Fiction from Web del Sol

Copyright Madison Smartt Bell
First published in Antaeus

Finding Natasha

Madison Smartt Bell

      "Hey, Captain," Stuart said. He'd seen the dog as soon as he turned the corner, stretched over the doorsill of the bar in a wide amber beam of the afternoon sun. "Hey, babe, you still remember me?" He hesitated, just outside the doorway, in case the big German shepherd did not remember him after all. No doubt that Captain was a lot older now, shrunken into his bagging skin, the hair along the ridge of his back turning white. A yellow eye opened briefly on Stuart and then drowsed slowly back shut. Stuart took a long step over the dog and was inside the shadowy space of the bar.
      He had expected Henry to be behind the counter and he felt a pulse of disappointment when he saw it was Arthur instead. On Saturday nights Arthur would often cover the bar while Henry and Isabel went out to dinner, but ordinarily they wouldn't have left so early, not at midafternoon. Stuart sat down at the outside comer of the bar. When Arthur got over to him Stuart could see he didn't remember who he was.
      "Short beer," Stuart said, not especially wanting to get into it just yet. There were two people sitting at the far end of the counter, he couldn't quite make out their faces in the shadows, and nobody else in the place. He swiveled his stool back toward the door and as his eyes adjusted to the dim he saw the new paint, new paneling. It had all been done over, the broken booths and tables all replaced, a new jukebox right where the pay phone used to be. The opposite wall was practically papered with portrait sketches of the Mets.
      "Hey, what's going on?" Stuart said. Arthur had put down the glass of beer and picked up the dollar Stuart had laid on the bar. "Hey, you even got new glasses too? Henry and Isabel do all this work?"
      "They retired," Arthur said, staring at Stuart, like he knew he ought to recognize him now. "What, you haven't been around in a while, right? You move in Manhattan?"
      "Further than that," Stuart said. He pushed the beer glass a little away from him. A weird little bell-shaped thing, nothing like the straight tumblers Henry had used.
      "Who would it be but Stuart?" said one of the men at the far end of the bar. Stuart peered back into the dim. "Give him a shot on me, Arthur."
      "Clifton," Stuart said. Arthur was reaching behind him for a bottle of Jack, he'd remembered that much now, at least.
      "Nah," Stuart said. "No thanks."
      "What, you don't drink anymore either?" Clifton said.
      "I drink," Stuart said. "It's a little early." Clifton was on his feet, walking up into the light toward him now. He looked like he'd had little sleep and there was reddish stubble on his face. Stuart shifted to the edge of his stool and put one foot on the floor.
      "You're back, hey?" Clifton said.
      "Righto," Stuart said.
      Clifton parted T-shirt from jeans to scratch at his shriveled belly.
      "Miss your old friends?"
      "Some of them," Stuart said. "Any of them still around?"
      "Like the song goes," Clifton said. "They're all dead or in prison."
      "Ah, but I see you're still here, though."
      "Yeah. Partially."
      "What about Ricky?"
      "He's around, sometimes. Moved over to Greenpoint, though."
      "And Rita?"
      "I don't know, I heard she went to L.A."
      "Thought I saw Tombo over around Tompkins Square.
      "Probably you did. He's still around there as far as I know."
      "What about Natasha, then?"
      "Ah," Clifton said. "You know I can't remember when I last saw Natasha."
      "She still doing business with Uncle Bill, you think?"
      "Uncle Bill got sick and died," Clifton said, and glanced up at the clock. "Speaking of which, I got to make a little run. . . ."
      "Yeah, well," Stuart said. "Great to see you and everything."
      "Yeah," Clifton said. "What do you need?"
      "Man," Stuart said. "You can't talk about that in Henry's place."
      "You been away quite a while, babe," Clifton said. "It's not Henry's place anymore. So, you know. I can be back in a hour."
      "Not to see me," Stuart said. "No more."
      "Yeah? We'll see you," Clifton said. "Dig you later, babe." He stepped over the dog and went out through the bar of sunlight reddening in the doorway.
      Stuart raised his hand and let it drop on the counter.
      "They moved too?" he said. "They moved out of upstairs?"
      "Yeah," Arthur said. "Out to Starrett City."
      "Man," Stuart said. "Can't quite get used to it."
      "The new guy opens the kitchen back up," Arthur said. "That should really make a difference."
      "What now?" Stuart got up and went toward the back. A half-partition had been raised in front of the area where Henry and Isabel used to have their own meals, and now there were four small tables set up as for a restaurant. Stuart turned back to Arthur.
      "Captain lets people go back in there now?" Stuart walked back to his stool and sat. "Man, used to be if you just stepped over that line he was right there ready to take your leg off for you."
      "I think he'll have to get over that," Arthur said. "He's old for all that, anyhow." The dog heaved himself up from the doorsill, walked back into the room and lay stiffly down again.
      "Yeah, Captain, getting cold, you're right," Arthur said. Then to Stuart: "Want to shut that door?"
      Stuart got up. It had been a mild fall day but now the air had a winter bite. He pushed the door shut and stayed for a minute, squinting through the window at the dropping sun, across the VFW decal on the pane.
      "Can't believe they'd of left the dog here," he said, turning back toward the counter.
      "Henry comes by to see him," Arthur said. "You couldn't take him out of this place, though. He would just die."

      Upstate it had turned cold early, and alongside the railroad track the river was choked with ice. Stuart had bought papers at the station, the News, the Post, but he couldn't seem to focus on the print. From the far shore of the Hudson, chilly brown bluffs frowned over at him, sliding back and back. The train ran so low on the east bank it seemed that one long step could have carried him onto the surface of the river, though solid as the ice appeared it could hardly have held anybody's weight so early in the season. He stared through the smutty window of his car, the view infrequently broken up by a tree jolting by, or a building, or the long low sheds at the stations: New Hamburg, Beacon, Cold Spring. Opposite West Point the ice vanished and the river's surface turned steel smooth and gray.
      If he'd been a fish, Stuart caught himself wondering, how much farther down could he swim without dissolving? Chemicals warmed the water down here, as much as and more than any freaks of weather. What fish would swim into that kind of trouble? He'd slept little the night before, his last night in Millbrook, so maybe that and too much coffee accounted for the jitters that worsened as Tarrytown and Yonkers fell back by, and rose toward actual nausea when the George Washington Bridge, almost a mirage downriver, floated into clearer view. If he'd been a fish he could breathe water, though the water here might kill or change him. He was headed into a hostile element, a diver for what pearl he couldn't say. The train dragged toward 125th Street like a weight pulling him under. The couple of years he'd been away were long enough he should have stayed forever. No point to come back now, so late, unless to recover something, what? The train dropped along the dark vector of the tunnel to Grand Central, and Stuart, like a hooded hawk, grew calm.

      An hour or two and he'd remembered how to swim again, or glide. A thermal carried him up into a Times Square hotel, one of the kind where they did a take when he said he wanted the room all night, but by the week it turned out to be a bargain. Suspended in some other current, Stuart lazed back out onto the street and drifted, from a bar to a street- corner stand to one of the old needle parks to another bar, and so on. Don't go where you used to go, they'd told him at the center, don't see those same old people, or you'll fall. No doubt that bigger, meaner fish still eyed him from their neighbor eddies, but he wasn't bleeding anymore, and a flick of tail or fin shot all of them away.
      The weather was still bland down here, much milder than upstate, though it began to have its bitter aftertaste of cold. Stuart cruised up into the chill of the evening, watching whores and dealers check him over before they swirled away, always wondering if he might run into Natasha. He was not exactly looking yet, but developing a ghost of an intention. If he had asked himself, Why her? he would have had no answer. just . . . Natasha. He had written her a time or two from Millbrook, hadn't had anything back, not that he'd expected it. Why Natasha? Others had been as close, or closer, and he didn't want to look for them. He wasn't looking for Natasha either, it was spontaneous first, this feeling that she was about to appear.

      Clifton had been wrong about Rita, Stuart eventually found out. She wasn't in L.A. after all, she was in Bellevue getting over hepatitis They made him take a shot of gamma globulin when he went in to her, even though he tried to tell them how long he'd been upstate. also tried a joke about needles, but the nurses didn't laugh. When Rita invited him to sit down he had to tell her no.
      "Funny, almost everybody seems to say that," Rita said. Her smile was not particularly bright. She was on a big ward, but curtains ran on tracks between the beds, and there were a couple of chairs pulled under her nightstand, with magazines piled on the seats. The whites of her eyes were still a funny color and she was so thin that Stuart had trouble telling what were the lines of her body and what were only wrinkles in the sheet.
      "Well, now," Stuart said. "You look good."
      "Don't give me that," Rita said. "I look like I'm gonna die.
      "You're not," Stuart said.
      "Not this time," Rita said.
      Stuart groped for a commonplace.
      "Clifton told me you went west."
      "No way," Rita said, patting the mattress with a bony hand.
      been right here."
      "When do you get out?" Stuart said.
      "I don't know. Two weeks more maybe. They don't want to give me a date."
      Rita's folding alarm clock ticked loudly across the next patch silence.
      "You need anything?" Stuart said.
      "Not that I can get."
      "Well, let me know, okay?" Stuart pulled the curtain back and paused in the gap. "Hey. I been kind of trying to get hold of Natasha you wouldn't know what she's been up to, would you?"
      "I know she hasn't been up here," Rita said. "Not a whole lot else Last I heard she was tricking for Uncle Bill."
      "My God," Stuart said. "That sounds like a losing proposition."
      "You know how it is," Rita said. "She's got a nice big nut to make every day."
      "I guess," Stuart said. "Hey, but Clifton told me Uncle Bill was dead."
      "Is that right," Rita said. "Clifton seems to be kind of full of bad information these days."

      Bars and coffee shops, coffee shops and bars. Stuart circled the island from end to end of the old boundaries: the Marlin, McCarthy's, Three Roses, the Chinatown spots, anywhere she might have come in for any reason, rest her feet, get out of the weather, kill time waiting to score. Some places they remembered what he drank, but mostly not, and every now and then he'd meet somebody else who hadn't seen Natasha.
      "Nah, man, she ain't been around here."
      "Didn't I hear she went to Chicago? I can't think if it was her or somebody else. Memory slips a little on the fourth one . . ."
      "Haven't seen her in about eight months. Maybe not since last summer . . ." "Hey Stuart, what ever happened to that snippy little black-haired girl you used to hang around with?"
      Wish I knew ... On sleepless nights, he'd eat small-hour breakfasts at the Golden Corner or someplace just about like it, hunched down behind a newspaper, eavesdropping on the booths around him full of hookers on break, waiting for the voice or the name. By the time winter set hard in the city he'd started on the false alarms, recognizing Natasha in just about any middle-sized dark-haired white girl. It happened more than once a night sometimes, he'd have to walk right up to whomever he'd spotted and then at the last minute veer away. He did that so many times that the hookers started calling him Mr. No-Money Man.

      Uncle Bill's place was up at 125th Street near the Chinese restaurant, just past the train trestle. A black kid with his hair done up in tight corn rows was waiting by the entry when Stuart arrived, one leg cocked up on the railing, the loose foot swinging to its limit like the pendulum of a clock. Stuart stood sideways to keep one eye on him while he studied the row of bells. The third one now said "Childress" instead of "B.B." like it should have, but he reached to ring it anyway.
      "Man done gone," the black kid said. Stuart turned all the way toward him.
      "What man is that?"
      "Billbro, who else?"
      "Know where he went?"
      The kid spat over the railing.
      "You got a cigarette on you, man?"
      Stuart passed him a single Marlboro.
      "He in the trench, " the kid said. "There's a place just about ten blocks up can fix what it is you need."
      Stuart laughed briefly.
      "You think I'm the right color to be going about ten blocks up from here?"
      The kid grinned and blew some smoke.
      "Long's you go with me you are."
      "Thanks anyway," Stuart said. "It was a personal visit kind of thing. What was this trench you were talking about?"
      "Out on one of them islands, I forget." The kid's tennis shoe, fat with thick lacing and white as new bones, beat back and forth on the hinge of his knee. "You know, when you die without no money, then they shove you in the trench."
      "Oh," Stuart said. "That trench. Do you get a box at least?"
      "I don't think so, bro," the kid said. "Maybe you might get a bag."

      Up at Millbrook, Stuart's image of Natasha had been clear as a photo- graph tacked to the wall, but once he was back in the city it began to blur and fade and run together in a swamp of other faces: magazine covers, or actresses on posters outside the movies, and always and especially the dozens of near misses that kept on slipping past him. Now her memory was less a face and figure than just a group of gestures, and these too began to dissipate and dissolve, until when he thought of Natasha he often thought of a painting he'd once seen by Manet: a full-length portrait of a woman in a gray dustcoat down to her feet, one hand lightly extended toward what-a birdcage? He couldn't even remember the painting all that well. The woman in the portrait was nothing like Natasha, she had a totally different face, was taller, heavier, had red hair. Yet the cool repose of her expression also managed to suggest that she was poised at the edge of something. Stuart began to doubt if he would recognize Natasha when he found her, and what if he'd already passed her by? He recognized people who weren't her frequently enough, that much was for sure.

      Stuart was trying to outlast a drunk with a three-A.m. breakfast at the Golden Comer when a hooker slid into the booth across from him.
      "I been thinking about you, Mr. No-Money Man," she said. "I been thinking, if you ate a little bit less breakfast, you might have a little bit more money." When she laughed, her eyes half disappeared into warm crinkles at their corners. Stuart saw she was a lot older than she wanted to appear, but not bad-looking still, in a stringy kind of way. He sort of liked her face, under all the makeup. She was wearing white lipstick and white eye shadow, on skin the shade of tan kid leather. The wig she had on was a color no hair had ever been.
      "I bet you got fifty cent right now," she said. "Buy me a cup of coffee."

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