I sat at my usual chair in the corner, beneath one of the
lamps. Their incandescent bulbs lit the polished wood planks of the walls with
a soft glow. The brightest light was focused on the stage where the house band
played a slow waltz. I was glad that the room held a multitude of people chatting merrily, because
Jo didn't know how to keep her voice down. Better to have our conversation lost amidst the din than for people to hear her say something insensitive.
I heard a thumping from the stairs, and Jo appeared in the
doorway, somewhat out of breath. “What place is so important that you had to
make me walk up five stories?” she said.
“Jo!” I smiled. “Come sit down and have a drink. What do you
want, a coke? Ginger Ale? Something stronger?”
“What do you – I’m seventeen, for heaven’s sake! So are you,
come to think of it. How do you get away with drinking booze?”
“Well,” I said, glancing at the high windows, “This place
isn’t exactly licensed for alcohol. Come to think of it, it isn’t exactly known
to the people in charge of such things, so you might want to keep your mouth
shut about it if you want this state to keep having money for highways. There
are plenty of people my age and a bit older who come in here seeking solace in
a bottle, and Miss Mayberry never refuses them as long as they have some coin
for their drink. Commiserating with people in the same situation is cheaper
than actual therapy, and it gets them through the week. Most of them don't order alcohol anyway. They're here to relax and escape.”
Jo sat down. “So this is a place I don’t know about, eh?
That’s new. Then again, it probably wouldn’t be in the books that my master
gives me. Looks like it’s time for you to tell me something new, instead of the
other way around. Tell me – what’s up with this place?”
“Place? You care a lot about places and how they build people. But let me tell you about these people, and how they built this place.”
I pointed to a table near the bar, where a girl my age sat with some older
women. “The lass there is named Maya. Notice her long, shiny, wavy black hair,
like it’s straight out of a shampoo commercial? Watch her for a few minutes.”
It only took about thirty seconds for her to reach into her
hair and pull out something. From this distance, it was hard to tell what it
was, but it shone gold in the lamplight.
She gave it to one of the women sitting with her.
“Where did the gold thing come from?” said Jo. “Does she
keep objects in her hair?”
“She finds them there,” I said. “No idea where they come
from. It’s not often she finds something shiny like that – usually it’s junk,
or sticky garbage. She’s caught enough shiny stuff to make her fortune, if she
can figure out how to fence it, but she doesn’t know how, and she has to wash
her hair every afternoon to get rid of the horrible smell.”
“Yikes,” said Jo. “What about the older women with her?”
“Take a look at the shorter one. What do you notice about
“She’s got her hair in a long blond braid,” said Jo, “and
she’s wearing a blue track suit and – sunglasses? At night?”
“That’s Yuki”, I said. “She was born without eyes.”
“Oh!” said Jo. “What a tragedy! How does she get around? Are
the sunglasses to signal that she’s blind?”
“No, they’re to help her see. She can only see while wearing
sunglasses. She’s fine by day, but by night she has Maya and Corinne lead her
to this place. Don’t ever try to knock her sunglasses off. Maya will probably
“The woman sitting next to her. Her daughter was born with
midnight-black hollows in place of eyes. The girl can see fine, but all the
kids in preschool are scared of her, and she’s too high-spirited to wear
sunglasses.” I saw a tiny blond head peek over Corinne’s shoulder, and stare
straight at me. “Corinne doesn’t come here without her daughter. Neither does
Morgan.” I pointed to a figure sitting out of the light of the lamps, at a
two-person table. “Morgan’s daughter needs to be either here or in some room
without high flat surfaces, because she can climb anything when her parents
aren’t looking. Trouble is, she can’t get down. Bit of a handful in carpet
stores and supermarkets, let me tell you. And then there’s Mile’s baby boy, who
he’s afraid to let go of.” I gestured to a seat near the stage, where a tall
dark man bounced a little bundle of joy on his knee. “The kid keeps crawling right out of the universe and back into it. He’s never gone for more than a
second. Every time this happens, he comes back screaming and crying. Miles has
asked me to look into it. I’m not sure how to do that without following the kid
to wherever he goes.” I took a swig from my bottle. “I can’t imagine I’d like
what I find there. Want to come with me and see what happens?”
Jo shook her head. “If the kid is going where I think he’s
going, only a Shaman will be helpful there. You’re on your own for that one.
“See that man dining on oysters?” I pointed to a short, fat,
bearded, bespectacled man at a table near us. “That’s Hari. He finds oysters in
whatever body of water he steps into. It’s mighty convenient when he goes
camping in the Adirondacks.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“It’s rather less convenient when he has to scoop them out
of the bathtub.” I looked over at Hari, who raised his glass to me. “Not that he
seems to get sick of eating oysters. I know I would be after a while. Just like
I’d be sick of the embrace of trees, but Laquisha over there isn’t yet, much to
her credit.” I gestured to a girl of dark complexion who was standing near the
stage. “Whenever she's feeling scared, or distressed, or even nervous, the
nearest tree will reach down and scoop her up into a cage woven of branches.
When she was an infant, the trees were constantly snatching her from her
father’s arms, and it was a bitch to make them let her go. Now she can tell
them to let her down, but she hasn’t figured out how to prevent them from
grabbing her. Maybe you can talk to her later.”
“There’s a few books I’ve read about dealing with trees, but
this sounds more like a Shaman problem. Like, asking the tress to knock it off,
or something. They never listen to me.”
“Great!” I said. “Another problem you leave all to me. When
are you going to make yourself useful?”
“Keep talking,” said Jo.
“Right. I’m running out of stories I’m permitted to tell.
There’s Herbert, the old guy playing Gutbucket in the band. His feet stick
wherever he goes, the way your feet stick to a floor someone spilled juice all
over. It makes travel by foot less efficient. The old lady playing the Jaw Harp remembers things she knows she’s never experienced, because they all happened a
hundred or more years ago. She’s afraid no historian will actually listen to
her. The bartender has a butt that can charm anyone in the world, man or woman.
His husband is the one person who seems to be able to resist. Bill the Janitor
keeps seeing people driving around town with the girl he loves, even when she’s
right beside him. And there’s that lady in the green dress.” I nodded to a
table on the other side of the room, where a young black woman had her head in
her arms on the table. A bottle rested in front of her. “That’s Aya. She’s in a
bit of distress.”
“I noticed,” said Jo. “Did someone walk out on her?”
“Kind of the opposite. She’s pregnant.”
“Oh, wonderful!” said Jo. “Is she married?"
"Yeah. To Monique DeLancey."
"Oh. So who's the actual father?"
"As far as either of them knows, nobody. Unless Aya was skipping her lunch breaks to shtupp some dude, she had no opportunity to get pregnant, and yet, here she is, one missed period and plenty of mornings spent vomiting."
“And Aya wasn’t visited by any archangels recently?”
“Not a one. This is entirely unannounced and unforeseen.”
“And the bottle in front of her means she doesn’t want to
keep the baby?”
“Only if she opens it. She hasn’t touched it yet. How could
she? How could she not? She’s 24 years old and doesn’t have enough money to pay
for prenatal care, let alone hospital costs, infant care, et cetera. And yet,
how do you abort a literal miracle child? Of all the people in this room that
I’m allowed to tell you about, Aya’s the one who’s been hit hardest by Weird.
Everyone else here can figure out how to work around their problems, or leave
them for another year, but for Aya the clock is ticking.”
“So this place is where all the people hit by Weird come to
drink, is that it? How did that happen?”
“Who knows how any bar gains a niche set of patrons? Maybe
it started as a drinking club in someone’s loft and grew from there. I suppose
I can ask this building what happened, but if the bar moved from another
location, that won’t be much help. Suffice it to say that these poor, confused
people built their gathering place, and not the other way around. A city
happens from the ground up, after all.”
“True…that’s where the magic comes from as well. But this
Weirdness is hard to account here.
Maybe it’s the result of having too much magic in one place? I don’t
know.” She scooted her chair back and rose, eyes fixed on Aya. “I’m going to go
and make a few spell suggestions to that poor woman. I suggest you get out of
here, in case my interference in a highly personal matter backfires. I’ll catch
The street air tasted like broken promises and false hope.
Normal for this part of The Bronx, I supposed, only, the air also held the acid
taste of distant doom approaching. I'd noticed it on the edge of Queens, and in Newark. It couldn't have been a matter of people being swept away for upscale housing -- that was the smell of burnt clothing. This was much more sharp.
Jo told me that Coyote snuck around on the borders of the Bronx and Queens. That was where most of the people hit by Weird lived. Probably not a coincidence.
But, that was a problem for another day. Jo wanted to take me to Right New York tomorrow.
I strolled up Williamsbridge to Morris park Avenue. There was a subway station somewhere along this road. That was the disadvantage of Fast Walking: once you got tired, you realized that you'd neglected to remember where the trains ran. Spider-man never had to deal with running out of web fluid and having to take the subway, did he? And the Fantastic Four never ran out of gas for their precious Fantasticar. And Thor didn't have to keep throwing his hammer every time its momentum ran out. How convenient it would be to be a superhero and have the world bend to your will! But the irresponsibility of mighty power was out of my reach. I, a weakling plebian, had to take the subway.
What a way to stay humble.