Introducing my new story collection

Jacket Copy:

Ernest Hemingway wrote, “All stories…end in death.” With ringing lyricism, cinematic detail, and wry humor, in this diverse collection of tales Tony Gentry interrogates that notion.

A father and son share a moment of everyday epiphany on their farm. An elderly widower must choose between a circumscribed life where every breath is an effort and a saving reunion he barely trusts, while another finds solace in the company of an old bear. The ghost of a Confederate general wanders the historic precincts of modern-day Richmond, Virginia. The First Lady deposes the President. A boy finds not love but purpose in a kiss. On a canoe trip, two middle-aged brothers confront mortality and the mystery of what lies beyond. Veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars face their demons, seeking reasons to go on. In the longest tale here, a fall from a wheelchair tests the will of a man haunted by the car crash that severed his spine and killed his young daughter years ago. And cancer tells its own origin story, that of a real estate mogul turned megalomaniac. Keenly observed, inventive, and thought-provoking, these stories test the curtain between everyday reality and the tempting whisperings that lie beyond, in that uncanny place where our hearts and minds collide.

The Bird Man of Central Park

Seventh in a series of vignettes based on my work as an occupational therapist with military veterans in New York.

There was a bird at the window, tapping. The heat pipe radiator squeezed between the bed and the wall had hissed itself awake, as it always did at dawn, steaming the window, which then frosted in overlapping snowflake patterns that would finally melt only when that one glimpse of pale sunlight peaked over the brownstone opposite around noon. The bird was tapping its hard black beak on the frosted window, as if it thought the glass was a sheet of ice covering a puddle somehow stood up vertical. No more unusual, certainly, than other adjustments one must make to survive in the city, an aviary that features electrified perches, daylight at night, noxious fog, hurtling metal boxes on wheels….

Terrence DeKalb lay inside the window on a creaky single frame bed, his enormous bulk napkined by a wool blanket that left his feet sticking out, a situation only partially assuaged by heavy wool hiking socks. He waved a beefy hand at the window and whispered, “shoo,” as if to a lover. But the bird paid him no mind. So he reclined there inches from its insistent pecking, observing the performance cock-eyed. This was a method he’d learned from birds without realizing he had done so.   The frosted pane blurred the bird’s shape, made it just an insistent shadow. He guessed a sparrow, maybe of the white-throated variety. The bird paused, as if listening. DeKalb waited, too. He could never tell if in moments like this there was some kind of communion, sharing for an instant the nature of a feathered thing, the exhilarating emptiness of avian consciousness that must be like some exquisite awakened exaltation. Thought like flight and vice versa.

It was a moment of not even breathing. He imagined himself the mountain over which the blackbird flew in that poem taped to his refrigerator, 20 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. But he could not hold his breath or hold the thought forever. It was so hard to focus. And with that the bird threw open its fisted self and was gone, leaving only the milky window, the gray walls, the hissing radiator, the overburdened cot, and a man exhausted – even after ten hours abed – beyond fatigue.

DeKalb was tired for a biological reason that sleep could not cure. His muscles, even during the night, chewed away at themselves. The chemicals that made up his body had gone rogue, lactic acid eroding the motor cells even of his toes and eyelids.   Any effort at coordinated movement involved a mighty heave of courage. To climb out of bed required a siege mentality. Every morning, he fought this lonely war. But the bird, he imagined, had come as a courier meant to call him forth to the day, and for this herald he would gather his dwindling resources and again attempt to do what was needed.

He followed a routine laid out serendipitously over the years but rigidly adhered to now, each step measured for economy of motion, for energy conservation. Donning his clothes incorporated an evaluation of gas in the tank, a calculation of what might be available today in the way of gross motor skill. If it had only been about him, he would never have bothered. It would have been so easy to just lie there listening to the radiator until the hissing faded away. But wild things with the brilliant energies of flight and song depended upon his appearance on each wintry morning. So for that he gathered whatever momentum he could marshal and sallied forth to the park.

The tedious process of dressing, then daring the negotiation of two rickety flights of narrow stairs, the heavy metal door to the street, and the icy stoop left him dizzy and gasping. But he forced himself to go on until at last his feet found their rhythm, shuffling along with an unthinking regularity. Bundled in his stained and pockmarked down jacket, in his khaki slacks over long johns, the old fedora with ear flaps, water-proofed boots and wool gloves with their fingers cut out for dexterity’s sake, DeKalb made his way to the park entrance where he paused to suck at the searingly cold air and delight at the twin vapor trails streaming from his nose. His old lungs still pumping, pushing oxygen out to the remnant cells that still cared, those that had not yet rebelled against their host.

In his backpack, he hauled a pound of lard, Manteca, suet, whatever you want to call it, wrapped in butcher paper. The front pocket held his medicine bottles filled now with sunflower seeds, kernels of corn, peanut butter and nuts. And in the crook of one arm, he carried a new feeder for a dark corner of the Ramble, meant to replace one torn down by greedy squirrels. DeKalb had spent months perfecting a pest-proof feeder and felt that his latest invention was the simplest, most economical and elegant contraption he had yet devised. But squirrels acting in gangs might still launch themselves from ice-stiffened branches and drag the thing to the ground with relentless, determined leaps, unless he found the perfect place to hang it.

Placement was everything, yet there simply wasn’t enough clear space amidst the boulders, pin oaks, and barberry bushes to deny his enemies a launching ramp. Yes, the squirrels were his enemies, but only because at an early stage DeKalb had chosen sides, recognizing the necessity of narrowing one’s ambitions within the realm of the possible. He had met a young man who patrolled the city with a net, capturing feral cats and seeking homes for them in the suburbs. School children and old maids brought peanuts to benches all over the park to feed the ravening squirrels. But managing the needs of the city’s aerial occupants was not so straightforward a proposition. Each breed of bird had its own proclivities and tastes, its own favorite food. He understood the over-wintering types – the chickadees, the sparrows, the cardinals and jays – and made sure to bring the easy to crack sunflower seeds and grain for them. But his choice entailed attention to the specialized diets of migrating flocks, too – protein-rich grubs for the mergansers and snow geese, sugar water for hummingbirds – though in the dark months of deep winter those flocks were long gone, and it was just the birds he called the residents he served.

It was not enough to bring food, of course. He had learned where to place it, how to shelter perches from careening hawks, how to make this unnatural provision seem to have grown from the earth. So he smeared the crunchy peanut butter the downy woodpeckers loved as high as he could reach in the seams of a hickory, he scattered seeds on the wind, he had even concocted this sling-shot apparatus he would take on its trial run today, hoping to wing a knob of suet far out over the high limb of a tulip tree where it would catch and hang like a spent yo yo only creatures with feathers could reach. It would take a mighty heave; he knew it would tax his last reserve. But then if he could just get to the subway and make it down to 23rd Street for his weekly infusion, then he’d recover. He would lounge idly in the warmth of the infusion room, amidst the other systemically-wounded veterans snuffling and snoring in reclining chairs, as the fiery chemicals pulsed into his veins. For another couple of days he wouldn’t have to face that impending horror, the ending he expected (having seen it happen to others), when he would lapse at last, a mummy slowly stiffening on an icy park bench. And while he was away for his hospital sleep over, his feathery charges would have the sustenance they needed to tide them over from any brewing blizzard.

The epidemiologist called it genetic, this slow muscle-wasting death march of his. Mitochondrial disease. But that was the usual BS, delivered with an administrative wink, since the VA had chosen to treat this incurable and purportedly hereditary illness as 100% service connected. Because a hundred flights dumping plumes of Agent Orange on a tropical jungle, wearing just a bandanna to cover your face when you leaned out the chopper door to tip an emptying barrel…. Even the VA didn’t fuck with that any more. They tagged it a presumptive service connection, edging towards a sideways admission. But that was just the usual bureaucracy. Nothing they were ever going to do would extinguish the sapping fire in his organs, the wailing fatigue in his muscles, the spinning colors or the splitting headaches. And nothing he was ever going to do would pay for the voluptuous rainforest he’d burned to wilted desert with those billowing orange clouds that had stifled the breath from every living thing they touched. Now even with eyes closed he saw them, all the time, flocks of birds tumbling out of the air.

Maybe you ran across him that day down the hill from Belvedere Castle? Say you had finished your jog around the reservoir and chose to add a little fartlek variety to the morning, whipping up and down the narrow lanes of the Ramble? But then you slipped on a shard of ice and thought better of your plan, slowing to a walk with your gloved hands further sheathed in the pockets of your running jacket, as you pretended for one moment that this rectangle of woods compressed between walls of brick was a wild place, laughed at your silly pretension and turned to sorting your plans for the busy day ahead. And there he stood.

Later you recounted how this bear of a man, wrapped in ballooning down clothing so he looked like some giant Eskimo statue or something paused beneath a mighty tulip tree and began with what seemed like great ceremony and titanic effort to turn on his axis, grimly accelerating as a rope with what looked like a bowling ball or something at its end swung out in the air and then with a sudden upturning release the slingshot or whatever it was soared straight up on the energy of the spin, trailing some kind of peg or hook, shot over a high branch above the path, caught in a fork and then hung swinging like a gob of phlegm far up and suspended way out in the air.

And then the man sat flat down in the crusty snow hunched like a melting snowman but breathing hard and vapor rising like smoke from his head so you wondered if you should ask and did that familiar hesitant half step forward with a hand out but then stopped dead in gathering wonder as first one then another bird flitted down and landed right on him. A ragged pigeon, then another, on one arm. A mourning dove, a flock of little brown jobbies, on his knees and shoulders. A seagull that seemed as big as an eagle alighted right on top of his hat and let loose with its caustic laugh. I mean in like one minute this guy was positively festooned with birds! They reached in his pockets and seeds sprayed all around. More birds flitted in from everywhere it seemed. And you’re gonna think I’m nuts, but when he came to a stand again, it was almost as if they lifted him up. They were all flapping their wings and grabbing him with their little claws and their beaks.

Back on his feet he stretched out his arms like a hulking fat scare crow, except it was just to give them a better perch. They ate from his outstretched hands. The seagull hopped off his head and stood squawking for a moment at his feet. It flew around him in a circle, then sailed away. I followed his eyes up to that thing he’d thrown in the tree, and already a couple woodpeckers were perched there, hammering away at whatever was in it. I wanted to say something, to speak to him, but he seemed all wrapped up in his work, and I didn’t want to chase the birds away. He was still standing there, and birds were still coming, when I left. I know you won’t believe me, it was just amazing.

No, stop, I totally get it. I’ve seen him, too. A lot of people have. Congratulations, grasshopper, and welcome to New York. No one knows who he is or where he came from or why he does it, but you can consider yourself baptized.  You have now witnessed one of the city’s great unsung wonders, a street angel.  We call him the Bird Man of Central Park.

 

August 1991: Happyland

Fifth in a series of stories from my time working as an occupational therapist at the Manhattan VA Hospital.

Welcome to Happyland, my man! You know, like that place in the Bronx, disco that burned down? They only had one way out, that little door to make the bouncer look big? Even the windows bricked up? Happyland Leisure & Social Club they called it. That’s why I put the sign on my door. My one door. That won’t lock. The one window. That won’t open. Plexiglass, you can’t break it. Check out this beat, call it techno-Caribe, marracas like crickets, and I guess these girls what, ululations? Bed and a chair is what I got. Sun heats up the plexi glows all smeary gold and kinda pulses like. Bar drinks here, they liquid drugs in paper cups, fair shots, actually. But I can’t get to my baby. I can’t get to my girl. In Happyland, you gotta dance. If you can salsa, or at least you gotta shake it some.

Nights in here they show videos on the wall. You wouldn’t believe what they suppose is entertaining. And the only outfit you get is these old cheap pajamas, like pea green colored, with snaps you see on baby clothes, some kind of cheap polyester with all the stains the last guy oozed that they couldn’t get out. I mean, this whole line of grandpas, all of them in these itchy old pajamas, and they’re all one size and the men got missing legs, they got bony arms, they’re just swaddled in these things. You see them coming down this hallway that’s pea green, too, or sometimes it’s this pink shade somebody had to plan to clash so good with the pajamas. I mean somebody had to stay up late just to organize this mess!

These old guys, half of them not even shaved, and hooked up to IV bags and colostomy bags and feed tubes plugged straight into their gut or trachs jammed into their throats or lines up their nostrils strapped on with bandaids across the bridges of their nose so their heads rear back to try to make an airway. And they ogle at you in what has to be agony but of course their hands are strapped to the chair so they can’t rip the thing out or even get a scratch. And I wouldn’t blame them, man, they’d do it, they’d rip the tube right up out of their gullets like a fishing line hooked with blood and snot altogether in one wailing belch up through the nose, anything to get that fucking feeding tube out from where it don’t belong.

You don’t believe me, you look in their wild old eyes sometime. That would make a video. See your own fish-eyed reflection rolling there. Aww, look, guess who else be wearing them goofball slippers made of sponges, the designer pj’s. Oh yeah, you’re in it, too, baby, this is Happyland. You want the real disco, you know how the beat just drop, DJ front some nasty old flute shit. Come up eery and cold and everybody’s neck swivels, gone to church on the flute, on the float, baby, waiting for the drop, here it comes. Take your ass to Arabia, now we down! Disco got smoke and fire and a junkyard stink. Oil and blood all boiling up together make a black cloud Terminator world. And then that miles of void flat out to nowhere when the meds kick in and your head goes deep like sunset in the sand.

Hundred Hours War they call it, smart bomb take a left turn in a window and all that shit. Stealth bombers. The promo will tell you we cut in clean, look how cool we play. But that ain’t what it was. But you try to tell somebody. Which is why I got the pictures to prove it.   Check out this one here. Page One: I call it the stone beginning of Happyland, my de-virgining over in the once upon a time. Cherry pop. You can’t tell from the picture, see, but on the road back from Kuwait they had these long ditches, these trenches, and we just chased them over the edge, where they thought they’d be safe or some shit. I mean, this is just the dirty desert, man, flat as a rug, there is no place you can hide, and this picture here, this is when they begin to get the picture.

You can’t see it too well, we were moving when I took it so it’s blurry, but believe me it came on fast and freaky. They want to get out now. This picture don’t show the noise, you have to imagine from the smoke. I’m in a bulldozer like you’ve never seen, got a 20-foot plow blade, and it can move. We had like 50 in a row and every one making tracks. Ran in a mile-wide phalanx side-by-side Mad Maxxing it. Kicked up our own sand storm behind us. And tanks, too, with blades on the front. This picture is like halfway through the job, I wouldn’t call it a battle. I’m not going to be taking pictures in a fire fight, right? There was nothing to do. And this picture, I pasted it in next to that one, because look, ten minutes later, where’s the ditch? Where’s the bad guys? Right? We’re sitting a thousand tons of bulldozer, a thousand tons of Abrams tank on them that’s where. And check this guy, he’s actually dug his way out, he’s just about out of there, got a leg up and that’s when he gets plugged, like a rat in his hole. Look at this other guy. Now you see him, now you don’t. Vaporized.

We just sat there in the desert, dead as Mars, machines idling. Climbed up on the hood and took pot shots. Or ran ‘em over. Or took a half-ton bulldozer blade and just smushed them. Like roaches coming out of their holes. Look how the sky, it’s white, it’s just as white as everything else, I mean like a white rubber skullcap clamped down on us all. But I know, hey, I get what it does to you, to look at my little photo album. I can imagine what you think of me for this. But dude you came in here, you see the sign. Happyland.

Night and day, sleep, awake, it’s the beat. Check this, how I got me these skanky pj’s and this ragged old wheelchair, first thing I know, I wake up on my living room floor and somebody’s howling. Turns out it’s me and I’m grabbing my knee, look up my wife she’s got a baseball bat, my own softball bat that goes plink when you get a hit, and she don’t have a stitch on and she’s howling too. Plinked me good, yeah she did. Check these knuckles, nobody’s even looked at it yet, feel like a handful of needles. Bedroom wall’s just moon craters, wake up and my arm’s up to my elbow in the next apartment. And this time, she’s preaching, says I kicked her clean across the room in my sleep. And came at her like some kind of zombie, thus the bat. I was asleep man. I was asleep at the disco! I mean, we used to like each other!

So I get up on this one knee, the other all smooshy like a bag of glass, still a mess really under these pins, and my leg I mean it folded backwards and I fell on it. You could hear the tendons pop like rubber bands. I’m laying there screaming and she’s standing over me not a stitch on screaming, I just want to jump up and take that bat. But my leg is folded up like a wallet in my lap, and that’s funny to both of us, really. Cops come in and we’re laughing and crying at the same time. I tried to throw a pillow at her. Put some clothes on girl! They think this is fucking hilarious. And that’s the last I know about that night.

Yo, whatever. I can lock my brakes. I can make it down the hall. I can get on and off the john, wipe my ass, I can do all that, no problem, okay? But buddy that ain’t the story. I’m just laying down some truth. People been sold a big con. Desert Storm is what they advertise. It’s all Happyland to me. Before all this, I was a dumbass, like you are, no offense, most people are. Like my little woman she so fine and we leave the Mets game early on a Sunday afternoon just to stretch out in the grass. She had seventeen bridesmaids, three day event two weeks before I left. I had to bring up cousins from the island just to get them escorts. She got pictures of all that and she can have them.

Look I want you to have this picture album. I know it cold anyway. They say this whole deployment wasn’t any kind of war, over in a week and all that, chased old Saddam back to his castle, but these pictures say different, right? The other ones, the pictures up in here between my ears, I can isolate, snapshot, do a still frame anytime. Which is the trick, I suppose. Pull a Michael Jackson, freeze it on tip toe, then walk it back and the girls all wet themselves. That’s why the sign on my door. Everywhere you look, it’s Happyland, and what I know now, what any of these old guys can tell you, we got a fire in the disco. All the exits blocked, man, the door’s lit up, all eyes be rolling, and we together understand what they won’t tell you yet. Busted knee or not, the only way out’s in a bag.

 

The Jazzman’s Lament

Fourth in a series of tales about talking old soldiers at the VA Hospital in Manhattan back when I worked there as an occupational therapist.

The drummer is a jazzman who has seen it all. He’s got this old-time jive way of talking that you trust.  Like when he says he’s sucked ribs with Louis Armstrong then pauses to lick his own lips in revery and recalls how sweet women would squeal just to touch a lacquered finger to Armstrong’s leathery embouchure. Claims to have once stolen a jar of coconut oil from Chano Pozo, the Cuban conga drummer who was pure sex pounding out jungle rhythms shirtless in Gillespie’s band, that oil making his ebony torso glisten and shimmer under the stage lights. Says he had game, too, once stopped the show at Condon’s in counterpoint to Monk, who actually deigned to nod what he took to be approval. But in this lesser age he picks up gigs at weddings and bar mitzvah’s, sometimes in Broadway or off-Broadway pit crews, keeps his hand in, his chops up, his groove on. His old hands ache from the work, but after 50 years in the business, he’s just glad the phone still rings.

Because by all rights, like many of the old jazzmen, he can’t see how he’s still breathing. I mean, heroin, speed balls, loved the stuff. Then those scuffles with Uptown New York’s Finest adding up to broken ribs, a cracked jaw, a glass eye and a limp. Miraculously, no shattered hands, as if the brutes understood how that would have been a bridge too far. The jazzman appreciates the power of his drums. He would have it known that spirits hover and are drawn like children to rhythm. Especially rhythm and sweat, rhythm made prayer by hands available to possession, by a man willed and willing to roll with it.

If you listen, if you can travel with him that far, then he stops and seems to sniff the air, gauging how much these next words will travel in the busy clinic. Then he leans in, as if crouched above his traps, and dares to speak of those things that lead in this place straight to the shrink: Devils. You see, demons with hot breath and dagger teeth have swarmed into his house, have risen to his 20th floor apartment in the artist’s complex on the West Side, the one that overlooks the river, you know it. To take his young daughter. Called by the drums. So yes, he has wrestled more than one naked onyx-black tar creature with rubber muscles and flashing red eyes, has shoved them out the window, off the balcony, down roughly and gone into the icy river below, in order to save his daughter’s innocent soul, because she too weak to bar the door left open by the sins of her father in a land so far away that people there have different shapes and speak in tongues.

Korea.  He was a kid then, like everybody else. Like everybody else, could not get warm. But the demons remind him that he cut his captives with the lids of tin cans, dropped candle wax into their wounds just to hear them whimper. As if their foreign noise somehow explained how they all ended up in such a dark corner of hades. He did that. And other things.  Or says he did. Which is why, when the Boys in Blue caved in his ribs, kicked him so blood spouted out of his mouth and nose, smashed his jaw up into his eye, pummeled him in the back room of the station house as if they wished to flatten him like a cartoon character into the messy tiled floor on a Saturday night not two blocks from the club where his wife sat waiting, as they stomped and jabbed and clubbed him beyond their own dumb rage to the point of simple butt-ugly fatigue, as he went down and knew it all as some pain-dream happening both to him and out beyond him somewhere, right on the verge of death, even then as he coughed his own blood (and they lifted him like a sack and still they measured their punches and swung), he swore in his spirit-heart to the ghosts of his ancestors that he would remember this night and haunt the last days of each one of these thugs in sweaty disgusting patrolman blue.

“This is how,” he whispers now (that glass eye always watching the corner), “this is why I survived. Because the old ones, the ancestors, told me, ‘No. You cannot come. You must settle this on your side of the grave.’ They told me, ‘Live and heal.’” Then they gathered in a counsel about him, above the fray, and threw him back to the wolves. But this he kept from them, held deep in his wounded heart, a heart made black by all he had done, a heart that could not atone, except in this way. He would awaken broken and one-eyed and limp all the rest of his days, but hoped as the beating wore down that they would do their worst.

“You see,” he says, “I swore to them, ‘I curse you. You will never rest another night undisturbed or know another season of good health. All your loved ones will fade to smoke in horrible ways that will break your soul until you die alone to be buried in a grave without flowers on a bleak plot entirely unmarked and forgotten. You will walk the spirit world as one shunned across eternity, scorned even by the shades that are most despised on the other side. At the same time I plead for each of your beastly, race-hating, meat packer strong, bullying blows. I tell you my fathers, this is what I have lived for, walked the edge of, craved without ever knowing that I did. And here it is, the answer, my teeth like loose corn in my mouth.’”

He says they did him a favor and to this day believes they knew it. Says that something wild and beastly came unleashed in them that night, that even though they had beaten down Hispanics and blacks and Eyetalians every weekend shift of their brief careers and would again until their shoulders gave way from years of pounding, that this was the lost pinnacle they would seek across all the whippings to come, that one night when it really got good to them. “See,” he explains, “that was the night they walked with me into a place I inhabited alone, that I knew as I know my drums. I held the door for them, helped them down in the hole, and brutes that they were, how could they resist? Which, of course, is when I had them. And now they too will never rest.”

I don’t really know what to say to all that, so I just do my job.  I unwrap the towels and peel the gummy paraffin from his aging, powerful hands. His perfectly manicured fingernails gleam as he wriggles his fingers in pleasure. “Ah, good as getting a nut,” he sighs. I drop the balls of wax back in their vats, toss the towels in the bin and turn back to him. I have to ask, “Did it help? This penance of yours, when the cops almost killed you. Have things been different since then?”

The jazzman stretches out his thick fingers and flattens his hands on the table, as if to examine their sheen. “Ah, young man, you have never been to war. How can I tell you this?  You see, what I learned that night, you will not understand, but think on this if you will. I was mistaken. The living thing they beat, it was not me. My penance is elsewhere. It waits for me in an icy trench with candles that throw shadows on the wall. All these years, I’ve been waiting in line. And when my time comes, then I will go.”