(This story is dedicated to my cousin Tom Foley RIP 1980-2010, and one of my greatest friends Kieran Thomson RIP 1988-2010. You two were fighters that carried a level of passion and conviction that very few people ever find.)
He grew up spitting blood on the Hudson banks. Jersey side. He stole teeth as payment. He was all dark eyes and dark thoughts growing up. Labored in shit jobs. Picking up skills and tossing away dead weight.
His parents gave love. He always gave the same. His money didn't mean shit and always found its ways into pockets. Friends' pockets. Women's pockets. Pool pockets. He wasn't great at real gambling. But he knew his odds with people and played his hand close to the chest. He would talk like how he thought. Like how he'd write. Turning his words into weapons and feathers. He was always alone. But he made sure no one else was.
He flew through school. Not a good student, but sharp and resourceful. He did the standard amount of drugs. Kept drinking all the way through. Did one semester of college. He signed onto the Erie boats after the fallout. NYU wasn't for him. Too much wasted cash. Too much condescension. He was still alone, working blue collar. But at least he wasn't alone and in pain.
He picked up a guitar when he was sixteen after breaking curfew at CBGBs. He loved the punk trip. Played more from the soul. Wrote things that no one wanted to hear. He didn't care if they listened.
He read a book every two days. Usually something he snagged from a used shop. Or something a friend shoved in his arms. He put the pen to paper every night. Writing through cigarette smoke and anger. He laid out something he called truth. Painted the world on a sad canvas. He used lots of reds.
Mania and stress kept his hair buzzed and his body like steel. The lifting and repairing and swimming helped. He was given a five hundred dollar bonus when he saved an overboard co-worker. He took the money and discarded the praise.
He picked one bar as his. A place to lose the world. After a few months there, he talked. Drunk, he asked about playing a gig. They squeezed his shoulder and said why not. He played for fifteen minutes. The bar was silent for two hours. His voice bit cold. It slashed at the soul. It was ugly. But he played for free, and people drank more after his set. They booked him for a Sunday a month after that.
He kept his scrap manuscripts in a desk drawer in his basement apartment. There was one naked light. A hot plate. No TV. No computer. Water stained walls and a cot. He felt comfortable there. It was his. That's all he ever said about it.
He would get into fights sometimes. Brawls in alleyways with black kids and drunks. Sometimes junkies and thugs. One night he came home bleeding from a stab wound. He wrote about the pain with his own blood on a page of newspaper.
The lake jobs raked in good money. They were time consuming. But he had no one to worry about. He wrote his parents a couple times a year. They always wrote back on tear-stained stationary. The responses were the only thing that made him smile.
Every once in a while he'd have the random one night stand. The women were stale and tasted bitter. He still fucked them. But it was to try and find some connection. With them. With the rest of humanity.
Years floated by. He still played music. Now on a beat up Telecaster he found at a pawnshop. He still wrote. Now with a Remington typewriter. He was still alone. He was still alive. He went up to two packs a day. He still stayed fit with the work and the occasional hack-fueled run.
He never spent more money than was needed. He never missed a month's rent. Never shopped anywhere but Goodwill. He went through the motions and ignored the cash piling up in his bank account. He never felt anything really.
Then one night he decided to change routine.
On a whim he followed the stars. Listened to the moonlight. He felt it deep. He felt something for the first time in a while. He had to embrace it. He watched the night trace a path to the Village. Everything was old marble. The buildings were nostalgic. They reminded him of stories from his grandfather, who grew up on the corner of Bleeker. His grandfather's building was a trendy restaurant now. Asian-fusion.
He wandered the streets. Cheap leather shoes catching the concrete. Head bowed under a wool cap his dad gave him when he was thirteen. He was in no man's land. He didn't belong.
He found a coffeehouse near Avenue A. It was small and quiet. The lights were warm. The brews were lava hot. There were only a few patrons. Most in multi-colored outfits and Buddy Holly glasses. He went onto the patio and sat in a wrought iron chair.
He snapped a match and put fire to a camel. A waitress in a red T-shirt and jewel eyes stepped into the cold. She was in light make-up, barely noticeable. Her hair was short. She was cocky and nonchalant. She didn't dress up or down. She just was. Like a cliff sculpture formed by a corrosive tide.
Her breath fogged as she talked.
"Haven't seen you before? What can I get you?" She kept her eyes on his. It made him nervous. His palms leaked sweat.
"You're right. Never been here before. Can I have a cup of black?" His voice rasped. It was worn with age. Hurt by too much silence.
"Be right back." She was gone for a few minutes. For him it was another half a cigarette.
She sat down across from him after delivering the coffee. He turned sideways and sipped from the mug. She kept looking at him. Staring through the shadows on his face. Staring into him.
"It's the best I've had. Better than the shit on the barges." He said. Trying to draw away her attention.
"We try." She said quick. "Can I ask you a question?"
"If you can talk, you can ask."
"What do you do?"
"I work on the Erie boats."
"No. What do you do?"
He was confused. She seemed to be too clear. She knew something about him. Saw something. He knew nothing about her. It was a knife twisting in his brain. It wasn't a happy feeling.
"I don't understand?"
"People that hit the Village are either artists, tourists, college fucks, or fakes. Which one are you?" She said lighting a Kool with a dark red Bic.
"Then why are you here?"
"I followed the stars." He was a fool for saying it aloud.
"Are you insane? 'Unstable'?" She quoted it with her fingers.
"I don't think so." He thought about it for a few seconds. He was an outsider. But he never thought himself crazy. Just troubled. "I just felt it. Really, right here in my gut and chest. It's the first thing I've felt in a long time."
She crossed herself. Her body fighting shivers from the New York chill. Her eyes became brighter as her interest grew.
"So answer the question in a way you can."
"I write I guess. Songs and bullshit."
"So you're an artist?"
"No. Art is for people trying to influence other people or prove something. I do what I do because I need to."
"So you're an egotist?"
"No. I'm just lost. I'm trying to find something."
"What is this 'something'?"
"You ask a lot of questions to strangers."
"You aren't any stranger than the regulars who come in here. They shit out conversations and slurp too-sweet drinks. You're different than them. Better, in my opinion." She had a razor smile.
"You don't take claim to anything you're not. You just don't seem to give a fuck."
"I care about people."
"I don't know why I care about myself."
"You ever been in love?"
"You a virgin at your age?"
"No. Look, life never gave me that."
"You aren't given love. You have to find it. You have to wrestle it from someone else."
"I'm supposed to be alone. I think that's all I know."
"You're a fuckin' fatalist."
"Yeah, I've lived a long time and haven't found anything to say otherwise."
"Let me read something you wrote."
"Please." Her smile bordered fake and genuine. It was still beautiful. He melted.
He handed her the tiny notebook filled with scrawls and scribbles. Ideas. Words. Stories. Songs. A pit of despair drawn out in ink. Her eyes welled after two pages.
She kept reading.
She couldn't hold back the shiver anymore. He took off his jacket and put it on her shoulders. It was the only thing he thought he could do. It didn't work. Her chest heaved as she sobbed. Her hands clenched the book and shook.
She kept reading.
He lit another smoke and dragged it down. Eyes curious on her nodded head. Her face was caught somewhere between sadness and amazement.
Her boss exited through glass doors and walked up to her. She told him a simple believable excuse and he left.
She finished after thirty minutes.
She looked up at him. A guy in his late twenties. Destroyed and rebuilt by long days. Hard as brick and frail like tissue. She had seen a fraction of his soul. She had touched something that was hidden like a sunken ship.
She handed back the book. Face white and pale. Eyes red and watered. He put the black thing back into his pocket. He just shrugged and looked down. The iron chair made a hard noise as it scraped against the cement. He turned his back and headed towards the nearest corner. Ready to take a cab home.
She stopped him. Hand still shaky. Fingertips light against his shoulder. He debated not turning around.
When he did. She kissed him. Her lips were soft. Like lake mist. She tasted light and sweet. Her hands lingered on his chest and arm. Their mouths stayed locked for a few heart beats. Simultaneous heart beats.
They stopped and their eyes held. Dark brown on violent blue.
"Come with me she said." Her voice a silk whisper.
He couldn't think of anything to say.
She went and turned in her black apron. Told her boss some short story. He didn't believe her, but let her go anyway.
The fresh couple stepped down the block. Bodies close and exchanging heat. Eyes wet. Her apartment was a few blocks south.
For the first time, he knew he had been wrong.