Friday
Aug092013

Rockaway

By Tara Ison


Soft Skull Press
June 2013
978-1593765163


 

"I talked to Julius this morning," says Marty.

"Oh? Is he coming today?"

"No, he had to work."

"On Saturday?" Sarah asks.

"Yeah, I know. It's terrible. You shouldn't work on Saturday." He puts on a pair of dark glasses and glances at himself in the car's rearview mirror. He settles his fedora to a tilt. It is lintless, and spanking black, a new variation on the black knit caps, the baseball caps, the embroidered, Rasta-looking yarmulkes she has seen him wear.

They are driving to Brooklyn, to pick up his musician buddies, then heading to some family park upstate, in Rye, a few hours' drive from Rockaway. Come, he'd said to her on the phone. He and the guys had a gig. An Oldies celebration, WCBS 101.1 FM, New York's Oldies station, live broadcast, she'd get a kick out of it. Marty Zale & the Satellites, he and the guys, going back a long time, twenty years they've been doing this, just for the fun. You oughtta come, you'll have fun, come.

She'd professed great reluctance—I'm really on track with my new painting now, I don't want to break the momentum, she told him—but finally gave in, pleased by his insistence. Her little sketch of a shell has made it onto a canvas in her room; it is now a few charcoal strokes, some vague, preliminary daubs of ivory and iron oxide black. She likes its clumsy little shell foot, just peeking out. It is a slow but good beginning, she'd thought. Good enough that I've earned a break. Have some fun, maybe, yes.

 "`You taking the kid?'" Marty exits the Marine Parkway Bridge, heads down Flatbush Avenue.

"What?" Sarah asks.

"That's what Julius asked me. `You taking the kid?'"

"Does that mean me? I'm 'the kid'?" This delights her; she suspects it will continue to.

"Yeah." He bobs his head. "You're the kid."

"I like that."

He shrugs. "Whatever."

"I'm too old for Julius," Sarah says. Marty smiles slightly at her—he only ever smiles slightly at her—and adjusts the collar of his brown leather jacket. She wonders if he gets the joke, that Julius is fifty-eight, and she is therefore almost twenty-five years younger, but that this is still too old. That Marty, too, is fifty-eight, and so it is meant both as a joke and as a provocation. "You know, right?" she continues, to make sure. "You know I'm thirty-four?"

"Yeah, I know," says Marty, looking back at the road. "But I can't do anything about that."

 

He has been taking her places for over a month now: more shabbes evenings at Itzak's, where Darlene serves margaritas and he and Itzak reminisce about acid trips from the late sixties; day trips into Manhattan and a boat tour to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island; recording and editing sessions for two movies he's scoring at tiny studios in Williamsburg, where he ignored her for hours at a stretch while she tucked herself in a corner among abandoned coffee mugs propped on speakers, read The Village Voice and told herself she was doing research, like her shell book and walks on the beach, deepening her vision, gathering experience. Gathering layers, yes, allowing herself time. There is still plenty of time. He has taken her to dinner at a kosher Chinese restaurant, and to a vegetarian Israeli cafe. He insisted on buying her a new, unspattered color wheel and a seventy-five-dollar Isabey sable brush from an art supply shop in Park Slope, which, feeling guilty about her little shell painting, waiting for her back in her room, she had reluctantly accepted. Saturday afternoons they have promenaded back and forth along the Rockaway Boardwalk, without bumping into each other, with their own separate bottles of water. When he runs into guys he knows from shul he leaves her standing to one side, shifting from foot to foot, while they talk. He likes to drive around Brooklyn neighborhoods and show her Orthodox Jews, the old men with sidelocks and tall hats trimmed with black fur, the heavily clothed women carrying stringed parcels and flocked by children in lisle knee socks. They fascinate him; he slows the car to a crawl, his hands splayed on the steering wheel, his mouth open, as if they're driving through a wildlife animal park.

What am I doing here? she sometimes says aloud to Marty. Who is this guy? she says, rhetorically, meaning him. This always gets one of his slight, amused smiles; she spaces saying this out carefully, to keep him amused.

She went to watch him play handball with his friend Saul, who is battling melanoma and whose thick, mascara'd-looking eyelashes look bold and hale against his chemo'd scalp. She was the only woman, only girl, on the crowded playground in Riis Park; they were all men in their fifties and sixties, thwacking rubber balls hard and low around the court, breathing in rasps, sweating, all wearing gloves of thin leather with tiny holes like those in old men's fancy shoes. She sat on a bench and watched. A few times, when she caught Marty watching her watch, she held out her thumb like artists did once upon a time, squinting, tongue at the corner of her mouth, pretending to paint, to measure him in scale against the world; he posed for her in a position of mid-thwack and the guys, winded, gave him little shoves, knocking him out of the composition.

She wondered who or what they think she is to him. A niece, the daughter of a friend?

When one of them missed a ball and swore the others poked him, and jerked their heads at her. She was joined on the bench by a guy named Albie, who wasn't allowed to play; he showed her the inch-long scar on his thigh from a recent angioplasty and the Aztec-design pillbox in the left pocket of his shorts where he kept his nitroglycerin pills. No problem, she reassured him; her father keeps handy a bottle of those same infinitesimal white chips, she knows about angina and putting one under the tongue. She remembered coming home from eighth grade and finding her father gray, lying on the bathroom floor, rigid and limp with pain, her mother stumbling, rummaging in cabinets and drawers and babbling, Sarah, thank God you're here, do something, do something!

She'd told her mother to calm down, call 911, and she'd tipped her father's head back, dropped in the pill, assured and cradled him until the paramedics arrived.

She told Albie about her father's prostate cancer, that the hormone therapy and radiation seem to be working, that he's still able to play a lot of golf. Albie told her about a prostate piece in the Times, quoted statistics on morbidity and aging, then mournfully watched the other guys play. Marty gave her a clownish grin, waved, and went back to the game.

Once, walking down a block of musicians and street vendors and coffee houses in Greenwich Village, he stopped in front of a post-waif girl with chromate yellow glasses, on her knees, flipping through a slanted stack of weathered record albums.

"Oh, wow," he said to Sarah. "You're not going to believe this."

He leaned over the girl and pulled an album out; the cover was an overexposed black and white photo of a young man with wild, curly dark hair, handsome, bare-chested, and somber, his eyes soulful, leaning against a big tree. He handed the album to Sarah and tapped the upper right corner: Marty Zale.

"This is you?" she asked. .

"Yeah," he said, sheepish but pleased. "My Jim Croce era. Wow. This thing is over thirty years old."

"Are you going to buy it?"

"I've got it," he said. "I got it at home, I'll show you. I'll play it for you. The sound quality, it's different. You probably never heard the real thing." The album's cardboard shine was mottled, its corner tips worn gray and furred. He read the liner notes, nodding.

She was nonplussed by the old, young, exposed image of him. "It's sort of a relief," she said finally. He looked at her quizzically. "It's proof you are who you say you are," she said.

"Yeah." Then he regarded her a moment, baffled. "Aren't you?"

 

The Satellites, the guys they pick up for the ride to the gig, all in turn exit brick and stone and ivy-covered houses in placid, graceful Brooklyn neighborhoods. They are guys she hasn't met: Tony, Frankie, Sammy, cramming in the back of Marty's silver BMW, wearing their black suits and fedoras and Ray Bans. This is Sarah, Marty says to each, she's coming with. They nod and wink at her as they wedge their way in, then burst into loud buddy-jostling. Hey, Rabbi, Tony yells to Marty, what was the name of that asshole in Atlantic City, that time we opened for Leno? Tell it to the Rabbi, Frankie says to Tony, he's gonna love this, Hey Rabbi, get off at the BQE, Rabbi lemme sing the lead on that one, huh?

They are all Italian, and sound to her like supporting characters from a Scorsese movie. Like most of Marty's friends—besides Julius, who is a stockbroker—none of them seem to work, to have jobs. Frankie complains about a flood in his basement garage threatening his Alfa Romeo. Tony spends weeks out on his houseboat. Sammy plays a lot of bridge. They all have state of the art gadgets, expensive shoes, nails manicured to a dull, opalescent shine. She is convinced they are all, peripherally, Mafia. Goodfellas, exactly. Each of them apparently has had one or two brushes with the music industry: Frankie wrote a hit song in the sixties; Sammy played keyboard on a double album that went platinum; Tony produced one blockbuster tour in the early seventies. She is leery of this day, of this event, nervous of these guys dressed up for their gig in their pitched fedoras and slick, raven-black suits. Their energy is slightly ridiculous, like teenage boys hyped and anxious about their garage band, but the trinkets—the fancy cars and gold watches and quietly costly homes—are reassuring to her: They have something else. Something real. She is disappointed in herself to feel this way, just as she was ashamed at her relief when she finally saw Marty's house for the first time, not the small brick one she'd thought was his, a better one, beachfront, expansive, probably worth several million, and thought Good, he's not just some weirdly religious, aging musician bum. She has found herself liking how he smells, but was abashed when she realized it was partly the BMW scent, a fresh leather-and-citrus, air-conditioned tang, a whiff of rich oil. The whole idea of the gig today is ridiculous to her, an Oldies celebration, oh God. She is worried he will look ridiculous, like Bowser from that old Sha Na Na group, or the aging actors in Grease, pathetic and earnestly anachronistic, that there will be slicked-back, thinning hair and silly dance moves. It all seems childish. Better he be a thoroughly grown-up man, established and defined by something else, something maybe artistic but still secure and status'd, like scoring films.

Before they leave Sammy's house, the last stop, Marty asks her if she wants to go to the bathroom. It's a long drive. He smiles encouragingly, and she almost expects him to pat her on the head. When she gets back in the car they're all humming together, testing sound. Tony clears his throat with a loud hack, and Sammy blows his nose. For the first half hour on the road, as they leave the urban and suburban sprawl and head north on the 95 through sweet bedroom communities and increasingly lush countryside along Long Island Sound, Frankie tries teaching her about music. He talks about chords and modulation and the principles of harmonics, No, Rabbi, lemme explain it to her, see, an octave, that's really thirteen tones but the diatonic scale, Western harmony's all based on that, it only uses eight of those, that's our do re mi, look at piano keys, eight white, five black, now those are semi-tones, half-steps… But it snarls up in her head like math, like junior high equations on the chalkboard. She tries to nod politely at what he is saying, but the truth is, she doesn't really listen, she doesn't really care.

 

"WELCOME TO RYE, PLAYLAND! HOST OF WCBS 101.1 FM, NEW YORK'S SALUTE TO THE OLDIES!" comes in amplified static over the loudspeaker, barely audible over parkgoers screaming, laughing, calling, the hawking at carnival-style win-the-teddy bear games, and the tinny circus music piped from Playland attractions: Skyflier, The Derby Racer, Aladino's Flying Carpet! Marty and the guys are unloading equipment, looking around for the other two Satellites meeting them here. Technicians in sweat-damp "Playland Hosts 101.1 FM's Salute to the Oldies" T-shirts bolt around wearing headsets and carrying fistfuls of cable wire, dragging bleachers together. Sarah stretches, and wonders if there's food. She hopes there's something to drink. Everyone is sweating in the sun.

"WE HAVE BEN E. KING, THE DRIFTERS, THE HARPTONES, MARTY ZALE & THE SATELLITES! LIVE PERFORMANCE AND BROADCAST, BEGINS 7:30 ON THE MAIN STAGE!"

The Cyclone, the Dragon Coaster, the Gondola Wheel! The air smells of corn kernels bursting in hot salted oil, and sugar melted brown and thick to caramel. Food stands sell Carvel's Ice Cream and Hebrew National foot-long hot dogs. A fried dough concession offers three toppings: powdered sugar & cinnamon, tomato sauce with cheese, and strawberry jelly. There is a photography booth with garish Gay Nineties costumes, a Haunted Mansion Thrills 'n Chills edifice blasting witchy, shrieking laughter, and, Sarah notes thankfully, kiosks selling sixteen-ounce paper cups of beer—Miller Lite and Bud, on tap. Kids, everywhere. It's as bad as the beach in Rockaway, children swarming, grubby and hyperkinetic. They bump their faces against sticky, shiny pillows of cotton candy, dart away from the beery or sugared-up adults clutching empty sixteen-ounce cups in one hand and grabbing at the backs of their kids' T-shirts with the other. Like all those kiddie parties in loud, family-frenzy places like this, the whimsical silly childhood birthdays at amusement parks, Miss Genie's Wonderland, Swenson's, Farrell's Olde Fashioned Ice Cream Parlour. Bright whole family days, her parents, her baby brother, days rooted in gladness and giddy surprise, hugs and presents and laughing, sticky tabletops, gleeful screaming friends wearing balloon-twist hats, Happy Birthday, dear Sarah, Happy Birthday To You!!

"So," she says to Marty, feeling a little dazed. "Playland, huh?"

"Wait here," he says. "I have to go get set up backstage, then we'll walk around together. You okay? You cold? You want my jacket?"

"It's ninety degrees."

"It's going to get cold, later."

"I'm fine," she tells him. "Look, I've got long sleeves. I'm just… out of context here. Go ahead."

"So, you wait here, right?"

"I'll walk around a little. I'll come back."

"Well… yeah, okay. Don't get lost. Wait, you need some money?"

"Uh, no," she says, blinking, smiling. "I'm fine."

"All right. So later we'll play a game, or go the Ferris wheel, or something. We'll get ice cream."

"That all may be a little too whimsical for me." She has the sudden hideous image of his trying to win her a stuffed panda, but smiles at his hopeful face.

"Yo, Zale!" Tony is standing with a perspiring, grinning man wearing a battered 101.1 FM baseball cap, carrying a clipboard; both men wave frantically at Marty.

He waves back. "That's Russell, the DJ. I have to go see about stuff now." He hurries off in a rapid amble, a tall guy hunched at the shoulders, his curly hair flapping out from under the fedora.

Marty Zale & the Satellites.    

Who is this guy? she thinks. What am I doing here?