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I love you. These simple words knock against the inside of his head the same way police knock. Hard. Loveless. I love you. He sits in a backward chair by the window and watches the wide cold river run, trying like hell to remember what it means. The winter sun’s fallen low across the water over Jersey, and soon the sad pastels will bloom behind her skyline. Dusk on these cities, colors of evening, I love you, misplaced colors come to seal, like a fierce rosy paste in the sky, one more day’s end in the life of this thin misplaced soul we’ve found, this stranger at the window.
[private]He’s naked and the draft from the glass plays at his chest and knees. There’s a likeness of the Virgin on the wall. There’s a dirty stack of dishes in the sink. There’s a Sears VCR with a pile of tapes on the floor. There’s a three-speed bike by the door, and there’s the sorry white seated nude who keeps this place: Adrian Young. His fire-fighter old man long killed in a fire, his mother a vegetable somewhere in Queens.
Years since they’d carried him home from Kings County Hospital down Atlantic Avenue to Columbia and up three flights of stairs to this very room on one of the last white nights before Nineteen Seventy Six turned without apology into Seventy Seven. They heated formula on the stovetop and exchanged looks and petrified smiles and the babe breathed soft and then it wailed and choked and then it slept and they listened to the clock and stood over their pink spawn in a dry state of puzzlement. Whatever lies they’d told themselves had thrown their young souls into atrophy early on and caused them to forget how good it feels to run all night, how good it feels just to be.
But outside their apartment the Hudson kept running. And so have the years in their own greedy way. Hostages were taken and disco died and an actor president got shot through the ribs and lived and he whispered to God and his country got stranger still and rich and his subjects looked to the stars till a wall came down and everyone cried in the streets and the world bled and we watched and slept and grinned and before you could say God is dead our famous red century swung shut like a madhouse door. And one fine morning just across the harbor our skyscrapers fell, same as all things in due time, and though his folks have fallen too the child is still here, still watching from the window, his still eyes a little cloudier now, his big pretty hands a little bigger, that’s all.
Out across the river the sun has fallen from view, its pinks and coppers drowned in the eventide. It’s grown dark in the living room. His eyes are quiet. He lingers in the chair awhile waiting for nothing and then he breathes a long drama-queen breath and gets up to turn a light on.
The switch by the door clicks as he hits it. Nothing. Dead bulb. ‘Damn it,’ he says. ‘Not again,’ he says and walks on these pale legs of his through the half-dark toward the kitchenette on the other side of the room where atop his bare table stands a lamp whose shade is glass and shaped like a woman, cheap with little birds painted on, simple pink birds in flight against a hard pale sky that nobody’s moved since he way a kid.
He fingers the string dangling under the shade and tugs it and hears it click and watches the element fire in the bulb behind the birds. But then he hears another sound, a sad faint hiss that carries with it that momentary sinking of the heart which never fails to move us when we’ve had to watch a manmade thing die. ‘God damn it,’ he says and covers a mad eye with his hand and grinds his pubic bone against the table’s worn aluminium and stands here lean and paler still in the mocking dark.
This happens to him all the time. He’s told the Super and the Super’s tested the fusebox and more than once has come to take a look inside his Great Depression ceiling fixture, then behind his switches and outlets on the wall. But each time in the end the Super shakes his head and closes up his toolbox and sighs his Latin sigh and turns and looks at the tenant and swears there’s nothing wrong. So Adrian quit crying to the Super a year ago. And now when they pass in the stairwell the old man grins and lifts his good hand, fingers high, screwing his wrist in a cute charade that can mean just one thing: Does the night play tricks on you still, Maricon?
Adrian carries himself over to the gray army surplus blanket hung to act as a bedroom door, parts it with the back of his hand and passes inside. Moving through the dim musty space he doesn’t dare try the light-switch. His nerves couldn’t take another dead bulb. Enough’s enough. A long wool dress, the kind his librarian wore in grade-school, lies spread across his mattress on the floor like some prude spectre hungry for his touch. He stands over it. Then he bends down and takes the worn purple fabric in his big hands. How he’s pulling it over his naked self like a different skin, a skin he maybe likes better. His movements are curious, touched somehow with a feline grace, and now he’s back in the front room with his moon-boots on and now he’s trotting down the battered stairwell carrying his bicycle shoulder-high like a shot buddy in his weird army of one. And out into the ether at last. To ride alone the darkened streets of Red Hook. Winter streets of Brooklyn. The cold at his face. The cold at his hands. The early night wind alive under his dress.
Quiet blocks go by. Somewhere on the other side of Atlantic he coasts to a stop and swings down off his seat. Here he lays the bike lightly against the bricks. It would never cross his mind to chain it up, nobody’d steal it. Teary-eyed and shaking off the cold he walks into the store and marks the way it smells. People and plastics. Milk. Insecticide.
Traipsing along, he makes straight for the back of the place where the mean Korean who owns it keeps a pitiful selection of hardware. Here you’ll find such things as Duct-tape, box of light-bulbs. The box he finds says GE in big scripted letters and underneath these it says 40 watt, soft. Adrian gives out a strange little laughs and lifts it from the shelf and thumbs open a cardboard end and begins to transfer gently the four bulbs inside down into the big pockets of his librarian dress. His moves are deft, like some wild she-dog in moon-boots robbing eggs. Smiling at the broken surveillance camera screwed high against the wall, he turns back his face and closes the box he’d emptied and puts it back on the shelf and heads for the front of the store with his hands in the now pregnant pockets at his waist resting, just so, to mask their swollen look they’ve taken on.
At the counter he stands and looks into the face of the baffled man behind it, just the two of them in the quiet.
‘I’m looking for Doctor Strangelove,’ says Adrian.
With his drum-tight rogue’s eyes the storekeeper studies this wrong young man the night’s blown in. He’s seen this one before. Yes. This one’s been here before.
‘This no sex clinic.’
‘Could’a fooled me. Don’t be shy. I know you got it.’
‘How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.’
‘What the herr is this?’
‘This no Horrywood Video.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘You sorry arright,’ says the man, looking the shivering thief up and down. ‘Sorry sack of you know what.’
‘No Strangelove. Shame on you.’
The Korean slaps his hand down on the counter, an odd gesture that’s got to mean I’m through toying with you, and pennies chime dull in the penny-tray.
‘Get the herr out,’ he barks. ‘Get you sexy ass out and don’t come back!’
Breezing back down toward the river, the hidden lightbulbs grinding musical and soft against his hips as he peddles, a thought enters into the thief’s head and he shares it out loud with the night: It’s gonna take a hell of a lot more than forty watts to light my way.
Shifting his weight he peddles down off the sidewalk between two parking meters and crosses the street. He doesn’t care to look for traffic, there are dearer pictures in his head. A yellow taxi nearly runs him down. The cabby lays on his horn and spits muted curses at the pale rider outside in the cold but the rider just gives back an eerie grin and picks up speed and leans and turns the corner.
And so he goes, pulled numb through the biting air, his desperate spokes trying their best to flash in the raw light the street-lamps offer as they whirl by. From every direction the city blares its hard manic opera but Adrian pays it no mind. He’s got a song of his own tonight, and he begins to sing, faint in a dire falsetto the words to a song that’s haunted him all his life: Born in Red Hook Brooklyn in the year of who-knows-when, opened up his eyes to the tune of an accordion…
The late December wind gnaws at him, covets him, rifles though him till he’s excommunicated from his body altogether as from some poor cold church in the wilderness. A bitter midnight, this. A midnight of waifs and quick shadows and Christmastime prayers frozen like tattoos. A Sunday midnight of hustlers and steam off the grates and a helicopter close as hell and a dancer losing sleep and hipsters on parade and those tanker-lights pulsing down along the water’s edge where seabirds circle and cry like souls cut short.
Maybe love is but a night ride. All things that grow at the roadside rushing by, wondrous at first, flowers for Algernon, wilting faster than we know, all things made vague, softy lit, lit in a way they’d never be standing striped under God’s cold sun.
No stars over Red Hook. But our metropolitan sky, foiled though she may be, remains a shelter to this scared race of orphans lost beneath her nonetheless. And she knows what we cannot. That we’re all peddling home in the dark, the cold tears down our face, the wind like time’s own wry voice in the wheel-spokes round and round, all alone, all our lives.
Freeing a hand from the handlebar he rummages there at his waist and one by one, with the same mad joy as a bag-lady pitching bread to birds in the park, he takes up each bulb and tosses it high over his shoulder, listening close for their soft explosions in the street behind him.
Just there where the past begins. And once his pockets are empty he’ll smile thinly and clamp his knees and straighten up his barbwire spine and let go the handlebars altogether and coast down this last hill with his arms out wide. And by this pose he’ll hope to illustrate the story of his life. One more skinny thief with the wind at his palms. Born small and blown astray under the sheltering sky.[/private]