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Spaceman Blues: A Love Songby Brian Francis Slattery
In Which a Man Disappears,
and Several Parties Are Held
The Last Hurrah
It is his last day, and by six in the morning he is already drinking, drinking and shot up, eyes frantic, limbs flailing like hes ready to explode. At seven he is on the wasted docks across from Manhattan starting fights with the winos and the mechanics; by eight thirty hes up in Washington Heights playing dominoes on a fire hydrant some kids are getting ready to crack open with a sledgehammer because its so damn hot and the Hudsons so dirty and the ocean is too far away. By noon hes been thrown out of thirteen bars. He gets hit by a bus, gets drunk again with some boys in Spanish Harlem bobbing to bachata out of a static-ridden radio. The afternoon he spends smoking sweet tobacco and watching old movies in Arabic with the Egyptians in Astoria. He kisses Daouds hand in Egypt Café, whispers something in his ear; then he rides the G back into Brooklyn, hops trains to Brighton Beach, where its getting dark and the families are getting ready to go home. The men on the boardwalk totter with vodka, chase women, and eat boiled eggs, and he goes from club to club to tell the Russian Mafia hes leaving, he wont bother them anymore. By dark he is face-up on the pier at Coney Island, watching the first suns flare in the sky, the first stars of summer, out for that rare time when the humidity breaks and all is quiet, like the city is taking a breath, swelling the land under it, diverting water in the river and the bay to places farther out, deeper places; then it exhales, and all that was displaced returns, all that was disturbed tilts back into place, settles, grows quiet. And then, Manuel Rodrigo de Guzmán González vanishes. Poof.
For twenty-six hours, nobody knows hes gone. Everybody thinks hes with someone else, like the time he went to the Philippines and everyone thought he was in Jersey. He never answers his telephone anyway, they say. He tells people to call so he can let it ring twenty, thirty times. He has a phone from the sixties with a fire alarm bell on it; it helps him get to sleep.
Then his apartment explodes, blows apart the outside wall and rains bricks, plaster, timber and glass, burnt paper, shredded clothes in the street, but leaves the rest of the building standing, untouched. The news spreads in a widening circle of shock, people are talking about it up and down the street, voices crackle across the air and over wires. Hes gone, hes gone, it goes in letters, in words flashing across flickering screens, it is written by planes in the sky. It spreads from the city and moves to the end of Long Island, into New Jersey, Connecticut, upstate, across New England; it moves across the continent over the miles of thrashing grain, the ragged heights of the Rockies, down into the deserts and dense forests and to the opposite shore, where men hear it on shortwave radios at the place where the Mexican border falls into the Pacific Ocean, and the waves roll in gigantic and break against the rocks and sand with a force that ensures compliance. It passes along the piers of Eastern Europe, syllables slipped between knife points and rusting rifles; on the shores of Angola they wail at the ocean, beat their feet into the sand, turn back toward crumbling cities. The news burns bodies in the Bronx, things are cast adrift in the deep water of the East River, people depart into the sky, there are meetings in drainage systems, encoded signals broadcast in the flight patterns of birds, machines stir, motors grind into action at frequencies only subterranean people can feel. And people begin to congregate in the places that Manuel loved. They want to know what happened, they want to understand, but being the kind of people they are, all that wanting turns into partying. In Astoria, Egypt Café is jammed to the ceiling, people walk over other people to get inside, they spill out onto the street in front of the Laundromat, they raid the delis and liquor stores and close down Steinway, they make a party so big that the police see it and just throw up their hands, set up roadblocks, join in when they get off duty. At the Maritime Lounge in Red Hook, some Congolese soukous band appears out of nowhere and plays for two days straight, they have to coat their fingers with glue in between numbers to keep the skin on, and the crowd crashes in and chokes on seven different kinds of smoke and laughter, they pour beer and whiskey all over each other and dance to break floorboards. The place runs out of alcohol after eighteen hours but people keep bringing in more, they toast Manuel again and again, wish to God you were still here. They end up in the water of the harbor, holding their drinks high and setting them on fire until the end of the second day rolls by and they go to sleep in the street, they crawl home in a blind drag. They pass out in subway cars, they wake up feeling like their brains are cut in half. They go home in pairs and wake up naked with each other, their furniture upended, dishes broken, sheets ripped into long shreds, clothes plastered somehow to the ceiling. And Wendell Apogee weaves home alone in the dark, through the cheers and the falling confetti, the flash and bang of fireworks, all the way back from Red Hook to Astoria where the crowd is dead from dancing; and he goes to his apartment, opens the window to the stifling summer air, drenches himself in freezing water, and then falls on the floor and cries.
He wakes up the next morning escaping from heat-troubled sleep, thrashing to life in the sun thats already baking concrete, melting the antennae of cars. Downstairs he can hear his old landlord moaning, a World War Two refugee who will spend the day spitting at his fat dog and sweltering into his velour armchair. In the apartments around him, people have their shirts off and are hanging out the window, running soaked towels over their arms. Two women lounge in bikinis on the roof with a radio playing a melted Cuban cassette, they fan themselves with newspapers and fling Spanish curses to the boys on the fire escape who whistle at them between dousing swigs of frozen malt liquor from frosted plastic bottles. All across the city it is like this, you feel heat flow from every surface and multiply, push under your skin and cook you off your bones. People crawl into their blasting air conditioners, sixteen of the elderly pass away, vagrants and runaways wade into the filth of the East River, kids break open Siamese plugs on buildings and lie in the gutter in their underwear, letting the water crest over them, over their hands and hot faces, knowing theyd felt cold once, oh, not six months ago; but the heat is like the flu: three days into it and you cant remember what it was like to be well.
For the nascent Church of Panic, its part of its mythology. In robes of black and white, its members hover four inches over the pavement, gliding in formations of three up and down major thoroughfares. They jostle the quality on Lexington south of 96th, pass through the South Americans on Brooklyns Fifth Avenue, collide with Dominicans at Broadway and 160th. The heat is a portent, they say, a sign of the chaos to come. We are the Prophets of Fear, the Angels of Paralysis. Begin stockpiling weapons now. They seem serious.
The authorities are investigating the explosion in Manuels apartment, collecting testimony from witnesses and neighbors. There was first a warping sound, they say, a rush of air that rattled windows and stripped hats from heads. Then the fire shot straight out in a column of wide flame that broke against the building across the street, rolled across its face, and was gone. Neighbors who peered into the hallway afterward saw smoke snaking from under the door, through the keyhole. Now the police are calling every name they can find in what remains of Manuels things. Come to his apartment for an interview, they say. It will not be like a wake. But it is.
The door to Manuels apartment is charred around the edges; shocks of black streak from the corners, through the locks. Inside, all is ruin. The couch is burned down to melted springs and withered struts, chairs and tables are blown into shadows. The walls are tortured plaster, fused wiring, the appliances a pile of slag. And at the apartments edge, nothing: just the open air above the street, the last step to suicide laced by police tape, framed by swinging cables, nails, burnt walls, silent pigeons.
“Mr. . . . Apogee?”
“Yes? . . .”
“Inspector Herman Trout. My partner, Lenny Salmon. We recognized you from this.” The policeman holds up a bubbled, half-melted photograph, a close shot of Wendell and Manuel, their faces smiling, almost cheek to cheek, arms around each others backs. The angle of Wendells shoulder tells you that he took the picture himself, holding the camera out in front of him while the two of them squinted into the flash. In the background, throbbing lights, raving hands reaching toward them.
“Where did you find it?”
“In the oven with his birth certificate,” Salmon says. “Mr. Apogee—”
“Wendell.” Salmon says. “Would you say that you were friends with Mr. González?”
“I . . . friends? Yes, we were . . . very good friends, we . . .”
“Would you say that you were familiar with his friends?” Trout says.
“Yes. Well . . . some of them, he had so many friends . . .”
“Mr. Apogee,” Trout says. “We have compiled a list of over eighty-seven people who describe themselves as close, personal friends of Mr. González. Now here is the conundrum: none of them can say where he went.”
“They have some interesting ideas,” Salmon says.
“A certain Lucas Henderson . . .” Trout licks his thumb, flips through the pages of a small notebook. “Yes, here, told us that quote Manuels vanishing is not a disappearance, it is an apotheosis unquote. . . .”
“Some of them said he went to Hungary. Or Mars.”
“Something about running Soviet-era weaponry to African revolutionaries.”
“Money laundering for certain government officials in Turkmenistan, taking a percentage of their profits in the Central Asian opiate trade, which appears to be quite lucrative.”
“Weve heard a lot of stories today, Wendell. Want to know how most of them end?”
“. . . I dont know, do you think I want to know this?”
“They told us to ask you where he went.”
“. . . what?”
“. . .”
“. . .”
“But I have no idea where he is.”
“They said you would know. They said he told you everything. They said you knew him best.”
The night before his last day, Manuel visited Wendell at two in the morning, swung hand over hand along the power lines to his building and slid through the open window. He must have watched Wendell sleep for an hour. He walked around the bed, put a hand on the shoulder that pushed up a ridge under the covers, and sobbed until Wendell woke and put his arms out to comfort him. Manuel told him many things that night, piteous and cruel, but it was nonsense, Wendell understood so little of it, he just wanted his baby to be calm, to roll into his arms and go to sleep. Its too much, Manuel said. Im going, Im leaving everything and going.
You cant leave me, Wendell said. Dont go away from me. And he locked his arms around Manuels chest and Manuel slowed, as if coming to some sort of peace. He said he would not go, he seemed to rest; but he must have changed his mind again, or maybe he was lying, because he was gone now, gone leaving Wendells hands clutching at air, frayed nerves buzzing, looking for their ends.
“I thought I knew him. I really did,” Wendell says.
He walks back to the subway in a heat like the sun is coming closer, a tendril of nuclear fire reaching out to lick the surface of this hapless planet, run a scorch mark a thousand miles across a continent, string up a chain of smoking cities, ashen farmlands. At the corner near the subway stop, men and women have gathered, theyre shielding their eyes with their hands. One of them saw something up in the sky and theyre talking about it. It was like a jellyfish, all eyes and hungry limbs, writhing in the air. A creature of heat stroke, someone says. The squiggling image of the sun burning into your retina. And this from a trio of priests of the Church of Panic: it begins.
There are twenty-six messages on Wendells machine when he gets home. The first is from Lucas Henderson: he is having a party that night for Witnesses to the Ascension of González, bring etcetera. Then twenty-three more from various friends of Manuel, informing him of said party, love it if youd come, be great to see you, how are you holding up, need to stick together. We all miss him, really we do. Then a long rambling message from the policeman he just talked to, Inspector Salmon. Sorry if his questions were upsetting, he could tell they made Wendell uncomfortable. He wanted to make clear that nobody considered Wendell guilty of anything and they wanted to keep in touch, please call if he found anything or just wanted to talk about it. A cough. Then message twenty-six: a womans voice drenched in a Spanish accent, crackling with distance.
“The phone is about to ring,” she says. “Do not answer it.”
The phone rings.
“Do not answer it.”
Wendell does, a hello . . . ? that pinches down his throat and comes out meek and scared. At first, nothing answers, there is only the sound of his own breath and the ambient noise of the street filtering through the receiver; but then a hiss emerges from this, a hiss that widens as if something is approaching, voices become distinct from one another, the sounds of men, women, and children, and at first it seems as if they are whispering, no, theyre chanting, but then Wendell can hear it for sure: theyre screaming, screaming above the keen of engines and now a howl that dives down from the sky and tears the earth apart. A giant hand wriggles through the phone line and strains through the sieve of the receiver to enter Wendells head, push its fingers into his brain, and the phone slips from his grasp, swings on the cord and smacks against the floor; and Wendell teeters like his feet are on a fulcrum, and the ground has rotated to accept him. Lights out.
Copyright © 2007 by Brian Francis Slattery. All rights reserved.
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