Monday, June 1, 2020

“Rubble and the Sparkler: A Brooklyn Story” by Sarah Xerar Murphy - 2019 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

Rubble and the Sparkler: A Brooklyn Story


Sarah Xerar Murphy

In Memory of Joe and Pilar

My happiest childhood memories are of rubble, the first of them anyway. That joyful childhood play among the hillocks formed from the brick and beams of broken buildings down by the water near where the East River meets the Upper Bay, at the foot of Atlantic Avenue where soon the Belt Parkway will rise from the wreckage to run beside the warehouses of Furman Street to layer below the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. Out there looking to find the well-remembered brown woolly bear caterpillars and some other skinnier green ones I can neither see nor name, but which must have enjoyed the green leaves of equally nameless weeds or musky ailanthus shoots, even as the woolly bears moved across the dirt and brick, and me so close to them, my eyes low enough still to the ground that as I look down the smell that still calls me to childhood is that of the brick itself, slightly damp, only slightly acrid, still comforting. Even as I see myself looking up and across the avenue, Sunday afternoon it must have been, to the one old seaman’s bar with the sawdust on the floor, where my brother and I will soon be welcomed, the earliest customers arriving just after the blue laws allow the bars to open delighting in us as will often be the case in those days, even while the newer already slightly dangerous smell of alcohol will mix in with the sawdust as I look up at the soft curve of the underside of a barstool the place a symphony of yellows and ochres almost tropical in memory. 

The same alcohol smell that will take for us take on a greater danger when unmixed, when that bar too has been reduced to rubble its beams and sawdust scattered into landfill, with me now staring through the chain link of an asphalt paved playground built over those same demolished buildings at the glowing glass brick wall and neon lit window of another seaman’s bar, Montero’s Bar and Grill there still at the corner of Hicks and Atlantic even if Brooklyn’s working harbor has nearly disappeared, the last sailors bar in Brooklyn it’s been called in one or another magazine, where I am told until very recently Pilar will still hold court by that window, glass in hand, though Joe will long have passed away, while then I will be wondering as I’ll swing higher and higher if my mother is just getting Joe to cash a check he knows she’s not good for or if she’s going to stay the afternoon into the night in those desperate years after she’d lost her job and the gentle smell of broken brick will long have disappeared from my life. When whichever man who held my hand among the woolly bears is either long dead or has not yet returned from his years sailing out of other ports.

Though I will remember when my delight in rubble ended. The events of my rubble’s very last day. When rather than looking down toward plaster crunching beneath my feet or from the top of a mound toward any water, but wandering enclosed between buildings, moving across an even field of broken brick and plaster shards in a vacant lot, swinging from time to time between adult hands, not my mom and dad, but between two men, her husband and her lover, two of the three most likely to be my father, so that each time I am in the air I look up toward blue sky and when I land move my gaze over to examine the remaining fourth wall of whatever building now lies crumbled at our feet, noting those large pastel rectangles of paint between the broken brick and beams of floors and ceilings, then among them the brighter squares and rectangles and ovals, all shapes I had learned to identify even if I won’t quite understand the origins of those before my eyes, will have no way of knowing these were the places paintings photos posters had hung, furniture been placed against the wall, that they told stories of a displacement I had not yet experienced, as I delighted in this vision of smaller shapes enclosed in larger ones.Though so far away each outlined room might seem just a bit like a cutaway picture of a doll’s house in a book of paper dolls like the ones an aunt would send me to try to make me into a proper girl decades before nonbinary was a word or gender nonconforming shorthand for an idea we were all well aware of, while I will continue swinging, the warmth of the hands that hold mine filling my mind even now with the most peaceful of visions, no thoughts of broken lives, even if I have long learned to wonder at the optimistic illusions of those years when both the building and the destruction of the world around us, when I will awake each morning to the the boomshush of the piledriver will be deemed for the good of all in an ever growing more generous world when affordable housing could still occupy prime real estate so that even later it would not have occurred to me to ask such questions as where did the people go, thinking I am sure if I thought at all that just like the paper dolls in those books they would be living in an unchanging happily ever after, while right then swinging my head for side to side as I swing forward and back from those hands my eyes will fixate on other more brightly coloured three dimensional rectangles awaiting my eyes, over on a rickety table up against another broken brick wall. 

Lit up by the already orange sun of this hot July afternoon that deepens the shadows between the objects on the table or shards on the ground, as we approach the table laden with fireworks bootlegged in from New Jersey because all such things will already be illegal in the City of New York, displaying roman candles and parachutes in which we have no interest, have no desire at all to send them into the air on our narrow streets, but instead have come for the firecrackers mostly in blue boxes or red, torpedoes and cherry bombs, the smallest orange yellow ladyfingers, the M-80s and Black Cats, names still know even if I can’t make any images correspond, don’t know for sure any of the names of the larger tubes of newsprint and carboard wrapped gunpowder that come in strings, the print on the paper like the boxes red, yellow or blue, with the smell of gunpowder something I already know will delight me when later they will be thrown from a childish hand amid gentle adult laughter. And the sparklers too, we are there for the sparklers, always the sparklers, those metal rods in their windowed boxes still for me the most important, the adults letting us look, letting us choose, even as they laugh expansive at the irony of it all, their laughter ready to teach me that concept, given that small stand mounted on the rubble of torn down buildings whose location everyone in all the neighbourhoods all around knows, will be put up each year there in the vacant lot directly behind the Butler Street police station. So that someone might even comment on how even the police themselves will likely come out of their station to buy their own more elaborate fireworks to set off in their neighbourhoods a subway and a ferry ride away—it will be a couple of decades before a bridge over the Narrows will be built—out on Staten Island. 

Though that evening irony will encounter its own darkness. Certainly the adults will say so even if I do not recognize it. When we will all come outside to stand in the little hollow formed by our stoopless house where it meets the stoop next door on which our next door neighbours will sit as will many along the block in that dusk of what must have been The Fourth itself, I know that because I’d been changed out of my usual shorts or tomboy blue jeans and helped into a brittle white dress whose skirt will stick out around me, organza I think you call that fabric, organza or crepe, with a pink or maybe baby blue satin sash, all of it made of some desperately new artificial material, rayon or an even newer nylon or polyester I don’t know, as we will all stand and hold our sparklers out with delight, us kids thinking them more a miracle of sorts than an irony, how the flames and sparks we knew not to let fall on us as we will create bonfires in the back yard where in those late forties to fifties years the burning of Hitler will turn to the burning of Stalin, our violent childish fantasies of bombers and warrior heroism—one of the men around us had been a tail gunner in the war—moving with the politics of the times, while what will amaze us in those sparklers is that we will be able to pass our hands through the sparks’ precise and repeated shapes again and again as the sparklers will continue their ordered burning without feeling more than the kindest prickle along our skins, me there with my mom and my brother and for a last and only time on that Fourth with all three of the men who might have fathered me, a ménage a aquatre more than a trois really, I think they will all know of their roles in my mother’s life though only two of them will hang out and drink together with my mother, meeting as they did in Monteros, the two walking together with me and my brother amid the rubble or staging jousts with us, me on one’s shoulders my brother on the other’s, while the third will only drink sauerkraut juice for his ulcer and make us café con leche in an old fashioned coffee sleeve thinking it weak enough for my brother and me to drink, and take me with him into Manhattan on the squealing and shaking curves of the old BMT subway line to Rector Street and the electric shops with their transparent vacuum tubes filled with complicated wire filaments, their bins full of resistors and condensers so much brighter in color than the tubes of the fire crackers or the lights in the tunnel, or take me to his electrical shop right by Monteros.While so delighted I am this time not in rubble or in caterpillars, or even in radio parts, but in light, that I stop letting sparks fall onto my hand or even drawing shapes with my sparkler but begin to spin and to spin the way we’d all learned to do to make ourselves stagger around dizzy and delighted, laughing now my sparkler held in one of my hands my arms held out at shoulder height, only to find as I spin faster and faster, the sounds of fire crackers exploding around me the lights of sparklers bouncing off the surrounding intact buildings, feeling no danger I will bring my hands in toward my waist as I’d seen dancers and figure skaters do, only to touch my side and set my dress alight. Irony again in safety disastrously betrayed. That in the easy tickling of sparks against skin, none of us will ever think about the red hot metal at the sparkler’s core. And its effects on woven plaster as it melds the new white dress I already hated to my side. 

Only the flame will be quelled. My rubble filled luck will hold. A hand again like the hands that have held on to mine will quickly press into my side. Another pass over a blanket to make sure the fire is out. Hands from among the ones that have let me swing between them. Or picked up a caterpillar to show it to me. Or stood behind me to hold my shoulder as we peer at the lights of a subway tunnel through the door of the first car. Because I won’t ever know which of them it will be. Who quickly moves to quench the flame. Who gets the butter—that is what will be used then—to cover the wound and ease my pain. But I do know that childhood’s happy rubble filled memories will end then. In the small damage to my own flesh. An image I will always carry with me. How my side will look as I stare at it before the dress is cut away, rubble too of sorts, the surrounding charred cloth, the uneven edges to the wound, the oozing yellowed flesh, the mottled pink and burgundy at its centre. While within months all three of those men will be gone, one, a journalist,having deliberately drunk himself to death in a hotel room in South Africa while covering the Passbook Riots of 1952; the electrician out of our lives after kicking in my mother’s head; the other gone to sea. And it will be years before that one returns. To become my dad. Encountered again amid the flotsam and jetsam of Monteros to end the years of darkness. When the edgily dangerous smell of alcohol and sawdust will have overwhelmed us, no longer tempered by the sawdust and Sunday afternoon light, when as my mother drinks in the front Joe or Pilar will guide us through Monteros crowded bar to its back room to feed us along with their own children, Pepe who runs the bar now, and Pepita of the envied black pigtails. The years of darkness and the odor of Cutty Sark spilled down an old copper sink tempered by the taste of paella in the back of a bar. 

            Only they will surprise at the strangest of times upon occasion, those happy sunlit rubble memories when I can still smell the calming damp of broken brick. So that when I see the rubble of broken buildings on my tablet screen or on my television, along with the children from all over the world who wander in it, I will find myself wanting to send such calming visions to them. Wishing they could be made real. That always the explosions might be so distant they will be no louder than firecrackers, the bodies in the rubble no more than caterpillars, and that always there will be a hand to grab theirs or to put out the flames. That they could pass into their future like a hand through a sparkler. Never encountering its core.

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