Francis: Not This Time or This Time but Maybe Next

after Bolaño

The old man sat as he always does outside my bookstore, early in the morning with the rising dawn, the air crisp and promising under a pink sky. Hawthorns chirped with staccato sparrow song and twitched with their movement like electric wires. I never saw the old man arrive, and though his appearance was not poor, I imagined that he lived, perhaps for the rest of his days, on this green bench in the square. That life a mythic sort of routine, and mine too for all he saw, our fates forever crossed in some unknown punishment by an arbitrary god. Or he lived nearby. I nodded hello and he answered by checking his silver calculator wristwatch, smiling with a certain satisfaction as if complimenting my punctuality. I wondered if he had been expecting me.

After switching on the lights and getting my morning tasks in order, I returned to the door and waved him in, but he never came. Only a friendly tip of his frayed scally cap. I had no way of judging the old man’s tastes, but somedays after closing I left him something to read. He offered a faint thank you in return and then placed the book or magazine just beside his right leg on the flaking green paint of his bench. The old man stared ahead peacefully in the soft glow of the square’s sole lamppost outside my bookstore. 

Another quiet summer passed and on Halloween, the square came alive again. Kids bumped around in the leaves with their masks and bags, scattering nervous squirrels up and down the trees in retreat, pillaging the willing retailers of their sweet wares. The bookstore was especially popular, and they came in droves to collect my comic treats, two Peanut Chews taped on their covers. I sat with the old man after closing and offered him a copy of Black Panther. “I saved one for you.” I said. “It’s what all the kids are reading now – I even saw a few T’Challas tonight.” He placed the magazine on the bench, smiled and thanked me in the same small voice as usual, only this time he followed by asking if I’d walk him home. I noticed that he looked weaker than usual, somehow older and perhaps unwell. I helped him up and noticed a pronounced limp, his left leg dragging stiffly behind the other. 

He didn’t live far off from the square, but he needed help with the five flights of stairs to his apartment. As we ascended slowly, I  imagined his bones hollow like a bird, his body weight hanging almost entirely, however lightly, on my left arm. He breathed heavy, with something that impressed me in its strength, like his lungs were still a perfect engine driving his otherwise exhausted frame, and looked down limply at the stairs, his head seemingly oppressed by the weight of the cap. He dug around for the key to the front door, which opened to a lofted apartment filled with desert cactus and exotic plants. The various bookstore gifts stood tall in one stack behind two potted buckhorn chollas, as if in a cage, guarded by the weaponry of their clustering spines. I only noticed then, seeing the books collected in one place, that I had unintentionally gifted books with animal names in the title.

Tiger Man
In the Skin of a Lion
To Kill a Mockingbird
Eight Little Piggies
Under the Jaguar Sun

A Wild Sheep Chase
Dreamtigers

I made a pot of coffee and we spoke for over an hour. Francis had emigrated a long time ago from Northern Ireland. My grandfather came from Belfast, a Catholic fireman, so it wasn’t for nothing that I asked for details of his town, down to the street. Grandpa wasn’t alive anymore, but Mom might remember, and I felt a strange urgency to commune like old countrymen with this man who had been so long a silent part of my daily life. Francis never wed, a father and sibling to none, friend to very few, but never unfriendly or lonely. He worked as a bomb defuser in Belfast throughout The Troubles, the only man in the department not to have taken an early retirement or worse, despite a near fatal blast that split his femur like rotted wood. That’s when the long walks became longer, he said, but he continued out of an enviable sense of duty. He assured me that he found goodness and satisfaction in this quiet life alone, and even felt fated to solitude — or perhaps happily resigned — by the curse of a profession that could in a blink steal him away and hurt those closest to him.

I left the apartment feeling something bigger and more specific than happiness, like I had read a book that I knew I would re-read again and again. I couldn’t wait to ask my Mom about Grandpa’s Belfast neighborhood and if he may have by wonderful chance known this Francis. But it wouldn’t matter now the way I wanted. The old man was gone the next day when I opened the bookstore, and it took several days and a call to police to find his little body among his flowers and cacti. Francis died alone as he knew he would. I installed a plaque on the green bench in his memory.

The Animal Channel

Three of us sat there on a broken old couch. A “love seat” side by side. On it we sank, bleary eyed and silent, staring into the television. It glowed almost thick around me and I felt like an insect. The three of us, buglike then, sat captivated by an eel, a pink eel struggling at the edge of a murky lake. A lake of briny water rippling strangely, almost digitally, at the bottom of the sea. Heavier than the sea. This eel twisted, jerked and seized almost too fast to capture on film. It seemed to travel through an extra dimension. One form, eel-like now, then instantly something else like a glistening pink pretzel. On and on like this until a British voice interrupted: …too much enjoyment…. toxic shock… Things weren’t looking so good for this junky eel or any of its friends. I could be sure now given the finality of the music, a timpani and drone, all kicking in as the eel sank deeper into the lake, a pale paralyzed pink dot. Then a crash – hope! – and in a sudden last flash of form, a pink streak darted out of the lake, becoming normally eel-like again. This one is lucky, the British voice announced. And the eel turned back toward the brine for a moment, as if to say Once more, old friend? But no. It swam away.

In His Bible

Let America know and ponder on this: there is something more frightening than Cain killing Abel, and that is Washington killing Spartacus

-Victor Hugo

Dear,

When I wake, two lost souls will take me from my cold bunk. I have resisted enough now, but I will not go willingly. I will be dragged before their hateful kind, borne witness to the final defeat of evil in this land. But tonight I saw the Meteor return, love, and I will mount that scaffold with unhealed but untrembling feet, knowing now that you are by my side. They have sent their priests here, my final resting place, and I spat at their unholy ministrations. I prayed for their destruction. They will leave the noose around my dead, unblessed neck. They will write lying testaments to my savagery. But know that of this — their — disease, this whole world will be purged in blood. I promise it by deed and design.

Yours,

Kingston to Queens

He cooed on the beach towel. V laughed and set the baby down gently, square on the giant graphic of a Hummingbird’s nest. He lifted him in the water, smiling wide like a proud father. “See saw, knock on the door,” he sang, “Who’s there? Grandpa.” The Mother, apparently, continued shouting from the sand in a thick German accent, not ein foot further, danke. Too deep! V bounced the tiny beautiful stranger in the shallows, as X glided nearer on a small wave. He tucked his head, streamlining his body athletically into a swell. The water hurt like a slap and then he sank, deep into the Caribbean warmth.

The red rocked cliffs jutted out like a lion’s head (Lion Head Point, in fact) across a delicious expanse of calm turquoise. Beckoning. As he climbed the last step, he could make out something like panic assuming form in the distance: a round figure flapping wildly from the shore. He lost sight of his compatriot from out there. V wanted to hang back and socialize with the young couple under their palm shade. The young man sold them a fistful of mild weed wrapped in a single gigantic Zig Zag paper. He had a recent date tattooed on one arm and held a baby against his bare chest in the other. X and V approached him like old friends after Montague whistled for his attention from the car. Montague knew everyone on the island, at least every person they had seen in the last 10 hours, and pointed at “that one, Prince, with the likkle one under the palms.”

They flew back in a few hours, so with what was left of their adventure, they wanted to swim. Their day began or continued in the hot afternoon sun, both basking in the funk of empty beer bottles, day-old clothes marinating in stale sweat and a rank potpourri of strange women’s perfume mixed with local smoke. Montague’s cousin ran the place. It was called Lady’s and it was cheap. They paid in cash.

Windies skipper was saying
It wasn’t quite the result
they were looking for —
poor shots

New Kingston: three businessmen in identical suits occupied their tables for one, already taking their breakfasts while a staticky radio announced Cricket scores in a flat, monotone voice. They peeked up from their plates with six judging eyes: Go home, vultures. V gagged on the strong smell of eggs as soon as he stumbled through the door. X laughed when he tripped up the first step – wind up ya body, he sang. Wind up for me. V was in bad shape, something like loathing had set in. He spent the ride half out the window for fresh air to keep the barf down (or at least out). Montague, their audience of one, laughed variously at X’s poor execution of the local patois or V’s ghastly retching that syncopated the music’s rhythms. X sang the entirety of Exodus on the way home through the hills across shantytown and glassy hotel high-rises, past Tuff Gong and Citibanks, Ital shacks and Jerk grills. A faint blue light appeared on the edge of the world.

there’s a natural mystic
blowing through the air

Montague yawned again and removed the faux dreads from his bald head. He wasn’t smiling anymore. X and V stood there with him wasted on uncertain ground, their legs buckling under drink and hours of line dancing. They followed the lead – barely – of four orange-beanied youths, making fools of themselves to the delight of Japanese tourists and the night’s hosting DJs. Sound Love spun it back each time V fell, but after three rounds of failure, they bowed out, shamed and delighted by raucous pity applause. They were champions and heroes tonight with a cash wad large enough to keep the crowd lubricated and firmly on their side. Another round at the bar, and then another. They found a second wind after the four hour flight and directed the driver, Montague, straight to Wedi Wedi Wednesday. 

They doubled over laughing at the absurdity of the price, but it was still only a fraction of their winnings. “The next flight to Kingston,” he said, “roundtrip for two!” They jetted over straight from the cashier, down the escalators, past security and into a car to JFK. He didn’t call to say he’d be late. A promise is a promise. He looked at V, his face a dark shade of madness and reckless abandon: “Should we?” The numbers came up just right, roll after roll, to make good on a decade’s long guarantee. X didn’t expect it to come at that point in his life – did he ever believe – and what was he doing here anyway, still hooked after all of these years? Mornings of shame, regret, long fights and half-assed explanations. Loss after loss. A child, a wife. The car pulled up and the driver, another among dozens but never the same, wished him good luck in a familiar, sorry tone.

X said it every time as part of his ritual blessing of the place. “If the wheel goes right tonight, we fly.”

Measure twice cut once

I fell asleep on the couch with my shoes on. It was late. When I woke, the room flashed in a shifting blue light. I heard George Bush’s voice, suddenly interrupted by a jingle for the Pennsylvania Lottery. The light flashed again. Steven Seagal was breaking arms with one swift hiyaaa! I sat up and saw my Dad with a screwdriver in one hand, the remote in the other, his face turned up into the focused seriousness he reserved for bad action films. He looked at me, took a sip of something I could smell from across the room and told me to go to bed. He said I’d learn to swing a hammer tomorrow.

*

The first house I worked on was gutted down to a bare skeleton of wooden supports. I imagined falling the 20 feet from the floor joists to the cold foundation. Would my knees smack my chin and explode my teeth all across the concrete? Would I live? Dad yelled after me to hurry back with the blue dustpan and brush. It was pink, but I worked out early on a codex to translate his color blindness into everyone else’s spectrum. I came balancing back across the beams and stood behind him, admiring the ease with which he tied the repaired joists to their wall supports. I leaned in for a closer look. The hammer’s claw side clipped my mouth and sent a shard of chiclets flying down to the basement below. They weren’t baby teeth.

*

On the way back from Philly one year, we stopped at a gas station so Mom could empty what she called her outside stomach. Dad thought it would be funny if we drove the car around back and secretly watched her puzzle over our disappearance. He nudged me as she came back out, barely containing his laughter. She took but two looks – left, right – and in that moment I knew all of her loneliness and pain. She didn’t seem annoyed, just abandoned, and immediately burst into tears. She dropped her tired body and bag of iced teas down to the parking blocks. Nobody spoke much on the long ride home, except Dad and his piss poor attempts to cover shame with jokes.

*

My Dad’s parents still lived in Philadelphia. Their place on Marple Street was a brick row-home with a stoop. I remember the inside: mirrored walls, a dining room table stacked with biscotti tins (fatto a casa) and a large picture book that documented honeymoons, baptisms and graduations. I asked Nonna to tell me the story about Tommy, her sick boy that died before adulthood. They didn’t keep pictures of him. I was too little then to understand why.

*

My fifty-six sutures came out the first week of college. Dad had needed a last-minute extra hand on a roofing job in Cape May, which I reluctantly agreed to for 50 bucks and a box of Dominos. Bad move. Timmy showed up drunk, red in the face, smelling like a bottle of cheap. It was a hot day on the roof. As we worked our way backward from the ridge, I shoveled the shingles off the right side of the roof. Timmy was supposed to shovel left, but again: hot day, strong drink and his shingles piled up on a skylight in my trail. I stepped into an accidental booby trap, falling downwards 15 feet onto a glass patio table. I brushed it off and took a walk. It wasn’t until lunch, as I finished my last slice of pizza, that Dad sent me home. He said my back winked at him when the sun twinkled off a square inch of glass. Mom and I picked freshman electives in the emergency waiting room.

*

Camden, nine years old. I didn’t know what hospice meant except that it’s where Grandpa took strong pain pills and became extra funny. He impersonated Nonna’s thick Italian accent, pointing at the wall and yelling, “looka da ducks! Looka dem! Sta ta zit’ e mangia!” Later that day, Uncle John told me they met and fell in love in a cardboard manufacture called Newman & Company. She nursed him to health once after an unbalanced ream of flutes toppled and concussed him on the factory floor. Then on, he never let the other Irish guys say a bad word about her dark skin.

*

On the first year back from Chicago on Winter Break, I smoked out of a gravity bong, had a massive panic attack and told a high school crush I loved her. I practiced my new black & white fundamentals on Nonna and Grandpa’s headstones in snowy Germantown. Dad made me resume old chores: chopping wood for the fireplace and taking the dogs for walks on the bay. Then the family took its usual trip to Cherry Hill for last minute shopping on Christmas Eve and returned to our house ablaze in a five alarm fire. 2 floors, 5 dogs, 25 years. All gone, but we got to watch it go with the neighbors like a festive bonfire. We rebuilt a year later. The walls still smell of smoke.

*

Summertime in South Jersey, I was eight. My Dad dug out an old tool belt for me from a pile of empty Odoul’s in the Ford’s cab seating, while Ed Larkin sat up front drinking his coffee, not much for words. He asked if we could make a stop on the way and if we had any rope.

“Rope?” my dad asked.

“Yeah, for the pig.”

“Pig?”

“Right, I gotta pick up a pig on Tabernacle. Put ‘im in the back.”

“Alright. I got some extension cords, will that work?”

“We’ll see,” said Ed.

Ed and Dad fought that nasty fat pig for close to two hours while Ed’s cousin Chucky entertained me with Swans Strawberry Pops. Almost by the time the box was emptied, Ed and Dad were hoisting the pig into the Ford’s bed. But the extension cord snapped under its weight and the pig went running off wild up West Cape May bridge. It squealed and squealed as a 16 wheeler peaked over the crest from the other direction. But the pig kept running, and it squealed until Dad yelled, “look away, son!”

Potholes

Three cars sat in the driveway, cultivating a world in rot. Their flattened tires spilled down across the concrete, baked to a cragged barren surface. This black desert landscape was full of life — invasive Jersey Fresh tomato vines crawling up the rubber walls, bay sand embedded in the threads, glass twinkling in the sun. Survivor of Many Offensives, Builder, Black Sheep, First (and Only) of His Name, Father to Three, Husband, Brother, Grandfather (to be) and survived by all, including these, his armada of rust (but they didn’t put that in the obituary).

Mom wanted to clear the driveway and revive the garden since church hadn’t exactly inspired the spirit-haunted distraction the old chaplain promised. And anyhow she didn’t want the neighbors thinking her a poor old widow that kept a shrine room to her dead husband, like leaving the slippers just so beside the bed as he left them the morning of the attack. So she divided the spoils among us three: I, the oldest, naturally took the heaviest of those burdens, three unflipped economy vehicles, do whatever the hell you want with ’em, the Toyota actually runs. 

Nick and I drove that once blue ’92 Camry back to New York and he congratulated me on the new whip. “You might have inherited the Ding Dong Dealership, but you know I got all the cool shit,” including Dad’s crucifix-made-weed-stash and a stack of Playboys that Mom pretended to ignore through its 30-year black-plastic-wrapped subscription. (I laughed a little thinking how she might receive the renewal notice in a few weeks and call him a dead prick or something.) We hit a Garden State deficit-sized pothole on the Parkway that sent his Skittles and Wawa iced tea flying all over the car and he cursed the Governor, the goddamned purpose of tolls, public infrastructure, something about a rat’s ass and all things holy including Jesus himself just like Dad. I felt a little moved by it actually and submitted a weepy, shaky voice fuckin’ A, man for good measure. “The Sultan of Swing” was on the radio and I cranked it up through the two speakers that worked. We drove on to New York, bumping along on that shockless frame.

     Goodnight, now it’s time to go home
     And he makes it fast with one more thing

Now fall’s here, only two vehicles remain with their tomato vines rotting wide open for the fruit flies and a skinnier Rudy the Dog. Mom’s driveway is clear and she doesn’t bother with church anymore. Meanwhile, the Camry sits in a downtown Brooklyn garage, across the river from our apartment, awkwardly alongside luxury vehicles and vanity plates for three months like a public school kid who snuck into the Preppies’ homecoming – three months we hoped to fill with family visits to nature, Storm King, emergency diaper runs at the new Target, weekend getaways to Cape May to visit nonna... But after a billing blow-up in which I was called a badman thief in thick patois (seeing right through my “forgetting” the car rent), we drove it one more time to Chinatown. For a week I battled my neighborhood’s parking bullies, experts in the waiting game of opposite-side street sweeper rules. (I was called other names.)

I received a call in response to an inquiry for donating used cars to veterans in need. “Yes, yes,” I said, “the vehicle is still available. It’s so cool you called me back. You know my Dad was a survivor of the Tet Offensive!” A long silence. The caller said she’d send a representative from the VVA in Philadelphia that afternoon to pick up the Camry and leave a tax form for that sweet, sweet deduction. If I timed it right, the tow truck would arrive just before the street sweeper stormed down the block, kicking up dust and a mad rush of angry Cantonese retirees in minivans. And, sure, I’d feel good about it too, my “commitment to those who served” and all.

Waiting for the pickup, I turned on the radio and caught the tail-end of an interview in which a woman was saying,

…and we do it this way because we can’t in real life. Here, we’re all going to the same place, and it’s not a good one

Odd, I thought. An ex-Catholic, I assumed the “same place” people took a more agnostic view of the afterlife, neither good nor bad given its no-thing-at-all state of, well, literal nothingness. In that moment, I surfed a bigwave of guilt and regret for donating the car and wished I could call Tracy from Philly’s VVA back to tell her, “Hi, me again – the son of the Tet Offensive survivor. Remember me? Yeah, about the car…” But it was too late. Time to make some veteran’s day with a beautiful once blue ’92 Toyota Camry, no shocks, two speakers and a Hoffa-sized trunk.

Jimmy, the VVA’s driver, spoke in a thick northeast Philly accent like my Mom. I could hear his Eagles Super Bowl Champions LII tattoo under his cliche striped mechanic’s long-sleeve with the little name-patch on its breast: Jimmy. “You might wanna check the car again for any personal effects.” In the glove compartment, I flipped up the manual to find an old a cassette of Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy a Thrill. The album opens with a song called “Do It Again” that my Dad used to play at full blast through long rides at night, my child-mind remembering only the scary thunderstorm drives, his joyous singing at odds with the chaos around us. I could hear him through that cassette:

You go back, Jack, do it again, wheels turning ’round n ’round

But I left it, closed the compartment and handed the keys over to Jimmy. “All yours, buddy.”

I hoped the next guy had a falsetto.

Live at the Greenhouse (unfinished fragment)

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X was just stepping in from a long trip that he didn’t plan or bother telling anyone about. A nice long trip away, but he had to admit, he felt good to be back home in New York, even pleasantly surprised to have ever returned. A blue plastic pile of newspapers sat in front of the entrance, kicked hastily to the side. He picked up the closest to the top and made to unlock the door, but it just opened with the slightest touch. He never once living there left it unlocked.

It was pretty clear what happened. He thought of V, frantically calling him and leaving panicked voicemail, “just fucking pick up you selfish asshole.” There were at least a dozen such messages that he’d never hear because the phone sat dead at the bottom of a vast island of trash somewhere, no use. So just as with leaving, he didn’t bother telling anyone he was back – only one rang, but no one came (no one he knew anyway) – and he certainly wasn’t about to bother flipping the bedroom furniture into its proper arrangement. Nothing was normal these past several months, so what was the rush now?

The mattress hung half off its frame and the knick-knacks balanced delicately on the edge of his fire escape sill. Some old pottery from a different sort of long trip to Arizona, one broken and evidently pulverized by their heavy black boots, along with various lighters, film canisters, a lacquered blue Elvis head (the stash box, untouched) and a toy figurine of the famous tic-tac-toe chicken from Chinatown Fair. Their methods were inscrutable, perhaps, but the cops really could’ve been a lot less courteous about the whole thing. The small mess was signed off by one Detective F. Rey (who left a card on the kitchen counter). A tiny bird had also paid a visit, riding the wind into the living room, dusting the couch with soil and leaves and one little speckled brown feather. More broken pottery, a dead sunflower wilting in the sun. The room took on a new warmth by his visitors’ recent presence and he had no plans of making it go away, this surprise near miss of a homecoming party.

Then he chuckled to no one and sang, Had I known you were coming, I’d’ve baked ya a cake. Ridiculous song, he thought, and then he felt weird suddenly that he couldn’t recall if it was of his own making or real.

After a short while, he sat in the long-shadowed afternoon light, reading the paper crosslegged on the bare floor, filthy, distracted again and again by the thought of what bad business they might have thought to find under the bed, like a cat maybe, curled up with a belly full of poison to take an endless rest. The dead giveaway that V made the call, remembering his favorite style of adolescent melodrama. He wasn’t much of a cat person, though, and V knew he would’ve preferred a more public act of nightmarish gore, alerting the neighbors to a festering goo of stinking remains, half fermented in his bathroom tub like some rank kombucha. He laughed again imagining his neighbors poking their eyeballs through the crack in the chain-locked door, smoking furiously while besmirching his crazy no good late-on-rent foreigner name. Ai ya, they’d agree: that one was human laap saap.

***

It was his idea that V move east. He had an extra bed and desk in the upstairs loft, and although they never lived together before, he thought the late nights he spent crashing on her couch or vomiting on the kitchen floor (he always mopped before passing out) cultivated some potential for peaceful domestic life. The thinking went that she had already tolerated him at his worst in college.

She wasn’t ever totally onboard, but X persisted and ultimately won on the promise that he’d anchor himself down with a little freelance work with a magazine editor she knew (“no more missing persons stunts”) . Less compelling was the suggestion that a new job meant needing an extra hand tending to his irises. V’s literary career was just laying down slender tendrils in California but a few of her stories had been circulated around by some hot shot Woke Twitter people. New York could put her closer to the publishers and podcasters and plus, she’d struck out in love. The big Lithuanian poseur-actor she’d been dating recently threatened to bleed her with a broken wine bottle, which was a shade too dark even given her thing for mommying damaged guys.

Fuck it, she thought, and like that packed a truck to the mercurial son.

***

The apartment was beginning to look like itself again. It was full of photographs and plants, mostly cacti from a nearby store on Essex Street – The Cactus Store – that imported their prickly beauties from some obsessives in Los Angeles. The wares were sold in simple clay pots by their scientific names: copiapoa cinerea (the little pineapple size fella that looked like the bad sculpture in Beetlejuice), epithelantha micromeris crest (deceptively furry with flaming tongues on top), astrophytum hybrid (a moldy looking frog-headed thing), myrtillocactus cv. fukurokuryuzinboku (warty green dick). When he was broke, he stole the smallest ones, pilfered away into a canvas totebag while the stoned clerk busied himself giving Latin dictation lessons to the neighborhood’s normcore occupiers. He woke up early to deposit a check and pick up some Japanese-import fertilizer, then grabbed a coffee and returned home to repot some irises ahead of V’s arrival. She loved irises.

After running out of things to tidy up around the apartment, he smoked a cigarette and read a couple of articles from the Arts section of the Times. Halfway through a story about a local artist who impaled jack-o-lanterns on her neighbors’ fenceposts, he noticed a little pinch in his vision, like his eyes were pressing the words toward the centerfold. He closed them for a second, drank down a glass of water and took a long look around the room.  I’m here, he thought, I’m fine.

The paper looked normal again, but the story seemed strange now, a little foreign – perhaps a different article? He thought maybe he lost his place and flipped back to the first page. The pumpkins stared back at him, mouth-agape and contorted into terrible expressions of torment. Little kids pointed and laughed in glee at their suffering. He flipped back, assured, but the article now read as completely incoherent save the rhythm and style of a pharmaceutical advertisement. It then occurred to him that the page was littered with the same overproduced image: Shiny high cheekbones tucked under vintage frames, caressed by fingers tattooed at the knuckles with obscure symbols. He could only make out words and numbers on the page, but not meaning

propecia 1mg avodart, benign

proportion male Hims Hims hyperplasia 

50% sexual side loss 

A little disoriented, it’s happening again, he thought, he tossed the paper aside, grabbed his camera and set back out down Rutgers Street toward Seward Park. The wave of dissociation blurred his senses in a wash of pastel, unreal, the thereness of things slowly slipping away like thick vapor above his head. His faculties grabbed hold of his surroundings, just enough to make them present again and he breathed deep, the vapor condensing again into something solid. It’s not happening, not happening, he repeated, struggling to focus on anything tangible, most immediately the cracked concrete beneath his feet.

Sounds sweet and lyrical brought him back fully. The Fountain Flute Man was out there as always in the late morning. He and X considered each other friends by this point, though they didn’t speak much, considering they only had a few words in common. Zhoe sen, how are you? M goi! See  you tomorrow. X took a few black and white candid shots, which, by longstanding agreement in exchange for a red bean bao and coffee every once again, Flute Man didn’t mind at all. The flute played on and children played in the park. Hester Street Market was beginning to fill with its fancy looking expensive junk and top tier strollers. Cigarette smoked competed with wafts of palo santo and dumpling steam. Everything seemed to be in its right place.

Then his phone rang. She’d be there in a few hours.

***