I sat at my usual chair in the corner, beneath one of the lamps. Their incandescent bulbs lit the polished wood planks of the walls with a soft glow. The brightest light was focused on the stage where the house band played a slow waltz. I was glad that the room held a multitude of people chatting merrily, because Jo didn't know how to keep her voice down. Better to have our conversation lost amidst the din than for people to hear her say something insensitive.
I heard a thumping from the stairs, and Jo appeared in the doorway, somewhat out of breath. “What place is so important that you had to make me walk up five stories?” she said.
“Jo!” I smiled. “Come sit down and have a drink. What do you want, a coke? Ginger Ale? Something stronger?”
“What do you – I’m seventeen, for heaven’s sake! So are you, come to think of it. How do you get away with drinking booze?”
“Well,” I said, glancing at the high windows, “This place isn’t exactly licensed for alcohol. Come to think of it, it isn’t exactly known to the people in charge of such things, so you might want to keep your mouth shut about it if you want this state to keep having money for highways. There are plenty of people my age and a bit older who come in here seeking solace in a bottle, and Miss Mayberry never refuses them as long as they have some coin for their drink. Commiserating with people in the same situation is cheaper than actual therapy, and it gets them through the week. Most of them don't order alcohol anyway. They're here to relax and escape.”
Jo sat down. “So this is a place I don’t know about, eh? That’s new. Then again, it probably wouldn’t be in the books that my master gives me. Looks like it’s time for you to tell me something new, instead of the other way around. Tell me – what’s up with this place?”
“Place? You care a lot about places and how they build people. But let me tell you about these people, and how they built this place.” I pointed to a table near the bar, where a girl my age sat with some older women. “The lass there is named Maya. Notice her long, shiny, wavy black hair, like it’s straight out of a shampoo commercial? Watch her for a few minutes.”
It only took about thirty seconds for her to reach into her hair and pull out something. From this distance, it was hard to tell what it was, but it shone gold in the lamplight.
She gave it to one of the women sitting with her.
“Where did the gold thing come from?” said Jo. “Does she keep objects in her hair?”
“She finds them there,” I said. “No idea where they come from. It’s not often she finds something shiny like that – usually it’s junk, or sticky garbage. She’s caught enough shiny stuff to make her fortune, if she can figure out how to fence it, but she doesn’t know how, and she has to wash her hair every afternoon to get rid of the horrible smell.”
“Yikes,” said Jo. “What about the older women with her?”
“Take a look at the shorter one. What do you notice about her?”
“She’s got her hair in a long blond braid,” said Jo, “and she’s wearing a blue track suit and – sunglasses? At night?”
“That’s Yuki”, I said. “She was born without eyes.”
“Oh!” said Jo. “What a tragedy! How does she get around? Are the sunglasses to signal that she’s blind?”
“No, they’re to help her see. She can only see while wearing sunglasses. She’s fine by day, but by night she has Maya and Corinne lead her to this place. Don’t ever try to knock her sunglasses off. Maya will probably kill you.”
“The woman sitting next to her. Her daughter was born with midnight-black hollows in place of eyes. The girl can see fine, but all the kids in preschool are scared of her, and she’s too high-spirited to wear sunglasses.” I saw a tiny blond head peek over Corinne’s shoulder, and stare straight at me. “Corinne doesn’t come here without her daughter. Neither does Morgan.” I pointed to a figure sitting out of the light of the lamps, at a two-person table. “Morgan’s daughter needs to be either here or in some room without high flat surfaces, because she can climb anything when her parents aren’t looking. Trouble is, she can’t get down. Bit of a handful in carpet stores and supermarkets, let me tell you. And then there’s Mile’s baby boy, who he’s afraid to let go of.” I gestured to a seat near the stage, where a tall dark man bounced a little bundle of joy on his knee. “The kid keeps crawling right out of the universe and back into it. He’s never gone for more than a second. Every time this happens, he comes back screaming and crying. Miles has asked me to look into it. I’m not sure how to do that without following the kid to wherever he goes.” I took a swig from my bottle. “I can’t imagine I’d like what I find there. Want to come with me and see what happens?”
Jo shook her head. “If the kid is going where I think he’s going, only a Shaman will be helpful there. You’re on your own for that one. Pray continue.”
“See that man dining on oysters?” I pointed to a short, fat, bearded, bespectacled man at a table near us. “That’s Hari. He finds oysters in whatever body of water he steps into. It’s mighty convenient when he goes camping in the Adirondacks.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“It’s rather less convenient when he has to scoop them out of the bathtub.” I looked over at Hari, who raised his glass to me. “Not that he seems to get sick of eating oysters. I know I would be after a while. Just like I’d be sick of the embrace of trees, but Laquisha over there isn’t yet, much to her credit.” I gestured to a girl of dark complexion who was standing near the stage. “Whenever she's feeling scared, or distressed, or even nervous, the nearest tree will reach down and scoop her up into a cage woven of branches. When she was an infant, the trees were constantly snatching her from her father’s arms, and it was a bitch to make them let her go. Now she can tell them to let her down, but she hasn’t figured out how to prevent them from grabbing her. Maybe you can talk to her later.”
“There’s a few books I’ve read about dealing with trees, but this sounds more like a Shaman problem. Like, asking the tress to knock it off, or something. They never listen to me.”
“Great!” I said. “Another problem you leave all to me. When are you going to make yourself useful?”
“Keep talking,” said Jo.
“Right. I’m running out of stories I’m permitted to tell. There’s Herbert, the old guy playing Gutbucket in the band. His feet stick wherever he goes, the way your feet stick to a floor someone spilled juice all over. It makes travel by foot less efficient. The old lady playing the Jaw Harp remembers things she knows she’s never experienced, because they all happened a hundred or more years ago. She’s afraid no historian will actually listen to her. The bartender has a butt that can charm anyone in the world, man or woman. His husband is the one person who seems to be able to resist. Bill the Janitor keeps seeing people driving around town with the girl he loves, even when she’s right beside him. And there’s that lady in the green dress.” I nodded to a table on the other side of the room, where a young black woman had her head in her arms on the table. A bottle rested in front of her. “That’s Aya. She’s in a bit of distress.”
“I noticed,” said Jo. “Did someone walk out on her?”
“Oh, wonderful!” said Jo. “Is she married?"
"Yeah. To Monique DeLancey."
"Oh. So who's the actual father?"
"As far as either of them knows, nobody. Unless Aya was skipping her lunch breaks to shtupp some dude, she had no opportunity to get pregnant, and yet, here she is, one missed period and plenty of mornings spent vomiting."
“And Aya wasn’t visited by any archangels recently?”
“Not a one. This is entirely unannounced and unforeseen.”
“And the bottle in front of her means she doesn’t want to keep the baby?”
“Only if she opens it. She hasn’t touched it yet. How could she? How could she not? She’s 24 years old and doesn’t have enough money to pay for prenatal care, let alone hospital costs, infant care, et cetera. And yet, how do you abort a literal miracle child? Of all the people in this room that I’m allowed to tell you about, Aya’s the one who’s been hit hardest by Weird. Everyone else here can figure out how to work around their problems, or leave them for another year, but for Aya the clock is ticking.”
“So this place is where all the people hit by Weird come to drink, is that it? How did that happen?”
“Who knows how any bar gains a niche set of patrons? Maybe it started as a drinking club in someone’s loft and grew from there. I suppose I can ask this building what happened, but if the bar moved from another location, that won’t be much help. Suffice it to say that these poor, confused people built their gathering place, and not the other way around. A city happens from the ground up, after all.”
“True…that’s where the magic comes from as well. But this Weirdness is hard to account here. Maybe it’s the result of having too much magic in one place? I don’t know.” She scooted her chair back and rose, eyes fixed on Aya. “I’m going to go and make a few spell suggestions to that poor woman. I suggest you get out of here, in case my interference in a highly personal matter backfires. I’ll catch up.”
The street air tasted like broken promises and false hope. Normal for this part of The Bronx, I supposed, only, the air also held the acid taste of distant doom approaching. I'd noticed it on the edge of Queens, and in Newark. It couldn't have been a matter of people being swept away for upscale housing -- that was the smell of burnt clothing. This was much more sharp.
Jo told me that Coyote snuck around on the borders of the Bronx and Queens. That was where most of the people hit by Weird lived. Probably not a coincidence.
But, that was a problem for another day. Jo wanted to take me to Right New York tomorrow.
I strolled up Williamsbridge to Morris park Avenue. There was a subway station somewhere along this road. That was the disadvantage of Fast Walking: once you got tired, you realized that you'd neglected to remember where the trains ran. Spider-man never had to deal with running out of web fluid and having to take the subway, did he? And the Fantastic Four never ran out of gas for their precious Fantasticar. And Thor didn't have to keep throwing his hammer every time its momentum ran out. How convenient it would be to be a superhero and have the world bend to your will! But the irresponsibility of mighty power was out of my reach. I, a weakling plebian, had to take the subway.
What a way to stay humble.