A street corner in limbo
a novel excerpt
By Carl Watson
Odee Bones was an autograph name, a stage tag, a nom de la rue as she often said. Her real name was Odile Bonnard, like the famous painter, but not that family. She was a raven-haired woman, or as Frank imagined her, a Poe-haired woman. She had an Edgar Poe-like personality—morbid, dark, seemingly bred in some remote country you never heard of. And, except for a few absurd tics, she fit quite well in the parade of that depressed poet’s heroines—a Lenore or a Legeia—all the femme fatales of the stewed Romantic imagination.
And Frank often pictured her just that way: Odee Bones, weeping by the cold tomb of her mother; Odee Bones languishing in the musty bed chamber of some gothic mansion clutching a crucifix; Odee Bones standing alone in a wolverine fur cape at the end of a stone jetty in the English Channel during a storm; Odee Bones, wounded and bleeding at the bottom of a ravine in an upstate New York forest, while Catskill coyotes howled at the moon.
She had that seductive quality of women who are aligned with the death drive, be it by choice or accident. Sex with such women was dangerous. It might start out fun, but somewhere in the middle you begin to realize you’re dissolving into the all too real and indifferent universe, an inorganic molecular void in which your lust was the product of chemical imbalances and your precious personal thoughts were nothing but crashing atoms spinning endlessly down through bottomless space. Which is to say, she could make you afraid, but somehow that only increased Frank’s attraction, an attraction that was currently drawing him away from Lincoln Center and toward his home downtown.
He passed the A-C-D subway station north of Columbus Circle. He should have got the train and rode home, but this night, he decided to walk instead. He would walk all the way downtown. Hell, he might even stop for a beer somewhere to make the walk more lively. You couldn’t drink openly on NYC streets anymore thanks to Herr Rudolf—no more brown paper bags in his Broken Windows world, or as Frank liked to think of it—Broker Windows, i.e. making the city safe for Wall Street, their clients and children.
In any case, there used to be a bar around 61st and Broadway—a McCann’s or a Miller’s. Frank couldn’t remember the name, but he used to hang there decades ago when he was naïve and young and had no confidence or talent. It was an old school New York steam table bar where you could get a pastrami sandwich or mashed potatoes and gravy and sit in a booth scribbling in a notebook like a hoarder taking a break from his collections. No one bothered you. Such bars were an important form of escape in Frank’s early NYC life. Of course, one of the illusions of youth is that you can actually escape from yourself, your family, your spouse, your history. Thirty years might pass before you realize you can’t, not even at the friendly bar rail of McCann’s. In part, because McCann’s wasn’t there anymore. It was now one of those ubiquitous Korean-run salad bar joints with their over-priced convenience and their perpetually grumpy cashiers.
Frank passed the salad bar and continued to Columbus Circle. To his left was the skeleton of a new Trump Hotel. They were stripping the façade off the former Gulf and Western Building, to rebrand it. The whole area was just beginning to attract the new money class. The high towers and stone facades to the east were there to house both the power brokers of the city and their imitators who paced back and forth in their luxury apartments overlooking the park, sipping martinis through crystal straws similar to those used to suck up the life blood and brain waves of all the anonymous Janes and Joes wandering in the streets below.
Fuck them, Frank thought as he made his way around the circle’s west side to 9th Ave and turned south. Back in the 70s, he used to live in a building on 57th and 9th. The building was boarded up now, but Frank would always walk by when he was in the neighborhood. 400 W. 57th was the address, but the door was on 9th. The building sometimes reminded him of a ghost ship rising out of the turbulent sea of his own past bearing the Ark of some Frank Payne Covenant, and if and when the wrecking ball ever hit it, the ghosts and stories of thousands of departed residents would come raging out like a psychic storm howling over the now trendy west side.
Despite the scaffolding, there was no construction, and hadn’t been for years. In the middle of one of the most rapidly developing parts of Manhattan, this particular building remained abandoned, a sore thumb of resistance in the fetishistic creep of Midtown glass and steel. Rumor had it that some tenant refused to leave. The landlord could not legally evict the person so they had to wait until he or she died. But then, who knew if that rumor was true.
Some buildings take on a sinister quality over time, and 400 West 57th was one of them. It had a definite “don’t-go-there-aura” like the house your grandma used to warn you about on at the end of Death and Disease Street. Such buildings might be associated with murder, suicide, Satanic ritual or extreme and unnatural sex. They were often accompanied by ominous music too, and because of their geological intensity they had the ability to bend light, to glow eerily and warp the space/time matrix for blocks around. On humid nights the streetlights would hiss and crackle, radiating diffuse halos of impending mental pain. And so Frank walked by his old haunt with trepidation, and the 70s walked alongside him when he did. Odee always claimed he was a man out of time, living in limbo, with no fixed identity or purpose.
The 70s were like an alternative universe, a traveling black window-pane next to Frank’s ear. All he had to do was pop his head inside that little window and he would be back in that old black and white New York he loved—a city of deli sandwiches and shot and beer specials, a city where men wore fedoras and overcoats, and made important calls from phone booths, feeding the quarters into the slot and listening to the slow syncopated beat of the falling coins as they hit the bottom of the box.
That old room, as he remembered it, had a certain disturbed perspective, claustrophobic and fast, but at the same time, static. Frank would sit in the fourth floor window watching the shadows moving in the street below while smoke and steam rose from the vents of Hells Kitchen and Midtown. He used to imagine the water tanks were music notes on a patchwork staff of asphalt rooftops. He listened to radio dramas in his room back then—rebroadcasts of The Shadow and the Isaac Asimov Hour. Everything that came out of the radio seemed old—old singers, old songs, old stories. Even the timbre of men’s voices was different—a post-war tremor still lived in them, a gee-whiz paranoia that mixed innocence with the toxic ambitions of the capitalist age.
He remembered the other men who lived in the apartment with him: drifters and odd balls with old-timey nick names like Laughing Ralph, Jimmy the Kid, Broadway Danny, and Mickey Leftovers—fringe dwellers and misfits with adjectives attached to their names as if to scaffold their fragile identities. None of them would ever be famous for anything, so they needed those adjectives if only to avoid disappearing into the void of city life.
But disappear they did. Jimmy the Kid disappeared one day. He left all his stuff in his room and they had to throw it out. It was mostly stolen stuff anyway, because, as Ralph always said, the Kid was nothing but a petty thief and his day of reckoning had probably come. Mickey Leftovers went to the hospital and never came back. They carried him out on a stretcher, fighting the whole way, his bedclothes stained with blood and urine.
Ambulances came and went with a certain frequency on that corner. One day Frank and Laughing Ralph were standing around down on the corner watching the aftermath of a car crash. Car crashes, like fires, were good entertainment in the days before computers. People would meet their neighbors and catch up on community gossip. “Hey Jimbo, how’s the wife and kids?” “I hear Finkelstein’s pharmacy is closing.” Ralph swept his flabby arm across the 9th Ave. landscape and laughed: “Just think, all this madness when all people really want to do is watch TV, have a decent meal and fuck.” Frank though it was a profound comment at the time. A month later Laughing Ralph was also gone—some kind of heart problem.
Back in the 70s, Frank used the phone booth across 9th as a personal phone. Passersby would shout up to his window, “Yo Frank, your girlfriend’s on the phone.” Frank’s girlfriend was Darley Cohen, a Brooklyn gal, from way out in Sunset-Flatbush-Midwood world, a land of cut-rate upholstery shops and bagel bakeries. You could smell the sea from the stoop of her house but you couldn’t see it. The sea was still ten subway stops away. Sometimes, they would go and look at the sea, but the cold grey aura of human insignificance often got to be too much for them.
Now Darley Cohen was no Odee Bones; she wasn’t “artistic” or “creative” but they did share certain traits. They were both dark-eyed and tragic. They both had an engaging sarcastic laugh, and they both had a certain languid acceptance that suicide was probably the most likely outcome to a life without logic or vector. Happiness was a matter of getting by day to day and keeping a short focus. Both women were runaways if only in spirit. In some sense, Frank provided this service for each of them—he was the perpetual stranger in town, any town, and as such he was an easy substitute for running away from home. It was an odd role for a boyfriend but he wore it with pride because it worked for him.
One night after drinking at some Wall Street Irish watering hole with his dishwashing buddies, Reid and Warren, he came home quite late and there was Darley, sitting in front of his door with a half-assed bandage tied around her left wrist claiming she had just tried to kill herself but she decided to come see Frank instead, as if he might offer her some reason to live. Frank knew he was the last person anyone should call if they needed a reason to live, but apparently he was just that person for Darley that night. And Odee must have felt the same way that day she showed up downstairs of his Lower East Side apartment twenty years later with a suitcase and a perverse bond to an old abusive boyfriend named Otto, the Oedipal Austrian.
Now, as often happens, there’s a movie in Frank’s head closely associated with the building at 400 W 57th St. It’s called Angelheart, an Oedipal mystery in which Mickey Rourke plays Harry Angel, hot on the trail of a crime of which he discovers that he himself is the perpetrator. Certain scenes were pertinent, especially the shot of a lighted window high above a midtown street, where Harry Angel sold his soul to Satan. Frank had made a similar transaction, which was somehow related, after the fact, to Darley’s suicide attempt. It was a week or so earlier. There was pint of bourbon, a candle, a jack-knife, and, if he tried, he could still feel the heat of that candle flame and the knife blade edge against his palm, but he couldn’t remember what got sold and to whom? Who was the seller and who was the buyer? Was it Existential Despair that drove it? A taste for Dada? Or plain old morbid Romanticism.
Probably the most Angelhearted thing about the building was the elevator. It was a narrow beige box resonant with the smell of wigs, second hand suits, hair product, and little dogs. When you were going down it felt like it would keep going down, past the ground floor, through the sub-basement and into the very crust of the earth. In fact, there were buttons on the elevator panel that didn’t have numbers on them, as if the panel was originally made for a taller building, or one that had private floors. Frank had even pushed these buttons a few times but they didn’t do anything. At least that’s what he thought at the time.
Frank remembered nights riding that elevator past the third floor, the one below his, and he would often hear a Billie Holiday record playing all soft and crackly somewhere in the interior. Sometimes the elevator would stop on that floor all by itself and the door would open, but nobody ever got on. And there was always the music—he could still hear it, echoing around the empty halls.
It was a scene straight out of Alfred Hitchcock or David Lynch, but this movie was directed by Frank himself, and he could walk into that scene; he could get off over and over on the 3rd floor and walk down the hall like a lost actor on the wrong set until he reached the room where the music played. The door was open and Frank entered. The room was empty except for a man sitting at a table with his back to the door. The man seemed to be writing something, scribbling in a notebook while the record was spinning on an old phonograph.
Frank walked up behind the guy, took him by the shoulders and turned him around in his swivel chair. That’s when realized the body had no weight! In fact, it was nothing but a dusty old suit stuffed with straw. But there was a face to it, not unlike Frank’s own face. It was rubbery and gooey and the features were smeared into a blur somewhere between laughter and disgust. Suddenly Frank understood why they couldn’t tear the building down.
He pleaded with the guy: “You’ve gotta let it go man. You’ve got to let me out of here.” He shook the over-sized sad doll, but there was no answer, because you can’t answer when your mouth is just a smear on a pitiful illusion. And Lady was the perfect soundtrack for the ambiguity. “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” she sang. Take what away? And who from? And why did Odee love that song?
Did I mention that Billie Holiday was Odee’s favorite singer. She said the voice had a sense of decay about it, a sense of falling or of having already fallen. She said listening to Lady was like walking through a graveyard with a forced smile. And did I mention that Frank first met Odee Bones in a Brooklyn waterfront bar on New Year’s Eve, the same symbolic night that Harry Angel sold his soul to Satan. The noose of associations was tightening like a string of prayer beads around Frank’s mind, beads he counted to a beat marked off in images of tombstones in a moonlit cemetery and jagged water tanks on Manhattan rooftops and the rattle of subway cars making down rails to dark outer boroughs and the whistling of lonely homeless men in scaffold shadows. Music was everywhere, but it was the tone that concerned Frank most—it was disturbing and not a little prophetic. As Billie herself might sing: “Swing Brother, Swing.” Shoobeedoobeedo. Here comes another dewey-eyed fool. And so, on that note, Frank crossed 56th and continued walking south, thinking his sweetheart Odee Bones might actually be home when he got there.