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THE VASTNESS, PARTS 1 & 2

by

Joshua Levy




Maggie released Dom from her embrace, and before he left her to go through the "Passengers Only" gate at the airport, she said:

-Remember me.

The plane sped down the runway and took off. Dom stared out the window at the houses shrinking quickly below the plane. He couldn't understand why she'd said that. He breathed through his nose, bringing the air into his belly and holding it there tightly. He did his best to fall asleep.

-Remember me.

Dom woke up and felt his heart pounding hard in his chest. He was sweaty. He wiped his palms every 30 seconds or so, and the complimentary blanket was saturated with the sweat of his hands and his brow. His bowels signaled impending movement. Frantically, he took his shoes off and felt his pulse. The shoes were constricting and his pulse sometimes fluctuated in times like this.

Dom entered the bathroom, sat on the toilet-the first time he'd ever done so on an airplane-and peed, his hands in fists. He then tried to give his bowels respite, attempting to unclench his nervous anal muscles, but in this state even his anal muscles were unmoving, and his hands and ass were tightly clenched together in an anxious symmetry.

He could see himself in the mirror. His face was dead white and hot to the touch, and his mind was caught in a ferocious spin, headed downwards as the earth welcomed him with its mineral warmth and hard soil: he stood neck-deep in dirt, blades of grass having broken his fall-

-Stop this shit, Dom muttered to himself as he slapped his cheeks, shook his head, wiped his brow, and then he was on his knees, bent over in front of the glistening-steel toilet, head cocked over the rim, mouth open, gagging.

Forcing himself to stand up, he held on to the handicapped bar for support, and felt his pulse at the wrist. It was staggered and arrhythmic, so he took a few deep breaths through his nostrils into his belly, letting his belly expand with each breath.

-legs broken and one arm missing, he was bleeding from the head but alive so alive! He could smell the onset of spring, even from his worm's-eye-view. There was scattered debris, there were detached, nameless limbs scattered about-

Dom splashed his face hurriedly with cold water, slapped his cheeks again, pointed a finger at himself in the mirror, and strode out of the bathroom, trying his best to look nonchalant and confident.

Back in his seat, he glanced at his neighbor, who was a middle-American looking type of guy, 40's-ish, white, with blond hair sticking out from underneath his baseball cap. The man was hunched over, face down on the pull-out tray in front of him, with his arms wrapped over his head. He had been that way since before the plane took off, and only lifted his head once or twice to look around confusedly and then burp several stale-beer burps that made Dom reel, the kind of burps that should be used to sterilize medical equipment, the kind that made a trip like this unpleasant.

Dom took the subway from the airport to the center of town, and saw on his map that Guy's place was north of where he was. He decided to take a cab the rest of the way. Stopped at a red light, Dom glanced to his right, at the driver, and out of the corner of his eye he saw a small delivery truck attempt to overtake a small car and a motorcycle. The truck was almost past the car when suddenly it whipped to the right, gently sideswiping the car, which wasn't enough to cause it to run off the road, but it did manage to smash all of the windows on the right side of the car. As the truck attempted to right itself it swung violently to the right again. The truck, the car, and the motorcycle were all still moving. By this time the truck had passed the car, and was beside the motorcycle. It veered to the right, apparently not seeing the motorcycle, and knocked the back tire of the motorcycle hard. The bike quickly fishtailed and lifted into the air, sending its driver headlong onto the road ahead, where the bike soon landed and came to rest on top of the biker's compromised form. The biker lay motionless beneath his bike, the motor still running, while the driver of the car with the windows smashed out ran screaming to his aid. There were pink curlers in her hair. The truck that had caused the accident skidded to a stop ahead of the fallen biker, to the right of the cab Dom was in. Dom and the cab driver had managed to witness the entire accident, and were both paralyzed with shock. Dom had viewed the scene as if it happened in slow motion, a silent dance of mistakes and injuries, a dance broken only by the sounds of metal hitting metal. The truck was a flower truck, Dom noticed, and the company's logo was painted on the side: Remember Me! Flowers and Gifts for Every Occasion.

The Vastness, Pt. 2 (The Mausoleum)

Landing in Queens in July is like being placed in a bowl full of hot maple syrup. Walking through the Lagwaudia terminal is like shutting off the heat and turning on an ice-cold shower. Seeing Poppy and Nana is like turning on the heat again, except this time it's wet-hot like Florida. Showers of kisses and tugged cheeks and sugarless candy.

Nana's arms are very, very dark and the skin jiggles when she taps her thick fingers to the song on the radio. She yells to be heard above the rushing wind and the radio, and it's hard to understand her. Dad turns and looks at me and Sammy from the front seat of Poppy's car, and he smiles. He knows we are happy to be seeing them again. Sammy looks frustrated; maybe he'd rather be at home, or maybe somewhere else entirely. He has that look. He always has that look, like he's mad, or like he wants to go, and sometimes he hits me when he gets mad, but it's okay, it doesn't hurt much.

Poppy's talking to Dad in the front; I can't hear what they're saying, but I imagine their talking about families: how's my Mom, how're my cousins, how's Nana, how's Poppy. They usually mention where to go and eat when we land. "The cafeteria" is where Poppy likes to eat. Dad never complains much, and I like the food, but Sammy gets mad when we have to wait in line too long. The wind is so hot; it blows my hair back and makes me sweat at the same time. My arm is pushed against Nana's; it's wet in between us. She gives me another sugarless candy.

The car is long, and it makes big, wide turns around corners. We pull into a driveway, and there it is: the cafeteria. I was right! Sammy is upset, and he starts to punch me, but I tell him to stop and we get out of the car. Nana is holding my hand on one side and Sammy's hand on the other. She looks happy.

We have fried chicken and mashed potatoes and mint Jell-o and corn and green beans and custard pie. It's cold in the cafeteria. Sammy doesn't look sad now; he's busy eating, and Dad is still talking to Poppy while Nana slowly raises the food to her mouth. She looks like she's thinking a lot.

"But it's a lot of money," Poppy says.

"Not if you think about it, Dad," Dad says.

"It's your money. Do what you want with it."

Back in the car, the radio is blasting. Nana's fingers are dancing again on the armrest, and Sammy is staring out the window as stores pass by. The stores are very different than the ones in Vermont. There're so many different kinds of people. They all stand on the street. Nobody stands on the street like that at home, but here, the people's skin is darker and they stand on the street, looking around, saying hello to their friends, and then they go back inside, probably because it gets so hot standing on the sidewalk all day. Nana's skin looks like their skin. It's dark and wrinkly. I watch it move on her arm as her fingers dance. She has gray hairs on her face, like Poppy has, but not as many. She must stand on the street a lot, too, like the dark people in Queens, because her skin is like theirs. She's scratching my arm, staring out the window at the people on the street.

We're stopped at a red light. Poppy says something, but I can't understand him. Sammy's asleep on the other side of Nana. The heat made him tired. Poppy says something again-

"...the bank. Do you want to see my bank?" He says, laughing his old-man laugh.

Nana stops looking out the window.

"Chick! Chick!"

She calls Poppy "Chick."

Poppy laughs his old-man laugh again. He sounds like his voiced used to be thick like an actor's, but now it's gotten worn and used, so it's only half-thick.

"Allright, allright," he says, laughing and coughing at the same time. "It was only a joke, Sylvie."

"You're obsessed, Chick! Why do they want to see your bank?"

But the light turns green, and Poppy is laughing as we start up again, laughing as we drive down the boulevard. Nana and Poppy, though, say boulevahd. We don't have boulevahds in Vermont, but I like them. They have wide lanes, and a big section of grass in the middle, in between the cars going our way and the cars going the other way. Dad says that these roads are dangerous, and he doesn't like it when Poppy drives, at his age, but he doesn't look scared. He looks like he's happy to be in Queens, even though "the heat will make you die," like Nana says.

"Boys," he says, turning around, but Sammy's still sleeping, so Dad shakes his leg until he wakes up. Sammy looks mad, like when he's going to hit me. Dad laughs at him and tells him to wake up, still shaking his leg. Dad's arm is thicker than Sammy's leg.

"This is where I grew up, down that street, right down there," Dad says. "Look," he says to Poppy.

"Ah. You and..." But I can't hear him because the air is blowing hard in my face, so I stick out my tongue and catch the wind on its tip. I stick my head out the window like a dog and pretend my arm is the wing of an airplane, gliding along, high above the boulevahd, like the planes I see slowly coming down above me and landing at Lagwaudia.

We turn off the boulevahd and drive down the street. The houses are all clumped together, and most of them are made of red bricks. Our house in Vermont is all on its own, and it's made of wood, but some of these have two doors in the front, and dark people sitting on the steps. We turn into a driveway, and sit in the car. Sammy is yelling, "Come on, Dad, do we have to do this?" and Poppy is laughing and coughing at the same time. He lights up a cigar, and Nana yells "Chick!" as she looks out the window at the brick house.

"This is my old house. This is where I grew up," Dad says, turning around again. This time he takes my leg in his hand and shakes it around, and then slaps it.

"Are we still in Queens?" I say.

"Chick, put that out! The kids are in here! Put it out! Chick!" Nana says. Her face looks funny when she gets mad. She looks like Dad. Her chin starts to shake and upper lip goes away. Sammy is curled up, trying to sleep.

"Okay, okay, let's go," Poppy says. We back out of the driveway and make our way back to the boulevahd. Nana gives me a sugarless candy and scratches my head and says, "Sammy wake up, Sammy." Sammy shakes himself awake and pouts.

"Where are we going?"

"Sammy," Poppy says, turning around while he drives. "Do you want to see my bank?"

"Chick!"

"Mom!" Dad says.

"I don't care. Sure," Sammy says.

Poppy laughs. He's talking to Dad again, and I hear Dad say, "Are you kidding me? Mars?"

"Yeah, Mars. He was diagnosed last week. Thursday."

"Shit," says my Dad, shaking his head and sighing.

I think they're talking about Uncle Mars. I met him once, but he didn't really talk to me. He gave me a nice toy though; it was a big piece of plastic with about twenty pennies floating in it.

"Mar-ris is very sick!" Nana yells from beside me. We are taking another right turn off the boulevahd and down another side road. The air is thicker now that we aren't moving fast. I can smell Poppy's cigar; it smells like the bathroom.

"Hey," Poppy says. "See up there?" He's pointing ahead, on a small hill, "that's my bank."

We go to the drive-through and stop and see the bank teller in the window. She is wearing a headset.

"Hello, how are you today?" She asks Poppy. He laughs.

"Oh, we're just driving through." He looks back and us. "This is my boy," he says, patting Dad on the back.

"And these are my grandsons."

"Hello," the bank teller says.

We drive through the parking lot and once again get back on the boulevahd.

No one talks for a little while. Nana has stopped tapping her fingers, and now the fingers of one of her hands are curled underneath her wobbly chin, her elbow resting on the door. The air conditioning is on now, and it feels much better, like it did on the plane. There should be palm trees outside, it's so hot. Sammy fell asleep again. Dad is looking out the window just like Nana; his fingers are folded under his chin and his elbow is on the door. Poppy is smoking a cigar.

We stop at a red light. A man is walking past all the cars, in between lanes, holding a plastic bucket and a brown cardboard sign that says, "vietnam vet. drug and alcohol free. homeless. please donate 50 cents. have a pleasant day." He walks along the white dotted line, staring straight ahead, and no one gives him anything. Then he walks in front of out car, stops, and looks at Poppy. Poppy is smoking his cigar, and Nana and Dad don't see the man. Then, the man comes over to Dad's side.

"Please, any change?"

"No," says Dad.

"Please?"

"Sorry."

"No respect for a vet," the man says, reaching into the window on Dad's side.

Nana starts to scream.

"Chick! Chick! Chick!"

The light turns green, and Poppy lets out a giant sound doesn't even sound like Poppy, and we pull forward quickly and drive away.

"Fucking Queens," Dad says.

"They kill more and more people every year. Carjackings," says Poppy. We start driving faster again, and Nana rolls down the window, and the radio comes on, and her fingers start to dance again.

We come to a cemetery. It's very big, and very green. It reminds me of home. There are so many little roads, and they seem to go off to somewhere very far away. We drive straight down the main road for a little while, and then come to a large building. I think it's the bathroom, which is good, because I really have to go, but when we all get out of the car, I can tell by the way Poppy and Nana are acting that there isn't any bathroom here. Nana and Dad are very serious; Dad looks like he does when he gets bad news. But Poppy is smiling and laughing again.

"Kids," he says, gesturing to the wall in back of him. "This is where your grandmother and me'll go when we're gone."

The wall has many slots in it when I look closer. The slots have numbers and names on them. I understand now; there are people in there. Instead of burying them, they put them in a room full of big metal boxes, each to their own box.

"It's a mausoleum," says Poppy, proudly.

"But why don't you want to be buried?"

"Isn't this very nice?" Nana says. The green grass seems nicer to me, but I agree that is very nice. Sammy is frowning again; I don't think he understands what this is, but it's probably better that way. Besides, the heat hasn't gotten any better, and I can see the sweat on Sammy's face. My shirt is stuck to my back. I can swim through the air.

"Okay, Dad, let's get going, the kids have seen it."

"But don't you want to--"

"Chick!"

"Okay, okay, let's get going back," he chuckles.

We pile back into the car again. The radio comes on, and Nana's fingers dance. I watch her rings twist and turn on her short fingers and listen to her fingernails tap against the window. Sammy looks very, very, grumpy. Dad looks back at us and says, "We're going back to their place now," and we get back on the boulevahd once more. I stare at the stores and houses and people, and smell the smells of a summer in Queens, taking it all in. Nana passes me a sugarless candy and a jet passes overhead, screeching.





ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joshua Levy lives in Boston, Massachusetts, where he works as an Associate Editor for a college textbook publisher. However, he hopes someday to quit the slow life and begin a series of misadventures, beginning with an American-style road trip and ending somewhere on a distant continent, shrouded in flames and glory. As for now, however, hes far too occupied with copyediting to be bothered.

The stories here are part of a continuing series, "The Vastness," in which he explores different situations and events that suggest the gaping, nameless black hole out there that is continually calling our name.









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