New York City skyline at night




A Plague Year
an except from the novel by Mark Nickels

Vale of Cashmere
Prospect Park, Brooklyn

Leon had a five-by-five framed photo of Dusty Springfield, its pixels so unnaturally large that you only knew who you were looking at from the doorway. It had cost him a good deal, in his leaner years. He'd had to resort to dumpster- diving just to eat after paying for it. After several dives he was ecstatic to discover three or four fully wrapped wheels of Brie, still in their little balsa wood boxes.

"Imagine throwing away cheese because it's too old!"

In this era he belonged to an organization of gleaners who wouldn't stoop to a fluorescent tan at Key Food like the rest of us, stuck listening to Christopher Cross as we muscled our carts around. He braved rats. He was a very rugged little bloke, Leon. He spun his tale, where, for the next two weeks he consumed, more or less, only Brie and tortillas. I always put in at this point that friends had taken him out for at least one meal a week, an interjection that he waved away with an unlit cigarette. I was ruining his story.

"It was bad enough. At the end of that two weeks I used up several boxes of Smooth Move tea to get things unstuck. And my blood was so thick it must have crawled through my veins on its hands and knees. So then Eddie had me on garlic and green tea and baby aspirin. As if I was, like, old. I hated every minute of it. I didn't have the right shoes for it, either."

"He ran in a pair of Chuck Taylor's and got shin splints," I added.

"In Williamsburg!" said Leon, rocking with mirth. I have no idea why he said that. It wasn't in Williamsburg, but in this part of Brooklyn. He was stoned. His was a 420 friendly zone. He wanted to live in Williamsburg, he looked like he lived in Williamsburg, all artful frays and patches, the gleaner business, but he did not. He lived in the older, slightly less hip Slope.

On evenings like this I was always waiting for the third party, or a couple— male-male, female-female, male-female, or what not, mutual friends or bar pickups—to get bored and fly off into the dark so that Leon and I could get down to what we really wanted. As soon as the door shut we were off on one of our aural journeys. Leon reached with his long fingers into his collection of records and CDs, or jabbed at his Apple aleph and iTunes, impatient. It was not vast, his collection, but I had augmented it a little by quirky odds and ends of my own: Krenek string quartets, Morton Feldman, Terry Riley. The core of Leon's collection had two themes: English pop from around 1964 through 1985— especially Dusty Springfield—and Transylvanian, Hungarian and Rumanian folk music.

Leon was the product of a Hungarian-Rumanian union, extraordinarily volatile, not least for political reasons. It was almost as bad as the West Bank of his bathtub, where his sententious Dr. Bronner's Eucalyptus stood guard uneasily all night over blocks of severe olive oil soap from Sahadi. On a summer night I went with him to the Lower East Side to track down his parents. He needed money in a hurry, for some health problem or another that he dismissed with blurred hand gestures. He wouldn't take money from me and he wouldn't tell me what he needed it for, except to say that it wasn't the very worst thing. He said his parents were "partying" at a Social Club for Rumanians on Forsyth Street, and he aimed to get one of their credit cards. It would never occur to me to find a Rumanian Social Club on Forsyth Street, but there it was, spilling barred yellow light onto the sidewalk. From inside came the sound of thick crockery in collision. He went in alone. When the door opened, it smelled like meat and cigarettes.

His parents were very old, he said, and he was their only child. One sister had died, an exchange student in Vienna, when Leon was about twelve. Her hot water heater had blown up in her apartment am Wichtelgasse and killed her instantly. He showed me her high school picture. She looked out and up: starry, fine, with coiled, haycolored hair, a slender neck. She looked like a Chekhov sister, the sensible one who tells the others they must work. As for his parents, I don't know if they knew their son cross-dressed, or what they made of his crises. It made me sad to think about their senior, immigrant bewilderment. Hard upon their mourning, their gangly son, manic with hormones and confusion, furtively ransacked his dead sister's room. He became both flamboyant and guarded. Once, he had kissed them both goodnight and said the Pledge of Allegiance in fluorescent church basements before dinner. They remembered these things still.

Leon did not make me sad. He perched on the edge of my life like a peacock in a children's zoo, since I taught fourth grade at the time. I supplemented my meager Board of Ed salary weekends in the vastest, moldiest record store in town. I'd never, in my half dozen years in the States, had any mates who grew up in New York, much less on the lower East Side. Everyone was from somewhere else. I pictured Leon running around in knickers and a high newsboy's cap, luring Irish beat cops into concealed pits and Blind Tigers and stealing their hats. I imagined him applying his first lipstick in a sepia-toned photo, an indistinct nimbus of white light in the corner of a tenement.

In his apartment in the South Slope, in Brooklyn, on any given weekend near the end of the first decade of this disastrous century, we fired up the bong. Leon turned on the blue light bulb and started the music, maybe the largest collection of Transylvanian, Hungarian and Rumanian folk music in this part of the borough, but who knew? After only a few drags the scratchy, sweet and wild fiddles made it seem like I was floating over a moonlit thicket, shapeless mountains looming ahead, but coming on fast. It was like skimming the landscape in Google Earth, or being dead. In the beginning, I wasn't sure why I was putting myself through this. But after a few weeks, I have to admit, it had insinuated itself. I had to get up and dance. Leon watched through half closed eyes but with a frail smile curling as I shuffled and teetered a bit, stoned and fragile. His ash-blond hair stood up over his high-gothic face, like Woodstock, I thought, when stoned, or a dazzled bird of some kind or another, with flashing microseconds of atavistic Transylvanian cunning passing through.

Before or after the Rumanian thickets, we were on the cellophane rain streets of London, in Leicester Square, with Dusty Springfield and Jerry and the Pacemakers and Anthony Newley. A couple of times we even walked over to Cobble Hill from the Slope to a new English chip restaurant on Atlantic and had hideous-delicious overpriced entrées and deserts like Deep Fried Chip Butty and Rhubarb Crumble. If it was raining, he was even happier. We listened to Bowie sing "Sound and Vision," with Mary Hopkin in the background singing doo de doo de do de/doo de doo de do de doooo (de do), two sets of headphones in one iPod. He was ecstatic. This was intimacy for him. I told him I'd been to Leicester Square and felt disappointed that it was a lot like Times Square, only with a lower ceiling, and that in fact being in London on a moment-to-moment basis was a lot like being in New York. He didn't want to hear this.

"You don't sound like a Brit," he said.

"Same queen, very different country. If you were with Dusty in London then, what would you do?"

"You probably expect me to say I'd pick out her outfits for her, and sit around and ball with her about men or something."

"No," I lied.

"I don't know what I'd do. I just like the feeling of it, of London, always raining, kind of green air."

He was getting over his boyfriend, Galen, when we first met. Galen was the type of queen who seemed royally distracted until he notices you have a hole in your sweater or need to do some extra crunches. He was one of those mean queens you can't admit you would like to be liked by, not because you like them, but because they hate everybody, and it would be an achievement. After a cursory introduction I saw an unmysterious decision about me register on Galen's face. This prick flitted off to the bar for another drink and out of our lives forever. Galen had, unlike Leon, made a lot of money in Leon's field, web design, or something. I didn't care. He was possibly the only Irish queen I knew of, except Oscar Wilde. I believe Leon was still in love with him, then.

But now Leon and I were left alone to talk as best we could over the back beat while the daintiest naked Asian boys gyrated on their podiums. I had a wicked crush on one of them, a Japanese drama student at Hunter with rank armpits, who I'd have gone to the moon for, for about a week, for his cantilevered little torso.

Gay bars are not a reliable créche for friendships. That night, it couldn't have worked out better, because Galen finally slipped out the door, not altogether unseen, with a Tony Wong look-alike; this according to a sympathetic but not very interested friend who looked at poor Leon with the acid pity reserved for those not yet hard enough to slough off the virus of love.

As it happened, I was there to comfort him with nods and murmurs, hearing him out about his impossible Galen. Later we went down to the Village and walked the streets of the old meatpacking district, where straight and rich pub-crawlers from the financial services industry smoked in front of new-old Parisian bistro façades and laughed about unfathomable pop culture things. Leon was beginning to see it was not what he thought it was, his love. I think he was trying to stave off the realization that he was not actually in love with Galen the Selfish, Galen the Rich. It's better to be deceived than to find out you lied to yourself. I knew that.

So I spent the night with Leon Bojtor, and it was chaste. It was chaste from the beginning, and now, I think, how very strange that it was. But our combined flavors would have been just too bizarre: a bookish Kiwi expat and a second-generation Slavic New York queen. Instead, it was like finding the best mate you ever had. No discussion took place, it just happened. We slept spooned, my arm resting on his flat belly or his bony hip as he slept soundly in a powder blue t-shirt and scarlet satin basketball shorts that smelled overpoweringly of a fabric softener meant to suggest the breeze coming through an open window, but not an open window in Brooklyn. I wore my ultra-slim pale-green jeans that were too much trouble to remove and the top of a Kiwi football kit. The metal hardware wore indentations in my sweaty groin. I thought about making a move. I didn't move. I didn't sleep particularly well but was too lazy to get up and go home. We had gotten so drunk and stoned we let Animal Collective distantly repeat itself on random access. New combinations of its Technicolor finger paintings went on, and I continued to have conversations while asleep similar to the ones I'd had when awake, as often happens when you're stoned.

We were facing each other in the drained predawn light when our eyes came open, or at least mine came open. He was looking at me already.

"I have a piss hard-on," I said. I guess I was testing, in a way. His eyes closed and there was a long pause.

"Then go piss."

I had no distaste for his bathroom, or his morning breath or his habits. I didn't hold his drinking glasses up to the light to see if they had been washed and rinsed properly, or wonder if he had bedbugs. I didn't have to wonder what sort of cankers he had on his cock, if he had any, or what his occasionally sunken eyes signaled. We were mates, now. We talked in bed until we got too hungry and had to get up and find a ten-dollar New York breakfast, though by this time it was too late for breakfast and we had Mexican food. His fridge only held cantaloupe, three cartons of whole-milk vanilla yogurt, wilting mesclun and a few dates. There was a bag of walnuts and he crushed them with a small hammer, pissing off the neighbors downstairs. It was a girl's refrigerator, though I'd never have said so. He likely had Rye Krisps in the cupboard.

He ate like a bird and he talked non-stop. His stranger passions didn't eclipse me. As for reciprocity, I have to say he did hear me out, amused and only mildly impatient. He didn't hate me, as some gay men did, for having been, in order, straight, gay, straight and indeterminate. Maybe gay now, but still pissed at Kate. I didn't get the feeling he found me inauthentic. He understood that in my case it wasn't about choice; I just couldn't bloody well see the difference between the sexes. Both sexes smell similar in the same places, make the same noises when aroused, if in different timbres. They own a roughly equivalent capacity to not have the faintest idea what they want. He half listened to all of this.

But he was entitled to be the hero of his own novel, like everyone else. There are those with little curiosity about the lives of others, and people are often drawn to them. I was tired of my complicated narrative and happy to have a supporting role, for the time being. It was restful. It was a bit lazy. At the same time, I was getting on; it didn't seem fitting I should be pleasing others so much.

I went to a few drag shows when he performed, martyrish about it. Maybe it was because I had no kid and didn't have to put up with animated full-length adventures and theme pizza parlors, but some sacrifice still had to be made, some requisite slot for sacrifice to be filled between thirty-five and forty. It was a more tense, more affected Leon than the one in his living room, though, as near as I could tell, his Dusty was spot-on when he did "Wishin' and Hopin' " and "All Cried Out" and lip-synced up the preposterous, incandescent orchestral staircase of "Losin' You" to close. I had to admit the cellos lowing in the beginning of that last song, the gospel piano, sent a chill up between the shoulder blades. Leon emoted beautifully. In fact, I was moved. A stagy tear was making its way through the pancake. I saw Galen off in a corner making chitchat, with the odd bored glance at the stage. I wondered how Leon saw himself at this moment, tragic Dusty or Tragic Leon or one of both. I'd never wanted to be a woman.

Most of the queens were too young to really know who she was, Dusty, so Leon became their educator. The old queens—and there were few enough—shrieked in delight, and the young ones got burned copies of Dusty's Greatest Hits as party favors.

He gave me a quick peck in front of his door when we got back to our neighborhood and disappeared, I knew, into Prospect Park. He sidled in through the broken fence on the shabby side of the Park to avoid the police, because it closed at one 1 A.M. The first time I sneaked behind at some distance but got too scared of the looming blue trees and deafening cicadas, and turned back. Leon was the nervous type who turned around a lot, and I knew he would sooner or later, and what would I say then? I watched him disappear into that huge lowering arbor. Shadowy, solitary men moved around back there, unassuming, hands in pockets, just out for some air in a lightless corner of a huge urban park at three in the morning. I knew they were preparing to do unspeakable, delicious things with one another at the first opportunity. In stygian darkness. Delicious, giving in like that. Weird freedom and danger. Hard to find anywhere else, I suppose, the uncontroversial equivalent. The queer man's Fight Club. He went dressed as the boy, to my mind, he nearly was: with a baseball cap and ripped jeans and chocolate brown Chuck Taylor's. You couldn't help but be scared for him. I feared for him thugs and fagbashers, vicious unconscious adolescent catamites with an old score to settle on a stranger, like the ones who ran over Pasolini with a car.

I sat in a Grecian portico and waited until I couldn't stay awake anymore. I listened to the urban groans and sighs of cars in the circular, at the center of which was the one of New York's ersatz triumphal arches, Grand Army Plaza. There was no road through the arch and thus no way to parade under it either, so it was an arch to no purpose, a portal to any when or where. Maybe it had hovered over doughboys in puttees, performed some civic function at one time. Before I gave in to fatigue and walked off, one of the Brooklyn constabulary appeared out of nowhere and asked me what I was doing out here so late. I'm not sure why I came back with what I did, since Kate and I had been split for years. I had destroyed everything in my apartment that reminded me of her, including the sheets we had slept on, some of them stained with her menstrual blood, a holy relic.

"My girlfriend and I had a fight and I'm waiting for her to go back to sleep."

The policeman let go of his obligatory ill humor, maybe relieved that I wasn't cruising, I don't know.

"I hear ya, boss. Hope it works out."

A couple of days later I was in Doyers Street in Chinatown. Full of dim-sum and alone, I called Leon.

"Why do you do that, Leon?" He didn't need to ask what I was talking about.

"Why not? I won't hurt anybody."

"Oh, come on."

"No, I don't have a death wish. It's like playing. It's like being twelve again, like playing tag, whether or not anything happens."

"But, my friend, you could get hurt."

"I doubt it. I mean, I don't think I have a charmed life or anything, but you know, y'know? You can tell if somebody isn't right. I don't go with anybody who's drunk or high, if I can tell."

"What about you?"

"That doesn't count. I'm not worried about their judgment about me. They'll have to take care of themselves. I won't hurt anybody."

"You've said that twice." I was pushing hard.

"It's a little like hunting. In the Bukovina or something. You don't even have to think after awhile. I don't know how to describe it."

"Do you, you know, encounter every time?"

"A what? Oh, Christ, no." His voice was cigarette husky, though he didn't smoke anymore. "Sometimes I think I just like being out there, in the woods. I love walking at night. I love not being able to see, the smell of the trees and grass. I like the suspense. Sometimes I just sit, not even thinking about sex. I saw an egret one Sunday. I went to Barnes & Noble and looked it up afterward. I hear red-tailed hawks, in the daytime. I see bats and bunnies. I have little chats. There are drum corps that practice in some area in the park I don't know, but they practice in moonlight, and in the woods you remember it was a battlefield, and you get scared, and then the ground flickers and flashes, but it's only a jet coming in low."

"But sex, the thought of it is always there."

"Check. You never forget about it."

I could see him lean into his cell phone, excited.

"You know, last year when I went to that cottage upstate, Galen's parents? I went into the woods one day... of course, there's no one fooling around in there, but...I got hard. I got a woody, just from the smell. Of the trees."

"Woody" was one of my words, an adolescent, straight-boy word. It didn't sound quite right, coming from him. But his willed fantasy life was there, in the background of our willful fantasy life, with pot and music, a combination that lets you extend time artificially, and just the thing for New York, which was all about that. People who would consider themselves middle-aged in the heartland would never think so here, dressing younger, scarfing sushi and salads and diligently sweating at the gym. As for youth, it was nothing more than the time before life seemed like it was pretty much going to be about approximations from here on in.

The next time I saw him perform, we went back to his apartment, on 5th, in the South Slope. We lit up and he cast about for some more limey pop with kettledrums and backup singers from Philadelphia, but this time I had CDs of my own in my bag. Surprised him. I played some Fauré piano trios and unraveled on the couch, leaving room for him on the edge. He stood with his hands on his hips, straightened some newspapers. He seemed to be making a decision. Finally, he came and lay down, his back to my front. I curled an arm over him, since there was nowhere else to put it. Full sycamore leaves swayed in the streetlight spilled on the floor. Garbage trucks mated in the stone and iron distance, brownstones on either side. He was very still, his chest rising and falling slowly. I decided not to tell him Bartók was Hungarian when I played some of the quartets, but he figured it out. Listening to the Sixth String Quartet so close to him, I imagined I heard it the way he did, anticipated his deep surprise, his shock, his impatience. Boredom. When the grotesque little march began, he snorted, and when, in the beginning, the quartet veered off into a major key and some beautiful Transylvanian pizzicato redolent of grass and sheep dung—only magical—he held his breath, and exhaled at the end, as if lowering a weight. It was one of my top twenty-five passages in the quartet repertoire. Along with the fourth movement of the Fifth, I wanted it tattooed on my body. I heard him murmur something, some exclamation, a syllable of wonderment. In turn I wondered for a little while if I was falling in love with him.

Kate had limped off, after tearfully disposing of me, to read poems aloud in rooms full of Sunday light and earthenware bowls from Pottery Barn with a few broken, Blue Corn tortilla chips in them, my eidetic image of despair. This is what I imagined, self-protectively.

I squeezed his arm and he squeezed back. I felt gushy and stupid. Later, he turned on the light and read through the little booklet that came with the set, his hand on his chin and his hair falling over his eyes. Beautiful, angled, fluent, worried boy. Bartók stared from the cover, with the same eyes as Schoenberg, live coals. Same eyes, different face.

"Eddie, I want you to keep bringing these around, but I have a condition," he said, without looking up.


"I want you to put them on, but I don't want to know who they are or anything. I just want to listen."


"I don't want to become a connoisseur, honey. It ruins everything."

So don't be a connoisseur, I thought. I recoiled with the muffled anxiety of the lover, and I knew it. I had it, bad, that fogged inability to avoid scratching where it itched. He didn't want to become like me. But the hurt coexisted with the satisfaction that someone else had heard in the music what I heard, something luminous and imperishable, sacred microbes in a petri dish, life in its blind, splendid protocols, intimate with death. I fretted. Was I a foil, a straight man, the dead stick to his Gracie Allen? Was I his Zeppo, his Watson? Leon the discoverer; Edward the connoisseur.

What I call the Second Mesopotamian War plopped a few more dead boys and girls into our waking minds every morning. On NPR it seemed awful and remote, a bad, coffin-less secret. It was as though they were being sucked down a drain somewhere, behind a high fence, a Guantánamo of their own. And there was growing buzz about the bird flu, then about staph infections, then about killer rhinoviruses. The stories flared for awhile, then disappeared while the economy tanked once again, and another election absorbed all the anxiety. These were apocalyptic murmurings only, but I thought I saw a pattern. I wondered if viruses were beginning to go through the minute dance steps they needed to stomp in as major news. Maybe they were flown in by accident from hot Vietnam, or someplace where they sipped duck blood soup crouching among landmines and oxidizing military hardware. Somewhere between here and where I was born. Of course I remember, as the lucky ones do, the first night I heard the plague had landed, not transmitted from bird to bird, but, finally, from human to human, again and again, probably somewhere on the East Coast, probably in the 'Tri-State Area." I remember because it was about the time I got my first scare about Leon. Two men were shot and badly wounded in the Vale of Cashmere, in Prospect Park, at five in the morning, while involved in a "sexual act," and robbed. I'd worried for a day, since I was unable to reach him. But he was fine, as it turned out, and, chastened, stayed out of the park for awhile.

It had been a quiet year in which I'd taught with occasional contentment my nine-year-olds, and hung out with Leon, and read stacks of books, and collected thrown-out stereo components and boxes of old record albums and CDs, the latter rapidly becoming as obsolete as the former. I was coming home on a crowded Peter Pan bus after dark on a Sunday night, back from a trip to New England to visit some new friends. The bus had green cartoons on the side, Captain Hook and Wendy moving through the murk. There was a mile of bobbing red tail lights ahead of me and a mile of bobbing red tail lights behind in the unspeakably ugly landscape of eastern Connecticut, the New Haven/New Britain/Stamford corridor, a ribbon of trash tight up against the aluminum Sound.

For the first time, I hated America. The margins of nothing land and the stunted trees around the highway, the decaying factories and pointless little service drives and parking lots depressed me. The whole country seemed to me like a car lot under surveillance, under amber lights. I was fiddling with a tiny 10-dollar radio with headphones. In the most technically advanced country in the world, I couldn't bring in a station properly on a moving bus. I caught the hourly newscast of one of the powerful AM stations that mostly featured preachers and exasperated, saliva-spraying middle-aged men of the Right; puzzled, frightened men with damp socks and coffee breath. I heard a little bit about it, the plague. It seemed as though, at last, the game was up. The whole teeming project was coming apart while still in rapid motion, a clump of vibrating, oxidizing metal and canned laughter and confusion. And now the tacky suburbs and vast urban canyons would be like medieval London. It grimly satisfied a certain narrative impulse. If you'd wanted to live in a grand and portentous time you now could, according to the networks, though they would have some way to make it seem mundane and comical and ordinary and the fault of liberals, rolls of the dead every night on the ten o'clock news over Bette Midler singing "From a Distance," or whatnot.

"Why don't you just leave, then?" queried the exasperated middle-aged men (as though I could not be assimilated into that category) in my mind. I had to admit it would be the ideal time. There was no doubt enough vaccine for everyone stockpiled in the remote crypto-Scandinavian welfare state at the bottom of the world I'd come from. They'd quarantine me comfortably for a few days after I arrived. The clean white Kiwis would survive, along with Danes, Canadians and Swiss, at least until the ships and planes stopped coming. We'd be alright, and find out the world was alive at the end of it, and less crowded.

But I'd miss it. I'd miss the chance to witness plague in the Rome of this time, in a country until recently governed, barely, by a simian oilman and a clique of preachers. But then again, I might die.

But then again, I could die of boredom.

Of course, I didn't know, then, what it was going to be like.

I've always fantasized—a garden-variety fantasy in New York—that I'd write a movie, do a screenplay. If I wrote one about Leon, it would begin with a particular piece for Transylvanian fiddle, scratching out a wild sweet astringent tune that was something of an anthem for him, the intervals almost bluesy. And while it was going on, there would be panning shots of Brooklyn on a sunny Saturday morning, cars passing here and there, slant rays filtering through the huge trees over Prospect Park. It would capture the Maxfield Parrish aspect the light could sometimes have, in summer, the grass silvered with dew point, scenes in a montage. It would move through cars and strangers and then inch over to include Leon, coming down the street in his Converse high tops. You'd see him from the back, moving down a gold drenched street of hanging basswoods and ginkgos, with on-your-toes strut of a juvenile delinquent and the mere suggestion of a sashay. If you knew anything about it, it would call to mind all those periods of history when it was the height of fashion for young men to appear willowy and precious. What was that book by Barbara Tuchs? A Distant Mirror, where fourteenth-century swells wore tights with the bottoms cut out so that their buttocks showed, and minced along like geishas in poulaines with the toes so long and drastically curled that they required a kind of jeweled shoe garter—a fashion accessory in itself—to fasten the toe of the shoe to the shin. Or in Elizabethan England, you can see paintings of bejeweled young men without powdered faces and tweezed eyebrows, where the ideal of beauty was paleness, and it was well for one to be both ginger-haired and attenuated, with long, thin fingers and legs. (Paleness persisted as an ideal, of course; Lord Byron drank vinegar to make himself pale, approximating a Greek bust, and did his hair with Macassar oil to darken it.) In Brooklyn, I'd seen straight Haitian boys, dressed in the height of fashion, mince about like Ru Paul (admittedly, Ru Paul was long gone by then) and do the standard poses: standing with the arm crooked against the hip, which is itself out of place to the right or left, even holding the forearm extended, and hand suspended, while walking. In short, it's back, at least in New York, and I'd often meet young men of some beauty, about which everything, from their accessories to their mannerisms, suggested queer, and they turned out not to be. They even had silk scarves looped into the white belts of their jeans. Straight men regularly kissed each other, coming and going.

I don't know where I'm going with this, other than to say that I found myself confounded. I was charmed by the way Leon's identity had not quite come together yet, pulled to him in an offhand, falsely casual, concealed way; attracted by how he moved up under his nebulous ideal, as most of us do, awkwardly—feeling his way through ethnic identity and pop culture, not to say the demands of his own particularity. It's fatal, you know, to fall for someone younger, drawn to their provisional qualities. Maybe their improvisations reminded you of when you still had, or thought you had, a choice; when you had not yet, without even noticing it, become so assuredly who you have become. It once seemed possible to design yourself. If some of the improvisations of the young seemed like fraud or even faintly ridiculous, you, as the older party, could secretly hoard your own amusement, archive an interior smirk. You already knew that, when it came down to it, no one got to be anybody else.

I remember the night before Easter, the tomb still dark, the altars covered, the lilies poised to open. Over dinner at his place, I retold the Passion for him. He hadn't absorbed much of the narrative, accompanying his parents to their various churches. His version owned odd gaps, but, like any peripatetic reader, he also knew wholly unexpected things, like the Nag Hammadi gospels.

"So what were you thinking about when all this was going on around you in church, Leon?"

"My sister and I had things we whispered about. We had secrets."

This startled me, for some reason, though if I'd done the math it would have been clear to me that Leon did not grow up alone.

"We had our own world. I mean, everybody had their own world. Daddy had his electronics shop. He repaired TV sets and radios, though he spent a lot of time reading Westerns. Louis L'Amour. Soft-cover little books, and the covers were so worn they were more like fabric after a while, stacked between the TVs. He read them over and over again. My mother had friends she talked with on the phone, all Rumanian, so we didn't really understand most of what she was talking about."

"She was probably talking about her children and her husband. Isn't that what mothers talk about?"

"Well, I do remember that when my name came up I would get a thrill all over. That she was talking about me."

Leon started taking plates back to the sink. He'd made some kind of chicken thing, with mushroom soup. I didn't think anybody still made things like that; he used an orange, ring-bound Betty Crocker cookbook. It was very retro. There were contemporary elements. We'd had a salad of field greens with fig-infused balsamic vinegar, roasted pecans.

"Can you roll a joint? I have to have a joint to get ready for dessert."

"You know I don't roll good joints."

"Unless you'd rather do the dishes."

"OK, where is it?"

"In the Frisbee under the couch."

"So what did you and your sister talk about?"

"Well, she talked about boys, of course. Imaginary boys and real boys. She talked about Josh Shamansky, who was the boy she dreamed about. He had this wide jaw. Did you know that's how women often measure good looks, according to science? One of the things. The wideness of the jaw. Look how wide Brad Pitt's is-it looks like there's something stuck in there, like big pieces of gum. Josh didn't have that much else going for him. I guess his skin was pretty good. He had long lashes. His lips were thick."

"He sounds beautiful."

"I think he was queer, or about to be."

"Wishful thinking. What else did you talk about?"

Leon leaned against the sink, arms folded. He chewed his lower lip for a minute. "When I was littler we had weird hexes. What you call magical thinking. If my parents went away for the day, we would think that if we imagined terrible things happening to them, they wouldn't happen."

'What were you afraid would happen to them?"

"Doop! That they would get mugged and beaten up. This was the Eighties, you know, not like now. We had the Central Park jogger, stuff like that."

"So you imagined it. And then?"

"Then they would be safe. Nothing would happen to them. Because if we imagined it and then it happened it would be too much of a coincidence, so it couldn't happen."

"Whereas bad things happen when it has never crossed your mind?"

"Isn't that the way it usually works? It's almost always out of the blue."

"I don't know," I said. "I remember once I worked in a box factory. They had these enormous glue rollers. They needed to be cleaned with hydrochloric acid sometimes, when they got too much glue on them. So this girl and I were cleaning them, and they had told us to be careful not to try to put the rag on them while the rollers were running, because the rollers would suck up the rag. Well, this girl...."

"Stop! Stop right there. I can see where this is going."

"The point I'm trying to make is that when I grabbed her by the waist and yanked her away, she yelled, "I can't believe it happened!"

"And her hand? No, I don't wanna know."

"Crushed, but only up to the knuckles."

"Eddie! What did you do? You saved her, right? You're squeezing one hand with the other right now, look! You were traumatized!"

"I suppose so. I've always done that. I quit the next day. I couldn't take it. I was awake all night thinking about it."

"I see your point. She'd thought about it, and then it happened. I guess I can relate to that. It must happen, sometimes. I mean, I hope not. That you think about it..."

"...And it comes down exactly that way."

It seemed that tonight I was only interested in the sore points: his Park behavior, and his sister. I couldn't help it. I checked myself. Something about him drew these invisible, uncrossable lines I therefore needed to cross. I was hoping my ugly factory story would make him tell another of his own, but I wouldn't ask.

"Are you done with that joint yet?"

We lay around and listened to music. I'd set up a turntable someone on Dean Street had thrown out, a perfectly good turntable, and we were playing impossibly bad music, like "Jubliee Surprise Party," a horrific compilation of easy listening show tunes from the early Sixties. One of us would start laughing.


But then the other would pick up on whatever it was the other was laughing about, or what we thought they were laughing about, and start laughing, until both of us had rolled into opposite corners of the room, shouting strangled addendums to keep whatever had started it in the first place going somehow. We were helpless. We were dying.

When the record was over, Leon turned on the light, quickly.

"Eddie. Tomorrow's Easter and I have to see my parents. I have to have dinner with them. Will you come with me?"

"For heaven's sake, why?"

"Because I don't know what to say to them anymore. There's nothing to talk about. They're so uncomfortable. If I bring a friend, they'll be so relieved, they'll talk you to death—"

"And it will be so much simpler for you. Leon, don't be so craven."

"Speak American and don't insult me."


"Yes? You will? Thank you, Eddie...Is that it? Just "OK?" What do you want? Whatever you want, I don't care."

"More wine, please."

"That's easy."

I could hear albums flipping.

"What the fuck is this?"

Leon had crawled over to my stack of albums and pulled out the strangest of the lot. I hadn't even planned on bringing it. It gave me the creeps, even without being stoned.

"Oh, that. I haven't listened to it yet. I didn't even mean to bring it. It's not music. It's just some kind of sermon or another."

"Oh Eddie, Eddie, this is weird."

"Later. I can't deal with it right now."

"Have you heard it?"

"No! I just put it in there. It was in the free pile. You'd be amazed at how many of these records I pick up I haven't heard yet. But not now."

"Oh come on!"

"I promise. After Connie Francis, or One Hundred Greatest Moments in Classical Music, or the new TV on the Radio."

"She looks like she could be Hungarian or something."

He was enthralled by the record. I knew I wasn't going to win this one. I went to put it on. Leon skipped from the room for a minute to bring us some more wine, taking the sleeve with him.

"What kind of name was Mansara?"

Her name was stamped in tiny, cheap pica font somewhere in the middle of the picture. It looked circa 1910, black and white, a studio photo. She was pasty and had a heavy jaw, circles under her eyes. Her eyes had that faceted insanity about them that the eyes of old pictures had, the Lizzie Borden light refraction—staring, silvered eyes. She was in profile. Some kind of satin gown with a ruffled neck. As if it had been chosen for her because she didn't have any taste, but whoever had chosen it for her was as clueless about what to wear as she was. She was not exactly an oil painting. The back of the album was fucking blank, light gray, not a word written on it, sort of dirty, as though someone had used it as a dust pan. Old record sleeves were good for that, I used them for it myself. It was the first time I'd really looked at it. And the record itself seemed to be an early stereophonic record, late Fifties, with nothing at all on the label except, in tiny letters, Underberg Long-Play. A vanity outfit, perhaps. My grandparents had had someone make a cheap record of their wedding reception. You could do that.

So the voice started, a little halting, then more animated. She had a way of reading that sounded like she was reading A.A. Milne. Winnie and the Blustery Day. Utterly relaxed and assured, even whimsical. But the ideas were complex, abstract, the sentences compound, double compound, triple compound. All kinds of metaphors... valences.

What did she say? What was that? I was so stoned. I was lying there in the dark, not even, for once, thinking about Leon. I was at the west end of our old yard in Christchurch where the spruce started to bend the power lines and the wire fence separated our yard from the underground sprawl of the cottonwood—a monarch tree three times the height of the neighbor's house—a Philips Trimline Radio sat in the grass, and from it came the voice of Mansara Wendt-Holcombe, skipping language, prose, I think, by turns creamy and glittery, syllables dangling and blown like a mobile but with the torque of poems, the language not soft or hard, wisdom for life but not fuzzy theosophy and none of the hardware of the standard desert gods and their old books. I wish I could hear it, I wish I could write it: telic but mysterious, bobbling with depth charges of meaning, as though Adorno or some abstruse philosopher hailed from Samarkand, was birthed, lived, died in a river. Oh God, I should have transcribed it. We will never know why we didn't. But it carried the sense that language is elemental. It was put together like a lecture, I'm sure of that. It had the tone of a lecture, didactic. Someone who was so totally crazy she had everyone absolutely fooled. Sometimes you'd hear a chair squeak, or a muffled cough. There was an audience. It seemed like a medium sized hall, but a little reverberant, like a classroom, something without a mic, and with wooden floors. It was very odd the way the voice did not really go with the face. It could have been, but that woman on the cover would have been much too old to have a voice like that, a woman in her early thirties. It was deep, though. That seemed right. She had the Depression-era actressy diction of someone like Bette Davis or Joan Crawford, the nonexistent r's at the end of words, the chlorinated mid-Atlantic ocean liner diction you only hear in old movies.

It didn't bother me at that moment that I couldn't understand it; it comforted me, somehow, that something that suggestive and yet authoritative was there to be understood, eventually. It was sheeny, and as nervous as light, and forever just beyond the grasp of the waking, or the living. So it was terrifying me. Fucking outrageous. It was doing both. I'm doing the best I can to describe it.

I heard Leon. He was lying on the carpet on the other side of the room.

"This is, like, totally freaking me out."

But neither of us got up to change it, until in mid-sentence she just stopped, and the record was hissing and the needle was abrading against the label like someone obsessively wiping their feet on a doormat, about to come in. This was also scaring the shit out of me.


"Got it, I've got it."

I stumbled up and flipped it over, and she started again where she had left off.

The whole thing left us out of sorts. When it was over, nobody clapped, and the needle started limping at the label again, like a ghost mounting the stairs to the apartment. We got up and went into the kitchen, where I sat at the table, rubbing my eyes. Strangely, I wanted to be comforted. Leon got out the ice cream, scooped it. He added the pie he'd made, which stuck to the bottom. He had to ladle it out with a spoon but it looked amazing. Raspberry.

"Could you put something else on, please?" He was all business, with the dessert. Restoring order and gem ü tlichkeit. Leon was very serious about pleasure, a soldier of pleasure. As if we'd had a bad dream, or maybe only a weird dream.

I looked for something anodyne.

Ah. The Mother Goose Suite.


Mark Nickels lives in New York City. His book Cicada was published by Rattapallax Press in 2000. He has won the Milton Dorfman Prize(1996), the Ann Stafford Prize from USC (2002)and been a finalist and semi-finalist at Lyric Recovery Festival (Carnegie Hall). He is a 2006 New York State Arts Foundation Fellow in fiction. His work has appeared in Barrow Street, Literal Latte, Asylum, Rattapallax, Big City Lit, The Same, USC Review and other publications. He blogs regularly at I AM EVEN IN ARCADIA.