◊ Christmas Eve
A long bug fluttered its wings like a Japanese Sakura fan, and inched crawling towards the cement skirt of the wall, suddenly stopped, exasperated and vexed, a tenacious roachid with far too far to go, or perhaps it forgot the reason for its journey. (It was skulking Alley 13 with a devious plan, somehow finding a way to glow blue or green at least, and lunch on dumber fireflies.) It wryly began to watch Matt watching it; but, and sufficiently, in its yea 320 million years, the cockroach, a Blattopteran, had seen enough feebleness in the deeds of giants.
“It’ll go out pretty soon,” Avery said, and gestured towards the fire. Matt’s clothes reminded Avery of a sketch from the Johnny Carson show. The roachid was now especially aware of a firefly, which did glow, rather proudly, and it may have gestured to Matt about the futility of a fireflies’ quest for a female companions; lady fireflies kill, and generally eat their prospective mates. But Matt missed it. Avery admired Matt’s heavy woodsmens’ coat, and didn’t say anything. Avery was careful not to approach Matt, in Alley 13, in the dark, in the winter.
To Matt, Avery’s gaze was wacko, and he said, “S’pose.” Matt dismissed the comment. New Yorkers in Alley 13 after midnight, and the city, any time of day, reliably ignore comments, and any questions. Matt didn’t feel like conversation; it might have cost him any available capital. Matt’s world was normally “wacko,” and, content, intent, he continued to gauge the forward-going progress of the viable cockroach.
Part of the abandon of street life was freedom from jealously, and while the jacket kept him warm, kept him alive, the living of this life meant intentionally yearning not to yearn. He decided to give the roach a break, and, agreeably, it shuffled away. Matt decided fear was au fait. Matt not very tall, or very hefty. His work boots were broken along one of the seams, but the sole was predictably strong, a manufacture of some kind of durable plastic, with functional rudders easily convertible into a skateboard. Blue work pants completed Matt’s ensemble, along with the woodmen’ coat, and he bloomed in the dark, loud and mostly red, with deep, fading black stripes, and shiny silver buttons, too conspicuous for anybody to see.
A winter day in New York, in the lesser-known state of “mortal pain,” several hours upon lifting an arduous crate of vegetables into his Coney Island flat, he prayed to faint. If he could pass out, his brighter lights dimmed to an inviting darkness, he could just lay in the bed, groaning and alone, gasping for breath, and maybe discover the cause of his malady. Mortal pain is famous for its inexplicability, and, paradoxically, it doesn’t hurt. There is no instance of an illness or injury ever worse than in the moments before diagnosis. Fainting was useless; but excruciating pain was fare for emergency technicians, EMTs, their stuff; and his part, the worst, would be over.
But he didn’t call EMTs. A thousand dollars was the price of an ambulance. He could endure many paradoxes for a thousand dollars. Plus he didn’t have it. There were passing notions in the befog of mortal pain. He hollered into the room, “What is it!” He twisted valiantly in bed, twisted just right, and shifted a vertebrae, and recovered the ability to breathe; “color” returned to his system. “Arrrgh,” he declared, lying on his back, the cause and effect, still concealed, no more sensible than the pain. Something to do with his back. Obviously. Means is the cause of much self destruction, and as if to protest the paucity of his funds at that moment, he remained in bed through the night. He saved the cost of the ambulance, resolutely finding his way to Brooklyn Medical Center the next morning. The emergency room physician said it was a back sprain; they could x-ray his back, he said, but it would not discern the problem, not in these days, years before ultrasounds, and better diagnostic tests. He was better now, it seemed. They gave him Advil. He awoke another morning, four years later, with the same type of distemper; it was also humanly baffling. He couldn’t stand. He couldn’t sit. He couldn’t lie down. He stayed prone with his head in his hands, groaning in the waxes of pain. If he could just faint. What was the pain? He didn’t know, and he could not describe it, and nothing would register in the checklists of his mind. There was no nausea, but he was willing to vomit if it could move things along. It was a lot like a broken bone, but he didn’t have any broken bones, or a broken rib! It must be a broken rib. That was it! But he hadn’t broken any ribs. His system was overwhelmed by neutrality. What was it? He’d cop to any disorder, or infliction on the scales of diminishing reason, but not knowing was worse, and too much; infinitely worse than any illness could be. He strangely recalled he had run out of Advil, – hah! A helpful coincidence? No. Moronic. He gasped to Red next door in a telephone. Red knew the location of a hidden key. Red bought Advil in palates from Sam’s Club; minutes later, with his help, he took three Advil, and, hours later, the pain was gone, and the whole matter pacifically forgotten.
The university was a cathedral to him, and lecturing as dutiful as a sermon. His desk was lonely. The desk at the front of the room, especially when his students were completing an exam. The daunting hours were insufficient to dig into molehills of paperwork, or much of anything, but an alert, and decided hush. These exams were the finals for the fall semester; waiting was Christmas break, now just fifty minutes hence, and it was a Friday afternoon. His three weeks of vacation were set to begin at Lou’s in Brooklyn, the upscale Italian restaurant near his Coney Island flat, with Kapitolina. Lou’s property was recently flipped with the help of New York City’s zoning board of standards and appeals, which eyed a chance to revitalize the block near Alley 13. He welcomed this chance to dial back the cynical urge for criticism, and gleamed about a city that did so many good things. He could picture Pearl, and he could picture the “rack” – the gooey bowl of spicy Italian meatballs, the size of billiards, cresting atop the hints of linguine, ganoched by a rich and earthy pasta sauce, with a snow flurry of Parmesan. “Mmm,” he winced, happily, and scanned the sides of the Marsh College exam room.
It is doubtful the murmur – “Mmm” – will ever be recalled with any infamy, but enthusiasm was stirring, and his appetite grew. Heart disease is silent anyways, and adeptly anonymous. He could never know glancing through the window facade at the overcast sky, upbeat with a mental glimpse of Kapitolina, at dinner, in a nativity of winter colors, and the holidays, rising like a swell of orchestra strings; not at this time, and possibly not ever know; but inside his body, the body of a man and his cathedral, a governor of the biological system was commencing autonomic changes to his pulmonary system. Okay. He only remembered the Christmas wreath years later, years then of wandering Steeplechase Pier, with his mind in a desperate search for a tipping point in his biohistory. Of this, hidden from his intellect, he would recall only staring at a Christmas wreath, and innocently at a co-ed in the front row. He’d recall the holly, for sure, the carnation of red bows, and evergreen fir, and devoting a good many minutes to admiring the sovereign wreath: there was oddly no shadow around it at midday, and how it was captured by an aura of light, an echo; it was framed in a white blur by his absent mind. His blood pressure stirred too, past ninety Diastolic, the resting rate, but this is notable only to scrooging pedantics, and he was clueless to the change; but the active Systolic rate was now reflecting an invitation to a quite-rattling situation, MR-TR, a dysfunction, a flutter of the left ventricle of his heart; the slight row of MR-TR caused blood to return into the valve, the mitral valve. He didn’t notice it. But his metabolism surely did, and with more than ample curiosity. It mulled the MR-TR, and it did create a tipping point, accomplished as he stared at the Christmas wreath beneath the clock on the wall separating two ceiling-to-floor windows in the classroom. The metabolism, as it must, informed the thyroid system about this unusual refund of blood, a leakage similar to reflux, and it studiously adjusted by no more than a fraction of a second; the heart, the vigorous hub of the entire body’s blood, shrugged; there’s not a better word, really, his heart shrugged, and then it issued a chilly shiver, a sudden trill, per se, easily interpreted otherwise. The heart then enlarged the left ventricle to avert another gurgle, another MR-TR, or “mitral regurgitation.” The heart normally acts as a gently clenching, and unclenching fist; his heart now would pump like a thumb and forefinger making okay signs. The metabolism polled the brain about all this, but not too comprehensively; it was an autonomic matter, after all, which presumes the brain’s approval. He murmured, “Mmm.”
An elderly man, Avery attempted to sit next to Matt, allowing the brick wall to guide him, backward like the wrecking ball of a crane, and he slid slowly along the wall to the pavement. Matt wondered if the man would ever finally sit. Avery lost control of his right elbow, and scratched Matt’s cheek. “Sorry, Bud,” Avery said, ladling part of a smile, with wizening eyes. “My name’s Avery.”
“Avery,” Matt greeted him.
Avery’s cheeks puffed, and his eyes blinked more openly at the surroundings in the darkness of Alley 13. It was December 24th. He nodded at Matt.
“Matt,” Matt said, and frowned.
Matt’s elbows were weighed upon his knees in Alley 13, in a modest lotus, and his back against the masonry of the building too, flat, except for a disunion of the wall which protruded below his shoulder blade, and kept annoying him.
“Fillmore is roaring, just wanted to tell you,” Avery breathed widely, but skeptically, with his eyebrow partially raised towards Matt. Matt inhaled, and began to envision a number of city barrels and glaring fires and gaping men and women in a daunting pitch of black sky, and grinned, correctly. Alley 13 dead-ended, and was not one of popular refuges for homeless people in Gravesend between Fillmore, the Shore Parkway, and Eighty-Sixth. Matt said, “Nah.”
Matt had slated the holiday solitary in Gravesend, meaning alone, and most of all planned to avoid Fillmore, and Eighty-sixth. Maybe they others had scattered; not yet. He didn’t like the invitation of strangers. The man, Avery, would probably leave; his pretense was like any of the homeless, implicit Avery had been to Alley 13 in the past, and it belonged to him. He ignored it. Matt decided not to speak. He found a book of wet matches in the heap trash, imbibing the pleasure, and not allowing Avery to notice. He dragged the book of matches toward him with his boot, leaned, and flushed it open with an elbow, and saw one in the package was still dry. He figured it could tactically light a discarded box of chicken tenders lying open in a dumpster; two dumpsters were nearby, and these figured into his singular plan for Christmas, not visitors. The dumpsters were a furnace, given to him by God. Interruption, not solitude, was the bane of Alley 13.
Yon was ranting about pyramids. No one would listen. Yon, who was “Sawbones” to his close friends, was never much of a theorist. His quest, his essential, primary quest, and just one of many quests, was to find Orison before anyone else found Orison. The pyramids bothered him, and it pleased the dire wolf, “D.W.,” only because it troubled Sawbones. D.W. could not explain the pyramids, either, and she was not inclined try. Yon complained, “Somebody has been to Earth, and it isn’t us. Doesn’t that bother you? Somebody is ahead of us.”
D.W. suggested a new place to explore, the exacerbation not entirely escaping her. “How about Jupiter?”
“The Milky Way,” Yon snapped, perusing the map in his mind.
“Never mind,” the dire wolf said. “You can’t walk on Jupiter.”
“Well, it’s a ball of helium, and hydrogen,” D.W. said. “Remember? We went there last Christmas. It’s the same as Saturn, and Uranus.”
The dire wolf recalled the aurora of Jupiter, known as the “midnight blue.” She was ready to start humming a popular old song, until she noticed Sawbones’ angry demeanor, and quickly stopped. Then a fabulous idea occurred to her.
Deliberately, and with her own aurora, D.W. said, “There’s a metal rock, – a really, really tacky liquid carbon rock. The wind takes gunk up into the clouds, like water when it rains.”
“So?” Yon said.
The dire wolf said, “It rains, dummy.”
“It rains! It rains! It rains.”
“Liquid carbon,” D.W. hushed. “It rains – diamonds.”
“It rains diamonds,” Yon repeated, in mock shock.
“The whole planet 55 Cancri e is a diamond.”
“No, I know where you mean,” Yon said, waving a finger. “It’s a quasar. Won’t be there forever.”
They pondered 55 Cancri e together, and they pondered each other. D.W. said, “It’’ll end up like The Ponds, you know. The closer you get, the further away it goes. If you land, it’s somewhere else.”
“Maybe not! It’s just a pulsar. They’re – head-strong. Leave it to me.”
D.W. reveled, “It’ll gone by the time we get there. Pooff!”
Yon was stern. “We’ll get there before it pooffs! We’ll get there when it rains! When it rains diamonds!”
She said, “Jupiter is perfect for you.”
“Part of it is diamond rain. Part is real, cruddy tar.”
Avery said, “I was a maintenance engineer.”
“That’s so seventies,” Matt deplored. He viewed him for another instant, and worried Avery had settled for the evening, or believed he did own Alley 13. It seemed the expense of his last energies just to sit next to him; of course, it was a ploy. Avery was staying. Soon Avery would claim to be older. Matt was young enough to move along. He didn’t like Avery now. Part of him wanted to scream.
“Nice parka,” Avery offered.
Matt nodded, and answered, cautiously, defensively. “Construction.”
Matt motioned approvingly at Avery’s faux overcoat. It was a thin plastic sheet garnered from a tall kitchen bag, with a makeshift hood, and holes for arms, in case it rained. It wasn’t torn, which impressed Matt, who inspected it like a potential acquisition. Avery spiffed fingers against it. “Just plastic. Cost a buck.”
“A buck,” Matt repeated, like it was a morale.
Matt was done greeting, and talking, and dealing with anybody. He distracted to the immediate environs. His carpe diem was also depleted. He closed his eyes, and rested his head against the building. Avery noticed, rubbed his hands, and his palms against the chicken box. He noticed Matt was starting to doze, and said, proprietorially, “Go ahead. Sleep, or something.”
Conversely, Avery began to ramble. “I was on the parkway. No fires yet, it was still light out. This dude was full of crack singing in everybody’s face. He had these wild freaky eyes. It spooked me out of there.”
Matt napped, and briefly woke. He asked Avery, “What time is it?”
Avery didn’t know, and his look implored Matt. Did he look like he had a Rolex? Avery bumped him, and said, “Christmas. It’s Christmas.”
Matt said, “It’s not Christmas yet”
“Suppose,” Avery agreed. “It just got dark.”
Avery’s voice trailed away, possibly Matt remembered, telling a story about trading his Timex for something, or another, he didn’t really catch it. Matt pawned his watch. It was a cover charge. Matt rested, and Avery diffused into other quiet, rueful accounts, and Matt fairly sure the man continued to nudge him, sometimes accidentally, sometimes on purpose, sometimes for emphasis. Matt occasioned it to ocean waves, and napped still more. “The Japs have better holidays than we do,” Avery mumbled. “They have one e-very March, dammit. It’s the Day of the Broken Dolls. My wife was Japanese, er Thai. She liked it. It’s the day we make up for all broken dolls. I think it’s Girls’ Day, now, or something. Kind of ruined, you know, but everyone gets free sake, and they float dolls into the sea. Kind of cool.” He paused for Matt’s snore, and Avery stared at smooth, empty space on the far wall. He wheezed benignly, “Ah.”
Avery didn’t tell the stranger, Matt, about hustling a carton of cigarettes from a busy vendor in the morning. He was a lug of a guy, anyway, and Avery knew him. The vendor was a stocky Vermonter with the Christmas spirit, and he was shocked to see Avery wasn’t smoking, and smacked a carton into his right hand, without a single word. Avery searched a scratchy sweatshirt, which had a zipper that dug into his waist. He had pockets under the rain parka. He found a hard pack in one of the pockets. Matt awoke. He said, “I got to have a cigarette,” he said. Avery opened the box to show him, like they were jewels. A box with twenty cigarettes lining in perfect rows. Avery grinned, Matt yanked two, or three, and Avery, making a joke, adjusted his shoulders. “Merry Christmas!”
“Funny,” Matt remarked, swigging from a fresh smoke. He swatted away a fly, which flew into his glassy, open eye, and awoke him originally. He thought it was snow.
Avery uttered an expletive, and he rose, laboriously. He shuffled to the dumpster, and safely slid the new carton of Marlboros underneath it. He boosted his chest, and, for some reason, said, “Thanks.”
Matt nodded, just as unexplainably. He warily showed Avery, without allowing him out of his sight, how he could light heap trash in the dumpster for kindling. And he lit it. Avery smiled. They spoke in the exhaust of smoke. “Everybody I knew in maintenance was a pain the butt,” Avery said, dragging deeply on a cigarette, and lighting another in the curl of his palm. He propped it in the side of his mouth, and rubbed his hands in front of him. It was not a warm night.
Avery advised, “I’ve got twenty years on you. You should try Fillmore tonight.”
Matt replied, “Fifty-two.”
“You don’t look it,” Avery said. “I’m seventy, even. I’m old enough to be your father.”
Matt said, toughly, “Got any real family?”
Avery issued a rale of smoke. “Daughter. She’s in Connecticut. She married a vet. Veterinarian? He’s trying to launch some kind of pet ambulance, or something. I could get there, but turkey makes me ill. I’m not risking it.” Then he eyed Matt, and asked, suddenly, “You’re on drugs.”
“No,” Matt responded. “You?”
“Usually they’re on drugs,” Avery said, somewhat rhetorically, leaning towards the street. “Sorry. It was a medical thing? Right? Mine was the liver. I didn’t know I had a liver, until I couldn’t stand, or sit. Either! I can’t explain it. But they took the bleeping house to fix it. It wasn’t gone six weeks. So here I am.”
“Either medical, or the remedy, right!” Matt joked.
They laughed, connivingly. Avery complained, “Six bleeping weeks. The bleeping door is padlocked. I can’t even break into the place. They’re having an auction.”
Matt replied, “I broke my back.”
“No one thinks it’s ever going to happen to them. It always happens to someone else. Wrong. Four screws here, and three screws there.”
Matt explained, “Forklift. I lifted a forklift.”
“Right,” Avery nodded, knowingly. A pith of rain fell in Alley 13; sprinkles of water dried into quick clouds of steam. He puffed circles of smoke from his package cache.
Matt wanting to know, “Did you ever have German beetles?”
“No,” Avery said. “Well, no.”
“If you ever do, and you wonder to yourself yeah, these, – these German beetles – they’ll never run you out of your own house? Hell they won’t! I swear! What they have is a million kid beetles. I couldn’t stay anymore. I had to get out, well, everywhere. I split. I can pay the rent? Can’t pay an exterminator.”
“Out of there!” Avery agreed. “Maybe the beetles will let you come back!”
Matt smiled, and began to relax, more awake against the wall, and not unhappy Avery had arrived. Avery moved closer to the street, and he confided, “They have a ham on Fillmore. It’s what I meant. They’re going to roast it. Grossed me out at first, but –”
“Fillmore from West Sixth,” Avery responded, tilting his head that way. “I should have told you right off.”
Matt said, “It sounds gross.”
“Yeah,” Avery said. “That’s what I said. But it’s Christmas.”
Matt asked, “What time is it?’
Avery surveyed Matt, and cast a shadow from the streetlights. “I don’t know, bud.”
West Sixth was a mile one way, and a tough slough through New Yorkers late going to stores. “It’s too far,” Matt decided.
Avery said, “I’m going.”
“Okay,” Matt called. “Hey, check the clock on street.”
Sheepishly, Avery frowned, and shambled to the end of Alley 13. He twisted his neck to view the hands of the analog clock above the street corner. Avery turned, and hollered, “Eleven-fifty!”
They nodded several times at each other. Avery waved good-bye, stooped, and estimated the street with a grimace. He watched as Avery roamed away into the night. Matt said, “Christmas Eve.” He patted the cigarette box in the pocket beneath the material of his workmens’ coat. He set the back of his head against the wall. He closed his eyes partially, and dozed for minutes of a while, awaking, in the mist, of Alley 13. ◊
¤ JUKE BOX ¤ Theme, (Episode 4): “As With Gladness, Men of Old,” Bernotski, William Dix | playlist, “Flea Markets, Nos. 1-50,” a myopic vaile (No. 26)
Text: William Dix, 1837-98 (adapted)
“Christmas Eve,” Episode 4 from “The Echo By Seas,” originally appeared in December, 2018.
Created by Soda Tom