"I brought his ashes home with me. He wants them tossed in the Neversink. It's illegal, but that's what he wants."
"It's a reservoir," you said. "Up in the Catskills, where he was born."
That was by way of an introduction; that was the night we first met. Michael, already drunk on fine Scotch whiskey, had clamped his palms on the back of our necks and pressed our foreheads together.
"The two of you ought to be friends," he said. He was the birthday boy, so we sat next to each other in the restaurant's back room and played what do you do, who do you know. Except you cheated: you told me that you had just flown back from your father's funeral in L.A.
"How did he die?" I asked. I knew that wasn't a very decorous question but I couldn't help it. That's what I always want to know, how the dead got dead.
You tilted a red candle so that the wax poured onto my palm. "Does that hurt?"
"No," I lied.
"You have a high tolerance for pain, Frank. I like that."
"Frankie," I said. I do have a high tolerance for pain. That's not the same as liking pain.
"He died of lung cancer, Frankie. He smoked four packs a day."
I had never even heard of anyone smoking four packs a day. "I'm sorry," I said. It seemed like the wrong time to say I'm sorry, but I knew those words were required at some point in any conversation about a dead relative, and I figured I ought to fit them in while I had the chance.
"It was like," you said, and then paused. "It was like he was trying to burn himself down."
I played with the wax in my hand and said nothing. Nobody in my family was dead and I had a hard time imagining them dead.
There were twenty of us crowded into the narrow back room. Crooked red candles burned on the long, yellow-clothed table; fake zebra skins hung from the walls alongside framed photographs of skinny African women with silver coils wrapped tightly around their elongated necks.
"Those aren't Ethiopian women," you said, gesturing with your chin toward the photographs. "They're from the Zatusi tribe. They live in Kenya, mostly."
Our mutual friend Michael, the birthday boy, stood swaying at the far end of the table, glass of wine in hand, and declared, "I am thirty years old, goddamnit, and I'm not happy about it." But I couldn't listen to Michael.
"Were you with him when he died?" I asked.
"I was holding his hand. He looked like a fresh-hatched chick. I felt more like his mother than his daughter."
"The main things is," said Michael, "the main thing, I mean, is that all my best friends could be here tonight. Except for you," he said, pointing at me. "Who the hell are you?"
I got nervous for a second but then everybody started laughing and I laughed, too. You laughed, and then you squeezed my knee under the table.
"Just kidding, Frankie," said Michael. "We're all glad you could make it tonight. Later on Frankie's going to entertain us with the opening chapters of his dissertation on John Donne's Holy Sonnets. So we've got that to look forward to." The annoying thing is that Michael was an English major in college; he can skillfully mock my profession. Michael runs his own hedge fund; I have no idea what that means. He pays for dinner, that's what it means.
Once I was sure that Michael had finished with me, I asked you what you meant by a new-hatched chick. You had moved your seat closer to mine; I could smell your perfume now. Cinnamon.
"Have you ever seen a chick coming out of its shell?" you asked me. "It's just this fuzzed head bobbing on a skinny, skinny body. That's what Leonard looked like. My dad. He only weighed about a hundred pounds when he died."
"Was he in a lot of pain?"
"He was so out of it. I don't know. I hope not. It's like when you catch a spider in a jar, and you screw the top on tight, and at first he's in there scooting all over the place, but then he starts running out of air, he gets slower and slower, and finally he just topples over."
I was thinking about that for a while.
"It was hard seeing him get so small," you told me. "He used to be a big guy, a really big guy. He was in a motorcycle gang in the sixties."
"Really? The Hell's Angels?"
"The Suicide Kings. They were a lot tougher than the Hell's Angels. When the Suicide Kings walked into a bar, the Hell's Angels just finished their drinks and left. Did you ever read the Hunter Thompson book about the Hell's Angels?"
"Leonard's in that book. He once hit a guy so hard he broke his hand, and when he was in the hospital getting the bone set, the doctors found the guy's tooth. It was buried between two knuckles."
"The guy's tooth?"
"Can you imagine that? The tooth was buried like an inch deep."
"That's a good punch." I ran my tongue over my own teeth. "The guy he punched was a Hell's Angel?"
"No. He was a marine biologist."
"When you turn thirty," said Michael from the head of the table, "it really makes you sit back and take stock of your life. So I did, and the next day the bottom fell out of the market and now I'm selling at seven and one-quarter." The room went loud with laughter, all of Michael's financial friends banging the tabletop and howling. I put on my grin, feeling like an idiot.
"Poor Michael," you said. "He used to be so charming."
I wanted you so badly my stomach hurt: your pale face framed in wild tangles of near-black hair, your small and crooked teeth, your collarbone a quick sketch of wings. Forgive me for saying this, but your beauty is strange, and I was proud to discover it, proud of my eye, like a record-store clerk who proudly wears the black T-shirt of his beloved, unsigned band.
"It took him two hours to burn."
There was violence between my thoughts and your words. I decided I had heard you wrong. "I'm sorry, what?"
"Leonard. He was so skinny by the time he died. It's the fat that burns hottest. They said it took him two hours to burn to ashes."
"They told you that?"
"Usually it's an hour, hour and a half. You wouldn't think it would take so long."
"I guess I never really thought about it."
"It's the bones," you said, pushing your chair back from the table and standing up. "Bones take a long time to burn. It was nice meeting you, Frankie."
"I have to. A friend of mine is playing the Blue Note tonight. Get my number from Michael," you told me, bending down to kiss my cheek. I tried to return the kiss but you had already turned away. I sat at the table and watched the crooked candles burn, while everyone around me drank and laughed and ended up singing "American Pie."
I got your number from Michael and called you the next night, but you were busy that week, and busy the week after, and I resigned myself to never seeing you again. But then you called me, one month after the birthday party, and invited me to watch the meteor shower.
"It's supposed to be best right after sunset," you told me.
"Meet me in Sheep Meadow."
The sun was nearly down. I brushed my teeth while showering and the sky was still bright as I climbed down the stairs to my subway station. Thirty minutes later I was stumbling over angry meteor watchers in Sheep Meadow. I had forgotten to ask you where to meet, and the Meadow is huge, especially on a moonless night. I thought I saw you lying belly-down on a blanket and I leaned close to make sure.
"Back off, fuck-face," said a teenage girl.
Finally I heard you calling my name. "Frankie," you called. "Hey! Frankie! Over here, cutie."
You sat cross-legged on a quilt, dressed in black. All I could see were your hands and face, and the white smoke rising from your mouth. "Take a seat," you said, patting the place beside you. "Take a seat and a smoke." You handed me a tightly rolled joint and I sat down with it, inhaling deeply.
"Sorry I'm late," I said. "I couldn't find you."
"I know. I've been watching you wander around." You laughed. "I'm sorry, I know it's mean. But you looked so cute, so sad. Like a lost puppy."
"Oh," is what I said.
"You're not mad at me, are you?" you asked, taking the joint back.
"Nope." I really wasn't. It never occurred to me that I should be mad. I was sitting with you on a quilt in the darkness. Everything was good.
"You know what I love about you, Frankie?"
I shook my head.
"You don't have a mean bone in your body."
I said nothing, but it seemed to me like a weak motive for love. You bent toward me and I saw a flash of crooked teeth before you bit me hard on the lips. We lay back to watch the sky, passing the joint back and forth. It was August and the air was warm, the grass thick and soft below our quilt. I felt the smoke curling through my body, rounding the corners as it went. You blew a ring of smoke above our heads, and we watched it grow larger and larger until the dark swallowed it.
"Look," you said, pointing with a pale finger. "Shooting star."
I squinted but saw nothing. "I missed it."
"There's another one."
We smoked and talked about movies and rated the buildings of Central Park South, but every time a meteor blazed by I was looking the wrong way.
"I wish you could have met Leonard," you told me. "My dad. He would've liked you."
That very first night you took me home with you, but nobody got naked. The minute I walked in the door I began sneezing. Your twin black cats sat in the windowsill and stared at me with yellow, bored eyes. I stared back at them while you stepped into the kitchen alcove and boiled water for tea. When the kettle began to whistle, both cats raised their right paws and clawed at the air. They watched me to see what I would do. I blinked and turned away.
"Your cats are kind of scary."
"They are scary. The cross-eyed one, Luther, he understands Portuguese. Are you allergic?"
"No," I lied.
Most of your apartment was bed, a giant bed with wrought-iron headposts and footposts. A small wooden desk, bearing a blue ceramic lamp and a spiral notebook, crouched bowlegged in one corner. Your apartment was on the twentieth floor, but all you could see through the windows were the twentieth-floor apartments across the street.
"Here," you said, handing me a cup of tea. "Ginseng." We sat on the giant bed and blew on our tea. "This bed used to be Leonard's. I mean, awhile ago. I've had it for years. At his funeral I met all these women, his old lovers. And every one I met, all I could think was: did they do it on my bed? I've been getting these letters from people, all these friends of Leonard's, people from all over the country. One guy from Australia."
"These letters--nobody who met my dad forgot him. I get letters from people who met him one time; I got a letter from this woman who never even met him, but her husband always used to talk about him. God, Frankie, you should see these letters." You stared at your cross-eyed cat. "People loved Leonard." We were quiet for a while and then you said, "Here, I'll show you one." You gave me your teacup to hold and went over to your little bowlegged desk. "But you have to promise not to ask who wrote it, okay?"
You pulled a sheet of folded paper from the desk drawer and brought it over to me. "Read this part," you said, sitting beside me, underlining the sentences with your finger. The letter was typed and unsigned. This is the part I read:
When he was sober he was the most courteous man alive, a true gentleman. He remembered everybody's birthdays and anniversaries and would always send flowers, always chrysanthemums. A man from the old school, opening car doorsfor ladies, standing everyone drinks when he was flush. He was a saint, your father. He'd steal the pennies from a dead man's eyes, but he was a saint.
You folded the paper neatly and returned it to the desk drawer. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you who wrote that."
"Of course I would." I scrunched up my eyes and tried to prevent another sneeze.
You picked up a book from the desktop and handed it to me, taking the teacups in exchange and resting them on a wicker nightstand. "He had this with him by his hospital bed. He read it every day. At the very end, when he went blind, I read to him."
I held the battered blue hardcover in my hands, the pages worn from being turned too often, blue loops of illegible script in the margins, paper clips marking the crucial passages.
"Moby-Dick? I thought he was more of an On the Road guy."
You shook your head violently. "He thought Kerouac was a fraud. But Moby-Dick, God, he loved that book. There's this one part he knew by heart . . ." You took the book from me and paged through it. "Here," you said, pointing to two sentences boxed in blue ink, three blue stars in the margin.
I bent forward to read the lines and then smiled. "That was my professor's favorite part, too."
"Leonard would just say it to himself. He'd repeat it over and over. He rode out of the Catskills when he was sixteen and never went back, but he was always a kid from the mountains. And that quote," you said, tapping the printed words with an unpainted fingernail, "it was like his mantra."
"It's beautiful," I said. I sneezed again.
You nodded, running your fingers over the groove of blue ink. You closed the book and handed it back to me. "I want you to have it."
"Take it, Frankie. Maybe you'll teach Melville someday and you can use Leonard's notes."
I wanted to tell you that my field was the literature of England, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, that I would never teach a course in Moby-Dick, that, more important, I had not earned a gift this great, but you had already left the bed. You knelt down by a blue milk crate stacked with record sleeves.
"Here he is," you told me, your hand on a large black jar with a brass lid resting on a stereo amplifier.
I opened my mouth and then closed it. I looked over at the cats and they were both staring at me, cross-eyed Luther flicking his tail. I looked back at you and the black jar and said, "Leonard?"
"Uh huh. It's not really an official urn. I thought a real urn would look morbid."
I bet some people would think keeping Pop in a black jar above the amplifier was morbid, but I didn't say that. Instead I said, "Weren't you going to scatter him in that reservoir?"
"The Neversink. Yeah, but Frankie, the state doesn't really like people throwing their daddy's ashes in the drinking water. Leonard was the outlaw, not me."
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