An excerpt from Abracadabrantesque, a novel by John M. Keller, published in July 2015 (Dr. Cicero Books)
A few minutes after arriving home from my flight from Uruguay, I left my apartment, heading along one of my three or four most common routes, ending up in Flatbush, my new favorite neighborhood. In Flatbush, everything seemed much more honest about the country’s state of affairs than on the nearby island of Manhattan, where the only paint spatters not cleaned up were on jeans, and they’d been factory-stained. In Flatbush, the streets were always filthy; heaps of garbage piled up next to trash cans, their contents baked by the endless summer sun; mannequins in jeans were turned ass-side-out; fire escapes climbed down the façades of the buildings as if permanently mid-drill; everything seemed to be in a constant process of moving in or out, stores liquidating a few doors down from grand openings; even the St. Mark’s Methodist Church on Beverly Road had upon its billboard “Jesus Christ: Cornerstone or Stumbling Block” as if it too had been gripped by a crisis of faith.
Everything in Flatbush seemed to revolve around hair. Dominican beauty salons named after their owners (always with names like Carmen’s, Leticia’s or Mayra’s) stood next to furniture-less barber shops, where reggaeton blasted through the doors while what looked like a dozen or so teenagers with the flat-billed-baseball-cap look (their jeans dragging along the floor like bridal dresses) casually cut their clients’ hair for ten bucks a pop, assumedly into the fifteen or so models in the photos posted outside. Extensions, weavers, wigs, hair braiding—anything that could be done to hair could be done to hair here, and even after the subways switched to late-night service and the night had crossed over onto the next day, the salons were open doing-up dos, blowing hair up, sometimes straight up a third the height of the woman before bringing it…back on down.
I walked into a store, passing hot Flatbush finds such as dried hake, sweet kabouche squash and chayote, and bought, as I always did, coconut water in a can. I liked that there were still chunks of coconut inside that hadn’t been diluted or blended, and the drink had a modest white label with green lettering on it that described its contents to be 100-percent coconut water. And I didn’t want to try to extract the water from the coconuts that were also on sale in the grocers along the avenue. My apartment had a kitchen, but its principal function was heating the water for my mate. I ate all my meals in restaurants reading the newspaper or at home out of Styrofoam or Chinese containers. I had a rotation of five or six places (mostly Thai, Chinese, Japanese or Mexican) where the wait-staff treated me as if we were on different dimensions, me ordering from mine, them bringing me food from theirs, the food suddenly appearing back in mine, and with a fortune cookie to boot—even in the Chinese-Mexican restaurant, I asked for one. I liked the way they tasted. I already knew my fortune.
I walked through the British streets—Marlborough, Rugby, Argyle, Westminster, Stratford—past the subway, each time I crossed the street feeling the weight of soundless cars crashing into me, smashing me into a million pieces when, farther up the street, about a half a block from my apartment, I saw a familiar figure.
“Marc-oose,” she said, trying to get my attention as I stood there, dumbfounded.
Francesca, my mind was telling me. There she is. Don’t you have a reaction? Something?
For the first minute or two, her features came and went as if they were being drawn in and out of focus by a camera whose scoperta del fuoco had malfunctioned, and for a moment I would even see her as she’d been when I’d first met her in Rome, well before Punta del Este, in such focus that it was frightening how little she had changed, and then suddenly, jarringly, the new Francesca, 46—the opposite—her face caked in makeup, no tight jeans or T-shirts anymore—she’d just been to Bloomingdale’s (or, perhaps more likely, she carried around their bags to keep her things in) and she dressed the part of the Fifth Avenue foreigner almost as if that were the order (“one Fifth Avenue foreigner’s outfit, please”) rather than an itemization of the brand names that singularly had been drawn, one by one, from the racks. Every block, every street, every avenue was paved by the people who walked across them, and Fifth Avenue (and the similarly flashy Madison and Park avenues) was a land ruled by a class of modern hunters and gatherers (from Italy and Turkey, São Paulo and Chicago…) looking for some species of love as they strolled down the streets on what might have looked, from a bird’s eye view, like a scavenger’s hunt for these luxury bags—they were wearing the shirt of the concert they were attending, and they were here now for a jaunt among the people who would appreciate these things the most. Why should a shirt be a shirt when it can have its own name too, when you can share the cotton and the silk with an illustrious foreign man named Giorgio or Yves? Where your very smell has mixed with that of someone called Victoria or Paul? The beauty of the grid was that your avenue, your pinta, your lifestyle could go on conceivably forever; the people who belonged to other avenues would cross your path but only for a split second, only at the intersection of theirs with yours, where, from a distance you could survey one another, before returning to avenues that were entire cultures, streets with identities, right back onto your block, the most anonymous one in Brooklyn.
But she wasn’t visiting. She lived in Manhattan, in Gramercy Park, with her boyfriend, who was 67 and with whom she was “re-enamorada” (Spanish was our common denominator, even though Connie’s accent was now decidedly Castilian). Francesca was president of an organization called Europeans for the Democratic Party, for which she collected no salary. She’d recently been in touch with Terenzo, who’d given her my phone number. When she called Connie and found out that I was flying in that morning, she’d told her she wanted to surprise me.
“I know, at his age, he cannot be my boyfriend,” she said of her beau. “But, trust me. He is not a boy, neither is he my friend,” she said, implying…what? That he was all man? That their relationship was purely sexual? Perhaps had she been talking about Mario…
“Weren’t you a lesbian?” I asked.
“Oh, Marc-oose, you will never learn.”
“I’ll never learn what?”
“That gay, straight…whatever it is, it is all just people.”
“I know,” I said, incredulously. “I’m not anti-gay,” I said, raising my voice at the insult. “Remember when I asked you if you and my brother were seeing one another? You said, ‘No, I’m a lesbian.’ That’s the way you defined yourself.”
“Marc-oose. You must understand that people change. We are not the same from birth to death.”
“And Mario?” I asked.
“It’s been a long time, Marc-oose,” she said. “I knew our problems. He was very jealous,” she added.
A tremor of the woman with the wet black freckles flashed across my mind, and I felt a temporary sense of loss, thinking of her with Ricotini, certain that Francesca had been dumped, that eminent and rich photographers like Mario ran out of subjects only when they ran out of fruit.
What was Francesca doing here? What was she doing in Flatbush? I thought, feeling very much at home in my anonymity, as if this were the Sahara, or Montevideo, or some other out-of-sight locality in the American cartographical sense of the world, which history had excused from its lesson, places that only seemed to exist by dint of Zeno’s comet, flitting through the atmosphere seemingly at the speed of light, yet appearing as if motionless, pinned to the corner of the sky.
I had the sense that the visit was not purely incidental and that she had something to say, but I could hardly ask her if she wanted to go for a walk down through the neighborhood dressed as she was. Was she wearing white gloves? Had she come straight from a noontime ball?
I still remember the look on her face the moment I’d met Federica. The two had walked into the apartment, and I’d heard their voices before I’d seen either of them. I had been sitting in the living room shining my shoes with Francesca’s late grandfather’s collection of oils and brushes and shoe polish that she’d given me when I’d asked her about it. When I heard them enter, I’d hesitated, not knowing whether to make noise, and I eventually resolved to cough to let them know I was there. Francesca entered the room first, looking across at me, her glance catching mine and then holding it for a moment—her face blush-red (surprised? embarrassed?), and then Federica waltzing through, giving me two pecks on the cheek as if she were opening a window, and then turning to Francesca and saying, “You’ve kept the clematis I gave you,” unpacking her essence and possession of the room as if she had never left, as if she had only packed herself up and stored herself inside the plant, poised to spring up at any point and rise from the pot up onto the bookcases and walls the serpent with a black tongue that she was.
This look on Francesca’s face had by time and experience and years in society’s perpetual poker game tuned to one of zero transparency, and now this tickle of emotion that had once made a dash across her cheekbones had been short-circuited, its inner filaments slit one by one over time by age, by life, disarming her, reconditioning her face into the anatomist’s model, from which a group of medical students could study the functionality of expression. Even her eyes seemed to draw its light from a universe far, far away, twinkling, shimmering, reflecting, but not generating even a glint of internal light. My poor Francesca—what happened to you?
My attraction for her now completely gone, everything about her now seemed concomitantly revolting, and that, more than any physical detail, was the portrait that had settled over the topographical features of her face once we opened up the blinds and let in the light.
I excused myself and went to the bathroom, where I confirmed it—my eyes had filled with tears. Tears for what? For Francesca? For myself? I wasn’t sure…but a strange sensation of tremendous loss had left me feeling somewhat nauseated, and the exoticism and allure of home and seeing Connie had been deferred by the presence of Francesca.
I washed my face, as one does after returning home from hours on a plane, drying it with a towel and looking into the mirror at a man still a good dozen-plus months away from forty, seeing and recognizing myself, oblivious and indifferent to the changes time had wrought on my own visage. I didn’t care what I looked like. I never had, had I? No beauty looked back at me when I stared into the face of the beast in the glass, but a face by itself is meaningless anyway, I had always thought. Meaning is derived from other people looking at it. A painting cannot see itself, even if you put a mirror just in front of it.
I returned to the living room, where Francesca and Connie sat talking, as they had been doing before I had arrived.
“We are talking about getting something to eat,” Connie said.
“Something to eat?” I said.
I looked over at Francesca who, in her latest incarnation, reminded me of herself in Uruguay almost a decade before, the last time I had seen her.
That Friday evening, we were invited by Francesca to a party at a speakeasy in the Lower East Side, where we met Francesca’s Steven, a quiet man who, perhaps for his somewhat obscenely thick white hair and designer glasses, looked almost Italian himself. He was the very photograph of refinement and importance, but his bearing transmitted itself more through mystery than through conversation, as he neither spoke nor engaged us in witless banter that, thankfully, seemed beneath him. Francesca escorted us through the furtive light, moving between people in mid-conversation, holding tea cups through their fingers, their pinkies swiveling out, forming shadows on the wall: distorted, octagonal vapors formed of long thin candles hanging from the Gothic fixtures and apparata. She introduced us as the novelist (at Connie’s suggestion) and her brother (at my insistence).
“What do you write?” several asked Connie, and she missed no opportunity to unravel the canvas of her book, stretching it right out into the middle of the floor, the kind of presentation that required charms of which only someone who had never published a book but who still referred to herself as a novelist by profession was capable. The owner of a bookstore in Alphabet City, a blond woman of about thirty-five who, perhaps because of the way she wore her long hair frontward on one side, exposing her neck on the other, I kept imagining with her clothes off (something I never did), asked if Connie would be willing to share the manuscript when she finished it—“I’m finished already,” Connie said, a statement that provoked laughter in our little circle, as if it had been some species of witty repartee, but was actually just the laughter her bombasity always provoked.
The night dragged on, and at a certain point I felt as if the people here were speaking in a foreign language, and I was incredibly bored and tired and ready to leave. It was exhausting, telling everyone in the room one by one that I was by profession a beer runner, clarifying again, and again, my accent misunderstandable. I not only knew what everyone in the room did, but I also knew where they’d gone to school—I knew what projects they did on weekends, where they donated money, how important to them such and such was. I kept thinking, if modesty was the one trait that everyone in the room shared, then why did I know so much about their philanthropy? They responded with disproportionate elation. They asked questions meant to make it seem as if they knew something of the beer-distributing business, like the New Yorkers on the subway who gave tourists such detailed directions that I was sure the tourists wished they hadn’t asked. It was not about kindness. It was about wanting to show they knew where these things were, that they were the genuine article, real New Yorkers. I did not bore them with the details of my job. I gave them useful sound bites. I told them, for example, that every Christmas we got a free case of beer.
They said, But what if you’re Jewish?
I found Connie at the edge of the room, talking to a man with a British accent and an enormous tangle of dreads, a man about whom Connie told me later on the Brooklyn Bridge, who had spent the evening flirtatiously giving her biographical details of past souls he’d unlocked through hypnosis (regression), claiming to have been a cattle driver, a boxer, a religious leader, a prince, a slave-driver in Angola…
“It’s weird to be in a place where you can smoke,” Connie was saying.
“Do you smoke?” he asked.
“Not anymore,” she said.
“Drugs?” he asked.
“I was never an addict, but yes I did use to consume quite a bit.”
Francesca’s Steven had long gone, and Francesca seized me in my solitary rounds of the place in order to pull me by hand into her own loop through the room where I fell immediately into my presumed role as camera assistant and tripod, her left guard in three-point stance, there for her defense and escort as she slipped into conversations with those she knew (it was a birthday party for someone called Cris, who was a leader in the party, but whether I met her or not—and there were multiple vociferous political-types—I wasn’t sure), usually to talk politics with the tacit credibility of the European in New York living under the banner of culture reified, joining in the critical chorus by the Democrats of the Republicans, a drill abetted by the candidature of someone from the Republican party who had risen from the shadows and obscurity into a spot on the presidential ticket; the candidate was inexperienced but full of vitality and commanded the fervor and rhetorical savoir-faire of a Southern preacher, capturing the endorsement of the South at-large—the most ignorant person they had ever lain their eyes upon and one this man with whom Francesca was speaking compared to Mussolini. To call oneself a Republican alone, he said, required a certain mindlessness and lack of thought that was clearly associated with a lack of education and a mindless loyalty to an American God who divided the world into two—good, and axes of evil. Republicans with their rectangular-shaped states, their square-shaped faces, their fat asses, backward peoples living in another century in the South, talking as they did, English grammar irrelevant (“I reckon we ought to…”); who spoke that way, but people whose thoughts had not yet reached a level of first-world sophistication, who were not university-educated (from a school that counted), living by herd, unable to see that life was far more complex than the black-and-white lens they saw it through, that there existed a thousand shades of color and that their blindness, their unilateralness, their pledges of allegiance were all really to the Replicon flag and God (not to America at all), to money-grubbing capitalism, to a way of life that belonged to the feudal Middle Ages—these racist Fascists deserved to be exterminated.
“I’m doing it myself,” he said. “I’m going through the neighborhoods in the evening after work. They treat me like a Jehovah’s witness at times, but does that bother me?” he said, leading us into a connecting room and down a flight of stairs. “We must stand together in times like these. We are not cattle, we are a magnanimous people—a culture within a culture—we must vote in our primaries and let our voices be heard. My parents were Democrats, and my grandparents and my great-grandparents were Democrats. The Democratic race itself, the true party of the people—if you remember, that, above all else, is our stance.”
By then we had been led into the sous-sous-sol of the building, where there was a stage covered by cloth in whose aperture there was a play underway performed by puppets.
“…There’s a little bit of you and me in everything, I’d say,” one of the puppets, a man with a high-pitched voice sang.
“Is that a fact?” the other man said. “I thought we might just be a tad bit unique.”
“Unique? It’s one thing to be unique. It’s another to be lambasted.”
Suddenly, a third character appeared on the stage.
The music played the Republican Fight Song. The character looked exactly like the presidential candidate, except for the half-moustache under his nose and the part in his hair.
“Heil, Sir!” the two characters said, pulling their hands to their nose and saluting the president in the Nazi manner. “We’ve just been fucking,” they said, in unison. “Or, as you like to call it: so-do-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do,” one sang. The audience burst out laughing.
“Marriage is between a man and a woman,” the Hitler-presidential candidate pronounced, and then the audience began booing. The play ended with the Hitler-candidate being led into a gas chamber and exterminated.
I managed to wander away from Francesca, without looking back at her as I once might have, back up the stairs and to the bathroom, where, standing in line, I overheard someone say, “How did you know it was a Republican?”
“By the way he was dressed,” she said. “He was dressed in the clothing of a different time.”
“What do you mean?”
“He was wearing a spacesuit, or it was like he’d been time-traveling,” she said.
“Did you talk to him?” the other woman asked.
“Are you kidding? You can’t talk to these people,” she said. “You just have to wait until they pass through, like ghosts, or elephants in the room.”
“There are actually a lot of them here,” the woman said. “I saw the statistics in New York magazine. You just don’t usually know about them—there’s a sort-of don’t-ask, don’t-tell policy. It’s not as if they are made to wear stars of David around their necks,” she said. “But they should have to wear something, to identify themselves.”
“Don’t they wear crucifixes?”
“No, only the blacks and the Puerto Ricans,” the woman said, laughing.
I left the place, heading up the second flight, through to the street and out of the speakeasy, where the entrance opened out into the alleyway out of something like a sort of pothole.
What time was it? Was it early? Was it late? I knew that if I stayed out there long enough that either Francesca or Connie would come out looking for me. As soon as that happened, I could say good-bye, assuming Connie didn’t want to come home with me.
I walked to where the alleyway met the street and stood there for a while watching the people wandering through the night, which reminded me of the late-nights in Rome after Francesca had cooked dinner and we had walked through the city talking about a future that was taking place right now, as I stood there on the corner, out on the street, the people drunk and awake and stretching time by spending it in the non-existent hours. And I was there, too.
Eventually Connie came and said, “I thought you might be here. Are you ready to go? I already told Francesca goodbye—for the both of us. She said she’d been worried about you when you just suddenly left.”
When we got home, I couldn’t sleep, so I decided to take Bella for a walk. It was still an hour or so before daylight, and the streets were filled with zombies of one or another sort—faces trampled by the night and the overexposure of the streetlamps or the light of a twenty-four-hour deli or pizzería, awaiting the restorative powers of sleep; others, witnesses of the night, watering down the fruits and vegetables in their displays, standing down the graveyard shift, the day shift soon to come to replace them in the baton-passing of the interminable Brooklyn two-man, eight-to-eight relay.
It would be several hours before Flatbush began to observe Sunday service at the several score Evangelical and Baptist and Methodist and Adventist and Church-of-Latter-Day-Saints and Pentecostal churches that squeezed in like alleyways jumbled among restaurants and clothing stores and grocers along the avenue, their slender, simple rooms framed by the entrance of a single portico, bathed in white paint and bedecked by folding chairs and a swarm of repentant souls drinking in the word of Christ—families led by proud matriarchs each singularly transmitting a largeness in their essence (if not through their figures themselves), the mien of the celebrity actor, whose first appearance on screen in his twentieth film must be one of either quiet, off-center understatement, nearly missed in the extremities of the (optional) widescreen, or a rambunctious bursting through of his well-known personality, intimated in a single echo of his catch-phrase or flex of their smile; these were women for whom Sundays were sacred, their faces lit by the grace of God and the knowledge that on this day everything that they had lent out to the world would be returned unto them, a day they shared only with God, as they walked down Flatbush Avenue, their families in formation like broods of ducks.
I remember looking down at Bella, past her gorgeous white coat the color of snow and into her longing eyes, imagining what it would be like if we could have a conversation, wondering what kind of thoughts she might have about the current state of affairs in the country, and whether she, too, saw life as a scratch on the vinyl of the universe, or if she saw past that into the intimacy of the present.
To Prospect Park she directed me, pulling on the requisite leash, leading me down past the drummer’s grove, empty of its denizenry in this early hour, now slightly grey and dim like in the aftermath of a snowstorm, up into densely forested pathways before you reach the Great Lawn.
Before long, the park began to move with life—the occasional jogger in his wetsuit, old men and women wearing hats, people walking their dogs, moving slowly, occasionally pausing, lingering, sliding away, like molecules of water that have spilled outside the rims of a glass.
I didn’t see her before she was already stooped down next to Bella petting her. I walked ahead, but she detained me. I looked to see the woman crouched in her luxuriant salwar kameez, its colors bright in contrast with the indigo dye of a Tuareg dress and the ashen pallets of the sky and light and my black pants and white T-shirt, which I wore underneath a grey overcoat.
“This is a beautiful dog,” she said, in a robust American accent that shocked me with its tenor.
“Bella,” I said.
“She’s gorgeous,” the girl, no more than 25, said, continuing to stroke Bella’s coat in a way that was incredibly pleasing to both.
Where had she come from? I thought, and yet this was the way women fell into my lap, wasn’t it?
“I’ve seen you before,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said. “About a hundred times, I bet?” No, her accent was all Brooklyn.
She was right, she’d been there all along, but where?
“At the store,” she said.
“Which store?” I said, mentally scanning my block, wondering where I’d seen her.
“Where do you buy your eggs, cookies, and milk?” she said.
She was beautiful. No, she was beauty par excellence. Her eyes were the steel-blue of an iceberg.
“I have to go,” she said.
“Hold on,” I said.
“What happened?” she said, a few feet away already.
“You walk through the park on the way to work?”
“I love trees,” she said, now nearly shouting. “They’ve got their branches in the clouds, but their roots in the ground.”
Thirty seconds later she was already gone, and Bella began to bark furiously. As it turns out, over the next hill there was another dog.
On Friday evenings, you could hear the sound of the chants from the mosque, calls that sounded like some distant horse race, with its upstarts and crescendos and a voice amplified by microphone streaming into the air and carried by the wind, and then the dying out of the voices all at once, heads bowing forward, facing the Qibla and Mecca and what, no matter where you were in this colossal, new America, would always be East of here, the Past, a word in English so phonetically close to East and West that it almost seemed like the missing cardinal direction, the fourth dimension.
Her dress struck me as half-Western, half-Eastern, as did Pakistan itself, in my imagination, a country where the men dressed in the drab tones and business attire Western men wore (even wearing things like ties—perhaps the strangest article of clothing ever invented) while the women wore colorful garments, Eastern in appearance but Western in operation: they, too, stripped down vertically through the arms and over the head, unlike the greater majority of their South Indian and Nepalese and Sri Lankan counterparts who unwrapped themselves horizontally, and the salwar were, in fact, pants, loose-fitting pants, yet still, the lines and curves of the body modestly dissolved into their formlessness and were doubly disguised by the kameez, which covered over them, extending past the hips and thighs, like a three-quarter-length jacket. Vertical dress, people of the hands (and not of the feet), with their cricket, field hockey, squash and polo (let others be the feet…), great-grandchildren of Abraham and a former colony of Great Britain—they weren’t all that different from us. They loved films (Lolly-, Bolly-, Holly-…) and spicy foods (like our neighbors to the south), they married, had children and tried to instill their young ones with the same values with which they had been raised. And wasn’t dancing to them something like it was with us: foreign, uneasy (again with the feet?), something that always contained a sexual connotation, which is why men could dance the tango with one another in Montevideo, but never in Kentucky or Karachi?
Undressed, her beauty multiplied; in the half-light of the indoors, she stripped to her underwear; in the fullness of a laugh, her eyes slimmed as if clouds of smoke were passing in front of her; in the panic of sex, she began to whisper; when time was up, she rose and dressed, kissed me once in the middle of the mouth as if she were aligning her face to mine, all in one seemingly continuous movement that concluded with her exit from the apartment. From the front window, you could watch her as she walked down the street, moving among the foreign trappings of the streetsigns and trafficlights that hung overhead, the bags of trash the color of coal stacked next to bins along the street, the gatherings of men and women on the streets in the habiliments of Flatbush’s masked ball, she, covered head-to-toe in what had been moments before removed from her, meandering down the street as if she had never been there in my apartment. And there was no trace of her in the apartment either, just the boxes on the floor, the un-uttered words, un-exhaled sighs and un-begun sentences, wrapped and packed up and awaiting her return to animate them with her presence.
I couldn’t meet her family. She’d never met Connie, though she knew a lot about her. She knew of Felip and Francesca and Marcus, and she asked me about each as if she’d failed to run into them for a while through their usual crossing of paths. We would only know one another in the apartment, where our worlds casually overlapped and then divided again at the door. But that was what all relationships were like, weren’t they, without such symbolic, physical boundaries? There was a space that existed, a plane to which all pairings moved, where both became unrecognizable versions of themselves, where secrets were made of the banal and bonds of the inexplicable.
“They want me to spend more time at home, but they also want me to work, and they want me to finish my degree. They want me to learn how to cook, which only teaches me new ways to learn how not to cook. They want everything, but I want nothing.”
“What do you mean, ‘nothing’?”
“I mean that they don’t sell what I want at the grocery store.”
“What do you want?”
“I want to be left alone by them,” she said.