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.”

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.

***

Radiant (daily practice)

You could tell immediately that this time was different. The slight uptempo and volume of the man’s cadence over the intercom sounded the alarm far more effectively than bells. “Ladies and Gentleman, Ladies and Gentleman” (hear ye hear ye, important announcements always begin with repetition). “There is a fire at the 9th Avenue entrance! If you leave the building, please exit on the 10th Avenue side.” Some ran for the exits, but most of us stood awkwardly, confused, “does that mean we should go?” I couldn’t remember if I was still the floor’s designated fire marshal, so just in case I said, “Everyone remain calm. I’m not sure that means we have to leave.” I don’t think it helped matters.

Someone finally pulled up Twitter: “Whoa, gas main explosion on 9th Avenue!” I felt vaguely scared and texted my wife: “Fire on 9th ave and 15. Evacuating. Love you.” The last part was a little dramatic admittedly but the intercom voice sounded serious and I was getting carried away. I asked a pregnant coworker if I could help her carry… anything… “Like what?” she asked. I didn’t know.

It was one of those brutally hot days in New York where you can feel the heat radiating straight off the buildings. I didn’t really want to go outside, but the rush of bodies toward the exit made me feel a little stupid if I didn’t leave now, considering the dramatic text and all. Everyone looked as confused as I felt. “He didn’t technically say we have to leave, right?” By the time I made it to the 10th Avenue side of the building, the report of “gas main explosion” turned into “minor fire at Chelsea Market.” I was disappointed and stood looking out toward the river, assessing the urgency of the situation, or lack of it, by the flow of traffic on the Westside Highway. Tourists walked the pedestrian path gingerly with umbrellas and sips of Gatorade. Construction workers sat in the shade with their heads bowed, helmets off, neon green shirts soaked through at the pits. I shot off another text to my wife: “Not evacuating. All good.” She hadn’t even responded.

I hadn’t received a work email in about 15 minutes at this point, so I decided to take a stroll outside. A fire truck’s faint siren down down the block reignited a feeling of danger, but only briefly. Probably a coincidence, I thought, and sat down in the small park hugging the highway. My work phone buzzed. An instant message from Kip saying the team should regroup at Brass Monkey for a “firedrill happy hour.” I decided I’d rather sit on the bench and bake. My wife still hadn’t responded and I had nothing to think about, so I started walking back toward the office.

That’s when I smelled the smoke. Something metallic in it struck me as really unusual and there it was again, the danger. I started to text my wife again, “hey i think…” But then a siren blared and a cop whizzed by. Now dread and the metallic smell of fire revealed itself in a flash of flame and smoke. Something in the distance glowed red on the sidewalk and moved like a sheet in the wind. It fell to the ground, bounced back up and veered violently back into the street. I could see people jumping out of the way but not fleeing, like a group of toreadors in a bullfight. A metallic smell turned distinctly into burnt hair and what could only be, by visceral knowledge, charred flesh. The sirens grew louder and it became terribly clear.

I stood in horror, frozen by a paralyzing tonic of helplessness, panic and disbelief. I started backing away unconsciously, my eyes burning, shoulders tensed. The ding of my phone brought me to and I looked down at my wife’s text: “glad ur ok hunny. what’s for dinner?”

Acattolico Stroll (daily practice)

I would like to acknowledge Dime Show Review, where this story appears in print. 

***

I met him in the early morning hours outside the Protestant Cemetery in Testaccio. He was smoking a cigarette and finishing an operation on his wristwatch calculator. I greeted him with a nervous hello, and he in return gave an indifferent nod, cleared his throat and said, “I’d say I have about three solid years left before I need to forge another passport. Let’s get moving.” A strange figure we must have cut. Separated by two generations: This man, who everyone, even his closest friends, believed to be dead, and I, his nervous young acolyte, wan and speechless, like meeting a ghost.

He unlocked the cemetery gates and led me directly to the shed where he kept his arsenal of groundskeeper tools. A few rakes and various shovels, several bottles of fertilizer or weed killer, dissected parts of a sprinkler system, salts and a small desk  hidden under a mess of work orders and a well worn copy of The Case of Comrade Tulayev. I asked if he lived nearby and he shot back a glance that said, cop question. Then he handed me a pair of shears and we headed toward Keats’ wry headstone. His calloused hands glowing blue in the thin skin of old age started in on a patch of weeds, unrooting them with the efficiency of a machine.

Unsolicited he offered that he started every morning here as a reminder. Of what he didn’t say, but I read the engraving slowly back to myself a second, then a third time before grasping:

...in the Bitterness of his heart, at the Malicious Power of his enemies

We spoke little between tombstone visits – various technical tips on garden maintenance, a couple of insects to look out for, especially around Shelley’s resting place – but by the time we made it to Gramsci’s tomb, he opened up about the fear of those first years. The shock. Not so much of the violence, the blood, but of having lived past the first half decade of roundups, torture and psychological terror nearly unmoved. He meant that literally, the groundskeeper job being his domain for fifty years. The Party had assumed him dead after the Palatine Massacre of 2021 and he, having read the news, took a page from The Outsider and lived on, only now under a masked self of his own design.

The writing continued, thankfully, under a pseudonym long assumed to be the real identity of an American political prisoner. In the long trough of political reaction, his research continued only because of his proximity to Gramsci’s body, a mecca of sorts for myriad radicals who were happy to share the latest work on the respected revolutionary made saint. At odds with the day’s earlier reports on his financial prospects, he predicted that he would himself be buried here soon. And that he needed my help ensuring as much.

Before returning to his workshed, he handed me a spade and asked that I dig beneath a collection of vases at the base of Gramsi’s ashes until I reached the locked metal box. He returned a few minutes later and handed me the key. The box contained his birth certificate and a small journal filled with memories of his fugitive life in Italy. One titled “Swimmers” told a happy story of bathing in the Bay of Naples. I skimmed for a while longer as we sat in silence, flashes of goats in Capri, drunk students running the Circus Maximus in late fall, the beautiful disorganization of the Museo Archeologico. The box’s only other contents was a true relic: a small zipdrive containing what he called his masterpiece. These, the proof of his life and his life’s work in refuge, produced here, beside Gramsci, would go back with me to New York. “My granddaughter will know what to do.”

Before I could ask my questions, the morning’s first guests, a German couple on holiday, arrived at the cemetery gates. The living apparition rushed away to greet them and signaled with one last indifferent nod my way to the exit.

Venetian Lunatics

Dio mio. It had been raining for a week now on St. Mark’s Square. The acqua alta arrived two weeks ahead of schedule to the great befuddlement of provincial forecasters, ruining the hopes of so many heavily selfie-sticked American tourists. Placid reflective waters rolled over the plaza marble like an infinity pool of mercury, perfectly delineating the expansive quadrant that included the Basilica and its famed Campanile.

As if the geometric perfection of the anomaly weren’t strange enough, the rest of San Marco remained sunny, along with every other sestiere in the city. Cannaregio, Giudecca, Castello… not a cloud in the god-loving sky. The afternoon’s weather report even showed a crystal blue dome over the otherwise rainy Julian Alps. In fact, the entire country sat basking in the fall sun, but one fucking platonically rectangular cloud pissed torrentially over the very location of so many holiday dreams. Between Italy’s meteorologists and the foreign embassies, a secret was being protected, whatever this was, and the crowds were putting their money on the fallout effects of a religious war raging in the Middle East. So there’s the silver lining: no crowds. Sounds like chemical warfare to me, hon.

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Bucking the fears of his countrymen, one middle-aged American stood alone and unmoved by the rainwater pouring down around him. He’d like to think of himself as a non-conformist, but maybe an opportunistic one: Italian beer might taste better if he didn’t have to wait in line for it. So there he was, sipping quietly from a large bottle of Moretti, his eyes fixed on the Basilica domes. Something was definitely amiss here. A Philly native, he’d heard his share of Italian clichés, but the one about the country’s suicidal wildlife… that was news to him. One by one, the pigeons taking refuge on the statuettes began diving violently into the rising pool. Constellations of the already drowned could be seen drifting limply to the center of the square, joining the circus of detritus that began forming around the Campanile: unoccupied café tables and chairs, cheap toy helicopters and faux Gucci bags, candy wrappers and restaurant receipts, a cheap replica of Venus de Milo. Even the man himself – tethered safely to his Moretti in one hand, his travel satchel in the other – began floating gently from his footing. The splash of pigeons continued around him with the regularity of church bells.

As the sun set, the moon didn’t rise so much as materialize dun dun duuuun above the Basilica like the aliens’ craft of destruction above the White House in Independence Day. By this point, the pool had risen to cataclysmic heights above the Palazzo Ducale, its reliquaries of saintly flesh and imperial trophies of past Adriatic conquests now floating out from the gilded hallways and up through the diluvian column, a towering wet mass of history and refuse. From this height the man could see across San Marco toward the lights of the Santa Lucia train station and Rialto Bridge, where he last saw his wife and son. Perhaps I’ve wandered too deeply into the maze of Venetian calle, he thought, recalling with some embarrassment the note he had written himself. Reaching into his breast pocket, he found the hotel address smeared incomprehensibly in blue ink. Well, that’s that. Beats the shit smell of the Cannaregio B&B anyways. He had only wanted the emptiness of the piazza for a moment of solitude and possible communion with the city’s Byzantine mysteries, not that he totally understood the “Byzantine” thing apart from his know-it-all son’s fancy bullshit description, but now it dawned on him: he was not only lost, but a shamefully lost tourist. The man could imagine his son’s disappointment; he had been warned of this very possibility, his son fearing less his own embarrassment and inconvenience than the damage to his father’s characteristically middle-aged American pride.

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Let’s look at the bright side. Sure, the moon has entered the Earth’s atmosphere within striking distance of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Carabinieri had enforced a state of emergency, and fine, he was drifting in a what the fuck is this wall of rain, the physics of which would have Galileo rolling in his marble grave at Santa Crost…Croce? (Jesus, I was just there. What was it called?) Ma donna wouldn’t it be lovely to spend a night here alone, at peace in his private loft above the enchanted city? He’d had about enough of his wife and son touring him around the city like an ignorant high school field tripper anyway, doubting his health at every step with their annoying how you doin’, Dads and ya alright, hons? What’s one night out here on his own? He’d seen weirder in his Paratrooper days after all. Close your eyes. Fall to sleep. Let the dentures slip the gums…

At last, the man received his moment of peace in a weightless, dreamless sleep. But a moment is all. The balance of gravity suddenly tipped into the moon’s favor and with a jolt, the man was awakened by an explosive propulsion into the satellite’s luminescent void. Panic began to swell as his lungs seized from the shock. The terrible sensation of choking-passing out-dying tickled the back of his head, but the moon was now within reaching distance. It carried him upwards with its gravity into a slow orbit above the Basilica. He took grip of a small crater and swung his body onto the lunar surface. The cold rarified atmosphere flooded his lungs at once, carrying all sensation back through his body with a rush of blood. Shhhhhhhh…. A deep, calming silence settled into the air around him. He was confused, scared, exhausted with recourse to nothing but the safety on the inside of his eyelids. He clenched his eyes shut and imagined himself a refugee of Gothic terrors, at home among the founders of Venice who would lay the first wooden planks into the lagoon’s depths. Wouldn’t he, too, be at home in these alien surroundings, a builder-refuge from his domestic frustrations, constant foreboding, the mortality of his earthly body? Of course, they would assume the worst, pack their bags and let the American Embassy do the rest.

As the moon continued its orbit out of the Venetian sky, the man recalled a story, something his son had read*, that the moon cultivated its own Philadelphia Cream Cheese ™ from a naturally occurring source of moon-milk. Vabeh! That would do just fine. Arriverderci, amici. Ci vediamo. Ciao! And just like that, the man thought, I’m home now.

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*(Calvino, 1968)