Tuesday, September 29, 2015
was a gentle man
& a gentle soul.
He was my father's father
and lived to ninety-seven
dying in his sleep
unlike his wife, thirty years
his junior, who died
in her late sixties
fat & cancer ridden,
angry & manipulative
until her last breath.
He taught me to whittle
& play Pinochle, as I watched
him smoke Camels, sip whiskey
& shadow box to the fights on TV.
It was whispered
that he didn't care
who his wife was fucking--
as long as it was not him.
I've been in
a sentimental mood of late,
as if Ellington & Coltrane
looped around my brain
I don't care
I only care
Greenwich Village, 2015
Monday, September 28, 2015
I'm an old
but the fire
is all but
& no discount
to take them
off my hands.
Greenwich Village, 2015
of my soul--
Poe & Jones,
before I had
to get to work
& sell a little more.
By selling them,
a little more
The addition now
is by subtraction;
Greenwich Village, 2015
Sunday, September 27, 2015
Saturday, September 26, 2015
in the crust
around my soul.
Every once in awhile
It has a voice.
It is steady
amid the red rivers
of chaos & convictions.
It tells me
I've been wrong
about so many things.
I light a cigarette
to tamp it down,
suck it in;
I read the news;
I watch TV; I read;
I do anything
other than risk falling
through my own lies.
It's taken a lot
I've had neither
faith nor belief
Some will know
what this is about
& linger; others
And still others,
will want to believe
but just can't.
is your heart;
Greenwich Village, 2015
Thursday, September 24, 2015
For an old guy
he sure does get around:
He's gonna do Vespers
at St. Pats, kick some ass
at The UN, graze in Central Park,
pray at Ground Zero, & say Mass
at MSG--who does he think he is?
Diana Ross? Elvis? Sinatra?
Simon & Garfunkel!?
He ain't even
The Grateful Dead
or Joe Louis
or the god-awful Knicks!
So what he's sincere?
So what he's "authentic?"
So what it's him that's the real radical
of our times?
He's fucked-up the buses, messed-up
the trains, made going to
and coming from work
fucking miserable, a nightmare,
a day of futility.
Greenwich Village, 2015
Tuesday, September 22, 2015
is your strong suit;
you should stick with it,
play it; it's what you do
I replied, fishing
in her judgement.
I should know,
being a gambler
myself, I know
suits...of all kinds, but
I also know
that you think
because it's you
who does it well,
I had to go,
I said, eager
to get off
she was getting
Greenwich Village, 2015
Sunday, September 20, 2015
I see them
the morning after
the night before,
settling in to
a Sunday ritual
for NYC couples:
with Mimosas or
their cell phones
sit with them
on table tops,
and every few moments
they glance at them
how their evening went;
how was the sex
if they had sex;
if they fought
if they intended
to break it off,
& how they would go about it,
after another meal?
For every handsome man
& drop-dead gorgeous beautiful woman
there's always someone dying
to get rid of them.
Greenwich Village, 2015
I had some ideas
for a few poems--
The Pope coming
to NYC, a heart
mad with love, cheap
I ogled fifteen
& older women,
watched the traffic
on Hudson Street
inch forward, noticed
the unloading of cases
of Coke & Bud & Americana,
clocked the maniacal owners
of dogs & cats & parakeets
& one lizard
as they went
into the vets
with worried expressions
talking to their better companions,
while sweet green saplings
held the hands of parents
taking them to the river
or dentists or ballet classes.
There was heat
but the city's air
slightly. I stood
in the shade & waited
& waited & waited.
I had to get to work,
and the train presented problems.
For some reason
the Eighth Ave. bus
knew no schedule
ever; it paid no attention to
the poor or crippled or deranged
who had to ride her.
By the time she showed,
forty minutes from when I arrived,
I had worked out the few poems
in my head &
had written this one.
I'll never get back
that forty minutes &
wouldn't want to.
Greenwich Village, 2015
Friday, September 18, 2015
"To be is to be perceived"
There is much
in the gaze.
It is hard
to let love
Greenwich Village, 2015
In the sometime
themselves from urns;
while Trane blows
a Latin Mass
through golden horns,
and my love
to the blue smoke
from his horn.
Greenwich Village, 2015
Thursday, September 17, 2015
I was on the phone
pushing Nutcracker tickets
to Philadelphia mothers
& fathers & grandmothers
grandfathers & uncles,
aunts, nieces, & those
what it was
to be five
&, most importantly,
I can remember
once asking my ol' man
to take me to see
He took me by my little hand
and led me into his bedroom
where my mom
was in one of her darker moods.
There she is, he said.
Little did I know,
I got a front row
Greenwich Village, 2015
Wednesday, September 16, 2015
Monday, September 14, 2015
There's this woman,
Shirley, at work
who puts down
one of those toilet seat covers
on her stained aqua clothed swivel chair
before she sits her ancient ass
on there and calls for donations
for the Democrats
to God knows where
on the evening shift.
Shirley has straw for hair,
windshield wipers for eyelashes,
and a mouth that has said her share of prayers
for a few lifetimes.
And she's polite,
both on the phone
and before she leaves.
Shirley always asks
if the person has a moment
or to live,
and is thoughtful enough
to remove the toilet seat cover
when she's about to go home
for the evening.
What she does,
and with whom she does it,
after she leaves
Greenwich Village, 2015
Sunday, September 13, 2015
More than whispers
through the circuits;
more than melancholia
or madness or horror
or pining or pinging
or longing or traveling
those dark highways
It no longer matters
or mixed up
you to return
over & over
what you might call:
It can't be me
either, or the love
You've proved that
over & over & over
I don't care
what it is.
Some crazy switch
was turned. I'm a
mirror for your own
life; a neuron
that tells you
how to act, how to move,
how to proceed.
Freud doesn't work
for me anymore, nor
does Sartre or Picasso,
Keats or Bukowski.
We're all driven
by love or lack.
If we're lucky
we still have illusion
and a certain faith
in getting it all wrong
over & over & over
If you're home
I don't blame you;
I could use some
or amuse. The bus
& trains will run
tomorrow & there's a hint
of autumn tonight.
I made some chicken,
rice & black beans with
hot sauce for dinner.
a Milky Way for desert.
And I hope
Greenwich Village, 2015
Saturday, September 12, 2015
There was The Baldies,
who were Irish,
and The Avenue X Boys,
who were Italian.
One from Coney Island;
the other from Avenue X
Then there was The Bishops,
a Black bunch from the Bronx.
The Baldies & The Avenue X Boys
hated Blacks & the Blacks
hated the Irish & Italians.
Each hated the faggy Jews
and would sometimes beat the shit out of them
because they were Jews, more privileged
then they were
Sometimes The Bishops took a train to Coney Island,
forty, fifty of them, and brought thick bicycle chains,
switchblades, bats, sometimes a zip gun,
and fought one or both of The Brooklyn gangs,
who brought much the same to the party.
They even made appointments to do this.
Their girls were like women
in the Civil War:
they stayed home
waiting to stitch-up their men,
speaking in hushed tones,
carrying bail money.
The Jewish boys were usually in school,
& safer &
Sometimes the cops got wind of this,
and marshaled their forces
on The Stillwell Avenue train station,
not letting The Bishops off the horse.
But more times then not
& the battle would begin.
Most would go home afterward,
some to the hospital,
and some into the arms
of de facto moms.
The Jewish boys would go home, too,
but very carefully, making sure
to maneuver around the skirmish,
taking as much time as necessary.
This was the mid 1950's
and early 60's,
when clearer lines
were force fed
The Irish became janitors, firemen, cops.
The Italians worked in sanitation, police, barbers.
The Blacks went to jail.
The Jews went on to own the buildings and the penitentiaries.
Drama & great art are gleamed from the poor & beleaguered.
how to live,
if life would let them and
they know how to die
because they're closer
to the exhaust system.
I'm going to be 68
in a month, and my body hurts.
It took an hour for the bus
to show up in a light rain.
The bus driver sang an apology
to us as we boarded. There were four wheelchairs aboard
a packed bus. A fat woman got on on 34 Street, near
Madison Square Garden. She offered a useless transfer.
No goddamn crosstown buses, she screamed. I need a fuckin drink.
The driver laughed. Get on board, baby, I'll take you anywhere.
Fuck it, she said, I could use a hard ride. She boarded.
A stop later some passengers started to sing, Volare, in Italian.
They sounded pretty good.
The driver then sang, White Cliffs of Dover.
A pretty black chick sang Unforgettable.
New York ain't such a tough town--
only to those
who don't know
and the worst death
is the one without
Greenwich Village, 2015
Friday, September 11, 2015
is an art.
tell ya different.
So's making love,
or just plain
the other person
or slitting throats.
It's the grace
of the thing
within the thing
that brings the divine
to the mundane.
Train your inner eye
the next time
from the shower.
Greenwich Village, 2015
in the space
in that space,
Be eternally grateful
for that space--
Greenwich Village, 2015
Thursday, September 10, 2015
we know so little.
We like to think
we're so expansive,
so all inclusive,
so all encompassing
and not so
full of shit.
is to defy
not because we can
but because we must--
not as smart as the slug,
the worm the simple
We are not the end
but the end product
of this evolutionary
mambo. Less equipped
than our bettors
to groove with a music
& being done to
we dance to, not with.
should be the God
instead of eating--
a crime that will--
little do we know--
to a theater
Greenwich Village, 2015
Wednesday, September 9, 2015
is make it
It could be
bleak there, too,
but you're alone,
there are fewer dreams
resting on a razor's
they're holding on
for dear life
which is no longer
but all of the other signposts
of how insignificant
there's only death
outside that door
& you can dance
as you let
the music take hold,
and give yourself
for a few hours
Greenwich Village, 2015
I shouldn't have to be doing
I was famous, man,
I was happening, I was smoking,
I wrote, man, compared to Kerouac,
published, sang my song
to pretty coeds,
I did shit, I fucked a million women,
man, drove fast cars, spent money
like nobody's business,
shot junk, poured booze
over the fires, palled around
with movie stars, famous poets,
musicians, models, bankers & brokers
of power & peasants & jail birds & Jews
& jealous husbands & prima donnas & politicians
& stray cats & mistresses & madams & wanna be
killers & cops & trauma surgeons.
This, this, this, this, is so
not me, so not what my hand
calls for would be a joke if
it was a joke but it's no joke,
it's a yoke, a weighty stifling soul murdering
conceit around an aging diamond.
Greenwich Village, 2015
Tuesday, September 8, 2015
For Joey Diliberto, my brother in arms
The year John F. Kennedy was assassinated was the same year I first got high. There is probably no connection between those two incidents, though each, in its own particular way, left the country and the people close to the center of each event, altered forever.
I’d been cutting school pretty regularly by then, intuiting that the education I was getting outside the traditional classroom was much more exciting, not to mention pragmatic, than the rigors and requirements of subjects like math or foreign languages had and demanded inside the jail. I liked daydreaming. I was good at it. I’d watch the specks of dust float in the light in front of the grimed window of Duke’s, while occasionally savoring that most delicious of truths: friends, at this very minute, were in school listening to some boring shit coming out the mouths of teachers with dandruff, bad breath, and few alternatives. Also, more importantly, lurking in those dancing specks, lived the smooth soft shoe of danger and violence that Duke’s encouraged, yet protected.
My father was rich-- at least that’s what everyone believed, including me--and I was smart, male, first born and Jewish...therefore exempt from any requirement that I felt superior to, which was most any requirement there was.
In Dukes there were Jew bastards or kikes. Also, wops, micks, one spic, and a few niggers, though they, while not “officially barred,” kept to themselves.
Me? I was tough only in regard to friends my own age, but not to the greaseballs and mick cocksuckers who punched the shit out of my arms. But they liked me well enough; I could just tell. I stood up for myself a few times on the basketball court by standing up to this insane motherfucker, Joey One-Eye. He thought I’d fouled him but that was bullshit--he just missed an easy shot and didn’t want to look bad--and I told him so. He stepped back and looked at me with that one ice-cold blue eye of his, crossed one arm over the other and began rubbing it with this up and down motion. It sort of lulled me until, fast as lightening, he cracked me good across the face with the back of his hand. “C’mon bitch,” he said, “Do somethin.” “Fuck-you,” I replied, and began to walk away. Big mistake. He ran up behind me, grabbed me by the throat, and threw me down on the cement court where, I’m sure, he would have stomped the shit out of me had Johnny, who lived a few blocks from me, not taken hold of him and told him to, “Cool it. I like him and his ol’ man.” “Who gives a shit,” came the response. Then Barry came over. Barry, though a few years older than us, was rumored to be in line to control Coney Island and that section of Brooklyn when the time came. He said he was on Johnnie’s side, and that was that. Yet that was not that for me; my insides belied a foundation that was all but mixed, let alone settled. I still tried not to back down from anybody, and I always kept my mouth shut. This was not something I planned out exactly, but it was something I thought about from time to time.
For at least two years I’d stir in my bed at night not able to sleep, uneasy with the thoughts that spun in my head. I’d been real sick and knew that that sickness would never go away but would stay with me forever--however long that was. And so I began to construct scenarios to right the ship. I began to mythologize my own fears.
“You’re a little cocksucker, you know that? You know that don’t you, you little cocksucker,” Duke said to me one day. Duke was sitting behind his desk, a slab of thick wood sitting on top of four piano legged poles the same color that his dark mahogany Brunswick pool tables, some with drop pockets, were. Sprawled across his desk were ashtrays filled with jaundiced butts of filtered Marlboros and Winstons and the pinched stubs of non-filtered smokes. The Racing Form and The Daily News laid on top of each other, packs of Pall Malls, Camels, and Kools in various states were scattered as well; some contained a few cigarettes and others were crumpled and empty. Coffee mugs and containers, etched with the markings of dried caffeine were like a literature of symbols if one were inclined to probe further, laid in no particular order on top of his desk as well. Duke himself was fastidious: clean shaven, groomed, spruced, and dressed all in black--black shirt with black snaps, black trousers, socks and boots-- except for the silver belt buckle with crossed pool cues. He held a Pall Mall between his fore and middle fingers as if he had just made a shot into the corner pocket and was considering his next. He took a pint bottle of Martel and poured a pinch into his coffee; it was nearly eleven in the morning and both of us were trying to ease our way into the day.
“Duke, I ain’t got no money, lemme run a couple racks.”
“’I don’t have any money’; and the answer is go fuck yerself.”
“C’mon, willya, there ain’t no one here; whatthefuck, c’mon.”
“You know how to speak correctly; who the hell are you pretending to be?”
“’Who am I pretending to be?’ I don’t know, who am I pretending to be, I give up.”
“You wanna get funny, you can play with your own balls, now.”
“Ah, c’mon, Duke. I ain’t getting funny, that’s a complicated fuckin’ question.”
The door opened and we swung our eyes around. Bones, with his mountainous mass of flesh stood outside while his face “wedged” it’s way into the doorway. He was about six foot five and weighed nearly three hundred. I heard some of the others marveling that Bones was the fattest junky anyone had ever seen. One time he was boosting a crib and stopped to see what was in the ice-box. Discovering some thick rib-eyes, he couldn’t resist, so stayed to fry up two of them before departing with his score. Before he was able to enter, Duke called out, “The answers are: No, and not yet.” I looked quizzically at Duke who looked at me and shook his head to tell me it was none of my business and I was better off that way--though I didn’t think so. I was dying to get in.
Duke got up from his chair but before he did he flicked a switch that lit the lamp above table three, grabbed a tray of balls and handed them to me. “Go ahead you hooky playin’ sonofabitch, run a few.”
“Thanks, man, I’m gonna grab a smoke, too, if you don’t mind?” and reached for his pack of Pall Malls on the desk, tapped one out and quickly, before he could see, grabbed a second one which I quickly tucked behind my ear. I lit the first from the old Zippo Duke had nearby. It was the first smoke I had had since I copped one of my father’s Chesterfield regulars before I took up my aborted attempt at reaching Lincoln, my high school. Chesterfields always tasted a little stale to me, but Pall Malls were delicious. Not as good as Luckys, but good none the less; they were almost a longer Lucky, same Indian, too.
I watched Duke walk over to where Bones waited and tried to discern what was going on as I made my way over to the pool table. I was looking for an exchange of money...or merchandise...or whispers. But I didn’t see or hear anything, much to my disappointment. The only thing I saw was Bones turning and walking back to the curb where he lowered his bulk into a beat-up Chevy Corvair which sagged from his girth, it’s door frame digging into the curb. He tried to force it closed, but all it did was scrape more metal from the door’s lip forcing him to lift his bulk from the car. He was surprisingly fluid as he, in one motion, grabbed the window’s edge and hoisted himself up and out. The Chevy’s right side rose a few inches, lifting the door off the cement. Bones closed it and motioned to the driver, a slight, beak-faced accomplice, to move from the space. Once sufficiently away from the curb, he stopped. Bones opened the door and, in the same clean, almost ballet like motion, positioned his hands on the roof and the door and slid into the seat. Duke watched it go lopsidedly down the block, turned and walked back to his desk where he poured a little more Martel into his coffee cup and took a sip. “That’s fuckin’ cold! Jesus. Watch the store, I’m goin’ out for a second. If the phone rings, take a message.” I watched him go out and across the street where a pay-phone stood. I looked at the phone on his desk and the phone booth in the corner of the store, next to the bathroom. I watched as he returned. “Any calls?” I shook my head. I went back to my table and tried to turn my attention to what was in front of me.
I flipped over the tray containing the balls and watched as they emptied onto the table. I dug the way they rolled, the sound they made when they kissed one another, how they caromed off the rails and how I, or especially a good shooter, could make the ivory cue ball do what we wanted. How, when the heavens were aligned, the stick was an extension of your arm, and the cue ball had all the colored balls obey the shooter’s touch, dropping them into the mouths of the six pockets. In this world, where most recently little of what I experienced was ever ordered, ordained, or sanctioned by me, this was a god send.
I went to the racks of sticks, selected one that felt good and was as straight as possible, and then looked at the beautiful emptiness of Dukes. Fourteen other tables were silent in the darkness, the covers on them like sheets over the dead. Duke was back at his desk deep in concentration scoping out the ponies for the card at Belmont and I was getting ready to try and figure out what to shoot and try to run the table.
I positioned the cue ball, chalked the head of the cue and leaned over the table. I was about to bring the cue forward to make my first shot when I heard Duke’s voice, a voice tinged with sarcasm, authority and foreboding. It fell in the space between the tip of the cue and the skin of the ball. “I told you to practice first. Practice. I keep tellin’ you that. Practice.”
“I’m practicin’ while I’m playin’,” I replied without looking up, my back still perfectly parallel to the floor, my eyes staring down the shaft of the cue.
“Bullshit. You’re takin’ a fuckin’ shortcut. And there ain’t no shortcuts, not if you want to play good.”
I straightened up and turned to face him. His eyes were still buried in the form. I couldn’t understand how he could know I was ready to shoot. “Man, that shit is boring.”
“So’ fuckin’ life. Unfortunately, you can’t practice that. But I’m tellin’ ya now: if you wanna be good, you gotta get your ass to practice. No gettin’ around it. You line up the balls and you practice shootin’ them in the corner and side pockets; you practice your English, you practice your draw, you practice your stroke; you just practice.”
“I practice while I’m playin’, same thing,” I said, with a little too much plead in my voice for my own liking.
“Who do you think you’re talking to, asshole? I’m not your father. I’m not trying to punish you.”
“Nah, of course not,” I said a little too quickly, “it’s just it’s so fuckin’ boring doing that shit.”
“Boring!? What ain’t? Even fucking can get boring if it ain’t done right. But if you practice...become a student in a way, then it can, maybe, just maybe, become like an art or somethin.”
“Art? What the fuck...”
“Hey, man, I see your nose in those books; the kind of books that nobody else reads. I know you know--or think you know-- what good shit is---you just don’t know that all shit, all shit, can be good, maybe even great. Ya haveta practice and haveta be blessed. Not many have both but everyone can practice...but few do. Your choice, baby.”
I turned back to the table and didn’t know what to do: shoot or practice. The shots were there just waiting for me to make them; a blessed forgetful rhythm was begging to be established; life was in the “doing” wasn’t it, providing the heady sensation of accomplishment? That feeling lay beckoning me from all six pockets. “Duke, I’m gonna practice by “doin” I’m tellin ya.”
“Yeah, yeah, you and everybody’s mother gonna rewrite the books. Go ahead, get back to me in twenty years and tell me which way was quicker...or better.”
“Pool ain’t my real game anyway, it’s bowlin.”
“Why don’t you go over there and bust their balls?”
“They ain’t opened yet, that’s why.”
“Lemme have another smoke,” I said, walking over to where he continued to dope out the races, but first I took the one I had in the behind my ear and laid it on the table, out of sight.
“Jesus Christ, some of you guys in here cost me more money than the ponies...not to mention my x-wives.”
“How many of em you got?”
“Three and one soon to be; it’s just a matter of time.” He paused. “But God knows I love her...hell I loved them all.”
“None of them worked, huh?”
“My man, I have many talents, but living with a woman is evidently not one of them. You know somethin? You always get people to talk when they don’t wanna, don’tcha? I see you around here in that quiet way of yours. Don’t think I don’t see you. You think you’re invisible, but you’re not; at least not to me you’re not...and stop takin’ my cigarettes. Here’s some money, buy yourself a pack and one for me and bring me a cup of coffee, black...”
“Yeah, black no sugar and one for yourself...and whatever else you want, case you’re hungry...just what I need another prodigal son.”
Duke reached into his slacks and produced a roll of bills that had a rubber band to hold them in place. He snapped off the band, peeled off a fifty and handed it to me. “They gonna have change, this early?” I said.
“Hey, if not not. Just tell em it’s for me and I’ll catch-up to them later,” he replied without looking up.
I grabbed the fifty and, without bothering to get my jacket, went out the door to get what for me was a little bit of contraband. My pop knew I was smoking, but didn’t like it. He didn’t make too much of a stink about it, but would never give me money to buy my own pack and wouldn’t like me to be showing them around the house either. But now I had a half a buck to get a pack of Luckys and sip a cup of coffee with besides. What a score! I was thinking about that when I nearly ran over Jimmy coming in.
Jimmy was a mopey looking kid, a few years older than me who, as far as I knew, just hung out either at Duke’s, Surf Lanes or the basketball courts adjacent to the boardwalk around back. He’d never, to my recollection, played any of the games offered there, just watched others play. His brother, Mel, was another story. “Mad Mel” was what he was called, but you had to know him real good to call him that...to his face, or be tougher than him... or have earned his respect. On more than one occasion, when Mel didn’t like an umpire’s call during a softball or basketball game, or when he just didn’t like a person, or when there was retribution to be claimed for this or that infraction of family or turf, he’d take the knife he’d always carried with him, sequestered in his pocket or sock, bury it up to the hilt in the offender’s thigh and then, looking at the person’s expression, break the handle off, leaving the blade in the person’s leg. He’d then place the handle in that person’s hand before moving off. Because of Mad Mel you kind of danced around Jimmy.
“Hey Jimmy,” I said to him.
“Hey,” he replied.
He reminded me of something young, but nevertheless decaying--all the more peculiar because he was so obviously still in the process of maturing--as I passed him and headed for Norm’s Candy Store, on the corner.
It seemed like Norm was either chained behind the cash register or afraid to leave it, his ass growing out of the cushion that sat on a stool on the other side of the counter. His wife, Flo, ran the place it seemed, though she made these ridiculous sounding deferments to her husband: “I’d like to eat now, but if you’re hungry you eat first.” “Eat, go ahead, eat; you want to eat, eat.” “No, I don’t have to; you eat--if you’re hungry; I could eat but you eat first.” “Eat for Christsakes, eat!”
“Norm, what’s up?” I asked.
“What could be up? I wish my dick was up,” he said, and looked at Flo who, I could have sworn, blushed and looked twenty years younger.”
“I’ll go out and getcha some splints.”
“Whatdayathink, Flo? One for ol’ times sake? I still remember where to put...”
“Stop with that funny talk.”
“I’ll leave and let you lovebirds work it out, but first lemme have two coffees: one black, no sugar and one regular with--do you have Sweet n’ Low?”
“Sweeten what? What’s Sweeten?...”
“Like saccharine, but it’s a powder; it’s new--we don’t have any sweetie, we have saccharine.”
“Yeah, that’s all right,” I said quickly, “put two of em in there for me, would you; and a pack of Pall Malls and Luckys.”
They both looked at me, Norm one way and Flo another. She went to make the coffees and Norm reached to the side of the register where the cigarettes were and produced the two packs, placed them on the counter in front of him with books of matches. I reached for the Luckys and without looking at Norm quickly and deftly peeled the red ribbon off the circumference of the pack and removed the clear cellophane. I opened up one corner of the tin foil, leaving the Indian’s face intact, and, tapping the pack against my left forefinger, removed the first of twenty fresh smokes. I placed the opposite end in my mouth leaving the insignia to burn--just like I seen a tough guy friend of my father’s do to his Camel’s--smelled the raw tobacco, felt the softness of the cigarette against my lips, and lit it. The sweet smoke swirled around my head as I drew in the delicious first drag and, as I exhaled through my nose, I drew in the second wave--as I’d seen my ol’ man do thousands of times. Then I let go what remained of both and looked around. The coffees were there in a bag on the counter and I handed Norm Duke’s fifty.
“What am I supposed to do with this?”
“He said if you couldn’t break it he’d catch up with you later.”
“He’ll never catch up with me, I’m way ahead of him. Tell that shicker--is he drunk already?-- gonif bastard to make sure he sees me later; I don’t want to have to look for him.”
“I’ll tell him,” I said, eager to get out of there and back to the pool room where a table, coffee, cigarettes and solitude were offered to me; where I could observe without being seen or questioned.
Jimmy was with Duke by his desk when I entered. Duke, who towered over Jimmy, was telling him something and Jimmy, his head lowered, eyes averted, was listening. It was something about their postures that made me unsure whether or not to approach, but I was curious--I also had his coffee and smokes--and so I cautiously walked closer.
“I wisht you wouldn’t have done that,” Duke said, “should keep that kinda stuff outa the store. Shit.”
“What time do you think?”
“Around one, somethin like that.”
I looked at the black bordered clock whose facial dirt danced around it’s face, eleven forty-seven it read. I went over, as unobtrusively as I could, and placed his coffee and Pall Malls on his desk with his fifty, and walked back to my table. Whatever was going to happen I was determined to nurse the time, table, cigarettes and the day until it did. I pulled another smoke from the pack and lit it while I eyed Jimmy lazily walking with Duke’s Daily News to a high-backed chair near the window. He boosted himself up in the seat, took a cigarette from his shirt pocket and lit it as he opened up the back of The News to the sports section. His eyes caught mine and I quickly took the Lucky from my mouth and put it on the edge of one of the wooden rails. “Wanna shoot?” He shook his head and went back to reading the paper and I was relieved. The burning tip of the cigarette had left a nicotined wet scar which would later settle into the grain of the table. I picked up the cigarette, reached for the tray holding the balls, placed them back in and, wanting to start fresh, casually flipped it over again, releasing the colored numbers onto the green felt of the table. I took the ivory cue ball and placed it in a position where I thought I’d do the most damage. I chalked the tip of the cue, the blue dust of the chalk settling on the fingers of my left hand and began to shoot. Five balls found pockets before I had to make a decision on what to do next.
From time to time I checked on Jimmy. He had positioned himself to where he could look out the window and down the corners of both sides of Surf Avenue. On the floor, directly beneath his feet which rested on a rung of the stool he was sitting on, were the butts from the cigarettes he’d smoked down to the filter.
When the phone inside the booth rang we all braced ourselves. Our heads swiveled, Jimmy’s hands gripped the arms of the stool and Duke seemed to stiffen, his posture straightening. I began to go over to pick it up. Duke stopped me short, “That’s all right, I’ll get it,” he said. He moved quickly into the booth and I followed him with my eyes and ears. “Duke’s...no, he ain’t here...yeah, if I see him I’ll tell him. Yeah, I’ll tell him.” He cradled the phone and got out of the booth. He turned to Jimmy. “That was your brother; he’s lookin’ for you.”
“Fuckim; he can look all he wants,” he said in a flat, affectless tone. He turned his attention back to the window.
“Do me a favor, willya? Don’t play it off like it’s nothin and why don’t ya get out of that seat and take one in the back? There’s nobody in the joint, he’ll find ya, don’t worry.”
“You’re worried about my brother?” he said, as he moved his feet to the floor and lifted himself off the stool.
“Shit yeah, I’m worried about your brother...and you should be, too.”
“Maybe I should, but I’m not,” he said, as he made his way into the dark and dingy recess of the room. The yellow light from the street mixed with the specks of dust in the air of the room and danced around his head and back as he walked slowly to another stool and mounted it. “Better? Happy now?”
“Fuckin’ thrilled. Listen Jimmy, I didn’t have to let ya stay here, but I did; I didn’t have to say to your brother I didn’t see ya, but I did. I never did, and don’t now, give a good goddamn who’s dick anybody’s suckin. I’m not a fag, but I never thought anything less about anybody who was. But what I don’t want is anyone’s blood, especially mine, on my floor--and conscience--because of some stupid fuckin shit that has nothin to do with me. You know what I mean?”
Jimmy didn’t say anything but my heart was racing. It was lodged at the intersection of confusion and fear where ambivalence and doubt reigned, rendering it vulnerable to all sorts of whimsy, violence included. The word sat uncomfortably in my mouth waiting to explode. I couldn’t imagine what it was to actually be one--what was that all about!?--but I wondered.
My eyes, having nowhere to hide, ping-ponged from one to the other but quickly, embarrassedly, returned to the ivory cue ball, with the red centered dot. I tried concentrating on that dot but the more I tried the harder my ears strained, trying to compensate for my visual disadvantage. I looked up at the time and saw that whatever it was, was a half-hour closer.
There was no real telling what time of the day Duke would open the place and definitely no telling what time he’d close--that would depend upon the business and the business would depend on the “action.” A few times I’d stop by early, either by myself or with some friends and if the door was locked, I’d peer in the window. I’d see, on the last table in the back by the corner, a shape that resembled something human asleep atop a pool table. His back would be to the door and his head would rest on top a jacket or sweater or coat that would be bunched up on the wooden triangle that you’d rack the balls with. “Yeah, I know, I know, I’ve been sleepin on a pool table too long: I’m all balled up,” he’d say to anyone who’d listen. He’d also say that after he bet the wrong horse, or backed the wrong player, or loaned the wrong person money.
People, some of whom I knew enough to say hello to, started to drift in. Alone or in pairs they began shooting on tables that Duke made sure was a good distance from one another. Imperceptibly, the room began filling with sound and cigarette smoke as the overhead lights above each table were switched on in turn. I noted each as I shot, and watched Duke and Jimmy. Jimmy hadn’t moved and Duke, except for a few conversations that took no longer than a minute or two, remained the same; he stuck with his racing form, Pall Malls, coffee and some surreptitious pouring of Martel into his container. “I guess you didn’t make it either,” the voice said behind me as I was getting ready to shoot the five in the side. “You’re better off with the deuce, but this ain’t really your game,” another voice chimed in.
The Heart’s real name was Ira but he had a bad ticker; it had something to do with a valve or murmur or something. All I know is that he had to go to a hospital in Baltimore twice a year to get himself checked. Tommy was just Tommy. But Tommy was really rich, lived in a big house in Seagate right on the beach looking out over the Atlantic. He had the first color T.V. of any of us. I watched Bonanza over there one night; the first time I saw a show in color. Best of all was Tommy’s mom. Theresa was beautiful...and sexy...and she knew I not only knew it, but felt it. She’d walk around in these flimsy nightgowns and I tried to catch the right angle with the sun back lighting her and once in awhile saw her triangle of fur, black and silky looking under a sheer gauze of lace. She’d see me and look back at me in a way no one had ever done. It froze and heated me at the same time.
“C’mon, let’s get outa here.” The Heart said. “The alley’s open, let’s throw a few lines.”
I leaned my pool cue on the side of the table and leaned over to where the two of them stood, lowering myself just enough to be in the middle of their chest’. “Something’s gonna go down here in a little while and I want to be here.” Tommy’s eyes popped open like bread coming out of a toaster. The yellow filter of his cigarette got clenched between his upper and lower front teeth. “Don’t ask me what. All I know is that somethin’s gonna go down with Jimmy and his brother, that’s all I know; that’s all I have to know.”
“Mad Mel? Man, I’m stayin.”
“I’m gonna grab a cue, the three of us can play rotation,” The Heart said, and made his way to the racks.
“Not me, I can’t shoot for shit. I’ll watch.”
“Hey Tommy, you got a couple of bucks you can front me? I ain’t got a dime.”
“Yeah, sure, no problem.”
“Hey Duke, Off and On,” I yelled over to him.
“About fuckin time,” he said, and turned off the light and then back on. It acted as a timer so he could calculate how much to charge once you finished playing.
The Heart, only a few inches above five feet, returned with a cue that was nearly up to his eyes. He was an above average pool shooter and bowler but a below average gambler. He was indiscriminate in who he’d gamble against; it would depend upon what he had in his pocket and how bored he or we were. He was a little better than good which meant that things had to break just right for him to win. Most of the time they didn’t. But even when they did, the money burned a hole in his pocket and he’d find some way to give it back quickly, or lose it later. “We’ll play for a quarter a way...just gimme the break and the eight ball.”
“I ain’t given ya nothin. We should really play straight pool; rotation is just a game of luck anyway.”
“Bullshit, man. Rotation ain’t luck--ya gotta really know how to shoot; know how to play position; know how to play safe...Besides, I can’t beat ya in a game of straight. I got a chance playin rotation: hit it hard and pray to God.”
“Heart, you have two chances: slim and none.”
“Make it fifty cents.”
I felt guilty. “I’ll give ya the break. Break.”
Usually any kind of action was enough to occupy my mind. But not today. If I didn’t naturally drift to where Jimmy was still sitting, I’d peek at him from a variety of angles as I was shooting, or while waiting for The Heart to miss. I’d imagine Jimmy in the throes of passion. But instead of holding a girl in his arms there’d be a man who’d be doing these sexually bizarre things to him or even worse, Jimmy doing those things to him. My ideas of love, or romance, and hot stirrings of desire and lust were images all born from the Hollywood dream factory, which, unbeknownst to me, conspired with The League of Decency, and other watchdogs of Christian morals and Western ethics, to forever subvert and crucify those whose lives were different, which, of course, was us all.
Carlos, a spic’s answer to Sammy Davis, Jr.’ Rat Pack Step ‘n Fechit’s two-step, breezed through the door and went directly over to where Duke was sitting, put his two skinny arms down on the desk, while his hands gripped the edge, and leaned in close. Unlike Sammy, Carlos did his dance not on a Vegas stage, nor his act on a movie studio lot in Burbank, or sang amid the Copacabana showgirls, but in the ass-end of Brooklyn. Nor did he perform while lining up a piece of ass for Frank, but instead he cleaned up the mess left in his mother’s apartment by the somewhat demented and testosterone driven toughs who Carlos desperately wanted to be part of. Carlos, in other words, “ran errands.”
Duke motioned with his head left and Carlos looked right, to where Jimmy was sitting. He pushed himself upright and went over to him and placed his two hands on the arms of the stool and leaned into him. Jimmy, at first listened, then moved his head slowly to the right, until Carlos stared directly into the wall behind him. Carlos, without loosening his grip on the arms of the stool, swung his head to where Jimmy’s eyes now faced. Jimmy swung back the other way. Carlos countered and when Jimmy tried to climb off the chair I saw Carlos’ arms stiffen. The veins on his forearms rose to where you could see the blue highways from elbow to wrist. Jimmy raised himself up on the stool and Carlos eyeballed him back down.
“And what are you supposed to do? Jimmy said.
“Keep you here.”
“Yeah?...and how the fuck are you gonna do that?”
“Don’t test me, Jimmy.”
By this time I had put my cue down and looked on. Jimmy, unlike his brother Mel, was not one to fight, but you never knew what might happen when a person’s pressed. I was concentrating so hard on the space between their faces that when a black hand gripped Carlos’ shoulder I hardly noticed. It looked cut off and placed there with no special association. Except this hand looked solid and confident about the contact it made. My eyes ran up the wrist to the arm then shoulder and finally the face, in profile, hid by the hood of a sweatshirt. But even in profile and even though he was black, I knew who he was.
The first time I saw him was in the old Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue and Forty-ninth Street a few years ago. When he took off his robe that night it was hard to take your eyes off him; he was all muscle and sinew and sweat and shaped like a V. He fought Dick Tiger, another powerful welterweight, in a ten round bout; war was more like it. My father knew one of the boxing commissioners and we sat ringside, two or three rows from the apron. By the seventh round Tiger’s face was cut pretty bad and each time he got hit blood flew from those cuts to where we were sitting and a few rows beyond. It repulsed, but excited me. Tiger was a good boxer, too, and could also hit and so dished out some good punishment as well. By the end of the fight they both knew they’d earned their money. Tiger lost a unanimous decision and the other fighter a few months later fought for and won the Welterweight Championship.
The last time I saw him was a few weeks ago, on television. He was defending his title fighting a guy called, Benny Kid Peret. I was alone in my downstairs basement mesmerized, watching on a big black and white TV set The Friday Night Fights, watching Emile Griffith beat Benny Kid Peret to death in front of a cheering crowd, a referee, and me. After dominating him for the first ten or eleven rounds and softening him up, he rocked Peret with a straight right hand flush against his jaw. Peret reeled backwards into the corner ring post, ready to fall. Instead, Griffith did not let him fall, but bored into his chest with his shoulder straightening him up. Griffith used his left forearm to keep Peret’s head up by placing it under chin, firmly embedded into the throat, almost lifting Peret’s feet off the canvas. He proceeded to hit Peret with ferocious right hands on top of his head, to the face, the body, the kidneys and the arms; but mostly shots to the head, vicious shots, shots meant to punish and destroy. I looked around in my empty basement hoping that somebody was there, somebody to tell me what I was witnessing wasn’t really real, someone to stop the fight.
But there wasn’t. Finally, after he hit him with a punch that made Peret’s eyes roll to the back of his head, did the referee step between them. Even that would not stop Griffith. He tried to lunge over the ref who finally hugged him around his stomach in order to drag him away from the slumping Paret. It took less than five seconds for Paret’s body to hit the canvas though it seemed I was watching slow-moving chocolate lava endlessly flowing from the ring stanchion. A doctor, always present at ringside, went into the ring to attend to Paret; a few minutes later men entered the ring and put Paret, who remained unconscious, on a stretcher. They awkwardly maneuvered his body through the ropes and brought him to an awaiting ambulance.
The next day the back page of The New York Post had a big picture of his slumped body with one word, DEAD, in bold black letters.
Inside the paper an article said Paret had called Griffith a “maricon,” a faggot. He called him this before the fight, at the weigh-in. Griffith proved to him and the world that night that he might be many other things, but “maricon” wasn’t one of them. Yet here he was in Coney Island, in Duke’s, moving Carlos out of the way to get closer to Jimmy.
The sight of black fingers on his shoulder made Carlos jump back. The sight of who those fingers were attached to unnerved him even more.
“Hiya, Champ,” Carlos said, looking and turning the color of lint.
Griffith looked from Carlos to Jimmy and back again. “Why don’t you just get on with yourself?” he asked Carlos, except it didn’t sound like a question. His tone, while being measured and low, had weight and danger.
He wedged himself between Carlos and Jimmy and looked Jimmy in the eye. Except his look had more warmth than inquisition. “You all right?” he said. Jimmy nodded. “C’mon, let’s go.” Jimmy pushed himself off the chair and the two of them began to move towards the door. Jimmy seemed to lean into him as they went. I looked over at Carlos as they made their way out of the door. He’d been told to do a cheap and thankless errand by a madman. They didn’t hang around for what would have been trouble with a capital T. He looked relieved. In fact, everyone looked relieved except for the two old guys shooting pool two tables over. If they noticed what was happening, they didn’t care. They were concentrating on beating each other. They had probably been doing that for the last fifty years, maybe more.
Carlos looked over at me and smiled. I smiled back. He shook his head indicating what a crazy scene that was and could have gotten crazier. He took out a cigarette and I turned back to the table and my game when I saw a blur of a figure cross the room. It was Mad Mel. I turned back in time to see him slap Carlos’ face making the cigarette fly from his lips. “I told you, you cocksucker.”
“No, wait, wait a minute,” Carlos sputtered. But Mad Mel had hit him again, this time on the side of his head, also with an open fist. “You don’t understand, Mel, wait a fuckin minute.”
One of the older men came over to the table. “What are you doing to him?”
“Mind your fuckin business, old man.”
“What are you crazy, leave him alone.”
He hardly got that last sentence out when Mad Mel reached into his jacket pocket, took out a knife and, with one hand, opened the blade while keeping it against his right leg. Without any warning he stuck it into the old man’s thigh and snapped off the handle. The old man let out a cry and looked down at the source of his pain. Mad Mel took a step backward. “Crazy? Yeah, I’m crazy.” He took the handle and placed it in the old man’s hand and then to Carlos, “I’ll see you later,” and jabbed him in the chest with his finger.
Mad Mel, without looking back, walked unhurriedly out the door while the old man’s friend, his face drained of color, helped his friend onto the floor where he lay flat. Duke called for an ambulance. Carlos walked over to me and asked for a cigarette. I took one out and lit one for him, and one for myself. His hand and lips trembled and I felt, for a moment, bad for him. “I’m gettin out of here. You wanna go ridin around for a little while?” he asked me.
For a second I was a little confused and didn’t know what to say, not ever being too friendly with him. But I nodded my head and went to put the cue stick back in the rack. Tommy and The Hearts’ eyes were just watching me as all of this was transpiring. “Take it easy,” I said to them, as we were leaving. We walked around the figure on the floor. I passed Duke as we made our way to the door. Duke looked up and into my eyes and just shook his head. I tried to see the broken blade in the leg of the man on the floor, but I couldn’t. All I saw was a dark stain on his pants and a look of unintelligible fear on his face.
Carlos had a cream colored nineteen-sixty Pontiac Catalina, it’s body dented around the right rear door and left tail; it’s neglect slightly rusting the areas around the damage. I wondered if he purchased it like this or let this disrepair accumulate. My father, who, since I remembered, always owned Cadillacs, would never allow something like that to happen. But I would. I liked the casual recklessness it projected.
He reached over and pulled the knob up and I slid into the cushioned seat; inside, the leather was brown, but creases of dark dirt from years of neglect ran through them making me feel slightly uncomfortable. The ashtray was overflowing and the interior had this peculiar yellow film to it, especially on the beige-colored vinyl that covered the top. Carlos put the key into the ignition. When the motor caught he asked for another smoke. He put it into drive and pulled out, made a quick U-turn and headed south, toward Seagate.
The day had become overcast but I was happy to be in a car going anywhere. There was something about motion and smoking a Lucky that made sense. “You mind if I put on the radio?”
“Nah, go ahead.”
I turned the knob and heard the opening notes to The Drifter’s, Up On the Roof. “Yeah, that’s nice,” Carlos said. I leaned back and inwardly sang along.
“That was sure something back there, wasn’t it?” I kept quiet. I didn’t think he was looking for a response. “He’s sure a crazy motherfucker, ain’t he?” Again, I remained silent. “I did what the sonofabitch asked me to. ‘Keep him there,’ he said. ‘Keep him there ‘til I get there.’ Well you know what, that creep fuck was there but he was too fuckin scared himself to come in there. No fuckin way he missed those two on his way in; no fuckin way.”
He made a left and pulled down one of the beach blocks that Mary’s, a sandwich shop during the summer, sat guard over. All the way down the block we went, and stopped to the right of the ramp leading to the boardwalk; a boardwalk that ran all the way from Seagate to the end of Brighton Beach, past the housing projects, and Coney Island proper: The Parachute Jump, Nathan’s, SteepleChase, The Mid-Way, The Wonder Wheel, arcades, The Thunderbolt, The Cyclone and The Aquarium. He shut off the engine and we just sat there looking at the sand, and ocean beyond that.
“I’m gonna get high,” he announced suddenly. I didn’t know what he meant. But I felt something rearrange itself in my stomach. “You ever get high before?”
It was difficult to answer him; I didn’t feel I could talk. “No,” I said. He reached across me, unlocked the glove compartment and put his hand inside, coming out with a small yellow envelope. Again, he reached inside and came out with a small square looking package that was twice the size of a book of matches with the name, “Bambu,” written on the front. From this he extracted two sheets of paper, licked one of the edges and placed one on top of the licked edge and folded, ever so gently, the end of one of the papers.
“You wanna get high?”
I couldn’t take my eyes off Carlos’ hands. He was tapping the yellowed manila envelope until a thin stream of a grass-like looking substance was thinly placed in the fold of the crease. My heart was beating rapidly. The words, not quite catching in my throat said, “Yeah, sure.”
Deftly, he placed both his hands near the ends of the papers and rolled them up in one motion. He licked the top edge, the tip of his pink tongue darting out like a snake, and sealed it. It looked like a thick toothpick. “Watch me,” he said, “watch how I do it; I take in small tokes--drags, you know--hold it in for awhile then let it out. Watch.” He lit it and I heard the pop of something then a sweet and pungent smell filled the air that I didn’t know what to make of. He held this cigarette between his thumb and forefinger and took these quick drags off it, keeping it in like he said, then letting it out and quickly doing it again. He passed me this cigarette and I did the same. By the time I passed it back to Carlos and he passed it to me again I was high.
I felt weird, disoriented. Things at first slowed then speeded up with no discernible reason. My mouth felt thick and coated. When I looked down at my hands they didn’t seem to be mine and what they touched had no memory that I knew of. I looked over at Carlos who was looking at me. He began to laugh. “You high, man. You high, no shit, man, you fuckin high.” I looked at him with what seemed like these monstrous looking eyeballs that must have held all the confusion, fear and awkwardness I felt. “Well, man, I don’t know what you want to do, but I gotta go.”
“Go?” I said.
“Yeah, go. I gotta go, man, can’t stay here with that motherfucker loose man, gotta go try to take care of this shit. I’ll drop you someplace. Where?”
“Where? Shit, I can’t go home man, fuck that. Take me to The Heart’s house in Seagate. I’ll tell you where.”
“Cool.” He started the car, made a broken U, went to the corner, hung a left and went into Seagate. How the hell was he able to talk, much less drive? Heart’s parents were deaf and dumb and never looked too close at anything. I got out of the car where I wanted and closed the door. Carlos sped off without saying a word.
I went and rang the bell praying that he’d answer. He opened the door and looked at me. “What the fuck happened to you? Your eyes are all red.”
“Just let me in, man; I’ll explain later. Could I eat over your place?”
“Yeah, sure. How come?”
“You see the shape I’m in, man. I can’t go fuckin’ home now. I’m on the lam for a few hours, shit maybe days.”
The Heart ushered me into his home, past his parents who were at the dinner table. They smiled to me and I tried to smile back, but I don’t really know what the hell I did. I walked into his living room and to the phone. Fear began to insinuate itself back into my chest. I knew I had to make the phone call, but I’d be goddamned if I knew what I’d say.
Greenwich Village, 2000-2015
Monday, September 7, 2015
There's a woman
who wants me
into her mirror.
though she wins,
she told me.
Texas Hold Em
the way five card
does, but gambling
I told her
that I'm best
I mean, letting
them tumble around
with a freedom
I'm hard pressed
of my life.
I'll help you
Greenwich Village, 2015
COULD YOU MAKE THAT GENERIC, PLEASE
Harry was slumped over his breakfast tray; his beatific face sublimely nestled into a blueberry muffin. The only problem the nurses could discern was that he looked to be on the far side of blue, and, as far as they could tell, not a whisper was coming out of him.
In that instant the boredom of bedpans and blood pressure ceased, and a code blue was issued. All of a sudden from lethargy and sullenness, an immediacy sprang to life harnessing all their energy and focus on their lifesaving call to duty; I would imagine much like how a S.W.A.T team would feel being roused in pursuit of a cop killer. One thing was for sure: it beat the hell out of morning rounds, or meetings.
Unfortunately, besides taking the briefest of histories and current medical needs, they didn’t know shit about Harry, except that he almost bought it last night in the emergency room. He had screamed then about how much pain he was in and to prove it, threw up on one of the poor admitting nurses who had the bad luck to draw him. He had tried to warn her. He told her that among the many problems he has, he had a diabetic ulceration inside the cavity that remained after having four toes amputated. He was in so much pain it was making him nauseous. She said he couldn’t be seen until she had taken some history, including the type of insurance he had. It was then that his projectile vomit caught her a little below the opening in her blouse. Her first instinct was to brush it off her chest before it ran down her cleavage, but, luckily, she stopped herself before her hands, too, got into the goo.
Finally making his point, he was escorted into the bathroom where he rinsed out his mouth and was then led to a gurney. As soon as he was inside the ER and lying on his side, he calmed down and soon afterward was asleep. It was only when the same nurse came back to get the insurance information from him, this time wearing a surgical mask on her face and a plastic gown covering her torso, that anyone noticed that his chin was resting on his chest; a chest which was not going up and down and up and down and up and down.
Blessedly, all thinking stopped. For how long, nobody could know. All the powers of the emergency room, was focused and put into action. For the first time that night they were mercifully back to reciting the multiplication table the old way. Their reaction time was spellbinding. A nurse began stripping him of clothing and shoes. Into a new vinyl bag they went; it looked much like a large trash bag, only clear and thick. Another shook him, while still another nurse began to run a line into a vein; and another began attaching those electrodes to his chest and hooked him up to a heart monitor. The first nurse who was done with her assignment, ran back in with a bottle of glucose, should he be diabetic and in insulin shock. Harry, groggy, and in a fog, had tried to lift his eyelids. They fluttered. To Harry, it was all a berserk swirl. Jump cuts. A spastic’s dance.
One other thing moved in Harry’s struggle: his eyeballs. They rose into the back of his skull. We might consider that trivial, but they were all signs! And all they needed. Working even harder, having more purpose, (if that was possible), they began to rush in with antidotes for everything that Harry might have taken, as they hurled questions at him: Drugs? Poison? Dreams?
Harry, after a time, was coming around. And for some reason he was angry. Each question they asked he screamed out a wobbly “no” to. There was a nurse situated behind Harry’s head who dutifully recorded each “no” to their questions. They asked if he had mistakenly took more medication than prescribed or obtained illegally, drank, or wanted to end his life. Each time he answered he seemed to become more awake. Who’s your primary doctor, phone number? Harry was like a resistant submarine breaking water. A doctor went behind him, put his hands underneath his arms, and hoisted him up to where his head was lying on the pillow. Once satisfied that he was out of the woods, they returned to triaging more mundane patients. A little while after that, Harry was resting comfortably, his color having returned to his cheeks, (he now looked like a skinned pig slung over the back of a Chinatown butcher, the head lolling over the butcher’s shoulder), his vital signs stable.
It was a busy night as far as New York City’s sickness was concerned; there was never any shortage of disease. It was standing room only; so much so that they had to put people on stretchers in the hallways. A chorus of moans, grunts, mixed in with the smell of fear and antiseptics, greeted the new patient or civilian.
Harry had been down there twelve hours. Once they were sure he was well enough to travel, Dr. Dallas who thought Harry looked like his father, (and kept asking him if he was), persuaded whomever to allow Harry, even though he was a medicaid patient, to be brought up to an exclusive room on the fourth floor. It was a room that cost nearly a thousand dollars a day on top of what the patient’s insurance would pay; in Harry’s case next to nothing. But the hour was getting late, and they had no beds to put him in save this one. So after a little arm twisting, Harry got a break and was wheeled up to the next best thing after heaven.
Harry opened his eyes just when night was giving in to light, and thought he was in The Waldorf. At the very least, a Holiday Inn. He had no recollection of a nurse taking his blood pressure, temperature, and history last night, after he’d been brought up here. All he now saw was the wooden furniture, desk, desk chair, television in a beautiful mahogany bureau, and a red sienna leather lounge chair next to the bed he was in. There was a wooden closet near the door where, Harry figured, his duffle was stored. Holy shit, Harry thought, this is way bigger and nicer than my goddamn postage stamp apartment. He thought a mistake had been made and soon someone would be up to throw his ass out. Careful not to make a sound, he got up, tiptoed to the closet, found his duffle that held his toothbrush and paste, and made his way into the bathroom.
First he took a piss, but didn’t flush the toilet. C’mon, what are ya crazy? He pushed the lever. Fear rippled up into his chest. The sound the toilet made could have woken up King Tut. He put his finger to his lips. Ssh, he said to the swirling water. Almost sixty and still out of your fuckin mind, huh? He laughed and looked into the mirror. The face that looked back at him smiled, and made his eyes twinkle. Not bad, Harry, not fuckin bad, the face said. Just be cool, quiet, but stand your ground and you’re gonna stay here; nobody can throw you out. You’re here. That’s all you know. If a mistake was made, tough shit, it was their mistake.
Slowly, Harry turned the faucet on until a slow, but steady, stream of water reached his toothbrush. He loved the way that morning brush cleared up that disgusting mine field that was in his mouth. After washing his face he looked into the mirror again. Satisfied with everything except his hair, he turned to leave, but examined the shower first and shook his head reacting to another surge of happy disbelief. Tough shit, he said again to the voice inside his head, left, and crawled back into bed.
Panic seized him when he closed his eyes. Again, out of the bed, back to the closet where, after closing the slight crack that the door to his room made, searched out his duffle. Lying at the bottom it was, but with the huge plastic bag with his evening’s clothes and shoes on top. He, again, slipped his hand under the vinyl, and slow as a caterpillar, pulled the zipper open. His heart was beating faster as his hand was feeling around its innards. He squeezed the two individual pouches. Faster, Harry felt between underwear, t-shirts, and other garments until his fingers nibbled on the toes of the correct sock stuck into a corner of the bag. He felt the container that once held a hundred Bufferin. A puff of air came out of Harry’s mouth. He zipped up the bag and returned to bed.
No sooner had he pulled up the covers, when a nurse’s aide, dressed in janitor’s blue, came in to take his vital signs. He always thought that waking someone up to do this was a curious habit that hospitals had. Was it something written into the bylaws, or understood like the “silent you” before some sentences, for a nurse’s universal revenge?
Without a good morning, she went about her work after seeing Harry’s opened eyes. He could have been dead, but that hardly mattered. How times had changed since nurses were charged with doing those tasks. From Kate Smith to reggae. From rectal thermometers, to glass ones kept in alcohol with a mercury vein running up the middle, and finally, to almost the immediate digital kind with a throwaway plastic sheath. Harry looked at a bored, none to intelligent face, and regretted this crippled dance to modernity.
How am I doing? he asked, not out of curiosity, but a need to not only hear his own voice, but hers, too. The nurse, she be in soon, she answered. Her face didn’t reveal whether his readings were indeed good, or bad--not that he really wanted to know--and not that she gave a shit. If the listener cared enough to follow her, she really said it was about money needed, a job is the means, and if you’d like to empty bedpans, I’ll be glad to do what you do, and what, by the way, happened to the streets are paved with gold bullshit?
Anger, sometimes, breeds intelligence, Harry thought. What can you do with that; no matter, he answered himself, and closed his eyes.
Shit, closing my eyes must be the kiss of death, came to mind, as the door opened emitting light and allowing a nurse--a real one--to come into his room.
She’s white! What’s this!? was his next observation, as she came closer to his bed. He smelled blood. Good morning, Mr....
Call me Harry, Harry said, while thinking she had a voice saturated with innocent sincerity. Could be fake, a put on, he reasoned, but it still sounded good.
Harry then, good morning, she said.
Good morning to you, too.
I’m here to give you your Lantus. Where would you like it?
Happy to be on vacation, Harry looked around his body and all the spots the insulin could be administered to. Arm is O.K. She came to his left side, rolled up his sleeve, her fingertips brushing against his skin, and slid the syringe in. How did you know? he asked, with enough good humored surprise as necessary.
Know that I took insulin.
Her body leaned away from him as her eyebrows arched and her black pupils widened. Oh, you gave at least some information to the resident and night nurse. Don’t you remember?
I don’t remember shit,” he replied, with so many different inflections that he stood in wonder at himself. They both let out little chuckles. What’s your name, he asked, capitalizing on this quick surface intimacy.
Angela, she replied, her body relaxing once more. I heard you were a bad boy in the ER last night.
Sorry about that; I told her the pain was making me nauseous. I am sorry, though. Please tell her if you see her. Please. And that really was the last thing I remember...I think. Angela in good natured fashion shook her head.
Maybe you can tell me about the pain, and some more things we didn’t get from you last night, but need to know now, today?
Fire away, and fall back.
Harry divulged what information he thought necessary, no more. Yet the way that information came out made you feel as if he was laying bare his whole life and soul. The parts he was asked, but left out, seemed to be nothing more than a man who tried to remember, but couldn’t. And what he let out, each word, each sentence, was crafted through long practice, to get the most mileage out of a gas guzzling dinosaur.
He was lucky to live not far away from the hospital, but unfortunate, (and don’t forget miserable), that he lived alone and had experienced for the last decade the complications of his childhood illness: amputations, pain in his lower extremities, loss of feeling, bypass surgery, and now this ulceration in his foot that was driving him nuts. But, despite it all, he’d never lost his humor, thirst to create, a great appetite to live each day...blah, blah, blah, etc., etc., etc.
Angela, used to hearing symptoms, not narratives, had become hooked. “Keep turning the pages; what happens next?” came her automatic, and somewhat unconscious response, after every period. Until the natural nurse in her rose up. You look tired, why don’t you get some sleep now?
I’ll try, but every time I close my eyes someone barges in here trying to save my life. The nerve of them, she quickly replied, and again they both let out small, conspiratorial laughs. Try, I’ll see you later. I’ll put up a “Do Not Disturb” sign, she said as she was walking out the door.
Harry got so immersed in her, he forgot about his pain. But not for long. No sooner had she shut the door then he was up and over to the closet. He opened up that little Bufferin bottle and shook out a few pills: Dilaudid--yellow for two and orange for four milligrams--and cute, tiny, white demerol pills. It was a combination that worked the best. It took Harry a long period of time and experimentation to arrive at that, but it was not an unpleasant trip.
Back in bed, he rang the little bedside button, and a voice came on the intercom--another strike against modernity. Yes, said the voice. I want to make sure my nurse remembers my pain medication, Harry said, loud enough for him to be reasonably sure it carried to the mouth behind his bed.
I’ll remind your nurse.
The ground was now prepped and the order in, but he was not at all sure that whomever this disembodied voice belonged to would deliver the message to nurse Angela. Harry, with some reservation, (and after he put the pills under his pillow, like baby teeth), once again closed his eyes.
Harry had painstakingly built into his body an internal alarm clock. It would go off every six to eight hours when his nerves began, with the faintest of shivers, to inform him that they were alive, but not at all that well. He knew what to do to ease them before they got fully jangled. The lack of preparation had happened to him in his distant memory past, and boy oh boy was that terrible, but he made sure that that would never happen to him again. Days, sometimes weeks, before he needed to, he began doing what he had to do to avoid another, boy oh boy. Sometimes though, Harry got fagged out, spent, tired, drained really. He needed a vacation. Not having the resources to go island hopping, or to a Roman spa, he took what best can be described as an all expenses paid, Medicaid vacation. After going through the list of hospitals Harry carried around in his head, he would chose one that matched whatever amenities he wanted to have at the moment. It was not that easy. Hospitals had a physical look and a personality all their own. Rooms, bedding, view, food, were only part of their makeup. They also had powers of observation that, depending on the hospital, were either turned on or not. As was the level of care, specialties, discipline, and rules. They, of course, effected what type of staff--interns, residents, doctors, and nurses--were allowed or attracted to work there. Lenox Hill, if it was a candidate for office, would be labeled a liberal conservative: east coast, upper east side, smart, and stuck-up.
It seemed like a second between when he closed his eyes and woke up. He looked at the wall clock which read, almost eight. Harry swung his legs over the side, gripped the styrofoam pitcher on top of his night stand, and poured some water into a paper cup. He looked around, quickly grabbed and swallowed the tiny teeth that had turned into money. Aside from wishing he had gotten up a half hour before he had, he was still pleased that he gobbled them before breakfast, before he drank hot coffee,--but preferably tea. An empty stomach coupled with a hot beverage was the perfect environment he found to allow the pills to come on and do their job--balm and heal. It sounded like a vaudeville team. Maybe burlesque tits and ass. Seriously sexy.
Speaking of sexy, a cute little island babe came into his room carrying a tray. Breakfast. But goddamn he couldn’t eat it without taking an insulin shot. And he couldn’t do that before taking a glucose test. Listen, this is Harry, I need to take a blood test and insulin shot before I can eat, he said, his mouth a few inches away from the intercom. When he needed to do that--which was a minimum of four times a day--there was always a certain urgency which made his voice sound strained. I’ll be right in Harry, came Angela’s response. Immediately, Harry felt his upper body sag. Relaxed, he turned to the tray, lifted the plastic round dome and saw some hardened scrambled eggs. Oh, man. Fuck that. Can’t do it. Just can’t. Won’t, simple as that. That’s it. There was a piece of whole wheat bread, some butter, (maybe), a nice looking large blueberry muffin, and a cup with a lid on top. Before he pulled the lid off, he saw a decaffeinated tea bag underneath the bread. Wanting the caffeine, he was a bit disappointed.
Just spoke with your doctor, Angela said. She’d come in like a gunslinger, two fisted, a syringe in one hand, testing equipment in the other, and extra ammo: another big syringe sticking out of her jacket pocket. Also, she brought a bottle of insulin, her pretty face, and her dumpling delicious body. Harry might be sick, but he wasn’t dead.
Eddie, you spoke with Eddie? Good man. He’s a goddamn good man. Harry couldn’t help but lower his eyes. Eddie was like any other croaker he came in contact with on his merry-go-round in again/out again bout with life. Only Eddie wasn’t a cut throat practitioner of the Hippocratic dictum; he really believed he was not doing any harm, but was helping the patient instead.
Besides, being white, educated, and old could be, if played properly, the holy trinity to gain access to those Wizard of Oz antidotes of common crucifixions: Marriage unraveled; parents dead; money evaporated; body betrayed. And Harry, if the truth be known, was very distinguished looking, could bullshit his way out of Berlin in the thirties, (even though he was a Jew), and be charming as he did it; well, the world, as the saying goes, was his oyster--at least the Disability/Medicaid world. As soon as the docs heard a literate, funny, and engaging utterance, out came their prescription pads. It was just a matter of time before he had them ratcheting up his dose. Not having to pay for visits the “seek and ye shall find” apparatus was in play. It wasn’t too hard to hunt down more than a few doctors who’d do the right thing, get out of his way, and have their secretaries fill out forms. Often, Harry would spy his name on charts on certain dates he knew he was out to lunch. Never there. Docs were making fiction money. And mucho, and how. Not here. Not there. You know, man. Cool. So nice to still be a hipster, glued to this modern, daisy chain, forgery.
Angela sat on Harry’s bed and put the machine on the corner of the table. Do you want to do it or do want me to do it?
I’ll do it. Harry stuck himself with the penlet and put a drop of blood on the testing strip; in five seconds they got a reading: 133. Good. Very good.
Your doctor gave me some instructions, guidelines, but they were so confusing he finally told me to listen to you; seems you know as much as him, she said, and a lovely crimson blush came into her cheeks. She smelled nice, too. Fresh. Like honeysuckle on that certain moment in spring, when it simply couldn’t wait anymore. Harry breathed deeper. He wanted to put his head under her dress; nothing dirty; he wanted just to rest there; maybe just his lips and the tip of his nose nestled against the soft flesh of her thigh. Damn, he said to himself, that sure was quick.
Angela, I could use some pain medication, Harry said, even though he felt the first inkling of what he’d already taken begin to work.
I’ll give you the insulin first.
Would you mind giving it to me in my arm; I’m so tired of injecting myself in my stomach? She smiled, happy to accommodate his request, knowing what a task it must be to stick a needle in yourself five or six times a day.
How much should I give you?
Well, I can’t eat the eggs, you can forget about that, and the bread goes with the eggs... So, if you can swipe another blueberry muffin...we’re in business?
She smiled conspiratorially. It’s sugar, Harry. Are you sure you can eat that?
Sure, I’m sure--as long as I cover myself with enough insulin, I can eat just about anything. Anything. He looked at her, with an embarrassed boyish smile and blush planted on his face, until it became uncomfortable--for both of them.
Harry, I’m trusting you...so,...
Guaranteed, Harry said, or your money will be generously refunded, the redness all but gone as he spoke. But, all right, we’ll play it safe...just a little safe. Harry showed Angela his two fingers, the thumb and index ones, just the tiniest bit away from each other.
You’re a rascal, you know that? she said, and grinned. Her fingertips brushed against his arm again; she raised the sleeve on his hospital gown and deftly gave him his shot. Your doctor said either percocet or dilaudid, but dilaudid, Harry, that’s for terminally ill cancer patients. And I’ll tell you what: I suspect, after what you told me, you might be in a lot of emotional pain that you’re using these drugs for.
Well...I think you might be right, but I’m still in a significant amount of pain, that’s no lie.
How about I give you a shot now, and alternate the percocets, but just if you need it, if you call out for it, how’s that?
Sounds good to me. Angela told Harry to lie on his side and with a syringe that was much larger than the first, being an old fashioned glass and metal kind, (Harry just loved the look of it), she slowly inserted it into the fleshy part of his upper arm. The long steel needle needed to penetrate the first layers of flesh.
What a pretty face can do to me, Harry was thinking as Angela was administering to his needs.
After the shot things got a little blurry. Harry began feeling sweaty, and his eyelids seemed to weigh pounds, but he concentrated to keep his head up--and he did--until Angela brought him another blueberry muffin. As the door closed, Harry inhaled deeply then exhaled, making the paper napkin ripple.
Next he awoke to the sight of doctors and nurses hovering above him.
Apparently, Harry was found slumped over his tray; his Elysiasn face nestled blissfully into a large, cushiony looking, blueberry muffin. One of which was flattened against his nose.
If it weren’t for morning rounds, Harry might have fought his last fight. The young, brightly scrubbed interns, their uniforms as starched and white as the Klan’s hood, trailed a chief resident who, after seeing Harry’s ear buried into the pastry, and his ol “Schnozzola” with a popped blueberry on the end of it, called a code blue, draining the newer one’s blood from their faces, the more seasoned interns into alert, and the nurses into full bodied action. A crash cart, wheeled by a deranged resident, barreled into the room, paddles at the ready. Angela called out that Harry had diabetes, and so an I.V. glucose hookup was run into his arm, lest he had fallen into insulin shock. Also, she informed the doctors that she had just given him a shot of dilaudid, but he was fine, he was fine, she repeated like a mantra. Just in case, get some narcan, a doctor instructed.
Harry, is that his name, a doctor asked.
Yes, Harry, Angela repeated.
C’mon Harry, stay with us, the doctor implored.
Harry, c’mon baby, another voice chimed in.
But the doctors were baffled. Harry, according to the monitors and test results so far, should be able to do The Charleston in the middle of the room. His pulse and breathing, while being slightly shallow and slow, were still well within the bounds of normal; his tox screens, except for the little morphine that Angela’s shot put there, showed nothing else; his blood sugar read like most humans: 123. Fearing that either they or the tests missed something, they continued to work on him.
I think I’m in heaven, Harry said, upon first seeing Angela. It was still a struggle for Harry to keep his peepers open; in fact, for a brief second he looked, with his eyelids fluttering, like an old, faded, funny, male ingenue, or something out of some fag transvestite review.
How do you feel, how do you feel, came at Harry from all directions while a blood pressure cuff was put around his arm. He thought his arm was about to suffocate; all his attention was distracted there; he felt like trying to make a muscle and break it apart. Easy, easy, Harry said to himself. Yeah, they fucked up your high a little bit, but you still feel cool, and there’s always later. Easy, buddy, easy. Buy some time. Be gracious; show some class.
Whoa, what happened? Harry asked.
You tell us, the doctor replied.
Man, how the hell do I know--one minute I was here, the next gone. Whoa. Lemme get back to myself, Harry said good humoredly. You guys probably saved my life.
From what I don’t know, the doctor said. But I’ll be happy to take the credit.
Whaddayamean ya don’t know?
Just what I said, I don’t know.
They had unhooked him from the miracles of modern science, and were now taking all the bells and whistles back to wait for their next chance to perform.
Well, Harry said, when you doctors don’t know what the fuck happened, you call it an “episode.” Harry couldn’t help but grin.
And neither could those gathered around his bed, especially Angela and the head doctor.
When it happens twice, he went on, you call it a law suit.
The grins stopped.
Only kidding, only kidding. I’m a schmuck, I don’t sue, even when they thought nothing of allowing this blind doctor--who even had a seeing eye dog--to do a little neurosurgery on me. Nothing very complicated, they said; nothing to it; just a little growth on your amygdala. It could have been my rectum for all this doctor knew. I think the expression, “can’t tell his ass from his elbow,” came from my operation. You see the shape I’m in; maybe that explains it.
Harry, they don’t even kid around like that, Angela said, after the doctors and staff filed out of his room. Just hearing the word, “sue,” is enough to make their testicles go into a vacuum. Angela!
Harry! Harry, I’m not as prim and proper as you might think--or want to think.
Angela, I’m not what I appear to be either.
None of us are.
Angela’s face was simply radiant. Harry, without wanting to, was slip sliding away. She left him happily munching away on the remaining blueberry muffin, but not before she promised to bring him back a tea. She was debating whether or not to tell him that a blueberry precariously hung from his nose when she returned.
Harry had some business to take care of; it was on his mind ever since he opened his eyes and saw those mostly hideous, but necessary, faces above him. Most faces were hideous. No sense in arguing, Harry thought, they just are. He crept over to the closest and dry swallowed another two tablets; he wanted to give the initial intake a little more fuel; a boost; a nudge; shove; glad tidings. Back in bed he drank the last of the now cold tea, and laid back in bed. Could be worse, could be worse, he said to himself, much worse.
This time the nod came to Harry slowly, blissfully, nice. That liquid heat ran up the back of his neck and spread across his shoulders. Intuitively he knew he could play with this feeling for as long as he wished, turn it this way and that, and still go to sleep whenever he felt like it. It was one of those moments that made doing what he did to obtain it worth every penny, every second of bullshit. There weren’t many places--or times--that would allow him to feel this much at home...safe. Safe from those persnickety pain in the ass elements that would play with his head, like dying and leaving a mess. Here, for as long as he could stretch it out, would be beyond the grave’s tentacles; beyond the gas man; beyond the chit chat of what passed for conversation between humans; and way beyond the simplicity of bowling balls and heroes.
Harry remembered the first few times he did dope--Christ, what was it now?...forty, forty-five years ago?--he couldn’t get to sleep at all. Must have been the quinine, or somethin with the cut. Or maybe it was the newness of the whole thing, but he couldn’t for the life of him, fall asleep. Not that it was unpleasant. No, not a bit, but...well, but nothin, he just couldn’t get to sleep. No big deal.
Then there were grace periods of, well, nothin. Nothin. Not a drop, or a drug--illegal, that is. Clean; a clean feeling. No filters. Barriers. No, (or little), fear. Sometimes that could last for a day, or a decade. No tellin, with Harry. Strange, huh? But then, like the old joke, “slowly, slowly, he turned”...he went back to the cooker, in one form or another. And anything could return him to that dark place. No tellin with that either. Sometimes six months before the actual action, volition, or whatever you want to call it, he set himself, or was setup, to be, once again, open to the seduction. That last sentence, or thought, had that faint smell of a lie breathing on it. The truth, better stated, was that Harry was both the seducer and the seduced. He knew exactly what would get him hard, and was willing, if it called for that, to make it a very long courtship before he would demand to get laid.
Unless, of course, it was a chick that Harry was head over heels about. Someone so lovely, so enticing, that Harry would have waited forever before he demanded any goddamn thing. After the act, however, that was another story. One chick told a friend of Harry's that her first mistake was telling him that she loved him. The second was, after having told him, she hung around, and stayed.
After five days the doctors were no closer in understanding what caused the seemingly arbitrary nature of Harry’s condition. One after the other they ruled out, in seemingly alphabetic fashion, today’s hit parade of diseases. There was no such thing as “consistency” as to when Harry would have these bouts of near unconsciousness. They thought him incredibly lucky to be found when he was, walking that ol precipice of death. One time they were ready to send him to the I.C.U., fearing that he was near extinction, only to find him, when they came back into his room, requesting cable television for the reruns of The Sopranos.
Even though Medicaid was picking up his tab, they didn’t flinch in ordering every conceivable test that could solve the riddle of Harry. The hospital figured that since Harry was lucky enough to inhabit one of their exclusive suites they’d write the whole goddamned thing off, and every other poor bastard, at the end of the year. It wasn’t quite the, “in for a penny, in for a pound,” ethic; it was more like how can I turn this bullshit around and make it work for us.
Harry, meanwhile, was living The Life Of Riley. It was Alfred E. Newman’s, What, Me Worry? take on whatever life could throw at him. It was arms behind the head, leg crossed over the other, foot dangling, television on, and getting loaded with impunity. He was also pleased with himself for dealing so well with the guilt that he felt when he was with Angela. He wished he could level with her, but even though in the previous days she had shown every indication of being cut from a different swatch than the rest, was still, he thought, too square for him to risk such a racket by coming clean. And it was so hot out that he could feel the days heat and humidity drip through his windows; his windows that looked out to Park Avenue; he couldn’t even contemplate being in the furnace and shit box he called home.
Is it possible to get a haircut around here, he asked Angela.
“Yeah, a haircut. Don’tcha want me to look good being your patient and everything.
You’re too much, Harry.
Answer the question, baby.
You need money for a haircut.
That’s a problem.
Hmm. What can we do. Let’s see. I could, I guess, advance you a little cash.
A little cabbage, yes, you know I’m good for it.
Never had a doubt.
How sweetly you lie.
Part of my charm, Harry.
What else do you lie about, he asked Angela the next day. He couldn’t get the last line she said to him out of his mind. Sometimes, after hearing something someone had said, they look completely different. Almost like another dimension was added. He was positive that before Angela left his room the other day he saw a few creases that life had driven into her face; they weren’t ugly, quite the contrary; they allowed Harry to enter.
Nothing...much, she replied.
Being cute, huh.
You think so; cute, I mean.
He looked at her, studying her, weighing her, Cute, no, I don’t think so.
I don’t know. Hard to say.
Hard to say, or you don’t want to say it.
Hard to say. Except that thirty forty years ago I’d be in deep trouble.
Is that so.
That’s so. Smart and looking the way you do, damn, always been a very lethal combination for me.
Harry, don’t do that.
Harry, the woman was always in more trouble than you were.
Ya see, that’s what I mean. Trouble. Fucking trouble. I’m tellin ya...
Harry, enough. A smile broke across her face and carried Harry out with her.
Did you send up a barber or a foot doctor, were the words Harry greeted Angela with.
She stamped her foot and laughed. Her hand covering her mouth.
You don’t have to say it. Oh, my god!, comes next. I know.
Again she stamped her foot and kept her hand where it was.
I didn’t think that what I had to say to you before would be met with so much retribution. Jesus Christ.
Harry please, no more. I’m going to urinate on myself. Please.
“Urinate,” hmm, how proper we are.
Please Harry, I’m begging you.
Harry looked forward to Angela getting to work in the morning, and Angela couldn’t wait to get in. A few times she even showed up an hour or more before her shift was to begin. People started to talk. Harry felt this tingle that worked it’s way up his balls and into his stomach until it tickled his brain. Not since his early thirties had he felt this way. Usually the word, “Fuck,” was the first thing he uttered upon opening his eyes; now, his thoughts moved more to getting up, showered, shaved, and dressed; he even felt less of a need to raid his drugstore as of late. But Harry kept them there in case it all came crashing down--which was always a likely possibility.
And Angela had finally met someone who was unlike the someones that she kept meeting. Could have been his age, what he knew, the way he thought, the sound of his voice, looks, personality, or smell. Who really knows why we want to get close to the people we want to get close with? The irrational are more rational than the rational in understanding what’s what with that.
Angela came in through the door as Harry was kneeling in front of the wooden closet. It wasn’t anger, or disappointment, judgment, or fear he saw on her face. It was more like, What are you doing on the floor praying? and then she smiled. But again, it wasn’t a smile of compassion, understanding, sarcasm, or contempt. It confused him, but didn’t stop the blood from rushing up to his cheeks, making him feel hot all over.
I thought you were gone.
No, not yet; I’ve been spending so much time in here that I needed to catch up on some paperwork.
You’re flattering me.
You don’t have to do that, you know.
Do what. I was just rummaging around for a pad to write on, that’s all.
He didn’t want to go down this road, but lying was really the only road he knew. The words, even if it were a one word sentence, kept sticking in his gullet. From nowhere he began to stutter like he did when he was five, when each word he uttered had the potential to kill him.
I’ll see you tomorrow, Harry. Have a good night. Again her words were light, neutral, and impossible to understand.
Harry put his palm on the floor and pushed himself upright. He put his hand through the crook of her arm and led her over to the lounge chair. He tightened his grip, but gently guided her into a seated position. He sat down on his bed and pushed the hospital tray out of the way so there was nothing separating them. Angela, he began, what’s going on here?
I think you know.
I don’t know shit, Angela; why don’t you tell me.
No, Harry; we’re going to do something different this time--for both of us. Why don’t you tell me.
I feel like the old man at the end of, Moonstruck: “I’m confused.” Harry lowered his head and dabbed at his eyes as if he were crying.
You could charm the spots off a leopard. But, of course, you know that. You count on that...and why shouldn’t you...that’s what kept you alive these many years.
If you keep trying to deflect this thing, we’ll never get anywhere.
‘Anywhere?’ He pondered the word. Where would you like this thing to go?
The one dim fluorescent light that was on, made the room look like the tenderness of a welcoming saloon.
No, Harry, she said, low, but resonate, where would you like to go. And please don’t tell me about the thousands of reasons why we shouldn’t go there, why this is crazy, absurd, and then go into your personal trough of misery--or perhaps ecstasy--to cement the impossible. Lets keep it simple: Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby?
Her smile tempered his heart with light, putting out fires so old and damp as wet ash they’d now become moldy with contradictions. I don’t know how you know all the stuff you know, but I’d like to know what you know.
Come home with me, then.
Come home with you?
That’s what I said. I wouldn’t have to talk so fast you’d miss, (or I’d forget), the good parts.
How can you be so sure.
Sure. Who’s sure. That’s what discovery is about. It’s art, Harry. Great art is work. A lot of work.
He stared at her for what felt like a long time. The night nurse came in to check his vitals. She said hello to Angela and then went about her business. Angela and Harry just watched her, and each other. They remained silent until she left the room.
I wish I had a cigarette, Harry said.
Makes two of us...and I never smoked.
Harry laughed despite himself. He knew what came next. Angela, you know what I was doing by the closet when you came in.
I knew two days ago.
What the hell can we do to fade that?
Do you want to “fade” it.
His body cleaved in two. The battle was defined, as it always was, but now, once again, verbalized, which somehow made it more real.
Wait, Harry. Think about it. I know it’s not an easy decision--if it’s really a decision at all. Tell me in the morning.
Maybe we both got lucky here; what do ya think?
Maybe you got lucky; I was always lucky. Oh, I see, you think I’m lucky to have you. How did I not know that that was, you were, a golden gift from the gods.
Harry just shook his head. Is it always gonna be this tough a ride with you?
Until you realize that you were always lucky, too.
That night Harry couldn’t sleep. At about two, he thought about taking a few of his pills, but decided to hold off. If he was going to start anything with Angela, it couldn’t be predicated on a foundation of shit. There had to be a reasonable semblance of good honest intention going in to this thing. He thought he had to talk with her about quitting. And wanted to know how she thought the best way to go about it would be. Harry knew that one of the reasons he was drawn to her was because she was a nurse; it was a profession that was loaded, (no pun intended), with fireworks and pitfalls of various kinds, and he was subject to explode or fall into any number of them.
Looking at this honeydew rind of a moon, he decided that he’d give himself one day to enjoy himself in his own inimitable way, and the rest of his life to enjoy with Angela. Off and on, for over forty years of his life, he had researched pleasure and escape that only an ego made of mush was built for. Sometime, the next afternoon, a road would be chosen, a vehicle established to see him down it, and perhaps a destination that he and Angela would agree that both wanted to go to.
Angela didn’t sleep either, but not for the same reason. She was nervous, apprehensive, and decided to clean her apartment. No sense in waiting for the last moment. Or worse, waiting for him to come to her, and finally get there. A sliver of a moon, she thought, the melon must have been very good. She had lived, and survived, her home and men who recreated that home over and over again. With her help, of course. No longer was she willing to pitch in. Angela was no fool, and no stranger to who Harry was; no pie in the sky for her. She knew it would be hard work, but interesting work. She felt drawn to him as soon as he opened his mouth...and not because of what he was, but what he secretly wanted to become, and could become if he gave himself half a chance. Age and circumstance were on her side. Now, if only time would give her a goddamn, and well deserved, break. A little luck.
Finally, at around five she finished and was so dirty that she decided to take a shower right there and then. Afterward, she laid down in her bed, put her hands behind her head and in a moment was asleep. Such a deep and restful sleep that she overslept and late, hurried off to work.
As was his habit, Harry accepted the shot of dilaudid before breakfast. Now, it didn’t get him that high, but still made him feel very nice. Content, safe, and secure in this blanket of near forgetfulness. When the nurse brought in his testing equipment and his insulin injection he told her he’d take it himself and engaged her in some meaningless, but funny, conversation. When he knew she was distracted enough, he secreted the empty syringe under his blanket and waited for her to leave his room before he got it and put it, along with his pills, in his duffle.
He got up and walked over to his window. The traffic was beginning to build on Park Avenue. The bustle of cars, and cabs, and people going someplace. Someplace!? Where the hell were the places that all of them were going to? Damned if I know, he thought.
Looking further upward at the high sky of a deep baby blue, he thought of 9/11 and the exact same color and canopy that day. Huh, interesting, he muttered. On that day, Harry was on the north side of The Brooklyn Bridge when the sky exploded. The ball of red, orange and yellow fire, then black smoke, rinsed the sky of reason. It was enough to knock Harry back against the doors of a high school; the heat followed immediately after. It felt like the outer edge of a furnace. It was official: Hell was New York City.
When breakfast came, he politely asked the orderly if she couldn’t get him a metal spoon to eat his oatmeal with--those plastic spoons feel like they’re melting in my mouth--and smiled at her. I be back, she said.
Harry was sipping his coffee, fully dressed after shaving and showering. He knew he’d have to sign himself out, but knowing that Angela and he would work this all out this morning wasn’t all that concerned about it. Geez, c’mon already. Where is she? he said to himself after a due amount of time went by when she should have been there already. C’mon.
Where the hell were you.
Getting things ready for you.
Harry was instantly calmed. Well in that case...
Yes, don’t worry even though I know you must be going crazy. I know that. I thought that we have two ways to go: one, I could get you into a rehab unit and they’ll do what they have to do and then you’d come to my place, or, two, I could get some methadone and do the thing myself. I worked in a detox unit for seven years and know what I’m doing...
So, that’s how you...
Harry, sweetie, Ray Charles could have seen it.
Harry thought he was invisible. All right, you got me--now what the hell are you going to do with me.
Harry didn’t ask her how she would get the methadone. It wasn’t his business. If she said she could get it, she could get it. That’s all he needed to know. That he wouldn’t be sick.
All right, I’ll sign myself out.
A.M.A., against medical advice.
What else is new?
I’ll just do it one more time, give me a jolt before I pack it in, he decided after a brief, if one-sided, debate. Harry sat on the toilet, his sleeve rolled up, a belt wrapped around his arm, with the tongue between his teeth. He held a syringe in the other hand. He had taken three four milligram dilaudid, crushed them into the metal spoon, added water, and with a pack of matches, cooked the mixture in the base. Slowly, he guided the syringe into his one useable vein and watched as the blood came into it, like a rose coming to life, its petals moving to the side of the plastic cylinder. Gently, he guided the plunger down and watched as this slightly water colored orange mixture went into his vein. A pumpkin exploded behind his eyes.
Greenwich Village, 2005-2015