PALE ASHES OF BAYONNE, NEW JERSEY
By Chris Marchesano
The last casino I was booted from didn’t even bother asking about my father. No one seemed to notice the other rundown creature slinking beside me either, who held a betting slip that’d been exchanged for every cent of my tiny inheritance. When I asked the security officer to hold my father as I zipped my jacket, he coughed up a bit in his mouth. He had no desire to deal with — what did he call me, again? — okay, yes, a deluded creep. Just like all the others supposedly, with a rehearsed rant and a joke of a destiny. Everything would be belly-up by morning, he yelled at a safe distance — my destiny and delusions and high-flying buzz.
Afterwards, I bought the shambling man his vodka. He handed me the ticket, which I put with the others in my breast pocket.
“So this is like a revenge thing?”
“No,” I said.
“Sounds like Hamlet.” He shrugged, clutched his stomach briefly, then emptied the clear liquid into himself with no resistance.
“I don’t know that one. But my father played Macbeth.”
“You told me.”
“The best version of the play the Bayonne Community Theater ever seen. That’s fact. It was in the paper back then.”
“But it sounds like Hamlet. Like a revenge tale.”
“I don’t know.” I waved him off. “I can’t understand Shakespeare. So much dumb British talk, absolutely no explosions. I heard he just made up words.”
I could’ve easily slapped the drunk for the look on his face, but I needed him at the moment. “All I know,” I said, “is that my father made Macbeth come alive in New Jersey. Ask my mother. My guess — he was probably a better Macbeth than the old Jersey in England ever cranked out too. Cried at all the right moments. He even got naked one scene, weeping naked and giving a famous speech.”
“Very bold,” the man said in his crotchety way.
“I don’t think nudity is in the original play. He was just an understudy first. Can you believe that? The Bayonne Bugler called him a ‘man possessed,’ and ‘transcendent.’ That means goosebumps, y’know? He was special, and he should have a memorial. That’s my goal. One of those bronze heads on a platform.”
“A bust, you mean. Like Caesar. Hey, now that’s a revenge tale.”
“My father didn’t deserve to spend his whole life on Berth 52.”
“Place you work now?” We watched a moth batter the lamppost outside the liquor store.
“Not forever,” I said. “I’m going to finish what he started.”
“How is this not a revenge thing?”
I placed my hand on his boneless shoulder. “I’m going to be an actor. Just like him, but without the methadone obviously.”
“But you don’t even know Hamlet.”
“My father didn’t know Macbeth.”
“Right, something about satisfying probation requirements, community service…”
“I’m more of an action star anyway. Gym, six days a week. Four percent body fat. Perfect symmetry.”
I placed my father down and flexed both biceps to prove my point. He spit between his feet and nodded. “Talent is there, it’s just about getting noticed. I need to put eyes on me. But first, my father deserves—”
“Just put him on the mantle above the fireplace,” the man reached out to toe the urn before deciding against it.
I laughed and waited for him to join in. He didn’t. “You think Arnold Schwarzenegger or Vin Diesel will spend eternity on some shelf?”
“Fine. Who’s a big Shakespeare person?”
The drunk gave me a look. “You don’t have a fireplace, do you?”
“After I cash in these tickets, I’ll have plenty of money for a fireplace. And a personal trainer. And an acting coach. An agent.”
The man watched the moth bounce against the brightness, swaying slightly, his lips wet. His own strange calmness pulled me and as he shuffled away, I followed, down drowsy streets littered with scurrying things. It all felt a whole galaxy away from the glittering casinos still somehow above us.
I called after him and asked, “You want to go to the Superbowl tomorrow?”
“No.” He didn’t even turn around. “Plus, the game is 600 miles from New Jersey. It’s too late to hitch.”
“I have a car.”
I grabbed the man before he could disappear inside a crumbling tavern blinking neon signs. In the doorway, a woman carrying a city map of deep wrinkles on her face greeted the drunk as Ordell. They shared a cigarette and then some jab at me or my father’s expense.
“I have a plan,” I said, entering their shared umbrella of light beneath the metal awning. “I already promised you money, didn’t I? I’m not crazy.”
The drunk sniffled and grabbed the woman’s wrist when she pawed at my father as a nasty counterpoint.
“Easy, Sheila,” Ordell sighed. He dug into his pockets for poker chips, which set Sheila’s blistered cheeks gleefully twitching. “I skimmed them off a waitress’ tray during your scene. You don’t get a cut.”
His laugh was crunching gravel. “The one where the chef had to explain why he wouldn’t serve the dustbin a bone-in ribeye.”
“That’s my father you’re insulting.” I forced eye contact.
“Your pop is the inside of a vacuum cleaner.”
“Go on and laugh. But I didn’t get a chance to have a nice dinner with him. No goodbyes. I didn’t even know he died until the county called me to pick-up his ashes. He’d been sick so long, I missed that he was really sick.”
“Life’ll kill you,” Ordell said like a church preacher, cigarette dangling from his lips.
“What killed him was hiding. Hidden away in all the bad luck that made him seem like he was always dying. But he deserved better than what life gave him. I’m doing what I can to get him some posthumerous dignity.”
The drunk started to count the stars above us. He shushed me. I waited, my throat burning. I needed to talk. Mostly because I didn’t feel ashamed when I was in the middle of talking about my father. Sharing those fragments of his life I knew, I didn’t feel guilty or embarrassed of those large chunks of his life that I didn’t know on purpose. Moments I was only familiar with because other people whispered them. There were a lot of gaps in Jesus’ life too. I think I said this out loud because Ordell showed me all his top teeth in neither a smile or frown. So I said it again, and it’s true — it didn’t stop Jesus’ friends from hitchhiking around Rome and going to China and chatting him up to strangers. They knew he was special, even if most other people didn’t, even if they didn’t have the full story of his life. And some of those people got famous too. They became saints, which are like religious celebrities. They got painted and put into stained glass, which were like magazines in those days.
“All those idiots were martyred,” Ordell said. “Stoned, beheaded, Peter was crucified upside down.”
“But we’re still talking about them,” I said.
“Your father was a longshoreman. He’s not Jesus.”
“My dad was Macbeth, who was a king too,” I corrected him.
Inside the bar, Ordell brought highball glasses of vodka to his face with two trembling hands. I paid for his drinks and my ginger ale. The bartender made me keep my father by my feet. Vintage pornography played muted on the lone television, and for a long while, the bar was silent outside of Sheila’s mumbling about old smells and grooming habits.
“So, you bought your dead father Super Bowl tickets?” Ordell asked.
“I won tickets from ‘The Possum.’”
Ordell turned, “that your dealer?”
“New Jersey’s only golden oldie trip down memory lane,” I used the same baritone as the promo guy. “I call in every day for a chance to win a grand. Never got through once. When I called that morning and won, I didn’t even know my father was dead yet. You know what they call that?”
I snorted in agreement despite my confusion. “He’s up there pulling strings.”
“These prop bets are you seizing your destiny then,” Ordell said with certain tone. He tapped the lip of his glass for a refill and didn’t drink until I laid down a bill on the bartop.
“I’m not going to unload cargo ships forever.”
Ordell rubbed his face, mumbling, looking like he was searching back to some moment long ago when he didn’t have a permanent headache. He whispered, “ten thousand dollars spread out over seven casinos, all on a damn fifteen to one bet. Whether a streaker will interrupt the Superbowl…”
“It’s the only bet I know I’ll win.”
“Pay a stranger to place the bets. You’ll need someone to cash them out too. You’re an idiot but not as slow as I figured.” He smacked the bartop with a palm. “A streaker.”
“It’s me. I’m the streaker.”
“Yeah, no shit.”
“My first performance. That’s how I’m thinking of it. An homage — that’s French — in front of all those people. The lights and cameras. Eat your heart out Shakespeare, eh?”
He coughed bile while I smiled and kissed my fingers and transferred my love to the lid’s metal finial between my feet.
The plan was simple. One hundred million people would see me naked — sprinting across midfield in the exact cape my father wore on stage decades ago. It was a reddish color called scarlet and it still smelled like him. I would donate it once I got famous. I was lean and shaved with no tan lines. I was currently in a sweet spot between Anadrol cycles with perfect vascularity. My chest would be greased, just like Arnold’s final fight scene in Conan the Barbarian. This would serve two purposes: to accentuate the musculature of my pectorals and deltoids, as well as make it difficult to be wrestled down. After last summer’s mess at that karaoke bar in Wildwood, I had no fear of being tasered by police.
No one was going to catch me until I was ready to be caught. I would be arrested. The next morning, they would talk about me on sports radio. People would search for my name. They would forget the score of the game before they forgot my chase scene. Maybe, I’d be cast in action roles right away. Perhaps, I’d do stunt work first. That would be up to my agent. I had also trained the muscles in my face, prepared for my mug shot in the mirror. I perfected how to smile confidently, not showing an ounce of bad emotion. I would always be handsome and in control. Worst case, I’d start on a reality show.
We drove out that night, with Ordell snoring against the passenger window. I asked if he wanted to borrow my phone to call any family before leaving. He said he only wanted $15,000 to cash in the tickets. He didn’t thank me when I agreed. He only cried into his hands for a long time. I knew I only needed a few thousand for the bust and a nice stand and a donation to the Bayonne Community Theater to grease some palms.
Lights smeared against the darkness. Everything was quiet except for my head. My father was in there still — not with words or feelings or even memories. He was just there, like a railroad switchman, rerouting all thoughts back to him. I wish he’d stop. He was making me feel guilty and lousy. I hoped he’d stop when his face became permanent in shiny gold, when he would return to the theater and got the recognition he deserved.
By the end, he didn’t even know his name. He forgot my name too, even though it was his name. He remembered Raymond Duluth’s name though. Even after his ‘demons’ took his body and good looks and ate away his teeth and turned his hands so jittery that his seniority was stripped and he was kicked out of the cranes. Forced to work the crappy cruise ships with the handicapped and parolees. Even after he couldn’t remember being Macbeth; looking blankly at old clippings and photographs singing his praises; reading over a letter cheering his performance written by a Bayonne native named Frank Langella, an actor himself, who would later play Skeletor and Richard Nixon. Squinting, my father would say, “who’s this about?” And when his lungs went, and the facility in Poughkeepsie refused another clean-up attempt despite his good insurance, then he forgot everything but Raymond Duluth. And he said his name so much, I silenced every call from him for the last two years. He probably died whispering about Raymond Duluth. I know for a fact he was signing Raymond’s name for his own UPS packages at the end.
Awake and staring at me, Ordell asks, “who’s Raymond Duluth?”
And I tell him. Tell the story I heard at least.
That Raymond wasn’t even 20, just like my father. And that he shouldn’t have been standing there — even if he was still training and green. Just common sense. I don’t want to hear about how loud it gets down there. A blind man wouldn’t have stood where Raymond stood. I’ve been to that exact spot. It’s still stained brown. It’s faded but you can see it. It won’t wash away even using the power-washers. And I know the crate was thirty feet somewhere between my father and Raymond and filled with cosmetics and jewelry from France. It was supposed to go onto the back of a truck.
I know that when they finally got my father down from the crane, the blood from under the crate had dried and turned dirty brown. For some reason, the sight of it made my dad want to get naked. Just strip off his vest and helmet and pants and do God-knows-what. Probably jump off the docks because a lot of guys had to stop him from doing just that. He was screaming, but not saying many words.
The disability was bad for him. He had time to get arrested. I was a baby and taken away by my mother at that point. That was bad too, I imagine. But Shakespeare was good for him. After a few collars, instead of sitting in jail, a judge let my father work in the theater. Fix it up like construction work. That’s how he first learned about Macbeth. I was told he only auditioned in the hopes of sleeping with the lady playing Witch #3. I don’t know if he succeeded though.
He had so much talent, but he went back to the port when the union called. You always hear of actors going to places like London or Los Angeles. Why did he stay in Bayonne? He turned down more parts in plays in Hoboken and New Brunswick. Declined some fancy acting school in Midtown. If he wasn’t my father, I’d be furious with him. That’s the truth.
It’s a sin, an actual sin, to waste away on Berth 52 knowing he had all this talent just filling him up. He didn’t believe in himself. After Raymond, he wanted to hide. To disappear. But Raymond shouldn’t have been there. My father never got that fact. And life is as meaningless as only you can make it. My father settled on going from cranes to forklifts to carrying luggage off cruise ships like a nobody because his hands never got steady and eventually, he couldn’t even pass a piss test.
“There are places out there. Genade huizen.” Ordell said the words like a witch’s spell. I didn’t like him changing the subject. “That’s what they’re called in areas where I’m still considered a citizen through my own father’s bloodline.”
He motioned into the far darkness beyond the dashboard before I could ask a question. “Clean places where they allow creatures like your father to hide away. Don’t neglect them but don’t string them along neither. No good Samaritans allowed.” He rapped the window. “And no whatever the hell this nonsense roadshow is. You just need to money to get over there and disappear. Simple dignity, you understand?”
I didn’t understand.
Off the highway, we slept in our reclined seats. Morning turned everything an angry red. Wasn’t much to see when I woke. Flat, empty land that looked and smelled nothing like New Jersey. Ordell stood in a faraway field like a scarecrow, releasing steam into the sky. He was pissing like an animal, just out in the open. My father was tucked under his arm.
I charged. Sprinting and falling and pinwheeling my arms. He took off with his pants unbuttoned. I caught up with him at a small creek, where he was gasping and struggling with the lid. He held my father over the water as a warning.
“Talked to your father this morning,” Ordell shouted at a safe distance. He was sober and shivering and miserable. “Your old man says, ‘hands off my cape, muscle boy.”
“That’s not how my father spoke.
“I’ll be honest — he fancies this a real bad idea.”
“No,” I shook my head with hesitation. “If you could really talk with dead people, you’d be rich and famous.”
Ordell ignored me. Tiny gray specks were being swept up into the wind. I tried grabbing them. Ordell pivoted around me, out of reach, holding my father like a bullfighter’s cape. He retreated into the knee-deep water.
“He doesn’t want a Bayonne statue. Don’t want this clueless spectacle. He especially don’t desire to be dragged into the news cycle by some hangdog idiot who’s keen on becoming a celebrity through sheer stupidity.”
“Liar.” I pelted a mud pie that flew wide. “He’s the one I’m honoring here!”
He laughed in a cruel way that made my ribs pinch inwards and squeeze my heart. I realized why he was a drunk. It was an act of earthly goodwill. Being sober brought out a nastiness and born anger that wasn’t possible when he was drowning in vodka. “Maybe you do got your pop’s acting chops.”
“Stop, please, you’re losing him.”
“Exactly the point.” Ordell was high-stepping down the creek. His jeans were drooping towards his knees. There was something both eager and distressed in the way he moved, like a frantic dog just released from a crate. “Pop says, ‘me and my new lowdown buddy Ordell, we’ll visit a nice, clean facility across the pond to erase ourselves from memories everywhere.”
“What do you want?” I splashed into the creek, holding out the bettor’s slips like a peace offering.
“Not those tickets,” he shouted. “I changed my mind now. I realized you chose me for this exact reason. We just got to play out these roles.”
“Like a ritual. Or a script. It’s so obvious. Out of everyone in that casino to trust, you chose the guy with vomit on his socks. A damn near replica of your father. So, let’s do this. You yell. I forgive you. We grab a stiff drink.”
“No,” I said. I heard my voice crack. “I only chose you because you listened to me talk.”
“Let’s have a nice elegy right here in Iowa.”
“We aren’t in Iowa, you old bum,” I said with enough meanness for him to pause and look around confused. “My father never even been to where we are.”
“Indiana? No, hold on,” the hand holding my father was beginning to tremble. His voice was getting hoarse. “Wherever we are, it’s a perfect place to rise above the beasts. How about a few words? A prayer? Allow your old man a bit of dignity now, no? It wasn’t his fault, son. He, well, no, I — we both forgive you for being a dunce.”
“You’re ruining our shot.” I was suddenly aware of time, the minutes stacking up against me. My entire life was scheduled to begin three hundred miles west of here and now it was being threatened by a nobody, a hijacker, a delusional man with no destiny or upside. Of course, my father rerouted my thoughts to his little stage and his own lost opportunity. Gone is gone once it’s gone, I knew. I thought of Berth 52 and the cargo freighters that would dock there forever. I inched closer to the drunk. Over his shoulder, he was watching me sniffle with a curious look. He was mumbling about how Ordell translates into Angel of Mercy in some dead language. “Liar,” I shouted, and he didn’t bother correcting me.
He was losing steam. From behind him, I curled my wet hand into the urn. My father puffed into the morning and smudged my fingertips. The open urn slipped from our grip as Ordell spun around. It hit the water just as I punched him squarely in the face. The water clouded for just a moment, washing over the submerged drunk before the urn and my father slipped downstream.
Only Ordell remained underwater with blood leaking from his nose and his pants around his ankles, his greasy hair floating like seaweed. I felt a strange nothingness as I lost sight of the urn. Like the great loud silence in a church when no mass is going on. No anxiety about streaking, no worry about finding a talent agent. I told myself to run after my father, but some part of me wasn’t taking orders. I just stood there. My hands were shaking bad. It was the first time in a long time I wasn’t thinking 20 steps ahead like a chess whiz. A big blank.
I fished Ordell out of the river. He came out gasping and huffing like a newborn except he was ugly as sin and smelled. Light smudges of my father were still visible inside the folds of his ears. He didn’t seem to notice or care about his nudity. The pitiful ass. I stood him upright and got his pants back around his waist.
“Superbowl?” he asked, sniffling and wiping away blood.
The stream seemed to disappear at a tiny point right where it met the morning sky. “Where does this end up?”
“How long was I underwater for?” He was calm again. “I think a bunch of neurons in my brain exploded. The good ones I was saving for death.”
“Does this stream empty into an ocean, you think?”
He shrugged and gave me a look that could’ve passed as an apology. He muttered, “It’s nicer send-off than most people get.” I started back towards the car. I still had the bettor’s slips in my breast pocket. When I turned around, Ordell was hobbling behind, grinning for the first time and still leaking dark blood onto his shirt.
About the Author:
Chris Marchesano is an aspiring writer and attorney based out of Jersey City, New Jersey. He is a graduate of Rutgers University and Rutgers School of Law, currently working as assistant counsel for a law enforcement agency tasked with combating organized crime on the New York waterfront.