Cobble Hill

by Robert Boucheron

     In June 1978, I graduated from the Yale School of Architecture and started my first full-time job in New York as a drafter-designer for the firm of Harold Buttrick, a gentleman architect on the Upper East Side. His office was in the English basement of his townhouse. He designed apartment renovations and new houses for his well-to-do friends and neighbors, with forays into their private schools, charitable projects, and carriage-trade shops. His wife, a granddaughter of the New York architect Stanford White, was also an architect. She raised their five children and drew residential projects of her own upstairs.

     Buttrick was a benevolent despot to his staff of five. They included a secretary named Amy, an office manager named Hal, and two other drafter-designers. We three and Hal occupied the front room, with a door and window on the street. Amy was somewhere in the middle, and a library-conference room was in back, along with a private office for Buttrick. He was often out meeting clients and possible clients, socializing and drumming up business, a chancy pursuit.

     “There’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip,” he said.

     We drew in mechanical pencil with graphite leads on vellum, a translucent rag paper that came in large sheets or rolls as wide as three feet. For a presentation, we traced in black ink using filament pens which often clogged or made blots. Drawing in ink was a slow and nerve-wracking task. We used a T-square or a parallel rule, which ran on wires attached to the drafting board, a triangle, a compass, and an array of templates. We wore dress shirts and neckties, professional attire which got in the way. Each man devised his own solution to the necktie—flipped over the shoulder, stuffed in the front pocket, clipped to the shirt front, or tucked in military-style. Ink and graphite got on our hands and clothes. Old photographs of drafters show them wearing sleeve protectors, sheaths that covered wrist to elbow.

     From the vellum sheets, we made prints on newsprint coated with photosensitive chemicals. An improvement over the blueprints that showed white lines on a blue field, these blueline or blackline prints were easier to read and better for marking corrections in red. A large office had its own machine to make prints. Buttrick’s firm sent drawings to a printer located near East 42nd Street. As the youngest on staff, I was the office boy who took drawings downtown by subway. In the heat of summer, clutching big rolls of paper that grew limp from humidity, I boarded decrepit subway cars covered with graffiti like psychedelic circus wagons. I returned with fresh prints that reeked of the ammonia used to develop them.

     A young architect serves three or more years of apprenticeship before he or she can take the state examination to qualify for a license. Hal, the office manager, gave me on-the-job training. In his thirties, he was short and stocky, smart and blunt.

     “You ask too many questions,” he said. “Instead of constantly interrupting me, use the library and figure things out.”

     Hal taught me the basics of architectural drafting, how to measure an existing building, how to inspect a construction site, and a little about the methods of getting a project built. Early in his career, he said, he was sent downtown to City Hall to deliver a sealed envelope to the official in charge of granting permits. In the 1970s, he used the high-priced services of an expediter, a person skilled in the New York City Building Code and the personalities who administered it. A quick-sketch artist, Hal drew a caricature of this man, named Nat Silberman, as a buzzing gnat.

     Architectural lettering was a stylized way of writing notes on drawings using straightedge and triangle. You flattened the lead to a chisel point by rubbing it on a scratch pad or sandpaper. You wrote in block capitals in evenly spaced lines. Verticals were vertical, and horizontals had an upward slant. It was considered good form to line up notes on the left in a column, and not to scatter them across the drawing. Arrows from the notes to the things they described could be straight or curved, but like electrical wires in a circuit, the arrows must never cross. There were symbols, abbreviations, and rules. The number “8” for example, was made of two ovals. A string of dimensions had to be straight, and the feet and inches had to be checked several times to be sure they added up. Some drafters used a non-print blue pencil for guidelines. You could draw curves freehand, but a novice was advised to use the giant ellipse template or the French curve. Like a monk in a scriptorium, I labored over my drafting until Hal approved.

     One morning, Buttrick hailed a cab and took me across town to the Dakota, the famous cooperative apartment building on Central Park West at 72nd Street. He left me to measure the kitchen, pantry, and service rooms for a modernization. Preparations were underway for a formal luncheon in the palatial suite on the park. As I sketched and inserted my tape measure through the hubbub, a tiny woman dressed in black darted here and there. She ignored me, and I said nothing. Later I learned that she owned the apartment.

     Other projects on which I helped were the eighteenth floor of the Chrysler Building leased to a law firm, a penthouse atop a grand apartment building on Fifth Avenue, a baboon exhibit at the Bronx Zoo, and a billiard room over a garage on a Long Island estate. All that first year, I felt elated. I was working in the profession I had chosen, on interesting projects, in the city to which I aspired. After seven years of higher education, with their arbitrary demands and expenses, partly met by a series of odd jobs, at last I was earning a salary.

     As for a place to live, I made shift. My first week in New York, I slept on a sofa in the apartment of an acquaintance. The apartment was high in an old building on Riverside Drive, with a sweeping view of the Hudson River. A museum administrator, Lila was married. Her husband was away on business, and she was absent most of the time. Witty and gracious, she owed me nothing. She got nothing in return when I decamped, suitcase in hand.

     The Buttricks had a schoolteacher friend who left town for vacation in the months of July and August, a single woman who sublet her apartment. Miriam accepted me without question as a subtenant. The apartment was on East 89th Street in a quirky brick pile built as a residential hotel in the 1890s. Walls were massive, windows were hard to open, and bathroom fixtures dated from the period. The apartment was crammed with antique furniture and knick-knacks. I worried aloud that I might break something.

     “There’s nothing valuable,” Miriam said. “There is, however, a box on the mantel that contains love letters my father wrote when he was courting my mother. He was aboard a ship in the South Pacific. You might enjoy reading them.”

     I got through the summer without damage and without reading the letters. Excited to be in the big city and on my own, I walked the streets of Greenwich Village, trooped through museums, jogged around the Central Park Reservoir, and rode the Staten Island Ferry. 

     As September loomed, I looked for an apartment. To afford it, I would share with a friend from Yale, a man who worked for the federal civil service. We found a place on West 21st Street near Ninth Avenue in a renovated tenement. A bedroom window faced a light well. Street windows faced the rear of Public School 11, a dreary prospect. It was also noisy, as children played in the school playground. We were not prepared for the squalor of low-budget city life. We were not well-matched, either. Domestic life became strained, and after a year, he stopped talking. I looked for another berth.

     A new friend lived in Brooklyn. I visited him on Wyckoff Street, walked the neighborhood, and checked ads for apartments for rent. In March 1980, I moved to Strong Place, in the area called Cobble Hill.

     South of Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill is much like it, with a stock of brownstone, brick and stucco row houses, “one of the city’s finest collections of nineteenth-century houses,” according to The Encyclopedia of New York City, by Kenneth T. Jackson and Philip Kasinitz. Built up between 1835 and 1860, the twenty-two blocks are low-rise and intimate, with plenty of trees, several old churches and a synagogue, and a few apartment buildings and schools. Long Island College Hospital occupies the northwest corner, and businesses line the boundary streets: Atlantic Avenue, Court Street, Degraw Street, and Hicks Street, which parallels the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The New York City Council created the Cobble Hill Historic District in 1969 and extended it in 1988.

     Turned ninety degrees to the prevailing grid are six blocks formed by streets one block long: Cheever Place, Strong Place, and Tompkins Place. Henry Street and Clinton Street run through. The arrangement discourages traffic, while it encourages safety and privacy. Even more private is Warren Place, a mews-type development off Warren Street. Two rows of diminutive cottages, eleven feet wide, line an alley planted as a common garden. Philanthropist Alfred Treadway White developed Warren Place and the nearby Towers and Home apartment blocks on Hicks Street as affordable housing for the working class in 1876. Romanesque Revival in style, an early example of such housing built for profit, they were restored in 1986. Most of Cobble Hill, however, was built for the middle class: bankers, merchants, and lawyers who commuted by ferry to lower Manhattan. 

     History had come and gone. The Battle of Long Island in the Revolutionary War was fought here, but its earthworks were erased. The western edge, toward the harbor, was fortified in the War of 1812, also invisible. The hill that gave the area its name was cut down long ago. In the early twentieth century the area declined, and immigrants moved in. Cobble Hill took on an Italian flavor. The Catholic church of St. Frances Cabrini stands at one end of Strong Place, where I lived. By the 1950s, new buyers were renovating houses, and a revival was underway. In 1963, a tiny park was carved in the middle, between Congress Street and Veranda Place.

     By chance I stepped into an urban wonderland, a pocket of architectural style. The one thing missing was public transportation. To reach the nearest subway stop, I hiked a mile to the north or east. Remoteness may have been the reason Cobble Hill survived intact. But the daily commute on trains packed full was an ordeal. The transit strike of April 1980 made matters worse for the ten days it lasted. Stranded commuters shared cabs, walked, bicycled, and stayed with friends in Manhattan. I did some of each. The Brooklyn Promenade, the elevated walkway with its spectacular view of New York Harbor and the towers of Manhattan, was a great place to stroll. And I loved the domestic scale of Brooklyn. Could green space and historical charm outweigh inconvenience?

     The house on Strong Place had three stories with one apartment on each floor. Seventeen feet wide, it had a square-shaped stair in the middle, with a skylight. My apartment was on the second floor, with a big bedroom in front, a galley kitchen and a little sitting room in back, and a narrow passage between. On the passage was a bath as compact as an airplane lavatory. Built for a single family, the house had been adapted.

     The new owner lived on the first floor with his wife and two young sons. Dan wanted to restore the house, but for the moment he needed the rental income. He apologized for the archaic cast-iron radiators. He promptly fixed some plaster damage—there was a leak at the front window. He said I could climb the fire escape in back to the flat roof, since I had no balcony. One summer day, I did climb to the roof, though getting past the cornice was tricky. From up there, I looked into fenced back yards, a comparative study in private gardens. I lay on a towel with a book, fell asleep, and woke sunburned.

     The landlord was friendly, but we saw little of each other. The neighbors threw an annual block party in the fall. Caught by surprise, I wandered through, sampled the spicy ethnic food, and said hello. Long-time residents were wary. I did not connect, and I was unsure where I belonged. What I am sure of is that odd apartment of less than five hundred square feet was the first place I could call my own. Up to the age of twenty-seven, I shared a bedroom with a brother, a dorm room with a student, or an apartment with roommates. There were episodes of house-sitting and solitude, but this was my first crack at making a home. 

     I shopped for furniture in Brooklyn antique shops. I measured the apartment, drew the floor plan, and sketched possible arrangements. I still have the drawing in pencil on yellow trace paper. I also have a map of “Cobble Hill and Vicinity” that I drew in pencil. I gave photocopies of it to Manhattan friends I invited to visit. One of these, scornful of the “bridge and tunnel crowd,” said I had become “geographically undesirable.”

     The antique mirror, chest of drawers, brass bed, cast-iron lamp, and colored prints I bought were of no great value. My one find was a Morris chair, an early type of armchair recliner invented by the English artist William Morris. Stripped of green paint, my Morris chair turned out to be made of mahogany, with front feet carved as lion’s paws. I discarded the worn cushions and had new ones made, covered with a Liberty of London fabric. I bought the chair for thirty five dollars and kept it for many years, through many moves. It showed up in an antique shop last year priced at three hundred fifty dollars.

     In the bedroom, I laid a flush hollow-core door across a low bookcase and a filing cabinet to create a desk and drafting board. Young architects yearn for independent projects, and they often moonlight for extra money. During my stay in Brooklyn, my parents left upstate New York for rural Virginia. They bought land and asked me to draw a new house. This I did, with visits to them and the wooded site. They built the house in 1981, and they lived there until my father died in 1994. I drew other projects, and I wrote poems and stories on my college typewriter.

     Nightlife in Manhattan was a problem. Taxis were extravagant. The New York City Subway ran all night, but with long waits and anxious rides. Then there was that long walk home from the station. Once after midnight, full of nervous energy, I walked home across the Brooklyn Bridge. Halfway I saw what a risk I had taken, but by then there was no turning back. No one else was abroad. It was winter, the sky was clear, and the steel suspension cables shimmered. The fresh air cleared my head. Warmed by exercise, I took off my jacket and slung it over my shoulder. I reached home safe and ready for bed.

     About a year after I started work, Harold Buttrick moved his office to a rental space in Midtown, and a nephew of his wife joined the firm. Six years older than I, a Harvard graduate, Samuel White had greasy hair and a slight lisp. He affected striped shirts and Italian shoes. My mentor Hal, who had hoped to become a junior partner, perceived his doom. He left the firm to pursue independent practice. I was laid off briefly, then wrote in a letter:

I went back to work Monday at Harry’s request, though I saw no sign of work overload. That day after work, Harry and Sam and I went out for a drink at Crawdaddy, a swank restaurant. To me it was a puzzling conversation. On the one hand, they were both critical of me for not speaking up more, Harry because he misses the benefit of my opinion, and Sam because he senses controlled resentment. On the other hand, Harry dropped a hint that some sort of promotion may be coming my way: when a project small enough to cut my teeth on comes along, it will be mine to follow through construction. I suspect Sam called the meeting, as he was negative and threatening.

     Soon after this, Buttrick invited us again for a drink after work, this time at the Harvard Club on West 44th Street. In brown leather armchairs in the vast parlor meant to resemble a baronial hall, he again praised my work. Sam, as if to make casual conversation, quizzed me on my plans for the future. He then suggested I might be happier employed somewhere else. That night I made a panicky phone call to Hal. 

     “You have to face reality,” he said. “It’s not the end of the world.”

     I searched for a new job, found one, and gave two weeks’ notice. Buttrick was sorry to see me go and asked for a delay. Again, there was no turning back.

     At the firm of Edward Larrabee Barnes, a prominent American architect, I joined a team to develop the design of the new Dallas Museum of Art. The environment was high-style, and the staff of fifty architects was a little United Nations. They came from Turkey, Finland, Pakistan, England, Venezuela, and especially China, thanks to John Lee, the second-in-command, who came from Shanghai. A Chinese classmate from Yale worked for Barnes, and she welcomed me.

     Weary from the job hunt and the longer commute, with no family or other tie to Brooklyn, and with a higher salary to pay living expenses, I looked for an apartment in Manhattan. I went to crowded showings, filled out rental applications, put down deposits, and crossed my fingers. At last I nabbed a rent-stabilized studio. I returned to Chelsea, to better subway access and a fifth-floor view.

     I joked about my year and a half of exile. Now I remember Cobble Hill and sigh. I hope that Dan restored his house, and that he and his family lived there happily ever after.

 

 

About the Author: Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, NY. He has worked as an architect in New York City and Charlottesville, VA. His short stories and essays appear in Bangalore Review, Fiction International, Litro, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, Oxford Magazine, Short Fiction.

Southern Hospitality

We should’ve known, mama said,
That the hot dog stand in the basement
Around the corner from
The colored restroom and colored water fountain
Was not for us.

We belonged upstairs
Seated at Kresge’s lunch counter
Not traipsing around,
Eating standing up
In someone else’s space

They didn’t mind. 
We didn’t mind,
Though we’d never eaten hot dogs
With mustard and relish
Seeping through a paper wrap.

We liked it in the basement with the black and white tile floor.
Place your order
Pay your money.
Raise your hand and grab.
No wait.

Mama, who cut toilet seat covers
From newspapers for road trips
And never ordered meatloaf
Did not ask if we got thirsty
Or had to pee in the colored restroom.

She just talked about next time
And how good that turkey was
Upstairs at Kresge’s.

 

 

About the Author: Pat Snyder Hurley is a former attorney and long-time humor columnist from Columbus, Ohio, who recently began writing poetry. Her work has appeared in the literary journals Still Crazy and Common Threads, the Ohio Poetry Association’s ekphrastic poetry anthology A Rustling and Waking Within, and the online literary journals The MOON Magazine and The Ekphrastic Review. A collaborative collection of her poems and those of her late husband Bill Hurley, Hard to Swallow, is scheduled for publication in January 2018 by NightBallet Press.

Brass

I struck the sound that filled
the empty room,
and left alone
with only my own note,
a note that my own silence trilled
into the echoes of the time
and the burning place
that lay within
I fled the marge
with the motion
of a fire,
but faster gone.

 

About the Author: New Orleanian poet E.R. Hille (1911-1991) surely thought the world was finished reading his poetry. Poydras wants to assure that never happens.

Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket

For Max B., whose lifelong exile
From Germany, his native country, ended while
He was crossing Central Park West
At 69th St., on December 27, 1950, to see his latest
“Self-Portrait” at the Met.
(At 66, a heart attack felled him on the street.)
In almost every one, a cigarette
Jabs out at us, as he contemplates a secret.
Max, what is it?
Some vestiges of Paris or Berlin, the twilit
Faces, like death-masks, at a cocktail party? The earth
Swerves under them. Five years later, my birth.
Now I’m five years younger
Than when Max died. Five years, and I wonder
What comes next. I can feel Max’s restlessness
At the Plaza and St. Regis
Hotel bars, his favorite haunts. Alone, he’d sketch
The ruddy patrons, their scowls.
Everyone’s unhappy, everyone needs to retch
From the bottom of their souls.
In New York, in a bar, I love the space
Between my glass and the mirror. I see my face
That’s older, closer to my father:
Glasses, jowls, a bristle of gray hair. I gather
Data in a one-to-one survey.
I’m at the Met today
To see Max, and to ask him how it feels
To live apart. Is it as real as
His other life a lifetime ago, the grimy Weimar dives
Where he was king? How many lives
Do we each get? At the Met
Max glares back at me in his blue jacket.

 

 

About the Author: Gary Duehr has taught poetry and writing for institutions including Boston University, Lesley University, and Tufts University. His MFA is from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. In 2001 he received an NEA Poetry Fellowship, and he has also received grants and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the LEF Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Journals in which his poems have appeared include Agni, American Literary Review, Chiron Review, Cottonwood, Hawaii Review, Hotel Amerika, Iowa Review, North American Review, and Southern Poetry Review. His books of poetry include In Passing (Grisaille Press, 2011), THE BIG BOOK OF WHY (Cobble Hill Books, 2008), Winter Light (Four Way Books, 1999) and Where Everyone Is Going To (St. Andrews College Press, 1999).

From Now On or Bust

by Melanie Lee

     Today was Day Three of what everybody in the whole world said was From Now On and my knees were going to buckle but I said they didn’t hurt. Kids were playing. I gave my mother a peck instead of a hug. I would see her again the next morning, probably — she told me again that she had to come home from work after I went to bed. Ophelia would pick me up and take me home. I pictured Ophelia and pushed all the fluttering down my arms as I walked past Miss Cecil into the noisy clouds of Kindergarten. Mommy waved her hand near her high cheekbone before she left. I walked around the groups until it was time to do whatever Miss Cecil said.

     This was how the rest of the days the rest of the year went.

     After lunch Denise would climb the monkey bars, jut out her jaw like a pirate, swing and jab all around with her air sword. A strip of her brown bangs always dropped over her eyebrow when she turned to face this way. Each time I started to climb higher, she scrambled over the bars to block me. When I told Miss Cecil that Denise wouldn’t let me go high, she told me to talk to her tomorrow.

     I faced Denise. “Miss Cecil said.” I walked over to the edge of the bars and climbed up, then clambered sideways to the center. This was going well. But Denise closed in, locked and stuck out her jaw even more, squinted the points of her eyes even tighter and swung her sword wider. “I’ll push you off.”

     I considered huffing bravery, but I checked and it was a lot of bars down. I hated seeing me all crumpled at the bottom so letting Denise win was nothing. Bar by bar, I climbed all the way down. I found something new: a soft path of square red tiles made of rectangles and triangles. I followed it until I found a bench between two painted wooden towers set up like a storybook. There wasn’t any door to the towers, but even so, the bench was where I went during lunch.

     Late one afternoon, Miss Cecil and her assistant told us to form circles between the bench and the monkey bars and hold hands. They told a songstory I couldn’t hear most of but everyone else was walking around and I walked with them. They peeled us off into lines, saying we were getting our coats for a journey over mountains, through jungles, to animals in a faraway country. 

     I was ready for the trip. I bounced on my toes. My eyes got bright. I would leave Denise, Miss Cecil and Ophelia far behind, all alone forever. Maybe Mommy would come sometimes.

     The lines stopped in front of the cubbies. I waited for Thomas to get his coat on before I walked to mine. When I was pulling my coat from its hook I froze in a flash of newest knowing: we were just going home. Not going on a journey or seeing animals. Not leaving anyone here. Ophelia would be downstairs with the mothers in a few minutes.

     I was stuck in my throat. Stuck… I turned my head. The other kids were black figures between me and the sunlight coming over from outside through the windows.

     I swung my eyes around again for anything that knew me. My book bag was rumpled on the floor of the cubby.

     “I need to get my coat.” It was Cathy. I looked at her. Long blond hair, blue eyes. I looked at my bookbag.

     “Move. I need my coat. Miss Cecil.”

     Miss Cecil came up beside me. “People are waiting. Put your coat on. Let Cathy get her coat.” I did. The line moved. I crushed my ribs in, went wherever Miss Cecil led me. I kept everything in about that day, and many more, except for what wouldn’t stay in, like the vomit.

     That came the next day at lunchtime and the next and the next. The teachers didn’t yell at me at school. Lucky me. But I found out they did tell Ophelia.

     The train was rocking on the subway tracks home when she told me what they’d told her.

     “No I didn’t.” 

     “Don’t lie or I’ll slap you.” I hadn’t heard about slaps before. The train rocked some more. “I want you to stop throwing up. I’ll slap you if you do and I’ll slap you if you lie to me about it.”

     I stopped vomiting a few days later, slap free. Smart and safe, that was me. Then my lips started bleeding while I was asleep. Sleeping next to Mommy didn’t stop it.  Sometimes I’d wake up feeling blood running out my lower lip down my chin. Fast flutters about the blood falling on the bottom sheet were rising, so I had to think faster than the blood falling. I picked up the top sheet and squeezed my lips into both sides. Brown spots all over my side of the sheet showed me what my lips were like. I showed Mommy.  She said not to worry, got up and went to work without a stop.

     Ophelia looked at the sheets. “These will be hard to wash. Stop using them.” I couldn’t see any of the spots from the hall. “Use a tissue.”

     I forgot not to use the sheet the next day but a slap never came, even though Ophelia was around all day. By two days later, I’d learned the value of tissues. It was a lot of work to reach the box every day. I was surprised when my lips stopped bleeding soon.

     I walked around our apartment slap-and-word free. Ophelia was in everything, then.

 

 

About Melanie Lee: I live with my husband, daughter, our dog and hedgehog across the street from a beautiful park. I write memoir and poetry. onegreendolphinstreet.com

Customer Service

by Robert Paviour                

 

     It was time for our annual migration north to escape the blistering heat of Gritland. I was deputized to call the Bank of the Alleghenies to tell them we would be ringing up charges in New England.

     I got ‘Denise.’ “What kind of name is Garou?” Her accent was mostly flat, with a tincture of Redneck. Young. 

     “Cajun, I was told.”

     “Cajun?”

     “You need to study history.” 

     “Not my best subject, but I’m a star at IT,” she said. “So where are we going?”

     “Well, like I said, New England.”

     “Very good, Mr. Garou. Which states, please?”

     I thought saying New England would suffice, but I was wrong. “Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts. We’ll stop in Plattsburgh New York, too.”

     “That’s not in New England, is it?” said Denise.

     “Think about it: We have to drive through other states to get there.”

     “What other states?” After I listed them she said, “How about Michigan?”

     “Is that a trick question? Last I heard Michigan was not in New England. Did they move it?”

     “Well, some people go there.”

     “No doubt took a wrong turn. Denise, where did you learn about geography and history?” 

     “Fargo. Been here all my life. This is my dream job, with a chance of promotion!”

     “I’m sure you’ll go far.” 

     “Thanks, but let’s get back to your trip: some of the places you’re going are high risk.”

     “You think? Plainfield, Vermont? Freedom, New Hampshire?”

     “You’d be surprised. Let’s confirm your phone number in case we need to temporarily suspend your cards.”

*

     A few days later I was packing. My wife Estella was not happy: “You said we’d be gone by 10:00, Beau.”

     “I didn’t say AM or PM. I had to water my plants and call the Medicine Man for a refill of ‘Valium.’”

     “You don’t need to talk in code to me; what you need to do is lay off weed.”

     “When I die.” Both of us got cranky before going away.

     Once we got rolling we set a good pace, going northwest from Church Hill, Virginia. It was mid-summer; chicory lined the road, and the incense of blooming mimosas wafted in the air. Much later, I missed a turn when we got into New York State, which cost us 10 minutes. The low fuel light had lit up, addling me. Fortunately Estella was snoozing. I pulled off at Port Crane and filled up, using my BofAl credit card.

     I was returning the handle to the pump when my cell rang. “This is Denise. Did you know you could have paid eight cents per gallon less if you had stopped in Binghamton?”

     “Binghamton? Talk about high risk!” I made that up. “Anyway, I was lost.”

     “High risk? But I see what you mean about that turn on to I-88 -- tricky. I’m looking at Google maps.”

     “Right. Thanks, Denise.” This seemed a little irregular, but I knew that the Bank of Al was striving to improve customer relations after bad behavior during the Great Recession. 

     Estella woke up when she heard me talking. Damn! When I told her what Denise had said, Essie was less patient. “She was too easy on you. You weren’t paying attention — I told you about that turn off 81.”

     “Thinking of directions and gas at the same time was too much. I didn’t want to be a distracted driver.”

     “You are terminally distracted. Perhaps Denise can find someone else to drive my car.”

     I ignored her to focus on driving, going for another few hours then stopping in Schenectady. Estella had reserved a room at the Broadway Inn, one of her favorites.  Movie stars, musicians, and celebrities had stayed there in better days. It had a genteel air, but now the carpeting was frayed, the elevator creaked.

     Still, the staff knew how to play it up when Estella made her grand entrance: “Ms. Garou! What a pleasure!” I thought they were going to break out the bubbly.

     Essie’s hazel eyes twinkled and she said, “Is the media coming?” They laughed. She could light up a scene when she wanted to: bright smile, waves of true blonde, leggy, quick repartee. Flirty in words and dress. 

     Her mood lifted, and after unpacking we headed out for dinner. We agreed it would be nice to eat outside, and Mexican Radio had patio seats. I tried a “UFO,” a wheat beer with a slice of orange on the plastic glass.

     “Not your style,” said Essie. 

     I tasted it and made a face. She shook her head. The Mexican paella was fine, but the UFO was a dud. I drank it anyway. Essie tried to stop me from ordering a Sierra Nevada to wash away the bad taste. “You’re getting a belly.”

     “That’s Baby Beau you’re talking about.” She hadn’t heard that one, and smiled.

     We paid up with the BofAl card and were walking back to the Broadway when my phone rang. “I should have warned you not to order that UFO.”

     “How would you know what I like or don’t like, Denise?”

     “It doesn’t fit your profile. You usually buy IPAs. There was a new Hop-Scallion Rave on the menu.” 

     “Denise, I already have someone to tell me what to like or not like — she’s called a wife. Anyway, that Hop-Scallion is not a true craft beer — it’s made by Budweiser and is proof that if you put hops in piss, people will drink it.”

     “Ugh. I didn’t know that. Bud is Al’s stock pick of the month. I’m trying to be helpful, Beau. The BofAl wants us to be there for our customer.”

     Had I gotten carried away? It wouldn’t be the first or last time. “Sorry, honey. You’re only doing your job.”

     After I hung up, Estella said, “Was that the generic ‘honey?'” I nodded. “Don’t lead the poor girl on. She doesn’t know that the problem is you won’t listen, no matter how many people tell you.” 

*

     I had trouble sleeping that night, thinking that these two women were micromanaging me. I was groggy at breakfast and had several espressos. 

     Essie was getting into her playful travel mode now, chatty, excited about seeing Dude and Bunny, friends in Plattsburgh. We took the Northway, and traffic faded when we got past Glens Falls. Not long before Schroon Lake there was a sign advising us of no services for the next 70 miles. 

     After that binge on espresso, I had to make a pit stop at the High Peaks Welcome Center. Estella tried to text Bunny, but we were in a dead zone, surrounded by gnarly mountains. I was coming out of the rest room when I heard a pay phone ring. Out of curiosity I picked it up.

     “Leave immediately!” said Denise. “The Zombies are coming — a vicious motorcycle gang! They rape and pillage!”

     “In the middle of the week?”

     “Step outside! You’ll feel the earth shaking! You can hear their roar. They tore up Fargo like a twister! Get out while you can! You may be big, but you can’t fight off the living dead.”

     “Denise, why are you speaking in exclamations? And how would you know how big I am?”

     “I scanned your medical records. By the way, you need to watch your cholesterol. I saw your picture — you look like a big cuddly bear, but don’t you ever trim that beard?”

     “Gurr! You’ve been talking to Estella.”

     “No. But stop wasting your breath — run!” 

     I hung up. Essie was out by her car. I heard the growl of unmuffled hogs approaching. “Denise says there’s a zombie jamboree coming.”

     Essie blew a bubble and popped it, smiling lazily. “Finally I can get someone to dance with me.”

     “You’re too old to be chewing bubble gum.”

     “I’ll switch to tobacco.”

     We were pulling out when a few Harleys chugged in, driven by paunchy grey beards, forward scouts of the Zombies. As they stopped and got off, I saw that they didn’t have that herky-jerky zombie gait, only arthritis. Several more arrived, with faux-trashy fem Zombies in the sidecars.

     “They don't appear dangerous,” said Estella. “I’m not sure of intel from Denise.” 

     “She’s an excitable girl,” I suggested. Indeed, no Zombies gave chase, shooting out tires, swinging grappling hooks.

     Before long we were in Plattsburgh, crown jewel of the hardscrabble North Country, a former base of the Strategic Air Command. We checked into Motel 6 - not Essie’s first choice, but it was my turn. “We need to save money after the Broadway. And they don’t charge for Internet service.” 

     She protested: “There are shifty-looking people in the lobby.” 

     “Makes me feel at home,” I said. In our room there was a sign from management that the TV would not work if removed. I peered out the window. Beyond the gated parking lot was a shopping center, shuttered except for a “Condoms Galore” store. 

     We unpacked and went to visit Dude and Bunny. I had lived with them in the “Last Gasp” commune across Lake Champlain in the late 70’s. Don’t ask how I ended up in Vermont; all I am authorized to tell you is that mistakes were made.

     Dude and Bunny put out artisanal cheeses and beers from Quebec. We topped them off with a smoke, sitting on the deck. Estella made a show of waving it away. 

     Dude had set up his laptop so we could Skype with friends. There was a slide show of pictures from the Last Gasp: gathering blossoms for dandelion wine, dancing at a party, bottling that god-awful home-brew – Dude and I came up with my first advertising jingle, “The Beer that Bothers!” 

     “What a time we had at the commune,” Dude said. “Some certifiably crazy shit!”

     “What I can remember,” I agreed, “was great.” Memories came of skinny-dipping in the green Huntington River, incandescent maple leaves in fall, and the Mayor offering us a bucket of fresh perch from his ice fishing. No cell phones, no laptops. 

     “Folies à deux,” said Estella, interrupting my reverie. “You fed each other’s craziness. Some lost too many brain cells and never recovered from all that fun.” She stared at Dude and me.

*

     Later we went for a walk over to the Boat Basin, speedboats, cabin cruisers, and yachts bobbling in blue waves. “The Quebecoise moor their boats here – cheaper than Burlington,” said Dude. 

     To the east I could see the Green mountains, poking up like jagged old teeth. I was surprised by a pang of longing to go back. My cell rang. 

     “What’s that woman got against a little partying?”

     “Denise - what, how…?”

     “The web cam. What’s a commune?”

     “A group of strangers living together in splendid squalor, re-creating families they had run away from.”

     “What happened?”

     “What always happens: we began pairing off and having kids. Nothing spoils fun like kids.” I paused. “Hey Denise, is this a social call? I appreciate you watching my back, but can we dial down the surveillance?” 

     “I thought I was being neighborly,” she said, sounding dejected. “Guess I’ll never get that promotion.”

     “Hey, you’re fine sweetie.”

     Of course Essie overheard. “Now its ‘sweetie.’ Things are heating up!” 

     We followed a walkway back downtown. The temperature was rising, but humidity was low, nothing like the steamy South. As the others talked and window-shopped, I went to get money from the BoAl ATM.

     Before I could slip the debit card in, my phone rang. “Denise!” I said. “What an unexpected pleasure!” 

     Now she was all business. “This is a high risk area.”

     “Dangerous like that geezer motorcycle gang?”

     She stuck to her script. “I can’t let you withdraw money.”

     “Denise it's 3 PM and broad daylight. There’s a Plattsburgh PD squad car across the street.”

     “The Russians were in Plattsburgh to spy on the SAC base. When the Soviet Union collapsed, some agents stayed, recruited by the Russian mob. They have a cell in the PD. I have reason to suspect there may be a skimmer on the ATM – I called to get it cleared.”

     “Denise, you are whacked. You need to get out, stop learning history from CSI. Give it a rest.”

     “Like you say, I’m doing my job. I’m freezing your card until I make sure the ATM is clear.”

     “Denise!” She had hung up on me. I thought of calling to complain, but if she got fired, the poor kid might have to be a roustabout or worse in the shale fields.

     Estella saw I was jammed and asked, “What’s up?”

     “Denise has frozen our debit card. She said this is a high risk area.” 

     “About time somebody said no to you.”  

     We made dinner plans with Dude and Bunny, and split to go back to the motel. I took out my laptop to scan emails and baseball scores. Estella said, “It’s stuffy.” She freed up the top buttons of her blouse and went over to the windows but couldn’t open them. She tried the AC to no avail. “It’s too warm! I’m suffocating!”

     “Feels balmy. Take off some clothes”

     “Your solution to everything. Anyway, it smells rank in here. I’m calling the front desk.”

     I shrugged: no one could stop her when she got cranked up.

     Soon there was a knock. Essie peered through the peephole and asked who it was.

     “Maintenance. We get call from Stella Garoot.”

     Frowning, she opened the door. A stumpy man walked in, dressed in shorts and a loud shirt, with gold chains around his neck. She said, “It's Estella Garou.”

     “Me Alex. Problem?”

     “The AC’s not working.”

     “Ah, too hot. I fix.” He turned the dials. Nothing happened. He scratched his head.

     Estella stood, tapping her feet. When had she begun to put red nail polish on her toes? “Do we need a room change? Where can I find a competent member of your species?”

     “Please pretty Miss. I fix. Two minutes.” I noticed him staring at her partly unbuttoned blouse. So did she, folding her arms. He took out a small rubber hammer, giving the whole unit a whack. It started with a blast of frigid air.

     I got the brunt of it. “Too cold! We don’t need another ice age.”

     “It’s fine,” said Estella.

     Alex reminded us, “Turn dial if you want up.” He made a circling motion in the air at about Essie’s chest level, then bent over to demonstrate. The unit stopped. He turned the dial back down and gave it another smack, creating an arctic gale.

     “Perfect,” said Essie. “If you don’t like it, go see if we can change rooms.”

     Alex seemed inclined to stay, hoping he could help her with those buttons. “Come on,” I said.

     “Leave hammer?” asked Alex, glancing at Essie.

     Once we were outside the room, he shambled off, hammer in hand.

     I went up to the front desk but the only room available allowed smoking. As I walked back, my phone rang. “Denise.”

     “I could see it all on the cam. Does she always complain about the heat?” Her voice sounded slurred.

     “It was the second-hand smoke. Denise, I think you’re getting over-involved.”

     “Estella treats you like dirt!” She got louder. “I don’t think she understands your needs. I do.” 

     “Denise, this is way too personal.” I ducked into an alcove with vending machines and ice. “Essie and me are fine. There’s no perfect relationship.”

     “I’ve been studying your phone records. I saw a series of 900 calls. Our algorithm indicates potential for infidelity.”

     “Is nothing sacred? Now you think you can read my mind! Well, the 900 calls were her idea. Even if my life is an open book on the Internet, it’s not very well written.”

     “Would you like to know what I’m wearing?”

     “No! Denise, you’ve flown off the rails.”

     “Congratulate me, Beau baby! I’m celebrating. I’ve been promoted. Turned out there was a skimmer on that ATM.”

     I felt gobsmacked, but managed to say, “Well done, Denise, but maybe you shouldn’t drink on the job.”

     “Pshaw! You’re not my Daddy. Look who’s talking about alcohol. Shame on you for making fun of my lack of education. What’s wrong with CSI and a few Buds?”

     Nailed. Again. “Just playing, Denise. Sorry.”

     “If I had an itchy finger, I’d send in the drones, teach you a lesson.”

     Had she flipped? “Don’t joke about that, Denise.”

     “Just playing. I can tell you like to play.”

     How could I get out of this? “Denise, it’s hard to think of you as other than my IT expert.” Change the subject. “Can we stick to the cards for now?”

     I heard a deep sigh. “I’m not sure I’ll ever find anybody.”

     “Denise, you’re so hot the phone is sizzling. Besides, you got a great personality.”

     “Thanks Beau. I have had a few hits.”

     “I’ll bet. Say, can I use that ATM now?” 

     “Give me a minute.” While she checked, I began to develop a plan that would have me hiding in Vermont, like I did years ago. It might take more work to not leave a trail, though they hadn’t embedded chips in me yet.

     Denise clicked back. “Beau honey? It’s all clear.”

     Honey? “Great. I’ll head over.”

     “I’ll update the traffic patterns.” 

     “Denise, this is Plattsburgh.”

     “Remember, you can get lost anywhere, Beau. Don’t forget your hat. Doctor’s orders. Al and me are always here to serve you.”

     Would I be served broiled or grilled? I put the cell carefully on top of the ice machine. I never liked that phone anyway, especially because anyone could reach me anywhere – or follow me. I heard it ringing as I walked away.

     I would have to act quickly. Probably I should trash the computer, too. The cost of anonymity is high. I doubted Essie would mind leaving. She likes Vermont too. I’m not sure how she’ll feel about calling her bank to say we’d be using their cards.

 

 

About the Author: Robert Paviour worked as a journalist and later shifted careers to a general psychotherapy practice in Charlottesville Virginia, where he lives. Now he has relapsed to writing fiction and telling whatever whoppers he may choose. Any previously published stories were in disreputable or defunct magazines.