Of a Minor Prophet’s Last Day in Brooklyn
by M. Menachem Kaiser
Wake up, and lazing on my crotch is a hand unfamiliar, fingers tapping out a slow rhythm barely felt through my worn denim. Tap tap tap, tap tap. Marvelous cuticles, I think, and also: whose hand is this, which I ask out loud. The hand flips me off. Shows me the time, too — I’m late for work, but this thought can’t find space: I haven’t in fresh memory a satisfactory bowel movement or sexual release; no money past a New York deluxe burger and an understuffed joint; parents who’d prefer me gay; an inspiration clean out and a shirt of remarkable ugliness. I’m late for work, also –
Who’s complaining. I have a beard, strong arms, devastating taste in music and cheese, a credible tattoo, a pleasant and nondisruptive drug habit, books I could bear rereading. Brooklyn has come to accept my existence, if not my art: I came here to sculpt, yes. No: location’s irrelevant, hunh, so: I came here to be a Sculptor. And, well, Brooklyn gave me a quarter of a chance but still a chance and said, No, thank you, we appreciate your effort but please move it along, there’re others behind you, you’ve had your turn; but she let me stay, even let me here and there create. Once, in Bed-Stuy, in a makeshift studio that stank of fresh syrup and chem-lab, I even skirted the sublime, briefly threatened to break through to significance, but I don’t remember anything about that particular effort beyond its almost-ness — it was too much for an audience of one, nondiffused poignancy can be overwhelming, and I had to destroy it. I attacked it with everything, my hands, feet, head, dick, my entirety a flailing multilimb battering ram, and when I finally tired what remained was a chocolate bar-sized piece of alabaster, which I ate, and that circle of art I closed and banished.
Now awake, but this room is unfamiliar, like the people here (snoring babylike, as if they’re innocent, as if their dreams weren’t as fantastically sinful as mine) scattered and draped like careless furnishings, like the exposed-ceiling loft, the dank stairwell, the building’s battered-blue wooden door, the sunlit street. I’m lost, doesn’t matter, here’s a food cart. I buy two bananas and a coffee from the swarthy guy in the cart — lonely and so misplaced, on a corner nowhere near a subway stop or commuters or any place of business — and wonder while he pours the milk and fumbles with the sugar packets about our lives’ overlap and how’d he get stuck here, anyways? did he lose a food cart lottery? a cart turf war? is this an exile of sorts? is he slowly earning his way back? does his wife even know where every morning he’s dragging this battered piece of corrugated aluminum? All of which is only to ask, Am I grateful I’m not him? Thank you, sir, must get going, terribly late for work, the weather’ll get better, you’ll see. We are the same.
Brooklyn. First day I met a girl with leggings and an attitude and a fantastic need for attention, even mine, and who agreed to come home but hasn’t left since, though now she’s a lesbian who not only doesn’t touch me but brings home large middle-aged more or less female things and eats them out while I’m on the couch trying to read but really I’m thinking I need a shotgun (just for authority, honestly, purely for purposes of assertion) though I’ll settle for a yo-yo, and sometimes I read out loud, that’s my strikeback, in a voice I think is booming and unignorable, but it gets me nowhere: they don’t hear or they don’t care, they just moan and chomp, respectively.
Me and the swarthy guy: resigned to our lot. Caring is exhausting, I’ve run out of curses, and besides, right now, walking with more purpose than I’ve got, this banana is extraordinary. And anyhow not around that much: days working at Snike’s Ice Cream, bit off Atlantic Avenue between a fish dealer and a blacksmith who specializes in rococo diner sets, nights patronizing the unlicensed stripper joint of the same location. Snike (pronounced SNEE-kuh), who I think lives in the back, gives me a mug of Lithuanian or Latvian beer, tells me I’m late, hugs me and pats my behind in what he thinks is a sign of American camaraderie. Did I miss any customers? I ask Snike, who says No, but for success in America need much careful prepare, dig? Snike loves English and slang and America. He used to be, in Lithuania or Latvia, a feared and respected gangleader but ran to New York after he got the wrong guy’s daughter pregnant and arranged and financed a grey-market abortion, which went fine but not perfectly. This was at least eight years ago; he is still realizing that homegrown wisdom’s importable to a point, but the respect usually isn’t at all.
I unfold my paper hat and assume my place, complete the shop. During the day, Snike’s Ice Cream has: a single booth to sit in, holds a very uncomfortable six; a counter with a tub or two of ice cream; garish lighting from (somehow) a single bulb; two distant female cousins of Snike from Lithuania or Latvia talking in Lithuanian or Latvian about bargain designer footwear and locally available soups; and me, nonstop thinking about and peeking at the Lithuanians’ or Latvians’ legs, which you might say overinspires me and fills me with a despair — of life, of sustained happiness, of sculpture, of meaning being found anywhere in the greater metropolitan area. My eye follows the calf’s curve, from below the thigh down a slow taut flexed slope into the boot’s leather grip and caress, and into a bout of microdepression. Those legs make my art impossible: some lines cannot be represented, which must mean there’s a god, and she’s got to be female, and where does that leave me.
I stand behind the counter. My job is to stand, mainly. Not many customers come for the ice cream — the shop’s not exactly renowned, plus on this block rare is the pedestrian, who it’s even rarer is in the mood for ice cream. When there is a customer, though, I’m all business, even if we’ve got a miserable nonvariety of flavors and even if threatening to ruin the magic of the ice cream exchange is a pole (unstriped, because Snike has no sense of humor), for upon order I will scoop generously, or make that float, or pour that soda, and the customer shall be pleased. (The second banana isn’t for me.) I am rarely paid on time or in general, but the lap dances are gratis (within reason).
Because at dusk, like ceremony, Snike grabs a footladder and unscrews the single lightbulb above the counter and replaces it with a translucent red plastic chandelier, the light from which announces a new moral space and the end of my shift. It’s transformative, that light, even if just a minute ago I’d be wearing my paper hat and a steel grin, my spoon in an actual vintage old-Western holster. The ice cream shop’s innocence — and it’s there, even if unbred and unintended, like a pestilent innocence — is scattered by that red light, though the walls and floorplan and decor don’t change. Or maybe the innocence is still there, there but inverted. Ever see that porno where leathery bloated seniors ravage each other in places they don’t usually frequent or don’t belong, like rave clubs, kiddie pools, karaoke bars, swing sets, and etc.? I’m always reminded of that when the red light goes on.
That red glows, I take off my hat and instantly I’m a customer — now I can wear those legs, drape myself in them, caress them in artistic surrender, tear them open and let myself be devoured. But tonight, as Snike is changing the light, a hasid walks in. See, the light’s lovely in the shop during that minute, no source artificial, the dying daylight filtered by the dusty window glass almost to a sepia, a light that slows time down and lets it breathe. Now it’s silhouetting the hasid: tall, beard a thousand times more authentic than mine, sidelocks that keep escaping their behind-ears tuck, wearing a new Yankees cap fooling nobody. It is immediately obvious he’s going to change my life.
I want an ice cream, says the hasid. We’re closed, I tell him, my hat’s already off and folded and I’m really looking forward to not serving ice cream anymore today, but I’ll scoop you one anyhow. What flavor? He tells me it doesn’t matter: he hasn’t sinned in thirty four years but he’s starting tonight, so any flavor, so long as it’s not kosher. All we’ve got is pralines n’ cream — is that kosher? I don’t know. He doesn’t know. Snike, who’s watching from the footladder with the red plastic chandelier in his hands, is the ice cream kosher? Snike doesn’t know. But Snike has an idea: I have supply of sprinkles bacon in back. That good enough not kosher? (He probably means bacon bits, whispered.) The hasid takes this question seriously: his eyes close and his beard pendulums. Yes, that will do. Bring me. The bacon sprinkles. Sprinkle them on this ice cream. Which I’m about to do, then — No, on the side. No problem, and he’s pleased, says I’m a real mensch, pays and tips and settles into the booth, and Snike screws in the chandelier, and the ice cream shop is sprayed in that immoral red.
Everything depends on that hasid’s 34 years old sin.
The hasid is eating his ice cream very seriously: hey, can I sit. Sure, and this ice cream’s irrelevant, so here, take this — he passes the pralines n’ cream; there’s a beard hair that needs to be partially excavated — I can eat the bacon without. Hey man, I pop in a spoonful, I get it: God’s an asshole, he deserves to be pissed off once in a while, eat that bacon. The hasid is picking and munching his bits like they’re the bottom dredge of the popcorn bowl. Do you understand sin, he asks. I nod. No, you don’t. He tells me his thirty four year old sin. That can’t be right: That’s it?, that’s your last sin?, doesn’t seem like much. Sin, says the hasid, isn’t about scale or even severity, it’s about revealing the bastard you are beneath, who in my case was a particularly nasty bastard, so I guilted myself into an immaculate record for thirty four years, pristine, but last week God broke the contract, has not kept up his end, and so our contract’s null, and now: I sin, start small — delicious bits, by the way — but sins, my tradition knows, have a way of accumulating fast, and, boychik, I’m looking forward.
Whereupon a girl, naked save for half a dozen tresses, sits on his lap — and his soul I see almost visibly explode — and he drops onto the floor the rest of his bits, which I’ll have to clean tomorrow but right now I don’t care, I’m happy for the hasid, cheering him down his path of self-destruction, cheering against the god who, let’s face it, is probably happily leading him down it.
Am I inspired? I don’t know, not yet. I look to the stage, and tonight there’s a new girl, clearly not Lithuanian or Latvian, on the pole. I rise and walk over, pull a chair right up the stage’s edge. She’s on all fours, backing up ass first. I have to wait for her to turn around so I can shake her hand and introduce myself, trying to project an air of success/confidence I’m told women can literally smell. I’m all formal and iron-pumping with that handshake. She squints. You look familiar, she says, fixes her drooping glittery top, Do I know you?, and in attempted recollection puts her hand on her chin, shows off a watch I’ve recently seen and some marvelous cuticles. No, I don’t know you, but will you do me a favor? Will you slap me, I ask, because the Lithuanians won’t do it anymore. Hard, please. I crave the sting. She doesn’t even have to think about it. I inhale and brace for impact, eyes like glued shut, and the slap comes and leaves me full of inspiration cut into silly clichés but no less powerful for it.
Usually I stick around long enough most nights that one of the girls lets me jack off onto her back (though they’ll more often than not be asleep) and I’ll collapse into some corner like a demented pet, but tonight the hasid and I exchange one-liners and guess at where we’ll be in thirty years. I say dead or comatose. He says busy raising his grandchildren properly, his kids’ll fuck up for sure. He gives me a ride to my apartment in his station wagon. I know you think it’s hopeless, he says as I’m climbing out, but don’t act outside of opportunity. Wait for it. Tell me again, I need to hear it again. Wait for it, boychik.
I wait until an hour later when I can’t wait anymore and it’s 7am, my apartment, I’m sneaking in for clothes and a energy bar and my passport, trying not to wake anything, but: a curled-up lesbian giant roars and stretches, I tiptoe but it grabs my leg — asshole, it says, you woke me up, you’re buying me breakfast.
In the diner they’ve recently replaced the vintage mugs with mugs with ads printed all over them. My lips touch the witless copy for Air conditioning installation and repair. A1 Yellow Cab taxi service. Jean-tightening shop. Lawyers/bondsmen. I know what it all really means, and I’m eager to share, but the lesbian giant wants no part of it. She wants to talk about politics and gender. Bisexuality: not real, she announces. I disagree, to which: shut up, what do you know — you can’t see beyond your own raging circumcised penis, just look at the girl living in your apartment. She shakes with laughter for a full minute. Do you believe that there are special circumstances where forced abortion is okay?, she asks. The existence of glass ceilings? What’s up with the FDA food guide, that dumbshit pyramid? I tell her I’m lonely, which is because, she tells me, there aren’t any real and true women left, they’ve all turned dyke, and now you’re behind the times, get with it. I tell her I’ve had a revelation. She burps. I tell her I’m a sculptor, though I ate my best work. So what?, she roars, I can probably lift and squat you, to which my silence is misinterpreted because she stands on her bench in the booth and reaches out over the stack of pancakes and lifts me by the pits clean up, throws me over her truck-wide shoulders and squats me clean. On my way down I can grab some pancake. Eighty-five reps, and when she’s done or proved her point or exhausted she throws me through the window, smashes the glass, the “Breakfast Like Your Momma Used To Make!” now just frosted shards. The manager of the diner is upset. I can hear the lesbian giant laughing. I run. I feel the manager give chase, but I don’t turn around.
This is it. I more than run. Brooklyn is my treadmill, my obstacle course, nothing more than a surface for my feet to pound and punish and leave behind. I leap strollers holding children who have more buying power than I ever will. I dodge single-gear bicycles painstakingly pieced together and painted in hyperneon. I sculpt atmosphere, shape ambience, design eternity to my specifications. I wave to the swarthy man in the cart and he throws me a banana. I catch it and eat it without losing stride and drop the peel in Williamsburg, and know there’ll be a multi-bicycle pile-up. I run up the cars of the ghost-filled ferris wheel like a circle of steps. I’m flying past it all. Hipsters in Bed-Stuy with multigender clothing. Mexicans in between everyone and running everything. Poles in Flatbush, baking crumbly desserts. Writers in Park Slope, farting around with an impotent plot. Architects with complex glasses and long tubes, creative types in DUMBO with supergreat haircuts, and I’m on the Brooklyn Bridge, running at full speed backwards.
M. Menachem Kaiser is a writer living between Krakow, Poland and Brooklyn, NY. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Slate, Vogue, Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Stumble, Tablet, and elsewhere. He is a recent recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship (in creative writing) to Lithuania.