Coming Down by Lawrence Chua

BOMB 89 Fall 2004
089 Fall 2004 1024X1024

In the afternoon, Hollywood Ketsouvan-nasane listens to a radio describe the snowstorm that would arrive that night. It is still light out, but the announcer promises the storm will hit soon. It will not stop until the city is buried. The voice that issues from the radio is tight and certain. Hollywood does not think to question its pronouncements. It will fall like all things fall.

The radio sits on the desk of the guard who is herding him through the exit procedure. The guard has a smudged, meaty face, and Hollywood can see the blood under his skin. He pushes a plastic bag across the desk at Hollywood. There is a document stapled across it.

“Sign here,” he says and stabs at a line on the finely printed page. “Your belongings.”

Hollywood signs the paper, and the guard clucks at the length of his signature.

“Are you kidding me?” Hollywood turns a stone face to the guard and walks to the corner of the room. He faces the guard without looking at him and strips off his orange uniform. He dresses himself from the contents of the bag. Hollywood has not seen the clothing for nearly a year, and it seems duller than he remembers it. The shirt and pants are made of thin cotton, inappropriate for the approaching storm. But Hollywood dresses himself with care, and when he has emptied the bag, he goes to the mirror to appraise himself.

His pants hang loose off his hips. He hangs his thumb on the inside of his pants and pulls them away from his waist. All gone. Gone to the devil. The figure he sees in the mirror, the stick swimming in summer pants, is not him. It is a fraud. It is an image of someone who has just been released from prison, something incomplete and unprepared. Hollywood is going to have to prove that he is not that something. He sticks his right hand in his pocket and feels the few dollars in there, also floating in emptiness. The bills scratch against one another and make a lonely sound. He puts his other hand on his flat, soft belly and it makes a noise. Bread and butter. That’s what he ate this morning. Soggy white and rancid yellow. There must be more to life than that. Surely.

Hollywood shakes it all off, the noises and the reflection. He puts on his jacket and shoes and heads into the twilight. It is time to leave this place, the snowstorm be damned.

On the bus ride in from Riker’s Island, Hollywood starts to feel as if he has left something behind. He is not sure what it is, and the farther away he gets from the outcrop of rock the inmates call hijo de mi corazón, the weaker the feeling becomes. By the time he steps off the bus, the sensation has vanished completely.

Outside, the winter is waiting. It is a New York winter, when skin turns to ash in the wind. The streets are sullen under eroding gray ice. Empty trees grab for fraudulent light. It is light that is the color of aspirin. Poreless. Seamless. Underneath the Manhattan Bridge, a woman hovers at the corner of Mechanic’s Alley. She launches into a stride across the empty street. She gets five steps in before she turns back and flees, faster than she set out, back to the corner. Back to where she came from.

Hollywood looks at his watch. It is a small, flimsy thing, but he can hear it ticking wildly. It feels more real to him than his own heartbeat. It beats out a context for him, something universal in which he can locate himself. Suddenly time has an entirely new meaning to him. He is no longer living in the future tense, the what will be of Rikers Island. He is living in the here and now. Everything is fine and lovely, ladies and gentlemen. Hollywood Ketsouvan-nasane is here.

It is Têt. The Lunar New Year. It is nineteen-ninety something. Another war is beginning. One side will win and one side will lose. It doesn’t matter which side or where. What matters is that it is not here. It is far away from these streets that form the edges of Chinatown. East Broadway, the Bowery, Canal Street. They are all electric and flush with shiny black cars tonight. The cars glide down the streets on neon shadows, violet clouds that muffle their engines. Next to the entrance of the Viet My mall on Canal Street, three young men stoop in sharp relief. Their eyes are half lidded with indifference and half lidded with enlightenment. Insulated by puffy nylon jackets and ski caps, they are impassive to the clarity with which tonight’s frozen air renders them. One is playing with a pit bull. His face is too young for the padded bulk of his body. His skin is too smooth for the stitches crossing his left eyebrow.

The dog has a knotted rag in its mouth. The other end of the rag is in the hands of the boy. Clouds dribble from his suggestions.

“Let go.”

The dog ignores him.

“Let go!”

The dog acknowledges him by belching through its bared teeth.

“I said, let go!”

The dog shakes its head from left to right. Its teeth sink lower into the rag.

“Good dog. Man, I love this dog.”

Boy lets go of rag. Dog snaps jaws in triumph.

Hollywood buys a pack of Kools from a vendor at the front of the mall. He lights one up and savors the first smoke he has paid cash for in eight months. The menthol curls into his lungs and tickles the thick congestion at the back of his throat. Prison cigarettes have a different taste. They are sweeter. Maybe that is why they call them flavors. Hollywood hawks a loud pit of mucus onto Canal Street and walks inside the Viet My.

At the back, a small cluster of metal stools and chipped Formica card tables constitutes the Café Tout Va Bien. A cheap color print of the Eiffel Tower at night hangs on a back wall. A pile of garbage shimmers at the back of the café, next to a filmy countertop. That’s it. Tout Va Bien.

The girl behind the café counter is making coffee when Hollywood walks in. He sits down at an empty table and waits for her. Smoke bleeds from his cigarette into the early evening air. There is only one other customer tonight. It is New Year’s Eve and anyone who isn’t already at home with his family is heading in that direction. The café sees only orphans tonight. One of them is a pale boy with a black birthmark that covers half his face. He has sad eyes and a quick mouth, and he is yelling at the girl behind the counter to clean up the place.

“I hate the smell of garbage,” the boy says, as if the odor hurts him.

The girl is handling a spoon of ground coffee and doesn’t take notice of anything else. She transfers the clinging loam from its fat container to a small tin filter. The girl is about 16, with long hair teased around a fat, pleasant face. She is wearing a tight green turtleneck sweater, and Hollywood can see her round chest rise and fall with every breath.

“So close your mouth,” she says.

Fireworks ricochet off the street. They make cartoon noises as they bounce off the gutter and into heaven. Some of the boys on the street have been selling fireworks since last week. Every now and then, they give a demonstration of their wares. Canal Street is punchy and drunk with their sounds.

The girl brings over Hollywood’s coffee. Up close, he can see that she has just squeezed a pimple on her chin and the blood has dried into a tiny garnet. It has been eight months and she still knows what Hollywood drinks. A glass of water and a mug of coffee. The water is clear and the coffee is black. No sugar. No milk.

The girl says nothing. She lays the cup down and pinches a coy smile off her mouth. Hollywood nods and puts out his cigarette.

Outside the mall, the traffic on Canal Street snarls. A symphonic impatience descends on the street. Three sloppy rows of cars are trapped along the northern edge of the street. Their dulcet tones mix with the snapping of firecrackers, the clatter of languages, an untidy orchestration of dishes exploding, and water bouncing. Hollywood strains to pick out the individual elements of the chorus. He tries to tear the words apart from one another, but it is no use. They exist only as pieces of the city, a place that he might one day love. It is a place that is overflowing with all manner of new and illegal life.

From his table, Hollywood can see down the main aisle of the mall. He can see the traffic inch along the street. A shadow crosses his view. A young woman, her hair pulled back in an impromptu bun, is holding her face with her hand. Blood courses through her fingers. The café girl runs up to her and touches her shoulder. “That motherfucker just punched me.”

The wounded girl points out a man in the stilled traffic. He looks too big for the jeep he is driving.

“He said he wanted to buy some M-80s and when I asked him for the money, he punched me.” The man in the jeep has his hand on the horn and is leaning back against the seat. His face looks as if it has just been fed. His fingers are fat and splayed against the rim of the steering wheel. He is barely touching the horn, but its sound pierces everything. The jeep inches forward until it is directly in front of the entrance to the café. He looks into the café and sees the girl whom he hit. They exchange a long, relentless glare. The man in the jeep pushes on his horn again, this time a little harder.

The boy with the birthmark gets up and looks down the aisle into the street. He holds his ears and leans forward, wanting to move but fixed to the spot. All he can do is spit and growl at the man in the jeep. He curses at him in English. The boy makes the words sound silly and desperate, and Hollywood feels a little embarrassed for him. The boy looks at Hollywood with a brief, accusatory glance. It makes Hollywood wonder whether he has a place somewhere in that swearing.

The sound of the jeep’s horn overtakes everything and saturates the street. Its low, nasal whine soaks through Hollywood’s temple and threatens to drown him. He pinches the bridge of his nose, remembering other blows that have landed there. Then he taps another cigarette out of its carton and fires it up. He gets up and walks down the aisle of the mall. The vendors are all holding their ears and making faces. Hollywood walks past them and into the street without a word. It is starting to snow now, and beads of it fall on Hollywood’s skin. They are burned instantly to wet memories, but they leave behind a refreshing sensation, these light crystals that are dying all over him.

Hollywood helps himself to a packet of firecrackers from one of the young boys selling them on the street. He steps off the curb and into the unkempt rows of idling cars, passing the fender of a gray compact and turning right along the driver’s side of an old brown station wagon. Hollywood sucks back on his cigarette. The ember at its end responds by glowing. He brings the packet of firecrackers toward his mouth and touches the fuse to the cigarette’s tip. It giggles across Hollywood’s sleeve, little sparks flitting off the fuse. He locks his eyes ahead. As he passes the jeep with the offending driver, he snaps his wrist without looking, tosses the sputtering square into the open window and keeps walking through the motionless traffic.

The horn stops. Laughter filters through the crackling of gunpowder and cardboard and a man screaming. It is a hard collage of whistles and cheers, and Hollywood isn’t sure if the whistles are coming from the milling pedestrians or the fireworks.

“Hey,” a young voice yells from beyond the smoke. “Hey, that was a good one.” As if it were a joke.

“Keep moving, keep moving,” someone else calls. “Don’t let it set.”

Hollywood turns back onto the sidewalk and falls into the mass of bodies moving up and down Canal Street. He passes the vendors of the Viet My. They have all returned to their routines, and once again Hollywood is invisible to them. He sits back down at the table. His fingers smell of sulfur and fire. The girl whose name he doesn’t remember brings him a fresh cup of coffee without even a suggestion from him. Hollywood’s shoulders are damp.

Outside, thin lines of snow are falling from the sky. There is no precision to the way the snow is falling. It falls on the traffic and the street, on the dying commuters and the celebrants of a new year. Hollywood watches it and is mesmerized at the sheer audacity of it all. It does not fall like this in prison. It falls the way snow falls in the city. It falls wherever it goddamn pleases.

Lawrence Chua is the author of Gold by the Inch (Grove Press 1999), a novel, and the editor of Collapsing New Buildings (Kaya Press, 1997), an anthology. His writing appears in Beat Takeshi vs. Takeshi Kitano, forthcoming from Kaya Press in October 2004. This story is an excerpt from Sweet Thing, a novel in progress.

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BOMB 89, Fall 2004

Featuring interviews with Rodney Graham, Pierre Huyghe and Doug Aitken, Jerome Charyn and Frederic Tuten, Ben Marcus and Courtney Eldridge, Kaffe Matthews and Antony Huberman, Jonathan Caouette, Laura Linney and Romulus Linney, and David Levi Strauss and Hakim Bey. 

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