The Next

By: Rafe Haze

Chapter One

When I first arrived in 1993, I was told I’d know I’d become a real New Yorker when a body pancakes on the cement at my feet at the base of a high rise. My agent disagreed. She said you become a New Yorker once you find the engorged blackened body of some glum neighbor rotting on his toilet after complaining to the super that his apartment smells foul and the pile of yellowing newspapers at his door has expanded into the hallway.

Either way, like most New Yorkers, I’d Yep with a grin. Yep with the understanding that some inevitable proximity to death would inaugurate me into a galvanized and oddly covetable world of cynicism. Yep with the assumption that on any one of the 7,300 days in the next two decades of cement-glass-steel-brick existence with the constant proliferation of people above, below, in front, and behind, it’d be fairly likely I’d encounter a flattened slash rotting body.

Not once in those shiny, nubile days twenty years ago did it occur to me that I might become one of those bodies.

At what point, as I rounded which pitch-pitted asphalt corner of one of the Empire’s seventy-two thousand city blocks, did this new grey notion begin to metastasize inside my gut? Stirring which cardboard cup of appallingly uninspiring burnt-brown Starbucks did I transform into one of the miserable sorry saps? The eyes-cast-down-on-the-subway have-nothings? One of the ones who gave up?

As one drowns, at some point the sack of bricks cuffed to your ankles starts doing you a favor. No songwriting gigs for the last six months. I had enough to pay the maintenance fee for perhaps one more month, after which I’d probably be allowed three months of non-payment before the landlord raised a true stink. The Con Edison bill had not yet arrived for this month, so I could remain burrowed in denial about grid energy. My Verizon cell and internet service would be cut off at any moment since those payments were delinquent too. I hankered to talk to nobody, but I needed the ability to accept and negotiate projects for the cash because even the cheap corner Thai food was starting to pop holes in the purse.

Was I cognizant I was slowly lowering myself with bent elbows and strained triceps into a self-cemented slough of green-brown shit, bill-by-bill, rejection-by-rejection, withdrawal-by-withdrawal? Was all that kept me from slumping into the slough entirely a telescoped ego-inflated conviction I had good songs at my fingertips, really good songs, straining as always to bleed out into tangibility? And how much longer could I continue to blame environmental influences for causing these musical lifelines to clot? My fear was that if something stays clotted long enough, one loses the ability to recognize its beauty. At what point would I just see the scars?

December eighth. Forty years old.

The sack of bricks decided my birthday was the perfect day to cuff itself to my ankle. For my first gift, I received an email from Mr. Palmer, my brother’s trailer park neighbor in a greaser town called Placerville, located in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains.

Paul is dead.

A year of shit-slurping in the muck trough had my emotional reactions well flat-lined, or at the very least well delayed, so these three words were redirected to an examination room in my brain for a clinical breakdown. Paul is dead. Literally three words. Intentional or not, the brevity had its own connotation. He died unnaturally. Not hit by a semi on Highway 5 or a stray bullet at McDonald’s. In those cases it would have read, Paul was killed. Not drugs, for Mr. Palmer would have informed me, as he had three times before, that Paul was using once again. But there was no phone call. Just one definitive short email which circumvented both conflicting emotion on the part of the messenger as well any on-the-spot further inquiry of details. Paul is dead. Passive in its tense…an insinuation of shame…

Oh. Oh…Fuck.

He succeeded this time.

He killed himself.

Paul would have been thirty-seven in March.

But on that morning in December I had no time, let alone faculty, to process the impact of my brother’s death. No time to be hit with the acute awareness I now had no family left alive. No time to realize I also had no tight group of friends to substitute for family.

Writers have their egos tightly entwined with the work they produce—largely because the moment they put their names to a song, they simultaneously imagine every individual actually reads the credits in the CD inside covers and proceeds to judge them to be a success or failure. With ever-sharpening fatalism, your work and its explicit and implicit deadlines become all-consuming to the point where even scheduling dinner plans becomes a chore. One by one, your friends begin to sense this, and it drives them to other New Yorkers more reliably, authentically, and overtly grateful to see them.

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