Amelia Granger

Set the Feathers on Fire

Amelia Granger

What to say if you are talking to a live person. What to say if you are talking to a dead person. It’s a shock: when the address of a person you did not know suddenly becomes unusable. Especially when they never responded in the first place. Especially if you were just trying to solicit something from them.

We like to think that with our code of addresses and our blue-suited postal service, we will be able to reach you. We do not like to think that sometimes, somehow, every single person will not only say no to us, but drop off the map completely.

What to do with the addresses of the dead. Naturally, we cannot update them, as we regularly do for contacts that have shifted. If you can update, please do so. But in the regular term of this irregular situation, please file under “Retire Forever”, and we will hang on to them. How long? Indefinitely. Until we die ourselves.

Indefinite is a vague word, which someone can use to say how long they are staying away for, and think they mean forever. Indefinitely is how long you can hold onto the facts of the dead, but only if you write them down.

If, by accident, you send a letter to one of these retired addresses, it’s best to send a follow up note of condolences to whoever has received it in their stead, and must bear it. After you write the note, it’s a good idea to go outside to the park, and find the feathers of two white pigeons. Bring a silver dime, which you have polished on your shirtsleeve to the best of your ability. Arrange the fluff of the plumes over the coin, so the sun reflects into them, but to you is muted, and then set the feathers on fire with your cigarette lighter, and watch them burn.

Monk-Made Spirits

Amelia Granger

Earlier this week I went with a friend to A___ to visit X, who bartends there. We used to call him “Just In Case,” or, as I called him in one of the first diary entries I ever made as a citizen of New York City, nearly seven years ago, Sketchy Brooklyn X. Back then Brooklyn was the end of the earth to me, that dropoff waterfall place where cartographers wrote There Be Dragons.  It’s haunting to be able to visit X, who is 30 now, so casually. I met him in at a college orientation meeting, saw him at parties, went to see him DJ, and listened to the gossip about him and his yellow-haired British ballerina girlfriend right up until maybe junior year, when he slipped away. Then I discovered him a few months ago, installed behind a weathered wooden bar at A___, discovered that we’re adults living in the same Brooklyn neighborhood, and discovered he has become a sort of professor of booze, a pharmacist and medicine man, a professional cocktail-ologist.

X has tattoos swarming his forearms that weren’t there when I knew him before—scrawls of black ink, sketches of ships and intricate, cobweb-fine recreations of the antique labels on bottles at antique bars. “Bitters,” one says, the word nestled in a halo of loops and whorls. A crown with stars and a cross, the symbol, he told me, of the French monks who make Chartreuse, is stamped on his neck. He talks about the purity of “monk-made spirits,” about the persecution of the Chartreuse monks who had to bury their brothers in mass grave and then planted the necessary herbs on top. He palms the gem-colored bottle and holds it to the light. “They still make it from those herbs.”

One of his teeth is knocked out now, the small one to the left of the front teeth and to the right of the canine.  A little checkered gap. Despite that, despite the rough, Illustrated Man aspect of his appearance, behind the bar he’s a 19th century conjurer or a railroad porter in white gloves: bending an arm behind his back during a delicate pour, flourishing a long-handled, vaguely alchemical spoon, rubbing his hands together while he asks if you want your whiskey drink “bright and citrusy, or dark and thoughtful?”

“Thoughtful,” I answered. I’ve never heard something you could eat or drink described as thoughtful before, and when the drink—called the Widow’s Last Caress #2—came, shaken from its silver cylinder into the delicate, chilled glass (my friend reminds me it’s a Marie Antoinette glass, modeled after the Empress’s breast) whose base he pinned still with splayed fingers, its interlocking flavors unfolded on my tongue. It was as complex as the difference between a sloshed drunk and a monk’s spiritual distillery, as the moving parts in the hardware of a deadbolt unlocking, as the unknowable algorithm that determines which people from your past come back and which stay away forever. But was it thoughtful? I could have never described it that way. The drink made me look at X and wonder what he saw in the spirits, wonder what made him call it thoughtful. “How can it be the Widow’s Last Caress #2?” I asked. “How can it be #2, if it’s the last one?” He didn’t bother to answer that. It was the kind of nitpicky koan that would have counted as insight in our college seminars.

Suddenly they were closing the bar, and X was pouring me and my friend one more hot chocolate and Chartreuse, trying to tempt us to stay but too proud to ask. I left thinking about him, confused as to what day or what year we were living in, half stuck in the past and half sure, with a fortuneteller’s crystal-ball certainty, about the barely changed nature of the future.

Like the Black Death

Amelia Granger

He sees the bedroom door is open a crack. Not quite closed. He hears someone make a noise, off somewhere in the apartment, the tiny thud of putting a coffee cup down or a cupboard door being closed.

“Someone out there?” He smiles at the partway open door with his troublesome smile, his sparklingly demonic, soul-revealing smile. “Oh, man, when I see a door like this…” He turns the smile to me, his blue eyes lit up like the acetylene of a welding torch.

He considers me, sprawled on the rumpled bed, seeing if he can get away with it. A bad child reaching for the cookie jar. I roll my eyes but it doesn’t stop him. He can’t help himself. He’s off.

“Sometimes, when I used to work construction and stuff, we would work with this guy, Mel Shih. This old Asian guy, this absolute lunatic, he’s the ugliest man you’ve ever seen; he’s fat with like a lazy eye and goiters and just a crazy, messed up face. And he finds a door like this, and he goes like this—” He demonstrates for me what Mel Shih does, squatting and bending over with his ass pointed out towards the door, spreading his asscheeks apart in either hand, so my innocent bedroom door is getting a good view. He pops back up and continues talking. “—And he waits like that till he hears someone coming. And then they open the door and they see Mel’s asshole, and this guy’s asshole, this guy’s asshole is like… it’s like the Black Death! It’s like the end of the world! It’s like… it’s like the most terrifying thing you’ve ever seen.” His face is screwed up now in delight and disgust, clearly remembering the time when he was the one who opened the door and ran straight into this scene. “Then Mel pulls up his pants and acts like he’s so embarrassed. Like you walked in on him. Like,” he does an impression of an old Asian man being embarrassed you saw his asshole. “Like that. That’s his sense of humor.

“So I always wanted to start a punk band named Mel’s Anus,” he says, sitting back down on the bed with me and absently pulling my knee into his lap. He starts stroking the sole of my foot with his long, restless fingers. “You know, people would say, ‘hey man, have you seen Mel’s Anus?’ ‘Oh yeah, man, I’ve seen Mel’s Anus. Mel’s Anus is fucking awesome.’”

“‘Yeah dude, Mel’s Anus is huge.’” I can’t help it. He’s a contagious disease.

“‘Fuck man, don’t go see Mel’s Anus. Mel’s Anus stinks.’” He giggles. “‘Dude, I know the guys in Mel’s Anus.’”

“‘Dude, I know the guys in Mel’s Anus, and they’re all fucking assholes.’” I smile. “‘Oh man. Dude. I heard Mel’s Anus is big in Japan.’”

He laughs at that and bounces up from my bed, not letting go of my foot, so now I’m in the undignified position of trailing one leg upwards, a fish on a hook. He looks down at me, sighting along the length of my bare leg. I look back up at him and think, not for the first time, that he’s the most Russian-looking motherfucker I’ve ever seen. His pale, milky skin sprinkled with golden hair and blue veins. His womanly pink lips, swollen and mischievous. Dirty blond, a round face, a thick, muscular neck, and those wintery eyes. His name is Levin Savka, how much more weird and Russian can you get? I don’t like his name.

Then in an instant his gaze jerks upwards, off into space, and he remembers the story’s not over, the story’s never over. “But fuck, Mel’s going to fucking jail soon.”

“What? For showing somebody his asshole?”

“No, he’s going to jail because he’s a fucking sweetheart, this guy. I mean, he is so crazy, he’s the ugliest guy you ever saw, he’s a raging alcoholic and he always wants to like show people his dick and his asshole… He’s always running around showing people his dick, too, oh my god.” He squirms, and again you can see the vivid memory unfolding behind his wide eyes. “But he. Is the sweetest guy. You will ever meet. He’s going to jail because his wife, his crazy wife, works at this library upstate somewhere. She’s a librarian. And one day she went down into the basement of the library, and she found this book of maps.”

I roll my eyes again. Of course. Of course, this story will touch on all his typical themes: incarceration, some crazy guy he knew once, and old maps. This is his archetypal story, precooked, just add water and Black Death anus. He does not notice my expression.

“These maps are from like 1840. And she looks in the catalog and doesn’t see them in there anywhere, so she steals them. She thinks they’re not in there anywhere, like no one at the library knows they just happen to have these incredibly valuable maps in the basement. And she keeps them at home and waits for like a year. Then she puts them up on eBay, and she’s asking for like $700. The FBI get in touch with her, like, ‘Oh yes, we’re very interested in buying these maps for $700.’ And she drives like 500 miles to deliver them, and that’s how they get her. So then Mel testifies that it was him, that he stole them. And while he’s testifying in court, I don’t know, he changes his mind or something, so they ask him: ‘Why did you steal these maps?’ and he says, ‘I thought it was a loaf of bread.’”

“What?”

“Yeah, he says ‘I thought it was a loaf of bread.’ That’s the quote in the paper and everything: ‘I thought it was a loaf of bread.’ So now he has to go to jail for a month, for perjury and lying to the police.”

“So… they got his wife?”

“Yup, he has to go to jail for a month for perjury, and she has to go for seven months for stealing the maps and trying to sell them.”

“Huh.”

“The weirdest thing about his wife, too, is she’s married to this guy, you know, with the ugliest fucking scariest face you’ve ever seen and everything, this madman, but she’s… blond hair, blue eyes, at least 20 years younger, a librarian…”

“She’s hot?”

“Yeah.”

“Really? So why is she married to this guy?”

“Well, Mel’s not without his charms.”

“What?! What charms?”

“And, I mean, because, obviously… I mean, you know…” He seems at a loss as to how to explain to me this simple, understandable, human arrangement. “Because she’s got her own problems.”

“Hmm.” And the moral of today’s story is…, I think to myself.

“Come on, baby, let’s get up. I got to go. I got to get up early tomorrow. Can I check alternate side parking on your computer?”

We head to the living room and he pulls on his jacket, his boots.

“Hang on,” I say. “Guess what?”

He’s lost in thought, checking his phone, planning his parking strategy.

“Guess what?” I say again.

“Look at this text this guy sent me, he’s fucking ridiculous…” He tries to show me something.

I bat the phone away. “Guess what?”

“What?” He doesn’t look up.

“I got you a present.”

Slowly his eyes move up to me. “You got me a present?”

“Well, I made you a present…” I go through my bag and come up with the little cardboard box, wrapped in a plastic grocery bag to keep it safe. “Here.”

He takes it carefully in his hands and studies the outside. I covered it in maps. The top is from an old guidebook to the Dolomites, the front is a slightly water-damaged street map of Torino, the sides and bottom are from a map of Green-Wood Cemetery (I had two), the back is from a free brochure I picked up two years ago in Verona, “Una Montagna Che Si Chiama Lessinia” (“A Mountain That We Call Lessinia”).

“You have to open it,” I say, embarrassed.

“Hang on,” he murmurs. “I’m looking at the maps.” Finally, slowly, he opens up the Dolomite lid. Silver wrappings of Hersey’s Kisses hit the light like the inside of a treasure chest. On the top of the inside is a little drawing of a clock face with no hands, just a question mark in the center. “What time is it?” I wrote above the clock. “Am I late to meet my girlfriend?”

He laughs when he reads it. He also seems like he’s about to cry.

“See, and then you’ll always remember… And sometimes you’ll look at it, and you’ll be like, shit! I’m four hours late to meet her!”

Sometimes he is four hours late to meet me. He laughs again, still staring at the box. “You waited all night to give this to me?” he asks.

“Well… I was kind of embarrassed to give it to you.” On the bottom, underneath the candy, there’s another note. He can find that later, or not. I’m embarrassed. I’m afraid.

“What? Don’t be, this is like the sweetest thing that anyone has ever done for me.”

He puts the box down on the coffee table and hugs me. “I love you. Thank you so much, baby. Happy Valentine’s Day.”

“Happy Valentine’s Day.”

In a minute we get up and I walk him to the door. He tucks the box in his jacket pocket.

“Shit,” he says. “I forgot to look up alternate side parking. Well, I’ll just call 311. Or, could you look it up? And call me and tell me what it says…”

“No.”

“No?”

“No, I’m tired.”

“Okay, baby, I’ll just call. See you tomorrow.”

“See you tomorrow.”

Tomorrow, while I’m waiting for him to call, I Google: Mel Shih book thief. The first result, from a rare books blog:

One Rebecca Johnson-Shih, former curator at the Rockland Historical Society, was arrested for stealing an 1823 Tanner’s New American Atlas from said society.

Here’s where it gets sad: Outside the courtroom where his wife (and mother of two children) was being arraigned, Mel Shih claimed responsibility for taking the thing, saying ‘I have kind of a drinking problem. I didn’t know what it was. It could have been a loaf of bread.’

There are holes in the story, of course. Including not only that it was Johnson who brought the book to Philadelphia to sell.

Mel’s friend and former co-worker, Levin Savka, said —

I look up in surprise, alone in my dark living room.

—‘It’s sad, really. I’ve known Mel and Rebecca for years and they are fine, upstanding citizens. Mel wouldn’t hurt a fly. He’s a sweetheart.’

If convicted, Johnson faces prison time for stealing the atlas…

He didn’t call me till 1 a.m., drunk in a bar, so I didn’t feel like asking him what he was doing at Rebecca Johnson-Shih’s arraignment. Maybe he was hoping to testify for the defense. He could probably make a good argument.