A Normal Life

A Normal Life
Photographs from Bigstock. Photo montage by William Shunn.

After the long trip home to Queens from his day down the shore, David takes the elevator to his apartment, where he’s high in the sky—twenty-four floors up. Where he’s one guy, fifty-six years old, living in a rent-stabilized building that was fashionable once but is now just another shabby relic of days gone by. Still, he does have two bedrooms, which is a plus. The second bedroom, which is just off the kitchen, is actually quite small; it could have been meant, originally, for a child. Now there is nothing much in it except a battered purple couch and an acoustic guitar on a stand. The guitar is quite valuable because it once belonged to Richie Havens. It is the only thing David owns that he thinks of as a treasure.

David makes himself a sandwich for dinner and takes it into the small room with the purple couch. When he’s finished eating, he picks up the guitar and sits on the couch for a while, holding it and looking out through the windows at the sky, which is now pulling the night up over the fading ribbons of evening laid across the horizon. David sees the rising moon, the stars pinned between the clouds.

Eventually, he starts to play. The guitar is old and battered and beautiful, the color of honey. David doesn’t think he’s got any talent for this; he’s really a drummer—that, he knows, was something he really was good at, but you can’t exactly play a drum kit in an apartment building with neighbors above and below you—but he likes to play the guitar anyway, so he does. This guitar has an open D tuning, which Havens favored; it’s better for strumming like crazy rather than doing any overly fancy finger work on the frets. David, however, plays slowly and softly, picking out a few songs and singing to himself. And he goes on playing as the sky outside darkens and the room off the kitchen with the guitar and purple couch darkens as well. He doesn’t move from that spot until he hears his cell phone ringing in the living room where he left it. He can guess who it is before he even answers.

“Hey, Audra,” he says to the woman who has been his ex-wife for a long time now. In the living room, there’s another couch and a lamp on a side table held up by the paws of a bear carved out of wood. It’s a silly object, but Audra loved it. David reaches out to turn on the lamp and sits on the couch, outside the pool of soft light.

“Hey, Davey,” Audra says. “How are you?”

“I’m okay,” he tells her. “And you?”

“Oh, you know,” she says, and he can picture her running her hand through her hair, pulling it away from her face, a gesture he has seen many times when she’s about to ask for something. Something she really needs. It’s a Friday night and Audra is restless—David knows that. She was restless for most of their marriage.

“Davey,” Audra sighs, and there is so much she is saying by using this old endearment that she doesn’t need to say anything else.

David closes his eyes for a moment. He imagines that the light from the lamp is stretching out to touch him. As if it could reach that far. “How much do you need?” he asks.

“Can you do a hundred?” Audra asks.

No, he can’t, of course he can’t—or really, he shouldn’t. Enabling her by giving her money is wrong, if only because it never stops. Then he thinks: Enabling. What a shitty word, a new-age con to make you feel guilty about stuff you do even though you feel bad enough already; guilty, lonely, weary, sorry about things you can’t even name.

“I don’t have that much,” he tells her, which is how this game always goes.

“Please, Davey,” Audra says. “I really need it. I’ll even come to you. I can take the subway and we can meet downstairs, by the fountain.”

David gets some important messages from these few short sentences: number one, if she can take the subway, that means she’s back living in the city, probably with some new boyfriend, which also means she’s left the last guy she was with, an artist or carpenter or something like that, who had a house in rural Pennsylvania. Message number two is that she doesn’t want to come up to the apartment where they once lived together. Maybe she thinks she’ll feel trapped, which is what she used to tell him when things got bad. Or maybe she will feel some regret, some loss. Does he? Even after all this time? Well, he feels something. Sorry about things you can’t even name.

“All right,” he says.

“Thank you, Davey.” Audra replies. “I’ll be there in an hour.”

So, just about an hour later, David takes the elevator down to the lobby and steps out the front door. He spots Audra almost immediately, waiting for him on one of the benches set in a circle around the ornamental fountain in front of his building. She looks great, one of those women who seemed blessed with endless youth and good looks, which is especially remarkable for someone who, as David assumes, is back doing heroin or crack or maybe both, which explains the desperation for money that he heard in her voice on the phone. More desperation than usual. So there she sits, in the soft, summery night, dressed in jeans and a Ramones tee shirt, with long blonde hair that shines and shines no matter how hard a life she is living these days. And David has no doubt it’s hard, but then it’s hard to be living a life that should have changed many years ago. More than many.

David walks towards the fountain and seats himself on the end of the bench, near Audra but not next to her. This meeting is not like in the movies where long-parted lovers suddenly fall back into each other’s arms. Not at all. Love isn’t here anymore, though there is some kind of familiarity at work, something at the edge of intimacy. These two people know each other; if not their present lives so much, their past is an open book—at least, open as much as the stories they used to tell each other about their teenage years, their childhoods. Which is why, perhaps, after they say hello, David leans back against the bench and, lulled by the warm breezes of the summer night, begins telling Audra something that feels like another story, one that starts in the place where he left off reciting it to her many times in the long ago.

“Do you know what I did today?” he says. “I went down the shore. To Wildwood.”

“Aha” is what Audra says in reply. She pulls a pack of cigarettes from her shoulder bag, lights up and breathes smoke into the leafy darkness. “Poor you.”

David is surprised by her reaction. “Poor me?” he says. “Why?”

“Because you’re never going to stop making that pilgrimage to Jersey, are you? To the last place you felt like a normal person.”

“Is that what I told you?”

“A million times.”

“No,” he says, and it feels like he’s beginning an argument he’s begun before. “I said that we should be normal people, you and me, together. At least try to.”

David doesn’t doubt that Audra knows what he means. That was their pact when they got married. Audra, who was the singer in one of the never-got-anywhere bands that rehearsed in the recording studio that was also David’s home base for a decade of fun and games until he started to suspect that maybe he needed to find something else to do with his life besides get high, sleep until noon, and spend the rest of his time fooling around with a bunch of stoned musicians in a succession of bands that never made it out of playing late-hour sets in Village dives—these two people, human beings, feeling a little lost and tired and left behind by a generation that seemingly without fanfare or notice had rejoined the world of regular working folk, had agreed to try something else. To get real jobs, move to a real apartment, keep normal hours. David stuck to the plan but Audra didn’t. Couldn’t. Still won’t, can’t.

And she’s not going to give in now, either. She speaks to David across the length of the bench that remains empty between them—or across time and space, because that’s how it feels to David, listening to her.

Audra says, “Be honest with yourself. How many times have you made the same damn trip down the shore because of your mom. Because you remember her, all nice and pretty, sitting on a beach towel watching little Davey run around on the sand or some shit like that. You should get over it already.”

David doesn’t hold it against her, that she sounds harsh. Cold. The fact is, she’s right. Years go by when the tug, the pull, the homing instinct that wants to send him back to Wildwood seems to have given up on him, and then whammo, suddenly it’s there again, broadcasting loud and clear. Who knows why? Some bad dream, or a good one, or a memory that springs up out of nowhere because of some idle remark someone made or the salt tang of the sea that drifts into the city some sunny mornings. And then he can’t stop himself: he’s on his way back to the place where he spent his last good summer, when he was twelve. The next winter, his mother died—some aggressive cancer that no one ever really explained to him. A year after that, his father remarried, acquired not only a new wife but a couple of stepchildren, and quickly seemed to forget about his son. And David went crazy; that’s how he thinks about the things he did back then: dropped out of school, slammed the door of his father’s house for the last time and headed for points east, meaning New York, the Village; lush life in all its young-guy friendly incarnations. That was when he left normal far behind, in the rearview mirror. But hey, maybe not as far away as he thought. Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear. Maybe that’s true, because that’s where little Davey still is, with Mom and Dad, hanging out on the beach, under the summer sun. Blue sky, blue ocean, all good. But visiting his own particular happy days won’t bring them back for anything more than a brief glimpse of the memories that have escaped from whatever brain box he shoved them away in a long time ago. Walking around in the old scenery won’t put him back in the picture. Not that he belongs there, anyway. Not anymore.

“I hear Junior is getting out of jail,” Audra says, changing the subject. She’s clearly had enough of little Davey now—time to chew over more recent events.

“Yes,” David tells her. “I’m going to pick him up.”

“Huh. Did he ask you to?”

“Yeah, he did. I guess he had no one else to come get him.”

“Probably not.” But Audra’s not really interested. She’s fidgeting, looking around though there’s nothing much to see except the jets of colored water rising and falling in the fountain.

David takes the hint and hands her the cash. She puts it in her bag and stands up. “Thanks, Davey,” she says, eager to leave now that she’s gotten what she wanted, but enough of a wife, still, an old lover, to ease up a bit.

“I’m sorry,” she says.

That apology can be taken many ways. Meant to cover many mistakes, old and new.

Then Audra walks away and David watches her go. He sits on the bench for a while, thinking about lots of things. One of them is that he could have said I’m sorry, too, because he’s not blameless either. He knows that in ways old and new.

For the next month or so, David just lives his life. He’s busy at work—an okay job, managing a small company that sells recording equipment—and comes home tired, ready to plop down on the couch, eat some dinner and veg out in front of the TV. Sometimes he falls asleep on the couch, but when he wakes up in the middle of the night he makes himself get up, go into the bathroom to wash his face and brush his teeth, and then climb into his bed. There were enough years when he was open to the idea of sleeping in random places, waking up in yesterday’s clothes. Now, at least he knows where he is when the day breaks upon him. What he has to do.

Then, on a Saturday morning in late September, David picks up a rental car and begins a two-hour drive upstate. He’s heading for a town that’s not much more than a place to stop for a diner meal and a cup of coffee. Set on the banks of a chilly river, this was once a busy mill town but now exists only because it has a nearby neighbor that won’t let it rest in any kind of peace. A medium-security federal prison is only five miles down the road, and visitors often stop in the town to buy cigarettes, soda, donuts and other snack items they’re allowed to bring to inmates. People also tend to stop here to kind of catch their breath before going into and then leaving the prison, but David just drives on by. He’s been here enough times for the experience to have become routine, and he fueled up on coffee along the way. He doesn’t need any more help to get him where he’s headed now.

He leaves his car in the visitors’ parking lot outside the prison gate and waits for his friend, Junior, to come walking out the door. Junior has been in jail for a long stretch, convicted on drug charges along with the owners of the studio where David used to hang out. Sometime after David and Audra got married, Junior had scored another gig: making drug deliveries for the honchos at the studio when they branched out into a business that was much more lucrative than laying down tracks for bands that no serious label ever signed. Not to mention that Junior had been using by then, big time. He was still using while he was inside—heroin, cocaine; whatever the prison pipeline was piping in. David has no illusion about Junior being clean now, though the reason he’s getting out today is that he volunteered for a drug rehab program that also qualified him for parole. He has completed the program, though there is one more catch. He has to spend a year at a halfway house. He’s due to check in on Monday; because of some administrative screwup he is going to be spending the weekend at David’s apartment until there’s a bed for him.

So now David waits. It’s a humid, gray day. Summer hasn’t completely gone yet, autumn hasn’t fully arrived. The prison, a huge, blocky facility of poured concrete surrounded by miles of electrified fencing topped by barbed wire, seems to be sweating in the damp, still air. In the distance, the lonely Catskill Mountains look like they’ve been nailed to the horizon, like another row of barricades set up by the State of New York to keep its prisoners locked up tight.

Finally, a door opens at the far end of an empty concrete yard and Junior emerges, holding a paper bag at his side like it’s a piece of cheap luggage. Looking unwashed, with long, greasy hair and dressed in prison-issue chinos and a white tee shirt, he is exactly the guy you’d cast in a movie if the script called for a character who’d been in jail for more than a couple of Earth’s trips around the sun. But there’s no acting going on here: Junior is just who he is, walking across the yard with the same swagger he had when he was a kid. He’s getting close to being an old man now—he’s got more than a couple of years on David—but he’s still a tough guy; that’s what his walk says. As do his hooded eyes and the iron-fisted handshake he delivers as he says hello.

“Hey, Davey,” he says. “Thanks for coming, man.”

There’s something in his greeting, his tone of voice that suggests he might have thought there was only a fifty-fifty chance of David showing up today. Which is something that might have happened back in the day, back when the Davey and Junior show was operational. Because there was one, certainly—a show of sorts, a friendship that went beyond the band they had been in together for a while and developed into mayhem, often, wild nights and lost days—but that’s when they were young. Well, youngish, anyway, David thinks. And stupider than he can now imagine. And yet a longing rises in the back of his mind, a picture that contains the image of a handsome young guy in jeans and a battered leather jacket—me, David thinks, that was me—running around the Village, not knowing, or caring, what was coming at him next. And look at me now, he thinks. Back with Junior, but we’re both standing in a prison yard. And he has everything he owns in a paper sack.

A few minutes later they’re on the road, heading to New York City. They stop once—not in the nearby town but an hour later, at one of those cheerless rest areas with concessions that sell pizza, burgers and hot dogs. Junior keeps glancing around the place like he’s in a new world and isn’t sure if he really likes it as much as another one he used to know.

Two more hours fighting Saturday traffic across the Throgs Neck Bridge and they’re back in Queens. David finds a parking spot and then leads Junior into his building, where they ride the elevator to David’s floor. In the apartment, Junior settles himself on the couch and lets his glance bounce around, examining everything.

David goes into the kitchen, thinking he should maybe bring out some food. He grabs a bag of chips from the cupboard and opens the refrigerator to see what else he has. What he hasn’t done is plan well, since not only does he have very little to eat in the house, he has no idea what they’re supposed to do for the rest of the weekend.

As David is considering his options (takeout food, going to the movies, etc., etc., all of which seem more and more ridiculous as the minutes slide by), Junior comes into the kitchen. The door to the room with the purple couch is open and Junior sees Richie Havens’ guitar resting on its stand by the window.

“Hey,” Junior says, strolling into the room and picking up the guitar. “You still have this.”

“Of course I do,” David replies. He leaves the kitchen and seats himself on the couch, near where Junior is standing, holding the guitar. “You gave it to me as a wedding present.”

“Was that what I did?” Junior says, as if he is hearing a rumor of some long-forgotten escapade.

“I always wondered how you got it,” David says.

Junior blows a sound through pursed lips; David hears it as Ay yai. “Are you asking me if it really belonged to Richie?” he says.

“No,” David says, meaning yes, though it’s sort of a surprise to him that he may be harboring this doubt.

If he was offended for a moment, now Junior doesn’t seem to care what David thinks. Still, he has a story to tell. “I got it from one of Havens’ old girlfriends,” Junior says. “She traded it in for product. Don’t you remember?” he says, looking at the guitar, seeming to be speaking to the instrument now, rather than to David. “Nothing else mattered, right? Just getting what you needed. Me?” he adds, and now he’s laughing. “I would have traded in my sister.”

“Davina,” David says, and it feels as if just mentioning her name has put things right again between him and Junior. Davina, Junior’s sister and David’s girlfriend for a while, before he met Audra. She is part of their shared past: the years of her life are entangled with theirs, the memories of her are cemented to their memories. If either of them looks back, there she is, a witchy woman if there ever was one, dancing in the dance bars they hung out in, dancing in the studio while the bands played on late into the night. But then she ran off to California because that’s what people did back in the day, hightail it to Cali to get their heads together. Listen to different music. Sit on a different beach. Drink. Smoke dope. Drift.

“Oh well,” Junior says, and that’s enough. That seems to sum it all up, whatever all of it is, now. Davina died a long time ago, in California. Drugs were involved because they always were, back then.

Junior sits down on the purple couch, still holding the guitar. “You know the story about Richie Havens at Woodstock?” he asks David. “About that song, ‘Freedom’? He was on stage and the other performers were late, so he had to keep on playing. He made up ‘Freedom’ right on the spot. Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,” Junior says, or sings, sort of.

Then Junior begins to play the guitar. He’s really good—not great, but almost. David leans back against the couch, closes his eyes and listens. In his mind, he could be back in the studio with the smell of incense in the air, pretty girls—Davina, Audra, and others with long, wild hair, fringed jackets, and eyes painted like Egyptian queens—dancing all around. And music, music, music everywhere. All day, all night.

Finally, Junior stops playing. Carefully, he puts the guitar back on the stand. He smiles and says, “What do you think, Davey? Should we get the band back together?” Then he laughs and answers his own question. “Maybe not. I don’t see a drum set around here, which means you’re probably a little rusty. Can’t have a band without a drummer, right? Besides . . .”

“Yeah,” David says. “I know.”

But what does he know? Everything, he thinks. Nothing. Too much.

Junior stands up and stretches. “Well, if we can’t play music together, I know what we can do. Let’s go out and get drunk. But first I want to take a shower.” He starts to walk off towards the bathroom but then stops and turns back to Davey. “Shit, man,” he says. “You know this will be the first time in years I been in a shower by myself? Nobody’s else’s fat ass shaking in my face. What a fucking life, right?” Again he laughs, but he doesn’t sound good-humored to David. Not one bit.

So Junior showers and then he crashes on the couch for a while, taking a snooze. He dreams on, so it’s evening when he finally wakes up. He says he’s hungry—starving—which David figured on, so he’s already called out for a pizza, which is soon delivered. After they’ve finished eating, Junior is ready to go out. He says he wants to go to the Village, back to their old stomping grounds. One of the things David knows—everything, nothing, too much—is that this isn’t a good idea, but he feels like he’s working both for and against himself right now and, given all that, he doesn’t care. He should, but he doesn’t. Something is going a little haywire inside him, something that started to take over when Junior was playing the guitar. When David thought again of the witchy women dancing around in a cloud of incense-scented memories. What the hell, he tells himself. And gets ready to hit the road.

David lends Junior a shirt and a pair of pants, since all he has is his prison stuff, and then off they go. They get back in the car and join the river of traffic heading into the city for a good-time Saturday night.

In the Village they have to drive around for half an hour until they find a parking spot on West 10th Street. The cobbled lane where the studio used to be is maybe a five-minute walk away, but they don’t dare go near there—the building burned down a decade ago and they don’t need to see whatever has replaced it. As it is, when they get out of the car, Jimmy tilts his head to get a look at the skyscraper condo buildings sticking up into the night sky and says, “Jesus. When did all that happen?”

David knows what he’s thinking about: all the old, rickety rowhouses and brownstones that used to lean together along the narrow streets of the Village, the streets that he and Junior sauntered down in their boots and leather jackets, the staircases they used to climb to open the painted doors of apartments where they used to score dope, girls—like Junior said, maybe it didn’t matter which, back then. He says, “It’s all changed. They tore down everything years ago and put up these new highrises. The only people who can afford to live here now are movie stars and Wall Street guys.”

This should be a warning to Junior—and David knows that he should be listening to himself speak, and hearing the warning too—but they lock the car and walk on, heading for Sheridan Square. Junior is determined to find someplace familiar, and he does—a bar that used to be a dive, but as soon as they walk in it’s clear that the place is nothing like either one of them remembers. The décor is the same—it’s still a dim, narrow space illuminated mostly by strings of colored lights—but everything looks deliberately staged, as if the rickety chairs and tables and the long, scarred bar are all new, deliberately damaged to look like they’ve been hanging around since the Beat Generation vacated the premises. The giveaway can be seen in the selection of liquor bottles stacked on lighted shelves behind the bar: Grey Goose, Cîroc, along with tequila and rum brands neither David nor Junior has ever heard of and certainly can’t afford. And the people in the bar are too young to be believed, too well-dressed and glittery for David and Junior to feel comfortable hanging around. Also, the music in the place, booming out of giant speakers and pounding against the walls, is some kind of irritating electropop they both dislike. They order a beer, pay a shocking amount of money, and leave as soon as they’re finished.

Two more old haunts prove to have undergone the same kind of transformation: they look the same as they used to, but the people, the music, the whole vibe are too different for David and Junior to feel comfortable hanging around for more than a couple of drinks. Well, maybe more than a couple. Eventually, they find their way to a once-favorite place, a gay dance bar with a secret entrance that you can only find by making your way through an alley, then across the inner courtyard of a pair of brownstones to find an unmarked door. But now, it seems, the secret entrance must be famous—it’s probably discussed on Yelp, David imagines, and pictured on Instagram and wherever else the men and women gyrating in front of his face are posting to on their phones—because while he and Junior used to feel they were doing something risky by drinking in a gay bar, now there are more straight people in the place than gay boys. Or girls.

Something about this seems to make Junior angry. Actually, he’s been getting himself in the mood to be angry all night. David is well aware of that because his own attempt to get drunk and happy—which is what he thought they were going for—isn’t turning out all that well, either. He’s feeling dizzy and nauseous, like all the beer and vodka he’s been pouring down his throat are making him seasick. Landsick. Whatever, he thinks as he orders yet another beer.

But before he can even begin to add it to the ocean of alcohol in his gut, he hears some major yelling going on behind him. Crude, nasty curses are pushing their way through the waves of noise and retro dance music that feel like they are breaking somewhere just above David’s head. He turns around and sees that Junior is toe to toe with some guy who looks like he’s all beard and muscles. And he’s got a couple of friends surrounding him, all ready to fight. Because of the noise and the pounding music, no one else seems to notice what’s going on—but David sees it all clearly. He sees everything that happens next. Which begins with Junior pulling a knife from his pocket—a slim, curved blade emerging from a handle made of duct tape. He waves it around in an arc that slashes the air in front of the muscled guy and his friends, who seem to be deciding whether or not to back off. It’s going to take just another few seconds, David figures, before they come to the conclusion that there’s more of them than the guy with the knife so why not just all rush him and see what happens?

David’s instincts tell him something different: just stand in the middle of the crowd and see who lives through the fight that’s about to start. But there is an old loyalty at stake here, an old bond that new messages cannot break. His body remembers; blood and bone and heart propel him forward, through the crowd and he finds himself standing next to Junior, facing his old friend’s new enemies.

“Okay,” David says to everyone, Junior included. “Relax. We’re just gonna go.”

“Oh no,” says the beard and muscles, gesturing at Junior. “No fuckin’ way this asshole is just bouncin’ outta here. Gotta rip him up first.”

“Faggot,” Junior hisses and waves the knife again. “Who’s got the fuckin’ blade? Huh? I’m not the guy you wanna fuck with, I’m telling you that right now.”

To David, it’s amazing, really, how he seems to be inside some kind of tunnel now, where all the chaos of the music and dancing and voices is blocked out so that he can hear everything being said as clearly as if it was being whispered in his ear. Which is the wrong takeaway from this situation. He knows that: he should be focusing on how he and Junior are going to get out of here without having their faces ripped off because Junior is going to get only one chance with that knife and even if he connects, the guys who aren’t bleeding to death are going to be on them like a swarm. The right takeaway, it turns out, is what he suddenly hears himself thinking, which is that there was a time when David would have thought that he and Junior against a couple of outer-borough creeps—or maybe big, overblown Jersey boys? If so, even better—was some kind of fun. Some kind of testimony to how little they cared about anything, how much of nothing they had to lose.

So David takes a step forward. He stands between Junior and the group of guys. “All righty then,” he says, making sure there’s a big, overblown grin on his face. “Bring it on.”

Junior steps forward too, so now he’s standing shoulder to shoulder with David. “I just got out of Green Haven, puto,” Junior snarls at the beard-and-muscles guy. “You picked the wrong dude to screw around with tonight.” Then he spits in his antagonist’s face.

Before anything else can happen, David feels iron hands clamp down on his arms, pinning them to his sides. The next thing he knows, he is out on the street, having been shoved up against a car by one half of a pair of bouncers—an enormous guy with flat, dead eyes. The other half of the duo, who has Junior in a chokehold, dumps him next to David. Junior ends up sprawled in the gutter. Also, he no longer has his knife which, presumably, has been confiscated.

By the time David collects himself, Junior is standing on his feet and is ready to go back into the bar and continue the fight that there is no doubt they have already lost. Then, after he takes a few steps towards the front door, Junior suddenly wheels around and in the next moment is all up in David’s face.

“What the fuck is the matter with you?” he says. “You think I can’t take care of myself? You think you’re the badass all of a sudden?”

“Hey, whoa,” David says. “What are you mad at me for? I’m the one who had your back in there, remember?”

Yes, sure, Junior remembers but apparently he doesn’t care. He just continues raging at David. “Badass,” he repeats. “What’s the worst thing you ever did? Run away from home?”

David feels like all the alcohol he’s consumed tonight is acting on some kind of time-release schedule as his body tries to absorb it, and the effect is that he seems to be getting drunker by the minute. So much so that Junior accusing him of being a runaway—which is how David processes what he just heard—seems almost funny in some sad, stupid kind of way.

“Yeah, well,” he says, looking up at the street signs that say CHRISTOPHER STREET and SHERIDAN SQUARE, the crossroads of all the years he spent down here in the Village, which is just one train ride away from his old address in the Jersey suburbs. Add on a bus or the seasonal extension of the Shore Express and he could be back in Wildwood in the snap of a finger. A few beats of the heart. “If that’s true,” he says to Junior, “then I didn’t get very far, did I?”

So they stand on the street, David and Junior, in the warmish, coolish autumn night, breathing hard, staring at each other, waiting for one of them to decide what to do next. That turns out to be Junior—he wheels around and stalks away without saying another word. David follows. Maybe it’s not the best decision, but momentum propels him onward: the night seems to have a trajectory all its own.

“Where are you going?” David calls after Junior, who’s still a few steps ahead of him.

“Yorba’s,” Junior mutters when David catches up with him. “If it’s still there.”

Yorba’s is—was?—a bar up in the Bronx where Junior and David used to hang out when David was still with Davina. It’s a dive with a mostly Spanish-speaking clientele, but since both Junior and his sister could get by in Nuyorican (though their late father, an accountant born in Puerto Rico, would never have used the kind of language that brother and sister picked up on the streets), the bar was often on their late-night itinerary—as were the Irish pubs up on Katonah Avenue, where they made sure to mention that their mother’s maiden name was Cullen. But maybe tonight fate is tipping the scales in favor of Yorba’s because it had a tiny stage and, once or twice, Junior and David played there with their band on rock ’n roll night, when bars used to host events like that. Even grungy, broken-stools-and-warped-tables kinds of bars in the Bronx. Maybe Junior is trying to salvage something from the wreckage of the night and has decided that yet another visit to his old stomping grounds—one with a better chance of having remained unchanged—will heal all wounds. Maybe all of the above. David is still too drunk to figure it out.

He marches along with Junior, who marches himself all the way to 14th Street, where they can catch the 4 train to the end of the line in the far reaches of the Bronx. Junior has apparently decided that he is no longer speaking to David, so after the train arrives, they ride together in silence. The subway cars rattle along underground until they emerge from the tunnel at the Yankee Stadium stop. The train continues aboveground, its steel wheels screeching as it takes the turns on the old elevated rails. David expects to stay on the until the last stop, but as the train pulls into a station in an unfamiliar neighborhood, Junior suddenly stands up and steps out the door. David follows him, though now he has no idea where they’re headed. Not to Yorba’s, certainly. Off into the unknown.

They go down the stairs to the street. Junior strides along as if he knows where he’s going, keeping to the avenue that runs parallel to the elevated train tracks. It’s after midnight now, and the stores that line the block are all closed. Still, David can tell what kind of neighborhood they’re in—a poor one, unvisited by any kind of the urban-renewal efforts that are rebuilding other parts of the Bronx. They pass by locked-up dollar stores and check-cashing outlets squeezed up against discount furniture emporiums and hair salons. The street itself is in need of serious renovation: the concrete underfoot is cracked, the parking meters are broken and have been left unrepaired. Junior notices none of this, he just keeps on walking until he comes to a corner and makes the turn into a street that fronts what looks like a vast park; one long pathway lit by dull sodium lights appears to lead on to nowhere. Other than that, all David sees is murky city darkness hanging above a forest of grim trees.

There is one bodega open on this block, one square of light beaming out from between neighboring shops shut up behind steel gates. Junior walks in, with David still following, and heads to the refrigerated cases where he pulls out two forty-ounce bottles of Olde English. David had forgotten this old reliable: the cheapest beer available in New York City. If all you had was change in your pocket, you could probably put together enough cash to get a decent buzz on. He and Junior had downed their share of forties, but like almost everything else David is remembering, revisiting tonight, that was a long time ago.

Junior pays for the beer and is out the door a minute later, crossing the street to the park. He seems to know where he’s going, stepping quickly down the dimly lit paved path which ends, suddenly, at the entrance to a playground surrounded by a chain-link fence. To David’s eye, the playground looks like it has seen wars waged within its confines—the swings are all broken, hanging at crazy angles; half the teeter-totter is lying on the ground, like a severed limb. Also, the chain-link fence has been ripped open in places, and the the back wall of what is probably meant to be a handball court has been defaced by graffiti, much of which David recognizes as gang tags. They were spray-painted on buildings, subway cars, even dumpsters all over the city when David was a kid running around; these are different—newer, certainly—but still, he knows what they are.

Junior dumps himself down on the remaining half of the teeter-totter, cracks open one of the forties and takes a long swig. Then he hands it off to David, as if signaling a truce. David takes a drink, hands it back, and then, because there is no place to sit, or simply because he’s becoming tired—exhausted, really—lies down flat on his back. He feels the gravel beneath him poking at his back; he sees the silvery stars in the black sky hanging over him linked together in the shapes of fish, crabs, archers, virgins. The sky above, the earth below. And in between? Maybe danger, David thinks, turning his head to look, again, at the gang tags. It’s beginning to dawn on him that this is not a good place to be.

Junior seems to have the same idea, but maybe that’s why they’re here. That thought occurs to David, too, as he sees Junior looking around, looking expectant, looking like he’s ready for something to happen.

But nothing does. Not for some time, anyway. Junior just about downs the whole forty without much help from David, all the while staring off into the darkness beyond the graffiti-smeared wall. Then, suddenly, he stands up and heads toward the edge of the playground. He starts patrolling the fence, walking back and forth. Sometimes he stops and grabs the metal links, pulling and pushing at the fence as if it was a cage. As if that isn’t enough, he starts yelling as loud as he can.

But what’s he yelling? David can’t quite figure it out—maybe because the sounds Junior is making aren’t words. Something raging inside him is pushing and pulling its way out, something so elemental it eludes language. Amid all this, Junior suddenly pulls off his shirt and David sees that his back, his chest and his arms are covered with tattoos. Some of the tattoos match the tags on the wall. Some do not.

Most do not. So, as Junior rages on, displaying the messages on his body, pounding his chest and screaming into the night, David simply looks on. His friend is issuing a challenge, daring allies and enemies alike to come and get him, come and take him on. If they do, what will happen? David thinks that he should form a plan—he should figure out which way to run, because this won’t be some dumbass bar fight: what will come at them will likely be shaped like murder, death, assassination. Black guns, silver knives, fists, knuckles, hobnail boots and broken necks. And this isn’t a movie; there will be no rescue, no flying kicks or Zen master karate chops David can make—not that he actually knows any—that would disable the bad guys one by one. He will be defeated from the moment they show up. If they show up. But he shouldn’t wait to find out: he should just leave Junior here, in this ruined playground, and get out while the proverbial getting is good. Whatever the hell is going on here, David isn’t part of it. It’s not his fight; he isn’t involved. At least, that’s what he tells himself as he also tells himself to get up, to pick himself up off the ground.

And yet, that’s not what he does. He remains on his back, feeling the grit and gravel beneath him, looking up at the night sky and the pictures in its stars. Whatever is going to happen next is going to happen. He will live or die, he will survive or not. Right now, he’s not sure he has any say in the matter. Right now, he’s not sure he ever did.

Junior continues to howl at the darkness. The night wanders on. And David waits to be overwhelmed by fate.

Which maybe has already happened. Maybe it continues to happen. And tonight, his fate issues no particular signs or messages; it neither helps him nor harms him. Junior’s rant disturbs no one—no one comes to take up his challenge. Maybe no one hears him. Maybe no one cares.

Finally, Junior seems to be spent. Slowly, he slips down to the ground and leans back against the fence. He closes his eyes.

A few minutes later, pulsing blobs of red and white light begin to penetrate the wall of trees beyond the playground. David immediately recognizes them as the lights of a police car patrolling the path through the park. He jumps up and runs over to where Junior is sitting. He says, “Put your shirt back on and let’s go. There are cops in the park.”

“Yo,” Junior says. “Listen to the badass.” But he does what David says, and soon they are standing on a deserted train platform, waiting for the train to come barreling out of the night. They wait in silence for half an hour; then the train comes, they board, and ride all the way down to the Village.

Once they’re back in Sheridan Square, David gets his bearings and finds his rental car still safely parked where they left it. He feels okay to drive now—in fact, at this moment he’d rate himself sub-zero on the drunk scale, so beyond sober that he feels hollow inside. He and Junior get into the car and David points the vehicle towards home. As soon as they’re back in the apartment, David heads off to bed and Junior crashes on the couch.

On Sunday, it’s as if nothing happened, because that’s what David and Junior are pretending. David goes to the supermarket and comes back with a lot of junk food. It’s playoff time in baseball land, so they watch an afternoon game even though no New York team is involved, eat sandwiches and chips and drink sedate amounts of lite beer. At night, they’ve still got the TV on; David finds a movie on Netflix, and when it’s finished he finds another—all action, intrigue, and car chases in foreign cities. They go to bed early because they have to be up early: David has to drive Junior to the halfway house, return the rental car and go to work.

All of which is accomplished without any trouble. David and Junior part on the street outside the halfway house, an old brownstone crouched in a back-of-beyond corner of Brooklyn so far away from the subway lines that it will take at least another decade or so before gentrification even gets going. The men clasp each other in a sort of modified hug. Junior promises to keep in touch, keep David informed about how he’s doing. The only reference to anything that happened on Saturday night comes when Junior turns around as he starts up the stairs to take his place among the other miscreants who currently belong, body if not soul, to the State of New York.

Junior says, “Maybe we can go out again sometime and, you know, do some damage.”

“Sure,” David says, and it’s possible that, in the moment, he means it.

He returns the rental car and hops on the subway to get to work, where it’s just another day with the usual problems to deal with, customers to talk to on the phone, etc., etc. He gets everything done that he needs to, so he’s able to leave at five o’clock. Then he’s back on the E train, which takes him to Queens, where he emerges into the twilight. The days are getting shorter now; the Northern Hemisphere is growing cooler. David picks up some takeout food. He’s in his kitchen, eating tacos and listening to the radio—news, weather, things he thinks he needs to know—when the phone rings.

A man is on the phone, asking if Edgar is there. At first, David is ready to say no because he doesn’t know anyone named Edgar—and then he remembers that yes, he sure does. Edgar is Junior’s real name, though David hasn’t heard anyone, including Junior, use it in a million years. So he says no and then he asks who he’s talking to, though he already has an idea.

The man on the phone confirms that David’s guess is right—he is the director of the halfway house where Junior is supposed to be staying. David explains that he dropped Junior off this morning and the man replies that oh yes, Junior certainly did check in. He was assigned a bed in a room with a couple of other guys, then shown around the facility and read the rules. Also, he was told he was going to start a job the next day, working in a plant that manufactures tools. That’s one of the main requirements of the halfway house program: everyone has to work. Everyone is trained to do whatever job is available in the companies that partner with the state to help rehabilitate ex-offenders. Still, as David receives this information, it’s hard for him to imagine Junior toiling away in a factory every day and pretending that he’s grateful for the opportunity—because David can tell by the way the administrator is talking about the program that gratitude and humility and all that good stuff is exactly what he expects. David expects that Junior probably listened to this spiel and said something to himself like, Oh no, babycakes. Not this dude. No fucking way.

“Well,” David says, “I haven’t seen him since this morning. Or heard from him.”

“Are you sure?” the man asks, clearly suspicious. “He was told to stay on the premises, but when we did a head count at dinner he was gone. I’ve checked his info sheet and you’re listed as his contact.”

“Which doesn’t mean he tells me everything. Or anything,” David replies. “He’s a grown man.” Then he hangs up the phone.

Still, he considers the idea that he should spend some time pondering Junior’s whereabouts, but he really has no clue where that particular motherless child may have gone. For the moment he has his freedom, but without money and a network of friends to help him, and all kinds of other resources that he can’t possibly have, he isn’t going to get very far. So that’s a story waiting to be written: what will happen to Junior? Who knows? David doesn’t think he’ll hear from his old friend, so there’s nothing he can do to help even if he would. Should. Could.

As usual, after dinner, David thinks of vegging out in front of the TV, but he’s too restless now, unsettled, so he finds himself wandering into the room next to the kitchen, the room where the windows are full of nothing but evening sky. He sits down on the purple couch and picks up Richie Havens’ guitar—if that’s what indeed it is; David isn’t sure he believes what Junior told him about getting it from one of Richie’s old girlfriends, but how much does that really matter this far along in life? He starts absently strumming some chords, but as he does, he finds himself going back to what he said on the phone. He’s a grown man. Well, if that’s true, if they’re all grown up now, David and his once tight little circle, which included Audra, Junior and Davina, then all these supposedly fully formed human beings seem to have fucked up in one way or another, which includes by dying, in Davina’s case, a lot sooner than she should have under normal circumstances. David is willing to indict himself along with the others because what does he think he’s doing nowadays—living a normal life? Is that what this is? Sitting here in his room in the sky, playing a perfectly nice but maybe not in any way special guitar, keeping himself busy until he goes to work the next day and the next day and the next? But what happens after that, if there is something that’s going to happen? Where is all this heading, all this striving to be normal? That’s what Audra said was going on and maybe she’s right.

But probably, he thinks, that’s what his mother would have wanted for him, back in Wildwood, while she stood on the shore, watching out for him in those summer days, the days of paradise—just to have a nice, normal life. To succeed at something. To get married and have children. To have a comfortable place to live. To be happy. Not to be worried all the time, or afraid.

Well, some of that happened and some of it didn’t. The rest remains to be determined, though David is well aware that he’s no kid anymore, no youngster—truth be told, he’s already got one foot over the line into old age. So, on the list of good and bad things that may yet come his way, he’s going to have to be grateful if the balance tips in his favor. That is what you sign on for when you decide to sign up for whatever version of a normal life you can manage, he supposes, as he goes on strumming the guitar. As the random notes he’s playing gradually agree to turn themselves into a song.  

shortlink: dogb.us/normal



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