I’ve been away for a while. I’m meeting Kelly in the park. She’s sitting among the chess players. Her new boyfriend plays chess in this park but he isn’t here today. She tells me a story. ‘So this guy at a party came up to me and shook my hand and he said: “Are your hands always this clammy?” And I said “I don’t know.” And he asked me, “Do you feel guilty about something?” And I said “I don’t know!” Then he just walked off.’ We see Eddy, fresh out of rehab, leaving a church. Soon he’ll be crashing bar conversations outside Dahlak (he can’t afford to drink inside), telling people, ‘I gig.’ (Press him for venues and dates and he’ll cite the wedding shower he played in Bensalem in ’97.) Radwan is sitting on his porch reading from his phone. The news from Syria can’t be good. I can hear the social worker enunciating loudly inside; Radwan’s son has autism, he’s not hard of hearing. Behind the plexiglass at Lucky’s the bored proprietor is sitting and scowling. Luke’s back in Philly for a few days, then he flies to Mexico City for a gig with one of the trendy synth acts he produces. I tell him to bring Eddy. He gigs. I ask Kelly if she heard the refinery explosion, the big one, the one that sparked the fire that compelled the mayor to issue a shelter-indoors warning for the neighborhoods downwind of it. ‘Yeah, it woke me up that morning,’ she says. ‘The sky was all orange. I thought God had woken me up to witness a beautiful morning. Then I went back to bed.’
My people are exulting in hard-earned spring. The pages are flapping in the wind. The gardeners who spent the winter devising ambitious plans for cramped divisions of earth are bent over their gardens. The caution tape is skipping rope. The punctured balloons that snagged on the knuckles of trees are flapping in the cleansing wind. I should have been here transforming with the seasons, planting a bundle of keys to old apartments in the thawing earth. I should have been out back of Dahlak with Kevin, sitting on lawn chairs, chain-smoking, entertaining offers of left shoes from hapless street peddlers, giving out cigarettes like alms. Ada’s taken up this life, Kevin’s old life. His friends – Maisey, Jim – have become her friends. The books he read, his Ulysses, his Dubliners, his Beckett, his Burroughs, the late hours he kept, she’s taken it all on. Or was she always his double?
Luke looks sleazier than I remember him, and it’s not just the dollar-sign-bedizened baseball cap he’s wearing. Ross is tired from the heat, tired of looking for work. We make plans to see a Derek Jarman film at International House later that night. Omar’s passed on to the Great Suburb in the Sky. The soiled steps to the unmarked bar above Abyssinia, from which he would heckle bland Penn students, are quiet and clear of obstructions. The baristas at Green Line don’t remember me. The clerk at Mariposa who scans my groceries doesn’t remember me. Tim’s introduced us five or six times. ‘Didn’t Tim conduct your wedding?’ I ask. Now he pretends to remember me.
I walk out during the scene in the film where a punk dangling from a noose comes back to life as a yuppie, leaving Ross and Luke without a ride home. Fuck Derek Jarman and fuck Ross for not putting enough time on the meter. If I hadn’t walked out I would have gotten a ticket. I drive back to the sublet. Ada’s visiting. I can hear her and Lia yakking away from the open bedroom window. I’m not ready to talk to anyone. I walk to the park at the end of the city. A woman who lives on the corner greets me. I don’t return the greeting. I part traffic with my indifference to death. A family’s having a cookout on the terrace of a house next to the barbershop. The red-and-white pole of the barbershop is spinning, trip-hop is the soundtrack to the flowering feeling up on the terrace. The light turns green. ‘It’s me, your Uncle Fester,’ someone jokes. I remember that they stop checking the meter after eight on that stretch of Chestnut. Ross did put enough time on the meter.
The priest at my brother’s funeral assured us he was up there in heaven with Jimi Hendrix, hearing the latest music before it reaches us, discussing elements of style and composition with other dead artists. He knew nothing about the young man who hanged himself beyond the obituary I wrote, but what did I know? I claimed him for myself, describing him as a seeker who’d studied art (he dropped out after one semester). So the priest improvised. Talking feedback. Guitar pick. Heaven is a recording studio where time is limitless. I feel cold. Gather round the burning bush. Gather round the hole it leaves. The German film crew is here. They want to know everything.
Ada texts Lia to invite us to join her over at Dahlak for a drink. She’s with Maisey, who just got out of the hospital, or rehab, or was thrown out of another group house, raped, hospitalized. I don’t know if I’m getting the timeline right. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s sitting at the bar in a hospital gown. She was there among the faces hanging off our table when I was last in town for my brother’s funeral, one of the girls who was in love with Kevin. In my grief I saw everything clearly, how Kevin was surrounded by scroungers who would pull him down. I didn’t know he was already down, that these were his people, and that I’d be returning for his funeral two years later. We get dressed, down some mescal and make our way toward the bar. We see Ada and Maisey sitting out back. They don’t notice us passing through the parking lot on our way to the park for people with fallen homies (per Lia’s lexicon). There’s an oak tree in the park that reminds me of Kevin. It has a gaping hole in its trunk where one of its huge boughs broke off.
When the Pages Are Flapping
When the pages are flapping I am happy. When the pages are flapping I’m not worried about the child climbing the dormant electric fence. When the pages are flapping I cease lamenting the fate of the ostracized lover. When the pages are flapping I don’t care what happens to the American tourist abducted by terrorists and sold into sexual slavery. When the pages are flapping I don’t lose sleep over the soul of the murderer. I’ve been told to stop. I could go on. I will go on. When the pages are flapping the smog of fried chicken is lifted. Dark pink flowers bloom with orange doodads. Nooses revert back to hardened vines. When the pages are flapping nothing is at stake because everything is already lost, and the pages breathe freely in their textlessness.
Please take a moment to appreciate the pages flapping.
‘They’re trying to outsmart this ludicrous magistrate who wears a three-cornered hat. And that symbolizes his pompousness, the three-cornered hat.’ Ross listens to classical music on the radio as he works. Copyediting a client’s Orientalist novel, tutoring a Saudi princeling, applying for teaching jobs, his own novel in the back of the drawer. ‘Uncomfortable for sure, that high humidity, and watch out for those torrential downpours. Up next we have a quartet of saxophones . . .’ After spending a year in Vienna on a Fulbright, he has yet to reconcile with his old life. He curses the surge of strung-out panhandlers on the streets, laments the absence of multigenerational families picnicking in parks at night. In any case, his preferred habitat is no city but a stuffed brown chair facing an air conditioner.
Some people in Cedar Park held a candlelight vigil for Lucky’s, the Chinese takeout joint that closed when their rent was doubled. I saw the stories and tributes circulating on Facebook. ‘Where else am I going to get fried tofu at 2 a.m.?’ Tim posted. Five years ago, when I lived across the street from Lucky’s, I wrote a poem about the owner.
When I entered he rose up from his dinner and went behind the plexiglass to take my order. ‘One egg roll,’ he repeated, slashing pictographs onto a piece of cardboard. His dull limbs awaited my next move. ‘That’s it?’ ‘That’s it,’ I said. He turned stiffly in the direction of the kitchen and squinted. The smuggler’s fee, the store, the green card, the wife and children, naturalization. Was it worth it? Standing behind a plexiglass wall fourteen hours a day seven days a week dropping egg rolls singly into boiling oil?
The owner was gruff to the point of rudeness. We have a long tradition of steak sandwich slingers and deli countermen abusing customers in this city, so the Lucky’s guy made sense to us. Once I saw him smile. He was out with his wife, his infant daughter bobbing on his chest. They had stopped to browse Tim’s junk sale. Unobscured by the greasy plexiglass, his wife was radiant. Tim recognized him and they exchanged a few words. He smiled. He was clearly in love with his baby.
Lucky’s will inevitably be replaced by a restaurant that closes at 10 p.m. The food will be better and more expensive. It will be rationally managed and staffed by young people selected for their obsequiousness and perpetual smiles, as dogs were selected by our early ancestors.
Over dinner – fake kielbasa, sauerkraut, garlic mustard – Kelly reports that the toxicity of the chemicals released into the air by the refinery explosion was worse than the company and city has admitted, according to two university reports. ‘But it’s not like any of us were outside for more than ten minutes,’ she says, alluding to some sociological study. ‘I work outside,’ Ada reminds her. It’s true, she works at a cemetery. Nowhere near the refinery. ‘Dan’s dad works at the refinery,’ Lia reminds them, ‘He drove right into the fireball.’ I laugh. I notice I’m hunched over my plate like my dad. When I called him to see if he was OK I ended up breaking the news to him. He’d been off that day. He told me he’d call and see what was going on. The next day he was aping the company’s PR: ‘It was never a problem the hydrofluoric acid they use was in containment before it happened it was a butane tank that exploded it could have been worse . . .’ The following day he went back to work. If the explosion had killed a dozen people he would have still gone back to work.
He works through the night unloading barrels of oil at the refinery. He is old, defeated, drugged, destroyed by the death of his youngest son, his movements are economical, his face fixed in a sneer. The oldest man on the job, he works out of a defensive crouch. And he works carefully, as carefully as he held me in his hands when I was a baby. My father used to laugh at the metal splinters in his hands, because pain was certainty then, and certainty love. The splinters that made him give up two-part inventions for the organ and his dream of becoming a professional musician. He unloads the oil from the freight train with great care, because my life is in his hands. Now he laughs nervously. Will the oil keep flowing? Three more years. That’s all he needs. Then he can retire. When the world releases him from its oily grip will there still be a world?
‘The Sunrise Coalition said we shouldn’t blame the workers,’ Kelly says, sanctimoniously repeating the activist group’s statement. No, let’s not blame the workers. After all, they make the gasoline that moves your car, the car that affords you privacy and security as you inch along the Schuylkill in rush-hour traffic through the maze of overpasses, the wreckage of blown tires, past the polygonal facade of the Amtrak building that magnifies the anemic sun and warms your face on a winter day as you sit in your beat-up old Volvo, gassed up and daydreaming about waterskiing. Let’s not blame the workers. ‘Wow, this is a real bummer of a dinner conversation,’ Ada observes. ‘Are you kidding me?’ I say. ‘This is political gold! We’re the folks sitting around the kitchen table! Steve can’t put food on the table because the refinery shut down. Steve’s just trying to feed his family. He’s got a pulmonary embolism, he’s prediabetic and will probably lose his foot if he doesn’t get it checked out soon. Steve shouldn’t have to sacrifice his health to provide for his family!’ Kelly watches as I load more of her sauerkraut onto my bun. I take another big bite. The gesture feels working class.
A Brief Biography of My Father
(The Early Middle Years)
1977. His hair is long and wavy and golden. He’s scowling like a young lion for the wedding photographer. 1981. Now smiling sheepishly at the eight-pound infant nestled in his sinewy forearm. A son! It’ll be a few more years until it’s my turn to yowl, to take my first out-breath, give my first lowing wail.
He bounds down the stairs in the morning on his way to the plant, taking the last three at a leap and landing with a thud that shakes the brittle porcelain bells in the landlady’s china closet. Returning from work, his face drained of color and enthusiasm, with just enough energy left to make it up the stairs, the landlady intercepts him at the landing. ‘Steve, I know it’s you running down the stairs in the morning, and I would appreciate it if you didn’t do that anymore.’ This is the way most adults talk to him, with a mixture of disappointment and admonishment, depending on how much he owes them. They all sound like the voice he makes when he’s imitating his father, an IRS accountant, giving him tax advice.
He is the last in a line of anonymous appendages to power stretching at least as far back as the sixteenth century (a distant ancestor served as treasurer to Henry VIII ). The line does not include him: he is its terminus. No, he is the origin of an awkward, fledgling new line.
Their first apartment is too small to accommodate the organ. It sits in his parents’ garage. After a while his fingertips stop anticipating the supple weight of the keys pressing up against them.
In the early morning in the shower the swirl of voices bubbles up and he bursts forth with bits of Jimi Hendrix solos, jingles, odd phrases, goaty ululations, imitations, sounds of machines whirring and stamping metal parts, like a cipher repeating the sounds he’s heard the previous day. This manic stream of sounds spreads into the halls of his apartment building where, apart from the steam and reverberation that give it the swell of music, it becomes all too intelligible. He steps out into the now silent hall and quietly makes his way down the stairs.
1986. Another infant cradled in his arm, this one a girl, born with broken hips and the cord wrapped around her throat. His little girl. A miracle she survived. His hair is short and he sports a green-gold mustache. My father is beginning to assume his recognizable form.
1991. A fat baby boy perched on his paunch. His hair is cut very short, his upper lip bare. He is born again.
Four sets of eyes peer out at us from behind a tree trunk. ‘We’re trying to scratch the wood off this tree,’ one of the boys explains to us as we pass. ‘But it’s wood all over,’ I say. Kelly and I continue walking, neither of us remarking on the absence of adult supervision. After a few paces I hear the boldest boy say, ‘You’re right.’ We’re walking the trail that runs along Cobbs Creek on the border of Philadelphia and my hometown. I was warned to stay away from this park, but some older kids were always cutting a hole in the fence. We played in cars that had been abandoned, stripped for parts and burned. When the creek froze the chemical run off in the water made rainbows on the surface.
A few weeks ago, Kelly tells me, two of her neighbors were shot. A pregnant woman and the man who threw his body in front of her. They were shot by a vengeful ex-lover with a semiautomatic rifle. ‘Blap blap blap blap’ is the sound the gun made. She doesn’t reproduce the screams. The screams are implied. The man had helped her move a piece of furniture just the day before.
We hear the sound of basketballs thudding as we approach Baltimore Avenue. The trolley muscles around the Caribbean restaurant with a screech as it eases into its final resting place. On the basketball court a boy maneuvers a remote-controlled car under the legs of the men jockeying for position under the netless rim.
This city is filled with wrecks like us. Wrecks who are filled with the wreckage of others. The good news is the ambulance and fire department are already here in case any of these fireworks turn out to be lethal projectiles lofted on the wings of pistols. Don’t say I never loved. I loved even the ominous bells, the wet limestone after a sunshower and the pale yellow light, the vague rainbow (an oil slick in the sky?). The hem of Lia’s dress brushing the hairs of my leg. Cuz mother moon scraped it elegant that night, yeah.