’d aged out of foster care,” said Baz. “Tried many times to get custody of my brother, but”—he shrugged, but it felt less like a gesture of nonchalance, more like an imitation of Atlas—“by the time they moved Nzuzi to Queens, he was almost eighteen, so I decided to stick close until he aged out too.”
“So yeah, anyway,” continued Coco. “They needed a family, they got us, which I was thrilled about. I just felt kind of sorry for them, getting paired up with my dad.”
“We were paired up with you, too, Coconut,” said Baz.
Coco blushed, went on. “So, then one day, Dad’s gone. Poof. Left just like Mom. I was really sad at first. We’d just had this huge fight that morning. I don’t even remember what I did to make him so mad, but I said something, and he hit me pretty hard, and then I left for school and that was the last I ever saw him. But you know—I figure he just needed to find his own thing. I mean, he wasn’t happy with me or with the life he had, that’s for sure. So I figure he went looking for a new one. And that was fine by me. I wasn’t gonna stand around and cry like a baby. I thought, Well, if Mom and Dad can go off and start a new life, so can I. So I asked Baz and Zuz if they wanted to come to Hackensack with me. Baz got a job, we met Mad, and we all lived happily ever after in a motherfrakking greenhouse. The end.”
The table was eerily silent for a beat.
Vic cleared his throat. “I’m really sorry, Coco.”
Coco polished off her burger, licked her fingers. “About what? Things turned out great. I’ve never been part of a real family.” She motioned around the table. “Not like this, like us. Anyway, I’m no Chapter. If Baz wants to use my story, he’s gonna have to get in line and pay for it. Man, that burger was good. Margo may be batshit, but girl can grill.”
My heart hurt like it got punched. Coco was far too young to have had a front-row seat to the horror show that was her life. I leaned across the table and hugged her neck right there in front of everyone.
“Love you, Coco.”
“Love you too, Mad.”
She’d told this story before, and while it probably wasn’t far from the truth, it didn’t take much to spot the holes. Clearly there were things Coco didn’t know, things that had been kept from her. I could only guess what they were.
“Wait, why Hackensack?” asked Vic.
I sat back down in my seat. “Remember that commercial the city ran for, like, a decade, trying to promote Hackensack tourism?”
“The one that claimed Hackensack was ‘on the verge of a Renaissance,’” said Vic.
I winked. “Bingo.”
“Don’t tell me . . .” Vic looked at Coco, then the Kabongos. “You guys came to Hackensack because of the ad?”
“It’s coming, guys,” said Coco. “The Renaissance is just around the corner. I can feel it.”
I snorted in my straw, blew soda across the table.
“Keep making fun,” said Coco. “We’ll see who’s laughing when the Renaissance gets here. Baz and Zuz will start Renaissance Cabs, and I’ll write a hit song about Renaissance stuff, and then I’ll become rich and famous and the only people I’ll invite to my Renaissance parties are people who don’t laugh at me.”
Zuz snapped once.
Coco waved him off. “Yeah, Zuz, you’re golden.”
“I didn’t know you wrote songs,” said Vic. “What kind?”
“All kinds,” said Coco. “Rap, mostly. I like beats and rhymes. I’ve been working on my Renaissance rap for a while now—it’s basically awesome.”
Margo Bonaparte appeared out of nowhere. “All right, guys. Dessert’s almost ready. Follow me.”
We slid out of the booth, shooting worried eyes at one another, and followed Margo through the near-empty restaurant all the way to the kitchen. “Come on back,” she said. “Sorry about the mess. Haven’t quite got the whole clean-as-you-go thing down yet.”
Margo stepped up to an industrial-sized stove with four simmering skillets cooking something sweet and caramelly, and my mouth started watering like a faucet. On the floor next to the stove, she bent down, grabbed the corner of a large kitchen floor mat, and pulled. Underneath, in the floor, was the outline of a hatch with a small brass handle.
I looked at Vic, who pointed at Margo and whispered, “Super Racehorse.”
I made a mental note to tell him about Margo’s situation, about her gambling habit and how, when she ran out of her own money, she’d dipped into her father’s business account. Atlantic City was only a couple of hours away—it wasn’t an uncommon story. Luckily for Margo, her father was a frequent patron of Cinema 5, where he divulged his woes to a very understanding employee. Baz knew that Hubert Bonaparte had soft spots for his daughter, for his restaurant, and for independent film. So he spent the next three weekends at Napoleon’s, painting the interior and exterior walls, ceiling, and trim; he also arranged for Hubert to have unlimited access to the back alleyway entrance to the Cinema 5 (an entrance with which I was very familiar). The results of these actions were trifold: first, Margo’s debts to her father were considered paid in full; second, the Bonapartes, while somewhat baffled at the request, agreed to let Baz have their story for his book (which, according to Baz, could use a chapter on family redemption); and third, both Margo and her father turned a blind eye when it came time for us to pay the check.
Oh, and a fourth thing: Margo Bonaparte was relentless in her own pursuit to “repay” Baz Kabongo. Her advances had, as yet, remained unfruitful.
“This used to be the grease trap,” said Margo, pulling the handle and swinging the door up and open. “You guys ever clean one of these things? Stinks something awful. Every time we had it cleaned, it scared customers off left and right. So Dad had a new one installed outside—way smaller than this one. This old one’s huge. Here, look.”
We stepped up to the edge of the trap door. Margo was right. Probably five by seven feet, it was roughly the size of an old hatchback, and had the ambience of a tiny unfinished basement with smooth gray floors and walls.
Margo Bonaparte hopped down through the hatch door. “Stopped using it years ago, but it still smells like sulfuric shit down here.” A couple of seconds later her hand appeared, and in it, a full bottle of Bacardi Silver. Coco took the rum, while Baz pulled Margo out of the grease trap. “Never hurts to order an extra bottle or two,” said Margo, closing the hatch door and pulling the kitchen mats back into place. “Off the books, of course.”
“Is this real rum, like what pirates drink?” asked Coco, every word in her question at a fever pitch.
“You’re adorbs,” said Margo, taking the bottle from Coco, “and maybe a little nutso. Yeah, it’s real rum like what pirates drink.” She unscrewed the lid, took a swig while nursing the skillets with the other hand. “You guys ever had Bananas Foster?”
We all shook our heads, and as much as I hated admitting it, Margo had my full attention.
“Who’s Bananas Foster?” asked Coco.
“Not who,” said Margo. “What.”
“What’s Bananas Foster?” asked Coco, who had officially become a broken record.
“Fried bananas,” said Margo, pulling a box of matches off the counter, tipping the rum over the stove, and pouring a healthy dose in each skillet. Then, lighting a long match, she touched the flame to the sizzling bananas, setting them aflame. “On fire!”
Zuz snapped once.
We were inclined to agree with him.

VIC

I sat in a high-backed, purple suede Victorian-style chair with brass studs and ornate angels and demons carved into its legs.
The chair was one hell of a Super Racehorse.
The Parlour’s waiting room followed suit. Antique furniture, framed posters of old movies (including one of Casablanca, my parents’ favorite), a crystal chandelier dangling from a high ceiling—the whole place was saturated in patchouli, but other than that, I found it quite surprising. Not at all how I pictured a tattoo parlor. But it didn’t end with the décor. Even the architectural design was unique. The entire ground floor was the waiting room. A spiral staircase wound up and up to an open loft space above our heads. If the electronic humming was any indication, the actual tattooing took place up there.
We sat in the room and waited.
The waiting room was a very literal place.
Back at Napoleon’s Pub, we’d used Margo’s phone to find out when the Parlour closed for the evening: eight p.m. It was only a few blocks away, which left us just enough time to walk over and try to figure out where to “hang” Dad’s ashes. (I still had no idea what this meant, but I trusted Dad would compass me in the right direction.) On the walk over, Mad cited a few quotes from her favorite book, The Outsiders. I’d never read it, but the one I liked best was something about two people admiring the sunset from different places, and how maybe their worlds weren’t that different because they saw the same sunset.
I think Mad saw in books what I saw in art: the weightless beauty of the universe.
She sat now with Baz and Coco, the three of them combing through a photo album of the Parlour’s prior handiwork; Nzuzi stood by the window, gazing into the nighttime snow, while I sat in my Super Racehorse of a chair and thought about my first real encounter with tattoos.
I was six. Maybe seven. We were in Ocean Grove. Mom sat in a chair, her toes in the sand. She was a beach reader. Dad lay on his back on a towel, his ankles in the sand. He was a beach dreamer. I built a sand castle because I was six. Maybe seven.
I was a beach anythinger.
A piece of my castle crumbled into the moat. Dad sat up, helped me rebuild it. He was leaning across my lap to grab a shovel when I saw the tattoo on his shoulder. What’s that, Dad? I asked. He said, A compass. Points due east, see? I asked why, as six-maybe-seven-year-olds are wont to do. He looked at Mom. Let’s show him, he said. At this point I’d forgotten all about my messed-up sand castle. Show me what?
Mom set down her beach read.
Dad set down his shovel.
Things were happening. Things I wasn’t privy to. This was a real problem for me.
They turned around and stood side by side, close enough for their shoulders to bump together. To my shock, Mom had the same tattoo as Dad, except for one difference: her compass pointed due west.
Their compasses pointed toward each other.
So we never get lost, said Dad.
I emerged from my Land of Nothingness to the sound of two snaps. Still standing by the window, Nzuzi was smiling at me. He nodded very slightly, but it seemed more a question than an answer. I nodded back, and he turned and looked out the window. Earlier, Coco said Nzuzi had plenty to say if you knew how to listen. I hoped I learned to listen like that. I was no stranger to people making the wrong assumptions about me, or to the punch-in-the-gut feeling that immediately followed. The last thing I wanted was to be the one doling out punches.
“Oh God,” said Coco. Baz flipped to the next photo in the album.
“God,” she said again.
Baz flipped the page.
“Oh my—”
“Coco,” said Mad.
Coco’s eyes were laughing and a little crazy. “Mad. This guy tattooed his balls. His balls. And I don’t even know what that”—she pointed to the current photo in Baz’s lap—“is.”
Baz hastily flipped the page.
Before Coco could grill him any further, footsteps clanked down the spiral staircase. A shiny-bald man with a short stick through his nose, gaping holes in both earlobes, and layers upon layers of tattoos joined us in the very literal waiting room.
“Okay, guys, sorry for the delay. Chump upstairs keeps changing his mind, and I’ve been alone all motherfrakking day, so it’s like”—his entire demeanor changed once he saw us—“Baz, you scoundrel!”
They hugged so hard, Baz’s Thunder cap fell off his head.
It was the very opposite of a sideways hug.
Coco hopped off the couch, ran over, and wrapped her arms around the guy’s waist. “Hey, Topher!”
“Coco, my darling, how you doing?” The guy—Topher, apparently—bent over, pulled her into a tight hug.
“Great! I haven’t even cursed today.”
Someone in the room, maybe even two someones, cleared their throats.
“Well,” she said. “It’s been at least an hour.”
Topher slow-clapped, nodded in approval. “Frak yeah.”
It’s him, I thought. The Battlestar Galactican.
Topher stood, smiled at Baz. “I miss you, brother. Thought you guys must have moved without telling me, or something.”
“It has been way too long,” said Baz. “You’re clean?”
Topher pulled a necklace out from under his shirt, a long chain with a round chip on the end. “Eight months, six days, and . . . nine hours.” Tucking the necklace away, he looked around the room, his eyes landing on me.
It didn’t take long, maybe a second or two, for a person to check off the usual suspects—Burn victim? Stroke? Birth defect?—before quickly looking away, averting their eyes like I was the very surface of the sun. I often thought the most unfair thing about having Moebius wasn’t Moebius at all, but other people’s inability to define me by anything else.
It was a real problem for me.
Topher pointed to Baz’s arm. “You need some detailing, brother? Whatever you want is on the house, of course. Not like a few free tattoos squares us. I could never repay you guys for—”
“Yo, Toph!” interrupted a voice from the upstairs loft. “Where’d you go, man?”
Topher raised his head toward the ceiling. “Simmer the frak down, Homer!” He looked back at us, lowered his voice. “Homer’s a turd. Been waffling on this butterfly tattoo all evening, like whether he gets it on his forearm or bicep is gonna make or break him in the biker community. It’s a motherfrakking purple-winged butterfly.”
“I can hear you up here, you know!”
Topher smiled, shrugged. “What can I do for you guys?”
Baz introduced me, gave a quick overview of our situation. I handed him Dad’s Terminal Note, hoping he might see the momentousness of the moment.
“Hang me from the Parlour,” said Topher, studying the letter. He rubbed his shiny-bald head, and it sounded like this: waxing a brand-new car with olive oil. He looked up at the crystal chandelier. “You got the ashes with you?”
I unzipped my bag and pulled out the urn. “I didn’t used to be able to touch it. The urn, I mean. But now I can. I touch it all the time. The urn.”
. . .
Smooth, Benucci.
. . .
There were times—socially, or whatever—when I pictured myself crawling into a hole only to have the hole spit me back out.
But hey.
Topher passed the letter back, smiled at me, and this time he didn’t look away. And I could tell this shiny-bald man with holes in his ears and a stick through his nose saw the momentousness of the moment. He started up the stairs, pointed to the ceiling. “Only place I can think to hang a person here is the chandelier. Y’all chill for a sec. I’ll be right back.”
Mad walked to the center of the room, pulled off her knit cap, and looked up at the chandelier. Her long yellow hair tumbled to one side like a dripping wet sun. “This doesn’t feel right,” she said.
. . .
The thing about uniquely pretty girls is that their prettiness cares nothing for time or place. It cannot be rescheduled or relocated. They are pretty wherever they go, whenever they get there. It can be quite distracting. For example: right now, instead of thinking about the best way to hang my dead father from a chandelier, I was thinking about the best way to keep Mad’s hair out of our mouths should we ever kiss. Actually—yeah, never mind. I’d rather her hair get in on the action. Not like it would ever actually happen. Not like someone like her would kiss someone like me. Not like I’d ever know what the skin side of her head felt like, or her legs around my waist, or her tongue on—
“What are you doing?” said Mad.
Shit. I’d stared so hard, she felt it.
“What?” I said.
“You’re sort of . . .” Mad looked over at Baz and Coco, who had gone back to the photographs of tattooed body parts.
Before I knew what I was doing, I stepped closer to Mad, right up in her space. Of all the girls I’d fallen for in the past—and there were many—I’d always fallen from a distance. But that was impossible with Mad. Something about her was inherently up close. And if I couldn’t reschedule or relocate her prettiness, it was best to acknowledge it head on. “Finish the sentence,” I said, close enough to smell her lips—honey and sweat, and I loved them. “I’m sort of . . . what?”
She looked right back into my face. “You’re sort of staring.”
. . .
. . .
“So are you,” I said.
We both stared into the sun. And we didn’t look away.
Maybe the two worlds we lived in weren’t so different.
* * *
“This ain’t gonna work,” said Topher, standing on the top rung of the ladder. After a few seconds of deliberation, he climbed back down. “I thought maybe there’d be a spot up on one of those old candle-holder thingies, you know? But one good draft through the front door and your dad’s gonna blow all over the place.”
Nzuzi—who had been standing by the window this whole time—walked across the room, picked up my backpack, and started for the door.
“Zuz,” said Mad.
But he didn’t stop. Cradling my backpack like an infant, he walked out the door and into the snowy night.
I no longer felt distracted. It had taken a very short time for Dad’s urn to become part of me, not unlike a limb. Now that it was gone, I felt its physical absence. Without a second thought, I was out the door too.
The Parlour was set back at least an acre off the road; the lawn had become a thick blanket of snow that was only getting thicker. Ahead of me, Nzuzi walked toward the street. I had no idea where he was going, and he gave no indication whether he’d be walking ten feet or ten miles.
I didn’t care.
He had my compass.
Suddenly a hand was in mine. Next to me, Mad trudged through the snow, and I turned to dust and feathers and other things that float.
“It’s pretty,” she said quietly, looking around. “The snow.”
I’ve always found a certain warmth in words when they’re spoken in the cold outdoors. I don’t know. It’s like words take the breath of the person speaking them, and wear that breath like a sweater.
. . .
Up ahead, Nzuzi stopped in the faint glow of a streetlight. We caught up and he snapped once, pointing to the Parlour’s wooden sign dangling chest high between two posts in the ground.
The Parlour
Hackensack’s Premier Tattoo Shop
since 1972
Ink Up!
I stepped up to it, nudged it with my fist. It swung slightly, toppling the layer of snow. “Hang me from the Parlour,” I said.
Nzuzi handed over my backpack, nodded once. Unlike his last nod, this one was an answer. And I knew Coco was right: Nzuzi had plenty to say if you knew how to listen.
“Thank you,” I said.
Again, Nzuzi nodded.
“Colder than tattooed balls out here,” said Coco. Behind us, she and Baz and Topher stood shivering in the snow, a look of hesitant anticipation on each of their faces. I felt bad, like I was to blame for more than the cold, but also for not knowing what exactly came next.
“Look,” said Coco, walking right up to the sign and pointing near the bottom. Under the words Ink Up! was a small inscription carved just deep enough in the wood to last: B. B. D. J.
“What’s it mean?” asked Coco.
“They’re my parents’ initials,” I said, my words hanging like smoke in the air. They were clunky words. Awkward. The cold had a way of doing that, of making each word feel hard and heavy. “They had tattoos on their shoulders. Compasses. Dad’s pointed east, Mom’s west. So they would never lose each other.”
The cold snow fell.
The warm words rose.
My whole life, I’d felt the capacity for bitterness and self-pity. But never more so than on those rare occasions when I wanted to smile and frown at the same time, yet was capable of doing neither. I remembered the way my parents were together, like the world was a tree branch, and they shared the same cocoon. Mom should be here now, scattering these ashes with me, not looking for a new cocoon-mate. The letter was written to her, and no matter how much Frank the Boyfriend wanted to be Frank the Husband, he would never be Frank the First Love. Mom was Dad’s due everywhere. This ought to be her mission.
Suddenly Coco’s tiny arms wrapped around my waist in a tight hug. It lifted the weight a little, made Singapore feel possible, however unlikely.
I turned to Topher. “Could I borrow some tattoo ink? And a pencil?”
Topher nodded, ran back toward the Parlour.
Before I knew what was happening, Mad and Baz and Nzuzi gathered around Coco and me, bracing us against the cold like a waddle of penguins. I wasn’t sure how it happened, but I suppose fulfilling the wishes of a romantic dead man speeds up the bonding process a bit. I wasn’t complaining.
I’d never been a penguin before.
A minute later Topher returned with more than ink and a pencil. He also handed me a photograph. “We take pictures of most of our work,” he said. “This was long before my time, but those tattoos you described—I had a feeling I’d seen them in our photo album.”
I stared at the photo.
The tattoos were jet-black, pinkish flesh, fresh. Two shoulders, two compasses. Due east, due west. A perfect match.
“You’re an early Chapter, right, Topher?” I asked.
Topher’s eyes gleamed. “I was messed up, man. These guys took me into their magical frakking greenhouse, let me sleep on the couch, took turns watching over me during withdrawal. Then Baz got me plugged in with the local AA group. They saved my life, man. I’m proud to be part of the book.”
Coco departed our waddle to go hug Topher. I smiled with my heart, held up the old photo of my parents’ tattoos. “Can I keep this?”
“All yours, my man.”
I slid the photo into my backpack and pulled out the urn. Strange, how long it had taken me to touch this thing, and now here I was about to dip into it.
I popped open the bottle of navy blue ink. Next, I peeled back the tape on the urn and pulled opened the lid. Inside, I pinched a small amount of Dad’s ashes, then sprinkled it into the bottle of paint, closed it up, and shook it in.
I dipped the tip of the pencil into the blue, ashy ink, and turned to the sign.
B. B. D. J.
The paint in my hands reminded me of Matisse and his belief that each face had its own rhythm; ergo, I thought about Dad, who taught me about Matisse; and now here I was using a combination of Matisse’s medium and Dad’s bones.
“Hang me from the Parlour,” I said aloud. Because it felt right. And I painted in the initials using the ashes of the very person who’d carved them in the first place. The very person who taught me to think and smile with my heart.
“Hang me from the Parlour,” I said again.
And again.

And again.

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