It started like a whisper… the gentle hum of a fall breeze whistling through the drying leaves of September’s trees, gracefully spaced on concrete lawns. We overheard words dropped subtly, like cigarette butts and taxi receipts ground forgotten into the asphalt, snippets of clandestine conversation intercepted while standing in a deli line or crowded onto the morning L train. A whispered word to a close friend or colleague would fall strangely out of the corner of a skewed mouth, out of context and Day-Glo against an otherwise monochromatic montage, and an open, idle ear would pick it up like a torn scrap of newsprint and walk away curious.
I wondered if people in the neighborhood were doing more drugs than usual, because at first, the underlying buzz of the streets took on a feeling of energetic excitement. People seemed more on their toes, a little more likely to step back when jumped at. The distant attitude I had come to expect seemed to slacken, replaced by an alacrity hidden by raised coat collars. I thought everyone was suddenly looking to score. Or perhaps the slight drop in the temperature had brought about a reverse vernal effect, and the darting eyes of the street belied an eagerness to go home with somebody new.
Even Veracruz, on Bedford, was changing. I never went there. I wasn’t cool or tattooed enough for the mobbing slew of hipsters lining up to slurp frozen ‘ritas at happy hour, peeking out the open French doors with glances of undeserved superiority. But now, as I walked by, the eyes spooled out to me, trying to reel me in to tell them something. All the cool cats, dying of curiosity.
There were more sirens than usual, whining in the distance at all hours, singing their sad song, bouncing their incandescent tone off the buildings and down resonant sidewalks, blaring by with twisting light, splattering our wonder- struck faces with crimson and cerulean aptitude. Something strange and mildly sinister was afoot, but there was no answer forthcoming, so we tried to tune out or turn down the din and incorporate it into our lives as background music, like an Indian summer in suburbia peppered with the drone of chittering cicadas and staccato sprinklers oscillating over expansive green lawns.
The papers gave us no clue. We checked the metro section and found nothing out of the ordinary, and the obits were no help either. But we knew. Somehow we all knew. Something was happening. Our world was changing around us, and it was bigger than the influx of yuppies and trustifarians, bigger than the impending grand opening of the mini-mall down on 5th in the old Real Form Girdle Factory, bigger than Plan Eat Thai moving to a larger space, bigger than the shadow of the Empire State Building which never quite seemed to reach us. There was a darker shadow falling over us, a shadow not of New York, not of King Kong’s body falling, riddled with bullets, not of Boss Tweed’s fleeting shape running down the tarmac to catch a flight to Spain… a shadow of uncertainty. We could feel it in our bones and in our boots, in our carrot juice and our bagels, in our 3:55 final shot and our four-in-the- morning slice, in the Village Voice ink sticking to our fingers, in our American Spirits. Our eyes chased each other away, our ears begged to be bent.
This is the way we learn in the city, through innuendo and rumor, a pieced-together patchwork of seemingly useless information. Soon it seemed that anecdotes were traded by sheer osmosis. Sitting next to someone at a bar or coffee shop became a nonverbal education, as if we had learned to smell each other’s thoughts, and each unfinished story became urban legend—and urban law—overnight.
An ambulance arrives at a residence, and a hysterical woman is seen on the street writhing, shrieking. Passersby see the gurney, the shrouded figure… but no one, not even the next-door neighbors, knows how or why. We wonder aloud, our voices carried in the wind and sucked off the street by hungry ears blocks away… “He was only thirty, maybe younger.” “The girl went back home, out West somewhere.” Nothing more… just dangling empty morsels, as tantalizing and tasty as petit fours.
Still, strangers were never pumped for information. The buzz rose to a deafening yet somehow muted collision of opinions. At Veracruz, the big French doors were shut, the blame placed on the stultifying September humidity, and through the glass, bathed in air conditioning, one could see small huddles of hipster heads pressed together in rapid-fire consultation, like the planning of a revolution. The L Café and the Deli Mart and Anna Maria’s, the cornerstone businesses of our wampeter street corner, became hushed rush zones, express libraries; get in and get out. The neighborhood had the aroma of a conspiracy—the chthonic stench of competing conspiracies.
We dismissed the perpetual whine in the night as mere white noise of the New York soundscape, but the scream of the siren was a signifier of something more grave, like a pachuco teardrop tattoo. Half-swallowed anecdotes and rumors became fact, stepping the transubstantiating boundary between the ephemeral, ghostly vapor and the realm of the solid, the undeniable. Some people witnessed. Others attended funerals of friends or accomplices. Others heard, and believed. Sirens led to quick steps and bent heads. Quick looks on the street evolved into hardened stares. People quickened their pace, moving as fast as their counterparts on the island to the west, and went about their daily business with deadly precision. The scene at Veracruz, the litmus test of the neighborhood, morphed again, becoming a quiet, terse huddle of slackers staring downwards into their two- dollar margaritas and stubbornly refusing to speak except in monosyllabic heaves, like a diaphragmatic bellows blast, the squawk of an organist hitting a sour note.
Olive and I, no different than any other couple in the ‘hood living in sin, bent towards each other over the kitchen table night after night as the light faded, the sun setting earlier and earlier. We spoke in hushed tones of what no one would say in public.
“Supposedly she took pills.”
“I hear he stabbed himself, somehow. A kitchen knife or something.” “Gas. The oven, I think.”
“A light socket? I don’t buy it. There’s not enough juice in these old buildings to kill.”
“It sounded crazy, but you should have seen the look on her face.” It wasn’t anyone we knew. Not yet, anyway.
BREAKING & ENTERING
It was Chico who had the idea to start making house calls. I call him Chico because, to be honest, I’ve forgotten his real name. These days it’s hard enough to remember important information, like where the nearest safe house is if you can’t make it home, or what delis and bodegas still have unspoiled food for the looting.
Chico is the Mexican kid who used to work at Anna Maria’s Pizzeria at Bedford and North 7th, dealing out slices to the young hipsters of Williamsburg. He’s young, a kid, really, with Mayan features and a sparse, ambitious mustache, and when I ran into him in front of the laundromat, looking beat-up and emotionally destitute, I recruited him immediately.
The owner had put his head in the pizza oven and cranked up the gas. No one knows if he was dead or alive when the sealed pizzeria finally blew. All we know for sure is that Chico went by well after closing, maybe four-thirty or five in the morning, with a strange premonition. He peered in the window and saw the hunched-up body kneeling on a stool in front of the high oven, head out of sight. The door was locked, so Chico picked up a garbage can and hurled it through the window. There must have been a pilot light somewhere, because air rushed in and the place blew, the concussion blast throwing Chico into the street. Fortunately the place didn’t burn, tiled top to bottom like an airport bath- room, but merely smoked half the night like a kiln.
Although he suffered only a few scrapes from flying debris, Chico was one fucked-up pup when I found him on the street. Now he’s my right-hand man in my crew, which we laughingly refer to as Los Hombres Hermosos sin Miseri- cordia, or Los Hombres for short.
We’re sitting in the fishing chairs bolted to the front of the pier at the end of 7th, dangling our feet and drinking warm Fosters oil cans. Chico says to me, “Main, all we do is pick up dead bodies on the street.”
“What the hell else are we supposed to do?” “What about the pinche apartments?”
He was right. All we’ve done is pick up the remains of public suicides. By now, it’s only obvious to assume there are empty apartments all over this city hiding remains.
Chico and I did our first B&E job, at night, just the two of us. Some of the guys we run with are even more sketched-out than we are, and we didn’t want to give them any delirious ideas. We started on the Lower East Side, tooling for dead- looking apartment buildings and watching for unbarred windows.
“What do you think?”
“Shit, I don’t know,” Chico said, shrugging. “I bet they’re all full of remains.”
We only say people to refer to the living. Suicides are called suicides, or corpses, or remains. After the Bug, they lose their right to be people.
We picked a place on Suffolk, just above Delancey: an old immigrant-era tenement, typical of those on the block, with an unbarred window to the left of the front door. We tried the buzzer and rapped on the window. Nothing. I shattered the glass with my wrench.
I had instituted the standardized equipment of my electrician days—crescent wrench, knife, mini-Maglite—the tools of the trade. As an electrician, it was common to have your C-wrench attached to you by a length of trick line, or better yet, a fusilli phone cord, so that if you dropped it while you were up on a ladder, you wouldn’t kill anyone. In the bar mitzvah world, even dropping a C-wrench onto a decorated table from twenty feet up in a Genie Lift would be devastating. The wrench-and-phone-cord combo was also an excel- lent instrument for gaining access to bodegas and domiciles: throw the wrench through the window and jerk the phone cord back with a deft flick of the wrist. Small windows are best; perishable food goods should be kept from the elements at all costs. Nothing comes into this city anymore.
“Give me a boost, yo.” Chico pushed on my Doc Martens and I pulled myself up to the window ledge and stepped in, banging my head on top of the window. It was black as my lungs inside and I took out my Maglite, stumbling around until I found a light switch.
The lights came on, of course. All the amenities here still work; you could run up a thousand-dollar phone bill and your line would never get disconnected. The lights are on, just nobody’s home.
I wound my way through the apartment, and out the front door into the hall to let Chico in, and we combed the place. It was empty. The beds hadn’t been slept in recently and the fridge was a science experiment. But we didn’t find any bodies.
“Chico.” “What.” “Smell.” His nostrils flared and he looked back at me. “I don’t smell nothin’.”
“Exactly. It’s not here.” I meant death. Not the smell of decay, not the burning stench of rotting flesh, not the foul fecund odor of breeding maggots, not the gamey, rancid scent of rats on the make—but death itself. That sharp, dry scent of maudlin regret. The perfume of the grim reaper. It simply wasn’t there.
We had found our first safe house. “Check the closets.”
Clothes were missing, drawers were empty, hangers hanging lonely and naked, skeleton wires with no skin on. We couldn’t find any suitcases—not even a duffel bag.
“Se fueron.” I agreed. “They got out.”
“Hey… look at this.” Chico had found a bottle of tequila and we dug out some glasses and knocked back a few. I passed out. In the morning, half asleep, I dreamed the idle dreams of the nine-year-old girl whose room it had been… flowers and snapshots and teddy bears, Spice Girls and ’N Sync, visions of cute boys and sweet little sundresses, a fascination with the young, cool drunks who inundated my neighborhood on weekends, school field trips to the zoo, heated arguments with my mom, late-night slumber parties with girlfriends gig- gling, an innocent vision shattered by flailing bodies hurling themselves off the roof.
Chico later confessed that it was nice to sleep in the midst of someone else’s loneliness, a loneliness incomplete in that the residents didn’t stick around long enough to see how bad it had gotten. At your house, you know what you’re miss- ing, how wrong the quiet is. In a safe house… it’s just some- one else’s memories, snapshots of better times, couches still creased with the imprint of happy asses.
“All right, I’m going in,” Jack said. He gave me a nod and I threw the door open. We were investigating a squatty building off of Bushwick that was rumored to be a mess. Other crews had backed away from it. We were on the top floor— you always work your way down—and this was the first apartment we’d tried.
The door blew back open and Jack jumped back into the hallway. I slammed the door behind him.
“Rats! Holy shit, I’ve never seen so many rats,” he said, his bloodshot eyes rolling. Phil rapidly took notes.
“All right, let’s fucking bomb it.” I made the gesture for bombs to one of the huge Poles, who was carrying most of our auxiliary effects, shaking my hand like I was holding a spray can and making a psssst sound. The Pole handed me a four- pack of bug bombs, the kind you use to clear a house of fleas or cockroaches. They don’t kill the rats, but the rats hate them and will generally leave the room when they smell the foul gas. But when the gas clears, the rats come back, so we have to evacuate bodies double time.
Luz tied her handkerchief around her face, and her voice came out soft and muffled. “How many years are we taking off our lives with this stuff?”
“I don’t know, babe,” I answered. “How many have you got?” I smiled and put my handkerchief on like an Old West cowboy in a dust storm.
Chico, Luz and I shook bombs and Jack pulled the door open and we hit the buttons on the bombs and threw them in. Jack slammed the door and counted to twenty to give the rats a chance to get out. We all started yelling as Jack opened the door again and the eight of us darted into the apartment with our eyes stinging. Rats swarmed about our feet, dizzy and disoriented and confused, scrambling for cover. I stepped on one and almost fell. I caught myself and heard the Cute Girl from Group D squealing and Chico muttering.
“Don’t even look! Fucking fan out, people! Let’s get out of here!”
The two Poles disappeared into a bedroom, reappeared through the haze carrying a corpse between them, and started for the door.
“Window! Window!” I shouted, and picked up a TV remote from a side table and threw it at the window to get their attention. You don’t have time in a bomb-out to mess with stairs. The Poles broke the window out with a boot and a gloved fist and tossed the body. They headed back into the same room and I knew there were more.
Phil and the Cute Girl from Group D followed them in. There was another doorway, and Luz and Chico came out pulling a bloated corpse. There was another on the front couch, and Jack and I hoisted it up and out the window. As we were about to dump it over, a rat fell from the curtains and Jack jumped a foot.
Luz buzzed past me, stepping over rats. “That room’s clean.”
“The back,” I said, pointing in the direction of the Poles. We saw the Poles coming out with another, and behind them Phil and the Cute Girl from Group D, each cradling a small, crumpled shape. They had found the remains of two dead children, no older than eight or nine. Tears streamed down the Cute Girl’s face, and I didn’t think it was just because of the gas.
I jumped forward and took the body from her hands and barked at Chico, “Get her out of here!” and tossed the body unceremoniously out the window, watching it fall four floors to the grassy front yard. Phil followed suit and gave me the sign for clean, like a salute that missed.
“Go! Go! Go!” I screamed, and we all piled out of the apartment stumbling on the running rats, and Jack slammed the door. A rat squirmed under and Chico took aim and shot it dead.
We ran downstairs and fell outside, collapsing on the front stoop and panting for breath and tearing at our masks and scratching at our eyes, tearing involuntarily. Phil passed out water and we tried to recover. As soon as I could breathe I reached for my cell phone.
“Neil? It’s me. Listen, we gotta get some more guys over here. Yeah. I’m at Bushwick and Devoe. It’s fucking bad. If anyone calls in, get them over here.
And tell Bernie to send someone over with more bombs. Yeah, it’s that bad. Right on.”
I hung up and shut my eyes, tight, watching the blood flow through my lids and trying to make the headache go away. I opened them when I heard someone screaming.
The Cute Girl from Group D had her knife in her hand and was plunging it into her breast. Luz was wrapped around her, a tangled mess of extremities, trying to wrest the knife out of her hand.
“Get away from her!” I barked. “It’s too late!”
The Cute Girl managed a swipe at Luz and cut her a good one across the forearm. Jack and I were hopping but Chico was closer, and he grabbed Luz and pulled her away, yelling obscenities and thrashing her head from side to side, as the Cute Girl from Group D shoved the knife in and out of her chest until her torso was a bloody confetti of shredded sternum and tissue. She lay flat on her back in the matted grass with the knife protruding, her hands out to either side, hands open and begging for forgiveness.
“Damn it, damn it, damn it, goddamn it!” Luz spat, as Chico tried getting her to sit down on the stoop so he could look at her bleeding wound. One of the Poles took a blanket out of a rucksack and laid it across the girl’s cute, dead face so we wouldn’t have to look at it. Phil scribbled in his notepad. Jack walked away and picked up a rock and threw it at the building across the street, murmuring, “God damn I wanted to fuck her.” I prayed Luz hadn’t heard him or I’d have two corpses on my hands. I reached for the cell phone and called Bernie.
“It’s me. Yeah, Bernie, I’m sure you’re busy. You need to get someone over here, right now. Bushwick and Devoe. I don’t care. Leave them there. I don’t fucking care, Bernie, I got a man down and I want her remains removed.” I hung up, sat down on the curb and ran my hands across my stubbly head.
I’ve seen better days. I have to have seen better days, somewhere in the back of this tangled mind I have to believe that, or how can I ever begin to wish for better days again? Is there no limit to the level of tragedy that I can be called upon to endure? It’s as if tragedy begets tragedy, multiply- ing in a steady onslaught of one ridiculous, needless waste after another, heaped one atop another until the resulting Tower of Babel threatens to blot out the sun itself… and the blight on the heart grows, eating its way from the outside in, turning the entire fruit to a useless, mushy paste that festers and molds and shrinks down to nothing, folding in upon itself like a fanatical physics project proving the infallibility of gravity and the irresistible nature of entropy. We’ve finally passed the point of no return, the marker in the road that spells our misfortune in every language known to man. Before this point, every tragedy hardens you for the next; after this point, every tragedy makes you that much more susceptible. Your callous demeanor is not a lie that you are beginning to believe; it is a truth that you are beginning to doubt. The cancer fermenting in your soul is the painful opposite of the numb remedy you witness on a daily basis. As it eats you, it will not do you the courtesy of bringing you closer to death. It is performing the radical disservice of bringing you closer and closer to life—unending pain, unrelenting sorrow, limitless frustration, infinite sadness, capacious fear, and rabid, animal hatred for everything that threatens this pain itself—life. If living in New York, before the epidemic, was an exercise in being kicked in the ribs on a daily basis, then life after the Bug is an examination of the endurance of having your heart and soul trampled by a leviathan beast every unending day after the next. Sisyphus pushing the stone only to have it roll back down. Prometheus having his liver torn out and devoured only to have it grow back again. All these terrors, and more, will be practiced and perfected before the sun sets, and when it rises again, in its fruitless fury, you will gaze at the azure sky and welcome their return like an unkindness of ravens descending upon a glimmering field of fresh eyeballs grateful to be plucked from their sockets.
I must have seen better days.
LIT HONORS EX:
I shut my eyes, watching the blood flow through my lids and trying to make the headache go away. I opened them when I heard someone screaming.
The Cute Girl from Group D had her knife in her hand and was plunging it into her breast.
The Cute Girl managed a swipe at Luz and cut her a good one across the forearm. Jack grabbed Luz and pulled her away, yelling obscenities, as the Cute Girl from Group D shoved the knife in and out of her chest until her torso was a bloody confetti of shredded sternum and tissue.