Anna’s First Friday Shift

The Trattoria is expecting a particularly busy Friday night, so of course Jay calls in sick, thinks Kim as she sets the last of the restaurant’s twelve tables. Placemat, plate, folded napkin, fork and fork and knife and knife, cup for water, cup for wine, won’t you be my valentine, she hums to herself as she lays out the elements in perfect order. Jay is not going to ruin this night. Yes, she admits to herself, just she and Anna in the whole front of house will be tough– poor Anna, her first Friday shift and we’re man down– but we’ll make it through, and we’ll take home more tips for it.

Friday the 13th, Kim thinks, what a lucky day… and how lucky of me to know how lucky it is! Most people think it’s unlucky, but I know different– it was Friday the 13th last June I met Jack, and I’ve never been so lucky in my life. As she walks from table to table, squaring corners, lighting candles, Anna calls ten minutes from the hostess stand.

One of the cooks, Luis, walks through the double doors, his apron bloody with au jus, a pack of Camels in his hand. He extracts one with his teeth and asks through open lips if Kim wants to come out back. “We open in ten minutes,” she scolds him, “you don’t have time!”

“Sure I do,” says Luis, “you ain’t gonna take their order for at least ten minutes after that… so maybe you don’t,” and he winks at her before turning and re-entering the kitchen. Kim sighs exasperatedly. She walks towards the front of the room, where Anna is leaning uninterestedly on the podium, as if she is about to address a crowd of high-schoolers.

“Do you think Luis likes me?” she asks Anna.

“I think Luis tries to hit on everything,” Anna answers, looking out the darkening window at the passers-by, “but he knows you have a boyfriend.”

“It’s not even anything he says,” Kim muses, “it’s just that stupid fucking winking.”

“Yeah, I’ve noticed that,” Anna says. “Hey, so, what do I do if there’s a line?”

“What?”

“You know, like, we’re full and people keep coming in?”

“Take their name and put them on the list,” Kim says slowly, “just like any other night.”

“Oh,” Anna says, “that makes sense.”

Kim is suddenly less certain of herself. Goddamnit, Jay, she thinks… well, at least it’ll be over by eleven, and Jack is coming home tomorrow. In just one day, can’t you see, you’ll be back at home with me… I just have to get through this, she thinks, “we just have to get through tonight, Anna,” she says.

“Yep,” Anna murmurs. She takes out her phone and starts thumb-typing. Almost simultaneously, Kim’s starts to buzz in her pocket.

“OK,” Kim says, “that’s the alarm. Let’s open ‘em up.”

Anna looks at her phone. “It’s only 4:55. I think we have five minutes.”

Kim reaches into her pocket. “It’s… oh.” She pauses, bewildered. “It’s my mom.” She lifts it to her ear. “Hi, Mom, this is not really a good–”

Anna keeps texting as Kim stands listening. The expression on her face is a combination of mild confusion and annoyance that her mother is choosing this time to call her. “No, of course not, I’m at work, how would I be watching the news? …I can’t right now, we open in like four minutes, can you just tell…”

She is silent for about fifteen seconds. As she listens, her face changes, tightens. The confusion becomes shock. She raises a hand to her slowly opening mouth… “Oh, no,” she says, “that’s…” And then, suddenly– so quickly, in fact, that Anna almost involuntarily spins around to see– the shock gives way to panic, to terror. Her eyes widen, her skin perceptibly whitens. “He’s on assignment,” she whispers voicelessly, “he’s photographing some band… I don’t fucking know, Mom, some fucking band, Mom, don’t fuck with me like this, the– how the– yes. Yes, that was them. Yes, the fucking Queens of the Stone Age spinoff thing… yes, that’s them. Mom, I need to go, I need to make a phone call” and she hangs up, raises the phone to her mouth and orders it to “call Jack” as Anna stares, wide-eyed, at the being Kim has suddenly transformed into.

“What’s happening?” asks Anna.

“It’s ringing,” says Kim, “it’s ringing…” Anna waits. “It’s… it’s ringing…”

Anna waits.

Finally, after what seems like too long, Kim hangs up. She turns to Anna. Her hands are shaking. “I’m going to go smoke a cigarette,” she says, “with Luis.”

“What’s happening?” whispers Anna.

“I’m– smoking– a– cigarette,” Kim intones, “just like any other night.” And she turns around and strides into the kitchen. Anna is alone in the dining room.

Before she can point her phone to the news, the alarm rings. She quickly silences it. Now it is Anna’s turn to panic. She has no idea what is going on with Kim, why Kim is freaking out, and she does not think it is fair to leave her alone on her first Friday shift. Ah, well, she thinks, I suppose I can just wait until she gets back to unlock… but even as she is thinking it, a man raps twice on the door. Shit, she panics, what do I do? Unsure of herself, she tries to imagine herself as Kim… confident, experienced Kim, who seems to have disappeared… she takes a deep breath and goes to open the floodgates.

“Are you guys open?” the man asks. He is old, tall, and balding, dressed in a neat black overcoat. Behind him stands an equally old lady, short, with a bright red scarf.

“Y-yes,” Anna says, then more confidently, “Yes, we just opened, you are our first guests!”

“Two,” the man states. Anna looks at him. “Two?” he says again, holding up fingers in case she does not understand. “Where can we…?”

“Of course, of course,” Anna says, shaking her head, “let me show you to your table. Is by the window OK?”

“Hm,” the man hums. He turns slowly to his wife. “Window, Carol?”

“Hmmm,” she hums. “It is sort of cold, isn’t it?”

“But do you want to sit next to the window?”

“It is cold,” says Carol. “But I don’t know, why don’t you decide?”

“The decision,” mutters the man, “is not so very important,” and now another couple is standing behind them, on the street, and though they have been in line for no more than ten seconds they are already getting impatient New York faces. Anna’s heart nearly bursts through her chest. Where are you, Kim, she thinks, I am fucking up so bad already…

“Maybe a table farther from the window would be better?” she hazards.

“Well, of course it would be,” says Carol, “of course it would be, but you offered us the table by the window…”

“Ma’am,” Anna says, doing her best to feign a smile under the circumstances, “being the first guests here, you have the option of sitting wherever you’d like.”

“Well, put us by the window,” says the man.

Away from the window,” Carol corrects him.

“That’s what I said,” he agrees. Anna leads them to a seat by the bathrooms. The couple that had been behind them is gone. Though she hates to lose customers, Anna is somewhat relieved. She goes to the bar (Jay’s usual spot) to pour two glasses of water. While she is pouring them, Kim returns from the kitchen. She sees Anna behind the bar and immediately walks over to her. Anna wants to berate Kim for leaving her alone on her first night, but she cannot; Kim outranks her, and furthermore, Anna can see that she has been crying. Her makeup is ruined. Anna tries to quash her lingering resentment.

“He’s OK,” Kim says.

“What is going on?” Anna asks.

“Jack is OK,” Kim says, “he just posted on Facebook, he was sick and stayed home, Jesus Christ, Anna, he was sick and stayed home…”

“What are you talking about?”

“Everything’s OK,” she says. She takes a deep breath. Everything’s OK, everything’s all right, the restaurant is closing soon, “Let’s just get through tonight. Let me take those waters. You go to the front door. Looks like you got a line,” she nods in the direction of the street. Anna looks up and, indeed, there are now three or four people standing at the hostess stand. It is going to be a long night, Kim thinks, a long, hard night for everyone, but it helps to have some perspective, doesn’t it? It could be so much longer… “It could be so much worse,” she says aloud.

Anna thinks for a moment. “You need to fix your makeup,” Anna says. “Let me take these waters.”

Kim touches her face. “Fuck,” she says, “I guess I’ll just rinse everything off, it’s better than all this running…” She smiles. What an inconsequential problem. “I’ll be back in a minute,” she assures Anna as she steps towards the bathroom. Anna trays the waters and walks them to the table where Carol and her husband are waiting. They, too, have their New York faces on.

“Finally,” Carol says aggressively.

“I apologize for the wait, ma’am,” Anna returns sweetly. “Your server will be with you in a minute to get you any other drinks.”

“We know what we want to eat,” says the man.

“I’m sorry, sir,” she says, “your server will really be with you in just one minute.”

“This is ridiculous,” says Carol. Turning to her husband, she asks pointedly, “Do you want to stay?”

“I don’t know,” he says, “do you want to stay?”

“I don’t want to stay but if you want to stay, I could.”

Anna looks towards the entranceway, which now has three or four entirely different people standing in it from before. The pace of life here, she thinks. Customers will come and go all night, but all we have to do is get through.

The Errand

The first Saturday of every month, Madison has to go with her mother to Coney Island. They go no matter the weather. On sunny summer days they go to the beach and stay for a few hours, but even when it snows they ride the N from their home in Astoria, nearly from one end of the line to the other. It takes almost an hour and a half. “In Rhode Island,” Madison’s mother has told her, “you can cross an entire state in an hour and half.” Madison’s mother always brings a book on the train. Today the book is a small, thin paperback, with a solid red cover and no pictures. Madison can’t read yet, and on some Saturdays her mother brings a picture book to read to her, but on others– like today– she doesn’t. “Sorry, Madison,” she says, “I need to read this for work. I guess you just have to use your imagination.”

Madison is good at imagining, but she prefers just to look out the window of the train. Even underground, she is amazed at how fast the lights fly by her. The bridge is her favorite part, of course, especially if there is traffic and she can watch the stopped cars, the pictures on the sides of trucks, the things that change every time. She is only four years old, but she is already bored with the Manhattan skyline. She has seen it the first Saturday of every month, with one exception, as long as she can remember; and even if it changes sometimes with a new building, the novelty wears off. Once the train enters the open cut south of 59th Street in Sunset Park, she likes looking at the tracks pass her by in the light, she likes looking at the freight trains in the trench below them. She likes to pretend she is sitting still and the city is the one moving, all the buildings getting up and running so that Coney Island can get to them.

Madison unenthusiastically but ungrudgingly accepts that she has to go on these monthly errands. She is more than a little confused about the purpose of the errand, but has learned not to question it. One time she asked her mother why they had to go every month. “Sweetie, you know why,” her mother had said, “we have to visit Matt.” Madison asked if she really had to come to visit Matt. Her mother had insisted: she couldn’t leave Madison at home alone all day, and it was, as they both knew, a long trip.

Madison had asked why they didn’t go every couple of months, instead of every single one. But her mother wouldn’t dream of it, wouldn’t entertain the possibility. At first Madison had thought this was unfair. But then, one Monday night at the end of October, there was a big storm, and the subway was closed all week. Madison’s mother didn’t go to work, and the two of them stayed home; her mother read to her, they played games together, and to top it all off Wednesday was Halloween, Madison’s favorite holiday. It was the best week of Madison’s life. On Friday night, Madison’s mother said to her at dinner, “The subway is still closed. I guess we won’t be visiting Matt tomorrow.” Madison said it was OK, she didn’t mind, she was having fun. Couldn’t they stay home and watch a movie or something instead?

Her mother didn’t respond for a few seconds. Then she said, “Finish your dinner, sweetie, I have to go to the bathroom.” She got up and walked upstairs. Madison kept eating; she finished her macaroni and her mother still wasn’t back. All of a sudden she could hear a terrible sound: her mother was crying, alone. Madison panicked. What could she do? This had never happened before, not at home. She was used to seeing her mother cry in Coney Island, not every month, only from time to time, but it didn’t seem real there. It was just part of the routine, like when people cry in movies. Madison never understood why her mother cried in Coney Island, but in all her four years had never thought to ask. But this was at home. How could her mother be so sad? Wasn’t she having fun too? Finally the sound stopped, her mother came back to the table, her face wet with water from the sink. “Sorry, baby,” she said, “I guess I really had to go to the bathroom.” Madison offered to clear the table and her mother said she could do that. After dinner they watched The Wizard of Oz.

The next week they were able to get to Coney Island, and after that they resumed their usual schedule. Since then, Madison hasn’t complained about going to visit Matt. If her mother has to cry once a month, she would rather it stay there, in Brooklyn, where she can pretend it is all part of some meaningless ritual, where she can pretend it doesn’t matter.

That was more than three months ago. It’s snowing, now, as the train pulls into Stillwell Avenue. Madison’s mother puts the little red book in her purse and stands up, taking Madison’s hand as they step across the gap. They are bundled up, Madison in her red scarf, blue knitted hat and black gloves. She has refused her mother’s request that she wear snowpants. Madison asks to lead the way. Her boots are slightly too big for her, but she is still able to run down Mermaid Avenue, which she has always thought is a very pretty name for a street. Four, five, six blocks, until she reaches their destination: an old bicycle, stripped of seat, pedals and chain, locked to a pole, in the same place it has always been. It is covered two inches deep with fresh white snow. Madison brushes some of it off with her gloves. The paint underneath is the same color as the snow. She picks some of the snow up to taste it. It is cold and delicious.

She turns around; her mother is half a block behind her, in no particular hurry. Finally she gets there. She takes off her right glove, and as she does every month, kisses the palm of her hand and grips the handlebar of the bicycle. “Hi, Matt,” she says. “I’m here with Madison. It’s snowing.” Madison doesn’t get why her mother wants to tell the bike this; she may only be four, but she knows bikes can’t hear, and if it could hear it could probably also figure out that it was snowing. But she is used to her mother’s oddities. It really was a lot like a movie. “Allison and Jiayi just got married,” her mother tells the bicycle, speaking very slowly, “you remember them. You would have loved the wedding. It was at this beautiful church out in Flushing.”

While her mother is relating the last month’s events to Matt, Madison sits on the snowy sidewalk and lets her mind wander. Two blocks away she can see the beach, and in the quiet February air she thinks she can even hear the waves crashing. Yes, she definitely can. She wonders why the ocean doesn’t freeze in winter. She is lulled into a sort of meditation, listening to the water, and doesn’t realize how cold and wet her pants are until her mother tugs at her arm. “Ready to go, baby?” she says. Madison asks if they can go down to the beach. “Not today,” her mother tells her. “It’s too cold. Oh! Your pants are soaked! I told you to wear snowpants.”

The two of them slowly make their way back to the train. By the time they get home, they will have spent three hours on the train and waiting for the train, all for only fifteen minutes of talking to a bicycle named Matt. Madison’s legs are shivering as they stand waiting to cross the street, her knees knocking against each other exaggeratedly. “I’m sorry, Madison,” says her mother, “once we’re on the train you’ll warm right up.” A train is waiting for them at the terminal, and they get on, the only ones in their car. They sit across from each other. Although she is determined not to make her mother cry again, Madison feels unusually resentful that she has been dragged here yet again. She knows her friends’ mothers don’t do anything like this; why is hers so weird? Her mother takes out the little red book and begins reading. Madison watches her with newfound interest. She has, for so long, accepted their errand in Coney Island without the need to understand it; but something has changed. Her legs are still cold.

At Avenue U the train is delayed. The announcer says that they are being held by the train’s dispatcher, and thanks the passengers for their patience. There is still no one else in their car.

“Mommy?”

“Yes, sweetheart?” her mother says, looking up from the book.

“Why do you tell Matt all those things? I mean, why do we come all the way here, just so you can tell him what happened last month?”

Her mother looks at her curiously, head cocked to one side like a puppy. “Well,” she says, “he was very important to me. I suppose you could say I was in love with him.”

This was not what Madison was expecting to hear. “But Mommy,” she says, confused, “Matt is a bicycle.”

Her mother’s eyes widen and she raises her hand to her mouth. “Madison… sweetie…” The doors close, and the train begins moving. Her mother has an expression like she has just found out that everything she knows is wrong; her mouth moves but no words come out. All of a sudden Madison is terribly embarrassed and ashamed of herself. She is sure she has said something awful, something that will make her mother cry again, and although she isn’t sure, she thinks that this must be what being a grown-up is like. She realizes in an instant how fragile her mother must be, to think a bicycle is a person, and she is very scared. But above all, she feels sorry for her mother, and she feels she must protect her.

“I didn’t mean it, Mommy,” she says. Her mother still has the look of shock on her face. “Matt’s not a bicycle. Matt’s a person. I’m sorry I said he was a bicycle.” She gets up and crosses the car to sit next to her mother. “He’s not a bicycle.”

“Madison,” her mother says, “I didn’t… I didn’t know you didn’t know.” Madison doesn’t know what this means. She leans her head against her mother’s side. “I know the thing we visit in Coney Island is a bicycle.” Madison is relieved that her mother is not crazy after all. “I shouldn’t have— I mean, of course you don’t… listen, sweetie, can we— can we talk about this at home?”

“You have to read your book for work,” Madison says.

Her mother smiles. “Yes, I do.” She blinks and there is a single tear in her eye. “Yes, I do.” They sit the rest of the ride in silence. Her mother combs her fingers through Madison’s hair. Madison knows there is something her mother isn’t saying, but that sense of dangerous fragility is still so fresh in her mind that she is content to wait, to learn about it later. At some point she closes her eyes and the next thing she knows her mother is waking her up, telling her that theirs is the next stop. Madison is sad she missed going over the bridge. But, she supposes, she will see it next month.

Old John

The men are beginning to line up at the corner. Must be getting on five o’clock, Andre thinks, watching them from his stoop– my stoop, he says to himself, “my stoop,” he says out loud, relishing the sound of the words. They sound not a bit less musical than the first time he said them, almost two whole months ago now. The first time he had said them, he had cried. It’s not unlike looking at a beautiful sculpture, Andre thinks. The first time you see it, you stop in your tracks, but eventually it just becomes part of your walk and you don’t see it any more— unless you look at it.

Andre’s stoop is only three houses down from the corner; he didn’t move far. Far enough, he thinks. From his new stoop he can’t see around the corner to the giant mounted statue of General Whoever-it-was. He’s heard somewhere that you could tell how a general died by how his statue was seated, but he forgets the rules. When he used to stand in line at the shelter with all the rest of them, he’d sometimes look at that statue and dream about getting out of Brooklyn, riding off on a horse all the way out to Long Island, re-enacting revolutionary battles. One time he turned to the man standing behind him. “Who do you think that is on the horse?” he asked. “Fucked if I know,” said the man, “you can go look, but I ain’t saving your fuckin’ spot.” Andre stayed in line.

Watching the line grow, Andre recognizes a face here or there, but no names until old John shows up. Old John’s face is grizzled, his clothes tattered, his skin black as his hair. He walks right past the line, sits down on the ground, his legs crossed like an ayurvedic yogi. He pulls a beat-up piece of cardboard out of his bag, unfolds it, and sits down, his claim staked. Andre smiles. It’s funny how with some guys, with most of the guys Andre knew back then, you hope and pray they don’t come back some day, because it means they made it out, just like in Ben Affleck’s speech in Good Will Hunting. Old John isn’t like that; Andre knows as well as anyone that old John’s never getting out, old John’s never getting his own place, old John’s never sleeping inside until it’s in the Kingdom come. Andre knows just as well that this is how old John wants it. Never did like sleeping indoors; when Andre used to go to the shelter old John would come in around nine, after the beds were all gone, get his ration of soup and bread and go back to eat it outside. No matter rain or shine, hot or cold. When it got cold DHS would ask him to go inside, and he would say no, and they would say come on, old John (Andre was initially surprised when they knew his name, but got less surprised the more that he thought about it), come on, you’ll freeze to death, and he would say, if the Lord wills. If it was only sort of cold they’d let him stay. If it was really cold they’d sometimes arrest him out of pity, and on the one occasion Andre observed this happen, smoking a cigarette on the stairs, he was amazed at the interaction:

“All right, old John, you’re leaving me no choice. I gotta arrest you.”

“I ain’t goin’.”

“Put your hands behind your back.”

“I said,” old John said, “I ain’t goin’.”

“Old John,” the officer said, taking a deep breath, “would you please put your hands behind your back.”

“Well,” old John smiled, “you done asked so nicely.”

The officer handcuffed him and led him to the car, and before they drove off Andre could hear old John saying, “Since we in the car already, think we can lose the cuffs?” And to Andre’s amazement, the officer replied, “Of course, my friend,” and loosened his shackles.

Andre figures every day he sees old John at the shelter is a day old John isn’t dead yet. It’ll happen one day, but not yet. He stands up from his stoop and walks over to the cardboard mat, from which he can see the statue of the general. Surprisingly, a man leaves the line and walks right past Andre down the block, but Andre pays him little mind. He reaches the mat.

“Old John,” he says.

Old John looks up. “Who that?”

“It’s Andre, old John,” he says, and suddenly he is overcome with a wave of apprehension. I shouldn’t have done this, he thinks, I shouldn’t have. He’ll think I’m rubbing it in his face, that I got out and he didn’t–

The old man smiles. “You there, Andre,” he says, “God is great, you still there.”

“How you been, my friend?”

“I live,” old John grins a wide, toothless grin of joy, “days passin’, leaves changin’, I’m a hundred and thirty years old and I ain’t seen none of it yet.”

“Whatchu gonna do this winter?”

“Old me been through a hundred and thirty winters,” says old John, happy as a junkie on his fix.

“Ain’t no reason you can’t make it through this one,” says Andre.

“Ain’t no reason I made it through any of them,” says old John. “Ain’t no reason. Gonna happen how it always happens– I see you in the kingdom.”

Andre catches the eye, in the line, of a man whose name he does not remember, but who (he does remember) had physically engaged him in an altercation stemming from an argument over where loose cigarettes could be found the cheapest. The other man’s eyes narrow and Andre excuses himself. Old John barely notices. As Andre turns around he bumps into the man he passed before, who gives him an unapologetic, indecipherable, but unthreatening grunt.

When Andre arrives back at his stoop, there is a puddle of yellow urine on the second step. At first he hopes it is water, but the smell is unmistakable. God damn, he thinks, “god damn it,” he says out loud, “this is my– fucking– stoop,” but nobody can hear him. From the corner, he hears old John’s unmistakable trickster laugh, the laugh that needed no provocation. He sighs and goes inside to get a bucket of water.

Crown Heights, 8:15 AM

Anabelle places the cut-in-half crate on the counter, gently so as not to crack the eggs. She reaches into her purse and fishes for her wallet, finds the dollar and two quarters and extracts them, makes eye contact with the Lebanese man towering in front of her, whose store she has been into so many times, but whose name it has never occurred to her to ask. Surely he does not know hers either. But they recognize each other; she acknowledges him with a nod. He smiles momentarily, but it evaporates.

“It is two dollars now,” says the Lebanese man.

“What?” asks Anabelle.

“Two,” he says, holding up fingers to illustrate.

Anabelle thinks for a moment. “Two dollars for six eggs?”

“Yes,” he says. The white man standing behind her shuffles his feet impatiently, opens his still-unpaid Manhattan Special, reaches into his pocket for his phone. The fizzing sound burns Anabelle’s ears, implores her in that quiet but certain New York way not to hold the line up, but she needs a second, can’t he see this is important?

“Why’d the price go up?”

“This is what prices do,” says the Lebanese man.

“I might need to find another store,” she quietly threatens, barely above a whisper. Behind her she hears the drip of overflowing coffee soda on the floor. “It always used to be a dollar fifty,” she explains, a little louder, slowly, stressing the words as if to make him understand how important these eggs are.

“Prices go up everywhere,” he says. The door of the bodega swings open, morning sunlight suddenly streaming into Anabelle’s eyes, and two white girls walk in, simultaneously laughing and looking at their cell phones. One walks to the back of the store where the beer is, and as the door slams the other one greets the Manhattan Special drinker, ignoring Anabelle and the owner entirely. “My price goes up, they go up at the supermarket, they go up at the other delis. Listen, you find these eggs for less, I give them to you for free.”

“I might…”

“Go, then, I have more customers.”

“We’re in no rush,” the white man says. The girl pushes him in a way that is clearly supposed to be meaningful, but says nothing. She looks at her feet, then, exasperatedly, at her phone.

Anabelle sighs. “I only got a dollar fifty.”

“You only have a dollar fifty?”

“I can have maybe four eggs?”

“And what you want me to do with the other two?”

“I…”

For an uncomfortably long time they look at each other, ignoring the line behind them. The girl who had been in the back returns with a six-pack of Flying Dog. She looks around as if she is expecting another person to be there, besides her two friends. Then she takes out her phone as well, and the three of them are all staring at their screens. It appears to be a ritual.

“Listen,” the Lebanese man finally says, “this time, this time only, I give you eggs for one-fifty. You give me fifty cents tomorrow.”

“Thank you,” Anabelle mouths silently. She puts her money on the counter and takes the eggs. As she leaves, she calls back to the register, “God bless!”

“Yes, yes,” he says, “and what can I do for you, my friend?” As the door slams behind her, Anabelle can hear the white man answering. “Just this,” he says, “and a blue pack of Spirits.” The sun is still in her eyes as she walks home.

Just a Fancy Word for Drinking Water

They gave him oral rehydration therapy, Frank says, but he threw it up.

Shit, Julia whispers, and puts her forehead in her hand.

They say it might still work, Frank says.

That doesn’t make any fucking sense, Frank. How the fuck is he supposed to get the water in his system if he threw it up. If you’re in a goddamn boat and the boat starts to sink, and you bail all the water out of the boat, the boat doesn’t sink anymore. How the fuck is he going to get rehydrated if he’s lost all his goddamn water? She pinches a fingerful of yellow hair in front of her nose and pulls it down until she involuntarily-voluntarily yelps.

Julia, Frank says. Julia, calm down. He sits next to her. Rows of empty chairs line both sides of the hallway, as if the hospital were expecting visitors four to a room, as if (Frank thinks) all the open doors all might suddenly close and the hallway might start to move, a great Hadean subway to nowhere. He touches her shoulder and she recoils from his fingers like a snail.

I don’t want to fucking calm down.

There’s a difference.

What’s the fucking difference?

The difference is in this case we want the water to stay in the boat.

Fuck you, Frank, Julia says acridly, you’re murdering my father.

Neither one of them talks for a little while. Julia knows she is being irrational but she doesn’t fucking care. Frank knows she knows, and doesn’t know the right thing to say. So he waits. The hallway is quiet. It is so quiet that Frank starts to wonder if anything is actually going on in the room, if the doctors are doing anything at all, or if perhaps Steve is already dead, maybe he has been this whole time and nobody remembered to tell the two of them, out here in the hall. Maybe the subway has left. Maybe the room has already been cleared. Maybe someone else’s father-in-law is already dying in there.

I mean, he finally hazards, sometimes the boat still sinks.

What?

You know, you try and bail out all the water and you don’t… look, I’m just trying to go with your metaphor, I mean, your analogy, I’m trying to say that it might still work.

The analogy?

The oral rehydration therapy.

Oh. Julia takes a deep breath through her nose, holds it, exhales through her mouth. I’m sorry I snapped at you, she says.

It’s OK.

I’m just… She holds both hands in front of her face, palms facing each other like she is clutching an imaginary basketball, and vibrates them.

I know.

It wasn’t a very good analogy.

It was fine.

They wait. What else can they do?

Cutting Brooklyn Grass with Scissors

“If you didn’t cut it,” says Mikey, “it would grow and grow until it was as tall as the Empire State Building.” He is sitting on the lawn chair, licking some kind of cartoon-shaped popsicle that is turning his tongue blue, and getting (of course) all over the front of his white shirt. The popsicle, despite being marketed as ice cream at the deli around the corner, does not contain any animal products. “Wouldn’t it, Dad?”

“Obviously,” John tells him, “which is why we have to cut it.” He is in his underwear and a T-shirt, kneeling in a yard that is big for this area of Brooklyn, whatever his ex-wife thinks. His shins are coated with a thick layer of what John calls dirt when talking to his son, but calls repurposed industrial waste to his friends. Two years ago John tried to grow tomatoes in the yard. Tomatoes weren’t his first choice; Mikey loves tomato sauce, but John never has time to make it from scratch, and neither of them like raw tomatoes very much. John loves, more than (almost) anything else in the world, the smell of tomato leaves, but he didn’t think that a smell alone was really worth the trouble of gardening every day. But Mikey convinced him. “We’re gonna have a thousand tomatoes, Dad,” he had said, “we’re going to have so many tomatoes that you’ll have to make tomato sauce or they’ll all go bad, and we can give the extras away to Mamacita,” which is what the basement tenant (who does not have direct access to the yard herself, and who does seem to cook a lot) has told Mikey to call her, even though John knows her name is Diana. Despite his better instincts, John was sure his son was right, because of how sure Mikey had sounded when he said it. And so he bought five packets of tomato seeds and spent an afternoon with Mikey in the yard, with John digging five parallel rows and Mikey coming behind and sprinkling seeds in each row, one packet to a row. “There are going to be so many of them,” Mikey had said, “there’s going to be a forest of tomatoes in our yard,” and he had laughed excitedly, thinking about what it would be like to be the only one at his whole school with a forest of a thousand tomatoes in the backyard. “We could tell people we live in Tomato Forest Hills,” he had said, and dissolved in an uncontrollable fit of laughter. John had had to explain (to Mikey’s dismay) that only some of the seeds would sprout, and of the ones that did sprout some of them would grow bigger and stronger than others, and they would have to weed out the weaker ones and in the end there would only be a dozen or so plants per row. Mikey had cried thinking about all the poor plants they would have to kill; he had asked if we could take them to the park, where maybe they would have some more room, and John had said no, plants don’t like to be moved when they’re that little, and Mikey had said well maybe they don’t like to die either, couldn’t we at least try it, and John had said no we’re not allowed to go plant tomatoes in the park, and Mikey had cried some more and finally John had relented, OK, OK, we can transplant some of them to the park, but we have to do it at night. In the end it had been a moot point. Despite Mikey’s meticulous watering, only nine plants sprouted, and only two survived long enough to produce any tomatoes: one per plant. The one that grew closer to the fence was scraggly, orange instead of red, deeply wrinkled, and delicious; the two of them made a Caprese salad out of it, with mozzarella from D’Agostino’s that John was pretty sure was made upstate. They had eaten the whole thing as a snack. The other, the one that made it in the center of the yard, was big, bright, round, and full from the core to just inside the skin with foul-smelling green mold. The leaves on both plants had no smell at all. Mikey didn’t ask about tomatoes last year, and John has been telling his friends that their yard is built on the ruins of a chemical plant, which he hasn’t confirmed with historical records but which seems to him like the only likely explanation for the tomatoes’ failure. After all, Mikey had been very good about watering.

“I don’t get why we have to cut it,” Mikey says.

“Because,” John says, snipping the grass and remembering his days as a child watching his father cut hair, “the city won’t let us have grass as tall as the Empire State Building.”

“That’s stupid,” Mikey sighs, resignedly. He is used to the city being the reason for so many things they can’t do, like have a car like Mom’s (actually, John can’t afford the insurance, even now that they have a tenant), or have a pig, which the city actually won’t let them do, which is a good thing because John really does not want a pig. John is almost done cutting the grass, tossing the clippings over to the area of the yard where no grass grows, trying to cover it up so it is not so obviously barren. “How tall are we allowed to grow the grass?” Mikey asks curiously. He finishes his popsicle and holds the stick between index and middle finger, like Mamacita’s cigarettes.

“It has to be shorter than Trinity Church,” John says, “they passed a law in 1733.”

“And we still have to obey it?” Mikey is shocked. “That’s like three hundred years ago.”

“Laws don’t go away,” John asserts.

“There are so many taller buildings now,” Mikey muses. “They should change it. How tall is Trinity Church?”

“A hundred feet.”

“Well, the grass isn’t a hundred feet tall yet.”

“The taller you let it get,” John says, standing up, “the faster it grows.” He surveys the yard. He has done a good job. He walks over to the lawn chair and sets the scissors down on the armrest. “Take these inside. And throw out your popsicle stick.”

“Couldn’t we let it get a little taller next time?”

“We can talk about it. You might have to write a letter to the city.”

“I’ll write it right now,” Mikey exclaims. He grabs the scissors and runs inside. John sits down in the unoccupied lawn chair and looks at his work some more. He sure has done a good job. The clippings are covering the bare dirt like a turf mat. A few more days of this heat and it will all be dry and brown, but for now, he can imagine the yard verdant, sprouting, full of life. While he’s at it, he imagines the grass growing tomatoes, a ball-pit’s worth. Seems like anything is possible here.

Carl

When Carl woke, he knew he had to call his son. Even before he opened his eyes, he knew something was wrong. And he knew his son would be able to fix it, he would. He wasn’t sure what it was, exactly, that had happened, but by the time you got as old as Carl you had learned to trust your gut on things like that: if you thought something was wrong, something might be wrong, but if you knew something was wrong, well, you can’t know something that ain’t true, can you? No, you sure can’t, Carl told himself, a little upset that something needed fixing, but proud of himself for knowing about it.

He opened his eyes and the world slowly focused itself, stopping a few points shy of sharp. He reached for his glasses, fuddled for them on the end-table for what felt like a very long time, finally found them and placed them on his face. Now the world was still imperfect, but it would do. He sat up and swung his feet over the side of the bed, slowly raised his clasped hands over his head in a stretch, as he had done every day in his life, and said out loud as if to someone present: “Thank You, Lord, for minding things while I was out,” as he had done every day since Gloria died. “Now,” he said, as if to the same person, “what’s wrong?”

He stood up. No need to dress himself: when you live alone there is no one to tell you not to parade yourself about in your long johns. The dog might see, of course, but the dog didn’t really care— poor old man was losing his mind, he was. Carl felt bad for him, the dog, but he didn’t resent his illness. After all, one day Carl too would be old and decrepit, and when that happened, someone would have to take care of him. So he had to carry his pet up and down the stairs, so he had to help him sit up and lie down, so he had to feed him those awful-smelling dry food pellets out of his hand— he was already picking up his poop for fourteen years for God sakes, sorry God but You know it’s true, I did pick it up and carry it around the block twice a day for fourteen years, think I’ve earned a right to say so— well if it wasn’t for Your sake, whose was it for? Dog sure didn’t care if I left it— ain’t it funny that dog and god—

Carl kept mumbling to himself as he shuffled to the kitchen, thankful for his own legs and continence. You sure do mind things. He flicked the switch on the coffee pot and sat down, trying to remember what it was he had to to today. Something was wrong, he remembered, but what was it? It’s just like the movies, he thought, I gotta figure out what the problem is and then I gotta call David and he’ll fix it, he will, as the coffee pot began to make its familiar, comforting steamy drip-drip. Just gotta feed that poor old dog, he thought, poor old man probably doesn’t even know it’s morning, poor old man don’t know nothing any more…

He stood up again and walked to the dining room, where the dog’s dishes had been for fourteen years, for fourteen years I’ve been scooping the same awful-smelling dry food pellets into the…

Carl stopped. Something wasn’t right.

For fourteen years I’ve been scooping the same awful-smelling dry food pellets into the…

That was wrong. That wasn’t right. Of course he used to scoop them into the dish, but since Gloria died the dog hadn’t been eating right, ain’t that right… He’d had to feed them to him, out of his hand, and he would never eat them out of the bowl but when I held them in my hand he must have thought something was different about them, thought they tasted better that way, he used to be such a smart dog but he was losing his mind…

Wasn’t I supposed to call David?

Where in the hell, sorry Lord but I’m upset, where in the hell was the dog? And his God— his God-danged—

Carl was frantically dialing his son’s number, beep-beep-beep, beep-beep-beep-beep. And the voice came on the other end, David, David, is that you? —something about an area code— we ain’t had no area codes here before I ain’t paying for no long distance— he dialed it again— David is that you this time answer your phone for Chrissakes, it don’t count Lord if I don’t pronounce the T, do it— it was the same stupid lady telling me I gotta dial an area code, I don’t get it, my son didn’t move, where the hell are you David? Finally he decided that if it was going to cost him fifty cents it would just have to cost him fifty cents— he dialed the area code and then David’s number, beep-beep-beep, beep-beep-beep, beep-beep-beep-beep.

David answered. Dad?

David, Carl said, David—

Dad? Is everything OK?

No, Carl said, no, listen… He paused, he took a deep breath. He had to be strong now. David, son, look, I’ve, I’ve got some very bad news.

Oh no, David said, what happened.

David… He sighed deeply, he wiped a tear from his eye. The dog is dead, David, he said, the dog died.

There was a long pause, a long, long pause, poor kid’s too young for this, why couldn’t I shield him, why couldn’t I protect him, You didn’t mind everything while I was out, I know I can’t question Your wisdom but would you throw me a bone once in a while, just—

I know, Dad, David said, I know.

And now Carl was wiping more tears away— And your mom’s dead too.

I know, Dad. I know. I know.

When did she die? And the kid didn’t answer for what felt like a very long time, a very, very long time, three years ago. Three years ago, he repeated himself, and his voice cracks on the “ago” and I couldn’t protect him—

And the dog? Carl asked. When did the dog die?

A year after that, David answered. Two years ago. A year after that.

You didn’t mind things while I was out, Carl said, Carl started to shout, You didn’t mind things while I was out, You were supposed to take care of everything, and David knew that Carl wasn’t talking to him. He listened. He waited. And eventually his father burned himself out, eventually the fire ran out of fuel and the line was silent.

Dad? Do you want me to come over?

Aren’t you in New York?

No, Dad, I moved back here, we all moved back here, for… Look, why don’t I come over, Dad, I’ll even bring the kids, we’ll have a nice time.

We can have a nice time, Carl repeated. We can have a nice time. I’ll make a pot of coffee. And he hung up. He walked back into the kitchen and saw that the coffee machine was already on. He wasn’t sure when, exactly, he had made the coffee, but he was grateful it was there. Maybe You made it for me, he thought, now I just need a mug, which he took out of the cabinet, the same cabinet the mugs had always been in. He set the blue ceramic mug that Gloria had made on the counter and he poured himself a cup of steaming hot water. It don’t look like coffee I’ve ever seen, but I sure gotta believe that You know what You’re doing.

About the Dog

NOTE: You may just want to skip to the story below the horizontal line.

When people ask me what it is I write, the best answer I can give is that I don’t know. “I’m just starting,” I tell them, “I’ve just come out of a very intensive course of study and I’m changing career tracks.” “Did you study writing?” they ask. “No,” I tell them, “physics.” “Oh, but you’re a writer now?” “Well, I’m applying to wash dishes at a Mexican restaurant.” “Ah,” they say, “I understand,” and I wish they would explain it to me.

The goal of my writing up till now has always been exemplified by the quote from On Keeping a Notebook that I’ve repeated so many times: to remember what it was like to be me. But the world (in the narrowest possible sense) is changing, and it is not just Didion I must live by, but also Rilke:

Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.

Maybe Rilke is being too exclusive; surely there is such a thing as the hobbyist writer, for whom writing is not quite as important as water and air, but nonetheless more important than (say) sex or automobiles? I don’t think I would have to die if I were forbidden to write; I have gone long periods without writing. But then, there are those who fast.

Though I naturally have some private journals, an inappropriately large fraction (it seems at a first estimate to be around half) of my writing in the last few years has been on this blog. It’s been primarily nonfiction, first-person, like a diary (which the prankster in me would like to call diaretic, but which is actually diarial). I have sparingly but unapologetically sprinkled in fictitious elements where they made the story better; but from now on, my focus will be on using this as a platform to publish more polished short stories, essays and other literary efforts. My last post (from April!) was my first effort at this; expect more like it to come.

Eventually my hope is to submit writing to magazines, but I’m not there yet. If you are reading this, the odds are that you know me personally; if you take the time to read a whole story, I sincerely appreciate constructive (interpret broadly) feedback in the comments section.

Today I offer you a piece of fiction largely inspired by real events. Its working title is “About the Dog.”


ABOUT THE DOG

Michael carried the dish across the kitchen. It was still replete with the old dog’s lamentably uneaten breakfast: a cup of crunchy, dry, almost unscented kibble, with a spoonful of leftovers for palatability, garnished liberally with ketchup in a crosshatch pattern. The plate was crawling with a mass of six-legged scavengers, seeking to capitalize on the sick old dog’s lost appetite. He turned on the sink. As the scalding, steaming water washed the food and its formicid inhabitants, incapable of protestation, into the gently whirring garbage disposal, he was reminded of the line from the Bhagavad-Gita: Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.

He let fall a single drop of soap, massaged it with his thumbs into the old, decaying sponge. “This sponge,” he said aloud, “has seen better days,” and it was true; but he kept using it, nonetheless, because he had no other. Having worked the soap into a lather, he vigorously scrubbed the bottom of the dish, intent on removing every last invisible ant-germ. On some level he knew that ants carried no significant diseases, and that the old dog had, in his day, eaten enough of them to get an exterminator’s license; but it seemed important to get it right this time, to give the dog a dinner to remember, one not… Outside, there was the faraway grumble of a motorcycle.

Speak of the devil— when he turned around to replace the empty bowl, the old dog had dragged himself into the room, looking forlornly up at Michael, his master. Thick front paws supported his entire weight; neurodegenerative myelopathy (Michael remembered the name without a clue about the underlying causes it signified) was now several months advanced, paralyzing, atrophying muscle, working its way from the hind paws forward, until it would eventually reach… The two held eye contact for what seemed to him like a long time, until finally the dog’s rear legs gave way and his hindquarters fell into an unenthusiastic intercourse with the lacquered wood floor. “What do you want,” Michael asked, “old boy?” The dog, unaware of his slippage, did not change expression: waterfallen, cloudy eyes fixated as best they could on his master; bent and patch-haired tail, splayed out behind the bony, fragile legs, vibrated, feebly, once.

He sighed and went to go refill the dish. It bothered him, the amount of food he discarded every day. After all, each dry brown nugget represented a portion of the life of (he read the side of the bag) a chicken, a pig, or a lamb. Some animal somewhere had suffered and died, to be fed to the old dog, to be fed to the ants; to be washed down the garbage disposal. But dutifully he poured the chicken-pig-lamb-bits into the dish, and dutifully he opened the refrigerator and reached for the Tupperware of last night’s vegetables. It was empty. “Sorry, old boy,” he said softly, “nothing special for round two,” and satisfied the both of them with extra ketchup.

He returned the bowl to its spot on the low table. The old dog was now lying on his side, not looking at anything in particular; the squeal of the mailman’s cart outside did not even disturb him. “Come on,” Michael said resignedly, “come on.” The dog made a halfhearted attempt to lift his head, but gave up, waiting for what always came next. Michael knew. He slid his arm under the visible ribcage, feeling the tumor that was growing larger every day, and his other hand around the veiny neck. He gently picked the old dog up and righted him; he uncrossed the dying legs by hand, straightened them, and left one hand in contact with the old dog’s buttocks, to push him in the right direction should he slip.

Now they stood there, the two of them, in silence for a while. The old dog watched his food continue to exist; time did not seem to pass, the ticking of the clock above the shelf drowned out by the neighbor’s comically overpowered lawnmower. It may have been five minutes, it may have been fifteen; but nobody moved until the first ant had made its way up the leg of the table and into the dish. The first ant was followed by a second, and by a third, and before long the whole colony was back in force, consuming the sustenance that had so generously been proffered it. As the neighbor finished mowing and the engine sputtered to a halt, the old dog turned his head back towards Michael, who removed his hand. Ignobly, predictably, and slowly, the dog’s hindquarters slid backwards; he lost his balance; he fell sideways. Michael did not take his eyes off the ever-growing, squirming mass of ants, the ever-diminishing pile of ketchup. He was once again reminded of the line from the Bhagavad-Gita, and softly he began to cry.

The Rising

THE RISING
or, Four Reflections On Water
or, An Incomplete List

1.

The forest closes above and around us like a tunnel in a canyonside. Even though this is just a modestly sized patch of trees in a modestly sized park, and the trees are still skeletal and budless on this Easter afternoon, it instantly becomes quieter as we cross their threshold. The sound of children playing in the park, jumping in the damp, rapidly melting April snow, fades first into muffled murmurs and quickly into silence. The three of us are alone, not five minutes from home.

“Look,” one of us (all of us) (none of us) says, pointing off the trail into the civilized wilderness. The trail, though not paved with asphalt or concrete, is better maintained than a true forest road: well graded, absent large potholes, puddles or rocks. It rises several inches above the average level of the forest floor, and in the liquefied winter we realize we are not in a forest at all but a swamp. A layer of icy water, too chaotically dirty for us to sound its depth, covers everything. In places, it looks like snow, but it is perfectly smooth and flat, better paved than the trail, and it ripples when you touch it.

“I wonder,” aloud, “if that’s just from the melt. I mean, is it just excess runoff that’ll all drain into the pond soon enough, or is this just always swampy?” No one knows. Near the bridge, my praise for the trail is misplaced. The mire has overrun its artificial banks and dribbled across our path, like a bibless baby. We cross anyway.

2.

“It happened again,” I confess to Denny. He is unsurprised. He begins, dismissively, his usual speech: “As the rivers rise and fall…”

I was born in the flat country. Syracuse has hills, it is true, but when you have known the mountains you know the difference. I had heard the phrase, as the rivers rise and fall, I knew that this was supposed to be some kind of seasonal rhythm, like the snow, or the humidity, one more aspect of the water cycle. I may even have noticed that Meadowbrook was slightly higher in spring than in the rest of the year, and attributed this to the snowmelt. But I never understood, not until I moved to Avon, why rivers are worshipped.

I arrived home late in the evening, late in May, exhausted from the drive from Fairfield to Twin, to Snowville to Salt Lake, to Provo where I picked up a couple of French hitchers, to the non-town of Tucker where I dropped them off, to Price through the desert and desert to Junction, to Glenwood and finally up valley to home. After fifteen hours on the road and an entire audiobook entitled The Art of Racing in The Rain— it had not rained— I poured myself a martini, and went to smoke a welcome-home cigarette with my friend-sublessee Andrew on the balcony. But venturing outside, I was struck, as with a fist, by the incredible roar of what I could only take to be the impending apocalypse. “Pray for me,” I asked Andrew. “What?” he shouted back. “I can’t hear you over the river.”

The Eagle River, which I had only known in fall and winter, a rocky, bubbling stream, up to a foot deep in places but usually shallower, had evolved, metamorphosed, risen into something the likes of which I had never seen before. What had in April been a frozen ditch had become a crashing, howling juggernaut, a tornado-green monster, a swollen frenzy of whitecaps. It was neither evil nor ominous; it only impressed upon me the sheer unadulterated strength of an inorganic, unemotional nature. I would later learn that the trail through the canyon was closed near the tunnels, washed away by the force of two counties’ accumulated snowmelt.

For a moment I dared to think that it had all the power of the ocean, but I immediately realized that that was ridiculous, almost blasphemous. Nothing on Earth has the power of the ocean.

3.

We watched the storm clouds roll in, against our mothers’ and mayor’s unequivocal orders, from the pier at the end of North 5th Street, just past Kent, right on the water. We drove there. That should give you some perspective on how unusual the situation was. We never drove anywhere.

We stayed maybe ten minutes. While we were there, it stopped raining and began pouring, the wind stopped gusting and began blowing. I had never, I realized, been outdoors in a true storm before; I had never experienced that wind-tunnel effect, that sensation of constancy, above all that sound, like God blowing in your ear. I remarked to Gabe and Brandon that the wind was blowing west here, just like it was blowing west everywhere north of the eye, thousands and thousands of square miles, it was the same wind here as in Syracuse and in Boston and in Washington, we are all under one wind.

We retreated home just as I began to be afraid.

We spent the night indoors, making pizza from scratch, drinking beer and waiting for the power to go out. It never did. We stayed up until two or three in the morning, laughing, joking, just as if the Storm Of The Century weren’t ravaging outside, hoping it would all blow over and in the morning we would all be alive. I read a little of Schrödinger’s book, What Is Life, which I had decided was my project for the days off, while we listened to records and the old tube radio.

We learned Manhattan had lost power, and heard stories of flooding, but where we were nothing seemed out of the ordinary, except for the wind. Yet when I finally went to bed I remember wishing that I wasn’t alone. It seemed the wind would keep rising all night, rising without limit, tearing the roofs off of houses and blowing up the Con Ed building on 14th Street and knocking over that crane in Midtown and turning us into waterlogged New Orleans, killing everyone. Of course, as I’ve previously written, the storm did devastate low-lying swaths of the city, killing 71 in the state, which is not everyone, but which is 71 people. I don’t wish to revisit that here. But Williamsburg was spared.

Almost a year later, I was driving a four-wheeler on private land in Idaho when a furious storm whipped up out of nowhere, with lightning striking so close to me I could feel my hair stand on end. The two miles down hill to the farm seemed unending, and when we got back I was shaking. The inconsolable terror of thunder that some of us suffer, of being at the mercy of the elements, of the big one, must predate the invention of language. Why else would it be so hard to express?

4.

At 10:11 in the morning on August 28, 2005, the National Weather Service in Slidell, Louisiana issued what is widely considered to be the most strongly worded weather bulletin ever promulgated by the service. It does not take much imagination to read it as a millenarian prophecy of doom. When the government makes statements that could cause panic, as this one surely could have, there is a responsibility to ensure that the statement is justified, that the benefits of warning outweigh the distributed effects of fear. Robert Ricks, the author of the copy, is said to have reread the text he had written several times, looking for anything that was too strong, anything scary that the public could be spared. He found nothing. I reproduce it here in its entirety.

000
WWUS74 KLIX 281550
NPWLIX

URGENT — WEATHER MESSAGE
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE NEW ORLEANS LA
1011 AM CDT SUN AUG 28, 2005

...DEVASTATING DAMAGE EXPECTED...

HURRICANE KATRINA...A MOST POWERFUL HURRICANE WITH UNPRECEDENTED
STRENGTH... RIVALING THE INTENSITY OF HURRICANE CAMILLE OF 1969.

MOST OF THE AREA WILL BE UNINHABITABLE FOR WEEKS...PERHAPS LONGER. AT
LEAST ONE HALF OF WELL CONSTRUCTED HOMES WILL HAVE ROOF AND WALL
FAILURE. ALL GABLED ROOFS WILL FAIL...LEAVING THOSE HOMES SEVERELY
DAMAGED OR DESTROYED.

THE MAJORITY OF INDUSTRIAL BUILDINGS WILL BECOME NON FUNCTIONAL.
PARTIAL TO COMPLETE WALL AND ROOF FAILURE IS EXPECTED. ALL WOOD
FRAMED LOW RISING APARTMENT BUILDINGS WILL BE DESTROYED. CONCRETE
BLOCK LOW RISE APARTMENTS WILL SUSTAIN MAJOR DAMAGE...INCLUDING SOME
WALL AND ROOF FAILURE.

HIGH RISE OFFICE AND APARTMENT BUILDINGS WILL SWAY DANGEROUSLY...A
FEW TO THE POINT OF TOTAL COLLAPSE. ALL WINDOWS WILL BLOW OUT.

AIRBORNE DEBRIS WILL BE WIDESPREAD...AND MAY INCLUDE HEAVY ITEMS SUCH
AS HOUSEHOLD APPLIANCES AND EVEN LIGHT VEHICLES. SPORT UTILITY VEHICLES
AND LIGHT TRUCKS WILL BE MOVED. THE BLOWN DEBRIS WILL CREATE
ADDITIONAL DESTRUCTION. PERSONS...PETS...AND LIVESTOCK EXPOSED TO THE
WINDS WILL FACE CERTAIN DEATH IF STRUCK.

POWER OUTAGES WILL LAST FOR WEEKS...AS MOST POWER POLES WILL BE DOWN
AND TRANSFORMERS DESTROYED. WATER SHORTAGES WILL MAKE HUMAN SUFFERING
INCREDIBLE BY MODERN STANDARDS.

THE VAST MAJORITY OF NATIVE TREES WILL BE SNAPPED OR UPROOTED. ONLY
THE HEARTIEST WILL REMAIN STANDING...BUT BE TOTALLY DEFOLIATED. FEW
CROPS WILL REMAIN. LIVESTOCK LEFT EXPOSED TO THE WINDS WILL BE
KILLED.

AN INLAND HURRICANE WIND WARNING IS ISSUED WHEN SUSTAINED WINDS NEAR
HURRICANE FORCE...OR FREQUENT GUSTS AT OR ABOVE HURRICANE FORCE...ARE
CERTAIN WITHIN THE NEXT 12 TO 24 HOURS.

ONCE TROPICAL STORM AND HURRICANE FORCE WINDS ONSET...DO NOT VENTURE
OUTSIDE!

The feature of this text I find the most interesting is not the sentence, “water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards.” Of course, many have remarked on the irony of dying of thirst on a boat, and I have little to add to the analysis of that tragedy. Rather, it is the repeated use of the word, “all.” All gabled roofs will fail. All wood framed apartment buildings will be destroyed. All windows will blow out. You cannot win. It doesn’t matter if you think you are safe. You are not. You cannot win. You can only run. Drop everything and run. That is the power of the ocean.

The bulletin, notably, does not mention flooding; it does not mention the possibility of the levees breaking. We did not yet know how incredible the human suffering would in fact turn out to be.

A Meeting

The streetlights on my block are ancient, relics of a bygone naphtha era. Electrified so many years ago, the community chose to preserve the cast-iron lamps that lamplighters lit with fiery poles, and their accompanying property values. They cast a diffuse orange light on the asphalt, oscillating dark and bright, Daniel Craig shining the flashlight at Stephen Rea’s back, I caught you. It is late; though the bars on Westcott one block west are trying desperately to convince the last stragglers to leave the patios, there is nobody on Allen as I walk north. The high, gusty winds of the afternoon (severe, in fact, as more than one sign on the QEW alerted) have all but subsided. The day before the same storm system had produced a tornado that flattened a town outside Chicago, killing two; by the time it reached Buffalo it had little anger left, and now it seemed to have nothing but a nightcap for us here.

In Manhattan or Brooklyn I never felt scared when alone on the streets after dark, not even on the dark part of Morgan; like the old factoid that you’re never more than six feet from a spider, it’s usually true that someone around you is awake, that someone would hear you if you wanted them to, that even if someone on the street looked menacing someone else would not. I am told I walk fast, but I don’t know if this comes from my life in Brooklyn or Syracuse.

About halfway between Harvard and Genesee, a stern meowing breaks the silence and my head pivots to its ten o’clock. In the middle of the street at the convergence of two light-shadows, as if in a spotlight, two well-fed tomcats are sitting on their haunches, facing each other. They are not yowling or fighting or even pacing around each other, like Simba and Scar; motionless, one appears to be lecturing the other. He gives a long, slow, deliberate mewl, there is a silence, and then another, with different inflection; not like a song as much as a sentence.

As I get closer, he stops. The two of them turn to stare at me. When I pass, the professor wordlessly rises, and alone he walks, not runs, to the other side of the street and disappears into some bushes. The student waits ten seconds or so before following. The night is as black as before.

Continuing north, a tall, black figure with wild hair appears at the end of the block and approaches me. “What’s up, man,” it says, offering a belly-height closed fist. I return the salute and together the two of us walk down the hill.