Chapter Eight: Isle of Joy

PACKED on the midnight bus to Manhattan, J. went back to find what was left of the world he left behind not so long ago. Arrived early enough to bask in the glow of New York’s counterfeit dawn. He took the A train — the quickest way to Harlem — to 125th Street, a few stops shy of Sugar Hill. His mother had moved to the top of a sixth-floor walkup on MLK over a soul food diner that advertised via a neon, bulb-bordered marquee their Southern Fried Chicken, “old fashion’ BUT Good.”

J. tapped the intercom button. In response, a shrill finger whistle from above called his attention to a set of keys that landed, with bombardier precision, just a few feet left of his skull. His mother’s head, haloed by tobacco cumuli, dangled out a window. With a wide wave, she inscribed a cherry arc etched in cigarette ember against the night sky.

“Buzzer’s busted, kiddo,” she coughed through a cupped-hand megaphone. “Come on up!”

At the top of the stairs, she embraced J. in a long, tired hug. She palpated his limbs. “You’re okay? No broken bones?”

“I’m okay. No broken bones.”

“What about sprains? Concussion?”

“No sprains. No concussion.”

“Good good good good good.” She draped an arm over his shoulder and steered him into the apartment. J. slung his duffel into a corner.

“You hungry?” she asked. A Pop Art stack of Campbell’s soup cans sat on the table. “I couldn’t remember what you liked, so I got every flavor they had,” she said. “I can heat up some,” she picked up a can, “Scotch broth? Or, here, how about, um, pepper pot soup? Geez, I haven’t even heard of some of these flavors. Probably been on those shelves since the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

“I’m fine.”

“You sure? ’Cause I kept the receipt, just in case. Say the word, I’ll head down and return them for something else.”

“We can split the cream of celery soup for breakfast. Right now, I just need some sleep.”

“Sleep, yes, of course, absolutely, right. You must be exhausted. I’ll get you a pillow and blanket. Couch okay?”

“Beats the floor at Port Authority.”

“I’ve slept on both, and it’s a closer call than you’d think.”

***

THE next morning, over soup: “The school year’s almost over, so I’m not sure it makes sense trying to get you enrolled anywhere. Frankly, I’m not sure if they’d even allow you in at this point. I’ll make a few calls. In the meantime, just hang loose. It’s good to have you back, kiddo, really good. You know, I went through a rough patch, especially around the holidays. Thanksgiving, Christmas, even Presidents’ Day can put you through the wringer. But I’m doing a lot better now. I’m seeing this spiritualist, Madame Williams. I saw her sign in a window, and, yeah, it’s just a sign, but it also felt like a sign, y’know? At least it’s cheaper than therapy. And her tarot readings are spot on. I’ll take you sometime, see if she’ll read your aura, give your palm a quick once over. We could even ask her to try to dial up your grandparents! It’ll be a gas. I know you don’t buy into that stuff, but she actually helped me get the job I have now. Not directly, but she did say changes were going to come into my life, and that very same day — or maybe a day or two after but definitely some time around then — I saw the classified ad for the job I have now in Brooklyn as a skiver in a shoe factory making Army shoes. The commute is terrible, but I’m apartment sitting right now for the folks who live here. Friends of friends of friends. Nice people, good vibes. I think they’re in a circus troupe? Something like that. They’ll be touring for months. If you and I drag all the costumes and props out of that closet off the living room, I think we could fit a futon in there for you. It’s okay for the time being. What a weird expression, ‘time being,’ like some creature out of a sci-fi movie: Attack of the Time Being. Anyway, it’s good to have you back. See, Madame Williams was right, I’ve got change coming out the wazoo!”

***

ONE hundred eighty-three days measured the duration of J.’s exile. But no calendar could count the distance between the city he left and the one he found. Starred and striped flags, sized anywhere between a hand and a door, purchased and hoisted in paroxysms of patriotism, had been unceremoniously rolled up and tucked away into desk drawers, bureaus, closets. Plastered across storefronts, the printouts, placards, and posters that once displayed bald eagles swooping across starry undulating fields of red, white, and blue underscored by strident slogans had been sunbleached into obscurantism. Fewer gawkers at the gaptooth skyline. Fewer concussed, glassy stares. Fewer public crying fits. The Time Being marched inexorably forward. Half a world away, Pharaoh’s Army stumbled through Afghan fields, ignoring Vizzini’s last words. The coffin fillers, the grocers of death, they’ve gone to drop angelic bombs.

***

ON 125th, Ras the Exhorter stood on a ladder festooned with small flags (what the soap box used to be) and gestured violently to the moiling crowd that almost blocked the walk. The speaker caught fire looking at their faces. His words jumped down to stand in listeners’ places. Two policemen stood nearby, their backs turned away, and laughed at some joke as Rinehart or someone who looked just like him slipped by, hat brim pulled down against his sunglasses of green glass so dark that they appeared black.

J. followed in Rinehart’s wake, crossed Morningside to the Temple of the Fire Baptized and then crossed MLK, passing Roosevelt Triangle, where Harlem Hybrid, a series of low burnished geometric bronze boulders, gently erupted from the earth.

A circle of children at Playground CXXV played Who Stole the Cookies from the Cookie Jar?

“Helen stole the cookies from the cookie jar!”

“Who me?”

“Yes you!”

“Not me!”

“Then who?”

“Nicky!”

“Who me?”

“Yes you!”

“Couldn’t be!”

“Then who?”

“Bernie!”

“Who me?”

“Yes you!”

“That’s a lie!”

“Then who?”

“Normie!”

“Who me?”

“Yes you!”

“Couldn’t be!”

“Then who?”

“Margie!”

“Who me?”

“Yes you!”

“Not me!”

“Then who?”

“Jessie!”

J. cut up 123rd to Amsterdam — past the Phi Gamma Delta frat house on 114th Street where someone was playing Glenn Miller records fullblast, Glenn Miller and Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey “The One I Love Belongs to Someone Else” — and planted himself in a dark corner of The Hungarian, reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and mechanically pouring mug after mug of coffee down his scorching throat. He almost choked midsip when the door opened and Blue stepped through. No, not Blue, just a girl with a similar silhouette, her face shrouded under the afternoon glare. He grabbed his book and jacket, almost upsetting the table in his rush to leave, and spent the rest of the day smoking on Riverside Drive benches.

Could you be haunted by the living? Shimmering visions of Blue hunched over a battered paperback on the A train picking through stacks at Labyrinth in line for popcorn at the Angelika folding a slice outside Joe’s stepping into a cab stepping out of a cab spinning through a revolving door sitting on a bench crossing the street rounding the corner, flashes of goldenrod packs or cascades of umber hair streaming down the starched backs of navy private school blazers. Madame Williams might have the answer, some charm, salve, potion, or prayer for the banishment of memory.

***

EVERY other day, J.’s uncle called to check on him, left messages on the answering machine or with his mother, but J. never knew what to say, never took the phone, never called back. This went on for two weeks, then the calls stopped. J. still didn’t know what to say, but the day after that, he dialed an 860 number from a payphone in the West Village — not to his uncle but Blue. Why? Maybe he was bored. Maybe he had some change in his pocket looking to get spent. Maybe to ask after his uncle. Maybe to ask, after six months of wanting to return to New York, what he should want now. Maybe a description of “bleached blue eyes” in the book he was reading. Maybe to hear her voice (the ghosts never spoke). Maybe to confirm the distance between the phone in his hand and the one in hers. Maybe the rain.

They chatted about nothing for a minute (Where do you go? What will you see?), minding their mouths and bewaring their talk, and he hung up before the operator could squeeze him for quarters he didn’t have.

***

FOLLOWING Lou Reed’s advice, J. took walks down to Union Square, past Supercommunist pamphlet distributors. From there, he continued to 5th Ave., through the Arch, to Washington Square Park.

Bronzed Garibaldi, perpetually pulling his sword from its scabbard, stood watch over the fountain, where the Kossoy twins strummed guitar and banjo, two harmonizing birds floating and diving in a murmuration of strings. They sang a Woody Guthrie number: “Ramblin’ round your city/Ramblin’ round your town/I never see a friend I know/As I go ramblin’ round.”

Old Bull Lee, spoon and dropper in hand, blew by, shadowed by a narcotics dick in a white trenchcoat, Florida tan, and sharkskin suit. The heat was everywhere, Operation Double Header Redux. Junkies rushed up yelling “Heigh oOO Silver.” J. commandeered a bench — steps from the spot where Diamond Dave got swept up in a narco sting for copping a dime bag of bunk weed — and unfurled his book from his back pocket. A Day-Glo decommissioned ’39 International Harvester school bus called Further, speakers blaring and helmed by Cody Pomeray, took the curb. The folding door accordioned open and out spilled the Merry Pranksters to tootle some solemn, spent, irritable shit kickers. The bus pulled away for a scheduled rendezvous with Duluoz at a flipnik party on the Upper East Side, passing Valerie Solanis skulking around the Arch with a S.C.U.M. manifesto in one hand and a gun in the other.

As the exhaust cleared, J. heard steps approach and stop behind him. A voice, evacuated of all emotion save studied insouciance, said “Hi,” just as she’d answered the phone. Slowly — to let himself recover from the Coney Island Cyclone drop of his innards — he turned, and a small uncontainable grin cracked the corner of his lips.

Gray’s Papaya was only a few blocks north, but J. took Blue to his regular luncheonette, a hot dog cart parked by the West 4th stop. He had strong opinions about hot dogs, an inheritance, he later learned. The cries of cart vendors hawking their hot dogs, shawarmas, gyros, falafel, skewers, tacos, empanadas, knishes, pretzels, coffee, ice cream echoed up and down the streets, doxologies to the city.

Blue’s sinister hand was coffined in a sticker-clad plaster cast erupting from the cuff of her sweater sleeve, car crash’s parting gift. He briefly held it, his head bowed in supplication as he examined the Sharpied signatures. When he let go, the weave of the cotton bandage left a brand on the inside of his palm that permanently obscured his heart line.

No one had ever visited J. What did you do with visitors? What had J. planned on doing anyways? An afternoon bouncing between Bleecker Bob’s, Generation, or Kim’s. All fine stores, all within walking distance. He settled on Championship Vinyl, a little out of the way but worth the trip.

***

THE F train sang a screeching coloratura along the tracks. Blue and J. stood clutching the same pole from opposite sides.

“You can sit,” J. said.

“I’m okay,” Blue said.

“Okay.”

“I just don’t want to take a seat and then at the next stop a pregnant woman or a person on crutches or little kid gets on and then I have to try to figure out if anyone else is going to give up their seat or if I should do it. And either someone will, and I’ll feel bad that I didn’t, or no one will, and I’ll feel bad for waiting before doing the right thing which I should have just gone ahead and done in the first place instead of overthinking it. Or maybe someone gets on who looks older but isn’t infirm in any obvious way, and then I won’t know if I should give up my seat for them or not — if I do, maybe they’ll be insulted by the offer, and if I don’t, they might think, ‘Who raised this girl with the terrible manners?’ Better to stand and avoid all the hassle. Besides, I sat on the bus down here. I’m all sat out. Why don’t you sit?”

“I prefer to stand.”

“Ah.”

“Plus, how else can I show off my preternatural balance?” J. let go of the pole, held his hands slightly out from his hips. After a slight hesitation, Blue did too. They swayed gently and grinned in the grips of a folie à deux until the train braked. J. caught the pole in time. Blue, however, tumbled forward into him, steadying herself against his chest with her good hand.

“Maybe I should sit,” she said.

***

THE record shop sat on an unremarkable street sandwiched between Gramercy and Chelsea. Inside, a perpetual musty twilight rose like mist off the albums. Every available surface was shellacked with posters, flyers, and stickers. Album dividers listed genres such as Pop Rock, Rock Pop, Garage, Psychobilly, Black Metal, Death Metal, Melodic Metal, Musique Concrète, Shoegaze, New Wave, New Romantics, Sweden, Lounge, Sound Effects, Twee, Industrial, Zappaesque, and Thrash.

A polyrhythmic drumline of crate diggers snare-snapped jewel cases and thrummed vinyl cardboard sleeves, setting the backbeat under a buzz of conversating customers and clerks that shivered the thick air, such as:

“If you like White Blood Cells, you should check out The Gories.”

“Or The Dirtbombs.”

“And if you like The Gories or The Dirtbombs, you’ll like The Screws.”

“Pretty much any Mick Collins band…”

Or:

“Most improved second albums. The opposite of sophomore slumps. Sophomore jumps.”

The Bends.”

Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.”

Meat Is Murder.”

Nevermind.”

Last Splash.”

Paul’s Boutique.”

It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.”

Spiderland.”

Low End Theory.”

Doolittle.”

This Year’s Model.”

Tapestry.”

Little Earthquakes.”

“Bzzzt. Doesn’t count.”

“Why?”

Little Earthquakes was technically Tori’s debut album since Y Kant Tori Read was a different band that released one eponymous album. But points for effort.”

“Fine. Umm, Pop, Girls, Etc.

David Bowie.”

With the Beatles.”

“Pretty obvious.”

“So was Nevermind…”

Or:

“I just scored a bunch of Folkways albums at an estate sale. Mostly Tony Schwartz New York field recordings — I’m going to put those up on eBay — but also a few blues gems, like Furry Lewis.”

“That name sounds familiar.”

“Joni Mitchell name-drops him in ‘Furry Sings the Blues.’”

Hejira is an underrated album.”

“A lot of fans just wanted her to crank out Blue over and over for the rest of her career…”

Blue and J. riffled through the crates, occasionally pulling albums to dangle before each other, like Into Outer Space with Lucia Pamela (Blue: “For the astronaut in your life who has it all”) or a Rhino compilation of the ’75 to ’78 New York City scene (J.: “Very specific”). She bought a signed copy of Beauty and the Beat for her mother, explaining to the clerk the significance of the album, which somehow segued into her friend Neal’s exegesis on the Go-Go’s nigh-criminal erasure from the canon of first-wave Southern California punk music. The clerk nodded and pointed to a sticker on the register that read “Records are a sound purchase.”

***

ON the subway ride back to Port Authority: “Marshall McLuhan was teaching English lit at the University of Toronto when this ad man from San Francisco, Howard Gossage, decided to fly him around the country to hobnob with captains of industries, movers and shakers, and other assorted highfalutins. No ulterior motive or anything, he just read McLuhan’s early work and thought more people should know about him. Gossage liked to surround himself with stimulating folks, had a sort of informal salon at his office, a converted firehouse, where people like Buckminster Fuller and John Steinbeck and Stan Freberg rubbed elbows over the luncheon spread. Your guy Tom Wolfe, too. He wrote a piece about McLuhan called ‘What If He’s Right?’ that was reprinted in one of his essay collections, The Pump House Gang. Not sure if anyone ever came up with a good answer to that question, but I think anyone who could come up with a sentence as gnomic as ‘The medium is the message’ deserves at least the benefit of the doubt. Anyway, if you like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, definitely check out The Pump House Gang. Or The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. And sock away some quarters if you do so you can let me know what you think.”

***

THEY took the F to Bryant Park and walked west. A tall, thin birch of a street preacher had planted himself on the corner of Broadway. Blue and J. just missed the walk signal. The preacher took a deep breath and shot out his sermon. “Now I can stand here and explain to whoever will listen that Jesus Christ satisfies, saves, keeps, and satisfies, I can tell you that he came into my life, took my sins away, gave me peace, gave me the assurance of eternal life, spending eternity with him, but until you, until you place your faith and trust in Jesus Christ yourself, until you bite the apple for yourself, so to speak, you’ll never know how it tastes. So I admonish each and everyone here, taste and see that the Lord is good. Romanism, Roman Catholicism, Protestanism, Judaism, Jehova’s Witnesses, Mohammedism, none of them can save you. There’s no religion, no denomination on the face of God’s earth that can save us all. It’s the blood of Jesus Christ that was shed on the cross at Calvary. And unless a man places his faith and trust in the shed blood of Christ, there’s no hope. That’s what the Bible says. Thanks a lot.” He handed Blue a stapled, photocopied tract, collections from the Gnostic Gospels.

***

IN the depths of the Greyhound terminal, waiting for her bus back to the small town, Blue flipped through the tract.

“Talk about gnomic,” she said, “listen to this: ‘Recognize what is before your eyes, and what is hidden will be revealed to you.’ What does that even mean?”

“Depends on what’s before your eyes,” he said.

She looked up at him. “Here,” she said, handing him the tract, “you could use a bookmark.”

“Xenene Cervenka collects these.”

“If you ever run into her, you two’ll have something to talk about.”

“Next time, we’ll do Union Square. I can point out where Warhol’s Factories and Max’s Kansas City used to be.”

“Sounds good. I’ll pick you up at the park, and we can swing by the really narrow house in the West Village where Edna St. Vincent Millay lived.”

“Oh, and the Strand. Literal miles of books. You’ll have to be dragged out.”

“Next time.”

“Yeah, next time.”

Blue’s bus pulled in. As she took her seat, J. finally asked the question that had burned against his lips all afternoon: “Why did you come here?”

She opened the window and cast a sad look down at him with her large gun-metal blue eyes. “Because you didn’t say goodbye.”

What could he do? Goodbye, Blue.

***

RIDING the A train home, J. flipped through the tract until he arrived at the quote Blue read. He looked up and down the car before creasing the page with the nail of his thumb and carefully tearing it out. On the reverse side was another quotation from the Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” Opening his book to the folded page marking his spot, he slipped in the scrap snug against the binding.

As the train pulled into 125th, J. stood and dropped the tract on his seat, bread or circus for the next passenger.