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Chapter 2 – The Canyons of Manhattan Part 1

The first thing Frankie saw when he woke up were the shadows of dead bugs in the thin, yellowing frosted glass light fixture directly above him.  The light bulb was still burning, and he was still wearing his jeans.  He knew that it was morning, because there was still a lingering biting chill swirling in the air in his barren apartment that hadn’t been swallowed up by the slow gradually warming of the lazy winter sun.   He could hear kids shouting and playing on Clinton Street and beyond the kids he heard the horns, groans, snarls and growls of traffic moving on Houston Street toward the Williamsburg Bridge.  He started to turn his head a little to left,  but the whole left side of his face was swollen and it stung to put any pressure on that side.   He raised his right hand to try and push the hair up off his forehead, but his ribs hurt like hell, and he had to move very slowly.  By bringing his left hand up, he could push the right hand up to clear the hair back, and gently run his hands through his hair.  He kept his eyes closed as he pulled out small pebbles and cleared small clumps of blood, dirt, rocks and the little pieces of glass that sparkle like diamonds on sidewalks all over Manhattan’s Lower East Side.   He got tired quickly, let his arms fall to his sides, and flinched as every single muscle and bone in his entire body screamed in response to the bounce of the cheap mattress.  He lay still for a while, feeling a miserable hangover brewing; sand behind his eyes and the hot stale beer vapor coming from somewhere deep in his chest. 

Somewhere far off he could hear church bells ringing, maybe Saint Anthony’s in SoHo, maybe one of the Polish parishes in Williamsburg, Brooklyn or maybe if he were lucky enough to have woken up dead, the far-away bells of the parish in the Bronx where he grew up.   At that moment, he couldn’t think of anything more far away than the Riverdale of his childhood.  He couldn’t even begin to imagine ever being as alive again as he and his lost friends had been back then, with the rush of cold wind in their faces as they rode the roofs of the subway cars over the elevated tracks, laughing and sailing over the Bronx on their way into Manhattan.

His fingers explored the night table, found his cigarettes and snaked one out.  The smoke felt rich and full as he pulled it into his lungs, and he loved the momentary, fleeting instant of peace that came from getting at least one of his cravings out of the way.   He listened, with his eyes still closed, to the children playing outside, shouting and laughing in a blend of Spanish, English and small bits of what he heard as made-up urban words that seemed to tie the children even more tightly to the city around them.   He listened to the children, but he knew too well what they were learning on the decrepit playgrounds of the Lower East Side, and what they would spend the rest of their lives forgetting, escaping or fighting.   He knew that like him, one of the few satisfactions they would experience in their lives would come in small red and white packs of twenty, each one punctuating the moments ticked off in a desperate life.

After a half hour or so, he felt the expectations of another day begin to fill the room, and he began to reproach himself for not being out and trying to get things done.   He wasn’t quite sure exactly what his long-term plan was, but he didn’t have much money left from the small stash he built up in Minnesota, working overnight shift maintenance man for a small office building near the rehab facility.  First order of business probably should be to get a job – as much as he hated that, he hadn’t had much luck putting any deals together.  The pain that he felt when he slid his feet off the side of the bed wasn’t as bad as what he tried to pulled himself off the bed and stand straight up.  He yelled out loud and nearly collapsed as he felt a blinding pain in the arch of his right foot.  He hobbled to the bathroom, carefully undressed and stepped into a cool shower.  As the water flowed down over his head, he watched the bits of blood, dirt and small pieces of debris flow along the floor of the permanently stained fiberglass enclosure, spinning lazily around and then disappearing down the drain.  The bottom of his right foot was swollen and already bruising a dark purplish-black in places.  He dressed slowly and carefully after the shower, pulling on some loose-fitting jeans, a heavy loose fitting V-neck sweater, a thin gold chain and Italian loafers that he’d bought on sale for fifty percent off and were about a size and a half too big.   He looked at his face in the mirror.   His thick black hair would cover the cuts and lumps on his head, and sunglasses would cover the black eye and the cut on the bridge of his nose, but there would be no way to hide the fact that he had taken a solid beating.

With welder’s goggles and without a hangover the sun still would have hurt, as incredibly bright as it was on that crispy, clear winter day.   In his condition the stark white sunlight was oppressive and made him feel like a small, broken man as he limped down Clinton Street toward The Temple pub.  The warm, damp air and easy darkness of the bar was redemption, and it engulfed him when he opened the heavy wood door and stepped inside.  Nobody seemed to notice him as he made his way toward the booths in the back without taking off his sunglasses, not the old men sitting in tall backed wooden bar stools, not the men watching the football game from the tables along the wall on the right, not Martin as he dried beer mugs with his back to the bar.  Frankie made his way to the back of the bar leaning slightly on the paneled wall on his right, avoiding the eyes of the patrons that sat at the two chair tables that started at about mid-bar.  Like most of the older pubs in the city, the bar is narrow and deep, using precious little Manhattan storefront.

He sat heavily into a booth at the back of the bar, built up for privacy with wood paneling and upholstered in a well-worn, rich deep red vinyl leatherette, repaired in some places with red plastic electrical tape. From a distance the paneling seems to have a rich oak grain and the leatherette has the rugged grain of fine leather, but neither the furniture nor the patrons who spend lifetimes planning, apologizing and forgiving here can stand too much scrutiny.  It’s too damn easy to feel the cheap pine skeleton and the polyester batting underneath; elegence that turns out to be as cheap as the hollow dreams of the half-assed virtuosos who reassure themselves with the belief that talking and dreaming was the same as doing .  The vinyl in the booth is cool and comfortable, and it feels better to sit than he can ever remember it feeling.  Lou comes over and expertly puts down a paper place mat and a clean steel knife, fork and spoon with fluid economical motions.  Her hair is pulled back into a ponytail, and as she leans forward to set the table, a long strand falls forward and frames her face. She doesn’t notice him at all until he speaks to her.  She pushes her hair back over her ear and as she recognizes him she smiles a warm smile that freezes and disappears into a look of shock and hurt as she recognizes what had happened to his face.  He feel his shoulders drop and a hole open from the pit of his stomach through his shoulder blades as he sees her reaction.  She lifts the sunglasses gently off his face and he can see that she is fighting back tears as she gently touches his face.  Every place she touches stings as if she were exploring his face with a box cutter.  He’s suddenly aware of how bloated and bruised his face is, and it’s almost as if the very act of her seeing his face were raising the welts.  He sees her suddenly getting blurry as his eyes well with tears.

“Oh, geez, Frankie, what have they done to you?”, she said softly as she held his face. “Oh, geez…. stay right here baby, I’m gonna get you something, and call Martin”.  She bit her lip, and shook her head gently.  “You just sit right here”.

He nodded, and did his best to hold back the tears that he’d had no trouble holding back all his life.  It was always harder when somebody opened the floodgates of fear,  pain and humiliation by reacting  to him with shock and revulsion.  It showed him in the most blunt way that what he had kept hidden from himself was real, that things were at least as bad and as appalling as a part of him had feared they were all along.  He looked up and focused on the crown molding that ran on the wall just under the ceiling.  He had to look hard to make out the beautiful art-deco engravings cut into the molding that were clogged with at least a half century’s worth of neglect and a blanket of paint that was cracked and dirty.  Martin slipped into the booth, drying his hands with a white hand towel with a green stripe that ran across its length.  He was looking up at the molding, making it clear that he wasn’t going to say anything until Frankie let him know that he was ready to talk.  Frankie gave him a tight smile and a nod up at the crown moulding that let him know it was ok, he was ready.

Martin point up at the crown moulding that they were both looking at.  “That’s original sin you’re looking at.  That molding wasn’t made with a router; it was hand-carved in 1912 by a young artist that did the work to pay off a debt that his father owed to my grandfather.  That kid years later did some of the Art Deco design you see in the lobby of the Chrysler Building”,  he said as he slid a cigarette out of the pack in his shirt pocket and tapped the butt on the table in front of him.  He looked up at the molding absently, “The kid did some wonderful work, but over the years it was just too expensive to take care of it right, so each time my dad painted the bar, they just painted right over it. When I was younger, I swore I’d restore it when I took over the bar, but now that I pay the bills in this miserable gin mill, I can understand where my old man was coming from. Crying shame, eh, Frankie?”

Frankie shrugged, “Man, you gotta do what you gotta do.  I can only imagine what it would cost to have somebody clean it up,” he offered, “even illegals make a real decent living now if they’re skilled. You’d need a pretty good paint and trim guy to clean that moulding without tearing it up.”

“Yeah, forget about it,” Martin said, “you’d have to hire somebody who knew what they were doing, otherwise they could really tear it up when they clean up the old paint.”

Lou set a pint glass of ice water, three aspirin and steaming bowl of Irish oatmeal in front of Frankie.  The brown sugar and butter in the center of the oatmeal melted into a golden starburst swirl as he stirred it. “Here you go,” she said as she slowly poured some milk into it. “This will cool it down and make it a little easier to eat.”  Martin motioned at her with an unlit cigarette.  “Louise, make him an ice pack.  Put some ice into a clean towel, and wet the towel a little bit so it gets good and cold.”  Lou nodded, and went back into the kitchen. Martin lit his cigarette with an old Zippo lighter, and took a couple drags.

“You all right?” he asked.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sore, but I’ll be okay,” Frankie said, stirring the oatmeal with renewed interest.

“Yeah,” he laughed, “you’ll be sore for a while. What the hell happened?”

“I ran into a little trouble in a bar downtown,” Frankie said simply, his face set, and his small, close-set ice blue eyes holding Martin’s gaze. He couldn’t hold his stare very long, and looked down again. “I owed a guy some money, and I couldn’t pay.”

“Jeez, Frankie, you just got back from Minnesota, right?  Timothy called and let me know that you’d gone off to rehab,” he paused and took a drag off the cigarette. “Timothy’s a good kid.”

Neither Frankie nor Timothy knew it,  because Martin would never tell, but Frankie had left Martin’s bar that night that he collapsed on Timothy’s doorstep.  Martin had packed Frankie into a cab uptown to Timothy’s, and rode up front with the driver.  He was watching from the corner, to make sure that Frankie went nowhere else.

“You borrowed money from a shylock?”

“No, not exactly.”  He took a small sip from the glass of ice water in front of him. The water felt like it was tearing his lip open. He didn’t know how to tell Martin the truth about what had happened. The whole situation felt cheesy and he didn’t need for Martin and Lou to know how bad things had gotten. “I got involved in a business deal that didn’t work out, and I didn’t have the money to pay back.”

Didn’t work out?” he said, and huffed a small laugh. “Business deal? Frankie, I heard you tried to beat Jimmy Farrell on a drug deal. Heard he gave you a couple thousand dollars to buy him some pot and you stole it from him.”

Frankie felt the breath leave his body like he’d been punched in the stomach, and his shoulders cave in from the shame. “It wasn’t like that, I swear,”  he said quietly, with his arms at his side and his hands alongside his thighs on the seat. “Why would I try to steal money from Jimmy?  I know Jimmy.  I’ve been to his house and his brother Paddy’s one of my best friends.  How could I steal from him?  The whole thing is so fucking humiliating.” He lit a cigarette with a plastic lighter and continued, “I wasn’t trying to steal the money, it’s just that this guy I knew up in the Bronx kept promising but never came across.  One of his other friends in Texas was trying to work something out, but it was getting dragged out more and more.   Then things would come up and I’d be a little short, so I’d spend twenty bucks here, thirty dollars there, and next thing you know Jimmy’s  asking for the money back.”

“And there was no money,” Martin said, nodding as if he’d been there before.

“And there was no money,” Frankie repeated. “I tried like hell to come up with it, but no dice. I couldn’t even go to the street for the money.”

“So what happened last night?” he asked.

Frankie drew in a deep breath, and felt a sharp pain in his side. “Well, I met Timothy for coffee, and it was really good just to sit and have coffee with him and talk about old times, and what happens next for me.  It was good, but it was a little weird, like he kept looking for signs in my face, and never stopped with all the questions.”

“But you guys are ok?”

“Yeah, we’re good.  So I left and got on the train, but after a stop I decided to walk around a bit, just to clear my head,” he said, remembering the unsettled feeling he had after he visited with Timothy – he felt like the whole world, not just Timothy, was trying to figure him out.  “So I decide I need a drink and head to this little bar I know on Thompson Street – a local bar off the alley.”

“Yeah, I know the one. I was going to ask you about that.”

“About what?”

“About going to a bar the day you got out of rehab.”

“Yeah,” said Frankie, “I know, they busted my balls about that the whole time I was in Minnesota.  I told them I wasn’t going to stop drinking.  Drinking wasn’t nearly my problem.  Besides, I’m not drinking; I’m keeping it to beer and wine – you know?”

“Yeah, okay,” shrugged Martin, “I just never heard of a program like that.”

“Well, that’s my program,” said Frankie. “So anyway, I was in that bar on Thompson street…” He felt his pockets for his other pack of cigarettes, and remembered that he’d left them on the night stand. “You got an extra cigarette?” He asked, and Martin pulled the pack out of his shirt pocket, flicked it toward him and three cigarettes popped up out of the pack. He chose the one that was second farthest out.  Martin was looking past Frankie and into the kitchen.  Frankie waited until  Martin’s eyes came back to the conversation.  “So, I was in this bar, and was feeling pretty good, it was halfway into the evening, and I’d had a pretty good time; no drama, watching the crowd, drinking a few beers – so thing were good, especially for an old guy like me. Then this one really good looking girl comes over and sits next to me at the bar.”  He paused for a drag of the cigarette and to think about how to describe Marilyn.  “She asks for a cigarette, and we start talking real easy.  First thing that pops into my mind was that she was a working girl, but I honestly didn’t care.  I was just having a good time talking to a girl that wasn’t a basket case, you know?”  Martin nodded, and smiled a knowing smile. As a bartender he got to know more than a couple of basket cases, mostly grad students that slummed down in the neighborhood because it was a “cool” thing to do.  They were almost always amazed that Martin could carry on a conversation, then invariably went on to fall in love with him.

“Martin,” Frankie started again, “she had to have been about six foot tall, and she had this beautiful fucking face with long curly brown hair. She looked like she was about twenty or twenty one and she had this face that had all these expressions, really cute, but there was something sad about her.”  He thought a bit about it, and realized that it wasn’t really sad, but more preoccupied.  He chuckled almost to himself. Of course she was preoccupied – with the beating she was setting him up to receive.  He went on, “ So she was wearing a man’s dress shirt, and she would turn a bit when she laughed, and wow. Anyway, we started talking, and she got a little nervous and asked me if I wanted to go outside for a bit.  So, what am I ? An asshole? Of course I say ‘sure’, and I start out the front, but she grabs my arm real soft and says ‘let’s go out back’.  So I’m thinking… sure.” Frankie crushed the cigarette out in the ashtray. He can picture it so clearly, and the feelings of shame and humiliation washed over him again. He kept looking down, stirring the ashes in the ashtray with his butt. “She has this real sad, hurt look on her face, and so I say ‘okay’ and she takes my hand, and we go toward the back of the bar, down this hallway past the bathrooms. By this point, I think I’m in like Flynn, you know?” he says, feeling more than sheepishness. “The storerooms were off to the left at the end of the hall, and there’s a steel exit door. She opens it and when I take a couple of steps outside.  The first thing that hits me is how cold it got outside, and the second thing that hits me is this one guy standing there by the door.  I still don’t know how he timed his punch so perfectly.  How the hell did he know exactly when I was coming, and how’d he know that I was coming out first?”

“He probably didn’t care who he hit – probably would have been just as happy clocking the girl.  But, man, that sucks,” Martin said. He motioned over to Lou, and she brought them each a dark pint of Irish stout and a short glass full of whiskey for Martin.

“Yeah, I pretty much knew who they were after the second one came around and hit me from behind with an axe handle. After I fall over I turn to look at the girl, and she’s standing in the door framed by the light, and she’s crying.  So I get up pretty quick, and nail the older guy right in the fucking nose, then…  I don’t know,” he sat quietly for a while. Frankie didn’t really know how to explain why he didn’t fight back; he knew and Martin knew that he could easily have taken both of them. “I was so fucking humiliated that Jimmy did this that I even try to fight them anymore.  It was more than that, though.  So I stop fighting and the first guy steps up and doesn’t say nothing, neither, he just busts me real fucking hard in the gut. He was knocking the shit outta me, but he never hit me in the face.”

Frankie continued after taking a drink of his beer, “It was the other guy, the older guy, that started punching me in the face, and kicking me in the ribs when I was down. You know, for punching him in the face. So I’m lying there, and the older guy’s still kicking me, not hard, he was pretty much gassed by then, and the big guy pulls him off. I was laying there quiet, except that for this moaning I keep hearing coming from me, and the big guy says to me ‘This is really gonna hurt. Stay still.’ he says it, then he takes my right shoe off and whacks the bottom of my foot really hard a couple times with a piece of pipe or club or something.  At least he apologized for that – he said the foot was a special order and he had to do it.”  Frankie laughed a little, and took another hit off the cigarette. “I don’t think it would have been nearly so bad if I hadn’t taken a shot at the older guy. These guys were earning a buck, doing a job. I’ve seen worse guys than them.” Martin was looking at him with this real pained look, almost like he was hearing a story from  one of his brothers.  

“The foot thing?” Frankie says, “what the hell is that? I’m guessing Jimmy saw that in some Quinton Tarantino movie or something and was just dying to try it out on somebody. What a jerk.”  They both sat quiet for a while, thinking, quiet.  “Martin, I wasn’t kidding. I didn’t really fight back after the first shot.”

“Why not?” Martin asked, “that’s kind of stupid, don’t you think? Who the hell just sits there and lets them do that? What’s that about?”

“I don’t know,” was all that Frankie could honestly say. “I just keep thinking about it - life’s been giving me right hooks and upper cuts for so long that by this point, I was begging for a left.  Then these two clowns show up and prove to me that life’s a southpaw, you know?”  He felt still, like there was something he was about to figure out.

“Just like a flash of light I figured that maybe God’s just completely pissed at me, and this is my punishment for all the shit I’ve done in my life, you know?” Frankie opened his mouth to stretch his jaw and keep the eyes from getting moist.  He could feel it rising in him. “Just like a flash of light it hit me, and suddenly, I just wanted to get it over with and go home, you know?”

“Nah,” Martin said taking a sip of the whisky that had been in front of him, “I don’t think God works that way. God didn’t send those guys, Jimmy did. Jimmy sent them because you burned him for a couple of grand. Doesn’t matter what else happened -  Jimmy gave you money for pot, now Jimmy’s got no money and no pot. Simple.  And I don’t believe this is some kind of punishment you’re going through, you know?  It’s not a punishment, it’s a test. We all get tried and tested here in the real world, pal. You’ve just run from your trials in different ways over the years, you know?”

Frankie laughed a small empty laugh. “Yeah, well. Wrong about one thing, though, I don’t run from a damn thing,” he said, mustering up a sugar cube’s worth of bravado, all he had.

“Well, you don’t run run.  But from where I’m sitting, I think all you’ve done is run, you just do it in a different way.  You’ve been checking out and keeping reality as far away as you can.  What do you call what you’ve been doing?”  he asked, not really waiting for Frankie’s answer.   Martin motioned around the pub, “there’s nowhere to go, Frankie, you’ll always end up here.”  He looked around, at the aging furniture, the aging crowd. “Well, not in this bar,” he said laughing, “but here on this planet, in this reality.  Here with the rest of us saps.”

Frankie thought about it for a minute, but suddenly he felt like he needed to think a lot more about it alone.

One Comment

  1. Keep working ,splendid job!

    Sunday, December 25, 2011 at 4:58 am | Permalink

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