(Excerpt from Broken Land, a Brooklyn Tale)
There’s not really a name for what I do. I am not an investigative journalist, I am not a private eye. I am not a minstrel essayist. There are many things that I am not.
If I were forced to impose a designation upon what I do, I’d say I’m a … curious. That’s all. Just curious.
Anyway, if I had an office and it had been a rainy Tuesday, then a tragic blonde with legs like scissors strong enough to cut a flesh-and-blood man in half might have walked in … but that’s not the way this story begins.
This story begins with a phone call from Jimmy Barrone, a writer and old friend of mine, who I hadn’t heard from in years. His voice was tight and choked with tears, as he gurgled—Still curious, Salvo?
I knew it was Jimmy, because he was the only one from the old neighborhood who still called me Salvo.
Jimmy, I said, long time no hear.
Jimmy’s dead, Salvo. Do you understand? I’m dead.
I countered Jimmy’s hysterics with good old-fashioned logic.
You’re not dead, Jimmy, I said. You’re talking to me on the phone, therefore you’re alive. Got it?
Jimmy snuffled some kind of primitive response, and went on—I don’t know who’s who anymore, or what’s what. I’m breaking apart, Salvo. Fractals. Twelve Jimmy’s, then thirty-six, then forty-eight.
I followed the beat of Jimmy’s math, and tried to get through to a singular Jimmy, the one I had known since childhood.
Jimmy, I said, before you go to pieces with all this radical subdivision, tell me exactly what you think is happening.
I’m not me, were the last words Jimmy spoke before the line went dead.
I called back: a busy signal.
I calmly hung up the phone and sat at my desk. I picked up my plastic pencil sharpener and began sharpening pencils (#2’s, orange-yellow). It was what I did when I wanted to think things over, calmly.
While my curiosity had been piqued, and I fully intended to head over to Jimmy’s place and see what I could find out, I was not going to rush into the matter. I was not one to rush into anything, even when a distress signal has been fired like a flare in my direction. I didn’t trust distress-signals, especially when they came from writers. Especially writers who had been raised Catholic and had grown up in Brooklyn.
I also understood that anxiety and panic were highly contagious maladies. It was my responsibility to keep myself clean and healthy and sound. Which required exacting detachment. Too little and you were caught in a trap. Too much and you drifted away.
My cat, Keaton, an ash-gray beauty with lantern-yellow eyes, leaped onto my lap. He stared up at me, as if he wanted something.
What, I said.
He responded by switching his lean tail, side to side, like a pendulum.
My nails dug into Keaton’s scalp and gave it a good scratch. Keaton purred, like a pigeon making love to a toy motorboat, and closed his eyes.
I sharpened pencil after pencil, while playing Jimmy’s words over and over again in my head. I tried out various configurations. I rearranged the original sequence, broke them down into independent syllables, played the sentences backwards, as if trying to uncover a satanic message.
After my fourteenth pencil, and with none of the configurations amounting to a breakthrough, I rose to my feet. Keaton fell to the floor, gracefully. He gave me a cutting look, then padded away. I went into the bathroom, flossed, brushed my teeth, and gargled mouthwash. Then I flossed again.
I put on my shoes and hat and overcoat. I grabbed my pencil sharpener, and six unsharpened pencils, and stored them in my coat-pocket. Then I left for Jimmy’s.
Outside, the night had teeth and it was raining. It suddenly dawned on me: it was Tuesday.
Maybe if I had an office, I reasoned to myself, a scissor-legged blonde would walk into it. You never know about these things.