graphic

Chapter 1

In Which a Man Disappears, and Several Parties Are Held



The Last Hurrah

It is his last day, and by six in the morning he is already drinking, drinking and shot up, eyes frantic, limbs flailing like he's ready to explode. At seven he is on the wasted docks across from Manhattan starting fights with the winos and the mechanics; by eight-thirty he's up in Washington Heights playing dominoes on a fire hydrant some kids are getting ready to crack open with a sledgehammer because it's so damn hot and the Hudson's so dirty and the ocean is too far away. By noon he's been thrown out of thirteen bars. He gets hit by a bus, gets drunk again with some boys in Spanish Harlem bobbing to bachata out of a static-ridden radio. The afternoon he spends smoking sweet tobacco and watching old movies in Arabic with the Egyptians in Astoria. He kisses Daoud's hand in Egypt Cafe, whispers something in his ear; then he rides the G back into Brooklyn, hops trains to Brighton Beach, where it's getting dark and the families are getting ready to go home. The men on the boardwalk totter with vodka, chase women, and eat boiled eggs, and he goes from club to club to tell the Russian mafia he's leaving, he won't bother them anymore. By dark he is face-up on the pier at Coney Island, watching the first suns flare in the sky, the first stars of summer, out for that rare time when the humidity breaks and all is quiet, like the city is taking a breath, swelling the land under it, diverting water in the river and the bay to places farther out, deeper places; then it exhales, and all that was displaced returns, all that was disturbed tilts back into place, settles, grows quiet. And then, Manuel Rodrigo de Guzman Gonzalez vanishes. Poof.

For twenty-six hours, nobody knows he's gone. Everybody thinks he's with someone else, like the time he went to the Philippines and everyone thought he was in Jersey. He never answers his telephone anyway, they say. He tells people to call so he can let it ring twenty, thirty times. He has a phone from the sixties with a fire alarm bell on it; it helps him get to sleep.

Then his apartment explodes, blows apart the outside wall and rains bricks, plaster, timber and glass, burnt paper, shredded clothes in the street, but leaves the rest of the building standing, untouched. The news spreads in a widening circle of shock, people are talking about it up and down the street, voices crackle across the air and over wires. He's gone, he's gone, it goes in letters, in words flashing across flickering screens, it is written by planes in the sky. It spreads from the city and moves to the end of Long Island, into New Jersey, Connecticut, upstate, across New England; it moves across the continent over the miles of thrashing grain, the ragged heights of the Rockies, down into the deserts and dense forests and to the opposite shore, where men hear it on shortwave radios at the place where the Mexican border falls into the Pacific Ocean, and the waves roll in gigantic and break against the rocks and sand with a force that ensures compliance. It passes along the piers of Eastern Europe, syllables slipped between knife points and rusting rifles; on the shores of Angola they wail at the ocean, beat their feet into the sand, turn back toward crumbling cities. The news burns bodies in the Bronx, things are cast adrift in the deep water of the East River, people depart into the sky, there are meetings in drainage systems, encoded signals broadcast in the flight patterns of birds, machines stir, motors grind into action at frequencies only subterranean people can feel. And people begin to congregate in the places that Manuel loved. They want to know what happened, they want to understand, but being the kind of people they are, all that wanting turns into partying. In Astoria, Egypt Cafe is jammed to the ceiling, people walk over other people to get inside, they spill out onto the street in front of the laundromat, they raid the delis and liquor stores and close down Steinway, they make a party so big that the police see it and just throw up their hands, set up roadblocks, join in when they get off duty. At the Maritime Lounge in Red Hook, some Congolese soukous band appears out of nowhere and plays for two days straight, they have to coat their fingers with glue in between numbers to keep the skin on, and the crowd crashes in and chokes on seven different kinds of smoke and laughter, they pour beer and whiskey all over each other and dance to break floorboards. The place runs out of alcohol after eighteen hours but people keep bringing in more, they toast Manuel again and again, wish to God you were still here. They end up in the water of the harbor, holding their drinks high and setting them on fire until the end of the second day rolls by and they go to sleep in the street, they crawl home in a blind drag. They pass out in subway cars, they wake up feeling like their brains are cut in half. They go home in pairs and wake up naked with each other, their furniture upended, dishes broken, sheets ripped into long shreds, clothes plastered somehow to the ceiling. And Wendell Apogee weaves home alone in the dark, through the cheers and the falling confetti, the flash and bang of fireworks, all the way back from Red Hook to Astoria where the crowd is dead from dancing; and he goes to his apartment, opens the window to the stifling summer air, drenches himself in freezing water, and then falls on the floor and cries.

Our Hero

He wakes up the next morning escaping from heat-troubled sleep, thrashing to life in the sun that's already baking concrete, melting the antennae of cars. Downstairs he can hear his old landlord moaning, a World War Two refugee who will spend the day spitting at his fat dog and sweltering into his velour armchair. In the apartments around him, people have their shirts off and are hanging out the window, running soaked towels over their arms. Two women lounge in bikinis on the roof with a radio playing a melted Cuban cassette, they fan themselves with newspapers and fling Spanish curses to the boys on the fire escape who whistle at them between dousing swigs of frozen malt liquor from frosted plastic bottles. All across the city it is like this, you feel heat flow from every surface and multiply, push under your skin and cook you off your bones. People crawl into their blasting air conditioners, sixteen of the elderly pass away, vagrants and runaways wade into the filth of the East River, kids break open Siamese plugs on buildings and lie in the gutter in their underwear, letting the water crest over them, over their hands and hot faces, knowing they'd felt cold once, oh, not six months ago; but the heat is like the flu: three days into it and you can't remember what it was like to be well.

For the nascent Church of Panic, it's part of its mythology. In robes of black and white, its members hover four inches over the pavement, gliding in formations of three up and down major thoroughfares. They jostle the quality on Lexington south of 96th, pass through the South Americans on Brooklyn's Fifth Avenue, collide with Dominicans at Broadway and 160th. The heat is a portent, they say, a sign of the chaos to come. We are the Prophets of Fear, the Angels of Paralysis. Begin stockpiling weapons now. They seem serious.

The authorities are investigating the explosion in Manuel's apartment, collecting testimony from witnesses and neighbors. There was first a warping sound, they say, a rush of air that rattled windows and stripped hats from heads. Then the fire shot straight out in a column of wide flame that broke against the building across the street, rolled across its face, and was gone. Neighbors who peered into the hallway afterward saw smoke snaking from under the door, through the keyhole. Now the police are calling every name they can find in what remains of Manuel's things. Come to his apartment for an interview, they say. It will not be like a wake. But it is.

The door to Manuel's apartment is charred around the edges; shocks of black streak from the corners, through the locks. Inside, all is ruin. The couch is burned down to melted springs and withered struts, chairs and tables are blown into shadows. The walls are tortured plaster, fused wiring, the appliances a pile of slag. And at the apartment's edge, nothing: just the open air above the street, the last step to suicide laced by police tape, framed by swinging cables, nails, burnt walls, silent pigeons.

"Mr....Apogee?"

"Yes...?"

"Inspector Herman Trout. My partner, Lenny Salmon. We recognized you from this."

The policeman holds up a bubbled, half-melted photograph, a close shot of Wendell and Manuel, their faces smiling, almost cheek to cheek, arms around each other's backs. The angle of Wendell's shoulder tells you that he took the picture himself, holding the camera out in front of him while the two of them squinted into the flash. In the background, throbbing lights, raving hands reaching toward them.

"Where did you find it?"

"In the oven with his birth certificate," Salmon says. "Mr. Apogee -- "

" -- Wendell."

"Wendell." Salmon says. "Would you say that you were friends with Mr. Gonzalez?"

"I...friends? Yes, we were...very good friends, we..."

"Would you say that you were familiar with his friends?" Trout says.

"Yes. Well...some of them, he had so many friends..."

"Mr. Apogee," Trout says. "We have compiled a list of over eighty-seven people who describe themselves as close, personal friends of Mr. Gonzalez. Now here is the conundrum: none of them can say where he went."

"They have some interesting ideas," Salmon says.

"A certain Lucas Henderson..." Trout licks his thumb, flips through the pages of a small notebook. "Yes, here, told us that quote Manuel's vanishing is not a disappearance, it is an apotheosis unquote..."

"Some of them said he went to Hungary. Or Mars."

"Or Senegal."

"Something about running Soviet-era weaponry to African revolutionaries."

"Money laundering for certain government officials in Turkmenistan, taking a percentage of their profits in the Central Asian opiate trade, which appears to be quite lucrative."

"We've heard a lot of stories today, Wendell. Want to know how most of them end?"

"...I don't know, do you think I want to know this?"

"They told us to ask you where he went."

"...what?"

"That's right."

"..."

"..."

"But I have no idea where he is."

"They said you would know. They said he told you everything. They said you knew him best."

The night before his last day, Manuel visited Wendell at two in the morning, swung hand over hand along the power lines to his building and slid through the open window. He must have watched Wendell sleep for an hour. He walked around the bed, put a hand on the shoulder that pushed up a ridge under the covers, and sobbed until Wendell woke and put his arms out to comfort him. Manuel told him many things that night, piteous and cruel, but it was nonsense, Wendell understood so little of it, he just wanted his baby to be calm, to roll into his arms and go to sleep. It's too much, Manuel said. I'm going, I'm leaving everything and going.

You can't leave me, Wendell said. Don't go away from me. And he locked his arms around Manuel's chest and Manuel slowed, as if coming to some sort of peace. He said he would not go, he seemed to rest; but he must have changed his mind again, or maybe he was lying, because he was gone now, gone leaving Wendell's hands clutching at air, frayed nerves buzzing, looking for their ends.

"I thought I knew him. I really did," Wendell says.

He walks back to the subway in a heat like the sun is coming closer, a tendril of nuclear fire reaching out to lick the surface of this hapless planet, run a scorch mark a thousand miles across a continent, string up a chain of smoking cities, ashen farmlands. At the corner near the subway stop, men and women have gathered, they're shielding their eyes with their hands. One of them saw something up in the sky and they're talking about it. It was like a jellyfish, all eyes and hungry limbs, writhing in the air. A creature of heat stroke, someone says. The squiggling image of the sun burning into your retina. And this from a trio of priests of the Church of Panic: it begins.

There are twenty-six messages on Wendell's machine when he gets home. The first is from Lucas Henderson: he is having a party that night for Witnesses to the Ascension of Gonzalez, bring etcetera. Then twenty-three more from various friends of Manuel, informing him of said party, love it if you'd come, be great to see you, how are you holding up, need to stick together. We all miss him, really we do. Then a long rambling message from the policeman he just talked to, Inspector Salmon. Sorry if his questions were upsetting, he could tell they made Wendell uncomfortable. He wanted to make clear that nobody considered Wendell guilty of anything and they wanted to keep in touch, please call if he found anything or just wanted to talk about it. A cough. Then message twenty-six: a woman's voice drenched in a Spanish accent, crackling with distance.

"The phone is about to ring," she says. "Do not answer it."

The phone rings.

"Do not answer it."

Wendell does, a hello...? that pinches down his throat and comes out meek and scared. At first, nothing answers, there is only the sound of his own breath and the ambient noise of the street filtering through the receiver; but then a hiss emerges from this, a hiss that widens as if something is approaching, voices become distinct from one another, the sounds of men, women, and children, and at first it seems as if they are whispering, no, they're chanting, but then Wendell can hear it for sure: they're screaming, screaming above the keen of engines and now a howl that dives down from the sky and tears the earth apart. A giant hand wriggles through the phone line and strains through the sieve of the receiver to enter Wendell's head, push its fingers into his brain, and the phone slips from his grasp, swings on the cord and smacks against the floor; and Wendell teeters like his feet are on a fulcrum, and the ground has rotated to accept him. Lights out.

Wendell's Dream #1

The road that bends and angles up from Huehuetenango in Guatemala and hangs along the edge of the long valley in the ruddy Cuchumantanes ends at Todos Santos, a steep cluster of layered houses, cobbled passages, and muddy alleys where the people still wear Maya garb and the families still feel the spaces from all those deaths, deaths in the civil war not long ago when they gathered men, women, and children and shot them in the square, chased them up into the hills and shot them there; it is a place of half-finished buildings, of stray unspayed dogs and a terraced plaza where the men in red pants and shirts of many colors lean against the railings and exchange words, and the market every Saturday brings them in from the hills with vegetables, pigs on leashes, hinges, and foggy cassettes of ranchero and electric ballads. In the evening, when the shadow of one side of the valley crawls up the other and the lights flicker on in the street, and people strike candles in their houses and the music starts up in the evangelical church, bass and accordion and tuba, and the houses filter buzzing marimba music through portable radios into the darkness, it is mournful, it is joyful, it winds around the end of the day and brings rest.

Manuel has fled to this place and built a house on one of its streets, a house that has one story when it starts, but stretches to three as the land falls away beneath it. He's in the panaderia overlooking the square during the day, drinking instant coffee with sweet rolls, and at night he stands in the street, speaking in slow tones with other men and drinking Gallo beer from long, brown bottles, watching kids play with bicycle tires, people packing things out of town in bundles lashed to their heads, while in the plaza a tourist gets the most expensive shoeshine the town has ever seen. And he is there where the road ends at the church when the bus from Huehuetenango pulls in, coughing diesel and shaking off dust. Farmers and artisans descend; then Wendell, who has dirt on his hands and grime in his hair, and has brought nothing with him.

"I knew you'd be able to find me," Manuel says.

"Don't leave me again."

"Then stay here."

And Wendell moves forward and embraces him. Manuel puts his lips to Wendell's ear and repeats it: stay, stay; and Wendell's hands move on Manuel's shoulders: I will, I will...

Yellow Skis

Lucas Henderson labors down Lorraine Street in Red Hook, thinking. Once the neighborhood was rowdy with sailors, dark ships heaving on the water, piers creaking against the rocks, prostitutes, fights, and vomit. There were factory fires and parties, longshoremen shooting each other over illegal booze, floating hotels and movies on the playground. Then the piers began to close, the city bored a tunnel, flung a highway through the neighborhood, severed it from the mainland. Up rose the cross-shaped projects while the houses slumped on the cobbled streets, they put in only the streetlights they had to, made days and nights of boredom and violence, of stepping over corpses in the doorway. Now the artists have moved in closer to the water, the upwardly mobile followed with their giant stores and condominiums, put in a ferry to Manhattan in the places where sailors kissed their girls and fell drunk in the water. So many plans, unready for the winds that would tear down houses, the coming firestorms. The newspapers and magazines all say the neighborhood's changed forever now, they're holding funerals for the Red Hook that was. But along the streets of fried-chicken places and laundromats, check-cashing stores and community centers, merengue and hip-hop bouncing off the sidewalk, the people know that the papers aren't talking about them. Maybe closer to the water, where there's a wine shop, new paint jobs, European cars. But here there are still soccer games in the wide parks by the pool where they pull Central America out of the ground and you can eat pupusas and tacos with shards of coconut and a bottle of Jarritos while the men who work night construction jobs tear across the field in striped jerseys. Near the projects, the old sit on benches and smoke, talk of nothing; the boys in long shorts and baseball caps mob the sidewalk, drink off the heat with forties. Bless you my sons, Lucas says. In his arms and on his back he bears the weight of bottles and bottles of whiskey and vodka, a few jugs of wine, so that the Witnesses to the Ascension, a.k.a. Manuel's friends, may be merry.

Lucas was born into the Lunar Temple, a group of Americans, most from the Southwest, who believed that the Moon was a part of the Earth that was broken off in an ancient cataclysm, and that humans were devolved from more pure creatures who now lived in vast, spiral cities below the satellite's surface. These beings were building monstrous engines two hundred miles across on the dark side of the Moon that, on the Day of Joining, they would use to bring the Moon hurtling back to Earth. The Lunar Temple calculated that the first point of contact between the two bodies would be one of the peaks in the upper range of the Sierra Nevadas; the Founder built their compound there so that, on the Day, they could tilt their heads skyward and be the first to kiss the heavenly body and welcome it home. The first twelve years of Lucas's life were spent eating, sleeping, and, in the last few months, mating in that place, watching from his window every night while the first generation of the Temple wandered around in the yard staring up at the Moon, mouths open like chickens in the rain.

Two months before Lucas's thirteenth birthday, as he was about to make it with the Founder's fifteenth daughter, a great light descended from above. Alarms sounded, people shouted, the Day was at hand, and everyone clustered within the white circle the Founder had drawn at the summit and assumed the position they had drilled: back straight, up on tiptoes, neck craned, lips puckered. But the approaching light and noise turned out to be an FBI helicopter, followed by several more carrying men in riot gear who arrested the Founder on charges of illegal arms possession, corrupting minors, and aggravated assault. The compound was razed; in its place the state built four wooden benches and a concession stand.

Of the second half of his life, the years after deprogramming and before Red Hook, Lucas says nothing. They are incidental to the foundation of my personality, which has been cheated the sweet oblivion of apocalypse, he has said. He has trouble getting dates. Women back away, hands out, defensive. But this matters little, for Lucas knows how to throw parties.

"In every second, mass death, death by the millions, has been averted by the slightest margin," he explains. "For this reason, it is important that every party be of the highest quality."

So he trudges down Lorraine on his way to Van Brunt, bottles clinking, the boys with the forties smirking and raising their drinks to him. The cops beep their horns once or twice, they know him and how cooperative he is with authorities when his celebrations get out of hand: in his kitchen is a baseball bat that he wields with what he calls the Hand of the Righteous.

Diane is waiting for him on the steps; she has pulled up her shirt with one hand and is palpating her stomach with the other.

"They're going to bust you, with all that booze," she says.

"Avaunt, harlot."

"Avaunt? Who talks like that? Where'd you go to high school?"

"Diane, I never attended high school."

Diane became prom queen after her three rivals, triplets, died in a boating accident on the lake near where she grew up. One of them had been waterskiing: they found a yellow shard of one of the skis flipping in the current a foot below the surface. One of them must have been driving the boat, but what the third one was doing, nobody could say for sure. Witnesses say the boat launched into the air, cut a high arc above the water that was traced by the tow line and skier, then plunged nose-first into the waves, dragging the skier down with it. Nobody is sure how the triplets got the boat to fly, but Diane remembers that all through the senior dance, while her boyfriend's hands sweated on her back, she kept thinking of that boat falling 427 feet through the cold black water, the first two triplets aboard, hands locked to the railing, eyes open, the third with her fingers curled around the handle of the line, legs splayed out behind her, following them down. It was suicide, she was sure of it: one of them had planned it, and when the other two realized what was happening, they accepted. Diane still thinks of those triplets now and again, there at the bottom of the glacier-scraped lake where the water never freezes, their boat resting on the ribs of old rotting barges, the long bodies of drowned Iroquois canoes, and below them all, the massive skeletons of giant lake trout that died before humans ever showed up.

Diane has five boyfriends, all of whom will be coming to the party. Four of them, Lazaro, Enrique, Fernando, and Rigoberto, are diminutive Ecuadorians who play on the same soccer team, the 101st Street Auto Depot Flyers, in the summer league in Central Park, even though they all live in Queens and do not work at the depot. They are capable of acrobatic tricks on the field and have never lost a game. Her fifth and most casual boyfriend is Masoud Azzi, a Lebanese man who flew fighter planes for the Syrian air force, then became a pacifist and moved to Astoria, where he lives two blocks closer to the subway than Wendell but pays a third of the rent, thanks to his familial connections. No broker's fee, either. When he is drunk on ouzo, Masoud likes to remind Wendell of this; then he practices yoga to prevent the onset of hangover. Diane loves all five of them the same, yes, her heart is big enough for that, but she loves Lucas the most and it is taking apart her internal organs; twice she has been hospitalized, near to death. Yet she tells Lucas nothing. Maybe Lucas can see it in her anyway, maybe he can't; if he can, he gives no sign, only the cold glance he reserves for all his friends.

"Either relieve me of some of my burden or step aside and let me pass," Lucas says. And she steps aside, but only by inches, so that accident might allow them to touch.

Blood on the Floor

One hundred years ago, Lucas's apartment was the workplace of Dr. Bernie, Butchery and Surgery. His living room was filled with meat, a thick curtain of slaughtered pigs suspended from hooks and draining, spinning when jostled, gathering flies. Dr. Bernie hung the hogs himself, butchered them on the floor. If you pushed through this wall of flesh, though, you'd come across a pristine white table where, using the same instruments he used on the hogs, Dr. Bernie stitched cuts, set limbs, lanced boils, popped eyes back in their sockets, performed amputations. He was shut down in 1910 by a corpulent, phlegmatic man from the new FDA, who deemed unsanitary the performing of surgery amid food meant for consumption. Dr. Bernie left the place a few months later, but on hot nights like tonight, Lucas can still catch the smell.

The first people arrive at six-thirty; as soon as the doorbell rings, Lucas knows they can't be close friends of Manuel's, because most of his friends haven't even woken up yet. They talk about politics, about their jobs. Lucas can tell they're afraid of the neighborhood, will call a car service and be out of there before it gets dark. The doorbell rings again at six forty-five and to Lucas's surprise it's Diane. Even more surprising, she does not seem to know what to say to him. He mistakes it for sobriety, the awkwardness of being among the first people to arrive, while Diane wonders if all men have been wired to be so dense.

By eight o'clock, the party is moving, seventy-two pairs of feet cross the scratches and stains on that old floor. All of Diane's boyfriends are there: the fighter pilot Masoud is putting moves on Liz, who he knows is a lesbian but is smitten with anyway, and Liz humors him because he has eyes that remind her of her brother's, deep and lucid, before the schizophrenia began. Liz's roommates Izzy and The Slug are over by the window: Izzy is trying to see how many gallons of pudding fit in The Slug's pants; they're up to sixteen and the pants are just getting started. Erma and her lover Lucinda are eating the pudding that trickles out the leg, they feed each other with the blackened spoons they stole from the pocket of Robert Lord Townsend, Jr., a slumming junkie son of aristocracy who is too far gone to notice the theft, well, too far gone and transfixed by Ma Xiao Ling, a recent refugee who swam across the boat-torn Yangtze in a storm of slanting bullets and came to America in a crate full of sparking metal Godzilla and UFO toys. Ma Xiao Ling's two husbands, one for love and one for citizenship, are kickboxing in the far corner, their noses blowing a mist of blood; this match is refereed by the almost blind William McKay, a man in a wide wool cape who travels by hooking his cane to passing vehicles, then billowing out his cloak so that he is borne aloft, a sailor of the street. He was taught this trick by Isaac, who abandoned physics for the creation of robotic limbs; he is awaiting the patent that will make him wealthy enough to move to Greenland, where he will attempt to change his sleep cycle to match the daylight hours, passing most of the summer awake and most of the winter in slumber. He believes such a regimen will induce visions, an idea planted by Sylvia, the medium, whose tool for channeling spirits, a kickball, is being bounced around the room by Diane's other four boyfriends, the team of Ecuadorians, who form a human pyramid, then stand on the ceiling, then somersault in the air, ignoring gravity.

The Pan-Galactic Groove Squad crashes through the window at eleven-thirty to claps and cheers and stomping feet; there are twenty-seven of them in this band, they have guitars and basses, keyboards, accordions, horns, banjos, and drums, so many drums, and they set up in no time and begin to play, a beat that starts down low and simple, just the kick and some hi-hat with one bass snaking around it. The rest of the band waits, they're letting the groove get in the pocket, hit bottom. It does; and now two drummers join in, they weave a polyrhythm that brings in one guitar and some pops from a banjo, oh this groove is young but it's growing, and people are starting to move. Now a singer steps up to the mike, puts out some blues that two more singers turn to gospel, harmonies deep and wide that make you want to believe. Five more drummers slip their way into the spaces, two guitars, another bass, a single trumpet line, simple and urgent, and those singers are swelling up, they're filling the groove to bursting, and just when nobody can take another second, they break it open in an explosion of horns and keyboards and shouting strings. The people open up their throats and sing, and everybody screams and throws their hands in the air, they're falling in and stomping it down, sweating and throwing back their heads until they are bound together, band and dancers, into a single thing, and this is a party not even the Hand of the Righteous could stop, it is loud and large and full of joy; and then Wendell steps into the room.

It is the entrance of the widow, frail and shaking, exhausted by grief. The band skids into silence, and for a moment, nobody wants to speak, nobody wants to poke a hole in the reverent air. They all look at him with uneasy smiles, and he looks back at them; and then Lucas hugs him, the condolences roll through the air, they raise glasses to him, to Manuel, to everyone, that they could be here tonight, and the band begins again, dropping a wicked swing, and everyone is moving again, grinning and kissing and yelling in each other's ears, inviting Wendell to start forgetting. Put him out of your head, they say. Join us and be happy.

But Masoud is not part of this, for something in Wendell takes him back to Lebanon. He thinks of his brother, angry and lost, a black marketeer for the mayhem and the intense profits involved, and because their father was gone. You are good with a gun, his brother said to him. I have seen what you can do. The crazy days in Beirut, sprinting down the street with bags of opium tied around his waist, vaulting over the traces of bullets, firing a round of ammunition into darkness out of a rifle that stamped bruises into his shoulder. Protect me, his brother said. But Masoud did not. Two years later, the same offer: protect me, now fringed with desperation; he had too many enemies, could not watch them all at once. Again Masoud did not help him, and left the country in grief and shame. He dealt in furniture supplies, stayed away from the business contracted behind the store. I will be a good man, he thought. There will be no more violence for me. But now here is Wendell, he does not ask but his face says it: protect me. And Masoud does not know what to do.

"I have a joke for you, Wendell," he says. "It is the funniest one I know. If you do not laugh, it is because you're not human."

"Masoud, I'm not -- "

" -- A man walks into a bar, and hears incredible music coming from the corner of the room. He looks around and, would a person look at that, there is an octopus sitting at a piano, playing like, who is that guy, Glenn Gould. That octopus is an amazing pianist, he tells the bartender. That's nothing, the bartender says. This octopus can play any instrument you give him."

Masoud suppresses a chuckle, the punch line is already starting to affect him. "So they give the octopus a clarinet and it plays it like, who? Benny, Benny Goodman. They give him an oud, do you know the oud? They give him an oud, and he plays it like...oh, you don't know the famous players. They give him a triangle -- "

" -- I get the idea."

"Okay, okay. So at last they give the octopus some bagpipes. And the octopus starts to wrestle with it, and the worst noise you have ever heard, he is making. Just terrible. The bartender and the man look at the octopus. I thought you said you could play any instrument you wanted, the bartender says. And the octopus says, play it? As soon as I get these pajamas off, I'm going to -- "

The Groove Squad's horn section obliterates the last words. Masoud winces.

"I have to start over now, I think."

"Don't."

"..."

"..."

"I am sorry Manuel is gone."

"Thank you."

"No, I am serious. If you need anything..."

The Groove Squad blasts again, and the two are separated by a dervishing crowd of dancers rippling across Lucas's apartment. Wendell is spun in a horde of friendly hands, they are waiting for him to smile, but instead he turns his face to the ceiling, closes his eyes; and in the black vortex that follows, he thinks, as he has not since he met Manuel, of his father, though his death was years ago.

People start leaving the party at five in the morning, as dawn turns the city from blue to pink. The Pan-Galactic Groove Squad play its last, the people in the band thank Lucas for having them and exit out the window. Those who remain end up on the roof, watching the sun pull itself out of the water and send heat sweeping across the island. They all grow quiet. It has been seventy-two hours since Manuel left them, seventy-two hours and there is still no sign. There is no scent in the rising steam, no notice in the papers. Nobody is calling to say they've found him. No messages appear in the harbor's water. In all the windows of the tenements and projects and luxury apartments suspended over the rivers, in the delis and sweatshops and butchers in Queens with skinned goats strung up in the window, the taquerias rank with sausage and cheese and chattering with telenovelas, the magazine stores and bodegas, there is nothing of him left. They kiss each other's foreheads, they wrap each other tight, and even though the sky is getting brighter and brighter, they all feel like saying good night. The Witnesses of the Ascension of Gonzalez are trying to make their peace, to settle their crawling rage; but in Wendell it will not settle, it rattles and claws at his brain until the words come: I will go and find him.



Spaceman Blues: A Love Song is out now, available through your local bookseller, Powell's, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.