Midwife in the Tire Swing

Chapter 35—It’s What You Get Done

Past St. Agnes Church Jerry kept up a light bouncing jog to Union Street, then the uphill grade to Prospect Park. In the yesterdays of the Brooklyn mob, St. Agnes Parish was Crazy Joey Gallo’s turf. Within ten years St. Agnes would be comingled with St. Paul’s a few blocks west due to shrinking congregations. As Mafia overlordship slipped, Asian and Latino gangs moved in to contest the old mob block-by-block with midnight bursts of automatic weapons fire. The new mob grew sleek and glossy in the pastures of plenty afforded by crack cocaine and the Brooklyn numbers. At the corner, the New Deal had raised a monument to evenhandedness in housing, the Projects. Neighborhood-wise, regular folks—read white and Italian—got the hell out of there. Now the huddled masses were afraid to leave their apartments.

In South Brooklyn—Red Hook, Bush Terminal and Carroll Gardens as far as Prospect Heights—and in Boerum Hill, as Arpad Tasmanian the real estate agent called the neighborhood, crack sellers whored out school girls in trash-filled lots and prowled for fresh constituencies among shattered toilets and graffiti murals. Brooklyn’s homeless vied for curb space with white-on-white Cadillacs.

At the Gowanus Canal, rainbow-hued from oily seepage, Jerry looked over the side to check for the presence of fish. This was where they had met, he and Sarah. He had fallen in. “Brrr...” The Brooklyn Green Coalition boasted that fish were returning as a result of their cleanup efforts. “Yeah, but they’re dead,” said Jerry. A half-decayed mullet bobbed forlornly; it had been pecked at by seagulls. A formal rictus of strangulation in oxygen-depleted water had left it grinning with a lop-sided smile. Jerry smiled back. Until the toxicology studies on the ‘fluid contents’ of the onetime shipping channel—the City hesitated to call it water—Jerry basked in ignorance of what he could have picked up by way of immersion in the Gowanus. Cholera, dengue fever. He paused, running in place in the middle of the drawbridge.

A crone with the speckled head of a park pigeon shuffled by with an elegantly dressed gent who was, on closer inspection, a corpse. Jerry stopped to watch. “I appear to be flailing away at the pavement and not moving an inch. Never get anywhere this way, Joanna,” said Judge Crater. “Never been one much for arithmetic, Hon,” said the prophetess. She indicated a large key between her shoulder blades. “Give us a crank, would ’ee?”

“Don’t know,” said the Judge. “But a moment of silence would be refreshing.” He thrust his rolled umbrella between the prophetess’ legs. The clockwork woman slumped forward, knocking Jerry off his feet. He found himself clinging to the guard rail and staring down into the rainbow smear.

“Hiya, mermaid.” The dead mullet seemed to wink at him. “Just fell off my shoes,” he explained to the fish. “I must have been pushed. You do it? That’s two, then.” Jerry removed his glasses and, pulling the tail of his running jersey from the waistband of his Gortex tights, gave the lenses a polish. Glasses replaced, he looked around—no, he was the only one in sight—then checked the fish below for any smartass comments. The mullet bobbed back and forth in the wake of a passing barge a mile distant in New York harbor.

“Bertolt Brecht, Ballad of the Drowned Girl,” Jerry told the fish. “Sarah used to sing that, ‘Her hair light as flax flows out in the stream, her pallid face...’ Kurt Weill wrote the music. You are a mermaid. A Brooklyn mermaid.” The fish seemed to beckon him to come and join with it in the embrace of the oily water.

*  *  *

Jerry was hunched over the computer. “If nothing else, you can always get a good job as a touch typist,” his high school guidance counselor once reassured him. He watched and scrolled as tattooed bikers mounted their willing wenches—sidesaddle, from the rear, leaping atop and over, contorted into improbable configurations. “That is NOT typing,” said the guidance counselor, fading to nothingness. “Uh... yeah, sure,” said Jerry. He hit Control W to lose the browser screen and looked accusingly at an oversize ficus benjamina Sarah rescued from the sidewalk in front of her dentist’s office; it was a full four feet in height and cutting into his territory.

He had read about a software program the government was using. It could intercept all correspondence on the Internet. He wondered if the NSA was watching him and cataloging his browsing habits. They would tell. Or use his Internet records to blackmail him into working for the... For what? Who knew? It would not do for the FBI, CIA, or Sarah to find out about these visits to the tattooed bikers and their pliant partners. Or the doctoral review board at the grad school. Jerry backed up his files, scanned for spyware and then wiped out his hard drive. He bought a router to put between himself and the predators of cyberspace. He changed Internet service providers and finally, just to be sure, junked his computer and got a new one so as to have a different machine access code.

He had wrestled the benjamina into a far corner. There was room near the window and Jerry stopped watering it for some weeks, but there it stood, green and glossy. “No witnesses left alive,” he muttered. He peeled the rubber insulation from a lamp cord and wrapped it around the plant. When he plugged it in, at first nothing happened. The cord glowed orange, then white, and the ficus gave off a smell of frying bananas and burnt toast. Tiny sparks jumped from its leaf tips. The lights went out. He hauled it out to the curb to await trash pickup.

Even with the ficus gone, the corner he called his study was cramped. To lay claim to it as his and his alone, Jerry hung a corkboard on the wall. To this he thumbtacked three-by-five recipe cards with motivational mottos—“It’s not what you do; it’s what you get done.” “A shit in the hand is worth two in the birdbath.” “Just Do It.” And a collage with Sarah’s face superimposed over the bodies of porn stars: “Well-behaved women rarely make history.”

Jerry reached for a fresh carrot and chewed furiously. He ate while he worked: carrots, cilantro hummus, and prepared tabouli from plastic containers brought home from the corner bodega. A smear of yogurt trailed across his keyboard where it had dried during an all-night research session. He dragged a blue corn taco chip through the hummus then dipped it in the tabouli. He looked at the screen and it was blank. A chill charged up his spine and his peripheral vision went blurry. A panic attack. He had had these before; he sat quietly and waited it out. When his eyes cleared Jerry investigated his keyboard. There was parsley caught in the space bar.

*  *  *

An e-mail from Sarah

—I don’t know why I am writing this to you, I really don’t. You are bad news, Jerry. We should never have moved in together. Well, I moved out—guess that says it all. But my stuff is still there with you. Please write back soonest so I’ll know if you’re alive or not. This is important to me as I have misplaced the keys. Oh, shit—forget all that. It’s just that I’ve got no one else to talk to. I have my family. Dysfunctional doesn’t quite say it for the Hobarts. They are more like something off TV or a B grade horror movie, cryogenically sealed—whatever the shrink-wrap on frozen turkeys is called.

An e-mail from Jerry

—I killed your tree. I want you to know up front I did not kill the tree because of you—the rubber tree? That ficus Dr. Armitage threw out. It was the Christmas lights. I guess a short circuit, electrical thing. Glad you like Maine.

An e-mail from Sarah

—How the hell do you kill a rubber plant? The damned things are indestructible. You had to want to kill it—me, my surrogate. Fuck the goddamned ficus. We were a couple, could have been a couple. We lived together, had good sex—not great, good—and all I did was pick away at your veneer. I wrecked my psychic fingernails peeling away at you like an onion, layer after layer. And whenever I looked back to see where I was—there you were, growing a new skin to hide behind. I opened up to you—told you all my hopes, my aspirations. What do you do?—you shut yourself away with your computer. Surfing for porn.

An e-mail from Jerry

—The porn is research for my paper. What paper? Only my life’s work. I have described it to you. You didn’t listen.

An e-mail from Sarah

—Christmas lights. You’re a Jew, for Chrissakes. You said you were writing a screenplay. Don’t you remember? I remember.

An e-mail from Jerry

—I’m in the grad school at NYU. Film history. Since September. Sarah. I love you. Didn’t I tell you that? Maybe not.

An e-mail from Sarah

—Since when is ‘since September’ a life’s work? Who are you? I don’t even know who you are.

*  *  *

In the first weeks after Sarah went to Maine, Jerry moped around the house. He ran ever shorter laps in Prospect Park, and then gave up on running entirely. He began bringing home ice cream by the pint from the corner bodega. He ate it with a spoon right from the container. He brought home beer and wine. One day in a half-hearted attempt to start running again, his Gortex skintights would not slip on. He had to lie down on the floor and fight them up past his hips. He checked the mirror. A roll of fat hung over at the waistband. He had developed what the ads on TV called “Unsightly tummy bulge.”

When Jerry Levy came back from his Thursday evening seminar in the Village, a red numeral 1 was flashing on the answering machine. He set down the brown paper bag he was carrying and tapped “Play messages.”

“Sarah? We’ve missed you. Are you all right? This is Billie, just checking.”

That woman. Again. The one who called herself Billie Sundae. Wasn’t that an old time revival preacher? Jerry Levy stared at the answering machine. Sarah’s voice was still on the recorded welcome, all crisp and chirpy. He checked for incoming messages even when there were none just to hear her voice: “Hi there, this is Sarah. Jerry and I aren’t around right now. We’ll get back to you the soonest. Please leave a message. And wait for the beep.”

One morning—it was ten o’clock, he had been sleeping in lately—when he drew back the curtains of the basement apartment there was a couple having sex right outside the window. The woman, a girl barely into her teens, had the glassy eyes and angry face of a crackhead. Jerry stared. They finished with a spasm and the woman stood drawing her jeans back up to her waist. The man did not zip up but turned to stare back at Jerry.

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