When Someone Goes

When Someone Goes

August is Summer Reading Month in Daily Nutmeg. Please enjoy this excerpt from Brian Francis Slattery’s Spaceman Blues: A Love Song (2007).

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Swami Horowitz’s house was dragged into Jamaica Bay by a storm in 1954 that put half the neighborhood underwater. He was in his bedroom when it happened, under the covers with an issue of Weird Tales that his mother wouldn’t let him read, stuff rots your mind, she used to say. He remembers that night as a few hours when something was revealed to him, in the way the house lifted off its foundation with a long groan and became buoyant, then was carried offshore rocking from side to side, so that marbles and baseballs rolled from one side of the room to the other, while the first floor filled with water and he could hear his parents scratching at the ceiling below.

He swam back to shore after the storm passed, an orphan at fifteen. Relatives in Iowa and Montana offered to take him in, raise him as their own; the captain of a tugboat near Hell Gate offered to drag the house back to shore free of charge, a contractor would put it back on its foundation for a pittance. Swami Horowitz rejected all offers. He used a small part of his inheritance to build a pontoon bridge from his neighbor’s dock to the second floor of the house, forty-two yards out in the water, installed a wood stove in his parents’ bedroom. He worked at the marina, used the bathroom there, took showers. Come back to the land, they said. Come where it is dry and secure. But he’d been reading about plate tectonics, and he remembered how the house was once still, and how it had moved. What it had done.

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“I will not be caught off guard again,” Swami Horowitz said. “One day the land will move as the water does. One day this city will suffer another catastrophe. When that happens, I will be prepared.”

Wendell has come to see Swami Horowitz because Swami Horowitz knows everyone. He has a gigantic diagram on the ceiling of his parents’ bedroom that shows how everyone is related to everyone else. Names on slips of paper, fixed to the ceiling with long nails. Threads connect the names, black for relatives, green for friends, red for lovers, yellow for enemies. Purple for acquaintances: all relationships outside of blood tend to drift toward this, Swami Horowitz says. Wendell finds his name above the nightstand, and yes, green threads run to Lucas, to Diane, to half the members of the Pan-Galactic Groove Squad. A black thread running halfway across the ceiling connects to his cousin Reginald, an electrician in the Bronx whom Wendell hasn’t seen in three years. And a red line shoots to Manuel above the foot of the bed. Manuel’s nail is thick with thread, rays of color burst away from it, shocks streaking across the room. Other red threads that make Wendell wince.

“You knew, didn’t you?” Swami Horowitz says.

“…”

“People who see this thing, it always upsets them a little. Always something in it they thought they wanted to know.” …

“I’m trying to find [Manuel]. If you don’t know where he is, you must know someone who does.”

“You’re serious.”

“Yes.”

“The police have already questioned all his friends. Nobody knows.”

“I know.”

Swami ascends a stepladder, strums the threads on Manuel’s nail, sings New York, New York, it’s a hell of a town, the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down…”

“No one’s talked to his enemies yet,” he says. “The police don’t know who they are. Try this man.” He points to a name connected by a thick yellow line: Arturo “El Flaco” Domínguez. “A Dominican immigrant. He lives up in Washington Heights, but you won’t find his name on the buzzer. You’ll have to ask around, tell them who you are and what you’re looking for.”

“But if he hates Manuel—”

“—Don’t worry,” Swami Horowitz says. “He doesn’t have anything against you. Coffee?”

“No…no, I should go.”

“Wendell. Have some coffee.”

They sip Maxwell House with their legs out the window of Swami Horowitz’s sister’s room, facing the expanse of the bay. The long spit of sand of Breezy Point arcs to their left, and beyond, the deep blue of the Atlantic, waves pulsing in from hundreds of miles out, cut through by tankers and freighters, busier at the mouth of the bay, then quieter and quieter, until at last there is only the rippled expanse of open ocean, water heaving and falling as it did when the dinosaurs died, as it will when we are replaced by the insects.

“I think I know why you want to find him,” Swami Horowitz says. He swings his legs back into the house and beckons with a finger. Wendell finds him in his parents’ bedroom on the stepladder with a hammer. He is wiggling Manuel’s nail loose; he starts to pull it out and a web of strings strains after it, they pull tight, tighter, other nails begin to ache to the side. Strings go slack, threaten to fall off, others are sure to break. The whole system weakens.

“I designed it this way, you see. If Manuel is really gone, his departure will strain friendships, destroy others. Some lovers may part. And all those acquaintances, all the people who are just becoming friends, who are just beginning to exchange phone numbers, meet for meals on weekdays, swap books, slip notes and photos under each other’s doors, learn about the sticky stuff that stayed on your hands for three days when you were five, share the good drugs they’ve been keeping for special occasions, talk about comic books starring people from Jupiter, have dinner on weekends, sleep together, move to the Gulf Coast and have beautiful children…all those people who are so close to this, their toes right on the edge, those chances will be taken away from them, just like that. It’s a terrible thing when someone goes.”

He sees Wendell off across the floating bridge, and after Wendell is out of sight, Swami Horowitz returns to his parents’ room to fix the nail, to pull the threads tight again; for he’s not gone yet, no, maybe not yet. He goes to the drawer and pulls out his father’s purple bathing suit and a tennis hat his mother wore, puts them down on the bed, and stares at them for hours.

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Spaceman Blues: A Love Song by Brian Francis Slattery
Where to buy: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-A-Million

Image, photographed by Dan Mims, depicts Brian Francis Slattery outside Fair Haven’s La Super Marqueta.

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