Toxic water streamed with gold like the belly of a turning fish: sunset over Newtown Creek. Tattered pinkish-black clouds blew overhead in the March wind. The water below me rippled with tendons and cowlicks. Just across the brief waterway were the low mute banks of Hunters Point, church spire, low-slung old warehouses. An empty barge made its way down the creek toward the East River and the long glittering skyscrapery isle. I stood behind the chain-link fence the city had slapped up to keep the likes of me from jumping in.
I was hungry and in need of a bath and a drink. At my back thronged the dark ghosts of Greenpoint, feeding silently off the underwater lake of spilled oil that lay under it all, the polyfluorocarbons from the industrial warehouses. I had named this place the End of the World years ago, when it was an even more polluted, hopeless wasteland, but it still fit.
As I stood staring out through the webbing of fence, my mind cast itself through the rivulets of my own lost verse. I netted little flashes of lines and phrases I'd been reworking, "Held spellbound, your mollusk voice / Quietly swathing my cochlea / In tentacles of damask cloth" and "Slow-weathered verdigris of our once bronzed thighs," but they sounded dead to me now. All I could really hear was Luz, Luz, Luz like the feeble pulsing signals of a dying heart. Heartache was a physical thing, a pain in my chest, a sort of recoiling tension with an ache like a bruise. There was a withheld quality to my breathing lately, as if I had been sucker punched and was waiting to get my wind back, but no wind came. I could remember whole published poems, but if these new, destroyed verses still existed in my brain, they fled from the webbing of my memory like darting schools of tiny fish, scooching away the instant before capture.
I turned away from this butt end of waterfront warehouses and walked back the way I'd come, along Manhattan Avenue, past the flophouse where I lived now, bare mattresses piled in the front window. I passed junk shops full of old radios, used dolls, and cowboy shirts, Goldsholle and Garfinkel Inc., Mexican bodegas, liquor stores, the abandoned hulk of JK Restaurant Supply with its twisted metal grate, small markets with root vegetables in boxes along the sidewalk, butchers' shops festooned with loops of kielbasy. I went through the intersection at Greenpoint Avenue, the dingy McDonald's, defeated Starbucks, opposing Arab newsstands, and on to the old Associated Supermarket with its sexy Polish girls pouting at nothing as they rang up your groceries. The outdoor clock at the Smolenski Funeral Home was permanently stopped at 6:30, both hands pointing straight down to hell.
I hung a right off Manhattan Avenue and aimed myself toward the glowing neon sign in the window of Marlene's, one of the last local old-man bars. Was I an old man yet, at fifty-seven? I'd been going there for years. The place had rusty tin ceilings, original wainscoting, two-dollar drafts in small, icy mugs, and moose antlers. The one concession to the new millennium was a flat-screen the size of a small car.
"Hello there, Harry," said George as I came in. The most deadpan voice I have ever heard. If he has any feelings that cause him to lie awake wracked with turmoil in the small hours of the morning, he's not telling. What he'll do is pour you a grudging whiskey finger for three bucks. Never a double; that's not the way they do things at Marlene's.
George has a pocked face the color of gray chalk, a thin colorless wavelet of hair pasted to his scalp, and small protruding eyes. He has a day job at the Acme Smoked Fish warehouse on Gem Street, but he moonlights, so to speak, at Marlene's, for the social life it affords him; otherwise he would have none, he once confided in me with endearing frankness. Marlene is his sister.
I parked myself on a stool midway down the empty bar. George handed me a whiskey, and I swallowed it whole and felt a little warmer. My mother was Irish, my father English, but whiskey unites my opposing factions; I like the smokier, pricier, older single malts, but the cheap blended brands do the job just the same.
Excerpted from The Astral by Kate Christensen. Copyright © 2011 by Kate Christensen. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher
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