I was under the river ma. The river. The East River. I was on the subway when you called. You know there’s no cell phone service in the tunnels. You know that. Can you hear me now. I can’t speak too loud. I’m on a train and I’m standing up and it’s crowded and I don’t wanna yell in some guy’s ear. How can there be a problem with the pills. I was just there yesterday and I set up all the carrousel for you for the month. Not a horse carrousel ma. The pill carrousel. It’s right there on the kitchen table. I don’t know why they call it that ma. Because it spins around I guess. It’s what the box said when I got it at Target. Today’s the first so just look for the little plastic box with the 1 on it and take that out and those are your pills for today. Why are you taking your pills now. It’s like 6 o’clock. You gotta take them all in the morning. Check your marker boards. I put them in the living room and the kitchen and the bedroom with all the important info on it so if you ever forget something no matter where you’re at you don’t gotta look far. Why are you looking for 2. Tomorrow is the second. No. Don’t take the 2 box out so you don’t forget tomorrow. They’re set up in the carrousel in number order so you can’t forget nothing. That’s what it’s for. What do you mean there’s no 2. I swear to god ma I was there on Sunday and I counted every pill for every day and I put every little box back in the carrousel. It’s gotta be there. I know it’s there. I’m not yelling. I know what I did is all. Find 1 then look right next to it and that’s 2. What do you mean there’s a space there. There’s no space there. I’m not yelling. Fine. If you can’t find 2 then do this. Look for 9. The number 9 ma. Look for the number 9. You’re looking for 9 because that’s next Tuesday. You found it. Good. Take the 9 box out and open it up. Is there a little yellow pill in there. That’s the thyroid. You take those on Tuesdays. Take the 9 box and put it where the 2 box should be. Next to the 1. That way you’ll take the right pills tomorrow and I’ll fix the carrousel next time I’m there. What do you mean you can’t put nothing there. You just told me there’s a space next to 1. If there’s no space then what’s there. Then what’s there ma. Describe to me what you see. Explain to me what you’re seeing with your eyes because I do not have ESP. I can’t channel myself into your kitchen and see what you’re seeing. I’m not yelling. I sound upset to you. I been at work all day and I’m standing on this train and the AC don’t work so I’m sweating like a pig and I still gotta pick up Sara from afterschool and grab dinner. My day isn’t even close to being over ma. Sara. Your granddaughter ma. I put a picture of her on the boards. She’s wearing her tee ball uniform. Tee ball. It’s like little league. I can’t go over there tonight ma. Not tonight ma. No. Because Joe’s working nights now and he’s got the car. Joe. My husband Joe ma. His picture’s not on the board ma. No his name isn’t Greg ma. You’re thinking of Greg from high school. I’m sure I didn’t marry Greg ma. Because he fell out a window. Because drugs probably. I don’t wanna talk about Greg. It’s not that I don’t wanna help you. I’m there all the time ma. No. Do not call Steve ma. Because he won’t come and you’ll just get mad and even if he does come over he’ll be drunk off his ass and he’ll be useless like always. I don’t care if he’s my brother. Yes I can say that because it’s true. Don’t tell me to give him help. I help him all the time ma. I gave him 100 bucks last week even though I knew where it was going. I’m trying to figure this out ma. Because you can’t call Steve but I can’t hump over to your place on the 59 with a six year old under my arm. I’m alone tonight ma. You know what this is like. Yeah I got one kid instead of two but you know this is hard all alone and you want me to drop everything and. Jesus don’t cry ma. No I’m not gonna be happy when god comes to take you ma. Why would you say that. I’m doing everything I can. I can’t do this every night. Yes it is every night with this. Yes it is ma. You don’t know it’s every night because you’re. No. For the last time don’t call Steve ma. No I don’t trust Steve to even find a god damn 2. You’ll be lucky if he don’t take your ATM card. You didn’t give him your new PIN did you. I was on the phone with the bank for 2 hours clearing it up the last time you did that. Has he been by. Has he been by ma. Yes or no. I can’t do this. I can’t. No Steve ma. No. Then I’ll figure something out. That’s what I do. It’s always me. I’ll make it work ma. Look. This is my stop. I love you. I gotta go.
I should say something. Bill’s telling the story like he did it and I know he didn’t do it. I did it. I know it’s his house but it’s that doesn’t mean he gets to tell the story wrong. I shouldn’t have come. My hip hurts and I’m sitting in the living room watching a football game that’s just on. I don’t care about this game. I barely know who’s playing and I keep dipping my hand into this bowl of Cheetos and I don’t even like Cheetos. Bill’s still telling the story like he did it and he has to know that’s wrong. I bet most of these people know it’s wrong too. They’re from the neighborhood. He used to tell it and he would tell it right. He can see me from the kitchen I bet. There’s a wall between here and there but there’s also a mirror in the dining room that reflects toward the kitchen and I bet he can see me in that mirror sitting here eating these Cheetos. He can see me I’m sure and he’s telling the story wrong anyway. I shouldn’t have come. Karen didn’t recognize me when she picked me up at the Metro North station. She was like How do you know Bill and I said We all grew up together and she said Oh of course but there was a pause and I knew she didn’t remember me. When I said We All I meant her too because we were in school together. Me and her and Bill. Do I look that different. I know I do. Everyone looks different. Karen looks different. Bill sure looks different. Gray and dad-fat. But he still looks like Bill in his way. How did Karen not know it’s me. We never talked much even in high school but I mean. I don’t care how much weight I gained or how I walk now with this hip. It’s still me. Now I can’t hear the story because a bunch of kids ran into the living room and started fighting with plastic swords right in front of the TV. I want to tell them to go away but I don’t care about this game anyway and I don’t think they’d hear me. Earlier I wandered into the back bedroom where the kids were playing and asked what they were up to because I didn’t know what else to do with myself and no one answered me. Kept jumping on the beds like I wasn’t there. I’m invisible. I shouldn’t have come. The kids are gone now and Bill’s still telling the story. He’s not telling it right. He has himself behind the wheel in this version but I was driving. Everyone knows I was driving. He doesn’t want me here. Then why’d he invite me to his barbecue. Maybe he didn’t think I’d come since I don’t have a car and I have so much shit to do taking care of ma and also the hip. The train seat was murder. I took some pain meds but they don’t give me the good stuff anymore. I only take it because I feel like I have to do something. I’m sweating even in the house with the AC on. There’s a stain on these pants I didn’t notice before. I should go into the kitchen and say how the story really happened. I can’t tell stories like Bill though. He could always tell stories even in school. King of the lunch table. Telling other people’s jokes. I watched the same shows as him and I knew when he was swiping jokes from standup routines and passing them along as his own stuff and I didn’t say anything then either. Should I go outside and grab a burger. Everyone will see me hobbling and hunched over with this hip thing. But if I don’t go out there they’ll wonder why I’m holed up in the house. Except if they don’t know I’m here to begin with. The thing with the story Bill’s telling is it even started with me. It never would’ve happened without me. It was my dad who worked in the traffic management office. He told me how the lights worked. Used to bore me to death with all the details. He could hardly talk about anything else. One afternoon at lunch when Bill was bragging about how fast he raced the weekend before and I felt like I had to say something just to get a word in edgewise like I didn’t want to be locked in my head anymore but I didn’t know what else to say so I blurted out that you could go the whole length of Woodhaven and Cross Bay and make it to Rockaway Beach without having to stop once if you timed it just right. It had to be at like 3 in the morning but you could do it. And I knew it because my dad would say it all the time and he’d always say it like he was saying it for the first time like whoah let me blow your mind. Bill said prove it. Maybe I’ll get a hot dog instead. Except they’ve been sitting out in the sun if there’s any left at all and if I go out there I gotta go down those porch steps and that’ll kill my hip. But it’s killing me right now anyway. Bill dared me to take dad’s car because I said dad had a Chevy Caprice and Bill said those were great dragging cars and the cops used them too. When I said I didn’t want to take dad’s car he said the only reason I wouldn’t is because I was lying about the lights. I said why don’t you take your own dad’s car and he said because I’m not the one who made the bet. I didn’t even know I made a bet. One of the kids is crying and another one’s getting yelled at. Another stomps past me while his mother yells You get back here this instant. The kid runs into a bedroom and slams a door even though I’m pretty sure he doesn’t live here. I set an alarm for 2 am and slapped it quiet so no one else in the house would wake up and I snuck into the kitchen and grabbed dad’s keys from the rack real slow. Didn’t let one key clank against another. They felt so heavy in my hand. Bill was waiting on his stoop when I pulled up and he was pissed. He was expecting a police cruiser type car and not my dad’s shitty old station wagon. When we got Woodhaven by the mall he wanted me to floor it and I said No that’s not how it works. If I wait for the first green and take it easy we can make it all the way down and not hit a red but if I speed we’ll catch up to a red. He folded his arms and sulked because he thought we were going to fly down Woodhaven. We were 16 and Bill used to talk like he dragged on the weekends so he wanted to speed was all. I didn’t even have my license. I didn’t know why I was doing it except Bill said I was lying and being called a liar it just bugged me. I never did nothing like that. Taking dad’s car. He’s still telling the story and he’s telling it like he drove. He did not drive. It was my dad’s car and I drove and he sat in the passenger side arms folded all because I refused to speed. Don’t be a pussy he said and I said I’m not scared. I said I can get from one end of Queens to the other without hitting a red and this is how you do it. Bill would see some yellows way up ahead because it was so late and there was hardly any other cars ahead of us and he’d tell me to gun it and I said no they’ll be green when we get there. No matter how many times I was right he didn’t believe me. Maybe he tells the story better. I couldn’t get people laughing like he’s doing right now. When I got to Bill’s house he said it was good to see me but he was standing at the grill cooking burgers and he didn’t raise his head even when he said it. Then he ran off to talk to someone else. I brought a six pack. I didn’t know what else to bring. I put it in the fridge next to a bottle of generic soda and I sat down on the couch and I’ve hardly moved since. God this hip. When we got as far as New Park Pizza without hitting a red was when Bill started to loosen up a little. We’re gonna do this he said. We. Like we were a team all of a sudden. At school he bragged about dragging on the Connecting Highway and now I knew he was full of shit. Why I didn’t figure this out before I don’t know. Didn’t even have his own car. Didn’t know shit about cars and he sure didn’t know lights like I knew. It was just a thing to say at lunch. A story. Someone’s standing with the front door open calling for Tommy. I don’t know who Tommy is but whoever’s looking for him is letting all the cool air out of the house. I’m sweating. I’m sinking into this couch. Can I get up without help. I hope ma’s okay in this heat. All she’s got is a fan. I should call her and check. I should be at home with her instead of here. This fucking hip. I have dreams where someone takes me apart like a Lego figure and cleans out my bones from the inside and then I feel better. We went through Breezy Point with no trouble at all and I threw some change into the toll basket and we got on the bridge to Rockaway and Bill was shaking in his seat saying Holy shit we’re actually gonna do it. And then we got the exit toward the beach and up ahead was the last light on the way. The one right under the A train tracks and it was red. And Bill screamed Step on it! And I said to him If we wait… but he didn’t let me finish. He yelled Fuck that and he raised his foot in the air like he was gonna stomp a bug and he brought it down on my foot and pinned it to the gas. This is in my dad’s old car. This Chevy Caprice station wagon that already had 150K miles on it and handled like an old rollerskate. Bill had my foot pinned to the gas and I yelled That won’t make the light go green faster you dumbfuck. You don’t know shit about driving. That made him press down harder and I felt like he was going to put his foot right through mine. So I stomped on the brake with my left foot which was a mistake because this made the Chevy fishtail. It whipped around and hopped the curb and clipped a train support and the bumper fell right off. And the tracks above us were being worked on so there was all this orange netting and safety signs around and one of the signs tumbled off the overpass and landed on the car and took a big divot out of the hood. The sign said ASK YOURSELF HOW COULD I GET HURT. Bill gets this part right when he tells it. He includes the sign falling down on the car and everyone laughs. Bill says I swear to god this happened. And he pokes his head around the corner from the kitchen to look into the living room and he nods his head toward me and he says This guy can tell you. He was there.
Hey. It’s Tommy. Hope the Poconos is okay. The neighborhood’s gone to shit but you knew that already. You got out in time. The fuckin hipsters are all the way up to Cypress now if you can believe that. If they take a wreckin ball to this place they’re gonna have to take me with it cuz I ain’t goin nowhere.
Listen. I seen your mother’s grave when I was at the cemetery and I had to call you. This is Tommy. Did I say that already? I hate these things. Cell phones. They don’t feel like real phones to me and I never know what to say on em. I was at St. John’s. My great aunt Rose just passed. 93. God bless her. So while we’re drivin into the cemetery I seen a fresh grave with the dirt piled up and I seen your last name on the headstone. It’s one a them names where I see it and it sticks out to me. You always got pissed first day a school every year when the teacher’s couldn’t say it right. And then I seen your mother’s name on the headstone and I felt so awful. I hadn’t thought a your mother for years and now I seen her grave and I almost felt like it was my fault. Like if I hadn’t a seen it she’d still be with us. In my head I guess.
First thing I thought of when I seen that. You remember this one time my old man got hurt on the job and my mother had to go meet him at the hospital so she dropped me off at your place? Course you don’t. We was both like 10 or 11 maybe. It was just another day to you maybe but my I was scared shitless. I didn’t even know what happened to the old man. I just knew he was at the hospital and hospital meant bad things. When I showed up at your place I had to pretend like nothin was wrong and I didn’t feel like cryin. You guys was still on Stockholm and I thought your place was fancy cuz you had a backyard to play in. I called it a backyard anyways. It was just the alley with all the garages. We was playin wiffle ball out there while your mother made dinner. Just you and me with ghost runners on invisible bases and all that and me pretendin like I cared about while I’m wonderin if my dad is in a body cast or the morgue or what I don’t even know.
Your mother made these chicken cutlets that night that knocked me out. You know me. I eat like a pig even when nothin’s wrong but I was worried about my old man and wonderin when my mom was gonna come get me so I kept shovelin food in my face to keep from sayin somethin stupid or burstin into tears. I asked for like three helpings. You mother said she was glad somebody ate her food for once and you kicked me under the table like I was makin you look bad.
We was up watchin TV at least until Carson started which was real late for me. I wanted to stay up because you were still up but I was noddin off on your couch and your mother said I could sleep on her bed til my mom came to get me.
And she showed me to the back a your place and when I laid down she sat on the edge of the bed and she started singin this song. It didn’t have no words. At least not the way she sang. It was more like humming. She brushed my hair back and sang to me. It was exactly what I needed. She didn’t know everything was gonna be okay but she told me it would all be okay anyways. Just by her singin.
The song was still in my head when I woke up the next day. I don’t remember my mom comin to get me and I don’t remember leavin your house. Next thing I knew I was in my own place and I wandered out to the kitchen and my folks are both there and my old man’s readin the paper with his eggs and he don’t got a scratch on him. It seemed like magic to me.
The next day on the way to school you grabbed me on the bus and told me not to tell nobody your mom sang to me. Didn’t even ask me how my old man was. Just grabbed me and told me not to say nothin. You told me she used to sing to you all the time and it drove you nuts and you had to beg her to stop doin it. And I told you I wouldn’t tell nobody because who the hell was I gonna tell. You said you wasn’t a baby no more and you looked so god damn mad about it. I thought you was gonna punch a hole in a bus window. I wanted to know why it made you so pissed off but I figured askin you question would just made you madder. So I didn’t say nothin about it and it just sorta left my head after that. I forgot all about it until the other day when I seen your mother’s name on the headstone and I hear that song she sang to me. Clear as day. I never heard that tune before she sang it to me and I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard it since but I swear I could hum it right now if I had to. Don’t worry. I’m not gonna.
It kills me that I forgot all about what she done. I shoulda held onto that. I shoulda thanked your mother. I guess I should be mad at you but I’m really mad at myself. It was up to me to remember. But then I think even if I did remember what she did I wouldn’t say nothin to her. That’s how kids are. When you’re a kid you think grownups exist to make you feel better when you need it. Then you grow up yourself and no one’s around to make you feel better no more.
I’m sorry. I’m ramblin. I wish you told me you was in town. We coulda grabbed a beer. You let me know next time. I got nothin goin on over here. You be good.
The bees are in full voice today, Jim thought to himself as he tended to his rooftop apiary. The customers at Freyja, the café he owned in Ridgewood, would soon be clamoring for more of the bounty of these hives. It came from a special breed, Apis laboriosa, native to the Himalayas, who produced a honey less sweet than store bought, with strong notes of tartness. How like life itself, Jim thought. How like his life.
When he first opened Freyja, there was nothing around it for miles. They told him he was foolish to quit his job at Goldman Sachs and open a café where no one lived. Back then, the café’s only neighbors were a check cashing business, a down-in-the-mouth community center, and a hospital that would soon close down. Now people lined up at dawn on days when the honey was available. Jim could produce more of it, but the bees were sensitive. You could only ask so much of them. Also, he had received complaints when some of the oversized bees broke away from his colony and built their own hive in the jungle gym at the local playground.
I’d felt myself drifting for years. My mom became a Jehovah’s Witness when I was 10-ish, and for most of my kid-dom, I truly believed as much as any kid can “believe” in anything. But the older I got and the more I read and learned, the more I began to doubt the foundation of the whole thing, Witnesses’ interpretation of the Bible, and any interpretation of the Bible at all. I was starting to doubt the very idea that there’s any truth to life, a fairly common thought at age 17 but one that’s kind of scary when you’ve been raised in a religion that refers to itself, and only itself, as The Truth.
In 1999, I moved into my first post-college apartment, way out in the farthest reaches of Bensonhurst. It was a mere 15-minute walk from Coney Island, a walk I would take many late nights on my way home from the city and somehow avoid murder. Circa 1999, the neighborhood had barely changed since Saturday Night Fever days. When I jogged around the neighborhood, I was an exotic specimen, because people in Bensonhurst did not jog. Old ladies stared at me like I was a wild animal and rotten teens would joke-jog next to me or fake-lunge in my direction, hoping I would flinch.
I was the only one who saw her.
I was on Third Avenue in the 40s during the Lord of the Flies atmosphere that is the lunch rush when she appeared. She had curly blond hair and a giant pink bow and enormous matching sunglasses and a black tank top. She could’ve bought it all at Madonna’s yard sale circa 1987. She looked like she was eight feet tall because she was wearing rollerblades, scooting leisurely up the sidewalk. Her eyes were trained not toward her destination, but on a giant white iPhone with a gold trim case. I got a good look at the iPhone because her path aimed straight at me no matter how many sidesteps I took. Her ears were plugged up with headphones. She’d deliberately blunted her two most danger-alerting senses as she wheeled through streets full of cars, trucks, bikes, and eight million other people. Millions of years to give her perfect eyes and perfect ears to alert her to danger and she dismissed them all. She missed me by a centimeter or two as she scooted past.
Thursday was hot dog night. Thursday was hot dog night because we were Jehovah’s Witnesses and Thursday was also book study night. Book study night was basically a book club except you only read the books the Witnesses themselves published and discussed all the signs evident in this rotten world that showed us all the end was nigh.
There were three weekly meetings we were obliged to attend but book study night was the only one that happened on a weeknight. Me and my brothers got home from school at about 3:45 which left me a tiny window in which to finish homework and set up a tape for The Simpsons because this was the only show on TV I could not miss and make sure I had a shirt and tie and pants to wear to the meeting. If I was feeling fancy I would wear a blazer I got at the Salvation Army. The sleeves were too short so my cuffs stuck out defiantly and I could not fasten any of the buttons without fear of popping them.
I used to work for an academic publisher. I held this job for nearly two years. I worked in production editorial, helping to print dissertations and other dense technical publications. I had to subject each of the manuscripts I received to a predetermined series of steps before sending them to the printer. Sometimes a piece of art would be too lo-res or permissions wouldn’t be furnished and I’d have to contact the author. Otherwise, it was an almost mindless process. Every working day required me to sit in front of a conveyer belt and spread mayonnaise across each lightly toasted piece of white bread that passed before me.
During the year I stopped writing words, I wrote a bit of music instead. Not songs per se, but notes on lined paper, like some sort of powder-wig fancy lad. I used to do this when I was in high school, as I detailed here a long time ago, but hadn’t given much thought to it in 20 years or so. I gave composing up because it was damn near impossible for me to turn paper notes into the kind I could hear with my ears, being neither a talented multi-instrumentalist nor the sort of person who could gather together a small wind ensemble.
The advent of sophisticated composition apps changed that. A few years back, the desktop composition application Notion came out with an iPad version that’s nothing short of stunning. It allows you to not only write music but also hear how it sounds, with a ginormous number of orchestral sound samples to choose from. For someone like me, who has music theory knowledge but can play no more than one-handed piano on a good day, it’s a godsend.