Where had he found himself? He was on a stair, in a subway station, with his hand on a railing; but which subway station, and more importantly, how had he gotten here? And how long had he been like that? As he felt his confusion about to give way to hysteria Dennis found a moment to marvel at the fact that he had been asleep, actually asleep, standing up in this position, and the sheer absurdity of it helped calm him down for those first few all-important seconds.
He clung tighter to the railing and tried to gain his bearings, scanning the scene immediately in front of him for any clue that might tell him where he was. Nothing. All he could see was the bottom of the stairs and the beginning of the platform, with a bench just coming into view where the sloped ceiling above the stairs cut off his field of vision. Without moving from where he stood, he conducted a quick inventory of his person: he had his wallet, his keys, and his knapsack. All present and accounted for. Miraculous, really: he’d managed to cheat the hangman one more time.
Feeling slightly more confident about the situation, he took a tentative step down the stairs, followed by another, and then another. Near the bottom of the staircase he was just beginning to think, Hey, maybe this coordination business isn’t so hard after all, when his right foot caught on the step. His entire body tilted forward; for a horrific split-second the floor started to loom up at him as if it was on hinges and with his right hand he grabbed desperately for the railing that he hoped was still in back of him. He found it, and for a precarious instant tottered there at the base of the stairs, his free arm windmilling as if he was winding up for a pitch, until he recovered his balance.
Finally the ground and the staircase seemed to resume their proper relation to each other; he felt safe enough to let go of the railing. He was on a level surface now, and while that would no doubt pose its own set of challenges it had to be easier than the stairs. Dennis wiped the sweat from his forehead. His heart was galloping; for the first time he became aware his mouth ached with thirst, and he could feel his shirt sticking between his shoulder blades as though it had been fastened there with rubber cement. Obviously he was still drunk but the dehydration told him that there was a fearsome headache, a headache of world-historical proportions, waiting for him just around the corner. But he didn’t care how bad it was going to be as long as he could suffer it in his own home. The thing now was to focus—take this moment by moment and concentrate on getting the train back to Brooklyn. There would be time for theatrics later, along with the self-recrimination.
He surveyed his surroundings and saw that he was in the Columbus Circle subway station. That was a good sign, it meant he had almost certainly been coming home from the park along his usual route, intending to catch the A down to West Fourth, where he would change to the F. Some homing instinct reliable as a pigeon’s had brought him here, regardless of how drunk he was, and for a moment he was tempted to say a prayer of thanks to whatever merciful fate had delivered him, free from harm, this far. It might be more than he deserved.
He glanced over at the nearby bench. Two small brown-skinned men sat there; stone-faced under their baseball caps, and with their arms folded across their chests, they gave off an air of utter imperturbability, as if prepared to wait with timeless patience for the train that might arrive in the next five minutes or sometime next week. They regarded Dennis impassively.
“Mira al borracho,” said one.
“Quizas loco,” said the other.
Dennis didn’t understand what they were saying but they must have seen his little aerobics performance at the base of the stairs just now and were probably exchanging smart remarks about it. Serves me right, he thought. He would have to pass their bench to move any further down the platform, and he could imagine how even these two hardcases would struggle to contain their merriment if he were to stumble again right in front of them. But he would have to risk it. Concentrating on a trash can several yards in front of him, and methodically placing one foot in front of the other, he marched by them now with all the self-conscious gravitas of someone trying to walk a straight line for the highway patrol.
He noted with relief that the newsstand up ahead was still open, and when he bought a bottle of water from the man behind the counter his anxiety began to ebb a little. Just holding the cool frosted plastic in his hand, watching the beads of moisture trickle down its side, was a comfort; he knew he would wield the bottle like a cherished personal totem all the way home. The dehydrated man’s good luck charm.
Something about the familiar feel of the object in his fist detonated a flashbulb glare in the back of Dennis’s mind: within an instant, pieces of the night started to come back to him. He had a mental snapshot of Christine grinning in triumph and holding up a bottle of dark-colored liquid. Wine, presumably? Then he saw the point. They had been mixing, that was it. He had brought the beer, Wallace had some cans of malt liquor, and the kids had each produced something of their own—Christine with her wine and the two boys with whatever foul concoctions they had decided to get loaded on tonight.
A sense of apprehension came over him now, so strong he felt the bottom of his stomach might drop out. Mixing—nothing good ever came of it. What had happened to him in the time between when they all started drinking and when he came to on the staircase?
His gaze fell to the subway track, as if he might find a clue to his condition there among the puddles and the candy wrappers and all the other damp detritus of twelve midnight. Then his attention was caught by something he spied on his own left leg: a telltale guacamole smear, unmistakable against the faded tan of his khakis and stretching from his cuff halfway up to his knee.
Oh no, he thought, don’t tell me. Crap.
Dennis’s heart sank at what the stain portended but at the same time he recognized a certain inevitability behind it. So that was his answer, at least in part. He had puked tonight—naturally. That was what happened when you mixed your liquor, there was no getting away from it, and he was left to wonder now where the deed might have taken place. The one shred of hope his vanity could still cling to was the possibility that he hadn’t thrown up in front of the gang. In an ideal scenario he would have left them for the evening, stumbled behind some bushes, and deposited his mess in a discreet pile—a little breakfast buffet for the birds and squirrels. (There might even be a Zen riddle in that. If Dennis threw up in the woods and there weren’t any witnesses, was that the same as if it never happened?)
Of course, however he had handled the situation, he’d still managed to get some on himself. But then you usually did, didn’t you.
Just then a high, thin sound, almost like a kind of keening, started to fill the air around him, so strange that he immediately became curious as to its source. He listened more intently; the sound seemed to be coming from somewhere on the other side of the newsstand. At that particular moment any excuse not to stand there and contemplate what he had done to himself tonight struck Dennis as something of a God-given opportunity, so he decided to investigate.
He rounded the newsstand and found an older Chinese man, slender to the point of emaciation, sitting on a stool and playing a type of stringed instrument Dennis didn’t think he had ever seen before. At first he might have said the instrument was related to the banjo, but the base was much smaller—tiny, even—and it appeared to have only one or two strings; in fact, there was almost something medieval-looking about it. The man played with his eyes closed, and his body swayed back and forth with each saw of his bow; he seemed oblivious, now, when a bystander tossed some change into the bowl at his feet. It was an ungodly mournful sound he coaxed from his instrument, and yet to Dennis there was something weirdly compelling about it. He must have been especially susceptible at just this moment, because after listening for another minute or two he found himself swallowing hard.
Was he beginning to get choked up? What was wrong with him, anyway? A noise like two cats humping in an alleyway and here he was getting all misty-eyed. He turned away from the musician and resumed his previous position on the other side of the newsstand. It must have been fatigue catching up with him; that, and the mixture of shame and anger he was feeling, or soon would be, over the course the night had taken. He knew those feelings were simmering just under the surface, below the level of his conscious thought; he would have to acknowledge them, if not tonight, then certainly tomorrow when he confronted the face in the mirror.
The downtown D pulled into the track on his right. Dennis had been planning to hop on the A but he could take the D to West Fourth Street just as easily. It would run a little slower, but he needed to be in motion, he needed to be on his way home and putting some distance between himself and tonight’s disaster.
When he boarded the train he had one whole end of the car to himself. He wondered if he might be starting to resemble the kind of rider other people kept a safe distance from, one of those disheveled and malodorous souls who rode in a sort of semi-official quarantine, always ringed with empty seats.
Thunderbird. Christine’s bottle, the one he remembered seeing her hoist aloft with such a look of satisfaction on her face, had been a bottle of Thunderbird. No wonder he had gotten sick. A few slugs of that stuff and you were just asking to lose your last meal.
Dennis yawned and crossed his arms.
With that one piece of the puzzle in place, more of the night came back to him. He still couldn’t remember what the two boys had brought with them, but he knew that at one point early in the proceedings Wallace had tallied all of the potables they had on hand and said, “Damn. We got five different kinds of alcohol right here,” and Dennis could still hear the quiet wonder in the other man’s voice.
He himself had immediately chimed in, “Five deadly venoms.”
Wallace had looked ecstatic at that. “Hey, you seen that one, man?”
“I must have,” Dennis said. “I don’t know where else I would remember that title from.”
“Let me guess. Kung Fu Theater, right?”
Dennis knew he must have laughed then. “Saturday afternoons, Channel Five?”
“All right,” Wallace said. He had raised his right hand in the air and the two of them high-fived each other.
“What was the guy’s name, that made all the movies? Sir Run Run Shaw?”
“Yeah, that’s it.” The look on Wallace’s face had been one of pure pleasure, and he had turned to Jamie and Robert as if about to impart a special wisdom to them.
“Every weekend, come three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, you wouldn’t see nobody outside in the whole neighborhood. They all inside, watchin’ the movie. But then, at five o’clock? Everybody be back out in the playground again, tryin’ to kick each other in the head.”
The scene abruptly faded out for Dennis after that, but another memory trigger or two the next morning might help him fill in the blanks. It was the classic pattern with blackouts. But seriously, five deadly venoms. He wondered how many of them he had sampled personally. Should have stuck to beer, he thought. You should always stick to beer. Now that he was in motion he could look back on the evening’s misadventures with a certain detachment, and even a sense of humor; it was late, he was tired, and the level-headed perspective seemed a lot more sensible than if he were to wallow in remorse about how he had disgraced himself tonight. Plenty of time for contrition later. He crossed his arms more tightly and tried to see if he could borrow further into his recollections, into where it was comfortable and everyone was funny and he didn’t have to torment himself with details about how he was going to get home or what tomorrow would be like.
Sir Run Run Shaw. You had to laugh.
I’m from the Bronx, and like the homeboys say—make your move!
When riding the subway, please be aware of your surroundings at all times. Make sure you have all of your belongings with you when you exit the train.
Awareness came back to him like fluorescent light flooding an empty room. His eyes shot open and he lifted his head from where it had been resting against the window. The train had reached an outdoor platform, and beyond a length of chain-link fence he could make out a body of water, vast and black and ominous. He didn’t see a station sign anywhere but that water meant they were deep, deep into Brooklyn, the West Fourth Street stop little more now than a distant dream, and as one part of his brain contemplated the return journey ahead of him Dennis had the distinct sense of having careened off a cliff’s edge into bottomless space: he was in free fall.
But the feeling didn’t last. What was the use of panic, really? As he waited on the opposite platform for the inbound train Dennis entered a state beyond disappointment, beyond anger; beyond fatigue, finally; he was processing events with a matter-of-factness that would have struck him in other circumstances as downright eerie. But even if he’d had the energy or the interest for any of those responses they would have been dwarfed now, reduced to thorough triviality by the expanse of sky out there above the bay, by the high cumulus reaching over Staten Island and New Jersey and the line of harbor lights winking back at him like diamonds on a velvet tray.
He felt he had finally arrived at a crucial truth about fucking up. It wasn’t a credit system; you paid as you went for your mistakes, right there and then, day after day after pitiless day.
Thank you for riding with New York City Transit.