The Call by Darius Jamal VanSluytman

The garbage juice pooled at the bottom of the open dumpsters lining the Navy Yard Canteen, baked in the morning sun. Noxious plumes floated upwards taunting heaven and throne. It was eight a.m. and already eighty-two degrees. Zip walked through the tangle of food trucks parked semi-legally outside the sad building sitting near the foot of Clinton Hill, where Clinton Avenue meets Flushing.

He had sworn off street food after he first encountered The Canteen. A vestige of old Brooklyn, it was little more than a filthy garage where a couple of guys lazily and barely hosed down food trucks. They tossed the rubbish in dumpsters and oil drums, corralled inside a corroding steel fence sitting in front of the building. When the place was closed, it was a carnival for rats feasting on stale hot dog buns frosted with coffee grounds and spicy mayo.

He imagined the rats doing unsavory things in the trucks at night. Now, every time he passed a donut cart, or taco truck, his stomach churned and he cast a disdainful look upon the vendors and the innocent folks lined up to stuff their faces. It was a typical city neurosis. Nothing that warranted a shrink anyway.

Last week, he walked this same route and passed the carcasses of three chickens separated from their heads. They lay in a neat pile on the sidewalk off Waverly. The refuse of some arcane ritual, deep in the techno-sprawl of gentrified smart houses sporting expensive paint on cheap plasterboard walls, amused and unsettled him. He steeled himself in the event the hoodoo chicken murderers struck again.

The end of every summer was like this. A new crop of college kids who dressed like crust punks, but smelled like mom’s love and fabric softener, staffed the shop anew. They were green to the city, and on their way to learning that shift pay plus tips does not the rent make.”

When he reached Waverly, he spied no chickens, and was relieved. His relief was brief, and he worked himself into a tizzy at the sight of the walls of the industrial buildings lining the block. There was new corporate street art up, commercials for hip shows streaming online. They were a marker that you had reached the fringes of civilized society. It disgusted Zip to no end.

They went over a classic piece done years ago by a local graf crew. He remembered how proud he was living just blocks away from a historic monument immortalized in some late 90s French graffiti zine he had kicking around in a box somewhere in his sister’s basement. The spirits found it pleasant when a gentrifier was adversely affected by his/her own gentrification. In this case, the base erosion of local artist expression. Or something like that. Maybe it was just the march of time.

Being “half black,” as he described himself, he thought he couldn’t be a gentrifier. The hard glares he endured from the last few “guys on the block” left, and the general indifference he was met with at the corner store, challenged this notion. Even the old black ladies, sitting on benches dotting Myrtle Avenue stared at him dubiously when he offered a pleasant, “Good morning” like some suburban Dudley.

He popped inside the coffee shop on Washington and smiled at the air conditioning as though it were an old friend. Air conditioners and New York summers were ruining the world. But, the world didn’t have to do Brooklyn in August. If the polar bear had to lose its habitat and Florida had to sink to even the odds against the deviant nature of nature, so be it.

Staring into the bakery case, he spied assorted yogurt muffins and yuppie biscuits with asiago cheeses, as he scanned for the cheapest items. The absolute cheapest were tiny muffins the size of thimbles for a buck fifty a pop. He’d be damned if he bought food that simply existed to be cute, and settled on the same pretentious cornmeal cherry scone, and medium coffee he bought each time he came.

Zip had a way with banter, and could usually get the fixed-gear vegan biker nomads behind the counter to punch a few extra holes in his frequent customer card. You got a free coffee for every ten holes punched. But nobody he recognized was working today. He’d have to start from square one with this bunch.

The end of every summer was like this. A new crop of college kids who dressed like crust punks, but smelled like mom’s love and fabric softener, staffed the shop anew. They were green to the city, and on their way to learning that shift pay plus tips does not the rent make. By November, some of them would be dipping into the till, living on the croissants they were supposed to throw out at the end of each day, or both.

Nearly everyone had a version of ‘The Call’: the perfect lover, the dream job, a fantasy vacation with you falling in love on a beach in Greece. The Call was a sentimental lottery for the broke and hopeless.”

He took the cup of hot brackish water, and the wax paper bag containing the scone and smiled. He tipped an extra dollar, and commented on the Siouxsie Sioux song playing softly over the speakers. White folk were always stunned when someone black (half black) knew about some emo bullshit. The prematurely balding goth kid with the tragically amateur pentagram and Harvey Comics character tattoos smiled back.

“One on the hook already,” Zip thought, mind drifting to free coffees in his near future.
He handed the goth his card, but he only punched one hole. He floated back to earth with the severity of the sleight.

“Cheap bastard,” Zip blurted to himself behind his fading smile. It was the half blackest thought he had all morning.

His favorite booth was empty. He placed his scone and the knapsack containing his laptop onto the table, and made his way to the counter near the door to douse his coffee with cream. He hated the coffee here. He hated the scones more. But, the $6 investment was a fair tradeoff for the three hours or so he’d wind up staying, checking his e-mail, ripping obscure bootleg movies from YouTube, and working on that collection of poems, taking him much longer to finish than the measly $150 advance was worth.

“Goddamn small press bullshit,” he fussed with himself.

Small presses were all the rage in Brooklyn now. The “successful” ones (meaning they didn’t mind operating at a loss) were mostly vanity presses, run part-time, by coordinators, marketing types and assistant editors at some name brand media company. The good ones were run by freelance layabouts in between jobs, who frequented wine shops and the reefer man, much more than they actually worked on getting anyone to read their publications.

“$150,” he continued his fussing.

He could hear his father’s mantra, you getting paid for this?, beating inside his skull. Everyone not in the arts thought they understood how artists got paid. In truth, no one did. Not even artists.

Here he was, a god-honest poet, forced to give a sliver of his very soul away to some low-rent publishing outfit for just enough money to cover one late phone bill. Two months later, the bill was late again, and he still had ten pages to fill.

He couldn’t afford to have his phone cut. The call of his life, was due any day. It was a few years late, sure. But, it had to come.

Nearly everyone had a version of “The Call”: the perfect lover, the dream job, a fantasy vacation with you falling in love on a beach in Greece. The Call was a sentimental lottery for the broke and hopeless. Typically, whoever you envied most won it, because even barrel crabs require motivation.

Maybe someone at Rando House read one of his pieces in one of those horror e-anthologies, and got the proper willies. He’d maybe get a book deal. Then he could get an apartment he was proud to have his family come visit. His mom could stop waking up at odd hours of the night to worry about him. Hell, he’d make enough bank to call up Naomi, and tell her they could have the “real life” she always spoke of.

He was always one lucky phone call away from a summer home in the Catskills, pumpkin bread baking on autumn afternoons, toddlers tripping over the pooch in the backyard, month-long trips to Mallorca to write, expensive whiskies with cork stopper tops, and a room filled with rare first editions. That $150 in exchange for thirty-six pages of original material, was a spiritual investment in his tangible future.

The younger guys in the audiences of the DIY lit scene parties where he read, were into the dark hopelessness of his work. Frances, the editor of Polka Shots, a hip quarterly that came out once a year, if ever, told him it was the deeply veiled eroticism of his work that she, and the others really admired. Those “others” were a gaggle of nut bag lesser poets she held court over. The type of folks to sit around Sunday evenings in a circle giving each other back massages while listening to Japanese free jazz.

Didn’t matter to Zip. They were mostly just words that sounded right together as far as he was concerned. If you perceived something erotic about a poem quite literally about nothing, that was your business. All the better for him. Praise is fair currency in the arts. Besides, every writer has a scam. It was fine with him if they thought “veiled eroticism” was his.

Small presses were all the rage in Brooklyn now. The ‘successful’ ones (meaning they didn’t mind operating at a loss) were mostly vanity presses, run part-time, by coordinators, marketing types and assistant editors at some name brand media company. The good ones were run by freelance layabouts in between jobs, who frequented wine shops and the reefer man, much more than they actually worked on getting anyone to read their publications.”

He began pecking at the scone and his keyboard. On the digital page, a sultan of crystal mounted a crest of fire. Quickly, Zip had to decide if this was a love poem, fever dream or half-baked allegory about something political before he knew what the crystal sultan was meant to do. He raised his head from the screen and the spell was broken. The poor sultan was suspended between mind, and the infernal blinking of the cursor.

A devout procrastinator, Zip faced front, staring into an abyss of thoughts.

“Unbelievable,” a white woman in a yellow dashiki and baby blue painters cap protested to a phantom audience.

The muttering caught Zip’s attention. He realized he was staring right at her, or more accurately his head was aimed in her direction. She rolled her eyes the way women sometimes do, when they’re convinced someone’s checking them out. When he thought he understood what was happening, he snickered as the pink-skinned Zulu warrior priestess continued her staccato huffing.

Surely she was chaining together poignant thoughts about toxic masculinity and the male gaze to post on social media. Her friends would click “bravo,” and he’d become an anonymous enemy of feminists everywhere.

“Or,” the wise bird inside him said, “she’s paying you no mind at all, and is cursing herself for spilling that iced latte.”

The thought made sense as he realized she frantically stabbed at the counter with wads of the paper napkins. He chuckled to himself. Artists were egomaniacs. Writers the worst of the lot. They believed in their words. Even the hacks. The musicians, painters and actors, in their wisdom, were only trying to make someone else believe.

He focused on the void beyond her. A great expanse of uncertainty unfolded before him from a rip in time behind the yellow dashiki. The garment’s transmutation complete, it was now passageway to his innermost thoughts.

Why didn’t he just give up? How was he going to make rent? What, he wondered, would Laura, the NYU PhD student he met last weekend think if she visited his apartment? Surely a one-room flat furnished only with a futon mattress, stacks of half-read books and a TV sitting on a nightstand opposite a few pillows, spelled “loser.” It definitely didn’t say, “Hey, stay awhile.”

“Yes, let’s think about her instead,” his money-worried mind begged, slipping deeper into his elaborate fit of procrastination.

They’d met at his buddy Jimmy Glitch’s gig the week before. She was studying something droll, pattern recognition receptors in mammals, he remembered exactly. She was hanging out with a contingent of Tisch students she met at some protest one night. They wound up in a shabby SoHo loft one of the Tisch students had inherited from a once-famous parent. Jimmy was there. They met and she was smitten. He invited her to the gig and so she came.

Already feeling out of place, she realized at some point, that he wasn’t really into her. Tongue wrestling seedy groupies like a B-movie rock star gave that much anyway. She felt foolish. Everyone in the bar was here to worship him. What did she have that the TV pilot starlets, and downtown gliteratti crowding the joint didn’t have in spades?

Dusting off her pride, she sat next to Zip at the bar, who had his back turned on the lot of those losers. He was having a perfectly fine night with a glass of whiskey neat and his own damn self. Jimmy said something to piss him off, though he barely remembered what it was. He noticed her sitting there, eyes fixed at Jimmy, mind off into a wonderland. Perhaps she imagined perfect life with Jimmy playing the role of Ward Cleaver.

“Came to see Jimmy, huh?” It was more insult than question, offered as Zip emptied his glass.

“What, no? I mean he invited me, but…”

“Get the fuck out of here,” He laughed jovially. “You came for Jimmy. Look at you, dolled up like Sandy at the end of Grease.” Amused with himself, he shared a good natured laugh, the kind that invited you not to take yourself so seriously…since nobody else did anyway.

The comment stung, but she couldn’t help but snort at the tail end of her reply, a defensive and unconvincing, “Excuse you?”

Artists were egomaniacs. Writers the worst of the lot. They believed in their words. Even the hacks. The musicians, painters and actors, in their wisdom, were only trying to make someone else believe.”

She had seen enough movies to understand that the New York insult was often an invitation to polite conversation. In truth, she had overdone it with the outfit. Anyone could see the Science Club President hiding out inside the rack fresh “vintage” Ramones t-shirt, crisp black jeans and red heels. She didn’t have half the attitude her outfit did. And her outfit was a strip mall caricature of 80s downtown chic, at best.

“Love him to death, but the guy’s a bastard. You’re better off falling for the barback,” he said motioning to the frail hipster, struggling with a bucket of ice hoisted over his shoulder.

The rest of the night, she basted in Zip’s inebriated witticism. He tossed back whiskey like it was apple juice, and smelled slightly of day old sweat. At one point, he checked out in the middle of a sentence, to log onto an auction site on his phone, and bid on an out of print cyberpunk anthology. There was a warning sign in there somewhere, but damned if she could see it. They stayed there laughing and drinking until way after Jimmy and his part-time entourage had skipped.

At last call, she informed Zip that he was going to show her around town the next day. She put her number in his phone, kissed him on the cheek and left. He hopped a cab back to Brooklyn, blowing half a night’s pay, thinking about her the whole way. He had been bewitched.

The next day, he was his typical aloof self when they met at two p.m. By 2:23, the flimsy walls of feigned indifference crumbled, and they set a slow course through the city like old lovers revisiting their youth. By 3:50, he began feeling little tugs at his soul. By 4:17, he was savoring the tension present in each awkward silence. Silences that betrayed them both.

By 4:36, he hatched a plan. The night before, she told him embarrassingly, that she collected rare country records. An odd pastime for a half Korean, half black woman from Maine, but he could work with that. He knew a used record shop around the corner from the Farmer’s Market on Tompkins Square Park, which was two blocks from where she was staying. He’d stop at the market, and pitch the brilliant idea to make her dinner.

It worked. By 6:03, they left the record shop with her purchases, and soon he was riffling through a crate of arugula like an FDA inspector, dumping fistfuls of leaves into a plastic bag. He grabbed a few other things, and soon after, they were on the way to her place, walking closer together than they had been.

He spent the night, and the next. They spoke little and loved more. Monday morning, it was difficult to pull away, but she had to prepare for a conference in Boston that week, besides it was all getting a little too real too fast. Weekends are for fantasies and Mondays are for grown-ups her rational mind decided… but she’d call him when she got back from Boston.

Slamming back into his body, still sitting there in the coffee shop, it occurred to Zip that he was obsessing over these recent memories. He replayed them like a kid cracked out on Disney cartoons and candied cereal. That was no good. He’d wind up like Kawesi Jordan, his one-time favorite poet on the scene.

Jordan got some upper class white chick pregnant, and that was it. It was lukewarm liberal bullshit custom made for Gen-Xers losing their edge after that. Fluff perfect for The New Yorker when something really bad happened to a black person, and everyone stood around pretending, saying, “Why?” and “How, in this day and age?” Love and babies, Zip considered, was the shearing of the poet’s mane.

Besides, he was off relationships since Naomi left. He could hear her now, telling him there was a “fine line between pride and arrogance.” But what did she know? She was an actress whose latest identity was a heady blend of her last three roles. None of them well received, which sent her packing back to Ohio.

“Won’t turn me into some sucker for love hack,” he assured himself.

A lot can happen in a coffee shop in the span of twelve minutes it seems. The breakup was hard on him, but a man’s got to get on about the business of living. He took a big bite out of the cornmeal cherry scone. He was halfway done with it, and not a cherry to be found.

Anyone could see the Science Club President hiding out inside the rack fresh ‘vintage’ Ramones t-shirt, crisp black jeans and red heels. She didn’t have half the attitude her outfit did. And her outfit was a strip mall caricature of 80s downtown chic, at best.”

He remembered the sultan on the backlit page, and knew, now his purpose. The revelation was a firmament of peace, and he knelt before him. After about ninety minutes, he finished the poem, and his soul felt clean.

He returned to his single room flop, and flopped onto the futon mattress. After a nap, he woke staring at stains in the ceiling, and the little patches of plaster starting to bubble up because of the leaks in the pipes above. Laura had vanished from his mind. He raised himself upright, and sat cross-legged staring out the window. It was only 5:04 in the afternoon.

Most people didn’t get off work until six these days. There was still time for the call to come.

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One Comment

  1. Throughly enjoyed this intense description of an artist’s journey through survival, it should be sent to Oprah’s editors for publication.

    Reply

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