Before Norman went to college, he’d never been out of the Bronx, and even during his undergraduate years he rarely ventured south of the City College campus. It was an uncle, his mother’s older brother, who found him the lead. Now that the war Norman had been too young to fight was over, prospects were abundant. “It’s in Brooklyn,” Uncle Morty rasped between Chesterfields. “A good job. Steady. With prospects. Somewhere in Canarsie. D’you know where that is?” Before Norman could answer that he didn’t, Uncle Morty had a coughing fit and had to climb onto the fire escape. “Air, goddammit, I gotta get some air,” he gasped.
After breakfast the next morning Norman’s mother handed him a brown paper bag with his lunch and a small slip of paper torn from the margins of yesterday’s New York Post with an address on it. When she kissed him on the cheek, Norman could see that she was unsuccessfully struggling to hold back tears.
On the subway Norman began reading a copy of the New Yorker he’d bought at a newsstand on the platform. There was a short story by James Thurber, a very short short story, but still he fell asleep. He awoke to discover his head on the shoulder of a olive-skinned young woman with long black hair. “Is this the train to Canarsie?” he asked her.
“Here,” she said, shaking him awake. “This is our stop.” She took his hand and led him off the train and onto the street. Over many cups of very strong coffee and stale, sweet biscuits they sat in a cafe and stared into each other’s eyes. She smoked French cigarettes without filters. The sight of them alone gave Norman a headache. They made their way to a restaurant where they ate spaghetti and drank glass after glass of bitter red wine. A quartet of the olive-skinned girl’s friends joined them: a white man accompanied by a Negro woman and a white man accompanied by a Negro man. Norman had never eaten a meal with Negroes before.
Over the next few weeks, the olive-skinned young woman and her friends discovered Norman couldn’t draw and couldn’t sing or play a musical instrument. They decided he must be a poet. He wrote poems about the olive-skinned young woman and her friends, about their paintings and their music. They called him a genius. Not even his mother had ever called him a genius.
Whenever they drank wine, he would drink with them. Then he would write some of his best poems. After some hesitation, he began to smoke marijuana with them as well. The poems he wrote after smoking marijuana were moody and incoherent. He liked them even more. But when the olive-skinned young woman and her friends started to inject themselves with heroin, Norman grew afraid.
“Is this the train to Carnarsie?” he asked the woman standing next to him on the subway. She was a large, muscular black woman. Nobody called them Negroes anymore.
“What do you want to go to Canarsie for?” she asked him. It was perhaps with her that he had the children who now came to visit him from time to time. He could not remember their names. He could not remember the names of anyone – his mother, the olive-skinned young woman, this large, muscular black woman with whom he perhaps had several children. The only name he could remember was Uncle Morty.
The large, muscular black woman told him not to go outside. The neighborhood was too dangerous for a white man. So he stayed inside and read: Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison. When the large woman came home from work, they would discuss what he’d read while loud, electric polyrhythms echoed through the apartment. “The revolution’s coming,” she told him. “You gotta get yourself on the right side of history.” She was a nurse or maybe a teacher. He couldn’t remember.
Then one morning he remembered Uncle Morty again and boarded the subway. “Is this the train to Carnasie?” he asked his fellow passengers. They were mostly men with thick black beards and tall black hats, and they ignored him. Finally, a small, pale woman with a wig the color of a mouse smiled at him. “Have you had lunch?” she asked. Of course, she could be the mother of these children. He doesn’t hear that well now and can barely see. He remembers her wig the color of a mouse, the long-sleeved sweaters and long skirts almost down to the ground that she wore even on the hottest days of summer. He grew a beard, wore a tall black hat, and spent his days in prayer and study. He remembers all this, but not her name, and if these children are hers, or his.
Why did he leave the pale woman with a wig the color of a mouse? She didn’t call him a genius, but she didn’t inject heroin. He has no idea. One morning he boarded the subway and ended up here, in a home that he knew was really a hospital.
There is a short, stout man from somewhere in Latin America who helps him in and out of his wheelchair several times each day. Once, while the short, stout man is pushing him down the corridor, Norman asked, “Is this the train to Canarsie?”
The short, stout man stopped pushing the wheelchair to think. “Oh, Mr. Norman, you don’t need a train. This is Canarsie.”
Norman smiled and realized that the short, stout man is a genius, that they are all geniuses, even the children, especially the children.
David Ghitelman is a graduate of Antioch College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His poems have appeared in Agni, The Antioch Review, The Black Warrior Review, The Iowa Review and New Letters. His personal essays and book reviews have appeared in the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, Agni, the Antioch Review and the New Leader.