This Is The House That Horse Built by Colum McCann

This First Proof contains the an excerpt from the novel This Is The House That Horse Built.

BOMB 108 Summer 2009
BOMB 108

They didn’t let me go to Corrigan’s funeral. I woulda walked the bakery line to get there. They put me back in the pen instead. I weren’t crying. I laid straight out on the bench with my hand over my eyes.


*   *   *


I saw my rap sheet; it’s yellow with 54 entries. Typed up not so neat. You see your life with carbon copies. Kept in a file. Hunts Point, Lex and 49th, West Side Highway, all the way back to Cleveland. Loitering. Prostitution offense. Class A misdemeanor. Criminal possesion controlled substance 7th degree. Criminel trespass 2nd degree. Criminal posession narcotic drug, Class E felony. Prostitution solicitation, Class A, Misdemeanor Degree 0.

The cops musta got a D in spelling.

The ones in the Bronx write worse than anyone. They get an F in everything except pulling us up on our prop’rties.


*   *   *


Tillie Henderson alias Miss Bliss alias Puzzle alias Rosa P. alias SweetCakes.

Race, sex, height, weight, hair color, hair type, complexion, eye color, scars, marks, tattoos (none).


*   *   *


I got a taste for supermarket cakes. You won’t find that on my yellow sheet.


*   *   *


The last day they arrested us, Bob Marley was on the radio, singing, “Get up, stand up; stand up for your rights.” A funny-ass cop turned the volume higher and grinned over his shoulder. Jazzlyn shouted, “Who’s gonna look after the babies?”


*   *   *


I left the spoon in the baby formula. Thirty eight years old. There ain’t no prizes.


*   *   *


Hooking was born in me. That’s no exaggeration. I never wanted no square job. I lived right across from the stroll on Prospect Avenue and East 31st. From my bedroom window I could see the girls work. I was eight. They wore red high heels and hair combed high.

The daddies went by on their way to the Turkish hotel. They caught dates for their girls. They wore hats big enough to dance in.

Every pimp movie you’ve ever seen has them pulling up in a Cadillac. It’s true. Daddies drive Kitties. They like whitewall tires. The fuzzy dice don’t happen so often though.

I put on my first lipstick when I was nine. Shiny in the mirror. My mother’s blue boots were too big for me at 11. I could’ve hid down inside them and popped my head out.

When I was 13 I already had my hands on the hip of a man in a raspberry suit. He had a waist like a lady’s, but he hit me hard. His name was Fine. He loved me so much, he didn’t put me on the stroll; he said he was grooming me.


*   *   *


My mother had religious readings. We were in the Church of the Spiritual Israel. You had to throw your head back and speak in tongues. She’d been on the stroll too. That was years ago. She left it when her teeth fell out. She said, “Don’t you do what I done, Tillie.”

So I done exactly that. My teeth haven’t fallen out yet but.


*   *   *


I never tricked until I was 15. I walked into the lobby of the Turkish hotel. Someone gave a low whistle. Everyone’s head turned, ‘specially mine. Then I realized they were whistling at me. Right there I began walkin’ with a bounce. I was turning out. My first daddy said, “Soon as you finish breakin’ luck, honey, come on home to me.”

Hose, hot pants, high heels. I hit the stroll with a vengeance.

One of the things you learn early on is you don’t let your hair fall down in the open window. You do that, the crazy ones grab you by the locks and pull you in and then they beat you silly.


*   *   *


Your first daddy, you don’t forget. You love him until he beats you with a tire iron. Two days later, you’re changing wheels with him. He buys you a blouse that makes your body go out and around in all the right places.


*   *   *


I left baby Jazzlyn with my mother. She kicked her legs and looked up at me. She had the whitest skin when she was born. I thought first she wasn’t mine. I never knew who her daddy was. He coulda been any on a list long as Sunday. People said that he mighta been a Mexican, but I don’t recall no Pablo sweating on me. I took her up in my arms and that’s when I said to myself, I’m gonna treat her good all her life.

The first thing you do when you have a baby is you say she’s never gonna work the stroll. You swear it. Not my baby. She’s never gonna be out there. So you work the stroll to keep her off the stroll.

I stayed that way nearly three years, on the stroll, running home to her, taking her in my arms, and then knew what I had to do. I said, “Look after her Momma. I’ll be right back.”


*   *   *


The skinniest dog I ever seen is the one on the side of Greyhound buses.


*   *   *


The first time I saw New York, I lay down on the ground outside Port Authority just so I could see the whole sky. Some guy stepped right over me without even looking down.


*   *   *


I started hooking my very first day. I went to the fleabag hotels over on Ninth. You can make a sky out of a ceiling, that’s no problem. There were a lot of sailors in New York. I used to like dancing with their hats on.


*   *   *


In New York you work for your man. Your man’s your daddy, even if he’s just a chili pimp. It’s easy to find a daddy. I got lucky early on and I found TuKwik. He took me on and I worked the best stroll, 49th and Lexington. That’s where Marilyn’s skirt blew high. Up by the subway vent. The next best stroll was way over on the West Side, but TuKwik didn’t like it, so I didn’t go over there much. There wasn’t as much scratch to be made on the West Side. And the cops were always throwing their badges, strictly on a prop’rty basis. They’d see how long it was since you was in jail by asking the date on your sheet. If you hadn’t been inside a while they’d curl their fingers and say, Come with me.

I liked the East Side, even if the cops were hard asses.

They didn’t get many colored girls on 49th and Lex. The girls were whiteys with good teeth. Nice clothes. Hair done fancy. They never wore no big rings because big rings get in the way. But they had beautiful manicures and their toenails sparkling. They looked at me and shouted, “What the fuck you doing here?” And I said, “I’m just doin’ here, girls, that’s all.” After a while, we didn’t fight no more. No more nails scraping flesh. No more trying to break each other’s fingers.


*   *   *


I was the first nigger absolute regular on that stroll. They called me Rosa Parks. They used to say I was a chewing gum spot. Black. And on the pavement.

That’s how it is in the life, word. You joke a lot.


*   *   *


I said to myself, I said, I’m gonna make enough money to go home to Jazzlyn and buy her a big house with a fireplace and a deck out the back with lots of nice furniture. That’s what I wanted.

I’m such a fuck-up. No one’s a bigger fuck-up than me. No one’s gonna know that, though. That’s my secret. I walk through the world like I own it. Watch this spot. Watch it curve.


*   *   *


I got a cellmate here, she keeps a mouse in a shoebox. The mouse is the best friend she has. She talks to it and pets it. She even kisses it. Once she got bit on the lip. I laughed my ass off.

She’s in for eight months on a stabbing. She won’t talk to me. She’ll be upstate soon. She says I ain’t got no brains. Me I’m not going upstate, no way, I made my deal with the devil, he was a little bald man with a black cape on.


*   *   *


When I was 17 I had a body that Adam woulda dropped Eve for. Hot potato time. It was prime, no lie. Nothing in the wrong place. I had legs a hundred miles long and a booty to die for. Adam woulda said to Eve, “Eve, I’m leaving you honey,” and Jesus himself woulda been in the background saying, Adam, you’re one lucky motherfucker.


*   *   *


There was a pizza store on Lexington. A picture on the wall of all these guys in tight shorts and good skin and a ball at their feet, they were fine. But the guys inside were fat and hairy and always making jokes about pepperonis. You had to dab their pizza with a napkin just to get the oil off. The Syndicates used to come around too. You didn’t want to mess with the Syndicates. They had a crease in the trousers of their suits, and they smelled ’a brillantine. They might bring you for a nice Guinea meal and then you end up taking a dirt nap.


*   *   *


TuKwik was flash. He had me on his arm like a piece of jewelry. He had five wives, but I was wife Numero Uno, top of the Christmas tree, freshest meat on the stack. You do what you can for your daddy, you light up fireworks for him, you love him to sunset, and then you go strolling. I made the most money of all, and he treated me nice. He had me ride in the front seat while the other wives watched from the street, steaming.

The only thing is, but, if he loves you more, he beats you more too. That’s just the way it is.

One of the doctors in the emergency ward had a crush on me. He stitched together my eye after TuKwik beat me with a silver coffee pot. Then the doctor leaned down and kissed it. It tickled right on the part where the thread was coming through.


*   *   *


On a slow day, in the rain, we’d fight a lot, me and the other wives. I ran down the street carrying Susan’s wig with a bit of flesh still lodged inside it. But most of the time we were a big family, word. No one believes it, but it’s true.


*   *   *


On Lexington, they got hotels with wallpaper and room service and real gold paint on the rims of plates. They got rooms where they put chocolates on the pillows. They got businessmen come in for a day. Whiteys. In tighteys. They lift up their shirts, you can smell the husband panic off them, like their wife is gonna come out of the TV set.

The chambermaids put mints on pillows. I had a handbag full of green wrappers. I left the room with green wrappers and men already sweating out their marriage license.

I was strictly a lie-down girl, a flatbacker. Plain screwing was all I knew, but I made them feel like no one else. Oh baby let me feel you. You make me so hot. Don’t take that bone to another dog.

I had a hundred little stupid sayings. It was like I was singing an old song. They lapped it up.


*   *   *


“Are you okay there, SweetCakes?” “Goddamn, but you make me feel fine!” (One minute 30, ace, that’s a record).

“Gimme some sugar, sugar.” “Awww, man, you’re too kissable to kiss.” (I’d rather lick the pipe in the sink).

“Hey girl, don’t I do it good?” “Oh you do it good, oh yeah, you do, so good it’s good, yeah, good.” (Pity ’bout your little pork sword though).


*   *   *


On the way out of the Waldorf Astoria I tipped the hotel detectives, the bellman, and the elevator boy. They knew all the girls on the stroll. The elevator boy had a thing for me. One night I blew him in the walk-in fridge. On the way out he stole a steak. Slipped it in under his shirt. Walked out, saying he always liked it medium-rare.

He was a cutie. Winked at me, even if the elevator was full.


*   *   *


I was a bug on keeping clean. I liked to shower before every time. When I got the trick to shower, I’d soap him all over and watch the dough rise. You’d say to him, “Honey I want some’a that bread.” Then I brought him to the oven where he just about popped.

You try to get him finished after 15 minutes most. But you try to keep him going at least two minutes or so. Guys don’t like it if they pop early. They don’t get value. They feel dirty and cheap. I never had a guy who didn’t come, never once. Well, not never, but if he wasn’t coming I’d scratch his back and speak real nice to him, never dirty, and sometimes he’d cry and say, “I just wanna talk to you honey, that’s all I wanna do, I just wanna talk.” But then sometimes he’d turn over and get all vicious and scream, “Fuck you, I knew I could never get it on with you, you black bitch.”

And I’d kept all pouty like he broke my heart, then I’d lean real close and whisper to him that my daddy was in the Panthers with lots of black dogs, and he wouldn’t like to hear that sort of talk, dig?, and then they’d pull up their trousers quick and get outa there lick lick lickety-split.


*   *   *


TuKwik got himself into fights. He carried a knuckle duster in his sock. He had to be knocked down before he could get it. But he was smart. He oiled the cops and he oiled the Syndicate and he kept all the rest for himself.

The smart daddy looks for the girl who walks alone. I walked alone for two weeks. Ohio. O-hi-o.

I became a modern woman. I took the Pill. I didn’t want no new Jazzlyn. I sent her postcards from the office on 43rd. The guy behind the counter blushed when he saw me. Everyone was hollering at me for skipping the line, but I just went right on up to him, swinging my ass, and he slipped me some free stamps. I always recognize my tricks.


*   *   *


I found a new daddy who was a famous player. His name was Jigsaw. He had a flash suit. He called it his vine. He kept a handkerchief in his pocket. His secret was that inside the handkerchief he had a row of razor blades, taped inside. He could take it out and make a puzzle of your face. He had a little crimp in his walk. Everything perfect’s got a flaw. The cops hated him. They arrested me more when they knew Jigsaw was mine.

They hated the idea of a nigger making money, especially if it’s off a whitey, and it was nearly all whiteys on 49th Street. That was Chalktown.

Jigsaw had more scratch than God. He bought me a foxtail chain and a string of jade beads. He paid up, cash bonds. He even had a one-up on a Cadillac. He had a Rolls Royce. Silver. That’s no lie. It was old but it rolled. It had a wooden steering wheel. Sometimes we rode up and down Park Avenue. That’s when being in the life was good. We rolled down the windows outside the Colony Club. We said, “Hi ladies, anyone want a date?” They were terrified. We drove off hollering. “Come on, let’s go get ourselves some cucumber sandwiches.”

We drove down to Times Square, howling. “Cut the crusts off ‘em, baby!”


*   *   *


I got the most beautiful things from Jigsaw. He had an apartment on First and 58th. Everything was boosted, even the carpets. Vases all over the place. And mirrors with golden edges. The tricks, they liked coming there. They walked right in and said, “Wow.” It was like they thought I was a businesswoman.

All the time they was looking for the bed. The thing is, the bed came down out of the wall. It was on electronic control.

That place was flash.


*   *   *


The guys who paid a hundred dollars, we called them champagnes. Susie would say: “Here comes my champagne,” when a fancy car pulled up on the street.

One night I had one of them football guys from the New York Giants, a linebacker with a neck so big they used to call him Sequoia. He had a wallet, too, like none I ever seen, fat with C-notes. I thought here comes ten champagnes all at once. Here it comes, bubbly, the mighty G.

Turned out he just wanted a freebie, so I got down on the ground, bent down, looked between my legs, said “HIKE!” and threw him a room service menu.

Sometimes I just crack myself up.


*   *   *


I was calling myself Miss Bliss then, ’cause I was very happy. The men were just bodies moving on me. Bits of color. They didn’t matter none. Sometimes I just felt like a needle in a jukebox. I just fell on that groove and rode in a while. Then I’d pick the dust off and drop again.


*   *   *


The thing I noticed about the homicide cops is that they wore real nice suits. And their shoes were always polished. One of them, he had a three-legged shoeshine box right under his desk. Rags and black polish and all. He was cute. He wasn’t looking for a freebie. He only wanted to know who iced Jigsaw. I knew, but I wasn’t telling. When someone buys it, you keep your mouth shut. That’s the law on the street, zip zip goes your mouth zip zip not saying a word, zip zip zip zip zip.


*   *   *


Jigsaw walked into three neat bullets. I saw him lying there, on the wet ground. He had one in the center of his forehead where it blew his brains open. And when the paramedics opened up his shirt it was like he had two extra red eyes in his chest.

There was blood spatter on the ground and on the lamppost and on the mailbox too. This guy from the pizza shop came out to clean his passenger-side mirror of his van. He was scrubbing it with his apron, shaking his head and muttering under his breath, like someone had just burned his calzones. As if Jigsaw meant to leave his brains on the guy’s mirror! Like he did it deliberate!

He went back into the shop and the next time we went in the shop for a slice, he was like: “Hey, no hookers in here, get outa here, get your sellin’ asses O-U-T, especially you, you N-I-G-G-E-R.” We said, “Oh, he can spell,” but I swear to God, I wanted to twist his Guinea balls up in his throat and squeeze them into one and call it his Adam’s apple.

Susie said she hated racists, especially Guinea racists. We laughed our heads off and marched right on down to Second Avenue and got us a slice in Ray’s Famous. It was so delicious we didn’t even have to dab the oil off. After that we never went back to the place on Lex.

We weren’t gonna give business to no racist pig.


*   *   *


Jigsaw had all that scratch, but he was buried in Potter’s Field. I seen too many funerals. I guess I’m no different than nobody else. I don’t know who got Jigsaw’s money, but I’d say it was the Syndicate.

There’s only one thing moves at the speed of light and that’s cold hard cash.


*   *   *


Couple of months after Jigsaw got scrambled, I saw Andy Warhol coming down the block. He had eyes that were big and blue and schizoid, like he just came from a day of token sucking. I said, “Hey Andy honey, you want a date?” He said, “I’m not Andy Warhol, I’m just a guy wearing an Andy Warhol mask, ha ha.” I pinched his ass. He jumped back and went “Ooohhh.” He was a bit square, but then he talked to me must’ve been ten minutes or more.

I thought he was going to put me in a movie. I was all jumping up and down in my stilettos. I woulda kissed him if he put me in a movie. But in the end he didn’t want nothing except to find himself a boy. That’s all he wanted, a young boy he could take home and do his thing with. I told him that I could use a big pink strap-on and he said, “Oh stop, you’re getting me hot.”

I went around all night, saying, “I turned Andy Warhol on!”


*   *   *


I got another trick I thought I recognized. He was young but bald on top. The bald spot was very white, like a little ice rink on his head. He got a room in the Waldorf Astoria. The first thing he did was he pulled the curtains tight and fell on the bed and said, “Let’s get it on.”

I was like, “Wow, do I know you honey?”

He looked at me hard and said, “No.”

“Are you sure?” I said, all cutesy and shit. “You look familiar.”

“No,” he said, real angry.

“Hey, take a chill pill, honey,” I said, “I’m only axing.”

I pulled off his belt and unzipped him and he moaned ohyeahyeahyeah, like they all do, and he closed his eyes and kept on moaning, and then I don’t know why, but I figured it out. It was the guy from the weather report on CBS! Except he wasn’t wearing his toupee! That was his disguise. I finished him off and got myself dressed and waved goodbye but turned at the door and said to him, “Hey man, it’s cloudy in the east with the wind at ten knots and a chance of snow.”

There I was, cracking myself up again.


*   *   *


I used to love the joke where the last line was: Your honor, I was armed with nothing more than a piece of fried chicken.


*   *   *


The hippies were bad for business. They were into free love. I stayed away from them. They stank.

The soldiers were my best clients. When they came back they just wanted to pop—popping was the only thing on their minds. They’d had their asses handed to them by a bunch of half-baked slanty-eyed motherfuckers and now they just needed to forget. And there aint much better to help you forget than popping with Miss Bliss.

I made up a little badge that said: The Miss Bliss Solution: Make War, Not Love. Nobody thought it was funny, not even the boys who were coming home from ’Nam, so I threw it in the garbage can on the corner of Second Avenue.

They smelled like small little graveyards walking around, those boys. But they needed loving. I was like a social service, word. Doing my thing for America … Sometimes I’d hum that kiddie song while he scraped his fingers down my back. Pop goes the weasel! They got a kick outa that.


Bob was a pross cop with a hard-on for black girls. I musta seen his shield more’n I had hot breakfasts. He arrested me even when I wasn’t working. I was in the coffee shop and he threw the badge and he said, “You’re coming with me, Sambette.”

He thought he was funny. I said, “Kiss my black ass, Bob.” Still he took me down the pen. He had his quota. He got paid overtime. I wanted to slice him up with my nail file.


*   *   *


Once I had a man a whole week long in the Sherry Netherlands. There was a chandelier surrounded with grapes ‘n vines in the ceiling and violins carved outa the plaster and all. He was small and fat and bald and brown. He put a record on the player. Sounded like snake music. He said, “Isn’t this a divine comedy?” I said, “That’s a weird thing to say.” He just smiled. He had a nice accent.

We had crystal cocaine and caviar and champagne in a bucket. It was a blow date, but all he had me do was read to him. Persian poems. I thought maybe I was already in heaven and floating on a cloud. There was a lot of things being said about ancient Syria and Persia. I laid out on the bed buck naked and just read to the chandelier. He didn’t even want to touch me. He sat in the chair and watched me reading. I left with eight hundred dollars and a copy of Rumi. I never read nothing like that before. Made me want to have a fig tree.

That’s long before I went to Hunts Point. And that’s long before I ended up under the Deegan. And that’s was long before Jazz and Corrie rode that van to doom.

But if I was given one week to live, just one week again, if that was my choice, that week in the Sherry Netherlands is the one I’d repeat. I was just lying on the bed, naked and reading, and him being nice to me, and telling me I was fine, that I’d do well in Syria and Persia. I never seen Syria or Persia or Iran or whatever they call it. Some day I’m going to go, but I’ll bring Jazzlyn’s babies and I’ll marry an oil sheik.


*   *   *


Except I been thinking about the noose.


*   *   *


Any excuse is a good excuse. When they ship you off to prison they give you a syphilis test. I came back clean. I was thinking maybe I wouldn’t be clean this time. Maybe that’d be a good excuse.


*   *   *


I hate mops. I hate sweeping brushes. You can’t trick your way outa prison. You have to wash windows, clean the floor, sponge the showers. I’m the only hooker in C40. Everyone else is way upstate. One thing for sure, there aint no pretty sunsets out the window.

All the butches are in C50. All the femmes are where I am. The lesbians are called jaspers, I don’t know why, sometimes words are weird. In the canteen, all the jaspers want to do is comb my hair. I’m not into that. Never have been. I won’t wear no Oxfords. I like to keep my uniform short, but I won’t wear a bow in my hair either. Even if you’re going to die, you might as well die pretty.


*   *   *


I don’t eat. At least I can keep my figure. I’m still proud of that.

I’m a fuck-up but I’m still proud of my body.

They wouldn’t serve the food to dogs anyway. The dogs would strangle themselves after reading the menu. They’d start howling and puncture themselves dead with forks.


*   *   *


I got the key ring with the babies on it. I like to hang it on my finger and watch them twirl. I got this piece of aluminum foil too. It’s not like a mirror, but you can look in it and you can guess that you’re still pretty. It’s better’n talking to a mouse. My cell mate shaved the side of the bed in order to put the mouse in wood shavings. I read a book once about a guy with a mouse. His name was Steinbeck, the guy, not the mouse. I ain’t stupid. I don’t wear the dunce cap just ’cause I’m a hooker. They did an IQ test and I got 124. If you don’t believe me, ask the prison shrink.


*   *   *


The library cart squeaks around once a week. They don’t got no books I like. I asked them for Rumi and they said, “What the hell is that?”

In the gym I play ping-pong. The butches go, “Oooohhh, look at her smash.”


*   *   *


Most of the time, me and Jazz, we never robbed nobody. Wasn’t worth it. But this asshole, he took us all the way from the Bronx to Hell’s Kitchen and promised us all sorts of scratch. Turned out different, so all we done was we relieved him of the chore, that’s the word, relieved him. Just lightened his pockets really. I took the rap for Jazzlyn. She wanted back with the babies. She needed the horse, too. I wanted her off it, but she couldn’t go cold. Not like that. Me, I was clean. I could take it. I’d been clean six months. I was banging coke here and there, and sometimes I sold some horse that I got from Angie, but mostly I was clean.

In the station house Jazz was crying her eyes out. The detective leaned across his desk to me and said, “Look, Tillie, you wanna make things right for your daughter?” I’m like, “Yeah, babe.” He said, “All right, gimme a confession and I’ll let her go. You’ll get six months, no more, I guarantee it.” So, I sat down and sang. It was an old charge, robbery in the second degree. Jazz had jacked two hundred dollars from that guy and syringed that straight off.

That’s how it goes.

Everything flies through the windshield.


*   *   *


They told me Corrigan smashed all the bones in his chest when he hit the steering wheel. I thought, well at least in heaven his Spanish chick’ll be able to reach in and grab his heart.

I’m a fuck-up. That’s what I am. I took the rap and Jazzlyn paid the price. I am the mother and my daughter is no more. I only hope at the last minute that at least she was smiling.

I’m a fuck-up like none you’ve ever seen before.


*   *   *


Even the roaches don’t like it here in Rikers. The roaches, they’ve got an aversion. The roaches, they’re like judges and district attorneys and shit. They crawl out of the walls in their black coats and they say, Miss Henderson I hereby sentence you to eight months.

Anyone who knows roaches know that they rattle. That’s the word. They rattle across the floor.


*   *   *


The shower stall is the best place. You could hang an elephant from the pipes.


*   *   *


Sometimes I bang my head off the wall long enough that I just don’t feel it anymore. I can bang it hard enough I finally sleep. I wake with a headache and I bang again. It only stings in the shower when all the butches are watching.

A white girl got sliced yesterday. With the filed-down side of a canteen tray. She had it coming. Whiter than her whiteness. Outside the pen it never used to bother me: white or black or brown or yellow or pink. But I guess the pen is the flipside of real life—too many niggers and not many whiteys, all the whiteys can buy their way out of it.

This the longest I ever spent inside. It gets you to thinking about things. Mostly about being such a fuck-up. And mostly about where to hang the noose.


*   *   *


When they first told me ’bout Jazzlyn I just stood there beating my head against the cage like a bird. They let me go to the funeral and then they locked me back up. The babies weren’t there. I kept asking about the girls but everyone was saying, “Don’t worry about the babies, they’re being looked after.”


*   *   *


In my dreams I’m back in the Sherry Netherland. Why I liked him so much I don’t really know. He wasn’t a trick, he was a john, even with the bald head he was fine.

Men in the Middle Eastern life dig hookers. They like to spoil them and buy them things and walk around with the sheets wrapped around them. He asked me to stand by the window in silhouette. He positioned the light just so. I heard him gasp. All I was doing was standing. Nothing ever made me feel better than him just looking at me, appreciating what he saw. That’s what good men do—they appreciate. He wasn’t fooling with himself or nothing, he just sat in the chair watching me, hardly breathing. He said I made him delirious, that he’d give me anything just to stay there forever. I said something smart-ass, but really I was thinking the exact same thing. I hated myself for saying something disrespectful. I coulda had the floor swallow me up.

After a moment or two he relaxed, then sighed. He said something to me about the desert in Syria and how the lemon trees look like little explosions of color.

And all of a sudden—right there, looking out over Central Park—I got a longing for my daughter like nothing else before. Jazzlyn was eight or nine then. I wanted just to hold her in my arms. It’s no less love if you’re a hooker, it’s no less love at all.

The park got dark. The lights came on. Only a few of them were working. They lit up the trees.

“Read the poem about the marketplace,” he said.

It was a poem where a man buys a carpet in the marketplace, and it’s a perfect carpet, without a flaw, so it brings him all sorts of woe ‘n shit. I had to switch on the light to read to him and it spoiled the atmosphere, I could tell straight off. Then he said, “Just tell me a story then.”

I turned off the light and stood there. I didn’t want to say nothing cheap. I couldn’t think of anything except a story I heard from a trick a few weeks before. So I stood there with the curtains in my hands and I said: “There was this old couple out walking by the Plaza. It was early evening. They were hand in hand. They were about to go into the park when a cop blew his whistle sharp and stopped them. The cop said, ‘You can’t go in there, it’s gonna get dark, it’s too dangerous to walk around the Park, you’ll get mugged.’ The old couple said, ‘But we want to go in there, it’s our anniversary, we were here 40 years ago exactly.’ The cop said, ‘You’re crazy. Nobody walks in Central Park anymore.’ But the old couple kept walking in anyway. They wanted to take the exact same walk they took all those years before, ’round the little pond. To remember. So they went hand in hand, right into the dark. And guess what? That cop, he walked behind at 20 paces, right around the lake, just to make sure them people weren’t tossed, ain’t that something?”

That was my story. I stayed still. The curtains were all damp in my hands. I could almost hear the Middle Eastern man smile.

“Tell it to me again,” he said.

I stood a little closer to the window where the light was coming in real nice. I told it to him again, with even more details, like the sound of their footsteps and all.


*   *   *


I never even told that story to Jazzlyn. I wanted to tell her but I never did. I was waiting for the right time. He gave me that Rumi book when I left. I shoved it in my handbag, didn’t think much of it at first, but it crept up on me, like a streetlamp.

I liked him, my little fat bald brown man. I went to the Sherry Netherland to see if he was there, but the manager kicked me out. He had a folder in his hand. He used it like a cattle prod. He said, “Out out out!”

I began to read Rumi all the time. I liked it because he had the details. He had nice lines. I began saying shit to my tricks. I told folks I liked the lines because of my father and how he studied Persian poetry. Sometimes I said it was my husband. I never even had a father or a husband. Not one I knew of anyways. I ain’t whining. That’s just a fact.


*   *   *


I’m a fuck-up and my daughter is no more.

This issue of First Proof is sponsored by the Bertha and Isaac Liberman Foundation.

Colum McCann is the author of two collections of short stories and four novels, including This Side of Brightness, Dancer, and Zoli. His fiction has been published in over 30 languages and has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, GQ, The Paris Review, and other places. His newest novel Let the Great World Spin, from which “This Is the House that Horse Built” has been excerpted, is forthcoming from Random House. He teaches at Hunter College in New York.

Defiance by Carole Maso

Appalling ruin of another afternoon. 

What do we want to know and how far are we willing to go to get it?: An epistolary novella by Julie Carr

Dear J.

I’ve been meaning to write to you for some time, though I am sure you are surprised to hear from me. 

Two Poems by Danniel Schoonebeek
Marshall1Web Body


The suit I wore the day I was born

Originally published in

BOMB 108, Summer 2009

Featuring interviews with Dawoud Bey, Dike Blair and Joe Bradley, Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn and Michael Smith, Nam Le and Charles D’Ambrosio, Guy Maddin and Isabella Rossellini, Bill Callahan and Jon Raymond, Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, and Jacques Roubaud. 

Read the issue
BOMB 108