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A Bright Soothing Noise
By Peter Brown
University of North Texas Press Copyright © 2010 Peter Daniel Brown
All rights reserved.
A Deeper Color
I found one of the old benches and set the bag down. I took everything out: a plastic lime, an empty Sprite bottle, the Beefeater and two cans of Schweppes. I poured it all into the empty bottle and squeezed in the last of the lime before I sent the lime tumbling down the steps into the sand. I shook the drink with both hands and sat for a minute more, looking out at the big black Atlantic. I raised the bottle and toasted the boardwalk, the crime lights and the balmy air. Everything seemed familiar, as if I had stepped sideways from one life into another. I wished only for someone to talk to, anyone really, someone who might hear me if I made a little oration when I raised my reinvigorated Sprite in the burnt-yellow luminescence. I had a couple more swallows before I cursed the city. Go to goddamn hell! I shouted. I put the bottle down between my feet and threw my arms wide. If only for one lonely moment, it was great to be back.
Back in the car, I felt even better. I hit the gas and the Corolla fishtailed for fifty yards. What I needed now was speed. The ocean air had opened my lungs and the Sprite opened my soul. I could breathe! One-hundred-eighty thousand miles had turned over somewhere in Maryland and I checked the odometer — now it was 180,311. I dialed all the old stations, tempted by nostalgia, but "indie" was all I came up with. Ha! More pissed off than ever, I saluted myself and reached for another big swallow. I held the Sprite out the window and hailed the filthy bay, the black sky gone blue, the lost stars.
They were independents, all right. Until some gigolo in LA finds them and they're doing spots for Verizon. I hit the gas again and slapped all around the seat for my phone but didn't find it. One eye on the road, I rummaged in my bag, in the glove, and jammed my elbow onto my horn when, at eighty-five mph, I almost detonated a collie-mix on Cross Bay Boulevard. Enough, I decided. I wouldn't phone-flame those artsie-fartsie little twerps, not give them the satisfaction. Tuesday, four AM on WNRT in East New York and no freakin' Ramones? Who the hell do they think they are? Who do they think is listening?
How alone was I? I had crossed out of Jersey only an hour earlier and was already within striking distance of New England — of Lizzie, my ex, and my two boys. My restraining order had expired months before and I couldn't imagine Lizzie and the lawyers would renew it, seeing as they hadn't heard from me since the fall. I sped up again in celebration and in her honor sang all the verses of "Rockaway Beach" and "The KKK Took My Baby Away." Orient Point, where I was headed, was the place I gave up rock-and-roll guitar for good, fifteen years before, after I mistook Joey DiGennaro's fridge in a bourbon- inspired blindness and pissed into the salad crisper. The Point was also the terminal for the New London ferry. I needed the nine AM, so I pushed the Corolla and even hit ninety-five until the road got bumpy and the old floozy with so many miles on her began to wobble.
A half hour later the sun was up and I joined all the New York plates speeding east. I made time on the Sunrise Highway but weather was against me and everything overhead turned black again; the only colors on the horizon were the red and electric green of stop lights in a long perspective. A snarl of traffic stopped me a mile after Nageltown and I closed my eyes, suddenly winded by the lack of motion. It was the worst, this paralysis in the humidity, this long moment of traffic death. With my fist on the wheel, I leaned on the armrest and the window. I rubbed my eyes. I wanted, for the first time in days, to sleep.
At last I got through Riverton. I rode like lightning up the ramp onto the LIE and over a hump and accelerated almost to a hundred on a sweet little downgrade. I had another swallow and decided it wasn't so much the road as the Beefeater and Sprite that kept me alive and moving as long as the traffic was alive and moving and if I took just one swallow at a time. I had half the liter left and made several dozen more miles, checking my rearview for cops, pushing the time, watching the sky blossom like a black and yellow flower overhead.
I had been thinking about the boys, about Lizzie with her salt-and-pepper pigtails, her little smart-ass smile, her face freckled by the hot New England summer. I missed the way she screeched when I licked her or put my tongue in her ear. She howled for joy, too, in those days long ago, and I loved the blue mascara and the way she used to jump when she danced in her stripy tights and that little red-leather miniskirt with the rip in it.
So I had another long gulp and the poisonous little sack behind my eyes began to secrete. I punched the wheel softly. I knew the treachery of sentiment too well, but I couldn't wait to find out what Tommy had made of the network he built in the basement from the electronics he scavenged from Lizzie's job — and Lucien, oh, Luciano, my sweet little eleven-year-old transvestite with the eyeliner and the ribbons in his long rose-colored hair. Had he grown out of it yet?
I hadn't done too well by them, but what I wanted now with all the mercury in my veins was to get home. Lizzie told me never to come back — true — and after I called Tommy from a truck stop in Virginia to tell him I was all right, the day after I left, she had the land line disconnected. But all this wasn't entirely my fault. Her third abortion and her inability to even discuss it was what destroyed everything. The boys in school one October morning, we sat at Arzivian's in Watertown, a sick day for her, and smoked at the back table. If there were no Puritans around Arzivian let the Armenians smoke inside and by then I was an honorary Armenian, by marriage, I guessed. Or by divorce. Lizzie put her Winston down on a plate. We watched the smoke uncoil like barbed wire through the window.
"Only the first was thanks to me," I said.
"And this one. You were fine with the first."
"That was before Tommy and Lucien. I had no clue what it meant."
"I should never have told you about the second," she said. "It was none of your business."
"How none of my business? What business is there of yours that's none of mine? We were married fifteen years."
"Divorced for two," she said.
"Oh, stop that," I said.
"You need to get a decent job," she said. She hissed it.
"Define decent," I said, hissing back. "Why don't I take a job, you know, working for GE building nuclear power plants, huh? Or better, nuclear bombs. We could live in Weston. I went to a pretty good school, you know, for a while. Maybe I could become a lawyer, a corporate baby killer, hey!"
"Don't be an ass," she said. "You need to pay bills. You couldn't get in law school if your mother was the Virgin Mary."
"I pay bills."
"Not nearly enough. And you drink too much. You scare me."
"Did I ever hurt you?"
"You hurt Tommy."
"More than you know," she said, but I let it pass.
"I'm against abortion," I said. "Do I have any say? If I do, I think it's murder. I've always always always been against it. My sister had an abortion and now she's a drug addict."
"She was a drug addict before she had the abortion. That's why she had the abortion."
"You have no say," she said, then began to think it over. She lifted the cigarette. She said, "I was drunk." She shook her head. She continued. "Bourbon is always a mistake. You put on Tom Waits and I fell for you all over again one stupid goddamn last time and you took advantage."
"I'm Italian!" I said, but she didn't see the humor. The emptiness that followed was filled with gravity. "I'm Catholic, too, you may recall."
"More than you ever understood," she said.
"So are you," I said.
"Not now, not anymore." She put the cigarette down.
"What the hell does that mean?" I said, but we'd been over it enough times.
"I don't want you to do it," I said. "First I want the ultrasound."
"What if it's a girl?" I said. "Little toes. Little pink sneakers, ha? Sad, pretty little eyes, like yours. Freckles."
There was a long silence, than I said, "I'll have to leave."
Lizzie surprised me then. She looked at me, not so much with sympathy as an effort to comprehend. The derision was momentarily gone. She tapped her ash onto the plate and I pushed an ashtray towards her but she ignored it. She had long ago given up on me and because nothing was left for me to do, the old frustrations ballooned up in me like the flames of the old furnace we could hear roaring, in January, in the tenement in Queens where we first lived together. And it was the same heat, the same oxygen sucked from Arzivian's backroom, the same helplessness. I wanted to go, to get out, to leave by any means, to flip the table and slam the back door, to curse old Arzivian and his meatball sons on the way but I stayed too long, just as I had in Queens. I sat until I felt my throat inflate around my ears and I watched her eyes, behind them, really, the black curtain descending as she stared at me, the shadow only I recognized and which gave the mystery and sorrow to every gesture she made. I put my cigarette down. I put my hands on the table. I was helpless. The one girl I had loved in all my life, since I first saw her in the first grade at San Anselmo's, wanted to butcher my baby daughter.
"I'll have to leave," I said again. "I have to go."
Then she made the mistake.
"If you go," she said, "now, of all times, don't come back. Ever. Don't you ever come back."
She didn't have to say that. I didn't have to shove my chair aside and stand up either or pick up the fork. She didn't have to scream. I only meant to point at her, to accuse her. Her hands were flat on the table, as if to hold it down. She stared up at me, at the monstrosity in its cage, with big eyes. By the time I put the fork back down, Arzivian had dialed 911.
* * *
It seemed I'd already been away forever. In March, I turned thirty-three, la edad de Jesús, as one of the Mexicans in Louisiana pointed out. Angel pronounced his name On-Hell and said "thus," though it sounded more like "deuce" — and thus, he said, I was now at the age of complete responsibility. You would have thought Angel was an illiterate campesino to look at him, with his mud-colored eyes and his crumpled fedora sprouting blades of filthy straw, his stooped loopy-legged ambling back and forth between the Bobcat, the smoldering heap, and the trucks. He was no taller and no heftier than my tender little Lucien when I left Watertown. But one day, during a break in the shade of a dumpster, I caught Angel smoking a big lumpy reefer and reading the Bible in French: he had also learned Latin from the Jesuits.
"The age of Jesus," he reminded me every day for the first week after my birthday bender. He put his eyes down and his index finger up. "When you owe a perfect debt to your perfect truth," he said slowly, seriously, pronouncing one word at a time, as if he'd been rehearsing all week. "And die for eet — hang on the cross if you need so but kneel to no one, only God. You are no more junior."
My thanks to him was to drive off at the end of August with his forty-weight crowbar in my trunk. To say good-bye, we partied one night under a big live oak next to a trash-filled bayou. Angel had a few shots with me and we both forgot he put the bar in back. It was hard to imagine the wiry old honchito without it, the way he worked that crowbar like a spear. Within twenty minutes by himself and with nothing more than that forty pounds of iron and a clawhammer, I saw him more than once slice and crumple a twenty-foot wall of siding, waterlogged plasterboard and metal studs into a carpet roll we then balanced on the Bobcat and lifted onto one of Mr. Segal's trucks. He was like a man at war when he went to work and the steel in his little arms and the iron in that tool had the same dark patina I had learned to see in everything, the Louisiana sunset, the traffic going east and west on a rainy day, the deep shadows behind Lizzie's eyes and my own inner hell hole when I lifted that fork at Arzivian's.
"Angel," I said and passed him the tequila. "Why you work so hard?"
He took a gulp and looked over at the opposite bank, his eyes following the question like some animal he saw slinking from tree to tree.
"I don't tell you," he said. "Es complicated."
"You got family?" I said.
He smiled at me then maybe for the first time ever and I noticed how big his ears got, how they opened like papery wings when he looked straight at you. What was left of his teeth appeared pointy and when he smiled an upper one touched the lower and his jaw muscles flexed. Then he put his lips together and I thought he'd whistle, but his eyes went moist. His face was as sharp and hideous as a vampire bat when he smiled with those eyes, those sharp teeth, those big papery wings. No wonder he never smiled.
"Maybe someday," he nodded. "I have a wife."
I drove off ten minutes later and left him snoring against the foot of the tree, his boots straight out in front of him, his mighty demo-weapon in my trunk. I coughed at his memory and peered out over the cold Long Island morning spreading in front of me like a sunlit swamp. I was glad I'd never have to hear it from him again and took a big three-swallow gulp of my Sprite in his honor.
But my mood soured. So I took another swallow. I hit the gas. I hit the brakes. I swerved all over hell for the hell of it. I checked around for cops and accelerated again. The sun burned higher above the horizon and the sky behind me was backlit filth. To hell with New York City & State, I told myself, two polluted little rat holes, one tunneled deep inside the other. I was thankful I ditched them long ago. Ten miles on, 6:30 AM already, my one hope came with a sword of sunlight angled down from the east until the cloud moved in and swallowed the sword, its big belly hemorrhaging out over the horizon.
Oh, rain! I rolled the window down and shouted at the humid wind whipping my face. I hated rain as much as I hated New Orleans, that brackish stench-and- mess, that grimy Southern smirk. I hated everybody. I hated my ex. I hated that old overeducated farmhand for his stooped piety and his ability to work on and on from before daylight way into dark, for that polished teak finger he always raised, pointing at the heavens when he lectured me. I hated the storm-glutted sky titled overhead and breaking apart like a block wall about to collapse. I even hated hating so much and the one thing that helped was to have another big drink.
I had made a killing with Angel as my partner though and lived out of my car after that for three months in Jacksonville and Orlando. I drove keys of Panamanian from the Keys to Atlanta. I worked the construction sites, worked my tan, searched the beaches for those notorious little Florida high school girls. I'd saved an increasing bag of money, too, nearly $6,000 and still had almost twenty-five-hundred of it, even after an unlucky stopover in Atlantic City. I meant to get Lizzie the diamond I owed her for seventeen years but couldn't get the one I wanted anymore. I wanted to bring the best diamond ever and was planning instead on a pair of minibikes for the boys, though I wanted them gift-wrapped, tied in a wide gold ribbon, and sent ahead.
But that would be a whole day's work, to find out who sells minibikes near Watertown, Massachusetts, and pay for them and deliver them on time and the whole shit when what I really wanted was to get home to my boys — and my Lizzie. So I focused. I kept my metaphysical Joker in hand as I waved through traffic and toasted every pinhead I passed, but first and again I toasted my pretty little silver-eyed Armenian-American bride with the shadowy gaze, whether she would let me in the door or not, and my swarthy little wire-haired teenage networking wizard and his sweet little sister-brother in pink high tops.
* * *
I rolled up the window and lit my last joint. I checked all around again. Lightning sizzled somewhere north, over the Sound. I drove in a cloud of smoke for a good ways then rolled the window down and released the final shred of Zig Zag and ashes to the wind. Something was about to give. I could smell it, like ozone. A trooper flashed his blue-and-white on the westbound and I braked for a nanosecond. I crossed out of the fast lane but kept apace, accelerating with the erratic, too-fast traffic as my team and I — a racing-red Ranchero, a U- Haul with Iowa plates and another Toyota — made our way over a hilly patch and came onto a rise where I caught my first sighting of the baby-blue Mercedes off in the breakdown lane, no flashers on and a passenger door thrown wide. I hesitated at full velocity, as I had so often in my life and this time what stopped me — what forced me to stop — was an overhead light on inside the Mercedes. I can't say how I noticed such a thing or how it counted. Maybe the dampness in the air and the darkness of the impending thunderstorm everywhere else gave the tiny glow a new measure. It was no surprise my eastbound cohort objected and the full din of Satan's horn section filled the air as I swerved and braked, the gravel flying when I hit the shoulder.
Excerpted from A Bright Soothing Noise by Peter Brown. Copyright © 2010 Peter Daniel Brown. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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