(Excerpt from the novel Heeling the Demon, Copyright 2004, by) William Leigh Baumgartner
A denial never catches up with a rumor.
—John Brunner, The Sheep Look Up
It was just after five in the afternoon. Late August, tail end of the twentieth century. Brook Avenue station, South Bronx.
Jimmy stepped off the train. He moved along with swaggering B-Boys, struggling welfare mothers, deadbeat dads, and sixteen-year-old girls eager to start families of their own. The station resounded in tones deep and bright, porous and brittle — a meld of laughing weeping shouting voices with the screech of wheels against track, reverberating tile and ceiling vault. The human/mechanical music.
Jimmy’s pocket was heavy with change and dollars. He’d sung exceptionally well, tearing into versions of “Love Reign O’er Me” by the Who, U2’s “Pride in the Name of Love”, and for a break from all the drama and passion, “How Can I Miss You if You Won’t Go Away” by Dan Hicks. And the people on the trains had responded with plenty of money.
Someone told him earlier about a killer new spot on 139th, nickels packed with crack that would give you a ringer. He hurried toward the turnstile and got jostled.
Someone has to do something.
A man stared. “I didn’t say anything to you.”
Jimmy stared back. He shook his head. “Sorry.”
It was that voice up there, forever delivering cryptic messages. Jimmy had no idea what this “something” was that someone must do, or even if the “someone” was himself. But he felt alert to the possibilities.
Near the turnstile stood a woman, Puerto Rican or Dominican, demonstrating no apparent age: probably no younger than twenty-five nor older than forty-five, but who could tell. She had a baby stroller. No one was standing near her.
“Need some help?”
She didn’t look grateful for the offer.
“I could help you. To get the stroller upstairs.”
Jimmy leaned off and coughed into his hand. Suddenly he didn’t want to look at her. The woman gripped the stroller handles and bored her eyes into Jimmy, her gaze both focused and vibratory.
“I’m just offering,” Jimmy said with an absurd air of apology. “I’m not looking for… money… or anything—”
Something shifted in the air. Her face twisted into a grotesque.
“You’re fucking with the wrong bitch.” The words came out shocking, caustic, like a blast of pepper spray.
“Don’t you touch my baby.”
Jimmy passed through startled, wounded, into offended. “Lady. I just offered you some help.”
New Yorkers have radar for a good fight. They were already moving toward Jimmy and the woman, drawn by the scent of possible blood and maybe if they were lucky, even some guts. People or pit bulls, didn’t matter. Give them something hard to watch and they’d cheer. This situation hadn’t yet reached that level — but it could. There was potential.
A white man stepped forward. He looked out of place, more so than Jimmy because he didn’t look like a drug buyer, and anyway Jimmy had been living here for long enough that he wasn’t so white anymore. Enough time in the South Bronx and you acquired a local patina. This guy looked like a high-school principal or something. He had thick white hair (white on white). He was burly and wore a practical blue suit. He reminded Jimmy of Norman Mailer.
“What’s going on?”
The man spoke with the voice of someone ready to do something.
The woman with the baby spun toward the man and opened her mouth, and Jimmy saw the madness. Nervous, directionless electricity leapt through the planes of her face and down the tendons of her neck, her long thin arms. Rage seeped from her pores like the sebaceous oil from the skin of a peeled orange. If there were a perfect moment to walk away, it would have been now.
Jimmy stood where he was.
“He—” she waved a rangy arm at Jimmy— “he came up and blocked my way!”
She was shrieking like some prehistoric bird. Or like a mythical creature, part bird part… what? An eerie movie memory from childhood, the harpies in “Jason and the Argonauts”. Maybe Jimmy had offended some gods with which he was unfamiliar?
“He said,” she continued, “he said, ‘I’m going to take the baby upstairs, and you’re going to give me money!’”
“Now hold on—”
She wheeled back on Jimmy, lank black hair whipping across her face. “You bastard, you sick bastard!”
She sprayed spit with the words.
Jimmy reeled, to the white-haired man and the group now gathered behind him. Certainly there’d be someone to whose better judgment he could appeal. But he saw no face that looked sympathetic or even open-minded. He spoke anyway.
“I only offered to help! I said, ‘I’m not looking for money!’ Damn!”
If only he could speak calmly. He stared at the group and their now unofficial leader, Norman “I’ll-Handle-This” Mailer. Several women seemed to be gazing dreamily at him — and why not, he was a famous author. And as he was paying no heed to Jimmy’s pleas for understanding, neither was anyone else. The man maintained a mask of neutrality, but Jimmy knew in his heart that he’d already been convicted. The blue suit turned to black robes, the white hair extended and tightly curled. Judge Norman. He turned away, said something to the crazy lady with an avuncular pat on the shoulder. Then he turned back to face Jimmy.
“You’d better get out of here. Now.”
Jimmy’s outraged ego was not allowing him to take this sound advice. Someone here was going to have to recant. He wasn’t moving till they did.
The harpy lunged up from behind and screamed at Jimmy, over Norman’s shoulder.
“You’re fucking with the wrong bitch!”
Jimmy made a spontaneous decision to say the wrong thing.
“You got the ‘bitch’ part right, crazy lady.”
She flew around Judge Norman, coming for Jimmy. He stepped away from her skinny arms and tiny fists, deflecting a few of the inconsequential blows. He turned toward the stairs — okay, enough already — and felt someone shove him from behind. It wasn’t the madwoman; the push had too much weight behind it, the hands were too large. He turned and saw the blue-suited man.
Now this made no sense at all.
He was already leaving!
Jimmy stared incredulous at the man, who for some reason now really looked like Norman Mailer. He remembered Gore Vidal saying how Mailer came up to him at a party and attacked him. He flashed on the time Dick Cavett had him on his show and asked if he’d like an extra chair for his ego. Somehow remembering these things made him feel better.
“Fuck off, steelnose.”
The man gaped. “Steelnose?”
Jimmy laughed. “Bizarre epithets, for bizarre situations. Know what I mean, Norm?”
It’s better if you can name the person who has wronged you.
Jimmy laughed again, turning, climbing
up and out. He could hear, echoing around the station off concrete and tile
walls and steel beams, the remnants of his own laughter mixed with the resumed
shrieking of the harpy. That was all it sounded like anymore, no words, just
a shrill invective sound.
On the street he tried to laugh yet again, but the sublime moment of not-caring had passed. It came out sounding like a bad actor’s version of laughter and he felt observed and ridiculous. If only he could convince himself that he hadn’t somehow deserved what had just happened.
What had just happened.
He reached into his pocket and swished around the money he’d made on the trains. He went into the fried chicken place on the corner.
“Hey. Need change?”
“Maybe twenty dollars.”
Jimmy counted out the quarters and got his folding money. He had the bills halfway into his pocket when a wave of nausea overwhelmed him. The smell of boiling grease and meat combined with pine floor cleaner, the heat and closeness of the afternoon, and something else. Something awful. He lunged outside and stared at the sidewalk as the salivary rushes came up from under his tongue. He was going to vomit, when something made him look up.
She was not five feet away, on the payphone. She yelled into the receiver, her free arm slicing the air in wild gesticulations, unseen by whomever was on the other end. Or maybe there was no one. She might be that far down-the-road crazy that she would pretend to have a conversation on a public phone.
A cry came from the stroller. For the first time Jimmy thought of the baby itself. It waahed for a few moments, then stopped. He heard a resignation. Ah, what’s the use, said the infant in ceasing to cry. Jimmy’s stomach sickness was gone, replaced by a dizzying pity for this child.
He looked at the harpy lady and she looked up from the phone, a dull deadly recognition in her eye. Expecting another stream of bile, Jimmy braced, but she spewed not a syllable, not one flying bead of spit at him. She didn’t need to. Her rust-colored eyes spoke for her.
–Now you’re really going to get it.
She turned back to the receiver with a strange smile and Jimmy began to wonder exactly who might be on the other end, if indeed there was someone. But his head was getting crowded. He needed a hit. There was only room in his mental pathways for one more thought, that maybe he should go in a different direction, away from her.
So he started away up 138th toward Orange Top thinking, okay I’ll try the new spot on 139th some other time, and maybe, maybe Rita will be alone again and we… but then he rebelled against better judgment, fuck that, gonna let some crazy bitch control my movements? Wanna try the new spot, fuck her…
The harpy stood in front of PIZZADONUT. He looked at her and kept going. Fuck you, crazy lady. I don’t care.
He didn’t see her walk away but she disappeared. That was strange, but good. He started off along St. Ann’s toward 139th Street. He smiled at the sidewalk because he was going to get a few nickels from a new spot and the tormenting birdbeastwoman was gone. Something was coming fast across the street. Something running. Short and dark and angry little cloud. No not something. Someone.
Jimmy’s head was a train entering a tunnel, rushing air, a hot headwind. A furnace before him, his destination. The furnace was a fist in his face. The heat flowed in torrent, flooding his nose and out to his ears. The street an abstract painting on a severely warped canvas, thickly layered paint sloughing off the surface, the whole thing mounted on a rotating dais. The picture sliding toward him. He rolled sideways and went to meet the mad image. He was welcomed with a hard kiss on his right cheekbone.
The sky was a face.
“Can you stand?”
“Come on. Let’s get you taken care of.”
The skyface was apparently connected to an arm and a hand, lifting and starting to lead him to an ambulance pulled up by the curb. There was a place in Jimmy’s own face where black and purple clouds, clouds heavy with what felt like tears of blood, rushed and crowded in between his eyes. But otherwise he didn’t feel so bad. Jimmy looked at the guy leading him, saw his uniform, and decided that he was feeling great, just fine. Wonderful. He needed to prove it before they got anywhere near that ambulance.
But something had happened to his speech ability.
“Lucky for you we came along.”
“Well. That guy wasn’t stopping with punching you in the face. He had a knife. He was ready to give you a colostomy.”
“Sorry, that’s disgusting, isn’t it? It’s this job makes me talk like that. Anyway when he saw us he took off.”
Jimmy found his voice. He reinvented language.
“Well… uh, then, thanksIguess. But look…”
Jimmy struggled to keep talking while looking at the EMT. Healthy, white, young-looking guy. Younger than Jimmy, anyway.
“Listen. Sokay. Don’need go to… the ambulance, or, or anywhere.”
The paramedic smiled. “Let’s just have a look. Your nose looks broken.”
Jimmy shook his head. That hurt. But it seemed to restore his ability to construct actual sentences.
“Well, I’m already kind of lantern-jawed. If I have a broken nose too, maybe people will think I’m a boxer and leave me alone.”
The EMT smiled again, but he looked exasperated. “You need attention.”
Jimmy stopped walking and glared at him.
“Listen,” he said with enforced patience. “Once I got attacked with a hammer. Left me with a dent in my skull. I didn’t go to the hospital for that. I’ve been jumped numerous times by, uh, crackheads, some of whom were in shockingly good shape. They never got any of my money or… anything else from me either. I don’t want, I don’t need any ‘attention’. Okay?”
Jimmy felt a flush of pride. He was sure talking now. If Dick Cavett still had a show he’d want Jimmy on it.
The EMT frowned. “Well hey. That’s very impressive, tough guy.”
Jimmy pulled back. “I didn’t mean. I didn’t mean to—”
“Forget it. But look. I’ve already called this in. I’ve got to at least ask you a few questions,” spreading his hands to say what can I do? “I mean that’s the rules.”
“Oh okay,” Jimmy said and continued to the vehicle, at this point for the paramedic’s sake. Poor guy was just trying to do his job.
“Here. For the blood.” He handed Jimmy a small folded antiseptic towel. Jimmy looked at it, then at the EMT.
“Don’t worry, we’re not going to charge you for this.”
Jimmy offered a weak smile. He answered a short list of questions while the young paramedic wrote on a clipboard. Then he firmly excused himself and headed for the door.
“Wait,” the guy said from behind him.
“Yeah. That’s my real name.”
“Yeah. Why, what’s… Now look. I, I’ve got no, no warrants, I went to court for that—”
“What’re you talking about? I’m a paramedic, not a cop.”
“You had a band called ‘Mother’s Favorite’. Back in the eighties. You guys were hot.”
Jimmy stood still and stared.
“You did, right?” said the EMT. “That was you.”
Jimmy felt a smile opening up his face, pulling the muscles apart, letting him breathe. It hurt. It was good.
“Uh huh. Yeah. That was me.” Jimmy tipped his head to the side and looked at the ’medic again from a new angle. “But how could you remember that? You’re like, what, twenty-five? They weren’t letting preteens in Max’s, or the Mudd Club, y’know, or the, uh, uh, the Peppermint Lounge—”
“Thanks, but I’m thirty-eight.”
“Really. And I lived on the Lower East Side too. Saw you, CBGB, all those places, shit. You could play the fuck out of that sax. And you sang really good too. I was a fan.”
Jimmy stood there with something scooped out of his chest. It felt horrible. But he felt alive. He felt horribly alive.
“Damn. I’m surprised you recognized me.” With a wave of his hand he alluded to more life and more horror than he could mention, and the changes wrought on his appearance by the years.
“I didn’t. I didn’t recognize you.”
Jimmy looked at him.
“I recognized your name. Not you.”
Jimmy looked down. The EMT sat looking across the small aseptic space at him.
“What happened?” he asked Jimmy, who looked up and stared hard at him until the question disappeared and the paramedic looked vaguely sad.
“Yeah,” Jimmy said, a hard flat edge on his voice. “And I was gonna be a star.”
He turned again to go.
Jimmy looked back.
“That guy just tried to kill you.”
Jimmy waited for him to finish.
“Lots of people and things, trying to kill you. And here you are. You’re still here.”
Jimmy’s throat tightened. He turned and stepped down onto the vehicle’s metal stair, then from there to the pavement. He walked away. Halfway down the block the paramedic called him yet again. Jimmy turned.
The EMT stood in the side door of the ambulance.
“Someone,” he yelled to Jimmy, “Someone has got to do something.”
The medic smiled briefly, stepped onto the sidewalk then up into the cab, and the ambulance pulled away.
There was a line at the crack spot. A few people were staring at Jimmy. But no one said anything till he got to the front, and the pitcher looked up from counting money.
“How many — oh shit. Fuck happened to you, whiteboy?”
“Ahh… nothing. I mean, I think it was somebody’s husband.”
The pitcher laughed. “Wo, whiteboy up in that married pussy!” A wave of laughter went through the line.
“Oh no. Not that.”
“C’mon, don’t play all modest, dog. You been doin’ somebody’s wife, uh?”
“No, really. And especially not this married woman.” He gave an exaggerated shudder.
“Okay, whatever. How many.”
“Yo, didn’t I serve you this morning, yo? Over at Millbrook?”
“You ’member what I tole you?” The pitcher, less than half Jimmy’s age, adjusted the tilt of his head, looking into Jimmy’s eyes like a high school coach imparting gentle reprimands and warm wisdom.
“Well I meant it. Go home, whiteboy. Go back to your family, down there South Carolina.”
Jimmy didn’t bother correcting him. No matter how many times he said North Carolina, everyone here always said South. The pitcher continued with his strange fatherly advice.
“You lucky you lived this long up here in all this shit. Don’t push it.” He hung Jimmy another long look, then screwed up his face, perplexed. “I don’t get it. You a smart mufuckah.”
Jimmy hung his head.
“A’ight here.” He took the money and handed Jimmy the tiny plastic bottles. “Go on and beam up.”
When Jimmy got to the middle of the block on 138th he realized how hungry he was. As he passed the door of the old apartment he felt that Martina’s ghost had finally moved out of there and it gave him a brief stab of happiness in his heart. He went upstairs and knocked on the door across from Abuela’s. Martina’s sister answered.
She started to smile, and stopped. “What happened to you?”
Jimmy remembered his face — with his busy schedule he kept forgetting — and waved his hand up that way, almost but not quite touching it.
“It’s… a long story. Kind of.”
“Actually I already heard. I mean not about… this. But I heard about, well…”
How fast does bad news travel? WHOOSH! At least that fast.
“You heard about the… that thing? In the subway? You’re kidding.”
“I’m not kidding.”
Jimmy said nothing.
“I’m not kidding,” she repeated. “Lenore just told me.”
Luisa looked at him like she was upset with him about something. What could he possibly have done to her? She sighed dramatically like a good Puerto Rican, everything dramatic, everything exaggerated. He loved her. She was his sister. His sister’s, his wife’s, his long-lost sister, his wife’s his lost friend sister
Ah fuck. His face hurt.
Luisa stared at him. “That must hurt. Well come on in. What’re you standing in the hall for? You hungry?”
A flash of shame passed through him. “I was gonna go to your mama’s but she’s… well I don’t think she’s cooking today. I mean. I’m sorry. I know she’s, I know Abuela’s… I’m sorry. I just—”
She waved him in. “You’re just hungry. And Abuela’s dying. Come in. And come on, Jimmy, don’t play that shit with me. Don’t say you’re sorry. After all you did for my sister. You got problems, m’hijo. Mi hermano. So? We all got problems. Nothing to be ashamed of.”
He came into the dusky apartment with its baby and cooking smells. Luisa waved him toward the table.
“You should go to the hospital. You look like shit.”
“Yeah, probably gonna have to cancel that GQ shoot.”
Luisa smiled without opening her lips. “So tell me, because I heard something really bad.”
“What? What’d you hear?”
“That you tried to steal Lenore’s baby.”
“That’s right,” she said flatly. And Jimmy could see by her hooded look that she wasn’t at all sure she didn’t believe the whole insane story. Whatever story she’d heard.
“You know her?”
“She used to live here, Jimmy.
On the fourth floor. When you lived with Martina. Had, like, six kids?”
“You’re kidding me.”
“No, Jimmy, for the last time I am not kidding you. I’m surprised you don’t remember her.”
Jimmy shook his head at the floor. “No. I don’t remember her.” He looked up at Luisa. “And who told you this nonsense?”
“I already told you that she did. Lenore. She called me.” Luisa stared hard at him. “You’re telling me it’s not true?”
“That I tried to steal her baby? Phhh. Jesus! Yeah I’m telling you it’s not true. I’m telling you it’s a complete lie.”
Luisa pursed her lips and rolled her eyes. Jimmy’s jaw dropped.
“What, you don’t believe me? You believe her?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know, Jimmy. Why would she make up something like that?”
“Uh, because she’s insane? Now come on. I mean. If you know her, you should know that.”
Luisa’s brow contracted. “Weelll. She does tend to exaggerate.”
“P-huh. Exaggerate? That’s
putting it very mildly, L’isa. She’s crazy and she’s a fucking
Luisa looked at him and pressed her lips. Her eyes did not soften.
“I don’t know, Jimmy.”
For a moment his whole body tensed and he could hardly stand the outrage. But just as suddenly it passed and he understood. He understood how a mother of babies living in the South Bronx could believe anything about anyone. Luisa herself would not have made up a story like that, but hearing it, couldn’t deny its possibility. Even about him, the one who had stayed with her sister and helped her die. Even Jimmy could do something like this. God knew Luisa had seen enough bad men, enough surprising cruelty and madness, to believe it. Nothing surprised anymore.
This was not America. It was not even New York. This was the fucking South Bronx.
Jimmy was tired and he couldn’t be bothered to care anymore what anyone, even Luisa, believed. He looked up at her and he was so tired, too tired to explain or convince.
And now that he wasn’t asking or rather begging for it, her gaze relaxed. Luisa looked at him kindly.
“Here. Let’s get you some food.” She went to the stove and spooned rice and beans onto a plate. “And you really ought to think about going to the hospital. Your nose looks broken. Your face is turning black.”
He said nothing but stared out the window, through the alleys and vacant lots, the shells of buildings, to where there was nothing more to see but a confluence of walls and fences. He remembered looking down an elevator shaft once, when he was a kid. Thinking what it would be like to fall down there, how hard it would be to climb out if one survived the fall. All pressed in between shadows and surfaces.
Luisa brought the plate, set it down in front of him. She looked at him and blinked.
“I almost forgot. Both your mother and your sister called. Seems like something really important. And Manny said, something…” She twisted her head to the side and looked up at the ceiling.
“I’m trying to remember.”
“Oh yeah. Something about that, Amstrad, what’s her name?”
“You mean Astrud.”
She pressed her lips together.
“Manny said meet her, she’s coming to meet you.”
“You’re fucking kidding me.”
“No Jimmy, I am not fucking kidding you.”
“Well where, when?”
“Seven. That’s it. Seven. By Julio’s bodega.”
Jimmy sat and felt his face throb. Probably his nose was really broken. Would she still love him anyway?
“This is, I don’t. Astrud, coming to see me? I don’t get it.”
Luisa smiled the saddest smile he’d ever seen.
“Well you’d better eat and go. It’s after six now.”
He sat and looked at the plate. He was really hungry, he knew it. But he wasn’t really hungry.
“And call your mama, or your sister. Or both of them.”
Jimmy looked out the window again, gazing through the shaft to the inevitable dead ending. If you fall down, you don’t climb out. That’s the thing. You don’t climb out, because the fall’s gonna kill you.
“Did they say what they wanted?”
Luisa sighed loud, in case he’d forgotten what a good dramatic Latina she was. “They didn’t have to. I know what they want and so do you.”
She waited for him to respond but Jimmy said nothing. Luisa sighed again for good measure and went on.
“Your mama, she’s down
there in Mexico, and your sister, she’s down there in South Carolina on
the beach with your nieces and nephew. And you, the son, the brother, the fucking
uncle — you’re up here in the South Bronx smoking crack every day.
Now really. What the fuck do you think they want?”
He felt her stare but still did not look up.
“Jimmy. Look at me.”
He looked away from the window and up at Luisa, but he saw his mother and he saw Martina and Abuela and Astrud and Eileen and Rita, he saw the crazy Lenore and he saw the face of an infant, a face that he had never seen before. Who was the child? Was it himself? Or one that had been hidden away in a stroller in a subway station?
Finally, he saw Luisa.
“Thanks, hermana,” he said, picking up the fork. “I’m really hungry.”
He bent to the plate and Luisa put her hand out as if to touch the top of his head. But she let it fall away instead.
“I know, Jimmy,” she said.
“I know you’re hungry, you’re always hungry.”