All as Stationary as the Stars in the Sky (EXCERPT)
by John Duncan Talbird
Any minute now, Freddie will take his earnings to Ace’s and pick up a two-ounce tube of Gorilla glue in a brown paper bag. Maybe also a ninety-nine-cent burger at the golden arches across the street. He’s had nothing to eat today and last night’s Mad Dog corkscrews his gut. Forty-nine or fifty years old last week and probably doesn’t have a whole lot more New York winters either. Swirling the change in his cup, no energy to ask, but a Park Avenue fur coat tiptoes past on thick heels and drops a bill in anyway. Her short-leashed white Maltese vibrates, wet-tongued smile. “Thank you, Ma’am.” The woman nods, tugs on the puppy’s leash, says, “Come along, Humphrey.”
They walk maybe five yards and Freddie is thinking of that tube of Gorilla glue and then that Central Park falcon, the one that’s been perched on the branch over his shoulder all morning—so long he’s forgotten its presence like it’s no more than an interesting sculpture or a tree that’s grown crooked—swoops and picks up the Maltese. You’d think the puppy would make a racket, but it’s weirdly silent, leash dangling like an umbilical cord, bird and dog swooping like some kind of new animal.
The woman screams at the sky, screams at Freddie, screams and points and Freddie wants to say, What do you want me to do, lady? The bird-dog makes its way over the park, working to become a dot. Freddie’s grown used to the fantastic, can’t even be bothered to shrug.
A few months earlier—or a year or two, he’s not sure—he saw creatures, frenzied creatures with glowing eyes and yellow teeth and claws. They smelled like rot, the sound of deflating tires coming from their throats as they crawled from the sewers. Freddie had been living underground, keeping warm with subway exhaust and yesterday’s news during a brutal winter. He expected, the next morning when he climbed the metal footholds near where they were doing construction at the Jay Street terminal, to see carnage, a city laid waste with half-eaten corpses, parentless children stumbling hollow-eyed, waiting for the creatures’ hunger to strike again. But it was an unseasonably sunny day and people sailed boats on the East River and walked in the little park under the Manhattan Bridge with loved ones.
And once, the velvet coat he’d found on the back of a chair in a coffee house returned to the life it’d lived before utility, breaking apart and flying through the dusk in a flurry of high-pitched squeaking. Without the coat he was cold again.
And then again, another day, he’d startled a brown, bent-backed creature into jumping onto a chain link fence. Instead of grabbing the fence, it’d ripped itself apart moving through the diamonds of metal, becoming a squawking flock of birds.
Etcetera with banal oddities mixed in with the miraculous.
In his thirties, eloping late night from Boston with a bucktoothed teen on a Chinatown jitney, he’d realized that all the cars and trucks and the bus he and his young bride were on were traveling at exactly the same speed. It was dark and there were no buildings to mark their passage and it was as if, despite the throb of engine and buckle of chassis, all was as stationary as the stars in the sky. (After many bruised cheeks and broken lips, that girl would grow tired of Freddie, leave him when she reached twenty and knew better).
He’d met his child bride years earlier after he and his pal Opie killed a punk rocker who’d swindled them out of a stash of skag. They’d hung him by a rope kicking in a warehouse, but Freddie worried he’d survived so went back the next morning. (It was the 1980s and you didn’t want to end up in the hands of the brutal Boston cops). The girl, in a white dress, sat on the dirty warehouse floor putting on the punker’s Doc Martens which were too big for her little feet. The empty noose hung above her, new rope gleaming whitely in the morning light through the building’s cracked façade. She smiled, rope casting an oblong shadow across her face and said, “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Freddie’s first love, Jean Leveleter, had been older than Freddie by ten years. A professor and poet, he’d met her in a bar in New York City in 1972 where she was giving a reading. Freddie’s father had been an English professor and Freddie grew up reading poetry, wrote it regularly until he dropped out of college at twenty to enlist for the Vietnam War (they didn’t want him due to the heart murmur which had never given him problems and still hasn’t). Prior to that evening, Freddie had thought of poetry as strictly a masculine endeavor (with the exception of Emily Dickinson who was a recluse and therefore damaged and somehow not really “feminine”). After this night—words emerging from Jean’s mouth, taking shape not as images, but as actual letters which cracked into each other in the smoky air like a child’s marbles and shattered or fell to the floor where a gimpy bar hand swept them into a pile with a push broom—he was smitten.
Jean knew Freddie. He had become somewhat of a New York celebrity, one of the self-trained collective of Stanislavski actors starving themselves and staying up all night to transform their performances into grueling spectacle. Dropping acid, sleeping with each other and anyone else they could find, they farmed themselves out for some or no pay to any company—from the elite (New York Studio Theatre) to the abstruse (Monster Against Semi-Automatic) in each of the five boroughs. In bed, she would claim she had been wet watching him—naked, bloody and screaming—as Titus Andronicus, plunge a blade into his wife’s chest. He would claim he’d seen her too in the audience that night, that a broken house light which wouldn’t cut off had made her red hair glow, eyes as flat as a cat’s.
Unlike the gradual wisdom his child bride would acquire over years, Jean sussed Freddie as an unfit companion fairly soon. Living at her upper-Westside apartment, Freddie stopped acting, stopped doing odd jobs for cash. At first, Jean encouraged him to reenroll in college and then, not long after, asked him to move out. She had realized that they could obviously share a meal or movie, they could fuck, but they could not, would not, mate. And Jean wanted a baby. Since Freddie appeared to be slow to leave, she stopped sleeping with him. She found a new lover on the East side, a professor of linguistics twenty years her senior, and spent most evenings at his place, told Freddie over coffee and cornflakes he was stupid, yelled over the shower curtain that he was no good in bed, and that he needed to get the hell out and she’d be happy if she never saw him again.
(This type of demolition strategy is not new. In high school, Freddie and his pals hung out at the Parade Grounds in Brooklyn, heckling a neighbor kid during soccer games. The kid, a forward, was amazing, could dribble, tap the ball in the air on both toes, kick sideways with such power and accuracy it’d fly into any corner of the goal. But their words—simple, like “hey” and “miss it”—chipped away at his confidence. They watched his shoulders slump beneath their taunts as if his spine were turning liquid and sweating from his pores. Words can do that).
Freddie sold Jean’s extensive record collection of vintage jazz and avant-garde music and used the cash to buy a sheet of acid and an auto rickshaw from an Indian immigrant in Queens. Tripping far beyond any definition of coherency, he drove the rickshaw the wrong way down the Westside Highway into a red Ferrari. The sports car came open like a child’s birthday present and Freddie flew through debris and blood and bone as if he, himself, had become automobile and would soon hit the pavement again and keep going.