Potholes

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

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

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

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

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

A call came one afternoon, a response to an inquiry for donating used cars to veterans in need. “Yes, yes,” I said, “the vehicle is still available. It’s so cool you called me back. You know my Dad was a survivor of the Tet Offensive!” A long silence suggested the caller wasn’t impressed, but she’d send a representative from the VVA in Philadelphia that afternoon to pick up the Camry and leave a tax form for that sweet, sweet deduction. If I timed it right, the tow truck would arrive just before the street sweeper stormed down the block, kicking up dust and a mad rush of angry Cantonese retirees in minivans. And, sure, I’d feel good about it too, my “commitment to those who served” and all.

Waiting, I caught the tail-end of an interview in which a woman was saying, “…and we do it this way because we can’t in real life. Here, we’re all going to the same place, and it’s not a good one.” Odd, I thought. A reformed (or better, ex) Catholic, I assumed the “same place” people took a more agnostic view of the afterlife, neither good nor bad given its no-thing-at-all state of, well, literal nothingness. In that moment, I surfed a bigwave of guilt and regret for donating the car and wished I could call Tracy from Philly’s VVA back to tell her, “Hi, me again – the son of the Tet Offensive survivor. Remember me? Yeah, about the car…” But it was too late. Time to make some veteran’s day with a beautiful once blue ’92 Toyota Camry, no shocks, two speakers and a Hoffa-sized trunk.

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

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

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

I hoped the next guy had a falsetto.

 

 

 

 

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Live at the Greenhouse (unfinished fragment)

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

propecia 1mg avodart, benign

proportion male Hims Hims hyperplasia 

50% sexual side loss 

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

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

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

***

 

 

 

 

 

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Strangers in Raval

We’re here for the second time this week, MACBA, and while we had expected all the waxed ledges and international burnouts on wheels – evidently the skateboarding hub of Europe, it’s real – we didn’t expect Modern Art to take a holiday for Assumption. Closed on Tuesdays, fine, but shuttered on a random Wednesday for a miracle? How sanctimonious.

Disappointed and exhausted (we had already walked 8 hours in the Catalonian sun, braving the Rambla in the mid-afternoon) we decided a drink was in order. We spotted a quiet bar with outdoor tables near the skateshop and took seats next to the only other two patrons, a couple of kids on a fling. She lit a cigarette and continued speaking with a thick italian accent about one competition or another in Berlin. He responded by telling her to chill and put the cigarette out on account of a baby (ours) present. It’s fine, we said, and that I had been chain smoking around him all week anyway.

We’ll take a beer, a glass of white wine (lots of ice) and one banana milkshake. Could you put it in this baby bottle? 

After a while as the italian girl smoked out of range, the other kid – who I now noticed was more than a kid, maybe approaching 40 but hadn’t modified his uniform in 20 years – asked me if I was from Philly. I touched my cap and said, South Jersey actually.

Jersey, he repeated. You know Freddy G?

Oh yeah, Fred Gallo?  (I was immediately embarrassed and probably even looked confused that I latinized my answer.)

Well, Gall, yeah – Jersey Scum, man! You still skate?

I’m not sure how I silently established in the 10 minutes sitting there that I had ever skated, but I decided the kid obviously had the more observant mind. He called Barcelona home for 15 years now, watching a certain kind of tourist pass by these stomping grounds of his. And I guess we share the same uniform.

Not anymore, no, but I keep in touch with a couple buddies back home. They got really good and I kinda fell off. But I still love it.

That’s alright, man, you’re still a rad human. (The compliment struck me as a little strange, like he was about to ask for a big favor or something.)

I wonder if you know one of the guys I grew up with, Steve D. from Habitat?

Oh, man – Stevie?!..

It went on like that for a few minutes until the italian girl came back and we introduced ourselves. I noticed that she had a fresh tattoo of three letters below her wrist: BCN. I liked that a lot and thought about it each time we passed a tattoo parlor the rest of the trip. We talked about Barcelona, whether he – a videographer that calls himself Winkle – had gotten sick of it after 15 years (I was sick of MACBA and the Raval after two days). He didn’t say one way or another, but cautioned against drugs, sadly warning that there’s only one alternate way of life: that of old ladies in the early morning. The word ex-patriot flashed through my mind, a word reserved for Hemingway novels or history books, but here, a real live flesh and blood example above polyurethane wheels. I respected it.

My son spilled his banana shake all over the table and Winkle rushed to send some napkins our way. Small, genuine gestures. I began to understand why so many skaters took breaks at his table, shooting the shit, finding the next party, planning some footage for tomorrow… if the weather holds.

By the time we said our goodbyes, his company increased copiously. One italian girl became a party of 20 bronzed and bruised youths, vacant tables and chairs squeaking across the plaza to repeat another day in the everlasting Court of Winkle.

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In memory of my aunt (daily practice)

for KD

Three hundred and fifty years out of a millennium the polluted haze obscured all view of the palace across the river bank: smog or the smoky remnants of incendiary celebrations. Some families expired through two generations without a sight. The orchard survived through two hundred years of industrial progress in a nurturing glow of diffuse orange and brown light, filled with dancing shadows from the apple trees and passing motorbikes on the highway.

Birds sing through the ambient buzz of traffic, but they’re not seen.

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Face to face with splendor but lost in its anonymous fog, the orchard gave a blind horse’s odds to catch a clear day’s reflection off the embedded gems. He and his Aunt took those odds everyday. She, blinded, led by her nephew’s hands on their daily afternoon break through the apple littered paths. For decades now, from the beginning of his memory and the end of her sight: neither had yet to see the palace. And neither had missed a day. So did the palace really exist beyond the banks? A distant relative from a nearby village claims to have seen it one morning returning from the fields. Scarcely anyone remembers him visiting the fields, least of all sober. More credible artistic villagers passed along rough sketches of the vision, always the same, always inspired: a marble platform, two mosques, four stilted minarets and a dome resting weightlessly below an expanse of rare blue.

One morning this generational fog broke just before daybreak. The air was cool and quiet. He would have slept through it, so newly pleasant, had the orchard keeper not rung a bell he had never heard before. But he knew immediately what it meant. Darting from his bed, he ran shoeless to his Aunt’s house and knocked on the door. Once, twice and again, no answer.

He yelled,

Auntie Auntie, the palace. It’s here. The sun is rising above it! Come now!

Still no answer. But the strange bell rang and the villagers walked in mass disbelief through the orchard, those perpetual oranges and browns, dancing shadows, industrial hums disappearing for now, just for a moment, like forgetting the name of a familiar thing.

Auntie, he called. Wake up! Come see – the palace is here at last.  

Urgency turned to desperation and he found her there in her bed, a final resting place. Peaceful in the crisp air. He pushed the blinds away to welcome the rising sun, and there he saw it at last, as she always imagined it: true majesty.

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frosties in a hot war (daily practice)

after Hemingway

Shaved, clean-cut, and dressed like a mallrat escaped from Zumiez, he was to keep a low profile on the train. If any civilian asked, he was a student at a small school outside Chicago on his way home for winter break to visit his high school sweetheart. For supporting evidence – but only for the really nosy and bored ones – he was given pictures of a random pretty girl taken from a series of advertisements, like those in an old JC Penny tome, the sort of thick things suburban Moms had lying around for their pubescent sons to explore lingerie section fantasies. (If you squinted or stared peripherally, he remembered, you could maybe see nipples through the bras, eyes watering, burning, until the dark circular mystery revealed itself.) He could even toss in a few country colloquialisms, “Yeah, isn’t she somethin’?,” playmaking at cross-country friendship. “Yessir, prom queen of Long Beach Island right there.”

Though about 30 and weathered by over a decade of leadership, he looked young and innocent enough to play the part of country bumpkin. To the engineers and service staff, though, he was a known and protected quantity, unknown to everyone else, mostly thick-boned midwestern types too fat to fit into airplane seats, as a potentially dangerous fugitive in an unsealed train.

I went down to 30th Street Station to retrieve him, managing to avoid any suspicious glances from the militarized police presence. There was something terribly incongruous about their steroidal armored appearance under the old-school clickclacker departure boards and tourists ambling sluggishly between Auntie Anne’s or Au Bon Pain. I didn’t see any issue with his stopping for a Frosty (who looks suspicious holding a milkshake?), except I dreaded the pressure of meaningful, or at least not completely inane, conversation waiting for it. The accused mass murderer and me, just a couple guys waiting for a frosted treat. We waited through pleasantries.

“This country can be beautiful,” he told me, finally dropping the feigned American populist accent.

“I spent evenings in Oakland staring across the Bay for hours. The perpetual autumn is conducive to thought.”

He was half-Neapolitan, reassigned to California after getting too roughed up for comfort by the Lega’s people during the Welcome Refugees! port strikes. Fascists met his publicly leaked arrival in America, his mother’s country, with counter-protests and in short order he found himself falsely fingered as the mastermind behind the 7 November Movement. It culminated in two blocks of fascists squats burning to the ground outside of San Jose. Our internal communications called the cookout “much needed social sanitation,” which didn’t go great with the Feds’ case against him. We suspected rats in the party.

On the long car ride to the Poconos, we spoke some about the future of the party, his safety and Philip Roth, who he didn’t care for; didn’t “get”: Too petty-bourgeois. “It’s Hemingway that I like.” I walked him up to the cabin where a member of the Exec would take him, my mission complete. He bid me farewell and expressed hope that we’d meet again. “Try to see Niagra on your way up,” I told him. “And maybe give I Married a Communist a chance.” He nodded skeptically and walked inside. I couldn’t have known then that I sent him straight into the rat trap, his last breaths taken shortly after my lift. The San Jose goons had links throughout Pennsylvania and they caught up with him. He was summarily handled execution style by a couple of their party imbeds.

The front page of The NY Post (“How Do You Like Me Mao!”) showed him prostrate on his back, puffy tongued skate shoes stained with blood.

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ants under my teeth

I wrote this from the numbed comfort of a dental chair.

So do you crack the teeth?

Crack them?

Yeah, like crack them into little cubes and break em out like an ice tray?

No, we don’t crack them.

Hmm, I remember a cracking or a popping sound last time.

No. I’ll be back in 10 minutes. Spit, please.

10 minutes later I was drifting off staring at my toes and thinking about a colony of ants my brother found under a garden rock in our front yard. He stuck a cherry bomb in the hole, lit the wick, and walked away laughing maniacally. I giggled a little as the doctor returned and asked his assistant for whatever grisly instrument was about to reshape my dental architecture. As the swishing and cracking culminated in a pop, I shouted from the back of my throat aha a’s a ah-ing! I ol’ ou!!

I felt a tingling on my chin, thinking maybe I had drooled or dribbled blood, but the doctor suddenly paused and started repeating

No. Oh my god.

Louder and louder as the ants started pouring out of my mouth and marching over my body. An army of them, carrying my teeth out to 7th Avenue. I closed my mouth and looked up at a man paled by horror, those once confident hands shaking in disbelief.

Hah! Popping! I told you!

Then I remembered my brother’s attack on their mound so many years ago. I thought: you win. Have them, wise things, they’re yours.

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Ponte nothing (daily practice)

I shirked my duties at the neighborhood banquet preparations and stood shirtless on the bridge in the cold rain. Preparations of my own making were in effect. A stress test ahead of the annual bridge melee. The Nicoletti and Castellani would face off here once again tomorrow at Ponte Nothing, the victors laying claim to another year of collectively hallucinated social superiority, evening privileges, dibs at first fucks behind the church grilles. At the midnight bell’s toll to close New Year’s mass, once again donning masks, selfless, our social worth would be reassumed not by family visage but raw strength and virility.

I am a Nicoletti and this, my first bridge fight, would be ours to conquer, even if it meant death. The likelihood of which appeared stronger this season as reflected back to me in the slick mud of the canal, the usual fart smell of the city’s sewer highways having receded deep into the lagoon. If it came to throwing the last Castellano headfirst to his grave, I wished for anything but a quick snapping of the spine. I prayed for pain. Redemption through suffering. Victory through sacrifice. Torn flesh, gouged eyes, cracked limbs, bruised bones. La pena senza fine. This doomed reckoning of violence spiraled faster and faster in the pouring rain, but I let myself fall ever towards it, darker, colder.

Through the din of glass and silver clinking through the banquet halls, I could hear the sweet voices of the Mendicanti flowing like sweet incense into the streets:

Miser
MISER

                        Miserere Mei. 

[after “Carnival, quintessence of the Venetian spirit” in Vivaldi’s Venice by Patrick Barbier]

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