Ted Gogoll is the author of six books, including Echoes of a Killing and Jimmy Strings. A native New Yorker and former hardcore punk drummer,...read more he has written for numerous newspapers and magazines for the past 25 years, traveling and reporting from 60 countries on six continents. He lives in California.
Floyd swung open the glass door. It was earlier than he’d usually arrive to the diner. He had energy, and a fierce appetite. Sliding off his bulky knapsack and dropping it to the floor, he took a stool at the counter and snapped open a menu. The place smelled like burnt toast. A transistor radio provided white noise. The waiter, Charley, was changing coffee filters.
“Long time no see, Floyd,” Charley said, wiping his hands on a white rag fastened to his waist. “Soft boiled eggs and a decaf?”
Floyd fidgeted. “Charley, how about we change it up a bit? Steak, medium rare. Three eggs over easy. And toast with extra butter.” He snapped the menu closed. “I’ll take a beer, too.”
“Whoa, look at you. Hello, I’m Charley, I don’t believe we’ve met,” Charley laughed, sticking out his hand. “Floyd, c’mon, old friend, it’s six-thirty in the morning. You know we can’t serve until noon. I’ll get Sam started on the steak.”
Charley turned to a rectangular window in the kitchen wall. He shouted out the order even though Sam was just three feet away and the place was otherwise empty. He set down a coffee mug in front of Floyd. Foam rose to the top.
Floyd sipped down the beer. He slid off his light jacket and undid the top three buttons on his plaid shirt. A silver cross hung around his neck. He rolled up his sleeves. His arms were pale and skinny. His eyes were dark and deep-set. He hadn’t shaved in days.
“So what’s gotten into you, Floyd? How’s your mother holding up?”
Floyd emptied the mug. “Can ya refill this, Charl?”
Charley slid the mug under a tap behind the counter. “So what’s the deal? You’re crawling out of your skin.”
“Who me? I was out killing werewolves last night,” Floyd said, downing the beer.
A smile crept across Charley’s face. He’d met some real characters in his thirty years at the twenty-four-hour diner. He didn’t think Floyd was one of them, however. He played along.
“Werewolves, eh? Whatcha use, silver bullets?”
“They’re dead. That’s all that matters!”
“Well, that’s good. Couple less werewolves around can’t be a bad thing, eh? Guess it’s thirsty work,” Charley said, refilling the mug. “You’re gonna be shitfaced before rush hour, Floyd. You got the day off or something? Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever served you beer before. Or steak.”
Sirens blared from a distance. It sounded like an entire battalion had closed in. Floyd’s eyes darted. He swung his head, looking out the window.
“God almighty, now what?” Charley said. He grabbed the steak and eggs from the kitchen window. And then a small plate of toast. He refilled the mug.
Floyd speared the steak with his fork, lifting its sixteen ounces to his mouth. He gnawed at it, swallowing un-chewed chunks.
Cop cars rushed by. They screeched to a stop. An ambulance followed. They stopped two blocks away at a four-story building. Charley and Floyd watched the flashing lights across the municipal parking lot. It wasn’t clear if the commotion was in front of Floyd’s apartment building or not.
“If it’s not one thing, it’s something else in this neighborhood, Floyd. Am I right or am I right? That block up there has really gone to pot.” He shook his head and grunted.
Floyd began on the eggs. He slurped his beer, and then motioned for a refill. Charley had lost count.
“So how’s your mother, Floyd? It was nice when you’d bring her for a bite in the evenings. It made me nostalgic for my mother.”
Floyd looked up, still chewing. “She passed last week, God rest her soul. Do you have any Tabasco sauce?”
“Oh Christ, Floyd. They didn’t write it up in the paper. I would’ve gone to the services. Oh, I feel awful.”
“That’s OK, Charl. I had her cremated. No real services. Hey, these eggs are fantastic.”
“I don’t know what to say. Well, the meal’s on the house then. Want another beer?”
Floyd had emptied his bank account before arriving at the diner. His knapsack contained the few possessions he didn’t want to leave behind. He wouldn’t be returning home.
“You don’t have to do that,” Floyd said. “I’ve got plenty of money.”
“Just the same. It’s on me.”
Floyd was wired. But he wasn’t much of a drinker. It was catching up. He wiped the eggs from his plate with a piece of toast. He sipped from the beer. A long burp followed.
“You still having problems with your neighbors? All that damn noise?”
“Nah, I took care of that.”
“Really? They were a nasty bunch, eh? Where do these people come from? The Bronx? The world ain’t what it used it be, Floyd.”
Other customers came in and took booths. They discussed the racket outside. Lights still flashed and additional cop car sirens approached. Another waiter, Joseph, began his shift. Charley clicked on the television. Local media wasn’t carrying any stories on it yet. Charley called out to two regulars.
“What’s all the mess about?”
One guy, dressed in a mechanic’s uniform, looked up from his menu. “You haven’t heard? They’re saying that some guy flipped out and killed his neighbors.”
“No shit?” Charley said. “Floyd, you believe this? Take a look. That ain’t your building, is it?”
Floyd got to his feet, if a little wobbly. He grabbed his jacket and knapsack and threw down two twenties. “Nah, looks like it’s next door.”
Two women, assistant prosecutors from the courthouse, walked in. They, too, were regulars. It was that kind of place. Charley pressed for details.
“Two dead, Charley. A third’s hanging on. Someone was saying a guy turned an aerosol can into a flamethrower and torched their faces. Then he stabbed them. Nasty business,” one woman said. “Can you imagine?”
Floyd had seen these two women nearly every working day for years. They’d never spoken. He took in the full sweep of their bodies and smiled. “Charley, put them on my tab.”
“You got it, Floyd,” Charley said, raising his eyebrows with surprise. “Better step on it if you’re gonna catch the ferry.”
“Oooh, you’re right. Have a good one, Charl.” Floyd winked at the women on his way out. They just looked at each other and snickered.
He ignored the chaos unfolding across the parking lot, without looking back. He made it just in time for the seven a.m. Staten Island Ferry. The huge crowd bottlenecked at the doors, some cutting others. At this time, it was mostly blue- collar workers. Though there were some suits and students. Floyd didn’t rush. He made his way to the lower level. He let out another burp. He sat by a window, removing his jacket and knapsack.
A couple sat across from him. Too close for his comfort, he thought. On any other day, he would’ve let it slide. Not today. Nothing slides. The guy pulled a hotdog from a brown bag. The smell was suffocating. He bit into it and continued his conversation. Without standing, Floyd leaned over and smacked it out his hand and then slid back in his chair. “What kind of an animal eats a hotdog at seven a.m.?” he asked. He stared dead in his eyes.
The couple was dazed. Then the hotdog-eater got to his feet. “Oh no you didn’t. No you didn’t.” His voice grew more agitated. “You a dead motherfucker!” He lunged toward Floyd. He was a big boy, two-seventy-five easy. Floyd slid two feet to the opposite side. Big Boy landed on his face. His girlfriend shouted into a cell phone.
The guy then grabbed Floyd’s shoulder, trying to steady him for a clean shot. He threw a punch, but Floyd bobbed and then smacked him in the face. It was his first fight in his life. The guy came at him again. He slapped him again. SMACK! He shouted incoherently. Deckhands ran over. Other passengers swarmed.
No one knew exactly what had happened. Big Boy reiterated his death threats. Floyd, all one-forty-five pounds of him, sat motionless. Regardless of what was said, observers sized Floyd up as the victim and separated them. Floyd stood, winked at the still-screaming girlfriend, and found another seat nearer to the exit.
He disembarked and felt weightless as he sped through the crowd and finally made his way up Broadway, past the Merrill Lynch Bull. He’d lost his research analyst job months earlier and hadn’t been in the Financial District since. He had no reason to. No friends. No ties of any kind. He walked northward. Whenever people walked two or three abreast, he made a point to shoulder through them.
He slammed into one burly guy at a crosswalk. He kept walking. The guy, wearing a track suit and Bluetooth phone attached to his ear, shouted: “Watch where the fuck you’re going!”
Floyd stopped dead and turned back. “It’s hilarious that you think I give a shit. Try keeping your fat ass out of the way next time.”
He walked on. He got past City Hall, then Chinatown, and was in SoHo. He’d seldom venture this far north, though it was only a couple miles from his former job. The women were young. They wore tank-tops, short-shorts, and little boots. Their outfits left little to the imagination. Floyd’s eyes bulged.
Two girls turned the corner and nearly bumped him. He stopped and grabbed one of their hands. He kissed it. Shocked, the girl snatched her hand back. “C’mon, baby, give me a little kiss on the cheek,” Floyd said.
“You’re disgusting. Fuck off!” the girl said.
“Hard to get, eh? C’mon, let me buy you a Happy Meal.”
The girls dodged a bus and hurried across the street. Floyd kept walking. Union Square. Gramercy. He didn’t know where he was going. But he was in a hurry to get there. He bumped and spun people around. He laughed in their faces. Someone threw a can of Coca-Cola at him. It landed at his feet. The Coke spread out on the pavement in front of him. He headed west and into Hell’s Kitchen. He’d made tremendous progress. It wasn’t even nine a.m.
He walked into a candy store and bought a pack of Newport 100s. He’d never smoked in his life. No one in his family did. He was taken aback by their price—almost as much as an entire meal. The clerk had the television going. There were news crews at the murder site on Staten Island. Neighbors he’d recognized stood behind police tape. Even in a borough where crime had recently skyrocketed, the police commissioner and politicians expressed “profound shock.” Floyd let out a belly laugh. “They probably deserved it,” he said. The clerk said nothing.
He lit the cigarette. He’d only bought that brand because he liked the green box color. And they were 100s, so he figured he was getting a bargain. He took his first pull and enjoyed its minty taste. He coughed a little. And then a lot. He got a head rush. He spit into the street. Then he took another pull. He got used to it quickly.
Deeper into Hell’s Kitchen, he found a bodega where guys drank beer at a counter. He joined them. The first two Budweiser tallboys went down like water. The other guys spoke in rapid-fire Spanish. Floyd kept his knapsack on. He pulled another beer from the refrigerator. He handed the clerk the money. The other guys’ conversation grew more animated. Then they turned on a radio. The music was loud.
“Can’t a guy drink in peace without hearing this ROTTEN GARBAGE?” he shouted.
They ignored him. One guy danced with himself, placing one hand over his solar plexus and the other extended in the air. Floyd walked around them and behind the counter. He pulled out his penis and urinated on the radio. But it continued playing. The clerk barked at him in Spanish. Then he pushed him against a far wall, Floyd’s penis still exposed. Floyd laughed. The other guys circled him. Floyd put his head down and punched in every direction. He took a few shots to the head. But he’d also landed several of his own. He managed to get outside of the store. The guys didn’t bother following him. They treated it as a homeless-person event: give him a smack and hope he stays away.
Floyd’s eye swelled. He zipped up his pants. He continued northward. He’d lost his watch in the scuffle. Bars wouldn’t be opened yet. At least not legal ones. He passed by overflowing trash cans. Homeless guys sprawled on the street. Beat cops walked in twos. Tons of tourists. A kid tried to sell candy, claiming it was to support his football team. Hip hop aspirants hawked their homemade CDs.
Passing the Port Authority Bus Terminal, he glanced down at the lights of Times Square. He hadn’t been there in thirty years, since a school trip to see a play. He didn’t like thinking about his childhood. His nickname, Jellyfish, still bothered him. He lit another cigarette. No more coughing. His back drenched with sweat from the knapsack; his feet rubbed raw. A guy in filthy long shorts and tank-top approached him.
“Yo, son, you spare a dollar?”
“Fuck you!” Floyd snapped back.
The guy’s head retracted in shock.
“Yo, who you talkin’ to?”
Floyd kept walking, not altering his pace. He felt a pull on his shoulder. Floyd turned and immediately threw a punch. It connected with the guy’s jaw, delivering him to the ground. “What do you think of that? Turns out I could throw a punch.” he shouted. “Wish I would’ve known that in the fifth grade!”
Passersby gave the knocked-out guy a second look, but kept walking. So did Floyd. His hand throbbed. His eye was closing from the earlier fight. His appetite returned. He reached Columbus Circle, near Central Park. He shifted east, turning back north at Fifth Avenue. At a small grocery store, he bought a six-pack of Heineken. It couldn’t have been noon yet. But the sale went through. Customers were talking about what had happened on Staten Island, the otherwise forgotten borough. He didn’t bother with the formality of a brown bag. He slurped one down in front of the store.
Pushing northward up Fifth, he passed nannies with strollers, kids in school uniforms, men and women in sunglasses and baseball hats. And dogs—lots and lots of small dogs. Floyd didn’t necessarily have a problem with dogs. It was their owners. He seethed at their selfishness. By his third beer, he was already at the edge of Central Park, at 110th Street. He worked his way west and into Harlem. He’d never been this far north before. He stood out. People stared. He smiled and sipped from another beer.
He walked on, now at 125th street—Harlem’s main artery. The Heinekens had calmed his appetite for awhile. But now he was famished. He cracked another beer on the corner. He threw it down fast. It came back up and he vomited in the gutter. If he hadn’t been a spectacle earlier, he certainly was now. He spit again and again. Then he finished the beer.
He looked like a victim: Swollen eye and hand, scruffy face, vomit on his chin, and beer still in his hand. And in the middle of a weekday, no less. Some teenagers in baggy pants, long t-shirts, and baseball caps circled, sizing him up. His days of victimhood were over, however. Without hesitation, he stepped to the biggest of the bunch: “What the fuck are you looking at?”
The kid threw his head back, laughing. Then he spit through his two front teeth in a long stream. It landed on Floyd’s chest before he could pivot. The other kids took up positions behind him. Floyd slid off his knapsack and kept his hands on its loops and swung it three-hundred-sixty degrees. The heavy sack connected with all their faces, delivering them to the ground. The bigger kid got to his knees, his face bloodied. Floyd pulled the kid’s face to his knee with everything he had, and the kid fell back to the sidewalk.
Floyd, winded, looked around. A shopkeeper stood in his doorway clapping. “Someone should’ve done that years ago. Lord knows their parents don’t! C’mon in. You want a soda or something?”
Floyd waved him off and continued walking. Now his knee swelled. He made it to 130th street and 140th. Gangs of guys standing on street corners stared. They probably thought he was a cop—or looking for drugs. By the 150s, it felt like a barren wasteland. Burned-out apartment buildings. Abandoned cars. Weeded-over lots. Stray dogs. A store here and there, but it was otherwise deserted. It was hard to believe he was still in Manhattan, the capital of the world, he thought. It was what he imagined Detroit might look like.
By the 160s, there were more people on the street, mostly Latinos. By the 180s his feet were so raw and his knee so swollen that his pace slowed considerably. His eye was nearly shuttered. His hand throbbed. By the 190s, it was as if he’d stepped into another world. A bustling city that was at once the Caribbean but with an outer borough feel. Women were full-bodied, their breasts bursting out of tight shirts; their hips rounded. Their black hair matched their eyes. Floyd’s head spun. He made direct eye contact as he walked.
It must’ve been two p.m. or so. He stepped into a Dominican restaurant. All eyes were on him, the beat-up white guy. Meringue played. A few guys ate lunch. There were pictures of the beaches of the Dominican Republic on the wall. One said “BOCA CHICA.” There were paintings of a jungle and of a baseball player that Floyd didn’t recognize. Then again, he wouldn’t have recognized any sports players since he’d never been a fan.
He took a table near the window so he could still see the girls strutting by. There were two middle-aged women sitting behind him. A young girl, her hair in a bun, handed him a menu. She gawked at his swollen face without comment. He pointed at the women and said, “Whatever they’re drinking.” He skimmed the Spanish menu and then just asked, “Do you got steak? Cook it medium rare.”
The girl hurried off to another table. Floyd turned to the women behind him, an act he never would’ve considered just yesterday. “Nice day, isn’t it? You mind if I join you?”
They looked at each other. They were at least ten years older than Floyd. He creaked to his feet, aches shooting everywhere. Before they could respond, he’d already sat down. “Hope I don’t confuse the girl,” he said.
“She’ll be OK,” one of the women said in a heavy accent. She had piercing black eyes, full lips, and her hair was thick and wavy. Floyd glanced at her cleavage. The other woman could’ve been her sister, or maybe cousin, so close in appearance were they. She sipped from her drink. “Looks like you’ve had a rough day. You get mugged or something?”
Floyd laughed and made eye contact. “I had my first fight today!” he announced. “After thirty-five years living in New York City, I managed to get into my first fight. And my second, third, and fourth fights! I think I’m holding up pretty well, don’t you think?”
The other woman spoke, also in a thick accent. Her voice was higher than the other’s. “I don’t know. You look like someone kicked the shit out of you. Maybe you should see a doctor or something. If you were my son, you’d be in the ER right now.”
“Are you girls from around here? What’s this neighborhood called? I’ve never been up here before.”
“Washington Heights. We live nearby,” the first woman said. “Are you a tourist?”
The waitress appeared with a can of Presidente beer, a can of tomato juice, and a glass. Floyd just looked at her. “What’s the tomato juice for?”
The woman shed some light. “We mix beer and tomato juice to fight hangovers. That’s what we’re drinking now. Rough night last night.” Then she spoke in rapid-fire Spanish to the waitress and she disappeared.
Floyd mixed his drink. He was surprised at how well the combination worked. He had a lot to learn. “If you call being from Staten Island a tourist. Then yeah, I’m a tourist all right,” he said.
“Staten Island? Do you live near where that massacre happened this morning?” the woman with the higher voice asked.
“I think it was my neighbors. I don’t really know. If it was them, they deserved it, whatever happened. Real pieces of shit, those guys.”
“Maybe. But to die like that is awful,” the other woman said.
“They were bullies, the bunch of ‘em. They sold drugs to kids. Fuck ‘em!”
Floyd raised his glass in a toast.
“I’m not toasting a murder.” The women looked at each other in a way women do when they’re tired of a guy’s overtures.
Floyd laughed. “I understand! Let’s toast to my first fight then, OK?”
They clanked their glasses. “Who gets into so many fights in one day? You’re not a bully, are you?” one woman asked sarcastically. One look at Floyd, it was immediately clear him bullying anyone was absurd.
“I’m no bully, believe me. Up until this morning, I haven’t hurt so much as a cockroach. I’ve been on the receiving end my whole life—eating people’s shit day in and day out,” he explained. He guzzled down his beer tomato juice. “You wanna do a shot?”
“No, no more shots this week,” the woman said.
“That’s fine. But I’m doing a shot.” He called the waitress over. Then he stared at the women’s cleavage. “I’m just making up for lost time. I haven’t done anything with myself. I’ve been caring for my mother. I don’t do anything except watch television and work. Well, I got laid off recently. And my mom, my mom passed away just last week.”
“Oh dios mio!” the woman said. “Well, don’t try and make up for it all in one day. You’ll kill yourself.”
His skirt steak arrived. It was covered in some green sauce that reminded him of relish you’d put on hot dogs. A shot of Tequila and another round of beer and tomato juice came soon after.
“Maybe you should ask for a raw steak for that eye,” the woman said.
“It’ll be all right.” Floyd engulfed the steak, barely chewing. He threw back the shot, his first taste of Tequila. He nearly spit it out, but managed to keep it down. “Whoa, fuck!” he shouted. Everyone stared. The women laughed and drank from their beer tomato juice concoction.
“You know, I’m just sick and tired of holding back. I’ve never had a girlfriend in my life” he said. “I just wanna stick my dick in something.”
The women didn’t seem too distressed by his statement. Floyd was feeling buzzed again.
“You could stick your dick in me,” the woman said.
Floyd felt a lump in his throat. “Are you busy this afternoon?”
The other woman said, “We weren’t planning on working today. But if the price is right.”
“How about a round of shots. That first one made me numb.”
Another round came. Floyd finished up his rice and beans. They walked outside, the streets bustling more than earlier. He was sandwiched between the women. He hadn’t realized how tall they were, nor that their skirts barely covered their asses. It was noisy from people shouting, music blaring, car horns, and an occasional police siren. Floyd was bleary eyed and content.
They got to an apartment building. Some teenagers were smoking pot in the dark lobby. They took one look at Floyd and awakened from a stupor. Despite his buzz, Floyd was still ready. It was that kind of a day. A day of firsts.
They tramped up four flights. A dog barked behind one door. Someone was having a one-sided shouting match, probably on the phone, behind another. Music boomed through several others as they walked down the hall. His arms around the women, he squeezed their soft breasts. One of the women kissed him on the cheek.
Once inside their apartment, he dropped his knapsack down, followed by his jacket, and then button-down plaid shirt. His chest was bony with a few sprouts of hair. He had a small belly; his shoulders sloped.
“He’s right into business,” one of the women said. “In that case, you pay us five hundred and then you do what you want. But only an hour. We need to sleep.”
Their apartment was decorated much like the restaurant: Pictures of the Dominican Republic, along with pictures of Jesus Christ. A large cross hung on the wall.
He pulled out his wallet. It bulged with bills. The women paid close attention. He peeled off ten fifty-dollar bills and placed them on a coffee table. His penis stiffened. Their perfume was strong, but he liked it. They stepped back from him as if to begin a striptease. He undid his belt buckle and began on his zipper. “Two at a time, another first,” he said.
Then one of the women called out, “Roberto, venga! Ven!” Floyd swung his head around. A guy in a tank-top emerged from a backroom. Without hesitation, he ran to Floyd. The women stepped far back, toward an eat-in-kitchen. After a moment’s shock, Floyd collected himself. He balled both fists, put his head down, and swung, and swung again. The guy shouted something in Spanish, managed to take several of Floyd’s blows, and pushed him to the ground. With one hand, Floyd covered his face; with the other, he pulled a switchblade from his back pocket. When the guy got closer, Floyd stuck the knife into his stomach again and again. Blood poured from him, but he still bludgeoned Floyd’s face and neck. Floyd stabbed him again. The guy rolled over and crashed to the wood floor.
The women ran into the kitchen, fumbling for a weapon. They screamed in Spanish. Floyd got to his feet, his head zinging; the guy’s blood had smeared against his bare chest and stomach. He was a mess. He snapped open his knapsack and retrieved an aerosol can and then a lighter from his pocket. He rushed toward the women like a bull. When he got to within a few feet, he sprayed the aerosol into the lighter’s flame, producing a long, wide flame. Their hair torched first, and then their faces.