I thought about Nelson on the train this
I was watching a boy and his grandmother sitting arm in arm
across from me. The boy was about eight. He was cute, bright-looking. The
grandmother was in her fifties-a butterball with dyed-black hair and a quick
glance. They were talking about the coming weekend, how they were going to
"But grandmas can't come," the boy decided suddenly.
The woman pretended to bristle, her brows shooting up.
"Grandmas can't come? Why not?"
"'Cause they won't let you in," he said.
"Why is that?"
The boy bit his upper lip for a moment, then turned his face
up, expressionless, toward hers.
"'Cause they don't have a room for grandmas there. It's
a big place. You'd get lost."
The woman tucked in her smile and shook her head, feigning
"Imagine," she said. "No grandma room."
"I'm just going to have to call them up and complain,
now won't I?"
I was watching as she stroked the boy's hand, as she hugged
it to her chest. Then she let it go and started patting his knee while he
tugged absently at her flabby triceps, looking with a child's coolness at
everything in the train.
Then I realized I was thinking of
I have a snapshot of him in the community garden standing in
front of a bunch of sunflowers. He's wearing his ratty kimono, as always,
and has a trowel stuck under the sash like a dagger. His white hair is coming
loose from its ponytail. He's fat. He's sweating. And he's smiling, poor guy.
He's got the face of a rotting jack-o'-lantern-droopy, garish, almost abandoned.
You're caught suddenly, implicated by the sheer profligacy of that smile.
You want to kick it, it looks so degenerate. So perennially hungry. Something
inside you, surprisingly familiar, jerks awake. A suspicion: Some Grannies
will eat you with butter and syrup.
I watched the boy and the woman get off at 34th Street. She
was chirping and bellowing, half to herself, half to him. Maybe to her there
wasn't a difference. She was thinking for both of them. She gripped his hand
But in the boy you could see that there wasn't equal room for
her; there was only room for the world pouring into him. He barely felt her
grip around his wrist and fingers. But the connection of flesh would remain,
I thought, still thinking of Nelson. A patina of Granny sweat and oil collected
in the ridges of a psychic mountain she had coaxed into shape with her soft
Of course, it wasn't like that with Nelson. Not exactly. And
he would have cringed at the feminine comparison. But I lump Nelson in with
the world's Grannies because he defies any other category.
In the snapshot, the sunflowers are tall and full with gargantuan
blossoms. They dangle facedown above him like shower heads. Dust hangs in
the air. You can see it caked in the lines of his face, collecting in the
thinning fibers of the kimono. It's August, 1985. Through the fence, chrome
and asphalt quiver in the heat. Skid marks rise like ghosts from the pavement
and brown the city sky.
In the tenement building overlooking the garden, we, his boys,
are tucked away in the nursery: Giddy, Julio, myself, others. He has stupid
little Granny names for us. I'm "Cactus." Julio's "Squirt."
Giddy's just Giddy, short for Gideon. We sleep through the day like exotic
caterpillars, wound in a curtain of Christmas tree lights. All else is darkness,
We stir only at the first hint of nightfall, the call of Nelson's
feet on the stairs. We get out of bed and slip dutifully into our respective
kimonos. Nelson has a collection of old silk kimonos that he likes us to wear
when we're in the house. Mine is a dark, rich blue with red and silver dragons
on the sleeves. The stitching's coming loose, the fabric's grease-stained
and crumbling. But it's still silk, and it's a cool luxuriant mulch on the
skin. He likes to touch us through it-his own Lazarus boys up from the tomb.
The light in his eyes goes out, comes back. It's juicing him; it's pumping
him full of vitamins, vital signs.
"Aw shit," you say, but you only pretend to shrug
"Fuck off," you say, but he expects it, just as you
expect the boorish compliment and the slime-pie grin mechanically slung at
the side of your head.
If you really meant it, though, he'd back off. Quickly, sullen-hurt.
He can't tolerate this kind of rejection, the light of your flowers snapped
steely shut. He'll sit in the hall with a bottle of Jack, weeping, gouging
the skin off his arms with a nutpick. I've seen him. Unreachable, slumped
there, repulsed-enthralled by his own sagging body, agog at time, at his brittle
adiposity, the knobs and bobbins, the rusted pistons, the insect juice thinly
running out the cracks. . . till he passes out.
So you allow him his inventory, impersonal enough. It's like
he's counting stars is all, and you can see that he's truly happy for the
race of man still lucky enough to have stars to look at.
1976, the Bicentennial, was Nelson's favorite year of the world
since Creation. He had Bicentennial beer mugs, Bicentennial pillows, Bicentennial
salt and pepper shakers. The wallpaper in the living room was deep red with
tiny eagles on it. He also had brass eagle book ends, I remember, and a lamp
shade with "Washington Crossing the Delaware" on it -worth money
now. There was a signed photograph of President Truman in the bedroom and
one of Ike above the sink in the kitchen next to a poster of the Statue of
Liberty. And besides all this, he had fought in World War Two. Okinawa. That's
how old he was.
That particular story is in Nelson's eyes, as unreadable as
the expression of a cave or a pothole. I'm not sure what he remembers, if
anything. In front of him, Giddy tells us he lost his nerve; they had to bring
him back to the States in a cage. Nelson winces at the broken confidence,
if that's what it is. He turns toward Truman for exoneration, huffs the dust
from his forgotten medals, then stares darkly into some imaginary distance,
his world of battle stars and jousting tournaments just as alien to him as
to us, now. Maybe that's what frustrates him most. He leaves the room silently,
completely broken. You hear the sleeve of his kimono brushing lightly on the
The way he looks at us, you'd think he's forgotten. You'd think
he'd found us curled up in the garden, shrunk and loveless, at the roots of
ferns. Or that we were delicate birds, flailing, skewered on hibiscus pistils.
Gently did those Granny fingers coax the breath back into us. They daubed the
blood from broken feathers and placed us in a jeweled box on the window sill.
There we lie, weakly sipping sugar-water from an eyedropper. And our eyes are
the eyes of the Blessed Babe, and our skin is the skin of the Holy Infant, but
our cocks are big and hard and randy as a yak's.
|I never knew for sure what was true about Nelson.
He got checks from the V.A. addressed to N. Blutfeld. I remember that most
personal letters were postmarked Chicago and were thrown away unopened.
So at some point in the '50s or '60s, from Chicago I guess, he came to New
York, to the Lower East Side, and there pasted together his own little cloister.
His treks-aside from the annual pilgrimage to Liberty Island-were confined
to the grocery store, the farmer's market, and a steakhouse-turned-hustler-bar
on West Tenth Street.|
the face of
a rotting jack-o-lanttern-
"I think you're having a stroke," says Julio. "Too
Giddy tells him to take a bath, that he smells bad. Nelson
smiles and walks over to him. He takes Giddy's face in his hands and feels
it over like a blind person would. Giddy submits, a kind of nervousness in
his eyes, fear of giving in to something inside himself. Nelson is almost
rough with him, fingers on his face. He's only moving the skin around, massaging
it, but you feel like you're watching a forced confession. Giddy doesn't move.
Light streaks of dried dirt are left on his cheeks and forehead. He's kept
his natural smirk throughout. He's stood his ground. He doesn't even deign
to wipe off the dirt.
"Why don't you take a bath," he repeats. "You
smell like a goat."
Nelson looks at him for a minute, bites his lip as if to cry,
then laughs uproariously. He bangs his fist on the table. Giddy's expression
doesn't change. He plants his feet a little further apart and then scratches
his crotch, reclaiming himself. Nelson retreats, oddly buffeted by this one
gesture, and resumes his portrait of a slobbering pervert. Giddy, with a shift
of the hips, his cock defined through the thinning silk, asserts his young
yak's power. Nelson watches, smiling bedraggledly.
"Such a snot," he slurs. "Little shit."
Giddy grins at us. There's Cheez Doodle dust at the corners
of his mouth. He walks away, swaggering a little.
They're both crazy motherfuckers. Giddy was the first, according
to Julio-practically suckled at Nelson's breast. "Precious, aren't they?"
sighs Julio, carefully paring a thumbnail. "Little boys smearing their
shit on each other."
At 18, Julio's the oldest of us, and the most ambitious. He
has plans for a career in fashion. His only possession, other than his clothes,
is a box filled with 10 year's worth of Italian Vogue. You can't tell him
shit about shit, and he can wear an old jersey like it's silk chenille.
"I'm cooking, Nelson," he announces. "Give me
"Gimme ten, Nelson. I'm cooking tonight. Growing boys
can't live on hot dogs and rice. How 'bout some shrimp for a change. A paella."
"Oh, a spicnic?" says Nelson, then yuks at the joke.
"Funny, abuela. The cash?"
After dinner and a couple of six-packs, we're out the door.
We've exchanged the kimonos for our habits of work: jock straps, cutoffs,
tank-tops, sneakers. No jewelry, earrings or otherwise. No leather. We market
ourselves for the unimaginative set, your basic Jersey or Westchester john.
But we each carry our own peculiar talisman, though you'd never suspect. Julio's
is a dented gold cufflink he found in an elevator at Bloomingdale's. Mine
is a Statue of Liberty key chain stolen from Nelson. And Giddy always wears
the same pair of socks, though he'd deny more than any of us that there is
anything to it. He'd smile stupidly and tell you it's easier that way, or
that he keeps forgetting to change them. And Giddy's like that: smelly socks,
sloppy clothes. I've seen him at Rounds in a black sweat shirt, navy corduroys
and flip-flops-with socks. It's his ass that saves him. Ka-ching, ka-ching,
every time. It's a thing of reverence to Nelson; he fears to touch it too
Nelson watches as we leave. He stands in the doorway clutching
a beer, his fat hanging tired, his sadness uncorked. Old Mrs. Rodriguez sweeps
the fourth floor hall. The bristles halt as we pass, fauns' hooves disrupting
her neat mounds of dust. She averts her eyes, grits her teeth, sends a poisoned
sigh up the stairwell to Nelson. As Grannies, they can only wonder at the
summer night, at following one's footprints through bars and parks and video
arcades, through the beating heartway of the city where the darkness is your
mother. Where you step out from trees and phone booths, sneakers quiet on
the pavement, asses out, nylon shorts riding slightly up the crack. Leaves
move against the street lights and headlights. Jaguar, Volvo, Buick Skylark.
There's a breeze coming across 53rd Street. You glance up from a conversation
to see it fanning through the upper branches of a ginkgo. It drops down, lifts
your hair, then stops. The man beside you lights your cigarette. You can tell
he's new at this. He can't quite make up his mind what he's doing, how to
treat you. He hasn't offered to take you into the bar. You ask where he's
parked. He's not parked; he takes the subway. You excuse yourself: You have
to be somewhere. Conveniently, the Volvo has driven around the block and pulls
over. The window slices down. A figure, not old, leans over and motions. You
step to the curb. The locks flick on the door. You get in, feel the air conditioning,
sit back, relax. Maybe next time it'll be the Jaguar.
This morning, when the boy and the woman got off at 34th Street,
I was tempted to follow, just to watch them. They triggered feelings I thought
might not come again. The woman represented some kind of cowish security,
purity of some sort. I know that's bullshit. For all I know, after a few bourbon
cokes, she'd be grinding a hot iron into his back. But that's bullshit, too.
I could see she had dreams for him, though probably not as lavish and specific
as she had had for her own children. And he could never disappoint or hurt
her quite like they had. Maybe because she didn't have the energy to love
like that anymore. You could tell by the easy way they interacted that he
had a separate life with his parents. She was safe, then; she wouldn't be
held responsible for any of his failures. She might feel bad, but she would
not be responsible. Her dreams were Granny dreams and her arms an open circle.
In a peculiar way, it was the same with Nelson. He used to
cuddle us by twos and threes in that lumpy, beer-sour bed, the radiator hissing
through the middle of January while his heavy fingers roved constantly over
us, even as we slept, kneading his desires into our dreams.
I have one more snapshot of him taken the winter of 1984. He's
sitting at a card table painting a plaster cast bust of Apollo or someone,
to set in the garden when summer comes. He's looking down, a long lock of
white hair hanging over his face. In the dim background, you can see one of
us-Giddy, it looks like-stretched out on the sofa. Red Christmas tree lights
on the wall behind. And, though you can't see them, there are beer cans and
ashtrays all over the place.
It's in the context of winter that I usually think of Nelson.
It was bone-cracking cold the night we met. It was about eight in the evening
and I had been walking through the West Village without coat or gloves, hepatitis
buzzing in my veins. I couldn't even make it into the Ninth Circle. I sat
on the steps bracing for the next wave of sickness-like time-released venom-and
looking at my hands. I could see the sidewalk through them. When I held them
up over my eyes, I could make out the deli across the street and the fire
station. A woman in a fur coat steered her pugs across the street to avoid
me. She kept glancing over her shoulder as she walked toward Sixth Avenue.
When I lowered my hands, they were dripping with puke. I had puked on the
steps and all over my shoes.
There was a voice behind me, gruff and rumbling. I thought
it was the bouncer shooing me off. I grabbed the railing and tried to get
up, but slipped down in the salt and vomit of the steps.
"What the hell are you doing, joker? Has the kittens lost
Eyes glared drunkenly, some bum grinning in my face like he
knows me, eyeballs lunging, tongue hanging out. I tried to turn. He grabbed
the back of my neck with one hand and slapped the other onto my forehead.
"Just hot as an iron, little shit. No mittens, no jacket.
Shit, you ain't no cactus in a heat wave, joker."
His jowls jogged around as he growled and hooted. All I could
see was his face. Rubbery, papery. His white hair blew into my eyes.
"Come on, cactus."
He was prodding me, shaking me. I tried to bat him off, "Goddammother-fucker,"
tried to cover my face. When he stretched out his arms, they were two black
wings unfurling beside him. They drew up, reached around and smothered me
in damp wool. The street lamps were snuffed out, and the fire station. I wasn't
cold anymore, and I could see my parents' house back in Northport. I could
see the back of my mother's head. She was standing at the dining room window,
facing out. She was talking on the phone and smoking. Through the window,
in the front yard, my father had me pinned down on the grass by the sprinkler,
and was strangling me with his belt. I could see close now, and we were both
soaking wet. The sprinkler kept washing the blood off our faces. Jets of water,
Tenth Street jerked into view, but muddled, like a brief reflection
in a shattered mirror. Then darkness again. It felt like I was being carried,
handed from person to
person, through the streets. I saw the red digits on a taxi meter. Passing
lights cut through my body. I was a giant chunk of flabby space absorbing
everything. Everything except the person beside me on the seat boiling over
with presence, not saying a word. Just his breath seething in and out of him
like he couldn't stand another second of his body's demands, though I learned
later this was how he breathed when Happiness came and
sat, cross-legged and lotus-hooded, on the shaggy pillow of his heart.
"Almost there, Cactus."
I was prodded awake by a short, thin, Latino kid with long
"Better get up and eat something, man. You've been sleeping
like a log. . . like three logs, man."
I looked around me. Everything was dim and red. There were
red Christmas tree lights strung over the walls. Outside, it was dark and
I thought I could see snow coming down.
"You got hepatitis, man," he said. "You look
He held up a mirror. I looked at myself and nudged it away.
"Like three shits," I mumbled.
He laughed and tossed back his hair.
"I'm Julio," he said. "That's Giddy."
He pointed to a kid by the door in his underwear who just stared
at me and picked his nose with his thumb.
"You been sleeping for two days," said Julio.
He handed me a glass of orange juice and watched me closely
as I drank it.
"Good," he said. "Now go meet Nelson."
Julio handed me a dark silk robe with strangely shaped sleeves
and a silver sash.
"It's one of Nelson's," he said. "He told me
to give it to you. It sounds fucked up, but everything's fucked up here. Just
put it on."
The boy in the doorway snorted.
"It gets him hard," he said. "So wear it. 'Cause
he ain't gonna like you much for yourself. He don't like pussy wipes."
"Fuck off, Giddy," said Julio. He laid his hand on
my wrist. "Listen. Just stay up for a few minutes. He wants to see you.
Then you can sleep some more if you want."
I got off the bed shivering. I felt old, stick-like.
"Go on," whispered Julio, taking my place on the
I slipped my arms into the awkward sleeves and pulled the garment
around me. I ran my fingers through my hair, trying to imagine who I was supposed
to be meeting.
"Don't worry about it," said Julio.
"Don't worry," Giddy echoed. He plopped down on the
bed, too. "Just make sure he likes you."
I started toward the door, my feet sliding through empty beer
cans and Entenmann's boxes. I could hear a TV and a radio playing. The same
red wallpaper and Christmas lights were in the hallway. I passed the dark
cave of a bathroom and an open closet. A robe, like the one I was wearing,
was fixed with thumbtacks to the wall. "Kimono," I said, remembering
what it was called. I passed through the kitchen, with the picture of Eisenhower
over the sink. The linoleum was cracked and peeling, and part of it had been
completely ripped up from the floor boards. One corner was stacked with terra
cotta planters and bags of potting soil.
Last was the living room. I entered slowly. There was so much
crap, it took me a while to find him. The first thing that took identifiable
shape was the sofa, an over-stuffed camelback in worn, gold velvet directly
across the room by the door. Then the lamp next to it with the shade of "Washington
Crossing the Delaware." The strings of red lights were the only other
source of illumination. He was sitting, like in the photo, hunched over a
card table, working in the dimness at some project. It was the hair I recognized-that
white, horse-mane hair. I waited, watching him. He bent close to his project
and every few seconds touched a small brush to it. I took a step toward the
table and he looked up. I froze suddenly. There was nothing particularly daunting
in his eyes; if anything, they looked retarded. But I felt like his mind was
prowling around me, stealthily sniffing, quite close. Like a mother hyena
might sniff at her pups. I felt prickly. It wasn't fear, but an unusual sense
Without saying anything, he resumed painting. I kept still,
"Hi," I said.
He bent still closer to the plaster bust and kept dabbing at
it with the brush. He was painting it silver.
"What's that?" I asked.
He opened his mouth but didn't say anything. A worried expression
came into his face, almost fearful, then slowly faded. I knew then he was
I stood there for a moment, then crossed the room. I sat on
the sofa and watched him, too weak to do anything else. I was sleepy again
and, realizing that I wouldn't get the bed back, stretched out where I was.
The prickly feeling came over me again, and this time it scared me, though
I didn't know why.
I looked up. I thought I felt Nelson watching me. He wasn't.
Then I noticed a figurine on the mantle of the gas furnace-a brass eagle's
head about ten inches high-turned in my direction. On the wall above that
was a painting of an eagle in a nest, a paint-by-numbers-looking thing in
a gaudy gilt frame. There were eagles on the window curtain, eagles in the
rug, and of course eagles in the wallpaper. It was then I realized I didn't
know where I was. I started to say something when all at once-but slowly -the
eagles rose from their various places and mounted together as one thing, like
a huge black bush hurtling its leaves and branches in all directions. It was
a bush with red flowers, red pulsing pin-points. Those lights, when I woke,
were like my first memory.
I'm looking for someone on the train tonight. Someone familiar
that I don't know at all. Like the grandmother. I have a feeling of uneasy
expectancy. I look under hats, behind hair, through reading glasses. Nothing.
At Union Square, my mind hurtles west along 14th Street, then turns down the
West Side Highway toward the piers. I never spent much time with the pier
queens. All the jabber and jewelry was Julio's interest, though I never knew
he was hustling there until the night he got bashed.
I came in at four or five in the morning, saw him sitting in
the middle of that gold sofa, bandages wrapped around his head, his arm in
a dishcloth sling. His lap was piled with his precious copies of Italian Vogue.
He was crying silently, indignantly. Nelson was pacing around the apartment,
lifting things, rearranging things, as he always did when emotion overwhelmed
him. His hair was a stringy cloud around his head.
"What happened?" I asked.
Julio looked up from the sofa. His eyes, framed within a crack
in the bandages, were unable to travel the distance between us.
Two summers ago, I ran into Julio on Fourteenth Street. He
was coming out of Diamond Fabrics with some freeze-dried looking house diva
coiffed in gold rick-rack and orange beads. I hadn't seen him for awhile.
He had some gristly muscles on his upper body, but the rest was still small,
gaunt Julio. He hadn't lost his old swish-posse poise, but it came off strangely
with his new pectorals. He was dancing at The Gaiety on 46th Street, he said,
and was staying at the House of Dior uptown. He introduced The Lady Magenta
Neferteri Dior -or something like that-who acknowledged me with a certain
shift of the hips, her eyes settling blandly in the middle of my forehead.
Julio laughed at my reaction, whatever that was, and said something in Spanish
about the "boy from Northport" which brought a grin to the diva's
face. I was barbacking then for a place in Chelsea, and I told him he should
stop in sometime for a drink. Before we parted, I asked about Nelson.
"Oh, he's nursing some little Jamaican thing. Shrunk-up
queen in a head rag always sitting out front. Last I heard."
He shrugged his shoulders defensively, as if he shouldn't be
expected to know more. I asked about the cousin we had lived with in Hell's
Kitchen just after we left Nelson's. As he spoke, his eyes wandered restlessly
down the street. I stopped listening to what he was saying and looked at the
ridge of scar on his upper lip. It cut protuberantly through one side of his
mustache. He caught me looking, but just kept up a steady stream of talk.
It was in his eyes that I saw the resentment-cool, fortified. He might have
still been sitting on the sofa, looking out at me through the bandages.
"Yeah, well fuck you, man."
That's what the eyes said.
The gold sofa, given any light, will seem to be creating its
own. The light burns from the velvet. It's a film of iridescence, thinner
on the tops of the arms and cushions where the pile has worn away. But even
there its sheen persists, impervious to damage from shoes and cigarettes.
The window behind is boarded up as if specifically to protect it from the
sun's rays. The light from the lamp swims softly over it, or the Christmas
tree lights lift it into existence, the velvet pulsing a dim brick color under
the red bulbs.
Someone is always sprawled there, lavishing in its lumpy grip.
You don't sit as a rule; you extend; you let it carry you, like some soft
boat or carriage, away from the ruckus, the dingy clutter, the scarecrows.
It is the seat of the prince, of the favored child. It is the seat of dreams.
Giddy lies there, legs up, bent, the hem of his scarlet kimono slipped down
to his waist. He has white, thick, nearly hairless legs.
"How much they give you anyway, Nelson?" He's asking
about the V.A. checks that come every month. "Two hundred? Three hundred?"
Nelson sits in dusty suspension, bent over the card table,
studying a map he has made of the garden, each blossom accounted for.
"How many Japanese shits you have to skewer for that,
Julio sits cross-legged on a stool, a dark lotus. His stitches
are out and his hand works fine. They didn't, however, patch the lip well.
Bs and Ps are hard for him to say. He glances dully out into the room.
I'm there, too, somewhere. It's the last summer we spend together,
1986. It's the summer of "Spiderman." That's what they're calling
it on Avenue C.
Giddy tries to sit up. He's high. You watch his gaze groping
around, searching for the person across the room. An unlit cigarette flops
around in his mouth:
"No one I know of remembers that war. How old are you
anyway Nelson?" He has managed to light a match, but the cigarette's
disappeared. He moves his legs to look under them, his whole crotch showing.
"How the fuck old are you, Nelson?" His eyelids droop. Julio leans
forward and, keeping his balance on the stool, blows out the match without
making a sound. "Shit. . . you're older than Uncle. . . fucking Sam."
Nelson crosses the room, sleeves flapping, toward Giddy. He
bares a tooth-poor grin. He lifts Giddy off the couch and carries him triumphantly
to the bedroom. Julio moves to the sofa, melting into the velvet, just the
ends of his hair sticking up, the pile's length, through the cushion. Nelson's
back shortly, sucking on a beer. Then he's back again, a strange new color
overtaking his face. Time reweaves itself through the cloth of the brain.
The room shrinks. The sofa is shabby in the daylight, all
elbows under you. Nelson's hands are
tangled in his hair. He circles the room, tramping debris, then goes back
to the bedroom and stays there.
It could have been an hour before we went back to find them.
Nelson was standing at the bedroom window, looking down at the garden. Giddy
lay on the bed. He was stretched out diagonally on his back, his arm tucked
loosely around a pillow at his side. His face was gray like the shade of a
stone, and his mouth and nostrils were obstructed with puke. Julio swore and
left the room, trying to pull me along after him. I made the mistake of staying.
I waited for a minute, staring at Giddy. Stepping back, I could avoid the
face. I looked at his hair, parted naturally on the side, the back fanned
out slightly against the mattress.
I asked Nelson if we should call an ambulance. His head turned.
One hazel eye showed through the drape and snarl of his hair. It was clear,
assured, dry. I could even sense a wry smile behind the hair. Each word, as
he spoke, was a building collapsing.
"I thought I said no needles in the house."
The weight of the body on the bed seemed to seep out into the
room. I concentrated on breathing. There was no point in saying we had gotten
off outside. The hazel eye slid over to the bed. He moved toward it, bumping
me inadvertently out of the way. I watched from the doorway as he climbed
up on the bed. He stretched himself out over Giddy, laid right on top of him.
He stayed pitched like that, flesh on flesh, all night. In
the morning, we had to call the cops to get him off the body. We didn't know
what else to do. The coroner came and three officers. Luckily, no stuff was
around. There was some questioning, some badgering, but no charges were pressed.
They didn't bother to take Nelson to the precinct; he was too distraught to
feign coherence. One officer gave me the number of Covenant House, sparing
me the lecture. That was it. And they took the body.
Nelson disappeared for two weeks. We thought he had jumped
in the East River. But he finally showed up in the garden one evening, ragged
and dirty and raging through the sunflowers. When he had finished with the
sunflowers, he trampled the corn, and when he had finished with the corn,
he yanked up two or three of the morning glory trellises. Old Mrs. Rodriguez
on the fourth floor had to run down to protect her young tomatoes. She stood
by her patch with a lifted hoe, spitting obscenities. Julio and I watched
from the window, laughing, egging them on. The two of them had battled it
out before. Nelson was staggering around her, flapping his arms and making
strange faces. She caught him off-balance, pushed him squarely over with a
thrust of the hoe. He lay there squirming on the ground, cackling. It was
nearly dark when we came down to retrieve him. It took us 20 minutes to get
The corn was ruined, but the morning glories and sunflowers
more or less recovered. Mrs. Rodriguez's tomatoes did well that year. They
were as big as softballs by the end of the summer. Julio said she used magic
on them. He also said she used magic on us, on Nelson, to poison his household.
Other boys had moved in, none staying long. It was constant flux. Nelson seemed
to be plucking them right off Houston Street. Dopeheads and worse. Crack vials
competed with beer cans for floor space. Neighbors complained. There were
fires in the kitchen and kids crashing in the hallway. Things were stolen,
broken; President Truman was defaced with a marker. Nelson didn't even seem
After running into Julio that day on Fourteenth Street, I decided
to walk over to Avenue B. I almost changed my mind when I hit Sixth Street,
unsure of what I would do when I got there. Probably just walk by, I thought.
It seemed strange, suddenly, that I had not been there for more than eight
When I came to the building, old Mrs. Rodriguez was sitting
on the stoop. She was flushed and dusty from working in the garden. She didn't
recognize me, of course, and her broad face darkened as I explained who I
was. She muttered something in staccato Spanish; the only word I caught was
"puto." Then she sighed, her chest and shoulders wilting slightly.
I noticed a new light fixture mounted over the door and different colored
tiles in the hallway. There was also a panel of intercom buzzers.
"You've changed," said Mrs. Rodriguez, squinting
at me. I couldn't tell what kind of change she deemed it. I doubted she really
recognized me. Her eyes moved skeptically over my clothes, down to my Nikes,
back up to my hair.
"I remember your tomatoes," I said forcefully.
Her eyes brightened.
"Mis tomates," she nodded, sitting straight again.
"Carrots, potatoes, espinaca. All the best."
She grabbed the railing and pulled herself up. She was a little
fatter, a little squatter than I remembered her, yet she walked easily down
the steps. Motioning for me to follow, she headed toward the garden. I stood
on the sidewalk, watching her, feeling something lift in my chest. It was
the same feeling I had had when the Ninth Circle closed, and Rounds, too,
after that. Like watching hundreds of cigarettes lit up in the dark, flames
flickering, disclosing here and there a wrist, a forehead, the edges of a
cupped hand, the shine of an eye, a glance. And each of these things is a
night of your life, a person in your life. Then darkness. Then you are taking
another breath; it might as well be your first. You check your footing before
continuing. The past is not there.
I hurried to catch up with Mrs. Rodriguez. She led me in through
the small side gate. White, red, and purple clematis were blooming here and
there on the fence. It was late afternoon, and the shadows of the buildings
lay over the garden. Things were trimmer, tidier than they had been when I
had lived there. There was less mingling of flowers and vegetables.
I followed the old woman down various paths. She moved quickly,
her head of dyed-black hair bobbing up and down. She pointed at various things
along the route, but at nothing especially remarkable. Soon we stood at her
plot of tomatoes. It was early July, and the fruits were just forming. She
stood protectively over them, clasping her hands in joy at the future.
At the end of the garden I noticed a patch of what looked like
sunflowers. They were a yard or so high, but not blooming yet. I walked toward
them, moving between plots of nasturtiums and tiger lilies, squash and green
peppers, all beautifully tended.
The sunflowers were a smaller variety than Nelson used to grow,
and the patch was not as big, maybe 40 plants. There were a few blossoms,
but nothing to approach the hubcap-sized ones I remembered. I turned and looked
up at the building. My eyes skimmed lightly over the windows of the top floor,
then dropped away. It was as I had remembered. Just a little more soot on
the side of the buildings.
Mrs. Rodriguez was scowling, her feet set firmly, her hands
in tight fists at her side. She stood at the portal of Grannydom, defending
it against sniffers, prowlers, infiltrators. But her gaze wavered when I challenged
it. It moved hesitantly to the building beyond us, up to the sixth floor.
Inside, through a veil of reflections off the corner windows, there showed
tiny, blinking, red Christmas lights. They were so faint, I wondered whether
they were real. If I tried hard enough, I could probably have seen someone
standing up there-the dwindling hulk of a man looking out.
"Esta muerto," said Mrs. Rodriguez, with less assurance
She spat on the ground and headed back toward the gate.