They had been roommates in a New England prep school, then they were sent down. Stavros went home to take his place in the Jersey Mafia. Dynamite was packed off to a military academy to learn honor.
“Among thieves?” Stavros says.
“Dysfunction, perversion, thugs.” Dynamite shrugs. “We were outside the system, beyond the law. We were cadets.”
“Honorable.” Stavros again.
Dynamite smiles. “Yes.”
“Your old man was a control freak.”
“Your dad was a gangster.”
“People reported to him.”
“He took something off the top.”
“We were both sent down.”
Dynamite doesn’t see anything wrong with this. “You cheated and got caught, I got caught cheating.”
Thanos Stavros III and Jack (Dynamite) Freylinghausen recall long Connecticut gloamings and tall elms. Their window opened onto a shaded corner of the campus, immaculate paths, manicured lawns. In the room they told stories, shared secrets.
Stavros looks for a break in the cars and trucks that clog Canal. “I know a place.” They diagonal away from Pearl Art Supplies into afternoon shadows, brick and iron buildings, narrow streets, the dark setbacks and alleys of downtown.
Dynamite’s shopping bag is packed with art supplies, primer, unstretched canvas and a smaller bag of nail polish for the woman he loves. Rachel is a princess. Dynamite rolls his eyes. His eyes have become hard and dry. He looks past Stavros into the back streets. Midblock Stavros pushes in past a sign that says Closed by The Board of Health. They blink in the dimness. Paz wipes the bar. She looks at Dynamite. She can see he’s a head. His addiction’s authentic. Can’t Stavros see this?
Dynamite hikes a stool.
“Beer?” Stavros says.
Paz smiles, slides the house white across.
“Great,” Dynamite says.
Stavros squints. “You don’t look good.”
“Let the bad times roll.”
Paz pops a Rolling Rock. Stavros nods gracias. Paz nods de nada.
Stavros hedges old times. “You were supposed to learn honor. Can honor be taught?”
“I don’t think so.” Dynamite smiles. “You went home.”
Stavros was caught behind the chapel with the history master’s child bride. In a brick corner she moaned, cried out. Stavros held his hand across her mouth and she bit him. She was a minor, not accountable. The school called Stavros’ father. The next day a man named Nico drove the boy back to the Jersey shore. Young Stavros was taught extortion, perjury, and muscle. He knew too much to be trusted. His father kept a canny distance. The boy knew what this meant. He ran away while he was still alive. “Nothing worked.”
“Bummer.” Dynamite is not surprised. “You told stories in the room. I tried to believe you.”
“But you didn’t.”
Dynamite nurses the house white, turpentine going down. “Sometimes.”
Dynamite is heroic, the classic balance of his face, the orbital bones, what Byronic must have meant when Byronic still meant something. His hairline is exact, the regulation cut, cut close to the skull leaving the cranial bumps exposed. Dynamite was caught cheating, one of the mandatory sciences. He was expelled. His father sent him to a military academy. What happened derived naturally enough from the boy’s restlessness. He was charged with dealing drugs to the cadets. Nothing serious, of course. He moved ‘hides in the latrine, amyl nitrate, nothing hard. There was no defense. Under Honor the question was an indictment, the charge was its own sentence. His appointed counsel was another cadet, Rappaport. Rappaport was quick and without scruple. He told Dynamite to say he didn’t do it. The plea was not expected which was what Rappaport liked about it. Rappaport was counting on the breakdown of Honor. Behind one door there’s honor, behind the other door there’s getting off. “Hey,” Rappaport said. “You tell me.”
Nobody came forward. The cadet court ruled insufficient evidence. Dynamite tells Stavros about the playing fields and the Wagnerian towers at the academy. The day room was a museum: trophies, flags and, framed on the walls, fading photographs of bomber crews from World War II, B-24s, mascots, flightline Jeeps. The crews grinned at the camera but did not include him. Their flak jackets were unsnapped. “It was a long time ago.”
Dynamite tells Stavros his new girlfriend is certifiable.
Water drips in the tin sink behind the bar.
Stavros says, “You know who turned you in?”
“There were too many of us. Could have been anyone.”
Dynamite asks about Stavros’ love life. Stavros says he’s living in a tenement walkup with a woman named Sam who is going back to her husband, a bisexual art dealer. When Dynamite shakes his head the bones work under the back of his skull. He meets Stavros’ eyes in the backbar mirror. They had been 15, 16 when they were roommates. They would never be that good again.
Stavros and Freylinghausen had just become roommates. The word in the hallways and after lights-out was young Freylinghausen had inherited syphilis. The younger boys weren’t sure what syphilis was. You had the syph. you had the syph. Beyond disease Dynamite’s inheritance included dark drops of annihilation, a deep vulnerability. The boys wanted to tell him it was okay.
Mr. Baxter, master of natural sciences in the lower forms, encouraged the boys to share what they had with their classmates. They would learn together, from each other. Freylinghausen said he wanted to share his alligator with his classmates. Mr. Baxter reminded him gentlemen don’t show off. The next day Freylinghausen brought his alligator into class. It was a baby, less than four inches long, skidding across the bottom of a dry fish tank. The alligator’s back said, “Hi! I’m from Florida!” with a green palm tree and an orange sunset painted on. Freylinghausen said the alligator was a souvenir from a man. Mr. Baxter asked if the man was his father. Freylinghausen told him no. Mr. Baxter said the alligator was very nice. “And does our little friend have a name?”
“Yes, sir,” Freylinghausen said.
“Jaws is his name?”
“It’s a her.”
“And how do we know?”
“No pecker,” Freylinghausen said. “See?” He picked up the alligator so the others could see underneath.
Mr. Baxter told Freylinghausen to put Jaws next to the globe on the radiator cover and take his place.
Half an hour later Jaws had been cooked stiff. The stench was like burnt tar. The boys competed for a look at the crisp little corpse. Freylinghausen bit his lip and blinked. Tears edged his eyes. “She never hurt anyone,” he said. “I liked her.” Mr. Baxter told Freylinghausen to take care of Jaws. Freylinghausen picked up the fish tank and started out. The other boys, hushed now, watched him jiggle the door open. He let himself out and the door closed behind him.
Freylinghausen dropped the fish tank and the dead alligator down the back stairwell and waited until it crashed three floors below. Then he walked back to the house and took a nap.
Parents’ Day Freylinghausen’s father threw his arm across the boy’s shoulder and called him Dynamite. The name stuck.
Later, when young Dynamite was tried for trafficking low-end drugs at the military academy, he told his cadet attorney Rappaport about Jaws. Rappaport said lose the animal. Dynamite said she’s dead. There was no case. Cadets who testified against one of their own would be testifying against themselves. “Honor’s a hydrangea,” Rappaport said. “Smells good but what’s it done for you lately?”
Rachel and Dynamite share a walkup on East Tenth. The walkup belongs to Rachel who gets an allowance from her parents. Rachel also has money of her own which she hasn’t told Dynamite about. Dynamite opens the window to let in the laughing and the ghetto blasters and the car alarms down in the street. Rachel sits on the arm of the club chair and faces Stavros. Her lips are mauve tinting to squished berries. Her skin is dark and flawless. She tells Stavros eye contact is important, so are strong handshakes. She says it isn’t grip, it’s who gets there first. She wears old jeans and a gray T-shirt. Her breasts are large and soft. There are smudges on her T-shirt. She explains her new work which is oil and enamel on paper mounted on board mounted on canvas. Stavros says why board mounted on canvas if her working surface is paper mounted on board. Rachel tells him Pollock did it that way before he died. Dynamite says how about some wine. Rachel says God yes. Stavros says wine’s good. Rachel leans forward and confides to Stavros her enamel is nail polish. “Revlon,” she says. “Magenta del Rey.”
Stavros looks at the paintings leaning against the wall. He doesn’t say anything because he doesn’t know what to say. Dynamite comes back with a jug of Soave. Rachel says here’s to friendship. Dynamite tells Rachel Sam is bad for Stavros. Rachel asks, does Stavros like boys? Stavros says Sam is a girl. Rachel says she likes fags. Dynamite tells her Stavros isn’t a fag. Rachel says if the bar was closed by the Board of Health how come it isn’t closed. Stavros says it is. Rachel digs gunk from under her fingernails with her eyeteeth. She lifts something dark off the point of a tooth, compacts it into a tight ball, and flicks the ball behind the radiator. She tells Stavros paint gets under her nails. Stavros tells her paint has poison in it. Rachel says if nail polish had poison in it, women wouldn’t bite their nails.
A week later Stavros buzzes from downstairs. Rachel comes on and tells him Dynamite left four days ago and she doesn’t know where he is.
There are postcards along the way. The cards are sent to Stavros, there is no return address. The geography is postmarks. Dynamite drifts into social drugs. He meets people who deal on streetcorners and in the washrooms of bars. His handwriting has become imprecise.
Stavros hangs out in the parks and along the wide avenues of Alphabet City. The new people live in modern buildings that are still being built. The new people work hard at being beautiful and young. They wear wires so they can say one thing and do something else. Stavros stops under the Korean’s awning, taut yellow and green stripes under sunlight. The sidewalk is stacked with cartons of hosed produce, wet lettuce, apples, celery. He keys to the fresh colors and rereads a recent card. Dynamite has scrawled the comforts of a Cajun woman and the acquired tastes of Jax and Tabasco. The postmark says New Iberia, Louisiana. Stavros detours new construction and crosses to the shady side of the street.
Downtown is terrorism, fear, pockets of grief. The residue of terrorism is white powder, gridlock, good works. Someday the space will become glass skyscrapers, access for the flow of workers who will go in and out of the buildings every day. Stravros doesn’t think about the new buildings. When he doesn’t want to think about anything he goes back to the bar that was closed by the Board of Health. Paz opens a Rolling Rock. Her hands are wet and strong. A crack jags across the backbar mirror. Bubbles burp the beer sign.
Dynamite is held in a New Orleans jail for killing a Mexican girl or boy behind a bar. The Gulf Coast Organization will buy his way out. How’s Rachel, just asking. Social tokes have turned to popped capsules and cooked heroin. He uses heroin, naturally he dies.
The last time Stavros sees Dynamite, he does not know that two days later his friend will be dead.
Dynamite has skipped bail and is in the city living with Rachel again. Rachel lets Stavros in. Her eyes are soft. Her smile is indolent and warm. She crosses to the icebox. Paper shades have been drawn against the afternoon light. The air in the space is yellow. A glass ashtray balances on the edge of the torn club chair. The ashtray is filled with crumpled candy wrappers. A half empty whiskey bottle stands on the floor next to the chair. Rachel comes back and hands Stavros white wine in a jelly glass. He asks how she is and how things are going. She tells him nail polish cracks and charcoal is overrated and she is working hard.
A door clicks in the hallway. Dynamite comes into the room. Rachel turns away and leaves. Stavros measures his friend from a distance he doesn’t expect. The civility of fine bones has become ordinary. The planes of Dynamite’s face have gone soft. There is no definition. The skin is bloodless. The excitement and tension have gone out of his eyes. He looks old.
Dynamite watches Stavros from somewhere very far back behind his eyes. He is trying to see his roommate again but can’t make him out. He asks Stavros if he remembers the photographs of the bomber crews. “The men looked past me. I wasn’t there.”
“I wasn’t even born yet.”
The grin is calculated, boyish. Dynamite doesn’t say why he’s back or even that he went anywhere. Stavros doesn’t mention the postcards. Stavros tells him Paz says hello from the bar. Dynamite says Paz doesn’t speak English.
“She remembers you.”
“I doubt that.”
“She’s afraid of you.”
“She’s thinking of someone else,” Dynamite says.
Dynamite tells Stavros he plans to start fresh. “There’s so much to do.” The waste and the fragility have gone out of Dynamite. The blood vessels still stand out on the side of his neck but the strain is gone. Dynamite refills Stavros’ glass.
Stavros sees his friend still has the scar on his arm, just above the wrist. “Old wound.”
“So I don’t forget,” Dynamite says. “You work without a net, scars happen.” Dynamite drinks Southern Comfort from the bottle next to his chair. Stavros drinks the white wine. Stavros sits on the floor, propped against a broken sofa. The sofa is littered with magazines and tear sheets. The light dims outside the shades.
Dynamite stands up.
“Want to work out the kinks?”
They walk past the new boutiques and bars. They cross into Tompkins Square Park. Kids chase each other along the paths. The branches of the trees scratch lightposts. When Stavros and Dynamite come out of the park the streets are lit by halogen and store windows. Shoppers negotiate bundles and shopping bags packed with things to take home.
The friends walk back through the crowded streets and turn into East Tenth. Lamps are on in the tall parlor windows. Stavros tells Dynamite he wants to love a woman like Rachel. “She’s very beautiful.” Dynamite says she has her work and he loves her too. On the sidewalk in front of the house Stavros says he’s glad Dynamite’s back. “We should keep in touch.”
“Call me,” Dynamite says.
Stavros tells him he will but Rachel calls first to tell Stavros his friend is dead.
Dynamite went out for a pack of cigarettes, a prescription refill, whatever. He was on Valium and Vicodin and Wellbutrin. Rachel said there was more. She had been working hard. He was angry. He told her he wished she would shut up. She went back to work. He slammed the door behind him and kicked something out in the hall. When he didn’t come back, she went to bed. She woke up late the next morning. He still wasn’t there and she knew he was dead.
They found him in a transient hotel in midtown, near the bus terminal. He had paid for one night. The hotel needed the room. The manager tapped a passkey against the door. There was no response. The manager let himself in. The bed was still made up. Freylinghausen was sitting on the floor of the bathroom, propped in a corner. His eyes were open and he was smiling at the toilet. Blood had run out of one ear and dried. The needle was still in his arm.
Freylinghausen had been dead for several hours. The overdose could have been deliberate, no way anyone could tell. There was no note. The examiner wrote N/A and signed the report.
Stavros goes over to East Tenth but Rachel doesn’t answer his buzz. He leaves a note and calls later but the phone keeps ringing.
He walks the downtown streets. People in the neighborhoods go home and watch television. One by one the windows go dark. The streets are quiet. An empty bus goes by. Stavros listens to his footsteps on the pavement. He walks out to the East River. He is tired. He is relieved. There is nothing anyone can do. Across the river, beyond the bridges and rooftops, all-night jets lift off the runways. He walks back. First light comes into the sidestreets. When he gets home it is daylight and his space is empty.
He calls Rachel the next day. Still no answer. A few days later in the bar Paz hands him a note, a piece of paper in an unsealed envelope. The note is Rachel’s way of saying goodbye. “Do not blame your friendship.”
Stavros remembers Dynamite not as he was when he killed himself but as he was when he was approaching heroics he couldn’t explain or handle, when they were still growing up and hadn’t been caught yet.
They are young, faking answers, bluffing the mind-blowing confusions of the people around them and each other.
The boys have decided Freylinghausen doesn’t have inherited syphilis after all. Syph makes a person soft. No way someone can have syph and string the rope between the house and the dorm and cross three flights up, balanced, teetering but making it, applauded by hands in the windows, cheered by boys on the lawn under him. Freylinghausen’s dad says his son is Dynamite and there’s nothing he can’t do. One of the masters says young Freylinghausen is a bundle of contradictions and his middle name is Trouble.
“He’s stringing the rope.”
“Go for it, Dynamite.”
One day he strings the rope from the third floor of his house to the fourth floor across the way. He starts at the low end, makes his way up, climbing, each tentative step rocking to find a center of balance, climbing across and higher at the same time and then, without even touching the dorm sill, turning around and sliding back down the rope, picking up speed and not flying into the wall of his house but at the last minute, diving off the rope and into the open window of his room, into Stavros who’s laughing like crazy because nothing makes any sense, ashamed and proud his roommate’s nuts and takes chances and makes all the things that can’t happen happen. There is magic here. It’s better than the circus.
The next day Dynamite does the same trick twice. He sets a plastic Philco in the window and pumps the radio to full volume and does the walk across to a mambo beat. The quiet corner of the campus is suddenly packed with obliterating bongos. The boys bump helplessly in time and follow Dynamite, twitching, sashaying along the rope like it’s solid as a dance floor and it doesn’t matter that there’s nothing underneath him.
“Will you look at that rhythm?”
“Look at that rhythm?”
“All you gotta do is look, baby.”
The second time he falls.
The rope frays at one end and snaps under him. Time stops. He is out there, alone, suspended in empty air. The boys from the house and the dorm wait for him to fall to his death in front of them, then luck lacks in. The rope whips up like a snake. Dynamite reaches out, grabs hold and swings, Tarzanlike at the end of the line, full force into the corner of the house. The wind is knocked out of him and his right arm is ripped open above the wrist but he holds onto what’s left of the rope. The gash is deep and bleeding badly. He is taken to the infirmary. The cut is cleaned and stitched. His wrist and forearm are bandaged.
The headmaster calls Freylinghausen into his office and tells him if he wants to stand out from the pack and chart his own course that’s his business, but on campus he must play the game and get with the program and clean up his act.
Dynamite tells his roommate not to talk about the stunts and wounds so Stavros looks at the bandage and doesn’t say anything which is worse. Stavros and Dynamite cross the quads and walk the halls together. They horse around and maintain the usual privacies. Then one day Stavros is caught behind the chapel with the child bride of a history master and he is sent down. He is driven home to his family on the Jersey shore. Not long after this Dynamite is caught cheating in one of the mandatory sciences. Mr. Freylinghausen sends his son to a military academy to learn honor and accommodation and precision. The control freak is too late, of course. Honor is confused with heroics and finally means nothing.
Two new boys move into the room. The space between their window and the dorm is another corner of the campus.
And so nothing stops after all and the story isn’t over when Dynamite OD’s in a transient toilet and stops breathing. And it isn’t over when Stavros takes him into the closed bar and the two friends remember getting caught. If there has to be an ending it’s long before this, while they still have the imagination and willingness of time, when Dynamite comes flying in through the window and slams into Stavros and the two roommates sit on the floor laughing because no one has to be like all the others if he’s better than anybody else.