Here’s an excerpt from my novel, Jersey Drunk
I DON’T DO MORNINGS
“Open up it’s the cops!”
My heart beat lurches into my larynx. But it’s my landlord—the only one who’d do this so early on a Tuesday morning. I rub my eyes and check my phone: 10:00am. Fucking Slava.
I’ll pretend I’m not here, shut my eyes and latch onto dream remnants. This is the best part of the day, right after waking up, when you can escape and embrace what’s real, just a little longer.
The knocks are relentless. One after the other, louder each time. I stumble outside and Slava stands at my steps, pulling on a cigarette stem.
“Rents due,” he says.
“I know. I got it.”
I’m predictably late, but always good for it.
“I need your help,” Slava says. “I’m paying.”
It’s always something: removing wasp nests from air conditioners, catching rabid raccoons in basements—always a weird task that he should’ve hired a professional for.
“It’s way too early.”
“I know you need the money.”
“Lemme get dressed,” I say.
“Wear something shitty.” He looks at my outfit, basketball shorts and t-shirt. “But make sure it’s clean, you smell like a wino’s ass.”
I throw on sweats, and hop into his souped-up pick-up that must be his dad’s. We head south to a fancy cul-de-sac neighborhood in North Brunswick, full of half-million-dollar ranch homes. Slava prattles on and on: something about CCD class, a dirtbag wife-beater, channeling negative energy, going celibate, squats, quads, quitting carbs and the dangers of butter—exuberantly bouncing topic to topic, uncaring that I’m numb and unresponsive.
A couple years ago, he paralyzed a young father, a day-laborer, on his walking commute down Route 18 to the Lowe’s parking lot. Slava waited for the cops but they didn’t breathalize him since his dad’s a big-shot developer. His dad paid a settlement, then put him in charge of a bunch of slummy properties to keep him busy. When I first checked out my apartment, he was flat on the landing, head on the doormat. I thought he was enjoying the crisp spring air, but he was drunk and had forgotten he scheduled a showing. I’ve had worse landlords, though.
He looks past my antics; I ignore violations. I was even a character witness at the trial for his collapsed deck. He won, and let me skate on rent for months—a tacit agreement. If I’d asked, it would’ve been blackmail, or some crime at least. He just stopped texting me rent reminders, until he started again and didn’t ask for back rent.
The way he drops his brow and tightens his mouth, he always seems flummoxed, but an intensity in his eyes signals he’s smarter than his expressions, with a beguiling, yet naïve, confidence that bags him brag-worthy girlfriends, always rich and uncomfortably sexy. He was a minor-league pitcher, or at least a high school sports star—the type who can pull off the tank-top and Oakley’s look. Lately, he’s been living upstairs since his kid’s mom kicked him out. At night, I hear him stumbling around, smashing shit. I can’t imagine he’s a dad—neither can he.
He’s still chattering, riding roads smoothly, like he’s driven these roads a million times. These streets all look the same, windy and well-paved, abutting professionally landscaped lawns, lots of stop signs. We park in front of a half-burned down home.
“Grab some gloves from the back seat and follow me.”
The side of the house is wholly intact, with boarded up windows and smoke streaked across the aluminum siding. The backyard looks like it was well-maintained—the grass is bright, bushes organized. There’s a gaping, charred hole above the kitchen. We enter through the backyard basement door and trod across singed detritus. The house is full of waterlogged, ash-covered belongings—a family’s stuff.
“Slava, what are we doing?”
“We need to move something.”
I’m afraid to ask. “Whose house is this?”
The walls are decorated with photos of birthday parties and graduations. I see the remnants of scavenging, possibly salvaging memories. There’s a pile of burnt board games.
“Fuck. Are they ok?”
“Yeah, yeah. They’re good. Just watch out for dead pets.”
“Just kidding,” he says and slaps me on the back. Slava makes the worst jokes and always takes them one step too far. “They never did find the grandmother though.”
I follow him as he tosses around splintered wood and chunks of trash.
“How’d it happen?”
“The mom set it ablaze after a ruthless divorce. Bad stuff went down.”
I look at photos of grinning children, seared photo albums, soot-covered kitsch on a fireplace mantel, a hoosier cabinet buried by fallen pieces of ceiling.
“What’re we looking for?”
“If you wanna take something, just as first,” he says as he flips objects out of the way.
I open closet doors and peruse boxes of Beanie Babies, Ninja Turtles, Legos, stacks of kids’ videos in big plastic boxes, everything my sister liked, that I liked—spanning generations. And stacks of National Geographics. It reminds me of my parents’ attic; we kept everything.
I wander the living room. The couch is in tatters, TV gone. Sunlight pours through fallen roof beams. I look up at a sparkling blue sky, criss-crossed by blackened wood, like the hull of a ship at the Natural History Museum or Franklin Institute, one of them. My childhood feels so long ago, almost unreal. Maybe because of weed or natural memory loss, but those recollections are weak pulses in my mind—no details, events are impressions. I haven’t seen my parents in weeks.
“Found it.” Slava stands in front of a piano-like thing, an organ, harpsichord or clavichord.
“Yep, that shit’s coming with us.”
Slava grabs equipment from his car. We wrap ropes around the instrument and manage to drag it through the hallway, past the ash coated framed posters of 1980s museum exhibitions, through the kitchen, and then prop it onto a dolly. We set up a ramp to the kitchen door to slide the organ down and roll it to his truck, with less trouble than I expected.
This is a weird scheme, even for him.
“One more stop,” he says.
We drive deeper southwest, into Somerset. You can tell when you’re headed towards Philly. Things are greener, more old-American, with tighter and longer roads. You can feel the colonists cutting their way through to establish a direct route between important cities, before technology encouraged man to tear through mountains and raze forests for parkways and turnpikes.
We keep up Hamilton St. and pass farms. This land was settled in colonial times and the history permeates the landscape. It’s like that everywhere in Jersey. Even the natural landscape, riverside geological formations, or hills, carry traces of glaciers that moved through in the Ice Age.
Small roads off the main thoroughfares, with houses spread apart, hint at lonelier times when families lived spread out and tended their land. The greenery increases, the roadways thin to single lane, there are small creeks and bridges, no street lamps for miles. We finally pull up to a quaint house set back from the road, surrounded by woods. We pull right into the driveway.
Slava jumps out the truck and walks towards the home, and before he even gets to the front landing, a small woman and even smaller man come bounding down the steps. Easily in their seventies, they have the energy of senior church volunteers. She’s thin in the face, with thick glasses that were cool in the early 80s, and cool again, now, almost thirty years later, and wearing a Long Beach Island sweatshirt. He’s round on the edges with a proud stomach, and stringy, muscular arms of someone who did service, wearing a Rutgers fleece.
The woman says, “Oh, my stars. I can’t believe it.”
The old man, a few inches shorter than me, walks up and submits us each to a firm farmer’s handshake before arriving at the truck’s bed. Towel in hand, he starts wiping off the instrument. The woman hugs Slava and approaches me with her arms extended, flapping her hands to indicate that she does hugs. I hug her.
“You two are angels. I can’t believe it.”
“The fire didn’t even touch it,” the man says. “It’s a miracle, I’ll tell you.”
We unload the organ from the truck and lug it into the home. Astrid serves us butter-slathered pancakes, that we scarf down unhesitatingly, while Georgie makes us drink homemade root beer served in novelty mugs: #1 Grandpa and “I hate Mondays” Garfield. Their home is homey—fireplace, cats running in-and-out, a dog barking somewhere. Astrid asks me all about my family as Georgie lays down cardboard and plywood for us to guide the organ to its proper resting spot—and doesn’t let us help him.
The organ looks like it belongs here. As Astrid and Georgie admire its condition, I sneak a peek at family photos plastered all over the place. Now that the work is done, I kinda wanna know what happened. I recognize the children from the burned down house, posing with their mother. They look happy, she looks relieved.
Astrid is now banging around on the keys, some Christian camp song that I think I know from Jewish camp, with slightly different lyrics. Georgie pokes at Slava, urging him to sing.
I look at the fridge, covered in children’s drawing, the mantle is full of greeting cards. How did the child of these people end up so fucked—I don’t want to know. I’d rather leave with this memory: Georgie with Slava in a headlock as Astrid scolds them for horsing around.
We settle at the kitchen table and Slava speaks, “we better get going now.”
Georgie says, “what do I owe you?”
I totally forgot about the payment. Pancakes, root beers, hugs from old ladies, and money—that’s a great afternoon.
“Don’t worry about it,” says Slava and sticks out his hand for a handshake. Astrid and Georgie look at me. I must look like I wanna get paid. Astrid has bills in her hand—big ones. She’s about to execute the classic grandma hand-to-hand exchange, which is oddly similar to the drug money exchange. We make eye contact. I step close and watch the money in her cupped hand.
“Astrid, don’t even try it. I’ll take care of Jacob. I promise,” says Slava.
This whole event gives me the sense that his promise means something to them and I relax.
Slava turns around to shake Georgie’s hand, and Astrid, faster than a drug addict, claps her hands around mine and slips me some bills. I sneak them into my pocket. Georgie watches me over Slava’s shoulder, like he planned it. Once the exchange is complete, he releases his grip.
We finish goodbyes and hit the road, gradually leaving warm greens and lush browns, soft corners behind, fading into heavy greys, dull yellows and crumbled hard edges.
I’ve known Slava for a while and we’ve never connected. We bond over the weather, t & a, Yankees, and how much the Jets suck. But today makes me wanna cry and I have no clue why. From the corner of my eye, I look at him driving—aluminum sided homes blur behind him. He stares forward in deep contemplation, complications in his gaze.
The silence is uncomfortable. We don’t speak the whole ride home.
Back at the apartment, we stand outside and he offers me a cigarette. He pulls two beers from somewhere. We both light up and crack the brews.
“Astrid and Georgie, they’re something,” Slava says. “Georgie reminds me of my gramps back in the old country. You got grandparents?”
“Nah, most of them died when I was young. My granny died last spring.” I sip my beer. “It happens. Grandparents are old, they die.”
“I haven’t seen mine in years.” Slava says. “Gramps is the shit. He got crazy pussy when he was young.”
“That’s cool. My grandpa was a Holocaust survivor,” I say.
This emotional evasion is making for bizarre conversation.
“Astrid and Georgie’s daughter is a MILF,” Slava says. “But she’s a good mom.”
Part of me wants to know the story, and he knows. He’ll regale me with every unwarranted detail of every fucked-up sexual adventure he’s ever had. But this story his to tell and there’s no good reason for me to want to know. Whatever pain happened, whatever bad shit went down, that’s someone’s life burnt to the ground.
And what rose from those ashes is all that matters because it’s still here.
I say, “I can’t even imagine why someone would just leave everything there. Their stuff, their memories. That was their home.”
“It wasn’t their home.” He chugs. “A home is somewhere you don’t wanna leave.”
I ruminate over the words from a man who won’t fix my broken window—shattered when someone reached in my door to unlock it and rob me. I think of that absence of a home, the toppled residence we raided, its stories. Slava finishes his beer and says, “Aight, I’m out.”
He tosses the can in the street then rises from the steps and retrieves it, putting in in the can on the side of the apartment. He keeps his back turned to me. I stand there waiting. He turns around grinning like a kid. “Don’t worry, I didn’t forget about paying you. I’ll knock $50 off your rent.”
$50? That’s not even ten percent. What a dick. At least, we did something noble.
“Nah, I’m fucking with you. You’re good on rent.”
“Seriously?” I’m just waiting for him to follow up with a pysch or not.
“Yep. You’re a good dude.”
“You too,” I say and believe it for the moment.
“It’s my dad’s money anyway.” He punches me in the arm hard enough to leave a bruise. “Keep your doors locked. Don’t wanna wake up and find some pervert fondling your asshole.”
Slava gets in his car and speeds away, and I go inside to get back to bed, not before double-checking that I locked my doors.