The Afterlife: An Excerpt
They came from a foreclosed warehouse in Chinatown. They’re the horizontal kind with a sliding top door, the kind people associate with serial killing. I check on them even though the power’s still running: I test the latch on each, the resistance as I pull up a slab of steel and dab my hand around a cold white interior. I stay there until my I feel the blood slow down in my ears, the static of the dogs and the ambulances and the assholes outside the bodega becoming one big low-pitch goop in my brain. Caterpillars in their chrysalises dissolve into liquid, I mean no muscles or eyes or anything, and then the liquid mysteriously hardens into a butterfly that is an entirely different and discrete being, but which shares the caterpillar’s memories. That’s how I feel when I stick my hands in the freezers.
Dawn is a matte black, like a glitch in the regular programming of night to day. I blow on my fingers and whoosh the freezer door down again. Sometimes I can’t tell if we’re changing, or if it’s just the same things happening over and over.
It’s cold enough that the freezers might be negotiable but Russ hasn’t said anything about it. He’s the money manager, and he also knows they tie us together, the waste of his day before it becomes the meat of mine, the serial killer freezers preserving a situation in which we need each other. The freezers slouch in our kitchen next to the regular fridge, because there’s no other place for them. I’m standing over the freezers and I’m in my underwear and a North Face, and Russ is standing by the front door, which opens into the kitchen like we’re in a sitcom set.
Russ pulls his medical mask to his mouth. “Stay inside today,” he says through it. He’s already wearing his raincoat. That’s the kind of guy Russ is, he doesn’t wait until the door’s open. He is so ready to be dry. It’ll be a busy day for him, pulling waterlogged kittens from storm drains.
“If I miss work we’ll have to eat the animals,” I say, and I laugh, and we’re both quiet and Russ goes out.
The sky is melting gray and yellow like re-hardened butter. I walk to work past the ruins of a sock factory. The windows are gone and half the front is hollowed out like a skull, like a bomb went off and the condos around it didn’t notice. Two pigeons fight over a nest in the remains of a third floor railing.
I read somewhere that stuffing started with birds. With birds, or poetry: Keats writing a cage around a nightingale. His was the realization that art could catch something, the way a postcard captures the idea of a destination but you don’t know what it’s like to live there, and the postcard could be from like twenty years ago and they’d still sell it. And that’s kind of the point. The point of the cage is to free the nightingale with allusion. I think pre-Keats, or poetry before taxidermy, lacked the specificity—I mean, the money and the violence—of true and real possession.
The sky is visible through the factory. The windows of the condos are tinted and barred, and their set-up bounces sound around in weird ways for anyone on the ground. I walk under a balcony and suddenly I’m the audience of one for a laugh track.
I pass a city employee blasting human piss off the sidewalk and neither of us acknowledges the other. I think the real has a habit of swallowing art. The audience roars, their hysterics skidding above us, out of a cloud.
I’m reminded of the Robert Lowell poem “For the Union Dead,” which was written sometime between Keats and now. It’s about a statue outside the Boston Aquarium, or something. Or it’s about eternity. When I was a teenager I’d gone to the book party of a poet I liked, not Robert Lowell, obviously, some contemporary guy. It was in an art gallery on Seventh, and I missed some of it because my phone fell in the toilet and I had to go to the bodega across the street to buy a bag of rice. At some point I complimented the poet on his reading. I apologized for carrying a bag of rice around. The poet ignored my apology and instead said he’d bought most of his books himself, and he was going to put them in all his friends’ bathrooms. Later at his place, the poet handed me a book of Robert Lowell poems and pointed out “For the Union Dead,” and had me read it to him while he went down on me. I hadn’t owned the experience. Had the poet? Remembering this is like looking at a postcard of sex.
I like standing in the median between northbound McGuiness and southbound McGuiness, pretending I can control traffic like Mickey the sorcerer’s apprentice in Fantasia. I stare down a semi as it merges into the left turn lane and has to get close to me. A driver in a ski mask, even though he’s probably not going to rob a bank. The last time it was really hot was October of the year before last, and I remember that fall every time I stand here because I stood here then, on my way to the shop and on my way home. There was a tropical wetness at night and the smoggy breeze of cars. Girls in high tops made out with rocket pops and the teamster heating vans hibernated in the parking lot of the Lutheran church.
By spring I remember everything muffled in that normal snow way. The thing I didn’t expect to happen was noise, but it happened, I don’t remember when it started but sometime last September I was yelling at Russ over the whir of a drone and I realized I’d been yelling a long time. Somehow I didn’t picture women, specifically, making so much sound in the middle of the night. These women are skinny and alternately look young and old, depending on their level of anguish. They consistently look slutty. I have no idea where they came from; their men seem to exist remotely. The women pace back and forth in front of our building, just shrieking at one another, or more like around one another, at everything except for one another in the night, like these fucked up women are bats, using sonar. They find the shape of the world by confronting it over and over again.
I was wearing a tiny white silk dress and the poet sweated booze on it while he clumsily swirled his tongue up my thigh. I was Leda and I was a stuffed swan.
The walk signal doesn’t flash on this corner anymore so I kind of have to wing it. Looking both ways is one of the first things they teach you about the world, and I feel satisfied that I regularly apply this lesson. I consider this a silver lining. Frost settles over the gutter like the fuzz on unbrushed teeth.
The last three blocks of my walk are dollar stores, pawnshops, and five Polish bakeries that all serve the same brand of plastic-wrapped muffins with atrophied little blueberries in them. I pass a Laundromat with a trash bag taped over one window and the bag billows towards me. When I pass the front door I see a row of empty pod dispenser machines.
The poet’s last name was Hubbard, and he’d said he was, in fact, related to L. Ron. I wonder if that’s possible: that L. Ron Hubbard’s great grand-nephew could fuck me in a boring missionary way, that I could vomit in his $3000-a-month toilet while he drank coconut water. I don’t know if it’s possible that I could take the bag of rice with me, and that by the subway station, miraculously, my phone could start. Rice everywhere like a wedding party. Is that how life works? Maybe I’d misheard him, it was a long time ago. Every now and then I think about Googling him but it makes me nauseous. Instead I Googled the Boston aquarium once, the one from “For the Union Dead,” and I learned it had been closed.