by E.H. Davis
A raga consists of at least five notes, and each raga provides the musician with a musical framework within which to improvise. (wikipedia.org/wiki/Raga)
Like eyes of the dead, puddles from an earlier rain mirrored the pale, lifeless sky of another November dawn.
Shivering in a thin, parachute-silk jacket, collar up, red beret atop his curly mane, twenty-five-year-old Angelo streaked south on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, swerving around the puddles in his high lace-up boots, eyes downcast, alert for anything of value on the abandoned streets.
Loose bills, scraps of jewelry, drugs. He toed a foil wrapper, hoping against hope for a bindle of coke, jostled from the watch pocket of some rocker, or a dandy from uptown, slumming the Chelsea afterhours clubs.
Arms swinging, loose-jointed, he pressed on, exhaustion and hunger propelling him like a benighted torch lighting up the well of sadness he imagined pooling in the alleys and street corners, the detritus of countless unfulfilled dreams. Like his.
Where to go? Too cold for the benches in Washington Square. His dealer friend, George’s pad? Not without the money he owed him, snuffled up in “product” earlier in a lavatory stall at Max’s Kansas City, by a stripper he fancied. When his coke was gone, so was she.
He veered west on 25th, headed for George’s anyway; then returned to course, south to try his luck in the diners in the village, where he might find a familiar face to front him something to eat or let him crash at his place. Homeless for weeks after being evicted from his rented loft on 17th St., he’d run out of friends to cadge from. Something would turn up – it always did.
On 5th Avenue, in the Flatiron District, he paused to read the menu posted outside the Lotus Eaters Chinese Restaurant, recoiling as his stomach lurched and clenched with hunger. His reflection waffled in the building’s polished black marble as he stumbled onward.
Maybe Lola would take pity on him. The thought of her – fresh from Reno, a snappy retro-clothing salesgirl down on St. Marks, eyelids painted mauve, reeking of Patchouli – aroused him.
He pictured her sleepily opening the door to her flat, an arm upraised to shield her eyes against the naked bulb. Reluctantly, a look of scorn on her face, she lets him in, knowing what’s to come. He takes her in his arms, her black hair smelling of sour sweat, caked hair spray. He pushes her up against the wall, smothers her protests with kisses, caresses … “Oh, Angelo, you …” she murmurs, kissing him back, kisses chilly, insistent; pushing then embracing him.
He tries to pull off her leather tunic, a second skin she even sleeps in. It catches on her spiked wrist bangle. She twists free of it, revealing a blood-red teddy over milk-white shoulders and pointed breasts. She is not wearing panties. He hefts her over his shoulder and stumbles with her into the bedroom – she is no longer mock-fighting him off. Instead she rips at his shirt and belt buckle, her painted nails leaving crimson streaks on his chest and groin.
Afterwards, he’ll wrangle money from her for breakfast at the all-night diner on 3rd Ave. Then, returning her key, crawl back into her warm bed. “Sleep, angel-face,” he tells her in his fantasy, as he takes his leave.
Soon she’ll tire of the scene and stop taking pitying on him. She’ll find herself an uptown sugar-daddy or a rock’n roll boyfriend, one of those diamond-collared dogs from the burbs, who’ll beat her and send her out to walk the streets. In his reverie, he gently touches two fingers to her lips swollen from their love-making. Goodbye, he whispers.
Back on the street, he was brought to his senses by the sound of Manhattan awakening to a new day. Cars whispered, crisscrossing the city grid of streets and avenues. The subway rumbled distantly underfoot. And the city’s ghostly machinery – exhaust fans, industrial heating units, a billion buzzing luminescent office lamps – whirred and vibrated, came to life.
Just as suddenly, all was hushed, ruptured, still. Everywhere Angelo looked objects appeared limned with bright light. He glanced up at the tall, hooded buildings as shafts of light spilled down caverns of concrete and glass onto the pale streets and alleys below, rarifying all like St. Elmo’s fire. Like a deluge, flaming.
Time seemed to stop: forked, eddied, the mainstream spuming past him like water over pocked-rock. He felt heavy, burdened, flattened by the rush of time and the weight of the ominous, sulphurous sky he imagined above.
He was going mad. Again.
Then a veil seemed to pass over all, reimbuing the things of this world with reality, meaning. Substance. Walking on, he was reassured by the sound of his boots click-clacking on concrete and stone. He looked up at the nascent skies with new eyes.
Comforted by the sight of a new day, he remembered who he was and why he had come here what seemed like eons ago, though his down-going was only a few years in the making.
He was a writer. If only he could hold on to that, he could redeem himself.
He walked on, holding back, quaking; unable to staunch the familiar rush of memories and recriminations, for the years spent squandering his talent, dissipated by drugs, running from the failure of his marriage. Followed by a merry-go-round of breakdowns, hospitalization, rehab, and relapse. One winter, isolated in a cabin on the Piscataqua River in Maine, he fled to New York City, hoping to reconnect with himself surrounded by fellow-aspirants, hoping to resume the novel he had begun so many, many years before, flush with a Guggenheim. Little did he know the depths to which he would sink.
Brushing elbows with some of the rising icons of the Village scene, he wrote a play about Candy Darling, the drag queen, and her relationship with Jackie Curtis and Andy Warhol. He made friends with young Bobbi DiNiro; he chatted up Deborah Harry regularly at a restaurant on Tin Pan Alley, where he sometimes waited on tables. He put what little money he’d saved into staging his play off-off Broadway. When it flopped, he was devastated.
He took consolation in going to the clubs. At first it was to the better-known punk rock venues, like Max’s and CBGB’s, where he swayed to the sensual heroin beat of Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers’ “Chinese Rocks”, and moshed to the ear-shattering assault of the Sex Pistols. Later, he discovered the circuit of after hours holes-in-wall in the Lower East Side that only insiders knew about. Here, lined up on the bar courtesy of the management. were Ohaus scales for the discretionary use of the patrons buying and selling coke. Sadly, he had landed
This became his nightly scene, hustling petty drug deals, middle-manning larger ones, and drifting with the ebbing crowd from one after hour’s club to another, snorting up until he his stash was gone and his credit no good. One night he decked a guy for hanging on a girl he was with. He was banned for a few days. When he returned, the club was shut down and abandoned, police tape draped over the entrance.
Not long after, he was evicted from his loft for not paying the rent. Blasé about it, he stepped back onto the carousel of oblivion at the clubs, crashing wherever and whenever he could, after “partying” all night. Still, he deluded himself into thinking he would pull himself together, sober-up, and take another stab at the golden ring of fame and fortune.
There he goes – hosannas and praise for the genius of the punk rock underground!
He had spent the night traversing one side of Manhattan to the other – uptown, downtown, and back again – vainly seeking someone to take pity on him. Not knowing where to go, he drifted back to Lola’s. When she didn’t answer his insistent doorbell-ringing, and he couldn’t get into the building to flop outside her door, he decided to crash behind the dumpster in the alley. He found a cardboard box, tore it open, and flattened it onto the sticky, foul-smelling tarmac.
From the airshaft above came the gunshot crack of a window forced open and the purling of morning voices, heavily accented – Hungarian, if Angelo’s ear was true. A guy and a girl, their pinched gamin-faces oddly identical like Siamese twins, stepped out into the alley just as Angelo was lying down. Hanging onto each other, shivering in their thin night-clubbing outfits, they stumbled toward him.
It was the guy Angelo had decked some months earlier, with the girl he’d gotten his lumps for. Angelo’s “girl” – her allegiance bought nightly with coke. Now she was with him.
Angelo shook his head in disbelief, taking in the pair. They looked like they’d been sleeping in the alley, too, awakened by the early risers in the apartment above.
What was her name, anyway? Angelo seemed to recall that she’d drifted to New York from upstate, having abandoned an infant daughter with her mother. A beauty queen in high school, she’d traded on her looks in the city, now running thin.
“You!” hissed the boyfriend. His shaggy coif was plastered against the sides of his head, no doubt slept-on. He was all skin-and-bone and edgy fury, like Angelo.
He pushed the girl aside; she leaned against the brick building, momentarily dazed. Suddenly, her face contorted with malice as she too recognized Angelo. Meanwhile, her boyfriend glared at him.
Rising from his crouch behind the dumpster, Angelo sized up his opponent. His nose was broken, never set. Angelo’s mouth curled up in a half-smile.
“Screw you,” he said fiercely, holding the other’s eyes, laughing at him with his own. His fist shot up, intending to connect with the broken nose.
There was the deft snick of metal as the boyfriend opened his switchblade and lunged. The blade sliced deep into Angelo’s throat, releasing gouts of blood. Staring at Angelo with unwavering malice, he twisted the knife and tore it free.
Angelo fell to his knees, his hands at his throat, trying to staunch the pulsating flow. He laughed sorrowfully. His assailant stabbed again.
“Laugh at me, will you?”
As Angelo flopped onto his back, his assailant stabbed him one more time for good measure.
The girlfriend – Angelo couldn’t remember her name for the life of him – took in the scene. Her look of fright turned into one of kittenish admiration. She put a hand on her boyfriend’s rigid arm, pushing it down to his side, so she could extricate the blade from his bloody hand. She took it, wiped it on a rag, and hurled it into the dumpster.
Angelo stared up vacantly at her as she went through his pockets. Finding no coke or money, she linked arms with her boyfriend and they ran down the alley, laughing.
They had just killed a man. C’est la vie.
Angelo leaned against the wall, exhausted, shivering.
His neck was intact. Un–bloodied.
Daylight brazened the back alley, smarting his eyes. He looked up, squinting at the glare, wondering, where am I?
He dug into his jeans and extracted a crumpled cigarette, smoothed it, lit up.
With the cigarette to his lips, he tasted the ethanol tang of cocaine, from handling and snorting, mingling with the smoke.
He accepted the fact that he was slowly killing himself.
As for why, the answer lay just beyond his grasp.
Disgusted, he flicked his butt away and headed east, his thoughts pulling him down, steeling himself for another round of the same.
E.H. Davis’ fiction has appeared in The Pacific Review and Mystery Weekly; his film reviews in Magill’s Cinema Annual. He is the editor of a book on pre-Columbian art. A poem, “Howl No More,” was published in the Blue Lyra Review, February 2015. His short story “Bear” appeared in Otherwise Engaged (Amazon 2018). He recently completed a literary thriller, “My Wife’s Husband”. John Yount, John Irving’s mentor, was also his.
(Top photo: Fugazi. All photos used are in the public domain.)