HOW WE LIT THE PLACE by Rebecca Maizel
THE NIGHT I MET THE trumpet player, my best friend’s father lost himself at sea.
“We haven’t heard from him in four days,” the best friend said. The way her voice hung in the air, she knew death was a possibility and that was the torture.
When the trumpet player found me, I was slinging drinks. I poured pints and laced bourbon over towers of ice in chilled glasses.
The bar owner I worked for didn’t want lights above the bar. He said they made the seats and flooring look cheap. I thought, “Buddy, this is Harlem.”
When the trumpet player walked through the double doors, candlelight shimmered over the circular bar – that was how we lit the place. It was the middle of August, so I was wearing the black dress I can’t fit into now. He was with a group of friends, all with interesting glasses and a casual artistic style. I remember thinking that they looked like people that would understand why I was a bartender. I wasn’t just a bartender – was I?
The trumpet player smiled and he had dimples, so of course that made him completely harmless. After an hour or so, he wrote me a note on a receipt and slid it over the cheap wood. Over a list of his groceries, it read:
Is this going to hurt you as much as it’s going to hurt me?
Then the lights went out. In fact, all of New York City lost power. A blackout, they called it. At the time, I thought of the tourists on 42nd street and Seventh Avenue. Did they ask for their money back when all of Times Square went black? Whose fault was that, anyway? Even now, I like to imagine the sixty-something midwestern women with their fanny packs pulled tight and their hands on their hips. This was New York and they were paying good money! Without the lights of Times Square was there anything to see?
About sixty blocks up, we served beers till the kegs went warm. We mixed drinks till the ice melted away and then the trumpet player walked me home.
My building was on the East Side. I didn’t have the money to back up the zip code. 10128 – those are the richest five numbers in America. Even wealthier than 90210. The trumpet player was not from the East Side. He was from Inwood and in a few years I would live on a street nearby with a lot of drug deals and walk by his apartment building even though he was long gone. He told me the building number that night and I never forgot it. I saw the number everywhere for years afterward, in phone numbers and street signs.
On our walk, he talked about Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, and the vibrato of Nina Simone. He asked about my dreams, my favorite movie, my ultimate worst break-up. Then he stopped in the middle of the street, looked left, right and said he’d never seen so many people out at night. It was true — people were everywhere.
Police barred the smaller entrances to Central Park two to three officers at a time. They looked regal up there on those brown horses, round helmets protecting their heads like crowns. Looking back on it now, it was all just fashion. Apparently, the park was a real “danger zone” with no light. Did the street lamps stop people from doing bad things to each other before the blackout?
“Lanternfish!” he said when we finally turned onto my street. He said it like he suddenly remembered the name of someone he had long forgotten. “And Flashlight fish!”
“That sounds made up,” I said and stopped in front of my building. A group of girls walked by us holding red plastic cups and laughing about something that only the blackout could make funny.
“It’s a fish that’s so far down in the ocean, it makes its own light,” he said and turned his head to follow a set of bobbing lights snaking across the black cement. Two tow-headed boys in baby blue pajamas galloped by the trumpet player and me. They clutched flashlights high above their heads.
I looked up to the sky. On this night there would be short distances between batting eyelashes. So I could see my reflection in his eyes. But as I looked back to the city street and all the man-made lights and glimmers, I wondered if the stars reflected on the water out there on the Atlantic Ocean. Would all those fish know how dark it was on York Avenue?
“They’re being knights,” said their mother who finally passed me and smiled in a woe is me kind of way and tucked behind them into the deli to search out D-batteries.
“What else makes its own light?” I asked the trumpet player and unlatched the building door. He may have answered but I was thinking of my friend’s father, helpless, rolling over the waves.
We fumbled up the stairs, running our hands against the wall with our fingertips until we found the door to the roof. The trumpet player held a lighter to the keyhole when we made it to the top. My building wasn’t anything more than an overpriced five story, which meant the roof was lower than most of the buildings nearby. Once we stepped out onto the cement, I was thinking about the Lanternfish swimming through deep, murky water, highlighting starfish with its iridescence and shining over ancient, black sands. If the sun went out and the earth was as dark as this night, Lanternfish would survive.
Then I thought about the stars – how they provided such beautiful light. Wait — stars? In New York City? In that sky? On that night?
To the left and right, above and below, the people of New York City danced on their rooftops to battery-operated music players. They combined barbeque chicken with fruitcake from year-old Christmas baskets so nothing would go to waste from their tiny fridges.
The trumpet player and I lay on our backs drinking Jack Daniels. He kissed me so deep it tasted hot, like the bourbon and I swear heaven was on a cement roof in the middle of Manhattan.
He pointed out constellations and explained that Mars was a red planet, not some star that only looks red because of the lights on the Earth. He said he was tired of humanity’s arrogance. “That no matter what, humans all try to take responsibility for the universe’s beauty. Just because we discover something, it doesn’t make it ours.”
Ours. I couldn’t own the night. But it felt like mine.
“Wait,” the trumpet player said sitting up. “Do you hear that?”
Voices carried from nearby. Across the street, my neighbors started to sing: Sometimes it’s like someone took a knife, baby, edgy and dull…
Then the people on the roof next door joined in “…and cut a six-inch valley…”
Then the trumpet player stood up, threw his arms out, and sang at the top of his lungs, “through the middle of my soul.”
In the dark of Manhattan, baby boys were knights, a man was lost at sea while a Bruce Springsteen song was a chorus of voices and me, the girl bartending on a dream, made love the only night in New York City where you could count the three stars on Orion’s Belt.
“It’s too bad,” the trumpet player said over the devastating chatter of the birds. He kissed my forehead and whispered the saddest thing I’d ever heard: “Light.”
That morning, I peered over the edge of the roof and watched the trumpet player walk down the front steps of my building. I couldn’t bring myself to go down to my apartment.
The sky. The night. His hand behind my head.
He walked in and out of the shadows of the trees of York Avenue and stopped a moment at the corner of the street. I waited for him to dig in his pockets, hail a cab –- do something. Wonderfully, he glanced back at my building.
I gripped the stone ledge of the rooftop so that my knuckles hurt.
My best friend’s father was alive when the Coast Guard found him. He didn’t know which way was east, he told his family. His GPS was broken, and a few hours before he was supposed to turn toward the city, all the lights went out.
I wondered if he studied the stars as he rolled over the waves; if they could have pointed him the direction home.
Months later, when the snow covered the building tops, I went to dinner with my best friend and her father. We ate at a five-star restaurant on Central Park West.
“Even though you were alone, it must have been beautiful,” I said. “I bet you could see the whole sky.”
He waved a waiter out of his way with an oversized hand. With a mouthful of decadent meat he said, “I stayed inside the cabin. Didn’t come out until I heard the coast guard.”
“Never? Not once?”
He shook his head and sipped on a glass of red wine. “What’s the point? Stars are the same out there as they are in Manhattan.”
He gestured so another waiter hurried to our table. One of his diamonds reflected off the window next to me.
My eyes passed over bursts of caviar, prisms of cheese decorated by laces of apricot jelly perfectly poised on porcelain plates. I cared nothing for gleaming China or polished silver. I cared for a yellow taxi headed downtown. I placed a palm on the cold glass and dreamed who might be inside.
REBECCA MAIZEL hails from Rhode Island where she lives and works. She teaches at her alma mater the prestigious Wheeler School where they have willingly accepted her back. She tries not to force her students to read her published novels for young adults. Rebecca has published with St. Martin’s Press, has two novels for young adults forthcoming in 2015 and 2016, and recently achieved an MFA in Writing for Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.