Authors: Ivy Pochoda
“Nah,” she says, turning away.
June stays put, but Val moves on, bumping her with the raft.
“Watch it,” June says.
The guy holds out the bottle. “Thirsty?”
June hesitates, shifts her weight from one foot to another. Val knows she’s trying to catch Monique’s eye to see if this is cool. But Monique’s still looking away, laughing with a group of older girls.
“Thirsty?” the guy repeats, swigging from the bottle and holding it out once more. He licks his lips then shows Val and June his teeth, two of them capped in gold with diamond chips. The gems catch the light, giving him a jack-o’-lantern smile. He shakes his head. “Yeah. Didn’t think so.” He drops the empty in the grass.
“You didn’t save me some?” Monique says, swatting his leg.
“Didn’t know you wanted it.” He and Monique stare at Val and June.
“Let’s go,” Val says.
“What’s your hurry?” June says.
Val grabs June’s wrist. She knows Monique and her crew are about to explode with laughter. She pulls June away from the park.
“You saw how he was looking at us?” June says.
Val links her arm through June’s. “Totally.”
As they move along they try on the streetwise rhythms of Monique and her crew. Trying out words they’d be afraid to use at home or school. Calling each other “ho.” Feeling the nervous release of each curse. Waiting for repercussions that don’t come. Because they are alone on the streets now. They’re skirting the edges of the projects and approaching the water along dark, cobblestone streets with only the burned-out streetlights and abandoned warehouses for company.
The moon is riding high and full. The last lights of the projects are at the girls’ backs. The summer noises and chatter from the park have faded so they talk louder now, raising their voices against the silence. They wave their arms, gesture large, beating back the shadows that stretch from abandoned doorways and broken windows. They know the rumors, but they try to ignore them—the stray dogs, rabid and feral, that breed in the abandoned sugar refinery, the haunted junkies, the homeless, the insane.
A couple of blocks from the water there’s an abandoned lot strewn with trash and knee-high weeds. In the middle of this lot a dilapidated fishing boat is moored in the rubble. The weeds rustle as the girls pass. They pick up the pace. There’s a whistle from somewhere near the boat. The girls turn and see Cree James, a kid from the projects who used to hang with Rita before Val’s parents put an end to their friendship. He’s good-looking—round face and wide eyes, high cheekbones. He keeps his head shaved in the hot months.
Cree is sitting on the boat’s prow, legs dangling toward the dirty ground.
“Where you girls off to?”
“Somewhere,” June says.
“How come you’re all alone?” Val asks.
“I got things to do.”
“Doesn’t look like it,” the girls say in unison.
“What you two know about it?”
“We know stuff,” Val says.
“More than you think,” June says.
“Yeah?” Cree drums his feet on the hull.
“Yeah,” June says, wrapping her fingers through the chain-link fence that blocks the lot from the street. “So why don’t you come find out?”
Val digs a finger into her side.
“Big words for a fourteen-year-old,” Cree says.
“Big words all the same.”
“So, you won’t be kicking it with us?” June says.
Cree shakes his head. “I got somewhere to be.”
“Shame. We know where the party is,” Val says. Normally Val would be nervous flirting, even in jest, with an eighteen-year-old. But out here on unfamiliar territory, she feels bold.
“Sure you do,” Cree says.
“We got it going on,” June says.
The girls begin to walk away. June’s voice has lost its saucy edge. Val feels her relax, as she falls into step with their adventure.
“We know where it’s at,” Val says.
“We know how it’s done.”
“We know how to do it.”
Cree watches the girls disappear up the dark street, carrying that pink raft between them. They used to hang with his cousin Monique when they were little, back when he and Rita were tight, before her parents taught her that kids from the Houses were off-limits to waterside girls. He’d never expect Val and June to turn up in this part of Red Hook, especially so late. He usually has this corner to himself at night. Even people from the projects keep away from these streets after dark. And no one takes much notice of a boat moored in the weeds, just another sliver of old Red Hook lore, the vanished world of dockworkers and longshoremen.
But this decaying fishing boat never belonged to any of the guys who cluster in the VFW or in the last waterfront bar. It belonged to Cree’s father, Marcus, who bought it from a salvage yard in Jersey. The boat was beached after Marcus, a corrections officer, caught a bullet meant for no one in particular—collateral damage in the now dormant drug wars. Cree guesses the boat is his now.
Cree’s mom, Gloria, believes that Marcus’s spirit lingers at the spot in the courtyards where he fell. Gloria’s often out there with a thermos of iced tea. But Cree knows better. No ghost, especially not his father’s, would bother haunting a bench. But a captain always returns to his ship. One day Cree hopes to get the boat back in the channel and take Marcus farther out on the water than he’d ever been in his lifetime.
On certain nights Cree tricks himself into seeing his father’s shadow moving through the weeds and climbing aboard. He imagines him sliding into the tiny cabin and taking the wheel. Then Cree pretends that he and Marcus are crossing the Upper Bay to New Jersey where they’d once visited another desolate cobblestone waterfront. There was the same smell of silt and water and the same sound of wind slapping empty buildings. But there were no projects near the Jersey waterfront, and no one over there gave Cree and Marcus a glance that told them they didn’t belong.
On that trip back to Red Hook, Cree had found himself staring across the Upper Bay trying to pick out his project from the distant mass of Brooklyn gray. Odd, how only a short ride away turned his hometown unrecognizable. Like it had nothing to do with him.
Cree can’t focus enough to summon Marcus. Maybe the girls scared him off. Cree vaults off the prow and lands in the dust and grass. He picks up a bucket and fishing rod from beside the boat and hits the street, his footfalls replacing the echoes left behind by Val and June.
His pace is slow. His shoulders slump as if gravity is too much. He reaches the end of Columbia Street and catches a whiff of the water, a brew of fuel and fish. He heads out on the pier that juts into Erie Basin at an obtuse angle. He skirts the impounded cars in the police lot and walks until the pier starts to double back on itself. He sits and dangles his legs over the water, looking past the docked tugboats at the abandoned shipyard and the remains of the sugar refinery that burned before he was born.
This is the place that gives Cree the end of the world feeling he likes, the sense that he can go no farther and still never be found. The clang of buoys, the rustle of the water, the absence of voices and streetlights, and that hunk of moon melting all over the place are as close to the country as Cree can imagine. From here he can look back at his neighborhood, and not see it at all.
When he was younger and his father took him out in the bay, Cree often dreamed of the places the water might lead him. But recently he finds it difficult to envision the world beyond the twin Ms of the Verrazano and the single hump of the Bayonne—the two bridges that hem in his horizon.
He casts his line into the water. Out here is where he has witnessed the secret underside of Red Hook. He’s seen a flaming car pushed into the water and what he would swear was a severed arm floating by, shriveled and blue like a sea creature. He’s seen people catching fish and cooking them in a rusted trash can. He’s seen women turning tricks in the back of a rowboat, two Asian men in wet suits snorkeling with spears in their hands. He’s seen all sorts of makeshift crafts hammered together out of driftwood and debris.
Cree drags his line through the water, leading it away from a web of seaweed and trash that’s bobbing near the pier. He always tosses back his catch. But the fish are taking the night off and the water looks dirty and sluggish. Grimy foam coats the rocks at Cree’s feet. Even the tugs sound unhappy, their engines choking on the water, never settling.
But where there should have been only the noise of the water and some clatter from the tugs he hears voices. He reels in his line, imagining that somewhere nearby Val and June are teasing him. He stands up, spins once, like he’s looking for the turnaround jump shot. And then the voices vanish, leaving him gaping at the dark, wondering if he heard anything at all.
The girls choose the water between the Beard Street Pier and the rotting factory where a two-masted sailboat is taking its time sinking into the murky basin. Never mind that the water is dirty and that they aren’t the best swimmers. And never mind that they are going to have to paddle through that grimy water with their hands. They figure they’ll float around this pier and past the next two, then get out on the little beach next to Valentino Pier. Couldn’t take more than half an hour.
It’s crazy dark down by the water. Their footsteps are loud and hard, bouncing off the warehouses. Only a ten-minute walk from home, yet they’d never been to the waterfront at night. Never been to this stretch of the waterfront period. Until they got in sight of the water, they pretended their parents’ warnings were a lot of nonsense. But now there seems to be something hiding in each shadow, scattering the litter and rubble. It doesn’t seem possible that they have this place to themselves. There must be someone lurking behind the cracked windshield of a rusted-out station wagon, someone watching them from the ruins of the sugar refinery.
The waterfront creaks and resettles—the decaying groan of old wood is a ghostly moan, the rhythmic bang of a boat against the pier is the approaching of footsteps.
Something clatters down the refinery’s dilapidated chute and plunges into the water. The girls grasp hands and start singing, chanting, making a lot of noise, trying to outdo whatever fell down that chute, attempting to subdue the darkness. But the brick warehouse and the basin throw the song back, distorting their voices so they sound unfamiliar to themselves.
June points at the sugar refinery. “Heard it’s haunted. Probably someone over there right now, watching us.”
Val glances at the skeleton of the refinery.
“Ghosts better not mess with us,” June says.
“You want to go back?” Val says. There’s movement in the refinery. She’s sure of it. Something—someone—rattling in the large metal dome.
“Nah,” June says, turning her back to the building. But Val can’t take her eyes off it. She watches the chute, checking to see if it sways.
The girls turn up the volume, chanting louder.
They tiptoe onto the green-fuzzed rocks and lower the raft into the water. June stands back. “You first.”
Val shakes her head.
“Your raft. Your idea.”
Val squats down, trying to avoid touching the rocks, and falls back on the raft. It buckles under her weight and she’s swamped by the oily water. “Nasty.”
June closes her eyes and scrunches her face, then sits down behind Val. The raft submerges, soaking the girls up to their chests. “Damn that’s cold.” June shakes as if she can escape the wet and nearly knocks the girls into the drink. Then the raft adjusts to their weight, pops back up. And they float.
The water is chilly and slick. The girls paddle hard and erratically with their hands, pushing away the junk that keeps approaching the raft and trying not to look at the gloomy area underneath the crumbling sugar refinery. The raft swings close to the half-sunk sailboat and the girls kick frantically, not wanting to tempt whatever went down with it. The water smells rank.
There’s something pulling from below that makes the raft spin.
“What is that?” Val asks. She feels the raft buckle in the middle. She stops paddling and lets the pink rubber flatten out beneath them.
“It’s like a waterslide,” June says through clenched teeth.
“Yeah, just like Coney Island,” Val says. She checks the shoreline that is quickly sliding away behind them.
They clutch the raft with rigid hands. They are unwilling to let go, unable to pull themselves out of the swirling current.
“Don’t rip it with your nails,” Val says. They’re out deep now, too far from the questionable comfort of the shore. “We’ve got to paddle.”
They let go and slap the water with their hands. Finally, they get out past the pier and let their arms rest. They float into the basin where the water has a regular beat. The moon’s shining like it’s out of its mind. The raft is handed from one wave to the next. To their left Staten Island is glittering, its houses lighting up its hills with an LCD display of red, green, and white. Tankers, like shining islands, sit in the bay, heavy and motionless. Straight across, the cranes in the port of New Jersey look like some kind of Jurassic fantasyland.
A tugboat passes in front of them. The girls scream and bend forward and try to balance, so they’re not swamped in its wake. Small waves break over their legs and waists.
Floating is wilder than Val expected. The silhouettes of the city and Jersey rising on all sides, the water stretching out dark and vast. But it’s the silence—only now and then disturbed by the call of a foghorn, the crash of a wave tangling with the pylons, the rhythmic beat of a boat somewhere out there—that grabs her.
They float by the wreck of a tugboat. The moon is trapped in one of the sunken windows, its reflection struggling through the dark water. The girls grasp the edge of the raft and see the blank eyes of the portholes staring back at them. There’s a new swell in the water, a deep insistent tug. If Val could forget the bay’s depths, she would be willing to follow this current wherever it leads her.
“We could keep going forever,” Val says, looking over her shoulder at June. June is no longer clutching the raft. She’s trailing her hands in the water, small ripples receding from her fingertips.