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Nathaniel Rich

Nathaniel Rich lives in New York City, where he is an editor at The Paris Review. He is the author of San Francisco Noir and The Mayor's Tongue is his[…]

“Living in this apartment, working in this job, he really believed he was free.”

Nathaniel Rich: “It was June when Eugene Brantani took the job at Erinson & Son Moving Company, and subleased an apartment in Innwood from a man on his crew named Alvaro [ph?]. Like many of the men who worked at Erinson U& Son, Alvaro had recently emigrated from the Dominican Republic. Unlike the others, however, Alvaro was from the Cibao Valley, a small rural region in the northern part of the country. Separated from the rest of the island by the Cordillera Septentrional Mountain Range, the isolated farming communities of the Cibao Valley had developed their own dialect. This dialect, Cibaeño, was virtually incomprehensible to natives of the other-speaking countries in the Caribbean. Cubans thought that it sounded excessively affricative like Catalan, Puerto Ricans found it soft and melodious like Portuguese. Even the other Dominicans on the moving crew were baffled by Alvaro’s speech. To Eugene, it sounded like Alvaro was speaking with a mouth full of porridge. Alvaro’s attempts to learn English were, despite his most strenuous efforts, pitiful; but he was able to make himself understood in other ways. Since words failed him, he communicated through vivid intonation, forceful hand gestures, and dynamic facial expressions made with contortions of his rubbery face, the muscles of which were flexible to an uncanny degree. An arched lip or a wiggled ear was a disposition in itself conveying meaning far more articulate than, say, one of Eugene’s father’s monosyllabic lectures. After several weeks it no longer mattered that Alvaro couldn’t speak a word of English. Eugene believed that he could understand him just fine. Alvaro’s flexibility was not limited to his facial muscles. Like Eugene, he looked too small to be a mover. He was lithe, almost boney, but his suppleness compensated for the lack of bulk in his back and upper arms. During a furniture-moving job his body would arch, twist, and buckle out double-jointed engaging each muscle to its greatest capacity. He could support a loveseat on the straining tendons of his neck, an ottoman on his bulging rib cage, even an armchair on his flexing toes if he walked on his heels. He was blessed with a jigsaw anatomy. Although Eugene often feared that his friend’s spine might rupture or his fingers snap back in compound fractures, Alvaro never suffered any serious injuries. After an especially arduous job, however, his whole body, and not just his arms or his back, throbbed madly. Each vertebra, rib and abdominal muscle, his pelvis, his quadriceps, his collar bone, even his jaw rallied together a ragged band of crippled assassing raising hammers, gouges and pliers to his frayed nerve-endings. Using a wild array of gestures, Alvaro explained to Eugene how he spent entire nights limping between a bath filled with ice cubes and a bed insulated by a carefully-choreographed patchwork of electric heating pads. He also mimed tears for the sadness he felt about this sorry state of affairs. But he was good at the work, and he needed the salary. He had to feed his family. When Alvaro showed his apartment to Eugene he apologized for his meager furnishings. He had scavenged everything he owned from moving jobs. The front door opened into a long living room occupied only by a broad player piano, an orange floor lamp; and stuffed into the space on the parquet floor behind the piano, a king-size mattress. A rough kitchen nook had been built into one corner delineated by a wooden counter and two stools. A doorway, minus door, led to the sole bedroom which ran parallel to the living room, and it was almost as long. This, Eugene realized, would be his room. It contained a second mattress, a single. A crumpled sheet was balled up on the floor next to it. Blushing Alvaro shook it open and laid it over the mattress. ‘I can make my own bed,’ said Eugene, ‘it’s really no problem.’ The sheet was spotted with discolorations like diseased flowers. Alvaro smoothed it apologetically. Eugene was about to repeat himself to make certain his friend understood when Alvaro let out a loud embarrassed chortle. Eugene took that to mean that they had reached an accord. As it turned out, Alvaro was rarely in the apartment. That was because he had another home down in Washington Heights, which is shared with his wife and their two young sons. He was there for most of the connubial hours-- breakfast, supper, and bedtime-- but would visit the Innwood apartment on off shifts during the day and on the weekend. He usually brought with him a nurse, a secretary, sometimes a physician’s aid, women from Saint Valentino, the hospital that regularly employed Erinson & Son to move machinery. On Sunday nights he brought home prostitutes. Eugene had never have seen one before, at least not up close, not within his own living space. They were less exotic at close range in the apartment’s murky orange light. They dressed cheaply but not as ornately as he might have guessed, though perhaps that was a reflection of Alvaro’s tastes. They looked a lot like the secretaries. Eugene usually knew when to expect Alvaro, so he was able to avoid any real unpleasantness. Even though there was no door to his room and the walls were dangerously thin, the king-size mattress was on the opposite side of the living room so the sounds never rose beyond muffled grunts and creaks. Eugene put on his headphones. It was only to block out any of the noises the girl might accidentally let escape. Eugene didn’t actually mind listening. In particularly moments he sometimes removed his headphones, but for the most part his modesty and his respect for Alvaro kept him from spying on his friend, at least until one bright full-moon night several months into Eugene’s stay. Alvaro had brought home Betty, a Filipino nurse, whom Eugene new from Saint Valentino. During the night shift in October when Eugene and Alvaro’s crew had been hauling in three new CAT scan machines, she had brought Eugene a paper cup full of instant hot chocolate. When the other movers protested, Betty told them to shut up. Then she cupped Eugene’s face in her soft latexed hands and winked at him. When the men had cat-called and cackled, Eugene was elated. Part of the goal of this period of self-imposed exile was to meet a girl, and this was the closest he had come yet. But he’d barely seen Betty since then. His habitual timidity prevented him from going out of his way to seek her out, and soon she seemed less desirable to him. In recent weeks, the other guys on his moving team told him that she had been hanging out in the hospital stairwells with Alvaro off shift. They arrived late that night whispering and giggling. Eugene stepped quietly to his doorway just as the couple fell to the mattress. He could see only the edge of a determinant body part-- a back or a shoulder and maybe knees-- protruding just slightly over the top of the piano. But the slanting moonlight projected a vivid silhouette on to the wall. It was horrible. It looked like a shadow puppet show of a chrysalis tearing through its cocoon, its wings trembling and straining to separate from its body. Eugene soon realized that he was watching Alvaro bound up in some kind of inhuman contortion. Betty’s round fleshy body was on the bottom, this was clear. She lay on her back, her hips raised slightly off the mattress. Alvaro, taut and spinally, was on top face-to-face with Betty, but he had arched his spine so dramatically that with his knees fully bent, the tip of his toes rested on the back of his head. He had curved himself backward into a loop. His forearms, planted on the mattress on either side of Betty’s head, bore his entire weight. Betty’s hips rose to accommodate him. The chrysalis quivered, almost lost balance and tightened once again. It looked painful. It looked like meditation. Betty started screaming. In ecstasy or terror, it wasn’t clear. Eugene tip-toed quickly back to his room. Sliding into his bed, he found the sheets still warm with his own body heat. He shivered and laughed with relief. Living in this apartment, working in this job, he really believed he was free.”


Recorded On: 3/17/08