The Party of the Tree of a Thousand Branches

Moyle cleans the room when he gets home from work: he dives into the filth and scrubs until his arms vibrate with fatigue. He vacuums. He ties up filthy newspapers and lugs off weeks-old garbage. He takes a bag of clothes to the Laundromat. He eats pirogues and vegetable soup at the diner and while he eats he writes a letter to a girl he’s stalking who lives at the other end of the continent.

Twelve hours hard labor then home to clean and eat and write: what a life. The dark buzz of autumn is here, cold skies higher than ever: the ethereal machinery turns out a ferocious wind at sick altitudes, roaring forth on a mission of volume and destiny. There’s no one to call on the phone so he walks home to his bed, reads a book about Lincoln, and goes dark.

Moyle whispers against a hateful little voice in his dreaming head—at one point he even jumps out of bed, wild with alarm: he’s stolen computers, football equipment, even soap from the school next door and now, dancing in his underwear, he’s hatched a plan to return it all and no one the wiser. But it’s going wrong, all wrong all wrong—he’s involved too many people: it’s complicated, RICO shit—he’s sure to be exposed. “Dreams are real as daylight,” his mother once told him. “Don’t forget it.”

The next day after work he finds the public library shuttered so he walks down to a cheap coffeehouse on the south side of Union Square where he has a salad, cold spaghetti, two cups of black coffee and a glass of water. The mealy skulls of baked potatoes, split open on the neighboring table, nauseate him.

The message on his phone machine when he gets home: This is your mother. Your father has had a heart attack. The old man in the hospital room is his father? He looks uncomfortable; his diction is slippery, his red eyes salted with exhaustion. Tubes, and tired, and all that, says Moyle’s mother.

He sleeps at his parents’ that night. Across the street sits a fading yellow house. Years ago a boy with a trumpet lived there with his mother and sister. He’d practice his scales while the mother ironed in front of the television. The father was gone and the trumpet sounded lonely behind drawn blinds. Moyle had a crush on sister Shelley: so sweet, pale and innocent, dark half-wafers under her eyes, a little lisp, white lace dresses as if in constant rehearsal for First Communion or the casket: so fragile she’d crack and crumble to dust if you snapped your fingers near her ear.

He leaves his parents’ house in the dark before dawn; a faint red vein hums at the base of the black sky. The workday is coming.

That night, back in his own bed, he dreams that Abraham Lincoln sleepwalks through the White House while he, Moyle, drinks whiskey and weeps by the fireplace. Down a dark hallway the radio plays John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillun.”

Then delicate Shelley comes to hand: she’s flown back from a faraway land and sighs I with I wath kithing Thcott right now. Moyle supposes Scott is a boyfriend. He drives her to the yellow house but sulks the whole way, says he doesn’t feel like hanging out—he’ll be on his way, thanks. She makes no objection so he has to ask:

What’s so bad about me?

You’re too experienthed, she says—just because he’d once bought condoms at the airport and she’d fled to her plane in shame, denying him before the cock crew so to speak.

The fireplace burns with a kind of blank anger. Moyle speaks with Shelley (gently) who he says reminds him of Jennifer. Tremulous with sorrow he reads to her from an old letter written back when he’d resented Mara though it was her sister Phoebe who’d bad-mouthed him to hirsute Elsa. It had distressed him, truly. But the straw that really sucked the milkshake flat was Diana’s disdainful comment that he was “getting fat” (easy to see now she said because of how he liked to ride naked in his pickup truck—how had she missed the signs?).

What on Earth are you talking about? Shelley lisps coldly.

Moyle, put out by her tone, says if this is how you intend to speak to me, then I can no longer humor you with regular visits—and clamps his hat down on his head as if to leave (though of course he has no such intention). Whereupon she exclaims what a good idea! It’ll be tho nithe to get rid of you and finally thay goodbye! Tho goodbye, thir!

He stands by his bed in the dark. He twists, streeking arm and leg, a yogic wonder, hair sparking and a-tingle. He wrings nightmares from his horripilated skin. A nocturnal hunter, he flushes them from their hidden nests in the exhausted muscles and chirping bones of his body.

The next day his grandmother tells how she found her husband’s socks tucked into his slippers the night after he died and his dungarees hung on the doorknob—how these minor discoveries dropped her like a punch from beyond. Such remnants of habit—the scattered husks of ordinary happiness—form a grievous frame for the portrait of absence that we paint on our own heart.

Back in his basement room a phone message blinks: This is Tom. The manager of the building. That you live in. It doesn’t matter: Moyle’s ready to find something new anyhow. It’s an illegal sublet by the furnace and everything stinks like kerosene: his clothes hair and books: everything. Never get it out. O that our days may be brash with health and bereft of need.

Rain’s begun. He can hear it in the cinderblock alley just out his subterranean window. Such hunger. He bought a dictionary on the street (a big one) for three bucks. Leana never phoned and the rain’s coming down hard so at last he heads out to eat alone. He stares at his reflection in the restaurant window as he knifes the burrito.

Blocks away the indecent pigeons moan and flutter on his window-ledge.

One good thing: the tailor’s shop where he’d dropped off his ripped leather jacket—the bastard owner wanted almost two-hundred for the work! Moyle called back to complain so Maria, the employee on the other end of the phone, said she would personally take it home and fix it for him for only $75.

Will it be as good?

I’m a tailor! She laughs. One thing: the boss must not find out. This my friend is skullduggery and we must keep to the tunnels . . . the Latin term as passed on to me: per subversia. Let us think deep on the arrangement. We will meet, she whispers, at the number 6 train. Friday evening, 7:30pm. Lafayette Station. Have the money and be on time. Is that clear?

He wants to kiss her. It feels like wartime.

Your father’s home again but his heart is a honeycomb of dead pink meat. The bees have been busy. So says the doctor. This is how his mother talks on the telephone.

I’ll visit soon he complains. She can be irritating.

Moyle’s father has had some kind of freak-out: that’s the term his brother uses as if it’s an accepted medical epithet: freak-out. The old man’s blood sugar level down to 32 and they diagnose a low level of potassium in his brain (Moyle mainlines bananas for the potassium).

When his father wakes in his own bed in the morning he bangs his feet against the wall, pummels the floor with them and smashes to pieces a birch walking stick he’d whittled in a more placid mood. Later he says to Moyle it was like I was there but watching things and I just thought ‘why not do them?’

The old man threatens to kill his wife and ponders smashing my head through the TV screen. But why should I do that. Finally his wife calls the cops who arrive with paramedics. A trooper enters the bedroom.

Who gave you the right to come into my house? Get the hell outta here.

Just take it easy.

Take it easy, shit. Get the hell outta here. Moyle’s father reaches for a machete that he keeps by the bed, a Cuban keepsake from Navy days.

Put the machete down says the cop. Put it down.

Another cop comes in. They ponder whether to shoot mace in the old man’s face but talk him down after much shouting. When he sets the machete on the bed the cops turn him around and slap handcuffs on. Paramedics enter speaking softly. They look into his eyes and squeeze his arms.

Moyle lies frozen in bed as a choric dawn wind blows through bare trees in the nearby park. He’s been speaking to an appreciative audience, discussing time-travel beasts. They’re deep, he says, secretive, playful like whales, and all I can say is I know when they’re around!

Moyle’s grandmother, listening to this nonsense later, informs him that she herself has time-traveled: on her last trip to the place where she used to fish when she was but a girl she met people from a hundred years in the past. It was dusty and warm and they were dressed in blue and wore brown hats (she peers through the floating motes of the sunbeam) and there was dust on the heavy leaves (it was summer); the little wooden bridge ran through a thunky kind of musical scale every time wheels drove over it—the cliffs were nearby—I could hear and smell the sea but I couldn’t see it . . .

There’s a steady black rain in the city. He’s tucked deep into a chair in the library, the tapping windows bleared by rain and wind. A low wooden table is beneath his feet. Over his shoulder a drowsy woman licks her fingers to turn pages in the quiet, ticking room.

What was the name of the boy who died all those years ago, catching the dull red rubber ball in a pop-up at third: he fell through the ice that winter and was dead next kickball season. His parents came to the school and the children stood outside in the cold spring air with teachers and principal; the custodial workers planted a skinny bare tree in his honor. They named it after him: “the Tommy Tree.” His father, a tall dark man in a black suit, said nothing but stared emptily into the fresh wet dirt while his wife wept beside him.

Now Moyle’s at the beach. The red-haired girl reading the book, is she from another age? He senses this is true. He watches her frolic as in a silent film a century past, in the black-and-white ocean surf down by the silver pier surrounded by a noisy bunch of friends, most of them half-drunk by lunchtime. The music of the gull screeches over the drilling wind; a boardwalk orchestra saws into the imploding surf. She shades her eyes and stares in his direction on this the last day of summer.

The beach party packs up and leaves the water empty for another year but still Moyle lingers. An orange crayon rolls on the sandy surface just beneath the water, its paper husk peeled off, floating close by the waxen body. The label on it reads magenta or Julie or some such misleading nonsense: the dyslexia of dream. The red-haired girl sits in a doorway near the vacant boardwalk and pleads don’t do this—don’t (if you can help it) die young . . .

Oh god he should have known—she’s a ghost. She’s been talking not to him but to herself—it had been her fate to die young. Moyle feels the sadness that one only feels near the sea: why must I always fall in love with women who are dead?

The cliffs at dawn are lit like rare meat and Moyle the hooded pariah hustles down still-dark steeply sloped streets on his way to the job. He’s written all night on his story about a train and he still can’t make it go.

The Times front page headline: police search for a killer who only murders people with long last names. A profiler tells reporters they’re looking for a “self-hating immigrant” or a “self-styled nativist” which gives them a lot to go on.

Moyle dreams of starting over, of moving to a huge old hollow tree with stained glass windows: sort of a church tree with a large wooden bucket hung on a beam out over the door signifying fertility or harvest. He’ll live there in peace and solitude, a follower with no leaders: the sole member of The Party of the Tree of a Thousand Branches.

He finishes the train story. A friend says no I just don’t see it. He celebrates by going to dinner with the red-haired woman but she walks out on him in the middle of some dull story he’s relating. Why the nerve. He slams down money for his meal and leaves her to the rats. She’s a runner he tells the waitress, circling index finger to temple.

He broods on the walk home and dreams of brooding, later. This is how memories move from place to place: complex, emotional short-range ones in their multitudinous holding pens, lowing and raising a din, are loaded onto dream trains and shipped to a deeper slaughterhouse where they’re dismembered by the brain and used to feed creatures of imagination: their energy is passed on but their form is lost. The very language of them mutates into something unrecognizable.

Down on the street facing off against the Friday-night bikers there’s a line of old ladies getting drunk and doing drugs: god, again? One face to another are the neighborhood gossips: this wrinkled face going on about one drug while the next insists that she simply must have her precious “nose key!” It’s pretty tiresome so Moyle wends his way upstairs to the neighbor’s for a cup of coffee and a friendly visit. She reluctantly says yes but it’s obvious he’s not wanted. She says it’s just that John bought enough bison for the people here so Moyle quaffs the strong hint and gets up to leave. He turns at the door and says I don’t eat meat, just for your information and stalks off. This is, of course, untrue.

It’s down the front stoop of the apartment to the great cold span of an iron green bridge, the numb brain of its vastness hovering. He thinks of the worlds attached to it: San Francisco fog and telephone wires; surreal Utah sandstone; high deserts and mountain passes frozen beneath a river of stars; Los Angeles, San Diego, Tucson Boise Cleveland Seattle. He thinks of his father’s massive body which languishes in light blue pajamas in a hospital bed in Jersey with a view of the parking lot. He thinks of all the brains and the souls that surround them who’ve stepped in and out of life since he was too small to talk. He stares at the giant green lights of the bridge until his brain succumbs, stupefied in a way that warms his muscular pain. He thinks of the danger of thinking too much like this and gets up and goes inside.  

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