A small, pale boy is playing the spoons on stage, slapping them against his palms and his knees. I’m taking pictures of him. I’m looking through the camera lens, trying to focus, but his face is just a blur. The camera is huge with a bunch of bulbs and attachments that I don’t know how to operate. They’re almost growing out of my head like antlers, and the pictures are Polaroids, shooting out in front of me and sliding across the floor. I pick one of them up, and it’s still white like it hasn’t developed. I shake it around, and look at it again. It’s still white, but right before I wake up, I understand it’s just a close-up of the boy’s skin filling the frame.
* * *
All over the news is a story of a woman and her pet monkey, Travis. The two of them used to take Xanax and drink wine together. One day her friend came over to visit, and the chimp mauled her friend’s face off – took the whole thing. The monkey’s owner tried stabbing him to death, but she couldn’t get it to stop.
I can’t help but think of every single moment in that woman’s life with her pet monkey, leading up to that second. And, of course, the woman with the missing face. How incredibly routine their lives had probably become. I can only imagine the monkey and his owner sat around together and drank wine and took Xanax hundreds of times, and just watched the hours go by. The woman-that-used-to-have-a-face would pop by every so often. Just to say hi.
The officials thought the monkey had been incited by the woman’s haircut. I can picture her at her local hair salon earlier that afternoon, sitting in front of the mirror excited about her new hairdo. Unsure or nervous or proud or determined, turning her head, side to side.
That was probably the biggest change she had seen in a long time. She had no idea what was about to happen.
My father was thrown through the windshield.
He was a tile setter. He drove a large, white Econovan with all of his equipment and supplies in the back. It was hit broadside by the train. On impact his body was ejected through the windshield, and the van flipped over several times before landing on its side. Bags of grout scattered, and crushed ceramic and marble came down a fine powder, snowing over the tracks, the soot settling all around him, covering him in white ash. When they excavated his body, a negative impression was left behind.
My phone goes off. It’s a text. The first response to my ad today: “Nice pic. Got a face?”
I reply by sending a picture of myself taken earlier with my camera phone, shirtless in front of a mirror. I touch the screen and enlarge my face with my thumb and index finger. I quickly center it, crop it and send it.
“Nice. Could you meet at mine? Union Square. 6pm. 200 roses.”
Before taking a bath I was sure to ask: “U want me clean?” Some men wanted me to stink. “Next time don’t shower,” tricks have said after coming up from between my legs.
I clean the bathtub then pour some Epsom salt into the running hot water. Once full, I step into the bath, and slowly sit down into a squat. Inch by inch I sink until I’m all the way on my back, and let my head slip under. I listen to the pipes and the electricity moving around like whales, and the footsteps from the apartment below are anchors hitting the ocean floor, really slow and heavy and muted. I hold my breath for as long as I can, until everything around me almost stops.
When I lift my head from the water, for a moment everything is slow motion. The water cascading off my hair and shoulders is now a cool gelatin, doesn’t move fast enough or wash away, becomes a medusa headdress of blubbery ripples and congealed ringlets in my wake. Pulling myself up from the tub, the water clings to my body, eventually sloughs off, splashes into frozen splatters, the shape of hundreds of split second raindrops below me stubbornly holding their form. One leg steps out and it seems to take whole minutes before reaching the floor a mile away. My other leg follows. I’ve become a giant, moving through a miniature village, great and delayed and potentially destructive just by the nature of what I am.
I towel off, get dressed, grab my parka and head out the door. It’s incredibly cold, but the sun is shining brightly. This is the false warmth of blinding light in the winter, sparking rockets off hoods, windows, the street. Walking to the train I see a flock of pigeons moving like a school of fish in the sky, ricocheting white underbellies, flashing every turn as if they were being jerked by a lure. Up the steps and onto the subway station I lean over the ledge, above the tracks, looking for the train like leaning into a microphone.
At my father’s funeral I gave a eulogy at a podium with a mic in front of family members I hadn’t seen in years, and friends of my parents who slowly arrived over the following few days after the news. My father once told me he figured life had to be just like a rose – beautiful while it lasted. There was calmness and a reassurance in his voice when comparing the fleetingness of life to a rose. My father balled up one hand inside the other, unfolded his fingers. His fist unfurled and broke free from his other hand until both were stretched, palms out to show they were only holding nothing. I relayed that story, and held my own hands up towards the grieving room as witness.
I mentioned how my father was known for finding shiny things on the ground. Always looking down at his feet, finding stray earrings, coins, anything metallic or glass, anything with a reflection that might catch the sun in his path. He kept a bowl on top of his dresser where he collected the things he found. Over the following months, people placed a menagerie of twinkling junk at the little wooden cross by the tracks, shards of mirror from the crash site, a large glass diamond, an old coke bottle crawling with fire-ants.
My train pulls into the station where I’m waiting, and begins screeching to a stop. The stirred air takes my breath away, pulls me back to reality. In the passing windows I catch brief, choppy glimpses of my reflection. The brakes are applied, and a loud high-pitched scraping sound echoes across the empty platform. The train’s door skids to a stop right in front of me. In the window’s reflection on the door I swear I see the pale boy from my dreams replacing mine, so I throw the fur-lined hood of my coat off my head just as the doors part, the image splitting in two with the separating windows. When I get on the train I hurry to another window for the reflection, but I’m surprised to see it’s only my own.
The JMZ rumbles across the Williamsburg Bridge, a gaudy, purplish construction, modeled after the Eiffel Tower with its intricate steel lattice precision, and thatch-like skeleton bowing upwards into two peaks across the length of the structure. Two looming towers mirroring each other, mirroring something else further away, much darker, much more romantic and serious. Something about the color almost renders the bridge obsolete, juvenile, insensitive, the same way large frescoes arguably become once restored. All those specialty human hands fumbling across the ceilings of chapels, sanitizing and erasing nature’s intentions. I’m reminded again of the flower my father believed to be symbolic of something bigger. He had found comfort in the impermanent effects of a single bloom, something beautiful that inevitably wilted.
Then it’s his corpse in the hospital, waiting to be identified. This is one of the many recurring jumping off points. It’s the whole thing about my brother claiming the body. My brother later said he knew it was our father as soon as he saw his hands. This precious, morbid scrap of information made it back to me somehow, delivered from long distance phone calls with my mother, or gleaned from the dreamlike trespasses of the mourning family and visitors during the days after the accident when I returned home. I wasn’t ever sure if that meant the rest of his body was unrecognizable, or if his hands were simply the first things he saw?
After years of mixing grout, my father’s hands had been eroded to a rough finish, smooth in their seamlessness, but calloused and toughened. Air tight skin swelled in a Darwinian attempt to preserve what little moisture it possibly could.
…A cactus’ trunk is ribbed so when it stretches full with rain during infrequent desert downpours it won’t split at the seams...
…Camels in Mongolia eat brittle ice from the desert ground in very tiny portions. For long seasons this is their only source of water, and they risk freezing to death if they eat too fast. I wonder if the careless ones would at least not know thirst during the passing moments it took for their body temperatures to drop fatal, and for the great beasts to be tempted to sleep, never to wake again...
His hands occasionally split, but bloodless, like a crack in granite. When working, he sometimes dropped smooth slabs of marble tile, because he had no traction providing fingerprints left. He often joked about how he’d always be able to get away from crimes he could, and might one day commit, having no prints to leave behind as evidence.
“I knew it was him as soon as I saw his hands.”
I never asked my brother what he meant, and my brother never spoke another word about it. One day, if we ever really spoke again, I’d like to ask him what it was he saw. I want measured and educated brushes to go over the ghostly artifacts, not to restore any surface, making it as ridiculous as possible from the brightly lit bulk of memory, but to start from scratch, on a whitewashed domed ceiling, stretching in enormity, a place for laying out ascending sermons and prayers like wet leaves. I want a mural full of everything I missed being miles and miles away, and by some stroke of miracle, everything that was yet to happen, as well as the one thing I could have tried to stop, had I known what was coming.
The city skyline opens up as the train rattles across the East River. I look into my own hands, and lean forward into my palms, as if I could lay my whole body down into them – an entire ship, mast, and sail, through the neck of a bottle.
The train reaches the end of the bridge and slips back underground. At the next stop I transfer to the F at Essex and take it to Union Square, then walk the labyrinth of the station towards the exit. There is a young woman with long, brown braids playing the saw with a bow. It sounds like a woman moaning and wailing. It moves like clown mirrors through the station, and follows me until I’m above ground, suddenly negotiating a faceless, hurried crowd, honking cars, skateboarders, a lady on stilts in front of Tower Records handing out flyers for a furniture sale somewhere in Jersey. It’s the beginning of a new semester. Incoming NYU sorority girls are wearing large Ray Ban sunglasses and being led all around 14th Street and below, their lenses spray-painted black so they can’t see where they’re going. The pledge sister simply has to trust the other girls guiding them by the arm.
I head for the address on my phone. I hope the guy won’t turn out to be a creep, and decide I’ll ask for the money up front.
I’m 15 minutes late. The doorman I was told would be there to let me onto the shining brass elevator is nowhere to be found, so I start to text the stranger I’m meeting. An older woman with a poodle on a leash comes in the front door, and uses her key to summon the elevator.
“What good a doorman is,” she says hastily, and bends down to grab her dog by the harness, leading it onto the elevator as the doors open. I stay behind, feeling like an intruder and start to text again, but the woman says quickly, “You know where you’re going?”
I say I think so, and step over the gap in the floor as if it were capable of swallowing me whole.
We both look straight ahead, watching the numbers change, pretending like the other isn’t there. As it climbs, I hear something hissing, then smell ammonia coming from the carpet. I look over and make eye contact with the dog. It’s in a squatting position, pissing all over the floor. I glance at the woman, but she is looking at her reflection, unaware or simply not interested in the messy inconvenience the poodle is making.
I get off on the 5th floor, and down the hall I see the door I’m supposed to go in, and it’s cracked open for me. I give my dick a quick squeeze outside my jeans, and lightly knock before easing my way in. The man I’m meeting is standing in the living room wearing all black. Black shirt, pants, shiny black shoes. He’s very short and pudgy, just standing there with a large book in his hands as if he were giving a lecture to an empty room.
“I was worried you changed your mind,” he says, closing the book, and I close the door behind me. The man looks at me and says, “I’m glad you didn’t,” then offers me a drink. The apartment is bare except for a few large canvas paintings, a bookshelf, a couch, and a long slate of glass on metal legs for a coffee table. Having moved to the kitchen, the man asks from the other room if I would like any ice. I say, “No, thank you.” I recognize one of the paintings. It’s a Ross Bleckner. It looks like floating red blood cells, red bubbles suspended in thick plasma. The man’s books are all hardback and expensive looking. He comes back with a bottle of water. He seems happy with himself. Happy with a boy standing in his living room. He hands me the water, and suggests we take a seat on the couch.
I want to know if I should take off my boots. The man says if I want to, so I do. Sitting down I unlace them and slide them off, wondering if this seems sexy to the man. The way he’s watching me I think it might, so I bring one of my boots to my nose, say I love the way leather boots smell. The man grimaces, asks cautiously what they smell like. I say, “Sex,” and embarrassingly, get no reaction, so I set them on the floor, my toe poking through a hole in my sock.
“Why don’t you take off your coat instead?” the man asks. “I don’t care about your boots.” I take my coat off and unbutton my shirt, roll up the sleeves, and the man says, “Hairy, very nice.” And he touches my hairy arms and small biceps. “Tell me a little about yourself. What do you do?” He’s biting his cuticles.
“I’m an artist. I guess. Charcoal on paper, mostly.” This is true, or used to be true, I notice the heavy art books on the coffee table, and pick one up. It’s a large book on modern architecture. I leaf through the slick pages.
“That’s my building on the cover,” says the man in all black.
I close the book. Look at the big glossy jacket. It’s a skyscraper, sleek glass. All glass, actually. The clouds and blue sky are reflected in the building, as if you’re just looking straight through it, and to the other side it’s where the sky continues.
“It’s really beautiful,”
“It’s in Barcelona,” the man says dreamily.
“Did you go to school for art?” the man asks. “Art” like it’s hypothetical.
“No. I kinda just taught myself, but I’ve been told I’m pretty good.”
“Oh yeah? I’m sure you are,” says the man, still biting his cuticles. We’re just sitting there on the couch. It’s a couch with a big white slip cover over it, all sloppy, supposed to look like he’s renovating, or about to do something messy maybe, but everything is strangely immaculate.
The man seems bored. He slides closer towards me, and puts his hands with the now bleeding fingertips inside my shirt, pets my chest like the scruff on a cat.
“Should we go to the bedroom?” he asks, and I purr for him, “Whatever you want.”
The man gets up and heads down the hall. I stand and begin to take my jeans off, hopping on one foot as I pull my leg free. When I follow the man into the bedroom, he’s already naked and on his back in bed. He is breathing in from a bottle of poppers held up to his nose. I can smell the vapors from the foot of the bed, I think about the pissing poodle, and I crawl between the sheets. We kiss and fumble from beneath the covers, and he’s quickly on top of me, jerking himself off. Just as he’s straddling me, and about to climax, from below I can see a giant purple scar coiled across his testicles, and I wrench my head away right before he shoots. I knock the poppers off the end table on accident, and it spills all over the floor. I look up at the man now, and he pulls himself quickly into a sitting position, leans over the edge of the bed, says, “fuckfuckfuck, gimme a towel, fuck,” but I’m just lying there. I look around and see nothing, so I take off my shirt, and the man takes it and bends over the bed, onto his stomach, barely able to reach the mess on the floor below, his white ass and legs kicking and flailing behind him. I offer, “Here let me get it,” but the man’s not giving up the shirt until he’s satisfied.
He slides off the large bed and walks a few feet over to his open closet. “I’m still going to give you your money,” he says, as if something had been jeopardized.
“You’re very hot, you know.” He holds out a striped polo button down, sizing it up, deciding if it would be an appropriate fit for me. “In a strange sort of way. Here, see if this fits. I’ve gotta get those sheets up,” so I get up and put each arm into the shirt, but leave it half unbuttoned. The man is tugging at the fitted sheet stained with nitrate until it finally comes free in a snap that makes him flinch.
“Money’s on the mantle. We’ll try again another time,” the man says, not even looking up from his task. “You can let yourself out.”
For a brief second I try to decide what the appropriate goodbye would be, but quickly realize there isn’t one, so I leave the man alone and naked, tending to the small spill. I put my jeans back on in the living room, grab the cash, and shut the door behind me. In the hallway, I gather myself for another moment, then take the stairs down to the lobby. Once I’m out onto the street I bring the wadded up, wet shirt to my face, inhale, then drift along 6th Avenue towards the subway like a parade float, all hot and giant head, tethered tautly by men with tiny strings.
A flock of pigeons are stubborn to get out from under foot. I remember playing Duck Hunt with my brother when we were kids, lying on our stomachs in front of the TV on the day my father came back home from a vasectomy. His far away and creepy look I now recognize as somebody that’s been heavily sedated. It’s how he looks now in my dreams, dead-eyed, trying to show me something I don’t really want to believe. His scrotum was shaved and swollen, a gnarly scar stitched shut in a criss cross of black stitches with wiry, loose ends. My mother shrieked when she saw my father, zombie-like, giving a naked show and tell, and afterwards me and my brother played Nintendo, pretending nothing ever happened.
I pass a stack of newspapers. The front-page is a photograph of the woman ripped apart by the monkey. Her head is swollen and bubbling over. Both eyes missing, one lid sewn shut, the other completely gone, just a raw pink socket unblinking. My phone vibrates.
* * *
That night I dreamt again. This time the boy with the spoons steps off stage, and walks right up to me as if it were a dare. I still can’t make out his features, although he’s right in front of me. The boy is covered in chalky, white body paint, and baby powder that billows out all around him.
I have monkey paws for hands. I hook my monkey thumbs into a breathing gill underneath the boy’s chin and flip the whole thing up, like a nose job I saw done once on television, thinking I’d discover the boy’s real identity, but I never do.