Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

On the Run in Park Slope

On the Run in Park Slope

Jay Firestone

Everything started a couple of months ago, with me trying to open up a can of tuna. I had this whole plan that I was going to make myself a couple of my favorite sandwiches—tuna with sliced cucumbers, and pepper jack cheese melted into the bread—and on the day it went down, I left school at two, and got back to Park Slope by three, lugging the groceries home in the rain.

When I opened my apartment door, my cat, which always creeps real hard on the other side of the door then scurries out of the way as I push it open, was perched on the dining room chair. She looked at me with her dead marble eye, gave a few guttural hiccups that sounded like a toilet being plunged, and barfed a waterfall of vomit on the floor. This was strange; I thought buying her Iams instead of the knockoff Yams had normalized her eating habits.

By the time I cleaned up her mess, my hunger was in the midst of passing the way it always does around noon of Yom Kippur (actually, I haven’t fasted in years, but don’t tell my rabbi), and I was starting to feel a bit woozy. While opening the first can of tuna, I sliced my finger, which I didn’t realize until I saw blood dripping into the tuna. I set the can on the side of the sink, took ice from the freezer to rub on my cut, and turned back, knocking the tuna onto, where it splat on the floor. The pinkish tuna with little streaks of blood running through it resembled an anatomical part of the female body at a certain time of the month that I won’t mention so as to save you from picturing it.

After cleaning the floor, clotting the cut, and making the sandwiches on the George Foreman Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine (which was a general failure), I opened my laptop to do some Construction work. And what was the first document I saw? Notes from a conversation with my mom from the night before, when I’d called her to get some help remembering what had happened the summer of my childhood, when she spilled the tuna noodle casserole, I gashed my head, bees stung my sisters, and my dad told me that Jonathan Bobbins was something I’d understand when I was older.

“I spent a long time hoping nothing like would ever happen to you again,” she told me over the phone.

Well, it happened that very next day. Eerie coincidence? Cosmic fate? Haunting sign? Why did these two tuna-related incidents happen in such close proximity to one another? Because when you are dealing with Bobbins, forces are at work.

But I don’t believe that. I may have Slavic genes, but I’m not some superstitious Russian like Masha, with her whole “Scorpio this, Sagittarius that, the planets are in alignment, my body is on fire!” deal. I don’t believe in RBCs (Random Bobbins Coincidences) any more than I believe we can interview him, because, simply put, we can’t interview him. There is absolutely no conceivable reason that the most famous writer in New York City would want anything to do with a start-up literary magazine with no clout and no readership. Bobbins is a grump and a grouch, but mainly he’s a prick. If one of us approached him on the street with a proposal, he would pantomime deafness.

So why do I care about our mission? Why did I call my mom to ask about the tuna noodle casserole incident? Why did I search my parents’ house for my old “Mimes and Mystics” notebook? Why did I start re-reading The Lilac? Just because I’m privy to the fawning, exclamatory, overly verbose prose of yesteryear’s Russians (god bless Count Tolstoy and that gambling anti-Semite Dostoevsky, wherever his beard and bag eyes are rotting away) doesn’t mean I like lugging around a book that outweighs a stack of newspapers (and I’ll never get a Kindle). Surely I didn’t do these things because . . . because . . .

I don’t want to admit it, but if I don’t want to become any more delusional than I already am, I have to tell the truth: I love Bobbins. I fucking love him.

That wasn’t so bad.

But now let’s be clear: I hate his stories. I always have, and I always will. I hate his overly simplified plots. I hate the way he switches between styles, writing in high 19th century prose as often as he writes in the short, choppy, direct minimalist style of Carver or even the Roddy Doyle types. I hate how not a single short story in The Collected Short Stories of Jonathan Bobbins is between 1,250 and 9,000 words. I hate how on all his book jackets there is his photo and then, underneath it, an empty box for another photo. I hate how his Guinness World Record for World’s Longest Published Sentence doubles as his world record for Least Amount of Sentences In a Book, 1993’s 372-page, one sentence Done and Undone (an official-unofficial record, given that Guinness won’t recognize it). It’s entitlement, it’s arrogance, it’s obscenity.

But here’s the thing. With Bobbins it’s not about the writing. It’s about the man behind the writing. That’s a cheeseball fucking line, but how else to describe a guy who wrote his first novel with an uncaged snake living in his apartment. The guy wears red suspenders and rolls his own cherry red cigarillos. He despises fallen leaves, very cold water, and people being physically near him. He’s never heard of a highlighter, and he won’t hold anything in his hands.

And yeah, these might be Internet rumors, but they don’t change the fact that this guy, the most clueless, prestigious, idiosyncratic, famous author perhaps in the world, lives in my neighborhood. That he is existing—eating, breathing, blinking, drinking, sleeping, and shitting—blocks from me. And now I’m not supposed to care about him because I can’t make it through another of his contrived set pieces about a family trapped for 72 hours in a Missouri barn?

So here’s the reason I started camping out at Ozzie’s with The Lilac: I can feel Bobbins. That’s where our plan was hatched, that’s where I’ll find him. He’s already made it into my dreams.

Let me tell you about this meeting we had. It was the most absurd thing I’ve ever been to. My heart was pounding, my mind was racing—I even showed up an hour early—all on the possibility that David got a lead. And what happens? Turns out that David, with his preposterous misinterpretation of the cryptic message and even dumber book club idea, was acting like a six-year-old. Bobbins isn’t coming to one of our meetings any more than Obama is.

Masha couldn’t muster the energy even flat-out rebuke David, though who knows what she was really thinking, if she was thinking at all (there is no way blood can flow to your brain if you’re wearing jeans as tight as hers), and Dom was basically comatose. The entire thing was sham, and I had no business being there.

You know, I actually saw David putting up those book club flyers. It was a beautiful afternoon in Park Slope, but since Ozzie’s had already closed, I was hanging out in the dim cheap sushi place across the street, taking notes on The Lilac, when I looked up and saw Dave taping a piece of paper to a telephone pole with Mathilde at his side. It’s a shame, it really is—I’ve always liked her, think she has a good lawyerly, business-lady head on her shoulders, and I’m sure she’s just wrapped up in David’s little Bobbins fantasy world. I ducked and they never saw me.

It’s this kind of stuff that makes me question why we devote so much time to the magazine. What’s the point? Like, if Dom can’t be an active and reliable communicator, if Masha’s always going to have these sly faces like she’s hiding something, if David’s going to suggest we bait Bobbins with a book club, then maybe they should all move away and we should blow up the magazine. Radical, eh? Well, I am not immune to such thoughts; I’m human, after all. Even if they’re just fantastical projections, little bits of nonsense seeping into the id, would not Dom be better off eating kimchi in South Korea or rediscovering his Italian heritage in a Tuscany villa? Would not Masha have more fun burying her pompous head in the snow of Vassilynikov’s extremely cold Siberian winters (not that I wouldn’t visit the homeland of one of my favorite novels)? And shouldn’t David just run off to Paris avec Mathilde already? Then I would get my wish, then I would be the only one researching, studying, and pursuing . . . I would get Bobbins . . . it would make my career . . .

Bobbins . . .

But, alas, I have my responsibilities. It’s not in my character to back out of commitments, and so I won’t. I’m in the Bobbins quest until the mission is complete, and if that means feigning interest in some ridiculous book club, I’ll do it. I’ll do it, even if I have a better chance of catching a glimpse of Bobbins by . . . by . . . by hanging out at the ATM kiosks in the TD Bank on First Street? But why would this give me a better chance? Hmm, yes, why would it?

Just a few days ago, a Thursday, the first day of December, to be precise, I made my third trip to the ATMs at TD Bank. I’m not so stupid as to stake out Bobbins at an ATM kiosk, but I need a good vantage point, and that area is glass-enclosed, and it’s on a corner near Ozzie’s, with large pillars to hide behind and a steady stream of foot traffic to blend in and not seem suspicious.

It had been getting dark when I’d left work. Fucking winter. How depressing. But that day it didn’t feel like winter; the air was like spring, warm and humid, with mosquitoes still out.

When I got home I put on shorts and a T-shirt and jogged to the bank to take out fast cash. Then I jogged to the gym to spend an hour on the treadmill, ran back to the bank for a deposit (I still like paper checks), ran back to my apartment and then the laundromat to put a small load in the washer, and then back to the bank to check my balance (which is never as low as I suspect it will be, even though it’s always low). By this time it was night, and, as usual, I had no sign of Bobbins lurking around the neighborhood.

At the beginning of my transaction, I had that sensation of missing something. I glanced over my left shoulder and caught a blur of a figure walking up Fifth Avenue. It was a he, and he was dressed in jeans and a khaki jacket and wearing a dark hat. His bowed legs gave him a stilted motion, and he was moving at a rapid clip; I put two and two together and realized that he seemed to be hustling away from someone. Bobbins? I had to know.

On instinct, I recalled the Internet rumors. If Bobbins really did have an emotional allergy to fallen leaves, the sidewalk would determine if the guy could be him. And since the bizarre weather had been pushing seasons back, the branches of trees were still covered in leaves. Test one complete: could be Bobbins.

I took two steps toward the door, when I spun around. My transaction hadn’t finished, and I had to wait for the receipt. I would never leave cash in the machine dispenser, but this was a balance inquiry, meaning that I would only get a receipt, which I shouldn’t have cared about, except that I really wanted the receipt, not because I was in danger of overdrawing my account, but because I’m a bit obsessive about things like “evenness,” meaning that if I demanded the receipt, the machine needed to reciprocate, lest some sort of balance be thrown off. So I stood there, tapping my hands against the ATM, whispering, “Come on, come on,” but the receipt never came, and the screen was at its home screen. It appeared that the transaction had never started.

Now I was getting anxious. How had this happened? I knew. At the moment I’d pressed the BALANCE option, I’d glanced at the possibly Bobbins guy, and my finger had never made contact. This wasn’t entirely my fault; ever since TD Bank bought out Commerce Bank a few years ago, the quality of the ATM touch screens had diminished.

I yanked my wallet from my jeans, opened it, slid my card, pressed my PIN, and chose the correct option, all of which probably took six seconds but seemed excessively laborious. However, the moment I did this, I realized the stupidity of having to see my balance statement solely for the fact that that was what I’d intended to do, for coming to the ATM to take out the balance obscured that what I’d really intended to do was scope out the area in hopes of picking up a Bobbins clue. And in the irony of all ironies, I’d let my inanity for “evenness” and “balance” (okay, it’s true, I’m a little superstitious, but not in those silly phrenological and astrological Masha ways) ruin the fact that I had found that clue.

The receipt finally came and I ripped it from the dispenser. The balance was pretty much exactly as I’d expected. Now outside, I crumpled it into a little ball and tossed it in the trashcan, only to watch it bounce into the street. I was going to go after it (I don’t like to litter), but a big moving van was pulling up. And . . . where was that guy? On the other side of First Street, facing away from me, his hands attacking a street light pole.

“Bobbins!” I yelled. A few pedestrians glanced at me, and I became embarrassed. Why had I yelled? It was so unlike me. Oh, I knew why. Because it was Bobbins!

Except it wasn’t Bobbins. I’d known this all along, I realized right then, but now I had concrete evidence: the guy was holding something in his hands, something Bobbins would never do. A stack of papers.

“Hey,” I yelled again, “what are you doing? Those aren’t yours! My friend put those up!”

The guy was ripping down David’s book club flyers, and I, who hated the idea of the book club more than anyone, was defending the club, or at least the idea of it.

The guy took off—walking, not running. You would think that I would have run to catch him, but I’d been running so much already that I’d strained my Achilles’ Heel and with another season of ultramarathon training coming up, I didn’t want to really hurt it. Plus, I didn’t want to create a scene. So I started speed walking through kids going for after-school pizza, babysitters pushing double strollers, deliverymen with their bags, all while keeping an eye on him.

We went on like that for five minutes, over which time the adrenaline waned and I was really just curious to talk to him. I was also kind of afraid of him—what if he wanted to hurt me?

At Ninth Street, he turned left, and I hustled to the corner and made a left up the hill. But he was gone. I scanned all the businesses, all the people, but he was nowhere to be seen. Vanished! A subway car rumbled in the grates beneath my feet, and I wondered if he’d pulled a Wesley Snipes and gotten on it.

Halfway up the block, I saw a stack of white papers discarded on the ground like a fan. I picked them up and stared at them. Quite a day, I thought at one point.

When I caught my breath, I folded the flyers and looked around. Where was I? Standing in front of my grocery store. So I went in and bought some stuff for dinner—tuna sandwiches. And this time, they were delicious.