There go the ships
and this Leviathan you formed to play with
The judge sent me upstate for sixteen months for something that wasn’t really my fault. Sally wouldn’t take me back when I got out, so I had to live with my mother down on Ocean Parkway. She had three cats, two or three cats too many for a one-bedroom co-op apartment. There was a large black one, a smaller black one, and a calico. Sometimes they spread out and watched each other warily from perches of various heights. Other times, they swarmed together and cried out for food.
The small black cat, who we called Zayit, was the most recent arrival. His owner had been deported. She went in for what was supposed to be a routine immigration check-in, and was taken directly into custody. The next-door neighbor, a coworker of my mother’s at the Department of Social Services, heard the abandoned cat wailing through the wall and the super let her in to rescue him. But she already had a pit bull who was a sweet dog but couldn’t be trusted with a kitten. So, my mother took the cat.
She insisted on going into work the day the storm hit the city. The statement read on the news said everyone should avoid unnecessary travel, stay away from windows, and be prepared for the hurricane to make landfall in the late afternoon. But my mother couldn’t stand to miss a whole day of her job, trying to help people who didn’t want to be helped. As for myself, I had nowhere to go, anyway, so I lay on my back on the fold-out couch, while Zayit kneaded my paunchy stomach with his sharp, little claws. The two larger cats, who had formed a coalition against him, watched from atop the bookshelves.
I scrolled through employment listings on my phone. Sally had made it clear that she wouldn’t even consider getting back together with me as long as I was unemployed and broke. But as much as I needed to find a job, there was no point looking today. No one would be hiring during a hurricane. Not that I was a great candidate in any weather: twenty-nine, with a class-B felony and no legitimate experience to speak of.
I had an idea that, if no one would hire me, I could rent a kiosk at the Kings Plaza mall and start some sort of retail business. I knew a guy who could get me authentic-looking fake sneakers at a good price. Some of what he got wasn’t even fakes, just B-grades with barely perceptible flaws. But even this scheme seemed out of reach. My mother had had higher hopes for me—I was a pretty smart kid, graduated from Brooklyn Tech. But then I drifted in a different direction, too far out to swim back.
Giving up on the job search, I closed the browser and opened Instagram. Sally had posted a picture of herself dressed up for her new internship. Her hair was straightened, and she wore a navy blazer that made her look like the CEO of my heart. I spent the rest of the morning playing games on my phone while Zayit dozed beside me.
Around noon, my mother called from the office to say that she was going to head home in a bit. The mayor had declared a state of emergency, and all city offices were closing early. But she still wouldn’t make it home for a couple more hours, and she was worried about her Aunt Frayda. Frayda lived alone in Coney Island, in Hurricane Zone 1, whose inhabitants had been ordered to evacuate. I had never considered our neighborhood’s elevation before, but it turned out we were way up in Zone 6. Frayda refused to leave or accept any help, but she was apparently upset that the Chinese restaurant she ordered her dinner from three times a week wasn’t delivering during the storm.
“So if you could please just go down there,” my mother said, “to bring her some food, and sort of check up on her, that would be a big help to me.”
The Adidas windbreaker I threw on proved to be too light, but you don’t expect a day in August to be so cold. I flipped up the collar to cover my face. The wind blew trash around on the street and threw dust up in my eyes. A sign hanging on chains in front of an optometrist danced like a marionette.
Frayda wanted food from her Chinese takeout joint in Coney Island, but I couldn’t imagine the Mongolian beef at our regular spot was any different. I had never seen the place so packed. Everyone was preparing to hole up for the storm, I guess, but the day had the feel of a holiday. The disruption and promise of destruction made everyone giddy. I was feeling it too. The wall-mounted TV played with the sound off. The National Guard was in the Rockaways with guns and armored cars, preparing for the worst. The kid at the counter picked up the remote and switched the TV over to Chinese-language music videos.
After half an hour waiting, I finally got Frayda’s food, and an order of chicken wings for myself. Back on the street, the sky had darkened greatly, and rain was starting to fall. A guy I was locked up with talked incessantly about how the weather was controlled by the deep state, which, in turn, was controlled by the Illuminati. DARPA— The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which was part of the Department of Defense—operated something called a HAARP system, which manipulated atmospheric conditions through the use of high frequency radio waves. My mother, on the other hand, said the weather was a symptom of climate change, caused by the greedy oil companies.
While I waited on the elevated platform for the train to come, I ate my chicken wings, and, one by one, threw the bones on the tracks. Then I crumpled up the wax paper bag and threw that onto the tracks too. The platform got more and more crowded with disgruntled people, until an announcer came over the speaker and said there was a downed tree across the surface-level tracks at Avenue H. No trains were running in either direction. I left the station and went to a car service storefront on the street below.
The dispatcher hesitated when I gave him the destination. I thought maybe he thought I was going to the projects, not a private co-op, but before I could clarify he shouted into the radio.
While I was waiting, I took a business card out of the holder on the counter and practiced twirling it in my fingers like a magician. The radio squawked back and the dispatcher sent me to a car out front. The traffic on Coney Island Avenue was lighter than I expected, though the parking lot of the Key Food was full, and there were long lines of cars at the two gas stations we passed. A policeman paced by the pump, his rain poncho tucked up over his belt on one side so his pistol was accessible. He was ready for whatever would happen when there wasn’t enough gasoline to go around.
My driver, who for the whole ride had been chattering nervously on his headset in what was maybe Bangla or Urdu, pulled over right past Shore Parkway. We were still in Gravesend, on the main body of Brooklyn.
“Okay, buddy,” he said. “Last stop.”
“What the hell, man? We’re not there yet.”
“They are saying on the radio the creek is going to flood. I don’t go past the creek. I go past it, flash flood, I’m stuck out there.”
“Come on, my guy. It’s not coming down that hard yet. I’m paying you to take me to my destination.”
“I don’t go past the creek.” I gave him the fare down to the cent, but no tip. Then I walked down into Coney Island, swinging the takeout bag back and forth. I paused at the point on West 16th Street where Coney Island Creek ends and the infill begins. The creek was definitely higher than usual, but it was still a ways away from overtaking the infill and turning Coney back into an island.
The rain was coming heavier, and my windbreaker, fitted Yankees cap, and high-top sneakers were all soaked through by now, so I didn’t linger long. Down here, there were almost no cars at all. A lone orange and white Coast Guard helicopter passed overhead. Watching it move across the sky, I realized there were no birds around. It was strange to be so close to the ocean and not see any seagulls.
Frayda lived in the Rose Schneiderman Houses, a limited-equity co-op near the beach. The building was originally constructed to provide an affordable home-ownership opportunity for members of the Ladies Garment Workers Union, working class Jews who had abandoned the Lower East Side but not made it all the way to the suburbs of Nassau County. The ten-foot columns in front of the building’s front entrance were shaped like spools of thread, and the complex’s name was cut into the concrete lintel in dashed lines, as if stitched with a giant needle.
The building’s lobby normally had a doorman who sat on a chair behind a little podium with a sign-in sheet on it, but he wasn’t there today. He must have fled the storm. Or maybe he was busy preparing his own home. I started to write my name and time of entry down out of habit, before realizing I didn’t have to.
Frayda lived on the twelfth floor. One of the doors between the elevator and her apartment was flung open. I peeked inside. There was a tea cup and plate on the table, and the heavy floor lamps were turned on, but I didn’t see or hear anyone. I kept walking.
I knocked until Frayda heard me over the sound of the TV, which was turned up to top volume. After she let me in, she sat down in her armchair by the window and relit a long, foreign cigarette, which had gone out in the ashtray.
“You’re dripping water on my floor,” she said.
“Yeah. Maybe you heard, there’s a storm.” I put the bag on the table and slipped off my wet sneakers. Frayda didn’t like shoes in the apartment, even when they were dry. “Your neighbor’s door is wide open,” I said, since we were apparently stating observations.
“Mrs. Abramov? In 12F? The paramedics took her away this morning. She was very anxious about the storm, and I guess she had a heart attack. The age she’s at, I don’t know that she’s coming back from that.”
I went into the kitchen to fix a plate of rice and beef for Frayda and put on the tea kettle.
“So,” she said, when I came back into the living room, “your mother wants you to try to get me to leave here?”
“I think she just wanted me to check on you. Bring you your dinner. But you shouldn’t still be here.”
“Where would I go? Your mother doesn’t have much spare room, between you and the cats.”
“There’s your grandson’s place, though. I’m sure he has room.” He was a pharmacist in Yonkers, and he made good money. But he wasn’t so smart. I knew as much as he did about dispensing pills. Matter of fact, that’s what got me in trouble in the first place.
“My parents and I,” Frayda said, “and your grandfather. We survived the Nazis.”
“Yeah, I know.” I’d heard some variation of this old story every day of my life.
“Hitler, he couldn’t kill us. I was just a little girl. And then we lived in a DP camp for years. In fact, it was a concentration camp! The Allies just left us in there and called it something different. And gave us enough food to survive.”
“Eat the food I brought you.”
“We came here with nothing.”
“I know, I know. And look at all you have now.”
“So what’s a hurricane to me?”
“There’s no relationship. Just because one thing didn’t kill you, that doesn’t mean something else won’t.”
“I’m not helpless. I took precautions. I put the tape on the window.” She gestured with her cigarette at the masking tape Xs stretching from corner to corner on each of her windows. Like most people in the neighborhood, she firmly believed that taping windows would prevent them from shattering in the storm. It seemed to me that the Xs were more ritualistic than functional. Why not just paint a hamsa in the window, to ward off the ayin hara? Why not an upturned horseshoe to hold in good luck? Why not a middle finger facing the whole world?
I watched the ocean through the triangles of glass between the strips of tape. The waves were higher and wilder than I had ever seen them. In their movements, I could see the thrashing of the Leviathan. I thought of something I learned once: God spends the first quarter of his day studying Torah, and the next quarter judging people. The third quarter he takes care of and sustains people. But then he spends the last quarter of the day playing with the Leviathan.
“Why are you standing so,” Frayda said, “staring out the window with your mouth open? You should try not to look so stupid.”
“I was just thinking about something the rabbi said.”
“When did you ever go to hear a rabbi speak?”
“I didn’t go to him. He came to the prison, two Fridays a month before Shabbos.”
“That I can believe. But didn’t you feel badly that the rabbi was wasting his time going to a prison when he could be doing better things?”
Frayda fell fast asleep in the chair after she ate her food and drank her tea. I stubbed out her cigarette and put a blanket over her legs before I left. There was still no one in the hallway. I didn’t know how many of the other elderly people in the building had been convinced to evacuate, and how many were barricaded in their apartments watching TV.
I wouldn’t have broken into the old woman’s apartment. But the door was wide open, and she had gone to the hospital—maybe forever. If she died, all of her possessions would probably go in a dumpster. I walked inside just to see what she had left behind. Looting, I guess they call it. It’s what you do in a disaster.
If I’m being honest, I was after pills. An elderly woman in ill-health was likely to have some. Abramov’s apartment was a mirror image of Frayda’s, so I didn’t have to search to find the bathroom. Most of the bottles in her medicine cabinet were just useless medications for heart disease and high blood pressure, but she had some old oxycodone.
Coming out of the bathroom, a flicker of light from the bedroom caught my eye, and I stepped in to investigate. Mrs. Abramov had a full altar set up, with an oil lamp burning on a silver plate in front of a three-crossbeam Orthodox cross and a gallery of icons, six or seven hand-painted portraits of stern, bearded saints. This expression of Christianity was surprising, considering there was a mezuzah on the front doorframe. Of course, the mezuzah could have been left behind by the previous resident. Or maybe the woman was just a confused post-Soviet, trying to make up for a lifetime of forced atheism before it was too late, grasping at whatever shards of religion she could find. I blew out the flame. It was a fire hazard. Good thing I was there.
A jewelry box sat on top of a dresser near the altar. I flipped it open and found that it was full of gold and silver necklaces. Many had intricate chains which seemed to be worked by hand.
A woman like this wouldn’t trust a bank. I poked around until I found a shoebox full of cash in the closet. There was close to six thousand dollars in it. I grabbed a canvas grocery bag from the kitchen to carry the money and jewelry away. It would be stupid not to take advantage of the opportunity, but I had to turn the icons toward the wall first.
Outside, the afternoon was a stormy night. We weren’t feeling the full weight of the hurricane yet. That would come a few hours later. For now, the first edges of it were touching Brooklyn, the way a bully might touch your cheek gently before he hauls off and hits you. I had a brief, unbearable feeling that the storm was somehow my fault, but I shook it off. I knew that nothing I did was so important.
I was very thirsty. The wings and the black tea had dehydrated me, and it felt like my mouth and throat were filled with ashes. It seemed strange to desire water so badly when I was soaked in the stuff. Most of the stores down on Mermaid Avenue were closed, and some had boards and tarps nailed over their windows. A bodega on the corner of Mermaid and West 15th Street was still open.
The power was out, but the bodega man had a bright electric lantern set up on the counter, alongside a baseball bat with duct tape wrapped around it for a grip. He had a long beard, and he nodded at me as I came in the store. I nodded back, and grabbed a bottle of water from a stack by the counter.
“Four dollars? For a twenty-ounce bottle? For real?”
“How much is a liter, then?”
“Fresh out of big bottles. Folks cleaned me out this morning, and there’s no delivery truck coming.
There’s only these, and they’re four bucks apiece.”
I wanted to argue, but I felt like I might collapse, so I caved and gave him his money. I drank the whole bottle in one gulp out under the store’s awning. I felt I could drink three more bottles, but I wasn’t going to go back inside and shell out more money. Not that I was knocking the hustle; I would have done the same thing in his shoes.
I had silenced my phone before I went in Mrs. Abramov’s apartment, but I checked now and there were no missed calls from my mom. She was probably stuck underground on a train. I called Sally. She lived by the water, too, though it was just the East River, not the ocean.
“Soliyana,” I shouted over the wind. Once, when we were fighting, she said I pronounced her full name like I thought I deserved a reward just for saying it right. “It’s me.”
“I know it’s you. I just don’t know why I answered. Why are you calling me?”
“I wanted to know how you’re doing, Sally. With the storm and all?”
“The whole city is dealing with the storm. You making nine million calls? I mean, it hit Haiti already, people died down there. Did you make all your calls to everyone in Haiti before you called me?”
“I just checked in on my mom’s aunt. She won’t evacuate Coney Island.”
“She’s a lucky lady to have such a considerate nephew. I have to go.”
It used to be, when I did something wrong, I would confess to Sally, and it wouldn’t all be on me. Now it was. I wondered how much I had put on her over the two years we were together. She cried in court, but maybe when she had some time to think about it, she was happy that they put me in prison. Or at least thought that I deserved it.
The ocean was only two blocks away. Before I tried to make my way home, I figured I might as well go down and see if I could see the storm coming. I was already completely soaked; more water wouldn’t make a difference. I was the only person on the boardwalk, and I had to hold onto the railing to keep the wind from throwing me off balance. There was usually a couple hundred yards of beach between the boardwalk and the ocean, but now the waves came almost all the way up to the wood. The land and the water were barely separated. The water and the sky were merging too. I could make out the Leviathan’s tail flicking back and forth. Then his head rose, and gray smoke seethed from his nostrils. He sneezed, and there was a flash like lightning.
I was shivering in the rain. I pulled the car service card out of my pocket and called the number. Not surprisingly, they didn’t want to send someone down, but I promised to pay the driver one-hundred dollars up front to take me home, plus a tip at the end of the ride.
My mother was waiting for me. She told me about the ordeal-filled three hours it took her to make it home from the city, but she wasn’t complaining, just telling me what happened. She asked about Frayda, and I told her about Frayda, that she was fine, but she wasn’t budging.
“I have to dry off,” I said, holding the canvas bag bunched up inside my soaking windbreaker. I went into the bathroom and turned on the faucet, then pried open the ventilation grate and stuffed the bag inside. My mother was shorter than me, and I had to stretch to reach the vent, so she wouldn’t see inside.
The power went out. We had an old radio, but the batteries turned out to be dead, so I streamed the local news station on my phone. They said the ConEd substation had blown. There wouldn’t be electricity in our area anytime soon. Two storm-related deaths had been reported so far, both from falling trees. We were safe, though. Our unit was on the second floor, and there were thick curtains over the windows.
My mother pulled several pounds of frozen turkey from the freezer and thawed it in the sink. The cats became frenzied at the presence of raw meat. She cooked it in the stovetop pressure cooker with beans and tomatoes from her endless supply of canned goods. Despite my mother’s food hoarding, we lacked appropriate emergency supplies, and ended up eating dinner by the light of leftover Hanukah candles. The night felt more and more like a holiday. We split a bottle of wine someone had given my mother as a gift and ate all the ice cream in the freezer.
“It goes counterclockwise,” my mother said, swirling the wine in her glass.
“The hurricane is spinning counterclockwise. In the northern hemisphere, they all do. It seems like chaos now, but it’s a system that makes sense.”
“How do you know that?”
“I always liked weather,” she said. “My favorite class at community college was Earth Sciences. I always thought I would have enjoyed taking some more atmospheric sciences courses or something.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Well,” she said, “liking weather didn’t seem like enough of a reason to take out more loans and go on to a four-year college. So I went and got a job. Your father and I got together. And then by the time I went back to school at Hunter, I had you to take care of, and social work just seemed more like something that would lead to a stable career.”
My phone battery died before I went to bed, so I read my paperback copy of Think and Grow Rich, a book recommended to me in prison, by the light of a keychain flashlight until I fell sleep. I dreamed of golden skyscrapers rising through a dark fog. I don’t know if these were my dreams really, or if the storm had shaken something loose and spread it over the city.
When the weather finally cleared, I pawned the jewelry on Flatbush Avenue, then went down to the mall and put down three months’ rent on a kiosk. My connect got me a crate of Nikes. I washed the warehouse dust off each shoe with water and dish soap, using a toothbrush to get between the leather uppers and the rubber midsoles.
I arranged a selection of styles on the counter, under a sign I spraypainted with the words: “The Brooklyn Sneaker Baron.” Pretty soon, I’ll be making money hand over fist. I’ll move from the kiosk to a storefront. Then I’ll start buying buildings.
I’ll keep track of it all in this ledger I’m writing in now. I’ve already entered what I took, down to the dollar. Not just from Mrs. Abramov, but from Sally and my mother and everyone else. I’ll enter what I spend on the business and what I earn. I’ll know how I profit and I’ll know what I owe.
Ben Nadler is the author of the novel The Sea Beach Line and the monograph Punk in NYC’s LES 1981-1991. His stories and essays have recently appeared in journals including Glimmer Train and Western American Literature. He lives in New York City, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in English at SUNY Albany. More about Ben’s work can be found at bennadler.com