Sunday Stories: “NJ Tpke Haiku”

Highway from above

NJ Tpke Haiku (An Excerpt from FLOP CITY)
by Crockett Doob

I got a call from Cora. Summer of 2017. She, let’s see–no. Sorry. In 2016, I’d said no to working on her brother’s next movie. I chose to stay in gray, cold New York City and not go to the Caribbean. One of my bosses in advertising, when I told her, was like, “Why not?” But Cora definitely did go, and she came back so stressed, she had a brain aneurysm. That was when she called me. 

She said it was discovered accidentally. She got bitten by a cat, was rushed to the hospital where she got an EpiPen shot because she was having an allergic reaction and couldn’t breathe. Then they did a CAT scan–because of a cat bite? No, it was an MRI. And that was when they discovered the brain aneurysm accidentally. 

Also, Cora had a new boyfriend, and I was to understand from Cora–and maybe her brother, too?–that this boyfriend was very cool. He did underwater things that I would never, probably, ever do. And he rode and fixed up motorcycles. 

I had been in love with Cora about ten years before. I’d known her and her brother, Gibby, since we were all babies. In 2007, when Gibby found out about the love affair, he was like, “I just hope it ends well.” It didn’t. My love was unrequited, first of all. And when I ended it with Cora, I was in blackout, so I didn’t know why she wasn’t speaking to me, until two weeks later, when she told me, and then we broke up again. 

Cora came back to New York for the surgery in the fall of 2017. I went up and saw her at her parents’ house. My parents and her parents lived in the same town. But I wasn’t seeing my parents since we’d gone up to Canada together, just the three of us on vacation, and my mom and I had gotten into a mini-fight which led to me, the next day, screaming in the streets of Toronto–though if I’d see anyone coming, I’d stop screaming; I was a madman, yes, but a considerate one–my head saying fun things like, I wish you’d killed yourself the first time, but you had to fuck it up. So, I was taking a breather from my family when coming up to see Cora.

She looked beautiful, as always. I mean she looked exactly the same. Except now she had this brain aneurysm. So I did something stupid that first night, and took her to see It, which I’d already seen. I say ‘stupid’ because I later took her on the Cyclone while she still had the aneurysm. Horror movies and rollercoasters are unwise activities for brain aneurysm people. But Cora loved It. So much so that she went home that night, bought the book online, and she’d later read it compulsively while recovering from the surgery. Which is an insane thing to do, when you think about it. But the main thing was I’d go up there a lot and we’d go to movies–always ones I’d seen already, to cut out the riffraff. But Cora was a tough critic. She didn’t like anything we saw, except It

One day, I thought, You know what would be a nice thing for Cora to do? Go on a drive to New Jersey with me to get drum hardware. I knew Cora was very bored, waiting for her surgery, while working on this giant monster thing for the movie, even though she was more or less fired. Or let’s say, burnt out. Anytime I’d call her, she’d say she wasn’t doing much of anything. Just watching movies at her parents’ place, and working on this monster, its flesh laid out beneath her like a giant quilt.

I guess I was speaking to my parents again, because I was cat-sitting for them while they went on another vacation. 

My schedule was erratic. I was doing video editing in Times Square. They’d hire me in fits and starts, with little-to-no-warning. Not a great lifestyle, but it paid well. 

Okay, so what happened that day was I didn’t have work. I had therapy in Brooklyn, scheduled for the morning. But I was all the way up in Westchester with my parents’ cats. What I should I have done, in retrospect, was call my therapist and do the session on the phone. I didn’t do that. I got in my parents’ Prius, and got myself stuck in morning rush hour traffic, and did the thing where I kept switching highways, thinking one would be better than the other–they were all bad–and soon enough, I became convinced I’d left the coffee pot plugged in. So the whole time in traffic, I imagined the cats on fire, the house burning to the ground. 

Therapy was, as you can imagine, unfocused. And expensive. Because I was late and couldn’t find parking, so I paid to put the car in a lot. Then more traffic on the way back. But the good news was the coffee pot was unplugged. The house was still standing. The cats were alive. I fed them. 

Then I called Cora. I asked her if, later in the day, she wanted to go on a drive to New Jersey to buy drum hardware. She said sure. The crazy part is, when I said New Jersey, I really did imagine us cruising down some country road with the windows down. Well, it wasn’t like that. Oh yes, also, my mom had asked me to get an oil change for the Prius. So I took care of that. But that meant, and I maybe didn’t realize this when I proposed the outing to Cora–or I was hoping the car would be out of the shop in time, and it wasn’t–that we had to take Cora’s pickup truck for the drive to Jersey. Still, she agreed. 

The guy with this drum hardware online, he hadn’t named a price. And wouldn’t. He just kept saying, “Come on out!” So we did. Cora came and scooped me up. She wanted to play music from this new device she had called an iPod. She didn’t have an iphone–she refused–but an iPod was okay. All her music was in alphabetical order, by song, which she seemed to think was endlessly funny. And I was fine with it, as long as she was happy. But then, she wasn’t happy, of course, because we were in bumper-to-bumper traffic in New Jersey. It was rush hour again. I guess it hadn’t occurred to me that rush hour happens twice a day. Then it started to rain. We were still on B in the song department–not F–when Cora realized she’d left something cooking on her stove. She was always cooking some weird concoction, usually for her dogs–she had so many dogs, and now they were all living with her parents–and she really had left the stove on, unlike my imagined coffee pot. She had to call three or four people, while we were sitting in traffic, in the rain, before she got a friend of hers to go in the backdoor and turn off the flames. Okay, so no animals were harmed yet. 

But I was feeling bad for dragging her into this, that I suggested we go see It again, because I knew it would make her happy. Even though I’d already seen it–or It–once, before I saw it with her. And it wasn’t that I didn’t love It, but a third time? But at least now she was excited. We pulled over and it was really raining and we invited a friend of ours, who, for what it’s worth, was… Okay. Let me slow down. 

Two things. This friend: let’s call him “Jack,” because he was living the life of Jack Torrance minus the family, meaning he was the caretaker of a decrepit estate and he lived in a little hut on the property. So Jack said he would go see It with us when we got back from Jersey. 

But meanwhile, the owner of the drum hardware who lived deep in Jersey was getting pissed at me, because I kept lying to him about how long it was going to take to get there; my GPS estimates were all coming up short, because those things don’t know shit about rush hour. I guess because the hardware guy was sending me angry emails, Cora told me to tell Jack the address of where we were going. “Just in case you never hear from us again, this is most likely where our bodies are buried,” I told Jack. Cora and I were pulled over beside the highway, so I could get cash, because you better believe this craigslist guy wasn’t going to take a check from me. 

An hour later, it was still raining and we still weren’t there. We’d pulled over to pee behind a little gas station and I thought this was just the kind of place Pennywise would pop out of. A miserable New Jersey rainy day, a depressing line of cars with their lights on and their windshield wipers going, and Cora and I pissing in the woods behind a small brick gas station. I could just picture Pennywise sticking his head out behind a tree, saying something snappy.  

The craigslist guy was brutal. He didn’t seem like he was going to murder us. But he could’ve. He was big. And we were alone with him in his basement, with all that metal. But instead, he was just all about the sales. He showed us his products and still refused to name a price. Which left me, with Cora watching, to try and negotiate with this jiu-jitsu drummer. “I’m really bad at this,” I said. And Cora told me that the guy said, ten minutes later, “Yeah, you are really bad at this.” Because I must have spent over two hundred dollars on shit I didn’t want. Mostly to make Cora feel like the day wasn’t a waste. I bought new cymbals, which I didn’t need, which sounded like shit. The new snare stand was too high. And the hi-hat stand was okay, except for the clamp part, which slipped. So the trip was a bust. And we were only halfway through!

On the way back, I said to Cora, “Which car do you want to take to the movies?” Because my parents’ Prius was still in the shop. And I didn’t want to ask her to take her pickup truck again. She naturally said Jack’s car. But here was the thing. 

Okay. So when I got sober in 2009, there was this guy who I got to know around town, who was, let’s say, weird. His name was Calvin. Calvin walked at a slant; he was super tall; and he was an asshole. I liked him. Another friend I made–years later, in Queens, who was a painter–he happened to move to the same town where my parents lived, and where Calvin lived. Then this painter and Calvin became friends. Okay? With me so far? So, that summer, in 2017, I’d heard from the painter that Calvin wasn’t doing well. He’d had a stroke and couldn’t see much. He was in a hospital and was going to be there for a long time. I still had Calvin’s number, so I started calling him. I called him a lot that summer and even though we weren’t running out of things to say, I started to read to him, too. These were nice phone calls. The only fly in the milk for Calvin was that he wanted to get out of the hospital. The irony was, when he did, he became an asshole again. And then worse! But we’ll get to that. During his time in the hospital, I visited him once and ‘broke him out’ to have lunch, and he was like a madman in my parents’ Prius. This tall old man with his face half-sunken, going on about wanting to sleep with all the nurses at the hospital, and screaming out the window like a teenager. I took him to the diner where he knew the owner. Calvin danced this wiggly dance with his cane. He was so happy to be free. But, like I said, when he really was free, he became miserable. Or at least, miserable to talk to. He got mean. And then, that fall, my painter friend told me, “Calvin has bed bugs.” Now, add to that, Jack was friends with Calvin, too. And Jack was, I knew, giving Calvin rides to the hospital, for check-ups. Including that morning! And Jack didn’t know what I knew. That Calvin had bed bugs! 

So, back to New Jersey. I said all this to Cora. But Cora being Cora and having almost a dozen dogs, who probably had fleas anyway, shrugged it off about the bed bugs. But I wasn’t shrugging! I’d spent over two hundred dollars on drum hardware I didn’t want, in an effort to cheer up Cora with a nice, scenic drive on the New Jersey Turnpike, at rush hour, in the rain–hey, at least neither of our houses burnt down–and now I was going to see a late showing of It for a third time in a car that had bed bugs. 

When we were almost back, I remembered the thing about EZ-Pass. How you couldn’t pay cash anymore, and how, if you didn’t have EZ-Pass, they’d zap your plates with cameras and mail a bill to your address. I said all this to Cora at the last minute and she was like, “I don’t have an address right now.” So we got off at the next exit and now we were in the Bronx. And that was when I got the email that I would, in fact, be needed at work tomorrow in Times Square, to edit some crap. But it was too late. I couldn’t flake on this plan. I felt too responsible. And the night turned out okay. For Cora and Jack, anyway. They were happy seeing It. 

But later, when telling my therapist about this day, I told her about what Foster had told me at the wedding. The ending of the book. I never knew about it before, because I stopped reading at around page 800. I got tired of all the balloon reveals. But Cora didn’t know about the ending. She wasn’t up to that part in the book yet. I didn’t say anything to her about it, but that was on my mind during the movie. This creepy secret. 

The next day, I made it to work. And I didn’t get bed bugs, until years later, when I definitely did get bed bugs. 

Now, after the cat-sitting was over, I went back to Queens, and started to play drums on the bridge. I’d bought a strong, metal cart–another craigslist purchase, but no story there–which could withstand incredible weight, like a bass drum filled to the brim with hardware and cymbals. But yeah, even a small drum set was an ordeal to lug two blocks and halfway down a bridge. I mean I did it. But I was a sweaty mess, and my bones hurt, before I even started to set up. 

I wanted to practice the drums in an effort to play with this band, Flop City, that I’d drank my way out of, years ago, in 2007. Around the same time as the Cora affair. I’d thought they, the band, hated me–and for good reason!–but when I went to their first show with a new drummer, Vince, the guitarist, smiled at me when he spotted me in the audience. It was a smile so simple, I instantly knew he hadn’t hated me for a decade straight. I had been carrying that on my own. Vince even dedicated a song to me. A song I could never play too well, but that probably wasn’t what he was saying.

Anyway, between sets, the first thing out of his mouth was, “Can you sub?” It felt like a comedy. Like after all these years and all the shit I put them through, the mess I made, he asks me to sub? Well, he probably needed someone. 

Okay, so why the bridge? Well, a few reasons. First, the Times Square job. To get there in the mornings and avoid the 7 train at rush hour, I started walking over the 39th Street bridge, which was near my apartment in Sunnyside. It was an odd bridge. It didn’t go over water. It crested the Long Island Railroad tracks. But at night, I realized once that no one was on this bridge but me, and I could scream. But then I thought, Not a lot of people go on this bridge in the daytime either. Not a lot of foot traffic, as us New Yorkers say. So what if, for no money at all, I could practice my drums there? As loud as I wanted? That was the vision.

And the vision was pretty good! Now that I was there and set up, I had a view of the sky and clouds and the skyscrapers being erected along Long Island City. It was hard, at first, to come up with drumbeats, without a band. The new hardware was bad but, as Stephen King would say, serviceable. And hey, I was able to play loud on this bridge–for free!–without bothering too many people. Well, it turned out the latter wasn’t true. One old lady with groceries told me, “You’re giving me a headache!” And there was this dreamy Irishman who I knew and he, I guess, rode by on his motorcyle because he later was like, “I saw you the other day.” He had big eyes when he said it. “You were so loud! Like I could hear you all the way on Queens Boulevard!” Well, shit. So I was annoying people. But I was happy. Or better put, if I was having a good day, I’d be able to just play the drums and lose myself in it. Not go into regret as I was prone to do whenever sitting down to play the drums. On bad days, what I’d do is get into my head about everyone who passed me on the bridge, what they were thinking of me. How they hated me. How, if I only played a certain kind of drumbeat for them, then maybe they’d like me. Even though I’d do things like think it was an old person walking towards me, out of the corner of my eye, and then it would be a teenager. And vice versa. I was trying to please ghosts in my head, essentially. I mean I got hoots and honks from cars and, one time, a team of construction workers came up from the train tracks below and–they didn’t beat me up!–one of them rapped and the rest of them cheered him on. But mostly, I was out there by myself. Me and my thoughts. And my drums. And on the good days, I wouldn’t listen to the thoughts and I could just play. 

Flop City released their new album with the new drummer and I listened to it, on repeat, while I was at work. I’d cry, thinking about, oh, let’s say, the breadth of life. How my life had become a lot bigger than Vince hating me. How I loved their new album. I was picturing the bridge where I played the drums, while in this windowless room in Times Square, while listening to their album, trying to hide that I was crying. And I was thinking about Cora, too–because she was okay. I had gotten a beside-himself-with-fear call from Gibby from the hospital, saying Cora survived the surgery. 

As I said, Cora spent her time recovering from brain surgery reading It, which is an insane thing to do. Then she got to the ending with the pre-teen sex scene. Now, I knew about this part only because of Foster. Foster was an old touring buddy and we used to scream at each other in the van all the time. But now we were at a mild-mannered wedding, wearing suits. He was single. I was single. So we talked about It, both the book and the new movie. And I hadn’t known, until Foster told me, that at the end of the book, there’s a scene with Bev, who’s a pre-teen girl, having sex with her friends, all of whom are boys, in a row. And so I dreaded the day when Cora would come upon this part in the book. And then she did. She was already depressed and angry, post-brain surgery. “Nobody told me! Would’ve been nice to know, from like a fucking doctor, ‘Oh, by the way, you get really fucking depressed and angry after brain surgery.’” So it was an extra bummer, that after all this love she had for It, she felt betrayed by Stephen King. 

I went up that night, and we talked in the dining room, while her parents were watching TV in the other room, and I remember we were laughing a lot–I don’t know about what, but it was probably to do with Stephen King. Because in the end, I said, “Oh, who are we kidding,” and took out my phone and we studied his list of books. Cora had by then broken up with her underwater, motorcycle-repairing boyfriend, because it turned out, he lacked empathy or, if he didn’t lack it, he wasn’t saying anything nice to her during this whole brain surgery time. So that was hard for her, too. But she was okay; she’d survived. She left New York and eventually returned to the Caribbean.


Crockett Doob‘s work was published in Newtown Literary and has been featured on HiLoBrow, TGI: The Greatest Indoor Reading Series, and the podcast “Queens Memory.” Doob was also a film editor on the Oscar nominated BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD and the critically acclaimed GHOSTBOX COWBOY.

Photo original: Jared Murray/Unsplash

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