“Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent”. ~Victor Hugo
His name is Billy Porter, and he was once married to Angela. Brighton, England where Billy Porter comes from exists only in his head now, remotely oneiric. He rents a couple of decent rooms on the top floor of a half-baked, two-story stucco cottage on Oceanview Avenue in Brighton Beach. It is a Brooklyn neighborhood, jerry-rigged with color and roughly sketched in broad Slavic strokes; tagged by ethnically diverse newcomers and described most accurately by Billy’s Russian born landlord, Viktor Semenov: “This iss nut the United States, moy frehn.”
It was also very far from his job at a zoo in Queens, which sat snugly in a pocket of Flushing Meadows Park. It was a ridiculously long commute, in fact, involving two changes onto three subway lines and still only just far enough. It is the mechanical motion on the nearly two-hour journey—at least twice a day, five days a week—that saves him. At busier hours of the day or night he was distracted by the choppy tide of passengers that washed his mind free of pointless backtracking. Sometimes, in the winter, he entered an empty subway car after a parting glance at the Unisphere’s black silhouette, which reminded him of a Kara Walker tableau. In the deserted space he had to imagine an episode of Dr. Who or be drawn into unwelcome episodic memory.
After a few false starts spring took hold and unleashed stiff-legged sufferers of cabin fever—all sorts, young and old, orthodox and profane—and directed them to the zoo in Flushing Meadows in droves. Billy Porter—or Porter as he preferred to be called— saw an onslaught of third-graders was headed straight for his post, led by an already harried-looking teacher, and darted into the ticket booth. His exaggerated appearance—arms and legs akimbo, quivering like a frightened cartoon rabbit—left the young female attendant flustered and giggling, while the teacher and her overheated charges eyed them warily.
“Just need a sec, love.” Ducking, he checked his messages. Willie, texting again: “Sorry 4 not kissing ass. I am who I am that it.”
His co-worker—and friend, he had to admit—was a fifteen-year-old wannabe gangsta in the body of a forty-seven-year-old man and it was always a drama with Willie. He and Porter were security guards on a handful of acreage in Queens. What was once a garbage dump, became landfill, and then the site of one World’s Fair and then a quarter of a century later another one; weighting the dubious cap of achievement heavier on the “master builder”, Robert Moses. Finally, it was a zoo, or Wildlife Conservancy as it was eventually re-christened. Angela was a native New Yorker. She called a despot a despot. She’d have something to say about Porter too; remade, yes, but working the day job he’d once scorned.
They were the odd couple for sure, Porter and Willie, similar only in age. A tall, keen-witted, ginger-haired Brit, Porter embodied the desiccated joke no one gets until the storyteller with the irresistible British accent has left the room. The older women were charmed by his courtly manner. The younger ones drawn to his deeper well, never prying but always alert for signs of his past. Willie’s muscle mass, like the winter-hard ground, had softened on his squat mud-spring body, like a boxer no longer in training. Under his baseball cap, his shaved skull bore an elaborately lettered tattoo that warned he was “born to raise hell.” He was a gregarious Puerto Rican always looking to party until some injustice, some misstep on the part of another, usually a supervisor, clouded his otherwise low-pressure demeanor. Then Willie was a bad muthafucka. Porter guessed his text message meant Willie had refused to do overtime. It didn’t matter that he had already planned on the late shift. It was on his terms or nadda.
Porter texted:“2nite is off?” He had counted on Willie to do that shift, but a man like Porter had all the time in the world. He had to go with the flow. He added his signature response, “No worries,” thinking his reply might sound harsh. Later, they left together, legging it past the rockets he had seen rusting from neglect that were now tarted up reminders that once man was predicted to walk on the moon. Willie was all apology that wasn’t really an apology. With bone-deep budget cuts, the bosses were riding employees who weren’t on sick leave, jury duty, vacation, or disability. Willie didn’t mind being asked to do overtime. The extra money was essential to his well-being. He minded very much being told.
“Whatcha doin’ tonight then, Pawteh? Gonna play some bally lika with Ivan?” The way his name escaped from the tongue of a streetwise native amused Porter no end. He loved the accent, the noo yawkiness. When, at first, he used to make fun of it Angela, rightly, fought back. “Massif, innit?” she’d challenged. “It’s all just music babe, you know?” Porter stared ahead. “Might do. And his name is Viktor.” Willie started, “Sorry man, I….” “No worries,” Porter reassured him, he’d have a quiet night, a walk on the beach. Maybe go to the café. Willie knew better than to invite Porter along with his homies, as he called them. It meant endless tequila shots and chorus lines of white powder kicking it back in East Harlem. It meant suddenly realizing it was 4 A.M. and time to get back to work. Porter knew better than to ask but he did anyway: “What are you up to tonight mate?” Willie patted his chest over a NY Yankees jersey. “Livin’ large, I hope, bro.” They parted at Grand Central. “Be happy we work outdoors. Lotta eye candy at the zoo today.” Willie high-fived. “I’m good. You good?” Porter told Willie he was good.
At the Queens end of his commute there was the distant passing skyline of Manhattan to ponder. He was rarely induced to leave Brooklyn or Queens for the city but he was somehow reassured by the architecture of memory across the river. He sometimes rose from a seat to gaze out of the window when the train reemerged above ground and crossed the Manhattan Bridge to Brooklyn. Porter wondered at the speed of graffiti artists in covering the work of another, their tags slapped across every available surface. He wanted to disappear, remove his name from everything.
He felt up for it so he remained seated until he got off at Coney Island. Porter loved early spring. The first trace of the ocean swept his nostrils at Sheepshead Bay. The scent intensified until he was on foot and well clear of Nathan’s Famous on Neptune Avenue and inhaling only what the ocean had to offer at the far end of the pier at Coney.
A freighter skimmed the horizon like a slow-moving target in a carnival shooting range. Tangerine and purple streaks ripped the sky, predicting a fine sunset. Porter slumped over the weathered railing above the Atlantic. Before he knew the neighborhood all too well, he and Angela had made many trips out there. She loved the ocean, especially in winter. Thunderous waves along a deserted beach invigorated her. He needed a placid sea, not the sound of the tearing of his soul; gulls crying or laughing he could never tell. Like hot flashbacks beating against cool present, it all ends up in tears if he goes there. So he doesn’t go there. It was the ocean that brought them together. It was his visceral ocean that drove them apart.
Angela had been on a lark when they met. She’d made a bet with friends that she would get to London before her 29th birthday. But after a week of pints in boisterous pubs, soporific cream teas in over-upholstered ambiance and tiring hikes through cavernous museums she’d bolted and set off for the seaside. Porter awaited her in Brighton in high, seductive heat. She’d stumbled into the Zap Club, to the crowd cheering his band. Angela fell heavily for his beguiling voice, his disarming lyrics sung over folky, rogue music. She loved his dry, idiosyncratic humor. She was a hard-line New Yorker, a native and tough as nails. Yet she was a successful illustrator of children’s books, her style unconventional, and a voice as warm as a freshly laundered towel.
They married and he made a life with her in Manhattan in her art-filled apartment on West End Avenue. He dug the vibe of the neighborhood on the upper west side. Fortress like, their building was a musician’s haven. Judy Collins lived next door.
They would head for the pier at Coney armed with bright yellow paper bags of salty fries bloodied with catsup, already a comfortable married couple in the first years of marriage. She’d count the number of steps—432—it took her to reach the end. She did it for fun until she needed a reason to ignore his moods.
Staving off melancholy, he decided his usual table in the café under the elevated tracks back in Brighton Beach was no substitute for his landlady’s kitchen. An evening with Viktor and Valentina Semenov meant a home-cooked meal. The fussy ministrations of Valentina sometimes exasperated him, but the food was reliably satisfying followed by strong coffee before Viktor unpacked the balalaika.
Inspired, Porter hurried along the beach away from Coney Island, away from the turbaned man strolling in pensive meditation who stopped to stroke a long ashen beard and stare at the horizon. Soon the place would be teeming with day-trippers. The irascible bartenders at Cha-Cha’s and Ruby’s would be placating the punters with weak American beer. Hideous canned laughter would once again exhort the crowds to ‘shoot the freak.’ It would be a change from the likes of a dog-eared eighty year old; the nearly naked man with a strange orange glow dressed only in skimpy running shorts jogging in frigid weather. A gnarled bit of driftwood spearing the sand caught his eye. Angela would conjure fantastic scenarios for the spine of some mystical creature she came across. He managed to shutter that: “Nope," he'd counter, “it’s a piece of wood.”
He picked up his pace and returned to the boardwalk. Echoing above the wall of the aquarium the hollow bark of sea lions accompanied the clatter of an incoming train in the near distance. Porter’s childhood fantasies were about the sea, the dark mysteries of the ocean. He loved the Ladybird books, simple picture books about science and nature that captivated him. When his marriage failed and he found himself living in Brighton Beach he returned to the aquarium so many times he became a kind of fixture. He discovered the odd steel eyeball, called the bathysphere, that obsessed him as a boy. Still taken aback by how small it was and always delighted by its monocle.
One of the attendants he’d chatted with introduced him to the woman in public relations. Likewise charmed by him, she got Porter an interview for a security job at the Aquarium. Soon after there was also an opening at the recently re-opened zoo in Flushing Meadows. He accepted the position in Queens, much to the bewilderment of his mentor. “The commute is a horror,” she exclaimed. “You must be crazy!” He’d tapped his head as if to say, “Just a tad.”
In Brighton Beach Porter looked into the café. He recognized the solitary men gazing distractedly up at a television screen from a plate of smoked fish; elbows on the table, fingers splayed for the invisible cigarette while watching a Madonna look alike gyrate to Slavic-infused Hip-Hop. Porter could eat the same thing every night. Angela never understood that. He never got her interest in food though he loved it when she cooked. She prepared a meal like she was visiting with friends, happiest in a market of fresh produce. Tonight he would not be one of those men.
Rounding his corner onto Oceanview Avenue, he was greeted by the sight of a rebellious patch of lawn. Behind the undisputed chain link fence was planted a rigid line of sunny yellow plastic tulips. At the top of the steep crumbling steps to a bright red front door, salmon-pink flamingoes eyed him like sentinels. His rooms above were spare and clean, disturbed only with his few belongings and what instruments and recording gear he still had. He recognized the aroma of dill and onion. Valentina called from the kitchen: “Just in time Beeley.” Her husband dropped his balalaika in the comforting hodgepodge of their front room. “For later, moy frehn. Now, we eat.”
Porter woke refreshed in the still dark room. He gathered his clothes, baggy navy cargo shorts, and a white cotton polo shirt. An incoming text pinged his cell phone. Willie: “Buggin man. BP wit me. Doin 2 shifts later. We on 2nite. Peace.” Porter shook his head. It was how Willie kept his job, getting a supervisor, like Big Paul, to party with him.
Arriving on the station, chilly in the pre-dawn darkness, he heard the plaintive notes of a saxophone. It was unusually early and he imagined it must be a musician on his way home from one of the many nightclubs in Brighton Beach. He was surprised to see a young black man aged by circumstance, blowing tentatively on a battered instrument. Porter recognized the song, once the signature tune of his dad’s band. He saw Porter and dropped the sax from his mouth apologetically. “Didn’t do so good this month, didn’t match my money out,” he mumbled. “Get a check on the first. My name’s Albert by the way.” Porter slipped him some bills. “Keep playing Albert. You’re doing fine.” Until the oncoming train drowned the music, Porter sang along in his head, “For nobody else gave me a thrill. With all your faults, I love you still. It had to be you, it had to be….”
Lulled by the rocking motion of the subway car he thought about Angela. “There must be a person who loves you,” she’d said in response to his self-deprecation when they first met. “No.” “Somebody must love you,” she insisted. “Nobody loves me,” he said and kissed her. She’d pulled back for a moment and murmured, “Oh, I don’t know. I’m halfway to loving you already.” He caught the first band of light low on the horizon, just before the train entered the tunnel into Manhattan.
Porter drew deep breaths, fending off the past, but there it was, the image of his father’s band playing up in London, the club probably a curry house by now. His uncle played sax. His dad was on piano. They played the old standards like they were new again, never played before. Their audience was oftentimes peppered with celebrities, drawn to a newly reassuring familiar their music evoked.
His dad and his brother were close, though disparate personalities. The families lived within a few miles of each other. Porter, an only child, found his uncle—a bear of a man—too effusive, hard drinking and difficult for a little kid to warm to. Growing up he watched silently as his cousins—all girls—shrank from their father’s embrace and he blushed furiously at his risqué humor.
It wasn’t until he ran into his oldest cousin in a Brighton pub that her secret was revealed. She was a pretty young woman, reticent until she’d got a few drinks down her neck. She’d remained at home, choosing a local university. Two of her sisters—the twins—were willowy soft-spoken blondes just starting grammar school. The fourth, the youngest, was a scrabbling tomboy in junior school. Against his aunt’s wishes and sadly and quietly supported by his own parents, Porter saw his cousin’s sordid confession through to his uncle’s conviction and incarceration. The band broke up. His father gave private music lessons and they never spoke of it. His aunt died, in denial to the end. To his three oldest cousins Porter was a hero. From New York he’d kept them at a long arm’s length and in fact, they did not know where he lived. Probably they learned from Angela that they were no longer together. His cousins were married, with their own little ones growing up in villages in Sussex and Wales. The youngest, living with another aunt in Leicestershire, swore she would never speak to him.
He had asked himself this question over and over: How did he miss the signs? His aunt was a nervy, rail thin woman, never without a cigarette in her ungenerous mouth. On the occasional night out to London to see the band there were clues to the ebullient young woman she had once been. Porter’s mother revealed that she had suspected something for some time.
Married, his dark moods, the drinking that demanded more attention than the music, and Angela’s painful confusion had shamed him into a confession. Sometimes it was too much to get out of bed. Ennui sat on his chest like a cat yawning indecisiveness into his face. Once he confessed his dreadful secret she came to understand, at first, even the dark moods. Angela ushered in an era of understanding. She’d urged him gently: “Go with the flow, Billy. Leave the past behind. It’s strangling you.” He thought her hippy jibe a throw away line until he realized it had been his lifeline. Go with the flow. Wave, don’t drown. But it was too late.
Lost in thought, he had not realized he was at his stop. He leapt between closing doors at Grand Central and made his way to the No. 7 line where Willy was usually on the platform, hopping from one foot to the other, attempting to keep awake. But Willy was pulling a double later that day. Porter would go home when his shift was done, catch a few hours sleep, grab his guitar, and head back to the zoo after midnight.
Because Queens got the ass end of a city budget there was usually only one guy on security from midnight to eight. No one need ever know that Porter hung out with Willie on those nights. He always stashed his guitar in his locker and slipped out unnoticed, with plenty of time for a huevos burrito on 111th Street before returning for his 7 A.M. start.
When Porter arrived it was nearly one in the morning and Willie was practically speed talking, no doubt enabled by a few lines snorted in the office. He was clearly fixated on Porter’s response to some injustice the day before, that this was just a job. “That is so whack bro. It ain’t just a job man, looka what your doin’ heah!” Porter unzipped his guitar case. “What I’m doin’ heah bro…” Porter replied, “…is between you and me.” He took his guitar up determinedly. “Right, mate?”
At 5 o’clock Willie shivered like someone had walked over his grave. He’d need another line to keep going. Porter could probably do with coffee. He listened for his guitar. The morning bird chorus had already begun and had found its way into the music. How does he do it, Willie thought. How can he make that guitar sound like a lamb laughing or a bear sleeping or a hundred captive birds beating their wings? He poured a black coffee and strode back to where Porter sat against the enclosure for the newborn lambs. “You’re like that guy Edgar,” he said, extending a steaming mug. “Elgar,” Porter corrected. “They only used his music in the experiment. It wasn’t written for the elephants.” Willie, hands on hips stared him down. “You’re gonna hafta let people know someday, am I right? Or like, what’s the point? What kinda life is that, man?”
Without looking at his friend Porter replied, “Mine.”
WILD LIFE is an original short story by Linda Danz.
STORIES ON THE AMERICAN FRIEND Writers Guild of America, East #R28299
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business organizations, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. The use of names of actual persons, places, and events is incidental to the plot, and is not intended to change the entirely fictional character of the work. © April 2010