Everything is Not Yet Lost
by P.J. De GENARO
The first time I saw Del, it was from the back. The year was 1991, when it was still possible to fall off the grid, to disconnect your phone and leave town and not be found, if being lost was what you wanted. The neighborhood was a no-man’s-land on the far side of the Gowanus Canal, where old women in lawnchairs cursed at interlopers from Park Slope and Cobble Hill. I was on my way to a party, and Del seemed to be headed there too. Of course she was not Del yet as far as I knew, but only a mysterious dark-haired girl walking ten paces ahead of me through the fog of refrigerator coolant that hung over the entire block. On the back of her denim jacket, a painted Chinese dragon snorted and pranced. Sam was a college friend, recently come to Brooklyn. His apartment opened on a squalid yard, walled-off on three sides by other buildings. In the center of the yard was a circle of broken slates—the legacy of a former tenant with gardening ambitions—now serving as a dancefloor. I was watching the dancers from the back steps, neither in nor out, fish nor fowl, when Sam shimmied up beside me. “Kelly!” he shouted. He did a little pop-and-lock routine and held out a bottle of Heineken, which I accepted, leaning away from his gelled-up weekend hair and his second-hand bowling shirt. “It’s nice back here,” I said. “With the slates and everything.” “Yeah. Too bad there’s no patio furniture.” He let his hand rest on the small of my back. “Listen, I just invented a new party game. How it works is, at the stroke of midnight all the men take down their pants and lie in the weeds. It’s very important that they be supine. Then the women move through the yard, trying to guess who’s who by feel.” “Well…I guess I’d be up for that,” I said. Times were lean. “Great! You’re first on the list.” Abruptly he snatched his hand from my back and stood up straight. His girlfriend was striding toward us from the yard, wielding a tray of microwaved eggrolls. She was one of those efficient Manhattan types that I both admired and feared—a girl who could make a pudding-bowl haircut and Clarks sandals look carnal. I ventured alone into the yard and trolled the outer edges of the slate circle, among the dancers but not of them. It was Saturday night and I was already looking forward to Monday. Bad enough. But even worse because my semi-permanent-temp job had just ended and after this weekend I would be stuck at home in Park Slope, a neighborhood whose charm was all in its Sunday-brunch bustle, not in its ghost-town weekday afternoons. Still, I could use my time off to write. Poetry was my calling, though so far I’d found more satisfaction in typing and filing and answering phones—because I had at least accomplished something by the end of the day, someone needed me and even paid me. But nothing worthwhile ever came easily, and artists were supposed to suffer for their art, weren’t they? I took a gulp of beer, and someone chose that moment to thump me between the shoulder blades.
It was the dark girl in the dragon-jacket, slamming her way into the slate circle, trailing anger like sparks. She had just stalked away from some guy; I could see him standing subdued under an ailanthus tree. Inside the circle she bounced up and down like a piledriver. Her hair was yanked into a high ponytail that swung around her head in an arc, her jeans were tight and black. On her back the dragon leaped, and rolled its round, yellow eyes. The other dancers stepped back to watch. I was tired of waiting around for The Fonz to snap his fingers in my face, so I went inside the circle too, hanging on to my beer and rocking on my heels. The dragon girl grinned at me. She leaned close, her hair strafing my cheek. The music was very loud, and she had a message to impart. She opened her mouth wide and screamed, “get that freaking tree trunk out of your ass!”
She said her name was Del, and exhaled a thin jet of smoke. “You ever meet someone and you just have a feeling about them? That’s how I felt when I saw you standing there. I don’t make friends with other girls so easily. But I thought you looked sort of intense, and smart.” We had moved indoors and were backed up against the narrow strip of wall between Sam’s monk-cell bedroom and the kitchenette. The rest of the apartment was crammed with bodies forced to move vertically, like pistons. I was flushed from Del’s attention. “Where’d you get that jacket?” I asked. “This thing? From a dead delivery boy. It was a gang incident in Chinatown. I wasn’t involved, of course, but I used to date a guy who worked for the city morgue.” Del talked fast, each word spilling over into the next. She sucked on her cigarette. “The delivery boy hadn’t paid his smuggling fee. It was horrible. You’d think they’d just shoot him but it looked like he’d died the Death of a Thousand Cuts or something. Fortunately he wasn’t wearing the jacket at the time. It was just lying next to him on the ground. Look.” Del held the jacket open over her black sleeveless shirt. I leaned close enough to smell her sandalwood perfume—two dollars from a vendor on St. Mark’s—and her Secret Invisible Solid. The lining of the jacket was splotched with dark stains like dried paint, or blood. “This party is crushing my soul,” she said abruptly, pulling the jacket closed. She suggested we walk each other over to Smith and 9th, which was a bit of a hike, and creepy at this time of night. From there, she could hop the F-train up to Delancey, and I could zip home in about five seconds flat. Which was a waste of a token, but if Del considered me essential to the un-crushing of her soul, how could I not go with her? The night had turned cool; a nip of fall was in the air. The ancient ladies had folded up their lawn chairs, and even the guys who hung around the bodegas making hissing noises were scarce. The route we chose was treeless and flat, the buildings free of fanciful stonework. Brooklyn stripped down to its bare-brick essence. “So, Del…” I said. I was puffing a borrowed cigarette, enjoying the way each pause for a drag added a sense of moment to the conversation. “Is that short for something?” Del groaned and tugged her ponytail with both hands. “I knew you’d ask,” she said. “It’s short for Delta. As in, Delta Blues. Delta Blues Friedman. Because my parents were fucking hippies. I mean, they weren’t hippies when they had me, because no one was officially a hippie yet in 1966. They only became hippies in 1967. When they had me they were merely folkies, freewheelin’, a-rovin’, Positively 4th Street. All that shit.” She coughed, batted smoke away from her face, rubbed her eye with a balled-up fist. “My dad was a Romanian Jew, part Gypsy. A violinist. He played the sidewalk cafés of Paris and made the ladies cry. Then he went down south to save the world. My mom was a hillbilly. No, worse. She was a Melungeon from the Tennessee hills. The Melungeons lived there before the Indians. They might have been shipwrecked Portuguese sailors. Or they might have come from Turkey. Until she met my dad Mom had never seen a flush-toilet. She sang these weird hill songs, Barbara Allyn and The Daemon Lover. Imagine that shit putting you to sleep every night.” I chewed the word ‘Melungeon’ in my mouth. It tasted like an exotic fruit, or a mutant fish. “I’m from Massapequa, myself,” I murmured. Del touched my arm. “I’m so glad we met,” she said. “I don’t have many girlfriends to talk to. But you know girls—you’re too aggressive or too smart or your fucking nails are the wrong color.” “Yeah,” I said. I squared my shoulders a little, stood up taller. I did know girls, most of whom would have a tough time keeping up with someone like Del, a fast-talking New York Melungeon. I didn’t have much use for them either. Del and I got into the habit of meeting for coffee one night a week. Usually in the Village, but sometimes near me. On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving we met up at the Punctilio Diner (home of Brooklyn’s Best Bottomless Coffee Cup.) We sat in our booth for hours, slurping coffee, getting the shakes, putting off the inevitable. I had to go out to Long Island the next day. Del had to be up early to fly somewhere, though she somehow never got around to telling me where. Neither of us much wanted to leave the city. Del cradled her mug in both hands. “Imagine if a cup of coffee were really bottomless,” she said, peering into it. Her hair was loose, a thick black cape down her back. Her face was pale from the early cold snap that gripped the northeast that fall. She reapplied her lipstick—the color of raspberry pie filling—after every cup, and wore a red scarf around her neck that she kept winding and unwinding. Everyone watched her: the busboy, the waitress, the wearily hip middle-aged Dad across the aisle, and his nine-year-old son. This made me feel protective of Del—she was tough, but maybe not tough enough—and sometimes jealous of her. It was hard to bloom in her shadow. Yet when she was around, the world felt full of possibility, and I needed to feel that things were possible. I’d been temping at an entertainment law firm for weeks, a place where the phone never stopped ringing and where the head partner had daily screaming fits. “How’s the poetry going?” Del asked. She knew this was a sore point, and I felt particularly bad about it just then: another year winding down and nothing to show for it. “There is no poetry,” I said. “In fact I’ve been thinking—all that stuff I wrote in college only came out good because I was obsessed with my Contemporary Lit professor.” “Yeah? You never told me that.” Del grinned. “What was he like? For some reason I’m picturing Sam Elliott in ‘Roadhouse.’” “Not at all. He was clean-cut. He wore blue blazers.” In fact he had been thirtyish and married with a newborn baby girl, and he’d looked so tired in the mornings that I always wanted to take his head in my lap. I used to sort of hope he’d pass out so I could resuscitate him while ordering the others to call 911. “He had this intensity about him. I used to listen to him so hard I thought I could hear his voice in my sleep, and I was sure we had a psychic connection going. Even though I was too shy to raise my hand in class, ever.” Del sat up straight. “I love that psychic shit. I completely believe in that.” She raised an eyebrow meaningfully. “He gave me an ‘A.’” “I knew you were gonna say that.” Her voice was loud. The poor dad across the aisle put his hand over his heart. “So, what would you consider the best poem you wrote back then?” I thought for a minute. “It was called ‘Holy Smoke.’” Del waited for me to expand on this. I winced. “Because my professor once told us he had been an altar boy when he was a kid in Boston, and there was this creepy old Father Something-or-other, and even after he grew up whenever he passed a church and smelled incense it sent a wave of terror through him.” Del laughed. “God, that’s sweet. I love men. So where is this dude now? Why don’t you get in touch with him?” Her eyes bored into me. “I mean, if I were you I’d do whatever it took to get myself back on track.”
She unsettled me, the way she casually ripped open things that I had meant to keep hidden and safe. This is what you need, I told myself.
Del worked at a Mexican restaurant on East 9th. Three nights a week she loaded her arms up with plates of tacos, quesadillas, and enchiladas; she doled out frozen margaritas in glasses the size of fish-bowls. She had a way of swaying her backside as she moved among the tables. She made good money in tips. I began to spend my nights there, at the bar, drinking Corona beneath strings of red chili lights. I read hoary volumes of poetry I’d picked up at the Strand, and tried to write my own. I modified my office-temp outfits for these evenings out by adding Doc Martens, a leather jacket, a slash of crimson lipstick. For the first time in my life, I had a place where I was a ‘regular.’ I even had my own barstool—the farthest one from the door, under the Dia de los Muertos poster. The bar was tended by a black-haired Dubliner named Colm. He wore a silver crucifix in his ear that hung almost to his shoulder. He appeared to be made of nothing but bone, sinew and nerve. I went demented with lust every time he took money from my hand, every time he called me Kelly with a faint trace of condescension for my parents’ Hollywood-dream of Ireland. All I could do was be grateful they hadn’t named me Tara. Colm and Del had just moved into a walkup on Avenue C. On off-nights the three of us went dancing at the Industrial Park, where the drinks were strong and the music throbbed in our limbs and made us reel. Del and Colm were the kind of people who looked better lit by strobe lights, like players in an old black-and-white film: Del a dark-eyed houri temptress, Colm a villain who would tie you to the tracks. And where did I fit into all this? “You have to write about us,” said Del. “‘Cause Colm and I are too drunk to remember. Plus we’re both functional illiterates.” We were making our way back to their apartment through the bitter winter air after a prolonged revel, stepping around the city’s walking and sleeping wounded, the piles of uncollected garbage. “I’m quite literate, thank you,” Colm said. “I see Kelly as the mythical Irish colleen authoress, with her brown hair and pink cheeks. Miss Kelly O’Neil Cuchullain of Ballybrack and fooking Ballincorney—” “I’m only half Irish.” Colm ignored me. “You’re the image of fookin’ what’s-er-name—” “Joyce James,” Del said, laughing. “No. Fookin’—fookin’—argh, she wrote novels about country girls with drunk dads, and unwashed farm lads, and cow’s shitein’ in the milk. Edner O’Brien!” “Edner?” “E-D-N-A,” he said. “Edner O’Brien.” We floated above Avenue C, our limbs hollow and our heads like balloons from one too many tequila shots, one too many hits off Colm’s hash pipe. Colm played his guitar and serenaded us with his original compositions. I made adjustments to his lyrics, and worked on my poems, curled up on the filthy rug. Del cracked jokes and poured drinks, danced around the living room which was mostly bed, the kitchen which was mostly bathtub. The soles of her bare feet were black with dust no one could be bothered to sweep up. Sometimes Colm and I just watched her. Del was happy being watched. Being with them was good for me. I didn’t sleep much, I lost a temp job due to chronic lateness, but I was writing a lot. During slow days, during lunch hours. I was in love with the idea of the three of us. Only now and then did it hit me that I was still on my own: late nights when I wanted to keep talking even though Colm had yawned significantly and pulled Del onto his lap and the two of them had begun to twine around one another like cats. “Could we not all go to bed together?” This was Colm, of course. Del and I laughed. Colm laughed too, but he seemed to want an answer. “Maybe if we didn’t already know each other so well,” I offered. Del just rolled her eyes. The truth was Colm was so enraptured with Del that I found his protestations a bit pro forma. But there came a night—a cold, rainy Saturday creeping toward Sunday morning—when I woke up curled into his side on the Persian rug. We were wearing the clothes we’d had on when the evening began over mai-tais and sesame noodles at Dumb Luck. Later we’d moved on to red wine and a compilation disc from Wax Trax! that sounded like a rupturing aneurysm. Del lay on the other side of Colm. Her eyes were shut. Without thinking I began to stroke his chest. “Could we not all go to bed together,” he said again. To which Del replied, in the tones of a long-married wife, “oh, all right.” A number of things nagged at me as I watched her open the Castro Convertible. When had I last shaved my legs? And how would I ever, ever get my clothes off, when I was shy about doing that even under less exotic conditions? In my innocence I assumed that Colm would want to be acted upon by both Del and me, and I thought I could manage that, though I worried that Del might be angry. But soon I saw that Del and I were expected to act upon each other, and that was when I had to stop. I loved Del, she was beautiful, I could put my arms around her and even kiss her, but that was it. I fled and locked myself in their tiny, grimy bathroom and got dressed. I could hear them murmuring on the other side of the door. I was too ashamed to look at myself in the mirror. I had failed them. And worse, I had failed Art, and Music, and Fun. I felt like I had failed New York City. I let myself out without looking back. I went home on the subway, climbed my two flights, unlocked my door. Tiptoed past my roommate’s bedroom, put on my pajamas, brushed my teeth. Cried, and then dreamed of being pursued by cats. I found a dingy cafe on Union Street that held a weekly open-mike night for poets. For three weeks I only sat and listened, sipping bad coffee and suffering stomach cramps. The fourth week I signed up to read. I had brought two poems, both composed on Avenue C, both alluding to Colm and suppressed desire. The stage was nothing but a packing crate wedged into a corner, and my hands shook so badly that I was sure no one could hear me above the rustling paper. When I was done, I had to fend off the attentions of a genteel graybeard. This was reassuring. I started palling around Greg, a grad student from NYU. He was cute and had good taste in music. We did ordinary things together: dinners, movies, concerts at Wetlands and the Ritz. It was no big deal, just enough to keep me distracted. I screened my calls. But they sought me out finally, first one, then the other. Colm showed up on a day when I was between temp jobs, and Brooklyn was slumbering under three inches of ice-glazed snow. “Oh—hiyeh Kelly,” he said, as if he hadn’t expected to see me at my own door. I invited him into the kitchen, made him a cup of tea with shaking hands. He sat slumped over the card-table, beautiful as sleep, death, oblivion. “Del’s left me,” he said, raking his fingers through his hair. “Have you seen her, Kelly? Is she staying here, with you?” I didn’t answer right away. The fact was that a few days earlier, I’d come home to find Del on my stoop, turning around in slow circles, as if she expected at any moment to be snatched from behind. We spent a few minutes just watching ambulances line up in front of New York Methodist, painting the street with streaks of red light. Del looked worn, sort of bruised around the eyes. I asked her to come upstairs, offered her lunch—a tuna sandwich, leftover spaghetti—but she shook her head. “I’m afraid of him, Kelly,” she said. Del, who feared nothing—neither late-night subway rides nor envious friends. “He’s turned weird,” she continued. “Scary. I never told you this but he had a horrible childhood. His parents were Tinkers. They didn’t live anywhere, just wandered from camp to camp around the outskirts of Dublin. He had six brothers and two sisters and two of the brothers are already dead, one from alcohol and one from heroin. Sometimes the government came around and forced Colm to go to school, and the other children just persecuted—” “Del, shut up,” I said. It was too much already, the Tinker and the Melungeon. I asked her if she wanted to stay with me, although I didn’t relish the idea of her crossing paths with Greg in my foyer, my kitchen, my bathroom. “You’re sweet, but no thanks. Just—” here she exhaled like a spent balloon, “if I drop out of sight for a while, it’s because of him, not you. And I don’t want you to worry about me. Okay? I’ll call you from wherever I end up.” That was Tuesday. Now it was Friday, and Colm was blinking at me miserably, waiting. “No,” I said. “I haven’t seen her.” “Where is she then?” I said I didn’t know. I walked around the table and laid my hand on his back. Nothing but tension and vertebrae under the rough cloth of his shirt. Against my better judgment, I was about to suggest we call the police, but then he was on his feet, an arm around my waist, a hand on the back of my neck, his tongue darting around inside my mouth. Screw Del, I wanted him. Like this, alone, all mine. I stumbled and slid down the length of him till he braced me against the refrigerator, lifting me off my feet. I reached under his shirt, grabbing for skin, hair, anything. “I’ve always fancied you, Kel,” he murmured into my neck. This was bullshit. I could tell by his voice, and I wasn’t too far gone just yet to wince. He pulled back and looked at me and I saw that his pupils were pinpoints in rounds of colorless sky. “Come on,” he said, pressing forward with his pelvis, as if he were trying to convince not me, but himself. I was pinned on his hipbone like a bug, and I was going to die here—suffocated, or just humped to death—right in front of the forty-year-old Hotpoint refrigerator. “You’d better go,” I whispered. “I’ll call you if I hear from Del. I promise.” Colm stepped back finally, blinking. He ruffled my hair. “You’re a good girl, Kelly,” he said vaguely, and walked out of my kitchen and my life. In April two young women were fished from the East River, not far from Peter Cooper Village. Their throats had been cut; they had likely been raped. Their clothing suggested they had each met their fate after a night of clubbing. ‘Sicko Slasher Panics Partiers,’ screamed the Post, while the Village Voice wondered where the justice was for such gross crimes of misogyny. Neither girl fit Del’s description, but I couldn’t help thinking. Even after their names were released (neither one was Delta Blues Friedman) I couldn’t help thinking. I was curled under a blanket with Greg on a rainy Saturday morning when Del’s landlady called. She had a litany of complaints. She’d been leaving messages for Miss Friedman every day, she said, for two months. She was out fifteen hundred on that apartment already and what was she supposed to do? So she let herself in with the passkey, although after some of her previous tenants she was afraid of what she would find. Rotten food, dead pets, don’t ask. She would spare me the details because I sounded like a decent young lady. Miss Friedman had left some things in the place. The landlady packed them up in a box. She saw my number scotch-taped to the fridge, and called me out of the kindness of her heart, because frankly she’d been about to lug the box down to the curb for the homeless to pick through. I told her I would come and get it. The box had once held cans of tomato paste and was just big enough to be awkward on the subway. Things rattled around inside. When I got home I laid it on the floor with a degree of ceremony. I was sure it held the answer to the mystery that was Del. My hand shook as I took a kitchen knife to the packing tape. Inside I found two pairs of black kneesocks, one pair of purple cotton panties with ripped elastic, a four-pack of Bic ballpoint pens, and a shotglass from La Hacienda. In short, the kinds of things any young woman might keep inside or on top of her bureau. But ah. Here was a 1984 yearbook from Lindenhurst High School, home of the Bulldogs. Lindenhurst, for God’s sake. “Good luck in all your endeavors.” “May all your dreams come true.” “Have fun in Oswego.” On page seventeen, between pimply Michael Freundlich and chubbette Shelby Garson was Delta B. Friedman herself: black curls spilling over one shoulder, raccoon eyes, toothy grin in a narrow face. Not quite pretty just yet. A member of the Drama Club and, improbably, the Mathletes. No mention of any Gypsies or Melungeons. There was more: a dog-eared paperback edition of Nine Stories, Del’s full name scrawled across the title page in loopy script. The ‘i’ dotted with a heart, no less. A black plastic headband. A pair of conjoined chopsticks in a red paper sheath. A fortune-cookie fortune that said, “everything is not yet lost.” At the very bottom lay the dragon jacket, folded into a little square, like a flag. I gathered it up and held it in my lap, and I sat there for quite a long time before I felt ready to put it on.
P.J. DeGENARO lives in White Plains, New York, where she holds down many quasi-remunerative jobs, including (but not limited to) freelance writer, freelance graphic designer, and writing instructor at Manhattanville College and Rochambeau School. This is her first published story, but she has many more to send out. She is also working on a novel.