"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."
Two days later you told me I was your boyfriend and we made love to prove it. Leonard's bed was covered in black cat hair and my entire body broke out in hives. My eyes were so swollen I could barely see. Both nostrils were clogged shut; I lay on my back sucking in air while Luther and the other cat, whose name I never learned, sat on the windowsill and stared at me.
"Maybe we should go to your place," you suggested.
"If you want," I said.
You ended up loving my apartment for its view of the Manhattan skyline. "This is so good. I can't wait till it rains. I want to see the Empire State Building in the rain. Or the snow! I can't wait till it snows."
We brought a suitcase full of your clothes to my apartment, and a shopping bag filled with your other necessities. Favorite albums, essential spices, toiletries, refrigerator magnets, an ebony hand mirror that had belonged to your grandmother, a one-armed G.I. Joe doll that five-year-old Leonard had found beneath the Christmas tree.
"I'll go back there every couple of days," you told me, "and check on the cats. I hope they'll be all right without me."
I nodded. "I really hope so."
One night I woke up thirsty and reached for a glass of water on the bedside table. You were awake, your back against the headboard, staring out the window at glittering Manhattan in the distance.
"It's so beautiful, Frankie."
You said nothing else. I drank my water and curled up again to sleep. And then you asked, "Do you know who wrote that letter?"
I opened my eyes. "What letter?"
"The letter I read you, the one about Leonard. About sending the chrysanthemums and stealing the pennies?"
"No, who wrote it?"
You watched the city, your eyes unblinking. "Frank Sinatra."
We were together for nine months, and then we weren't together. One day I was your "cutie" and the next day I was "still your best friend"; it took me awhile to figure out that a cutie is superior to a best friend, that a cutie gets to live with you and make love to you, while a best friend gets sympathetic cheek kisses and long, meaningful hugs.
You packed your suitcase and abandoned the view of Manhattan, returned to Luther and his nameless brother, to Leonard's ashes and Leonard's bed.
"Do you want Moby-Dick back?" I asked, as you folded your sweaters.
"You keep it. Maybe someday you'll teach a class on Melville."
I held the door open for you and you stood in the hallway, suitcase in one hand, shopping bag in the other. "You know I love you, don't you, Frankie?"
"Sure," I said. "It's pretty obvious."
You shook your head sadly and kissed me on the cheek. "Sarcasm does not become you."
"Sorry," I said.
The day after you left me for good my face erupted with the worst case of acne I'd had since high school. I woke up in the morning to the familiar sensation, something ticking in the space between my eyebrows. In the bathroom mirror I saw my fears confirmed. An angry red pimple glared back; that's the way it always starts for me.
The day after you left me was a Sunday. I had nothing to do but sit on my candy-striped sofa and pretend to read. Pretending to read is one of my talents; I'm making a career of it. Eventually I'll earn my doctorate and teach students who pretend to read.
Every few hours I carefully marked my page and went to the bathroom to check the mirror, morbidly fascinated by the progressive ruin of my face. I wondered if my true skin would ever reemerge. Or if this was my true skin, this troubled terrain, and the face of the last ten years a dream of perfect pores.
A tube of prescription ointment lay waiting in the medicine cabinet, but I decided to go without. The treatment never worked, but more than that, I felt this punishment must be just, my own plague of boils.
The things you forgot to pack: a bottle of rum-soaked vanilla beans on the cupboard shelf, an orange toothbrush on the edge of the sink, and a spare pair of keys to your apartment.
I stared at the vanilla beans for a long time. I thought they were the saddest things I'd ever seen, the skinny corpses of a family caught in a house fire, charred beyond recognition. The toothbrush I threw out the window, watched it cartwheel down, watched it lodge in the blooming branches of a dogwood tree. It's still there, that toothbrush, an orange fuck-you finger pointing at me whenever I walk past the tree.
My mind was filled with your stories. And especially with Leonard. God, I loved listening to you talk. We'd stay up late, huddled in our cold bed, a slumber party for two, the arthritic radiator groaning from the corner of the room. And you would tell me stories. Your family was filled with rowdy drunks, cardsharps, bigamists, saxophonists, and lion trainers. All of them insane and all of them in full color. You were the first woman I'd ever met who told family stories that I wanted to hear. I couldn't get enough. And I would feel guilty that I couldn't tell you any beauties in return. The drunks I know are quiet drunks, tight-mouthed and scab-knuckled. They scared me out of my hometown.
But Leonard, Leonard, I can't get him out of my mind. He was the hero of all your greatest tales: half mad, a famous lover of women, still invoked reverentially in certain downtown taverns for heroic benders that lasted three days. I never met the man but I can't get him out of my mind.
When Monday morning came I was still lying on the sofa, my throat and forehead graveled with red pustules, the unread book waiting quietly on my belly. Manhattan loomed pale blue across the river until the sun rose behind me, igniting the eastern-aspect windows. You were over there, on that crowded island, sleeping in Leonard's bed. I narrowed my eyes and rendered all the concrete and steel and glass invisible, disappeared the water towers and television antennae, until all there was to see of the city was column upon column of sleepers, in pajamas, in boxer shorts, in nightgowns, naked. Millions of dreaming New Yorkers, dreaming of faithless husbands and faceless lovers, a sky raining fat girls, dragons nestled in the nave of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. And you, you dreamed on with them, about heaven knows what, floating twenty stories above the avenue.
Finally I pushed myself off the candy-striped sofa, staggered into the kitchen, and began grinding beans for coffee. When I had a pot brewing I picked up the phone and called Michael. He's always at his office before six in the morning, reading the business sections of newspapers from around the world. He picked up on the first ring and I told him I needed to borrow his car that night so I could attend an MLA conference up at SUNY Binghamton.
"Sounds like a blast," he said. "What's the topic?"
I stared at the blank face of my refrigerator. You had taken all your magnets home with you. "It's a literary conference," I said.
"Right, but there's got to be a topic. Fart Jokes of the Kalahari Bushmen, something like that."
"I wish. This one is Captivity Narratives of the Post-Colonial Americas."
He whistled. "You're going to bring Pocahontas back in the trunk?"
"So it's okay?"
"What happened, you found out about this conference today?"
"My ride fell through. I was going to take a bus but--"
"It's kind of weird that they scheduled the conference for a Tuesday, isn't it?"
"It is," I said. "It's really weird."
"What I don't get--" he began, but I cut him off.
"Here's the thing, Michael. Please don't fuck with me right now."
I sensed him grinning, the Frankfurt morning paper splashed across his desk. "All right," he said. "I'll let the garage guy know you're coming."
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."
"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?"
"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. 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.