Kevin Dugan

Excerpt from “Mendzy”

Kevin Dugan

It was the first noon of August and the middle-aged outside guys were sitting shirtless on lawn chairs, drinking in secret and bullshitting in the sun. ‘Tian had woken up drunk and kept it that way, first by the dusty wine left over from last night’s uncorked, and then from one Corona after the next that he’d pay neighborhood kids to get for him from the bodega. The kids didn’t respect him, but he thought they did. He was still large and mean, still had military tattoos on his arms. He only kept enough money for a beer and a tip in his pocket when he sat outside, and he was reliable for at least a good twelve bucks a day. But mostly, it was because the guys he drank with were less ruined and less likely to sit in their own lawn chair. That’s why no one ripped him off.

Hot 97 played throwback jams on the radio he brought outside, and the sound coming from its bassless speakers clashed with the music coming out of the Baptist church across the street. The church had a band playing gospel with its drone screech organ, its don’t-touch-the-downbeat singer. The sunlight felt gigantic, quaking in the hot, stubborn air. Those who had air conditioning stayed inside. These were the days when kids would ride the subways for a few hours just to cool off until night came. Walking down Nostrand felt unhealthy, the humid air clumping up with the exhaust from the constant traffic.

‘Tian held court outside of a big white apartment building on the corner and, even with his slurred speech and occasional nodding off, still had a capacity for remembering, and feeling protective of, the other tenants. He had lived there since the 70s, when he and his wife lived well off working for the MTA and didn’t pay more than a hundred fifty a month to rent away the bad old days. But Bed-Stuy had been becoming whiter for years now, and his wife was long dead, and he lived off the disability payments he earned. He resented the new ones pushing out acquaintances and old friends, but he felt they were harmless. He would try, and succeed, in scamming them for a few dollars every once in a while, or just seeing how little he had to do to intimidate them. And they would let it go. There was one couple, though, that had called the cops. ‘Tian had pulled out a pocket knife and threatened to kill their dog right in the foyer. It barked a lot. The cops warned him but didn’t do anything else. So the couple moved out the next night, at around midnight, and got a subletter to take their space the next month. That was three months ago, and he had only caught a glimpse of the new kid a couple times. One of the tenants told him his name was John Paul and he went to school in the city. He kept his eyes down and didn’t really talk much. Never had many guests.

At around a quarter after, a U-Haul van pulled up to the curb and started honking in sustained blasts. “Shut the fuck up man, we hear you,” ‘Tian said. Not that anyone heard him say it. ‘Tian spoke like a dehydrated somniloquist. Among the competing sounds, ‘Tian’s was not recognized, or if it was, it was ignored. Way back when I had the red and black lumberjack with the hat to match. And the driver continued honking. And the organ wheezed and howled. It wasn’t until one of the other guys made a comment that ‘Tian got up from his lawn chair, took his half-empty Corona and hurled it against the starboard side of the van. And the DJ yelled THROWBACK! over the song.

The bottle broke into three or four large, craggy pieces. The hollow van resonated for a while after the impact. The driver, a Peruvian, came yelling out of the car. There was a dent on the side of the van where there had been impact.

The singer cross the street, pitching away from the beat: And I’m going . . . to get my reward.

“I own this van,” he said. “I have to get this fixed! I have to fix this now! Who threw that? Which one of you threw that?”

Traffic clustered as trucks brought their deliveries to the Home Depot across the street.

Some of the guys laughed. One walked away. ‘Tian ambled over to the man like he had long ago abandoned yaw. “Pretty bad dent you have there, sir,” he said.

Cars went Byeeeaaawweeep.

He ran his shaking fingers over the impression. The Peruvian had stopped yelling. ‘Tian kept his gaze with his yellow-rimmed bloodshot eyes and long, lazy blinks. Some of the others had come over and stood behind ‘Tian. “My friend here’s got some tools to knock out that dent. He’d do it for a right price, too.”

And my whole crew is loungin’ celebratin’ every day no more public housing.

The other man nodded. “I’ll go get my mallet right now, sir. It’ll be just a minute. It’s a nice, big mallet, too. My tools are right over there,” he said, nodding to somewhere across the street.

The Peruvian said no, and then when ‘Tian insisted and the other guy went to get his tools, he repeated ‘no no no no no,’ even as he got himself back into the van, locking the door.

When the singer sang I’m living for my Jesus this perhaps twentieth time, he reached a note that unlocked for one moment the sublime and all the congregants went oooooh.

John Paul had been standing outside the door with two suitcases for a little while, watching ‘Tian and the driver. He knew of ‘Tian because his friends had warned him, but he had always seemed like a useless drunk. It was only when he heard the driver muttering ‘no no no no no’ and backing up and going back into the van did he realize that something had happened. The van drove away. ‘Tian looked at him standing there with the bags but did not acknowledge him.

John Paul picked up his two suitcases and walked over to ‘Tian. “What happened? Why did he drive off?”

‘Tian looked at him crosswise. “I wouldn’t worry about it, young man.”

The radio interpolating a droning party and bullshit and party and bullshit into the mix.

“But that was my van, I have to move out today,” he said. “I had to move out yesterday.” John Paul’s voice started to crack.

The other guys started to walk away, bored. “I would think that that would be none of your business, what was said between me and that man,” ‘Tian said.

John Paul was turning red from embarrassment and fear. He was tall but lanky with a concave chest and very thin blond hair that was already receding. His fare skin obscured no embarrassments. Sweat had already been collecting above his eyebrow, and then the bead broke and dribbled into his eye, all salt and anger. “What am I supposed to do now? I can’t get a van at this short notice. This is like, the biggest moving day of the year.”

“That man,” ‘Tian said, “was causing a nuisance in my neighborhood.” He stumbled a little closer to the boy with the luggage. The keyboardist blustered along with the sound of one hundred hands clapping. “How can people go to church right there if there’s a van beeping all day long? You got kids sleeping right now just down the block with Mrs. Robin’s daughter having the summertime flu. And I can’t even enjoy the day now with that honking and all this commotion.” It was just them talking now, the other guys having gone to whatever elsewheres they’d preferred. ‘Tian’s radio was still playing and the church band had not even crescendoed and trucks were loading and unloading from the Home Depot across the street. “So,” he went on, “I recommend you find another way to go about your business, young man.”

Finding Oneonta

Kevin Dugan

We passed the third intersection without street signs before Evan and I decided to stop and check the map. We were somewhere outside Oneonta, on gravel roads since the others were flooded, and the moon was yellow. He spread the map on the hood and we speared it with two-pound flashlights.

“What kind of flashlights?”

“LED,” he said. “I found them in Virginia.”

He mapped out routes. I noticed a bend in an adjacent road and explored it to get a sense of the terrain. The foliage collapsed into the road and rustled like summer locusts. In the night, everything looked sick with crepuscule or diodes, like the color had been drained out and replaced with fright.

Walking back, the moon hung over the illumined hood. It looked hot and flat and white as a cataract, quaking numbly in the stygian hum.

I told him about the bend and we looked at the lines on the paper. We negotiated roads with the map, and retraced the routes in the air with the butts of our pens, both of us. I looked at the vacuous streets but was really parsing my memory for the few ghosts I knew off the grid.

We made all kinds of turns and ended up home. Along the way we found new ways to tell old jokes and would pause to listen to the upstate radio. None of the roads looked like the whisps in my memory, but Oneonta was a nice town whose gas stations I can still recall.