Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"The Last Time I saw Beautiful" by Nicole Goodwin - 2011 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize

                                                    2011 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Entry



                                      "The Last Time I saw Beautiful"  
                                     
                                                        by Nicole Goodwin 




At one time in my life Putnam Avenue had been a good place to live. All the kids on that block knew each other, played together; our souls were tall and green like Brooklyn trees. We were all born from the same roots, nurtured by the same sun, bathed by the same drops of rain.   Although none of us ever mentioned it, we all saw each other as a member of the other’s family because all of our parents knew each other well and seemed to get along—especially during the summer. I remember the happy black faces of men gathering outside with their beers, their boisterous laughter bouncing off every brownstone and apartment building across the block. The women including my mother would just sit outside on the stoop steps gossiping in whispers, then they too would burst in loud laughter like the men, except the women were known to “high-five” each other from time to time if one of them said something to the other that was incredibly funny.  Everyone had their slice that they kept to, the Puerto Rican kids had Jefferson Avenue, the biker’s kids had the spot in front of the biker club on Broadway, and the project kids Bushwich Avenue. And we, we had Putnam Avenue.  Our block wasn’t really special back then, it looked like everyone else’s block did, and when the weather was nice enough, everyone did the same thing, on the same day, at the same time, probably in similar ways. Like, on the days when the sun’s rays would be at their worst, blazing against the back of our neck and arms, hovering over our heads like and incriminating god, we would battle back by opening the fire hydrants.
The cooling waters would gush out of the bright red hydrants, slapping against our vulnerable skin, leaving us screaming in terror and joy, as it would attack us mercilessly, while relieving us from the burden of the heat. I was both grateful and fearful of this aqueous gift, since I can remember I have had a long time fear of drowning, yet watching the water violently spewing out of the pump was the closest I had ever come to seeing an actual waterfall.
When I would see the boys scooping up the other girls like cavemen, dragging them closer and closer to the hydrant, my body would tremble with anxious longing I could not explain to anyone. The sensation arising more and more—expanding inside of me like a balloon, as I watched the growing young, brutish, muscular arms of the boys I had known all of my life, grip the quivering waists of the older girls, their feminine bodies blossoming with each passing summer. Their legs would kick, and fists would punch at the air as if trying to wrestle against some invisible attacker, protecting what little dignity they had reserved underneath the wet sheet that once was their summer outfits.  But in the end it was to no avail, they all shared the same fate, I would witness the spectacle time and time again; the helplessness screams of laughter and torment mingling together like a siren song urging the boys to go further, further toward the center as if they could leap into the black gaping mouth of the silent red fire hydrant, with their nameless virgin sacrifice.   This and other rituals were repeated every summer, time and time again. Except for one thing, no block—I mean no block could throw down a block party like ours did.
Everyone from all the buildings from all the blocks brought out the best dishes they had, making my mouth water like the little glutton I was. The rap music blasted from huge speakers shaking the concrete ground, the waves rumbling on the inside of you if you were to close to the stereos. There were balloons and two blue wooden police barricades that cutoff the street traffic making it safe to play in with no worries—a small, but welcomed blessing for kids like me. Since my brownstone was stationed in the middle of block, at the center of all the excitement it was the most popular every year, and that year was no exception.  The PAL program and other non-profit groups came around in the spring clearing out weeds, debris, garbage, and old mattresses from 2 empty lots transforming them into 2 “organic” playgrounds. It was a wondrous, lovely thing as a city kid to see flowers growing, and bees buzzing around filling in the barren spaces of a waste and decay. They even painted an enormous mural on the backside of the one of walls it was an abstract of a faceless black child reaching up holding the hand of a faceless black adult. For some strange reason that mural had become very dear to me, every time I think of it, I am reminded of home not in the sense of a place but in the sense of people, and time, and the feeling of being pure—of being free of all burdens.  Usually when I felt this way I would run around chasing after nothing in particular, letting the mingled sensations of the sunshine and warm summer breeze hit my chicken legs watching the all the people whoosh by me let all of the joy soak into my young veins. 
            I don’t know why I stopped running at that moment while the other kids played out in the streets that were free, free, free! of the procession of blind trafficking cars. Looking back, it may have been the glimmering shine that caught my eye. The sleek Lincoln Continental was more luminous than silver as laid against the blackened tarp of the street curb. I had never seen a vehicle of that caliber before, but in the name alone I could recognize its opulence. Nobody impoverished, broke, or needy, could ever afford such a chariot. It was truly only the medium of kings. And then the body fell out.
            The corpse didn’t fall to the ground as comically portrayed in movies or on TV. No, once the car door was opened it slowly descended towards the tarred ground as a feather blown into the air would, landing gracefully. I my body was silently transfixed, yet I heard his languishing heartbeat thrashing against my ears until there was nothingness. The world had been enveloped into an unknown void. Time itself melted away. What seemed like years later were the screams. A hand reached across my shoulder, shaking me, screaming “What happened? What happened?”
I couldn’t reply. I couldn’t say anything.
In actuality it did take several years for the truth to be it was explained. The neighbor—my neighbor, Mr. Leo was a heroin addict. He along with two other friends took turns getting their “fix” unbeknownst to his and the rest of the block children. His hit was a bad one; in fact it was to be his last. His friend’s fled the car while his body went into arrest He died on the way to the hospital that day. What I saw literally was his final bow.
            In time things slowly decayed. As all the block kids got older, we became more hateful towards everyone and everything.  Most of the girls and boys just fucked their way out of youth, becoming parents way before their time. Everyone else I had known was either in a gang, or became restless high school dropouts, or addicted to any and every narcotic that they could get their hands on including the soft stuff like “weed”, and pills, to the harder shit like “base”—which is now known to the world as crack. I was no better falling into a drunken stupor of education and books, dreaming away my life. We all had our addictions and our fixes that promised to wash the slate blank as Mr. Leo’s did. I suppose like the loss of any good father, his absence took all of our childhood happiness with him to the grave that day.


 

  

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