Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Welcome to The Tickle Yard

Club Raye, 26 Rue Dussoubs, Paris, France

My hands slunk away from the keys of that white spinet in Paris. I breathed out quietly to tear loose the chords of that last song still thumbtacked to my brain. I scanned the room as if someone had swapped it on me. Behind the piano I palmed the knees of my black trousers, locked my arms and arched my back. I tried to be as furtive as a cat shredding a chair reserved for company.

Closing time. Just midnight on a Saturday in May. Closing night too. Five nights, five hours a night, giving people love songs until my hands were rude and veined. 

If you play and sing love songs for a living, wherever you are, you know this: There is a need, those who wander in need, and find you. Your needs don’t factor into it. Give them love without loving them, and no facsimile. Lies will out through a love song.

Let them project their idealized romantic selves upon you. They pay for the privilege.

You’ve got to give it, even if you don’t have it. 

But they had all gone now. I took a final glance around as the guys closed up. The club is a savvy wink. A Deco nirvana of stark black and white, and flirtations of red. Mirrors and expert cocktails and jazz. All that Cole Porter in a converted fourteenth century nunnery. The bartender offered me the last of the rounds I’d had over the night.  A Perfect Manhattan made with Masterson’s ten-year-old Canadian rye, twist not cherry. My face felt hot. From fatigue, from booze, from a job well done and a city well explored. But I felt tired too, and more than a little vacant.

I ambled away from the club lights. I’d had a hell of a good time.

I could have packed it in. Early morning looming. But this velvet job. These slippery hours left. But the songs. But Paris. I wasn’t ready. Those damn songs betrayed me. I didn’t want to be a tuneful liar. I hooked a defiant right south across Hotel de Ville, under the bald, glaring clock face and past the hot pustules of teens, conspiring too broadly to beat their elders at their own game. 

I crossed the bridge over toward the chilled grey murmur of the cathedral. It was a hands-in-pockets shuffle, bunched raincoat, the loafer’s strut across water. There were tourist idlers, a few, even then. 

Notre Dame, ornate and creamy in light, sphinxed.

The Seine shrugged at me, black with occasional licks of murky green. I heard shouts, bladed laughter. I crossed the Pont Au Double and went down worn stone steps to the river’s edge. Dark. The traffic softened to a gargle. I walked, my hands still in my pockets. Cobblestones curved away under my soles. Darker. The bridge was an obscene maw, an emerging whale, and I was the plankton in a raincoat. I let it have me. Its steel ribs arced, horrible and riveted. Even darker. I wondered what the hell I thought I’d find. Voices knocking at me off the steel ribs. In a few echoing yards, I found kids. Drinking rotgut, chain-smoking, hiphop through a Bluetooth speaker. 

Just teens, shattering a bottle, shoving each other. Girls, shiny and fickle and small, grinning at the vigor, all wreathed in smoke. I wondered if the only thing that had changed about this scene over a few hundred years was the music. Slipping past them, their cigarette smoke curled in my wake.

There were bateaux mouches docked. I slowed. Behind me was a dusty tree with strands of light bulbs dangling overhead like greasy lemons. A man, fifties and lanky and tired, maybe the owner, planked off the boat, flipping through a keyring. His chest had the deflation of a man who knows nothing changes. To my right, the quai stretched on into charcoal gloom. That was the first time I thought my loneliness had put me in harm’s way. 

I traced my way back, led with my shoulders. Shadows crossed, merged. None darted. Once on Pont D’Arcole just north of the cathedral, I paused. I looked at the river and both banks. Paris is parted lips. A night as dark, spent, glossy as satin slung over the back of a chair. Lights boasted like bubbles that had escaped the glass. Purple ringed the swells of the Ile St. Louis, flush and stinging and earned, like a fondly given bruise. I’d been told about a very beautiful girl, a blonde, Finnish? Swedish? Works at the hotel? Doubted she’d be there that late.

           I thought of that night’s audience. My drinkers had known where to go to make their something of their night, they found me. But I didn’t know. New York is a clamped smirk. I’ve been alone there a lot and smirked back. But Paris is parted lips. And you can’t kiss a city.

           I made my way off the bridge and east along the Rue de Rivoli, then cut north and stood outside my hotel. It was a beauty. Ivy devoured it whole and still gnawed at a corner. There was a wink of a brass plaque from inside the green leafy jaws.

The lobby had that hermetic hush of fine places, the sinuous perfume of money. A boutique hotel, Moroccan-themed. I loved it, but what wasn’t there to love? All the requisite dignity and charm of a little old cavalry officer festooned with medals, twirling a moustache over tales of old romances. Maybe I was drunker than I knew.

I went over to the cocktail tray by an overstuffed brocaded chair. “Bonsoir, M’sieur,” said the crisp night clerk. His tone grated my ears the same way a starched collar itches my neck.

“Bonsoir,” I said, placing a snifter in front of me and lifting the Remy Martin VSOP.

“May I do that for you?”

“Oh. That’s civil of you,” I said. I was drunker than I knew.

The night clerk swiveled around the desk and poured out a hefty double of cognac. It spun like hot honey and cedar.

“Compliments of the house?” I asked.

His flat, amused look said otherwise.

“A friend mentioned the manager here,” I said with a too-chummy sweep of the snifter, “A very beautiful blonde girl from Finland? Or Sweden? Speaks impeccable French and English, charming as the day is long? My friend is her friend. She’s not working tonight by any chance? I told my friend I’d say hello, you understand.”

The clerk laughed dully. “Je regrette…”

“Ah,” I said, with my hand beneath the glass. I wondered if it was warming my hand rather my warming the drink. “Je regrette aussi.”


“Doesn’t matter. The fountain in the garden…?”

“Still on, yes, for the time being,” said the clerk, back behind the safe impersonality of his desk and flatscreen and brass lamp. He handed me my room key from the hooks behind him. It was attached to a long cord of red and gold thread, thickly tasseled on the end. I spun it. The fop with the fob.

“Excellent. Bonne nuit,” I said, and started climbing the heavily carpeted spiral staircase with its rope railing. He called it back and I heard the discreet click-clack of typing resume.

Once in the room I threw off the black raincoat. I brought the cognac out onto the terrace. Mine was the only room that had one. Ivy aspired high, and slim wrought iron chairs circled a table. I soaked in the improbability. Here were the enfolding arms of old beams and mortar topped with tile, and below me, a docile courtyard where water dabbled from a stone fish’s mouth. Here was a city’s sweet and rueful wisdom, and none of it mine. Here was stillness, but I couldn’t steal any of that either. I’d had too much of the hard stuff, and my head rested too heavy against the iron chair. I sat buffeted by emerald leaves, watching the peaching glow of day caress the stars away.

I killed the last of the cognac in my glass. It was unapologetic. It tasted like an uppercut through a velvet glove.

Then the fountain trickled off. The garden went grave. I left the snifter on the metal table outside.

The bed felt vaster than it was. I lay in bed naked and forgot to turn off the North African lamps with their strands of red beads. Hadn’t closed the drapes either. The lamps bled scarlet capillaries across the dark. I turned my head and saw that dawn was quickening.

In a few hours, I’d be leaving the parted lips.

Cafedraal, Zilverstraat 38, Bruges, Belgium.

There were no other diners left on the patio, and the lavender night had too much bite to sit outside. But we dared. We were chill-bitten and drank the local and asked for more.

My sister Nathalie and I had arrived in Bruges by six pm on a Sunday, parked the rental, and roamed totally unprepared. Bruges was the midway point on our drive due north from Paris to Amsterdam. All the savoury ingredients bubbled low for us: No map, never set foot there. Zero research. We simply arrived, and as aimless as museum ghosts, strolled by the ruddy tapestry of it all. Our ability to speak French was worse than useless. Bruges is a stolid Flemish town, proud of it. English is infinitely preferable, so we had that much at least. But that meant all the town signs were in Flemish, which is a little like sneezing in a Scrabble box. Then also it was getting dark the minute we arrived. And six pm on a Sunday in Bruges isn’t exactly the lowland Las Vegas. Nat and I had a hell of a good time.

There was still gauzy light enough to see swans preening across grass-lined canals at sunset, and to cup our eyes through the closed shop windows at webs of handmade lace and wheels of marzipan and chocolates. Bruges is a Sunday town that drowses like a beloved uncle after a large meal.

And like the rental, Nat and I needed fuel. Brugse Zot was the local, or as I found out, the only brewery left in Bruges. Infinitely superior when direct from the source. Or so the waiter intoned in that unhurried way a true veteran has of hurrying you along. A fine beer. I’d had two of the dark, or Dubbel. Nat had only one of the pale. With the stem of my glass I gestured at the remains of our dessert. Chocolate mousse lounging over a levitating waffle.

“Everything in Bruges is brown,” I said, as if it meant anything.

“Everything, but you’re pointing at the chocolate mousse?” Nat leveled over a final scoop.

“Every building is brick, the roofs clay, each street is stone. This Dubbel, the beef stew, the bread. The mousse. And even the rustic pate that came out at the beginning, from a local farm…”

“I’d have accepted ‘rosy’ for the pate, but it wasn’t brown. If that had been brown, we’d have sent it back to the farm,” she said, forcing herself to surrender the spoon. She licked a trace of chocolate from her fingertip and shoved her arms into a cross snug to her chest and pulled up her spine with outward discipline. Our mother does the same thing. I smiled at her.

“Even so, brown. Pervasive,” I said. I put down my glass and cast an eye around. A deep, shimmery breath of freedom flooded my nostrils. A week. No gigs. An unknown city. Stolen time with my sister and brother-in-law. Best of all, no love songs sung to strangers.

Over her shoulder loomed a stone tower tall enough that God could have used it as a fireman’s pole in emergencies. Nat seemed very small by contrast. It really was getting cooler. The Dubbel was a sip away from polished off. We needed to hit the road, but I was so glad of the nowhere to be, and the lovely brown nowhere to have been. I was making us late.

I watched Nat across the table. She and Mark had been living in Paris for two years, then another year in Amsterdam. It agreed with them. She was always a stylish girl, but better still, a girl whose style was not a covetous Xerox of some other girl or a magazine. Here she wore what she would have called one of her feebler jackets, collar popped and a light coral pink pashmina swathed around her neck. Hair bundled back and no makeup. On her, it was functional and chic and tender.

Her wide almond eyes of a Disney chipmunk gazed back at me. Strands of black hair, wispier than mine, loped across her forehead. Her jaw was set and her mouth had crunched to one corner of her face. She was ready. “So?” she asked without asking.

“I definitely think she was from Finland after all, not Sweden,” I said.

Nathalie mashed her face into her palm.

Nieuwmarkt, Zeedijk Straat, just east of the Red Light District, Amsterdam, Holland.

I leaned against a lamppost at the canal’s edge, late afternoon. The leaves overhead gave a prim little fan dance, with coy flashes of what the sun wore underneath. 

That was when I decided that it was Dutch babies that taught me about the Dutch at first.

Tall, gangly blonde parents in checkered shirts will bike with wheelbarrows full of babies, in pastel sunlight or under slickers in ashen rain. I would watch these little wagons of babies bobble along the cobblestones, jutting off the front of the bicycle like the figurehead of a ship. Those babies told me of the Dutch. They’re the children of cloudy skies and the sedate pleasure of a flower, and simple stews. They are descendants of mariners and painters and fishermen, watchful and pale and calm. They never squeal or bicker, and neither do their parents. They just offer chipper singsong warning of “Voorzichtig!” as they tear along, but so benignly that you might thank them for the tip.

But if the babies told me of the Dutch, it was the canals that taught me of Holland. Waterborne logic, I figured. It had to be. That distance of just a few feet down into a canal, and all of Amsterdam’s triumph is revealed like the quiet, confident fanning of cards.

I watched the sage-green water below. It almost purred. I felt happy envy at the fat slumbering barges and houseboats, with their rooftop gardens lapping up end of day warmth. I watched the private outboarders rippling by at a speed that seemed pensive. Nearly ten locals, my age, fresh from their offices and now armed with the local Heinekens, weaving through their sun-dappled labyrinth. Their laughter was bright and soft. They took turns at the helm. In horseshoe formation along the edges of the boat, they sat and sipped beer without looking to punish their guts. They knew someone with a boat, and that someone liked to host. Knowing someone sociable and with a boat was key. I’d seen similar boatloads of friends over a few afternoons. I liked seeing them. 

The girls were sandy or ginger-haired, unadorned, long and lean and not especially rounded. But they looked and felt sturdy, assured. They had the healthy grins of women with appetite. The men were built similarly, and when you saw little pats of affection, or even heat, the flame was turned low and inconspicuous. Pleasure, but order.

Soon the boat tottered around a corner and away beneath a slightly hidden bridge. The sage-green water undulated for their efforts, and all that was left was the knowledge that the dry productivity of the day was well served, and now the damp enjoyments of the evening could begin.

Nat, Mark and I had done a sunset cruise of the canals in their adopted hometown. The swank Hotel Krasnapolsky had shattered a century of tradition and opened the canals to cruises. We took their line, and had luxuriated under a flush gold and violet sky, and the glare of bulb lights newly brash at dusk. We had seen the Skinny Bridge connect over the Amstel River not merely with chain and stone, but with flesh and saliva. There had been a pair in silhouette watching over the silken flow of river, dead center of the bridge. As entwined as two squid. I couldn’t make out their faces as we glided beneath them. It was a sultry wash, and inky faces, but beside me a cozy couple whose faces I could see and loved and knew well. They’d huddled. I’d smiled.

I had seen this waterlogged city from its gentle, if salty heart. I wondered whether the thing I’d sung of and seen in the couples all around just wasn’t going to happen for me. I wondered if I was looking at a career of interpreting what I didn’t have, and giving that to strangers who didn’t have it either. Or singing love songs to those in love so they can feel even luckier.

A few nights later, I explored on my own. The canal walkways in the Red Light District thrashed with young male tourists, steered by their cocks and felled by their livers. Their faces were as pink as roast pig, and they were as quiet as if you hadn’t killed the pig first.

The footbridges were gentle mounds, and the pedestrians were Lilliputians bustling from one side of a sleeping woman’s breast to the other.

I pushed through the Red Light District. Like someone with somewhere to be. I’d read up on the rates, the negotiations.

I walked along a row of glass doors, a line of rectangles like the plastic coating of doll boxes in a toy store. Scissored legs perched from stools. Long wailing legs, they looked just how the scoop of a bluesy trombone sounds. The bodies were beyond fault, the curves looked real, but the faces were cemented in protective place. The lingerie was tiny, sexy-functional, black and off-white and flamingo pink. Eastern European, maybe Ukrainian? And they all were buried in their iPhones, texting, isolated, escaping.

A thrum stopped me. It sounded like when a bird gets caught thrashing inside a household window. A girl drummed her fingernails on the glass. 

I went closer. The glass parted. 

“How much?” I wanted to test what I’d read.

 “50€,” said the girl. She sold it with all the fervor of spumoni in Siberia. 

 “And for more than the usual?” I asked.

 “Like what?” If I’d pulled a cabbage out of my nostril, she wouldn’t have twitched a lash.

I leaned at the sliver of parted door. “Like clothes off. Like positions.”

“Clothes off is 15€ more,” she said, casting a sandpaper gaze up the street. She never looked at me. I didn’t expect her to. She had an exceptional body, no mistake. I didn’t want her, not as commerce. I wanted to know how it worked. 

She sensed that. She almost snorted. She had no time for empathy. Red Light District prostitutes have to pay 200€ per day for their space, so emotions are literally expensive.

Then. Well I can’t say what it was that stopped me. Or that kept me from walking further. If I’d been trying, it would never have happened. Like everything else.

There on my left was a gallery. Beyond the glass, shrouded past light were walls of paintings. Facing me were tacky summons, hand-drawn and childish but cheeky. It was odd. I went in.

Two elderly women bobbed around inside the art gallery like a tired pair of salt-worn buoys. 

Only they were identical. Their hair was shag-cut and snow white, and their bodies had the thickset slope of health and use. They wore matching turquoise jackets and black-purple paisley shirts. One swabbed at a canvas. I walked in, paused and looked around. The other opened cartons of take-out. I saw their eyes get the dark, wet glint of newness.

It was Louise who greeted me. I learned that later. It was Martine who watched me.

They had a vivid grasp of color. Generous with it too. Smears of color. If you'd rigged the Easter Bunny with an IED, it would have looked like that.

I wandered among their paintings, all free of frames, canvas and wood. There were acres of neon flowers, fuscia and lime and indigo, all thickly outlined in black. There were trippy whims, pinwheel patterns and associative thought. There were panting dogs and quaint thatched-roof cottages with nearby sailboats leaning in wind. And there were phalluses. Regiments of phalluses. They sprang from a bouquet of daisies, or danced with their own legs, or popped unbridled from under a skirt. There were transvestites in fishnets and bustiers, some black men and some white men. There were breasts and phalluses, all rocketing out from one hearty body, a kind of hosanna to hermaphrodites. There were even golden phalluses that seemed to reverberate with their own heavenly choir.

“You like?” the lilting voice beside me asked. It was an older lady. She sounded like hot tea with a spin of milk added, unfancy and thickened.

I turned. I saw a wide, searing pink mouth in a lightly held smile. The face was full and peaceful, and lumped and pressed from living, like the cushions in a favorite chair. She was in her seventies, looked small village-pretty. But it was her eyes, a washy grey like November clouds, that spoke loudest. Sly, but not wicked. The eyes of the girl next door who might sneak over to help clear out your cobwebs.

 “Oh these could get a rise out of just about anybody,” I told her.

I wasn’t sure she followed the words, but the meaning she got in spades. “American? English?” she asked.

 “American,” I said. “And French.”

“Ah, ja?” We wandered over to a row of easels. “From New York? From Paris?” She said the names like they dazzled in her mouth.

I glanced over an emerald fish and a crimson sunflower with phallus petals. “I live in New York, but was working in Paris.”

 “Ah ja. Your work, is what do you do?” She had her hands behind her back and beamed at her paintings like an indulgent parent. We kept strolling.

 “I play the piano and sing. Every week in New York, and it brought me to Paris. I’m a musician,” and I added the miming of fingers running over invisible keys.

 “Ah! So you make pleasure!” 

 “I… hope so. I try to,” I said, watching her cheery face. Damn it, I thought. Can’t you be sure of anything? Of that, at least? 

“Yes,” I said, finally, “I make pleasure.”

She gave an airless chuckle. The grey cloud eyes now had cool sun behind them. She reached out a soft, stubby hand and hooked her arm in mine. 

 “Martine, mijn sister,” she said, gesturing. The twin had sat down and opened her styrofoam carton of take-out Indonesian food. Popular there, former colony and all that. Martine lifted her identical face from her food, chewing and nodded at me happily.

“I am Louise,” my new escort said, pressing her free hand to her breast for emphasis. She guided me to a stack of books by the gallery window. 

“Been in the Red Light District long?” I asked. Hell, there was a question.

“Oh! Fifty years, more! Long time, many years, always in the Red Light. It changed very much, now difference. Now is no one friends, the girls.”

Louise shrugged smaller than she felt. I thought of the row of glass doors and inside the dolls in lingerie, buried in their iPhones. I thought of the sullen Ukranian girl. Maybe these two old pros had known it when the girls used to at least talk to each other.

“Difference,” Louise said. “But always the Red Light.”

I looked at the books. There were my new twins on the cover. It was their memoirs. Reminiscences of the two oldest retired prostitutes in Amsterdam. Here it was in French, German, Italian. Brazilian Portuguese was their latest published market. An international bestseller, even a documentary film about them. I knew none of it. I picked up the British edition and leafed through it.

I cast an eye at Louise on my left. “Always the Red Light, even now that you’ve retired,” I scanned her face.

“Ja, ja! Red Light is our home,” she said with relish.

“Making pleasure,” I repeated, putting down the book, giving her my full attention.

This time her chuckle had air in it. Louise jostled lightly. “Much men, many strangers, difference of countries. Tourist, soldier, so many…”

Martine gave a sharp, single note laugh from her take-out carton.

“…To have good time,” Louise continued. “With American? Ah, with GI always we have good time! GI spend money, want to laugh, sing, want pretty Hollander girl be nice with him. If he alone and need nice girl. Always with American, we have good time.” She squeezed my arm.

“And now?” I asked.

“Ah,” and she sighed away half a century of sex. “Now is finish. Now is paint and picture. Ja,” Louise’s face retook that sedation that comes with an exhale. 

“But still making pleasure,” I added.

“I love,” Louise said, looking not at me but at her work.

I looked at this modest display of her efforts, at her love, all of which could fit in this small room. A small room ignored by thousands of people each day.

I broke from our arm link. I needed to see the paintings fresh now. I went over. It was dimmer there. They were still as lurid, as raunchy. Louise loves. Louise gives. Others need, others pay. She had changed the medium, but she had kept the rules intact, and so too the spirit. Her years as a prostitute were as honest an exchange as her artwork.

A life spent making pleasure. I was facing the pictures but hadn’t really seen them at all. I smiled to myself. I turned back to the twins.

“And where does an American go for a good time in the Red Light today? Civilian, non-military,” I asked, cheered.

Martine smirked and said, “Why you have to leave for good time? Here, you will enjoy.” She jutted a chin up at the air like a beckoning finger from a second-story window.

I smiled at them both. Louise jostled again. Her laughter was the wayward music of knowing men too well.

“Then I won’t leave,” I said. “I’d like some pleasure too.” 

I walked back to the front of the gallery. I roamed. There was a small painting in a wooden stand, about 8x8. Portable, and ideal.

It was a row of five classic Amsterdam houses lining a canal, tall and slim and with a mismatch of tiered roofs. It was the Red Light. Below on a footbridge was a pair of sailors in old dashing uniforms. Not as bawdy as the others, but mischievous. It was only three colors. But there was a musky heat to the red, and a steely surety to the blue. The white was a tidy tether.

“This,” I said. “This would give me pleasure.”

Louise and Martine swapped needling looks. They didn’t speak, but they exchanged. 

Then they did speak, in Dutch’s clamped vowels and rough scraped consonants along the upper palate. Between each other, the words were as efficient as slaps. With me, their words were slow circles with warmed oil. 

 “I am regretting,” Louise said to me, and back to the canvas, “This painting we are not for sale.”

I blinked. Nearly spoke, didn’t. Then I got it.

 “This painting,” I took the 8x8 canvas off the stand, “I can’t buy it?”

 “Nay, very sorry!” Louise hoisted her hands in apology up around her ears and then dropped them with full weight. “Is because…”

 “…Because lady buy the painting, is give to us money for.” It was Martine, up now from her meal and standing with hands lightly on haunches by the register.  

The painting was still in my hands. And I turned to put it back, nearly did. I wanted this. This was the fit. I wanted it on my wall back in Harlem to remember. I wanted just this much, I could keep this and not forget.  

 “Pity.” I walked towards them with the painting still in my fingers. “This really was the one, for me. I had to have it, I fell for it. There’s no way? I am also regretting, then. This would have given me much pleasure.”

I turned, and placed the canvas back in its stand. “A young man’s memory of the lessons taught him by the finest ladies in the Red Light. Something to smile at when old myself.”

I half-turned to them, more shoulder than face. “And how many days ago did the lady pay for this painting?”

Louise looked to Martine. Martine looked at me, then to her twin. I felt brass weights shifting in the scales.

 “One week,” Martine said.  

I eased on the shoulder and turned back. “Really? Careless of her. Maybe she forgot? Or if she didn’t, and came back to take it home, you could say you had forgotten? After all, as affection goes, a week is an eternity, isn’t it? In the Red Light.”

They seemed to share a psychic equivocation. 

 “How much did the lady pay?” I asked.

 “65€,” Martine said, and I knew the next item to liven my living room wall in Harlem.

 “Well she’s not here and I am. So, 65€ twice is better than 65€ only once, yes?”

They didn’t have to look at each other. They nodded in tandem, and the twins gleamed as sweet and spiced as the apple pie at Winkel 43 on the Noordermarkt.

As Martine bundled my painting, and just before I paid, I decided to test my luck. After all, I was an amateur in those parts.

“And for an American, but not a GI, I don’t suppose you’d agree to 50€…?”

I was greeted by a pair of wizened faces as if I’d asked asked to go bowling in the tulip fields.

I laughed and forked over the cash. They grinned, in reciprocal effort and satisfaction. 65€. As much as I’d have paid for a lay in the Red Light, if I’d wanted the girl to be naked during. But for a painting I’d have til I die. I smiled like the twins. 

I extended the painting back to Louise, who had created it. “Would you sign the back for me?”

And with the earthy tolerance of a woman allowing a virgin to overstay his welcome, Louise lifted a red pen from a jar on the desk, flipped the painting, and scribbled.

Half the city square stayed pale and soft in the shade, the other half went golden and leathered. I sat on the roasting side. 

Nat and Mark had joined me at an outdoor café. I had something to show them. They cooed over the painting, mostly in solidarity at my pleasure with it. We all ordered cold beers on tap to quench and salute. I had La Chouffe. Dense for the heat, but gratifying.

When I flipped over the canvas, I couldn’t read it. Logical. So I turned to the closest bar patron and asked him if he spoke English and could translate. He did, he could. I asked him a further question to gauge his fluency.

“What do you do?” I asked.

“I am… how do you say… I do not know all the terms…”

“It’s alright,” I said, starting to turn back to my beer.

“I am… a forensic pathologist…” he said.

I handed him the painting.

He flipped it over and scanned it. A rough snort came out of him. He looked back at me, under the crunch of eyebrows.

“Are you sure…?” the forensic pathologist asked, taking his station a little seriously, and with a pint of beer in his hand.

“Sure,” I said. “I trust you. What does it say?”

He gulped and put the beer down. He read, “’From two old chattering whores… Enjoy, and keep playing in the Tickle Yard. It keeps young, and super fit, and keeps you spicy!’”

I put down my pint. I took back my painting. I thanked my forensic pathologist. I got up from my little circular table, and its prized real estate overlooking the throbbing square, and I walked away.

I walked to a little railing on a bridge over the water. I didn’t want to go back to New York. New York meant questions, always, flinty questions. I didn’t have the answers. My shadow and a bicycle’s and the bridge’s all fell in a neat, ash grey slant. The rustle of leaves couldn’t keep it warm. The sage-green of the canal blackened. The café laughter was turning to moist dinner chat.

There was a need. There were those who wandered in need. There were those who knew how to fill that need, even if they didn’t have love in their own lives. Love, or love songs. You could give, and on some nights, maybe even give truly. But what of your needs?

The Tickle Yard. Keep giving. Keep seeking. Maybe in the selfless giving, there is selfish taking. Maybe.

I haven’t given as much as my twins. Not nearly. I just play and sing. But there is a need. And we keep ourselves fed by filling it, and leaving them laughing. Honorable.

It was growing dark. I was being rude, I had to go back. But the sultry crash of light hit the canvas in my hands. I looked at the painting. That’s when I saw a ripe flesh tone in the sailors’ faces, and a burnished golden haze in the canal houses’ doors. 

I laughed. More than three colors. I hadn’t seen them in the gallery. Only after, only in dusk, in memory.

I smiled, idled away from the canal, tucking in the painting.

© Eric Yves Garcia 2015

Friday, January 2, 2015

Downtown Club

Why did I end up in Chinatown? To be honest I couldn't tell you. But I'm here, in mid-stride. Just above freezing, just below the Williamsburg Bridge.

I don't know many places here, or locals. I'm not even hungry. But I was on a downtown 6 train and told myself to get off when the mood struck. Half the island streaked above and I wasn't moved much. I don't need to find myself in some Village bar, sandwiched between backslapping bros and their vacant-grin girls, jostled every time someone carries inflated plastic over a chalk line. But then Canal Street struck, so I got off.

It worked. Winding in no pattern. Guided by which way lights fired and flared or didn't, or that garbled inner nudge for this way or the other. I like finding things this way. Much is open down here on New Year's Day. It bustles with quiet continuance. Also there's neon, gaudy but effective. Felt as vibrant a place to roam as any, or at least until inspiration landed.

I like the markets here, the fish especially. Variety and quality, all the signs illegible to me. It smells damp and cold and scrubbed. It means standing in the midst of trade, of merchants with families, of little old ladies poking through stacks of fish to find a few beauties to fry whole in oil, tip to tail.

Then I heard rapid slaps. Wet, dense, too quick, like a leather glove crossing a cheek, over and over. I turned. There was a fat fish on the tiled floor. The fish was mottled brown-green, like riverbed mud and seaweed. It flapped and flipped. It's weight and size worked against it. It was meaty and had real might. In its own element, this fish would be a force, a proud one. Here, on this slick and clammy tiled floor, it was fighting for life, and nobly. It could only ever lose.

All of which is how it goes. I get it. But there was a man in front of me, a squat man with a too dark moustache. Darker than his hair, which always hits me funny. His hands shoved in his jacket pockets and knit hat on his head, he had the behind-schedule scowl of a man making more rounds than there were hours in the day.

He made eye contact with the tall man standing over the fish, a worker at the market. Lanky, in a slim and stained white smock. The worker had a languid expression, not boredom but methodical and fatigued. His face read like long shifts and acceptance of them.

The squat man nodded. The worker gave a tacit single nod, then looked to the side, mentally already onto the next task. He reached to the side and pulled out a 2x4. It was a splintering, beat up piece of wood, jagged at the end from blunt work. He toed the fat fish back to center, like a wriggling golf ball. It had arced itself into a near circle, desperate.

Then the worker's face was really quite serene as he swung the 2x4 up above his head and brought the splintered end down on the fish's head. It kept flapping. Another swing, another soggy thud. The fat fish bounced it's belly along the tiles, a rubber ball trying to escape. The belly flipped up along the way, exposed pearly white. The worker swung again. The fish bled openly from its gills, it coursed scarlet in lightning bolt streaks down the white belly. The mouth stayed at a permanent mute scream. The eye, as an ink drop, as a milky spot of terror, rolled and knew nothing and knew everything. It knew none of its attackers. It knew it would die. You could see it in there.

A few more whacks did the trick. A little lower, less swing, more short slams. The fat fish thrashed, some leftover fury in spurts, but really it had done well and tried and now it was depleted. The squat man had his fish. The worker had done his job.

None of which matters worth a damn, I guess. I left. Maybe I'm squeamish, one of those weak-stomached carnivores who tells himself his meal was born on a plate, cooked and smothered in sauce.

I think I try too hard to apply meaning to things. Maybe there are times when you bum around town and watch a fat fish get its brains bashed in on a floor while people stand in a silent circle and watch. To watch death. Maybe that's what bothers me. We gathered to witness death. Do fish do that? If you fall overboard in a ship, and sharks arrive, would they show any less brutality? Well, they'd have the decency to eat you, or fight each other to eat you to survive. But only one guy in this market was buying this fish, only he would eat it. And he could just as well eat something else. But us? We just watched to watch.

I guess it's not something you see everyday.

I guess I wonder what I'd do if I were the fish. You'd need someone else to effect your rescue, right?

Hm. Well. Too late, I already started making something out of a dead fish.

© Eric Yves Garcia 2015