Snow is falling on Sedgwick Ave above the Major Deegan highway east of the Harlem River. Barely light with no sun. The snow blankets the sidewalk, slushes in the streets and gutters and swirls through the gray morning air.
Just past Tremont the road rises to meet a crossroads bodega, the local Loosey Spot where cigarettes (Newport 100s) sell one at a time for a mere 50 cents. Outside a couple of brothers blow a big fatty, laughing that man oh man I am one high mother freak laugh.
Something stopped me.
You a cop?
Well step right up and take a hit white man.
When you staggered on a big old blast and blacked out for a minute, one of them kindly took your arm.
Steady there white man, he said.
From around the corner an addled female called, Charlie yo!
Turning in time to see them jump on a city bus helping wives with children and baby carriages, you stand on the corner holding a joint: 17 years, a couple coasts and careers since the last.
With the other hand in my coat-pocket on the Colt, the first American weapon to hold more than one bullet at a time my dad told me. Through all the wars, the assassinations, the 2nd Amendment wahoos, the serial killers and lone mad gunman trips, you can’t take that away from us: nothing chokes up a true American like a well bored piece of iron that fits in your hand.
While back on earth the last of the joint unrolled in the wind and yours truly was one high mother brother. And thirsty.
Across the train tracks a hole in the fence leads to an ancient walking path beside the river in still harder snowfall, I daydreamed of unwritten stories, like the one about the mighty Babe Ruth’s last three homers on a cloudy overcast day at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh the last time he was there was the sweep in the 1927 Series the Sultan of Swat channels the greatest year of his life one last time or the one about Billy the Kid and how his tubercular ma swaddled him over an ashcan fire in an alley off of Allen Street across the alley from where I wrote American By Blood. Or the one about Rockets Red Glare.
At the HighBridge ancient granite steps led up the steep bluffs and ankle-deep snow. About halfway, someone called me out of the wind and snow.
Friend or Foe?!
I looked over and a dude stood there beside a house built from field stones. He finished pulling up his pants and waves a long rifle. No kidding. Wearing a bright red coat and pants with gold trim. His beard was a month on and his uniform streaked with mud.
He cocked the rifle and a whistle of heat singed the shoulder of my own coat. Simultaneously came a puff of smoke and the rifle bucked in his hands. I took out the Colt and stood there. We were both trembling. The trigger bit my finger numb from the cold yet something in me could not pull the trigger.
What in the hell are you doing?! escaped from my mouth.
He reloaded with a powder horn on a string crossset his breast and a steel ball from his pocket.
Friend or Foe? he shouted and leveled the long rifle aimed for the middle of my chest. He cupped a hand to his ear.
I can’t hear you, he shouted.
Beg you stranger listen it was not the otherworldliness of the encounter, the bullet that had cut my coat was as real as the voice of God. The threat was real. He would shoot me if I did not him, yet I could not. Maybe he sensed something for he paused: it is not so easy to shoot a man that is not an imminent threat. It is such a thing that takes the sport out of war.
For he smiled and pointed with his gun at my left hand which held still one of the beers.
Fancy a drink of that ale whiles we sort this out he said his brogue was cockney as Dickens’ cousin.
I have a colt in each, I hollered.
He laughed along and cupped his ear again
Why are ye whisprin? he asked.
I put down my bottles and my gun and pulled out the others. He put down his gun and beckoned me with a flourish inside the shelter: stone walls, cathedral ceiling with a fire corner and an indrawn smoke hole, dirt floors and a half dozen men he introduced me aroundy as he said it.
Again I had to shout to be heard at all. They complained about the king and spoke openly of joining up with the Americans.
We can be kings each one of us, said my friend.
Or else shot for treason! said another, a skinny man with a turkey neck.
If we had a chance to surrender we just might, said a third who was thirsty for the ale and had to have it taken away by another jolly man who laughed and kidded as he poked him.
We thought you might be American, said the last, the oldest of the lot, a graybeard.
There was one more who didn’t speak, sullen and wild eyed dark though they were all dirty.
He’s a prisoner, but we don’t kept slaves, explained my friend.
So ye say he’s mine, said the turkey neck. I claimed him. By the power of the king’s own blood.
Ye can’t claim a prisoner.
What war is it? I shouted.
We’re all just as good as slaves
Speak for yeesef
Yah don’t call me no slave
What war is it? I shouted again.
They looked at me as if I were halfwit.
Can ye explain yeself?
I did my best.
I showed them the gun, which Turkey neck wanted to confiscate,
In the name of the king so help me god
Stop with that.
He thinks he’s a duke, the old beard explained.
Look what Ah founded! What’s ye name?
Andrew! I shouted.
Show ’em ye gun, Andrew. He’s got ale, fellows. Pass it aroun’.
I wanted to explain everything from hoodies and racial profiling to the iPhone 6c and back again but for some odd reason of time transference or what else I still had to shout to be heard.
So for lack of something else: There was really too much anyway I told them what was on my mind, about the whole thing with the wife and our kids from the time she was sick forward.
And for some reason it was clear that they understood me, with no reception problems, every word must have been something about the universal language of love or disappointed dreams of men.
How are ye with God?
Don’t ask a man that.
We are all alone here, takn from our families from England our great home.
Its alright I don’t mind talking about God, I told them.
You are not the first.
You will not be the lastly manhandled around by the whims of womankind.
Along came a jug and I took a drink.
When I gagged I asked, What the hell is that?
We are an outpost.
You’re from England?
God save the King!
A man derives security from two places, from the love of
God or a woman. You say you feel unmoored?
My wife says I will always have a home.
But her feelings have changed?
Something like that.
The apple jack came around again and the old man told me to try closing my eyes.
When ye drink, close your eyes.
He means hold your nose.
No I do not, Speak for yeself.
It doesn’t make any sense.
I closed my eyes, drank and asked, What year is it?
Good question. We have a quartermaster. It’s just we have run out of supplies and gone on the wild. Quartermaster, what year did you say it was?
This is actually a freak snowstorm. It’s April.
Can you stay and worship with us?
It ain’t much, but it is Sunday.
The cruelest month, was hollered drunkenly.
April in the year of 1779.
Wait a minute. What about the Declaration of Independence?
Fine piece of writing.
The king split with the church.
King Henry 8 was no king of mine.
Of course he was not, you were not yet born.
I told them that slavery would be outlawed in New York.
Turkey Neck scoffed.
Should you be going?
Yes my family is here
Can you take the negro? asked my friend with a wink
Yes sir? It was turkey neck.
This man knows the owner of the negro.
Is he a servant of the king?
Ye can’t ask a man that.
He’ll do fine. You should wait until the storm clears tis a freak of a storm, he winked.
Ye have any more of that ale?
I handed over the last forty ounce and the cigarettes. It took a couple minutes to show them how but soon we were all smoking content.
Please come back and visit us.
I hope I can.
So with that, we set out.
Myself and Harvey, which is how my new charge told me to call him.
We walked for awhile.
Can I ask you a question? he asked
Do you aim to hold me or not?
As a slave or prisoner?
Of course not.
He looked at me for a moment like he wanted to hug so I cleared my throat and he stuck out his hand.
Shake on it, he insisted.
He had a strong grip and a wide smile.
New York is a free state, I told him.
There was something funny. When I looked around it seemed like a different place. The old buildings were there but they looked new.
The sun was coming out and it was high in the sky.
I had an idea.
You want to go to a baseball game?
As a free man?
Of course you are free to go. I think there might be a game today
He looked at me. Isn’t baseball after slavery?
How do you know?
Shake on it.
You all right, white man?
Don’t call me that, Harvey. My name is Andrew. Let’s go for a walk. You can hear me?
Of course I can.
Where do you come from?
Orange, Virginia, it’s a slave state, from the James Madison farm.
You talk pretty good.
For a slave, you mean.
I was ‘lowed books.
You walked all the way here?
Mostly run, mostly at night. He smiled, Can you please not stare at me like that?
Sorry man. Hey look, that’s the Highbridge. It was finished in 1846.
I wouldn’t know.
In my time it’s been closed for more than fifty years.
In your time?
Never mind. It’s supposed to have awesome views.
The High Bridge.
The sun had come out and it glistened off the waters of the great river, as we crossed. We found the game and watched the first few innings from an outcropping of rock that had once served as a lookout post for a warring band of Mohicans. Twenty-five men stood, lounged and some clung to the branches of trees. All of them wore jackets and trousers; most had ties as well and a few beards, brogans and flasks. They smoked brown hand-wrapped cigars that smelled like leaves in ashcan fires. They cheered for McGraw’s Giants with Big Six on the mound.
By the bottom of the sixth they stopped taking tickets and we were allowed standing room, in the tunnels, on the runways and even at the very edges of the outfield where behind a stretched horsehair rope we stood hundreds abreast and five deep.
By the second game of the double header I found a seat, waving farewell to an endearingly grateful Harvey who wiped away a tear and got lost among the other free men, democrats and drunks yelling as loud as them because what else is a baseball game for?
I picked up a scorecard and realized we were now in Boston and it was the 12th of August 1934 and none of us knew it now but me, but we were attending the great Bambino’s last game as a Yank.
By the winter the Yanks would release the mighty Babe and he would finish his storied career with vain hopes to manage the Nat’l Boston franchise, the remnant of the original Red Stockings of Cincinnati.
The mighty Ruth walked off the field the last time as a player after he could not catch up to a fly ball, his legs, batting reflexes all failed though he still had his arm and made the throw to the relay man from the deepest left field to nail the runner. He bowed to all and none and walked through the field gate to the clubhouse.
He still had his eyes and could see they were not going to hire him as manager and neither could he play anymore. He had more walks than hits because he was still a fearsome sight and a few last homers including the last three on the overcast afternoon in Pittsburgh; he had a few singles but no doubles or triples the two months that he lasted because he could not make it as far as second base unless he hit it over the fence.
It was there in the gloaming when I came out of the state I would remember as something akin to an alcoholic blackout where I awaked: Talking to a kindly seat mate with a gray streaked beard and an electric stare, smoking like a chimney and drinking draught beer from an enormous paper cup with wax melting onto his hands in the humidity of Indian Summer.
You have had something like a psychotic break.
Are you a doctor?
I am a science fiction writer. You know who I am.
It’s been quite a day, sir?
You can call me Phil.
How do you know so much about all this?
Do you really have to ask?
What’s going on?
You’re stuck in your head, man.
No kidding, what else is new?
What’s new is part of you never left that day in the bus station.
When Alice asked for a separation.
But you refused.
I wanted to work on stuff.
Now, it’s more than five years later.
But what’s with the time travel?
You guys? He laughed. You’re a serious novelist.
So are you. According to Jonathan Lethem
Fuck him, I’m a hack.
Can you tell me what’s going on?
What can you tell me?
I remembered the bus station and taking the kids on vacations solo to Gettysburg, Cape Cod and Georgia. Running 82 miles in three days. How I learned to stop yelling most of the time.
That’s a good one, he sipped his beer and lit another cigarette. It seemed alright to smoke.
Are we in Pittsburgh, Doctor?
Everything you think happened really did.
Your memory got a little mixed up with your imagination. It happens to the best of us.
Did I almost shoot someone yesterday? In Central Park? A robber?
Maybe the shock of it sent you over the edge.
And some tripping weed.
It’s a lot better now.
We’re in Boston.
Should I be on my way to the bus station?
If I were you.
I caught the bus to Dartmouth as it was pulling out of the station. I closed my eyes on the bus and got off in New London, walking up the country road to the 150 year old house where her family summers. At midnight I woke up for just a second when my daughter crawled into bed with me. I had not missed it all yet.