Excerpt

An excerpt from CONCRETE FEVER

By the time winter hit, I had money from the inheritance and a bachelor pad on the Upper West Side. My father always said, Own, don’t rent. Here was the living proof. He was gone and I was enjoying his old digs. It was a rich man’s apartment in a rich man’s neighborhood and I did my best to lower the standards. Despite all efforts I could do no wrong. When I cursed out a neighbor it was my grief talking. When I came home drunk it was a cry for help. I smoked indoors. I spat on the mailboxes. I dropped bottles out the window. I waited for the fallout.

At St. Bart’s Catholic School I became one of those Treat with Caution kids. Got away with murder. Tested every patience protocol the administration frantically erected. Liked to drag others down with me and witness their consequences as opposed to my own. After each and every crime they offered me amnesty, and sure enough come the new year I had a 4.0 grade point average without turning in a single assignment. By January the back stairwell reeked of the joints I smoked before, during, between classes. Half the school’s female population joined me there at some point. I used to have a nice girl. We dated for nearly two years. Dreamt up plans for college together followed by kids and white picket fences. Then I slept with her best friend. And after that the girl with dreads who she couldn’t stand from homeroom. She had the guts to leave things when they stopped being good. I couldn’t. I would have been happy being miserable. Since then I’ve admittedly gone a little girl-crazy.  Sometimes I worried I might knock one of them up but you can’t be too careful. A plane could hit your building any second and your only choice might be to jump.

After months of delay, my mind was made up. I grabbed a white shirt out of the dresser. Fumbled with the necktie but eventually got it right. I slid open the closet and thumbed through his old jackets, untouched going on five months. They looked like withered capitalist corpses, strung up one after the other. I chose one on the end. Simple, black, tailored. No idea if it would fit. I wanted it to hang loose, prove there was difference between the old man and myself. It shoved my arms drunkenly into the sleeves and pulled it over my shoulders. The damn thing fit like a glove. For a few minutes I fought gravity trying to pull on the matching slacks. To my delight, the waistband was loose. I pulled the worn belt from my jeans and looped it into the dry-cleaned suit bottoms, doubling an inch or two of fabric over itself. I took a sip of scotch, then another. I considered leaving a note but couldn’t think of anything to write that wouldn’t sound dishonest. I left the apartment before realizing I’d grabbed my keys out of habit. I stared at the closed door a minute, then entered the stairwell to head up to the roof.

I started walking ledges after the city’s first frost. Made it more likely I’d slip and fall the twelve stories, end up a piece of modern art on display across Amsterdam Avenue. My father always said to follow in his footsteps. Capitalism makes the world run. Buy low, sell high type shit. Mind you, this fixation of his didn’t mean he’d stop by the Brooklyn apartment any more than once every few months. He paid child support and private school tuition, so he considered himself a good parent. His connections got me accepted early decision to a top-tier business program with a focus on undergraduate economics. When the acceptance letter arrived he’d already been dead a few months. I decided to follow his footsteps another way. I convinced myself the monster inside me had to have come from somewhere and it must have been him. That he’d been like me and depended on something outside of himself to end a bad situation. That he hadn’t been jumping to save himself at all.

Twelve stories up anything seems peaceful. The honking car horns become a symphony. The trees stretch up at you like a little kid’s arms. You imagine falling would feel like floating. Everything seems peaceful twelve stories up, unless there’s a stranger on your roof, on your ledge, blocking your way the one night you’ve worked up the drunken courage to go through with it.

I pulled her back and pinned her down before I even realized I was moving. The night spun around me and I lost the music in my head. All I could think of was the cold.

You mind if I got up? she asked.

I rolled over and let her sit up, adjust her colorful patched skirt and necklaces caught in her hair. I collected my breath to stomach the lump in my throat. I could only imagine how much worse scotch would taste coming up than going down. I was still a novice at anything past beer but I’d been making a strong show of it in recent months with the help of my father’s liquor cabinet. Hard to imagine how he’d held on to the number of bottles he did when I was able to breeze through them so easily.

Fingers snapped in front of my eyes. You there? I forced myself to look at her. I had the sinking feeling that my eyes were betraying something. She seemed to notice whatever it was because she stared at me in the quiet for what seemed like forever.  For a moment I thought I blacked out but then I realized she’d laid her forehead against mine and was whispering consolations. The streetlight glimmered off what I could see of her necklaces. She exhaled softly, a cloud escaping past my chin. I leaned closer, smelling strawberries. Her mouth inches from mine.

Why are you jumping? I asked, throat closing over the last word. She didn’t understand so I repeated the question. She fixed her eyes on me like I was about to pin her again.

What, like, jump jump? I was dancing.

On the edge of a roof?

Yeah…?

Odds are you fall.

Screw the odds.

I contracted my stomach muscles until my lungs emptied. I sat there clenched, shaking, wondering if the dull hot weight would feel the same if I were drowning. Finally an itch snuck into my chest and I coughed until I recovered.

She sat there all the while, watching impassively. I tried to catch her blinking but always seemed to be a moment too late. She asked if she could bum a cigarette. For some reason I told her I didn’t smoke. She said that that was stupid and smoking rocked and rose to fetch her bag from the other side of the rooftop. She unzipped a case with a smiling monkey on it and pulled out a pack of rolling tobacco and papers. She returned almost at a skip and plopped back down on the roof next to me, cross-legged. Then she promptly began to roll the most lop-sided cigarette I ever saw in my life. I told her as much and she dared me to do better which I did, despite my fingers going numb from the cold air. She asked how and I told her I’d been smoking a lot of pot recently. She asked if I had any on me, but once again I lied and told her I didn’t.

She blew a perfect smoke ring that broke apart on the wind. I wasn’t going to fall, she added as though our debate had never stopped. I have impeccable balance. I have wings. I’m an angel.

I don’t see any wings, I said.

They’re under my clothes.

Show me.

It’s cold.

Come on.

Nope.

Fine.

Pause. You should’ve asked me again.

Why?

Because if you ask me three times I have to show you.

Can I see them?

No.

But that was the third time.

It won’t work now, I told you the secret.

Suddenly it crossed my mind that she might be my guardian angel but I didn’t want to call attention to it. I told her I didn’t believe her. She answered no problem. After all, it was my loss.

For the first time I noticed the garbage strewn about the rooftop. Smashed CDs, torn clothing, and remnants of things unrecognizable. I mentioned it and she smiled. Earlier that night she broke into her ex-boyfriend’s apartment looking for a ring she’d given him. He caught her in the midst of it so she stuffed what she could into her bag and raced out the window, up the fire escape, and onto the roof. Then she ran from rooftop to rooftop until she ended up on mine where she smashed and tore his things until there was nothing left to do but dance.

After her story I offered her a drink from the flask in my pocket. I had found it in my father’s cabinet downstairs, and even though it reeked of yuppie wealth I started carrying it around places. As far as I could tell it was pure silver and had a custom design imprinted (worth noting that my father wasn’t always a capitalist drunk but at one point a promising young artist). She said the flask looked cheap. I nearly fell in love with her right there.

She gagged on the first taste and asked what I was drinking rubbing alcohol for. I told her it was an expensive brand of scotch and she rolled onto her back laughing. I gulped it down no problem. I suppose the proper etiquette would be to sip and savor the stuff but I was looking to keep my drunk going. I could only taste the burn at that point anyway. I took out my cigarettes and offered her one. It could have been my imagination or my drunken ego, but I swear her eyes flickered with attraction now that I was exposed a liar. Not a smoker, huh? She took two out of the pack, swept her hair back and stashed the extra one behind her ear. She leaned in for a light and I obliged. We smoked there in silence, the cold no longer bothering me.

Tell me something honest, she said at last. Something brutally honest. Tell me the one thing you’d never want anyone to know.

Why should I?

Because I asked you to. She took a sharp puff of the cigarette and exhaled just as swiftly. Come on, we’re strangers, what does it matter? You like my company don’t you?

Now this could be a trick, I remember thinking. I stepped back, which is to say I tried to jolt my brain into action before answering, and looked her over for what could have been the first time. Fierce eyes with an abundance of eyeliner. Little make-up otherwise. Red streaks in a tangle of dark hair, who knows if they were natural or not. Teeth poised to bite behind full cupid lips. A thin, wiry frame. A coat that could have cost two dollars or two hundred depending on where she bought it. Long necklaces, dangling earrings, tons of bracelets and rings. A patched skirt that reached below her knees. Sketchers. On some level I must have known that any time spent with her was going to mean playing by her rules, but hindsight is 20-20. At the time I thought my options were either her or the Amsterdam Avenue sidewalk.

Sure, I told her. I like your company.

So, keep the night going. If you tell me something really sick I’ll stay. If not I’ll go. Something really sick, okay? Go.

I have allergies.

Obviously not a fan of my humor. She pulled the top of her coat shut and reached for her bag. I didn’t ask for a joke, I asked for an honest answer.

Hold on a second, what’s your name? I was surprised by the desperation in my voice.

Why? She was standing now.

I stood in turn. Come on.

If you can guess my name I’ll stay. She looked ready to run to another rooftop.

I don’t know… Gypsy.

That stopped her. She adopted a few poses where we stood, trying the name on. She lifted her eyes to me. Not bad, but I want an honest answer. Something brutally honest.

My drunk was steadily evaporating so maybe that’s why my mind was elsewhere, but honestly that’s no explanation for what came out of me. I returned her stare and found myself saying, When I came up here I was thinking of jumping.

Wind. Car horn. Imagine her expression. Why? she said at last.

Because life is a headache.

Is that all?

It would be stupid to ride it out for another fifty years if this is all there is to it.

That’s when she named me Jumper. She said that way I’d keep being honest with her.

She grabbed the flask and drank. Smooth sailing this time, only a hint of disgust on her face. What made tonight so special? she asked.

No dinner plans.

So call someone up.

Right.

Why not? You’re dressed for it.

I fingered my father’s tie absently, loosening it from around my neck. Felt like my body temperature had risen a few degrees.

Why not? she repeated.

You’re like a little kid with all these questions.

Don’t you have anyone to call?

If I did, would I be up here?

Tough life you got.

I think so.

She took another drink and handed the flask back. I weighed it in my hands, she wasn’t taking it slow. I’d go out to dinner with you if you paid me. I’d even act like I liked you.

Just then the moon came out full from behind a cloud. The shift in light made her look up. I feel like a jerk-off saying it but she really did look beautiful. The moonlight all around her and the symphony starting to register from below again. For a split second I felt whole.

When there’s a full moon out, she said, I feel like magic can happen any second. I look up and pretend like everything bad in my life floats away and I’m left as pure as the moon. You ever feel like that?

She caught me staring. An idea formed in that half-crazed state of mine and it was all I could do to keep from jumping over the ledge and being done with it all. I’d drunk myself to a conclusion and wasn’t ready to give it up so quick. This stranger, hot though she may be, was making me lose sight of how I sabotaged things with the only girl that got me and couldn’t care less about it. How there’d been half a dozen since and none of them mattered. How it had been years since I felt anything except a nagging darkness. Common sense would say my depression was a form of grief but truthfully that wasn’t it. My father couldn’t have been a more heartless son of a bitch and it wasn’t like he was a real part of my life. Truth was, this thing had always had a grip on me and his death was just an excuse to set it free. I didn’t believe in the goodness of people, had had enough of playing pretend, and yet on the very night I decided call it quits, here was this gypsy chick talking magic in the moonlight. So for whatever reason, to prove myself right I guess, I decided to give the world one last shot.

Let’s do it, I ventured. What you said.

What, dinner?

Sure, but  – what if we made it a game? Act out a first date. Take it from there. Make up a second, third. We could play out a whole relationship, all tonight.

You want to do this why?

Like you have any other plans tonight aside from scaling buildings?

She turned to go but I grabbed her arm. Her expression told me I squeezed harder than intended but I was beyond caring.

You really think magic can happen, why don’t you prove it? One night, that’s all I’m asking. When it’s over I’ll pay you. We’re strangers. What’s it matter?

She pried her arm free but didn’t back away. She was so close the steam from her breath hit me square in the face. I couldn’t place the look in her eyes. You were really going to off yourself tonight? I nodded. She flicked away the last of her cigarette. How much you offering?

Concrete Fever by Nathaniel Kressen - Illustration #1 by Jessie T. Kressen

Illustration by Jessie T. Kressen

Copyright © Nathaniel Kressen. Illustration © Jessie T. Kressen.

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

 

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