Blip Magazine Archive

 blipmagazine.net

 

Home : Archive : Links

Greg Sanders

from Lamereaux

I discovered his body on a Thursday in late September of last year. It was around 5:30 when I left my apartment for an early morning run, and so quiet on the streets of Manhattan that I could hear the street lamps buzz. My stride was stiff, my gait slow and unsteady. I headed down Sixth Street towards the East River, past First Avenue, then Avenues A and B, through Alphabet City and the resident housing projects, century-old tenements, and abandoned lots where wildflowers blossomed electrically. The air was cleansed, ionized by a thunderstorm that had passed through during the night. It clung to my nostrils, stinging like cold steel. The cushioned patter of my footfalls rose from the wet asphalt and reverberated off the buildings. It sounded as if someone were following me in perfect time. When I reached Avenue C I was limber and warm, my lungs filling easily. Ahead of me a few rats scurried beneath the steel gate of a burned-out bodega. Avenue D was like a long, empty corridor.

I crossed the narrow footbridge that spans the FDR Drive. Then, on the other side, I followed an access road and cut in towards the East River, sticking close to a fenced-off construction site, all the while leery of the darkness that fell between the park lights. Turning again, I’d made it to the wide strip of blacktop that follows the edge of the East River, which was on my left. On the right, baseball fields and an all-weather track were encircled by a chain link fence, their contours barely discernible in the crepuscular light. Vapor rose from the wet grass. The river, too, was veiled in a shroud of darkness and haze. Though the sun still hadn’t breached the horizon, the sky over Brooklyn glowed.

My shoulders loosened up and my arms began to swing with ease. North of me a tug boat was pushing a reeking garbage scow towards the harbor, out to the Long Island Sound. Inevitably it would catch me, poisoning the air. I tried to ignore the burgeoning stench, instead concentrating on the rhythm I’d got going. I picked up my pace. Across the river in Brooklyn were the giants: Pfizer, Domino Sugar, Norval Cement. The windowless factories and labs, in the thin light, looked like the set for a Godzilla movie. Further south, down river, were huge cranes, now idle, used for loading and unloading vessels the length of a city block. The garbage scow was catching up to me. Shadowy clouds were turning to dull pastels as the sun punched through the corona above the horizon that was Brooklyn. A subway train clattered over the Williamsburg Bridge a quarter-mile ahead.

From this distance I saw something motionless on the blacktop beneath the bridge. As I came closer to the bridge, its shadowed deck hovering vertiginously in the sky, the object seemed, for a few seconds, to be nothing but a discarded bundle of clothing, probably tossed from above by a passing motorist. At worst, it would be a dead pit bull; their bodies, I’d heard, were sometimes dumped here, a single bullet hole between the eyes. But then, no. It was a man.

A raincoat was twisted about him like the blanket of an insomniac. There was a bare foot, the big toe nothing but a bloody stub, all but obliterated by the impact. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, which would make him close to my age. A shoe, a Church’s, lay a few yards away, bloody, tipless. I couldn’t help noticing that his skin was pale, almost gray. Yet I could see--though I did not want to--that he had died very recently. A split suit jacket was bunched up around his neck. Blood had filled the tiny cracks that lead from this man to the river’s edge, and there had pooled, looking like opaque glass. One of his hands was held out slightly, as if extended tenuously for a handshake. I stooped down. There were dark crescents of dirt beneath his finger nails. Morbidly fascinated, I looked at his face, into his eyes. I couldn’t help myself. I’d always wondered what it would be like to see a man freshly killed, the expression in his eyes.

His irises were clear, bright blue, and seemed focused on an object a few feet in front of him. Then, they seemed to shift and see me. I jumped back a few yards and took another look. Was he alive? Given his physical state, I knew that it was impossible. A large fly with a purple metallic sheen landed on one of his eyes, turned in a peculiar dance, perhaps collecting the precious fluids that still glistened, then lifted off. A train thundered overhead and shook loose the night’s rain which came down in large drops on me and the body.

I realized that he had missed, that he had jumped from the bridge expecting to hit water but had landed here instead. I couldn’t help wondering: Were you surprised? Was it faster this way? A gentle northern breeze carried the concentrated stink of the encroaching garbage scow. The body, which seemed to have been moving discretely and minutely downwards since I’d arrived, made an almost inaudible hollow whistling sound, and settled further into the hash of bloodied clothing. Sticky tears rolled down my cheek as my guts wrenched themselves into my throat with a painful growl. I was burning up inside and the air was suddenly littered with black specks. My balance was gone and I held onto the steel railing. The sun began to edge over one of the giant cylindrical Pfizer tanks. Leaning over the fence, I vomited into the river. The scow passed, stinking, primer orange, diesel exhaust bubbling out from the blank water. The pilot of the tug glared at me from his cage. The sun was up, other runners would soon pass. Weakly, my legs numb and heavy beneath me, I ran away from the body towards home. At a pay phone on Avenue D, I called the police and anonymously reported what I’d found.

***

 At eight A.M. I went to work in the financial district where I was an actuarial analyst for American Multinational Group, the huge commercial insurance conglomerate. If my father were alive, he would have called it a technocratic wonder, the kind of place that would mine the minerals from its workers’ blood if it meant showing a better bottom line. After a few years I had come to realize that a sacrifice of something like my vital life energy would be required to really succeed there. In me this energy was simply lacking.

When one enters the lobby of the A.M.G. building, he will first notice the acoustic qualities of the nave. Genteel squeaks of leather-soled shoes echo into the rarefied air, as do the confidently restrained voices of top tier managers. The embedded chips of granite in the terrazzo floor glimmer like stars against the northern sky, and the huge panels of red-veined marble that line the walls look too much like living tissue. And everything is polished to a diamond luster. Comfort, for those at the top, is given not only by the sight of the bas relief portrait of winged Hermes, son and messenger of Zeus, patron of merchants, but even more by the clean-shaven, spectacled men in pressed uniforms who this morning kneel on pads or stand on ladders to polish with white cloths the expanses of steel trim, the numerous brass plaques and chromed fittings, and the marble bust of the chief executive officer. The more anachronistic old-timers feel like it’s 1950, and are pleased that things haven’t changed since their first days in this building, when they came to visit their daddies.

Hermes, it should be noted, is also the patron of thieves.

For twenty-five years, Mortie and Arnie, who are brothers, have provided comfort of a different type from their small concession stand securely notched into a corner of the lobby. Usually a queue is formed in front of the stand where clerks and middle managers wait their turn to buy Lotto tickets. Mortie handles these customers and seems always to be waiting for the lottery machine to spit out tickets at a faster rate. There is a different contingent--a shorter line that Arnie takes care of--composed of those who begin their day with diet sodas, nutrition bars and cans of liquid breakfast drinks. And, of course, Mortie and Arnie sell cigarettes, more of those than anything else. On my way past the stand, I picked up a copy of the Times, poured myself a cup of coffee, and wordlessly slapped the exact change onto the counter. As usual, I was able to eavesdrop on the relaxed, senseless morning banter.

"Good to see you back, Tommy," Arnie said to a property underwriter whom I’d worked with occasionally. "How was Barbados?"

"I’ll tell yah Arnie, I almost didn’t come back."

"It’s nice to get away. Next week I’m going to Key West with my wife. Mortie’ll have to run the whole show here. Is that it for you? That’s $1.27."

"The price went up?"

"Yup. See how long you’ve been gone. You’re the business man. It’s called inflation."

There’s laughter of a more sincere sort here, and the counting aloud of change made from a twenty.

I walked by the security guards with my I.D. card held out, but it was ignored, as they knew the faces of all the regulars. My hemoglobin began doing its job of carrying oxygen to my brain and vital organs as the smell of everyone’s coffee filled the elevator on the way up. Until I pump that first plunger of caffeine into my veins, I am a useless scrap of humanity.

In the office I was reputed by all those who gleefully subscribed to the peter principle to have reached my level of incompetence. They were probably right, but I didn’t care as long as I got my $53,000 per annum and my three weeks vacation. (Three weeks isn’t enough time off for any normal human, so I usually aggregated an extra ten days or so by feigning dramatic flu symptoms, untimely and violent pet deaths, and ongoing allergic reactions that required several consecutive days off.) Needless to say, my position there was tenuous. But I had already achieved my main goal: to break the grip of my father, who had tried to impose upon me the values of a meandering, unfocussed literary life. Though he had been dead now for nine years, I still felt his influence and still searched for his novels every time I entered a bookstore. I didn’t like my job at A.M.G. and, as if to prove it to myself, I often had fits of indigestion that occurred before and lasted through important meetings on the adequacy of product liability rate levels, or trends in asbestos-related loss adjustment expenses. Like most Americans, I believed in the prevailing notion that work, by definition, should not be fun, that any real job should make you a dyspeptic insomniac, and that’s exactly what I had become.

 

At eight most people from my department were silently relating to their Lotus spreadsheets or Fox-Pro databases, tracking some complex actuarial problem. The smell of coffee wafted over the cubicles. Behind the low, tan fabric-upholstered dividers, computers hummed, keyboards clicked. In their familiarity, these were comforting sounds. This was my clean, institutional, white-washed home away from home.

I sat in my cubicle under simulated-sunlight fluorescent bulbs, beneath my newly acquired plastic palm plant, and sipped my java. Not only were these impostors strategically placed to add a giddy hue of polymer green to the public spaces on the floor (as if to lighten our spirits!), but each of us was also forced to place one in our own workspace. Now beneath the knife-like leaves of my plastic palm, I watched my screensaver. Tropical marine reef fish--yellow tangs, powder blue surgeon fish, bright yellow needle nose butterfly fish--bobbed back and forth among freshwater tetras and cichlids. It was a biologically impossible ecosystem, yet, in pixels anyway, it looked harmonious. I began to look at it for too long, to get hypnotized by the happy, mindless community. The corpse, an hours-old memory, entered my thoughts. The dancing fly. There were soft footfalls approaching my desk. Lost blue eyes. Someone stood behind me. A blood-drenched shoe. My boss, Marcus Leap, appeared at my side. I struck the keyboard frantically to wipe the screensaver off, and a blank spreadsheet appeared.

"Sonny, I’m off to the Division One-oh-eight meeting. I need the IBNR projections we discussed." I had nothing to show and looked at him blankly, frozen by his expression that showed he believed absolutely that I’d done my work.

"I found a body this morning," I said too excitedly. "I was out for a run and-"

"I’m sorry. That must’ve been nasty."

"Yes, it certainly was," I said, adding, "it’s definitely something I’d prefer not to be involved with again." I chuckled lightheartedly to demonstrate to Marcus the levity I was capable of in crisis situations. "Anyway," he said, "the projections, where are they?"

"I don’t have them yet." He stood back and looked at me, puzzled. Marcus Leap was six four, had played basketball for Duke University in the seventies.

"The meeting’s in ten minutes. Get them to me by then. We’re in conference room C, 42nd floor." But I hadn’t even started the analysis yet. It had slipped my mind completely.

"They won’t be ready this morning, Marcus. I’m sorry."

"Jesus, Sonny, are we not paying you well enough? What do we have? I can’t go in there empty-handed."

"Last quarter’s projections," I said weakly, digging into my file drawer and producing a manila folder on which I had doodled a rococo flower during an extended phone conversation with my mother. I handed it to him.

"So this is it? This is the best we can do right now? You’ve had a week. I don’t understand what the trouble is." Without waiting for a reply, he stormed off, his expensive cologne lingering in my cubicle, smelling like fresh cash.

 

At noon, my friend Sue Dreary Page telephoned. "You sound odd," she said.

"I’m fine," I lied. "Just...not enough sleep, y’know how it is on some days."

"Sure. Well, we’re getting together at Blue Bar tonight: me, José Qui, Sema and--Sonny, you listening?--Aviva will be there too." I didn’t want to go, I really didn’t. We’d sit in that smoky hole complaining about work, empty relationships and the impending sense that the Fed would raise interest rates. As for Aviva, it’s true that I’d had a thing for her for a while, but I’d already decided that she wouldn’t have anything to do with me unless my salary breached the hundred K mark. In truth, all I wanted from her was sex anyway. "Not tonight," I told Sue. "I’ve got to stay late here then bring this shit home with me to crank out some ultimate loss scenarios. You know the deal, it’s work."

"No, actually. Years and I still have no idea what it is that you do there all day. I don’t think anybody does." On the other end of the line I could hear her sipping coffee like a real caffeine fiend. "Listen to me, Sonny," she continued, "we haven’t seen you for a few weeks and we’re a little worried. Please show up tonight."

Further details of what the scene at Blue Bar would be like: All of us would stand in a corner together or sit at a booth talking about nothing, talking in circles while José smoked his home-rolled cigarettes, while Aviva talked about herself and blinked her over-mascaraed eyes into one of the Blue Bar’s diamond-dust mirrors, and while I silently watched it all until somebody accused me of being anti-social, an accusation I never denied.

"Really Sue, I can’t tonight. But...listen, this morning--you know how sometimes I run in the morning?--I’m out there on the East River Park and I see this...thing in front of me. At first I think, I don’t know, it’s a dead dog, but then, when I get there-"

"Sonny, got to go, boss’s here. You coming tonight or not?"

"No."

"Fine, be yourself for a change." Then there was an empty dial tone.

As soon as I hung up I heard Myra, the dark-eyed, twenty-five year old Long Island princess who sat in the cubicle adjacent to mine, quietly babbling away on her phone. "Are you going to Baby Gap today? Did you get a manicure? No. Really!" she said into the receiver. I couldn’t see her but I knew she was trimming her cuticles which is what she always did when she was on the phone. "Do you want to clean my apartment? I’ll pay you forty-five dollars. But wait, will you steal anything?" She laughed. "No, you can use my makeup, of course, anytime." More laughs, one snort.

"Hey!" I said, now standing up and leaning over the short cubicle wall, "keep it down! Some of us are trying to work."

"Sonny just told me to shut up," she said into the receiver. "I can never tell if he’s joking or not. Sure, I’ll ask him." Then to me: "Amanda wants to know how you’re feeling. She said you sounded depressed last time she talked to you."

"Me? No, couldn’t have been me. You know me, Myra. I’m cheery and hopeful."

"Amanda, he says no, he’s fine. Yeah, I know, he’s being weird again. I told you: he is a nice guy, even kinda cute, he just acts peculiar sometimes, that’s all. Okay, I’ll tell him...bye.

"Sonny, Amanda says you need to come out of your shell. She says if you do that she knows a nice Jewish girl who’s looking for a guy like you."

"Thanks, but what the hell does she really know about me?" "What’s to know? You think you’re suffering through some kind of hell the rest of us can’t fathom, like we’re all mindless and happy and you’re the great philosopher. No one likes a guy like that. Honey, you should take what you can get."

"You couldn’t like a guy like that, huh?"

"If he wasn’t willing to change then no, I couldn’t. Besides, a guy like that is usually beyond fixing." She started to chomp away on a piece of bubble gum, the smell of which infused the place.

"So how much longer will I have to wait before you’ll have dinner with me?" I asked. She stood up, faced me, applied lipstick while looking into her compact mirror, then licked her lips.

"Foreva," she said.

I laughed cheerfully--Oh how she teased me so!

I wanted to tell her what had happened, what I’d found. I considered the tenuous, sexually nuanced relationship I’d had with Myra for the last two years. Never a touch between us, but the possibility of it always around the corner. I looked at her black lace bra, a solid B-cup, through her translucent white silk blouse, then looked at her eyes, which were dark brown. She smiled, acknowledging the desire I felt for her and, as if offering her body, she stepped closer. This was the sum total of our relationship: we could look at each other without the least inhibition and without any intent of actually taking each other home. I didn’t want to harm that.

Additionally, her disposition was delicate. Not only did she have a blossoming ulcer that she took pains to subdue with a constant barrage of antacid capsules, but she’d also given herself a hernia one afternoon last winter during a particularly pernicious cold. Apparently she’d been raised to stifle her sneezes with absolute authority. She would clamp her lips and throat shut and make a muffled clack. Last winter, while attending a meeting on the yearly close, she did just that, but the strain of holding in all those sneezes had finally done in her abdominal muscles. Sitting at a large conference table among actuaries, underwriters, and accountants, she stifled a sneeze and then said "Oh my." She had, then and there, given herself an intestinal hernia. She managed to leave without stirring up much attention, and on the other side of the heavy oak doors told the receptionist something terribly strange had happened and that it would be best for her to get to the hospital.

"Look, Sonny," she’d said, managing to pull her blouse up a few inches before they took her in a limo to the emergency room. Above her navel a hard knot of innards had pushed through the fatigued muscle, looking like a plum seated beneath the tender vellum of her belly. I touched it lightly. Myra had surgery to prevent intestinal gangrene and had to learn to let loose or next time it would be worse. Since then, I thrilled to her loud, unencumbered sneezes. I loved the harsh, almost masculine sound of them. It was as though she were forced to expose a usually well-clothed part of herself.

"I found a body this morning," I finally blurted without any control. "It was under the Williamsburg Bridge. I was running and from a distance I thought ‘What the hell is that?’ and as I approached-"

Myra held up her hand with inhuman speed and looked at the floor. "Sonny, my gawd, you know how depressed I get, and my stomach. I can’t listen--really. I’m sorry."

"It’s okay," I said, afraid I’d ruined her for days. That night I tried to stay in and do the work I had neglected, but, as I suspected, the forces of destiny were working against me. My upstairs neighbor, Anna, a musician, was composing an avant-garde piece which involved sending her voice through a web of effects devices and playing with the resulting sounds as one might play a musical instrument. As the night progressed, the sounds devolved into a cacophony of guttural belchings and shrill yowls. My water-stained ceiling creaked like the hull of a ship as the music built towards its death-scream epiphany. Vibrations from her music were always loosening the plaster, which occasionally fell onto my desk in thumb-sized pieces.

Try as I did to keep my thoughts together as I contemplated the neatly honed rows of numbers--Division 108’s loss history--in front of me, the murderous sounds that bellowed through my ceiling reminded me that all was not so swell here on planet earth. The image of the corpse was etched upon my mind. His empty expression, his receded black hair, his perfect nose, the gaping mouth, his lips a faded pink and miraculously untouched by the impact. The goddamned fly spinning its dance in fast motion. I imagined David Attenborough’s calm overdub: "The Dead Man’s Fly, Diptera mortis, gains its sustenance solely by consuming the final grim liquids shed by Homo sapiens sapiens, or man."

Without having made any progress on the work I’d brought home, I decided to go to Blue Bar with the vague hope of washing this stranger’s image away for a little while. I got to thinking that after being cleaned up, groomed, rouged, and laid out in a silk-lined casket, a dead person is somehow theatrical, an entirely different deal than what I had seen that morning. You’re able to comment on the composition, as though the corpse were actually a flower arrangement. In the end the surprise is the neat artificiality, the waxen quality. Even my father, dressed in his best Italian suit and his garish Mexican sunset tie, which he’d requested go with him, had looked dignified as opposed to frightening. Wearing that tie was one of his few generous gestures. He knew it would make the mourning easier, that it would give it a humorous edge, because he knew my mother and I couldn’t stand it. But there was a logic to it as well; the sun had finally set for Pop and what lies beyond the DayGlo mountains depicted on his acrylic tie only he knows. After I fed my cats, I headed out the door. The stairs in my building were slate worn smooth from a hundred years of use. As I walked down from the fifth floor, I noticed that they were more deeply worn the closer to the ground floor I got. This made sense. I started to estimate how many feet had passed over these stairs to make them so smooth--started calculating the hard numbers, but I couldn’t get my mind off Pop. My father lived the last fifteen years of his life without a right hand. He had lost it in a latheing accident while trying to fabricate a replacement leg for a mahogany ottoman that our dog Junior had finally managed to damage beyond repair. He’d lost his right hand but continued to type out his manuscripts with his left.

Then, as if struck by a muse of infinite genius, he decided to write using only the keys that one would normally use with his left hand. That was pure Pop: "No right hand, fine, I’ll not use the right side of the typewriter." That, in his mind, was vengeance for the mishap, which seemed to him to have nothing to do with a ten-minute, drunken, reckless and untried relationship with a brand new electric lathe, and everything to do with a fate that was out of his control.

Stubborn to an extent that had driven everybody but Junior away from him, he was stubborn even against death herself, who took three years before she completed the invasion of his body with cancer cells. Hours before he died, lying in frailty on his bed, he allowed himself to stop fighting for the first time in his life, and then, in the end, to feign a farewell smile and to gently declare his love to my mother, and then to me. I knew this was not easy and still wince when I think of how much pain he must have endured. He probably believed that those last two or three butterfly bright minutes of consciousness were, if used properly, enough to forever rid our memories of his years of incessant badgering. He never laid a hand on me or my mother. It was all words and grunts with him, along with an occasional literary insight--usually a quote from one of his own books.

My Father’s most famous work, the novel Bad Wares, was the one he wrote entirely left-handed. This, of course, was part of its popularity. The New York Times called it a "Miracle of composition...decidedly left...Revo _____ is a genius." I was ten when he was writing the book and I still remember the effect it had on him. He’d stay up late, mumbling, cigar smoke drifting up to my tiny bedroom and settling there. (If my room, the topmost in the house, was filled with smoke when I awoke for school, I knew Pop had been up most of the night writing.) During the spring of 1974, when he had nearly completed the book, he started talking as if he were limited to words formed from the left side of the typewriter. His favorite curse became ass face, and he’d call me an ass face when he had nothing better to do. I’d come home from school and hear below me, echoing up from his oak-paneled studio in the basement, "Ass faces are a waste." My mother would look at me, a light vodka buzz spinning her eyes aslant, a pitiful look in them. She was beautiful, and she’d say in a kind of faux whisper: "Your father’s a writer whose genius has got the better part of him. He doesn’t know what he’s saying."

"We are sad seeds, we are. Great weeds afterwards: cast afar, vexed, sexed, desexed." This he might say at the dinner table in response to my report card, or to my mother, who perhaps wanted to discuss the latest developments in Watergate, and Nixon’s imminent demise. In the end his absence from our house was as mysterious as his presence. Silence was lonely but not bitter. My mother, who had put up with his deep and tortured writer’s soul for so long, was finally able to come out of her shell. She began to garden ferociously, which she had done only meekly before he died. She got a job teaching driver’s education and wrote a book on herbal aphrodisiacs.

My father had once been unabashedly handsome, with his sad eyes, his smooth, dark complected skin compliments of his Sephardic heritage, and his wide, perfect smile.

 

I couldn’t get a good estimate of how many feet had worn down the slate stairs. The calculator in my head had shut off. I craved beer and the bustling, cramped streets of the night. I opened the heavy lobby door and stepped outside onto Ninth Street. Then I headed east.

Maintained by Blip Magazine Archive at www.blipmagazine.net

Copyright 1995-2011
Opinions are those of the authors.