By Dan Goldman
M e and the boys were down there a long time before the floods came, hip-deep in chemical sludge with fifteen-odd feet of water on top, like one of those layered cocktails they serve in jiggle joints. Impossible to tell how long we was down there, had to be years, with no way of marking off time other than there being less of us tough guys and more rusty shopping carts on the Gowanus Canal bed.
Before we joined the Concrete Shoe Club, all of us were in the man’s game in some fashion or another, but we was all playing for different teams. Bimbo Jackson was muscle for the Antolinis on Carroll Street, Telly Olson used to make bigmouth girlfriends of Brooklyn wiseguys disappear before their wives got wind. Even Little Rico Tagliatelli was down here too for a while — we ran street cons together as young turks before joining up with different crews. I hadn’t seen Rico for years when he splashed through the ceiling and landed next to me, concrete feet first. He was the last to join and the first to go, on account of his body having so many holes shot through it. Those little three-eyed canal fish wiggling right in and eating on him from the inside out until his meat slid right off his bones into the sludge, leaving basically an exposed skeleton standing tall in his funeral shoes like a groom on a wedding cake.
And there was me. Always me, always there. I joined the Club in ’43. We were working on a protection racket thing with my Hoyt Street Boys but it went down wrong and I was told the micks we’d burned were out there looking for us with blood in their eye. I’m laying low down by Smith and Ninth Street underneath the tile factory in a kitchenette belonging to this loosie-goosie cocktail waitress named Sheila. She was a redhead with skin that smelled like fresh cream and a warm carrot-cake muffin between thick white thighs. I was at her flop when three mugs kicked in her door and grabbed me. She beat on their chests all the way to the stairwell, but not convincingly enough to fool me that she wasn’t the one who dropped the dime on me in the first place. The mugs were courtesy of Lannie Maroney, they had to kindness to inform me, though I well knew that already. I landed a couple swings and kicks halfway down the stairs, broke one of their noses with my forehead before the tallest of them smashed my teeth down my throat with the butt of his revolver.
Outside it was fall, a few days before Halloween. The streets whizzed by full of paper ghosts. In the back of their Buick, they tied a burlap sack over my head and plunged my feet into buckets of wet concrete, but the window was cracked open wide enough for me to get that smoky-sweet smell of burning dry leaves into me, that smell of Autumn evening, of late Brooklyn evenings waging street wars with the other kids on the block before we graduated to real trouble. Anytime I made a noise, anytime I tried to gum a few words out, the goon sitting next to me bounced my head off that window like a handball until I saw stars inside that sack.
There wasn’t nothing left to say anymore. No priest to take my confession in this car, just a couple of Polack thugs passing tangy sauerkraut farts I could taste on my tongue.
The car stopped. Union Street Bridge, the driver giggled and the other mugs cackled and coughed. Hands grabbed my arms and pulled, my legs so heavy now in these cement buckets they felt like they were gonna pull off at the knees instead of dragging along behind the rest of me. Then my cement shoes left the sidewalk and I sucked in a deep breath, thinking OK Charlie this is it and squinting my eyes, and then I’m back deep inside Sheila’s warm juicy cooze and I ain’t never leaving this thing and then icy metal railing sparked off the backs of my thighs and everything looped around on a carousel, sky and concrete and water, around and around in slow motion. I heard that driver’s giggle again, high up and away and then a splash like a cannon, followed by nothing.
Like I said, I wasn’t alone down there. When the bubbles cleared, there were a few guys down there staring back at me, all of us planted feet-first like geraniums in the canal bed, bound in rope or even cuffed by crooked cops. Some landed dead like Rooster McKone and some got tipped over the bridge screaming, their lungs filled with river water like me, like Telly, like Bimbo.
Underwater, you can’t hear nothing, can’t see much but the stone walls of the Gowanus Canal on either side and the shadow of the Union Street Bridge just overhead. We knew when it was cold because the water didn’t sizzle on our skin as much; in the heat, skin starts fizzing like baking soda, tiny bubbles escaping through the base of your hairs before the large holes in you open up. You feel that gas building and releasing constantly, you can see some greenish light from the ceiling… but hearing or talking, nothing. It’s just ain’t possible. We’re all down here together but alone, trapped in our skulls same as our concrete death-shoes, waiting for those little three-eyed fish to nibble up into our brain-pains clean us out for good.
We stayed like that down here — joined by the occasional shopping cart or a hot pistol or what have you — for a long time. A dark green silence, like an underwater forest.
Then it started raining, raining hard. And the water around us changed, started getting cleaner and saltier. Rains fall on us all the time, the canal bed feeling like a church with all us boys staring up at the ceiling together in silence, but even we could feel this one down here. This storm was different. The stones in the walls of the canal itself rattled and groaned against their cement and the rain pelleting the surface fifteen feet above us and counting, our cold prison pulling us even darker and further away from the world.
The canal flooded. The bridge was underwater. The guardrail I got tossed over where down here in the shit with us. I could see the tops of the canal walls. We weren’t out of the Canal but we were back in the world.
And then the rain got quiet and the canal around us lit up. The ceiling started rippling and coming closer down to us, minute by minute. I wanted to turn to Telly or Bimbo and say, Hey now, willya look at that? but we were all watching, all of us Concrete Shoe Clubbies watching in silence as the surface slowly came down to meet us for the first time since any of us wound up down here. It was like being born, with that rainbow-slick birth caul breaking over our heads, first over Bimbo, then Telly, then me. There was air on my cold cheeks again, a blue sky overhead, even a fucking rainbow standing over all of Brooklyn like the Union Street Bridge over stood over us-
Something green and blue zipped halfway across my vision and stopped in the middle: it was some numbnuts on his bicycle, a grown man with glasses dressed in a peacoat and rubber boots like a little boy, looking down at all of us from the top of the bridge. His eyes got big enough to see from down here and Poindexter even straightened his spectacles to get a better look. The surface of the Gowanus was now shoulder-height and the dipstick started flailing his arms around and pointing down at us to anyone who would listen. Even above the surface, I couldn’t hear a goddamn thing, not even after one of them canal fish wiggled its way out of my left ear canal and found the river again. A crowd was gathering above us. The bicycle man-boy threw his legs over the guardrail and held what looked like a pocket mirror at us like he was taking a snapshot. The rest of them up there started to do the same, all at once like a family of robots.
Before long, the bridge was full of these mooks pointing, with white trucks behind them with cameras on cranes leaning down at us to stare and stare and stare. Mommy-types in winter clothes were shielding their kids’ eyes from seeing us but staring all down in the Canal the same, fascinated.
We were all still rooted by our concrete shoes, the boys and me, staring up at their pink and brown and yellow faces. This wasn’t our Brooklyn up there. And there in the middle of this crowd of faces on the bridge, I swear I saw Sheila staring down at me, taking my picture with her makeup compact. The love of my life she certainly wasn’t, but after so many years at the bottom of a canal, curling up with that soft milky broad and burying my face in her warm carrot cake is the first place I’d head, maybe after a stiff two fingers of rye at the Tavern. I wanted to say something to her, tried to get my elbow joint to bend so I could wave and get her attenti0n.
It was about then the water sank below my armpits and the top half of my body stopped floating. The weight of me pulled down on the joints of my knees and they snapped clean off. She saw me, Sheila did, I caught a flash of her baby blues as the rainbow puddles on the surface rushed up my cheeks and I saw nothing but green again, sinking past Telly before he followed, none of our seventy-year-dead joints able to hold our dry-land dead weight. Together with my fellas, we all went down in the oily sludge a single Club.
Looking up from the riverbed, the canal ceiling rose again, this time the water a little clearer as the oily sludge billowed in around us like an army blanket. The current rolled our torsos around, my jaw pushed to rest with a click against a pair of aluminum bucket-housed concrete drumsticks I think were my own. A bubble of Brooklyn morning air spiraled up out of my mouth to the surface, rejoining that blue sky.
But face-down in the canal bed sludge where there is no goddamn light, just tiny fucker fishes nibbling their way into my earholes and nostrils to get at what’s left of my brain… I’m already gone, escaped up to the surface in that tiny bubble, up into the daylight where a giant rainbow straddles all of Brooklyn like a red-haired cocktail waitress, straight on until the end of the story.
Writer/artist Dan Goldman is currently producing his haunted real estate comic series RED LIGHT PROPERTIES, available digitally in multiple languages on all major platforms. His editorial illustration work was recently featured in Taschen Books’ ILLUSTRATION NOW! 4. As of this writing, he is broadcasting from São Paulo, Brazil.