Joyland

New York |

The River Crossing

by Andreas Trolf

edited by Emily Schultz

The young man sat in the old house looking at a magazine. He stopped reading when he suddenly noticed the bird songs coming in through the open window: some were warbled, seeming almost accidental, some pinched and shrill, and others exactly like the car alarms on the Polacks’ cars. Those alarms, which, when he heard them going off at all hours indiscriminate and intrusive, only made him wish that whoever was stealing the car would just please hurry up and steal it already. The songs all mixed together, and he thought they sounded like an opera. Something with a purpose, that if he listened closely enough—maybe with his eyes closed—he’d be able to figure out what the big deal was. Okay, birds, he thought, give it to me. But it wouldn’t come, even with his eyes closed. Like opera, the bird songs remained someplace far off and foreign, a strange gray country halfway between conscious acknowledgement and background chatter; a landscape of white noise washed upon only occasionally by the sound of a passing car.

It was one of those rare old houses that had remained intact as the neighborhood changed all around it, ownership passing through the generations while Thai restaurants and custom pants shops shot up like weeds. When his mother was a child, when the neighborhood had been rope factories and a chicken slaughterhouse, blue vinyl siding had been put up, which made the house look like an old lady unaware of the inappropriateness of her makeup. Now it made the house seem even more out of place; one of those large greenish-blue houseflies that you find sometimes trapped indoors, buzzing desperately for a way out or at least a calm windowsill to die on. His parents had gone west to the Arizona sprawl a year ago, and now the house belonged to him and the proprietariness he felt for it was like that moment when an explorer planted a flag on a patch of land where grubby Indians had already been living for thousands of years, proclaiming, FYI, you guys, this is mine.

He took up the magazine again and flipped through the pages until some words caught his eye and he read them over and over. And even though he didn’t know what the article was about, those few words made him think of being a kid again, and he was amazed at the distance between the words and the image they put into his head. As if, for example, smelling air from a bakery, pushed outside by a door swinging closed on its return path, you thought not of bread or bakeries but of a girl or an afternoon or a film not about bakeries but featuring one in which a set piece unfolds. He remembered the Persian carpet warehouse that sat on a stretch of crummy road out by the airport, which as a kid he passed often while in the backseat of his mother’s car. The store was done up in an Arabian motif, and its mascot—buzzing in huge neon on the parking lot’s billboard, which you could already see from easily a mile up the road—was a grinning blue genie zipping along on a magic carpet. The genie’s rictus inspired a crazy fear in him, and every time he would see it he’d have nightmares about the vastness of deserts and the strangeness of the people who lived there, and he hated having to drive down that crummy road.

But then he also remembers running into the den, which was forbidden, and tripping over the family’s sleeping dog and gouging his forehead on the wooden end table, cutting a neat gash above his eyebrow, which took what seem like minutes to begin bleeding, being at first only a gaping white smile, terrifying in its refusal. Knocking his father’s full red wine glass onto the thick white carpet. It breaking in a jagged puddle, a seeping wound in which tiny slivers clotted their way into the carpet’s fibers, invisible needles waiting for bare feet. His punishment includes being made to go to the warehouse with his father to arrange for the den to be recarpeted, crying the whole way there, knowing he would see the genie, and in fact closing his eyes as they pull up. But then the fear vanishes the moment he walks handheld into the warehouse. It is replaced by an immense calm brought on by the tall piles of old carpets and the smell of the burning coffeemaker on the young Arab salesman’s tiny desk.

*

Later he sat in McCarren Park in the shade of a tree whose roots had pushed up through the grass. The spot was terrible for sitting but there was shade, and so he and his friend sat there eating from a small Ziploc of mushrooms. Mushrooms always left a particular taste in his mouth that he associated with earnestness and longing and he waited impatiently to feel these things. At first it was just the two of them, but then other friends arrived with a Thermos of whiskey sours. After a while, the mushrooms started to come on—he was just starting to notice that particular taste—and the day seemed to hold something like unlimited promise. It was around four o’clock, late enough so that some of the July heat had already bled off, but early enough for the day’s end to still be far away, a thing in the future that you didn’t have to contemplate yet, and which anyway would come on its own schedule regardless of anything you did.

They were deciding what to do, or rather trying to decide. A girl in the group mentioned that M.I.A. was playing a show that night at one of the islands in the East River or the Hudson—either Randall’s or Governors, she didn’t know which. These were places you didn’t think about unless you had a definite reason for thinking about them. No one’s thoughts ever wandered there the way they did to, say, Paris or Big Sur. These were places filled with meaning and importance, places where the disembodied thoughts of thousands of people seemed appropriately at home. But the consensus was, basically, who cares about M.I.A.? That one song with the Clash sample was decent, someone supposed, but more or less meh as far as the rest went. The man listened absently while looking for significance in the shoes and haircuts of the people that walked past them. He tried to think up interesting stories for them and wondered what it would be like to be someone else. He realized this heightened empathy was because of the mushrooms and he was glad to have eaten them, but as soon as he became aware of the moment he also felt a future-sadness because he knew the moment would pass. It was hard to hold both of these feelings at once. Eating shrooms, he thought, wow, you could just think yourself into a tizzy.

Then the girl was telling them about a friend of hers, an artist (it said so on his website, something he recalled much later: artist and patriot—which the man thought was a lovely thing to put on your website if you were in fact an artist and a patriot) who’d built a two-man submersible. She said she thought it was a model of one that had been used during the Revolutionary War and that the artist was planning on infiltrating the M.I.A. concert with it. It would make a statement about double-reverse colonialism, she said. Or something like it. This seemed to the man suddenly a very important thing to do, and he felt that he needed to take part. He stood up, conviction gathering inside him like a belt of scotch, and pressed the girl for the location of the artist’s studio and then ran like hell to get there without a word of explanation. In an instant, he forgot about everything that wasn’t the submersible. He felt briefly bad for abandoning his friend that he’d eaten the mushrooms with, but the running did something beautiful to the drugs in his body—like there was a flower inside of him that was opening its petals, and all around it, the rest of his insides, was the sun—and when he got to the studio he could not imagine being out of breath even though he’d run all the way to the very northernmost part of Greenpoint, and anyway, he knew his friend would have his own adventures that night and would surely understand. His night, though, was now passing into something else, something important; a story he’d tell people, which he hoped they’d only be able to shake their heads about.

Hours later it was done. The river crossing had been harrowing—this was the word seared into his head when they landed—but he had no true recollection of it. He didn’t know why, but it was gone from his memory just as surely as though it had never taken place. One moment, they were setting out, the river a wide rolling ribbon between them and the spotlit island, the next they were there, bumping ashore, soaked with sweat and the gallons of water that sloshed around inside the sphere.

Abandoning the submersible and going ashore unseen, the artist threw a section of heavy industrial carpeting over the top of a fence to cover the razor wire and they scrambled over. They parted ways, Goodbye. Let us never forget this thing we’ve done, the intensity of their handshake sealing a compact between them. The artist strode into the crowd like a man with purpose, and the man admired him for it.

The man had noticed her already from the other side of the fence, a girl he’d seen a few times before in bars around Brooklyn. She seemed to always be on the arms of guys who looked cooler than he did, and to see her there dancing like some goddamned libidinous angel he felt momentarily afraid of his own smallness. But she seemed to be alone, alone right thereJesus, it was like a gift to him. Soon he was standing next to her, the mushrooms making the moment something foreign and beautiful, like an enlarging mirror, while far away up on stage someone that looked like M.I.A. rapped words like revolution and moved around evocatively. He looked up and lights exploded all around her and the backup dancers moved evocatively as well, but not so evocatively that they drew unnecessary attention away from M.I.A. The man ached for the beauty of this scene, that someone would go to all this trouble, it was all so terribly significant.

He purposely didn’t look at the girl except out of the corner of one eye, seeing her only as an oblique blur, a mess of movement, a tangle of blond hair bobbing in syncopation. He willed her to notice him, sending out powerful telepathic signals, and after a while she slapped him in the bicep and said, Hey. Hey, he said and they both turned back to the stage. After the show they took the ferry and then walked down Wythe Avenue together, which was empty of people and felt unfamiliar. No way are we going to fuck, she said, okay? Yeah right, he said. Like I’d even want to.

They snuck into her room, careful not to wake her roommates. He sat down at a tiny desk and she eased herself into his lap, producing a miniscule bag of cocaine from inside a ceramic cat that sat on the desk. She held it up to an old brass desk lamp that was covered by a flimsy scarf and started to examine it. He asked her what she was looking at. She said it was like looking through a tiny window out onto a snowy day. You’re kidding me, he thought. She smiled and shook some out onto a Rolling Stones CD case and offered him the first line. Then when she bent down to have hers, he reached under her shirt and unhooked her bra. She stayed bent over until he’d slipped a breast out of her tunic and put her nipple in his mouth. The room was close with humidity, and it flickered in its stillness like a paused videotape.

As promised, they never fucked and early in the morning, his boxers stiff with a shameful shot of crusted come, he left without waking her and took the train into the city. Later that day, he found himself overlooking Central Park in a friend of a friend’s luxury apartment that was only lived in for two months out of the year. He and his friend were there alone, nosing around, going in and out of the darkening rooms, and they found an unopened bottle of bourbon in a small, unlit pantry. They stood on the balcony, their eyes tearing up from the wind coming off the river, and as the sun went down over New Jersey in diminishing ribbons of red and purple they drank and laughed, spitting mouthfuls of bourbon down, aiming for Columbus Circle.

*

The thing about the artist and patriot was that he really was a patriot. As far back as he could remember, he’d told himself that the idea of America was singular and worthwhile. Something to be cherished and protected. So he’d joined the ROTC and then later gone to Iraq. When he returned, an occupational therapist suggested that he make art to get past whatever it was that was lodged in his brain that made it difficult for him to reacclimate, which was her word, the therapist’s, for what he ought to have been doing. She never called it post-traumatic anything, for which he was grateful, because that would have been too average an affliction to have. Trench foot, he thought, ­now there’s an obscure malady of wartime! But so he made art to help him reacclimate and he found himself surprised to be good at it, and before long he had a gallerist and a show and collectors and a very nice studio where he made art and money all day long.

He walked the streets sure that he’d been changed, tempered by his time in Iraq. He no longer felt like the shy cornfed running back that hadn’t been offered a scholarship, denied the Grinnell Pioneers and the blond girls who majored in communications. This was likewise an incident of tempering, he felt. Although of course to a lesser degree than that of wartime. The things he’d seen, and on occasion been made to do, you just didn’t even want to know, were his thoughts on the subject. He’d killed two insurgents, which was how it was described on the incident reports. The ones he signed and later regretted signing. The first was a man who meant his unit harm. He’d barfed afterwards, but the whole scenario, unpleasant or not, was in his view totally justifiable (on a rooftop down the street from where he stood, the artist saw the silhouette of a man holding a gun, and he fired on the man before he had a chance to make up his mind about whether or not to do it, and this moment of non-thinking had earned him a medal that he kept in a shoebox). The second was a young woman hiding in a closet during a nighttime house-to-house sweep.

He pushed the barrel of his M4 out in front of him, moving aside a small rug that this family was using as a door covering, (Dummies, he thought, get a door!) and looked into a small bedroom that glowed green. It was hot—always hot—and sweat ran down his face, fogging his night-vision goggles. The room smelled sour, like his body armor, and everything seemed too tight, like he’d suddenly grown a bit. She must have been scared. Where’s the danger, Lieutenant Diaz-Diaz said later (making the case that, while unfortunate, that night’s incident did not, per se, constitute a crime), in just coming out and saying hi, here I am if you’re not doing anything wrong? If you weren’t doing anything wrong, went the argument, you had nothing to be afraid of. But still the young woman’s father wailed in the next room. She must have been scared or something, hiding in the closet like that. That’s no reason for her to have to die, he said. No, Lieutenant Diaz-Diaz said, but this is just some shit that happens, which admittedly is a bummer.

She’d startled him—it might have been one of those big-ass dogs they sometimes have, he thought—and his gun went off, it just went off, he didn’t mean to fire and yet it happened. Even if he’d been aiming, he couldn’t have placed the shot any better. Right center in the stomach, and she moaned and breathed these quick little breaths like she was coming as she bled out all over her family’s dirty laundry, clutching the clothes, pulling them apart with her little claw-like hands. The artist would replay this scene over and over, rewinding it in his head, trying for the moment just before anything had happened, remembering it as he walked around and made art and love to the fancy women who came to his shows.

He thought that the Revolutionary War was the most righteous, noble war in America’s history and that honoring it by building a submersible to invade a concert was in a way a statement about the near inexpressible thing that happened to a man during war, something that could be noble and important if the war’s cause was righteous. The fact that it was an M.I.A. concert was incidental, but he felt the need to have some reason for it and so he sent an email about double-reverse colonialism to his gallery, calling his planned performance an ironic reappropriation, and was happy when The Times reported how he’d been kicked out by security as he attempted to plant a “Don’t tread on me” flag on the stage.

As he hypnotically planed and tarred the wood that would become the submersible, the artist considered a half-formed idea that had lately been taking up space in his head, which was the idea of dissolution. He thought about the smaller parts of a thing, parts that were combined to make a larger whole. And then, finally being a whole, how the thing would one day be broken and dissolved. The components of it wouldn’t even be smaller parts of some bigger thing anymore, and they wouldn’t be their own tinier wholes either, having already given up their uniqueness. Later they’d be broken down into their own respective much tinier parts over and over again; nothing ever remained whole.

Take for instance the ingredients of a meal, or even better a specific dish. A cookie, he thought, checking the wood with his hands for smoothness and uniformity of line, is: eggs, flour, sugar, milk, chocolate chips, and baking soda. It’s all those things, but a cookie doesn’t taste exactly like eggs, flour, sugar, milk, chocolate, or baking soda. It’s a combination of them, but those things, as themselves, have ceased to exist. They’ve become the cookie. But the cookie only remains a cookie until you eat it, and then it becomes sensation: texture, flavor. A cookie’s undoing—chewing, swallowing—is its reason for existing, but it ceases to be a cookie when its reason is achieved. With each bite, every act of mastication, the artist thought (now in bigger words, thinking in the form of an artist’s statement, something for the small white cards next to his pieces in the gallery), it becomes less a cookie, the thing itself, and more simply a collection of sensation. Sweet, chewy (round, brown). Then it is dissolved altogether, eventually becoming only a lump of starches and fats and amino acids and proteins that exists for a while in a person’s internal passageways where the useful bits are extracted before being further dissolved into waste.

How wonderful it must be, he thought, to have a true purpose. To achieve it and then be finished.

Establishing a beachhead on the island wasn’t the difficult part. The difficult part was doing it with the necessary style. Aplomb was the word that he kept repeating to himself. Aplomb. Aplomb. Aplomb. Abomb. A-bomb. A bomb, he thought, marveling at the elasticity of things, how a word could become something else so easily. He thought also that it would be nice to go somewhere, but just then he had nowhere appropriate to go. So he stayed and worked on the submersible some more.

The artist thought that to be an artist was a calling second only to poet, and one day it occurred to him that he might try to be both, so more and more often his work contained text. He wrote discreet messages at first, tucked into the corners of a canvas or burned subtly into the wood of a sculpture. At first a little, then more. Later he would prime vast canvasses and write long stories on them using a brush with only a single hair. Over many months, he wrote how, in a dark room, flowing blood was, for a brief moment, beautiful, how it seemed to hold and amplify what little light there was, and how, if you were wearing night-vision goggles, people’s eyed glowed a tranquil green that made them look like animals caught in a camera flash in the dark—innocent and without conscience.