By The Hudson

By Eric Maroney


Now that so many years had passed since his great work—the work that had influenced even popular culture—he was remembered in ever-narrowing circles.  He was a marker on a timeline.  On this point of the line came Weinglass. Then the line moves on, and Wineglass does not return.

 

If Weinglass minded, he never let on.  He kept the thoughts in his mind carefully guarded by seven doors, each opened by seven separate keys.  But if you took the time to study Charles Weinglass with the careful observation and analysis of the best of his own work, it was very easy to see that Weinglass did not live in the present or for the future.  His preoccupations were firmly with the past.  He had once had a Janus face, pointing to both the past and the future, but somewhere along the way, the forward-looking face had dropped off, and in its place had formed a growth as hard as stone.  Nothing he wrote appeared good in his own eyes.  So he stopped writing. And to those who did not know him well, it was as if he was dead.

 

So now that Weinglass was back in town, he should have called on all the people whom he once knew.  But he had been gone for so long that he imagined that his presence would be intrusive—a reminder to people whose lives had moved on that Weinglass was still there.  And if Weinglass was still there, then other unsightly and disturbing things might be back there as well, ready to enter as soon as Weinglass departed.  So he stayed away.  He had found a hotel on the Upper East Side and spent the first day of his stay in Manhattan in bed, catching up on sleep that he did not need.  He slept to quell an old ache.  But when he woke, it was still there, nagging at him like a bad tooth.

 

So Weinglass stood in front of the mirror and took a critical look at his face. It was scored by slumber, and bore heavy, drooping eyelids, lips that turned downward as if expressing a permanent dissatisfaction and a shock of white, wiry hair which stood up on his head to show its feral will.  Bristles of white hair brazenly stood out on his face, so he rancorously scrapped them off with a razor and stepped into the shower.  As he let the warm water flow over his body before he scrubbed, he remembered about fifteen years ago living in the Catskills next to the New York City Watershed.   No one in the watershed could build so much as a shack because the water for fifteen million people was unfiltered.  Weinglass imagined all that water, which flowed to the city through the force of gravity alone, pooling in creeks and streams, sluicing in pipes, cascading at collection stations, heading out from below the street and up into his shower to wash over his body for a moment, only to duck down the drain, back on a voyage through sewage pipes, and a treatment plant, and then into the New York Harbor.

 

As he stepped out of the shower, he felt fatigued.  The whole vision had filled his head with such tremendous details of water transferring from place to place with mindless alacrity, that he felt his own efforts deflate in comparison.  So he sat on the edge of the bed, the towel dry and limp in his hand, and allowed exhaustion to dampen his spirit.

 

But when the sun came out and Weinglass had a cup of coffee, he felt a renewed interest in the next two days.  Here he was, in the city of his nativity, a place that had long forgotten him, where he could almost see the severed roots of his former existence in the street and on the sidewalk.

 

“I’d like to hire a car for the day,” Weinglass told the concierge.  The man nodded and asked Weinglass a series of questions relating to duration, distance, and purpose, all of which Weinglass answered faithfully.  As a man who had based his life on the careful investigation of details that most dismissed as trivial, he could appreciate the effort of one man interrogating another about his actions in order to reveal his atomic motivations.

 

“You see, I was born here,” Weinglass summarized for the man.  “I want to take a tour of some of the places where I’ve lived.”

 

“Are you sure they still exist, sir?” the concierge asked with gravity.  “Sometimes in New York it seems a building’s only purpose is to be torn down.”

 

Weinglass laughed at the man’s joke, telling him he would take his chances.  And in a half hour, he was in the back seat of a grey sedan heading downtown.

 

Of course, he was not surprised that everything below 14th street was flattened.  But he was astonished by the scale of the vision, and the fact that no one any longer seemed to care.  One road heading down to the Battery had been cleared, and alongside it, rows of debris had been piled like pagan cairns.  Every now and again, a building was standing, and people appeared to live in it; laundry hung from a line, and smoke rose from a chimney.  When Weinglass saw a collection of these buildings down by the waterfront, he leaned forward in his seat.

 

“I thought no one was allowed to live here,” Weinglass commented, talking to the hairy back of the driver’s neck.

 

“No one is, but who has the heart to throw them out?” the driver answered.  Weinglass sat back and the car turned, avoiding a road block.  But a police officer around the corner flagged them down.  The driver stopped and spoke to the cop for a while, and then the car moved ahead.  The driver stopped the car by the river, near a row of old brownstones.

 

Weinglass got out and stood and looked.  There wasn’t a single pane of unbroken glass along the whole row.  City workers had marked each house with an orange X, meaning that they were uninhabitable.  He saw the building as one face with the eyes gouged out and the teeth missing and long, unhealed rows of scars on its sunken cheeks and forehead.

 

“I’m going in number 30,” Weinglass told the driver, who was still in the car.

 

“I’ll give you a half hour, sir.  If you’re not back, then I leave.  And in a place like that, I don’t come in to get you, either.”

 

“Understood,” Weinglass pulled on his tight leather gloves, closed his brown coat, and sloshed through the water and up the steps.

 

“Thirty, thirty, thirty, because it’s dirty, dirty, dirty!” the kids would rhyme at the front of the Weinglass house—because of them all, it was the first to suffer from the peculiar brand of entropy that struck southern Manhattan, as if an ancestor’s god had placed a sanction on the family and the house.  First there was dry rot.  Then a flooded basement.  Then the windows cracked during the long winter of ’22.  Ivy grew all the way up the bricks only to die at mid-height, leaving a flurry of brown and black leaves to ring the windows, doors and gutter pipes like a dark cloak.  The Blizzard of ’24 punched a hole in the roof, and by then no one was laughing anymore.  The whole row of houses then showed the same defects, only worse.  A miasma clung over the area, as if the bit of once reclaimed land was about to topple back into the Hudson where it belonged.

 

Weinglass remembered that, but the memory was distant.  He held more intimate recollections closer to his heart, in a tight orbit around the leftover core of the heart of a child.  There was his older brother Aaron, who had been ordained by Mr. and Mrs. Weinglass as the Weinglass who would succeed.  He earned all As at school and ran on the track team.  Girls were always sidling up to the stoop to ask if Aaron was home.  As his little brother, Weinglass got to share a bit of vicarious recognition, but not enough to offset the heavy losses.

 

“You’re gonna be fine, kiddo,” Aaron would say, tussling Weinglass’ hair.  “I had baby fat, too.  It goes away and never comes back.”

 

“It’s like this, Chucky, one day you grow up all at once.  It isn’t gradual.  One day you’re a pudgy kid.  The next, you’re running around the track with five skirts chasing after you.”

 

“Let me know the name of the kid who popped you in the nose, Chuck.  You let me know and it won’t happen again!  What?  You don’t want to be a snitch?  That’s noble, but you’re gonna get a lotta bloody noses that way.”

 

“Don’t let Pop get you down.  He has all sorts of problems he doesn’t even tell us about.  Trust me; I have it from Jakubson, his partner.  They got money problems and collection problems and supply problems. And look at this joint.  As quick as you fix it, it falls down.  The place is a heap.”

 

Weinglass was surprised to find much of the first floor gone, exposing an under layer of brackish water that smelled faintly of excrement.  Yet there must have been a time when people lived here, because a few boards connected together by nails led to the stairs.  So Weinglass made his way carefully along the duckboards, until he reached the steps.  A strange, gray mold grew on the banisters, making the familiar wood look like cracked marble.  Weinglass held onto the banister, unsure of the wood below his feet.  With each groan of a board he expected to fall to the water below, but he made it to the top of the stairs, and found himself on a relatively solid landing, with a firmament of peeling paint above his head and a field of shredded carpet below his feet.  And there was the window with the broad view of the Hudson River that he had so treasured as a little boy.

 

When he was very young, there had been no view of the river.  Several buildings and cranes by the docks had blocked the sight.  But as the land became unfit, the buildings had been demolished or fell and then the broad expanse of river was visible.  Weinglass would sit by the window day after day and watch the ships trolling up and down the river, into and out of the harbor, like grains of sand flowing back and forth in an hourglass.  And all around him, the boy could see the slowing pace of the city, and by extension, of the world.  Why where things slowing down?  Why was the pulse of these once busy streets becoming sluggish and dull?  Humanity had spread across the globe with its ingenuity and tenacious desire to control the forces of nature.  And then, in this city, where the very ground beneath one’s feet was artificial, the great experiment appeared to have reached its apogee and seemed to be sliding away.  But to what?  Young Weinglass hadn’t known. And now old Weinglass, standing in the window, feeling the salt licking his face through the broken pane, didn’t know either.

 

He had examined numerous myths of the descent, and had laid bare their structure.  But in all his years of careful examination—and in his popular books, which for nearly three years had been on everyone’s lips—he never quite could get to the bedrock of the answer.  Why give up now, when we had come so far?  Why were humans running out of steam?  Could it be there was no answer? Was our time simply up?

 

Weinglass walked over to the room he had shared with Aaron. A large section of the roof had caved in, and water had poured down, eventually punching a hole in the floor.  He took each step as if it would be his last, imagining that he was an elephant walking over an abyss covered by a piece of soggy paper.  Somehow, an ailanthus tree had grown at the lip of the hole.  There was enough debris to form a pulpy soil, and the tree had made a valiant effort to grow toward the open roof.  But somewhere along the way its roots had outgrown the soil, and it had died.  Now the sapling was little more than an arched stick with a few brown fronds at its crest.

 

His brother’s death.  This is where his parents laid out Aaron’s body after the riot. But his father, a man already reeling, had walked back and forth at the threshold, incapable of again entering the room where his son’s body laid.  All Weinglass had been able to do was hold his hand and pace back and forth alongside him.

 

He moved back, afraid of the floor and the tree and the apparition of his long dead brother, which he could somehow feel moving in and out of the blown-out windows.  He moved slowly toward his parents’ room, where he had been conceived.  A wall had toppled away, and in its place was nothing but the view of the river, swift, brown, frothing.  He moved on to the living room, where there were remains of a squatter.  Pieces of a cardboard bed.  Empty cans of food.  A few charred sticks and a hole stamped in the ceiling to ventilate smoke.  His parents had left furniture, books, and photos here when they had fled, but of course those were gone.  In fact, even the walls had been scraped and the lath removed for fuel.  Weinglass peered through a hole.  He could see the squat expanse of southern Manhattan below, and a brown and orange haze at the horizon.

 

One room remained, near the rear of the house.  His father’s study was cluttered with trash, but there was a bare spot in the center of the room, obviously purposefully cleared.  He took a step forward and peered down.  He knew he was looking at human bones, which were carefully arranged in a circle.  The skull was gone, but he recognized among the others two femurs and detached ribs.  All were arranged in seven concentric circles.  He puzzled over the vision and its implication, but had no time to form a theory.  The floor, as gooey as old paste, gave way, and Weinglass found himself on the floor below, his fall cushioned by an old mattress whose stink rose high in his nostrils.  He took a step down, only to find himself falling down another hole.  This time he landed on the floor.  He took an uncertain step and fell through again.  Now there was no floor to catch him below, but a collapsed wall, which he slid down like a ramp to the back end of the steps, where the duckboards on the first floor ended.  He stood up.  To his amazement, he was not hurt.  His clothes were hardly wrinkled.   In the back of the stairs, shrouded in tattered blankets, a hiding family.  No doubt they had seen Weinglass enter and had hidden; and now here he was, nearly cascading on top of them, like a fallen angel.  He took a step forward, smelled them; his eyes watered and he peeled a few bills from his wallet, passed them to a brown hand, and stepped out into the street.

 

The car was still waiting.  He got in and the driver gazed at him in the rear view mirror. Then the man looked out at the building and back at Weinglass.

 

“Find what you were looking for?” the man asked.  Weinglass smiled thinly.

 

“I suppose so,” he answered, turning his gaze away from the driver and out at the churning gray water.  “You can take me back to the hotel now.”

 

Later that day Weinglass delivered a lecture on a topic no one cared about anymore.  He said his words slowly and carefully, but with a note of minor happiness, a person who had fully digested his subject matter and could regurgitate it whole.

 

 

_____________

Eric Maroney is the author of two books of non-fiction, Religious Syncretism (2006) and The Other Zions (2010). His fiction has appeared in Our Stories, The MacGuffin, ARCH, Segue, The Literary Review, Eclectica, Per Contra, Pif and The Montreal Review. He has an MA from Boston University, and lives in Ithaca New York with his wife and two children. More of his work can be found on his web page: http://www.arts.cornell.edu/ econ/em75.


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