The brakes in my car shudder violently. I can barely text and drive on the highway anymore. Fear. When my wife asks me if she can take the car out of NYC and into NJ for a ‘naked birthday party’ at a Korean spa in Fort Lee, NJ, I say, “Yes, of course.”
I don’t warn her about the brakes. Or tell her to take it easy. She won’t drive high speed, hasn’t driven in two years, is used to taking the subway to work. I don’t want her to worry. She’s psycho about wearing her seat belt anyway.
I don’t worry enough.
My dad worries enough for the both of us. He checks the oil in his truck and my mother’s car if they are going out of the suburban town where they live. He’s the person who cleans the lint trap every time after using the dryer. He’s been a volunteer fire fighter for 30 years. Has seen houses burn down for that.
I have a washing machine dryer combo that’s big enough to fit three t-shirts and a pair of socks. City living is different. There’s not any lint, or if there is, I’ve never checked. But our smoke detector has batteries, I believe.
I hand my wife the keys to the car, and I lean out the apartment window as she walks down the sidewalk, yelling, “It’ll be fine!”
“I know!” she yells up, pale, but being brave. I watch her maneuver the car out of its parallel parking spot, and then watch as she slides away down the tree lined street. Our neighborhood is quiet. The kids don’t have the fire hydrant open. There is no one drinking beer out on the stoops. She disappears off the block, headed towards the George Washington Bridge.
I clean the apartment like I’ll be assassinated if I don’t do a good enough job. I’m throwing a party tonight. People are on their way. I do dishes. I mop. I sweep. It takes me an hour and a half to clean the whole apartment. I think about my childhood. There was never a moment when either the vacuum cleaner, the lawnmower, the snow blower or the washing machine/dryer was going. But it’s just me and my wife here. I haven’t raked leaves in nine years. I haven’t mowed a lawn in ten. Have not. Want not.
I clean the toilet. I wipe down the sink. I move, predictably, to the computer. To sit.
Since I’ve never had a driveway, I’ve never learned how to fix my car. I take the thing to the shop and I drop it off like a sucker. I’m somehow a yuppie, even though I work heavy construction. I don’t like that I have to have someone else fix my car. New York City has made me depend too much on other people to do simple services for me. I mean, I even have my groceries (alcohol too) delivered to my apartment door by an app I use on my IPhone. I push a button and they kill a cow or pick a pineapple somewhere. I’ve decided that I’m going to do something about this car ignorance, and this dependance on other people to do simple tasks for me.
A friend of mine at the oil refinery has given me a tip on a website where I can buy brake pads and rotors for my car. All I have to do is enter in the model number and the year, and they’ll give me parts options. It turns out I can get the pads and rotors for $250, shipped, instead of nearly the thousand dollars, I’d pay at a shop. That feels like internet victory to me.
Two calls come in. The first is my wife, she got to the Korean spa without killing herself or anyone else. No thanks to my car, the death trap that it is. The second call, is my father, who says, “Hey Bud, got a letter for you today from the IRS.”
“What’d it say?”
“You have to pay them $3300 immediately or they are going to levy, or seize your property.”
“I don’t think they’re serious,” I say. “It’s all being taken care of.” I mean, by my tax person, not me. I’m not responsible enough, not hands on enough with it. “IRS actually owes me $2800, ya know.”
“Whatever it is,” he says, “just thought you’d like to know.”
New York City has always felt impermanent to me. People are always being forced out of this city. Me and my wife just haven’t been forced out yet. Maybe our time is coming. A Starbucks just appeared on our street where there used to be a ratty bodega. Not a good sign.
Some of my important mail still goes down to my parent’s house, even though I haven’t lived there for seven years. I remember growing up, and my dad’s mail, some of it, still went to my grandmother’s house. He rented like me, but in the suburbs. Of course, he had kids, worked two jobs, volunteered his time to fight fires, had dogs, had a cat, mowed the lawn, shoveled the driveway, cleaned the gutters, and oh yeah—he could fix cars like nobody’s business.
“Actually, just ordered parts for my car.”
“Who did? You did? Cool!”
“Just brake pads and rotors.”
“Come on down here, we’ll do them in the driveway.” We agreed on next Saturday.
To me, working on my car, is like working on a spaceship. Once, I had a headlight bulb go out and I opened the owner’s manual and it said: it will be too difficult for you to replace any bulbs in this vehicle, please bring your vehicle to an audi service technician.
Well, you should have seen me celebrating in the auto parts parking lot when I did get the bulb changed. Hands raised over head, smiling. Only one hand a little bloody.
I said to my dad, “You’ve got all the weird torque star and allen tool bits for this car, right?”
“Got all that stuff,” he says.
“Badass. Hey, what’s going on next Sunday morning?”
“Wanna go shoot guns?”
He’s surprised that I’ve asked, I guess.
He used to take me to the sand pits when I was a little boy so I could watch him shoot bottles with his rifle for target practice. I’m 33 years old, before now, I’ve expressed no interest whatsoever in working on cars, shooting guns, fighting fires. Now he’s hanging on the end of the line about to ask me if I feel alright, if I’ve recently had a severe head injury.
Instead he says, “Let’s go.” He’s happy. “I’ve got plenty of ammo.”
The first guest to the party shows up. We sit in my office, the room where I do my writing, and shoot the shit. I’ve got the record player going. He says what most people say when they come over our place, that he’s surprised how big the apartment is.
“You can roller skate in here.”
“We could, but the lady downstairs usually comes up and complains when we do.”
In New York City, you’re limited. You’ve got to live with so many people on the other side of the thin walls. Above and below. To the left. To the right.
My neighbor through the wall begins to sing. I turn the record player down.
The guest laughs. I explain, “That’s my neighbor Bill, he’s a nudist opera singer.”
“Get out. He’s naked right now?”
“Yeah, I think so. No, for real. When we first moved here, the tenants who passed this place on to us told us that he sings in the nude, is big into going to nudist colonies and also, I don’t know, sings too as a hobby. I hear him practice all the time through the wall. Think he’s a photographer or videographer for work.”
“City is whacked.”
“His roommate has Tourette’s, sometimes we can hear him yelling in there. That’s fun too.”
“I’ll invite them over later. Great people.”
The doorbell rings, other friends are here. I let them in. Soon the music is on in the living room. Everyone’s hanging out and watching the sun fall on the Hudson through the living room window.
The phone rings, she’s out on the street in the car. She wants me to look at where she’s parked, to see if it’s too close to a fire hydrant. We don’t want the car to get towed away again and to be lost in the labyrinth of NYC tow yards and impound lots.
I approve the parking spot. I give her a kiss. We lug her bags and stuff back up the stairs into the apartment. Wine bottles pop open. My wife puts Prince on the stereo. Everyone is quickly drunk and quickly happy. It’s one of the first cool nights, temperature-wise I mean. The sun falls the rest of the way down. I tell everyone, “We’re not allowed on the roof of the building, so let’s go up on the roof of the building.”
A knock on Bill’s door, finds that he’s not in. His roommate doesn’t answer either. I’ve been drinking a bottle of bourbon that he gave me because apparently he was allergic to it and didn’t know and it made his face and neck swell up like a puffer fish. I want to drag him into the party and also, I want to tell him that the bourbon didn’t kill me.
The roof is great. We have a clear shot view of the George Washington Bridge. It’s lit up pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. We talk too loud. I worry about getting locked up there and having to climb down the fire escape and break into my own apartment. But we survive on. The moon gets higher. The stars wobble.
I say to my wife, “How was the naked spa?”
“Weird, but okay. Turns out they didn’t make you be naked the whole time.”
“Yeah, they gave you these plastic potato sack things to hide in and you only had to get butt naked if you went swimming in the pool. So, I just didn’t swim in the pool. But I did give my friend a bare booby hug for her birthday present and that made her happy.”
“Cheers!” I say.
The air gets colder, too cold for us in our t-shirts. We move back down the stairwell of our pre-war building, back into the warmth of Apartment 12.
A guest at the party has noticed all my weight lifting equipment. I work out in the apartment. Actually dead lifting, bench pressing and doing squats. “Neighbor downstairs doesn’t like it,” I say, “But I don’t care. Had a party here last year and my buddy the mailman got all loaded and said he wanted to put all the weight I have on the bar and see if he could pick it up. It was four hundred pounds.”
“Did he get it up?”
“He did. But it crashed down pretty loud. At 2 am.”
Coincidentally, it’s also 2 am at the party I’m having now and someone at the party wants me to videotape them doing swings with a seventy two pound kettlebell. I pull out my phone and say, “Go for it.”
The guy swings the kettlebell between his legs and over his head. He loses his balance though with the weight directly over his head and the weight falls backwards behind him, crashing down next to my computer, whacking the hard wood floor.
It’s not too long before there’s a knock on my door. It’s my downstairs neighbor, who I am perpetually at war with.
She says, “This has got to stop.”
I say, “I know, you should call the cops.”
“I will if it doesn’t stop, it’s 2 am and I’m trying to sleep.”
“Send the police,” I say. “Get them here right away. This is ridiculous up here.”
She goes away; I close the door.
We carried on.
I don’t want to compare where we live, to where my parent’s live. He plays his computer games at top volume. Sometimes you’ll walk in the house and it’s just a wall of explosions and chainsaws and machine guns. My mother knitting at the table, smiling with a cup of coffee. But, we live where we live. We adapt to our environments or our environments eat us alive.
I sleep with ear plugs in sometimes.
My wife is on a bus to Doylestown, Pennsylvania to spend some time with her girlfriends out there. One is pregnant and the other has a six month-old baby. My wife and I are childless, we don’t even have a pet or a proper house plant, just a desert succulent that we only have to water once every two weeks. The girls are having a ‘ladies weekend’ (their words, not mine), going pumpkin picking, cooking, watching Gone With The Wind—I’m in my car on the turnpike, going south from the Bayway oil refinery.
I’m being very careful. If the traffic up ahead comes to an abrupt stop, I might have to pull my emergency brake to get this car to explode.
I’m not sure how much or how little the emergency brake does. Will it make my car do a complete 360 degree spin?
I have an unusually zen-like focus going on with the traffic pattern ahead. I’m not screwing around with the radio. I’m not playing around on my phone. I’m not even going over 80 mph. Believe it or not, my seat belt is on and my wife is not even here to warn me to wear it.
My dad is mowing the lawn when I pull up. The grass is short already, he’s sucking leave sup into the lawn mower. It’s easier that way.
“Ready to go?” he asks and I don’t even have a chance to go in the house to take a leak.
I climb in his pick up truck and we drive out of the development. He’s listening to country music. That’s always the weirdest thing, country music while driving through coastal NJ.
I glance at his beer belly, but he doesn’t drink beer. I wonder how big my beer belly is going to be when I’m his age, 55, because I do drink beer. It’ll probably be double or triple the size, I conclude.
“Brought two great guns,” he says. And then he tells me what guns they are but I don’t know what the names mean, or signify or anything. But I nod as if the names of the guns are the names of the people who play in my favorite band. Ah, AR-15! Great guitarist! AR-15, love sick drummer! We pass through a maze of strip malls, until finally we break into the pine trees, behind the dump.
“We can shoot back here, no one cares.”
He drives his truck very carefully through a huge mud puddle and I get excited because it’s a huge mud puddle but he’s a little annoyed and says, “That’s the worst part, driving through the mud puddles! Now I’m gonna have to wash the truck!”
I close my eyes and imagine an entire life of driving through mud puddles at top speed and not giving one flying fuck about any kind of mess it creates. That’s the kind of life I want to live if I ever move out of Apartment 12.
We park by a huge hill. All sugar sand. Water tower off in the distance looking like a jelly fish. He takes the guns out of the back seat and he shows me real carefully how they work. How they’re loaded. Where the safety switch is. How to pull back the bolt action thingy. He makes me put in neon ear plugs (same kind I sleep with sometimes) (same brand). He gives me these doofy safety glasses that are tinted piss yellow for high visibility. But I don’t care, I gladly put them on because I’m about to shoot shit.
The gun I’ve loaded. The gun I’m holding, is an AR-15 assault rifle. It looks like an M-16. It’s sleek black and utter death. I’m happy as a pig in shit holding it. I’m excited as fuck to shoot shit with it. He’s being easy on me, not warning me not to point it at his truck or anything and that’s cool, because I actually am really in the mood to blow some tires out or some windshields or something excellent.
Here’s a list of what I want to shoot:
Mannequin filled with red paint.
Microwaves popping popcorn.
Fishtanks full of tropical fish (but then I’d feel bad)(Fish still have no feelings?)
Life Size Wind Up Robots.
Okay, pretty much just a line of propane tanks. That’s really the main thing. I want them to set off a chain reaction.
If the pine trees catch on fire, he can put out the fire, he’s a volunteer fire fighter. We’re all set here.
I decide to just start unloading rounds on innocent pine trees.
Instead, he says, “One minute.” He pops the tail gate open and pulls a cardboard box out of the back that used to have a window fan in it, but now the window fan is up in his attic as an exhaust. He walks about fifty feet, and sets the cardboard box against the hill. He pulls a paper target with a bullseye on it out of his back pocket He tapes it to the cardboard box.
He says, “Okay, now let me get out of the way, then start shooting.”
I pump the trigger. The gun recoils into my shoulder. I pull off round after round. My ears ring like murder.
He says, “All your bullets went into the dirt.”
“Well, shit, I don’t care!”
“You were shooting high.” He points at the hill. The bullets went into the sugar sand above the target.
“I don’t care about that target. I just wanted to shoot.”
“As long as you’re happy.”
After that, we shoot his cowboy rifle. It’s more fun. You have to load each round manually with a lever underneath the trigger. I feel like I’m about to rob a train when I shoot that one.
My dad aims carefully, squinting.
The shot goes off.
The cardboard box falls over.
“Here, look, I’ll show you how to aim.”
He shows me how the sight works. It’s easier then. I reload the AR-15. I set back up. I square up. I shoot at the pine trees. Sap leaks down.
“Got ‘em,” he says.
“How was it?” Rae says.
“Was pretty good.” I’m laying in bed in the room where I grew up. I’m drunk though, so that’s different.
“You fix your car?”
“No that’s tomorrow. You get a pumpkin?”
“No, but I saw the ugliest one I’ve ever seen, it was green and looked like a giant witch’s nose or something. I didn’t get it though because we don’t have front steps and who gives a fuck, right?”
“Right.” I roll over, “What are you doing now.”
“Laying in the room that’s gonna be the baby’s room,” she says.
“They paint anything on the walls yet?”
“Some animals. Safari animals.”
“In the morning, I’m going to fix the brakes in the car. And you know what’s gonna happen then?”
“I’m gonna sit next to you and play the radio while you drive …”
“Hundred miles a fucking hour.”
“Oh yeah, tearing up the road.”
“Where we gonna go?”
“Oh that sounds so nice. Somewhere crazy.”
“Somewhere crazy,” I say, sipping the last of my beer. “Looking for mud puddles.”
She doesn’t have to ask, she understands.