You Have One New Message

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.

Excerpts From the Only New York Novel Ever Published

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.

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1995: Avenue C

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.

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1999: Downshift

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.

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Observation, Decked

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.

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Thursday Was Hot Dog Night

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.

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Quitting Time

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.

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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.

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The Weekly Meeting of Everyone Who Doesn’t Talk to You Anymore

The weekly meeting of everyone who doesn’t talk to you anymore takes place each Tuesday at 9pm in a church basement. The College Friend Who Got Tired of Your Whole Thing makes the coffee and The Kid Who Stopped Hanging Out With You in Junior High Because He Wanted to Be Cool brings the donuts.

The meetings are led by The Guy Who Wanted to Collaborate With You on Something But Stopped Answering Your Emails. He brings the proceedings to order by asking if it’s anyone’s first time here. A man stands up and introduces himself as Grad School Classmate. A chorus of Hi, Grad School Classmate echoes back to him.

The meeting leader says that all first timers must share their stories as best they can. Grad School Classmate gulps and looks out over the room while he thinks of something to say. The rows of chairs seem to stretch on forever in all directions. It’s the biggest church basement he’s ever seen.

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How To Play

There was a time when the playground was my daughter’s entire life. We would have to spend good chunks of our weekends there plus any slab of weekday daylight leftover when I picked her up from daycare.

Sometimes she’d rope me into being a customer in an imaginary store she set up underneath the shaky bridge or I’d have to be a passenger in the giant train she pretended the entire playground to be. Sometimes I had to be Venom to her Spiderman and chase her around while she shot make-believe webs at me. Sometimes she’d insert herself in a group of other kids and she would run around with them in that manic headless-chicken gallop that suffices for entertainment at that age.

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A potentially explosive collection of verbal irritants