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Senseless Nights in Williamsburg

By Michael DeCapite.

Flo was always throwing me out. The last time she told me to get out and stay out of our apartment on Grand Street, in Brooklyn, I had keys to Lester’s place in the city. What do I remember of that last night? I won’t recreate it. I remember that when I held Lester’s keys up for her to see, she acted like she’d been tricked. She accused me of contriving to be thrown out. I remember taking a brown bag of workclothes, and the bugspray smell of Lester’s building. It was known as the Poets’ Building. There were discarded clothes and books and magazines on the landings. I tried on a short wool coat, brown plaid. Lester was in Paris for a month. I remember his Christmas tree was still up in March, and I remember I tossed my bag on the couch and checked the fridge for a beer. There wasn’t one. So I sat beside the bag in my new plaid coat.

*

“Time of which I speak,” as W.C. Fields would say——those dark days in New York——I was driving a van for a painting contractor. His garage was in Fort Greene. The morning after Flo threw me out I stepped onto 12th Street feeling delicate with remorse and curious about the future. The world was all new scabs. I walked past trash cans and stoops and busted lumber. The cars along the curb looked like they’d been tampered with overnight. I drove to Fort Greene and picked up the van. I was wearing my new plaid coat. It was warm but it wasn’t me. I took a slight comfort from my old brass lighter, which I’d transferred to the pocket. After making deliveries all day in Manhattan, I took the van to Grand Street.

I let myself into the apartment, Flo’s apartment. She was at work. The floor was dirty, the table cluttered. I moved through the rooms like a burglar, looking things over. I came to the bed. The covers and sheets were tangled and torn aside. I felt sorry for the two people who lived there. They were only dimly aware of their situation. Like someone with a bad wig who still wears the wig.

I found my suitcase in a closet behind the sleeves and skirts and pantlegs. It was a black metal suitcase, practically a trunk. When I first met Flo when I was still living in Cleveland. She came to town to visit a couple of friends of mine. By the time she left I was moving to London, so I spent three months working and getting myself straightened out, and bought this suitcase at a junk store, right before I left…

*

I got to London at the start of December. Tendrils of water were pulled along the train windows as we rode in from the airport. Blurred, rainblack houses with their muddy allotments were running by, oppressed by the sky like I was oppressed by the you-are-here reality of my arrival in a very old place that had nothing to do with me, owner of nothing but a black metal suitcase and my two legs. There’s an excitement in it, but it’s the kind that makes you feel like throwing up. A seagull flew by in the rain. I saw everything from the houses to the inside of the train car to the juice box clutched by a kid across the aisle as part of Flo’s manifold past there. At Victoria Station I managed not to be swept away in the crowd as we changed for the Underground. Every time the train stopped the doors opened on what I imagined to be a snapshot of her memory. You know how it is. In the beginning a woman’s comprehensiveness wipes you out and buries you. It belittles you. It’s unbearable that this person, this whole Flo thing, has been going on all along without you, and it’s even worse that now she’s trained her energies on you. She’s like God. It’s too much to contemplate her complexity or diffusion, or her power——or your responsibility toward her. The trouble isn’t believing in God, it’s that God believes in you. You can’t imagine that this woman with all her store of memories and sensations and involvements is bringing herself to bear on you, who can’t support the weight, and has singled you out of all the people she might better have loved, and you can’t imagine what you bring to it except your scrawny ass from Cleveland, Ohio. Later, of course, it changes. You get the miracle in reverse. Later you think Are you still here? Who the hell are you again? And by what right do you trap and nag and judge and detest me? By exactly what right do you throw my typewriter across the room and whack me in the head with a colander holding two pounds of grapes? But that’s later.

Flo and three other people were semi-squatting in a flat in West Kensington. They’d occupied it for the bank until the deaths of the two pensioners downstairs: an Irish widower and an ancient Russian woman with long white hair who’d been a famous ballet mistress once and never got out of bed. The flat was only 125 pounds a month, with all its stairways and landings and its two-person bathtub and 50p gas boxes and closets full of old ball gowns and donkey jackets and eight high-ceilinged rooms with their scavenged furniture and broken cinecameras and boarded-up fireplaces and flags and empty brandy bottles and other souvenirs from everyone’s holidays, including a rusted Ohio license plate nailed up on the wall. It was a funky, festive, freezing place with an electric oil heater or an electric gas fire in each room which warmed a three-foot area and left the rest of the place icy damp so you could see your breath. Flo spotted a typewriter in a window in Oxford Street and bought it for me. During the week, while she was away at art college, I wrote in the mornings and went to a gym on Lillie Road and wandered the city and listened to the war memories of the bums around Leicester Square and hung out with the old men in betting shops waiting out my 20p each-way in the 3:30 at Cheltenham, and looked for work and cooked for the others and waited for Flo to come back at the weekends, when we’d take long walks along the river and go to the galleries on Cork Street and eat little sandwiches or lasagna in cafes and meet her actor friends at the pub in Camden or in their one-candle squats in King’s Cross.

My first job, off the books, was cleaning up at a theater on Charing Cross Road, me and three Africans who looked like humbled professors and showed up for work in suits, pulling vacuum cleaners and picking up ice cream cups and lost scarves at six a.m. By nine o’clock I was walking through the produce stalls in Berwick Street, on my way home. I remember the empty train platforms, the sooty glooms and the hushed light of weekdays, a light like reverie. I’d fix myself a cup of tea and take it up to my room, smoke one of my day’s three cigarettes, and get to work on my book.

*

I was still working on that book four years later, long after I’d found us a place in New York and started working with a crew of Irish painters and picking up a half pint in the evening and staying up late to write, and long after she’d come over on a fiancée visa and, after a few months of doubts and hesitation, we jump-started the car on the frozen morning her visa expired and got married at City Hall, and long after I’d taken a year off to finish the damn thing and spent the wedding money and there were friends at the door and guests on the floor and our building full of musicians climbing out our window for hootenannies on the roof…

Flo and I had lots of good times, we just didn’t have them together. We were never meant to be together. She was never meant to be captured, and I didn’t know what to do with her once I had her. She was a very elusive person——part liar, part witch——elusive in the way of theater people. And she was volatile. Her identity was less stable than mine, she was like wind and lights. I was too heavy for her, too plodding and unchanging. She was better off with a circle of chatty creative friends than with the same dull guy with a fixed idea of himself day after day. She was self-created: poof, out of the bleak suburbs of London. From the thin air of a family which didn’t get her and an environment for which she was too colorful, she’d invented herself. She invented us both. She belonged in New York, but not with me. She didn’t know quite who I was. She had a lot of ideas about that, based on American movies. I couldn’t live up to it. She was always disappointed in me, in my lack of imagination, my sluggard resistance to change shape or seize my destiny. All I wanted to do was write and drink.

I was busy doing that and only that. Except for the fights I was happy with my life. I’d carved it myself. At one end of our railroad apartment I had my desk by the window, the same antique schooldesk I used in my room as a teenager. The nightly half pint became a pint, and there was coke to keep me going when I got too drunk. I did a line and hurried to get what was in my head onto the page. I wound up staring at my reflection in the window. Flo went to bed and I stayed awake under a desk lamp, careful not to wake her, ducking down for a line, bouncing off the window. Luckily I was invisible. One more line would do it…

Next thing I know I’m out in the hall and Flo’s at the door, worried and barefoot in her cotton nightgown.

“What’s happening?” she says.

“Nothing. Go back to bed.”

“Where are you going?”

“I’m just going to get cigarettes.”

“It’s two o’clock, Danny.”

“Yeah, I’ll be right back.”

“Don’t go, Danny. You don’t need any more. Come to bed.”

“I’ll be right back. Don’t worry.”

Next thing I know I’m out in the hall and Flo’s at the door, barefoot and worried in her flannel nightgown.

“What’s happening?” she says.

“Nothing. Go back to bed.”

“Where are you going?”

“I’m just going to get cigarettes.”

“It’s two o’clock, Danny.”

“Yeah, I’ll be right back.”

“Don’t go, Danny. You don’t need any more. Come to bed.”

“I’ll be right back. Don’t worry.”

Out on the street it’s a little adventure. There’s a hooker crouched beside a car mirror doing her lipstick and a crack kid reaching under the fender where he keeps his stock and the others on the corner with their “Blue cap, blue cap.” Right on Bedford, left on South First, past a sidewalk shrine made of milk crates and votive candles…spraypaint on the sidewalk, R.I.P. James. There’s movement in a doorway…between cars…and farther along a cluster of people——they’re the guardians of this block…they’re streaming past…like shadows on smoke…to me they’re just phrases——this week’s brand names…“ConEd”…“Fila coke, Fila coke”…

The wind blows a patter of rain on my back as I unlock the building door. I let myself into the kitchen like Mr. Hyde. I’m in love with the stealth and secrecy of it all. At the other end, the typewriter’s waiting in its circle of light. I don’t even take off my coat. I tap out a pile, I’m chopping it up. I duck down, I pop back up. The window rattles. Past my reflection, the rain is coming down…

Someone’s signaling out there, a lighter in a doorway. The doorway goes black. I’ve seen her around here for years. Six months ago there was music thumping, guys double-parked up and down this block, hitting the horn, calling her name. Now she walks with a cane. She looks like she’s 65. She’s out there in the rain, crouched behind a yellow plastic bag. I’ve seen her do this trick before, with people walking by. She’s holding the bag up with one hand and lighting the pipe with the other. The flame throws her shadow on the bag like a lantern show. She’s hiding behind the bag like no one can see her, and I’m watching her from the window with a rolled-up dollar like no one can see me. The doorway goes dark, and the wind sends a shiver up the shine on the street.

*

Cooper started out as my drinking buddy in New York and became my closest friend there. Or the one I spent the most time with. The first Friday after Flo threw me out was his birthday. I was driving the van, I decided to get him a book. I looked for it all over town and wound up on 18th Street. I walked into a used bookstore. The place was crowded with old books: they were falling off the shelves, they were stacked on the floor.

The clerk said “Can I help you?”

“I’m looking for Struggles and Triumphs, the autobiography of P.T. Barnum.”

He pointed to a woman who was working in the stacks. “Ask her. She’s our circus expert.”

So I walked up——“’Scuse me, are you the circus expert?”

She stopped what she was doing.

Slowly, she came down a stepladder she was standing on. I hadn’t noticed that part. She was a midget. Her eyes were burning up at me.

Back at the counter, the guy was covering his face. He couldn’t believe I’d repeated this. What could I say? “He told me to say it”? She had to work with the guy. I told her what I was looking for. Without a word she led me to the back of the store, I followed her. She pulled Barnum off the shelf and handed it to me.

The clerk was shaking his head as he rang it up, we couldn’t even look at each other, we were too embarrassed.

Cooper called me at Lester’s around 7:30. He was eating with his girlfriend down the street. The radiators were coming to life. I ran water in the sink. I moved around in the mirror’s corroded dimension, splashing water on my face, searching for a towel.

There was a sensation of stepping out, in Manhattan. A downplayed fear, an eagerness. Of rejoining humanity, slipping into the current. History’s now and you’re it. I drove down Avenue A, which was congested on a Friday night.

Cooper waited in the car while I went to the coke store on 4th Street. It fronted as a bodega. The only thing they stocked was tartar sauce. There was a wall of tartar-sauce jars behind the plexiglass at the counter. There was a soda cooler back there too——they made you take a soda to baffle the cops. I pushed a folded twenty through a hole in the wood and walked out of there with a packet of coke and a grape Shasta. I popped open the can, took one sip, and dropped it in the trash.

Meanwhile, Cooper was chopping lines on a paperback. I put the car in gear. “Let’s go up to Times Square and get a drink.” We rolled to the light at Houston. He did a line, the light turned green. He held the book and handed me a rolled-up bill and I shifted into third gear, leaning over with an eye on the road and Houston rolling by. Cooper moved to New York with his band and lived on mustard and bread behind a candy store in Red Hook when it was still possible to move to New York and starve. He had talent and attitude to spare——he was a natural. He’d taken his licks on the street and in the bars and his band was just about the best band I’d ever heard. They were a few years ahead of their time, so nothing happened. He started other bands and knocked around and still nothing happened. He should’ve been rich, which he knew. It was a case of too much of nothing, that’s what we had in common. Nothing. He wiped a finger across the book. He liked to have fun, it came easy to him. He lived without doubt. I didn’t relate. It was seductive but I didn’t quite buy it. Fun wasn’t my idea of fun. At Sixth Avenue I leaned out the door, threw up, and on we went.

*

After a bar on 44th Street and a tour of Times Square with some guy we knew, who flipped out and tried to incite his street friends against us, after a platter of untouched oysters on upper Broadway and a gambling parlor in a drug dealer’s room at the Chelsea and a loft party below Canal and other encounters and skirmishes now lost to the ocean of night, the night released the day and we started all over again. There was an abortive breakfast in the meat-packing district, an uncomfortable bar in Chinatown, more trips to East 4th, someone’s band rehearsal, afternoon beers at a sculpture garden on Forsyth where they were roasting a pigeon on a stick, a German woman who came along for the coke, a quiet hour of television in the Victorian foyer of a bondage parlor run by a dominatrix we knew, a visit to the workshop of a guy who built his own instruments——we kept dropping in on people who didn’t know what to do with us——some sort of ceremony or vigil in the tent city in Tompkins Square Park, and blessed night again. Speeding up Chrystie Street I may have clipped a man with the car. He came flying out of the dark and went spinning away again. Late, Cooper and I landed at the Ship’s Mast, a shithole Brooklyn bar, last resort or final station for the Williamsburg art-rummy crowd, drop-ceilinged and overpriced and stinking of Lysol——nothing more than a drain-catch for people like us. Cooper and I slipped our second packet of coke back and forth and pottered off to the can and got into conversations we thought were outrageous and had what passed for fun around there. As always, I was living and acting at the same time, but with the cocaine the distance between the two was greater and more windswept. I was worried about running into my wife. She was probably out having fun, but hers was basically an honest and unaided type of fun, and I didn’t want her to come in here and think she was missing something. She was a human being who was living her life and I was a barely-human monster involved in a program of brutal self-indulgence and punishment. I’d always felt I was pretending at whatever I did and that women were in it for real. Flo lived in the world and I lived in my head. If she came in and saw me she’d think I was enjoying myself, and there’d be no way to explain that even at this I was just pretending. Plus, what with the whiskey and beer and the coke and the baby laxative in the coke I couldn’t decide whether I needed to step outside and cough up some cocaine drip, or puke, or piss, or crap, or have a heart attack, or stand up or sit down——whether I should drink this or order something else or listen or talk or pull out a napkin and write something down. The options canceled each other out and I’d lost my sense of humor with my first line, so I decided to light another cigarette. With shaking hands I struck a match. In its flare I felt photographed in the moment before my death. I shook it out and the room resumed itself. The conversation had increased and I was at the bottom of it, holding on. No one was taking anything seriously, any of this. They’d all sold their souls for irony. I used to be a person, now I was a personality. Failure and self-abuse and disrespect for death had done it. Bean was slumped on the stool beside mine. Eyes shut, he muttered “Loserville! This’s Loserville!” Miraculously, there was a golden ounce of whiskey on the bar, untouched for the past half-hour. Gagging slightly, I let it seep under my tongue and nursed it to my roiling stomach with sips of beer. I sat up and looked around. Bean unfolded and swayed like a weed. “Bastards. Ya bastards.” My face laughed and I turned on my stool. The peanut machine was there. I dropped a quarter in and pressed the nuts into my mouth and chewed. Cooper came by. I cornered him and told him it was time to go back to his place. With startled eyes, running his tongue around the inside of his mouth and working his jaw, he agreed.

Here in San Francisco a wind comes up against the windows, punctuated by rain.

Cooper and I were sitting on folding chairs at a folding table with a shard of mirror between us at four a.m. We’d moved from an argument about The Rolling Stones with and without Brian Jones to an appreciation of Lee’s strategy at Chancellorsville. Cooper insisted I read Count Somebody’s memoir of Napoleon’s Russian campaign. He praised and then denounced Physical Graffiti for being Satanic. He declaimed Scripture to me with a Bible and a fifth of Old Crow. He dove into his collection of 45s and played one by his first band. We wrote half a song together. He was urging me to leave it all behind and try my luck as a journalist covering the wars in Central America when I nodded off. I woke to a train running through the apartment: “I Want To Take You Higher.” By the time we found our way back to Exile On Main Street, panting for breath, I was as far from and as close to the real meaning of my life as ever, examining its wreckage from above while caressing its broken parts down below, and as part of me justified all this madness by the profusion and intensity of my perceptions, and part of me was certain that death was coming soon, and part of me still wanted more, I sat there with my frozen sinuses and scorched throat, gasping like a fish in the mud, and felt, physically, that I was mutating, cell by cell, into a new type of creature, one which needed smoke with every breath and alcohol every time it swallowed.

About a year ago Kitty and I went to London. I showed her my old haunts. We bought clothes on the King’s Road and Kensington High Street. I led her through the Tube tunnels to Leicester Square, Soho…past the betting shop…to the Bar Italia, the French House…the pubs, the markets…north of the river, south of the river…to the East End and back. I didn’t know anyone anymore. I’d lost my friends and forfeited my memories in the divorce. I was a tourist trying to prove my history there by showing Kitty around. One day I took her through Victoria Station, my former morning route. I worked in a garden around the corner. Arthur’d gotten me the job. I’d meet him at nine and he’d open the gate. We spent most of the day in the shed, drinking tea and smoking rollups. Take the wheelbarrows around the garden and it’s break time, back to the shed. Rake the leaves and down to the café for lunch. By four o’clock it was pitch black inside the shed and we’d finish off his thermos, tell stories, smoke another cigarette. I guided Kitty through the morning crowds at Victoria, where the day’s only hour of sunlight was dying out below the station’s pebbled glass. Arthur was still at the garden——he dropped his wheelbarrow and came to the high iron gate. He was smiling a little smile as though he’d been shouted at…the same leather cap, the same wool jacket. He looked me up and down…“You look alright!” Still, he wasn’t sure…he hesitated. “I thought——well, New York, yeah. Yeah…it happens a lot, doesn’t it? Yeah! We heard you had a bit of a rough patch there…” Gradually I gathered that Flo had started a rumor…that I’d become a heroin addict…and lost my mind… “Yes, I’m alright, Arthur. And you?”

*

Kitty’s up, moving around in her nightgown. She puts on a CD and goes into the kitchen, runs the tap. Meanwhile I’m in the back room with an arrow stuck in my chest. It’s the truth in this voice. The singer might as well be Flo. I can feel her moving into the kitchen, filling the teapot in her flannel pajamas. In Brooklyn it’ll be a white Saturday. The voice penetrates my intellect and pettiness and the stories I tell myself——it startles the sap——my face is wet with it. I’m standing there in the middle of the room like I’m someone else. Luckily Kitty can’t see. I can feel Flo’s loneliness, I can feel her anger. It’s fucking telepathy. Other people’s mental alleys are scary. How do they survive them? And why is it that women always speak a truer version of the truth? Even Flo, that sidewinder. No wonder I avoid women singers. They’re unsentimental. Men have been sentimental butchers since day one. When a sentimentalist comes face to face with an honest emotion it’s a shock.

A woman wants to be honest, a man wants to be good. Let’s face it, a woman’s concerned with things as they are and a man is concerned with things as they should be. This romantic attachment to what should be is the cause of all my trouble. I can’t bear the truth of the pain I’ve caused. So I make it about myself. Flailing around back here, I’ve turned my guilt into an opera to drown out Flo’s simple song of distress.

*

Day was white at the windows. The Ennio Morricone ended and the turntable arm lifted and settled with a hushed final click: a reminder in the room that the night was over and we needed a new plan. The mirror-shard was long licked clean, bottles emptied, ashtrays full. Death had overlooked us again. We were unprepared.

Cooper turned huge black staring eyes on me and said “Gimme a piece of gum.”

“Gum? I ain’t got no gum.”

“What’re you chewing then?” he said, like it was driving him crazy.

I stared back at him. Then I felt something with my tongue. I spit it into my hand. It was the yellow coke packet.

We were watching the chewed-up yellow wad in my hand. Our eyes locked. Tacitly we agreed it was safe to dismiss this as an ordinary event. I dropped the yellow lump on the table, and we went back to urgent incomprehension of the space an inch in front of our eyes.

I said “Well?”

That startled us.

“I guess that we should go to the P.T. Barnum Museum,” Cooper said, as though we’d discussed this.

“Okay.”

“Bridgeport, Connecticut.”

“Right.”

My Tercel was ready at the curb. We were feeling a little cautious of the world outside. We crawled in and pushed off. The day was aggressively neutral. From that point on it was us against it…

[A bridge, a car. Morning.]

The running hum of the bridge under our tires gave way to the wet asphalt of Delancey. Eating was out of the question. Queer the whole deal. Might even be dangerous. I pulled over near 4th and A for more coke. Moments later I dropped a pineapple soda into the trash and got behind the wheel.

I needed to stop at Lester’s.

“First thing we’re gonna do,” Cooper said, “is drag out that Christmas tree.”

“What?”

“It’s a fire hazard.”

“No.”

“Listen to me Danny. Those things have been known to spontaneously combust.”

“Take too much energy.”

“They explode into flames. We just purchased some energy.”

“We’ll need it. Forget the tree.”

I opened Lester’s door.

“Stinks in here, it’s those fucking frogs,” I said.

Lester had a two frogs in a fishbowl. Twenty-four hours a day they hung vertically in the murk as though crucified. I left Cooper peering into the bowl. I changed my T-shirt and buttoned the striped shirt I’d been wearing. My hands were clammy, my guts a mess.

Cooper said “It ain’t the frogs.”

I found him removing the Christmas ornaments, placing them in a bag.

“You’re like the Grinch,” I told him. “Whyn’t you forget about that tree?”

“Danny, the tree is what stinks in here. It’s rotting.”

He coiled a string of lights around his arm while I splashed water on my face at the kitchen sink. Then I sat on the couch and pulled up a chair. I cracked the packet and dumped some coke onto a CD case and began tapping. I felt nervously rich like I was writing a bad check, helpless to resist and at home in that helplessness like nowhere else. I divided the powder into equal lines, reserving the fatter of the equals for myself and sniffing it up.

I held the tree while Cooper loosened the screws. It lifted out with the lightness of something past death. He took it from me and I followed it down the stairs through a shower of dry needles. It was like removing a body. There was some slapstick at the street doors, and then Cooper stood the tree by the garbage cans. I was halfway to the car before I turned around. He was busy with a lighter, trying to set the tree on fire.

“Cooper——”

“Son of a bitch…”

“Yo, Cooper: knock it off.”

He was having no luck. So much for combustion. The thing was past even that.

*

In Bridgeport, we spotted a brownstone Xanadu and pulled over. The parking meters were vacant to the end of the air. BARNUM INSTITUTE OF SCIENCE AND HISTORY. Cooper snapped my picture outside. “Pa, I’ve decided to try college after all.” We were the only visitors. At the desk, an old woman took our money. We were breathing audibly, unshaven, stinking of whiskey, eyes jumping out of our heads. Two tickets appeared. It seemed too easy. Barnum’s statue was in the rotunda. We spent about ten minutes going around the pedestal because we had the idea the statue could be activated somehow and we were looking for the coin slot. The old woman came to the doorway, pulling a cardigan around her. Cooper was climbing up to shake Barnum’s hand.

“Can I help you boys?”

A guard appeared behind her.

The place was a hoax. We saw a sewn-together monkey, a wooden circus, a stuffed swan, and other dusty marvels and curiosities. A museum of grisly relics——taxidermy, a tophat and cane, a yellowing fan, a chunk of wedding cake——dismal and finite and closed-off to change, like the inside of my head. Day after day, round the clock, the same tiresome depressing exhibits, even when no one’s looking. We made our noisy way upstairs, past the Fejee Mermaid and the Cardiff Giant, to a gallery devoted to Tom Thumb. Cooper posed against a wall where Tom’s silhouette was painted for scale. He lifted the shell of Commodore Nutt’s walnut-shaped carriage. We did a line off a mummy case. Cooper slipped through the railing to inspect a miniature surrey. The coach-springs squeaked. I snapped a picture of him crouched unhappily inside and felt a hand on my arm. It was the guard.

He showed us to the egress.

*

I have this recurring hallucination. Late at night, when I’ve been drinking for six hours the whole house is dark and I’m floating in space, I can smell my grandmother’s baked ziti. It’s like she’s coming to me to bring me back to the edge, to what’s sensible and right.

It’s late now, and the draft under the window comes from Cleveland or London or Brooklyn, wherever. From the universe. You feel it in your bones. Now’s the same as always, and all the different pasts coexist with the present. Like a quiet river…where picketing soldiers venture out of the woods…hungry and bored…and call across to each other…exchange jokes…gossip…tobacco… The living and the dead are just two sides of an idea.

*

The past 24 hours, coming at the end of the past few years, had left us with nothing to spare. We needed food. I hadn’t eaten in days. Not that we were hungry. Far from it. We’d done a line to vindicate our expulsion from the museum. We were long past any kicks, just staving off the horrors. Dust was blowing around the streets, you could hear it against the car. A Racing Form caught on the aerial. We needed food for psychological reasons. As though eating were the remaining scruple. We needed to prove we were still alive. I was starting to be able to see through my hands. Cooper was just a hat——floating beside me——and a pair of eyes. We found an Italian restaurant, the only place open. We sat in the parkinglot, working up the nerve to go in. Cooper’s nose was bleeding. His jaw was working side to side. I was sobbing. Or maybe not.

The door was black glass.

“Look at us,” I said. Tom Thumb and Commodore Nutt. Starring in Midnight Cowboy.”

“Which one are you?”

“Ratso, of course.”

“You’re Joe Buck.”

“Dammit. I knew it.”

It took the both of us to get the door open. We were the only guests. Fifty tables, white tablecloths. They equipped us with giant menus and a basket of bread. In our frightened condition, we couldn’t make much sense of our surroundings. Cooper had the balls to ask how the oysters were today. We gaped at the tablecloth, daunted by the smalltown falsity of the place——the trellis work, silk flowers, anaesthetic prints. It was like an abortion clinic. Pretty soon we were staring at steaming plates of pasta. I went to the men’s room and threw up. Then I nursed down a few forkfuls of linguine with careful sips of water. Cooper looked like he was being electrocuted. He tossed a couple of twenties on the table and we got out of there…

Driving back from Bridgeport we lost our way. Not just geographically, though it’s true we got on the wrong freeway ramp and drove an hour further into the heart of the matter. I’m talking geographically, psychologically, emotionally, spiritually. Molecularly. We were molecularly lost. The raw March day, white on white, had gotten into the car, into our clothes——we breathed it——we exhaled——it was mingling with our cells… There was very little separating the inside of my head from the outside world——I was becoming atmospheric. The afternoon was a hall of horrors, a continuous dimension of thoughts coming to life and objects turning into ideas. And it was no different from us. We weren’t even people anymore, we were just the fear at the heart of our surroundings…incidents of consciousness in a white continuum. We pulled off the freeway, looped underneath it, and trawled alongside the railroad tracks. There in the weeds I took the car out of gear. Even Cooper looked surprised as I tapped the rest of the powder onto my hand and sniffed it up. I put the car into motion——left foot up/right arm forward/right foot down——executing a ritual gesture to get us out of there, one which had always worked before…

The wipers were knocking across dry glass. We motored along, undead: two wide-eyed ghouls boring a tunnel through the white afternoon, driving through patches of internal weather and leaving them behind. There was no sky, no road. There was no point of reference. For a while we were going straight up, plastered to our seats. The G-force was immense. I looked over to see Cooper’s face pulled back in a horrified grimace. We crested and plunged. Still, we kept our screams to ourselves. For a while we were upside-down. All we could do was wait it out and try to hang on. Up ahead, there was an occurrence in the air: a kind of whorl in the whiteness. We overtook it and whited out.

*

When I opened my eyes this morning there was a white slice of sky between the curtain and the wall. I didn’t know what day it was, or where I was, or who I was. There was a window of no self——a few seconds——when the day was open, and I could be anyone, and anything could happen. When I realized I was me, the hangover came down. The hangover was there already——right?——but the moment I claimed it I was in pain. The moment I remembered that I had someone to be, that I had to suit up again with my personality, memories, mental patterns, obligations, situation——all the life went out of me. The moment I was spoken for, the present and the past and the future were spoken for, too.

Cooper and I reappeared at a no-name bar uptown. We’d spotted it on our way down Second Avenue, bobbing on the waves. A voice, maybe mine, had ordered two whiskeys and they trembled on the bar as money was exchanged. Those shots were precious. They were terra firma——our identities distilled to gold in one-ounce glasses. Our hands were shaking as we lifted them…

There we were: the mirror proved it.

I rested my attention on a ceramic beer pull and a wet cardboard coaster. The others seemed to be Swedes. They were mulling it over. The barlady was speaking German.

Gradually, we were back in New York.

Outside, it had finally gotten dark. The whiskey had grounded us like food. Enough to get back in the car. We were disgusted with each other but we couldn’t separate. Our hearts were beating too hard.

There was a laundromat on 7th Street where you could always buy coke or dope. I left Cooper in the car by Tompkins Square and walked down. At night these streets looked post-Halloween, black magic burnt into the brick and cornice shadows. Someone’s kitchen light went on. It was the Lower East Side I’d always known, the standard dream of New York, furnace-lit, sinister, old. It was trippy, thrown up one footstep at a time, as though I were creating it.

The guy on the laundromat steps took one look at me and said “Man you don’t need no more C.”

He glanced over my head, stepping down.

“Two Ds,” I told him.

We took the Williamsburg Bridge. With it buzzing in my guts…and the heroin in my pocket…I felt a nervous new security. The girders jumping up reminded me of an old joke, my original mission there. I’d had such high hopes for myself in New York. I felt safe from them now. No further worries on that score.

“Stop at the liquor store on Grand,” Cooper said.

“They gave me a penlight,” I said.

“To our valued customers. Go Trojanowski’s instead.”

“Trojanowski’s gave me a calendar.”

I wondered what Flo was doing. Surely better than this. The bridge spilled us back into Brooklyn.

*

“Where are we?” Cooper said.

“Carmine’s, in Staten Island,” I told him, but his eyes were closing again when I said it. We weren’t at Carmine’s. We were at Teddy’s, in Williamsburg, where he and I and another guy had been passing a nod across the table for two hours. One of us started talking and the other dropped off, while Cooper slept with his head on the table. Every now and then he lifted it, looked around, and asked for a location check. We hit each of the five boroughs without leaving the table. The other guy was talking about some recording he was doing at a studio in the neighborhood while I watched a tube of ash follow the browning edge of paper toward the end of an untended cigarette, trailing smoke. There was a tiny orange occurrence as the last of the exposed tobacco caught, and then it was done.

“Now what?” Cooper said, rousing himself to light another. He raised his eyebrows without opening his eyes.

“You’re home,” I said.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael DeCapite‘s Through the Windshield (Sparkle Street Books, 1998) was called “the best American novel published in the last several years” by Harvey Pekar in the Austin Chronicle. There’s a new piece about the book in Rain Taxi Review of Books (Spring 2008). DeCapite’s story “Sitting Pretty” appeared as a CUZ Edition in 1999, and was included in The Italian American Reader (HarperCollins 2005). He wrote a monthly column, “Radiant Fog”, for Angle magazine in 2003 and 2004. “Senseless Nights in Williamsburg” is a revised excerpt from the novel “Ruined For Life!”, which is looking for a publisher. DeCapite lives in Brooklyn, NY. More about him can be found here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, April 12th, 2008.