Thornberry Park is the second largest park in the city. Long and thin, it wraps like an ‘L’ around a large pocket of century old brick apartments nestled just before the great expanse of office buildings turns the western part of the city’s streets into dangerous caverns. They aren’t the most expensive flats in the city, but their prime location to the best office jobs in the area ensure a long waiting list and an even longer vetting process to get in. In the seventies the park played host to forgotten and unwashed vagrants, none more prevalent than heroin addicts and muggers, more than likely one and the same. As the decade wore on, the city’s reformation bloomed and because of its heritage, or maybe in spite of it, the park became something of a rallying point for homosexuals to meet, protest, and test the boundaries of their power in the wake of the AIDS epidemic. Though the neighborhood has long since been gentrified, the fight-the-power feeling of the mid-eighties still pervades and the occasional civil rights protest will still snake around the bend and end with a free concert on the east side of the Park, the only clearing large enough to hold more than a few hundred people.
Now though, in the middle of the night, the park looks much more like its pre-glory days. Two of bums sit arguing with each other on a rotted park bench and when I pass them they eye me, as though I was listening in on their disagreement and were playing silent arbitrator. Or, maybe they just want to mug me. I’m stumbling or possibly just limping. The scotch has done its job well and the pop I gulped before hopping on the subway took the sting away. Now it’s just me and the wind, floating along the cobblestone path of the park, hopping a pair of black iron fences, and rolling down the green meadow field adjacent to the small pond, the only body of water in the entire park.
I stop here for a moment. The lily pads have long since shriveled up but the water still breathes calmly when the wind settles over it. I came here once years ago with Mae. We sat on the hill and counted the frogs we could see, laughing when we counted the same one twice or lost track because of a random kiss. In the dark of this moonless night I expected the pond to look dead, black and lifeless, staring up at the stars. But instead it looks very much alive and it doesn’t take much for me to recall the memory of us sliding down the hill in a sweet embrace, me covering her mouth as she tries to scream with laughter, her licking my hand to force me to let go, and the two of us splashing through the pond’s shores and rolling into the thick water beyond.
I keep walking and through the shrubs just beyond the largest of the black iron gates I see the brownstones rising high against the stars. I take the most direct route to them, pushing past brambles and dead leaves, the drugs in my body dwindling my logic down to its most fundamental roots. A cat leaps past me, scared and snarling because I have invaded his hideaway here at the end of the world. I grip the cold iron and climb. The top spires of the fence are higher than they seem from the ground. I jam my foot between two of the closer bars at the bottom and use the advantage to pull myself over the top. I settle down easy at the top, straddling the quiet of the park and the rising noise of the street beyond, no amount of drugs possible for my body not to be careful when my testicles are put in peril, dangerously close to spiked epaulettes.
I pause here. My higher vantage point affords me nothing new, but the slow wind from the park rises to meet me before slinking back down to the street and getting lost in other smells. I pull my other leg over and jump down the ten feet or so back to the ground, rolling when I hit, still surprisingly agile in my condition.
And just what is my condition? I ask myself this question when I’m drunk from time to time. Though it truly pained me to see Mae in this condition the other night, I still ashamedly took some type of joy in the fact that it was she, and not I, who stumbled back to our stillborn marriage for help. Despite my faults as a husband and a lover, of which I freely admit there are many, I try my hardest not to look back. Except when it comes to Mae. A glance at her is a glance at the past which evokes hope for the future. It’s the most blessed feeling any person has ever summoned in me, and the most disconcerting.
My body moves on its own from here. I look out through my eyes and watch my body cross the street, hop the curb, take left on Victory Boulevard and then, hop one more fence, the one that partitions the brick apartments, leading me through to the other side and back out onto the sidewalk one block over. I am skating, or floating, or moving without friction, my body powered by alcohol and narcotics. The small portholes I stare through tunnel before me, banishing my peripheral vision. There is only what lays ahead, no left or right, no chance to make a last minute turn or to avoid some unseen danger. There is only the gold knocker at the door labeled 317. There is only one confrontation to come.
I grasp the knocker, wondering if Noah is so rich that he has a heated door knocker or if, probably more likely, my raised body temperature is starting to scorch the skin on my hand. Three loud knocks and I wait. Three more and still I wait. A light goes on in the adjacent apartment but not in his. I slam again, louder this time. I also realize I can’t count right now. I slam and slam and slam until more lights blink into existence, including the upstairs of this very apartment 317.
I turn and look back through the opening in the buildings, the long corridor that leads back to the park and one of the only happy memories of Mae I have left. My resolve is steeled. Minutes later I hear a pair of locks tumbling open, a door knob turning, and I breathe deeply and turn around.
“Stuart,” Noah looks at me through wire thin eyeglasses, his eyes droopy with sleep, his robe plaid and clutched closed by gnarled fingers. I look at those fingers and of all the things that could enter my head right now I remember Noah played rugby in college, and that even though he was outsized, his speed made up the difference. His fingers testament to his ferocity and the death grip he cast down on unsuspecting wingers.
“What the fuck are you doing here?”
“I ran into Mae the other night.”
“Ah Christ Stew.”
I lunge forward, driving my fist as straight as my clouded brain can guide it. Aiming for his chin is harder than I would have guessed but I still know, even at this very moment, I’m not going to win a drawn out fight with Noah.
He steps aside but I’m still too much to dodge in the frame of the door and we stumble into each other. I drive my weight through him and we crash backwards, into the small vestibule that curates the four doors of his and his neighbor’s front doors. Abruptly his back stiffens as he hits the door directly across from us.
Sharp elbows drive into my back. I’m grasping at his waist, head down; squeezing him tightly though I know it won’t do much to take away his wind. Out of everyone in our squad, Noah has easily stayed in the best shape since the war.
“Stuart! Let go of me right this instant!”
Another pair of sharp elbows stabs my kidneys. If it weren’t for the scotch this fight might already be over. Luckily I can’t feel much right now.
I absorb two more blows. As the third begins to fall, I rise up, pushing the crown of my head glancing past his descending elbow and hitting the tip of his chin hard.
Noah reels, his head snapping backwards until it shatters the ornate stained glass at the top of his doorway. Glass clinks around us and I punch a hard one two combo into his guts, spinning my fists on impact. His stomach is hard iron.
His long arms grasp my lapels. I bring a pair of crushing fists down on his wrists, trying to break his hold, but that grip is too strong, too many flankers felled by those distorted fingers, too many Haji necks broken by them too.
He yanks down and I’m bent over again. It’s knees now. Alternating pistons. I take a pair in the chest, a few more to the thigh and then one to the temple.
The black and white checkered linoleum beneath me spins and warps. I shake my head to sort them out but it doesn’t help much.
My palms come up to instinctively block my face from his relentless knees, each one I block is followed by a brother landing solidly as he yanks on my jacket, forcing the entirety of my body into each blow. After taking two more to the lip and eye socket, I’m able to time it right and catch the back of his leg. He squirms but I quickly power lift with a barbaric yell, arching my back and tossing his leg as high as my arms will allow. His other leg sweeps from under him and for a moment he’s in the air, spinning backwards. His arms shoot to the sides, desperately grasping for anything to break his fall, but there’s nothing there except the inevitable hard tiled floor and littered glass.
The bastard doesn’t cry out when he lands supine, the force of the impact cracking the already shattered glass beneath him. The thud’s so loud the small chandelier above our head jumps and tinkles.
I don’t give him an opportunity to recover, leaping on top of him, eager to put a couple of fists into his face and end this already. I raise a healthy punch and bring it down, hitting his jaw the way I wished my first assault had. I raise my left and follow suit, only this time he slips to the side and pulls my arm down past his head. Immediately his legs wrap up and around my shoulders and I’m pinned in a triangle by his strong this legs.
My arm twists in his grasp and the torque threatens to rip it clean off my shoulder. I lift again, using the last of my strength to power a deadlift of Noah’s entire body, bringing him only about half way up and then letting him slam back to the glass laden floor. I don’t think it’s enough to break his grasp but I catch some luck when cries out on impact. We roll away from each other and I see him reaching for his shoulder, stopping to pull, and finally yanking free a shard of glass. He discards it against the wall and lowers his gaze.
We stare at each other and before long our labored breaths beat in unison.
“We done here or what?” He says between huffs.
I charge once more, hoping to catch him off guard, to force him into submission, to – I don’t even know what any longer. Still deft, he takes another quick step and catches me flush with a right cross that buckles my knees. He grabs my lapels again, serving me up for another round of merciless knees.
I drop to the floor. If he wants to keep holding me he’ll have to drop with me. He doesn’t oblige and releases. On the floor I grope for a piece of glass, quickly finding one that’ll do the trick.
I slash up just as he’s driving a fist down at me. It connects to my shoulder, my swipe barely missing his cheek.
He steps back quickly and I use the moment to regain my footing.
“What? You going to stab me now Stewie? That it? You going to bleed me out on my front porch because you didn’t get the girl?”
I look down at my hand and my bloody fingers wrapped too tightly around the serrated piece of glass. I drop it, letting it clink to the floor.
Noah sighs in relief and takes a step towards me.
“Thank you. Now, just come upst—“
It’s not as clean of a punch as I would have liked but my bloodied knuckles still paint his left cheek red. He doesn’t fall down, but I can tell I’ve hurt him.
Being as that’s all I’ve really been trying to accomplish this entire time, I actually feel pretty good about myself. I turn and open the front door to the vestibule and walk back onto the street.
“You’re a real wanker, you know that Hardwell?”
“I do. I know that very well.”
“You don’t even know what transpired between her and I.”
I turn back to him. He’s rubbing his cheek, his robe is ripped, but his damned glasses are still perched on the bridge of his nose and he’s already caught his breath.
“I don’t need to. I never needed to. All I needed to know is that you went after her. And when you did, I told you what would happen if you ever abandoned her and the kid.”
Still standing in the vestibule, Noah’s attention is momentarily broken when one of the adjoining doors open. A small old lady peeks her head out. Noah apologizes for the noise. No, there’s nothing to worry about. No, he wasn’t being mugged by one of those degenerates from the park. He’s fine. And no, no, there’s no need to call the police. He and his friend were just having a heated argument. Finally, yes, yes he’d have someone come first thing in the morning to fix the door. The glass accidentally shattered when he slammed the door closed in anger. You know these old buildings, everything is so fragile.
I use her as my cover to leave. His shaky voice fades once I walk across the street and ultimately the opposite way I came. I only get a few steps before a pain in my kidneys flares and I have to stop. I arch my back and try to stretch it out but it only gets worse. The cold air of the street scratches the back of my throat and I cough hard. The cough makes the pain twinge, which in turn makes me cough harder. This cycles for a good minute before I catch my breath.
Noah’s slippers shuffle in pursuit behind me.
“Stuart. This is ridiculous. Come upstairs and we can talk about this like real men.”
“There’s nothing much to talk about Noah. I think I’ve already aired my grievances.” I don’t turn around to face him. I pass beneath a streetlight and for a moment I see my shadow, hunched and limping, the hunchback of the city just needs a bell tower to haunt.
“Stuart it was for her own good. She has problems.”
“She’s always had problems. She had problems with me. What made you think she wouldn’t have them with you?”
“I let the boy stay.”
“That’s mighty kind of you to let him stay after you threw his mother to the street.”
“It’s not like that.”
Seeing as how the throbbing in my back is growing, and the stinging sensation in my lip and cheek has only worsened the more I’ve walked, I decide to take a break and oblige him. I turn to see him still nearly unfazed by our scrap. We’re between streetlights, a dim glow halos around him but his face is dark and unrecognizable to me.
“Sounds to me that’s exactly what it’s like. Sounds to me, you couldn’t handle her shit anymore and you cast her out. But your British sensibilities got the better of you and you realized you couldn’t let the kid share in the mother’s sin so you let him stay.”
“You know I care for the boy.”
I wave a hand. The park yawns through the buildings at him, dark, and evil and inviting.
“You know you’re being bloody ridiculous I hope? She’s your ex-wife for a reason. The two of you couldn’t make it work. Especially not with Adam around.”
“The kid is like a little brother to me.”
“Me too! Why are you still so vested in this? Let Mae go, Stuart. Spend time with the boy if you want, but let Mae go. I already have. You need to as well.”
“I appreciate the pep talk from an old squad mate. I really do.”
“We haven’t been mates in a very long time.” He spits on the street. In the dark lighting I can’t tell if there’s any blood in it.
“I don’t care what you do with her, or how you treat her Noah, not anymore. Just make sure the kid is done right. That’s all I ask.”
“You’re lying to my face right now.”
He gets a smirk out of me.
“See you around Noah.”
“Stuart come inside. Let me clean you up at least. You can’t ride the subway like some type of vagrant.”
Through the haze of alcohol, drugs, bloodlust and stupidity, I’m somehow able to muster up a small amount of dignity and straighten my posture enough to walk away from him and down the block. He yells to me, in that smug British accent, calling out for me to stop, to make peace, to come back. His words freeze in the air, falling away from me as I put some distance between myself and another one of my brothers.
The subway is actually closer on this side of the park. Before descending the stairs I see the first slivers of sunlight stabbing through the leaves of the Park and reflecting off the windows of the Brownstones. It’ll be morning soon. Mrs. McLoughlin should be expecting me. It’s been weeks since I’ve pulled an all-night bender. But I’d be lying to myself if I said I didn’t like it. Which is good. Because right now all I can think about is Mrs McLoughlin and being in the company of liars.