Hey, Baby…now don’t stir, just keep right on with whatever you’re dreaming, good or bad. What’s it like? Are you gliding a sweet breeze with incandescent green-violet luna moth wings, under sea horses, over stars? Or are you trapped or running wild, in terror or in love? Scanning weird skies, explosions, kaleidoscopic confusions of a most strange night? I’d not be surprised if your moment’s rest has been assailed, given all that’s going on—and by the time I’m done there’ll be a whole lot more—but you’ll come to understand it better, and get a bead on what to do when you awaken. For now, just make a hatchway and let all that slide away, so I can let you in on something else first.
We’ve met before, you and I, a long time ago. You knew me as Msongo, the big fella selling newspapers across from the harbor near where you were living at the time. I knew everybody in the neighborhood, a good chunk of the world going to and coming from the ferry and the subways. That setup suited me fine. Two of my favorite things in life were good reading and good music, and there at the newsstand I could keep them going all day, till I got home to Wanda, my ever-patient wife of twenty-nine years, who’d take care of the rest.
A fun time, those days, before the talk of catastrophe started making people top-heavy. I earned a living talking to people, like a bartender serving up news as surrogate booze. A lot of my customers came by mainly to gab. I could talk the ears off an elephant and enjoy listening while he talked off mine.
Well, the main story here ain’t really about the good old days, nor about me and the stand. I just got off on that because the stand’s where I was the big day Lyon MacAuliffe met my neighbors Nopali and Arielle. …
Lyon was an ocean guy. I figured he must have been a whale in a previous life. His habitat was a converted live-aboard crab boat anchored in the marina, near the wooden storefront he worked out of, between the bait shop and the Coast Guard gym.
He trained his natural fixit chops on marine radio systems as a way to wangle as much sea time as he could. ……About once a year he’d take flight on his boat like a migrating arctic tern, and it would be a long time before anyone would see him at all.
.. Seeing as how he must have come by our sessions a dozen times, it’s surprising he hadn’t run into Nopali before, since by then she’d joined in with us a bunch of times herself, singing scat. No matter—things generally happen how and when they’re meant to happen. This one started happening about a quarter past seven one fall morning, a long while back.
I was expecting a news pit stop from Lyon, it being a bit past sunup on a Saturday, a time he could usually be counted on to haul in at the marina after a night out at sea checking out the stars, horseshoe crabs, and the sounds of faraway lands on the shortwave. About five minutes before he showed up, who should delight my eyes but me and my wife Wanda’s favorite neighbor, Nopali Arendal, with her new young friend Arielle Topaz in tow.
Nopali’d been living down the block from us for the past few years, on the occasional nights she wasn’t down in the tropics somewhere, courtesy of Carib Air, which she stewardessed for. She was a few years younger than Lyon, about twenty-eight, and without a doubt just what my wife referred to her as—a gorgeous creature. Being an ethnic cross-breed doesn’t always strengthen your hand, but it sure did for this girl. She was a wild mix of Polynesian and Scandinavian with black hair, shining oceanic dark-brown eyes, skin soft and lively as a peach dolphin’s, and a dancer’s body that hit all the right grace notes….
She’d been plugging away off-hours at a singing career, trying to make it with a mixed band doing a sort of progressive, trippy fusion sound, which could stone the unstoned and make the stoned feel like they’d come to the right place. …I went to one of their gigs, a rowdy affair at a club downtown. …Her voice was gentle and silky smooth, a kind that couldn’t have shown off its true colors without a microphone, but so unerring in finding its melodies and so sweet in its harmonic play you could just melt.
After the set, I told her it was a pleasure to be part of her audience at last, and she said it was a pleasure to be part of my audience every time she stopped by for the paper.
That Saturday morning, Nopali’s guided morning meanderings with her quiet firebrand companion Arielle led them to the newsstand. I’d seen the two of them together several times over the previous month. Arielle was eighteen, the kind of girl who could wake up a bleary-eyed newsstand customer (or proprietor) no matter what time of the morning…She’d flowed through the [school] system in the ample space between the radar beams they install for troublemakers, star athletes, and the kids officially stamped “gifted.” Somehow she’d limped three-quarters of the way to the graduation finish line (certain that no one on the faculty other than her photography teacher would know she’d ever been there) before cobbling together enough credits at City College to test out of the system with an Official Equivalency Certificate, which went on to a tour of duty framed near the toilet-paper dispenser in her bathroom.
By the time Arielle and her parents moved into the fourth-floor apartment next to Nopali’s, she’d been out of high school a few months, feeding her growing photo habit by grace of a class she loved up at the college and waitressing nights at a pizzeria. She feared to calculate how many pizzas she had to carry to cover all the film, chemicals, and framing for the pictures piling up along her bedroom walls, awaiting their future exhibitions in world-class museums, once someone showed up to tell her how to go about it..
Over the next week Nopali figured out that Arielle had pegged her for being too straight, based on age (Nopali being about a decade older put her within one thin decade of her parents) plus her going off in respectable shoes and an airline uniform four times a week. Then one night when Nopali was out there, again reconciling herself to not getting her verse done in the heat and noise of the squabble next door, she heard Arielle declare she’d be leaving home within the week, never to return, and she realized she was genuinely intrigued by this turbulent spirit. When Arielle stormed out onto the balcony and began to lean a little too far over the balcony railing for Nopali’s comfort, Nopali found herself issuing the girl an invitation to come over for a glass of wine.
She could see Arielle first working through the calculations to see if there was something bad lurking in the presentation. Being multithirsty anyway and determined not to walk back into the kitchen where her parents were, Arielle started to climb over the divide. Nopali suggested she tell her parents, but the girl declined, arguing that if they noticed she were missing, they’d come out there and could hear where she was. She then proceeded with her risky maneuver, some fifty feet over the sidewalk below. Nopali got up and surreptitiously spotted her as she completed it.
Arielle had told herself she was just going over for few minutes, but she stayed for four hours. They went through the bottle of wine, bags of pretzels and cookies, some leftover deli pasta salad, a log of pepper cheese, and a fat stack of music. Nopali played her the record they’d cut when she was twenty-three, and she could tell Arielle was envious. Nopali redirected her stream of thought by asking about her photography, since she’d seen Arielle shooting pictures of the street and beach from the balcony.
It didn’t take long before Arielle dipped back over the balcony—though the hallway was still in perfectly usable condition—and brought back her portfolio of pictures. It was a potpourri of artful takes on local beach and street folk and her cats, and a revealing series of self-portraits.