Blue smoke was coming out the back of the van and people were climbing inside, through the side door, white people all in black. Black leotards, black luggage, black hats, black shoes.
Then, just like that, Ruby Prestigiacomo’s face was smiling right in front of me.
Don’t let the van spook you, Ruby said. We just bought it from the band, Ruby said, smiling, The Door of the Dead band.
There’s room for one more, Ruby said. You’ll be all night here waiting for a cab. I can give you a ride for fifteen dollars. Cab’ll cost you twenty-five.
Inside my chest, near the sore place where I smoke, so easy, I felt Ruby’s smile.
I wished I could be so easy, wished I could smile like that.
My wallet was still in my inside jacket pocket. Ruby just kept there, kept standing in the unrelenting fluorescence, smiling, too close, his blue eyes the way crazy people look at you, moving in on you, like when you go to kiss somebody. Blue eyes and thick red-blond hair, blond hair on his forearms. Beautiful. The kind of skin that freckles and tans gold. His red polyester shirt–buttons open so far down I had to avert my eyes. Hair pulled back in a ponytail. A silver ankh dangling from his queer ear, soul-patch triangle of red-blond hair just under his bottom lip.
Ruby Prestigiacomo, what am I going to do with you?
All death did was make Ruby smile all the more.
YOU’re GOING TO wait all night here for a cab, Ruby said. Fifteen dollars, Ruby said, Anywhere in Wolf Swamp.
Wolf Swamp? I said.
Manhattan, Ruby said.
Ruby reached into his inside coat pocket and pulled out an old blue Velcro wallet, pulled the wallet open, and from the wad of papers pulled out a business card. Ruby’s fingers were long and thin and there was grease under his thumbnail. Thumb print of grease on the business card.
ROMEOMOVERS SPIRIT SCHLEPPERS were the words on the card, WOLF SWAMP. Under SPIRIT SCHLEPPERS was DOG SHIT PARK, then under DOG SHIT PARK was RUBY PRESTIGIACOMO, under RUBY PRESTIGIACOMO a phone number, then under the phone number was CLYDE TRUE SHOT EXPERIENCED DRIVER.
Shit on a business card.
What’s Dog Shit Park? I said.
Lower East Side, Ruby said. It’s a park. Tompkins Square, but everybody I know calls it Dog Shit Park.
Where you going? Ruby said.
Two-oh-five East Fifth Street, I said.
Between Second and Third, Ruby said.
Ruby grabbed my duffel bag and my old suitcase with the travel stickers on it. I picked up my backpack and followed Ruby past the line of people waiting for taxis. My wallet was in the inside pocket of my jacket.
The four white people all in black were sitting on their luggage in the back of the van, all of them with big red lips, even the man. Big hoops in their ears, all of them smoking cigarettes.
They’re from France, Ruby said, Vogue magazine. They only speak French except for fuck you. You got the fifteen dollars?
My wallet from my inside jacket pocket, when I opened it, my money was suddenly public domain opened up like that on the street. I gave Ruby a ten and a five, stuck my wallet back in my inside jacket pocket.
Bonsoir, I said in French.
The French Vogues all looked like mannequins. They all said quick French things back. Twice as hot inside the van. I sat down where I was standing, started doing what I always do when I don’t know what to do, rolled a cigarette with one hand like I can, French Vogue mannequins all around watching me. When I got the cigarette rolled, I offered the cigarette to the man French Vogue first. He looked away, poked his left shoulder up, pointed his hand and took the cigarette, silver loop dangle side to side, the fuck-you smile on his red lips, red lips pursing, French grunt.
Then it was a cigarette for each of the others, each accepting with a choreography of stance, silver loop, hair tossing.
Shit from Parisian Shinola.
I’ll have one of those too, Ruby said. Then: Where’d you learn to roll a cigarette like that?
A friend of mine, I said. Charlie 2Moons, I said, Taught me, I said, A long time ago.
I have my mother’s nerves, so sometimes I stutter.
Language my second language.
CLYDE TRUE SHOT Experienced Driver was big, everything about him big, extra lovely as Rose would say–chest, belly, thighs, shoulders, arms, hands. His big hands on the steering wheel, on both hands on every finger, even the thumbs, the same silver ring. From the side I was on, True Shot’s nose was a hook that poked out of two high cheekbones. His hair was black and thick and long and tied back in a bun with a red paisley bandanna tied around his head. From his neck, a beaded buckskin bag. The horizontal line was blue trader beads and the intersecting vertical line, red beads. The buckskin bag hung from a buckskin necklace.
No doubt about it, I was staring. Same way as when you stare at a big snake. And big snakes always look back. On a lava rock ledge in full sun, the big snake doesn’t want to even move, but the snake turns, and his eyes end on you.
On me. True Shot put his eyes on me. I mean, his mirrors.
True Shot’s mirrors. An accessory True Shot never went without, his mirrored Armani sunglasses.
When True Shot put his mirrors on me, I could see myself in there on the surface, a circus freak, distorted at the state fair, my big circus nose and mustache and bug eyes.
I saw him first! Ruby said. He’s mine!
Clyde True Shot? I said.
Drop the Clyde, Ruby said. He’s just True Shot.
True Shot, I said. Would you like, I said, A cigarette?
No, thank you, Ruby said. He don’t smoke socially.
There was a hand on my shoulder, and it was the French Vogue man handing me one of his cigarettes, rolled fat.
Merci, I said, lit the cigarette, inhaled. Marijuana? I said.
Fucking hashish, French Vogue said.
In the rearview mirror, True Shot’s mirrors were on me. Smoke big, True Shot said. His voice was soft, resonant, like a child singing a lullaby in a culvert.
TRUE SHOT AT the wheel, Ruby riding shotgun, French Vogues, me; we are inside, in our smoke cut through with high-beam headlights. Outside, all about us, out the windshield in front, out the windows in back: stars, speeding light, red and amber, huge white flying saucers, eyes.
I was rolling another cigarette, rolling six more cigarettes around. I was not speaking French or any words of any language. My butt was burning on the van floor, so I sat on the old suitcase with the travel stickers on it. Drops of sweat all around me.
True Shot hit the brakes and under us was a screeching. We swerved. One French Vogue banged her head on the side of the van. We slid to a stop. From out Ruby’s window, I could see a wall of concrete. A back-hoe. An electric sign pointed repeating yellow arrows at Ruby’s head. There was water flowing onto the right lane of the roadway, and mud. I thought it was mud. The electric yellow made the water look like thin buttermilk. There were cans and things floating. From the embankment, the thin buttermilk was a waterfall onto the roadway over a truck tire and the back seat of a car. Then the turds. I smelled and I knew: The milk was a river of sewage. True Shot started honking.
Fuck! Ruby said. We should have taken the fucking tunnel.
Fuck! the French Vogues all said. Fuck!
Then: Watch for cops! True Shot said.
True Shot shifted into first and turned the steering wheel to the right.
Watch for cops! Ruby yelled back at us.
Then Ruby watched the right side and True Shot the left side, and True Shot guided the van through the narrow space in between the backhoe and the electric yellow arrow sign. Milk-shit river lapped at the bottom of the side door. There was a bump and the front right tire went up on the curb, then another bump for the back right tire. True Shot hugged the wheel, leaned forward, and aimed the van in between the line of traffic on the left and a wall of concrete on the right.
Clyde True Shot, race-car driver, hit the gas.
WE ARE AN arrow, Door of the Dead arrow, howling through, tilted, banking, racing down where you’re not supposed to go, right wheels on the curb, left wheels in the gutter, guard-rail concrete wall only inches from us to the right. To the left, Day-Glo traffic cones, and the Volkswagen Chevrolet Ford Toyota line of cars, pickups, semis, and limousines traffic jam. Where we’re heading hellbent is in between, space enough or not.
Ruby’s forehead is shiny with lights on the sweat. Ruby’s bones poking through, his smile skeleton big. He’s staring straight ahead, like all of us, at the trajectory, our thrust, but he’s watching True Shot too. Ruby loves True Shot and he’s watching True Shot, race-car driver, the two of them two guys, rodeo yee-haws, Friday-night homeboys, going fast, right-flanking one mile, two miles, three miles of traffic jam and counting.
French Vogues lit French cigarettes. Fuck. Merde. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
Toll booth! True Shot yelled, like this was Nintendo and toll booth was the dragon. The right front wheel bumped off the curb back onto the road, then the right rear wheel. True Shot shifted down to second.
Watch for cops! True Shot yelled.
Watch for cops! Ruby yelled.
One of the French Vogues, a woman, reached down, opened the sliding side door. Blast of hot air, city lights, guard rail right there speeding by, air. I held my hand against my heart, my wallet in my inside jacket pocket, pulled my cap off, knelt forward, head out the side door. Wind blowing in my hair.
There it was right in front of us: the yellow-and-black-striped toll booth STOP arm coming down. True Shot shifted into second.
Geronimo! True Shot yelled. Geronimo! Ruby yelled.
I closed my eyes.
The yellow-and-black-striped toll booth STOP arm karate-chopped into the roof of the Door of the Dead van.
But it’s not the truth.
I knelt back, opened my eyes. Through the back windows, the yellow-and-black-striped toll booth STOP arm was locked in place behind us.
Out the windshield, out the back windows, out the side door, there were no cops.
True Shot yelled, Welcome to Wolf Swamp! And we cheered, all of us, me and the French Vogues, these people I didn’t know–we cheered. I rolled more cigarettes, lit six all around, and we smoked and smoked, and it wasn’t long before: Waldorf Hysteria! Ruby yelled.
True Shot pulled up to the bright curb. The doorman opened the van’s side door. He wore a powder-blue military uniform. He was speaking French, snapping his fingers. Young brown men in matching outfits rushed to the van.
One by one, the French Vogues stepped out. The doorman took each French Vogue by the hand. One by one, the bellhops slid the monogrammed alligator luggage out of Door of the Dead van.
Alligators, True Shot said.
Dangerous cargo, Ruby said.
Faux alligators, True Shot said.
Worst kind, Ruby said.
The only good faux alligator, Ruby said, Is a dead faux alligator.
Every extra lovely muscle in True Shot was laughing. Ruby too, but Ruby had to put his fist over his mouth. A deep cough was coming up, rattling Ruby’s bones. Ruby’s arm held his side.
I stuck my head out the van’s side door, looked left, right, then all around, then up. Waldorf Astoria.
Lunch at the Waldorf was a game my mother and I used to play.
Hysteria. The lights of Waldorf Hysteria were bright bright, unrelenting. The light was inside me, moving through me. On the street was the swirl and flash of lights, a high off-pitch ringing, and something else: a sound, like in monster movies. The footfall of a huge monster.
ALL DODGES SOUND the same when you start them up.
Ruby reached behind True Shot and, from out of a heap, pulled a five-gallon bucket, turned the bucket over, brushed the bottom off, patted it, and said, Here, come up and sit on this bucket, up here between us.
My wallet was in my inside jacket pocket.
Can get stuffy back there, Ruby said. Then: Here, this’ll help, he said, and pulled a can of Budweiser out from its plastic ring and handed me the beer, put the joint to his Ruby lips, inhaled, and passed the joint to me.
This’ll help too, Ruby said, holding his breath and sucking in the words like you do.
It’ll take the edge off, Ruby said. Ruby was smiling.
Seemed like a good idea at the time.
I offered the joint to True Shot.
He don’t smoke socially, Ruby said.
I handed the joint back to Ruby. Opened the can of beer.
Driving more like floating.
Punch in that Sioux tape! Ruby said.
True Shot punched in his Sioux tape and both he and Ruby, all at once, started singing, howling, and crying singing, Indian songs like in Fort Hall when Bobbie and Charlie 2Moons and I lived on the rez.
Where are we? I said.
When my words came out, they did not stutter.
True Shot and Ruby looked at me, looked at each other.
Broadway, Ruby said.
You ain’t from here, are you? Ruby said.
Broadway? I said.
Earth, Ruby said. His famous smile.
New York, Ruby said. Here, he said, putting both his hands on my shoulders and pushing down. Here.
Now here, Ruby said, Or nowhere, Ruby said. Depends on the space in between.
Outside the windows of Door of the Dead van, neon vegetable stands passed, windows, concrete columns, lampposts, traffic, parked cars, wires, and lights: green, amber, red, go, wait, stop.
The wind was blowing Ruby’s gold-red hair.
You know, Ruby said, sucking on the joint, I’ve been trying to figure out who you look like. He handed the joint to me.
And I think I’ve figured it out, Ruby said. What do you think, True Shot? Handsome Einstein or intelligent Tom Selleck?
True Shot’s bandanna. His mirrors. The silver ring on every finger, even his thumbs. The buckskin bag with the blue horizontal and the red vertical hanging on the buckskin necklace. True Shot’s lips, under his mirrors, moved.
Handsome Einstein, True Shot said.
His voice, the child out of the culvert, hollering into the wind.
You sure? Ruby said.
Selleck can’t look intelligent, True Shot said.
Then: What’s your name? Ruby asked.
William, I said. William Parker.
Friends call you Bill?
Will, I said.
I’ll call you Will then, Ruby said. Ruby’s smile.
This here’s True Shot and I’m Ruby Prestigiacomo.
Glad to meet, I said, You guys, I said.
I shook Ruby’s hand, went to shake True Shot’s, but thought, He don’t shake hands socially, so I just looked at him.
I didn’t expect, I said, New York folks to be so friendly.
Ruby ate the roach.
When you’re in the Spirit Schlepping business like ours, Ruby said, Friendly’s just part of the program. Besides, that’s bullshit. New Yorkers can be the friendliest people you ever met.
Not what I’ve heard, I said. Back west, I said, Where I’m from, folks think New Yorkers are rich Jews, I said, Mafia Italians, and black guys in gangs who play basketball and kill white people.
Ain’t too far off, Ruby said.
Then: Where back west?
A bunch of places, I said. Jackson Hole, I said. Most of my time in northern Idaho, but I was born in Pocatello.
Ruby turned his head around quick, put his hands to his cheeks, and screamed: In a trunk in the Princess Theater!
Then Ruby was laughing the way you do on good dope. I started laughing too, though I didn’t know why.
You know, Ruby said. The song, A Star Is Born, Ruby said. Judy Garland!
I was born in a trunk in the Princess Theater in Pocatello, Idaho, Ruby sang.
Never heard it, I said.
Then: Brooklyn, Ruby said. I was born in Brooklyn. Bensonhurst.
I waited for True Shot to say where he was born, but he didn’t.
Staying here long? Ruby asked.
Living here, I said, Now. Got an apartment: Two-oh-five East Fifth Street.
Got a job? Ruby asked.
Restaurants, I said.
Hard time to get a restaurant job, Ruby said. August. You might try Life Caf”, Tenth and B, on the northeast corner of Dog Shit Park. You could tell them Ruby Prestigiacomo sent you, but it won’t do any good.
Dog Shit Park, I said.
Yeah, Ruby said. You remember–Tompkins Square, not far from you.
Why’d you move here of all places? Ruby said.
Shit happens, I said.
Seemed like a good idea at the time, I said.
If I can make it here I’ll make it anywhere, I said.
But it’s not the truth.
Of all the things I could’ve said right then, practiced things I didn’t stutter, I said this: Because I was afraid to, I said. And also, I said, Because I’m looking for someone.
True Shot’s mirrors were on me from the left, and from the right Ruby’s too close with his breath.
Ruby crossed his hazel eyes. Crossed over, huh? Ruby said.
Crossed over? I said.
That’s when you stop being one way and start being another, Ruby said. Not something many people can do, or want to do. In fact, Ruby said, The only people who cross over, cross over because they’re on some kind of Mission Impossible.
I could no longer live and stay the way I was, I said.
But it’s not the truth.
I didn’t say anything.
Then: Two-oh-five East Fifth Street! Ruby yelled, the same way as Waldorf Hysteria!
We were stopped on a street, in front of a building, double-parked. True Shot turned the engine off.
Between Second and Third, Ruby said, On the street where you live.
I have often walked down this street before, Ruby sang.
THE SIOUX TAPE’s drums was the way my heart was beating. Sweat rolling down from my pits, my head still floating. I was way stoned, sitting on a bucket between a guy named True Shot and a guy named Ruby Prestigiacomo, and there I was in all the world, double-parked in front of 205 East Fifth Street, between Second and Third.
From Door of the Dead van, the light above the steps of 205 East Fifth Street was right behind Ruby’s head. The mercury-vapor streetlamp light the color of dust storms, ocher through the windows, hard edges, New York angles.
I knew it, Ruby said, Soon as I saw you.
What? I said.
True Shot’s going to tell you a story, Ruby said.
What story? I said.
Who can tell? Ruby said. Maybe the Secret of Wolf Swamp.
My suitcase with the travel stickers on it, my duffel bag, and my backpack were all lined up. I went to open the side door when Ruby put his hand on my knee, grabbing my knee the way you do when you’re trying to keep something still.
My butt was on the bucket.
Just then outside big thunder and a flash of light.
But it’s not the truth. The thunder wasn’t outside. The thunder was inside me, the flash inside.
True Shot raised his head up and looked at the roof of the van. From under the chin, True Shot didn’t look Indian at all, or any one way. He just looked like a kid on a summer night looking up at the stars.
So Will Parker . . . True Shot said.
Handsome Einstein . . . Ruby said.
In True Shot’s mirrors, I was a red ball cap with crooked bottom teeth.
Only silence inside Door of the Dead van. True Shot cleared his throat, spit out the window. He put his fingers up to the buckskin bag with the beaded blue horizontal and the red vertical hanging from the buckskin necklace, turned around, and put his mirrors onto me.
Just like that, True Shot took my hand, open palm to open palm, and put his fingers in with mine, his silver rings against my fingers.
It is this way, True Shot said, You will find your friend.
I will? I said, How do you know?
True Shot just knows, Ruby said.
Meanwhile, True Shot said, Have some fun while you wait for the will of heaven.
The porch light in True Shots’ mirrors made it look like I had a halo around my head.
I didn’t know what to say, so I said something like thanks or Okay see ya, and pulled my hand away.
RUBY GOT OUT of the van and opened the side door, and I stepped out. Smoke out onto the street. For a moment, I thought the smoke was my body smoking. My feet were standing in a rectangle of earth, the rectangle of earth where I’d plant the cherry tree–cement sidewalk everywhere else but where I was standing. My wallet was in my inside jacket pocket.
Ruby and I were about the same: six foot two. I had twenty pounds on him. Something about the way Ruby looked right then–his jaw, the skin of his face below his sideburn–so beautiful. When I stood full up, I was face-to-face with Ruby’s smile.
Ruby poked his finger in my chest. The will of heaven, Ruby said, Is in your heart.
Then: New York, new place, Ruby said.
His hands pressed down the lapel of my corduroy coat.
Handsome Einstein new self-concept, Ruby said.
New concept new name, Ruby said.
New name? I said.
When you cross over, Ruby said, You need a new name.
Will of Heaven! Ruby said, his arm in the air; his hand cupped, fingers and thumb together like Italians do, five points of a star: his grand easy smile.
From inside the van, True Shot yelled, William of Heaven! Ho!
Ruby pulled the hair tie from around his ponytail and shook his head. His red-blond hair was shiny all the way to his shoulders.
You got our business card? Ruby said. You’re sure?
Sure, I said, and pulled the card from my side pocket. ROMEOMOVERS. SPIRIT SCHLEPPERS. DOG SHIT PARK.
Where’s the keys to the apartment? Ruby said.
I took my wallet out of my inside jacket pocket, and out of the side pocket of my wallet I pulled three big keys, one little key.
One for the outside door, two for the inside, Ruby said. The little one’s for the mailbox. Get a duplicate made. Give a set to somebody you trust. You can trust me, Ruby said, his smile. Keep the other set. Always remember, New Yorkers love only those who love themselves. Always put yourself first. Dress down for the subway. Get an answering machine. And remember, New Yorkers take pride in always knowing where they are. Buy a map. Always know where you are. If you don’t, act like you do.
Then: LA is the me city, Ruby said, and New York is the you city. In LA it’s fuck me. In New York it’s fuck you. Adopt the attitude. It’s all in the face. Mostly in the eyes.
Like this, Ruby said.
Ruby’s eyes were looking right at me, but they were more like looking through me: no smile, his lip curled up, his nostrils in and out.
New York drop-dead fuck-you, Ruby said. The attitude. Now you try it.
I made like I thought Ruby wanted me to look.
Pull your ball cap down, Ruby said. Look at me but don’t see me. No no no! Ruby said, and tapped each shoulder. No chip on your shoulder–somebody will try and knock it off. It’s passive, Ruby said. It’s like you’re already dead and you wish everybody else was dead too.
New York drop-dead fuck-you, Ruby said.
It takes practice, Ruby said.
Ruby picked up my duffel bag, slung it over his shoulder.
Want me to spend the night with you? Ruby said. First night of your crossover and all. I could help if there’s a problem. Ain’t easy fixing a center, Ruby said. Ruby’s smile.
No, I said. No, thanks. I’ll be fine.
Don’t get me wrong, Ruby said. It ain’t usual–Ruby pulled the brim of my ball cap back up–that I feel this way about a person, one that I just met.
Then: If it’s the gay cancer you’re worried about, Ruby said, We can just hold each other.
Inside Door of the Dead van, I bent and turned my head into True Shot’s mirrors. His shiny silver rings. The beaded blue horizontal and red vertical on the buckskin bag hanging on the buckskin strand, his red bandanna.
Ruby said, True Shot doesn’t have sex socially. It would be just me.
No, I said. Thanks.
Then: I can carry the duffel bag, I said.
Ruby let my duffel bag drop.
I don’t mean to freak you out, man, Ruby said, And I’m not irresponsible. Just lonely. And Einstein’s the sexiest man ever, next to Martin Luther King, Jr. And when I saw you at the airport, standing alone in the fluorescence, checking for your wallet, I don’t know what the fuck happened to me.
It was just so human how you were, Ruby said. Ruby’s smile.
I was wounded by a blow of love, Ruby said.
My heartbeat at my ears was a siren.
Then my lips were flying lips against Ruby’s. Ruby’s lips were soft, his breath was cigarettes and beer and the sweet smell of his soul. We kissed big, a deep kiss like in the movies, my hands in his hair, down his back, and onto his ass.
But it’s not the truth.
Thanks, I said, For the ride. For everything.
ALL DODGES SOUND the same when you start them up.
Vaya con Dios, True Shot said.
Happy Trails! Ruby said. Until we meet again!
Keep smiling until then was the song in my head as I put the key in the door of 205 East Fifth Street. Down the street, Door of the Dead van turned right on Third Avenue. True Shot shifted into second, and just like that the Dodge van was gone. I turned the key and pushed the steel door and I was inside, under the unrelenting fluorescent halo in the hallway.
APARTMENT 1-A WAS on my right. It took me awhile in the bright to find the right key. Just as I turned the key in the top lock, the door behind me, 1-C, opened up as far as the chain allowed. A cat tried to jump out the door, but a foot in a dirty fluffy pink slipper kicked it. The cat yowled and ducked back in. The woman stuck the cat she was holding in her hand out the door first, before she stuck her own self out. This cat was a long-haired yellow and looked at me with the New York drop-dead fuck-you.
What I first saw about the woman was her blue shower hat and the Kleenex under the elastic part of the shower hat. Then her eyebrows: two red swoops exactly the way in my mother’s penmanship how she crossed her T’s: too fancy. Then it was Scotch I smelled, and cigarettes. Scotch and cigarettes and cat shit and kitty litter.
Mrs. Lupino came together all at once as herself when she spoke. You knew all about her with that voice, deep as a lava flow, soft as mud.
You Ellen’s cowboy? Mrs. Lupino said. The one that’s moving in?
Ellen? I said. How do you know about Ellen?
She told me about you, Mrs. Lupino said. Everything.
The one from potato country? Mrs. Lupino asked.
From Idaho, I said. Yes.
Mrs. Lupino’s hand on the yellow cat was liver spots and pink Lee Press-On nails.
Then do it! Mrs. Lupino said.
Do it? I said.
What you do with the cigarettes, she said.
I put down my duffel bag and my suitcase. Rolled a cigarette with one hand like I can, handed the cigarette through the opening in the door. Mrs. Lupino took the cigarette, pink Lee Press-On nails, liver spots, put the cigarette in between her lips, wrinkles all around her lips, no lipstick. I lit Mrs. Lupino’s cigarette.
Watch for my babies because I’m opening the door, she said, and closed the door, undid the chain, and opened the door again. Cats everywhere.
Upstairs, another door opened, and at the top of the stairs stood a person and then a little dog, a terrier, who started yapping, then a bigger dog, then an old dog, limping, with spots. There was no light on the second-story landing, and I couldn’t see who was standing at the top of the stairs. The person was big and wearing a long robe, that’s all I could tell, except I knew this person was black.
Things start where you don’t know.
That person was Rose, Rose and his dogs, Mona, Mary, and Jack Flash. Bracelets, lots of bracelets, the clack-clack of them.
Rose upstairs, Ruby just gone around the corner. The closest those two ever got. Except for in me.
It’s all right, Rose! Mrs. Lupino called sing-songy up the stairs. This is Ellen’s cowboy. You remember Ellen telling us about her cowboy?
The voice from the second landing was a real deep James Earl Jones.
Which one? Rose said. There were so many.
Oh, Rose! Mrs. Lupino laughed. The cowboy–you know the one. The one from potato country.
The grilled salmon and the Pinot Gris and the limp dick? Rose said.
Mrs. Lupino inhaled on the cigarette. Wrinkles around her lips, all smiles at me.
Yes, Mrs. Lupino said, That’s the one!
The pain starts in my forearms, then goes up my arms, then splashes down through my heart, a cattle prod straight to my cock.
Nice cats, I said.
Cats! What cats? Mrs. Lupino said, eyebrows into Kleenex. There’s no cats.
From the deep voice on the second landing: Mrs. Lupino got rid of all her cats.
Every one of them, Mrs. Lupino said. All around her lips, wrinkles, wrinkles.
Every single cat, she said. Not one fucking iota of a single fucking cat left.
There were three cats in the hall. Mrs. Lupino was holding the yellow fuck-you drop-dead cat, and there were cats at Mrs. Lupino’s feet, cats running behind her inside her apartment.
No cats, I said.
No cats already! Mrs. Lupino said, and made a click with her tongue. Just like that, the cats in the hallway all ran back into the apartment. Mrs. Lupino closed her door.
My eyes counted up thirteen blue linoleum steps to the second floor.
This is, I said loud, The right apartment? I said pointing to 1-A.
Ellen Zigman’s apartment, I said. Right?
My mother’s nerves.
Clavelle, the deep voice said. She got married. Her name is now Ellen Clavelle.
Right, I said, Clavelle. This is her apartment? Ellen Clavelle’s apartment?
You’ve got it wrong, the deep voice said. Mrs. Lupino is in Ellen’s old apartment, 1-C. It’s hers now. The landlord, Ellen’s uncle, gave her Ellen’s apartment when Mrs. Lupino got rid of her cats. Your apartment is Mrs. Lupino’s old apartment–1-A–and it’s the door to your right.
We’re neighbors, Mrs. Lupino said through her closed door. Then: “Night, Rose, she called out, sing-songy.
Good night, Mrs. Lupino, the deep voice up the stairs said–bracelets, lots of bracelets, clack-clack–and then Rose at the top of the stairs was gone, and the dogs, and I heard the door close, and then each of the three locks were locked, just as Mrs. Lupino locked her three locks, then the chains.
In all the world, in a narrow blue hallway, there I was standing alone, squinting in the unrelenting fluorescence.
ONE-A. THE OTHER key unlocked the bottom lock. The last turn of the key on the bottom you had to push the door. The steel door opened into dark.
Cat shit. Cat piss. Cat spray. Cat hair. Cat food. Cat litter.
To the wall on the right, I reached my hand into the dark. Turned the light on.
A bright box. More fluorescent halos. Unrelenting, the light from above.
THAT’s WHEN IT happened: the worst possible thing. My wallet was not in my inside jacket pocket. Not in my side pockets, my back pockets, not in the front pockets of my Levi’s. Not in the suitcase with the travel stickers on it, not in my backpack, not in the duffel bag. No wallet.
Not in the narrow blue hallway on the floor.
Not on any of the eleven cast-iron steps of the stoop, not on the sidewalk, not in the gutter, not in the street.
Door of the Dead van pulled up. True Shot shifted into second, put on the brakes. Ruby’s ponytail, his arm out the window.
Lose something? Ruby hollered.
My wallet! I hollered back. I’ve lost my wallet!
The red-yellow hair on Ruby’s arm. Inside the van True Shot’s mirrors, his shiny silver rings. I put my head in close, my body not so close.
My wallet’s gone, I said.
That’s because I stole it, Ruby said. Ruby’s smile.
Ruby handed me my wallet.
In all the world, in New York City on East Fifth Street, standing in the rectangle of earth where I’d plant the cherry tree, I stood looking at my wallet in my hands.
You stole my wallet? I said. Why did you steal my wallet?
Dumb question, Ruby said. For the five hundred and ninety-three dollars, for the traveler’s checks, for the cashier’s check.
In my wallet: five hundred-dollar bills, the other bills, the traveler’s checks, the cashier’s check.
It is this way, True Shot said. Ruby stole your wallet because you asked him to.
But that’s the last thing, I said, I wanted!
Ruby’s eyes were looking right at me, but they were more like looking through me. No smile, his lip curled up, and his nostrils went in and out.
New York drop-dead fuck-you.
When you don’t want something as much as you didn’t want your wallet to get stole that means only one thing, Ruby said.
Your worst fears, True Shot said.
That’s what’s important about Wolf Swamp and why you’ve come here, Ruby said. You can’t want anything or not want anything that much.
Now that you’re in Wolf Swamp, True Shot said, Now that you’ve come because you were afraid to come–
You’re in a whole new ball game, Ruby said. Crossed over. You got to be careful in a whole “nother way of what you want and what you don’t want. What you fear.
Before, you were afraid of your fears happening and you spent all your time making sure they didn’t happen, True Shot said. Now that you’ve crossed over, you’re spending all your time making sure they do.
Hell of a fix, Ruby said.
Up Shit Creek, True Shot said.
In a world of hurt, Ruby said.
If you go around checking your wallet every goddamn minute like a goddamn fool, Ruby said, Then you, William of Heaven, are destined for New York Fucking City fucking roadkill.
Then: Did you lock yourself out? Ruby asked.
My hands went quick all over all my pockets, and my keys were in my right side pocket. I held my keys up and showed them to Ruby and True Shot.
I’ll bet you left your apartment door open, Ruby said. Never leave your apartment door open!
All Dodges sound the same when you start them up. Blue smoke everywhere. True Shot shifted into first.
Adios, amigo! Ruby said. Don’t let the motherfuckers get you down!
It’s the Puritan undertow, Ruby said, What we got to look out for.
The van took off, True Shot shifting into second.
Ruby was singing, True Shot was singing:
Fools rush in where wise men never go,But wise men never fall in love,So how are they to know?
When we met I felt my life begin was what I was singing this time, standing on East Fifth Street, somewhere between Second and Third–in the rectangle of dirt where I’d plant the cherry tree, my wallet in my hands, holding on to my wallet.
* * *