June 7, 2009
Todd watched his mother cube the zucchini, on the heavy oak cutting board, for
the ratatouille. He had never seen such big chunks before.
“It looks like dinosaur vomit,” he said. That brought a rise from Madeline, who
was sitting on the couch in the living room.
“It’s beautiful,” she called out. “It does not look like dinosaur vomit.”
“You can’t even see it!” Todd protested.
“I’ve seen it before. It’s delicious.”
“I didn’t say dinosaur vomit was a bad thing,” Todd said to Dana, as he plucked
an olive out of the bowl.
“I didn’t say you did. Anybody who seasons his Spaghetti-O’s with Good Seasons
Italian salad dressing mix would eat anything.” Dana looked at her 15-year old
son, as he stopped chewing the olive. A piece of pimento, red and spongy, clung
to his lower lip.
“You know about that?”
“I’ve been wondering what to do about it. We’re considering sending you to the
Franco-American Institute summer camp for adolescents with eating disorders.”
“Oh, that’s funny!” said Todd. “Hilarious! I may die laughing!”
He left the kitchen feeling found out, but chipper, and ambled into the living
room. Two huge windows faced the street, Little Jones Street in the Village. The
building had been renovated two years ago and now contained only four
extravagantly spacious apartments, one per floor. It had a loft feeling, open and
airy. The other tenants were a young investment banker, a restaurant owner
and his girlfriend and, above Dana and Madeline on the fourth floor, an Off-
Broadway director famed for his theater-of-the-absurd extravaganzas. He was
divorced, and had custody of his son, a sixteen-year-old who seemed to live
there all but unsupervised.
Todd plopped into the chair, a deeply-cushioned rattan chair, and slung his leg
over the arm rest. Spread out on the glass cocktail table was the toaster, in a
dozen pieces. Madeline was peering at one of the parts through her bifocals.
“You certainly are handy,” Todd teased. “Is that a dyke thing?”
Madeline’s bronze gaze shifted over to him dangerously. The fact was, Todd
thought his mother was more butch than Madeline. If Madeline was handy, it
was in her pioneer spirit; she had a robust domesticity that he associated with
the rancher’s wives in movies, although Madeline was from New Hampshire.
“Actually, I was wondering if you could look at my CD player,” said Todd. “It’s
gone crazy. I mean, like, completely spaz. I think it’s the motor.”
Madeline found Todd’s opportunism annoying, but less than infuriating. She was
wise (or simply kind) enough to see it as a sort of optimism, minus interpersonal
sensitivity. In other words, the nervous egotism of a fifteen-year-old. Todd had
a confident luster, a tad brittle; he was a full-scholarship sophomore at Aloysius.
It was a credit to Dana and Liam, she supposed, that the emotional challenges
he had had to weather hadn’t undermined his intellectual gifts, or his academic
performance. If anything, they had kept his mind, so to speak, on its toes.
“I don’t see how you could possibly do your homework with that music blasting in
“It’s easy,” he said, picking up a piece of the toaster, a little wire grid that
resembled the side of a bird cage. He held it in front of his face. “I’m the
prisoner of princess Thumbelina,” he moaned, his face distorted with comic
pathos behind the tiny bars. “Why? Why? Why?” Madeline cracked up.
“What’s going on in there?” Dana wanted to know.
“Nothing, mom. Maddie’s having a seizure.” He put down the toaster part.
“So you’ll look at it? You’ll try and fix it?”
Madeline didn’t realize until late that night, as she lay in Dana’s arms, that this
was all about Todd’s desire to praise her.
“You’ll look at it at least...”
“I’ll pay you. I can pay!”
“Yeah, I’ll give you... two complimentary tickets to the Chippendales.”
“Todd…” Dana said from the kitchen.
“I’m gay! I thought you knew. I’ve been gay since age five.”
“Well, that’s fine with me, honey, but you know something? I don’t think so!”
“You’re right mom. Actually, if I had been born a girl, I probably would have
been a lesbian. The thought of kissing a guy... yech!”
“That’ll do, young man.”
“Peace!” He lurched out of the chair and went to open a window. The sound of
the street blasted in, then retreated to a low roar. He sat on the sill, looking
down at the street below. A man was sitting on the stoop, with his black
Labrador. “When’s grandpa coming over?”
“He’ll be here for dinner.” said Madeline. “Dana, what time is your dad coming?"
Dana entered the living room, absently wiping her hands on her jeans. She was
just plain pretty. Her broad, madonna face was framed with a few curls that had
escaped the rest of her hair, pulled back with a tortoise shell clip. Scrubbed and
luminous, she wore her cupid-bow mouth with the candor of a Renaissance
urchin. “Dinner is at five-thirty,” she said, “Todd, please don’t lean out the
window like that.” An indistinct, lazily energized exchange was taking place
outside, ricocheting off the street like jungle cant:
“Eat your heart out, man, you and your roommate...”
“Your sister’s my roommate!”
“Hey!” Todd called out, his head twisted around to look up at the fourth floor.
“Hey, Dan! What’r ya, some kinda far-out weirdo?”
“Not at all,” came the voice from the fourth floor, in a nicely mimicked Australian
accent, “just a local weirdo.” There followed a low-pitched exchange that the
women couldn’t make out, and then Todd ducked back in.
“I’m gonna go hang with Dan for a while.”
“I didn’t know you were friends,” his mother said, a bit alarmed, though she
tried not to show it. That would be futile. She had this to be thankful for: Todd
had the street-smarts of a jungle cat. No matter what mishaps he got into with
his friends or schoolmates, Todd always came through unscathed and smelling
like... well, like deodorant. Clean as a whisker. He was, Dana thought, a lot like
his father: a bit of a rat. Which was fine with her. You needed a rat’s cunning to
survive. She was struck that an attribute of her ex that now infuriated her, she
blessed in her son.
“I’ll be back for dinner,” he said, kissing Dana on the cheek. “Maddie please?” he
“I’ll have a look.”
“You’re a gentleman and a scholar,” he called out from the hall.
Dan came to the door wearing his T-shirt on his head, like a mutant sheik. His
ears stuck out anyway, and the head dress made him look even daffier. Todd
bowed, making circular motions with his hands, very mem-sahib. “May the
Porsche be with you.” he said. Dan laughed his goofy laugh. Inside, the group
Socket was wailing. “Kenny’s here,” said Dan.
“My head’s spinnin’ round like a clown...” Todd sang along with the music. Dan
quipped, Aussie-style, “Ruk ‘n Rawl!” He was in his Aussie period. Kenny was
sitting at the piano, a baby grand painted azalea pink, following the base line to
the music. The apartment was like none Todd had ever seen. It was one huge
back porch. Wide open, half-finished, everything was everywhere. Musical
instruments, guitars, a trombone, a cello, drums, were propped and scattered
around. Giant man-eating plants hung from the pillars. Theatrical props, spears,
masks, a life-size cardboard bat-mobile, came and went, were stashed or
featured. The furniture seemed to have arranged itself, gathering into sheltered
little groups among the clutter. A sculpture, an old canister vacuum cleaner with
four mannequin’s feet instead of wheels and a perfect doll’s head at the end of
the hose, sat next to the couch like some alien jungle pet. Todd touched it
gingerly with the toe of his sneaker. “God! Does it bite? Does it have a name?”
“You mean Isabelle?”
“Oh my God.”
“No, she doesn’t bite,” said Dan, then turned sly: “She sucks, though. Want to
give ‘er a try?” Todd darted away, screaming in mock horror and Dan started
out after him, staggering like a monster, a gruesome rattling roar coming out of
his open mouth.
“Isaabeeellle..” he groaned.
Kenny began playing a Jaws motif over the blare of the record. Todd dove into
the couch at the far end of the loft and cowered, his face bright with excitement,
in the corner, clutching a pillow. “Get away from me! Stay away... I’m warning
“Aaarrrrggghhhh...” ‘Isabelle’ staggered closer.
“I’m warning you! Take one more step—”
“Aaarrrrggghhhh...” Dan grabbed his feet as Todd screamed and tried to kick
free. Dan easily overpowered Todd with his heft, and crawled up Todd’s legs,
forced him down and, burying his head in Todd’s lap, began chewing at his
crotch while Todd yelled and hit him over the head with the pillow. Then
suddenly, ‘Isabelle’ went dead. Rattled, coughed, died. Todd scooted quickly
“You are nuts!” Todd panted.
Kenny came over. “I think you killed Isabelle.”
Dan lay face down on the couch, his hands gnarled up like a dead bird’s claws.
For a second Tod wondered if he hadn’t hit him too hard with the pillow; he felt
a flash of dread.
“C’mon Dan, chill.” Nothing. One of Dan’s fingers was twitching rhythmically, like
a heartbeat. Todd and Kenny looked at each other. Kenny reached down and
nudged Dan on the shoulder. Heavily, he rolled over; his eyes and mouth gaped
open horribly. Then slowly, like a vacuum cleaner gradually winding up,
“Isabelle’s” motor came to life and Todd and Kenny darted back. Todd tripped
over a barbell and landed on his behind, and his hand sunk into an old fur
slipper. He jumped up startled, shaking his hand furiously, as if to shake it off.
Dan sat up in his arabesque T-shirt, and guffawed with gusto.
“You’re a complete idiot,” said Todd, and leapt on top of him, trying to smother
him with the pillow while Dan writhed and howled.
“I’m out of gum,” said Kenny, as they approached the intimate, fragmented
geography of Sheridan Square or “Ann Sheridan Square,” as Dan’s dad had
dubbed it, in honor of the West Village gay enclave of which it was a crossroads.
“Me too,” said Todd. “C’mon.” He sashayed across Seventh Avenue, wiggling his
butt. A hoot came from somewhere. “Hey! I’m walkin’ here!” he bellowed.
“Walk over here, honey,” said one of the guys on the corner across the street.
“I’m walkin’ here!” he said again, then he sashayed some more. Dan and Kenny
caught up to him, crowded him, punched his arm.
“You tryin’ to get us raped?” said Dan, snickering.
“I need a date for the prom!” Todd complained loudly as Dan and Kenny hustled
him into the tobacco store.
Inside Village Cigars, the corner tobacco store painted cigar-box red, was a
wedge of a space the size of a large closet. Todd grabbed a pack of Bubblicious
off the gum rack. Dan bought a pack of Camel filters. Kenny was trying to
decide what he wanted.
“How’d you get that awesome wave in your hair?” said Todd.
“What?” said Kenny.
“It’s weird,” said Dan.
“Thank you,” said Kenny.
“I meant weird in a— bizarre way,” said Dan.
“I wouldn’t say bizarre, exactly.” said Todd. Just a little extreme. Cool but
Kenny, exasperated, said “What do you think?” to the store in general. “I’m
taking a survey. Do - you - like - my - hair.” The woman at the paperback rack
turned around— a drag queen. She eyed him appraisingly.
“To die, my dear! Hair like that could put L’Oreal out of business tout suite!”
Dan laughed. Their bravado shriveled and they quickly paid for their gum.
“No kidding,” she said. “What’s your secret? That color is unbelievable.”
Kenny had given the wrong coins to the old cashier.
“That’s fifty seven,” the cashier said, chomping his cigar.
Kenny fumbled in his pocket for the right change, spilling some onto the floor.
Todd and Dan didn’t help. They were enjoying the show.
“Oh, there’s a penny,” said the queen, bending down to tweak it off the
linoleum. She handed it to Kenny. “Dahling, you must be more careful. Throwing
your substance around in that careless fashion..." Dan guffawed. The queen
placed the penny, with a dainty emphatic pecking gesture, into Kenny’s
trembling hand. His ears brightened like stoplights. He hurried to the counter
and slapped the money down.
“George, dahling. I don’t see ‘Renegade Heiress’. Will you be getting it in?”
“I said fifty seven,” said George. “That’s a nickel.”
Kenny stared in disbelief. Completely rattled, he dug into his pocket and pulled
out a quarter, exchanging it for the nickel. “I’m er gup.” he said. The quarter
danced out of his hand and rolled off the counter. George bent down with a
grunt to pick it up and Kenny hurried out of the store. Todd and Dan, smirking
and snorting, followed him out.
“Bye, fellas,” said the queen.
“Ta ta, love,” said Dan, as he pushed Todd out into the humid bright day.
“Hel-lo. . .” said Dan, leveling a glance, over the tops of his sunglasses, across
Seventh Avenue traffic. Todd and Kenny turned to see the two girls crossing the
square on East Fourth Street. Dan sang out in their direction: “Those east side
girls really knock me o-ut.” Todd chimed in: “They leave the west behind...” The
girls looked over, alert. One of them said something and the other girl laughed,
throwing her head back and touching her splayed fingers to her collarbone. They
then walked away, hair bouncing.
“Isn’t that Karen Jackson?” said Kenny.
“You know her?” said Dan.
“She goes to 154. I don’t know her. She works with Brian Collier’s sister
weekends at the Record Dome.”
“Can she get a discount?” Dan wanted to know.
“Have you guys checked out the Trackmaster there?” said Todd. “You pick out
the songs you want, and it records them on a CD that’s all done by the time
you’re ready to leave. Like, in about an hour.”
“I think it’s broken.”
“Nope, unh-uh. I was just there.”
So they set off toward the Record Dome, and the girls. They weren’t following
them, exactly. But if the Record Dome was the general goal, the girls provided a
nebulous beacon. New York packs as much spectacle per square foot as any
place in the world, and in Greenwich Village, the scene is collaged and
compressed still more. Within the space of a block they passed apartments, a
comic book store, a Greek restaurant, a cleaners, a head shop, a day-care, a
deli, a church. And the passing human parade. They scanned it all, commenting
at random. They passed storefronts, stoops, and stairways leading up and down.
They crossed Sixth Avenue. As they drew close to Washington Square park,
street traffic thickened, and the girls were gone. But the boys didn’t notice. They
had been transferred into a more compelling gravitational field: Washington
Square. As they came into its orbit their pace quickened autonomically, along
with their heartbeats.
Music drifted out in stray snatches. Balloons appeared. Smoke. Their voices
joined scores of others. The glancing thoughts that come to people when they
are out in a crowd prattled through the air. The park hummed and pinballed with
sexy, dangerous human energy. It was Saturday. The park always hosted its
share of gentry, of young families, perambulating babies, civilized seniors, and
student bodies. But it was Washington Square. Half the characters looked like
they had wandered out of one of Dan’s father’s Off-Broadway shows, or wanted
to be in one. And there were enough startling, damaged faces, enough sudden
crazed howls and other alarms to keep one’s awareness pitched high.
“The whole Bolshoi Ballet was there opening night,” Dan was saying. “They took
up two rows of the theater. They were freaked.”
“Holy culture shock!” said Todd.
“They have rock bands in Russia,” said Kenny.
“Yeah! They’re like really really punky.”
“I know, man. It’s weird as hell. They were on the news up there wailin’ and
rockin’ in freakin’ Russian. Their balalaikas were ringin’ out, man.”
“Come and keep your comrade warm.”
They drifted over to the fountain. Leaning against railings, they watched a flute
player, accompanied by a guitar. He was very good. His flights and musings
were as expert as any you were likely to hear; his jazzy riffs, the loony silver
airiness of the flute up close was mesmerizing. It put them in a meditative head,
and the boys got into their own thoughts.
She came staggering across the lawn, and the voice of the crowd shifted in her
wake. Elements went quiet, while others rose up in derision. Homeless, lanky,
sweetly deranged, she was wearing a T-shirt and nothing else.
“Oh my God,” said Todd. The others said nothing. Mothers turned their children
Although her hair was streaked with gray, her skin somewhat wrinkled, her face
gleamed with a lunatic’s childlike happiness. She stooped to pick something off
the grass, and the invisible circle around her became more defined, more
focused. She was mumbling, singing quietly to herself. Amid the murmur, a
couple of obscene comments flew out, mean bright starlings, cackles and hoots.
She stood up and, her mouth open in an incoherent expression of childish glee,
showed everybody what she’d found: a tiny broken doll. Her naked feet shifted
back and forth, kneading the grass excitedly. A wave of murmurs swept the
crowd, fresh taunts. Then suddenly Dan was jumping the railing, moving toward
“Dan!” Todd shouted, reflexively.
The woman turned toward Dan and held the doll out to him. He took it from her
and put it in his pocket. This pleased her, and she stood waiting, smiling quietly,
while Dan unbuckled his jeans and took them off. Then he knelt in front of her,
holding the jeans open at her feet, in a gesture as timeless as mothers,
children, families themselves. Without hesitating, she placed her hand on Dan’s
shoulder and stepped into the jeans.
“Good job, love,” Dan said as he worked the pantleg up until her crusty foot
emerged. He struggled her other leg into the jeans, then pulled them up, giving
them a playful settling shake over her lanky hips, which caused her to giggle.
“Oops!” he said, and she giggled some more.
Still kneeling, he zipped them up and carefully fastened the belt buckle. He
plucked his wallet out of the back pocket and stood up, in his boxer shorts, polo
shirt and sneakers. The woman’s attention was fastened on the jeans. She
gawked down, patting them with delight, as if they were a Christmas present.
She stood admiring them for a moment and then, singing and stroking her new
jeans, she began to wander away.
Perhaps because the crowd had gone so quiet, the bellow rose up so theatrically.
Todd turned around to see the drunk, disheveled, loud, ragged, tottering rudely
across the sidewalk.
“C’mon, baby!” he growled. “What’s yer hurry?”
The homeless woman turned around, and a look of heartbreaking dismay swept
her face. The drunk was eyeing her new jeans.
“Noooo!” she moaned, her hands pouncing protectively across her lap, as she
“Awww, baby, come on! Gimme a little party, baby, c’mon...”
“Here comes your boyfriend,” flew out from the crowd, like a ragged crow.
An icy, towering fury seized Todd. Shoving people aside, he stalked over to the
drunk. “What do you think you’re doing?” he said in the drunk’s face.
“Awww, fuck you, you little son of a bitch! Mommie Dearest! Mind your own
With a drunk’s formless nimble maneuvering, he twisted past Todd, and lurched
forward as people cleared away.
“Baby, don’t go,” he growled. “C’mon. Gimme a little party.”
She stood still, her hands fingering the jeans anxiously. Bright tears began
trickling down her red face.
“Where do you think you’re going, asshole.” Todd stood blocking his way once
“Todd, chill!” Kenny was at his side, anxiously patting his ribs.
“Go fuck yourself, you little faggot,” the drunk shouted in Todd’s face, his breath
teeming with fumes. Get your ass—”
Todd’s blow landed with a disgusting thud on the man’s jaw. The flesh on his
face jiggled, and he went reeling back, arms flailing, and crashed into a wire
mesh trash receptacle. “Run!” some woman yelled, and the homeless woman
hurried away, waddling like a turkey. Dan ran over, and crowded around Todd,
with Kenny, and they pulled him away, while the drunk sat in a heap cursing and
laughing and mumbling. “Get the police,” someone said. “Fuck you, man,”
somebody said to the drunk. A couple of others began to move in on him,
breathing threats. The ugly siren of mob violence was beginning to wail, seeping
around the edges of the gathering like spilled gas. “Bust him open!” a voice
“Leave him alone!” Kenny suddenly heard himself yelling, impelled by some
fierce angel. The urgency in his voice, the earnestness, took everybody aback.
Todd and Dan looked at him, amazed. A blessed moment of restraint, as bright
and tremulous as a soap bubble, hung in the air. Then suddenly a gym bag flew
out of the crowd and landed on the ground like a gauntlet, followed by its
owner, a huge guy in a Gold’s Gym sweatshirt. The drunk began, in a
disorganized tipsy way, to struggle to his feet, but the body-builder pushed him
back down. “You’re not going anywhere,” he said, and stood guard over the
drunk, protecting him from the mob under the pretense, and the crowd’s tacit
complicity (or grudging assent), of restraining him. He looked at Todd.
“Why don’t you guys take off ?”
Todd looked at Dan, eyeing his get-up. “We’ll never make it home without
getting raped,” he whined.
The crowd exhaled laughter. Dan actually didn’t look all that undressed. His get-
up could have been some quirky new street-fashion. But then a shirt came flying
out of nowhere and landed on Dan’s shoulder.
“Wrap it around you, man.”
And when the girl wearing purple lipstick said: “Here come the cops,” they didn’t
wait around to hear the cops’ views on either street justice or street fashion.
The deep afternoon light poured through the tall windows, casting shadows of
the window panes across the yellow table.
“Pass the ratatouille, please,” said Todd.
The chunks had shrunk, after cooking, to a less Jurassic size. “Thanks, gramps.”
He took a scoop of the delicious vegetables and passed the white china bowl to
“Mmmm. This really is good, Mrs. Carson,” said Dan. “Really good. Kenneth—?”
Kenny took a helping. Jim Carson, Todd’s grandfather sat looking at his plate,
“You know, honey,” he said to Dana, “my plate isn’t quite even. Look here.”
He pointed his knife at the shrimp. “My shrimp are out of balance. My rice and
ratatouille have gone down too far.”
“Good grief, dad!” Dana said, passing him the rice and her warm smile.
“You need, ahem, a balanced diet, gramps,” said Todd.
“I couldn’t agree more,” Jim said, as he helped himself to the rice.
Dan and Kenny were eyeing Dana and Madeline. Todd had given them the scoop
some time ago, but that left the details. . . And now, at close range, over
dinner, perilous possibilities nibbled at the edges of their imaginations,
unwelcome and irresistible.
“Maddie’s got hers all mixed up,” said Todd. “But then she’s a health nut.”
“Yes,” said Madeline, “and it does taste good. Sort of reminiscent of...” her eyes
looked up as her mouth made little smacking-tasting sounds. “...of dinosaur
Dan and Kenny were suddenly choking with laughter. Dinosaur vomit! They’d
never heard anything so outrageous in their lives! From an adult at the dinner
table, yet... Dan gulped water, while the women looked somewhat alarmed.
Dana was patting his back, asking if he was sure he was all right. He nodded.
Then, in his inner ear, the words jack- in-the-boxed again and the water sprayed
out of his nose. Kenny had to leave the table. Jim threw his napkin down.
“That’s not the only thing that’s mixed up around here,” he said, and went to sit
in front of the TV.
Later on, he and the women watched a Yankee game together, while the boys
went to listen to music in Todd’s room, and eventually went their separate ways.
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