PART I: THE FACE OF THE MORNING HARLEM
Harlem sleeps late. The rest of the city has already accelerated to full throttle. Along Canal Street, the storefront gratings have been up for hours as the pungent odors of smoked mackerel, fresh shellfish, and cured meats slowly smother the background aroma of the metropolis, that faint blend of diesel fuel and decaying produce and bodily fluids to which urban noses have developed an immunity. The subways have yielded their stench of urine to the bustle of the early morning commute; Wall Street has papered over all memories of yesterday’s perspiration; in Park Avenue’s door-manned buildings and Madison Avenue’s upscale galleries, where the previous night’s frenzies still trail a scent of alcohol and vomit and lust, upscale matrons fortify themselves against the day with sprays of rose water and lilac perfume. Only Harlem ignores the call to battle, dozes comfortably in the fumes of its own refuse. It is as though a sanitizing cloud has erupted from the depths of the Port Authority Bus Terminal and Grand Central Station, rousing the downtown citizenry to industry, to sobriety, to spit-and-polish, and that this cloud—like just about everything else in New York City—will not cross 125th Street until all of the well-off white people are provided for.
Larry Bloom strides up Broadway with his New York Times tucked under one arm and a pack of Marlboro menthols bulging from his shirt pocket. He is an unattractive man, although not disfigured or crippled or mutilated in such a way as to provoke pity or indulgence, but just plain enough to feel a certain solidarity with the dark-skinned inhabitants of the vast swath of city where the trains still run along elevated tracks. Being unattractive is much like being black, Larry thinks: one makes you a second-class citizen in the world of business, the other a peon in the realm of romance. The only difference is that there hasn’t been a civil rights movement for the nondescript and homely people of the world, the short, bald, broad-faced Jewish- looking men who stumble into their thirties unloved and unscrewed. Not that it would matter.
One glance up Frederick Douglas Boulevard, the nation’s great emporium of check-cashing establishments and notaries public and beeper retailers, says more about the state of America’s melting pot than all the great platitudes about affirmative action and interracial healing will ever reveal. You can change your standards of beauty, much as you can change the complexion of poverty, lighten the skin to cream and trill the rs, but in the end somebody has to be hideous and somebody has to be indigent. It’s what they call inevitability. It’s the one thing Larry would like to share with the Dutch tourists he will soon lead on their Big Apple crash course, the secret behind Broadway and Lady Liberty, but nobody wants to see grown men scavenging for recyclables and automotive parts through the belly of the afternoon. Especially not while on vacation.
The homeless veteran who panhandles at the McDonald’s drive- through throws Larry a cursory glance and decides he isn’t worth the effort. And he’s right. Not that on a tour guide’s salary Larry has that much to give. The homeless vet is neither homeless nor a veteran, after all, just a scruffy opportunist whose wife drops him off from a tawny late-model Cadillac sedan every morning. He is a staple of the neighborhood, a legendary character like the emaciated dwarf who feigns hunger pangs in front of the Columbia University gates and the three blind men who sing golden oldies on the express train for pocket change. All black. All ugly. The comedy of it is that they will probably all earn New York Times obituaries someday, eulogies to their model poverty, while the real victims, who work the night shift at Kentucky Fried Chicken, or sew hem linings for three dollars an hour, or deliver guided tours atop double-decker buses for tips, will pass away unnoticed. Only today, Larry will cross into the kingdom of the chosen. He feels this as strongly as he feels the hot steam from an exposed manhole slashing his face. Today, an otherwise balmy and thoroughly nondescript day in June, Larry Bloom will discover both love and fortune.
He enters the post office at 125th Street and Frederick Douglas Boulevard. It is nine o’clock. A fortuity of urban planning has assigned Larry’s niche of Morningside Heights to the central Harlem postal zone, has lured him beyond the perimeter of gentrification to seek his fortune. The post office itself is part neoclassical monolith, part Turkish bazaar. Despite the rusting lockers and frosted glass windows that line the dimly lit lobby, one senses the subtle pulse of a hidden commerce beating against the marble floors and swaying the cast- iron chandeliers, a brisk trade in good cheer and shared resignation, as well as every illicit substance one could desire. A makeup-caked woman in a tight leather skirt argues with the white clerk at the passport counter. She has a child in tow. It appears that the woman is not the child’s mother, an admission she is heatedly trying to retract, and Larry suppresses the urge to step forward as the child’s father.
At her right, two portly women have wedged themselves between the cordon and the package retrieval window. They are wearing colorful hats, dressed for church although it is a Wednesday. A sign posted inside the window—one cannot be too careful—reads, “Pick up parcels between 9:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m.” The heavier of the women, arms akimbo, rakes Larry with her eyes. Her fishlike mouth hangs open to reveal a gold-capped tooth. He fears she is reading his thoughts, his pity for the makeup-caked woman who will someday, soon enough, wait for packages in church-wear, but maybe she is just deciding whether he will attempt to usurp her place in line, for she purses her lips to emit a soft-pitched hum and smiles approvingly.
Some people might speak to the portly women, small talk, chitchat, but Larry is not one of those people. He wishes he were. He ought to have responded to the woman’s smile with a greeting, an inane observation about the impending heat or the inconvenience of the package window hours. But he didn’t and it is too late. Any words now would sound forced, even threatening. It is that barrier, so much like the barrier that has kept him from expressing himself to Starshine, that keeps Larry a prisoner of his own inhibitions. Yet tonight, he is determined to speak to Starshine. To offer his love. He will present himself not as Larry Bloom, nondescript tour guide, but as Larry Bloom, published author. How can a woman, even an attractive, self-assured woman, turn down the advances of a man who has spent two years immortalizing her in manuscript form? Not only immortalizing her, for that matter, but immortalizing the very day of her life which will culminate in his offer of devotion. In his gut, he knows the answer, senses that he has scoured the floors of his apartment in vain, but there remains hope that Starshine Hart is also trapped behind a barrier and it is this hope that must buoy him through the day.
“I thought you said nine o’clock,” declares one of the portly women. “I could have sworn you said nine o’clock.”
“That’s what they told me,” answers the other. “I phoned them up and that’s what they told me.”
The women are not speaking to each other, not really, but rather to the crowd of postal customers who suffer with them on an ever-expanding line; they let their words ricochet across the lobby like grapeshot, so that their comrades-in-waiting will hear their indignation. They may also hope to shame a third heavyset black woman, younger with bad skin, who stands perfecting the art of idleness behind the drop-off window. When Larry offers her a questioning look, she glares through him. He averts his gaze to the floor, focuses his attention on an object beside the express mail bins that looks like a child’s sneaker, and he cannot help thinking of the recent terrorist attacks, of the watches and wallets and key chains strewn for blocks around the remnants of the Twin Towers. Larry would like to lecture this woman on the dangers of bureaucracy—he momentarily envisions himself a modern-day Rosa Parks, standing up for the rights of postal customers everywhere—but his one semester stint lecturing at Jefferson Community College has taught him that this woman has likely never heard of Rosa Parks. Besides, he is nonconfrontational by nature. Does half an hour really matter? He does not need to be at Grant’s Tomb until 10:15.
“Nine o’clock,” the first woman announces again. Her dental plates rattle when she speaks and Larry is embarrassed for her. “I know what I was told.”
The clerk ignores them. The minute hand on the wall clock winds its way past 9:30, 9:40, 9:45. Sweat builds on Larry’s palms. He wipes them on his jeans, sniffs the faint traces of tobacco on his fingers. Impatience is getting the better of him. He has ordered a hold on his own mail, putting off the arrival of Stroop & Stone’s answer until the morning of his date with Starshine, but he suddenly fears that he will receive a large envelope and all hope will be lost. Rejection is a possibility. All of the other major agencies have turned down his manuscript. The Biology of Luck is not for them. And yet Stroop & Stone responded so warmly to his query, promised him a reply to the manuscript within two weeks. It has been four. Larry scans the counter on the other side of the package window, but there are many large manila envelopes, so he has no way of knowing what to expect. Finally, one of the uniformed squadron milling around behind the bulletproof glass notices the time.
“It’s nine forty-five,” declares the heavier woman. She steps toward the drop-off window and points at her watch. “The sign says nine-thirty. ‘Pick up parcels between nine-thirty and eleven.’ Well, it’s a quarter to ten.”
The acne-scarred clerk nods. Then she pulls down the security glass of the drop-off window, steps into the next cubicle, and slides open the security glass of the package window. This is the quintessential Harlem moment, the city that the Dutch tourists with their gospel brunches and Apollo Theater outings will never see. The portly women appear unfazed. Maybe they are used to cutting corners at their own jobs, taking two-hour lunch breaks at the Department of Motor Vehicles or remaking hotel beds with soiled linens. Who knows? Larry certainly doesn’t blame them. He walks quickly to the revolving doors and steps into the early morning heat.
He ducks into an alcove opposite the loading docks, hiding behind a row of identical postal vehicles so he can enjoy a cigarette without countless strangers begging him for a smoke. One entire wall of the loading dock is plastered with flyers warning “If you see something, say something.” From his vantage point, Larry can see just enough of 125th Street not to want to look any further. He savors the refreshing tingle of menthol against the back of his throat.
Harlem is awake now. Not truly sanitized, not yet poisoned by the sterile cloud, but rubbing its eyes to midmorning and deciding that industry and sobriety, if not desirable, are unavoidable. The air is thick with exhaust fumes, but also the gentle aroma of frying plantains. At some distance, on a park bench across from the housing projects, two elderly men sit shirtless. Their chests sag into their guts; they are motionless. Larry cannot even tell whether they are awake. Are they happy? It is an absurd question, as absurd as wondering if the portly women with the church hats are happy, if they know enough themselves to wonder whether or not they are happy, if they know enough not to wonder whether or not they are happy, but it often seems that only the answers to absurd questions really matter. What makes some postal workers cut corners while others take out their supervisors with sawed-off shotguns? Why does one man’s happiness depend upon the availability of a park bench and another on the size of an envelope? What makes a man write a novel for a woman and then hold his mail until the day of their date? These are the questions Larry asks himself in moments of lucidity, but he understands that even these brief episodes of clarity are an illusion. There are no answers, just park benches and packages.
The portly women step onto the sidewalk, each carrying a cardboard box against her bosom. Larry grinds his cigarette butt into the asphalt and walks rapidly to the package retrieval window. He offers his driver’s license. The clerk runs her index finger along a series of cubbyholes and produces a stack of envelopes. Small, white envelopes. Larry flips through them rapidly at the counter: telephone bills, water bills, credit card bills. Each letter is a lost opportunity. His stomach tightens. What if they haven’t answered him at all? What if his manuscript is waiting on some desk, in some cubbyhole, at the bottom of a sea of paperwork? Yet here it is, the magic letter, the distinctive quill of Stroop & Stone’s letterhead emblazoned on the envelope.
The envelope is thin, crisp. Larry runs his fingers along its seams, admires the heft of the bond paper. Then he folds the envelope in two and stuffs it into his breast pocket behind his cigarettes. He will wait until after his date to open it. It will either serve as consolation or as icing on his cake. A third possibility exists, of course, the possibility that Larry’s perfectly constructed New York City day will collapse into rubble like the grandeur that was Rome, but for a moment, it is a beautiful Harlem morning scented with maple blossoms and exotic fruit, and he is happy, happy in the way he knows he can be if he wills away the inevitable and succors himself with the remotest of hopes. That is the purpose of his book. That is the subject of his book. That is the reason that the city rises from its slumber.
CHAPTER ONE: The Biology of Luck, By Larry Bloom
The rooster crows her awake again and her first instinct, fed by the semidarkness of her bedroom, is to go into the courtyard and silence the beast with a kitchen knife. Starshine will do nothing of the sort, of course. She does not eat meat or poultry. The sight of blood turns her stomach. On an ordinary morning, when the bedsheets stink of alcohol and aftershave and sex, she finds a certain amusement in the bird’s mournful song—it reminds her of a bugler hallowing the end of a great battle—but today she rises alone to her private reflections and the onset of her period and the uneasy sensation that she would rather be someplace else. Anywhere else. Her anger at the poor creature melts into a general frustration with the world. It is enough to know what the Dominican Jesus freak on the first floor intends to do with the rooster, to know that Brooklyn at the dawn of the twenty-first century, in goddam Greenpoint of all places, people are still worshipping icons and raising chickens for the stew pot, to make one wish for imminent holocaust or nuclear winter. Or at least another half hour of sleep.
She sits up in bed. The remains of the overnight breeze flutter the thin baize curtains, sending a shiver down her spine. The cool draft in the otherwise still room is sublime, almost romantic. It reminds her of the windswept beaches along the Maine coast where she passed a distant summer with her former lover, a bicycle messenger killed in the line of duty. Starshine remembers the afterglow. She’d sit on the deck of their borrowed cabin, naked under her parka, listening to the herring gulls while the boy tossed cigarettes over the railing into the breaking surf. She vividly recalls watching the waves extinguish the tobacco embers. She does not remember the sex. It amazes her that after so many lovers, virgins and aspiring Casanovas and even one guy who had ruler markings tattooed along the upper ridge of his penis, she can’t conjure up any specific moment of arousal or intimacy. Maybe they are all the same. Like cab rides. Like funerals. Maybe, when you get right down to it, intercourse is the great Marxist equalizer.
Her anger has evaporated. It’s not like her to be angry—even these days when she feels she’s being pulled at from all directions, when it seems like every man in her life wants to plant a proprietary flag on her like some newly discovered continent—and all it takes is the sound of the teakettle purring on the gas range to restore her sense of equanimity. God bless Eucalyptus. The girl is nuts, but she is the ideal roommate. Starshine shuts the window, pulls her heavy purple bathrobe over her tattered sleeping T-shirt, and tiptoes bleary eyed into the kitchen.
Starshine’s roommate is seated at the counter, diligently shaping a contraband ivory horn with a cauterized sail needle. The girl makes scrimshaw for the black market. The countertop bears six months of jackknife scars and lampblack stains. Her sometime boyfriend works for an international sheet metal dealership and smuggles the horns through customs. It’s a strange arrangement, sex for tusks, but although poaching strikes Starshine as morally repugnant when she thinks about it, she’d decided not to think about it. She has come to view her roommate’s hobby as an exotic form of needlepoint.
“Good morning, darling,” says Eucalyptus. “You alone?” “But not lonely.”
Eucalyptus grins. “You’ve been saving that line up, haven’t you?” Starshine pours the hot water into two earthenware mugs, slides
one across the table and sinks into a wicker chair. The morning Times is already neatly folded at her place setting, unmussed, only the large gaps where Eucalyptus has clipped celebrity obituaries revealing that
it has been devoured from cover to cover. Starshine’s roommate boasts a morbid streak. She is trying to learn history through death notices.
“Any important bigwigs kick it?” Starshine asks.
“Not really. There was another former President of General Motors, though. That’s the second this month. It kind of makes you wonder . . . .”
“He was ninety-eight years old.”
Eucalyptus shrugs. “Win some, lose some. Say, why no man du jour?”
“I’m taking a vow of celibacy.”
“Then practicing for the convent.”
“I think I’m in over my head.”
Eucalyptus carefully places her ongoing masterpiece, a miniature schooner, into her lacquered workbox. She breathes into her glasses and wipes them on her blouse, then replaces them and smiles knowingly at Starshine. “It’s easier to start sleeping with a guy than to stop, isn’t it?”
“Damn straight,” Starshine agrees. “So who wants to stop?” But she has to stop, and she knows it. Starshine raises three fingers in a Girl Scout pledge, although she has never been a Girl Scout—could never belong to any organization so rigidly structured. “I’m placing a moratorium on men. At least new men.”
Two men are already planning their lives around her and juggling them is anxiety enough. How in God’s name could I handle a third? she thinks. Yet the truth of the matter is that she’s still lonely, that nine years as the swan haven’t made up for twenty as an ugly duckling, and that if she can’t conceive of a future without either of her principal lovers, she can’t imagine a future with either of them. Maybe that’s why she has brought home three other men in the past month.
The casual flings mean nothing: Her two principal suitors mean a lot. Probably too much.
Colby Parker has the sharp-featured good looks and lanky body of the British upper class and the charm to match, although he is generations removed from his aristocratic Saxon roots. His father, the illustrious Garfield Lloyd Parker, is a third-generation lawn chair magnate who presides over family dinners like the Mighty Oz but plays fast-and-loose with his hands when greeting a prospective daughter- in-law. Colby solves every problem with a box of chocolate truffles or a dozen long-stemmed red roses. When she threatened to break things off, he sent twenty-four dozen. Two hundred eighty-eight goddamned blossoms! They arrived every hour, on the hour, in batches of twelve, like some mechanical toy gone berserk. Eucalyptus dried them and suspended them from the ceiling. Starshine hates the flowers—hates the money behind the flowers, the emotional blackmail behind the flowers, the painstakingly choreographed future that awaits her on the Parkers’ suburban Chappaqua spread—but she loves Colby in spite of it all. How can a girl resist a guy who says “thank you” after screwing?
Jack Bascomb has nothing, except a line of coarse black hair running down his chest to his navel, but she loves him too. He’s fifty- four years old and looks it. Beer gut, graying beard, the works. And then there’s the matter of personal hygiene. Even three decades on the lam can’t excuse shit-stained briefs and day-long morning breath. But Jack Bascomb believes in something, believed in it enough to join the Weather Underground and blow up recruiting stations, and still believes in it enough to turn down the government’s offers of leniency. And Starshine believes in what Jack Bascomb believes in. Sometimes. Enough to be twenty-nine years old and refuse any job that require her to wear shoes. Enough to chain herself to the sprinkler head at the local community garden to ward off the city’s bulldozers. Not enough to emigrate to Amsterdam with a cancer-riddled, over-the- hill revolutionary determined to live off freelance carpentry in the Buitenveldert. There lies the problem.
Starshine walks over to the kitchen window and breathes in the damp, verdant air of the courtyard, absorbs the trumpet of taxi horns and the banter of mating starlings and the awkward indifference of several pigeons resting on the fire escape. She hoists herself onto the wide sill, a ledge of wood splinters and chipping paint, perching herself inside the frame and letting her bare legs dangle over the edge. The window apron wheezes under her weight. Her back adjusts to the cool morning air while her arms and face remain warm and snug inside. The sensation is that of a self-induced fever. It is vaguely pleasurable.
One of the privileges of rising at the crack of dawn, Starshine reflects, is that it offers her license to do absolutely nothing. She has earned a brief respite from obligation and responsibility, a momentary lull before she puts on her adult face and steps through the looking glass into another day. There are things she must do, phone calls to return, necessities to purchase. There is the infuriating business of her appointment at the credit union, where she must haggle or plead for the forty-five dollars which have mysteriously vanished from her account, then the gourmet fruit basket she will purchase with the proceeds, then the exhausting visit to the Staten Island nursing home where her great aunt will nuzzle the fruit against her withered cheeks. There is nothing more depressing than bringing bosc pears and artificially sweetened figs to a blind woman who speaks through a tracheotomy. But all of that is later. It is half past six in the morning and Starshine can’t even run down to the grocery to pick up a box of cornflakes, at least not until seven when the beefy Pakistani proprietress replaces her son behind the counter and she no longer has to fear another marriage proposal. All she can do for the moment is sit, bake, freeze, shiver, be. It is all so simple.
“So what’s on tap for today?” asks Eucalyptus.
“The usual,” answers Starshine. “Breakfast with Colby, lunch at Jack’s. And lots and lots of canvassing.”
“So much for the convent.”
“Oh, and dinner with Larry Bloom.”
“That should be a blast.”
Although Eucalyptus has not actually met Larry, she has seen him at the helm of his tour bus and formed her judgments. Starshine knows that her own descriptions and anecdotes haven’t helped his cause. This makes her feel marginally guilty, but only marginally so, because the jury is still out on her dinner companion. He’s a bit too pliable, a bit too attached to her for comfort. He’s given her too many of the cheap key-chains and coffee mugs and refrigerator magnets he receives gratis from tourist traps. Theirs is one of those New York friendships, struck up over a mutual interest in the history of landfills (years before when Starshine, for several months, developed a fascination with the changing contours of the Manhattan shoreline), that might easily fade away into acquaintanceship and unease. Only it hasn’t faded, somehow, maybe because Larry’s the one man in whom she has no romantic interest. He has become her sounding board, her authority on the coupling habits of the male subspecies. And tonight, of all nights, she is feeling like she needs any insight she can get.
But Starshine is a pushover, not an idiot. She prides herself on the distinction. She realizes that Larry has his own hopes, his own muted expectations. Someone famous and dead once said that “all exercises have objects” and there’s a reason this guy endures her tales of romance and confusion. He’s addicted to them like a housewife hooked on daytime soaps. But that’s his business, not hers. It doesn’t make her a bad person, does it? She’d fix him up, if she could, but she doesn’t know the sort of women who date the Larry Blooms over the world, and she imagines he must have other opportunities. Some woman—but decidedly not Starshine Hart—will see his inner beauty. And yet sometimes, against her visceral instincts, she wonders what it would be like to bestow herself on the hapless guy (bestow is a funny word, somehow the only one that seems appropriate to the circumstances), to purge her life of Jack Bascomb and Colby Parker and all the rest and to bestow complete happiness on someone who might bask for the rest of his life in the glow of his own gratitude. Like Scarlett O’Hara’s first marriage in Gone with the Wind. How much would it really matter? It’s all nonsense, of course. Shit, stuff, and nonsense. Somebody else’s pipe dream.
“You know,” says Starshine, “if we were famous, life would be much easier.”
“Uh-huh,” Eucalyptus replies indifferently. “If we were famous, we’d still end up dead.”
“Well, if I were famous, honey, you’d run down to the corner store and pick up a box of cereal for me.”
“Yep,” agrees Eucalyptus, holding a jeweler’s glass in front of her ivory schooner to admire her handiwork. “But you’re not.”
Soon enough, though, thinks Starshine. Eventually. Maybe. She’s not even thirty. There’s plenty of time left for fame and fortune. She’ll be brave in the interim. She’ll weather the Don Juan of Karachi and purchase her own breakfast. But first, she’ll paint her toenails. Green. Bright, bright green.
This is an excerpt from Jacob Appel's novel of the same name. The author has more than 200 publication credits, Appel has won the Dundee International Book Prize U.K., the Tobias Wolff Award, the Walker Percy Prize, the Kurt Vonnegut Prize, the Zarkower Award for Excellence in Playwriting, and others. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Huffington Post and elsewhere, including law and medical journals. His plays have been produced in NYC and California. He is currently a practicing psychiatrist at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, where he resides.
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