January 1st, 1997, NYC, New York
Fuck! Me, at a penguin-chic party!
Literary metaphor flowed off the tongue. Frigging surreal, an Alice in Wonderland trip.
Time was, trapping farts and beetles in glass jars, gleefully feeding homework to dogs wagging empty cans with their stubs of tail, that was ace! Got old upon advent of pimples. But cutting school? Ogling moguls, jocks, neoteric hotties? Slobbering from far enough way to just make out silhouettes spinning tunes deified days hence? Big Apple born and bred, like Stock Exchange, Plaza, Aqueduct Race Track, pussified regattas, biennales, movie and theater premieres dark with Bentleys, ablaze with glitzy finned Caddies – that kick hadn’t lost its shine for a while.
And now, check me out! An overstarched Marcella shirt bearing up like a persistent hard-on. A handshake after limp handshake. Encounters universally short, dull, as sprucely impersonal as jewels dripping off Misses Big Wheel. Though holding no candle to the Allenbys, Buffets, Kennedys, Rafferty-Gellers, America’s business and political demi-elite made merry all around like this was its last fucking New Year. You searched good and hard, heck, two-thirds would come up boasting antecedents ralphing off Mayflower’s bulwark. And in circles like these, bet your bottom buck, search they did – and were commendably thorough.
Furthest thing in the world from those benighted two-thirds, I shouldn’t have been here. Happily so. Just go figure!
The door thumped shut. A warren of furniture scraping the bolsters above, the basement wasn’t claustrophobic at all, just heartbreaking. Avenues of ageless grandeur – chucked so the fashionista co-host would lend her WASPy name to the party.
Just as well my old girl stayed away. This lumber graveyard, she wouldn’t have liked that. The china cabinet, Chippendale, cabriole legs, broken pediment scroll top. That pink-and-white mother of pearl-inlaid bureau, 1800’s Federal, conch shell motif, scuffing come by honestly, not via a roll of sandpaper. And, oh – the desk, Duncan Phyfe, 1830’s, acanthus leaf pattern, satinwood ennobled by papers, sweat, head-in-the-crook-of-an-elbow spittle of dyed-in-the-wool workaholics. Walls channel past owners. Don’t furnishings do that?
A stair above squeaked. Or groaned. Or was it my patron?
“All partied out? Or is it the desk? No sweat, offer’s moot till the better half’s official sign-off.”
“Hmmm?” The man lobbed himself onto an Adams armchair, by quarter-century predating the desk, but going with it like mashed potatoes with gravy. “No, keep it. If I knew it had such a fan, it would’ve shipped before Mrs. Winchester had ever browbeaten us into giving this pile a facelift.”
“Right. So, old time machine’s outta whack?”
“You’re a wreck! Don’t believe me, go pick a mirror.”
“Plenty of those…” The pause dragged, sour and thick like rancid sorghum. “Speaking of visual aids, want to bet the cops will have leaked the goods in time for the morning press?”
“That supposed to be funny?”
“Seinfeld’s got nothing on me.”
I planted myself on my desk. I did have a right. It was mine. “Yeah, he does.”
My patron deflated. “Maybe. Sonny boy now, there’s your slapstick…”
“Don’t know anyone in New Orleans, do we?”
“As far as his Christmas break went, that’s been gloriously uneventful. Just your routine gumbo-beignets jaunt – so we have been assured at the arrivals gate…if anything should pass at face value. Anyway, let’s take it up to my study.”
Brief climb up, past the surging throngs of quasi-nude strangers knocking back everything under the stars, each drink displacing little more class, blasted Archimedes’ Law or some shit – and…a locked door. That was new. The mechanism snicked, crabby like a maiden aunt dusted off for a Thanksgiving dinner.
I sniffed. Pervasive modernization aside, the stink of drying barf – that, too, was new. “Aw shit!” Crumpled puffy skirt. Twigs in lacy pantyhose propping the bar. Knobs of knees in a horizontal hoedown. “Boy OK? He and the ho mainlined?”
“Drugs? Some grass four and a half months ago.”
“There’s precision. Put that in his diary or something?”
“Meet Stella Winchester. Thirteen.” And finally, The Story.
“That’s…” I gripped the flexing shoulder through the funereal black. Funny how our sex mourns and celebrates with the same color. “I mean, the folly of…of…”
“Honor rolls, athletic awards… Goddamn bash cost the earth. On the bright side, saves a bundle on TP.”
The chief let go of the ho’s pulse point. “That trace of sedative’s already wearing off. Shouldn’t jump out at anyone when they run her blood, but with her parents next door, I can’t let police…”
“No, you can’t.” My mentor, losing composure! Talk about a Johnny-come-lately. “Sit. We’ll figure it out.”
First things first: tackling the new artsy phone, the spring wound overly tight, Dali-esque holes suffocating my finger as I dialed a familiar number. Strike innumerable against Stella’s mama. “Ninja? Same to you. Need one of your boys. Jock type with some wheels. Pass him the XYZ. Who’s closest to there? Long hair, tat over left cheekbone? Right, half an hour. Thanks, man.”
Now, for some ice. Next…sweet, anise liquor.
The cold worked. So did the booze. “Breathe, breathe! Good girl.” Runny retroussé nose, gushing spit with anise aftertones, zaftig farting. “Shit, whacha been eating?!” Bow lips puckered. Stella shivered, coughed, blinking baby-blues bloodshot, blanker than Chucky’s. I boosted her up. Hypoallergenic whiskerless ragdoll, she went, tottering and making cat noises. “Easy, easy… Grab the sill. Sir. Sir! Shore her up here.”
The latch opened like it was oiled yesterday. Probably, was. Ran a tight ship, did the missus. Hard-packed soil bushwhacked my heels. “OK, hand her down.”
“She’ll catch a cold!”
I shrugged out of my tails and let down my hair. “She’ll be fine.”
“Known me to get sick? Ever? But I might if you don’t let me in. Swing by in say fifty minutes?”
Tick or two later, Stella, a happy meal in her “boyfriend’s” tux, and a tall shaggy dude weaved past a gaggle of smokers. One mimicked a Cupid’s arrow to the heart. Shaggy caught it, shook his head, and sent it zooming in on his crotch. Score night!
Having planned to make myself scarce the moment the ball dropped, I hadn’t taken the pimply valet at his word. Swear all you want to get me out anytime, but for one used to valet for old Ben, no way, always a chance of getting boxed in by the tardies. So, hunched before a deserted antebellum pied-à-something few doors up the lane, yes, wifey’s Camry!
Stella, back sawing logs before I’d gotten us moving, and my frozen-off balls appreciated the modest velour upholstery something bad. Were this the LE model with the snootier leather…
Sweet spot was some twenty-five minutes from the pied-à-thing. I’d made it in eighteen. Five more went into picking a drop. Lucky I never stopped updating my planner with the likely sites listed as Aunt Olivia’s or Sammy’s, Clown for Hire. Expunging them, too, after each use. If anyone bothered taking a look, would they ever mistake me for one persnickety customer and disagreeable nephew!
Sixth minute had Ninja’s kid kicking up snow rainbows with the neon tubes under his truck. Memorable, check. Instructions took over ten minutes. The happy union of beauty and brains? Not in this chapel.
Twenty more and I was back – one disheveled ‘ho lighter. “You and Junior playing congenial hosts?” I checked my Admiral Nelson plait, rebraided and refolded in half lest my base mane pisses off the grandees. “Whole crappola’s to avoid suspicion.”
“I… Thank you. Better this merry farce disbands of its own accord, but in the long run…”
“That’s then. For now, come on, don’t think I’ve been looked down at by quite everybody.”
The boss miserably fondled the doorknob. “You must think me the worst… Your own son may be in the hospital by now, and I didn’t even ask…”
“Not in the past coupla minutes. Sir, relax! Kid’s fine.”
“Even so…” A yank, and in flowed the swirls of inane drunken chatter.
In the middle of my fourth well-bred put-down in quarter-hour, my tongue was hanging on by a thread – you can only bite it so many times. But if these popinjays never realized they’ve been had, hell, let them have a ball with my thoroughly unimpressive vitae.
My tongue and ego didn’t get a respite until an appointed minute – which I celebrated with a daiquiri off one passing tray and some greenish hors d’oeuvre off another. A trek through some fancy weatherproof tents temporarily connecting the two houses, and whoa, here I thought my patron’s décor was ass!
Needs must, I girded my loins and buttonholed a twerp nursing a peach margarita to wax poetic about a steel granny knot crowning the grand staircase. The twerp mellowed enough to want to introduce me around. Semi-civilized bumpkin had to be remembered sweet-talking crème de la crème frothing up the Winchester half of the party.
Few minutes in, that I could’ve sworn were hours, I set the greenish whatsis onto an austere Bauhaus highboy before reeling in a server. “Hey, guy. Place’s a mess. And I gotta make this call. Know where a phone lives that’d be quiet?”
Next thing I know, I’m being abandoned in a mother of a snooty study. “Whoa,” Macbeth, look at me now! “What am I, Annie at the orphanage steps? Gonna be lost the second I step foot out this door. Seriously, two minutes, guy. You’re my Moses!”
The chat with my missus proceeded according to plan, leaving her and Moses convinced it was she who felt it imperative our boy check into ER for fever and possible flu complications. Way back was a trot: my guide sympathized like nobody’s business. “There he is. Obliged, guy.”
My benefactor unceremoniously discarded his flock. Was I that good of an actor?
“My turn for disturbing the peace.”
“How is he?!”
“With the asthma and his depressed everything…”
“Yes, yes. Get the hell out! Pass my… Wait! You’re in no condition to drive. Look, least I can do is tool you over.”
No, no, no, no! “Sir, please, it’s your party.”
The boss with an idée fixe up his ass, guess who ended up driving?
We burst through the automatic doors to see the wife on a horrendously brutal chair rock-a-byeing a heap of winter clothing. “Hey-hey, squirt!” My son squealed, round puffy eyes twinkling under his bonnet. “Hon, why aren’t they looking him over?”
“They had, during triage. The nurse, blue-perm over there, told us to wait. The line looks bad, though.”
“Bad! There’re…” Hasty headcount produced “Thirty-odd fucks. Even with families, still leaves us a dozen!”
The wife swabbed a greenish glob bubbled up under the boy’s button nose. “Well…well, I don’t know, they wouldn’t let us in early. Though she did warn 101.3oF on a holiday, during flu season…”
“As if the numbers hold water in our case!” Cool as a cuke, the boss strode into ER past a virulent Mohawk on guard duty. A snap, and “The cubicle is being prepared! Hurry in, the X-ray cart’s due any minute.”
It was, complete with a gawping Vietnamese tech – par for the course for my Fairy Godfather, who, while the blood was being drawn, casually stuck his head through the slit in curtains dirty as a crooked precinct and added a marginally fluffier twin to our stale pancake (read pediatric pillow). The kid dozing under a precautionary oxygen mask pumping in mild bronchodilator, a comfy blanket appeared in place of a standard-issue fisherman’s net and a row of name-tagged hospital bags lined the wall, adult and kiddy garb, frigging sorted. During a prelim with a harried doc, a scruffy blue armchair turned up, a deficit foldout. Not that it implied a long haul. Coupla tests were still being read, but so far, our regimen of oral steroids and some ten-day antibiotic seemed fine.
I leaned over the wife taking a breather in her smuggled armchair. Setting her beating herself up, wasn’t my best move. “All’s well that ends well. You gonna be OK for a spell? Good Magician here made me ride shotgun. Better take him back to his bash, hon.”
The boss cited the function of cabs. Tough shit, my turn to be the voice of immutable logic: New Year’s, the cabbies not smashed themselves were out cruising the bar districts.
Which left us roving the garage awash with flickering lamps annoying as they were flyspecked. I cleared my throat. “You mind I drop you off at the nearest hot zone? Guess you could catch someone. Seeing as you said they might need me.”
My Fairy Godfather calmly disengaged his bulging hospital bag caught against the butt of some van. Both of us bundled up in coats, gloves, and hats, what the heck did he have in it? “And now the light dawns? Sure, let’s go back up there. By the time I’d make it in, the farce would be over regardless.”
I peeked at my watch. The goddamn plan! It was on the verge of imploding. “Look, I got things to take care of. In private.”
“I distinctly remember something about joint ventures.” The barnacle primly buckled himself in. “Hate being late, don’t you?”
“Late.” I blankly started the car. “Late where?”
“You’re asking me? Well, pull out! And careful, police will be out in force. So many drunk drivers about, it’s a crime against city treasury not to be handing out tickets.”
Pull out we did, and treaded the letter of the law. And at last, La Marqueta, a bustling community polestar of my childhood – leastways, would have been, had I hung out with wetbacks and not just made sporadic gorging runs on its fucking cornucopia of cheap tropical and mainland dreck – now reduced from five peppy buildings stretching under Park Avenue railroad viaduct from 111th to 116th to a drab moribund one, two razed sores, and two boarded up tighter than an ugly nun’s love mound. Passing us, upended trashcans retching Christmas ornaments and vodka jugs. Gang graffiti. Busted traffic lights keeping vigil over boarded-up storefronts. Beat-up coupés. Mutts yipping away their wordless, primeval version of Ebonics.
Crimmins Avenue, convulsed in a faltering fit of urban renewal. Pennons, green, ginger, black; Africa rising.
138th Street. Cracked shades ripening into anthropological relics. Hungry stares scraping the paintwork off the Camry. Good thing I didn’t tell the kid about the shortcut! The gleaming muscle truck wouldn’t have gotten off so easy.
Getting into – and past – Harlem backwaters ate time for all I drove as the drunken stork flies. I sent out an opening bid. “So, whatcha got there?”
The boss numbly gazed out the window. Allegedly not long for this world, you still kept an eye out for black felching pride whipping up Molotov cocktails in champagne bottles. Fucking Panthers! “Don’t worry, your wife and boy’s clothing’s still in the room.”
“Let’s hope this doesn’t come handy.”
Leastways, the muscle truck proved obliging, neon tubes getting shuteye over the mounds of frozen trash, feral scrub, soil doused into infertility by acid rains. What came first, exodus or the rampant waste? The mosquito pond – during my summer scouting trip, I’d personally noshed suckers longer than my little finger – wore a dusting of snow on the banks veering over gooey entrails.
I parked ways from the kid’s ride: safe enough, this far from civilization. To this, Harlem was homey! Been Indiaor some European hole, tourists would be flocking by busload. Natives used to croak round here parts until one day, the place itself succumbed. Whether on account of the tubby rats, DDT-guzzling parasites, undrainable bog two to one piss and rainwater, roads falling apart, or the subway branch rattling insides every ten minutes, the city shrugged, diverted the trains, misplaced its maps, and pretty much washed its hands till time immemorial, amen. Even hobos gave a wide berth when indigence grew menacing past some unquantifiable seediness threshold. Those, anyway, with vestiges of common sense filtering through psychosis and booze. But hey, who credited them with brains – particularly, dead ones? Society had better things to do than poking about in its own dung heap.
The trunk popped; driver door followed. “Hang tight, here.” On top of the barnacle in my passenger seat, this part of the plan already called for some improv.
Outside was fucking nuclear winter. I tugged at my gloves and reached for a couple of spare grocery bags littering the trunk for when they became a sellable deficit. One inside the other for strength; they came apart like nobody’s business. And hmm…city-grade concrete, thank you!
Half a block hurdling the crumpling sidewalk had me level with a cursive 1707 coming loose over a hovel’s carport. A peek through the chipping plywood revealed the Tattooed One and a round corrugated bin chock-full of rotting odds and ends on the flaking brick plinth throwing off decent heat and smoke redolent of burning petrol. A gas canister, too new for the rest of the crap, hunkered out of the way of the sparkage.
Testing each ominously creaking plank, I conquered the porch and barreled through the door at different times blue, black, red, and something else long ago bleached of all color. “Problem locating the love shack?”
The kid jumped off his crate. “Ah… Nah. No way, man!”
“How’s your date?”
“Fabio” sneaked a look at the long furry wad. Between the coat’s rich natural hairs, stuck out a tear in fishnet over a knobby knee, a piece of white-and-black puffy skirt, an oversize charm anklet. “Out like a light. Now, anyhoo.”
“Were you seen?”
“Shit, gotta be dead not t’ notice tha’ one! Crazy bitch don’t wanna drink nothin’ first-off. Been mumblin’ some shit like she heavy. Got ‘er t’ hang loose fast ‘nough. Lit up like half-dozen rub joints! Firebran’, Mama used t’ call ‘em flip pussies.”
“Impressed you so much, you sprung for the coat? We must be paying better than I thought. Or did good old Mom loan it?”
The kid brayed. “Couldn’t keep on givin’ ‘er m’ calfskin! ‘N, yeah, secon’ joint we leavin’, there’s this ov’r a chair. So hey, ain’t like th’ twat brung it in ain’t gonna turn round n’ buy ‘nother.”
“Robin fucking Hood, aren’t you? Screwed her?”
“Ya ain’t tole me. Want…”
“No, thanks. I’ll be taking over from here, shoo. But first,” I doled out a shiver. “Fuckin’ cold. Go add…whatever you been using into the burner.”
“Make‘t toasty,” the kid openly leered, working on a soggy slat. “Hey, ya don’t tell me t’ fetch full loada gas, ain’t nothin’ woulda been burnin’.” Three steps, and “Fabio” was bending over the canister. Hold still…
The double-bagged boulder did like motherfucking clockwork. The girl, shit, she was easy.
I dropped the sack, rummaged in the aforementioned calfskin for “Fabio’s” lighter and ignition keys, and hoisted the tank. Reassuringly full, thank whomever.
Scratch the gratitude. Whoever, if anyone, was watching over this just royally screwed up on the job.
Because petrified on the threshold, hello! Boss man, stupid hospital bag still attached, the improbably substantial gaze singeing my hand. The canister in my death grip – death, get it? My other hand, chafing the lighter. The decades-old dust. The makeshift stove, crackling like it was Yule Night. The red-streaked grocery bag. My similarly-streaked handiwork, rapidly cooling. “You did it again,” less a statement of fact than a plea to be proven wrong in the face of overwhelming evidence. Just like the last time. “Do you suppose I ought to be thanking you now?”
Been a right thing to do. Right! But the gaze morphed into a garrote, and I couldn’t push a single flaming word out.
My benefactor nodded – he did always hear more than was actually said – and kicked “Fabio’s” crate to the coat. The bag plopped down. “I would rather you waited out in the car, but the cold… Just shut the door and, please, don’t turn away from the window.”
Over the shrill of rusted-up hinges, plastic tabs pulled apart with brisk popcorny rasp. I peeked out of the corner of my eye. Fellow salt pillars, hiya! Crowning the crate were a tall glass jar with a silver lid chock-a-block cotton balls; a range of medical instruments in plastic sheaths; and a couple of semi-clear spray bottles with pokerfaced labels. The boss himself was busy pulling a garbage bag over his head, stolid hands, snowy cuffs, black woolen sleeves tearing through from the inside. Second garbage bag became a potato sac in St. Paddy’s Day father-son race. Only difference, it tied around the waist as opposed to being held up by the hand. Lastly, out came a pair of yellow rubber gloves, the type the wife used tiding up the can. “Where the fuck’s that from?!”
“Did you see me making a stop between ER and this hole?” The boss sounded like he was hanging on by a thread slimmer than my kid’s chances of marking his fortieth birthday. “Anyway, please? This shouldn’t take long.”
In front, competing freezing rain and pong. Behind, silk and nylon, ripping. Then, something squishy, wet. He couldn’t be trying to intervene? Too late, way too.
I turned my head, an infinitesimal bit, but all I caught was Fairy Godfather on his knees, intent, so intent. And totally unruffled by the stink of curdling blood and…booze? Medicinal alcohol. Ah, the spray bottles.
Yet more cellophane rustling. I gave up, privacy could go suck on a lemon.
So drawn, he seemed receded behind his freckles, my boss was stripping off the bags. Two more decorously covered the stiffs. Soiled gloves stood out among the cotton hailstones. Brick rivulets traced the pitted floorboards.
The man emptied out what was apparently the 70% isopropyl alcohol. “Had your look? Get the gas.”
I did and…whoa, in that metal-capped jar, “W…what the?!”
“Punk’s? She didn’t know him from Adam.”
All right. “Isn’t he, you know, at the party?”
“Providing he has done as he’s told.”
“You shouldn’t have been faced with a choice like this. Not again. Not ever.” Inside the ruddy juice, the meaty wedge swallowed the light. “With this, I will have him permanently on the straight and narrow.”
Our powwow apropos getting the hell out of Dodge ended with the boss commandeering the Camry. The hospital bag with the lidded jar snug in yesterday’s newspaper – ER, fucking Horn of Plenty! – hunkered shotgun. Then, I tried getting the barnacle to meet up on the parking lot of an unassuming University of Columbia lunch spot reachable without risking East Harlem.
“You may be right. What better way to get rid of the truck than by an anonymous “donation” to Black Panthers? Don’t see their affiliated chop shops on too friendly a basis with the law. But no, my sticking around is nonnegotiable. Ready?”
One on one with the Tattooed One’s sluggish muscle truck brains sticking out via various handles, I wrestled down a ridiculously heavy shift and barely pulled out when the shack went ablaze, narrow black dowel of a vanished mailbox sticking out like a fucking exclamation point. I made a mental note to cross out this zip code. Even if the flames happened to spare the adjacent huts, no way in hell was I coming back here. One conflagration attributable to itinerants was plenty.
We charily dipped back into civilization. The truck needed to be left where the hangover Negro shits would know to look. And once dropping off the boss at his place, I needed to be buzzing the wife. You never can predict where you’ll end up busting a tire. No, too much hassle to make it look real. Better some accident on the interstate, post-Times Square rush shit. Couldn’t have called her at the hospital, yeah? But she’s resourceful, she would have gotten home, gotten my breakfast going. Fucking needed me some. Picking up our new desk, man, it was going to be a job and a half!