Excerpt from Gowanus Notecard Abductionby Tod Thilleman
This whole Gowanus Valley swings between two things—the voices yelling from the scrapyards and lots, then the buildings and stoops across the streets.!!img1!!
Family members, friends, whatever they are, have only the two walls—
one is filled with hubcaps, fenders, and littered with engine parts; the other wall is a high brick façade with windows.
Between these two rallying points the voices weaved their contents until, eventually, one day, they will recognize the wall that speaks—
the wall that was, and the wall that is.
And it will seem like a pretty petty thing to have spent one’s life being controlled by it.
* * * * *
Permanent change must be just a glance away in the realization of such a place—
I say “controlled” by it meaning that what comes out of the people here, comes more forcefully and truly from the wall that echoes after their open mouths. In fact, these old buildings, these industrial spaces, unused since mid-century, where I now live, will rise in value. So it is rumored that this space will rise in value to the talents it has harbored in its poisonous piers and useless way, inward, toward the Union Street Bridge. Here I sit, a block down from the South Brooklyn Casket Company, the Acme Guard Dog Training School, the Empire State Oil Company.
Here I sit, waiting, wondering what the old-world significance of water might hold for the new world recently and ever-presently rushing to evaluate all.
Will the drawbridge just out my window suddenly rise with a splendor and value not yet recognized? Its gears suddenly become a thing of antiquity and amusement? Who must look there to realize it, and everything connected with this canal, must simply be paved over and forgotten?
Will it be that moment of valuation and discovery and attendant wealth that suddenly lifts all this ruin and churning poverty into the heaven of museums?
* * * * *
“Oh, brother,” said my friend the waitress, “what’s this now!”
She was leaning over a pile of photographs that she had taken a while back, when she had entertained the idea of becoming a professional photographer.
She pulled one out and showed it to me from nearly across the room. “What do you make of this?”
I approached and said, “Looks like a rabbit.”
“You would say that wouldn’t you. Oh brother—”
It WAS a picture of a rabbit.
She threw it back on her pile and went to light another cigarette and sip her iced coffee. The fan was blowing through the kitchen window where she sat down.
“How long have you had that fan,” I asked.
She sighed, trying to recall. She couldn’t recall anything. And so we spend our day off from the slop house.
Until I left and walked back to Brooklyn, happy today had been nothing, had wanted nothing from me, and that I had had time to give to its nothing.
I was also happy there was no one outside my building when I arrived.
The neighborhood is empty. There is no one here.
* * * * *
Strange light and mist this morning. Couldn’t sleep for some reason and was up early.
Corner for coffee and the early morning folks in suits and nice shoes down from the hill off to the subway or walking toward the river to plunge into a day of office—
Coming back with the coffee and a pack of cigarettes (can’t shake them) a kind of country scene on the water, in the narrow Canal.
My sight narrowed into the foggy distance. It felt like another time, another place, another country.
Suddenly I felt all destiny come flying out of that mist and penetrate me.
* * * * *
The surprise, and doesn’t it always happen under the sun.
Out again in the neighborhood, to the Third Street Bridge and wandering down the back of the recycling station. Bottle collectors and garbage men hauling containers of empties.
What I did was wander down past the wire fence and found a hole that emitted me onto the literal bank of the canal.
Now, it’s not like me to take such a dangerous step. At least it wasn’t. But danger seems to beget the answers we’ve been searching for. Nothing, or little, else will do.
There were the stories of runaways and other victims of the canal. I had, of course, heard them. They made their rounds from time to time in snippets of conversation on the street. A joke pronounced loudly across Union Street, for instance—
“Whatever you do, don’t go swimming, you’ll never come out alive!” Followed by yaks and guffaws and—
“Naw! Won’t faze me!”
The point is, of course, that the canal is palpably poisonous. Viral strains emanated from its rich black inky bottom. A body falling into it would (it had been proven) not make it to another day. Pathogens of the old world, cholera, TB, dipthyria and deadly viruses not yet named or forgotten took hold of the swimmer and leveled his ability to go amongst the living.
But there I was, another afternoon walking along its banks. No one saw me. A little farther along I could see the large, open field behind the Casa Marble and Granite Works.
Something sang to me from the rays of the sun beating against the scattered piles of stone across the canal.
It was relatively easy to cross, however. A metal dredging ladder lay just above its surface and stretched from shore to shore. On the other side it would be easy enough to climb up into the back end of the field. That is, provided I didn’t fall into the water.
I think I was thinking about death, but not that consciously. Not as consciously as we do when we are imagining it. There was the ladder before me. Others had used it to survey the depths of the canal for the dredging equipment, so, presumably, I wouldn’t have been the only idiot to attempt a crossing. Indeed, I crossed very easily to the far bank without tottering or wavering or thinking about the ladder or my footwork over it.
Up into the field at the back of the Casa Marble and Granite Works and I sizzled and cracked in the hot afternoon sun. Here and there were boulders and upright huge markers of marble, unfinished sculptures baking in the field that stretched from the canal to 2nd Avenue and the elevated Gowanus Expressway, and from Luquer to Harrison Streets.
Maybe it was the heat, or the vacancy of the field itself, but I was suddenly seized with a feeling of uncontrollable vertigo. My breath came fast and in spurts that seemed to jar my brain into thought too mental for my bodily frame to capture and recognize.
It also felt like some unseen hand were grabbing hold of my intestines and rearranging them inside my body’s cavity. Every few moments I had the urge to either vomit or pass out.
And perhaps I did pass out of consciousness for somehow I found myself in the very center of the field, completely unperturbed by the bedding that some one homeless person had strewn up the backside of a piece of granite. The sun made me even more dizzy and for some inexplicable reason I wanted to look straight up into its razor-sharp rays that were falling into that field and slicing me up as I made my way through it.
Was this the personification or realization of early memory? What had I accomplished by all that in my youth now seemed to be the same field from the days of my fervent Lutheran escapades?
Or was this sense of being an out-of-towner something that could drill me back in time to my earliest and most shameful memories, so that the very field I now walked of an afternoon were indeed the same?
I was completely winded. Everywhere my eye sought to rest in that field a new apparition as of a pain and the poverty of my mortal self brought me into the uneasy depths of my own cavity. It was as if I were truly the most empty creature or thing that had truly existed.
The strange thoughts that snapped into my fuzzy chamber of a head now had me seeking rest on a slab of marble. And as I lay on its smooth but weathered surface the sky clouded over. Not the kind of clouds, however, that precipitate rain. It was as if the entire canopy of sharp light were suddenly converted to shadow.
I must have passed out, because before me I thought it quite certain that a figure hopped up and then quickly disappeared behind a slab of Granite. But when I stood to pursue the illusion, the sun began its knifing once again.
From the furthest edges of the field echoes of voices permeated my brain. Or it was the cavity of my head and hollow eyes themselves that were playing a trick on me.
How could someone live in that field, I then thought. What would be an adequate sense of confidence that would allow someone to inhabit a bed behind a rock? Whereas I, being a relative stranger in this town, had no place to bring my instincts to focus? What was I missing as a human animal, as a cosmopolitan?
I began to make my way toward Luquer Street, knowing I’d be able to at least walk home, rounding corners then for a few wretched and vacant streets.
The yellowed grass rasped under my tread. How despised and unwanted I felt! My shelter in this world was the front end of an old abandoned warehouse that had no material uses anymore; my day to day existence was spent preparing meals for tourists that had no idea people actually lived in this shallow wasteland; and now the fact of actually being homeless held nothing but the prospect of empty madness as if my body were not strong enough for my so-called mind.
I squeezed through the fence and made my way across Second Avenue to the children’s playground that nestled right below the concrete giant legs of the Gowanus Expressway. Here and there a few kids with their parents or sitters were busy swinging or climbing or running. I sat on a bench while the traffic roared through the cemented ceiling above.
I rested, and caught my breath. I was beginning to get my strength back (probably because of the backtop and the canopy, shielding me from the deadly rays of the sun) when I looked around at some of the children playing on the monkey bars. One kid in particular caught my attention, as if I had seen him somewhere before.
Indeed. It was none other than Cynthia’s son. He was being helped down from the jungle gym by a man in brown canvas overalls. Squinting, I realized soon enough it was the bearded man whom Cynthia had said was her husband. I wasn’t completely convinced, however, because he no longer wore a beard.
They gathered their things together and walked off toward the Luquer Street exit of the playground. From there they turned west. I followed them to the fence and spied them entering a building just two doors down from the playground.
Had the man changed his identity and moved to Brooklyn to avoid the police? What were the odds that he would be situated merely half a mile from my own dwelling?
But maybe this was only a place of work and not where they now lived. I decided to knock on the door after they’d disappeared behind and confront the mystery head on.
I walked back and forth in front of the building a few times to size it up. It was indeed a residence, a nice two family walk-up with what looked to be an abandoned second story. I knocked on the door under the front stoop, the one they had used.
The man who came to the door seemed not to recognize me. I was slow to speak.
“You probably don’t remember me—”
“Can I help you?”
“You probably don’t remember me—”
“I can’t say as I do, no. Can I help in any way?”
“I’m a friend of—”
His face turned yellow—
“a friend of Cynthia’s I—”
His eyes glazed a bit—
“I’m not a friend just—”
“Come in,” he said, abruptly turning away.
I followed him past another door into what would be the shell of the house, it having been, obviously, stripped bare and in the process of renovation. The kid, his son, was riding around in circles on a small bike with training wheels. He continued riding and did not look up to see us enter.
“Joel now stop that I’m gettin dizzy.”
The brick walls layered up with old concrete trowel slabs smashed behind two inch studs rose to a ceiling whose hand-hewn beams were exposed.
“My name’s Hans by the way.”
He held out his hand and I shook it. “Jim.”
Joel continued biking around, knocking into the wall every now and then.
“Least it keeps him warm. Y’know?”
“Yeah,” I said, somewhat dubiously.
“It’s cold in here—”
And he sat down at the lone chair in the room, against the back wall.
“You must be the Father.”
“I s’pose I am.” He stared off at the boy now trying to go in reverse.
“I guess I’ll just come right out and say it,” I said, looking for a sign of recognition or reaction from him, but none was forthcoming. His arms were down along his sides, hanging there.
“I guess I’ll just come right out and say, Jim—”
And he nodded, as if to reassure me I had his name correct.
“I’m guessing you’re the Father and that Cynthia really has—
by the way she told me her name was Carlyle”
I rubbed my arms a bit—
“It is a bit nippy in here.”
“Joel. Joel. Joel. Joel say hello.”
“Hello,” said the boy, shyly, hunched up and arms cocked over the handlebars.
“How old’s he?”
“Does he know?”
“Does he know?”
“What you mean?”
And I let it drop. I looked up the staircase. It was a burnished tier of tarpaper over red wood.
“I haven’t gotten to that yet,” said Jim. “I’m working my way from bottom to top. Let me show.”
And we left Joel to his bike and the walls for a minute as Jim showed me the upstairs layout.
“Not too much here right now. We sleep there. That’ll be a bathroom. Had to tear all the tiles out a’course. The plumbing’s all got to be done new. And those windows in the far room over the street will be coming next week.”
“How long you been,” I began—
“I mean how long have you owned this place?”
“It’s my grandfather’s. Bought it in 1900 or thereabouts.”
We stepped our way back down to the main floor. Jim sat back in his chair.
“So you do all the work here or have you hired—”
“Most of it. I’m a welder so—”
He paused and looked to make sure I was following. What was there to follow? Joel now got off his little tricycle and leaned against his Father.
“I’m a welder so whatever I can do here I do but I’m so busy most of the time I have to contract a lot of the work out.”
The boy now climbed up into his lap. Jim didn’t seem to mind, but he also kept his arms down at his sides, seeming not to help the small child as he ambled up onto his lap.
“Well Cynthia never—”
“Did she send you?”
“No I mean what I was going to say was she seemed to have glommed onto me for some reason I—”
And Jim the Father’s eyes grew perplexed and deepened in hue, seeming to gather the sparse light of the room into them.
“I mean she—
I don’t know her—
I only met her once it’s just a coincidence that I’m here that I followed you—”
“You’re following me why?” Jim cocked his head slightly.
“No it’s not that I’m following you I’m not. You just happened to be out in the playground—”
Now the boy slid down from his Father’s lap and went to the tricycle, crouching there to examine a small piece of plastic wedged under its tire.
“So what does she want?”
No you don’t understand I—“
“Listen. Let’s go out to the back.”
“Okay. The back?”
“The yard. Joel!”
We opened a door half-hinged to a recently plated lintel and sideboard behind the back wall of the main floor. Out in the lighted yard I began to warm.
“I don’t know you,” I began. “And like I say I don’t know Cynthia. I never really saw her before in my life?”
“Then what are you doing here?”
Pause. I sat on a rusted lawn chair.
“You want somethin t’drink?”
To my surprise he went to a small work shed with two-by-fours sawed and spread out before it, returning with a flask.
“I keep it here jes’ in case. Go ahead. Joel stay away from there.”
I swigged and continued—
“She seems to be ill-at-ease about something—
Something she told me.”
“What do you mean?”
I swallowed. “Well she got it into her head—”
“Joel stay away from that com’eer.”
“She got it into her head that you did something to the boy and now—
I don’t know why I’m telling you this—
it’s like a confession or something I don’t mean to sound that way?”
“Well I don’t know exactly it’s just that I got the impression from her that she had be put to pasture. By you. Not that it’s any of my business and I really don’t care it’s just—”
“What do you mean put to pasture?”
“Listen you seem nice and all but tell me what she wants and I’ll do it.”
“Well it’s not for me to say—
I mean that’s none of my business—”
“She’s got you too, eh?” Jim chuckled and his shoulders hunched and I could here the canvas of his brown overalls shh shhoo-ing
“No, she hasn’t gotten me in anyway although—”
Jim’s eyebrows climbed his forehead.
“She’s got ya too,” he persisted. “Well that’s the way it goes. And you’re not the first mind. Here gimme at.”
Up he took the flask for a bite, ending the signifier.
“Now,” he said, “you n me seem to get along awright. Know what I mean?”
I smiled mildly.
“What’s this now she was tellin?”
“Nothing really just—”
He got up and we went back into the house, Joel running after him and pulling on his overalls and dashing to the tricycle once again.
“Nothing really she seems to think—”
And he positioned himself back on his chair.
“She seems to think you did something to the boy.”
He looked down at the kid, still fiddling with a piece of plaster.
“Like I said it’s not for me to say it probably is just a flight of fancy but I couldn’t help—”
“A flight? Ha! What’s that s’posed to be?”
“I mean some bit of imagination just to play a trick on me.”
“Nothing again like I said it’s really nothing—”
“What does she mean by that,” said Jim, suddenly seeming to understand what she had confided in me.
“It’s silly isn’t it. It’s not really true. It can’t be. I mean here we are talking and something like that is pretty dastardly to have—”
“It’s not something you or anyone could every really do now come on. Don’t you think?”
“Maybe it’s jest another one of er tricks like you say.”
“Well I don’t know what’s the trick I mean—”
“You think there’s something to it?”
“Something to it something to it—
No. Nothing to it—”
“Then what’s she mean by all that? Listen. You seem pretty good-natured and all know what I mean? What’s it got to be?”
“Well I don’t think it means anything!”
“Nothing?” he asked, “Then why’s she been at me this way for all this time?”
“It’s been a long time?”
“Well I don’t know it’s probably nothing it’s probably nothing to think about at all I wouldn’t worry about it.”
Jim looked down at his kid, now beginning to ride the tricycle back and forth in a slow, rocking motion.
* * * * *
I should write nothing but Haiku?
* * * * *
“Do not look,” says Poppy to me in the stairwell while I’m waiting for my dry circle to finish next door. “do not look—
ach! You are a good—
and I don’t care!” he says as he gets up to leave, opening the door, the August light filling the weekend evening, the valley’s streets warm and pleasant—
“I do not care—
what you are—
you understand me?”
And the door closed. I went to my room.
True, I thought, I do pay my rent on time. But is this the only reason Poppy talked to me this way? I’m not sure. Others might contend with him on that level but I can’t help thinking he is saying something else by telling me that I am a good person.
There are all kinds of good people. Most of them are invisible. We pretend to know all people by the how prompt they pay their bills. I have only been late with the rent once and that was because I had forgotten.
Poppy does the collecting of rent for the Gowanus Holdings Company. I have not bothered to ask him his “arrangement” with them. I have a feeling that the Gowanus Holdings Company is some kind of front. But in this world where money is of necessity the creator of a “front” for servicing all kinds of things, I don’t quite see where it would be any of my business to find out the “truth.”
* * * * *
Wednesday, 3:00 A.M.—
Explosions on the far side of the Canal, near the river.
Quiet up until a minute ago. But it was loud enough for an explosion of some kind. It might have been a large truck on the highway. Or some large tanker at the docks.
But the docks aren’t really used anymore.
A gas or petroleum container of some kind. Or a gun or M-80 let off in an abandoned building underneath the highway.
It could have also been one of the drawbridges being lowered, coupling in its bed of iron, echoing through the bottom of the Canal, carried up through the buildings—
a kind of tidal wave of sound.
* * * * *
Hippolyte as a proposition—
If she is everywhere I turn—
I mean, here above me is the window and if I stare long enough I begin to see outlines of her face, of the parts of her personality that I most admired. Isn’t that approach of reality toward me similar to the rising predicate from any proposed ideation, especially those that most ruled my years and my head so far?
So that all that my mind, that any thought or rumor ever proposed to me, now becomes nothing more than the attraction I held for her?
And for her in particular? Is she going to be easy to forget? Should I forget her?
How could I have let one person rule over me? How could I ever justify that? The world is nothing more than its various parts to me now and nowhere must it come to be one because then I will be under the spell of Hippolyte once again.
Had she known from the beginning this was going to happen to my mind? How many of us are so composed? How is this Canal and this cement and this brick to be taken now?
It’s as if I did see my descent into this urban valley as dangerous, as everything that it indeed is—
a certain hell, an imprisonment, guarded by other citizens, guarded by the closely watched walls and bridges and cars and noise.
And yet I was unable to listen to my senses in that panic and alarm. Why am I so purposely ignorant? Why can’t I break out of this place that is now everything, that is now the whole world?
* * * * *
Taken completely out of my thoughts at the realization that these walls cannot keep out the one thing (the only that that possibly is the only thing)—
the distant sound of bed springs and groaning copulatory fervor form a two layer brick-thick impasse!
* * * * *
Heading out to work on a Friday, lingering and late, I stopped by the Canal instead of racing directly to the subway. I took a different route, knowing that I was late. I decided to merely take my time.
Crossing back over Fourth Avenue near Flatbush something in the sky (the light maybe) began to send signals. Obviously I was not used to being in the neighborhood so late in the afternoon.
Then, just as I was ready to pause and take the wind’s direction and continue toward the subway, hundreds of school kids flooded out the doors of the school that I was standing in front of.
They rushed out the doors with their bags all of them yelling and screaming and laughing. I had heard their noises before, but from a distance, from within my apartment. Now they were all around me and we were all proceeding in the same direction.
I tried not to be noticed by them and to be swept along by their tide.
* * * * *
To tell you the truth I’ve been drunk most every night after work so I haven’t really been able to figure out where I’m going, what I’ve done, or where I should be, right now, alongside the so-called facts of my days.
But now on a Sunday (my only day off) I am shedding the cobwebs of work and the weather has also changed to overcast and rainy.
I feel like I’m under the rain clouds, sheltered by their threat. I never thought my attachment to the so-called Cogito would have me seeking shelter within the elements but that is precisely what I’m faced with.
Others, it seems, have already passed this way. And yet it is only my own sense of things, that that I call the Cogito, keeps me in contact with the “character” of other citizens?
I think I have developed a conscious sense of Being that the others do not possess. It is as if I have possessed my own self to a degree to which no “other” has any need nor want to inhabit? But that’s absurd, isn’t it—
Thilleman is the author of numerous poetry collections and the novel Gowanus Canal.