By Sharon Adarlo
The drunk humid air can make one mad. Heat like a viper grasped and coiled around dark city streets and needled into the cracks of windows, doors and faded vinyl siding. Strange times, strange things were brewing in the blackness, in the brackish river. The moon was big and white. Its spectral light cast upon nearly empty roads and highways. How many bad old things happened under its watch? A proper mind can’t fathom it. And down in the sleeping city, on a street block made gothic by shadow, inside a bedroom of the obscure, was the cranky wheeze of an aging air conditioner propped against a window sill, the tell-tale creak of cheap bed springs, dollar store perfume unfurling in the darkness, and the rosy red lips of a woman in mid pant.
In the bedroom, two women unlocked from their sweaty, sweet tangle. The younger, Matty, scooted off the queen-size bed and stretched her 23-year-old form in front of the double-hung window – not caring whether anybody could see her blush pink breasts and wild brown bush – and reached for a glass of ice water on a nightstand and gulped down a drink. She pressed the condensed-over drinking glass against one hot nipple and then the other, while letting out a low, wrung-out sigh that unwound from the round of her belly and ended in the roof of her red painted mouth. A good tired it was. She then glanced through the window and cocked an eyebrow.
“There are moon men outside,” Matty said in that syrupy, languid way of hers as she waved to whoever was outside in Tina’s working class Newark neighborhood of two-story row houses filled with old Portuguese widows who gave Matty the evil eye whenever she came to visit in her spangly stripper clothes; homesick Brazilians who played too loud music that became Tina’s almost everyday dinner prep soundtrack – her chopping of green onions began to match the beat drumming and shaking the window panes – and nameless men in hoodies and paint-splattered jeans who spent mornings hustling for construction work in the parking lot of the nabe’s steakhouse.
Decidedly older looking compared to Matty with gray streaks about the temples of her bobbed hair, Tina pursed her pink, chapped lips while she held a post-coital cigarette in her right hand. A smoke ring drifted halo-like above her head. Was Tina floating? It felt like it after a delirious, delicious hour of studying, tasting, and devouring every beautiful contour, corner and crevice of Matty, from perfect hip bone to clavicle to armpit. This was a close examination enhanced by cheap sex store poppers and weed gummies bought from Rowena, a sometime dancer and the self-described neighborhood herbalist who fancied herself a witch.
It seemed to Tina that all mundane things had been pushed back an infinite distance away as she smoked her cigarette and caressed the tender parts of her chest – sex had bent spacetime into the Dimples of Venus on Matty’s backside, into the curve of her neck’s nape, and into the strands of her thick hair that had fanned out on the bedsheets like the long tail feathers of an exotic bird – so she didn’t hear Matty at first and her consequential observation about the moon men that would soon send Tina out to the streets and into the city’s fetid river……. Sex had replaced an old ache, a faded scar and Tina was reveling in it.
“Baby, what?” Tina asked.
Earlier that morning, Tina had spent an hour on LinkedIn in a fit of navel-gazing excoriation and lots of deep frowning while quietly stalking old college classmates. So many seemed to have landed jobs at prestigious firms or were employed at larger cities than hers with important-sounding titles—all of which caused Tina to shake her head. The afternoon then followed with her dodging filth and refuse at the shores of Passaic River in the course of her job. Within 20 minutes of her arrival, Tina had met the Passaic River’s natural denizens: homeless men sleeping rough in the sun on soiled cardboard flats, a large feral cat colony that had claimed an abandoned parking lot and building, and two glistening carcasses of pit bulls covered in feasting, buzzing flies and maggots she had almost tripped over; someone must have dumped the pups from an illegal dog fight. And more dead things greeted her – headless chickens she found at the foot of a tree – they were fresh – most likely the dregs of a Santeria ritual from the previous night. Seagulls were fighting over a bag of moldy bread that someone had thrown by a trash compactor.
Whatever her mood, Tina always mentally latched on to which bird she was feeling at that moment. Birds seemed to have the same habits and caprices as humans to Tina and equally diverse in their variety. Some were promiscuous, some mated for life, others did not venture far from their hunting grounds, while other species flew great distances for breeding and food. That morning at the river’s desolate shore, as seagulls squawked and flapped their wings and snatched bread from each other’s hungry snapping beaks, Tina thought – “There’s my spirit animal. A dirty rat with wings fighting over scraps.”
And there was Crazy Augie. Her strange day-time encounter at the river shore with the man had seemed more dream than actual event. And the thought of him made her feel revolted, as lowly as the filthy seabirds given to eating sewer flotsam and jetsam. His doom-filled mutterings gave her a cold sweat…… But that evening, after lovemaking with Matty, as she flicked the embers from her cigarette in the bedroom of her Ironbound home, Tina was not a squawking seabird– she felt herself to be a hummingbird drunk on honeysuckle; as cliched as it sounded inside her mind – this was the right metaphor. She had given herself completely to this dark sweet moment and to her dearest Matty.
“There are moon men outside,” Matty repeated again.
“What baby girl?” Tina said, with eyes half-closed – a slight grin on her pale face. Cigarettes after sex is an absolute requirement – Tina had told Matty this more than once. Matty detested them because they made Tina’s hair and clothes smell, while Matty preferred vaping treacly flavors of strawberry cheesecake and vanilla hazelnut and “Peach For the Stars”, but Tina poked fun at this habit – it looked like her girlfriend was sucking on a black kazoo.
“There are dudes in moon suits – I mean hazmat suits – outside, and they are looking at the ground,” Matty said, still waving from the window and bending and posing one leg as if modeling in an art studio. Matty, ever the exhibitionist, was definitely still high.
Tina pulled her sticky self from the slick sheets –her smoldering cigarette nearly falling out of her two fingers—and coughed, choked several times; a swift turn up and she snuck naked to another window’s corner, not wanting to give up more gossip for the oldheads in the neighborhood; Tina could just imagine: “The lesbian in the brown house – she was naked and you could see her boobs and her privates and her Colombian stripper girlfriend was naked too!”
Outside, it appeared almost a normal August evening in the Ironbound neighborhood: an oppressive choking heat blanketing the city seemed to have slowed everything within its thick grasp; going outside was like walking the periphery of a blast furnace going full tilt. A cloudy sky of deep dark, almost black purple was overhead and yellow sodium lamps illuminated concrete sidewalks. The neighborhood’s fruitless pear trees and parked vehicles were rendered in varying shades of brown to straw. Tina kept on looking until she saw a dark silhouette – a few houses to her right – bending at the front flank of a late model and scuffed white Toyota Sienna. It was Mrs. Monterroso’s mini-van with the missing driver side mirror and sun-washed Baby Yoda bobble head on the dashboard. Mrs. Monterroso, a hen shaped-like lady who usually dressed in black and lace and looked like a kindly witch from a fairy tale. She was one of the few who never gave Tina grief that she was an aging unmarried Filipina – no insulting “chinita” from the senior citizen – and unbothered too that Tina’s much younger girlfriend Matty was a stripper at Rick’s Cabaret across the river. She always inquired after Tina’s health in a gentle voice, filigreed with a courtly Lisbon accent, and watched her cat Mr. Mumps when Tina was out of town; Tina pleased the widow with trips to the local Seabras for bundles of waxy potatoes, cans of pitted black olives, sweet Vidalia onions and wrapped bacalhau.
“What the fuck.” Tina saw the dark figure bent up and revealed itself wearing a crinkled, puffy industrial hazmat suit with black gloves and respirator mask. The suit must have been made of plastic – it had the slick sheen of polythene under city lights. The sight smacked dumb the lazy buzz of Tina’s drug sex stupor into high alarm. “Matty, stop showing your pussy and come over here!”
Matty, in one lazy movement, collapsed on the bed and closed her eyes. Stretching head to toe, her skin sweated cocoa butter and five-dollar perfume. She hitched her right leg up on top of her left knee, similar to the position that she was in when Tina first met her at the Passaic River in Newark many months ago. At their first meeting, Matty, with her dark hair in long thick strands and her brown skin, was sunning herself on a bench while wearing a thin purple tube dress. Looking at her had made Tina hot and damp – so deeply aroused and mesmerized; the area below her waist had become sensitive all over. Matty was a pheromone-drenched river nymph, ready for a conniving god to swoop in and abduct her.
“I am so sleepy honey,” Matty whispered, her lips puckered to a luscious, pinkish pout. Tina studied Matty’s face, tanned and unlined and clinging to the last bit of lingering baby fat that gave Matty the lush, voluptuous looks of a young woman entering the golden sunshine of her life. She could never tire looking at Matty’s face and sleek, supple body. Tina always wondered what drew Matty to her – it was no question why Tina wanted Matty in her life: sex, love, companionship. “Baby, you are so nice,” Matty would say and pull Tina closer for a kiss as if she was cupping and cooing into the ear of a frightened pigeon whenever the older woman voiced her insecurities.
Tina wrapped Matty in an old crocheted blanket and gave her sleeping face a kiss. She did not want to go outside – her tired limbs were protesting and there was a beautiful woman in her bed – but she dressed herself in a pair of old pants, white t-shirt, a pair of black Nike sneakers, her black framed glasses and went to the street. A driving force behind this impulse was an incurable curiosity – even if it hurt like her bout of LinkedIn spying earlier that day. Tina was not about to sit inside like many of her neighbors, who preferred to stare from their windows and gossip about street goings on their cell phones and on the local Facebook page. And besides, according to neighborhood lore, the last time guys in hazmat suits visited the place was in the early 1980s; they were combing the streets and alley ways for poisonous chemicals from a long shutdown pesticide plant along the Passaic; the plant made Agent Orange, people told her. Not long after, the river became a Superfund site.
When Tina went outside and walked down her stoop, the summer air hit her humid and heavy. Dark long shadows and yellow street lights made the unexceptional neighborhood gothic and impenetrable; everything looked different at night. A dog barked behind a metal gate. Turbo rush of mopeds in a far corner brooded and revved out of sight somewhere. Past the first person in the hazmat suit Tina saw there were five more down the street. They were walking to and fro and between parked cars – carrying clear baggies and halogen flashlights, sending crisp shafts of light on the pebbly asphalt pavement. The lights hurt her eyes as it swung over chrome trim and the glint of side mirrors on many of the parked cars. More workers at the far end of the road were setting up a road block, portable construction flood lights and a towable light tower that extended more than 20 feet over the street and bedecked with metal halide bulbs that they were about to turn on; it had spindle-thin outriggers that extended like spider legs to the ground. The other side of the street was blocked too with a plastic parade barricade; they were several orange barrels.
Tina ran to the first hazmat suit and grabbed this figure’s arm – probably not the wisest move. An older man, pink rosacea across his nose and cheeks, swung to face her, his eyes glinting in irritation from what she could see through the slightly scratched, perspex face shield.
“Watch it lady,” he said. The ruddy man with the bulbous nose was bothered. There was sweat trickling down his temples and he was not only irritated but rushed sounding and panicked. He was breathing hard. Tina could hear him panting through the face shield. His eyes were wide and startled looking.
“Get back inside,” he shouted.
“What’s going on here? Why is the street blocked? Why haven’t you informed the neighborhood?”
“We aren’t at liberty to say anything to you,” he said as if practiced, as if reciting a script written by someone else. “And now, if you excuse me – get inside or get out of my way.”
“I work at the Newark planning office and I have a right to know. I am one of the city planners,” she proclaimed. “What are you doing here?”
He bent back away from her and focused on the roughly rectangular space between Mrs. Monterroso’s mini-van and the bumper of a champagne-colored Toyota Corolla, ignoring her question. Tina inwardly deflated and the accelerating thing in her chest quieted down – and she felt silly too – nobody is going to listen to the city planner! She was old – or what she thought of as old at the age of 42 – and gray looking and wearing black framed glasses too – a bird in camouflage – an aging woman in momcore with no children to mother; superfluous flesh. Maybe if I had breasts and hips like Matty and looks to match, she wondered. Would anybody notice this gray bird?
The moon man kept on looking at the space adjacent to Mrs. Monterroso’s mini-van. As far as she could tell, nothing was there except for blackened chewing gum splotches that had fused with the asphalt.
A fit of pique was building up, starting with Tina’s red glowering cheeks and ending with her hands that clenched by her side. I may not be anybody important, but I have a right to know what’s going on, she thought. The leaden heat of the night was making her irritation worst, building up in the sweat dripping from her temples and the corners of her armpits that smelled like damp copper pennies.
A sharp bird whistle came from behind her – it was Mrs. Monterroso who had come out in her baby blue house dress. In the darkness of her tiny front porch that was framed by flimsy, builder-grade white columns, the old lady beckoned Tina with the crook of her finger to her gingerbread-colored house. Mrs. Monterroso of indeterminate age – somewhere north of 70 – had a sharp hook nose, long snowy white hair clipped into a bun and pale-yellow teeth. She was less than five feet in her worn leather slippers; her gnarled toes and ankles made her look like she had chicken legs and feet, and she had a dowager’s hump that rose behind her bent back. Her smile was kindly – the wrinkles around her lips and her mouth pursed to a point as if she couldn’t wait to tell Tina something – and her large eyes reflected the yellow street lights and they had a gleam of mischief; they were blinking rapidly. In her hands was a broom she typically used as an impromptu cane. The open door of her house let out a waft of pungent old lady smells – funky, organic and laced with the ghost of ripening strawberries.
“Tina, Tina come here,” she said in a whisper.
“Yes Mrs. Monterroso?”
“Look, look this what they are looking for.” And Mrs. Monterroso shoved one gnarled hand into her house dress pocket and pulled out a small bundle wrapped in a cotton handkerchief. She lifted the crumpled cotton leaves with care and unveiled the object inside. Tina’s eyebrows raised up and her eyes widened.
Enclosed in a plastic sandwich bag was an object with the size and shape of a plastic Easter Egg one could buy at Target. But it glowed with an emerald green light within its core; the egg had a squishy gelatinous surface like aspic – and what was that? Tina could see a wriggling thing within this egg sack and it looked like a small serpent with a bird-like beak.
“You keep it,” Mrs. Monterroso said, closing the bundle and shoving it into Tina’s hands.
“Where did it come from? Do they know you have it? Is it bad? Is it toxic? Are you hurt in anyway touching it?”
Mrs. Monterroso put one gnarled index finger to Tina’s lips. “I’m no hurt. I saw a big shadow a few hours ago. It flew over here,” she said while making a flying motion with her hand and pointing to their neighborhood and the houses around them. “Then I found this egg – so strange.”
“Then these men come. Heard them talking about an egg,” Mrs. Monterroso added. “They say something happen in the river too. Something about egg.”
Mrs. Monterroso nodded.
Tina’s eyes narrowed.
“Do you think Crazy Augie would know something?”
“Oh yes, Crazy Augie knows everythin’ going on the river,” Mrs. Monterroso said.
Her job earlier that afternoon – when she saw Crazy Augie – was to survey a few decaying buildings by the river’s edge, which the city had planned to demolish and build in its place a new green park. Presumably, all of this would spur redevelopment and entice outsiders to decamp from their overpriced sardine-size apartments across the Hudson and make their home in Newark. On the opposite shore of the Passaic, the neighboring town Harrison had already built new apartments, all of which made Tina raise her eyebrows. Warehouses for people – nee apartments – filled with Edison light bulbs, exposed brick, trendy macrame wall hangings and leafy house plants with names like dracaena trifasciata and devil’s lily nestled in boho-style straw baskets. It made Tina sniff, especially whenever she saw people walking their dogs along the river promenade. Isn’t there a Superfund site here?
And as for the toxic sludge and trash that was the river’s natural condition – this was Crazy Augie’s home turf. What Tina knew about Crazy Augie was that he mostly kept to himself as he trawled trashcans for useful debris – all the while trudging up and down busy Broad Street pushing along a rusting shopping cart filled with dirty-looking white kitchen trash bags bursting with odds and ends, a tangle of sweaters and often half-eaten cartons of fried whiting and cold French fries. On the Passaic, he lived on a small floating skiff that looked half-art installation and trash heap – so artful the arrangement of rotting pallet wood and used tires for his small hut that stood on the makeshift boat; tattered white and yellow plastic grocery bags were tied outside. Any slight breeze and the bags would fill with air and flutter like small nautical flags. Augie used a canoe paddle to push his skiff down river and away from shallow shores choked with trash flowing away from city streets: bobbing red drinking cups, tied-off condoms bloated with semen, drifting water coolers, books and cardboard, dead seagulls and fish; he later added a boat engine and rudder fashioned from a red plastic sled to his floating home.
From the barge, it was his habit to wave hello when Tina walked along the unkempt river walk or mutter “coins-coins-coins” and “thanks-thanks-thanks” whenever she stumbled upon him in the neighborhood, obliging him with nickels and dimes from her small, embroidered change purse. Innocuous, yes.
But they had an encounter that afternoon that startled Tina.
Crazy Augie had jumped behind brown phragmites and a shag-haired tree of heaven, grabbed Tina’s purse and swung her round – the heels of her brown penny loafers as the pivot of a fast, accelerating pendulum, and the old man – reeking motor oil, sweat, foulness – as the incoherent, babbling weight. “slick-doom-slick-doom-slick”Three-quarters turn and he had let her go after chanting in raspy half-whisper tones, and then he ran, disappearing to the same weeds.
Tina’s heart jumped in painful, erratic thumps beneath her white pleated blouse and black lacy polyester bra; her gray hair had become mussed from the whirl-a-go and her eyeglasses slipped down her nose. Tina barely held to her purse and the sheaf of papers from the city planning office crammed under one armpit. She was silent during the strange dance – she had no time to scream or kick him away to stop. Augie appeared like a wraith in the heat of the day – yellow teeth snapping, balded brown head, and grimy-looking, uncombed gray beard that went down to mid-chest. He wore a greasy apron over a greasier red t-shirt and old, brown corduroy pants. His amber eyes were feverish red and flashed like fire. His tongue bright crimson looked revolting. Astonished Tina juddered in his wake – so startling! “slick-doom-slick-doom-slick”
The odd whispers baffled and creeped her – “slick-doom-slick-doom-slick.” She went about the rest of her day trying not to think about them – brewing coffee, his ugly face intruded in the middle of her swirling dairy-free creamer into a Styrofoam cup – his sing-song guttural voice interrupting her perusal of city maps in an oversized file drawer – his yellow decaying teeth snapping in menacing ways as she applied lip stick in front of the restroom mirror. “slick-doom-slick-doom-slick” Finally, by dusk, through a steady drudge of work at the city planning office, she forgot about Crazy Augie til later evening and after her conversation with Mrs. Monterroso.
The river had a dank, low tide smell – a mixture of the sea, wet marshland and rotting deep ocean creatures with a trace of ammonia-rich cat piss. Definitely cat piss, Tina thought, as she surveyed the river’s edge in the dark with only the light of the low hung-moon overhead.
Where was Augie?
She walked past an old abandoned brick building that had become a home to stray cats, who were all sleeping inside or sprawled with their limbs splayed out while half-awake in the heat. She then wandered past thick water reeds with feathery heads, overgrown broadleaf plantains with scraggly stems, and rusty car parts strewn all over the gravel and grass ground that smelled like urine.
After some minutes of looking and walking, her impatience growing – this is really silly, Tina thought. Maybe I should go back home; go home and eat something; love on Matty and sleep….
So, what drove her back to the river? She could not quite articulate the reasons to herself. She could have taken the egg and phoned up the mayor’s office and alerted them to the strange happenings on her street. But the glowing green egg sack was something special – it riled her interest like nothing else besides a naked, wet Matty. Her curiosity was overriding her present discomfort and her distaste for Crazy Augie – and maybe having it in her pocket and being only one of two people in the city who knew about the egg seemed to confer a sense of importance….that she wasn’t an insignificant mote in God’s eyes. What is this? What is this beautiful thing?
Some yards back on her right, Tina saw a yellow light in the darkness. She walked closer until she could discern the shape of Augie’s ad hoc river barge in the moonlight, and that the yellow flash she saw at first was coming from a rusty camp lantern that he hung at the entrance of his hut on the barge.
Tina smelled him before she saw him.
She turned around and Crazy Augie stood but a palm-length away from her, giving Tina a clear and close look at his brown and yellow teeth, the age-old blackheads on his nose, and the thick gray hair coming out of his nostrils. He smelled like piss, rot and French fries – Tina felt acid creeping at the edge of her throat – the smell was so strong that the hairs inside her own nostrils felt as if they singed off.
“Augie!” Tina cried, stumbling backwards. Augie gave her a quizzical look with a cocked eyebrow and mouth agape.
“I need your help,” Tina said with halting breath. “Something is happening in the Ironbound. It could be something bad. There are guys in hazmat suits all over my street. And they were talking about the river. It has something to do with the river.”
“You must know something,” Tina said, walking closer to Augie – damn the smell and his filthiness. “The Passaic River is your home. Have you seen anything strange at all this past week or today?”
Crazy Augie bent his head at her as if hearing for an obscure tune at a wavelength only he could hear. Tina then took the small bundle out of her pants pocket and held it aloft in front of him.
“And this. We found this in my neighborhood,” she said as she held the egg up with its strange wriggling thing inside.
Augie’s eyes glittered.
Tina didn’t know why but hearing that sing song mantra – uttered in Crazy Augie’s raspy guttural whisper – made her shiver inside. She did an involuntary shudder of her shoulders.
“slick-doom-slick-doom-slick” Augie whispered, his eyes becoming more wide and his brows raising high up his sweaty forehead, as he pointed to the river and to the horizon and back to the egg in her hand. He then made a motion with his arms – Tina couldn’t tell what he was trying to say – maybe snapping snakes – snapping birds? He was wiggling them and coiling them and then pantomiming his fingers into what looked like bird beaks.
“slick-doom-slick-doom-slick” he said as he turned to walk fast to his barge, beckoning Tina with the swing of his arm – the motion carrying forth the smell of an unwashed, sweaty body; the scent was almost spicy like simmering curry and onions on a stove; Tina’s eyes watered from the downdraft.
They walked through the thick weeds and reeds until Tina could feel the squelch of thick river mud underneath her sneakers. Rough green stems scratched her arms and the sides of her pants.
“Yuck,” she said.
The barge looked like a trash heap in the shadow. It bobbed in the waters as a thin, dirty nylon rope connected the boat to land; the line hung between a rust-colored car engine half sunk in the grass and a nail bent backwards on a piece of wood attached to the boat. Augie stepped foot on the barge and looked back at Tina in invitation. Tina walked towards him but before getting on the barge, he shook out an open hand.
“Okay fine,” Tina said she dug into her pants pockets and pulled out some loose change and five dollars in singles. It was only when the money was in his oily-looking palm that he allowed Tina and her funny looking egg onto the barge.
The full moon shone cold and large with its pale light glinting off any scrap, edge or line that angled its face towards it. Tina could see reeds illuminated like gray hairs along the waters’ edge and thin trees that stood as shrouded sentries in the shadow. She could see the city’s towers looming overhead in the hazy heated darkness, silhouettes of bridges and shuttered street lamps against the purple black sky, and the bone whiteness of nameless factory buildings hugging the shore. The smell of gasoline from the skiff’s whirling boat motor and an artificial saccharine sweetness– very much like the taste of cough syrup on the back of one’s throat – filled her nose and settled on her tongue. The sweetness came from a factory somewhere in the Ironbound, and rumor had it that the factory made maraschino cherries.
Her eyes always peered at the river in judgement, though it was not the Passaic’s fault.
Tina’s memory dialed back to the old maps in the city library and how they showed Newark so many ages ago. These faded drawings showed no factories, no bridges, no ports, but instead the jagged edges of a natural coastline of lush trees, marshland and tidal zones. Here is how it used to be: So many birds and fishes and other animals living in the Passaic’s once departed wild, green beneficence. From her research, Tina could rattle off their names like stringing pearls on a fine silk thread: crab, lobster, oyster, steamer clam, quahog, strawberry cockle, common whelk, sea lettuce and sour weeds, moon jellyfish, whales from humpback to minke, butterfish, sunfish, silver perch, shad, herring, flounder, sea robin, snowy egret, great blue heron, black bellied plover, mallard, goose, bald eagle. An estuary of abundance.
Now the river was ruined, Tina thought with a grimace. All she knew about the river was its stink, the trash, the decay and the heavy metals laden deep in the black mud. Stick a finger in some sediment and one could instantly touch an alphabet soup of chemicals – you’d sooner catch cancer than fish.
Layered over these musings was a general unsatisfaction. And this is what my career has led me to – Tina’s usual thoughts on the subject. Working anonymously, working as the plain jane – a cog in a wheel – at an aging, very polluted port city, in the shadow of its more glittering neighbor. Her thoughts then wandered off to her humble neighborhood, her brown townhouse and to Matty, beautiful Matty. Clear eyed and dead sober on Crazy Augie’s barge, Tina could finally put to words what Matty was to her – my midlife crisis. My wonderful midlife crisis. An exotic bird among the pigeons. And what was this? What was Tina doing? On this boat – on this river – with a man not quite sane.
As if answering her, a white and brown flash flew at the right periphery of her vision. She turned and gasped. It was a bird raptor – most likely an osprey – flying close alongside the boat – and in its beak was a silver, wriggling minnow. It was so close that Tina could feel the rapid waves of wind generated from its almost six-foot-wide wings as it flapped and flew in the night air. So close – she could see its fine white and brown feathers and the profile of its noble and fierce face. They were eye to eye in a split second – and in that moment, Tina felt the boundaries between human and animal melt away, that it was not the boat moving, that it was not the Earth moving, but she and the bird were moving, and that she was aloft on gentle waves of laminar air and had the taste of sea salt on her small tongue.
The osprey made a sudden climb to a nearby wooden pier that stood lonely in a spit of sand and rock. And on top of that pier looked to be a nest of twigs and grass; shrill squawks and squeaks erupted from the nest as the bird threw down the minnow at a clutch of unseen baby ospreys.
The extraordinariness didn’t escape her. Here was Tina on a trash barge, sailing down the blighted Passaic, with the city’s official loon, and she had seen an osprey, and it was breeding and catching fish from the river she long thought was too dirty and ill to support life. An apex bird predator in the river? Tina got goosebumps.
“birds-birds-birds” Augie muttered as he manned the steering till of the barge. He motioned to the camping lamp that hung from the entrance of his hut and looked at Tina in expectation. She walked over to the lamp and took it from its hook. Augie then pointed at the river’s waters as the barge – a surprisingly sea-worthy vessel – sliced through the brackish water. What else was in the river, Tina thought, as she took the lamp and held it aloft on top of the rippling and moving Passaic.
At first, she saw nothing but the dirt green of the river. Just water, water everywhere.
But then she could discern a yellow glow that seemed to emanate from deep within the waters – how many feet – it was hard to tell. The yellow light was soft and amber-like and against its glow she could see minnows and bigger fish darting through the liquid and what looked to be tendrils of kelp and other seaweed. Tina took a sharp inhale of breath. Isn’t the Passaic a Superfund site? And then there was morefish! So much more fish – she could see many of them now and their silver, copper and blue bodies swimming and weaving through the water. It appeared the barge was sailing on top of a prodigious school that was moving as one.
The river is so alive! Tina thought – wonder and excitement catching in her throat. It made her almost giddy about this unexpected beauty, this evidence of nature’s grace. Birds and so many fish and seaweed. What else was in the river, she thought.
With a lurch of the barge, Tina dropped down to her knees and held tight to a piece of pallet wood as Crazy Augie grinned ear to ear while steering the boat; the dirt green water of the Passaic was becoming suddenly foamy and choppier and not at all peaceful as it was before; someone had turned on the hot tub settings of the river.
“Please be careful,” Tina cried over the roar of the boat motor and the sudden boiling and roiling sounds of the river around them. The Passaic was a flat meandering body that slipped through miles of upland forest, quiet suburbia and then busy ports; its only point of excitement – as far as Tina could tell – was when it tumbled over Paterson Falls. The river wasn’t supposed to be turbulent here – not at all – and yet it was. The Passaic was becoming white and wild and angry as it lashed brackish whips of water against her face and clothes; yet the air was still and heavy with sticky humidity. Things were not making sense.
“Augie, what the fuck is happening,” she cried. More waves and foam were reaching higher than before. Her fear of sinking into the Passaic matched the increased turbulence; the barge was rocking, threatening to collapse into the water.
Then on her right, Tina saw it. At first, she thought the moon was playing tricks on her; that its light was giving shape and structure to some glittering trash in the water and making it more than it really was. But no, it was not trash.
A large, massive coil of muscle slipped in and out of the water and it had serpentine movements and covered in gray green scales the size of a generous dinner plate. How many feet in length it was? Tina could not tell, but it was plainly larger than an anaconda.
The panicked fish in the river were jumping out of the boiling water and some were slapping against the barge and landing on top of Crazy Augie’s hut. It made the old man laugh. Tina then saw a large bird beak pierce from under the waves and open wide as squirming fish and wild water washed into its open mouth, a terrifying thing filled with serrated teeth that reminded Tina of a bed of nails. The beak then closed and the serpent – it could only be a sea serpent – surged to the horizon with its slithering, glistening scales. A wake of white choppy waves followed it.
“Oh my God,” Tina said, gasping. She was shaking and breathing fast. Her hands had suddenly become clammy and her mouth dry. She thought back to the strange bundle in her pants leg: the egg that was like aspic and its wriggling snake baby inside. It looked the same as the sea serpent with the beak she just saw, but much much smaller. It must be its spawn, Tina guessed. But how did it end up in the Ironbound?
Crazy Augie laughed with his coarse voice.
“slick-doom-slick-doom-slick” he bellowed as he pointed to the retreating sea creature.
There had been several moments in Tina’s life that felt as perplexing and scary as driving through a dark country road with no moon in sight, with only the headlights of a car to make sure she didn’t drive into the forest, into a ditch or a steep ravine. Pitch black forests scared her – who knew what things lurked in its depths; she was raised by superstitious people after all. But those moments sharpened her senses and made her alert to every sound, scent and any sight that awaited her. A proper mind, a proper person would tell Crazy Augie to turn back to shore, leave the barge, go back to her home and to never speak of that thing in the water with anybody. But there was no turning back. A mixture of fright and adrenaline was working like a shot to her heart, on Tina’s whole physiology, and her natural curiosity, and it was calling to something wild, feral and brave inside of her. A parade of images – the serpent with its scales – the glowing egg – the trees – the birds – the many fish – the river’s madness raced through her head. There was no turning back. They needed to go forward. They needed to – now.
“Let’s keep going Augie,” she told the smiling ferry man.
As they gunned for wherever the sea creature went, Tina held tight to the wood pallet she was gripping before and also grabbed any fish jumping on the barge platform and threw it back to the water which was considerably less foamy. She couldn’t quite see Crazy Augie’s face in the night except for his teeth that glittered – he was clearly smiling – and his swaying form at the barge tiller. The horizon was dark save for the idling ships, steel tankers, tugboats and port cranes that lined the shore as they reflected the moon light, and up ahead, she noticed they were nearing the point where the Passaic met the Hackensack River and became Newark Bay. The river was widening. It seemed that they had traveled a considerable distance away from their starting point, where Crazy Augie could usually be found, a spot directly facing the soccer stadium on the opposite shore of the Passaic. They had traveled the full neck of the Neck, so named for how the Passaic curved around the Ironbound neighborhood. The whole thing surprised – and not just the serpent. Tina wondered how the boat had not fallen to pieces with the rough waters they had survived, the ferocious sea serpent – let alone any small tidal wave.
They were headed for a small island that punctuated the Passaic’s form, and it was filled with scrubby tall grass, skeletal dead trees and an old 20-foot-tall brick furnace tower that stood on a gentle slope. There was a glow of harsh white light delineating the forms of the tallest foliage on the island and the tower, and by its power and its angle and how it shook, the light was not coming from the cold moon above. Those must be lights coming from boats bobbing in the water – on the opposite side of the island, Tina surmised, as her own barge slid closer to a sandy arm of land that jutted off the island. The water was gentle here and the air cool and fresh, so different from the thick staleness of dirt, asphalt and gasoline that was terra Newark.
Tina hopped off the barge as it made its rest against some thick reeds, fine sand and soil. She tested her foot against a patch of earth and stepped fully on the island when she didn’t find wet mud. Not waiting for Crazy Augie, she marched with purposefulness into the thicket of dry grass, toothpick trees and other weeds. It was dark, dark like standing in the mouth of a cool cave, sitting on a dune of sand deep in the desert, lying on one’s back on a lonely cold rock hurtling through outer space. This was where they last saw it, the slithering form running up the island’s shore. The sea serpent’s shadow disappeared into the island’s thicket. How it walked, she did not know.
“Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs, Upon the slimy sea,” Tina muttered to herself. It was some half-forgotten bit of poetry from high school English class. Tina made an involuntary shudder as she walked further into the weeds. They scratched against her face and body as she walked in the black shadows, groping forward with brave fingers and feet. She could smell the sea and it smelled beautiful and green.
The darkness did recede as she walked longer and she could make out the light coming from the bobbing tugboats, which were indeed facing the opposite side of the island. She could hear a rustle of sand and twirling dirt and breaking reeds, grass and branches in the muted blackness. Two steps and then one. It came up so unceremoniously – here was suddenly the hulking form of the sea serpent resting on a bed of stamped dirt and twigs. Tina knew this because she could see its beady large eyes blinking in the moon light and the monster’s bird beak stretching open against the sky. Tina could hear it whistling and growling in the shadows and its song sounded so familiar….
“slick-doom-slick-doom-slick” the sea serpent hissed in a metallic slither. “slick-doom-slick-doom-slick” The sound echoed in her head and wavered and glowed as if invisible hands were tickling the air above a very large theremin.
It was so beautiful. Its tough looking bird beak echoed the noble shape of an osprey’s own, its large and lengthy body had four small legs that were half as tall as Tina. In the moonlight, she could tell its toes were webbed between each other; sharp talons ended at each finger. Scales, iridescent and alive, moved and coiled around a core of powerful muscle and sinew. The sea serpent was large, very large with a girth that could easily slip inside a massive, concrete culvert pipe. Midpoint at its abdomen were two bat-like wings that folded against its body. Tina was entranced and tried to take in every detail she could. It stopped making its shimmering, eerie “slick-doom-slick-doom-slick” sound and started purring loudly like a gigantic cat. It turned so Tina could see its breeding pouch, what she guessed was its breeding pouch, going up and down in steady calm breaths. The skin there was thin and transparent as plastic wrap, and inside, she could make out a clutch of green eggs, like the one in her pants pocket, and they glowed with an inner light. There were a few more green eggs resting on a bed of discarded scales and brown grass. The monster had a magnificent bulk; perhaps this was how people felt when they first saw a blue whale or the vastness of the Pacific Ocean.
“You are so beautiful,” Tina whispered.
The sea serpent noticed her; her eyes looked straight at her; Tina stood stock still. They were eye to eye in a split second – and in that moment, Tina felt the boundaries between human and monster melt away, that it was not the clouds and sky moving, that it was not the Earth moving, but she and the serpent were moving and shifting, and she could feel her muscles coiling and gathering kinetic energy and the taste of sea salt danced on her massive tongue.
A loud piercing horn from one of the tug boats broke the scene.
The sea serpent turned and twisted and then suddenly jerked. It moved with a ferociousness into the water and towards the boats. Tina ran up a berm and then stumbled on the wet sand lapping with water and stray sea foam.
Up ahead, Tina saw three tugboats with their bright search lights bathing the landscape in a harsh halo. They were close enough to the island shore that she could make out that there were people in hazmat suits on the boats. They were dropping large objects into the river and aiming tall metal pikes at the waves.
The sea serpent swam in the water with its slithering length visible in the Passaic. Choppy white water grew wherever it swam. It then shot out of the river and flew towards one tugboat in a straight attack with its bat-like wings unfurled and flapping in the night sky. An animal screech that was at once both shrill and deep filled the air.
Tina could see the monster’s bird-like beak tearing into the hull of the ship, its sea snake body curling around the boat, and its leather wings violently shaking a hard shower of droplets off its form.
Tina gasped. She could hear a man scream in the distance, in the tugboat getting yanked into the river with the serpent pulling it down. Like a boa constrictor wrapping around its prey, the serpent did wrap around the boat. She could hear the crunch of heaving metal and—
BOOM. BOOM. BOOM.
A loud commotion rang within the river and Tina shielded her face against the blast that shot light and noise everywhere. For a moment, the sky was bright as day but this effect quickly receded in less than a second. The air filled with the smell of acrid smoke, burning flesh, diesel and twisted metal. Tina blinked and squinted into the thick air. What she could see, what was evident was that the serpent was dead. Guts, bloody and warm, floated in the Passaic and scales scattered like confetti glittered under the moon light. Tina slumped on the sandy shores and dropped to her knees.
“My God,” she whispered.
Soon after the explosion on the river, Crazy Augie ferried Tina back to shore, not waiting for the remaining tugboats that were plying the waters for charred remains. The men on the boats were most likely to visit the island and perhaps question them, so the two left as soon as they could.
The two were both quiet on the skiff as they sailed home, even with Crazy Augie looking almost normal with not so fiery eyes and a mouth that sat still instead of twisted into a lunatic’s grimace. He looked contemplative as he steered the barge back to his usual resting spot along the Passaic.
What had they has just seen?
Tina wanted to talk to Crazy Augie about the sea serpent, the eggs, the boats, everything they had witnessed. But she stopped – he was not much of a conversationalist, and so, Tina sat with her thoughts and her tired limbs. Her questions hung shimmering before her.
“Thank you Augie,” Tina told him when she left the barge. Crazy Augie obliged her with a bow which made her chuckle.
“bye-bye-bye” he grunted.
It seemed they were out there for only 30 minutes, but a whole night had passed them. Morning came quickly over the Passaic. The sun was rising in the east and a gentle wind was blowing away the previous night’s stale heat, giving promise to a clear, beautiful day.
Tina walked away from the weed-choked river shore and then onto a bright orange promenade that the city had built recently to overlook the Passaic. Her eyes glazed over the silver stadium across the river and the neat apartment buildings that stood teeth like along the shore.
Tina stopped to sit at the boat dock of the park and dangled her feet above the glassine surface of the rippling, calm river. An ache was in her heart. What was this ache – this tenderness? Was it the inward deflation after something large and monumental happened? Was it the beauty of the river at night? The many miraculous things they had witnessed? The metallic rhythm of the serpent’s hiss? Its glittering scales, its bat-like wings, its sturdy claws? She could not quite name these emotions that were swirling inside her chest but perhaps they were sadness – just sadness distilled, Tina thought.
What beauty it was, the serpent. Its intelligent eyes looked at her – really looked at her. Tina felt a mistiness in her eyes when she thought about the terrible blast and the aftermath in the river.
She then pictured herself sitting at that same spot, with the industrial bones of the city receding in a tidal wave, the highways collapsing into lush leafy trees, the port cranes disassembling into green marsh land, the factories dissolving into blue skies, and the waters of the Passaic bursting with an intricate web of life: from sunfish to plover to ribbiting frog. She imagined the first people wading the river’s banks for clams and fish to spear and eat and canoeing through the thicket of green reeds. She imagined the first settlers here, coming to dock and beholding the green naked wonder of the New World, laid out like the sensual limbs of a young woman ready and open for beastly appetites. Upon this land – they would build, build and build.
A shrill call sounded the air.
Tina looked up and saw an osprey gliding atop the river. Steady and strong as flying arrows – the bird climbed the air and made for a tall wood pier that stuck out in a tuft of weeds and reeds. Tina smiled at it.
Tina then took out one green egg from her pants pocket and two more from the other pocket. This is what she could save and this is what she lay on the boat dock.
The eggs had the texture and bounce of aspic and they glowed most peculiarly. It was a green light, a green that was pure and sharp like an emerald.
She dropped one egg and then the others into the water. The gelatinous orbs floated for a few seconds and then burst like a soap bubble, and from each, a tiny serpent with a bird’s beak did poke its head. From the remains of the jellied eggs, they splayed out their serpentine forms and their tiny limbs. Their small mouths stretched open for the first time and tasted the air. The creatures floated on the Passaic like a fishing spider, taking advantage of the water’s surface tension. The warmth of the morning sun slowly crept over their iridescent scales, and they moved slowly but then quickly away from the boat dock to parts only guessed and parts unknown.
“Go forth,” Tina said. “And multiply.”
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR
On the shores of the Passaic River, the Diamond Alkali Co. pesticide plant operated from 1951 to 1969. The plant made Agent Orange, an herbicide which the United States used as chemical warfare during the Vietnam War. Long time Ironbound residents do remember men in hazmat suits visiting the neighborhood and scouring the streets for poisonous chemicals from the Diamond Alkali plant in the early1980s. The river was then declared a Superfund site in 1984. Factories still operate along the Passaic, but the river has come back from its industrial past. Ospreys and other wildlife have made the river its home.
For more from the author visit: www.sharonadarlo.com/
Featured image by Henri Antikainen