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Vol. 2, No. 3

Neversink
by David Benioff

~

That evening I called your apartment from a pay phone on your corner; when you answered I hung up. This is what I've become, I told myself: a creep who calls his ex-girlfriend and hangs up. I waited in the coffee shop across the street from your building, hoping that you would emerge before too long. Too long passed and the pretty waitress grew tired of refilling my bottomless cup; she sat at the counter and ignored me. I stared out the window and played with the saltshaker and studied my infested face in the hollow of a spoon. Finally I saw you walk out of your building. You were alone and I thanked you for that small mercy.
      I crossed the street and unlocked the front door and the vestibule door with your spare keys, rode the elevator to the twentieth floor, and entered your apartment. The two black cats lay on the bed, unsurprised to see me. "Hello, Luther," I said to the cross-eyed cat. I nodded to the other cat. "Hello," I said, embarrassed not to know his name.
      I lifted the heavy black jar of Leonard's ashes from the amplifier and turned to leave. The cats watched me. "Ladrão," I said to Luther, pointing my thumb at myself. That means "thief" in Portuguese, but Luther gave no sign that he cared. My eyes watering, I waved farewell to the cats and walked out of the apartment.
      It was a long ride crosstown to Michael's garage. I sat in the back of a city bus, half stoned on diesel fumes, the black jar resting on my lap. Nobody noticed the urn that was not an urn. I wanted to elbow the old man sitting next to me, an old man chewing the stub of a pencil, holding a folded newspaper inches from his eyes, studying the crossword puzzle. I wanted to nudge him and say, "These are the ashes of my ex-girlfriend's father. This is all that remains of an American original. Would you like to pay your respects?"
      We made our way eastward, the engine grumbling below my seat, the city outside lit yellow by streetlights, the pedestrians trudging forward with bowed heads, the store owners standing on the sidewalk, smoking cigarettes and lowering the steel shutters. And Leonard nothing but the loot of a pimpled thief.

 

~

I drove Michael's race car back to Brooklyn. Every hour I would look down from my window to make sure it was still where I had parked it. The car was too red for my street, too shiny.
      I studied the maps and plotted my route, and at six in the morning, after dozing for three hours, I went down to the beautiful car. I was afraid the urn would burst open if I left it in the trunk, so I strapped it into the passenger seat, alongside the broken-spined copy of Moby-Dick,and drove carefully, slow on the turns. We crossed the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan, up the West Side Highway, over the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey, north on the Garden State Parkway before crossing back into New York. A two-hour drive to Sullivan County, the radio tuned to an oldies station that serenaded us with Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bill Monroe, Southern voices heavy with bullying sexuality fried in bacon fat. The sun rose over an unseen Atlantic, the highways unspooled and the radio played on, crackling with needled vinyl. And that morning it seemed to me that love is a singer, Brylcreemed and muttonchopped, bad-mannered, snarling into the microphone with a voice cigarette-blasted, a voice addled by cheap whiskey. But he can hit the high notes, and he can hit the low.
      Leonard was a good man for the shotgun seat. Not that we communicated, I don't mean that. I mean that memories of Leonard crowded my mind. Your memories of Leonard. He refused to be photographed, you told me, he was deeply superstitious, believed with the Bedouins that a photograph was a trap for the soul. I never saw his face. But I pictured him fierce-eyed and blue-jawed, thick eyebrows tilting as he leans forward to make a joke. I pictured him a long-limbed Napoleon, strutting about the shores of Elba, an emperor in exile.
      And I pictured him drunk. You told me he swallowed his first glass of whiskey in the morning, before eating his scrambled eggs and blood pudding. But Leonard's drinking, save for the legendary benders, was workmanlike, and his tolerance astounding.
      "Did I ever tell you about Leonard and Gloria Steinem?" you asked me one night, lying in bed, as I kissed your belly. Leonard decided in 1973 that he wanted to understand what the feminists were all about. He went to hear a speech Steinem was giving at an auditorium in Chicago. All through her talk on equity in the workplace and proposals for legally enforced maternity leaves, Leonard guzzled from his bottle of Old Grand-Dad, ignoring the angry looks of the women sitting beside him. Finally he lurched to his feet, dropping his empty bottle to the floor. It rolled loudly down the aisle. Faces turned to look at him.
      "You are a beautiful woman," he declared. Steinem raised her famous eyebrows. "You are a beautiful woman," he repeated, and the crowd began to hiss. "I love you," he said, above the hisses. "I love you, Ms. Steinem."
      The highways unspooled and we made good time, arriving in the town of Liberty before eight. I bought an apple and a Wing-Ding and a Coke at the only store open, a dusty corner market, got directions to the reservoir from the checkout girl. Her face was awash in small red pimples, and I smiled at her, pointed at my own agitated skin, and said, "The humidity, right?" But she frowned and turned away.
      I ate breakfast sitting on the hood of Michael's car. A strong wind blew through the town; waxed-paper cups and coupon flyers and tinfoil wrappers paraded down the empty street, leaping and tumbling for my enjoyment. Back in the car I checked my face in the vanity mirror; my lips were smudged with chocolate. That will do wonders for my complexion, I thought. I turned the ignition on and then immediately off. I walked back into the market and bought the heaviest chocolate bar I could find. I could tell the girl thought it was a bad idea; she counted out my change angrily and slapped it into my palm. I returned to the car, unwrapped the chocolate, and ate the whole thing in four bites. "Fuck it," I said, patting Leonard's urn. "Right?"
      The checkout girl's directions were precise; fifteen minutes later we were bouncing over a dirt road and I switched to a country station. I winced at each pebble cracking against the car's underbody. We crested a small hill and I saw a chain-link fence rising from the grass ahead, black-and-red NO TRESPASSING signs hanging at regular intervals. I looked at Leonard's urn, half expecting a reaction, some excitement for this homecoming.
      Breaking into a reservoir is disturbingly easy. The chain-link fence was only eight feet high, with no barbed wire on top. No security guards patrolled the perimeter with leashed Dobermans. No surveillance cameras. No motion detectors.
      I slipped Moby-Dick under my waistband, unbuckled Leonard's urn, and carried him over to the fence. It occurred to me that most of the man had already been released, that of his living two hundred pounds only eight or so remained, the rest escaped as smoke through the crematorium chimney. Our bodies are mostly water, I remembered. This was Leonard's essence here, the unburnable, the pit of the man.
      I stood before the fence with the urn cradled in my palms. Climbing over would be easy, but not while carrying the urn. An athlete could do it, Michael could do it, but not me. Throwing the urn over the fence was not an option. The whole point of this journey was to transport Leonard to his chosen resting place with the dignity he deserved. What if the urn cracked open, spilling his ashes over the grass?
      I rotated the problem in my mind for several minutes, then placed the urn carefully at the foot of the fence, walked over to the car, and opened the trunk. And luck was with me: a pair of black bungee cords lay waiting, used by Michael to strap bulky objects to the roof. I fastened the urn to the small of my back with a cord wrapped around twice and hooked tight at the waist. I was very proud of my improvisation and stood there for a moment with my hands on my hips. Then I clambered up the fence. At the very top, as I turned around and prepared to descend to the other side, the urn came loose and fell to the ground. I climbed quickly down and snatched it from the dirt, ashamed of my clumsiness, and inspected it for damage. No cracks at all, only a price sticker on the bottom. Pottery Barn, it read. $29.95.
      I couldn't believe you had left the price sticker on Leonard's urn. But then I berated myself for meanness; you bought the urn days after your father's death. How could I expect you to remember the social niceties? I peeled the sticker off with my thumbnail and watched the wind blow it into the woods through a gap in the chain-link fence.
      The Neversink itself was a disappointment. I had expected a mighty man-made lake, the far shore hazed by distance, but the actual reservoir was small and only half full, the lower terraces of the concrete embankment shaded dark where they had recently been immersed. It seemed to me that if every citizen of New York's five boroughs flushed their toilet at the exact same time, the Neversink would empty down its drain with a great and final gasp.
      Each terrace of the embankment sloped down to a step five feet high; I jumped seven of them, convinced every time that I would shatter my ankle. But my ankle held and I reached the last terrace, after which the concrete plunged thirty feet vertically before hitting the water. The wind was at my back and I decided here was the right place.
      Resting the urn on the step above mine, I drew Moby-Dick from my jeans' waistband and thumbed through the paper-clipped pages, looking for Leonard's mantra. There it was, marked with three blue stars. I cleared my throat and read: "There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces."
      I stared into the blue water below. "You don't know me, Leonard, but I've heard a lot about you. I wish we could have met one time; I wish I could have bought you a drink. And I know you can't hear me, I know you're dead and all that, but I want you to know that I love your daughter. I wish you were alive so I could come ask for your blessing."
      I jammed the book into my waistband and began trying to pry the lid off the urn. For a second I feared it was hopelessly stuck, but I used the car key and managed to pop it free. I closed my eyes. I had read that human ashes were rarely pure ash, that knucklebones and splinters of skull and fire-blackened curls of femur were mixed in like shells in a bucket of sand. What I held in my hands was a pot of burned man. The only sounds I could hear were the wind, blowing against my body, blowing over the Neversink waters, and a big machine's low humming, from somewhere far away. I reached into the urn and my fingers touched paper. I opened my eyes. I looked inside--a yellow paper sack. I returned the jar to the step above mine and tugged out the sack. Gold Medal Flour, read the writing on the yellow paper. America's #1 Bread Flour. I stood in the wind for a long time, reading those words. Maybe he's inside, I thought. Maybe Leonard is packed in there, to keep him from spilling all over the place. I unfolded the top of the sack and reached in for a handful. What my hand held was white flour.
      The humming was louder now. High overhead a propeller plane unzipped the morning sky. I walked to the edge of the terrace, reached my hand out over the reservoir and let the flour sift through my fingers. The wind made a fast cloud of it. I emptied the entire bag of Gold Medal, watched the falling flour expand and expand until by the time it hit the water it had no more substance than dandelion fur.

 

~

I called you the next night. "Hello," I said. "It's Frankie."
      "Hello, Frankie. God, you sound so formal."
      "I read the Hunter S. Thompson book," I told you. "Hell's Angels."
      "Oh, really? Hold on a second." I pictured your hand covering the receiver, muffling the voices I heard, the laughter. "Hey."
      "Hey."
      "So you liked it?" you asked.
      "Yes. But the thing is, Leonard's not in it."
      "The top shelf."
      I squinted. "The top shelf? What does that mean?"
      "No, I wasn't talking to you."
      "I read the book because you said Leonard was in it."
      "He is in it."
      "No," I said. "I read the whole book. He's not in it."
      "Well, he didn't go by his real name when he was in the gang. What do you think, everyone called him Leonard? He had some code name."
      "Oh. So, did you notice he's not in your living room anymore?"
      "What?" I pictured you looking at your amplifier, realizing for the first time that the fake urn was missing. "Where is it? You came in here?"
      "Yes."
      "You broke into my apartment?" You laughed. "Wow, Frankie, that's a little scary."
      "I stole Leonard. You know why? I stole Leonard and I brought him up to the Catskills."
      There was silence on the line for a moment. In the background I heard someone hammering a nail into the wall. Then you said, "Frankie--"
      "I brought him to the Neversink, and I read his favorite Melville passage, and I opened the urn."
      "I can't believe this."
      "Why did you do that to me?" I asked.
      "I can't believe you're accusing me. You come in here and rob my apartment, and then you accuse me? I trust you with my key and you rob me, and now, now you're accusing me?"
      "I just want to know--"
      "Okay, you want to know? My father lives in Pasadena. I haven't seen him in nine years. Now you know. Happy? Anything else? You want his name?"
      "Pasadena?"
      "Pasadena. He's a tax attorney. Okay? Happy now?"
      "There's no Leonard?" I asked.
      "There's no Frankie," you answered, and hung up the phone.

 

~

Every time I look out my window I see the city where you live, and I wonder where you are, and what you're doing, hidden behind the stacks of tall buildings. Nothing so mundane as laundry or grocery shopping, no, the laws of bad reality don't apply to you, you give birth to dead fathers.
      Somewhere in the city Leonard exists, haunting the mind of another blessed suitor. I'm in mourning for a man who never was, that's true, but I still expect to meet Leonard one day, playing dice in the back room of a sawdust bar, a crude mermaid tattooed on his forearm, a battered copy of Moby-Dick in the pocket of his leather jacket.

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