Saturday, May 8, 2010

"Intervention" by Joel Chaffee

Chapter 1

Mr. Manfred Puffer arrived to the gathering just twenty minutes before his lifelong friend, Mr. Jonah Jeffries, who was forty minutes late. Manfred, tall and large with a massive clean-shaven face beneath a mass of messy dark hair, wiped cigarette ash from his hand onto his sky blue pants as he entered the apartment building. Minutes later, annoyed with the guilt of tardiness, Jonah stood outside of the building, delaying his entrance, reading a newspaper and finishing a bland deli coffee. He glanced at the brick building to be sure it was there before resting his elbow against it. Jonah had difficulty imagining a world in which 'late' had anything to do with 'party,' but his sister, Mrs. Tabitha Jeffries, had instructed him to be punctual: 8:00pm. 'Early if you can manage,' she'd said days earlier on the phone. 'Like 7:30? 7:15? I've gotta pick up Mom from Hospice beforehand-'
'Why is Mom coming? Is this party so imperative?'
'7:30. 7:15 if you can. I gotta-' and she had hung up the phone.
Mrs. Jeffries was dependent upon Hospice care yet again. The Jeffries family had, with incredulity but gratefulness, declined the unique, never before offered 'frequent customer discount' extended by softhearted Hospice representatives. It was her melanoma, again, which had something to do with Syracuse, New York's own Onondaga Lake and environs, but there is no time for that here.
Both Manfred and Jonah were developing sublime and dystopian illnesses that had not only to do with their Greenpoint - the Garden Spot of America, as former Congressman John Rooney described it - neighborhood in Brooklyn, but with air, earth and even fire. Specifically, Jonah's stomach cancer had to do with the neighborhood's intolerably tolerated levels of radon, the largest pool of which (Radium) sat beneath Jonah's most beloved bakery, the Polska Bread Factory. While Manfred's leukemia had to do with the neighborhood's unacceptable accepted levels of benzene, emanating from the plumes near the McDonald's on Meeker Avenue; and the multi-hued puddles - 'the moat,' he termed them - Manfred's 1991 VW Gulf splashed through to obtain entrance to the White Castle on Grand Street. Though, to be fair, anyone could ask, 'Hey, wasn't Manfred's cancer of the auditory system caused by cadmium and Jonah's limb amputation by dieldrin?,' and it would have been, if not truthful, plausible.
It went without saying that both of them had asthma.
Greenpoint, and neighboring Williamsburg, boasted an impressive collection (indeed, dozens) of waste stations and facilities - waste not only 'hazardous' and 'extremely hazardous' but also radioactive - as well as a couple dozen petroleum and natural gas tanks. Almost one-hundred oil tanks sat upon Mother Earth's crust, on the banks of the ethereal and quaking Newtown Creek, which ran between northern Brooklyn and southern Queens. It all reminded Jonah of the Jewish response to the kindly comment, 'You look well.' 'What, there is something should be wrong with me?'
That neither Manfred nor Jonah had visited a physician in nearly a decade was excusable only in that some of us cannot (or will not?) navigate the indifferent and expensive web known to us as the health care system - which at least has to do with 'system' if not 'health' or 'care.' But this litany of illnesses was, perhaps blessedly, a secret from the boys, who were more concerned with the practical matters of the present day.
Inside the apartment building, on the second of four floors, Mr. Derik Merrill picked, with a tussle, a sliver of roast beef from between two molars with a mint-flavored toothpick, demonstrating little heed for where the morsel was jettisoned. He then, stolidly, belched.
'Awp. And Jes-us wept.' He held his belly and gesticulated excessively with his free hand to indicate that Ms. Victoria Knell was speaking too much. 'And Jesus wept.' He leant back against the counter, pushing his arches and toes to the wood floor in the large kitchen, eyeing the beverages on the snack table across the room. Soda, juice, water. Mrs. Leora Merrill inquired whether her rarely sated husband would like a Hi-C juice box, and did not wait for his response before taking action; nor was a response provided, save the vigorous drawing of Derik's lips on the straw, toothpick tucked behind an ear. Leora delighted herself in the moment, brown hair reflecting overhead electric light, eyes like mirrors shining a beautified version of her husband and admirer back to him.
Leora pressed a tissue into the moist hand of the weeping Victoria, who, between sniffles, spoke up to say she did not understand why she hadn't been given the entire fucking box already, goddamnit. Previously, between sniffles, she had related - in anguish - Manfred's strange request. It had been the third instance of the telling at the party alone; once more would give the day a dozen. Her long dark hair had been wrapped about her face like a niqab. Her vanilla skin gave rise in Derik's imagination to thoughts of whipped-cream and strawberry shortcake.
'Baby,' Leora said, nesting herself into Derik's body, pulling his arm about her, his thumb hooking into a belt-loop of her blue jeans, 'any story that ends-'
'Don't say it.' Victoria had momentarily quieted. 'I don't want to hear it again.'
The apartment, for its size, had few rooms. An elegant but perhaps glorified foyer upon entrance: attached to the doorframe was a dark wicker awning, itself decorated with various species of synthetic vines and flowers. An antique streetlamp hung on the underside of the awning. Beyond the foyer a large living room. A kitchen. Beyond that a bathroom, a bedroom. The apartment's owners, Mr. and Mrs. Timothy and Cassie Dennison, family friends, had agreed to host the evening's event with the stipulation that they not be invited.
Manfred was immediately conversing with the youngest of the Jeffries, Mrs. Joelle Ptooly, whose fiancé. Mr. Xavier Ptooly, was expected shortly. Manfred was quite ready for the evening to be over so that he might have a drink. He was, all in all, he told Joelle, taking it easy as the weather improved. Victoria and Manfred, though dating, had arrived separately and spent much of the evening avoiding each other and flirting with others, as was their way. They would, customarily, make amends come morning.
Jonah stamped his sneakers on the small carpet beneath the wicker awning, right hand rearranging his dark thinning hair into irregular tufts and bursts. Only a few years left with you, he thought, imagining the hair he had just lost settling onto the floor about him. His stomach ached with the burbling heat of anxiety, as he had not been able to explain to himself what kind of an event his friends, parents and even coworkers would attend at a private residence that everyone was to be on time for. The enthusiastic greeting his entrance received brought the night's first brilliant burst of panic at the thought that the party might be intended for him; and, more ominously, perhaps for his well-being. This quickly passed when nothing unusual followed the greetings. From the kitchen he heard what sounded like his lifetime friend, Derik, saying something about having copped a better feel off of a crossing guard.
'And all's I want,' Victoria said, holding back with some heroics the enormous surging sphere of tears in her throat, 'is to go back to a time before he requested that I-'
'And Jesus wept, sister. I'll say it again because you just can't hear me: And Jesus wept.' Derik swallowed the last of the juice box in one large inhalation.
'Baby.' Leora caressed his thigh through a hole in his blue jeans.
'Awp. I'm full of juice. Let's go, baby.'
Leora laughed like a gurgle of water from a small fountain. Many people fake it, but perhaps Derik and Leora were genuinely, naturally silly.
Though the congregants were many, they were familiar enough to each other that greetings were misleadingly brief. Mrs. Jeffries hugged Jonah but she was a mother and this we forgive them. From the snack table, Mr. Jeffries waved with a cup of punch, as his other hand held a precariously piled plate of finger foods. None of his children had ever seen him, in the flesh, without the beard that had now become gray as well as black. Nor did they remember (though old photographs could evidence that it was so) him with anything more atop his head than the horseshoe curve of hair that Mother trimmed fortnightly.
Tonight Tabitha, second child to Mother and Father Jeffries, was not even fleetingly amused by Jonah's tardiness. 'Did you return to Standard Time today, Jonah? Because the rest of us must have forgotten.' He smiled, said nothing. She pursed her lips and tossed her black hair as she entered the kitchen. Jonah nodded to her husband, Mr. Bryant Cross, who nodded in return, smirking beneath an overgrowth of dark beard, before following his wife into the kitchen with the soon to be extinguished hope for coffee.
'Jonah, you've heard this nonsense, right?' Derik asked without greeting. Jonah raised his eyebrows to indicate that he did not know what Derik referred to. 'This idea of Manfred's-'
'Oh, Victoria? The Newtown Creek? Sure. Heard this morning. Just after it happened. And late afternoon while at the dog dungeon.' This a reference to Jonah's place of employment, a glorified dog kennel. 'Got an email early evening, as well.'
'And a text message.' Victoria was not to be outdone in making herself ridiculous.
'Should I expect a letter by post?'
'And a telegraph.'
'You coulda told me by carrier pigeon or black magic for all the shits I've got to give. Awp.'
Victoria, again, informed everyone that if Manfred's request for a sex act he called a Newtown Creek was not pretty to think about, it was even less pretty to participate in.
The bathroom door, just off the kitchen, suddenly opened. No one presently in the kitchen had been there when whoever was opening the bathroom door had closed it. A collective and perceivable shudder, an almost silent gasp, was emitted when Mr. Karl Whitesauce emerged, wiping his hands on his blue jeans (worn white), the Times crossword under his arm.
Jonah, now aware that Karl had been invited to the gathering, was momentarily convinced of his suspicion that the party was an intervention on behalf of Manfred's beleaguered liver. Why else would Karl drag himself all the way to White Plains for a party with no alcohol, and no women he could hope to leave with? Why the Dennison's in White Plains?, Jonah wondered, and hummed an old melody about hayseeds returning to the country.
'Hey, Karl, great to see you, long time, etcetera.' Jonah's verbosity surprised even himself at times, particularly when around people to whom he had nothing to say. Or rather, he thought, had plenty to say but . . . . When half of my income, he thought, is made from trademarking and commodifying the phrase 'Karl Eats It' (this after a wide and laborious graffiti campaign) asking 'How is the lady?' or 'How is the job?' seemed palpably insufficient and insincere.
In response to Jonah's questions, 'How is the lady?' and 'How is the job?' Karl said that both were 'Totally totally,' while nodding his head in rapid consent.
Jonah heard Leora and Derik placing bets on why Karl had accepted what was, surely obviously, a polite invitation to an event no one present wanted him attending. Leora thought it was for use of the facilities, more of a happenstance decision to come based on location. Derik refuted this, wondering aloud what business could bring Karl from Brooklyn to White Plains; suggesting instead that Karl just may be the loneliest bastid in New York.
Jonah laughed. He was still young enough to have friends who could break his heart. What an unfortunate lot of children we are, he thought, coughing mildly.
Without announcement or invitation everyone settled into pockets of talk in the living room, fourteen individuals in all. Manfred continued to sell it to Joelle, though her and Xabier's wedding invitations had gone out only two weeks previously. 'Didn't you get yours?' she teased him.
'My inbox is backed up. How's yours?' He was endlessly amusing; likewise shameless.
A thick anxiety steadily cloaked Jonah's vision and hearing as minutes passed. He assumed the physical sensations blinding and deafening him were the articulate and voluminous release of adrenaline, the cause unknown but, somehow, narrowing its focus. Derik spoke at length and without relent - and rather engagingly. A tactless (and riotous) monologue on the personal responsibilities of Iraqi and Afghani peasants was interrupted when Tabitha clanged a spoon about the inside of a drinking glass while Bryant set a chair in the middle of the room for her to stand upon. It was not for meekness that she was instrumental in the ferocious community group United For Bitch and Justice. After ascending the chair, she turned in a circle as she talked, addressing everyone present.
'I want to thank you all for coming on such short notice.' She cleared her throat. Public speaking made her sound shy and meek in a false and deceptive way. 'I know Mom and Dad, you guys drove all the from-'
'Five hours!' Mr. Jeffries hollered, spraying bits of expensive wheat crackers and asparagus dip flying from his mouth. Mrs. Jeffries reminded everyone that GK, the absent eldest, passed along his best wishes. GK was, at present, a busy bee completing paperwork. Having joined the National Guard at peacetime, it had taken a letter from Mr. Jeffries, a Reverend, to keep GK in peacetime, no matter where the Guard went. Oh, the power of the letter!, Jonah had thought. The power of the word! Jonah, in the days preceding GK's enlistment, had in vain attempted to convince GK that peacetime, in a practical sense, did not exist for the empire. A hypothesis GK thought dubious, insubstantial and irrelevant. Not to mention rude.
It would not be hyperbole to say that Jonah Jeffries was the first of his lineage to get high on marijuana.
'Yes, so thanks, guys. I'd also like to thank Manfred-' Tabitha paused, waiting like a schoolmarm for Manfred's attention, which was not granted her until Joelle stood and walked to the bathroom, which was still redolent with what Karl had accomplished.
'Manfred, I wanted to thank you for helping me organize this thing and carpool everyone here.'
'He helped organize his own intervention?' Jonah was incredulous. 'Come on, Tabby, you don't ask the interventionee to carpool the interventionists to the intervention.' He turned to Manfred, smiling. 'Ya dumb shit. Why'd you even show?' Manfred smiled and looked away, turning to Joelle, who was not chancing the recovering restroom.
'Jonah,' Tabitha said, 'this intervention-'
'That's like walking the plank and being the guy who puts the plank in place.'
'Jonah, this-'
'I mean, would you voluntarily attend your own hanging, Puffer?'
'Don't call me Puffer, hayseed.'
'Puffer, you even got Karl to show? Well done. Kid wouldn't bother to wipe if he could get away with it.'
'Don't call me-'
'And Je-sus wept.'
'Jonah!' Tabitha was irate. 'I'm standing on a chair, damn it! I have the floor.'
The room silenced. Jonah and Manfred and Bryant hid laughter behind sips of water. Mr. Jeffries did not bother hiding his, cookie crumbs spraying out before him in a chortle. 'Jonah, this intervention is for you. If is about you. For your well-being.'
'And your reclamation!' Leora added.
'Me? An intervention for me?' He turned around. 'Puffer's the alcoholic. He's the one we've been talking about having an intervention for since junior prom.'
'Jonah, this is not about Manfred-'
Manfred was stern in stating that nobody needed any refresher on prom night and he'd thank Jonah to mind his own or someone might bring up someone else's pants-less you-know-what.
'And who' - Jonah drew the word out like an ambitious singer to express the outlandish quality of the situation - 'ooooooo. . . .' He paused to regain his breath. 'Who invited Karl to my intervention? Everyone knows Karl Eats It. How then could I have a useful, positive, beneficial intervention with Karl present? It's impostrous!, to quote Laurel. Or Hardy. The skinny one.'
'Laurel,' Manfred croaked.
Karl, uncharacteristically taking a hint, located his coat and vacated the apartment, Jonah affectionately patting his shoulder as he passed, saying, 'Karl, good to see you, buddy, you look great.' Karl responding, 'Totally totally.'
'No, no, this is obviously for Manfred. Manfred.'
'Jonah, I organized this.' Tabitha breathed deeply and evenly. 'I planned it. It is for you.'
'I think you're wrong.'
'And Jesus wept, Jonah.' It was clear Derik had television programs that evening which he did not want to miss. 'It's for fucking you. So shut the fuck up. You're addicted to fuckin . . . . What was it, baby?'
Leora laughed like birds wouldn't twitter. 'Greenpoint, baby.'
'Right, Greenpoint. Awp. So you're fuckin . . . . addicted to the neighborhood and everyone knows it's poison, so do like everyone in Greenpoint does and move out before you're entirely polluted.' He looked to Leora. 'How was that, baby?' Her criticisms were sparse and complimentary.
'Jonah,' Tabitha said, 'Frederick had a tumor from Greenpoint. Andy had a tumor from Greenpoint.' She gesticulated wildly with her hands, briefly losing her balance on the chair. 'You live one block from ten BPP oil tanks!'
'Sure,' Jonah replied, 'if you limit your list of the helplessly ill to all of my former roommates the case is damning, but how just?'
'Mom has a tumor from something, and I wouldn't be surprised if it was from Greenpoint.'
'But Mom has never spent more than a night in Greenpoint.'
'Jesus on crutches, Jonah. The goddamned dog has a Greenpoint tumor and that's no joke.'
Jonah admitted that it was not. He was, additionally, about to acquiesce to the prohibition on Greenpoint - if not in deed then at least, in a timely fashion, in word - but could not, finally voluntarily subject his actions to the scrutiny of others.
But Derik needed no such submission. 'Okay, good. Tabitha, that good for you?' Tabitha, given for the briefest of miraculous moments the floor, was speechless. 'Good then. And while we're at it, what about Manfred? Let's get that over with too, since everyone here knows we're gonna do it sooner or later.'
Tabitha found her tongue. 'Ah, no, Derik, this intervention is for Jonah, not Manfred.'
'Besides,' Manfred was thorough, 'my intervention 's gotta be with all of my put out best friends and family and loved ones. My mom isn't even here. And I've got asthma anyway so I beat Greenpoint to the punch!'
'Christ in my pocket. Somethin' smells bad and it ain't the dog, Puffer. You're a lousy pair of lungs. Most everyone here knows you, and a couple of these dopes even like you a little, so don't take it for granted.'
'My intervention has got to be way more dramatic. I must throw chairs and scream hurtful things.' His large face smiled. Victoria merrily joked that Puffer's autobiography would be entitled, Drunk, And How To Get There. Manfred responded that the working title was merely Flush, but if the evening would hurry along he might oblige her. He then noted to no one specific that the room was far too warm to fart in discreetly. Victoria wondered aloud how this was relevant to him, and Manfred was quick to thank her for the reminder.
'And Jesus cried great big gobby f'ing tears, Manfred. Fine.' Derik stood on the couch and announced, 'Okay. Anyone here who gives a damn for Manfred, be here next Saturday. But Leora and me already said our piece so we're not coming.'
'Jonah.' Tabitha was composed. 'Greenpoint residents are twenty-five percent more likely to develop asthma, chronic bronchitis and emphysema than all other city residents.'
'And you don't even have to smoke!' Jonah was jovial.
'The entire neighborhood has been an industrial and public dumping ground for over two centuries. Immobile Oil started there.' This was damning. 'There's enough pollution beneath, in, on and around Greenpoint to pass along to the next dozen generations.'
'What a legacy!'
'It's almost a Reich,' noted Manfred.
'Stomach cancer, leukemia, autoimmune disease, brain tumors, cancers of the nervous system.' Tabitha was laying it on thick. 'Infertility-'
'Goodbye condoms!'
'Birth defects.'
'Along with the infertility? Sounds suspicious.'
'Does anyone here even know what that is?'
'Rare bone sarcoma!'
'Thank you, Leora,' Tabitha nodded approvingly. 'Pancreatic cancer, nervous system disorders.'
'You're just naming all of the ways God loves his children.' The tone of Jonah's joke illustrated to Tabitha that she was, inchingly, getting to him.
'The EPA determined that the contaminants of concern in the locally caught fish in Newtown Creek included cadmium, mercury, chordane-'
'Now you're just quoting from the report directly.'
'-DDT, dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls, arsenic, lead-'
'Greenpoint is the Garden Spot of America! And the hometown of Mae West.'
Tabitha stopped, tired. It was enough for one evening. Jonah did not break quickly, she knew.
After the Merrill's departure, the assembled spent the remainder of the evening playing games and waiting for the appropriate moment to exit. Tabitha sat in the corner, knitting, imagining the telephone call she would one day receive concerning the news of her brother's inoperable tumor(s). Mr. Jeffries won a suspiciously quick game of Clue while Xabier dominated anything related to trivia (particularly with the attentive and knowledgeable GK absent), Manfred laughingly attempting to get a game of Twister or Duck Duck Goose going with Joelle. 'Et al,' he coaxed. Joelle rolled her eyes, knowing him to be something of a ham.
Jonah, indomitable when it came time for Similes, dismissed most of the evening thinking of his most recent ex-girlfriend, Senorita Marcenda Remedios Alvarez Johnson; and exactly how many fish from Newtown Creek it had taken to get the best of her uncle, Senor Jose Jose Morales Alvarez, a fisherman by skill and marijuana dealer by necessity (yet still also skilled), who - along with Marcenda herself, plus Jose Jose's three children - were all very much alive with diarrhea in the family's home, on some block in Greenpoint even Manfred avoided without saying why. And exactly how he would pinch and tease her, and she him, eventually. Jonah had not yet responded to Marcenda's voicemail message from two days previous, not because he did not want to, but because he moved slow - and slower for ex-lovers - and in so doing recognized the meaninglessness of most human entanglements and, to compensate for this unfairness, kept an impenetrable distance - ever so difficult with a Senorita!

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