The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

All Issues
JUNE 2020 Issue

Allentown, Saturday

All these bored people, I thought. Okay, I thought. This is fine.

For example, I was on the concrete ground, on my back, lying in a circle with the others, all of us on our backs arranged in a star with our feet spread apart and touching at the toes. Someone in the circle, one of us, had taken a vacation to San Diego. There, this person went to parties where successful people, once they had drunk and smoked enough, laid on their backs with their feet touching. Arranged like a star. We tried it for ten minutes before high-tempered participants staged an inquisition, led by Flip.

“Coastal-elite mind gymnastics,” Flip said. “Don’t tell me about your lifted soul.”

“Easy,” the mastermind said, stood up. “It’s just an idea. It’s just a try.”

For example, someone walked into the beer garden with this book about the Amazon River. They had pages dogeared from start to end. They called for attention and we accepted their demands. At that point, we were sitting on the ground listening to a minor altercation through the fence.

“The Americas,” they said. “North and South. Both named after a bumbling Spaniard.”

“We know,” we said. “Christopher Columbus.

“Wrong,” they said. “All wrong. You have no idea.”

“We know,” we said. “The rainforest is dying.”

“No idea,” they said. “Can you believe how little you know?”

“The documentaries,” we said. “The pink dolphins.”

“Do you know?” they said. “Do you know? What do you know?”

“The Amazons,” we said. “The women with the bows.”

They dropped the book, threw their hands up.

“Those Pizarro brothers,” they said. “Like genocidal Kennedys.”

“How?” we asked, pulled in.

“There was a handsome one,” they said. “Theirs were young and violent deaths.”

We listened for thirty more minutes about failed expeditions, waters that turn from brown to black, snowmelt in Peru, powerful currents reversed by full moons, riverbanks raised ten meters by rain, otters sized like point guards; the people, they kept saying, you wouldn’t believe the people, fighting off those Spaniards with bows, arrows, clubs, and boulders; the people, they said one last time, you wouldn’t understand, gifting those Spaniards turtles and fish and cassava prepared seven different ways. Here, they cried a little. We sniffled too. Not just for the Amazon tribes hunted and relocated, under constant threat from invaders. We sniffled for humankind and the earth and the earth’s bounty and baby birds falling from nests. We asked them to please leave us alone. They asked for a seat on the concrete; they didn’t want to go home yet. There was no air conditioning at home. There was no group of strangers, overcome with the universe, sitting in their living room. Flip scooted over, wiped his cheeks. Of course, we said. Please, sit. Thank you.

For example, the bar owner came out and sprayed us with a hose. Twenty of us, packed in, getting soaked. It was past closing time. This was madness and a violation. A liquor license was at stake. Half past four in the morning. The bar owner was thin with grey hair all over his face and head and chest. His tank top had a drawing of Bayard Rustin riding a rocket ship like a horse.

“We have neighbors,” the bar owner said. “Children and dogs sleeping in beds.”

“We march!” Flip shouted.

From a window, out of sight, a voice yelled and wouldn’t stop yelling. It was all boring and filled with joy. Floating, I’d say.

We marched. In a horde we marched down Allen Street and cleared the sidewalk. We absorbed souls as we stumbled, glided, sung different songs at the same time. We reached the corner of Elmwood and Allen and cheered for a young couple kissing against a trash can. Love, we chanted.

We cheered, further up the street, when three young women took turns kicking a burly man in the stomach. This man, the young women yelled at us. This man is all men, the young women yelled at us. They spoke as one, like us. We stood and applauded. They bowed. I noticed blood on their boots, how it splashed up their pants legs, somehow, reached their exposed midriffs. They called us beautiful. We called them beautiful. We called the man an ambulance and took the young women into our blob. We walked up Elmwood with purpose knocking on closed businesses, seeing if anyone could let us in for one last beer, one last bag of chips. It was frightening, catching our reflections in the storefronts.

We reached Flip’s house with powerful numbers.

It proceeded as you’d expect. We finished the beer. We finished wine and juice cartons and boxes of crackers. We cooked eggs and bacon when the sun rose. We couldn’t get the toast right. We’d put it down, let it warm, let it burn, let it smoke—try again. What we didn’t finish, what we burnt: we dropped on the floor. You wouldn’t believe the mess, how it smelled, how everyone laughed when Flip stood on a table and asked for a cigarette and four-dozen cigarettes bounced off his body.

I figured my body didn’t belong to me anymore. Music came down and took my limps all over the place, wild-like. I found myself wrapped in a stranger’s platonic embrace, shrieking into the kitchen sink.

That was just five minutes.

As you’d expect, sleep came for us all. And that was beautiful too. A man sacrificed his body as a pillow, allowed his friends to place their heads on shin and thigh and belly and so on. Leaned against a wall, a woman remained standing and peaceful. What a statue, with her turquoise hair and yellow fingernails.

That polyamorous quintet in the living room, petting, warm in their pile, kissing each other goodnight, singing goodnight with harmony.

I found myself in the backyard with Flip and Fauna, sitting on a couch somehow. My body was mine again, numb. A neighbor off to work waved goodnight.

Fauna put her fingers around my neck.

“Can you imagine?” Fauna asked. “Having a different life?”

“I did,” I said. “Yesterday.”

Fauna released me.

“I once lived in Oklahoma City,” Fauna said. “For fifteen years.”

“What do you think?” I asked Flip.

Flip didn’t respond. He kept his eyes up in the blue sky, followed sluggish clouds.

“An oil rig,” Fauna said. “That’s where I kissed my first woman and understood.”

“Understood what?” I asked.

“Woman and men are the same,” Fauna said. “Some are good kissers; some aren’t.”

“I’m not good,” I said. “I know that for sure.”

“It’s a practice thing,” Fauna said. “My girlfriend is a hockey player. She says it’s similar.”

Fauna shook my hand, kissed Flip’s cheek good morning, waved back at us until she turned a corner. I could have slept there, at that moment, like that, knockout.

I was halfway down when Flip tapped my shoulder. I saw him crying in a quiet way, his eyes red and glazed and out of this world.

I was glad when Flip spoke first; I didn’t know what to say.

“There was a summer,” Flip started. “I don’t know when. Like dates and years. I know I was young. I know I had these yellow shorts with blue bananas on them. I know I had a skateboard, which I couldn’t ride without falling down. I know I carried my skateboard more than I rode it. I think that says something about me then; I think that says something about me now. Get the picture? There were these clouds, like green, like emeralds covered in black dirt. Can you see it like I did? This was in Kansas. This was soon after my mom went away. This was with dad and his family. Everything you’ve heard about Kansas is true. I don’t care what you’ve heard: it’s true.

“I had these yellow shorts on. I had my blue bananas. I had my skateboard. I had my sour candy in the line, waiting to pay, holding my skateboard under my other arm. I had five people in front of me. At the register—I could smell her perfume. Strawberries and mint. I’m not sure. A berry and a spice. I think about a lot. How could I remember the smell, smell it now, sitting here talking to you and not know what it was? I think it’s an aura thing. Like our aura’s melding and attracting.

“I hadn’t heard a tornado siren before. Still, this howl, going from dull to screech, over and over, loud, like right in my head.

“Can you believe it? The world and the wind were fighting each other. I wasn’t thinking about my family. I wasn’t thinking about us getting sucked into the atmosphere and thrown into Utah. I was thinking about looking cool for her, this young woman I didn’t know, with a tattooed tiger on her shoulder, three nose rings, red eyeshadow, black hair slicked into a hard ponytail. Nature was coming to kill us. And, I was trying to look at this woman without her knowing.

“Doesn’t it make sense now? Don’t I make sense? Knowing that about me, doesn’t that tell you everything you need to know? What else is there to say?”

Flip looked at me again. He put his hands together, cracked his knuckles, fidgeted his fingertips along his thighs. Now, he wanted me to say something.

What do you say to that? What do you say to your crying cousin?


Gabriel Bump

is the author of the novel Everywhere You Don't Belong. He grew up in South Shore, Chicago. His nonfiction and fiction have appeared in Slam magazine, the Huffington Post, Springhouse Journal, and other publications. He was awarded the 2016 Deborah Slosberg Memorial Award for Fiction. He received his MFA in fiction from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He lives in Buffalo, New York.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

All Issues