Goddamn. Read Justin Torres’ new novel, “We the Animals” in two days and it was magnificent. Truly. Short little thing and it inspired me to go back and rework my short little novel a little. It’s yet unpublished, called, “Tic,” and when I originally wrote it I had chapters in the way Torres does in his book, then I tried to blend them all together, thinking all the little chapters in a little book was stupid. His book is little and his chapters are little, and it’s fucking fantastic. In honor of all this, I’m posting a part of my little book, a chapter entitled, “Busted Pipe:”
I like talking about this summer, which marked a year since I left L.A., because it was our last hurrah. Elana and I didn’t break up ‘til the next summer – we stayed together two years long distance, but I scarcely remember the Christmas break of the second year when I know I went back and saw her again, and the final summer is just a burning sun.
Along with the usual trip to Los Angeles, I stayed with Elana and her father and her sister in Queens, NY for three weeks. After that, at the tail end of the summer, Elana came to Decatur for a couple weeks – a helluva layout – but the three weeks in New York were the pinnacle, perhaps the surprise.
Her dad is a funny man – someone I took to quite well – and I was supposed to work for him during these three weeks as a carpenter’s assistant, which would, according to my mom, earn my stay. I did for like two days, hands stuffed in my pockets, him saying, “Rule number one! Never put your hands in your pockets!” He had another steady assistant who worked with him – a righteous dude from the block – and in those first few days we drove to a job in Manhattan. Nat – Elana’s father, short for a longer Israeli name – was in the passenger seat while the dude drove, and he turned so as to face both of us while the car zoomed over some bridge, through this giant erecter set, and asked us regarding the new Nicholas Cage movie, “What do you think’a this Nicholas Cage though, I just don’t feel like he’s a first class actor, you know, I just wouldn’t go to a movie just for him. He doesn’t carry it although they put him in these roles like he should be the one carrying the script.” Neither me or the dude said much, kind of contemplated and grunted, which was enough.
I liked Elana’s father. He was a smart man; I even got the feeling as we drove and he talked about Nicholas Cage – there was something in his eyes – that he had much more to say. It was as if this topic was a little bit of an admission, a small concession to open the air up and get things going, but behind his eyes I saw a big room, and it had a lot of furniture, and it was well designed.
When we got to the job in Manhattan I carried a few tools and then stood there helpless again with my hands in my pockets. “Rule number one! Never put your hands in your pockets!” Nat pestered me with good taste. “Hand me that wrench – see, this is what we do all day, we play,” he said as he lied on his back ‘longside the dude and they each wrestled with these cabinets they were putting together, or fixing or something. When we were done for the day and on our way out they sent me back to grab something, adding in unison as they entered the elevator, conniving but genuine smiles percolating their lips, “If you’re not down in five minutes, we’re leavin’.”
Besides one trip with my dad and my brother and my step mom when I was probably eight, I’d never been to New York City. I do remember from that trip coming out of the subway into the city – my step mom’s parents lived out in Long Island or somewhere – coming out into the city and seeing that, you know, feeling that, that burst! that carnival sound, that aaaahhhhdddaaaaa dada thadada thada! The mad comptroller recycling his own madness.
Luckily after two or three days of “working” for Elana’s father, Nat, he got a call from an old job he did replacing a pipe behind a washing machine. I went with him to check it out. We got there and this redheaded gay guy looked livid. I don’t know if he was the owner of the entire building or it was his washer Nat had jacked with, but he was the one who got huffy. And probably with good reason; the pipe Nat replaced burst and water had gone everywhere, including the apartments below. The family in the apartment under it had pulled up there rugs for moisture accumulation. As the redheaded guy with smoke coming out of his ears showed Nat his bogus pipeline, Nat now bending down to check it out, I watched. Nat was forced to humbly admit he used a used pipe when he probably should have gotten a new one. He shot me a look that was heartbreaking as he assessed the damage in his mind. However, Nat rebuked the redhead’s charges, whose face was now matching his hair, by disagreeing that all the fucking carpets had to be pulled up already.
Nat spent the next two and a half weeks dealing with his insurance, and working out the cost of the damage, so – well, I was off scot-free.
After a couple days of sitting around, watching “The People vs. Larry Flint” over and over which was playing on pay-per-view on Nat’s illegally routed black-box cable set-up, Elana decided we should do something. So we hit the subway for the city.
What would you do if you were sixteen in Manhattan? We climbed the Twin Towers, four years before they were destroyed. Supposedly up top on a clear day you could see the curvature of the world; I couldn’t see nothing, then again, it wasn’t a clear day. In the food and tourist area at the top of the Towers, Elana wandered, interested, looking at the historical exhibits and such. She had a stark desire to learn and soak up everything she could. It fed her, even at our age. I watched her as she scoped the place out, interested in her being interested in everything. What calm fortitude possessed her? I could barely tell my feet from the sky, or a wall from enough-room-to-move-forward. (Elana’s sister, Shir, kept making fun of me the whole trip because I hit my head getting off a city bus, right under a sign that had said explicitly and in red, WATCH YOUR HEAD.) More accurately, I barely had enough room in my mind to ingest the distance between my eyes and my own hands, let alone care why the Twin Towers were originally conceived and for what purposes.
Deep in my soul, way down where the truest inarticulation rests, I was so surprised that Elana still had such strong conviction to be with me. Not in a self-deprecating way – I believed I was worth it, in the end – it just didn’t seem rational in the whole picture of things. But here she was, illustrious brown blond curly hair half-down in the middle of New York City, damn near the top of the world, like a fact after the fire, still headlong committed. It was quite touching, if not entirely grounding, because otherwise I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.
The next day we went to Central Park. The sky was clear and sunny, and it was hot. Elana was wearing a light blue, purple-trimmed halter-top and blue jeans and I must have had on something. On the subway there I postulated about life, it bucking through the dark tunnel: “This is definitely where you start to realize what really matters, where the backward counts as much as the forward,” I said. I leaned back in the pale orange ice cream-colored seat, and she sat to my right, leaning forward, hers starch blue. She looked at me knowingly and endearingly, elbows to her knees and head turned my way, hair falling down over her right shoulder, not saying anything. I was trying to glimpse for her what was going through my mind. If she could understand, maybe I could understand. Maybe this would solidify it. But she just looked at me, gazing; truly innocent to my dilemma, I realized then. I felt alone. Her apparent happiness and clear-eyed-ness I couldn’t even begin to touch, and didn’t know why. There was a disconnect in the day, in everything around me, like a blip in time, a pipe rupturing, or a song skipping. My only reference points were the times I used to have with Elana in my old life, with my old life, in L.A. But this didn’t feel the same. It was like I couldn’t even see what was right in front of me anymore.