To Every Dog Its Bone



Grand St & Essex St, NY, NY 10002

Neighborhood: Lower East Side

I felt like I owed him something, even if I couldn’t say what. It wasn’t money. I closed my eyes like a dead man and gave those coins to the nuns on the corner. My brother is a music publisher. I’m not really sure what this means, but I’m proud. People always ask about it. It’s not the usual thing you have in a family. Everyone picks it like a scab: a music publisher. We also have a bus driver.

The truth is that I don’t know how my brother became a music publisher or what sort of music he publishes. I only know that one day he called me up and said that he was no longer a music publisher and that he wanted to know if he could stay in my apartment until he straightened some things out. Sure, I said. Stay as long as you like. I owed him some blood, even if I couldn’t say why.

When I said he could stay in my apartment, I meant that he could stay on my couch. I have a small apartment that is made up of two rooms. There’s a smallish bedroom and then another slightly larger room that is both the living room and the kitchen. Each of these rooms has its own window. I got a little nervous, because my brother had never been inside my apartment. He might think it was too small or he might be surprised to find out that I had thought up some rules of conduct that were probably ridiculous; we are both adults and don’t need puerile regulations. Toilet seat, down!

Even so, it probably wasn’t the worst idea in the world to lay down some basic laws. We hadn’t shared space in thirty years and I know that in the interim I had developed some habits or routines that I would like to keep. I didn’t like to use an alarm clock. I didn’t go to work until four in the afternoon. I didn’t like to make a project out of getting out of bed. I liked to make a cup of tea and sit in the living room watching the television like a deaf man. Unless there was a tragedy, I liked to just sit there in silence while I drank the tea. I understood that with Dean sleeping on the couch I’d probably have to give up that particular part of the routine, and I expected that Dean might have to compromise as well. He might, for instance, want to listen to opera. Being in the music business, he might consider listening to music an important part of his agenda, but my building had a strict policy against playing music between the hours of ten at night and nine the following morning. I felt that I could explain this in a simple and effective way, but more than likely it wouldn’t come up at all and if it did I was sure Dean would be the first to say that all buildings had rules like that. It was just for keeping the peace when you lived in such tight surroundings.

I didn’t really expect Dean to be around that much. Even though he said he wasn’t a music publisher any longer, that stuff stays in your blood. He’d probably be spending quite a bit of time over by the sixteen hundred block of Broadway. I don’t know what I expected him to do otherwise. He wasn’t the bus driver.

My mother was excited that Dean was going to stay with me. When I called you could hear the anticipation. She said that Dean would be a good influence on me, but she never said how. Dean took her to the opening night of “Cats” and introduced her to all of the actors and pit musicians. He bought her a cast album and had it autographed. She kept a picture of Dean and herself at this event on top of her piano. If Dean were going to move in with me until whatever things Dean needed to straighten out got straightened out, then it would follow that my life would benefit in some positive way.

I’d been a little bit surprised to hear from Dean. I mostly heard about him from our mother or sometimes from a mutual friend who’d run into Dean eating steak Tartar at Sardi’s. He said Dean had a raw egg cracked over the steak. This friend said that Dean seemed to be very busy and was probably on a business lunch, but that he’d been kind enough to invite the friend to sit down and shoot the shit for a while. I’d always thought of Dean as verbally unarmed.

I thought with Dean around that maybe I could get back on track with my writing. I used to write plays, messy off-off-Broadway things that weren’t very good. I got my characters into a hole and then I’d be unable to get them out of it. I was terrible with dialogue and didn’t understand the simplest of rules: that I wasn’t writing for myself but for the audience.

I may have hated the audience. Most of the time the audiences liked a cheerier ending. I did hate the audience. I don’t know if Dean was even aware that I used to write, and now it had been so long since I had bothered that I felt sick thinking about it again. I got that feeling I used to get when I had an idea for a new play and the idea would make me scratch. It would start out all right, I suppose, and then within half an act it would deteriorate thanks to some bleak situation only I found enthralling. Then I’d spend four months trying to salvage it, fully aware of its inadequacies. The one time I had something produced—in a warehouse with no toilet facilities—the experience had made my bowels so nervous that I didn’t write again for over a year.

I got the impression that Dean had really stuck to what he was doing. That’s how my mother told it, anyway, but I can’t say that I recall any of the songs Dean’s company published. Some of them must have been on the radio or on someone’s living room turntable. I’m not even sure where Dean lived or why he asked to stay with me instead of staying at his summer house in Massachusetts. I’d only seen pictures of it, but it looked like a damn decent arrangement. It sat on some rolling acreage and had a barn and a small apple orchard. The pictures I’d seen had been taken in the fall and the place looked like a postcard. If you looked over a nearby hill, you could see where winter was coming in. That’s the kind of place I’d go if I needed to straighten things out.

Thursday afternoon, someone buzzed from downstairs. I live in a walk-up, up three flights, turn left, down a hallway and that’s me at the end, overlooking the street. I buzzed the guy up; what can you do? He didn’t speak any English and had a hell of a time hefting some metal clothes racks up those stairs, let me tell you. He had to go up and down three times to bring those racks in, and when he finished I felt like I should give him a tip, but instead I offered him a cold beer, which he accepted.

Those racks were the damndest things. I’d never seen anything like them, but I imagined them to be kind of thing you’d find backstage at a theatre with costumes hanging on them, or being rolled across Seventh Avenue in the garment district. They took up most of the living room and eventually I rolled one into the entryway so I could watch television.

I sat on the couch and something on one of the racks that was still in living room caught my eye. At first I thought it might be a skirt, a red velvet skirt, or maybe a tablecloth, but when I took the thing off its hanger it turned out to be a cape, something for the opera or a matador, take your pick. I couldn’t imagine where someone would wear this kind of thing, but I put it on anyway and took the trash down to the garbage chute. There were people in that building who wouldn’t bat an eyelash at that kind of attire. There was a guy on the first floor who moused around in pink ballet slippers that he tied around the ankle. The superintendent had a bulldog that he let eat sandwiches out of his mouth. It was a pretty average building in that respect. To every dog its bone.

Dean showed up later that night with a paper shopping bag clutched to his belly. So, he said to me. What’s going on with you? So it was going to be casual. Just like that. Not much, I said, and I took the bag from him, expecting that it might contain some booze or assorted imported salamis Dean couldn’t do without, but instead it held some neatly folded underwear, toilet paper, and a magazine. He said he had already eaten.

Okay, I said. Okay then. I’ll just go into the bedroom for a minute and let you get comfortable. That isn’t normally what I’d be doing at that time of day. Normally I’d be out taking a walk or frying up some eggs.

After a while I could hear him going into the bathroom, so I stepped back out into the living room and saw that he had arranged his underwear on top of a stereo speaker and had put his watch on the windowsill. He’d folded up his paper bag into a small square and had placed it in the trashcan. I could see a dark stain troubling one of the sofa cushions where Dean had just been lying down. The room smelled of iron ore.

“Are you going anywhere tonight?” he asked when he came out of the bathroom. “Going out?”

“Not really,” I said. “I mean, I sometimes go for a walk and maybe grab a six-pack at the corner store, but I don’t really go anywhere, if that’s what you meant. Why?”

“No reason,” he answered. I asked if maybe he needed me to pick something up for him, like a razor or some Scotch tape, but he said he was fine.

“It’s the longest day of the year today,” I said, only because it was topical.

“Look, my stomach is killing me. I think I’ll just lie down and watch the television, if that’s all right with you. I need a vacation.” He was too tall to fit the length of the sofa and had to put his ankles up on the arm. I went back into the bedroom and shut the door. I should have moved the television into the bedroom before he showed up.

It was probably rough going from one neighborhood to another. They all had their stinks and rhythms, and sometimes it wasn’t easy to move from one to another without feeling as if you’d moved to another country. Same thing occurred when you changed a building, which is why I’d been in this one for so long. I imagined that Dean lived somewhere uptown near the park. I thought he might be used to more air and light. He’d definitely be used to more space. It was bound to be different here, no matter where he’d come from, so I took out a piece of paper and made him a little map that showed the coffee shop, the drugstore, and the corner market. If he wanted Chinese, I knew where to get that too.

It felt a little ugly to me. To think that he just showed up like he’d lived here all along, like a roommate. I made a further note that we were out of celery.

Our parents liked to take long trips by car. We spent fourteen, sixteen hours a day driving. We’d sleep in the car and end up in Texas. The heat could kill you. The trip was only fun for the first couple of hours, but then you’d get itchy for a Coke or an ice cream or a piss and you’d start to rustle around in the back with the hot sun splintering the side of your face. My mother said that Dean and I should play a game—any game—make something up. At first we did what everyone else did and tried to spot license plates from different states. When you’d get to a big state like Texas the game would get too predictable. Not like Rhode Island, the state everyone sped through without stopping. In Rhode Island you could at least get five states’ worth of plates, maybe more. But we both liked the idea of game, so we made up something where we’d have to say all of the lower forty-eight states without taking a breath, or at least see who could last the longest. We’d do this in reverse order also, from Wyoming on back. There were lots of other ways to make this game interesting. You could, for instance, say the state names backwards or in pig Latin.

That’s what I was doing, saying the state names in pig Latin and listening to Dean snore on the sofa. When I got to New Mexico I got up and peeked out the door, and I kept doing that all night, every hour or so, because I couldn’t remember how to go to sleep.

Early in the morning, I went past the sofa over to the drain board that stands in for a kitchen and I made a pimiento cheese sandwich on white bread. I wrapped it in Saran wrap and wrote this on an index card: Sorry if it’s soggy. I left both the sandwich and the card on the arm of the sofa that wasn’t propping up Dean’s feet.

By ten, there was a wound where Dean had been lying. This wound was like the body of Christ. It made an impression on the sofa and I believed in it, I sat on it.

There was a knock on the door, a Mr. Williams from the second floor. Mr. Williams said Mr. Williams as if he were the police. He had a coffee cup in his hand, but it was empty. His breath smelled of the black grounds from the bottom of the pot. His tongue was coated in short-pile mustard carpeting.

Is it you who has had the company? he wanted to know.

No, I said. I haven’t had any parties in five years.

I told them it was probably you. I don’t know what it is about you, I can’t put my finger on it, but I know it was you. He had the eyes of a Gaboon viper. I had the hangover of an A-bomb.

Sorry, I said, and shut the door in his face. I was just getting into the bathtub when the buzzer went off again.

We need to have a little talk, this second caller said. About the nature of the crime and the disposition of the body.

The other one standing there, the third caller, said condition of the body. You mean condition. How it was found and in what state and any other relative particulars, like dog hairs or faux Aztec bracelets they sell to tourists on the beach.

I meant disposition, the second replied. Disposal of the body.

It, this third person said, it was found with a hole in its belly. It was gutted like a fish. And we need to talk to you about it; at the very least we need you to formally identify it. We have it at the morgue, but we can’t say where.

Technically speaking, this knife I have is a butter knife. It is good for spreading margarine and pimiento cheese.

I think, the third person continued, standing in what passed for a kitchen, we have some trouble here. Please keep away from the technician who will be collecting the pimiento cheese evidence. He didn’t really say that. He didn’t say pimiento cheese. The technician had recently been promoted to entry-level evidence collector. There would be a salary of between $14.17 and $17.89 per hour, depending on random variables and knowledge of other languages including Spanish, Korean, or Cantonese. You couldn’t just say that you could speak or write in one of those languages. You had to take a test.

There are no laws here, not really, only small requests about toilet seats and arias. There are, however, incontrovertible facts, and he, Dean, my brother, had bled my couch deep red and then had managed to get down the stairs and into a taxi anyway, guts hanging outside his belly like an unbuckled belt or umbilical cord.

This is what I meant about having a play with a cheerless topic. You can only hit a wall and break your face. You can’t take a U-turn at the very end of it. If you could, then Dean was just pissed off after his latest divorce and angry over some lost publishing rights. We’d have shared some potato chips and bored the shit out of each other by talking about the crass commercialization of the Broadway musical. Dean would have cussed out the investors and used strong language to do so. Eventually we’d have wandered down to the bar on the corner to watch the secretaries drive with their high beams on, blinding anyone who dared to look them in the eye. If Dean had stayed around another couple of weeks, we could have gone away for the fourth of July and eaten ice cream on the boardwalk.

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