I’m editing scenes from someone else’s life when my granddad calls and begs that I bring Lucy to him. That I drive her across the country and collect the endings to all his stories.
“I’ve lost them, Finn,” he says.
I tell him, “That’s impossible. You know them all. You’ve told them to me a thousand times.”
He says, “I’ve forgotten. I’m forgetting.”
He’s a big man, my granddad, not necessarily in size or proportion, but in other ways, like the manner in which he lives. The trouble in which he finds himself. The magic that he conjures and the spectacular things he believes.
Outside, down on Seventh Avenue, a siren’s whirling lights lasso parked cars in ropes of red and blue and white.
“And what’s this about Lucy?”
“She’s in Chinatown with a man named Yip,” he whispers, his voice just clouds of smoke.
“A man named what?”
He rattles off an address and I scramble to find a pen, to scratch it on the back of a hamburger wrapper I’ve got folded on my desk. And it’s like he must have his lips pressed against the receiver because honestly it sounds like he’s sitting right next to me.
It’s after midnight on Wednesday—the first few minutes of what will become an interminable June. And it’s hot. It’s so damned hot. The sort of hot where stripping your clothes off isn’t enough; where the only thing you can imagine doing is peeling away your sweat-slicked skin. Letting your organs breathe.
“Granddad?” Aside from the editing bay where I sit, the rest of the office is dark. I fumble for a second before I press pause, managing to stop all the faces on all hundred screens in front of me. “Does Dad know you’re calling?”
“I’ve mailed you a map.” His voice grows strained, as though his throat is a hose being twisted, but then he coughs once and he breathes easy. “They’re all there. My endings.”
“But how will I know where to find them?”
“And if I don’t?”
“Then,” he says, “you’ll come up with better ones.”
It’s been a year and a half since the first stroke. A year and a half since it became clear that the only option for him was to move from here—New York—to San Francisco, in order to live with my father, the Screenwriter.
“She’ll get stuck when you shift her from second to third. And her rearview mirror won’t do you much good.”
Then there’s a second cough. “Finn—Finn, do this for me.”
I stand up from my chair and the high-definition faces project their smiles, their frowns, their puzzled gazes against my damp T-shirt.
I say, “But, ha. Really. What’s this all about?”
His tenor grows, exploding against the walls of the room: “I need to drive her.”
The Arthur Kill is a spit of ocean just below Manhattan’s southernmost tip. The Dutch are the guys who named it—“kill” comes from kille, which means “riverbed” or “water channel”; “Arthur” comes from achter, which means, basically, “back”—though nowadays most people just refer to it as the Staten Island Sound.
In the mornings it’s green, the Kill. And in the evenings, when the rest of the bay goes red and gold and silver, it stays brown, the color of weak coffee. It’s dredged every now and then, its depth sucked down to about thirty-five feet and its width shrunk to around six hundred so it can maintain its utility as a commercial shipping passage for the barges that slug their way into Port Newark.
It’s short—maybe ten miles long—with the port at its head. It snakes down, running almost parallel to Interstate 95, past Elizabethport and Linden, under the Outerbridge Crossing. Alongside New Jersey’s steaming industrial sites, its spewing plants, the Chemical Coast.
Before the Kill reaches Raritan Bay, before it spills into the Atlantic, it pools along the southwestern coast of Staten Island, in the low salt marshes near Rossville. There, in those shallow wetlands, you’ll find streams made of sewage and hills built on garbage, plastic bottles capping their peaks. You’ll find old bikes, rusted tires, kitchen tables, and broken forts; half-eaten things, things that haven’t been eaten at all. Condom wrappers and dolls. Buildings, tops of skyscrapers. Leftovers from a closed landfill that, until about a decade ago, was dumped with an unfair ratio of the city’s waste, including a huge portion of the September 11 mess.
And then, situated deeper among the plastic and the concrete and the miscellaneous wreckage are the ships—the so many ships—of the Witte Marine Scrapyard, the only boat cemetery I can think of, and definitely the only one I’ve ever seen.
It opened in 1964, and at one point it had more than four hundred dead and dying craft; J. Arnold Witte, the man who opened the yard, acquired broken and decommissioned vessels faster than he could break them up. Now there are just under two hundred. For the most part the ships are only something of their former selves, wiped blank by time and rain and salt. Their skeletal frames and decayed, rotting beams form these half-submerged labyrinths. Portholes ripped into windows ripped into gaping wide scars. Still, you can find rows of steam tugs that have run aground, their hulls emptied of water and their wooden cabins bare and sun faded. You can find ferries, and car floats, an assortment of different barges that you can still make out. There are remnants of famous crafts, like the New York City Fire Department’s Abram S. Hewitt, which was the last coal-burning fireboat in the FDNY’s armada; there are afterthoughts of ships that were barely given names. They’re all there—every species of ship from every decade of the twentieth century—rotting, waiting, biding their lost time.
The water in the shallows isn’t green and it isn’t brown—it’s grey, basically damp ash. It swirls and settles like snow in the city, dirtying the base of the marsh’s reeds. It carries with it the rust and the paint of the boats—generations sinking on top of one another.
My friend Randal and I go there on a Sunday. Specifically: the Sunday after the phone call, when my granddad instructed me to bring Lucy to him, to deliver his memories. After I’ve finally received his sacred map.
Or: the exact same Sunday Randal loses his millionth job and he agrees, without much argument, to leave and drive alongside me.
“We have to do this for the old man,” I say. “I owe him.”
“Right. But I guess the question is, what do I owe you?”
“I don’t know. Something, probably.” Then: “Can’t you just come with me, though?”
He cocks his head, raps his fist against a ship’s rusted berth. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, sure. I mean, what else am I doing.”
We spend three hours at the graveyard, picking through the ruins, calling out names in those cavernous empty hulls. I film it all with a new camera I ended up blowing the better part of my savings on: a Sony 4.15MP Handycam that’s got spectacular 150x digital zoom capabilities and a 3.2-inch LCD screen. But then, after I’ve captured each shot a hundred times over, we feel like we’ve been sinking too deep. It’s become too much, we say. Too much death. And too much nothing. Especially right now, when all we feel is life.
So we return to Manhattan, to the piers along Hudson River Park, where we can make our plans while we watch buoyant ships, hearty and full, play games on the water.
We spy on them with a cheap pair of binoculars that I bought from some nameless store in Times Square. We pass the binoculars back and forth between each other. And when it isn’t our turn we suck on the heads of gummi bears and drink piss-warm white wine that we’ve got swathed in a wet brown paper bag. We look out across the pilings of the piers that no longer exist and we read aloud the names, reciting the berthing ports tattooed in chipped paint along the hulls of the boats.
There are barges, crusted in iron, from Newark; there are long, flat container ships from Seoul that look like they’ve had their stomachs sliced out; there are bulk carriers from Denmark and tankers from Panama and coasters from up north, in Boston. There are stubborn tugboats. But unlike the ones in the graveyard, these still have their proud barrel chests that patrol the water’s open spaces. There are schooners, their sails open and white like so many sharp teeth, from Newfoundland; there are catamarans from Long Beach and single hulls from Athens and these tiny sabots, the kind you can rent down at Chelsea Piers, which look like snowflakes out in the river. And then there are the fishing boats, the trawlers and the seiners and the line vessels delivering their slick, wide-eyed bounties to the Fulton Fish Market over at Hunts Point.
We watch all of them as their bows cut canyons between the two banks of the river, as nervous aluminum skiffs jump the hurdles in the bigger ships’ wakes. We are on the pier at the end of West 10th Street, and I’m lying in the grass on my stomach, propping myself up on my elbows while the sun burns my shoulders, causing more and more freckles to explode and align in new constellations on my pale back. Randal drinks wine and sits with his legs crossed in front of him like some skinny Jewish pretzel, and when a clipper ship from London struts out in front of us with its masts blowing upward, he takes the binoculars from me.
On the grass in front of me, I’ve got my granddad’s roadmap, its corners weighed down with so many bright bears.
Randal lifts the binoculars to his face, toggling the focus left, then right.
I met him about a year and a half ago at an Israeli restaurant where he was a bartender. It was on Chrystie Street, on the Lower East Side, not far from where I was living then; it had low black ceilings and dark walls and it was always, always empty. I went the first time because my boss Karen—one of the editors for a reality television show that you’ve definitely heard of but whose name I won’t mention here for professional reasons—was in love with one of the waiters. They ended up moving to Toronto together, and then three months later she bought a dog—a big one—and the waiter came out as gay, so now she’s back. Back as my boss, back writing reality fictions. But we didn’t know that any of that would ever happen on that night when I met Randal, when he poured me free kosher red wine. As we watched them (or, just Karen, I guess) flirt.
I kept going back to that place on Chrystie to get free wine. Randal eventually got fired from that job, just like he got fired from the rest of them, because he had been too charitable, not just to me but to everyone, pouring glasses that were much too full. Because, really, that’s just how he was.
He’s still got the binoculars glued to his face and he bites at a piece of dead skin that dangles from his chapped lower lip. The clipper ship stalls. It whips its sails furiously in the wind: the white heads of a Hydra out on the Hudson. He keeps watching it as my elbows sink deeper into the grass and as the freckles on my back multiply and as tiny globes of sweat orbit his curls, sitting on top of his head like tight dark clouds.
“All those ships. Think of all those goddamned sinking ships we just saw. These ones are going to end up doing the same thing.” He swats at the camcorder. “Get that thing out of my face, would you?”
I should say this: I’m still not totally sure why he’s agreed to go with me—or, at least why he hasn’t put up some sort of a fight. I told myself a half hour ago that it was because he views us as I view us: more or less this indestructible pair. A Han Solo/Chewbacca thing. A Batman and Robin. A Rick Blaine/Louis Renault. But there are, if I’m being honest, some other (more realistic?) theories I’ve also been tossing around.
Like, for example:
#1: Gainful Employment: The job he lost last night (he’d been a waiter at a place where waiters wear cowboy hats) was the last in an epic series of dabblings. He’s been a bartender, a locksmith, a janitor at a school for the deaf. He’s answered phones and opened doors and sorted mail. He’s sold peaches on the corner of Fifty-seventh and First, has collected and traded and often forged the autographs of almost-famous people. And each time he’s lost one of those gigs, you get the sense that the orbit he’s been following has been jolted. You get the sense that whatever makes shit happen for Randal Baker has hit pause. Or:
#2: A Girl: She lived in Hoboken and they dated for a year until two months ago when, suddenly, they stopped.
I never met her, and I never will, because she’s out of the picture now. I’ve never even been allowed to say her name—I can tell you that much. I know what it is, obviously, but I’ve never been allowed to say it. I’ll start sometimes, for the fun of it. I’ll get the first letter, and then first syllable to buzz on my lips, but he’ll stop me, usually, by smacking me. He’ll say, Damn it, Finn, what’d I tell you?
So, the point being: I don’t know all that much about her. He’s told me stories, though they’ve never really been enough. I’ll ask him—beg, really—to tell me more. He’ll try. He’ll have a few hesitant starts, but each time he’ll stop. He’ll sigh. He’ll pull at some blades of grass.
I’ll ask, “Can I see a picture?”
He’ll tie the grass into knots and walk away.
And so. I’ll be left with these countless iterations of her. These imagined variations. The Girl as Bardot-ian bombshell—all blond, all tits, voice composed of nothing but gravel and sex. The Girl as Holly Golightly-ish flirt—saying what she feels but never what she means. The Girl as Hayworth—strong-minded, disagreeable, always going to restaurants and ordering something that’s not on the menu. The Girl as Phoebe Cates—always getting out of a pool. Just always getting out of a pool.
Basically, whatever it takes for a girl, for This Girl, to have insinuated herself into the vast mythology of Randal Baker. Or to have turned him into something of a romantic, which I think is just about the worst thing a girl can do to a boy.
Or maybe it’s just me who is being the romantic. Maybe the real reason it’s been so criminally easy to convince him to come along is that—
Theory #3: He’s Just That Sort of Person. The type of guy who, if Karen and I saw him in casting footage for the Very Popular Reality Show, we’d define him by a-total-going-along-with-it-ness. A passive quality that has the potential to become suddenly and explosively active. Not a joiner and not a doer—but the person who allows both to exist.
• • •
“We’ll leave on Tuesday,” I say. “After I talk to Karen.”
Randal has been looking over my shoulder, stealing glances at the map. “So, okay. Pittsburgh first, it looks like.”
“And then Columbus.”
“And then Chicago.”
“Oh, God, what is that? They all look the same. Is that Nebraska?”
I position the camera in my lap with its lens tilted upward, toward the boats and the river and the sky and the lower half of Randal’s ear. I take the binoculars from him and I give him back the wine, and after he slugs from it long and thirstily he starts fumbling in the pockets of his khakis. He bites his upper lip and frowns till there’s this crevice between his eyes, until finally he claws out a bent cigarette and a BIC lighter with a fish on it.
“Can you say that again?”
He turns his back to me, to the wind, and when he hunches over to light the cigarette I lift the camcorder and zoom in; his spine looks like so many speed bumps.
“Say what?” He exhales and the smoke rushes south. “Say what aga—Finn, Christ. Come on.”
So instead I film south toward the Hudson’s mouth and the upper bay; toward the boats coming, merging, coughing steam, growling; toward the Statue of Liberty and the northern tip of Staten Island; toward the graveyard, the infinite blueness tricked out in ash.
I leap up. My knees are stained and matted with weeds and they feel light, full of helium. I step from the grass to the pier’s pavement, treading lightly as my feet grow warm, then hot against the concrete. I rest my arms against a green guardrail and watch as the light wanes, as its reflection on the Hudson dulls from gold to rust. Everything smells like salt and oil.
Randal follows me, cursing as he hopscotches barefoot across the concrete.
There’s the fluid, liquid sigh of traffic behind us on the West Side Highway. I begin picking at a spot where the railing’s green paint has chipped. I tear off a large sheet of acrylic from the iron bars, turning it on its side so it looks like a cutout of Florida.
Randal stubs his cigarette against the railing, kicking off the ash, which lands on his toes.
“All right,” he says. “Let’s see it then.”
I use my fingernails to peel off another sheet—rectangular, almost perfectly so. I tell myself it’s North Dakota, or South Dakota, or Wyoming, or any of those other states that have unmemorable, half-assed shapes. In front of us two kayakers paddle in figure eights.
When I lift the paper it smells ancient and important, like newsprint. The edges are brittle, its creases sharp and yellow. There are lines drawn on it—mostly illegible scribbles in black and blue and red and grey. There are cities and towns circled, places my granddad has been; there are roads, and counties, and—in the case of Florida—an entire state crossed out. Artifacts from his unbounded memories.
And then, in the margins, there are new notes: instructions he’s written expressly for me. Like: In Chicago—Never look the Gangster in the eye.
I drop North Dakota to the grass and turn to look out at the water. The clipper ship has tacked so the wind is at its rear, pushing its sails out in wide grinning crescents.
• • •
We are walking east on Jane Street and the sun floods the thin alleys between low buildings and the reflection, all the reflections, glow white and angelic on the camera’s LCD screen. The bricks of the walk-ups around us change from orange to red to brown. A woman with a stroller slows behind us, and we step aside to let her pass.
I lean against a low green wall and bite at the dulled tip of my thumb. I smell like sweat and wine and just-chopped grass.
I rub something from my eye with the bottom hem of my shirt.
He says: “So, you must’ve considered the possibility by now.”
“What possibility?” I can feel the uneven mortar play tic-tac-toe on my back and I wipe at my face again.
“The possibility that maybe he’s . . . And that’s why he wants to see the car. Just . . . I don’t know. So he can drive it one more time before he—or something.”
“I see what you’re saying—”
“It was just a thought.”
“But, ha, it’s not the case.”
I think about the map. I think about all its lines, printed and scribbled. There are so many of them, the roads. So many ways in which they tie themselves into knots, entwine themselves like the legs of guilty lovers.
“But hypothetically, what if it is.”
“Then,” I say, “we’ll be the ones who save him.”