This was fifteen years ago in Hoboken. The storefront apartment on Madison Street. Her front step served as a landing pad for local strays.
One stray was a shepherd-and-lab mix, one was a lab-and-shepherd mix, and one was a mix of so many breeds that it was impossible to say what it was a mix of. One of the dogs was jumpy, skittish, given to aggression; the other two were sweet, friendly, covered with fleas. Well, they were all covered with fleas, actually. She could never tell which of the three was the skittish individual. When she came home to see one slumbering, she never knew whether to be worried, whether to greet this stray with a loving, if tentative caress upon the top of its sloping canine skull, or whether to steer around it according to that antediluvian proverb about dogs. She kept confusing the markings on the offending beast. How much had this anxious, panicky dog suffered at the hands, she guessed, of Hoboken’s sinister political-action clubhouses, where they kicked at it, or shot at it with their pearl-handled revolvers, in the weeks leading up to the important school board election? Which beloved local business owner had waved off this hound with a tire iron as it loitered behind his auto body shop?
And was it really three strays? Maybe it was only two? Maybe the dog that was the shepherd-and-lab mix and the dog that was the lab-and-shepherd mix were actually one and the same dog and she just hadn’t paid attention to its coloring, hadn’t seen him from all the angles, hadn’t seen him in all times and all places, frolicking, urinating. The way the dogs reclined on the step, in the afternoon sun, it was hard to know which dog was which—one stretched lengthily, as if prepared to be roasted on a Southeast Asian spit, another coiled like a soft pretzel, gnawing at abraded limbs. Sometimes the lab-and-shepherd mix had a scorched black expanse along its vertebrae mildly overgrown with a henna tone, other times it was more flaxen, the color depicted on panels of American cereal boxes. The mutt, on the other hand, had black spots. M.J. Powell was almost sure that it was one of the two shepherd dogs who served as her occasional adversary—shepherds had that reputation, anyway, or at least they did when she was a kid.
She was on the way home from New York University, where she was in a graduate program at the Tisch School of the Arts. She was a blond and she was a dancer; she was inches from the surface of a teak floor; she wore leg warmers and unitards for weeks at a time, knew the salesgirls at Capezio, she had worn the bloody toe shoes of the child ballerina; there was Stravinsky in her head, passages from Nijinsky’s diaries, she had learned to count complicated time signatures, sevens and nines; the church she attended, the church through which she lived and breathed, was the Judson Church, where everything a body could do was an expression of the dance, the beautiful and the homely equally expressive meanderings of bodies in space. She was a dancer. She put her finger down her throat in the ladies’ dressing room on the fourth floor before rehearsal. Just the other day, she’d gouged her own knuckles, on bicuspids and incisors, trying to get her hand out of the way of her own heaves. She was uninsured. She wrestled her hair into a bun. Her toenails were cut to the quick. She had excellent turnout. She was a dancer coming up the block with a black leather satchel from Coach over her left shoulder, with the strap of her white silk blouse unstrapping under the strap of the satchel; she couldn’t do anything about the blouse, the strapping and unstrapping, because she was also carrying a box of twelve plastic thirty-two ounce bottles of soda in a variety of brands and types, and she was close to dropping them, these twelve plastic bottles; she could feel them beginning to yield; she could feel the muscles that attached her arm at her shoulder, and the particular hypertrophy of these muscles, minute striations of myofilaments, interdigitated rows containing the muscular protein actin, and she knew all this because she was about to be tested on it for a class in kinesiology, and if she had been dancing instead of studying, as she would have preferred, maybe this wouldn’t be happening, this painful hypertrophy in the region of the clavicle, if she had danced, had slotted certain midwestern hardcore tapes into her battered portable cassette player, stood at the barre, attempted to metaphorize the flight of the curveball of Ron Darling (a pitcher she liked), and mixed this with certain repetitions out of Lucinda Childs, Sufi mysticisms, silences and pauses that didn’t mean anything now in a specific way, but would probably mean a lot later, if so then maybe the whole story would have turned out otherwise.
The block was empty, the block on Madison between Fifth and Sixth, a block of mostly industrial buildings, loading docks that no longer loaded. The box of sodas she carried, in a variety of types and brands, was overwhelming, and she could see, though her sunglasses were sliding down her nose and neither elbow nor finger was available to restore them to the perfect bridge of her nose, that, up ahead, one of the dogs was indeed on the step, as there was always one. But which? And why couldn’t security be routine in the matter of where you had your stereo and your jewelry and your paperbacks and your inherited lamps? Closer now, she could almost make out, it was either the lab-and-shepherd mix or it was the shepherd-and-lab mix and was it the one that was going to take a hunk out of her unprotected calf, so that she would never dance again and would have a hideous and disfiguring scar? Like that night when she was a little drunk and was first bringing home her boyfriend, okay, more than a little drunk, absolutely dyslexic with surfeit of drinks, and they were coming up the step and she had said to him, Never mind about the dogs, and then the dog had begun to growl on the crumbling step of the landing, and then when she tried gamely to overleap the dog, as though stepping over the dog were to step across the nuptial threshold, the dog had nipped at her. She’d felt a disturbance of air. She’d jumped. She was known for her ability to jump, to perform the entrechat and the grand jeté, and this was therefore a professional jump. The dog didn’t make contact, understand, but nipped at her, and then her boyfriend-to-be yelled at the dog and waved his arms until it skulked down the steps and waited, for a time, in the empty expanse of Madison Street. Growling. Yes, she was certain of it, it was that dog with shepherd in it, as opposed to the dog with lab in it, an unbalanced dog, a dog from some deep troubled realm of doghood that didn’t recognize that it was a companion species or had a history of protecting and admiring humans; it was part timber wolf, and it intended to bite clean through her Achilles tendon and to disable her; it had unlearned its domestication. There was a desperation to its movements, when it moved, a desperation of the sort that animal psychologists refer to as liberty hysteria. It would run up and down the street, this way and that, unknowing, anxious, deprived of the strategic constraint of home.
Naturally, as she began to mount the three steps that ascended to the entrance of her building, carrying a cardboard box full of twelve bottles of soft drinks in a variety of brands, the dog began to growl again. And the street was empty, and she was alone, and she had this party to prepare for tonight. That was it, see, there was a party, in less than an hour and a half, she was a busy woman, and didn’t have time for this dog on the step, and she was a little panicked, if also resolute, and somehow the dog sensed this (they can smell the fear), and began to become agitated, at first growling quietly, but then barking continuously, and the two of them, she and the dog, fell into a mutual refusal to yield, a refusal to go forward; she wouldn’t go forward up the step, she was afraid, the dog wouldn’t budge either, wouldn’t attempt its violence, but wouldn’t move. They stared at one another in this way, the dog bared its rotting smile; she attempted to refix her grip on the cheap, corrugated cardboard box that housed the sodas (an ineffectual box that the discount-beer-and-soda place had given her). Then after one of those prolonged cinematic intervals that had much to do with the flood of relevant chemicals into the viaducts of the circulatory system, a prolonged cinematic instant that involved recollections of the German shepherd that lived up the street in Wilton, the stray lunged and the cardboard box gave out, as she instantly recognized it was designed to do, and there were bottles rolling, into the street; this way a pair of Diet Cokes; in another direction, some tonic water; there a lone bottle of orange soda that she shouldn’t have bothered to purchase. Who drank orange soda? She tumbled, fell backward, down the two steps, onto her butt, gouged a big hole in her black nylons, smudged her miniskirt with soot, and the dog lingered on the edge of the top step, fierce, insistent, in full possession.
The sun declined under the ridge adjacent, upon which sat Union City, abruptly rendering the facades of Madison Street in umbral gloom. Bottles of soda continued to hasten away. A gray Honda Civic ran over one of the Diet Cokes with the pop of a cheap firearm. She began in the most forceful language to admonish the hound, You stupid dog, I have things to do, okay? Beat it!, at which the antagonist continued to bark anyhow. Remember the dog that your neighbor had that one summer when you rented a house on the Jersey Shore or on the Cape or in Southampton, the neighbor who rarely went outside except to remonstrate with his kids and to turn the sprinkler on his desertified lawn? Remember his rottweiler, that miserable rottweiler, in the spattered cage out by the garbage cans, who, when his owner went to the local watering holes, would bark, at painfully unpredictable intervals, four or five hours at a clip, a desperate barking? If you tried to rectify the barking, with a couple of dog biscuits or a bowl of Kal-Kan, you would find his lonesomeness was nothing compared to his desire to devour all intruders or passersby and therefore yourself? This scene was like that.
She blushed. She summoned her bravest and most firm voice, low in the register, Get out of here, come on, really, go to the meats department at C-Town, or something, I don’t have time. Some resolve of her youth had given out and she felt suddenly helpless. The dog refused to yield. She was getting ready to hit him with her handbag, which had not a single blunt object in it (Anna Karenina, a plastic twelve-ounce bottle of water, three lipsticks, a wallet, a holder for tampons, a hairbrush, several varieties of breath mints, two ballpoint pens, an address book, a spiral-bound notebook), but which nonetheless would be useful as a device for a throttling, though maybe she could also use several bottles of soda as missiles, which, under compression of carbonation, would scare the hell out of the dog. But before she could effect the plan, the two additional dogs swung wide around the corner of Madison and Sixth, sprinting according to their liberty hysteria, following a navigational sense invisible to Homo sapiens sapiens; they soon fell into position at her crumbling step. Maybe they had been intent upon another destination. Not now. It was a territorial thing. The three were assembled, the stray dogs of her neighborhood, all in disputation, each wanting ascendance of her step, its view, its majesty. One of the two at the bottom of the step leaped at the shepherd-and-lab mix, it was the mutt, and they fell into a real commotion. Somebody’s neck was going to be perforated. So aggravated was the altercation that a neighbor was moved to lean out a window across the street to complain:
—What’s the idea? We got a business here. We can’t work with that racket going on.
—Then give me a hand, she called in reply. —Or they’ll be at it all day and all night and they’ll drive us all crazy.
The window slid shut.
—At least call the police, she said. —Or the fire department. Or whoever it is you call when you’re trapped in a stray-dog dispute. I mean, come on.
She added dulcetly:
The window, designed and constructed in an era when manufacturing industries still had windows, when offices had windows, when window meant access to fresh, unrecirculated air, as opposed to double-thick water-retardant panes that insurance corporations will not allow open lest some employee should have the good sense to plunge to his or her final end, landing on the roof of an El Dorado, bouncing to the left, crushing a gifted young Slovakian flutist making her first visit to the United States, the window slid up, and the aforementioned small business owner, of Hoboken Tool and Die Corporation, again leaned out.
—You’re on this block, honey. This is my block. I been working on this block since before you were alive. Get my drift? I grew up here. I didn’t move here because it’s cheaper than Greenwich Village but with good access to the city. Understand?
The window slid shut, the dogs continued to tangle. Moments later, though, the larger gray steel door with multiple locks at the loading entrance of Hoboken Tool and Die swung ominously open, and out came the CEO and major shareholder of the corporation, Anthony Somebody, slack in the middle section, okay he was fat, wearing a knockoff of a Van Heusen shirt purchased at the outlets in Secaucus, short-sleeved, blue flannel slacks that he was having trouble positioning at the waist (either up or down). Arms folded. Similarly, coming upon the scene, a crosstown bus screeched to a halt, between Fifth and Sixth, while Anthony labored toward the curb on his bad knees. These two events at once. Anthony offered no rationale for coming to her aid. Schoolchildren, in the windows on the lee side of the bus, pointed at the dogs, one of which had now drawn blood from another. Five bucks on the shepherd! The bus meanwhile, at its designated stop, attempted to disgorge an older woman with a walker who was wearing a plastic Ziploc bag on her grayish hair to protect her coiffure from moisture. A hush on Madison Street. The senior unable to disembark. The bus idling. Voices of children on the bus.
—Got a problem, little lady? called Anthony from his side of the thoroughfare.
As though it were not plainly obvious. There was this party, for example, and the party was to publicize this gallery that she was starting, with her boyfriend, except that she was not certain if her boyfriend was still her boyfriend or not, because there were semantic difficulties, for example, how did you define boyfriend, because the only time he seemed as though he was her boyfriend was at parties; when not at parties, there was silence, estrangement, distance; when she tried to rectify silence, as by attempting to figure out what her boyfriend might want from her, certain outfits, certain attitudes (condemnation of popular culture), she found that he didn’t want her to make attempts to please, but he didn’t want her not to want these things either—when she called him a dick for flirting with Maria at a dinner party, for example, he didn’t like it and wouldn’t speak to her for three days, but would have liked her less if she had ignored the whole thing, the flirting, which she was inclined to do; one week he loved her, the next she could tell that her body disgusted him, even though her body was perfect, at least according to standards of a Lincoln Kirstein or a George Balanchine; and she had put her head over the toilet that very morning and felt the compressed-firehose surge of Raisin Bran and fresh peach slices, after which she toweled off, applied lotion to her hand, gargled, all this while waiting for him to go to work, God, when you were feeling the superabundance of rich creative license, you imagined a dancer’s body; her body would be used up and injured in five years’ time, cartilage harvested from both knees, maybe sooner, and anyway this kind of abstract posturing and psychologizing about relationships was really boring, made her weary; when women imagined they were supposed to talk about relationships, she could tell that they were uncomfortable, outmaneuvered, they were looking to protect themselves against male liberty hysteria; it was another way of being terrified, really; but, as long as she was enumerating problems, there were cocaine problems, for example; there was this guy who would deliver to their address, a reasonable Middle Eastern guy, who once even offered to put her in touch with a client of his who worked as psychotherapist; this dealer would come by to Madison Street and buzz the capricious buzzer, there was a period wherein they had to see this guy every night, and it was uncomfortable, him telling them that their records were shit and their sofa was shit, and it wasn’t the expense of the cocaine, since her parents had some money that they were giving her, it was that her boyfriend never bought any of it; in fact, he didn’t seem very effective at earning his own cash, and so there was the problem of him owing her money for the cocaine and owing her money generally, so that she would occasionally brood over exact figures of indebtedness. Even sweet moments, like when they rented a car and drove up the Hudson and went to a farmstand and bought pumpkins, stood in a pick-your-own-orchard, ill-reciting fragments of poems, That time of year thou may’st in me behold, even in sweet moments, she was calculating debt, I don’t honestly believe that you have given back a proportionate amount and even if money is irrelevant and I have enough money to pay a larger portion of the rent it doesn’t mean that I can forgive in perpetuity the fact that I have spent more than you even if I say I love you, or she was thinking of a moment when she had gotten up in the middle of the night to guzzle orange juice and had seen him in the kitchen, at the far end of the odd commercial space that was their apartment, with a rolled-up bill and a mirror and lines and she pretended she saw nothing.
Her boyfriend had scraped the i off the sign in the storefront window where they now lived together and it no longer said Madison Electric, as it had once, but now said Mad son Electric, and that was the name of their gallery, and they had written a press release replete with art-critical language that her boyfriend had somehow acquired during his all-but-dissertation career as an analytic philosopher; the press release used liminality and numinosity and dialectic, and it referred to tactical strategies of subjectivity in postmodernism, and the Hoboken Reporter had picked the whole thing up, on the page opposite the police blotter, where the paper recorded with gusto a recent surge in arrests for public urination attributable to all the new restaurants downtown, and then on the facing page, New Gallery Brings a Touch of the Village to Midtown, featuring a photo, M.J. Powell and Gerry Abramowitz in front of the former Madison St. Electrical Corp. (He clutched a thrift-store overcoat around himself; his black self-inflicted haircut stood on end.) There would be guests, there would be drinks, there would be the wildness. No time to waste.
—I can’t get this guy and his friends off my step, I dropped my case of sodas, M.J. called to Anthony Somebody, on the far side of Madison. —I have a party starting in an hour.
—That’s nothing, Anthony said. —Couple of dogs, right? Pretty girl like you. Could be worse. Could be rats.
Anthony stepped off the curb. As though stepping across the Hudson River itself, separating this Jersey side from that NYC side, but at the moment of this historic voyage from the curb there was, unfortunately, a convergence of bad luck. A pair of young guys in sweatshirts driving what was probably a stolen Camaro slowed, and the driver of this vehicle waved at Anthony Somebody, and Anthony waved back, and one of the dogs bolted between parked cars on M.J.’s side, and everything was possible in this moment, the movements of the dramatis personae, dancers upon a proscenium, all converged, another bottle of soda popped, the Camaro swerved, struck the crosstown bus, and Mrs. John J. Vincenzo of Adams Street was thrown clear, from her perch on the steps of the crosstown bus, over her walker, and onto the pavement, onto accumulations of automobile glass, and there was a muffled cry from her, and a screech of tires, and the Camaro from the ’84 model year rumpled like an expensive suit after an evening of embraces, and Anthony Somebody, attempting to wade into the street, attempting to contribute in a civic way to a dangerous congregation of hounds, fell to the curb, grasping for his leg, so that M.J. could see the comb-over on the summit of his head. At first, she thought Anthony’s injury was a bluff, a way to deny aid in the midst of civic upheaval. But Anthony had lurched forward between Hyundai and Ford Escort, Goddamn it!, collapsing onto the ground, immediately hiking up blue flannels to reveal navy blue socks of the sort that you might get at one of these haberdashers on Union Square where a guy on a stepladder served as discount law enforcement. Anthony began to rub his ankle, blaspheming softly.
M.J. slipped across the great divide of Madison, behind a police car drawing near. —You okay?
Anthony apparently knew from the block these kids who were driving the Camaro that had smacked the crosstown bus that had disgorged Mrs. Vincenzo, the bus which had formerly housed a dozen private school kids from the Catholic school uptown, Joey, is that your brother’s car, does he know you took his car out like this, you’re out joyriding you smack up your own brother’s car? It was a customized car, too, and Joey was the younger brother of the guy at the corner grocery near her, the younger brother of the guy who owned the grocery who no longer much spoke to M.J. because, she suspected, she kept using the store address for parcel deliveries from the catalogues. One day when she strode in for a can of lentil soup, the guy and his wife were calling out to her from behind a wall of corrugated-cardboard shipping containers, from J. Crew and Tweeds, Miss Powell, could you please take some of these boxes over to your place, because we’re having trouble moving around in here, in the store. Blouses and sweaters and linen jackets and black leotards, jeans and swimsuits and hats. The younger brother, who had been loitering in an aisle near the canned goods, had volunteered to help carry her boxes. Joey. And Joey and his pal Mike were now out of the car inspecting the front end, ignoring the nearby body of Mrs. Vincenzo, repeating their own decorous obscenities, pacing nervously.
Gerry got the idea for the gallery in a certain bar on Second Avenue. In Manhattan. They used to go there after thesis recitals at Tisch. One girl’s performance involved a relation to dirty laundry; she had brought out a laundry bag and put on a tape of a song featuring miserably chortling synthesizers, and, amid kinesthetic combinations that resembled the process of giving birth, she scattered laundry across the stage, halter tops, underwear, tights. No dry-clean-only items. It was after this piece that Gerry got the idea. Probably soon after. He had moved in, she had just invited him to move in, and he remarked that the gallery scene in the East Village had been indispensable, and with so many musicians living in Hoboken now, so many artists, there was a real scene, there was Maxwell’s and there were all these bands, and things were really happening, it was the right time for a gallery in Hoboken, a gallery, a samizdat kind of thing, that would reflect the local artists, like there were definitely some great artists out there, and there was all the loft space, and they could sort of serve as a hub, a nexus for all of these artists, and maybe there would be a Hoboken style, like there was southwestern style. M.J. had taken some art-history courses in school; she’d taken this one course where, on the final exam, she’d compared Piet Mondrian’s reduction of the vocabulary of classical painting to the way a student on a final exam attempts to reduce the movement and vocabulary of the semester’s work down to a single essay question, and she had received an A for the paper and therefore for the term. She then elected to reuse this idea, a semester later, for the midterm on the Abstract Expressionists and Their Era, this time receiving a C minus. Where the hell was Gerry, while policemen hovered over Mrs. Vincenzo like the mob in deposition paintings; while Joey and Mike argued with the driver of the crosstown bus; while the children who’d been on the bus were spilling out onto the street, Five dollars on the black lab! That’s not a lab! Gerry didn’t know too many artists. He’d dated a woman from Barnard who painted portraits of her wealthy family in the style of court paintings from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and he’d approached her for the Mad Son Electric Opening Gala. M.J.’s cousin Nicky Jarrett, who’d gone to Cooper Union and who specialized in sculptures featuring balloons with smiley faces on them—shunts and fuses and tubes housing balloons which then inflated and uninflated, circularly—had also refused. The artists she’d known years before were not artists anymore. They were graphic designers. What was art, but something that you could get into a bank lobby, or something that a large law firm or junk-bond brokerage boutique acquired through a committee on decorations to sell later at a profit; or, as Nijinsky said, I felt disgust and therefore could not finish the ballet. The Mad Son Electric Gallery had made more progress with the Hoboken Reporter, in terms of media penetration, than it had made with the artists who might show upon its walls. Gerry had begun to call frantically around town asking if anyone knew any artists at all who worked in Hoboken, any artists who worked in the loft spaces over in the midtown section of Hoboken near the projects, and sometimes, at dusk, he wandered the streets, gazing in windows.
In the meantime, M.J.’s studies in physiognomy and sports medicine and the Alexander technique made her ideal for the diagnosis of Anthony Somebody’s ankle sprain. His large, homely ankle was up on her thigh, and she was pulling delicately on it, examining. Anthony’s eyes: woeful, as though he’d been driven off twenty yards from some game of boys, lifelong, watching myopically from a distance, as boys called out, No fat kids allowed.
—A sprain is basically a pulled tendon. Diagnosed by a history. Ever sprain it before? Rest, ice, compression and elevation. That’s your road to recovery. After the swelling goes down after a couple of days, you should do range-of-motion exercises, like balancing on the affected foot. Or you could try tracing letters of the alphabet, easy ones first. H. Or L. That way you avoid joint instability.
—If you could just help me get up on my feet, Anthony said.
He was worried and distant.
—I’m not sure you should be walking on it. That’s what I’m saying, M.J. said. —I mean, you probably don’t have a fracture, because that would be obvious. I saw a girl fracture her leg once.
Anthony wrestled his foot out of her control. He began to stand.
—Joey, get your butt over here, Anthony called.
—The Camaro in the eighties will never be like the Camaro in the seventies, Joey was mumbling.
—Or what about that ’67? With the V-8 and the 350 cubic inches, Mike, his friend, observed. —Sweet on that.
—Parts. That’s your whole problem.
—Something goes bad.
—Look, I’m leaking.
—Oil pan. Definitely.
A policeman sauntered over from where Mrs. Vincenzo lay upon a bier of shattered glass; the sun dipped below the rim of Union City; M.J. plucked off her sunglasses; holiday lights, blinking holiday strings, which Gerry had laboriously hung in the window of the Mad Son Electric Gallery, were by timer engaged, and in these lights it became clear that the dogs had disappeared, had fled; and so the way to the gallery was free, and the interpenetration of all these people, all these events, caused by dogs, seemed for the moment to be just a mistake of interpretation, nothing more. M.J. felt better. She could just go inside now and get busy with arranging soft drinks (the case of wine was already inside), cheeses, and maybe these pratfalls of the afternoon would be part of the coverage of the Mad Son Electric Opening Gala: an old woman on a walker stretched out flat on Madison Street, her voice declaiming irritably on the matter of sciatica, a car totaled on the rear of the crosstown bus, kids sitting out on a sidewalk with a portable radio blasting a tune about basketball sneakers, Hispanic men getting out of cars trapped in the snarl up the block, car horns like monarchical cornets, because of dogs. Joey and Mike, wearing black tour T-shirts, each with a long, narrow ponytail snaking down his back, hoisted Anthony to his feet. All M.J. had to do was open the door to the building. She was tired. An ambulance came up the block from the wrong direction. Its muffled siren. And before her in the street lay a pristine bottle of orange soda. She scooped it up and went back to make a gift of it to Anthony.
—Sorry for the trouble.
As though he had never met her.
—Thanks. He unscrewed the lid fast. Orange soda was fountained. He brushed a dribble off himself.
—We’re having a little art opening later. Come on by.
—Uh, prior engagement.
Back on her side of the street, a guy sat himself on the hood of a station wagon in front of her building. He too drank her soda. Her Diet Coke. What kind of operation you running here, huh? He gestured at the gallery. She let it all go, headed for the door, and the three steps seemed steeper, more demanding, as if this were part of her performance and the audience behind would be watching. She loved her boyfriend, at least right now she loved him, even if he didn’t seem to have many friends, even if there were nights when she would come home from school and she would find him alone in the house, with the videocassette recorder fired up, the one that they’d gotten from her parents, beside it a sequence of horror films that he’d loved since his childhood. Who are we going to invite to the gallery opening? she’d asked. Don’t worry about that. That’s the easy part. They had addressed a few invitations, maybe thirty, but would any of those people actually come? There were a few people he knew from his day job in the city, as bibliographer for the Encyclopedia of the History of Religions. He would get a dozen index cards with names like Mircea Eliade or Reinhold Niebuhr on them; he would go down into the maze of stacks at Columbia, see what he could see, a Festschrift published in The Hague, some old numbers from the Religious Anthropology Quarterly. Akhenaton or Moses’s conception of monotheism. If he did enough of these cards, hourly, he’d have enough money to pay, temporarily, for his long distance calls, in which he invited friends from Austin or Burlington to come to Hoboken for the show. She searched deep into the recesses of her purse. Nope, not in that front pocket, maybe in the zippered pocket in the front, and, okay, if not there, don’t panic, they’re in the back pocket, she never put them in the back pocket, okay, shit, where are the keys, she had no pocket on her skirt, of course, women weren’t supposed to have pockets, but she checked nonetheless, absurdly patting down her front and her rear as though there were pockets, then back around again, the entire sequence, front pocket, back pocket, interior pocket, glancing toward the mayhem on Madison Street, where the hell was Gerry, and why weren’t her keys in here? Her mind rushed back over the last half hour. When she was fighting with the dogs, did she have them then? Had the keys fallen out when she had stumbled on the sidewalk? She tried the knob, an old rusty thing on the metal door. It didn’t give.
Across the street, Joey and Mike, helping Anthony down the sidewalk.
A homeless guy had shown up from a squat in one of the nearby industrial buildings. The homeless situation was expanding here in Hoboken, M.J. believed; once there had been these hotels down by the terminal, the Hotel Victor, for example, a hotel that existed as a satellite business around the Irish bars, watering holes where floozies and drunks who had lost the week’s wages on dog races would console and antagonize one another. These were the hotels where these men lived, beside immigrant women and their children; anyhow, when that garish restaurant opened next door, the one with the loud sound system and the waitresses with silicone implants, well then, the hotels had to close, couldn’t afford the upwardly adjusted rents, these people couldn’t afford to live where they had always lived and so they were going to have to leave. Some penniless adventurer had spray-painted protest language on the door of the Hotel Victor, Where will these men go? And there were multicolored T-shirts appearing in town, with this language upon them, with the dingy Victorian façade of the hotel and its sign, and beneath, Where will these men go? But even the adventurer who had spray-painted the hotel was worn down by the futility of political opposition in the medieval town given entirely to political patronage, under federal investigation for the worst public schools in the state, and the men who lived in the Hotel Victor were loosed upon the street, and it was about that time that she started to notice one of the midtown homeless regulars, Aaron was the guy’s name, or at least that’s what people called him, a delicatessen owner told her, and Aaron, the interesting thing about Aaron, in addition to the fact that he usually wore a hockey helmet, which was to keep in his brains, the unusual thing was that he was, she believed, a gay homeless person, which you didn’t encounter every day, although she imagined, after all, that problems like mental illness struck in equal percentages across demographic categories. Underneath the grime and the strawberry-blond beard and the hockey helmet, Aaron seemed delicate, fine, frail, a scarecrow, and his gestures were balletic, as with the male dancers she knew. I want to write poetry. I want to compose ballets. I am God, as Nijinsky said. She could imagine making a piece for Aaron to dance, and it would have a lot of Nijinsky’s word associations for Aaron to recite while dancing. Aaron was frequently darting around bus stands pointing frantically at things and people who were not immediately apparent, and waving a half-empty bottle of Miller Genuine Draft. There were perfectly sane homeless people, of course, and unlucky homeless families, but Aaron wasn’t one of these. He was a deinstitutionalized homeless person. It would have been difficult to get him to perform combinations properly, though maybe he could have been videotaped, phrase by phrase, as in the abstract videos of Merce Cunningham that M.J. liked; and what was he doing here, at the head of Mrs. Vincenzo’s prone body, as she regaled paramedics?
—The one young man who started that restaurant on Washington Street. I knew him when he was just a boy. His parents are very proud of him. Very proud. Told me that he got the idea for it from eating sandwiches over at the Jersey Shore. This goes back a ways. My own boy was in the armed forces then.
—Mrs. Vincenzo, you shouldn’t talk.
—I’ll talk if I want to.
—Buddy, just move off a couple feet, here, give the lady some fresh air, the paramedic remarked to Aaron, over whose face then passed a dark cloud of rejection. Meanwhile, adjacent, the operator of the crosstown bus, on the radio, —A fender bender type thing. A flat. Young lady been nice enough to give away some of her soft drinks, and the kids? They all drinking sodas. Some playing cards.
—You want me to get that open for you? offered the guy on the hood of the station wagon, motioning at M.J.’s front door. —Could open that easy. Just need a credit card or something. Let me do it.
Every northeastern town had its eccentric with the artificial tan. Many of these characters got their tans from local tanning salons, and Hoboken had a tanning salon, but it was on the uptown end where M.J. rarely traveled and anyhow she believed that tanning salons involved irradiation. Fair of skin, as her family were all fair of skin, she was from a long line of ivory that in winter looked delicate and in summer looked unhealthy, people of the ice, this ancestry of Anglo- and Irish-Americans who by birthright didn’t have to live in towns that were built up on swamps as Hoboken was, she was white, and this gentleman on the hood of the station wagon was tanned through some means, through an applied juice, a poultice, an Egyptian henna or some such, which he attempted to mete out over himself evenly, under cover of night, in a harsh bathroom fluorescence.
—I’m supposed to be having a party in less than an hour. The guests are coming really soon. Where’s my boyfriend? He’s supposed to be here.
—You just need a credit card is all.
So his neighborliness revealed itself as an attempt to get to her credit cards, which, in any event, were her parents’ credit cards, namely a VISA card issued by her parents’ bank and an American Express Platinum. All of the money, or requests for money, flowed back to that originary trunk, as all her parents’ money flowed back to the central bank and its charter for which Washington voted, when president, in 1791. All money referred to the original money of British feudal lords, which, transferred, supplemented, by plastic cards, karats, ducats, nuggets of gold, stock certificates, bonds, computer printouts of mutual fund holdings, was nonetheless merely a recognition of the origin of money, held by people who did not tan well and who did not need to apply juices to their pale veneers. She assumed, moreover, that all original money was stewarded by men, because women were held to be forgetful and given to mercurial temper and who were anyway inclined to leave the control of money to others, who had pockets. The men were all in a bar someplace, mired in self-hatred, flattering courtesans who would look hideous in the morning, they were pondering the box-office dominance of a certain Austrian bodybuilder whose accent made him sound startlingly like a fascist; it was almost impossible not to imagine that this Austrian, who may possibly have used juices to tan his veneer, was a fascist. She used to come home at night and Gerry would be sitting at the kitchen table with the local phone book open and she would ask what he was doing and he would say, Reading the phone book. She would ask why he was reading the phone book. He had no explanation, he was just reading, and when again they were attempting to think of people to invite to the Mad Son Electric Opening Gala, he’d turned to reading the white pages, unable to make contact with her in a way that satisfied either of them, uncertain, even, what it was to make contact; Gerry improvised, Looking for rock stars, because there were these Hoboken bands and they just lived up the street, they all had day jobs, one guy copyedited for one of the larger publishing houses, and you used to see them on the buses going into Port Authority and Gerry was thinking he was going to invite these celebrities to the Mad Son Electric Opening Gala, but then he never did, nothing came of it.
—You don’t have your own credit card? M.J. said. —Because I’m not sure I want to sacrifice one of my credit cards for a lock. I mean, they’re not really mine, anyway. They’re for emergency use, and if I lost one, I’d have to notify the bank.
—Suit yourself, the tan man said.
—I don’t give a hoot if he was the greatest singer of the century! Mrs. Vincenzo shouted. Aaron rocked beside her in recognition of her oratory. —I’m saying he ought to come back and visit the town where he got raised up. Doesn’t make good sense. My boy was in some trouble here in town before he went off to the service and I still lived here with the neighbors and the friends who seen what I’ve been through. They understood my troubles. This is where I’m from. I’m not going to be from anywhere else.
—Mrs. Vincenzo, said one of the paramedics, —would you be willing to get into the ambulance now?
A dispute broke out between the kids playing cards, a black kid and a white kid and soon several others had gotten into it, and they held the white kid down and they pulled off his sneakers, probably cost $37.50 apiece, tied two laces together, the kid cried out No! No! but they held him down. Now M.J. noticed that harvest of sneakers, draped on the power lines. The instigators flung the sneakers up, tried to get them to drape over the lines. Please, no, those are brand-new sneakers! They were calling him faggot, because what else did you call a kid, you called him a faggot, that was the worst thing you could be. She looked at Aaron to see if he registered this, whether a lifetime of being mostly hated by your peers was enough to be a predictor of madness and alcoholism, but Aaron had wandered toward the crosstown bus and was now disputing its route with the driver.
—Must not use the crosstown bus very often, the driver said, —because it’s been some years this bus here been going down Madison. Other bus goes down Washington, so now people on this side of town, they don’t have to walk so far, like the people on the other side, they mostly don’t have to walk so far.
—Maybe it’s not your house, the guy from the station wagon remarked.
—What did you say? said M.J.
—I mean maybe you’re trying to get me to bust you into a house doesn’t belong to you.
—Want to see my driver’s license?
—Could be this isn’t even your street. Maybe somebody else lives here. Driver’s license? Hey, you can buy one of those.
—That’s really rude. What you’re saying is just rude.
The face of the tanned guy (she supposed now that he was called Norbert) indicated a substantial cruelty heretofore concealed. She could tell that he would not be a resource in her hour of need. Meanwhile, the cars on the street in a furious Klaxoning. The ambulance, the crosstown bus parked side by side. Police beside paramedics. A fireman wandered through asking if his services were needed. At the corner, a traffic cop who had appeared to wave rush-hour flow onto Seventh Street had recognized a friend among the assembled. He stepped out of the intersection to chat with this rotundity of sweatsuit. Traffic languished. Next, there was a street vendor, one of Hoboken’s sellers of ices, with a cart and a dozen bottles, chipping away with his pick, loading on raspberry syrup; around him three or four friends heaving crimson dice, talking fast in a froth of Spanish and English: results of first games of the football season, difficulties of wives, how a couple of Anglos in the wrong neighborhood gonna jack up the rents, this town where they had gotten halfway through demolishing the ferry terminal so that they could put up top-dollar developments like amusement arcades, shopping centers, luxury condos, you could neither take a ferry from the terminal nor use the location for anything else; it was the Committee for a Better Waterfront versus the people who had lived there since they were kids, played stickball on the blacktop over the Observer Highway; the people who lived there were mainly for development, even if it brought nothing to them but wrecking balls and food courts; and this very theme had not erupted on Madison Street, before the flickering holiday lights of the Mad Son Electric Gallery of Hoboken, whereupon a BMW-owner, wearing Ray-Bans and a yellow power tie, climbed out of his convertible and took it up with the men by the street vendor, and yet they all agreed, everyone agreed, You think it’s a bad idea to have a beautifully designed series of buildings down there, and some shops, with the Empire State Building right across the water? The men, in their basketball jerseys and worn baseball caps, jeans and construction boots, wordless, That’s a good idea, the young urban professional continued, which will improve real-estate values in the neighborhood. It’s better for the tax base. There will be jobs. Strapped himself back into his car, satisfied with urban planning, and there he sat, immobilized in traffic.
—Over my dead body a bunch of trees down there on that water! Over my dead body! We don’t need no more parks! We got plenty of damn parks already! That’s just going to cause filth from pigeons and rats! We need tax monies! observed Mrs. Vincenzo.
Autumn, county fair of tonalities. People filed out of workplaces, out of tenements, onto stoops. Last time they could do so for months. Leaves clogged the street, the sewer lines. Where had these leaves come from? They were three blocks from the nearest tree. Northeast storms had blown through earlier, as storms did this time of year, and the limbs of the trees, those that remained in the Mile-Square City, were picked clean; each new gust brought a dusting of yellow symbols of decay. Clearly, it wasn’t only M.J. who made a poetics, a worldview, out of a drop in the temperature and a diminishment of light. I tremble like an aspen leaf, Nijinsky said. Her parents’ house had beautiful autumns. When the weather was fine, she had practiced out on the lawn, while the man next door clipped graying blooms from his once bright hydrangeas. She bobbed above the clean lines of a box hedge, perfecting leaps, faint with hunger. She was always hungry. She was always cold.
The tawny huckster with the scheme to break and enter, Norbert, accepted her offer of a Major Video, Inc. lifetime membership card and began working on the lock, which seemed to involve scouring the paint job on the door frame with the edge of the plastic lamination. Gerry Abramowitz had his own Major Video card. This one could be sacrificed. From desperate sprees of video rental Gerry returned, in his usual nervous way, uncertain, taciturn, with a home festival of science-fiction films and teen sex comedies. Talk to me a little bit, she asked. He’d laughed. He stayed up watching films after she’d gone to sleep and left early with his stack of bibliographical index cards. Her locksmith pro tem tried buzzing the tenants on the first floor. He bent the video membership card until it had a veiny fracture in it. M.J. was almost certain, in the light of streetlamps, that guests for the party had now begun to assemble. There was a couple in bowling shoes and Hawaiian shirts, his and hers, hair slicked with the grease of the period, Tenax or Vaseline; there was a guy with heavy tortoise-shell frames and a secondhand madras jacket. All bantering. M.J. would not meet these, her guests, on the front step, locked out, having given away Diet Coke and orange soda. It was humiliating.
—The Carnival Tradition, from Bakhtin, said the madras jacket.
—I thought it was Bakunin, said the woman.
—I know what anarchism is. You’ve got your bs confused.
—We could go to the Middle Eastern place, you know.
—Uh, no civilization endures without temporary suspension of the rules of civilization.
—Let’s wait a few more minutes.
—Got a cigarette?
Whereupon the door to the building next to M.J.’s opened, being 619 Madison, known drug location, according to law-enforcement circles, known for its potent smokable form of cocaine. They had never given her any trouble over there, in the known drug location. They were vital and spirited American entrepreneurs. The door, a flimsy old composite affair, into which had been installed cheap stained glass, from Sears, swung back, and out of it came the dream within this dream, a cherub, a teenaged boy from next door, a Hispanic young man, an Edgardo or José or Miguel, perhaps, a fraternizer with users of the potent smokable form of cocaine, but with a perfect Hispanic celestial quality that he, young Angel, would have until he was older, had put on a few pounds, become a working stiff, traded beauty for dignity; for now as perfect as a boy in Hoboken could possibly be in pressed jeans, black work shoes, James Dean windbreaker, expertly tousled black hair, having strode out of a jailbreak movie, carrying somebody’s turntable, she couldn’t help thinking that he was stealing the turntable, and when he saw the crowd outside the front door, he turned, as if to rethink the plan, to secrete himself indoors, away from the authorities. Did anyone still buy LPs? Even that store down by the PATH terminal where the gruff stoner with sideburns and ponytail wordlessly dispensed obscure rock and roll on vinyl—Syd Barrett, Lothar and the Hand People, the Nazz—even that store was on its way out; so why would Angel, the Hispanic cherub, steal a turntable?
She called to him.
—I’m locked out here. Next door. And I got all these people coming over to see our new gallery here, and I’m wondering if you might know someone in the building here, maybe—
A premeditated recognition on the part of Edgardo or Miguel.
—I gotta take this over to my friend’s.
—Oh, come on.
The turntable, balanced precariously on wrought-iron railing.
—Can I get over on the roof? M.J. said.
The rashness of the proposal, maybe, persuaded him to change his mind. What white girl from the suburbs would propose going over the roof? A conspiratorial grin broke out on his unblemished face.
—Sure, the roof, the roof. You could go over on the roof.
She asked if he would show her how, notwithstanding political implications of wanting to be shown how, wherein a woman asked a man for instruction, affected an unknowing because of the stylized exchange of information that might follow; she still liked it when a guy would show her how, whether it was how to program certain technological appliances, the coffee machine, the stereo, how to operate a handsaw or how to hit a backhand, and perhaps it would have been that way with Gerry, if he had known how to do anything, but he didn’t know much, a few knots from where he had taken sailing lessons in the suburbs, but he could fix nothing, and once a couple of weeks ago she had found him inexplicably dangling a hasp in front of the windowsill, as if one could be used on the other, What are you doing with that hasp? He knew about Frege, Austin, Kuhn, but his evasions on home-repair subjects were appalling. Can’t we get someone in to fix that? She inflated this evidence, on the front step of her building, into a notational system of romance: you and your lover showed one another how to according to diagrams, and then when you knew how to, you moved on to the next person, to have them show you how. Once an object in question was fixed, you needed it broken again, or replaced by another, and fast. And the question before her now, by way of reminder, was how does a girl steal onto the roof of her building?
—Gonna put this back in the basement, Angel said. Hang on.
Then he returned. Together they occupied the warped stairwell. Cinder block. Exposed ceiling bulbs dangling from frayed electrical lines. Lead-based paints flaking from scuffed walls. She followed him. With each flight of stairs, their pace increased, their gasps and exhalations, their anticipations, and she not only managed to keep up, but to drive Angel on more furiously, though she’d eaten nothing but a rice cake since throwing up breakfast. At last, they each grabbed the banister on the red emergency ladder; they hoisted themselves up; at last, they pushed back an old rotting hatch; at last, they heard a scattering of pigeons. They were on the roof.
Night had fallen across the landscape. Dramatically. Beyond the nub of green that was Stevens Institute of Technology at a distance, night upon the World Trade Center, night upon Hoboken high-rises, night upon the spectacle of New York City, night upon the Hudson, night upon the ships of the Hudson, night upon the history and politics of the tristate area, night upon the Newport Mall of Jersey City, night upon Liberty State Park, night upon Edgewater, night upon Fort Lee, night upon the George Washington Bridge, night upon arteries great and small, night upon marshes and blacktops and rail yards and baseball fields and electrical substations. Who could turn from it? Who could neglect it? Night had come, even while the town below undulated with dispute and jubilance.
Did she say the next words before acting, on the roof, in fresh moonlight, words that had to do with kissing a complete stranger from a different economic class and ethnic heritage on the roof of a known drug location, while the guests for her party were amassing, or did they kiss first, words occurring like spontaneous, retroactive evocations of the riptide of subcutaneous wishes? Where did the thought come from, in the furnace of retrospection? What made her do these incredibly stupid things? Because she’d been hung up for so long, out in front of the building, and was just grateful, at last, to have gotten her ass off the street? Or was it some quality in Angel himself? Wasn’t there a moment when she’d thought about it and realized that this might not be the smartest decision she ever made? No. Things had been connected together, conjoined. There was no fulcrum with which to pry them apart. This was part of what had come before. How blissful not to have to make a particular decision but to yield to what was already as obvious as if it were mixed up with propositions of physics. She thought, or she said aloud, Let me kiss your spectacular Caravaggio mug, and she knew that he knew they were going to kiss, too, like candidates for elopement; the kiss was unclear as a romantic gesture, but forceful as an observation on the nature and duration of the month of October and what the end of October meant: onslaught of holiday madness, mixed precipitation, folly in the street, We’re young! We’re beautiful! We’re supposed to make out! He held her off. Let’s get over the fence.
Barbed wire, rusted by ages and emissions of sulfurous compounds, separated her building from the known drug location. Coiled above the flush edges of the two buildings, bolted into cement. Remorseful visitations of conscience implicit in the difficulties of barbed wire. But these visitations of conscience didn’t last very long. Angel (real name Mike) seemed, of course, like he was made to go over barbed wire, which was a generalization on M.J.’s part about things she didn’t understand, to which people who had a lot of stuff were given in the consideration of those who didn’t have as much. Nevertheless, Angel simply found a spot that was well traveled, and he pulled some heavy work gloves out of the pockets of his windbreaker, set them down, took off his windbreaker, tossed it like a proverbial cape so that it draped on the fence, gripped the fence in work gloves, vaulted over. Plucked the jacket from the barbs. Now the fence separated the two of them.
—I can’t go over that, M.J. said.
What about the party? What about the people gathered in the street outside? What about her career as a dancer? Did she want to marry? Did she mean to procreate? Had she been a good friend to her good friends? Had she attempted to remember the kindness of parents, for whom she was an only child? Had she taken in stray pets? Given to charity? Looked for the good in others?
—I’ll lift you over, Angel said.
— You weigh about ten pounds more than I do.
He stood at the spot where he had climbed over himself. The barbs were speckled with gouts of blood. Maybe it was the light. Blood of the fiscally challenged, blood of laborers, blood of suffering addicts who flocked to the known drug location. While their wives or parents slept, when the attention was off, they came up Madison Street, incanting, skulking, sweaty, desperate, to 619 Madison. They banged upon the door. They didn’t own enough layers to put off the cold. It was no fashion statement. Angel reached out his arms. She didn’t have much faith. She climbed up on the ledge that separated the buildings, and with an expressive saltation, a frisson, she landed in his hands, arms around his neck; she could smell him now, and he smelled funky, like a human, and up close she could see the planes of his cheeks, hairless and boyish. It was true. He could lift her up. She was air, she had perfected the designs of the universal choreographer and made her body insubstantial like a bird’s, A bird is a messenger of death for people who have no feeling. There ought to have been even more splashy lifts and embraces, but instead the sequence culminated predictably. That is, her black miniskirt became entangled upon barbs, and there was the shredding of fabric giving way, a sliver of her miniskirt, and her tights too, and then she felt the sting of it, the barb, and she thought about the immodesty, her exhibitionism, about tetanus. That skirt was expensive. He put her down, she touched herself on her thigh, with the shyness that had overwhelmed Anthony at the apperception of his sprained ankle, What was she doing here? She recognized, on her own roof, a dismal arrangement of browned spider plants and expired geraniums irresolutely tended here by the cat lady up on the third floor. M.J. was bleeding.
And he was all over her, suddenly. His brutish hands upon her caressing. There were endearments, You are the prettiest girl I ever seen. Never kissed any blond girl before, so pretty like you. His hands like sandpaper, like a hasp. The excesses of a Manhattan skyline, at this remove, like a Big Bang inconceivably past; a blanket had been thrown over something more perfect, of which the stars were an indication, perforations of night. What was the thing that endeared Gerry to her, back when he still endeared himself, and why were endearments of people she loved so inaccessible? Objects always stood in for what was missing, a certain slutty color of nail polish that he bought for her one Passover that she had never worn, but which she kept at hand. Objects were like orange traffic cones on the right shoulder of the highway of intimate relations. That’s why she was here on the roof, with a Hispanic boy in his late teens kissing her neck in a way that was son of unpleasant now that she was thinking about it. It was hasty, not like the long, slow tentative daubs that Gerry favored.
—Hey, she said. —Slow down, okay?
He was pushing down the strap of her silk blouse, trying to get at her breasts. Maybe it was romance, and maybe romance was exactly like the dance, maybe its gestures were that familiar, that immutable, even if everyone felt that they arrived at these gestures through their own impulsive ramble. Maybe the arabesques, the fouettés, the pliés of dance could be superimposed on love; maybe these gestures of dancing were just love in a deconsecrated space. The way a certain brushing of lips against a cheek then led to a collision of pairs of lips, the way the lips then moved toward a nipple, it was as reliable as the movements of Ballets Russes. She tried to distract herself with terms of her childhood education, maître de ballet, port de bras. She tried to think of other possible interpretations for brutishness, until a terror started to swell in M.J. Powell. It started small, as discomfort, swelled into revulsion, and then assumed the actual size of terror, which is always one size larger than its container. Maybe terror is implicit in all anonymous sexual encounters. Maybe that’s what’s good about these encounters, maybe that’s what made degradation, when consensual, effective. But she felt nausea, a faintness. He turned her around a few times as if this were a child’s game. Which direction did she face? It was wet on the roof; there were puddles from the last storm. There was the stench of wet towels.
—Not here, please, come on.
His manual circulations upon her became more urgent. Here, on her exposed shoulder, he romanced a