By the time Ryan was born, the oldest of his five siblings was already in high school, and his ornery father’s terrible tantrums had more or less subsided. Metal ashtrays were tossed less frequently through the house, and bad afternoons at the track seldom led to threats of bodily harm. The old man even managed moments of quasi-affection—patting little Ryan on his head when he came home from school and surrendering the television to him on Thursday evenings when he got to be a teenager so he could watch Matlock and, his hero, Perry Mason.
By the time he had reached his forties, Ryan was the only member of his family in contact with the old man, calling every Sunday morning over to the squalid one-bedroom in Bayonne where his father moved after their mother had left him. Ryan let himself be taken out to lunch once a month at the VIP diner down the block for which his father would dress in one of his frayed leisure suits from the seventies and order desiccated roast chicken or London broil with glutinous gravy.
When no one picked up that Sunday, Ryan tried every twenty minutes until the middle of the day, pretending that the old man might have gone out though the bar didn’t open until noon and the dogs weren’t raced on weekends.
The drive to Bayonne took nearly an hour through church traffic, and the odor coming out through the humidity-warped door hit Ryan in the face before he even tried turning the knob. He paused and took a deep breath to steel himself for what lurked beyond the threshold. Neither defending the guilty at the public defender’s office nor living in the cramped home in Guttenberg with his wife and son calmed him particularly, but the thought of July in Maine at Goose Rocks Beach brought him some peace of mind: its cool sea air the perfect antidote to corrupt and crumbling Hudson County, New Jersey, where he’s had to refuse bribes and keep clear of questionable congressman. The place was too far from God, as he liked to say, and too close to New York City.
Imaginary surf sprayed his face, and sand tickled his toes as he easily broke through the flimsy door and walked down the creaky linoleum floor into the bathroom where his father lay on the floor covered in bloody glass shards. He’d toppled against the mirror when the stroke hit. The odor of the place is what Ryan can’t shake off, rotting cantaloupe on the kitchen table, decomposing father on the bathroom floor.
The fantastically New England Fourth of July parade doesn’t catch him in the throat like it should. He and Patty have dressed seven-year-old Peter in a Spiderman costume and wait with the hearty Maine crowd and occasional other summer renter just outside town for the parade to begin. Yesterday’s rain has disappeared overnight, leaving a cool bite in the air and perfectly blue sky, but Ryan can only concentrate on the ruddy local men and their sincere-looking wives and thank God he hadn’t persuaded Patty to move up north with him and put up a shingle. There is a stark absence of robbing and divorcing here, suing and defrauding.
The parade moves glacially down the main drag past the turreted Victorians on one side and the bike path along the rocky beach on the other.
Lying unlocked just off the path, Ryan spots a sexy Italian racing bike, and even more impressive, a Vespa with a key in its ignition. He remembers sipping a Bud Light in Patty’s parents’ kitchen after their first trip to Maine, praising the unlocked vehicles of New England and listening to Patty’s mother’s racist insinuations—Hudson County where there were too many blacks and Hispanics to leave anything unattended.
Turning his head away from the bikes, he looks across the street at the unlocked houses and remembers the imbecilic burglar he’d visited in Rahway the day after he discovered his father. Not smart enough to disarm a decent security system, Sal Starita had been captured speeding recklessly away from his crime. The smell of Rahway Prison returns to Ryan’s nostrils, and he hears the heavy prison gates clanging closed behind him.
He feels hemmed in, as big adults in baggy short pants, babies, and yapping dogs crowd them on all sides. His queerly sensitive nose picks up perfumes and deodorants, halitosis and diapers.
“I can’t take this anymore,” he whispers to Patty, who looks mutely back at him.
“Patty, sorry, my stomach,” he yells a moment later, clutching his belly and tearing off in the opposite direction of the parade.
Ten minutes later finds him panting for breath and trudging down the deserted section of the main drag past which the parade had already processed. He catches the eye of an attractive blond about his age sunning herself in front of a bed and breakfast and moves toward her like he has something to say, but nothing comes out and he beats a hasty retreat, picking up speed again down the path.
While ambling along, staring at the waves as they crash against the rocks, he feels his knee knock into a mountain bike leaning against the seawall.
“Fucking asshole,” he says, North Jersey resounding hollowly through the empty beachscape, “shit fucking dick.”
He shakes his leg out and appraises the bike, unlocked and brand new. He kicks it, then, then picks it up and holds it apologetically. Coolly, he checks out the empty beach, the path, the houses on the other side of the street.
Sal Starita’s beady eyes fix on him from Rahway, urging him on.
When Ryan mounts the bike, gently like he’s trying to seduce it, and takes it tentatively forward, neither the seagulls swooping down into the water nor the hermit crabs crawling over the sand seem particularly disturbed.
About a football field later, he dutifully twists it around and starts pedaling back, but when he gets to the spot where he found it and climbs off, his foot gets caught on the seat and he topples onto the concrete ground. A few seconds later the mountain bike tumbles down on top of him, blackening his eye.
He feels woozy when he gets back up, his bacon-and-egg breakfast tasting awful in his mouth. His back itches ferociously just where he can’t scratch it, and a deadening pain starts up in his brain.
A momentary lapse hadn’t been enough, and the moment he’s back on the bike, his body starts to reassemble, the pains lessening, the itching going away.
Fiercely, he surges forward as the cool breeze blows through his thinning hair and the distant sounds of the parade float up to his ears. Reaching the hill that marks the end of the beach, he continues on the road as it splits away from the sea up into the woodsy barrio right above town.
Panting and perspiring, he comes to a halt in front of a down-on-its-luck house with deteriorating aluminum siding and a sagging front porch. Its driveway has no vehicles, but its front yard is crammed with plastic toys.
The residents are likely at the parade, but he walks up to the door and rings the buzzer just in case. After the tinny bell echoes several times through the house, he grabs the knob and tries to turn it.
The knob won’t budge.
And without any warning, thatit happens again. A tremor snakes back up his spine, knocking him is body about. He wants toalmost vomits but can only dry-heaves.
Since discovering his rotting father, he’s developed this problem with thresholds—his mother’s on Bergenline Avenue, his brother’s in Staten Island. Foul tastes fill his mouth as he approaches them. HThey make his torso tremors, his shoulders shiver.
The knob is still stuck when he takes another crack at it, and relief washes over him. He just has to dispose of the bike somewhere, walk back into town, and return to his life.
But when he tries it one last time for good measure, the damn thing creaks open and he finds himself in a living room covered with more broken-down toys and reeking of cat piss and recently fried meat. He stops his nose up with his fingers and watches a bedraggled gray tabby yowl from her perch on the ripped-up couch across from a TV muted to a cartoon channel.
Everything looks dirt cheap, but he doesn’t need to take anything valuable. He picks up a broken action figure, flips through a People magazine from the stack on the floor, but the thought of taking something they won’t miss doesn’t sate the emptiness at the bottom of his throat, nor calm the hives in the pit of his spine.
Outside on the bike a moment later, he wraps the cord around his neck, the one that had connected their television to the cable box, then sails down the street toward home, giggling about the existential despair he’s inflicted.
Ryan’s heart beats calm and steady as he lugs the mountain bike through their rented apartment into the unfinished basement, which he and his family have hardly explored. While covering the bike and cord with an old yellow-stained sheet, he gets caught with the genuine runs.
After vacating his bowels in the bathroom upstairs, he sees on his watch that Patty and Peter (the Ps he calls them) should soon arrive at the community center where the parade concludes.
Peter’s face lights up when he sees him in the distance, and Patty looks relieved. But when she gets close enough to see the black eye, a look of distress falls across her face and she wants to know if he’s planning on telling her what happened.
“Not really,” says Ryan, resenting herthe way she used her prosecutor’s voice.
“I just tripped,” he revises when he sees she’s not letting it go.
Peter grunts impatiently, eager to get back to the fair, and Patty shrugs her shoulders and touches her husband on his arm. His eyes well up when he sees how sweet she’s being. She’s letting him the hook as he’s got a pretty good track record, but he’s got to start acting normal again. He knows from his father’s example that wives won’t stick around if you don’t.he’ll lose his wife if he can’t.
They eat hotdogs, drink soda, then huddle protectively around their only child as he rides a pony and sinks enough baskets to dunk the red-faced mayor in a pool of water.
The clouds roll in, and the family gets out the Monopoly set.
Enthusiastic but not very calculating, Peter spends too much on houses and hotels, and a mild run of bad luck (a go-to-jail card and a case of community chest) takes him to the bridge of bankruptcy.
The storm on his face reveals an approaching tantrum, so Patty notes that he’s bought seven hotels and asks with a kindly gleam if they happen to be playing “seven hotel” Monopoly. Then she elbows Ryan who allows that they are.
In this new version, the player with seven hotels gets half of everyone cash. Peter glances nervously at his father while accepting his new stash.
Ryan smiles kindly but burns inside as more and more corrupt Hudson County values get imported to Maine. He imagines a seven-hotel Monopoly set resting alongside the stolen bicycle and the cable cord.
On the following morning, sunlight pours from the sky.
Ryan looks off at the ocean, listens to his wife reading softly to his son on the beach, then bolts to his feet.
If he pleads more stomach trouble, she’ll send him to a gastroenterologist. He doesn’t have to explain himself in any case. Years of being trustworthy have built him credit.
“Going for a stroll,” he says, tipping his the beach hat.
“Alrighty,” says Patty with the quizzical smile she saves for defense attorneys, “enjoy.”
Today will be trickier as there’s no parade to suck people away from their homes.
At the end of the beach, he climbs the hill, striding past the house he’d broken into two days before. An old Chevy is now in its driveway, and a man is cleaning a grill next to it with a hose and some steel wool.
An internal engine tilts Ryan toward the man. Another revving has him wishing the guy a “good day.”
“Morning,” says the man. Fortyish with hung-over eyes, he has a physique like a bear, and his dismal expression reminds Ryan of his father’s in his last years. Then Ryan tips his hat again ridiculously like a character from a thirties movie and pushes farther down the street in search of a house with no one home. The next one has an SUV in its driveway, the one after that some dirty, blond kids playing in a sandbox. Finally, at the end of the stretch just before the road disappears into the marsh, Ryan passes a house devoid of people or vehicles. It’s made of a chintzy rock unsuccessfully evoking medieval glamour and set back a bit from the street; its thick and weedy lawn can’t have been mowed in weeks.
He walks up to the front door and rings the bell, trying to think of what to say if someone turns out to be home. When there’s no answer, he knocks softly until his hand gets the better of him and the sound of banging reverberates through the air.
After another ring just for the hell of it and three more knocks, he grabs hold of the knob, having forgotten that he’d plan to wrap his hand in his shirtsleeve before touching anything.
To his surprise and considerable consternation, the knob refuses to budge. He wonders what sort of losers lock their door in Goose Rocks Beach.
After looking up and down the block, he smashes into the flimsy door with his right shoulder. Nothing happens so he tries again with the other side. His shoulders are achy and bruised by the third try, but the door seems to loosen, and a hard kick finishes the job.
His stomach stays steady as he storms into the cold, clammy inside, and he wonders if he might finally be recovering from his discovery that spring. Once his eyes adjust to the darkness, he sees he’s in an empty room with a water-logged linoleum floor. Rust streaks the walls, and everything looking foreclosed and forgotten. He slips carefully forward from the front room into an empty hallway, fearing a tumble through rotting floorboards and wondering what he can possibly find worth stealing. Toward the back of the house, he enters a room with a dusty red carpet and some actual furniture: an armchair, a VCR, and a pile of videos—Analyze That, The Gangs of New York—detritus, he decides, of some long-failed marriage, the abandoned beach house.
Taking a different route back to the front door, he slips into a mildewy kitchen with a rusty fridge. His heart bangs relentlessly, he smells the sharp reek of rot, and his mind conjures bodies left to decay—forgotten spinster aunts, drug-addled cousins. This was the danger of walking into strange houses.
He imagines himself back in Judge Dolan’s courtroom, this time representing himself on some heavily circumstantial murder rap, when the sun coming in through the foggy windows reflects on something plastic on the chipped Formica table—a credit card.
Not likely valid in this millennium, he thinks, as he grabs it and takes a closer look. But the Chase Visa actually doesn’t expire until the next day. The first name on it is Evan, the last Cohen.
Not so many Jews in these parts, thinks Ryan, as he strides back down the street with the card in his pocket, tipping his hat again to the man whose cable cord he’d stolen. Could a freckly, red-haired man such as himself get away with using it?
The next morning presents him the problem of using Cohen’s card to buy something for the unfinished basement without asking for “alone time” with Patty, the word they’d used during the terrible summer Peter was conceived when they had nearly split.
So this is what he does.
While driving to the sea, another blissfully sunny day, he double-parks in front of the overpriced beach store. Known in his family for penny-pinching, Ryan can only hope what happens next won’t seem suspicious.
“Just a sec,” he murmurs while dashing into the store.
He has only a few minutes before Patty grabs Peter and darts inside to investigate. While appraising the racks of towels, T-shirts, and bottles of suntan lotion, Ryan chances across a large inflated blue whale, which may puzzle his family but will fit perfectly well into the unfinished basement with the rest of the loot.
Grabbing it, he dumps it unceremoniously on the counter along with Evan Cohen’s Visa card, valid for scarcely hours more.
The stumpy old cashier mumbles something Ryan can’t grasp, so he waves the card impatiently.
“Can’t a man just buy something?” he demands, hearing discordant North Jersey in his voice.
The woman explains that he’s got the store model. He has to find one that’s not inflated and blow it up when they get to the beach. He goes back to get one, leaving the card in her hand and raising all sorts of alarms in his head—that she knows Cohen, that he’s too Irish-looking to be Cohen, that she’s got some intuitive old Maine nose for thieves. Inarticulate explanations for why he has Cohen’s card sputtering through his head, he takes the receipt from the old lady, signs it, and stuffs the plus-size whale into the plastic bag she’d given him.
Puzzled at first, Patty succumbs to the charms of the whale when it gets unveiled at the beach and even starts to inflate it herself. While watching her blow up the plastic whale purchased with the stolen credit card, something peculiar overcomes him, and he has to turns over on his stomach to conceal the arousal in his swim trunks.
Thursday PM through Sunday AM
Since the whale isn’t exactly stolen, it doesn’t need to be stashed in the basement but can rest with the other beach materials in the garage. The elation, the slight high, the physical desire that its presence evokes in Ryan makes good work of both Thursday, and Friday and Saturday nights after Peter has gone to sleep. Ryan devours Patty on the queen-sized bed like he hasn’t in years. On Saturday night, as he begins to climax, Ryan imagines speeding through Goose Rocks on a stolen Vespa, squealing dramatically to a halt in front of an empty beach bungalow. The buoyant nights make them pleased with themselves all weekend, no longer looking at the younger, more sexually prodigious couples with quite the same envy. They may be falling into middle-age, but everything is not quite over in the area that both Ryan’s and Patty’s mothers referred to austerely as “down there.” Maybe it’s their explosive nights, their sun-flushed days, all the fresh lobster; in any case, the criminal itch subsides. Ryan cuts the credit card into small pieces and tosses them into the trash.
At the crack of dawn, it returns with a vengeance. Neither sunburn nor mosquitoes can explain the itch, a physical sensation sneaking deceitfully from his ankles to the backs of his knees, his fevered scratching bloodying his sheets. After he’s writhed miserably in bed for as long as he can stand, he puts on his bathrobe and sneaks out into the day.
The loud sound of the Suburban ignition rattles his nerves, so he takes the crappy bike that comes with the rental out of the garage. He nearly falls off when his bathrobe gets stuck in the chain, and he hears conversations about credit cards and cable cords. He leans the bike against a tree, and while approaching a Mini Cooper that might have a key in its ignition, the thought of jail catches him in the throat. There were other dangers—the inevitable divorce, the shame that Peter would carry with him. But it’s Rahway prison that makes the taste of last night’s meal rise back up his throat.
The most effective defense for the glaringly guilty would never hold as he wasn’t abused as a child though his mother did die of breast cancer when he was barely out of college, and no one can prove the priests hadn’t molested him during his altar-boy adolescence.
The Mini Cooper is locked, and the itch is worse than ever. He wriggles his ass against the back of the bike seat, then scuttles off in search of an emptier side street, knowing he must hit the first possible house then come right back home before Patty catches wind of his absence.
The only house on Gardner Lane with no car in its driveway looks impenetrably plywooded. His mood is plunging, stomach rumbling, when he sees an aluminum-sided prefab with no vehicle in the tiny driveway.
The greasy doorknob gives in easily to his touch, and the sickly sweet smell of aging hits him squarely in the face. The room is crammed with old blankets and quilts, the coffee table in its center full of crumbs and stains. Black-and-white photos that, which look European, fill the walls. The floor creaks as he steps inside, but no one seems to stir, and he gets the queasy feeling that the old foreign lady who lives here hasn’t made it through the night.
“Vinny,” a voice demands from the back of the house, “why you here so early, Vinny?”
He instinctually makes the sign of the cross, relieved that the lady is still alive, when her walker starts shuffling from the back. The old guinea will take a while to get to the living room, but she’s on her way.
Unfreezing himself, he grabs a photo lying face down on a coffee table and a dish of Paleolithic jelly beans and flies out of the house. There is no place for the plate, so he Frisbees it away, hearing it smash into pieces in someone else’s driveway.
After some furious pedaling, he makes it home to find both his Ps still asleep. He skulks into the basement and dumps the photo (of a youngish police officer with an eighties haircut who must be the old biddy’s son) onto a yellow-stained mattress. He considers scattering the jelly beans anarchically through the basement but crams them into his mouth instead. They, too, must be from the eighties but contain too many preservatives to rot in any old Italian lady’s lifetime.
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday
Sated, sickened by the insanity that has descended on him, Ryan’s body no longer itches, but his head feels heavily fogged.
That tight-lipped half smile has frozen onto Patty’s face. She doesn’t bother to ask what’s wrong, but it will all become clear when his crimes get exposed. She definitely won’t stick by him like the wives of the hooker-loving governor and the sexting congressman. Of course, no press conference will be required of him, just another Hudson County attorney caught up in something he shouldn’t be.
As the days of the vacation drone on, he slips occasionally away from his Ps, climbs down into the basement, and gazes uncomprehendingly at the bicycle, the cable cord, and the photograph.
They plan to stop for a night in Jamaica Plains on their way back to New Jersey, as an old college chum is having a barbecue for them. Bright and early Sunday morning, they will drive back to New Jersey since they are both due in court on Monday.
While straightening up the house, climbing into the Suburban, and driving out of Goose Rocks Saturday morning, Ryan feels his heart pound worryingly, and his eyes blink in the hazy sun, but once they merge onto the southbound highway, the cloud starts to dissolve.
By the time they’ve crossed into Massachusetts, he feels deliriously happy as his ailment doesn’t seem to cross state lines. Uncharacteristically gregarious, he downs four beers at the barbecue and regales his hosts with tales of stupid criminals.
“If you catch them, you might as well keep them,” Patty wearily declares, “you know they’re going to go right back out there and get caught again.”
Ryan wakes up with a start on the fold-out couch. He doesn’t see Jim and Julia’s messy living room but the contents of an unfinished basement two hours north, and a nosy landlady going through it after the season is over and asking questions across town. The story of the disappearing cable cord meets up with the story of the one appearing in his rented house.
He looks at his watch and sees it’s only two AM.
Not fifteen minutes later, he’s cruising at seventy, veering toward eighty, hoping against hope that he can get there and back without Patty noticing he’s gone. Once there, he bursts through the feeble screen door in back, striding calmly through the house and down into the basement.
But the minute he’s back on the road, he has real trouble convincing himself he doesn’t have anything more incriminating in back than a bicycle, a photograph, and a cable cord, that the rank odor emanating from the Suburban really only comes from the melon that Patty had briefly forgotten there the week before.
When Portland approaches, he takes a random exit and follows it with a series of random turns, landing him in a neighborhood of clapboard houses. He pulls into the driveway of a particularly tiny one and deposits the cable cord and the photograph on its dime-size front yard as a kind of offering. The mountain bike won’t stay up, so he lays it on the ground and strokes its back tire affectionately goodbye before scurrying back to his son, his wife, and his guilty clients, the corpseish smell of rotten melon still pervading the Suburban.
DAVID WINNER's novel, Tyler's Last, an homage to Patricia Highsmith and Tom Ripley, was released by Outpost19 this October. His first novel, The Cannibal of Guadalajara, won the 2009 Gival Press Novel Award and was nominated for the National Book Award. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Village Voice, the Iowa Review, the Kenyon Review, Fiction, Confrontation, Joyland, Bookforum, Dream Catcher, among others, as well as being included in Novel Strategies, a Pearson/Prentice Hall anthology for college students. He is the fiction editor of the American (www.theamericanmag.com), a monthly magazine based in Rome.
PHOTO CREDIT: Elise Tak
Elise Tak is a visual artist based in Brooklyn, New York. In her work she uses the imagery of film and popular culture to create a rich fictional and visionary world, while at the same time discussing contemporary, sociopolitical issues. Elise Tak works in both traditional media and in modern digital media using 3D software (such as Cinema4D, zBrush and several renderers) and image editors like Photoshop. By continually experimenting with new developments she continually pushes her own artistic skill to new limits.
For over 30 years already Elise Tak has dedicated herself to the creation of an ever-growing body of work, featuring the lives and careers of more than 10 fictional, yet ‘world famous’, movie actors. It is an intricate play between reality and fiction, between life and art, because whereas in the movies, real living actors create a false existence, in Tak’s work even these actors are pure fiction. Up to now she has ‘given birth’ to 10 movie actors, with different ages and from different backgrounds. Their names are: Michael Okada, Thomas Kirby, Marian Xiao, Pete Banich, Marvin Dunbar, Forough Amirshahi, Jeni Wright, Roy Rebergen, Charlie Pep and Anita Carbajal.
When, what, where (and not why)
Elise Tak was born in the Netherlands and lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Since the early 1990s her work has been shown in leading galleries, museums and art institutes like Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam, Frans Hals Museum/De Hallen, Museum Helmond (The Netherlands); Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art (USA); Musée de Luxembourg, Musée d’Art Moderne Contemporain Strasbourg, FRAC Poitou-Charentes, Le Consortium (France). Elise Tak also has several largescale public art projects to her credit. Her animation short Suicide Notes (2006) was produced in collaboration with the two-time Emmy-award winning composer Patricia Lee Stotter. Tak was also was the projection designer for the play Flashback, which ran in a New York City theater in 2007. Her series of stills illustrating Gogol’s The Nose originally was made for the short film Here’s What I Like... Russian Literature. And Now I’ll Tell You Why (2011), directed by Abigail Zealy Bess and written and conceived by Amy Staats. Elise Tak is also active as a curator. Het latest exhibition A New York State of Mind (Stories from the Unusual Suspects) was presented at De Cacaofabriek in The Netherlands in 2018 and featured a selection of artists from New York.