For most people, as they say, money makes the world go ‘round. For Rory Honeyman, it’s a different story. Having inadvertently and, almost without noticing, invented a new form of cash cow, money makes Rory’s world go strangely pear-shaped and out-of-control. He has an endless supply of blank checks that never bounce but he’s being guided by an albino, hustled by a saline-snorting sandwich-obsessed gourmet, manipulated by a devious banker and befuddled and bemused by a never-ending assortment of attractive and baffling women. And, for reasons unknown and unknowable, after racing from the Great Plains to Mexico City to Canada to Europe, he’s stuck in Hoboken and there appears to be no way out.
Originally published: 2004
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About the Author
Di Filippo is also a highly regarded critic and reviewer, appearing regularly in Asimov’s Science Fiction and the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. A recent publication, coedited with Damien Broderick, is Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985–2010.
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A Romance of Hoboken
By Paul Di Filippo
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2003 Paul Di Filippo
All rights reserved.
Like some modern deracinated Diogenes shuffling along in the musty dark without his lantern, Rory Honeyman cursed softly but fervently against a mysterious nemesis or fate.
This idiomatic imprecation echoed off vaguely hulking industrial shapes wrapped in near-lightless obscurity. At Rory's intemperate words, a pigeon or a similar bird exploded off a rafter into lofty yet roof-circumscribed flight, battering its wings futilely against a window layered with flaking black paint. Dripping water plonked down into some kind of container. Grit crunched beneath Rory's feet.
But no human voice answered his.
Clueless as to the whereabouts of his quarry, Rory continued to take tentative steps forward, hands outstretched. He knew that people moved around frequently in this abandoned structure, changing their nesting locations according to complex social interactions. And since Rory hadn't visited the Beer Nuts in months, he lacked a valid psychogeographical map.
All Rory wanted to do was reclaim Nerfball, his lost employee, and start building that days quota of sandwiches. Instead, he was forced to play Blindman's Bluff amidst dangerous and unsanitary obsolescent machinery.
This was most definitely not the way he had envisioned spending his early middle age.
But then, what had he envisioned?
Growing angrier and more impatient with both himself and his errant sandwichmaker, Rory unwisely picked up his pace.
Suddenly his foot caught the edge of an unseen wooden pallet. Unprepared for this obstacle, he immediately toppled forward.
His fall was cushioned by a lumpy mass of scratchy blankets and satiny sleeping bags covering one or more human bodies. A man grunted, a woman screamed. At least two bodies then.
An uninvited intruder, Rory felt that discretion required him to remain still, lest he unintentionally exacerbate the situation. Therefore, Rory did not immediately shift from his position athwart the strangers. Actually it was rather pleasant, lying here as if atop a warm dogpile. Maybe he would just abandon all his ambitions and duties and lie here for the rest of the day.
One of the bodies twitched and wiggled now in a vaguely familiar way that reawakened once-pleasant yet retrospectively painful memories. Rory began to suspect the identity of she upon whom he had stumbled.
A match scratched on its abrasive strip, a squat saucered candle flared.
Rory discovered that, just as he had feared, he was lying crosswise atop Earl Erlkonig and Suki Netsuke. In their turn the pair were, beneath their mound of coverings, resting atop a stained, bare mattress raised above the damp floor on several pallets.
The situation would have been less embarrassing had the pair not been completely unclothed, had Netsuke not been Rory's most recent ex-lover, and had Erlkonig not been the scariest person Rory knew.
"What the fuck you want, molecule?" demanded the justifiably irate Erlkonig.
Rory pondered that salient question silently for a long time. Just an hour ago, he would have answered confidently and quickly, out of a placidly resigned sense of the self-imposed limitations of his own life. But his clumsy fall across these sleeping people had disarrayed his certitude. Where was that untroubled fellow who just a short while ago strode cheerfully toward the door to his store? It seemed he had just been admiring his sign—
* * *
The sign read Honeyman's Heroes and featured a hyper-realistic larger-than-life illustration of a Dagwood-style sandwich. Two slabs of painted pumpernickel—every grain of the bread's rich texture skillfully delineated—separated by approximately fifteen inches of various lunchmeats, cheeses, lettuce the color of crisp new decentered-portrait dollars, onions, pickles, tomatoes, sauerkraut, bean sprouts and hot peppers; dripping with mustard, mayo and the patented condiment known as Spingarns Dragons Breath, which had scorched more innocent individuals than Tamerlane. The sandwich sat on a painted paper plate, a painted linen napkin folded into a crown beside it.
This advertisement was so preposterously toothsome that it had been proven to cause above-average salivation in eight out of ten passersby. Rory had personally conducted polls.
The name of the artist was scrawled in the lower right corner: Suki Netsuke.. In the lower left: Established 1978.
The sign hung above the door of a small, tidy shop on Washington Street, in Hoboken, New Jersey: a modest storefront on a modest street in a modest town, continually kept humble by its proximity to Manhattan, just across the Hudson to the east. The time was noon on a Riviera-sunny Monday in June. The door to the shop was locked, a placard hanging in the window turned to closed. The placard was flyspecked, and fingerprinted in ketchup.
Washington Street was busy with two-way auto traffic, with pedestrians and cyclists. Mothers pushed strollers, old women trundled wheeled wire shopping carts, kids pedaled bikes. Moderate-sized buildings lined each side of the broad avenue, businesses below, residences above. Riding atop the scents of exhaust and cooking and simmering asphalt, a faint estuarial odor from the river to the east conveyed nature's umbrage at human intrusions. Down where 12th Street met the Hudson, the former Maxwell House plant—now owned and revivified by Starbucks—diffused an omnipresent odor of roasting coffee, like a Percolator of the Gods. Spanish chatter, hiss of air brakes, thump of offloaded cardboard boxes hitting the sidewalk; infant squalling, teenage brawling, sirens, music—The little city was noisily alive.
Any of the locals would have certified this a normal day, like any other.
But they knew nothing of an imminent birth.
Down the sidewalk a block away from the sandwich shop a man walked absentmindedly along. He sported a thick ginger-colored beard prinked with gray, longish untidy hair under a Mets cap. He wore New Balance shoes, jeans and a baseball jersey that bore on its back the legend sponsored by Honeyman's Heroes. His walk was an easy lope, the stride of a man essentially at ease with himself and his lot in life.
He was trim, gracile rather than muscular. Over thirty years ago he had been certified a world-class platform diver. Good genes, a quick metabolism and a moderate appetite, rather than any strenuous regimen of exercise, had since helped him keep his youthful build.
The man walked past a French Drycleaner's, a bookstore, a bar, a bodega, a botanica. He nodded to those storeowners he knew. His hands warmed the pockets of his jeans, jingling a few coins, and he whistled a shapeless tune.
When he arrived at the sandwich shop he grasped the worn brass handle of the door without noticing that the closed sign was displayed. Depressing the old-fashioned thumb-plate, he attempted to enter. When the door did not immediately respond as expected, he grunted. Stepping back, he adopted a baffled expression. It took him a moment of concentrated attention to realize he had not mishandled the door mechanism. The shop was indeed locked tight.
He looked up at the illustration of the Gargantuan sandwich above the door. The sight only made him hungry. He studied the fingerprinted placard as if for subtext. Shading his eyes, he peered through the window at the darkened interior of the store. Had he possessed a drivers license, he would in all likelihood have removed it from his wallet and examined it, just to verify that he was indeed Rory Honeyman and that this was his place of business.
Having made up his mind that the forlorn shop was, after all, his very own establishment and that it was still locked up more securely than a Taliban virgin even though it should have been open already for two full hours in anticipation of the surging lunchtime rush, Rory stepped back from the offending door, removed his cap and scratched his thinning hair. He redonned his cap and tugged at his beard. He took the cap off again and raked the hair off his forehead and back over his scalp. He fingered an old bump on the back of his skull, then put a hand across his mouth and squeezed his cheeks as if taking the role of some over-affectionate aunt. Viewed objectively, he resembled a man who had suddenly discovered that this protuberance sitting atop his neck was not his own, or perhaps only the wrong size.
Rory's eyes, a shade of hazel similar to tarnished gold, seemed to express both hurt and indignation, a painful combination of emotions that made his stomach churn.
He felt himself growing angry. He hated to get angry, and usually tried to avoid this emotion at all costs. The rare times he did get mad, he knew he lost all semblance of reason. This was a lesson he had learned early, as a child. There was that time, at age five, when he had broken every window in the barn after being told he couldn't go swimming alone in the Wapsipinicon. Afterwards he had been confined with a flaming ass to his bedroom for two days. Since youth, then, he had cultivated a serenity he did not always feel. Only occasionally had this artificial persona broken. In Mexico that time; later, when the Baroness died; and now ...?
No, not now. The circumstances did not warrant it.
Rory got himself under control.
As he stood wondering what to do next, a black man came out from the store next door.
The black man was Tiran Porter. He boasted hair like a boxing promoters, a stiff, upward-flaring crown. Even on this fine June morning he was not to be found without his favorite garment: a hip-hugging white belted acrylic sweater. He wore charcoal-colored pants, black nylon socks and tasseled vinyl loafers.
"Rory, my man, you got the money for that wiring job yet?"
Rory replaced his cap on his head for the second time. "Sorry, Tiran, business hasn't been so good lately. It's all these goddamn franchises. McDonald's, Au Bon Pain, Subway, Roy Rogers—"
Tiran interrupted with his own indignation. "Tell me about it! The big cats are licking cream, but us little guys can't catch a break. I got the NHD and Home Depot to contend with."
"That's exactly the pinch I'm feeling, Tiran. I hate to admit it, but I'm still flat broke. But real soon I swear it. That is, if I can ever get my store open."
"Yeah, I wanted my regular juice and egg sandwich at ten, but your place was locked up tight"
Rory winced at the missed sale. How many other customers had gone away disappointed this morning, vowing never to return? And it was all Nerfball's fault. Rory's stomach began to do a three-and-a-half tuck off the ten-meter board.
"Well, long as you don't forget what I'm owed. Forty-nine dollars and thirty-three cents. And that's special rates, 'cause we been buddies all these years."
Tiran re-entered his hardware store. Mortified at having disappointed his friend of two decades, Rory looked around guiltily, convinced that the mild public rebuke of his indebtedness must surely have attracted a large crowd. However, no one was paying any particular attention to him. This fact did nothing to alleviate his embarrassment.
Suddenly possessed by a rock-solid determination to have satisfaction from the real offending party, Rory pivoted and stalked away.
Rory walked north on Washington Street until he came to 14th Street. The smell of coffee grew stronger, then weakened, in complex gradients chartable only by chaos theoreticians. (The Starbucks-nee-Maxwell plant served as a kind of inertial guidance system for the residents of Hoboken. Lifelong inhabitants swore it was more accurate than GPS. The few years the facility had been inactive had proved highly disorienting.) On the corner of 14th stood an empty neo-Gothic building that had once housed a bank. The only remnant of the institution was a broken clock bearing the legend: deposit your money here.
At this intersection Rory turned east, toward the river. The neighborhood became dingier, poorer, unkempt. Abandoned buildings alternated with tough-looking lounges (ladies welcome) and apartments sporting broken windows patched with cardboard and tape. People sat dispiritedly on stoops, kids played with broken toys. Despite the annual summertime campaign to repair Hoboken's streets, the asphalt here was still potholed and frost-buckled.
As always, the sight of so much poverty depressed Rory, especially when he considered how little he could personally do to alleviate it—and how close to its margins his own life wavered.
Factories and warehouses began to predominate. A fish-processing plant exuded a maritime stench. A cat prowled hopefully outside the fish-redolent building, stepping tentatively among puddles. Rory thought he recognized Cardinal Ratzinger, a massive, predatory tomcat.
The stout calico cat turned to look at Rory, and the man stopped, transfixed. Yes, it was the Cardinal, there was no mistaking that regal bearing. Today the animals unblinking, all-knowing gaze somehow alarmed the man. That was a feeling Rory frequently experienced when confronting any member—of whatever species—of the Beer Nuts.
Another cat, gray-striped, slimmer, perhaps female, emerged from behind a pile of cardboard boxes. Rory was instantly astonished to recognize his own pet, Hello Kitty. What was she doing here? As far as he knew, she never roamed this far north....
A preternatural yowl made the hairs on Rory's neck come erect. Cardinal Ratzinger had whiffed and spotted Hello Kitty as well. Instantly transformed from a fish-scrounger into a furry mating machine, the torn took off after the female. Hello Kitty let out a mouse-like squeak and raced away, her paws momentarily spinning without traction like those of a cartoon cat.
Rory shook his head ruefully. Bad, bad omen. Innocence pursued by libertinism. Should he turn back now? Memory of Nerfball's defalcation, however, roused Rory's anger once again, and he pressed on.
The crosstown street finally dead-ended at the marges of the Hudson. A chainlink fence separated the street from a flat tidal wasteland of aggressive weeds studded with abandoned tires, plastic bags, shopping carts, car hulks.... Across the sprawling river Manhattan reared in all its overconfident glory, an impenetrable fortress housing go-getters, instant millionaires and assorted glitterati.
At Rory's left hand stood a building. Before its impressive but shabby facade, Rory paused, his former certainty of purpose again momentarily faltering under the tide of memories the building invoked.
Kate telling him of her identical maternal and paternal grandfathers, the Stearn Twins.... The first time he had ever heard of Hoboken.... Nights under the patched Pantechnicon bigtop.... The feel of the Baroness's withers.... The screech of brakes on Canadian Route I outside Calgary....
Rory shook the ghosts away. No time for dwelling on the past now. He had a big decision to make.
His dilemma: whether to enter the door before him or not. If he entered, he might possibly find his missing employee, and thus still be able to open his store before he forfeited the entire lunch-hour trade. On the other hand, it was just as likely that he would encounter some bizarre playlet or tableau that would draw him, whirlpool-like, into its centrifugal embrace, shanghai and waylay him with seductive voices and alluring flesh, drink and dope, mad schemes and convoluted plots, and completely waste his whole afternoon. Maybe even his whole day. A week. A month. A year. The rest of his life? Who could predict? Such life-detours had happened before to others.
But wasn't he wasting his life now already? Hadn't he been suspended metaphorically in mid-air for over thirty years, ever since that single implosive day under the Mexican sun, where his life had deviated from its imagined course, collapsing due to his own impulsive actions down to a singularity, infinitely dense, inescapable, poignant with the foreclosure of everything outside itself?
Hush now, son, why this doubt? These are questions for three am, if ever, not a bright June afternoon.
Banishing his doubts as best he could, Rory still contemplated the legendary building before him a moment longer.
The massive structure was five stories tall, composed all of muted red brick aged by over a century of weather. The uppermost courses of brick were embellished with decorative motifs achieved by the ingenious stacking of master masons whose equals would never walk the earth again. The masonry motifs ranged from herringbone and twill to cross-hatching. Copper flashing, long verdigrised, ran around the eaves, surprisingly unvandalized for a building officially deemed abandoned. The roof displayed slate shingles in decent repair. The windows were all painted black. The building occupied an entire large city block.
Excerpted from Spondulix by Paul Di Filippo. Copyright © 2003 Paul Di Filippo. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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