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Brooklyn

by: Dennis Vannatta

           It was the evening of November the 25th, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.  All holidays were hard on Tom Carroll, and at the approach of the one he thought of especially in terms of family, he felt the need of a libation or two at O’Grady’s on 116th Street.  Back in the bad old days he’d hit the bars every night and stay out for all hours, but those days were, mercifully, behind him.  His trip to O’Grady’s was his first in a week, and even then he’d had only one beer and was back home by 8:30.  Still, his wife, Margaret, made him recite his “catechism,” as he thought of it.
           
“Which one did you go to this time?”

“O’Grady’s.  I hardly ever go anyplace else anymore.”

“And how many did you have?”

“Only the one.”

“Just one?”

“One.”

“I’ll check.  You know I will. . . . Last chance. . . . I’m going to check now.”

Margaret got up from the kitchen table where she’d had her recipes spread before her like she’d been playing a game of culinary solitaire and walked into the back office.  He heard her dialing the phone, then a moment of silence, and then she was talking.  Tom smiled at the performance.  When he was drinking heavily she’d call bartenders all over the Rockaways looking for him, but it’d been months and months since she’d had to do that.  Still, she put on a show of pretending to call, a taste of what he could expect if he strayed again, no doubt.

Margaret returned to the kitchen and sat back down at the table.

“So, it was only one tonight.  Good.  I don’t expect miracles, and one won’t kill you.  Two is all right, two is acceptable.  But one is better.”

Tom nodded as if it were the first time he’d heard this.

“OK, then,” she said, slapping her right fist into her left palm like a bare-knuckles champion eager for the fight to begin.  “Tell me about the demons.”

Tom lowered his head and rubbed at the skin above his temples with the thumb and middle fingers of his right hand as if recalling the “demons”—the nightmares or waking visions that had driven him to seek solace in the bottle—gave him a tremendous pain.  But really he was just stalling for time, trying to come up with a plausible anecdote that would bring this evening’s catechism to an end, for Margaret would give him no peace until he did.  In bad times the demons had been real enough—cause of his drinking or caused by, at this point who could say?  Then, the only way to keep them at bay, to preserve his sanity and Margaret’s along with it, was what she called “the talking cure,” although Tom doubted his wife had ever heard of Freud.  So Tom had to pay for his occasional evenings at O’Grady’s by talking, telling Margaret all the grim details.  Even if he had to invent them.
           
“Two men . . . ,” he began tentatively.

“Yes, two men, go on.”

“I couldn’t see them clearly.  They weren’t anyone we knew.”

“They wouldn’t have been, would they.  Go on.”

“They were big, though.  Two big men.  Very rough-looking.”

“Go on.  What did they do?”

“There was this hole in the ground.  Not a hole they dug.  It’s hard to describe.  It’s like a sinkhole, you know?  Where the earth just sort of gives way and leaves a hole?  It was about, oh, two feet across.  There were leaves around the edge of it.  It was autumn—“

“—like today.”

“Yes, but pretty.  A blue sky.  The hole was black, though.  And deep.  Although I couldn’t see into it, I sensed it was very deep.”

“Deep.  Go on.  What did the men do?”

“Well, they had her.  They had her by the arms.”

“They put her in the hole!”

“Yes.  They stuffed her in.  They had a hard time because the hole wasn’t very big across, but they stuffed her in like you’d stuff . . . and then she was all the way in, gone . . .”         

He had his eyes closed, and he was trembling and hugging himself.  When he finally opened his eyes again, Margaret was sitting there watching him, as he knew she’d be. 

“Finish it,” she said.

“I did.  That’s all of it.”

She shook her head.  “Finish it.  You haven’t told me the girl’s name.”

Tom glanced to his left and then right as if he were looking for a way out, but there was none.  Margaret would hold him there until he said it.  So he did.

“Jennifer!” he said with a sob.  “It was our daughter.”  Then he put his face into the crook of his arm and wept.  He wasn’t pretending now.

*

They went to bed not long afterward, and Margaret was asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow.  Tom marveled at how his wife emerged from their “catechisms” both serene and triumphant as if she’d won a great victory on the field of battle and had earned the right to sleep the sleep of the just.  The same scenes that appeared to sustain her—he sometimes wondered if she didn’t see them as her reason for being—left him shaken and exhausted but no more able to sleep than if he’d had a live wire where his spinal cord should be.

He needed a drink.  He’d had only the one at O’Grady’s, but he would have had many more if the thing that caused him to want to do a back flip off the moderation wagon weren’t also the very thing that drove him from the tavern and back into his wife’s protective arms.

Tom didn’t go to bars for chit-chat.  He went there to drink.  But sometimes you didn’t have much choice about it.  Like tonight.

He had been going to O’Grady’s long enough to know all the regulars.  Most were no more inclined toward conversation than he, and those few who were didn’t waste their time on him.  But tonight there’d been a stranger in O’Grady’s, a man of indeterminate age as drunks and street persons are of indeterminate age, in greasy slacks and a misshapen sweater over a flannel shirt buttoned up to the neck.  Incongruously, he wore an immaculate porkpie hat—it looked brand new—with a white feather in the band, and maybe it was because Tom kept staring at the hat that the man chose him as the lucky recipient of his wisdom.

“I’ll wager you, sir, can’t tell me what today is,” the man said, pointing his index finger at Tom as if he were making an accusation.
           
“Sure I can.  It’s Tuesday,” Tom said, smirking.

The man smiled indulgently.  “To be sure.  But what, sir, is significant about the date, November 25th?”

Tom regretted having spoken up.  He shrugged and looked down at his beer.

“Anybody?  Anybody?” the man said, looking around the bar.  Having no takers, he turned back to Tom.  “Well, sir, I’ll have you know that November 25th is Evacuation Day!”

Tom shook his head just slightly as he stared at his beer.  A set-up for a scatological joke, no doubt.  Don’t anyone ask, he pleaded silently.

But, inevitably, he heard a voice coming from a table behind him:  “Evacuation Day? What’s that?”

The man cleared his throat.  “Evacuation  Day, young man, is the date set aside to commemorate the departure of the hated British occupation force, November 25th, 1783, from our own beloved Borough of Kings.  And the Borough of Kings is, as you no doubt know, the proper name for what in common parlance is known as . . . what, my young friend?”

Brooklyn, Tom whispered in terror and despair as all around him voices echoed,

“Brooklyn!”  “Brooklyn!”  “Brooklyn!”

And that’s when he’d jumped up and run out of the bar.  In point of fact he’d never even finished the one beer.  But he felt certain he’d make up for the lapse very soon.

*

Brooklyn.

Tom had been born in Queens, in Rockaway Park, to be exact, on Beach 118th Street barely five blocks from where he now lived on Cronston between 121st and 122nd.  He thought of the old joke of the tourist who stops the Irish peasant and asks him if he’s lived in that tiny village all his life, and the Irishman says, “Not yet.”  For Tom, though, it was just the opposite.  He felt he’d lived there all his life plus another life or two.  If a geologist peeled back seven earth layers in Rockaway Park he’d find nail clippings from little Tommy Carroll who’d sit plump and pink and naked on his mama’s lap as she performed that particular operation with the same scissors she used to cut out patterns for his sister’s dresses.  Brooklyn was not five minutes away by car.  It would take Tom and his chums fifteen minutes to ride their bikes over Marine Parkway Bridge to play ball in the big empty fields of Floyd Bennett.  Yes, in those days he’d thought of Brooklyn as a playground.

That was in his first life.  His second life began when he met Margaret.  Then the courting, engagement, marriage, then fatherhood.  Jennifer, only child, only grandchild on his side and Margaret’s parents both dead and gone.  Jennifer, spoiled from the womb, wild child—they never could do anything with her except give her whatever she wanted, Tom especially.  Why, deny his baby girl anything?  Margaret, now, she tried to be the disciplinarian.  Oh, the battles!  But even Margaret, strong as she was—she could hold Tom down with the thumb of her left hand until he screamed for mercy—even Margaret stood no chance with Jennifer.  And then one night—May 13th, 1990—Jennifer drove her Ford Festiva over the Marine Parkway Bridge and on into Brooklyn.  They knew that because Gil Herlihy, who worked a toll booth on the bridge and had been to Jennifer’s christening, had seen her come through around 9:00 p.m.  Margaret later discovered that Jennifer had taken her smaller suitcase with her.  It was big enough for two or three changes of clothes, so they thought she’d gone off for the weekend, with a boy, maybe, and didn’t tell them just to torment them as young people that age (she was nineteen) will.  But they never saw her again.

Gil Herlihy was the last to see her, driving up Flatbush Avenue into Brooklyn.

*

So Tom Carroll’s third life began May 13th, 1990, and he was still living it.  He didn’t think he’d ever have another life.

In the intervening nearly score of years he’d drunk enough Irish, Scotch, Bourbon, Vodka, and now beer (the order reflecting not his changing tastes but his declining economic fortunes) to fill Jamaica Bay.  He didn’t regret a single drop of it.  He loved to drink.  He loved the taste of it, loved the way it made him feel—or not feel, as the case may be.

There were no mysteries here.  When Margaret had that spell of wanting him to see a psychiatrist, Tom had his best laugh in a long while. 

“To find out what?  Why I drink?  Hell, we know why I drink.  Is a psychiatrist going to convince me I shouldn’t be in pain over losing our child?”

“I lost a child, too, Tom.”

“I know that, Margaret, I know that.”

“And many a parent has lost a child.  They carry on.  What you are doing is unnatural.”

“I don’t know a single parent who has lost a child.  And neither do you.”

“Of course we do.  The Fines just down on the corner.  And the Greesons lost their little boy with leukemia just last year.  And how many firemen did we know by name who died in the Towers?  They were all parents’ sons.”

“No.  None of them lost children.  Their children died.  We lost our daughter, like she was a key that fell out of my pocket and I didn’t notice it until days later and now she could be anywhere, needing her daddy, calling—“

“I think you’d rather have her dead!  You’d rather she died!  Get out!  Go get drunk, you drunken bastard, you!  Go drink yourself to death!”

And he’d gone out and gotten drunk, and he’d felt better.  It always felt better.  Only somebody who’s not a drunk could ever suggest it didn’t.  Why, otherwise, would you do it?

It wouldn’t last, of course, the release from pain.  The bars would close, and he’d somehow find his way back home as he did on that night of the Big Fight, as he thought of it.  And Margaret would be there waiting, as she always was, because his drinking and his demons were her life, too.  Whatever would she do without them?

*

His life gave the appearance of normalcy.  Even at his worst he never drank in the daytime, so he was able to carry on with his insurance agency.  He had a small office in his home but spent a lot of time in his car visiting clients.  The only oddity that one might have noticed from examining his books was that he did no business in Brooklyn.

All the fondness he felt for Brooklyn in his youth and on into the early years of his marriage when they took Jennifer in her stroller to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens—“Who’s a tulip?  Who’s a tulip?  You are!  Yes, you are!  Baby Jennifer is our ‘ittle ‘ulip!”—was no more.  He hated and feared Brooklyn as a hideous black maw that had swallowed his daughter.  He of course knew quite well that Jennifer could have crossed the Marine Parkway Bridge and taken the Belt west to the Verrazano and then to anywhere in the Midwest or South or across the continent to the Pacific, or she could have kept barreling north up Flatbush, with little traffic that time of night, all the way across Brooklyn to the Manhattan Bridge, then into Manhattan or up to the Bronx, or New England for that matter.  But such road-atlas logic could not stand before the implacable dead reckoning of his heart:  she’d driven into Brooklyn; she’d never come out.  And she was not lost, despite his stagey declaration to Margaret the night of the Big Fight.  How he’d prayed that she be just lost.  But no.  Jennifer was dead.  Dead in Brooklyn, which he hated, which he feared.  And so, the night of November 25th when the stranger whose rheumy eyes were half-hidden behind the slouching brim of his porkpie hat made his remark about Evacuation Day, Tom had fled O’Grady’s faster than the Red Coats had abandoned the hills and farmlands of what was to become the Borough of Kings. 

He hadn’t even finished his one beer.  And now, this bleak chill morning, he regretted it.  He needed a drink badly.

He sat in his office pretending to work although there was precious little business to do on the day before Thanksgiving.  Margaret mostly stayed in the kitchen, making desserts.  She’d make pumpkin pie and one other—probably apple kuchen—because it was a tradition that she’d make a dessert for each member of the family.  That of course meant there were three desserts when Jennifer was there, always including her favorite:  German chocolate cake with extra coconut piled onto the icing, Jennifer sneaking into the kitchen to pick off the shredded coconut so that by dinnertime it’d be all gone.

It gave Margaret pleasure to cook.  Once Tom even thought he heard her humming, although how she could find joy in the face of that grim math—three now two, three now two—was beyond his comprehension.  Her strength came through carrying on while for Tom carrying on was not just pointless but a sort of betrayal.

He needed a drink.  As the day wore on he needed it worse and worse as only a drunk understands need:  a scalding membrane that enveloped him, that changed its shape to counter all the hopeless strategies the drunk will devise to pierce the membrane.  But only one thing worked:  a drink.

What he would like to do was go out and find a bar that very moment. But his hands were trembling so—it was not the DT’s; he’d had the DT’s and this was not even close—he was afraid he’d be a danger behind the wheel of a car.  He could have walked to one of the bars on 116th Street or 129th Street, of course.  But that would have meant drinking in the daytime, and there he’d always drawn the line.  Cross it and he was lost, he was done for.

So he stuck it out, somehow controlling his hands enough that Margaret apparently noticed nothing at dinner.  She did remark on the fact that he barely touched his food, though.  He said that he was making space for that great Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow.  She seemed to buy that, too.

When he put it off as long as he could, however, and at seven o’clock took down his coat from the closet, she was on him.

“Tonight again.  I knew it.  I could see the signs.  How many will it be tonight?’

“One, two at the most.  One or two.”

“Ha!  You’re going off the deep end.  I can see the signs.  You’ll drown in the stuff.  Don’t tell me.”

So he didn’t tell her.  He closed the door between them and walked down to O’Grady’s.

*

You’d think the place would be empty on the night before Thanksgiving, and in fact most of the tables were unoccupied, but the regulars were at their accustomed places hanging on to the bar.  A drunk prefers the bar because it’s closer to the business end of the tap, and, besides, it’s easier to let yourself down off a bar stool at closing time than to pull yourself up from a table.  Tom knew all the tricks of the trade but felt no kinship with the regulars, for alcoholism is a fraternity without brothers.

Despite Margaret’s accusations—or perhaps because of it—Tom was determined to limit himself to two beers.  The key here was to make the first beer last as long as possible.  If he drank the first one as fast as he wanted to, he’d be pouring beer into his empty leg all night.  It was hard, but make the first one last for, oh, say half an hour, and he could nurse the second one the rest of the evening.  He looked at his watch.  7:20.  All right, then.  Aim for 7:50 with the first one.  Later would be better, but 7:50 would be a small triumph against a great foe.
           
Tom took his first sip.  Ah, he was falling in love again.  He waited as long as he could bear to wait, and when he raised his schooner for a second sip, he glanced over at the short side of the “L” bar, and there staring back at him from under the slouched brim of his porkpie hat was the man from last night.  He sat on the very same bar stool.  Had he gone home at all?, Tom wondered with a sting of envy.  (They’d never let him stay all night.)

As Tom was trying to shake off this irrational thought, the man pointed a ghastly finger at him and said, “I’ll wager you can’t tell me Brooklyn’s nickname.”

“FUCK YOU!” Tom shouted.

“None of that, none of that here,” the bartender said, stepping over in front of Tom and wiping furiously at the bar as if Tom’s profanity had showered the area with a communicable virus.  “This is a family establishment.”

The snorts of laughter that greeted this pronouncement dampened Tom’s sudden rage.  Abashed, he slouched over his beer.  What the hell, could he not act like a civilized human being anymore?  Was he not fit even for the company of drunks?

“Nobody knows?”

For an instant Tom thought that someone was responding to his unvoiced question, but then he realized that it was the stranger following up on his earlier query.

As if reading Tom’s mind, the man prompted, “Brooklyn’s nickname?  Nobody?”

The “Brooklyn” stung him once more, but Tom managed to keep himself under control.  Or perhaps it was just that his spasm of rage had now given way to his more characteristic dread.

“No? . . . Nobody? . . . Well, then, I’ll tell you.  Brooklyn is the City of Churches.  I swear it is.”

“City of Churches?”  It took Tom a second to recognize the voice as his own.

The man nodded to Tom with an avuncular smile.  “Yes indeed, City of Churches.  I swear it’s so.”

“I’ve heard that,” came a voice from Tom’s left.  And then the bartender:  “Oh, yes, I’ve heard it, too.  City of Churches.”

Tom began to slump forward, to lower his head toward the bar, and as he did so he put the side of his hand at the base of the beer glass and slid it out of his way.  When his forehead came in contact with the cool, damp bar top, Tom began to cry.

He felt a hand on his shoulder.  He was sure it was the bartender, who would now say, “None of that here.  Take that outside.”  But no voice commanded him out into the night.  Instead, whoever it was—the bartender, the stranger, one of his many friends in the bar—began to pat him gently on the back.  Tom loved them all.

*

He walked in the cold night air waiting for it to hit him:  shame at the ludicrous spectacle he’d presented in O’Grady’s, weeping on the bar like the drunk that he was, sentimentalizing a few pats on the back from a bartender who knew from long experience when to give a fellow the heave-ho or to call the cops, or when a hand on the shoulder will serve as well with a lot less trouble.

But Tom wasn’t drunk, and he wasn’t ashamed.  He wouldn’t go so far as to say that he felt good, but he did have a strange presentiment that somehow a change was coming to him.  What the nature of this change was, well, he’d have to wait and see.  Change did not have to be for the better.  On the other hand, could his life get worse?

He turned onto Rockaway Beach Boulevard and walked on, and there on the quiet street with only now and then a car the change began to announce itself in the smallest of ways:  he found that he could hold the name Brooklyn in his mind without a shudder of fear and repulsion.

Brooklyn, City of Churches!  For almost twenty years he’d avoided the place as if it were a radiation-contaminated test site, going miles out of his way on parkways and side streets to get from points A to C without touching on the child-eating borders of point B for Brooklyn.  Now, though . . .

In his mind’s eye he saw Brooklyn as a bright shining city on a hill, with oak-shaded homes and broad green parks where boys played ball and little girls laughed on merry-go-rounds and everywhere stood churches, white-washed wooden churches with tall green-shingled spires right out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

He walked on, waiting for the absurdity of the vision to assail him just as before he’d waited on shame.  But instead there was again that sense of imminence, of some new thing coming to him, almost here now.

His walk had brought him to the little park memorializing the victims of 9/11, stockbrokers and firemen who had lived in Rockaway Park and neighboring Belle Harbor before dying—so many, so many—in the Towers.  He walked through the gate, and standing there on that sacred ground, he waited for it to come.  And then it did:  Jennifer was alive.  She would be in her late thirties now.  She would have a few wrinkles, of course, and would have put on a few pounds, but then she’d look better with a few more pounds on her.  She would have quit smoking, a real bone of contention in her teenage years, especially between her and her mother.  Would she have learned to control that Irish temper?  Tom laughed.  Well, you couldn’t expect miracles.  She would be married.  She would have children.  She would be happy.

Tom was stone sober.  It was not the vision of a drunk.  He was absolutely convinced of the truth of it.  His baby girl Jennifer was alive.  She was happy.

*

He looked at his watch in the porch light that Margaret always left on for him and was surprised to see that he’d been gone barely over an hour.

Margaret obviously wasn’t expecting him back so soon, either, because when he opened the front door, she sprang up from the sofa in the living room with an alarmed look on her face as if he might be a burglar.  Immediately, though, she assumed the role of the beat cop who has the window-breaking street urchin by the collar.  “Well, come on into the kitchen,” she said, jerking her thumb in that direction.

They sat across from one another at the kitchen table.  Margaret squared her shoulders like a boxer preparing to deliver the first blow.  Then she said, “All right, Tom, where was it tonight?”

“O’Grady’s.”  

“And how many tonight?”

“Not even one.  One sip, that’s all.  I mean it.  Ca—.”  He’d started to say, “Call them,” but stopped mid-word.  He didn’t want Margaret calling O’Grady’s and being told that he’d cried on the bar top even though there’d been something wonderful about it, a sweet release like a murderer must feel to finally confess his crime.  But how could he explain that?  He couldn’t.  She’d assume the worst just as all these years Tom had assumed the worst about, well, everything.

“One sip,” she said with amused disgust.

“I didn’t have time to drink more than one,” he said.  “Look at the clock.  I’ve been gone an hour, and most of that was spent walking—and thinking.”

“Walking and thinking.  Ha.  You’re better than the funny papers.  Not enough time.  In an hour, the way you can pour it down you, you could drink enough to drown Jonah’s whale.”

Tom shook his head but didn’t say anything.  Margaret shrugged and said, “Well, we’ll see.  I’ll make that call now.”

She got up, but slowly, giving Tom time to change his tune.  She stood a moment looking down at him, then turned toward the door of the office.

“Something happened tonight,” Tom said.

Margaret stopped.  She turned back toward him and then sat back down as slowly as she’d risen.

“What happened, then?”

What had happened?  It was a good question.  How to explain it?  A drunk calls Brooklyn the City of Churches, and then comes a vision of Brooklyn all green and light and airy, and Tom takes some new truth from that—that it doesn’t all have to be bad, there doesn’t have to be darkness and despair and death everywhere.  When you tried to put it in words it seemed so silly, so inane.  As he struggled to find words, with Margaret staring at him like the Grand Inquisitor—and in truth Brooklyn now seeming dimmer, shabbier than it had only a few moments before—he was surprised to hear himself blurt out, “I saw her tonight.  I saw Jennifer.”

Margaret . . . how a person can not change her expression in the slightest, not move a single muscle, yet still seem to have been delivered a terrific blow . . .

“I mean, not actually, of course, but in my mind’s eye I saw her just as plain.  And why can’t it be true?  Why can’t it at least be possible?  Does she have to be in a hole in the ground in some empty lot in Bedford-Stuy, goddamn it?  No!  I tell you I saw her and our baby was alive.  She was alive, and she had a family, a husband and kids.  They had a little house.  She was baking biscuits.  I tell you it’s true, Margaret.  There’s nothing truer in the wide world.”

He’d run down, like a toy that had sung and danced a jig but then needed to be rewound.

But it would not be Margaret who rewound him.  She sat there, still without moving or changing expressions, like a stone idol, except that perhaps her eyes had narrowed almost imperceptibly, and the corners of her mouth had turned down just the slightest—an idol of censure and bitterness and denial.

Then she said, so softly at first that he could barely hear her but more loudly with each new phrase until at the end she was wailing, “How could you say that to me?  How could you say that?  What a terrible thing to say.  My God, you bastard, what a terrible thing to say!”

Then she toppled forward onto the table, not even cushioning her head with her arms but letting her face fall onto the turkey-shaped vinyl placemat, upon which she’d served their Thanksgiving dinners all these many years.  And then she wept.

Tom went around the table and stood over her awkwardly a moment, and then he put his hand on her back.  He patted her.  He knew that over the days and weeks and years to come he would ponder her words and try to understand how a vision of her daughter alive and happy could torment her so, but he knew that he would fail.  Because we all go into Brooklyn.  And we go alone.

“Margaret,” he said gently, with all the love he had in him, “maybe we could both use a drink?”

Without lifting her head from the table, Margaret nodded.
           
           
           

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