For the adventure just getting afloat, I had selected the persona of a Navy Seal as an image to inspire. I was confident, in my gearing up and setting out, that I was true to the tone and style of a covert warrior’s best practices, if not in all the particulars. It was the first week in April. Four slugs of vodka trudged a hard march in my belly, the first booze in my system since the end of December, when I’d fled Houten Falls for detox down in Paramus. Now I decamped Manhattan for the opposite purpose. Like any savvy special op, I’d kitted up with care, provisioning my backpack like a combat lifer and affecting native dress: khakis, a blue jay Oxford and snappy Italian blazer, indigo with gold buttons. These duds would camo my island departure and serve another use altogether on the Jersey side. I hoped. My salt-and-slate goatee was trimmed, my bald head sucker-free and my manner winsome. To a strollered tyke in Port Authority who semaphored around his head an oatmeal cookie bigger than his face, I called: “Commander Shepard McEvoy in charge. We’re headed in-country. Be ready for feet-wet in five. We hit the LZ, shoot anything that moves. Let’s git some.”
I went into Triata’s close by the bus station once I got to Houten Falls, scoring another pint of vodka there and on impulse, five 24-ounce beers. The impulse was named humility; I recalled Celeste would be tickled more by the arrival of my beer than of my person and resolved that if this was the cost of bliss…fuck it and amen. Bucky Triata hadn’t sold me hooch for months; he took in my general appearance with the supermoon eyes of the freshly gut-shot but offered no comment. He’s good that way, no respecter of persons, Buckster, but a huge fan of cash.
Getting up to the west side of town required a second bus ride. As the NJ Transit beasty harrumphed and yawed up the long steep hill, I discovered, though it took some doing, that the beer buy had been serendipitous. “Ah, Shhep-hahd, yes,” she’d said when I phoned to announce I was ten minutes out, “I must tell you, you may not stop at the local shopkeeper.” Celeste said “shop-keep-aaahh” in the mottled snarl I adored, her bass growl slo-mo, like a dart-tranquilized lioness about to collapse on the savannah. Thus I knew she was already, at 13:26 hours, roundly soused. “The liquor shop,” Celeste said, “She bunned to the ground in the evening.”
“She how now?” I said, “She what?”
“She bunned. Completely to the ground. The whole of she is finish.”
Normally, Celeste’s stewy accent, quaint Britishisms and lusty abuse of pronouns surged current directly to my nethers. But this huh? news was a bridge too far. My brain was still just bumping fists with alcohol, shucking its coat and beginning to reggae with the thump of coursing dopamine, yet a notion, of the nascent ilk, thrust itself onto the dance floor, that somehow, someway a there was there, a somewhat something inviting reflection. But it was a fine-boned, wee thing, a twinkling naiad singed by light, winging away once perceived. There were two liquor stores by Celeste, roughly equidistant from her place, one up the block and one down. The closer shop, she clarified, was the one doing all the bunning the night before. For my money it had always been the more congenial of the two, where Celeste claimed the Spanish owner sometimes gave her beer on account. I wondered if this meant anything at all to me, doing a little knee-jiggle with the bag of beer in my lap, like that reflex you get to pat the metal jangle in your pocket when somebody yelps that they’ve lost their keys. Sucks to be you, buddy, we’re all good here. I assured Celeste I was en route, abristle in ammo, to wit, beer. Then I ducked down, huffed another swaller of the vodka and sat back to cop an attitude about the vista scrolling by as the bus ascended from city center up the twisty slope to her neighborhood.
Houten Freaking Falls. Still, at 46, I had no clue why the caged bird sang, why fools fell in love but I knew why Jesus wept. Wipe-the-dust-off-your-feet shithole towns like this. Erstwhile economic titan in the region, an industrial powerhouse, the place birthed seas of textiles, machinery and widgets nonpareil in a golden age of hegemony and sweat. But that was worlds ago; for decades now the town has achieved nothing but infamy, featured disproportionately often, for its modest size and 145,000 souls, on New York network affiliate news. Its current renown derives wholly from unquiet desperation: regular, sluttish gunfire, an undead brigade of dope fiends, crack heads and drunks(yello!) and, notably, its claim as home of the five-dollar blow job, which is the cost of a single bag of heroin here.
I shot a fisheye glance out the window toward the eponymous waterfall coming up on my right. Barbequed Christ on a skewer. The Passaic River, elsewhere more muscled and posy as it squinks its way through the good-town, bad-town topography that is north Jersey, is a varicose vein of a waterway here, blighting the landscape but eager to flood at the first whisper of rain. The town and the river as it runs hereabouts deserve each other. In fact, if a river could shit a town, Houten Falls would be it; if a slurry of silt, mud and dead things could wash ashore in some wizardly, perverse act of creation and erect muck castles in the shape of a city grid, all would be explained. The waterfall itself, to the judicious-eyed, is vastly underwhelming, only middling tall and viewable primarily from an infelicitous angle. It’s a lackluster piano recital at a dinner party by your hosts’ ungifted child. Well, she’s certainly, eh, banging away up there, isn’t she? Yepper. Is there more wine? Speaking of, the booze had me in the adult swim by then, ululating and deep, so I tossed my give-a-fuck out the bus window and raised a finger toward the falling water. Hey now. Time to carpe-damn-diem, baby! Screw the vodka, that was just to get the relapse naked. Bring the brew. Let’s me and the bad girl, bad girl, Ms. Whatcha-gonna-do drain all the suds from this loathsome burg. Then, tell you what, I’d launch one final good-faith sortie at Celeste and listen for instruction from the wind. Or some fucking thing such as that.
“Meatman Bangladesh!” Celeste bellowed, her voice all asphalt and gravy, waving arms full of bagged retail booty at the butcher in the rear of the grocery. “Listen,” she said, “No-English Meatman, you must slaughter three pound of goat.” She executed a series of hops, jumping invisible rope while blazing a rhubarb grin wide as the Serengeti. “He is festival dinner tonight!”
There were giants in the Earth in that time and we were two. The Navy Seal guise, was gone, honey, gone. It had suffered slippage climbing the temple steps toward drunk nirvana, finally it tripped and belly-flopped into the volcano. Now I was reborn an upstart god looking to win a top spot in the pantheon, maybe even make a move on the Big Guy. No matter that I’d already upchucked twice; that was the first-day price of picking up alcohol after leaving it alone awhile. And my status as a late-stage lush left me blotto but alert, weirdly functional, upright and feisty, in my own special zone where I absorbed all things. Now I batted moons like volleyballs, I was a maker of suns, a cloudburst of glory showering down on all my peeps. Money was still knuckle-thick in my pocket; we were slamming the ’hood , re-upping on beer and miscellany, all things besides beer, damn skippy being miscellany.
Ms. Celeste Wangai was performing her greatest hits. Girl was at her Kenyan witchy best. With a blink of her peachpit eyes she morphed a shitbird town in Jersey into a big-sky market in Nairobi, where you swank about like a chief on holiday and harangue the merchants--Sipendi! I don’t like it!—and thunder righteously about cost. Ni ghali mno! Punjuza bei! That’s too expensive! Please lower the price! The butcher, an ethnic Indian of unknown stripe, was a miniature, gold man maybe one children’s size larger than Celeste, who called all Indians Bangladesh because one true Bangladeshi sometimes appeared at her door bearing beer, a droopy, bereft-seeming character who came to swap brew for solace and brief respite from the elements. He invariably called me “ma’am,” which made me love him deeply, in the same way, no homo, I love guys who call a woman “dude.” Mangled language was pandemic in Houten Falls, shoot-me-stupid coming from the natives but charming out of the mouths of latecomer babes.
Celeste was still verbally mauling her meatman as he hoisted an oozing, car-door carcass of goat onto his band-saw, where he cut ribs first lengthwise, then turning them, cut again, the turbojet screech of the cycling blade almost, but not quite, drowning out my teak flamingo. She handed me the shopping bags and pointed me toward the aisle where I was ordered to find maize, the yellow, quarter-sized discs she would use to make what I called “mooshy-mooshy” but Swahili called “ugali” and what Celeste, I swear, in her native Kikuyu, called something like “gee-maah.” Her mum was seldom around; she worked as a home health aide(as Celeste did sometimes) and lived most of the time at her patient’s residence. I’d met her twice, and the last time she and Celeste got a huge laugh that I called it “mooshy-mooshy.” So Mum straightfacedly corrected me with the “gee-maah.” I kept a straight face of my own, nodding solemnly, like a novitiate shaman learning the spells for DefCon 4, repeating it slowly and using it in a sentence. Tomorrow we fight the Europeans for our tribal homelands; tonight we eat our fill of gee-maah! The Mau-Mau Gee-Maah Rebellion. Doo-wop conflict in the shadow of Kilimanjaro, video at 11. The point was, the porridge is without color or taste, sort of what you would get if rice and a potato had intervegetable sex and left the starchy little bastard on the steps of a church.
Celeste must have gotten her goat by the time I turned to confirm I’d picked the right type of maize. She was nowhere in sight in the under-spaced, overstocked grocery, so I went around to the produce in search of pili-pili, my go-to hot pepper as antidote to the congealed nothingness of mooky-wu. In the past, when I’d briefed my pals in the downtown shelters about my excursions up to Celeste, I’d say that to see this store is to see this neighborhood, that it told the story about the difference between Houten Falls proper and the west side. The Passaic River served as a moat to belay the sinister knights that raped the town’s center and more notorious sections. The west side seemed to ride a white steed above it all; though low-slung, off-plumb and in need of a power-wash and paint, this place was home to a polyglot of foreign strivers, mostly well-behaved and about their business: Spanish from everywhere, Indians, Caribbean islanders, Africans from up and down the continent and sundry others I was, oddly, always too drunk to identify.
Where was the Wangai woman? Still pickled, I picked my peppers and tried to spot her over the shelves, but they were too high. The shop was an outrage, a fusty gaggle of goods festooned in native costume, harking in a babel of tongues, a world congress of vittles not American. It was my maudlin conceit that it cradled a global creole in embryo, ingredients eager for the pot. A happy ending to diaspora.
I heard a belch, a murmured “excuse me” and a giggle in the next aisle over, so I rounded the corner to find Kenya lady with her denim skirt raised above her waist, stuffing a box of rice pilau into canary-colored panties I was fairly sure I’d bought her about a year ago. “I’m a bad woman,” she said, her laugh a rolling tympani thrum of glee. Sieged by an urge to hurl, I backed away from that smooth criminal and rushed to the front to draw focus and occupy the woman in the cranberry sari at the register. While she rang up our fare, Celeste wandered into view, dripping innocence and her own brand of muted madness all over the floor. She fiddled idly with costume rings in a display case, looking like Ophelia browsing nunnery brochures, as I paid for the groceries. When the proprietress looked down into the cash drawer to make change, Celeste lassoed her middle finger with a silver ring and swept by me out the front door.
“Gimme your lighter.”
Celeste rooted around in my pocket, found it and lit a smoke. Outside the weather was being a little baby, April clinging to March’s frosty tit. The air blasted an olfactory top ten, meat-and-spice tunes from Mumbai, San Juan, Lagos, Lima and Kingston. A cherry-red cop light disco-balled the buildings up and down the street. When we’d stumbled out to shop, I could see just far enough up the block, across the intersection on the opposite side, a lone squad car posted at the site of the liquor store fire.
“How may I help you?” she said, “Your call is important to us.” She was doing a bobble-head thing, cigarette hanging from her mouth, eyes lasering straight ahead up the street. She extended her arm, fanning her fingers to display the stolen ring, her barely-there body already a crow’s Xanadu, drizzling bangles, beads and necklaces, even a pearled hatpin daggering her mop-head braids.
“Celly. First six hours I’m in town. You could have gotten us arrested.”
“I do it…” She shrugged, her arms rising up like cobras from baskets, “…for sporting.” She sounded as if she was snuffling around for a better answer, in the manner of God groping to help us understand why he takes Sundays off, and how that’s awkward, considering what goes on then.
“You heard me say ‘excuse me’ when I burped? That was a Shepard teaching. I thank you, General.”
“As you were, Major Pain-in-the-Ass. I need a beer.”
We wobbled our way up the block, we two about as roadworthy as a church bus on the Garden State Parkway. Folks in blacks and browns, from purpled jet to café con leche, dotted our map, men standing in an oil slick prism outside an auto shop, kids draped on steps and railings, lit by the fluorescent sheen of a barber’s, moms and dads in lazy array on porches of multi-family homes, whose wearied pastels of aluminum siding were molested by claw streaks of parrot- green mold. I could feel, as I always had, out and about with Celeste, the unsubtle stares we attracted, feel them like the vivid press of sunburn. A white man--mzunga-- with this African woman? I’d read that Africans themselves would assume, ipso facto, she was a prostitute. But Jesus on a bed of basmati rice, they had no inkling of the puzzle that was Celeste. She was a gazelle of another color, with a bottomless cache of secrets and wounds inscrutable to mortals, this drunken ox included. One of the reasons I was rocking the Upper East Side look was to dissuade the neighbors that Celeste was a hussy, those who may not only believe she’s a ho, but that her specialty gig was marketing herself to white trash. The other reason was that it costumed me to help bamboozle her that I had, indeed, not only gotten my shit together over in Manhattan, I’d thrived and returned to her in triumph. My isn’t-it-pretty-to-think-so scenario, my right-u-r-if-you-think-u-r pitch to the possibly gullible. My effort to hustle a hustler.
We were almost up to the gate that led to her basement apartment in the rear of the building. There the cooking smells were eclipsed by the acrid, burnt-metal-and-wiring stench from around the corner.
“Did you see the fire?” I said, “Where you up there watching?”
“Right away when she started I was sleeping, actually. Sleeping fast,” she said, Ophelia back onstage, her lovely face utterly placid, her eyes, as shrinks say, “without affect.” “But then the sirens kept coming and coming from everywhere. That woke me. I came outside.”
“Where you still there when they brought out the man?”
“Ngai,” she said, “God.” She made a kissing sound of disdain, her voice rising as she jumped down into the cement gully on the side of the house, making her way to the back, calling over her shoulder that this is what she never liked about me, that sometimes I talked too much.
Earlier, Celeste had passed out on her daybed in the living room for about an hour and a half. I was sitting on the other daybed, sucking beer, watching her sleep with one eye and TV with the other, but at five o’ clock I’d switched from the old-movie channel she had on 24/7 to the early news. The fire had been their second story. Turned out a Peruvian immigrant named Diego Condor had died in the blaze, overcome by smoke in his rented room on the second floor of the two-story building. The liquor store had been wedged between a residential dwelling and a busy laundromat; neither was damaged. The cause of the fire was unknown and under investigation. They were learning more about the victim as hours passed and would report further. I’d had a quick look at the site when I first got off the bus, the whole structure now a pancaked black pile with smoke curling in a few spots, half a dozen firefighters picking their way through the mess. I had been up close and personal with falling buildings once, about ten thousand years ago. A dust mote of affinity drew me one step nearer. It was a familiar scene, in a bonsai to redwood sort of way.
They had curled in a crescent around me, six months before, shouting guesses and bets--I give ‘im a one-eight! No way he’s less than two-six! My dessert tonight if niggah ain’t least two-four!—like it was a carnival and I was about to whang away with a rubber sledgehammer and try to ring the bell at the top of the test-your-strength tower. Well. Niggah blew a .26 on the breathalyzer, so it meant 1) that guy kept his pie and 2)this guy had to go. Quigley had administered the test and now pointed toward the back door, where overnight “guests” at the Lamb of God Mission were allowed to smoke in the rear courtyard.
“Outside,” he said.
I said I’d just leave, it was okay.
“Outside. Give me five.” I went out and lit a rollie. Had the planet to myself. Everybody else was in the shower or waiting to hose down, pray-to-stay refugees slumped in the chapel, watching some fundamentalist maniac chopping the air and bleating on DVD. Quigley came out in four minutes, spat through the fence into the garden of the Presbyterian church next door. He stared at a spot over my head in the distance.
“Yeah. Commit to the program tonight, we’ll ship you out to detox,” he said, eying my cigarette, “ Five days and you’re back, no longer an overnighter, you’re in Lamb rehab nine months to a year. Otherwise…”
“Cool. So now you’re blackmailing the drunk, homeless guy.”
He said it was my choice.
“Christ in a pita with shredded lettuce and dill sauce, Quigs. Just let me pee, I’m outta here.”
He began picking up smoke butts from the pavement, flicking them into a coffee can on the step. “Uh-huh, how’s that working out for you? Jumping shelters. Sleeping outside. Shep McEvoy. Fully human, fully divine.” I told him he was being obscure, that I was the one who was wasted here.
“Usurping God, you are,” he said, “Too much ego, amigo. How’s that going, big picture?”
I responded that it was kind of a big question for an amigo that needed to get across town to the Salvation Army store and blow some of his precious beer dinero on a blanket, stash it in the park and make ready for the night. He sighed and said I was leaving him no wiggle room, to which I countered that him wiggling wasn’t a good look anyhow and a big, stupid grin hijacked his hideous Hibernian mug, flew it all the way to County Cork.
“So you know,” he said, “Pastor Matt pulls me aside last night, he smells it on you soon as you sign in. Says Quigley, you’re the bad cop, should you give him the heave? Me? I counsel grace. But again tonight, Shep? Killing me here.” The grin was still over in the Old Sod, holding strong, so I took the invite to engage in the gangster patter Quigs and I enjoyed in happier times.
“Bang-bang, I’m killing this guy, this guy over here!”
“Killing me is what you’re doing,” he said, “I’m, what, going down with two in the chest—“
“Torn and bleeding on the floor you are, like Ms. Natalie Imbruglia!”
“The dead kind of killing is what’s happening here!”
“I once had an imbroglio with the Widow Imbruglia.”
“That bitch!” he said, roaring. Quigley’s gin blossoms were islands in the gulfstream of his fat, florid face, azure volcanic humps with plum lagoons and inlets of burst capillaries. When he laughed it was Pangaea all over again, islands merging, scarlet land bridges re-uniting the parts. Quigs was the number two at the Lamb, the de facto operations director, but these were not corporate types running the show, they were born-again wackadoos, so they didn’t know to call him that. Matter of fact, they didn’t know what to call him. The instant you meet him he outs himself, saying My name’s not really Quigley, which, I guess is his way of purloined lettering his deal, hiding in plain sight. Begs the question, natch, of what or who he’s ducking. That he keeps to himself, one of life’s little ellipses…
I thought of the man as Quigley O’Pseudonym, because whereas my lineage is Scotch-Irish, his ancestry is Irish-Irish-Irish-Irish, more Irish than the funk wafting off peat and bogs and your ancient da. Himself is in his early sixties, about fifteen years older than I. What I did know was that he had been a very bad man in Hell’s Kitchen a few decades ago, a mid-level figure in the loosely-configured, psychopathic, perpetually-blitzed gang known as the Westies, nogoodniks so heinous they scared the living shit out of the Italians. But now Quigley-Not-His-Real-Name was a twice-born, stone bible-whacker, underboss to Pastor Matt Rivera, running both the rehab and overnight program for bums like me.
“Okay, this is serious, boyo,” he said, “Thanksgiving in three days, winter’s coming. We’re filling up, hombres turning up like cucarachas—“
“Not bedbugs, that was last year.”
“Yeah, well, pretty uppity for a guy’s about to spend--was about to spend—his second winter in a homeless shelter. Point being, Pastor Matt’s taking us to the wall with this zero-tolerance. Guy comes in drunk or high, he goes right back out. That would be you.” I said I speet on thees Tolerance, he is a mongrel and his seester Acceptance is a whore.
Quigley wagged his head. “Reason we’re even talking now,” he said, “We’re both aware you’re ten cuts above all this. And you’re no street guy, news flash. Not for nothin’, in the Falls you’re a splash of buttermilk on an iron skillet. Just sayin’. You have no excuse that I even know you.
I agreed to stipulate that I sucked eggs.
“Meanwhile, you’re always a good citizen at the Lamb, even you roll in drunk, you’re never, what—“
“Obstreporous.” I absorbed his I-hate-college-boys glare with good cheer, saying look, dude, I just blew point-two-six on the breathalyzer, I get it, man, let me just vamoose with a pube of dignity. Then I shut up and looked at him awhile.
I said: “Are you doing what I think you’re doing?” He gazed at me in a way that jumped the Hudson and time, slapped a .38 in his hand, plenty of plastic contractor bags in the bathroom upstairs from the bar on 52nd and 10th, the bathtub ready to catch my blood as I exsanguinated from a specially-rigged, horizontal rod overhead, power saws plugged and ready to dissect me, after which I would be dispatched to each of the five boroughs of New York.
“Jesus,” I said, “One thing I can’t do is beg. Let me get my backpack and scram like a man.” Quigs visibly softened, his palm opening, gun pointing south, so I said listen, brudda, any chance we could do that thing at the end of Goodfellas, Paulie tells Henry “Now I gotta turn my back on you,” but first he gives him the knot of cash in his pocket?
His fingers started to close around the heater.
“Get your bag, go up front on the porch. We’re going for a walk.”
Twenty minutes later, he said “You don’t see this,” reaching into his sock for a pack of Newports, lighting one, sucking deep down to his toes, then expelling an orgasmic cloud.
“And I didn’t hear you say, ‘Walk, bumblefuck’ as we came out, no-cussin’, no-smokin’ God- boy.”
He requested I eat him with a big ol’ spoon, I demurred, and we walked on. We were about six blocks west of the Lamb, on Broad in the dark belly of the fifth district, Houten Falls’ own Little Falujah. Usually three-four cop cars would be arcing past like tracer fire, going east as you walked this way. There was none of that now. Customarily you would hear, two parallel blocks to the north, fire vehicles going the other direction, shaking the earth like cluster bombs on impact, but not that night. Finally, you would step into the intersection only to be nearly obliterated by an incoming artillery shell of an ambulance heading south, but we crossed without incident and sat on the wall outside the library. Two perpendicular cross-streets faced us; one was the crack street and the other was for heroin, all the goodies served up in weensy baggies just big enough for a hummingbird’s lunch.
I’d suffered an amuse bouche of psychotic breakdown, a one-bite interval of lunacy, in the time it took Quigley to hand off the Lamb to underlings, waiting at the bottom of the steps, snicking my coat-zipper tiptop, sneaking two snorts, letting myself be hypnotized by the traffic, grown-ups breezing by with lives and places to be.
No. Bullshit. It wasn’t that. Maybe it was this way: Sometimes Insanity rings your doorbell, offering oven-fresh chocolate chippers. You welcome it inside and indulging the indulgence, seat it in a rocker and give it sweet tea. That may have been what it was. In any case, I drifted into fractious musing, free-associative idiocy of dubious provenance. I don’t remember it in anything like cinematic, montage-y detail; I believe it mostly featured forest sylphs prancing about in a glade peopled by daffodils, posies and forget-me-nots, said chimeric creatures chasing dandelion poofs with butterfly nets, hashing the air with rainbowed, spatula wings. Yeah.
‘Zounds, I’ll tell you what it was damn-sure not, this loopy interlude; sometimes that’s easier. At no time were there the type of delusory flights that earn one early-admission to the psych ward and guarantee a bed closest to the nurses’ station. Not the kind of thing you’d hear from an unhomed stew-bum in the street. It wasn’t some pseudo-intellectual rocket shot positing a thesis titled “The Myth of Catharsis,” first clearing the launching pad of conventional concepts with contempt, setting up for pedantic murder a library of dependables, citations such as the choragus in Antigone: Great words of prideful men are ever punished with great blows, and in old age, teach the chastened to be wise. It didn’t bound ahead, herky-jerky, ill-advisedly, frog-leaping hemispheres, epochs and the canon to land with a hackneyed cap-tip to his own bad, bell-tolled self, the marlin-killer, with that tiresome The world breaks everyone and afterward many are stronger at the broken places. It didn’t open its own ridiculous case with the New Testament housecleaned demon who returned with seven of his drinking buddies. It wasn’t off and running from there, fog rolling in, and it didn’t close with a big-finish-but-not-really, a sentimental, too-easy-by-half ba-dum-bum of the last line of Gatsby: “And so we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly through time.”
Nota Bene: Denial is a river in Egypt, a big, famous one, Moses skinny-dipped there on the regular, I saw it in a book once, a big book that must be true.
So, me and Quigs were sitting there puffing away, observing an erratic flow of the locals getting their crack or smack take-out suppers. I was already bone-fevered with cold. I looked west where our weather always came from, something barreling in prestissimo. A storm front of clusterfuck waiting for me, no matter what kind. I had two tugs of booze left. It was wudka instead of my beloved, cheap-shit beer, my vain attempt to stink less as I tried to go into the Lamb. Never works. It’s said vodka has no odor but when I’m honest--which happens once yearly without exception—I realize its odor is pure alcohol.
“Give me a minute to decompress,” Quigley said.
“Give me one to decompensate. That’s a lace-doily word medicos use to say You’re dying.”
“Y’know, that smart-ass shit’ll get you dead quicker than the booze. You mention it though, you are looking like that “Piso Majado” guy on those yellow wet-floor signs, him with the flailing limbs.” Then he muttered he didn’t even know why he’d come out with me, he had no pep talk on tap, maybe he just wanted the forbidden, goddamn cigarette. Gotta understand, he said, he couldn’t, past a point, afford to give a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut, nature of the job.
“See, you and me, we’re old school,” he said, “All the way down the line, every way you can name. There’s no, eh, demographic for us, no GPS. Not just that we’re crusty old farts. We’re juicers, alkie throwbacks. Which bores the crap out of the wider world, no sexy-cool drugs to yap about. Drugs are romantic, tragic. “Poor little Preston over there in Houten Falls with all the hoodlums.” Nothing charming about being a fuck-up at our age, McEvoy. Likely we’ve drunk everybody out of our lives, nobody left to mourn us. Me? I’m a run-down Buick of a thug. Another hundred miles on your tires you’ll look like me.”
He shook his head, flicked his ciggie butt into the street. Said screw it, no lecture, he wasn’t feeling it, reached in his pocket, took out his phone, piano-strummed it. I looked up again. Oh, superb. The sky was changing already, wondering if her ass looked better in a rain dress or a snow dress, but by Zeus she’s gotta wear something to the party. I pictured the municipal parking lot across from Scantleberry Park where I’d bed down, try and fail to sleep, courting frostbite. Petrified of random baddies happening by to kill me for fun.
“Check it out,” Quigley said, handing me the phone. “All’s said and done, this is the kind of thing that pacifies me anymore, bleeds pressure from the pipes.” It was a picture of a chimpanzee in a white tee-shirt with a cigarette in his mouth, reclining, with one elbow crooked up on a wall. He had old-soul eyes, a Gandhi smile. The caption said: “Bitch, I know you lyin’…but …continue.” I laughed hard enough to draw the attention of a pepper-and-cinnamon duo of beat cops ambling by.
“Okay, you showed me yours, I’ll show you mine. It’s not funny, though. More like that AA tell-on-yourself sort of thingy.” I pulled out my own cheapie smart phone, tapped an app and handed it over. It was a daily horoscope which also included the general characteristics of the astrological sign. For Pisces it read: You adapt emotionally to your environment. Often painfully shy, you are adept at imitating the mannerisms of other people in order to hide your own personality. A Piscean can too easily become a victim by identifying with the problems of other people, which restricts the development of your own personality and talent.”
“Might save you time in case you’re fibbing with the ‘no lecture’ bit,’ I said, “Can’t lie to this monkey.” Quigley said it was a chimp, not a monkey. I said monkey sounded cuter, no hominid homo, and reminded him that art is selective and transformative by nature, that the artist’s sleight of hand evinces deeper truth. He allowed as how me he could learn to hate me with a special passion and that he used to carry a hollow-point cure for motherfuckers like me. He also told me with the horoscopy I was a necromancer and a soothsayer, which wins me hella more time in hell.
“Matter of fact, though,” he said, his own monkey-smile widening, “You done just stole my talking points. Which I don’t have, by the by.”
Damn pity, he said, firing up another Newport with bare-naked joy. Waste of perfectly good grey matter, this mental dossier he had on the Shepster. Said it had been compiled from the consult I’d had with Pastor Matt about a month ago. Same as Quig’s pitch tonight, but nicer: Would I consider joining the Lamb of God rehab program, Pastor had asked, not entirely altruistic on his part, he’d chortled; I would add cachet to the enterprise, raise the standard of their usual clients. Bless you and how flattering, rilly, rilly, but not my particular brand of cha, I’d responded.
“There’s no HIPPA on this shit,” Quigley said, “We’re totally private, so Pastor huddled up with me after. I know your secrets, boyo, some. And your issues.”
This was coming out all very Sound of Music, very how-do-we-solve-a-problem-like-Maria, I stated, asking Quigs was it wrong that I still loved to visualize Julie Andrews all storm-soaked, virginal but good-girl sexy in that gazebo for “Nothing Comes From Nothing?”
“You got a talent for sticking a foot in my snare, lad,” he said, “Woman trouble. Every addict under the sun’s looking for rockabye Momma.”
“Whoa.” I pointed to the time on my phone, hinged one arm through the strap of my pack, rose from the dead. “’Nuff respeck, Q, but I got forty-three minutes to get to the Sally store for a blanket. That’s the one place I’m going tonight. Where you’re trying to take me? Not going there, bucko. I showed you the goofy Pisces tripe to pre-empt your ass. Better or worse, and hear this well now, I know what’s wrong with me. Chapter, verse, clause, word, morpheme. So let’s save you the effort, let me toss you the showstoppers from your well-meaning bag of tricks. In fact, let’s reach in for the most vexatious, obnoxious. You’ll gertie stein me with If drinking’s the answer, what’s the question? You’ll top that, buoyed by swelling applause, with the truly repugnant Some have to die so that others may live. Call me un-“
“They do. Have to die. The truth can be nasty, McEvoy, don’t make it bogus.” Swell, I said, and facts are stubborn things. Get it, get it, get it, man.
“Sit the fuck down and shut the fuck up.”
I may have done that. Quigley may have indicated that the squirmy brat would get his blankie, he would make it happen. Off to the southwest, the big guns erupted in a miraculous cannonade from Gunther Mountain, the county’s law-enforcement weapons range. If that wasn’t the boom of a 50-cal, the big boy they haul out now and again, I’m a chimp’s uncle. I’d always found it rather soothing; it gave the town that cozy Berlin-with-the-Yanks-and-Reds-on-the-outskirts feeling.
By 8:30 Houten Falls had fallen, overrun not by tanks but snow plows. ‘Twas the work of the goddess Khione, the white stuff her bailiwick, waving off Ares: I got this. Take the night off, go knock up a mortal. Start a trend. God. Forgive me, I know exactly what I do. I drink. Need some deus to crank up his machina and get downstage center pronto.
Was schnackered by then, five tallboy sentinels stood vigil on the short wall just inside the multi-tiered parking garage where I lay, shrouded like Lazarus in the quilt nipped for me by Quigley from the Lamb, his fugly countenance turned away as he handed it to me and pressed my palm with a twenty folded into a sugar cube. Good to be out of the fight. We’d gone at it with longswords and daggers, boyo and me, Quigs the Prince Hal of the piece and me Hotspur. Lunge, attack, parry, feint, riposte, blades ringing, quillons to quillons—at stake not the fate of the emerald isle but, I guessed… me.
I cracked another brewski, the sound pinging the void, bouncing off the lonely trees over in my drinking park, all its habitués scattered by the snowfall, two quaffing acquaintances of mine unconscious on the humped stones behind my wall. Had to say, Quigley’s “mental dossier” on one Shepard McEvoy held a largish surprise. All I’d disclosed to Pastor Matt notwithstanding, there turned out to be a chapter called Celeste: Demon Ingénue.
Also included were What Shep Must Ponder Posthaste, Ethyl Alcohol is Not Your Baby Mama, AA/Lamb of God Mish-Mash Rehash, even Toss-Aways for the Curious. I’d submitted my own ms in rebuttal, with the unwieldy freight-train of a working title: Elaborations, Obfuscations, Refutations and Outright Whoppers.
The pastor had been eyewitness to the source material concerning Celeste. Once a month, timely as menses, he roadtrips his bread and his circus to Scantleberry Park, exchanging ziti with meat sauce for sullen silence as he proselytizes from the steps of our own bottle-strewn, peed-on gazebo, his momentary parishioners about as receptive as Giants fans at a Jet game, or maybe Rastafarians at a “Just Say No” rally.
Two weeks ago I’d played hooky from the Lamb, liaising with Girlfriend. Well, it seems Pastor had spied me and Celeste off in the far northeast corner of the park, deaf to his deathless homily, doing what we do—lovin’, hatin’, fightin’, laughin’, perhaps even enjoying a cold beer. Jerk Jesus with rice and peas, plantains on the side…Busted by the vicar.
Thanksgiving coming. Snow staying. I was flayed, deboned, body-parts picassoed. Patient at least Code Periwinkle, fluid intake indicated. I drank on, struck, in an act of ad hoc whimsy, to distill my evening with Quiggy into bullet points, a kind of hazy “best of” I’d have a prayer to remember manana and manana and manana…and maybe actually do something with. I put it to music, calling it Scramblies with Bacon, inspired by Quigley’s declaration that sobriety brings not just life, but life with bacon. An insouciant little ditty, it went(guitar chord) something like this:
- Shep opens w/ Hail-Mary gambit: Hey, everybody in Oxford, MS just thought Billy Faulkner was the town drunk as he shambled about. Q bats the ball down, clear case of interference(jersey grab)
- 0 Unique, ½ Smart, 1/10 Funny = As I Think I Am
- P Matt, taking his eye somewhat off the Savior-ball, had described Celeste as having “a face that could launch ships, or at least canoes” but a “pipe-cleaner” body, which I found clichéd, likening her form instead to fiber optic cable or how ‘bout this: good Celeste as licorice twist, bad Celeste as black mamba.
- Hairy-nipple truth is that I’m a suicide about ten years on = me wearing my other favorite suit, Morose with pinstripes
- Q recommends I familiarize myself w/ oeuvre of Gin Blossoms(the band not the face) if I want to hear about addiction, entanglements and consequences, particularly “Follow You Down,” regarding how it’s a long way down when all the knots we’ve tied have come undone, following you down but not that far…
- New philosophy calls all in doubt, center still not holding, will update.
- Shep = 2 years in Houten Falls + 5 abortive attempts to escape + 4 shelters to which he one day said “fuck it,” went out drinking, never returning, contacting Celeste + 3 temp jobs abandoned after travelling to dingy factories in vans w/ 4’ tall Peruvians
- Major Concession = Shep/Celeste is essentially a Carrion/Vulture relationship
- Quigley = Call Bergen Regional for bed in detox daily, try for their rehab unit after, if rehab not available he knows they’ve been sending folks to a program in Harlem of u/k quality, said to be run by faky reverends wearing gold, battleship-size crosses
- If it takes 1,000 attempts, doesn’t matter, get sober = Quigs
- Day I met Celeste she dashed into the park, materializing from the ether, crocked, potted, lit, baptized herself by total immersion under the fountain(wearing diaphanous raiment), planted square in front of me and said “Do you want to see my c-word?” I did. And nice to meet you.
- No surrender =Nuts! = not a word to Q re bad days in September, the most sublime sky your so-called God ever stuck on a hanger, planes, a grave outside New Brunswick or Jamaican angels named Justine
- Celeste = Not Prozz-dee-doot!, her “Methinks thou” frequent protestation, but she’s actually not, just has an osprey’s eye for cash
- Dead baby back there somewhere(Kenya); this I knew from photo album perusal and quasi-intelligible accompanying narrative
- Celeste = My current visual, subject to change = Cerval, African feline 2x size housecat, coat of white/gold, w/black smudges like thumbprints, prodigious leaps to catch rodents & birds, elegant = Mysterioso
- Anansy—trickster spider character in West African fables, Africa’s left coast, not its East, where Kenya lies. Stories promulgated primarily by the Ghanaian Ashanti group, who brought them to the Caribbean. Moms would teach them to their pickney, who would grow up and tell them to American husbands, who would say Tell me again about all the fruits you would eat from the ground returning from school and how many kinds of mango?
- Shep = looking for mitochondrial Eve?
- U.S.Grant, Battle of the Wilderness = recanted earlier confessions to Pastor re educational pedigree, schools off Route 1 in ivied towns attended, accidental careers on Wall Street, bliss not followed
- In endless jabber-sessions to Kenya, in her native Kikuyu, funded by me w/calling cards, the English word Gold-diggah trampolined from the din like a roughhousing moppet.
- Quigs = With her misbehavior, sucking all my (welfare)money, playing w/ my head but giving me none, a Kenyan guy, he’d bet, would “cuff her with a rusty hammer and bake her in a pie.”
- FGM = Female Genital Mutilation, still practiced by some in Africa, Kenya and among the Kikuyu = Shaky Turf = Unknown, but Shep notes Celeste, despite being blazingly feminine and flirty, seems to be non-sexual. He once watched her wrench herself from the grip of someone who tried to hug her: “I’m untouchable!”
- Guy Talk = On the Matter of Nips , 1 ½ inches long, like mini fishing rods, my fantasy anecdote that I’d rig ’em with line and terminal tackle, sit ‘er on the riverbank, we’d never go hungry. Q appreciative
- Regarding why she never showed them to me again after about six months, Q, extending the imagery, comments You don’t offer bait to caught fish. Not shabby, Q.
- Lemme Tellya Just How Bonkers This Chick Is = tale re Celeste getting home health aide job down in Vineland beginning last month, her getting there, drinking all the booze in the house, dispatching the patient’s kin for more, being unconscious or drunk on duty, falling asleep, letting a cigarette burn a pillow, getting fired within a week. This told me by an aunt of hers, who found out the real skinny(but didn’t tell Mum). Celeste returned claiming My patient thinks he could fuck me just because I’m a little black woman.
- Bonus Track, Same Idea = Made Q’s day recounting Celeste peeing in a bucket outside her door while I fumbled with the key, C having run into me downtown after falling, ripping jeans I’d bought her and knee I’d not(jeans size 0, which one would not think is actually a size a’tall.)
- Exeunt, pursued by a bear.
Houten Falls officials tell News First they are actively investigating the cause of Thursday night’s blaze, which leveled a liquor store on the city’s west side and claimed the life of a tenant who rented a room on the building’s top floor. A spokesperson confirms the victim, 41-year-old Diego Condor, a Peruvian immigrant, had been in the US three years and worked as a line supervisor at a perfume-bottling plant in nearby Cedar Grove. News First has learned Condor was considered a kindly, beloved figure among co-workers and leaves behind, in his native country, a wife and five children.
I had to sit through a candy basket of Easter weekend coverage before this, treacle and pipe-organs, bearable only because I was entertaining beer through a straw, Celeste-style. My exodus from New York on Good Friday cloaked no meaning or symbol, though it had been a factor in my calculus that leaving this morning spared me the ‘Roided Religios-i-tay surely to ensue over the holiday at BVM, the Harlem rehab I’d endured from January ‘til now. Too, the season was turn, turn, turning; I was no longer terrified of the outdoors. The First Cause consideration had been cash money, the overall size of the nut required to quench the wench, plus this wily alcoholic’s monetary conversion of dollars to brew and the implications thereof. Your bus ticket will cost 31/2 beers, sir. Finally, I’d need enough mad-bucks left over to figure out what the hell to do next.
The fuck was my rollie tobacco? I poked my head around, looking, spotted a peeping-tom pigeon leering through the basement window. Peking Jesus with scallion pancakes and hoisin sauce. The dead guy. A lugubrious sequence, psychically storyboarded: the departed’s ninos and ninas, raven-haired, boxy heads atop threadbare ponchos, pan-fluting for pesos on dirt streets, dowsing for water and food scraps in the niches of cold stones on Machu Picchu, hawks circling above, measuring them for lunch.
I found my tobacky pouch, almost empty; shit if I wouldn’t have to run out for more. From my place on her second-best bed I looked at Celly, still touring her favorite vacation berth, Catatonia. Besotted. Beatific. Nefertiti after the Prom, capsized on her daybed, coiled vaguely into a ? On her side, right arm arcing into the narrow walkway like a toll-gate, trunk arched and legs straight, with one sandal off below her feet to finish the picture. Certainly pissed off Her Majesty godknowshow talking about the fire a few hours ago.
I’d gotten the Dry-Ice Special when I followed her in from our shopping lollapalooza. Nothing like the reception when I’d first arrived today, the didgeridoo chorus of Shep-hahd! Umelika! You have arrived! Habari za mchana? How are you this afternoon? Shep! Shep! Shep! as she flew to re-arrange the pillows on my customary perch on the deep couch just inside the steps leading down into her apartment. Yes, I’d seen her eyeing the beer in my hand with the alacrity of a transplant surgeon on a hospital helipad, taking delivery of a heart in a picnic cooler, but that was par and dandy.
Our rapprochement tonight? Sparked by the crimson-flecked gauze wrapped around her finger there. The unsinkable Ms. Wangai had been aft in the bitsy galley of her mini-submarine of a joint, by the sound of it engaged in the prep of foodstuffs, me in the fo’c’sle, sitting obediently, soaking malt, watching Richard Widmark ahorse on the Plains in smart, kerchiefed cavalry-wear, capitalizing on another opportunity to display his shoebox jaw and pitiless eyes to the world in general and baddies in particular on the old-movie channel.
A holler: “Kaara!” then “Inauma!” and “Modda-fukkah!(which I did understand) Celeste tearing into the bathroom. Water running. A long time. Eventually I risked her ire by going in.
“I was dashing cabbage,” she said. Over her shoulder I saw the horizontal slice on the first knuckle of the forefinger of her left hand. It didn’t look so bad, but she kept squeezing it from the sides over the sink, whimpering Shid, Shid, with each pinch a fresh orb of blood blooming, snaking in a tendril down toward the drain, the rivulet plumping as she compressed. Mother Mary, I said, let it be, and went and got hydrogen peroxide and a roll of bandage from the other room. When I returned she had both hands under the cold water.
“She-bear, what the hell’s that?”
On Celeste’s right hand, on the underside of the first three fingers, were domed, drum-taut blisters, discolored and seeming to swell like water balloons as I watched there.
“I scorch her on the stewpot last night,” she said, “I have the one glove only. I didn’t realize he was hot like this.” She ordered me out while she stayed with her hands under the water about fifteen more minutes, then let me clean and wrap the cut finger with gauze.
Now I had a ciggie rolled but couldn’t find my lighter, blow me, and I’d have to run out again for rations to get us through the night. Making a searching, fearless moral inventory of available alcohol, I realized Celly had poached it all while I napped, excepting the opened can I’d just finished. Including the refrigerated Shep-hahd Beer as distinct from the Celeste Beer she segregated, preferring it room-temp, in the Kenyan manner. Christ on a waffle cone with sprinkles, sweetie’s got bat-sonar for finding the stuff; I’d hidden mine under rotting parsley in the veggie crisper. There’s my lighter, on the floor where she’d dropped it. What up with that? On hand she usually had plenty of incendiaries. Better get shufflin’, I thought; Celeste’s SOP was to rise like a baby vampire for her 3:00 a.m. feeding.
Veni, vidi, vici and I was back, supplies stashed strategically, tidying up a little as Celly slept on, snoring like a puppy. Outside I’d found things passing strange. First I’d gone down the block for beer and then back up the other way to get tobacco at a bodega, giving me view of the liquor store site. It was abuzz with new activity, a fire department Battalion Chief’s SUV, one that said Fire Inspection and four HFPD patrol cars. The place lit up like a Scorcese shoot, huge klieg lights anchoring the scene, uniformed police and white-shirt brass from both departments hiving around, everybody in lettered jackets, maybe a dozen firefighters moving stuff from here to there. A surreal, Other feeling hummed in the background. The cosmos upset, Disorder driving, Chaos riding shotgun, hotrodding this way from the badlands. Over by the laudromat, dive-bombing the dumpster, seagulls, peculiarly far inland. Something up, man. Mulling this, I carried plastic bagsful of dead soldiers and other detritus out Celly’s door to her trash bin in the back.
Ambient light caught a silver glint almost at the bottom of the can. Huh. Pulling out what was on top, I grabbed a burgundy bundle of fabric and set it on the half-wall that edged the property line. Inside were four lighters, six packs of matches and the kitchen torch for the stove burners. The cloth itself looked familiar. I unfurled it, held it up. Yo. Celeste called it a jumper, I called it a hoody, the zippered kind. This was the one she said was her mum’s; I’d stolen it from her about nine months ago—fallout from a money feud—but when we made up I’d washed and returned it to her. It had been cut almost precisely in half. The fuck? I balled it up with everything inside and replaced it where I found it. The trash bin huffed of stale beer and, mmmm, another smell, almost but not quite like gas. I pawed through, sniffing, looking but not finding…Oh. Okay. I remembered that smell. Nail polish remover. Popped the bin lid back on, sharing a giggle with the winking stars and a nudge with the cobalt sky. Neon no homo disclaimer necessary: The only physical contact between Celeste and me was when she asked me to pretty up her feet. I’d scrape and buff her tootsies and footsies smooth with this sandpapery, exfoliating dealio, then remove her toenail polish and apply new. Yukking it up, I was, but my equilibrium was bushwacked; it felt as if the globe’s axis was slipping on the ice, its precession-wobble torqued askew…and the whole world was about to fall on its ass.
“Gobble something too, Patty-Cakes,” I said, tearing off a hunk of my everything-bagel, handing it to her, “No goat for the people tonight, remember?”
“Inauma hapa,” Celeste said, holding up her hand, the blisters now cocoa igloos all in a row, “She hurts here. How could I cook with my fingers paining?” Spurning the titbit, saying I knew she doesn’t eat American bread, she’d gotten it for me, Mizz Mysterioso drained the porcelain cup and held it up in our lingua franca of hops and barley. Fill ‘er up, General.
Time: 3:24 a.m. Place: Here in our lower room Event: Inebriated Tea Party
Who’s invited: 1 ruddy 46-year-old, 1 dusky, damned furrinner, early 30’s
Dress: 1 in jeans and fleece top, 1 in leather mini, muslin, taupe top, particolored tiara, glittered lip gloss, 1 fuchsia and 1 chartreuse sneaker, an infinity of bangles. There was precedent here; I’d seen pix on the net of the Kikuyu in festive dress—think Raggedy Ann, with a really serious coffee habit, dressing before dawn.
A tsetse fly of an urge had burrowed in my ear, hissing his li’l tsetse fly counsel: Get Celeste wildebeest wild on alcohol, fuck this noise about being afraid to piss her off, like she was Razor-Edge Coral and I was Bare Foot, like I was Grass Hut and she was Monsoon Winds. Something was wrong with Her Majesty and if nothing else it was buzzkill for me. More accurately, my starting point was the if-mom’s-not-happy-nobody’s-happy principle of our universe, though I granted trying to parse her issues was going to be a lot like being tasked to discover if a suicide bombstress had also been suffering a head cold. Something exquisitely fucked here.
Full disclosure, my wind-up for this had been frenzied and rather mephitic. I opened a window and invited something in. Found myself cast in a new role: it required gumshoes, a rakish fedora, the use of words like suss and hinky and something I’m not famous for. Balls. I drank myself into a lather and perverted all that had, in prior incarnations, been benign. How many times over how many months had I monologued while Celeste was unconscious? She was my witless confessor. I’d blab away, give up the goods .Occasionally I’d treated her as a foil, a mute scene-partner, kind of a duct-tape-trussed-and-gagged Shrew to my Petruchio.
This night I loved her neither wisely nor well; she became my reverse-cast Desdemon. As she slept I ravaged, sucker-punched, bitch-slapped, garroted her with words, my feet up on the couch arm that divided us, drinking at reckless speeds, puffing in smoke and spewing out foul gospel, shame the motherfucking Shetani. I opened the Don’t Ever Open.
Want it straight, Kooky Kikuyu Succubus Souse, do ya? You got Evil? Yer the squiggly, inept shadow on the back wall of Plato’s Cave for me, the botched, wannabe copy, a puny sketch of a woman standing proud out in the sunshine, a thousand times your better. Yer the parallel-planet, nightmare version of a fucking dead wife who died because she committed the grave crime against all of fucking humanity by fucking going to work one fucking dazzling, see-all-the-way-to-heaven day and got fucking slaughtered for it.
And one Fucking Bastard, a fucking drunkard who was responsible for her being there in the first fucking place, having to take back her old job because he fucked up again and they were starting over again and this time he was only five fucking blocks south and two east working as a consultant, for which read Glorified Fucking Temp and this Bastard, who for years had been a long-distance runner found out it was too far, too fast to run to save the better half of him, a Caramel Goddess who grew up in Bamboo, the next town over from Bob Marley’s birthplace and burial site---only to come here, to my fucking country
Wake the fuck up, Celeste. Time to party.
A commedia dell’Arte Columbine in that get-up, the kind of thing she’d wear around town for one of our romps, middle of the night, sitting there drinking beer from a teacup. Her movement keen angles and soft honey, very much at home on the earth, the air thrilled to have her, elated to be the negative space she occupies, to pillow each balletic gesture and sensual pose.
“He was Peruvian. Still is, I’spose, dead Peruvian.”
“Where is this Peruvia?”
“Uh, just below Labia and eh, south of the Anal Pass. Some call it the ‘taint’ of South America.”
“Is cold there?”
“Well, he’s cold, Celeste; that’s really the point here.”
But I wasn’t Harlequin to her Columbine, so it didn’t go that way at all. How it did, the juicy bits:
“Again. Tell me what you did last night, Celeste. It’s important.”
“Your call is important to us.”
“Were you crazy drinky-drinky? Where’d you go?”
“Please listen to the following…”
“Did something happen up by the liquor store?
“…as our menu has recently changed.”
“Did you have an argument with somebody?”
“Please remain on the line…”
“One of the guys who hang around there? Something with the owner dude?”
“One of our representatives will be with you shortly.”
“Did he maybe piss you off somehow?”
Beer, she said.
One 24-ounce can, five refills of a teacup. Twelve gulps. Three hours we’d been at it. Six minutes more. She spoke.
“Celeste. Celeste. Celeste. No more credit, Celeste. You owe. Celeste. So sorry. I don’t like he call my name so much. Why does he call my name?”
I said whatever may have happened, Celeste, just say so. It’s okay.
Silence, tears streaming down like rain from a palm frond, lips ossified in an uppercase O.
Then she said: “My name is Wangai. Child of God. I can not be touched.”
Bird chatter starting up beyond the door. I looked at the time on my phone, held it up so she could see. Celeste stood, reached for her jacket and we trooped out, heading toward a small eatery about 15 blocks away that sold beer in the mornings.
Outdoors it felt two-dimensional, tinny, as if we’d warped right into one of her old movies, a WW II flick, no longer in Houten Falls but call it St. Etienne, say, or some French village evacuated by Nazis only an hour before, now spooky, silent, menace spores alive on the breeze, Ms. Wangai and I American infantry grunts making our way to the plaza, she the rabbity, twig kid from Idaho and I the acid-boiled sarge from Brooklyn who growls It’s too quiet, I don’t like it, just before a Jerry machine-gun opens up from a church belfry.
I was thinking I’d almost welcome frontal assault from a uniformed enemy about now. I’d taken casualties skirmishing against guerrilla warfare half the night, the Kenyan freedom fighter using the foe’s might against him, her weaponry forged from the vapid, inane dross of our culture at large, the intel she absorbs from umpteen hours in front of the television.
Our route coming and going bypassed the liquor store property. On the way back I saw, though I believe Celeste didn’t, two, possibly three unmarked cop cars finning indolently through the area like blue sharks cruising for prey.
The Child of God took herself off to the back bedroom; I heard the rubber bounce of Kenyan benga rhythms thumping underfoot. I grabbed another everything bagel, two lagers logoed with an eagle hurling a thunderbolt, went out back, ground the bread between my hands for the birdies. Critters snouting away there I’d never seen, banana-colored with a cap-and-gown thing going on, black bonnet and sleeves on the wings. I plopped down on the concrete wall. Felt a kaleidoscoping nausea, then my ears popped, as in a precipitous change in altitude.
I heard an “Ahem.”
Phelan: So, first of all, thanks for breakfast. You blurpy moompf moinky--
Philomena: Don’t talk with your mouth full.
Phelan: Sorry. You didn’t have to. Breakfast, I mean. Nice.
Phaedra: The garlic was yummers!
Phineas: Anyhoo, we’re kind of on a schedule-
Philomena: Salad joint on Fourth, they do a crouton spill Saturdays at 9:00.
Phineas: So why don’t we get right to it.
Phaedra: My colleagues would like to help with a brief post-mortem on your talk with Celeste.
I said who are you guys exactly? Each introduced him/herself by name.
All: We’re the Phinches!!
Phelan: Gold Phinches, state bird and all that, you know. Jersey Strong!
Philomena: You’re having a…let’s see, Blackout, Hallucination, DT’s, I dunno, you pick.
Phaedra: Basically, I’m just along to translate. I’m working my way through school.
Phelan: Celeste’s a hottie. Little bony.
Phineas: So, down to cases. She copped to a dispute with the liquor store owner.
Philomena: Actually, she didn’t. He wouldn’t extend her additional credit. She said nothing and left. Her words.
Phineas: Still. What we say and what we don’t is significant. We get this big build-up, finally the only thing she comes out with regards his refusal to give her beer, how he pissed her off by “calling her name.” What do we have? Witness in extremis and lo, in vino veritas.
Phaedra: Caveat: Latinphiles in the area. Anybody smell anything pompous?
Philomena: Too pat, too simplistic. As a woman, I think I can provide a richer context here. If anything, we’re looking at Nemo moritorus praesumitur mentire--
Phaedra: A man will not meet his maker with a lie in his mouth. Goes to the verity of a dying declaration.
Philomena: But highly-nuanced, targeted, as it relates to Celeste. What was in her mind? You were badgering her, demanding answers. She sees you’re not going to quit. So what does she do? She gives you something, something genuine. Why? To get you off her back, to end the hijinks, finish the day. You see? Putting an end to it by tossing you a morsel, ends the day, a type of small death.
Phelan: We’re talking la petite mort? Sacre Bleu ! Sexy up in here.
Phaedra: First, no French until they let us use their airspace. Second, you’re crude.
Phelan: Mea culpa. Canicula.
Phineas: Let’s focus, people. Time’s flying, we’re not.
Philomena: I mean, I’m a big girl, I follow McEvoy’s intuition about all this, his impressions. Here’s what we have: She’s been more bizarre than usual since he arrived-
Phelan: Like hyper-drinking, subsuming the stuff.
Philomena: Yes, and super tetchy about the fire as subject matter, throwing away the lighters, burn blisters for Lord’s sake. Shep smelling, what was it, nail polish remover--
Phaedra: A highly flammable substance--
Phelan: The funky cut-in-half jumper.
Philomena: Sure and then son of a gun didn’t there turn out to be some sort of kerfuffle with her at the store…that happened to burn to the ground shortly after. But.
Phineas: I see what you’re on about, Pip. I can be persuaded too. We stick with the bare bones, the framework. Her story does hang together on its own merits, has its internal logic.
Phaedra: Right, she leaves the house with two errands, laundry and beer. Gets the wash started, goes next door looking for booze.
Phelan: Yada, yada, no beer for you, she leaves--
Phaedra: Starts back down the hill toward home, maybe she’ll rustle up some extra change--
Phineas: But then spots some of the local drunks farther down the street, toward the other store.
Philomena: She goes to them, they have wine, which she really doesn’t like, but she downs a lot, fast, tells the yokels about the store owner blowing her off. They commiserate, whisk her to the other place, treat her to a couple cans of beer.
Phineas: Folks, we need to wrap this up…
Phaedra: Okay, okay, so she returns to the laundry, waits for it to dry, then ends up home, crashes.
Phelan: Next thing she knows, fire whistles like mad, she rushes outside.
Philomena: And she’s a spectator, Shep, nothing more. Maybe.
Phineas: Leave you with this, McEvoy. Absentem laedit cum ebrio qui litigat.
Phaedra: To quarrel with a drunk is to wrong a man who is not even there.
Philomena: And for you, young man: Ignis aurum probat.
Phaedra: Fire tests gold.
I mumbled something about grateful for the advice, food for thought, keep those feathers flyin’.
Phelan: Some daffy old broad called us Hope.
My ears popped again and I was alone.
Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter. But when it got time to nail a socko name for Saturday, the fish must have just popped out of the fryer, the fries seasoned, slaw chopped and tossed and the biscuits plattered and steamy, so the funny-robe boys slapped it with a hasty “Holy Saturday” and scurried to wash up.
My alternative bid would be Everybody Take a Breath Saturday and that appeared to be how Celeste and I were playing it. We embarked on a nothing-to-report status quo, our submersible den on autopilot in halcyon waters, Celeste in the back thumbing her photo albums, I out front doing my usual when decisive action is required, going all ale-infused Hamlet. Showing the dilemma my back, aching for the company of dead folks, whateveryagot, musicians, writers, hadda be addicts or drunks, godstruck but damned…Absurd appeals to the universe and toasts to unmet, absent friends. I was a recalcitrant squirt, leaving virgin homework on the desk, darting to the window to see if Daddy’s home yet.
My chore was unriddling the marvels of CUP. The Celeste Uncertainty Principle. I could do one of two things, never both with any satisfaction. I could take the measure of the woman face to face, listening to what she said or I could watch her in action. Either way had its peril. Listen to her, I become beguiled, lost in the song and lose the plot. Watch her, I’m bewitched by the dance. And then there was the subset principle—the Observer Effect, whereby you can’t measure without affecting, or destroying, the system. Had I just chased Celeste and the truth into hiding forever, by confronting it openly? Eh, fuck it. I faded back 7 yards, took a clean snap from center and punted the ball away, leaned back and dialed up some Gin Blossoms on my phone, howzabout we dally a bit with jingle-pop poems of agony from that brilliant songwriter/guitarist guy. A suicide, of course.
Events took an upward turn when Celeste walked into the room naked.
A new Physics Assignment: What are 92 pounds capable of, maximally applied? Student was ready and lookee, the teacher appeared. A remarkable paper was written then, in that time, a mission of urgency and prowess, the kind that wins a body tenure. Hiatus was granted, after which addenda were penned and then follow-up works of towering quality, all garnering accolades, scholarly and general acclaim and calls for more, more, more.
“Cabbage,” she said, “My blood run on the kibichi. You must go to the shopkeeper.”
If I were human I would have pinched myself. Apparently there was to be cooking and food and other mortal activities I’ve heard bandied about or seen from afar. Why yes, I’ll just fetch my clothes from the roof(where I’m sure they landed) and be about this errand here. Let’s lay in some kibichi, let’s be about it straightaway.
By now it was close to 3:00 p.m. Above was a mousy sky, noncommittal, coy, like it was waiting for a better offer to come along from the next county over. No birds or wildlife in sight. I bounded up the street fingering the cash in my pocket, crunching under heel an inkling that I’d just swallowed a friendly analgesic which, if you keep reading down the back of the bottle, shows as a possible side effect Sudden Death. I’d give a miss to the grocery where Celly had shoplifted yesterday, opting for a little Spanish nook up on the corner. Got kabichi, a few other necessaries and on my way out, today’s paper.
Squatted on a stoop next to the store and found coverage about the fire below the fold on the front page. Officials now considered the blaze an act of arson; they’d discovered traces of an accelerant and telltale patterns at the point of origin, just inside the store’s back door, which had been left open Thursday evening as an employee came and went restocking the hooch.
The property was catty-corner across the intersection from me. The night’s frenzied action had ebbed; now I saw two unmarked cop cars and four plainclothes guys, blazers and khakis, flocking by the trunk of one of the vehicles. Something else caught my eye, so I made my way over.
It was one of those sidewalk memorials. Votive candles, lilies, a portrait of Jesus in his British Rock Star phase, a straw basket filled with triangular rolls, a cigar and a clear liquor bottle, full with a gold cap, that said Pisco. Stood there looking until a wizened little cop said Hey buddy, you live around here? Know any of the local characters who haunt these parts? Nah, man, I’m just in town to visit an old friend, got here yesterday. Heard all about this, though, drag. Damn straight, he said, Somebody’s goin’ down, thanks anyway and he turned to wave at another detective-looking type farther north on Maple, on a porch about to ring a doorbell. I crossed back toward Celeste’s, stopping at the corner, squinting to speed-read, under the he-loves-me-he-loves-me-not sun, the rest of the newspaper article. Then I tossed it in a trash can and made it down the block to Baby’s in the rear of the building.
“General Mack-aah-voyyy,” she trilled from the back room, “Fresh beer for you on the counter. With a straw. Guess how you say “beer” in Kenya? Bia.” She whooped, a bass glissando of a laugh, its owner rustling and clanging into view. A different outfit now, she’d showered, but the kind I hated, her take on American ‘Hood Rat. Mugged by a jewelry store, as usual, but now a plastic, leopard-print mini, black football jersey and ball cap affixed with sunglasses she’d stolen from me. I thought the whole thing coarsened her, like the street talk I’d noticed she affected more all the time. Me and Shep are just cheelin’.
Carrying a small, tied plastic bag of trash, she went out in a dervish of lavender balm, tossing back an airy I’ll be with you shortly, sir.
She returned in about 20 minutes, stomping all of creation off her sneakers. We left the world out there, doing whatever it is the world does. Celeste and I set about having the grandest day ever, tucking in bibs for what I would call a Devil’s Tasting Menu of the Seven Deadly Sins. Most were simple, one-dish concoctions—gluttony, lust, sloth, greed, even pride, all easy and delicious. Envy and wrath required a bit of Mise en Place and extra fuss from the sous chef, but we took an adult approach to the craft, venting not on each other, instead disgorging our bile outward to a miserly, malevolent race that clearly wanted us gone.
Goat, kibichi and gee-mah(ngima) were enjoyed, love or a facsimile was made, inventively and often, galaxies of lager were consumed. Laughter raucous enough to quicken the deceased, have them vertical doing a softshoe with canes and top hats. And there were muted, reverential passages too. In the main Celeste was a tireless chatterbox, great gobs of words piled on words, like words were Kenyan shillings and she had to spend them all by midnight.
But at one point, around 10:00 p.m., she handed me her photo albums, sat her no-account butt on the armrest by my side and draped her bare legs over my lap. This is my story, she announced, and we went through, as often before, until at last we came to a photo of Celly cradling a teeny bundle as she sat on a wooden bench on the porch of a zinc-roofed cabin.
“My kana,” She whispered, “My son. He died.”
I know, honey, I know, I said, staring into her tide pool eyes, just starting to run. Hey, I said, don’t get weepy on me now, let’s cheer you up. Why don’t you let me do your feet?
She didn’t blink.
“I don’t have my things,” she breathed.
“C’mon, sweetmeat, you always have oodles of that crappola. Run get me the foot wand, whatever color you want for your toes and that smelly, whattayacallit to take the old stuff off.”
She did a barrel-roll off the armrest onto the other couch. I have to call my aunt today, she said, and phoned Winnie, who lived about six blocks over. They yammered awhile; finally Celeste handed me the cell and went into the bathroom, Auntie and I doing our usual check-in when I was around, in hushed tones discussing Celly’s general condition and temperament. I hope she wasn’t troubled by that terrible fire over by you, she said, did I know what happened? Horrible thing, very sad, I said, but no, Celeste seemed absolutely fine, great to speak with you.
“Ah, Christ chops with mint sauce and Garlic Disciples,” I called toward the bathroom, I’m a drunken monkey with bad math. Tomorrow’s Sunday, no booze ‘til noon. I’ll dash out, grab enough to get us through.”
“’Scuse, can you spare a smoke?” He accosted me on my way out of the firewater shop down on Highland Ave. Teal, mucky flannel shirt, bloke looked like a lumberjack with the air let out of him, his face a corroded axe head with moss hanging off. “Gotta ask ya something,” he said. I gave him a rollie, he lit it. I’d seen him before, he was part of a bedraggled band that hung around there and in a small, pocket park down the way.
“Kinda a big deal,” he said, “Yesterday, didn’t I see you walking with that crazy African chick lives around here?”
I gave my best puzzled face. “Mmmm, no, I’m not from around here. African chick?” I shook my head. Tell ya what, though, haven’t I seen a lotta cops around here, sorta dressed like me, maybe you’re getting us mixed up?
“Lotta cops,” he said, “You have no idea.” Sorry couldn’t help, I said, motoring out of there.
Back in the house I handed Celeste a huge bag of barley pop, did what I’d never done before and she never let me, gave her a big ol’ smack right on the lips. “Oh, kissy-kissy,” she said.
We got right down to business, how she wanted me to stay with her in the apartment, paying a third of the rent and pitching in for household items, how we’d pro-rate my share because I’d come with April already begun. I said it all sounded swell. Then the lessee shoved the sub-lessee down on the daybed with her bare foot and stood there asking for a frank, comprehensive critique of her birthday suit.
The party went on most of the night, Celly passing out first and me not far behind. We were still up for her 3:00 feeding, so when she fell out I had the feeling she wouldn’t be up at 6:00 am, her curtsy to normalcy that really just masked a chance to imbibe.
At 7:00, I rose, smoked, drank, showered, dressed. Sat awhile on the couch eyeballing her. I clicked the TV off. The only sound in the room came from the zippers on my backpack. I hoisted it and went up the steps, propping the door open with a flat rock she kept out there. Sometimes in the mornings she liked the door open, get some fresh air in, and the open door would make her think I was right outside.
Got to the intersection, crossed. Was that four little birds up there? Yellow and black, peering down from the corner of a tenement roof. Hard to tell in the sun’s glare. I waited, watching three little Spanish girls in pearly dresses playing on their porch. In surround-sound, church bells.
A bus came. I stepped on, asked the driver if it went somewhere. Sure does, honey, I’ll drop you right at the main entrance. I sat down. To the window I muttered “Ningwendete.” I love you.
The glass didn’t respond and I couldn’t see through it anyway, so I just said: “Tigwo na wega.” Good-bye.