The rats were bad last night. But better the rats. Santina’s body, rotting under the June sun, reminded them all of that. The paper had it all wrong, of course. Some junkie looking to score a few bucks ran his mouth off to the daily rag and nothing but libel got put to ink. Santina Petrovski, age 31, dead from apparent overdose. Both her cats were named Fellini.
Lies. All lies.
“Who’s the punk responsible for this?” Dick asked. Whether he meant the story or the death itself, they weren’t sure, but nobody said anything. Dick was the rare breed whose bite was worse than his bark, and they feared him.
The body had been dumped in the center of the park sometime between three and four in the morning. Parts were missing, some said, though never which parts.
“Santina, you coward,” Artie screamed, when the ambulance finally rolled in at seven to pick her up. “A coward,” Artie said, and maybe he was right, but he should have kept his big mouth shut, especially to the reporters, and Dick beat him with a bicycle chain for it. A couple tourists, sucking down runny ices, stopped to watch as Artie sobbed into his five dollar bill. And why not? It was their park too.
That night, Dick kept vigil around the perimeter, Fellini winding deftly between his legs as he walked. The rest staked their claims around the baby maples, clutching onto stinking blankets, and shaking with fear and madness. Terrible screams bled through the void, and those who’d copped shot up again and prayed for Armageddon. Dick fixed his eyes on the cars lined along the curb, waiting for him should he leave the fold, or roaring to life, mutating into vague shadows, disappearing down the street. He felt suffocated. Lately, it was always like this.
Mary Anne noticed it too. “Either these rats are getting bigger, or the park is getting smaller,” she said the next day. Her body swayed when she walked, and her breasts hung massive from her chest like two zeppelins. “I feel like I can’t breathe no more. Maybe the best bet is to just ghost and ride the trains for a while. Hop on the F and get me some of that young Brooklyn money.”
Dick said nothing, and she was gone by noon.
“Best piece of ass I ever had,” said Carlos, sipping on a plastic bottle of mouthwash.
“Mary Anne?” Ginsberg asked.
“Who the hell is Mary Anne?” And he poured out a splash from his bottle in mourning.
“This place, the screaming – it’s closing in on all of us,” Artie said. “Maybe we should run, too. Or end up like that poor girl.”
“You shut your mouth, Artie,” yelled Dick. “You’re a snitch and a lowlife.”
“When it comes for you,” Ginsberg said, dragging his sack of piss-yellow paperbacks through the mud, “It don’t matter where you are. It’ll get you.”
But Ginsberg also said that the rats were part of a government funded plot to eliminate “undesirables”, so no one paid him or his rotting bag of books any mind. Said he found a tracking chip in one of the rats, is how he knew.
“So, what’s this now, with Santina?” Dick asked. “Government kill her too? Did the president have her disfigured? The Secretary of Defense take those pieces from her corpse?”
“Santina was a coward. Artie was fucking right.”
The cops came around late that afternoon like they always do when civilians start getting agitated.
“Where’s the crack? Where’s the dope?” They howled and tore through the park with their truncheons in malicious waves. “Which one of you goddamn miserable bums cut up that blonde?”
No one said shit, not even Artie, and so they wailed on everyone. The tourists stopped to watch, but they got bored even before the pigs, and bumped up their dinner reservations or scrambled to catch a cab going anywhere as long as it was above 58th street.
The wounded and the junk heads twitched in ugly symmetry and Fellini came by to lick their wounds. Fellini had disappeared.
The darkness waited.
“I got a minute and thirty-three seconds,” Carlos said.
“I got a minute and fifty-six.”
“Yeah, but you’re draggin’ that sack of books behind you,” Dick said. “A minute thirty-three from one end of the park to the other.” He lifted the cuff of his jeans. Nickel-sized bites snaked up his legs. Rats all over his chest when he’d woken up. On his face, too. If he could only catch one, he thought. That’d show them all.
“Over two minutes by everyone’s count.” On his face. Jesus, it was terrifying. “The nights are getting longer, too. I’m sure of it.”
“Don’t be crazy,” Ginsberg said. “You start in with one crazy idea and everything unravels. Then you got nothin’.”
“It’s just Fall, Dick. It happens every year,” said Carlos.
But that didn’t seem right to Dick. Seemed to him there was a time when a person could count on the length of a day.
“Let’s get high. Who’s holding?”
They got a taste and Dick dreamed they were living it up like old times. Good dope, a couple of laughs. Carlos playing his boombox back when he still had it. Every now and then they’d get the antenna just right to pick up the Yankees game, and they’d sit around soaking in the sound like kings.
He tasted blood and woke to the abyss and a rat tearing at his lip. He lurched forward and caught the vermin between his panicked hands, squeezing it until he smelled the bleak sent of death. The he rolled onto his belly to examine the mess. Underneath its split paw was a small blinking chip. He woke up Ginsberg, and traded it to him for another hit. But the junk wasn’t strong enough and he could still feel the rat’s spine cracking in his fists. He puked behind the baby maple. He thought of past lives.
“A minute six,” Carlos reported the next day or maybe the day after that. By then, the tourists were long gone, vanished somewhere on the other side of that awful, constricting horizon.
“Better to have it closing in then be like those poor bastards on the outside,” Carlos said. “All that freedom.”
Ginsberg squeezed in next to Dick and Fellini, and motioned for the bottle.
“What’d you ever do with that Chip, Ginsberg?”
Ginsberg took a long pull, and licked the rim. “Same thing you did with that dope.” He patted his arm, and gave Dick a knowing wink. “When they come for the rats, they scoop me up too. That’s my ticket out of here.” He stood up and Fellini hissed.
“Which Fellini is this?” Dick asked.
“What do you mean? There aren’t two Fellini’s. That reporter was full of shit. They always are.” Ginsburg dropped the latest rag on Dick’s lap, and Dick mumbled the news under his breath. “’Mary Anne Vaughn, age 46, dead from coronary failure. She had breasts like two zeppelins.’ Damn. I’m gonna kill that Artie when I see him.”
“Too late for that, Dick. Way too late,” Ginsberg said. He flipped through the papers in his sack. “’Arthur Ames, age 41, dead from suicide. He was a snitch and a lowlife’”
“So, this is how he repays me, huh? After I stood watch for him and his? That lowlife.”
“What do you think they’ll say about me?”
“Jesus, Ginsberg. I don’t know. That you’d read every goddamn book under the skyline? That you’re a nutter who puts government trackers in his arm?”
“But not that I’m a coward.”
The sun was setting, and the bottle was getting low. Dick needed to be anywhere else, but they all were elbow to elbow now, limbs twisted, red with bites and tracks, gasping for air over the stink and the smog and the rats – the rats were so bad. Was Carlos getting more oxygen than he was, Dick thought, and he opened his mouth twice as wide, sucking in rank, poisoned lungfuls. All around them, night traffic whirred so close Dick could feel the heat of the engine in his chest. Reporters from every rag in town patrolled the scene, barraging Dick for quotes, waving brilliantly colored currency under his nose so that his tapeworm salivated, starving for something solid. Ginsberg screamed and held his bloody arm above his head, a part missing from his inner elbow. “It’s gone, Dick. It’s gone. But they left me. I can’t believe they left me.” And the rats set upon him like fire.
“Yeah, I got a quote,” said Dick, snatching the fiver. “What do you want to know? Santina Petrovski, age 31, dead from apparent overdose. Both her cats were named Fellini. Mary Anne Vaughn, age 46, dead from coronary failure. She had breasts like two zeppelins. Arthur Ames, age 41, dead from suicide. He was a snitch and a lowlife. Ginsberg Plum, age 50 – the rats, the government, it all got him. He’d read every goddamn book under the skyline. He was a nutter. Carlos, last name unknown, age unknown, cause of death unknown. He used to have a boombox. Sometimes it would pick up the Yankees game. “
Across the street, lights from studio apartments flickered on and off. An old woman threatened to call the cops. Then, her conscience cleared, she went to bed. Probably even dreamed – that bitch. Reporters, aware of the possible dangers the constricting swarm held for them, stepped back, finding the scene from their new vantage point really quite beautiful, like a painting, or an oil spill.
“Cowards all of them.”