THE FIRST TIME we were here it was just the two of us, Lindsey and me. We stayed at the Chelsea and I got my hair cut there by a hairdresser who had done Dee Dee Ramone’s that morning. Nothing unusual in that. She’d cut his hair for years, she told me. I never discovered if it was true or not. I wanted it to be true. Dee Dee Ramone.
Dee Dee’s hair was no fixed thing though. Johnny’s was the iconic Ramones hair, so that’s the cut I got. No one at home had that. And Johnny threw his hair forward when he stabbed at his guitar, as if hair could be another weapon. I could recognise it as a signature move, even the first time I saw it. I must have been about ten then.
I made Lindsey take my photo – me and my new hair, close-up by the Hotel Chelsea sign near the door. I had a denim jacket on, thumbs in my jean pockets. I turned away from the camera, putting on a look of purpose, pouting at the traffic on 23rd Street, as if searching for a cab that might not be coming, or might arrive with a starlet or David Byrne or a drag queen once painted by Andy Warhol. It was an album cover, that pose – one foot on the wall, knee bent, deep stare fixed on the middle of nothing – but the picture ended up looking mostly like me. Me with a Johnny Ramone haircut that didn’t take and that I didn’t keep. I looked too much like my aunt with that hair. It turned out some people at home had gone for that cut after all.
The closest I got to Bloomingdale’s that visit was a stand outside, on Third Avenue, selling pretzels as big as twisted limbs. They were golden and doughy, and I’d only ever had the other kind. I was waiting for Lindsey to come out of the store. If I looked south, I could count the sets of traffic lights to 53rd and Third, six blocks away. It was a Ramone’s song title, that intersection – ‘53rd & 3rd’, with an ampersand – a song written by Dee Dee about hustlers and violence. It was a two-minute blast of punk, but there was subtext in there about how to be a man, or be lost on the way there.
The song was twenty years old when I stood on Third Avenue waiting for Lindsey, but the Ramones were still alive and might have been anywhere nearby, walking those streets. They’re all gone now, at least the four originals on the T-shirt. Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny, Tommy. Tommy just months ago. Today I have plenty of questions to ask Na$ti Boi – the artist formerly known as Lydell Luttrell Junior – but I don’t have that one on the list. What does it mean to you that the last of the Ramones is dead?
Na$ti Boi is nineteen and ascendant, and coming to Australia for the festivals. He is not, from what I have seen and read, an easy interviewee, though it doesn’t do to arrive with too many preconceptions. Some things are certain in interviews, but not many. Chris Isaak will always charm a female interviewer over forty. Chris Martin will charm anyone and make you want to like Coldplay more than you do. Bob Dylan will always treat at least one of your questions as if it’s been delivered in an alien tongue, or act as if you’re there for the very moment when he’s determined that he’s suffered his last fool.
Beyond that, where there are no certainties, there are at least patterns. Some interviewees come in too prepared and you have to chip your way through pre-prepared anecdotes in the hope that something real takes shape. Some have been burned before and hold back everything but name, rank and serial number.
Sometimes you have no choice but to wait and watch as the show takes place in front of you. Sometimes you lurk for hours, like a twitcher in a hide, gazing ahead for a flash of something, a true moment yet to have a witness.
I have sold and re-sold tonight’s interview: everything from a three-minute video for a festival website to a feature across five glossy pages of a newspaper’s Saturday magazine. At these extremes, the markets are mutually exclusive. The festival-goers have never put their young hands to newsprint, while the magazine readers – their parents, perhaps – will never go near the festivals. The music would be wrong and the UV exposure unthinkable; the toilets too. But they will want to know how Na$ti Boi works and why he works, because they have heard about rap and the culture around it, and he will serve as a new proxy for his perplexing generation. That’s the promise we will make them when we flag it on the cover.
Through the glass doors at the less conspicuous 59th Street entrance to Bloomingdale’s, there’s something golden about the light falling on the black-and-white tiled floor. From the street, I can’t tell if it’s a tint in the door glass or something they do inside with the light itself. I’ve never been in there, not once in the five, perhaps six, visits I’ve made to New York since that first one. Above the double door, there’s an awning with the look of brushed steel and ‘Bloomingdale’s’ on it in a sans-serif font, rounded lower-case letters, Os crossed like a Venn diagram waiting for content to be dropped in.
There’s a security guard inside, standing side-on to the door and rocking on his heels, hands clasped in front of him. He’s gazing straight ahead, neither out nor in. It’s 9.30, an hour after closing and exactly when I’m supposed
I tap on the glass with a knuckle, and he turns my way. He’s big and broad and his name tag says Lopez. He presses a button on the wall, and the door lock disengages with a clunk. He eases the door open, but no wider than his hand.
‘Yes, sir?’ This is another featureless night in a thousand to him, my face another featureless shape in it.
‘Jeff Foster,’ I tell him, a hint of American slipping into my accent, so that I only have to say my name once. It’s a habit, not an intention. ‘I’m here for an interview.’ I can’t say my interviewee’s name. I can’t say Na$ti Boi, even though it’s a safe bet that an S with a slash through it sounds precisely the same as one without.
‘Yes, sir.’ This time it’s not a question. He draws back on the long brass handle and the door swings fully open. ‘Please follow me. They’re in our At His Service section – men’s personal shopping.’
Mr Lopez keeps his hand on the door as it glides back into place behind me and locks. He walks me through the silent store to the lift. The call button is set in a big square of brass. Inside the store, the light is not as golden as it appeared from the street, though there is still a lustre to it. Somewhere, far away across the shop floor, I can hear the hum and slap of a polisher buffing the black-and-white tiles. Behind the counter nearest us is a trolley, ready to restock it with Little, Medium and Big Brown Bags.
Lindsey bought a brooch on that first visit to Bloomingdale’s. That was not part of the plan. The dollar was low then – our dollar against the American – and even the half-price theatre tickets we’d been lining up for weren’t cheap. We’d seen Matthew Broderick in a comedy, and a Ben Jonson play that didn’t survive the creative shift to a late nineteenth-century schtetl and a whole lot of kvetching. She came out with her purchase in a small brown bag with ‘Little Brown Bag’ written on the side, and told me she’d made the purchase mainly for the bag.
My mouth was dry with salt and stale pretzel. The guy at the stand picked up another pretzel in a square of white paper and took a handful of coins from his next customer. I wondered if that pretzel was stale too, or if the others were all fresh, even warm. I had a ball of dry bread in my mouth – I felt like I’d been suckered somehow.
‘They’re iconic,’ Lindsey told me, holding the bag up and letting it swivel on its string handles. ‘These bags. Bloomingdale’s bags. A New York icon.’
We had an argument about that, there on Third Avenue, this purchase made in the name of packaging at a time when all our money was being measured out. It was another big deal made out of nothing. I should have taken it in my stride. What was twenty bucks, really? We had talked about seeing the Yankees play at Yankee Stadium, and still hadn’t got tickets. I thought about money too much that trip. It was our chance to treat New York lightly, to be young there and care about little, but I was picturing money as a limit to everything rather than seeing it as our only limit.
In the middle of the argument, she glanced at my hair. I hadn’t needed a haircut, not really, but it was the Chelsea and I’d taken the opportunity. I surrendered the argument about the bag then and there, without another word spoken on it.
‘You should wear the brooch,’ I told her. ‘It looks good.’ She had it in her hand, still set in its tissue paper. ‘You should wear it now.’
We bought salads from Zabar’s and picnicked in the park, watching kids hitting baseballs, practising, practising. We made it to Yankee Stadium too, later that week, and sat way up in the bleachers, facing the sun the whole game, but it was the Yankees and eighteen years later we still have the photo in a frame.
‘Must be coming from the top,’ Mr Lopez says, his eyes on the lift doors, our buckled gold reflections.
With that, there’s a muted electronic tone, and a hum as the doors part.
At His Service is on lower ground, one floor down. A cleaner is polishing the glass countertop at Salvatore Ferragamo. There are designer boutiques on either side of the aisle – Zegna, Armani, Michael Kors, Hugo Boss. The rubber soles of Mr Lopez’s boots squeak softly on the tiles in a rhythm built long ago into his stride and no more audible to him, I’m sure, than his
At His Service is set discreetly away from the aisle, though nothing could be more discreet than being the only customer in a department store that’s already closed. It’s the voices that let me know we’re getting close: a young male ‘I don’t think so’, and a softer deferential murmur in reply.
Na$ti Boi is sitting on a plush red Louis XIV chaise longue, his rapper’s jacket slung over the nearby turned-gilt arm with a baseball cap set on top of it. Below his right eye, he has a scar that’s wider than it should be, like a small pale pink pair of lips or a kiss, with the dots of failed sutures along its edges. There’s a line of whiskery boy’s moustache running along his upper lip. His hair is gathered in tight cornrows, each ending in coloured beads. He looks younger than nineteen and younger than his photos, still growing into the track pants that balloon around his invisible legs. He looks like a kid who has borrowed from his big brother’s wardrobe and has been asked to sit here – and sit still – while a parent attends to some business nearby. He never had that life though; I know that much.
Behind him is a cabinet with cufflinks and tiebars set in trays or on little cushions in manly colours like bronze and burgundy. On the countertop, there’s a steel bucket with two glass bowls of frozen yoghurt sitting in ice. Each bowl has a long-handled silver spoon resting in it. At the foot of the chaise longue, in an armchair that’s part of the same set, a man in a charcoal suit sits leaning forward, elbows on his thighs, phone in his hands. He has just been shown something, or has just whispered advice – that’s the pose he’s in. He looks late twenties, maybe thirty. Two Bloomingdale’s staff members, both women, are on the move, silently arranging clothes for viewing.
Na$ti Boi was discovered by Jay Z after he posted some rapping videos shot on his phone and people started to talk. He was seventeen then, and probably sees that as a lifetime ago. Jay Z found him producers such as A$AP Rocky and Joey Fat Beats. Na$ti Boi does the usual braggy stuff about bitches and brand names, but his rhymes are smart and sometimes unexpected. It’s rumoured that he was booked to open for Beyoncé until she listened closely.
‘Gentlemen,’ Mr Lopez says, ‘this is Mr Foster.’ He indicates me with his hand, at the same time giving a small nod. He takes a step in retreat, still facing Na$ti Boi and his attendants. It’s the way you’re supposed to leave the Queen. She never sees people’s backs, and maybe that’s now true for Na$ti Boi.
‘Hey, man,’ Na$ti Boi says, in a way that’s downplayed, but not unfriendly. ‘Australia, right?’
‘Yeah. Jeff Foster.’ He nods when I say it, but it’s a reflex, not a sign that I’m getting his full attention. ‘Good to meet you.’
The man in the suit stands. He slips his phone into a pocket and offers me his hand. He has a gold ring as chunky as a nugget on his ring finger. As his white shirt cuff slides from his jacket sleeve, he reaches across with his other hand and tweaks it back into place.
The tang of his aftershave reaches me as he says it. There’s a glint of gold from his mouth, light catching on something in there, but his lips close over it again quickly, making his mouth look like a boxer’s. He moves with the ease of a boxer too, but his hand is soft, his handshake measured, nothing to prove to me. It’s Smokey I’ve been dealing with to make this meeting happen, Smokey who said his charge had an interest in fashion and that this would be the place and time.
‘And they don’t call him that ’cos his last name’s Robinson,’ Na$ti Boi says, with a kid’s lopsided smile, eyes on his manager.
‘It used to be my preferred means of relaxation,’ Smokey says. ‘But that was years ago. I’m a family man now. I don’t do that shit.’ His eyes flick across to Na$ti Boi before settling on me again. ‘Or any kind of shit.’
He is a family man with gold grills in his mouth that I can now see read bitch and epic. It’s not the time to tell him that together they make up the title of an album released by a now fifty-five-year-old Australian woman not long after he was born.
‘And this is the man of the hour,’ Smokey says, using both hands in a gesture to showcase his charge.
I take a step towards Na$ti Boi, who leans slightly forward and raises his hand towards mine.
‘You can call me Na$ti Boi or just Na$ti but not just Boi,’ he says. ‘’Cos I ain’t nobody’s boy.’ He smiles. ‘’Cept my momma’s, right? We all that.’
His handshake is quick, done almost before it’s started. It’s a straightforward handshake, no rapper tricks to it, but to him I’m an old white guy from across the planet and likely to be proficient at only one way to shake a hand. He’s looking past me, to a shirt being spread by a staff member across the back of a chair.
His mother is dead and, I’ve been told, off limits. He has described her in the past as ‘a dead crack whore’ and ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’, depending on his state of mind and substance load.
‘Do you mind if I record?’ I pull my digital recorder from my jacket pocket as I say it to him. As I always do, I find myself showing it at the same time, as if the question needs illustrating. ‘Just while you’re shopping and we’re talking about…whatever. Maybe some pictures too? Candid ones. Nothing too stagey.’
‘Sure.’ He turns to one of the personal shoppers. ‘What you got for me there?’
‘It’s Billy Reid,’ she tells him. Her name tag says Eloise. ‘From his new range of polos and Henleys. This one’s the Pensacola.’ She strokes her hand across it, as if it’s a much-loved Persian cat. It’s a top in a muted green, with long sleeves and three small white buttons where it opens at the neck. ‘It also comes in chocolate.’
She’s blonde and the other personal shopper, Andie, has jet-black hair. In neither case is it their natural colour, but each has her hair styled into a tight gleaming French roll. With their fitted black, knee-length uniform dresses and their statement red lipstick and pale expressionless faces, they are two Robert Palmer girls. It’s a reference close to thirty years old. Along with the Ramones and their passing – not a thought for today.
They are white, both of them. Behind them stand three male mannequins, grey and with features somehow managing to hint at both Nordic and African. It has been a work of some precision to make them raceless. They have serious, down-tilted expressions, as though they’ve collectively noticed something not to their liking on the carpet, and each is waiting for one of the others to speak first. They’re wearing aviators, polo shirts, bright yachting spray jackets.
It’s a long way from the streets in which Lydell Luttrell Junior started life. Not so far on the map or by the subway, but some kind of journey. He has the place rearranged around him, clothes he may or may not glance at draped here and there, all at his whim, like a boy pharaoh.
‘So, what makes this your kind of place?’ It’s often best not to start with the music. Start with the music, and sometimes that’s all you’ll get.
Smokey’s thumbing a message on his phone, but he glances up in Na$ti’s direction.
Na$ti gives a hint of a smile but then toughens his look up. ‘Are you sayin’ I should be shopping some place else?’ He will challenge me all night, I know it. There will be no right questions. ‘That this ain’t the place for me? That I’m not suitable?’
‘Not at all.’ I have to meet him. Not fight him, not apologise, just meet him, without any doubt in my voice or hint of uncertainty, or hint that I’m acknowledging I’ve opened with a question about race. It is not about race, though at the same time this is not the tale of a grey mannequin. Race is there, undeniably. Obama being in the White House does not give every black rapper a middle-class start to life, lawyers for parents. ‘I just didn’t know you’d wear this kind of stuff. Tiebars…’
‘I’m not here for preppie shit.’ He laughs. We’re okay. ‘I got my Bathing Ape, my Billionaire Boys Club. My Black Scale.’ He picks the cap up from the armrest, spins it on his finger and flips it into his other hand. ‘I got street covered, man, but my thing is blending it with a little high-end. But don’t go taking my picture with no tiebars. They just incidental. That’s our yoghurt bar there, that is.’ Without turning, he indicates with his thumb the glass countertop behind him, the silver ice bucket. ‘That shit’s got chocolate-coated goji berries and honey. It’s, like, organic honey.’
‘Wildflower honey,’ Smokey says, to be helpful. This era, food is all about the adjectives, the boosters, the story. Or maybe it’s that privilege accords a person more adjectives with their food nouns. Honey is not just honey now, not for Na$ti or Smokey. ‘Bloomingdale’s frozen yoghurt is…an institution. You get frozen yoghurt any place now, but it was here first.’ He looks at the ice bucket, the melting yoghurt. ‘Should have got an extra bowl.’
The poster for the tour in support of The Snatcher, Na$ti’s major label debut, features a reclining white woman, photographed in black-and-white from the end of the platform or table that she’s lying on. It isn’t a bed or somewhere comfortable – there’s a glossy sheen to it, hard edges at the sides, and a curve at the end that lets the top turn ninety degrees and drop to the floor. Her face and upper body are out of view. All you can see of her are her thin bright legs. She’s wearing glossy dark shoes with towering heels, and perhaps nothing else. One knee is bent, with the shoe on the tabletop, while the other is almost straight and rotated a little outwards, with her foot and shoe hanging in space. Na$ti’s hand is a dark wedge over her crotch, flat with the fingers extended. It might be a barrier, a shield. It might not even be touching her. His arm is straight, his torso shirtless and crossed by metal chains, his face staring at the camera, utterly blank.
‘So tell me how the creator of The Snatcher gets to be an appreciator of institutions.’ It seems as good a way for me to put it as any.
He takes the shirt from Eloise, rubs the fabric between thumb and finger. ‘Soft,’ he says. ‘I like that.’ He holds it up against himself. There’s a full-length mirror next to me, tilted so that he can appraise himself. Just when my question seems to have drifted out of view, he adds, ‘Institutions. The record’s all about one of the oldest institutions. It’s about a thief of love and pussy.’
He offers it as though it’s the smartest thing said in the world all week, the most insightful. He’s said it dozens of times, I bet – ‘a thief of love and pussy’ – with no thought beforehand as to whether or not the recipient might already have given the record’s title a second’s thought and be wise to the sledgehammer subtext. He bundles the shirt into a ball and tosses it back
His eyes are still on the mirror when he says, ‘That record got me more pussy than a bucketful of fish marinated in catnip.’ Then he glances Smokey’s way. ‘That’s a new one, new right now. You can have that one for Australia.’
He sets up for a fist bump, and Smokey obliges.
‘He’s a poet, my boy,’ Smokey says, shuffling his cuffs again and giving Na$ti a smile I can’t read.
I have, it turns out, missed most of the trying-on of clothes. I’m to bear witness to the boy pharoah’s taste for Bloomingdale’s – to his penchant for mashing up high-end and street – but I’ve been spared much of the detail. Andie has been folding and piling the chosen garments on the next countertop along from the frozen yoghurt. The throw to Eloise has signified that the Pensacola Henley is a no. They have a system.
I take out my camera and snap some pictures of him on the chaise longue, picking up the plush red, the gilt trim, the silver of the ice bucket over his shoulder. He knows I’m doing it and looks as disengaged as possible. He’s been watching models.
‘Would you like to see the purses now?’ Eloise says. The question’s directed at Na$ti, but her eyes shift for a moment to Smokey. She’s following orders. Sometime during the planning he has put purses on the list. Smokey seems not to notice her. He’s checking his phone again. ‘I have a selection from our premium designers.’ She indicates a trolley that’s mostly obscured by the three grey yachtsmen.
‘I would.’ Na$ti Boi sits back on the chaise longue and runs his hands down his thighs, as though smoothing invisible wrinkles in his shiny synthetic track pants.
‘I have a McQ clutch…’ She reaches for the trolley.
‘All of them.’ He leans forward again and glances towards Smokey, who has the same smile as before still in place. ‘I want to see all of them.’
‘It has a razor-edge laser hologram.’ Eloise is still with the McQ clutch, her spiel spooling another sentence before she can pull it to a halt. Her hand is on the way to the clutch, but she lets it land on the brass handle of the trolley instead. ‘But all of them, sure, no problem. We have quite a range, all new season. I’m sure there’ll be something that will…’ She doesn’t know who it’s supposed to be right for. She looks around as if the recipient of the purse might now appear among us, and the moment make its way to a soft landing. ‘Be just right.’
It’s specificity that she’s searching for. She sells purses to men all the time, probably, but the woman is present – it’s part of the gesture, the trip together to Bloomingdale’s to buy the purse – or she’s named straight up. Before confessing a complete ignorance of purses and putting himself at her expert mercy, the one thing any man tells her is who he’s buying for.
On the surface, there is nothing in this for an article, but I’m still recording. Too much is unexplained. We are in male personal shopping. These purses were gathered up floors away and brought here.
Eloise eases the trolley across the tiles and into full view.
‘Which one’s the most expensive?’ Na$ti Boi says, having not clarified since he tossed the Henley that he’s the boy pharaoh here.
‘Sure.’ It comes out clipped, his bare crassness a gust of cold air that has her buttoning down her response.
She starts searching through the purses – they’re filed like books on a library trolley – checking tags only occasionally and mostly making her price assessment based on the purse itself. She slides one out and sets it on top. It’s plum coloured, shaped quite like the round-cornered square of a Scrabble letter and with a long black strap. The second purse she pulls out is gloss black with a black suede flap and silver clasp and a shorter black strap. They are for different occasions, different people.
‘These two both come in at nineteen ninety,’ she says. ‘One thousand, nine hundred ninety.’ She turns the tag on the second over again and nods. ‘Both CoSTUME NATIONAL. This one’s the Colorblock Piccola Messenger and this…’ she shifts her fingertips to the flap of the black bag ‘…is the Tema Morbido in suede.’
‘Let me see the…’ He points lazily in the direction of both of them. ‘Purple one.’
‘The Piccola Messenger? Sure.’
He takes it in both hands and feels the weight of it. He opens the flap and then clicks it shut again. It’s a good, solid click, almost a clunk. He tests the gold buckles that join the strap to the bag and then holds it up by the strap and rotates it to view it from all angles. He is picturing it being carried, being worn.
‘Yeah.’ He turns to Smokey, the bag still suspended from two of his fingers. ‘You know who this is for.’
‘I do, Lydell.’
It is a moment between them that is not to be broken by me asking the obvious question. Sometimes, in this job, a question can be the worst way to go. Rapport is not about questions and will not come easily with Na$ti Boi as it is. The truth – the interesting part of it, at least – is not often arrived at through asking for it directly.
‘He’s my cousin, you know,’ Na$ti Boi says to me. ‘This man.’ He sets the bag in his lap, folds the strap over it and keeps both his hands there. The gesture looks protective, like the stance of a grandmother on a train that’s rattling through a bad part of town, her eye out for miscreants. ‘Second cousin or some shit. Maybe second and a half. With me all the way.’
‘All the way from diapers,’ Smokey says, smiling at him, rubbing a cufflink with his thumb and finger under his jacket sleeve. ‘All the way from when you was only Lydell Junior.’ Smokey’s hand slips from his sleeve as he looks my way. ‘He got Na$ti Boi from what old Ms Willard round the corner used to call him. And she used to call him that ’cos he was one nasty boy. Full of nasty tricks, you was.’ Na$ti Boi laughs, treating it as a compliment. ‘That’s why I’m here, playing the dual roles of Mr Straight and Mr Narrow.’
Lydell Senior was gone early. ‘He got messed up in some shit,’ is all that’s been said about that by his son, spraying it like smoke over the question as a means of escape. I read it in a print interview. The body language was all recorded, and as expected. Drawbridge up. When his son was four, Lydell Senior’s body was found in a dumpster with two bullets in it and his hands cable-tied. No one says that’s a robbery, or someone ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
‘Is it good, working with family?’ It’s a way into the subject, maybe, but made to sound like conversation rather than a question.
‘Always,’ Na$ti says. He smiles. And that’s it. I open a small door and he shuts it without drama. He stands and hands the bag to Eloise. ‘I’ll take it.’
‘No problem, sir.’
She folds the strap over carefully and carries the bag to the counter, where Andie has started scanning the clothes. She sets the bag down with its tag barcode up and starts folding the items Andie’s already processed and placing them in one of two open Big Brown Bags.
The bill comes to $11,700 for not much. Na$ti reaches into one of the pockets in his pants and brings his hand out like a poker player covering an ace. His credit card clicks against the glass when he sets it down on the counter.
Andie swipes it and watches the small screen on the machine. She presses a button and swipes again. She takes a look at the magnetic strip on the card, and rubs it before trying for a third time.
‘There seems to be a problem with this card,’ she says tentatively. ‘It’s reading okay, but I’m not getting authorisation.’
‘The card is good,’ Na$ti tells her. He shuts his mouth firmly, and I see his jaw muscles working.
‘I’m sure it is, sir.’ She swipes again and then taps the card on the counter while she waits, her eyes fixed on the screen. She is wishing she could be anywhere else – home, on the subway.
Smokey steps across and places his hand over hers, extracting the card.
‘I’ll just put in a call,’ he says quietly. ‘Or we could try splitting it and use one of my cards for some.’
‘We’re not using your cards, man,’ Na$ti says. He swaps weight from one foot to the other and gives an exasperated sigh. His body’s still wired for all the young people’s gestures. ‘We’re not doing that shit. This is my spree. This is Bloomingdale’s.’
‘I know it.’ Smokey turns the card over in his hands and seems to run his eye over its details. ‘I’ll put in a call.’ He takes his phone from an inside jacket pocket, scrolls and finds the number he wants. ‘Voicemail,’ he tells us once it’s connected. I’m close enough to make out the beep at the end of the outgoing message. ‘Hey, Aaron. We got a minor credit card thing going down here; Lydell’s card. We’re at Bloomingdale’s and it’s declining eleven seven. Be good to get it fixed ASAP.’
He finishes the call, flicks to another screen. Na$ti watches him, focuses on him, pushing Bloomingdale’s to his peripheral vision, blocking it, blocking this brass-and-gold and black-and-white-tiled institution that has given him exquisite attention and frozen yoghurt but rejected his card. Smokey’s still working on his phone. His thumb moves a couple more times.
Eloise has gone, I realise. She’s silently ducked out behind the grey yachtsmen, like an actor stealing an exit from the stage the instant the focus is elsewhere. Andie is motionless at the counter, the lack of expression on her face more deeply embedded than ever.
Na$ti raises and then drops his arms in a half-question half-shrug, a mime to get Smokey’s attention.
‘He’s workin’ on it,’ Smokey tells him. ‘Chill Lydell. It’ll be cool.’ A text message pings through. His thumb slides up and down. ‘Okay, so there’s a certain limit, like ten K… Probably a security thing.’ Na$ti goes to talk, but Smokey keeps going. ‘Not about you. He’s going to see what he can do. Now, I got my cards…’
Na$ti’s right hand clenches into a fist and he leans forward and then rocks back and taps the fist against his thigh. He has a glare fixed on Smokey, which Smokey is matching with a smile that’s as close to beatific as he can make it.
‘Gentlemen,’ Eloise says as she crab-walks past the purse trolley and the yachtsmen and into view. ‘Drinks?’ She’s holding a tray carrying a shapely crystal jug of green turbid liquid and three highball glasses, each containing an inch of crushed ice and a long silver spoon. ‘Some refreshments while we get everything finalised. Kale, ginger, celery and green apple.’
Na$ti Boi is a juicer. He’s talked about that. She’s done her homework.
She sets the tray on the counter next to the yoghurt and starts pouring. The three of us follow dumbly: Na$ti working his way down from punchiness; Smokey going for the safety of silence; me processing and so far coming up short. There are agendas here, and I don’t know them yet.
‘This is good,’ Na$ti says when he sips from the first glass she’s poured. ‘You know I like this shit.’
‘I do,’ she says, rather than yes. Na$ti Boi would say ‘I do’, as would Smokey, but it’s not mimicry. It’s the chess game that some of these celeb shopping sprees must become. She needs to be in their heads, even more so when we hit a snag and unanticipated prickliness. She needs to keep the peace and keep everyone’s dignity intact to make a sale, and a credit-card refusal rocks the boat.
When I reach for my glass, Na$ti’s credit card is next to it on the counter. Smokey’s set it down to keep his phone in one hand and now a glass in the other. It’s a simple card, blue rather than gold or platinum, the kind anyone might have.
‘So, your credit card’s still in L L Luttrell?’ My recorder’s still humming in my hand.
‘Yeah.’ There’s a tone to it that’s bordering on surly – I’ve cast my eyes on something that wasn’t my business; I’ve put into play a name that he’s outgrown. Then he changes his mind and smiles. It’s nothing after all. ‘I ain’t done the paperwork yet. I been busy. There’s forms and shit. Smokey can fill them in for me, or Aaron, but I got to sign.’ His free hand does a squiggle in the air. ‘That’s prolly the limit thing too. I could get a different card with a concierge and shit, but I got to slow down enough to sign the form one day.’ He nods. It’s a story that restores his honour, and it might even be true. ‘One of those black cards’d be nice. Amex Centurion, like the King of Monaco. They ain’t even shiny. That’d be cool.’
He is picturing a deluxe life, private jets, a card with powers as strong and mysterious as the Matrix. I read an article once on black credit cards and Prince Albert, and my guess is the card’s about half as good as Na$ti’s imagining. That’s still a deluxe life though.
‘Or you could do what Martin Sheen does. He works as Martin Sheen but he still lives as Ramón Estévez. Passport, credit cards, all that.’
‘Yeah?’ He takes another sip of his drink. The light green foam touches his thread of moustache and he licks his lip. ‘He could get his ass kicked back to Mexico with shit like that.’
Smokey lifts a finger from his glass to catch Na$ti’s attention. ‘I’ll show you something later, Lydell. Some of Martin Sheen’s work.’
‘I’ll take a look at his shit now if it’s in Bloomingdale’s,’ Na$ti says with an expansive gesture that forgets the credit card and says all this is his.
At the other counter Andie coughs, but it starts as a laugh that escapes before she can catch it. Na$ti glares at her. She reaches into one of his Big Brown Bags, intently rearranging the folded garments. She leans her mouth to her sleeve and gives another small cough – no hint of anything else to it this time.
‘Prolly shit anyway,’ Na$ti says. ‘Martin Sheen. There’s a lot of shit in here. Too many old Italian faggots gettin’ it all wrong this season. Not just them. Anita Clark. I was very disappointed there. I didn’t say that at the time.’ It’s a monologue. We’re not expected to buy in. Somewhere among the discard piles on the furniture around us is the work of Anita Clark, rejected before I arrived. ‘She sold too much shit to the Obamas. That’s what it is. I know where she was from, but she done lost it now, what she had. She all dried up inside. She all Hamptons now. Next year she’ll do goddamn boat shoes, just wait. She whiter than Ralph Lauren now.’
‘This drink is good, Lydell,’ Smokey says, tapping a fingernail against his glass. ‘We could sit and enjoy our drinks while we wait for Aaron.’
Na$ti brings the glare up again, but stays silent as he works it through.
‘I’m gonna sit when I want to sit,’ is what he decides to say. He drinks another mouthful. ‘But this is good, yeah. You did good with this…’ He takes a look – it’s not as sly as it’s supposed to be – at her name tag. ‘Eloise. Some people go to town with the kale.’
She almost says something, but sticks with smiling and nodding. It’s the first part of a silence that builds to awkwardness soon enough. Na$ti sips his drink again.
Smokey touches my sleeve with his phone hand. ‘You got kids, right?’
I have a wedding ring, I’m forty and look it – I don’t know if he’s guessing or if I’ve told him. He doesn’t wait for an answer. He has an ultrasound image on his phone and he’s angling it my way. It’s a foetus, the bright outlines of one in its dark uterine world, a finely etched nose and mouth and perfect tiny fingers stretching to the limits of their span.
‘My lady’s in labour,’ he says. ‘Just the early part, but I want to get over there.’ The best minders are conjurers, guiding the eye to the other hand, away from tantrums, embarrassment, slander, hubris.
I turn off my recorder and put it in my pocket.
‘I think we might pick this up later,’ I tell him. ‘When it’s just the three of us.’
‘Yeah. Perfect.’ He flicks to another image, spreads his fingertips and enlarges his tiny child.
‘I have a four-year-old daughter,’ I tell him. ‘She’s asleep at the Beacon Hotel right now, on Broadway and 75th. At least, I hope she’s asleep.’
‘My son is four. How about that?’ He seems genuinely pleased to say it, to make this connection, but it might just be shrewd preparation for a protracted pout from Na$ti Boi.
The transaction isn’t over yet, and Na$ti is looking glumly down into his drink, coaching himself through this diversion from his Blooming-dale’s dream. Andie is standing mannequin-style at the counter and perhaps wondering how to turn grey. Somewhere in the distance, there’s a one-sided conversation that I can just work out is in Spanish, a cleaner talking on his phone.
‘There’s some good shit in this city for kids,’ Smokey tells me, warming to the possibility of an entirely non-contentious topic. ‘People don’t always get that. You taken her to the granite slide they got in Central Park? Billy Johnson Playground, East 67th. My boy digs that. Polished by the asses of ten million kids.’
‘It’s on my list.’ It’s true. I have a list, and it’s on it. ‘I’m actually writing a separate article – a travel article – on New York with an under-five.’
‘No shit? Well, you gotta go.’ He glances towards Na$ti, as Na$ti finally relents and sits down again on the chaise longue. ‘Take cardboard. You go faster with cardboard. If you got none you can prolly pick a piece up there. You tell Australia that. It’s a good tip.’
Na$ti arranges himself with his elbows on his knees, his half-full glass held in both hands in front of him. His face has settled for a vague look, less angry. He could be a boy waiting for a bus that he knows is still some time away.
Smokey flips to another image on his phone. It’s his son – a close-up of his face, all bright eyes and gleaming teeth. ‘That’s my boy. Any time I put this thing down, I come back and it’s got new selfies on it. It’s a game we play now. Apparently.’
I find my phone in my pocket. Ariel’s my wallpaper. The picture’s a few months old, but it’s a good one. She’s a dragonfly, with face paint and glistening wings and an emerald body. She looks happy, in the complete way that children can be.
‘Delightful,’ he says. Not a word I’d expected, but a good one. ‘She could do with a little more meat on those bones.’
‘She could.’ It’s there in the picture, if you look for it, if you aren’t distracted by the gaudy, glittery dragonfly trickery, as you’re supposed to be. ‘We’re working on that.’
For a second I feel far away from her. I’m picturing her sleeping in the foldout bed at the foot of ours at the Beacon, jammed in there with her best monkey, Claude, sheets probably already kicked aside. Lindsey may be in bed too by now, or watching TV in the living room with the volume down.
‘Beautiful though,’ Smokey says. ‘Looks like a real sweet kid. Like a little baby angel in one of them Renaissance paintings. What’s her name?’
‘Sounds like you got that right. Sweet name for a sweet kid.’ He holds his phone next to mine. ‘My boy’s Eugene.’
Eugene has cheeks like apricots when he grins, balls of bunched tissue with dimples under them, and perfect teeth. I’m working on something to say about him when a message alert lands on the screen. It’s Aaron.
‘Okay…’ Smokey leans away from me, reads it, processes it.
Na$ti looks up.
‘How ’bout we just buy some shit another day,’ Smokey says, meeting his gaze with a look crafted to resemble nonchalance. ‘You can’t wear it all at once, Lydell.’
Na$ti’s jaw muscles tighten. So does his grip on his glass. His head is full of ugly thoughts warring with better ones, or at least full of basic anger-management tactics, and there is no room left for the guile that would let him hide it.
‘Yeah,’ he says, with a sigh at the end of it, a valve releasing some pressure. He pushes himself into a position intended to look more relaxed, casual. ‘I’ll sign that form some day, come back and buy the whole place. But let’s get it under ten for now. Ladies?’
‘No problem, sir,’ Andie says. She already has a printout of the items in her hand. ‘The purse would get you there right away or…’ She runs her glossy fingernail down the list. ‘You got four pairs of Alexander Wang cargo pants. Two of those would do it.’
‘Well,’ Na$ti says, in a softer, smaller voice, ‘I’m keeping the purse.’
Smokey steps across to the counter, and maybe it’s his momentum that brings Na$ti to his feet. As he rises, he sets his glass next to the ice bucket with the frozen yoghurt in it and wipes his damp hands on his pants. He watches Smokey, as if his manager’s next act will reveal the perfect answer we’ve been waiting for. Smokey notices none of that, none of the anticipation.
‘Look at all those pants,’ he says when he takes the list from Andie. ‘Not just the Alexander Wang neither. How may legs you got, Lydell? You some kind of centipede, you need all those pants?’
It’s enough. Na$ti laughs. ‘That’d be one fine pair of pants. Centipede pants. Prolly a set of pants, not a pair, all those legs. Let me see ’em, ladies. Let me see the four and I’ll decide which two.’
Eloise and Andie start unpacking one bag, lifting folded items out in turn and setting them in neat piles. They hit the cargoes near the bottom and step out from behind the counter with two pairs each in their arms.
Smokey gets another message and checks his phone as Eloise and Andie spread the cargoes out across the chaise longue.
‘She’s eight centimetres,’ he says, in Na$ti’s direction. ‘I got to get there.’
‘My dick is eight centimetres,’ Na$ti says, but down towards the splayed cargoes and without turning. ‘How big is a centimetre?’ He glances over his shoulder. ‘Be cool. We’ll get there.’
I can’t tell the pants apart. Two pairs might be charcoal and two black, but it might just be the way the light’s working on them. As Na$ti slowly walks the line, weighing up his choice, Smokey steps past the huddle of mannequins with his phone to his ear.
His voice is soft and, from the start, beating a retreat. ‘I know, honey, I know…’
THE VAN IS waiting directly outside the 59th Street entrance when a security guard opens the door for us. It’s taking up a space and a half. It’s black with deeply tinted windows, and clearly announces itself as the conveyance of a pimp or gangster or young rapper with his head spinning too fast to settle on anything tasteful.
Smokey again mentions the hospital as the Big Brown Bags are being loaded from a trolley, and Na$ti says, ‘Sure’, but means nothing like it. He’s watching his Robert Palmer girls lugging the purchases and his driver standing with his hand on the van door, directing them. The driver is wearing the colours of the Alexander Wang cargoes, a black collared shirt and a not-quite-black suit. He has sunglasses on – round, cool sunglasses – though it’s close to 11 pm. The lights of Bloomingdale’s gleam on his fabulously polished shoes.
‘Which way you want to look?’ Smokey says to me. ‘Front or back?’
‘Front, if that works for everyone else.’ I’m not always asked about my seating preference in a vehicle like this, not that I find myself in them often. Facing backwards gives me motion sickness, but the journalist fits in around the edges. Everyone else already knows where they sit.
‘It works, man.’ Na$ti claps his hand on my shoulder. It’s the first time he’s been close to me.
There’s a flash from across the street, someone taking a photo with
‘Oh, look, it’s–’ a man nearer the intersection calls out and, even though the sentence trails off into nothing, his phone snaps too, three flashes.
Na$ti gestures for me to board. It’s a bigger, clearer sweep of the arm than it needs to be. He’s the host, under the Bloomingdale’s marquee. His staff, Bloomingdale’s staff, me, we’re all taking his direction. It’s a picture he is glad to compose. This is the life he sees himself leading, high-end but magnanimous. Entitled as a pharaoh or a Monégasque prince, but full of largesse.
I can’t tell whether he has made this moment for me or for himself, but it is already implausible that his credit card could be declined. One Bloomingdale’s security guard covers the front of the van and another takes the back. The driver reaches his arm out to beckon Na$ti in. Smokey scans the streetscape, phone clutched in his hand, as if he’s guarding a Kennedy. His mouth is slightly open, streetlights sparking from his grills.
‘Paps,’ Na$ti says to me, though they were just people, bewildered passers-by glimpsing star activity and not wanting to miss a New York moment. Shoot first and ask questions later. Maybe they’ll recognise him when they open the images, maybe they won’t. I have my own collection of moments like it, stars of various wattages making entrances and exits. I have a photo of Dame Edna on her way into the Tonys: gladioli, glasses and bouffant do bobbing along above the heads of the crowd.
The van has fat leather seats, a faint smell of dope, a stronger smell of sanitiser and a compact fridge loaded with piccolos of Krug. Na$ti passes me one right away.
‘Some people drink it with a straw,’ he says. ‘They require a straw. Assholes.’
Smokey climbs in next to him, lifting the Little Brown Bag on the
seat and placing it in his lap. The two large bags are next to me. The door clunks shut.
‘So, why do you like facing backwards?’ I want to start a conversation, get us talking.
‘Is this the interview?’ He tears the foil from the top from his bottle and twists at the wire cork cover. He’s in a good mood. He is famous enough on 59th Street and he has Krug to share.
The engine starts. It’s less powerful, less military in tone than I was expecting. It’s a car engine, with this beast of a pimp van built on.
‘It can be. Or it can just be a question.’
‘Sure.’ He drinks a mouthful. ‘Any asshole can face forward. In a cab, you face forward. In a car, you face forward. You got wheels big enough to have a room, you get to face backward.’ It’s a sign, another sign, another assertion that he’s escaped the hard streets of his recent childhood and arrived somewhere else, in some Oz of his invention, where life is about something altogether more luxurious than survival. ‘And you get to look back and see all the people pointing, going, “Who the fuck?”’ He imitates star-shock, going wide-eyed and waving his hand around, snapping away with an imaginary phone.
Beside him, Smokey stares down at his screen, punching out a text message, no doubt to his labouring lady, placating, promising, telling her she matters more than this ride. He has another life, as do I, with mine across town at the Beacon, but I have yet to see Na$ti’s properly. My hand goes to my pocket without me thinking about it. Whenever my mind turns to Lindsey and Ariel, I imagine the buzz of a message, something not right.
Smokey hits send and says, ‘I might step out while you two eat.’
It’s the first I’ve heard of food being part of the plan. With a 9.30 meeting time, I ate in the real world before heading for Bloomingdale’s. But I’ll take it. The biggest piece I’m writing is Rolling Stone-style, where you buddy up with the artist and log time across different terrains: in transit; in their favourite dive bar where they don’t merit a glance; over tea one morning while they’re in track pants and coming down from something, finding room for remorse and even doubt. With this interview I get to compress that into one night, and it must go as long as it must go. A meal works well as the middle part of it. It’ll read like days. Themes will be revisited. Truths will find their shape and show themselves.
‘You leavin’ me at this man’s mercy?’ Na$ti laughs. ‘Who knows what shit I might say without you running interference?’ He pokes Smokey in the sleeve with a finger, hoping for a laugh back. Smokey obliges, but half-heartedly. ‘Yeah, man. I can let you off the clock a while.’
Na$ti pulls his own phone from his pocket and flicks between screens. I didn’t hear a message. He smiles to himself. The van turns out of 59th Street into an avenue, heading north. He glances through some photos – blurred selfies, a girl with blonde hair – and starts tapping a message.
‘Okay,’ Smokey says, more to bring Na$ti back to us than anything. Na$ti’s focus stays on his screen. ‘Okay, that’s good, Lydell.’
‘I have a visit in mind first,’ Na$ti says, still texting. ‘A little happy appetiser before the meal.’ He sends the message and twists around in his seat, ducking Smokey’s gaze. He puts his hand on the driver’s shoulder. ‘Candy store, my man.’
Smokey sets his arm along the base of the window and looks out – at the lights, at nothing at all – his lips pulled shut over his gold grills. In his other hand, his phone taps against his thigh. The van turns at the next intersection, then turns again, sending us south, back where we’ve come from.
Na$ti’s directly opposite me. He catches my eye and grins. ‘Candy store.’
It’s cryptic, and its mystery is meant for me. I’m not on the inside. He’s welcome to remind me of that as much as he likes. It would be implausible to him that I don’t want to be him, that I am living a life I could want more than this. A life in a suburb across the world, a remortgaged house, responsibilities, routines. Routines and the people in them are what makes up a life, and are not the grim sentence he might think. It would shock him to learn that I am in his van, writing this piece, solely for the money. It would not shock Smokey, I think. Not at all. His life is in a hospital somewhere else on this crowded island, eight centimetres, nine cent-imetres, ten centimetres, action.
The two of them sit in front of me like a split-screen image, different stories, different motivations spliced next to each other for effect.
‘I’m sure we’d be able to handle the interview, just the two of us, if Smokey had to go.’ I don’t need my boy pharaohs to be selfish to help me get the point about who’s in charge.
‘Really?’ Na$ti says, the grin now more of a smirk. ‘You’re sure of that?’
Smokey’s mouth opens as if he’s about to speak, but then he closes it again. His chunky ring taps his window as the van hits a bump.
The mood is not right for an interview. Na$ti’s head is already in his candy store, and Smokey will not jolly him back to me. Na$ti turns his phone over and over in his hand and stretches out in his seat, an action that requires me to move my feet for his. He sets his phone on the flat plane of his abdomen – he is whippet-lean beneath his rapper’s clothes, I’m betting – and he keeps one hand over it.
The driver makes several more turns. He has a GPS but doesn’t seem to use it. We pull up outside a rundown building. The driver steps out and checks the street in an overt way, like someone in a video checking a street, about to be surprised by gunfire or a flash mob of dancers. I can see no one out there, nothing moving. He opens the door.
Na$ti climbs out, connecting up the zip on his jacket, looking high up at the brickwork, beyond the graffiti tags, for Rapunzel or a party that’s waiting just for him, piles of coke or ice, like perfect ground glass. A breeze swirls in, a chill on it.
He steps lightly across the kerb, still fiddling with the zip and saying something like, ‘Back in five’, without turning his head.
The driver releases the door handle and decides he should stand next to the open door until directed otherwise. He clasps his hands behind his back and takes his own look at the higher windows, thinking of the party up there that is never for him, or thinking of home or blankly gazing, stretching his neck.
‘Five,’ Smokey says, with a distinct lack of conviction. ‘He’s…’ He shrugs and peers out the open door. ‘Excuse me.’
He finds a number on his phone and taps the green button to make the call. A woman answers, not with hello but with a sentence, in a forceful tone.
‘Yeah, honey,’ he tells her. ‘It’s Lydell. You know how he–’ Her voice cuts back in, berating him. ‘Yeah… Hmmm… I know, honey, I’d be…’ He puts his hand on his forehead, waiting for the tide to turn, the storm to abate. She tears another piece or two off him. ‘Soon. When Lydell’s eating. But how you doin’? That’s what I want to know.’
I can hear her telling him about the pain, pulling out some big metaphors. He makes listening, soothing noises. She has plenty more to tell. He is kerbside, elsewhere, useless, but making the best sounds he can of unequivocal support and deep engagement. We are all – fathers, husbands, partners – always precisely where we should be in spirit, even when the facts of our days and nights take us down stupid side streets like this one. Even when we should own our choices a little more than we do.
When the call’s over, he looks my way despondently and says, ‘She’s okay.’
‘Sure. It’s quite a time.’ I have been in a labour ward once, and seen the female body defy logic and deliver something as bulky, wriggling and life-changing as a baby.
‘It is.’ He smiles, for the first time in a while.
My Krug is now warm in the bottle. A car drives past us, slowly, beats thumping behind its closed windows.
Smokey takes another look at the building, perhaps hoping it will reveal something new.
‘Sometimes there’s a girl there,’ he says, while still craning his neck. ‘A particular girl.’
He finds another number on his phone. This time it’s the restaurant, and he tells them we’re going to be late. He estimates twenty minutes. Every call he makes is a new promise about time, and he sits there in his designer suit with his polished shoes and buffed nails and no say over his next five minutes.
‘There’s a place,’ he tells me, leaning forward. ‘They do a beef Wellington. Best in New York. Best anywhere, maybe. So Lydell says, and he sees himself as an aficionado. He prefers it served as soon as he arrives, so…’
‘How do they get that right?’ Beef Wellington takes time. It’s a multi-step process.
‘They set one up to be ready on time and there’s another, fifteen minutes behind it.’ He watches for my reaction.
‘They make two in case he’s late?’
‘They make three maybe. I don’t know.’
The wind makes a shhhh sound as it skids across the open door. The driver is still standing in the exact same spot, his hands clasped behind his back, fingers clenching and unclenching with each other. More isometrics.
‘And what happens to the others?’ I do what I can to pull all the judgment out of my voice. I could put plenty in there if I chose to. I’m picturing a production line, one plate after another of the world’s best beef Wellington dropping from the end of a conveyor belt and crashing onto the mess that’s already there.
There’s a pause before Smokey says, ‘I don’t know.’ He clears his throat. ‘This is not for the article, right? You and me talking about beef Wellington? That’s just you and me talking, yeah?’
A message comes through to his phone. He leans back in his seat to check it. He flinches. He shows me the text part of it, his hand over an image. There’s only one word. Pu$$y. He doesn’t have to tell me who it’s from.
‘At least I didn’t show you the photo.’ He sets the phone on the seat, facedown.
There’s another squall of wind, this time with rain scattering across the roof of the van. Smokey grabs for the Little Brown Bag as the rain comes in. The driver shuts the door, but the bag tips over. The plum-coloured purse slides out onto the seat. Smokey picks it up – it’s small in his hands – clicks the flap shut, folds the strap with care and slips it back into the bag.
‘The clothes are for him, I guess, but…’ It’s my best chance. The purse isn’t for Na$ti’s candy-store girl.
‘This?’ Smokey sets the bag down next to his thigh and keeps his hand on it. ‘I can’t say for sure. It’s not my place, and I also… I tell you this. His mom always said, “I don’t want no son who’s in jail – I want a son who’ll buy me something nice at Bloomingdale’s.”’
It’s a gift Na$ti, Lydell Junior, will never deliver. It’s five years too late, the best they had. Did he picture it on her arm, I wonder, back there in Bloomingdale’s? Did he picture her there on the red chaise longue among the grey yachtsmen, carried unharmed all the way to this different, invented life of his and its unimaginable opportunities?
‘You know we don’t discuss her,’ Smokey says before I can speak, ‘but I think it was important. Going there tonight, doing that. I don’t know. More important than two more pairs of pants anyways.’
He gets another text and shows it to me. This one reads, You have a daughter, asshole. No photos.
He calls back, full of joy and regret, and gets shouted at. A baby wails in the background. ‘I know, I know,’ he says, battling to get to the news, word that all is well.
The phone is handed to the nurse for that. His lady dismisses him. He takes it on the chin and listens intently to every detail.
‘You tell her I love her,’ he says to the nurse once he’s heard it all. ‘D’vonne and my new best girl, you tell them both, even if one of them don’t want to hear it right now.’ I can hear the nurse’s voice. His baby’s quiet now. He’s getting acquiescence to his request but not much sympathy. She finishes the call and he looks over to me and says, ‘Fine set of lungs, my daughter. Can’t guess where she got that from. She’s good. It’s cool. I’ll see her soon. Soon as Lydell…’ He raises his eyebrows, no words necessary. ‘She’s healthy. Everybody’s healthy. That’s the main thing. I thought I had more time.’
‘It’s quicker with the second sometimes.’ I have only one, but I’ve heard. ‘Congratulations.’
‘Yeah.’ He grins. ‘Yeah, it is that time. I’m in the doghouse but she’s in the world, man. Breathing and squawling and beautiful too, the nurse tells me. Thank you.’ He swivels in his seat, so that he’s on his knees and facing forward. ‘Hey, Rakim,’ he says to the driver, who allows himself to turn, ‘I got me a daughter.’
‘Happy for you, Mr Carmichael.’ Rakim reaches a hand up to shake. ‘So happy for you.’
There’s a tapping sound at the front window, Na$ti’s voice just audible through the thick glass saying, ‘What the fuck?’ His other arm is over
his head, as though the light rain might strike with enough force to cause actual pain.
‘Sorry, sir.’ Rakim moves quickly.
Na$ti steps back as Rakim simultaneously opens his door and pops a black umbrella. He launches himself from his seat and shelters Na$ti while pulling the rear door open with his other hand.
‘I’m cool that you get out of the rain,’ Na$ti says as he climbs in, ‘but you could keep your eyes open.’
‘Yes, sir. I was distracted by the news.’
Na$ti runs his hand down each sleeve, flicking water onto the floor. He smells of sweat and sex. He eases himself back in his seat and sits knees apart, proud of himself.
He runs a finger under his nose, taking a long theatrical sniff at it. ‘Sweet. This been in some happy places.’ The finger leaves a few white crystals behind, or moves them around in a way that makes them visible.
I’m waiting for Smokey to break his news, but instead he says, ‘How ’bout we do some more of the interview now. Seems like the perfect time.’
I pat my jacket down to find my recorder. It’s another chance for Smokey to mention his baby, another for Na$ti to ask. But Smokey is back looking out the window as we pull away from the kerb, and Na$ti is grinning like a fool, jazzed on whatever’s gone up his nose and the sex he’s just been having.
‘Okay, so…’ I try to remember what I’ve covered. I have notes in a pocket, but it wouldn’t be right to pull them out. ‘There’s word you’ve been recording something new. Is there any news on that?’
‘Yeah. It’s under wraps but, for you, yeah.’
He nudges Smokey. He’s waiting for Smokey to stop him. Smokey pulls out his phone and gets to work on a new text. To D’vonne is my guess; more joy, more apologies and promises.
‘All right then,’ Na$ti says. ‘It’s your story, if I’m good to go. It’s done, the record. The beats are super nasty, just wait. It’s called… I say it’s called Pussy Hound, but we still talking that one through. With two dollar signs, so you get it right. P, U, dollar sign, dollar sign, Y, yeah? Pu$$y Hound.’ He nods, appreciating the artistry of it. ‘It’s like a dog reference and a cat reference in the one title, see? It’s got layers.’
I ask him who he collaborated with – always the story with a rap album – and Smokey stirs and says, ‘Lydell, we got to leave some gas in the tank. No offence, Jeff. That can be when I walked back into the room shouting, “Embargo”, and demanding you talk about something else.’ He waves his non-phone hand around like a man in a slow-motion panic. ‘But you can break the title news if you want. And now for the something else…’
I ask Na$ti about the girl he’s just visited, and it turns out she’s an emerging porn star who has recently had her vagina, mouth and anus moulded for a doll.
‘She’s in college,’ he tells me, big dopey grin over most of his face at the thought of her parts latexed and on the open market. ‘Nice college too. That shit don’t go down too good at New Haven.’
He means Yale. He’s telling me he’s dating an Ivy League porn star. And he’s referring to Yale the way F. Scott Fitzgerald did two pages into The Great Gatsby. Na$ti is a boy from near Fitzgerald’s city of ashes – the awful demoralised pit between the Long Island Eggs and the city – and I wonder if he knows that. The reference is chance, surely. There is no well-thumbed Gatsby in his back pocket. He could have learned from Jay Gatsby, at least something about the transience and dangers of gaudiness, of relying on surfaces to bear weight.
Not that I’m an expert on the book, but I have a friend who has written three novels, all of them The Great Gatsby in one way or another. That’s his admission, not mine, and it saw me giving Fitzgerald’s book a more focused read than I otherwise might have. Any time I’m in this city, I cross paths with Paul’s attempts to make it in New York publishing, even in the close boxy world inside this van. His career high point – he knew it was that, and feared it too, in the moment it was happening – was a meeting in a cockpit office right at the narrow end of the Flatiron Building, selling the first of his three Gatsbyish novels to a publisher. They bought the second too, I think, as part of the same deal, but they didn’t take the third.
We can’t be more than a few blocks from where that dark curved window keeps its unblinking eye fixed on Broadway. We might even pass it on our way to the beef Wellington, casting our own small lights into the coursing traffic below.
Paul still has a photo of the building on his office wall at home, and no doubt still keeps a candle burning for the dream. It should have been the start of something, that meeting, not the best of it.
But I wanted to be in a band once. It’s all right that not all dreams end up being lived. We are both getting by, each putting our words to our own honest kind of work. It’s still a dream, this job, in its own way, even if not every interview is with a lifelong hero and some are simply for the purpose of getting paid.
‘Hey, man,’ Na$ti says, ‘you a long way from home, yeah?’
He rummages around in his jacket, searching for an inside pocket, grinning, laughing. There’s a big joke going on that so far only he is in on. He pulls out something pale and flexible, a kind of tube. He tosses it to me, and I catch it instinctively, holding it and the recorder together between my hands. The tube ends in a neat oval cap with a puckered centre leading to its hollow core.
‘You want a piece of ass on the road?’ He laughs squawkily, struggling to pull it in so that he can finish. ‘Now you got one. This is one prototype asshole from Little Miss New Haven. Don’t tell me no rock star never gave you his girl’s ass before.’
It wobbles in my hand. I fumble it and catch it between my knees. It’s a rubber anus, sphincter and reservoir, but it feels as though I’d somehow be disrespecting its model if I let it drop to the floor. The anus wobbles and topples to one side.
‘It’s made for getting real dirty, see,’ he tells me matter-of-factly as I lift it by its stem, like a lily, and place it on the seat beside me. ‘It comes out and cleans up real good. The guy who made it, I had him blinded of course afterwards, blinded or killed.’
It was the prerogative of kings, medieval and ancient, to be so brutal and so self-absorbed. It’s a jokey reminder about who is the boss around here.
Smokey leans towards me. ‘Did you want to shoot some video? We might do that now.’
‘Embargo!’ Na$ti calls out, waving his hands dramatically. ‘Embargo the rubber asshole! That’s what that means. You gone too far, Na$ti.’
I had the video pencilled in for later, but the trick is to roll with it. To bring up my plans would betray a structure, and a structure would betray a purpose and I would be back to being the interrogator, to be viewed with suspicion. I am to be a talkative shadow in this van, this night, and shadows don’t initiate the moves. A guy with a notepad and a pen and ten questions gets some facts, but that’s not the same. No one, once they’re used to the shape of it, guards against their shadow.
‘This is for a website,’ I tell Na$ti. ‘For the festivals.’
In another pocket, I have a camera that can shoot web-quality video. With that in my hand and pointed at his face, there will be no room to pretend that we are four guys in a van and I am doing anything subtle. It will look like – and will be – an interview, but then it will be done and I can go back to lurking around his evening, casting lines into the dark in the hope of catching something new and unusual and telling.
‘So, it’ll be a few straightforward questions,’ I tell him. ‘Straight Q & A thing. We might aim to edit me out, so if you could start the answer by reframing the question in your own words.’
He reaches to his left and pushes on a panel set between the backs of his seat and Smokey’s. It clicks open, revealing a grid of controls. He presses a button and strings of lights blink on. They’re threaded around the doors and seats and shaped to make swirls on the ceiling. He brings music up too but keeps it low, all bass and beat. The lights pulse in synch.
‘The audio might be on three, Lydell,’ Smokey says, ‘but you just cranked the pimp dial up to eleven.’
‘You tell me when it hits fifteen and I’ll bring it back a little.’ He pulls his cap on and then says, ‘No, that’s wrong for the lighting. You’ll lose my face.’ He pulls it off again. ‘I want the beanie, the SSUR.’ He clicks his fingers and waggles one in the direction of the bags. Smokey already has one hand on a bag, but he stops it there and stares at the fingers instead until Na$ti says, ‘Please’.
Smokey lowers the bag onto the floor between his feet and starts parting garments. ‘Damn pimp lighting never meant to find no beanie.’
Eventually he extracts it and Na$ti puts it on. It’s fawn in colour and knitted, and he pulls at it so that it sits in layers and looks not unlike a bandage.
‘You take a still and let me check this?’ He points at the camera.
After minor alterations and another still, we’re ready.
I frame him as well as I can with the van stopping and starting in avenue traffic, and I ask him to start by telling us where we are.
‘Hi, Australia,’ he says, and waves, like a witless tourist. Fine by me if that’s how he wants it. ‘This is my wheels, aka Club Na$ti, coming to you from the streets of New York City.’
‘Great.’ As in, great if the benchmarks are boxing commentators from the ’70s and tuxedoed pageant hosts. But my next question – the festival’s next question – is set to be worse. ‘So, what are you looking forward to in Australia?’
‘I’m gonna bring it, Australia, like I know you want me to.’ He’s looking right down the barrel, pointing for emphasis. ‘I’m gonna rhyme like the best of all time, rhymes that turn on a dime. I know you know how to party, and I’m bringin’ the beats.’ His phone is in his other hand, and he glances down at the screen and flicks quickly between images. ‘Now tell me, Australia, you got some of this for me?’ He holds the phone up, squarely in the middle of the shot. It’s bright with white flesh. ‘How beautiful is this? You got anything this motherfuckin’ beautiful?’
It’s Miss New Haven, naked. Her knees are bent and the phone must be somewhere between her ankles. Immediately above her porn-star-bare vagina, though careful not to obscure a millimetre of it, the straight index finger of her right hand slides back and forth through the inverted V made by the index and ring fingers of her left, like a pool cue in a jigger, sizing up a shot. In the distance, framed by the larger V of her thighs, there’s a blur of blonde hair, the smudged red lipstick line of a smile on her pale face, dark featureless eyes.
Na$ti lurches back laughing, and his left hand goes out to balance him and tips the Little Brown Bag onto the floor. The plum-coloured purse spills out, its folded strap unravelling. He puts his hand over his phone screen. That’s his first move. His mother is in his head. He sets the phone on the seat and scoops up the purse, holding it close to a strip of white door lights and examining each part of it to make certain it’s come to no harm.
He finds a scuff mark and says, ‘Fuck, man. Fuck.’ There’s a sharp intake of breath and he blinks and rubs his eyes. ‘Goddamn it.’
The camera is pointing at the floor and I stop it filming. Na$ti stares at the mark. A tear rolls down his cheek and drops from his chin.
‘It’s cool, Lydell.’ It’s a line Smokey must say in his sleep. He reaches across to take the purse, licks his thumb and wipes the smudge away. ‘Good as new.’ He shows him the spot.
There’s another lurch of breath, and Na$ti steadies himself and nods. He is not in this second remotely nasty. He is a lost boy.
‘Let’s put it in one them big bags,’ he says, ‘with clothes all around.’ He clears his throat, focuses on something in the air between us and then looks at me. His eyes are still shiny, but he puts on a smile. ‘You showin’ Australia all that?’
‘It’ll cut out before the bag’s involved.’
‘Cool. You showin’ the rest?’ The smile reshapes itself. It’s cockier, dirtier.
‘We might drop a little pixellation here and there, I suspect.’
It won’t need much. Crotch and gesture amount to no more than a few square millimetres in the middle of a phone screen that’s only part of the shot. And there are no identity issues. Even with the complete photo, only her gynaecologist might have a chance of recognising her. Perhaps fans too, in this case, but she’s already selling it to them.
I restart the camera, and he settles himself again in his seat and gives me a nod.
‘Your branding’s all very vaginal.’
He laughs. ‘Catch the salmon while it’s running.’
He looks to Smokey for affirmation or a high five, but Smokey has one hand deep in the Big Brown Bag, with the other holding the purse clear until he’s made a nest for it.
Na$ti frowns. ‘I’m all about family now.’
It comes out sounding like a line he’s read somewhere, one of those things famous people say, the lie of a broken politician or CEO who has lost the confidence of the board. In this second though, I think he means it. In the interview, it’s a car-crash non sequitur, but for him it was the next direct unfiltered thought. I don’t know what family he has, other than his second-and-a-half cousin, who can probably thank Na$ti for the great suit and the gold on his teeth, but who tends to the bags and takes what he’s given.
‘So, what do you want from this? From the life you’re leading now? Apart from more photos like the one on your phone.’
‘I wanted them cargoes.’ It’s another piece of a thought. He is full of drugs and sex, and sad notions are surfacing out of the black water.
‘You wanted some other things more,’ Smokey says, in a tone that’s almost gentle. ‘And you got them. Anyways, Alexander Wang gonna be making pants a while.’
‘That was shitty, maxing out the card in Bloomingdale’s.’ He’s talking to Smokey, but I’m still shooting. ‘It wasn’t supposed to be like that, not there.’ He looks at the camera and holds up his hand so that his palm fills the screen. ‘You cut that. You cut that, okay?’ I move the camera inadvertently and his hand follows. ‘I’m gonna answer that question again. You ask it again and I’ll answer.’
‘Sure. We’ll keep rolling and I’ll cut it later.’ I will. There’s no reason not to. He’ll look as mad as a snake on a hot road with all those scatty ideas one after another – salmon, family, pants, credit cards – and anyone viewing it is likely to put it down to bad editing. I could run it as is with a clock in the corner and no one would believe me. Take two. ‘So, what do you want from this?’
‘What do I want from this? Drake’s got a waterfall.’ It’s a rapper’s answer. It’s the start of some bullshit, but the correct kind of rapper bullshit. His eyes flick towards the camera and then back to me. ‘And stables. He’s got a waterfall with two bitches on their knees. Statues. And a grotto. I want that shit.’
‘What about inner peace?’ It’s the real unanswered question, though the chance won’t arise to give it its due, not even over the final mouthfuls of the world’s greatest beef Wellington, candlelight glinting from my recorder. Statues and a grotto. Inner peace might as well be tossed in now, sounding like a joke, to see what he makes of it.
He smiles a smile that he never intended, not a rapper’s smile at all, no condescension in it. He gives a hur-hur-hur laugh, deeper than I thought it’d be. ‘Yeah, that too. Maybe not this week. Inner peace ain’t so good for the rhymes.’ It’s all I’m getting for now.
‘So, stables. Have you got any horses?’
‘Do I got horses?’ He looks straight at the camera. ‘Do I got horses, Australia? No. Drake got no horses neither. But he got stables, see. I want enough stables that I got me a mews.’
His head rocks on screen as he laughs, and light flashes on his teeth. He holds up a fist and Smokey bumps it. It’s perfect for the festival website, exactly the kind of soulless bragging and wordplay we look to rappers for.
‘Lydell, you got a little…’ Smokey indicates the crusting around Na$ti’s left nostril. With his head turned, it’s catching the light like quartz.
Na$ti wipes his face, and blood smears across the back of his hand.
‘Motherfucker.’ In panic, he wipes again, streaking the blood across his cheek. He gives a big wet sniff and presses both hands on his face, fingertips meeting over his nose. He blinks, mouth-breathes. ‘How about a Kleenex, bitches?’
‘Pinch it,’ I tell him, demonstrating on myself. ‘Just pinch it.’
Smokey fidgets in his seat, lifting his hand towards Na$ti’s face, then pulling it back. From the front, Rakim passes a box of tissues without turning around. Smokey pulls out a handful, prises Na$ti’s tented fingers away from his nose and clamps the tissues in place.
‘Now pinch it,’ he says. ‘You heard the man.’ He takes another tissue from the box and wipes his hand before looking up at me. ‘We get final cut, yeah?’
A BEEF WELLINGTON is waiting when we arrive at the restaurant, but the next is two minutes away, so Na$ti decides to take that and give me the older one. The place is otherwise empty, the kitchen otherwise closed. There is no suggestion that I be given a menu. A great beef Wellington that has spent ten minutes under a hot lamp is still, by my reckoning, likely to be a great beef Wellington. And it’s deep into the night, not near a mealtime for me anyway.
Smokey is on his way to his new daughter, finally.
The table, set for two, has a bud vase crammed with small red plastic flowers and a tea-light candle in a bowl.
While my dinner spends its final minute under the light and Na$ti’s is being plated up, I ask him what makes this his favourite meal and he says, ‘It’s just the best. The pastry’s flaky, the duxelles…it tastes real good.’ He tilts his chin up a little and sets his hands on the table. I notice a tiny, pilled ball of tissue lodged in his moustache, where Smokey has dabbed a Kleenex dipped in Perrier to clean away the blood. ‘It tastes refined. I believe they add cream, which many people don’t. And the mushrooms are straight from Italy.’
There are no deep truths to be mined in his dinner choice, no heartfelt connections to bring to the surface. He’s more concerned with sounding like an aristocrat, someone who has lived and Wellingtoned anywhere a person should.
As our meals are served, I ask him what music meant to him when he was younger and he tells me, ‘I liked the sound first, the way cool guys had it coming out of cars.’ He picks up his fork. ‘Then I see that Jay Z come from Brooklyn and he the richest dude.’
‘Mos Def, Notorious B.I.G. – they were from Brooklyn too, weren’t they?’ I can talk music endlessly. I want to see what it brings up here.
‘Them too, but I only knew about Mos Def from when he worked with Kanye in ’bout 2010. Anyway, he got a different name now.’ He cuts into his beef Wellington and a rush of steam comes out. ‘And Biggie, well, I was young then.’
Young when Biggie was shot dead in LA – that’s what I think he means. By my reckoning, Lydell Luttrell Junior turned two that year.
‘I met his mom, though, Ms Wallace. She call him Christopher, but…’
‘So you talked about him with her?’
‘No. It’s what I hear.’ He sticks his fork into the pink beef. ‘You don’t want this to get cold.’
‘How did you know her?’ I’m picturing a young Lydell, hand in his mother’s, Voletta Wallace bending down to talk to him. She was a preschool teacher, maybe still is.
‘Just in the neighbourhood.’ He lifts the fork to his mouth and sits back to chew, appreciate. Whatever story there is, he’s scrubbed it bare of detail and it’s plain I’ve got all I’m going to.
It should mean everything, this picture I have of them in my mind – two mothers meeting on the street, one of a dead rapper, the other on her own downward path, her boy soon working his own rhymes. It could be a pivotal moment, with Biggie Smalls – Christopher Wallace – the Icarus of the tale, a parable from Lydell’s own neighbourhood. I’m picturing Na$ti’s mother with the plum-coloured shoulder bag that she’ll never see.
It’s another in a series of probing moves that could take him to his parents, but not one does. He keeps me at bay the whole meal.
His connection to Smokey is on his mother’s side: ‘Some kind of cousin.’ No more detail than at the start of the night. Ms Willard is recently dead and thought him nasty to the last. He has some friends from the neighbourhood, though he doesn’t see them much and won’t give me names. As is his way, he leaves that recollection whirring in his head a while before trying to divert me to the present, always the present.
He has a story about the Grammys, which he’s told in several other interviews, and one about a ski trip with Jay Z, when he hoped the technique for snowboarding would be identical to skateboarding but it turned out it wasn’t. He mentions a record-label party on a yacht where Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs had a red drink spilt on his white suit and left by helicopter from a pad on the rear deck.
Each anecdote is brief and unexamined, but Na$ti is not yet a great examiner of his life. I suspect he doesn’t dare to be. If he stares too closely at any of this, it might disappear.
He wants the present to write over the past, firmly and grandly. I am to judge him for his ‘now’, even though it’s only the journey to now that’s of interest to me. A nineteen-year-old loose in the city, having sex, taking drugs and eating late is no story in itself. Sometime, long into the future, he’ll know that too.
But it will add up to enough for my purposes, even if it’s served to me as a mixture of rapper’s answers, dead ends and jagged edges. A story is a cohesive thing once it’s written, but the path to it is not.
IT’S DAWN WHEN I arrive back at the Beacon. A street-sweeping truck is passing, skimming the kerb. Crates of fruit are being delivered to the supermarket on the other side of Broadway. The air is cool and fresh as I step out. The van smells of bodies now, of Na$ti and his girl, of men kept in a small place. The last molecules of sanitiser have been defeated.
My eyelids feel as stiff as wallpaper. There’s a sheen of grease on my skin. I’m not one for all-nighters, even when my sleep reserves
The concierge calls out, ‘Good morning, sir’, altogether too heartily. ‘How’s that beautiful daughter of yours?’ Our circumstances make us everyone’s business here, but he could not mean it more kindly.
It’s not long after 5 am, but Lindsey and Ariel are already up when I open the door. Ariel is in pyjamas, sitting with toys, watching Frozen again on DVD. She looks at me as if I’ve been gone no more than a minute and then turns back to the screen. I can hear a bowl clunk on a countertop. Lindsey is warming the morning feed.
When I step into the kitchenette, she is leaning forward, with her forehead against the cupboard above. Her hair is in front of her face, so I can’t see if her eyes are open. She is squishing the packet of liquid around in the warm water, attempting to heat it evenly.
‘Here, let me do that.’
She jerks into a more vertical position when I speak, and she bumps the bowl. There’s a red patch on her forehead from the cupboard door.
‘Didn’t hear you come in,’ she says, and steps back. She folds her arms and watches me press the liquid around in the packet. ‘All night. Did you know it’d take all night?’
‘Sorry. You know what they can be like, some of them.’ I hadn’t the heart to tell her it was a two-to-three-day job, compressed into whatever hours last night would give me. No time in the planning of this trip or its execution was the right time for that. But the interview will end up delivering four pay packets, one of them a good one.
In a simpler life I would have spread it out, with time for sightseeing, maybe a baseball game. I can still remember the chickpea salad from Zabar’s. We had no commitments that first visit, other than to squeeze as much New York out of it as we could.
‘Yeah.’ She stretches her arms up and yawns. ‘My parents have transferred the last five thousand.’
This is what we have become, ledger-keepers and scroungers trying to pay for medical treatment. Across town, Na$ti is hooking up, getting high, dialling the present up as far as it’ll go, and here at the Beacon we have to be about the future. You cannot live in the moment when the moment is a diabolical time.
‘Dad still thinks we should crowdfund,’ Lindsey says. Her parents have given us twenty thousand. ‘You’ve got the contacts.’ She glances past me, checking Ariel, who is still deep in Frozen, clutching her second- or third-best monkey. ‘She’s not… I don’t want her to perform for it.’
Ariel scratches her cheek where the tape itches. The clamp on her tube sways up and down.
‘Neither do I.’ I find the thought of the crowdfunding video hard to bear. We can’t let a sick four-year-old plead. I can’t write that script, or frame her face while Ariel says it back to me a line at a time. She would do it, without a second thought. ‘I’ll get people to push my payments. We’ll make it, with that and the credit cards.’
These are not black credit cards, not cards with the matt sheen of Prince Albert’s and endless concierging, but any credit card with breathing space is good enough. And the people I’m writing for will pay early, on delivery, if I ask them. We have a good history and they know Ariel or know of her. Right now they are buying stories from me because I am offering them, simple as that. I’m crowdfunding in my own way, without Ariel doing a piece to camera.
If I told her I’d help her crowdfund for anything she wanted, she might say stables. It’s a real possibility. Stables with at least one good chestnut pony. Stables, a grotto, a waterfall – she’d love all of those. We should be crowdfunding to buy Drake’s place, not for exotic treatments.
But the signs are good. The fear is still there for Lindsey and me, but we have stepped back from its sharpest edge. Ariel’s blood work is strong, her weight has stopped falling and, so far, every child in the program with her stats has made it. These are good odds.
The feed is ready. Lindsey can’t stop herself checking and puts a hand on the bag. The feed needs to be warm but not too warm.
‘I’ll take this one,’ I tell her. The pouch of liquid is body temperature in the palm of my hand, like a living thing. ‘You get some sleep.’
‘Really?’ She looks past me at the day now blasting in through the window, the water towers and scrappy rooftops below us, New Jersey across the water. She yawns again, a big jaw-dislocating python yawn. Her eyes sparkle, and she blinks. She gives me two thumbs up. ‘Excellent. Not a great night here, but I figured there was no point in calling.’
‘We’ll have breakfast and I’ll take her to the park.’
She’s about to mention infection, but she stops herself. Ariel’s white-cell count is good enough now, with precautions. That was yesterday’s news.
‘You didn’t sleep either,’ she says instead, because it’s decent to note it.
‘I’ll sleep after the treatment.’
She puts her hand out and touches my arm. ‘Thanks.’
As I’m setting up next to Ariel, Lindsey drifts into the dark bedroom without a word. I can hear her flop onto the bed and roll over. For the first time in hours she is not responsible, and has instantly thrown all switches to sleep. It’s an ability I wish I had.
I ask Ariel if she’s ready to go and she says, ‘Yeah. You’ll sit next to me?’
‘All the way.’
I would pay fifty bucks, if I had it spare, not to see Frozen one more time. Once we’re through this, all of us, long through it, a single frame of that movie will still put me right back here in this room. It could be forty years, and Frozen will smell like feeding formula to me and feel like Beacon carpet.
I attach the syringe to the tube, release the clamp and draw up yellow gastric fluid. I swing it around to the front, still attached, for Ariel to check and she says, ‘Good to go.’ It’s an expression she’s picked up at the clinic.
I push the fluid back down and clamp again. I set up the extension tubing, connect the syringe to that and draw the plunger out with a pop.
Ariel says, ‘Pop’, as she usually does.
I run the feed in and attach the apparatus to Ariel’s feeding tube.
‘Ready to go,’ I tell her.
She needs to know that breakfast is about to start. No brain is wired to receive gastric-filling signals when the mouth isn’t engaged, but she has trained herself to imagine food at exactly the right time. I release the clamp and check the flow. Ariel moves in close to me and I put my arm around her, keeping the syringe barrel close to mouth height and letting gravity do its job.
‘So, we’ll go to the park today,’ I tell her.
‘Really?’ She turns away from the screen and looks at me. She has seen our photos of Central Park, and seen it through a car window.
‘Yeah. And I got a tip last night about a particularly good playground.’
‘Yay,’ she says in a small voice, acknowledging something positive but not more engaged than that. Her eyes are already back on the TV.
And we are back in the world, with a park visit. Today is that day, a milestone by my reckoning, even if she’s not one for marking such things. I hug a little closer to her as the level in the syringe slowly falls. I can convince myself she is less obviously bony than she once was.
ARIEL ELECTS TO go to the park as Batman, with the hood up and clamp tucked back inside it, tube sneaking forward to her nose. That arrangement’s my idea, but she goes along with it. She has not had a public life as a kid with a tube – just the Beacon and the clinic. I’m glad she chose Batman.
The hotel lends us a stroller, and the concierge even helps me when I pull out a pack of antiseptic wipes and start rubbing it down.
Ariel and I hit the street smelling more like a hospital than we should, but the breeze soon deals with that. She’s long for the stroller, but you could fold her up and she still wouldn’t fill it. It has a simple frame and wheels with none of the shock absorbency of the Bugaboo at home – Lindsey would not approve – but it will take us where we want to go.
Ariel looks up through the filtered light at the tree canopies and tall buildings. She is searching for superheroes, she tells me, or supervillains. She confirms with me that she is now on the streets of Gotham City. From the hotel room she has looked out to the water towers, watching for Spider-Man. Superheroes work a decent kind of magic as far as she’s concerned, and she is glad to be in their world.
On Central Park West a subway train thunders below us, and I stop the stroller on a grate to let her feel the rush of warm wind.
‘There’s a famous scene in a movie like this,’ I tell her. ‘A lady standing on one of these grates gets her skirt blown right up.’
‘Is it on YouTube?’ she says, gripping the struts of the stroller and peering down at the darkness, her bat ears pointing up and forward. She is the Caped Crusader in his eyrie, vigilant for evil deeds on the grimy streets below. ‘I want to see it.’
‘I bet it’s there. We’ll find it.’
We enter the park near Strawberry Fields and I’m about to tell her we’ll add John Lennon to our YouTube list but she seems more taken with the glum man sitting on a bench selling dollar jokes to no one.
She makes me read his sign aloud – it’s as if he’s a waxwork or not really there – and, as I wheel her away, she says, ‘But how do you sell jokes? Jokes just are. And what if they’re not funny?’
Maps have never helped me in Central Park, so I take my bearings from the buildings I can see, and we edge our way east. There is plenty to discuss out in the world, and for Ariel that is as good as anything. I could sleep where I stand, but I thread a few thoughts together and hold up my end of the conversation. It’s a gift just to talk and to be here, not killing time on a moulded plastic chair with my eyes on hospital tiles or the clock, all talk about treatments and prognoses and what just went beep.
There are shrieks ahead of us, the happy shrieks of children. Then a fence and a sign.
‘It’s Johnson or Jackson.’
It’s meant to stay in my head as a thought only, but I know I’ve made more of it when Ariel says, ‘What? What is?’
‘The park. The playground. The one we’re looking for.’
Billy Johnson, the sign reads. We are here.
The gate groans as we swing it open, then clangs behind us. It’s a school day, so anyone here to play is small. Two nannies sit on a bench, talking over takeaway coffees. A tourist thumbs through photos on his camera while his boys battle with two sticks and shout at each other in French.
This is acceptable exposure for Ariel. It’s not a huddle of sick people. The slide, though, might be beyond her. It curves down from the top of a rise in the corner of the playground, and the boy I can see flying along it stacks on the bend and comes off his cardboard. But there are swings and simple structures to climb on. It’s some way to have come not to slide, but I can’t see her making it down there herself.
‘It’s a good day, though, isn’t it,’ I say to her, ‘whatever we do here. It’s nice to be outside.’
She is watching the next slider, who takes the bend like a master, shoots off the end and lands on his feet, his cardboard flipping up behind him.
‘Well, if it ain’t the Fosters,’ a voice says behind my shoulder.
It’s Smokey, in track pants and a T-shirt.
‘I didn’t get no sleep neither,’ he says, pulling out his phone. His pants pocket inverts itself and flops from his hip like a dog’s ear. He still has his grills on, and they sparkle like Christmas in the direct sunlight. ‘Here’s my girl.’ He shows me a photo. She has plump mauve lips and swirls of black hair. She’s swaddled and sleeping peacefully. ‘Still decidin’ the name. S’pect I’ll lose on that one too.’ Before I can mention any of the things a person’s supposed to about a photo of a newborn, he says, ‘It was us talking ’bout this place last night that made me come here today. My lady D’vonne’s getting some sleep. We just blowing off a little steam before my boy gets to go meet his sister.’
The stroller and back view of my tiny Batman arrive properly in his consciousness for the first time. ‘And, hey, who’s this?’
He steps around to see her before I can prepare him at all. She’s thinner than the wallpaper shot on my phone. He’s got his happy meeting-a-kid face stuck on and he’s fighting to hold it, to pretend for all our sakes that he’s
‘Hey, honey,’ he eventually says, softly, cautiously, as he crouches down. ‘So good to meet you. I’m a friend of your daddy’s.’
He starts to edge his hand forward to shake or high-five hers, but then settles for resting his forearm on his knee. Ariel sticks a hand out, in high-five pose. She is used to New Yorkers crouching, forcing a smile and a bright tone of voice and then talking through whatever grim thing they are planning to do to her to make her well.
Smokey looks up at me. ‘Is it cool?’ he says, pointing to her hand and his.
‘It is now. Unless you’ve got some disease I should know about.’
‘High five,’ he says, and his big hand meets her much smaller one with a satisfying slap. The sun sparks on his grin. ‘No diseases other than sleep deprivation and a distinct lack of popularity with my lady, but we’ll get past that. Now, honey, what we gonna do? What is there in the Billy Johnson Playground that takes your fancy?’ He’s talking animatedly, keeping the grin on, keeping his spiel moving at a clip so that we can all pretend all’s well with our caped crusader. ‘I believe you have already noticed our excellent stone slide, soon to be written about in newspapers across Australia by a man well known to you.’
I can picture her bones, all her unprotected points, bumping on granite all the way down. She’s had weeks when only sheepskin was close to comfortable, though we’re past that now.
‘I don’t know that she’s–’
Ariel cuts in and says, ‘Dad…I want to.’
‘Sure, honey, sure,’ Smokey says. ‘It’s your dad’s call but if he okays it, we can make it work. Because I have a plan.’ He takes a step to move directly in front of her and then crouches again. ‘Some people call me Smokey, honey, but you can call me Eugene. My boy’s over there.’ He indicates the master slider, shooting down again, like a torpedo in a tube. ‘He’s Eugene too, so we made that nice and easy. But we call him Junior, mostly. He’ll answer to either.’ Ariel is staring at his grills as the light dances from the gold. ‘You readin’ my teeth?’ He draws his lips back to give her a good look.
She laughs. ‘I can do letters.’
‘Maybe I best keep my mouth shut then.’
He folds his lips over his teeth in a comical, bulky way. He holds a hand up and pretends to go on with the conversation about the slide, making all kinds of nonsensical sounds, as though he’s giving a meticulous muffled outline of what he’s got in mind. His free hand is measuring, pointing, making all kinds of shapes, fingers running up steps, sliders on cardboard swooping around the curve, braking screechily or stacking, Wile E Coyote-style. Ariel laughs so much the stroller shakes and takes a hop backwards.
‘Yes!’ she shouts, and her hands give an involuntary clap. ‘I want to.’
Smokey cranks his lips apart with his thumb and finger, making can-opener sounds, and says, ‘We got a plan. She’ll go down with Junior. Tandem. He’ll take all the knocks.’ He reaches into his other pants pocket. There’s a jangle of keys. ‘I’ll get him ready for it too. D’vonne don’t let me out the door without my pockets full of this shit.’
He pulls out a bottle of green sanitiser, squirts it on his own hands, then calls Junior over and goes to lube his legs.
‘What?’ Junior takes half a step back and almost stumbles over his father’s hand.
‘Be cool, buddy.’ Smokey wipes another handful of goo down one of Junior’s arms.
‘I ain’t makin’ you swallow it.’ He lifts Junior’s shirtfront and wipes a final squirt under there. ‘You goin’ tandem and we just playin’ it safe.’ He clips the empty bottle shut and slips it back into his pocket. ‘Now, you take Batman up there and you look after her like she’s a princess. A superhero princess. You come down together and you take all the bumps.’
Junior’s mouth opens – he is not a tandem rider, not here as a helper of princesses – but his father has a hand on his arm and is looking straight at him, willing him to just do it, no arguments, just this once. Junior reads the expression, and glances towards Ariel and back to his father. He knows something is up. He knows it is one of those times. He nods.
Ariel takes my hand to get out of the stroller, and then Eugene Junior offers his and leads her towards the stone steps. He measures his speed against hers and holds back a branch of a bush so that it doesn’t brush her arm. She waits on the second step while he retrieves his cardboard. He tucks it under one arm and takes her hand again.
Inside the black suit, she is frail, but she is sick of lambswool and complete safety and one DVD after another. She is four and must attend to a four-year-old’s business, and she must slide today, whatever the knocks. I am afraid for her, for all of us, Lindsey and me too. There are more steps to the top of the slide than I realised. I have seen her X-rays and her scans and her worst days.
They wait their turn, still holding hands. Ariel is closely studying the sliders ahead and every bit of their journey down. Eugene Junior looks over to his father to check that he’s getting it right. Smokey gives him a nod.
‘You taking pictures of this?’ he says to me. ‘You got an article to write, yeah? I think Batman’s about to slide.’
There’s just enough time for me to get my camera out. Every article is patched together this week, this month. I could have left this playground without a single image.
‘Here, let me,’ he says. ‘You just watch.’ He holds his hand out for the camera, clicking his fingers.
I need to watch, and he is giving me the chance. I need to live this, not be its recorder.
He fiddles with the settings, sets up the shot in a second. He knows what he’s doing.
Eugene Junior places his cardboard, then helps Ariel into a sitting position on it, one of his hands on the lip of the slide the whole time and one on her. He eases his legs around her. She keeps hers straight, but his are bent a little, knees jutting out to take any knocks. He puts one arm around her waist and she grips it with both hands, like a rail on a rollercoaster. He takes his other hand from the slide’s granite edge and pushes it against the base, just behind where he’s sitting. They start to move, and he gives another push.
They skid forward, building up speed. Ariel’s teeth are clenched, but she’s smiling. Her eyes are ahead on the slide, anticipating. The two of them swing into the bend, Eugene Junior perfectly managing their path. Wind buffets her suit. The drop is steep.
The hood blows back from her head, her messy blonde hair spilling all around, the red clamp of her tube bobbing next to her ear. She lets go of his arm and they wobble, but he corrects. She reaches up. I’m expecting her to grab the hood and pull it back into place, but she ignores it completely and thrusts her arms up in the air, keeping them there all the way down until she is standing in the dust and the ride is over.
‘Again,’ she says as Eugene lets go of her and bends down to pick up the cardboard. ‘Please.’
‘Let’s see here,’ Smokey says, flicking back to the early images as Ariel and his son make their way back towards the steps.
He’s found a setting that fired every fraction of a second. We track them from top to bottom, one picture at a time. The hood blows back, the tube appears and my first thought is it won’t be hard to photoshop it out. Smokey clicks to the next image, and the next, and then pauses on one.
The sunlight is falling across Ariel’s pale outstretched arms and lighting up her wispy hair. She is upright and fearless, and I hadn’t seen that. She is looking straight at the camera. Her hands are bunched into small pale fists. She is flying for a moment, in defiance of gravity. It is, after all, a city of superheroes, of caped crusaders and heroic deeds. She wants me to have a good photo. She wants to give me a picture of a good time.
‘Look at your beautiful girl,’ Smokey says.
She has done it for me and for her mother. Not every minute of our present is to be recorded as diabolical and hard, and something to be endured in the hope of better. She is in the present – this present, between the tube feed and today’s treatment – and she has made room for joy in it.
The tube will stay in the photo we publish, and I will argue for that if I have to.
I hear a voice, just beyond the playground, and my first thought is it’s someone I know, but it’s an Australian accent that I’ve caught. There’s a couple in their twenties walking past, eyes on the path in front of them, arguing. He’s in a black T-shirt with white writing and, through the fence, I mistake it for a Ramones logo before it makes itself clear. They’re disagreeing about money. I can hear enough to know that. They’re missing New York for it on this bright, good morning. I would go over and tell them, try to talk some sense, but it would do no good. It’s all ahead of them, the worst and the best of it, and theirs to make sense of when it arrives.
‘Lydell’s granddaddy,’ Smokey says, ‘he worked at Bloomingdale’s. He was an elevator guy. Had a uniform with a cap.’ He pauses. ‘This is just us talking, right? Just so you know. He died on the job one day. Heart attack. Just closed his eyes on his stool and he was gone. Bloomingdale’s looked after the family real good. Lydell’s momma ran wild even so. She was fourteen, or somethin’.’ He glances over to our kids, who are close to the top of the steps again. ‘Lydell’s sleepin’ somewhere with a smile on his face. For now. He called me, as instructed, when you got back to your hotel. I get him to check in, day or night. It was, like, 5 am and he was still talking ’bout those pants he didn’t buy. Those Alexander Wangs. That boy… He’s just a boy, and it’s so dangerous sometimes. I want to help him be a man, you know. We all do whatever to bring our kids up, yeah? Give them whatever. Whatever it takes.’
At the top of the slide, Eugene Junior sets the cardboard in place. Ariel takes her seat, flips her hood back and shakes her hair out. She braces herself to push.