Each month, in coordination with “Novel Jews,” our reading series in New York, the Forward publishes an excerpt from the work of that month’s series guest or guests. Though the reading series takes a hiatus this month, we figured everyone still could meet on the page. In celebration of summer, we offer readers a selection from Wade Rubenstein’s new Coney Island-based book, “Gullboy (A Novel): The Inconceivable Life of Franco Pajarito Zanpa,” a strangely beautiful story of a man and his half-seagull, half-human child.
Galaxies of white flares blasted from windshields and car hoods, whizzing into Ernesto’s eyes, as he toted baby Franco into the blazing July sun. As he walked, the brightness made Ernesto look down, but the glassphalt street sparkled as if paved with flashbulbs. Afraid of tripping with the baby in his hands, Ernesto stopped to let his eyes adjust, the radiance refracting even from his eyelashes. In the distance, he spotted the limestone tower of Coney Island Hospital — a block west to bustling Ocean Parkway and a few more north.
After another block or so through the crucible, Ernesto paused again, the light beginning to melt his resolve. Wouldn’t Venus help him with the kid, once she got to know him? Could he raise a baby on his own? he wondered. Ernesto wasn’t sure. He decided he needed an ally. Someone he could trust. He sat on the nearest stoop to think — the steps of W & MW Grocery, resting Franco on his lap. Overhead, empty plastic sacks fluttered in the sycamores. Smells of tar and diesel fuel spoiled the air, as a road crew ripped up Ocean Parkway again. Everything seemed preternaturally clear and bright.
Bodega patrons sidestepped Ernesto, bustling in and out. No words were offered about his chatty bundle. Numbed to the city’s peculiar sights, strangers knew that to notice was to risk involvement. Half-wits and tourists did things like that. One man dipped a hand in his pocket and tossed Ernesto a quarter. Ernesto picked the coin from the steps and flipped it into the street. No holes in my clothes, he thought. That fool better watch his snappy judgments.
The ring of the quarter drew more babbling from Franco. What was he saying? Ernesto wondered. It was as if kids were born poets, he thought, the kind you couldn’t understand. He tried to picture Venus breaking down baby talk. Not much chance of that.
Stroking the baby’s downy head, Ernesto whispered, “Don’t worry. Things’ll work out. The doctors will know what you need. You’ll see.” But what if the doctors were like Venus and didn’t believe him about where the baby came from? Maybe marching straight to the hospital wasn’t such a great idea. But what was? Should he call Ronnie or Giz? They were fathers, right? He tried to remember either one of them feeding their kids, dressing them, or doing any of that baby stuff — even being in charge of their kids for a day. Static.
Ernesto lifted Franco as he stood, but where to go? Walking south on Ocean, away from the hospital, an answer seemed to suggest itself. Manny’s Restaurant was up ahead, he thought. Manny might be the one guy he could talk to. Wasn’t the old man always bragging about how he’d sent his girls to college? His daughters had become so successful, they hardly spoke to their father anymore. And at Manny’s, Ernesto told himself, feeling his stomach call, he could order lunch and get advice on the side.
On Brighton Beach Avenue, Manny’s was shaded by the steel canopy of the elevated subway. Dual sets of stairs ascended to the D train. Farther on, more stairs rose to meet the Q. Rows of massive I-beams supported the tracks above. Even on such a sunny day, the tracks shrouded the street in industrial twilight, belying the beach a block to the south. In the shadows were bright signs in English and Russian for fish markets, produce stands, corset shops, bakeries, nightclubs, bookstores, restaurants, coffee houses, betting parlors, travel agencies, lawyers’ and accountants’ offices, Laundromats, electronics stores, fortune tellers, banks; Brighton Beach was a village unto itself.
Picking his way along the sidewalk, Ernesto tucked Franco in his arm like a football and weaved through the throngs of shoppers. After several blocks, he saw the pink neon sign for Manny’s Restaurant & Lounge. Beneath the word “Lounge” was a tipped martini glass. Condensation dribbled onto his head from the a.c. as he entered the nearly empty restaurant. At her station behind the register Myrna was deep in a paperback romance and didn’t notice Ernesto’s entrance. Seating himself in a booth, Ernesto cradled the infant on his lap. Behind him shouts seeped through the door to the kitchen. Manny was arguing with his day cook, Dino. As a dishwasher Ernesto had ducked Dino’s diatribes by agreeing with whatever the choleric cook said. But the moment Dino was confronted with agreement, he’d change his opinion and start a fresh fight. The skirmish in the back broke off, and Manny burst from the kitchen. He marched to the front of the house and dealt a slap to the antique cash register. “Why do I listen to that idiot’s garbage!?” he shouted at his wife in a tremulous tenor.
“Cawlm down, lamb chop. Tell me, when ah you going to loyn?”
“For cryin’ out loud, he’s my cook — we have to talk. I need this mishegoss? At my age?”
Myrna shook her head no.
“Look at my hands, Myrna. I’m in such a state. Oh, that joyk.” He held his hands out for inspection, revealing nothing more notable than liver spots and fine hairs that, like the hairs on his head, had thinned somewhat as he closed in on seventy. “When you said he was your cousin, you said nothing about a lunatic,” said Manny, ready to spit on the black and white tiles.
Slouching from her stool, Myrna stroked her husband’s hair. “You awlways let him get to you. Is it woyth it, my love?” Wrapping her arms around Manny’s waist, she spotted Ernesto watching her. She shook out her arms and went after him as though she were fixing to belt him with brass knuckles.
“Whadda sahproise, Zaaanpa’s got the day awf. Tell me, Zanpa, wheah can oy get one uh these jawbs wheah every day’s uh hawliday? Tell me, caws this woykin’ stuff is fa the boyds.”
Knowing anything he said would be used against him, Ernesto chose not to reply.
“Well? Aaansah me. You wanta eat aw you wanta get lost?” said Myrna, balling up her tomato-sized fists, her shoulders hunched with osteoporosis. The scent of sickly-sweet talc and sweat floated from her skin.
A gush of warm wetness soaked Ernesto’s lap — little Franco had relieved himself. As Manny hustled over to rescue his ex-employee, two men with slicked-back hair came in and stood by the register. Wearing double-breasted suits with bold pinstripes and oxblood patent leather shoes, the men looked like actors from an Odessa production of “Guys and Dolls.” Manny pointed Myrna toward them and, with a corner-man’s nudge, released her, saying, “Why don’t you see what Nathan Detroit-ski and friend care to eat.”
Like Manny, Ernesto quickly sized up the men as part of the Russian mob — the minions of ex-Soviet bosses recast as rogue entrepreneurs. Why else wear pinstripes in Coney Island? Myrna steered the men to a table in front of the restaurant’s plate-glass window. Sitting, the men angled their chairs toward the street. Myrna handed each a menu and retreated to her stool.
Spying the creature on Ernesto’s lap and the urine at his feet, Manny flicked out a jab and cuffed Ernesto’s cheek. “What the hell you bringin’ in my place, kid?” he said.
Before Ernesto could stammer a reply, Manny got up and leaned inside the kitchen door. “Hector, bring the mop,” he said. From behind the stainless steel trough for washing pots, a squat teenage boy dog-eared a page of “Don Quixote,” then followed with a mop and a rolling bucket. Without looking at Ernesto or the infant, he swabbed away the mess and returned to his book.
The moment Hector left, Manny smacked Ernesto again. Fifty years earlier, Manny Abelowitz had been a top-ten middleweight in the U.S. Army. A trim man with quick hands and little power, he had won thirty of thirty-eight fights without ever knocking an opponent to the canvas.
“So you’ve become a kidnapper? What?” Manny asked Ernesto.
“Manny, no, I didn’t snatch the kid, I found him.”
“Finders keepers? Don’t get smart with me,” said Manny, landing another slap.
“Hey, cut it out. That doesn’t tickle. I need to talk with you,” said Ernesto.
Myrna rushed by to place the mobsters’ lunch orders. Anticipating a headache, Manny slid into Ernesto’s booth. Overhead, the Q train rumbled by. Its sound brought thunderstorms to mind. Manny pictured a dark cloud over his young friend. First the kid’s parents die, then he marries a hooker, now this, whatever this was, he thought.
“Ernesto, my friend, I’m guessing here, but I’d say what you need is a lawyer, not a BLT. You’ve got some sort of baby there, and I don’t see any cigars. I hope it’s not your intention to make me an accessory to something?”
“No, I mean, the thing is, see, I don’t know if —”
“Ernesto, slow down, and I’ll try to help. It can’t hoyt for us to talk, correct?”
“Yeah, well, that ring of yours sure hurts,” said Ernesto, touching his jaw.
“So I’m sorry already. You want to talk? Talk. On your own, you can whimper.”
Ernesto squirmed. While at first the baby’s urine had felt pleasantly warm, a raw clamminess had taken over from there. Manny was studying him as though he were crazy. Best to tell the old man the truth, he thought.
Twisting on her stool, Myrna spied her husband peering across Ernesto’s booth, deep in conversation. “Oh shaw. Ignaw me all day lawng. But this doofus you’ll listen to,” she told Manny, muttering across the
restaurant. “For wawnt of this, we can’t retiah?”
“Myrna, please,” said Manny, glancing up at her, annoyed, then refocusing on Ernesto.
“Manny, I mean, I know this is strange. That’s why I came for your advice. You know how when something weird happens to someone else, right away you’re thinking, ‘Holy smokes! Unbelievable!’ But when it happens to you, it doesn’t seem strange, you know, but normal.”
“Ernesto? You’re losing me. You’re saying kidnapping is normal to you?”
“No. I’m saying it seems normal because it becomes what you know. Like, to those guys up front, it’s normal to call someone and say, ‘Keeel heem,’ or cut up stiffs with a hacksaw. Just a job. Normal. This little seagull baby’s the same to me. I found him. I know what he’s about.”
Manny’s eyes opened wide. “A gullboy, you said? That’s what you call that ‘normal’ kid on your lap?”
“Well no, actually, I’m calling him Franco, after my pop. ‘Gullboy’ is sort of nasty, huh?”
“I’d have to agree. So you’ve named him. You’re planning an adoption?”
“That’s right. That’s why I need your advice.”
“It’s bourbon time,” said Manny, checking his Timex as he stood. “Oh, but it’s early.” He peeked again at fuzzy little Franco. “Some days, it’s never too early. Hoo boy. This is much too much normal for me. Ernesto, you hungry? We’ve got a nice special. Pot roast and French fry, four-fifty. And for you, lunch comes with a complimentary glass of bourbon.”
“Does it come with a vegetable?”
“You want bourbon with a vegetable?”
“No, the pot roast.”
“Well, sure. Who soyves pot roast without one? Except I can’t remember which. Hey Myrna — what vegetable are we soyving with the lunch special?”
“You got that?”
“Are they frozen or canned? I don’t like canned peas.”
“The kidnapper wants to know, frozen or canned? A fussy kidnapper.” In the kitchen Manny placed the orders with Dino, then returned with a bottle of Wild Turkey, a pair of plastic glasses and a basket of Wonderbread. Wincing, Manny retook his seat and poured three fingers of liquor apiece. Ernesto raised his glass and extended it toward Manny.
“To Franco,” said Ernesto.
“All right then — to Franco, you nutjob.”
Copyright © 2005. Reprinted by arrangement with Counterpoint Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group (www.perseusbooks.com). All rights reserved.