May 9, 2017

Novel Excerpt by Colin Dodds: "Watershed-after the second World Trade Center was destroyed"

Colin Dodds is the author of  four books, Another Broken Wizard, WINDFALL, The Last Bad Job, and Watershed.  His writing has appeared in more than two hundred publications, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Best of the Net Anthology.  Colin’s book-length poem That Happy Captive was a finalist for the Trio House Press Louise Bogan Award as well as the 42 Miles Press Poetry Award in 2015. His his screenplay, Refreshment, was named a semi-finalist in the 2010 American Zoetrope Contest. Colin lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and daughter. See more of his work at thecolindodds.com.





"Watershed-after the second World Trade Center was destroyed"


The rest of the faux-historic day was warm and dusty. For everyone but the city workers, it was over by eleven in the morning. By noon, the drinking, dancing, music, the shouting in the streets for, against, and regardless of the US of A, both in the West Village and in Maspeth, was sporadic and dispirited.
The gleaming, geometric, symbolic hundred-and-change stories exploded in air and crumbled. Some saw a bold and noble sacrifice to honor those who’d sacrificed themselves for their nation. Some saw a gargantuan waste by a decadent nation soon to collapse under its own fatuousness. Some saw the punctuation at the end of American hegemony.
But, at bottom, everyone came away with the same sensation: They all felt a little gypped.


-
Back in Maspeth, Raquel and Norwood spoke in low voices. A half-dozen Ludlite revelers sprawled in drunken slumber outside the bedroom door. But that wasn’t why they spoke low.
They sat on the bed and added up what money they had or could find quickly. They listed the towns with a low cost of living and a Ludlite district. The plan’s many circled question marks curled the pages of the yellow legal pad. But a paternity test wasn’t on those pages.
“So if we sell off my snakes as fast as possible, take your last paycheck from work and the deposit from your apartment, add in my deposit, and our savings, how much is that?”
“Give me a second. I haven’t done math on paper since, like grammar school,” Raquel said. “It should work, as long as one of us can find a job in the next month. The problem is that we can’t get at the deposits on either of our apartments, or my bonus, until the end of the month.”
“We should be able to wait that long, right?”
“I think so. But I have a bad feeling. If we have to leave without that money, what can we do?”
“It limits us, a lot. Shit. We’d have stay on the East Coast, probably near DC, so I could still work for Wilhelmina. I can talk to Jinn, to see if he’s serious about the job he mentioned, maybe ask if he could give me some kind of advance.”
“But we could do it?”
“I think so. Maybe Baltimore or Richmond? I don’t know,” Norwood said, his gaze drifting past Raquel out the window, into the grim arithmetic of poverty.
The phone rang, bell shrill, urgent and uneven. Norwood picked up the line in his room. A voice he recognized but couldn’t place asked for Crosby. Norwood said he was asleep, but the caller insisted.
Norwood knocked and Crosby emitted a gargled curse through the door. He eventually stumbled out to the living room and picked up the phone, with a gruff, “What?” His voice, and his body, buckled almost immediately. He whispered a few interrogatives and hung up, his red beard down pressing to his chest, his big shoulders slumped.
Norwood knew something had happened. He said Crosby’s name.
“Oh my God,” Crosby said. “That was Jobsy. He said Lyla’s dead. She was inside the tower when it went down.”
Raquel came out of the bedroom to see what was happening.
“What?” Norwood said. “Lyla was in it? What the hell? I thought they cleared the towers. I read it in the papers, the whole big deal about clearing them, about the perimeter. What the hell was she doing in there?”
“I don’t know. Jobsy said she snuck in.”
“Why would she do that?” Raquel asked.
Crosby shook his head side to side so his whole body swayed back and forth. Foggy from an hour’s sleep after the night and day’s festivities, he stomped with slapping steps to an upper kitchen cabinet. He dug deep into it and rejoined them at the formica table with a bottle and two glasses.
“No offense, Rocky. I know you can’t drink,” he said, placing the glasses down with an exaggerated gentleness, out of respect for a profound fragility that didn’t apply five minutes ago. “And to answer your question: Why she was in the building. It was two things, I think. Suicide and protest.”
“Protest against what? It’s like protesting against fireworks, or against the movies,” Norwood said.
“To Lyla. Even in death, she knows how to fucking infuriate,” Crosby said, forcing a smile as they toasted, his voice shaky and eyes wet. He started to speak, swallowed and started again. “She and I, we had our thing a year ago, and she’d started seeing my buddy Seamus after that. And the other day, me and him were at the laundromat talking about her. And he said, ‘It’s like she’s never happy unless you’re as mad as she is.’ He was right. So, good job, Lyla. You fucking did it.”
“Did I ever meet her?” Raquel asked.
“Yeah, the first time you came over, when…” Norwood trailed off. “You’d remember her. She was a firebrand, always arguing everyone down.”
“Did she have a weird sweater?”
“Most likely,” Crosby said, his voice bobbing over the lumps in his throat. “Always with the homemade shit she wasn’t any good at making. Like she was improvising with the damn sewing machine.”
They laughed, but Crosby stopped fast and first. In the quiet that followed, Raquel went back to Norwood’s room and the figures on the pad. Someone pounded on the door, three times.
“Shit, what now?” Crosby said.
After a too-short pause, the pounding resumed.
“FISH AND WILDLIFE! OPEN UP!”
It happened fast, like changing the channel on TV. Three brown-uniformed men and a woman came in. She brandished a small bright screen that gave them legal access to the apartment. The woman officer was in charge. She was small and highly compressed, with a face as plain as if someone had written FACE on a sheet of printer paper. She herded the sleepy-eyed Ludlite houseguests into the kitchen and asked for Norwood by name.
Crosby tried to interrupt, but was too distraught to offer anything past a plaintive invocation of their common humanity. The officers took him for a drunk, not their department. Piled into the kitchen, the houseguests whispered the news about Lyla. Her death in the World Trade Center, coupled with the fact that Fish and Wildlife officers carried sidearms, overwhelmed their hungover capacities.
After perusing the bookcase of snake boxes and aquariums in Norwood’s room, the officers asked him for a series of permits, documents and licenses. One by one, Norwood shrugged and mumbled ignorance of Fish and Wildlife laws. The woman officer nodded to the uniformed men, one of whom read off a list of charges from a handheld screen.
Another clicked handcuffs on Norwood and read him his rights, while the other two boxed up Norwood’s snakes. Raquel protested. One of them gave her a business card and said this is where we’re taking him, and that the courts were closed for the holiday, but he should be up for bail the next morning.
In what seemed like an instant, Norwood and the snakes were gone. Awakened, the houseguests offered murmured consolations they didn’t understand about Lyla, and about Norwood. A few reassumed their comfortable-enough positions on the floor.
“Jesus, that poor bastard,” Crosby said to Raquel. “Two trips to jail in a week. What’s going on?”
“I still don’t get it. What did they arrest him for?”
“Straight-up bullshit—too many snakes, snakes in the wrong type of aquariums, aquariums too close to a heat source, aquariums too close to each other, selling snakes without a reptile vendor’s license, breeding reptiles without a reptile-breeder’s certificate—petty shit, like the lightbulbs. It’s a strategy. Make everything illegal, and then they can nab you whenever they feel like it.”
“But why today…” Raquel began, and looked down at the yellow handwritten pages still in her hands, filled with numbers, cities and question marks.
“I know, right? I’ll bet it has to do with Lyla. The city cops came in the other day, got us on the illegal incandescents, and probably saw the snakes then. And after Lyla did what she did—Jobsy said it’s on all the phones, everywhere—the cops needed to apply pressure…”
Crosby went on, spinning forth a whole small galaxy of conspiratorial intrigue, with Maspeth at its center. It seemed to calm him, at least.
-
The Fish and Wildlife cops were nice enough on the long drive out to the Fish and Wildlife headquarters out in Valley Stream. The officer who cuffed him answered Norwood’s questions. He didn’t have many happy answers, but at least he didn’t seem to relish giving them out.
At headquarters, a low beige brick building across from a 7-Eleven, they booked Norwood and locked him in a holding cell. Compared with the city jail, the cell gleamed with the prosaic shine of federal largesse. He passed the night there with a taciturn, middle-aged Chinese man in a shiny blue suit with mud on the knees and elbows. He ignored Norwood, ignored everything, completely.
No one called Fish and Wildlife after five, at which point, Norwood’s cellmate discovered a new pastime, sniffling, hawking up phlegm, and then loudly gulping it down. His hawking and the clicking of an old computer mouse as a bored officer chased diversion through the electronic wilderness filled the night with something like the opposite of music.
Lying there, Norwood ruminated. The offenses weren’t major, but numerous. The way the officer on the long drive told it, the fines could be steep, the permits costly and the classes required to obtain the necessary certificates more expensive than the snakes were worth. Unless Norwood drained his savings, they’d keep his snakes. If he didn’t, they’d take his snakes and he’d still have to pay the fines. So, like that, his snakes were gone. Over the last few years, they’d been his business, his responsibility, and also his friends. They’d been his way out of menial labor to a kind of tranquility.
Amid the phlegm hawking and the computer clicking, Norwood tried to remember what value Raquel had written on the yellow legal pad for the snakes. He was too worn out to remember, exactly. But this did fuck them.
And Norwood wondered if it wasn’t too late to somehow return to the peaceful, tolerable life he had before he met Raquel. If she took the paternity test, and the kid wasn’t his, no one could blame him for breaking it off. He could buy more snakes, or take Jinn up on his offer. There’d be women in the Ludlite bars, women who wouldn’t ask him to uproot his life, who didn’t whip out their cell phones at the first corner where service resumed. That life could be his.
And he wouldn’t be wrong to ask for the paternity test. It might demoralize Raquel and destroy the fragile but profound trust she’d placed in him. But he’d be within his rights. Locked up in Long island, it was a relief to imagine any options at all.
He began to drift. He thought of Lyla sneaking into the empty tower, full of spite, scheming for glory. He thought of Crosby, crying for her. He began to dream. In the dream, the World Trade Center collapsed again, but with an agonizing slowness, gushing water as it did. He watched with the crowd, as a deluge of dull gray liquid drowned the adjacent buildings. They watched, all resigned to drowning. Snakes slithered over their feet, fleeing the tower and the flood.
Above, a weary angel flew overhead, losing altitude, metallic wings clanking. The crowd let out a cry like a cicada’s trill.
“What happened? One of you had it. What happened?” the plaintive angel said.
And Norwood knew it was him the floundering angel referred to. He didn’t know what he’d squandered, but knew he’d discarded it for nothing, given it up as a lazy, un-asked-for tithe to the inevitable. He lowered his gaze as the murky concrete water rose.
His cellmate sniffled up a smacking avalanche of snot and chased it into his throat with hacking rumbling juicy inhales, rich with contempt. It woke Norwood to the jail cell. It woke him to a world in which everything was not set in stone, in which he had not yet made the terrible mistake given him to make. He sat up on his cot and smiled at his sullen Chinese cellmate, whose stare remained fixed in the middle distance.
Norwood didn’t sleep the rest of the night. His thoughts wandered to Raquel, the fear in her eyes in the condo lobby as she told him they had to flee. This night in jail, the one before, both on bullshit charges. Was this the other man? She said he was rich, and the law often belonged to the rich. But he was surprised how little it all bothered him—the legal-seeming persecution, the matter-of-fact theft of his livelihood, the suicide of a friend, and the sudden need to flee his home.
What welled up, instead, was an emotion that had become common lately during the minutes he was neither anxious nor terrified about the future.
It was an intense, gorgeous poignancy, as though he’d volunteered to spin the wheel that would one day run him down and grind him to dust. He knew that by pushing the wheel, he claimed an incredible inheritance, one he’d previously known only as death.
It was how Norwood imagined grace must feel.

© Colin Dodds


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