Winner of the 2006 New Hampshire High School Fiction Contest
Constellation make up: a true story, except for the parts about a yellow flower
by Paul M. Capobianco
I’m returning from a friend’s house at nearly 1 o’clock in the morning and Brooklyn is alive with its reputation: the pacing echoes of a hooker’s high-heels, a car alarm, the slurred mumbling of drug dealers, and the violent whisper of domestic violence under the laugh track of sit-coms and the crying of neglected newborns. I can hear these things, but I can’t see them. They don’t affect me. It’s none of my business. I’m walking down 8th avenue. My business is the street lamps, the gauzy amber glow that makes my shadows run ahead or lag behind, walk small or tall. My business is getting home. My business is the waning humidity of a New York summer and the stars no one can see. And yet I’m still a part of the very distant sounds: gunshots, a bat against a windshield, silencing the car alarm, screaming and shouting. I’m already thinking up a story. Something I’ll probably say later: Save your money man, car alarms don’t do shit anymore. I’m walking home one night and I hear this car alarm. It goes on for a while and then I hear bam! bam! bam! and broken glass. Some guy with a bat must’ve just got so fed up with it, he came out in his underwear and bashed the thing until it shut up. Then he went to sleep. Nowadays, car alarms bother people, but that’s about it. “With a little work,” I think, “it could make a good story; give him boxers with little glow-in-the-dark hearts on them maybe.”
* * *
When I tell people about Brooklyn, it’s usually a story about how New York’s state tree is really a weed because nothing much else can grow naturally. Or how people shot up a theatre in Cobble Hill because they really got into The Matrix. Or how a drug dealer named Jimmy worked at a Gelato stand called Uncle Louie G’s. The way Jimmy knew when to hand bags of weed or Aries over the counter instead of a gelato cone or smoothie was if someone said, “My favorite flavor’s cherry red.” Sometimes he’d make his customers pronounce “cherry red” like they do in the Rolling Stones song. He thought it was clever. He got fired, finally. Not arrested, fired. Louie took care of his own problems. People smile at that one. Drug dealing, an Italian mobster running a gelato stand: all true, and the stereotypes people love and hate and expect.
I don’t really talk about the annual Cherry Blossom Festival at The Brooklyn Botanic Gardens: how the delicate carpet of pink rises to swirl in the air as children roll and tumble. Or how I spent almost every day of my childhood there at The Gardens, soaking up the early-morning sun and the sweet smell of saturated lilac after a thunderstorm whose staccato had put me to sleep the night before. I don’t talk about the Brooklyn Academy of Music that also shows independent films, how the plush seats are bold-colored and comfortable. When I’m describing the weed-trees I never add that they’re pretty in the spring; that their white blossoms make the streets look like they’re lined with moons on a stick. Not once have I mentioned Pino’s, a pizzeria I always went to as a child, and how there was a man who worked there who loved children so much the pizza tasted better.
These stories don’t seem worth telling, or the sort of stories people want to hear. I’m proud to live someplace important enough to have a stereotype. Lilac, sun, bold-colored seats: none of this seems like it would matter when you’re face to face with the Brooklyn stereotype. So when it comes to telling stories, it’s a choice between the petals of a tree or the bullet holes in its trunk. People want to hear about the bullet holes in the trunk; petals are for pansies.
Living it is different. Really living the Brooklyn stereotype is a lot like dying. There are these astral moments, moments where one can rise above what’s going on, and find proof that stereotypes only stem from the truth. Because what’s really true is deeper, buried where the weed-trees suck in the spirit of Brooklyn and become moons on a stick in the spring.
It’s not always like that with a story. Sometimes reality resonates too hard with a stereotype. That’s when a story-teller makes a choice: whether to tell something how it happened, let people nod and smile because they were expecting that anyway, or take a little liberty with reality for the sake of truth. To put some petals at the trunk of the bullet-riddled tree, even if they’re not there, because they could be, and it’s better that way.
* * *
I’m walking past a stoop and sitting on it is a boy a little older than me. I don’t look at him. He’s none of my business. Not until he stands in front of me and looks at me as if he’s expecting something. I don’t want to get involved. I drop my wallet on the ground and keep walking, my chest in presto time while my walk tries to keep things andante. I can hear him behind me—heavy, angry clomping—and I turn around. You can’t buy me off, mothafucka! he cries, marching towards me with awkward, menacing strides. I’m thinking he’s crazy; I can’t believe what’s going on. A wedge of metal springs from his palm. It’s too surreal to be scary. You crackers owe us more’n that! Now I know the kid’s crazy. I can’t see him well in the dark; he’s just a baggy oversized-jersey-and-sweats-outline. What stands out from the outline are his eyes, the whites of them: wild and bright. His lips must be moving but all I see is the gnashing of his eyes. Youse about to become an example. All I can think is, “You’ve gotta be kidding me…” Then he’s on top of me and there is the beginning of a switchblade in my chest. I can make out a panther on his jersey.
It doesn’t hurt right away. Just seeing the knife, though, seeing somethinginside of me makes me focus on the cracks in the sidewalk. I see this tiny, yellow flower pushing its way up from a crack. A streetlight makes its petals glow gold. That’s one soldier of a flower, I think. I can make out the grooves of its little plastic-looking petals: yellow tongues sticking themselves out at Brooklyn’s surface. I feel my torso getting warm with my own blood. No more time for flowers. I salute the flower in my head and I feel like I’m fighting for it now. I am overcome with a sort of grace, or ken, that judo must have instilled in me. I get the knife out of my chest and now we’re both standing, me and the kid, him yelling, You mothafucka! and me just starting to realize that I could be dead.
I wish I could say I’m terrified; somehow that seems more human to me, but I’m too busy objectifying the kid so I can hurt him. And now I’m starting to get mad. That’s not supposed to happen after so many years of judo, but it is. I’ve never been so close to death. My shirt sticks to me and as I take in the needlessness of what is going on I look with seething fury for the kid’s eyes. There is little judo left in me now; there is little unification with my surroundings, little grace, no empathy. All I feel is sticky and angry. For a second I even hate the kid, especially those stupid, angry whites of his eyes. I find them and reach for his head. I use handfuls of hair as handles, as leverage, and bash my head against his. I take my hands from the kid’s hair and let him fall to the ground. My white shirt is red now, saturated. “What the fuck is your problem?!” I scream at the unconscious heap of flowing clothes in front me. I snap my wallet into my right hand. I put the left over the hole in my chest.
* * *
First time I told that story. I used to tell people I got the scar from a shark tooth necklace, wrestling with my Dad at the Botanic Gardens. Which is sort of true because we did reopen my chest that day. The only thing I regret is letting my Dad think he did that to me.
What I told a lot of people was about this little yellow flower I saw one night, how it had managed to push its way up from the mean soil of Brooklyn, and how it was sticking little yellow tongues out. How it was something else that managed to grow by itself, and not a weed this time. I described how it had used Brooklyn’s spirit to get where it was, sucked it in, and then stuck its yellow tongues out at the coating of stereotype it found at the surface. “What the fuck are you talking about?” one of my friends asked. “Brooklyn,” I said, “Its business, its truth. How no one really knows what it is. How if you’ve got your roots in it, you don’t know exactly where the roots lead, but you end up a little tough yourself…even if you’re a flower.” My friend paused for a moment and said, “How the fuck does a flower have tongues anyway?” Another friend responded, “Why-ya always gotta take things so literally?”
* * *
I walk down 8th avenue leaving a twisted Hansel-and-Gretel-like path from an unconscious boy to my shadows. My business is getting home, and bandaging myself, and throwing out my shirt, and not scaring my parents; they won’t have to know about the hole in my chest, and maybe they won’t notice the bump on my head. I smile to myself. I guess I showed that kid a piece of my mind, I think. I’m back to being a part of things; I can tell because I almost died and now I’m bleeding everywhere, and yet I’m smiling about how I gave a kid a piece of my mind. It’s a good thing. Finding humor is a lot like finding truth; it’s relative. The street lamps make my shirt glisten like a cherry on an ice-cream sundae. I look up at the sky, and make up some constellations.