Ghosts of New York

Jim Lewis

April 16, 2021 
The following is excerpted from Jim Lewis' novel, Ghosts of New York. Lewis lives in Austin and is the author of three previous novels, which have been translated into many languages: Sister; Why the Tree Loves the Ax; and The King Is Dead. He has also written criticism, reportage, and essays for the New York Times, Slate, Rolling Stone, Granta, and others, and he collaborated with Larry Clark on the story for the movie Kids.

This is how it’s going to happen. A man is going to walk out the door of an apartment building on Hudson Street in New York City. He’ll have been visiting a friend who lives there; they’ll have been talking too much to each other, as friends sometimes do. They’ll have had an argument, nothing final, nothing that really threatens their affections; the man will be leaving as much to get some air as out of frustration, but he’ll leave nonetheless, and he won’t plan on coming back soon. The man’s name will be Dominic. It will be a winter evening, a few weeks before the New Year, and he’ll draw his black overcoat tighter and then stop to search his pockets for his gloves, cocking his head in annoyance when he realizes that he’s left them upstairs, or perhaps lost them altogether. He’ll pass a woman on a single crutch who’s watching the street from just inside the door, and then he’ll exit into the night.

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He’ll be a young man, though old enough, and he’ll be of medium height, or perhaps a little taller, and have a medium build, or perhaps a little thinner. He’ll have black hair, and skin so pale one might be inclined to call it unnatural, except it looks natural on him; and his eyes will be uncannily alert and his mouth set hard. He’ll be dressed like a man who’s preparing himself for some kind of combat, or returning from combat and making the transition back into civil society: black pants, a black long-sleeved T-shirt, a shapeless grey sweater, a black overcoat, and black shoes, or rather boots, which rise just past his ankles—not combat boots, they’ll be Italian and fashionable, though somewhat scuffed, as if he’s been wearing them every day, or bought them secondhand.

He’ll pause just outside the door, startled and left almost breathless by a sudden cold wind, which blows for a few seconds and then just as quickly expires; and he’ll turn hurriedly and start up the street, as if he’s hoping that if he moves quickly the wind won’t be able to find him. There will be no snow, but the sidewalks will have patches of ice on them, so that he’ll have to slow down as he reaches the intersection, pick his way against a red light, and resume his pace when he reaches a more-traveled block, one lined with a grocery store, a jewelry shop, a liquor store, and a pharmacy, all of which are still open.

That night, in a bar on Seventh Avenue South, where he’s gone for a drink and a look around, Dominic will encounter a man. He’ll notice the other man when he enters: an older fellow, old enough to keep his clothes carefully pressed and his worries well hidden, sitting at a table with two women, well or at least expensively dressed, and an unusually pretty girl, eleven or perhaps twelve, who will be quietly listening to their conversation. Later, the older man will be leaving the bathroom just as Dominic is approaching it, and he’ll hold the door for just a second, causing Dominic to hasten toward him. That will be a moment of mutual consideration, and a brief look, so quick as to be nothing if it’s nothing, or something if it’s more.

The same man will be standing outside the plate glass window of the bar as Dominic is leaving, with the fight he had with his friend earlier in the day on his mind: how unreasonable it was, and really, how foolish they both had been. The two women and the girl will be gone, and the older man will be standing in the middle of the sidewalk smoking a brown paper cigarette, and he’ll be gazing into the middle distance carelessly. His cigarette will smell like burning honey; he’ll tap an ash onto the sidewalk. Dominic is going to stop a few feet away, reach into his jacket pocket for his own cigarettes and discover that he can’t find his lighter. When he turns to the older man for a match, the older man is going to speak.

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God is great, he will say.

Praise God, Dominic will reply. Do you have a light?

A man is going to walk out the door of an apartment building on Hudson Street in New York City.

The older man will nod, reach into his pocket and light Dominic’s cigarette. There will be that moment of silence while the act is concluded, followed by a breath-long pause as Dominic enjoys the first moments of smoke. Then, Were you over on Hudson earlier this evening? he’ll ask the older man, though he’ll have no reason to believe the other man was.

The older man will shake his head.

No? Dominic will say. I thought I might have seen you there.

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I don’t think so, the older man will say, and his uncertainty will underscore the fact that he speaks with a very slight accent, a noticeable inflection, but so faint that it’s impossible to place.

No? Dominic will say again, and then: It must have been someone else.

They’ll talk for a few minutes after that, discussing little things—how surprising it is, every year, when winter comes and the sun sets even before the workday is over; how the older man’s long coat is light enough to wear in the daytime and warm enough to wear at night; how pleasant it is to have a drink in the quiet of an empty bar—and pleasant, too, to have a drink with friends, and talk over the affairs of the day.

Tell me, the older man will say, because I’m new to this city. He’ll gesture out to the lights and traffic, the pale orange of the sodium-lit sky, the vapors collecting and dispersing like clouds. Tell me: Is it always so bright and so busy?

Yes, Dominic will say. Night after night.

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I’d heard it was like this, the older man will say, but I wouldn’t have believed it if I didn’t see it with my own eyes. And the advertising. It’s as if they’re trying to sell you things all the time. At breakfast, buy a little something. In the afternoon, would you like a bottle of whiskey? After dinner, perhaps I can interest you in a new car? While you sleep, will you think about purchasing a new television? A computer? Some food for your dog? Dominic will nod at this, and smile ruefully. It’s that kind of place, he will say. You get used to it.

The older man will wave his hand modestly. Get used to it? he’ll ask, and then answer himself. I don’t think I could. Tell me something else: Is there as much crime here as they say? It’s famous for that.

That would depend, Dominic will say, on what you consider a crime. There will be a polite pause while the older man contemplates this answer. A crime, he’ll say, is the way I’ve eaten tonight. How much—and here he’ll briefly rest his hand on his midsection, which is nonetheless noticeably trim—and how well. This food, he’ll continue. The way the people eat here. So rich, and there’s so much of it, so many restaurants. He’ll smile to himself. Imagine, he’ll say: complaining that the food is too good.

You weren’t complaining, Dominic will say. You were just pointing it out.

That’s right, the older man will say, nodding agreeably. I was merely pointing out that there is a great deal of it, and it’s so good. And yet . . . It can be too much, Dominic will say. I know: Most people don’t realize how much stronger their appetite gets when they come here. Like bees on flowers, they just feed, feed, feed.

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With that, there is going to be a long silence between them. Dominic will draw on his cigarette harder than usual, studying the orange tip as it flares briefly. The older man will turn away, look up and down the street, put his hands in the pockets of his coat and draw it more closely around him. We should go for a walk, he’ll say. You and I. 

The same man will be standing outside the plate glass window of the bar as Dominic is leaving, with the fight he had with his friend earlier in the day on his mind.

Dominic won’t respond right away, and the older man will fear that he’s given offense, and his heart will quicken. But Dominic won’t be offended, he’ll be enjoying the moment, the way it dances like a bit of spume upon the ocean of night, until he nods and makes a slight gesture of deference, as if to say to the older man, Wherever you would like to go, I’ll be happy to follow.

There are going to be photographs everywhere; billboards, posters, flyers taped to the light-poles, signs in stores and advertisements on the sides of taxicabs. Chilly as the night is, there will be men and women standing in doorways, just as they’ve always done; they’ll be alone in the darkness that shifts inside to stairs, smoking cigarettes with their shoulders hunched to their ears; or there will be two of them watching a third swaying back and forth on his feet. A shoeless woman in a red dress is going to come darting out from a vestibule, look quickly up and down the street, and then dart back again—too late, the glass door will have closed and locked behind her, and she’ll bang on it with the flat of her hand and then stand back on the sidewalk, hopping from one foot to the other, craning her neck up and shouting, Ian! Ian! I locked myself out! Goddamn it, Ian! I know you can hear me!

The avenues will be broad and busy, but the streets will be narrow and intimate, and each man will be able to hear his footsteps mingle with those of the other. They’ll pass beneath trees tangled in the streetlights, step aside for a woman walking a large white dog; they’ll go by a post office, now locked for the night, but inside the doors there are going to be canvas sacks of mail, letters, bills, magazines, notices, solicitations, all waiting to be delivered by the first light of morning.

In time, without any particular discussion or agreement, Dominic and the older man will find that they’re walking toward the river: the blocks will grow broader and the buildings darker, creating unexpected vistas, unexplained stretches, where whole neighborhoods, industries, vast forms of life will have been entirely removed, driven back into the ground, it will seem, like nails that have been pounded into a piece of soft pine, the points that were their purpose now buried out of sight. It will be one of those nights, in one of those landscapes, when it’s possible to believe that act and emotion are the same thing, after all. Still, Dominic and the older man won’t touch, nor even brush against each other; they’ll walk where their legs carry them, and talk happily into the hours.

I remember it well, the older man will be saying. Better than I remember yesterday, or the day before yesterday. The sensation, like having your hand in someone else’s pocket, do you see what I mean?

And Dominic, who might, if he so chose, take such a metaphor to be suggestive or ill-mannered, will smile instead, and say, Yes, that was exactly what it was like. It was like waking up from a nap in another country, wasn’t it? Drowsy, comfortable, but still exciting and strange.

Will we ever have days like that again? the older man will ask, and he’ll mean it, not rhetorically, but as if he really wanted to know. When he’s done asking there’s going to be a pause so long that it’ll feel more like a silence, a diminishing interrogative point, dwindling down to a hush.

Someone might, Dominic will say at last.

Before them the highway will be full of cars, stalled by the lights and stretched uptown to 14th Street, their bright husks shining like the glass-coats of beetles. A young Dominican woman in a tight black dress will get out of the front seat of a dark sedan and stand in the road, the car door open behind her as she stares at the traffic, a corona encircling her head. The driver of the car will honk once, twice, she’ll duck her head and look inside, and then as he honks again she’ll walk away, leaving the door open as she sways between the lanes, awash in the sound of horns, and then vanishes again into a neon-blue sports car.

I’m far from home, the older man will say. Back there, back then, I had everything a man could wish for. I had a small house that was all my own, and neighbors who were friendly but kept to themselves. No man was my enemy, and my friends were a pleasure that never failed. I had food in the cupboard, and coins in my pocket for a drink or two. I had cotton clothes in the summer and woolen clothes in the winter, and I made love in the daylight, if that was what I wanted. There were no policemen anywhere, because the world was kind. I couldn’t say if I had died the day before, or would die the day after, and it never occurred to me to wonder.

Dominic won’t respond right away, and the older man will fear that he’s given offense, and his heart will quicken.

I have no home, Dominic will say, and the older man will look at him with a touch of pity. — Oh, not like that, Dominic will add. I have an apartment, all the way uptown, by my school. He’ll gesture vaguely north. It’s just that I don’t like to sleep there. I’d rather be out here, out anywhere.

School? the older man will ask. Well, now, you’ll have to tell me what you’re studying. — No. Allow me to guess. He’ll take a step back and scrutinize Dominic, and it will be their first really good look at each other. The older man will pause for a moment, and then say, Poetry. Dominic will smile and shake his head. No? the older man will say. Then perhaps . . . theater?

Dominic will shake his head again and say, But you’re close. Then he’ll take a step back, hold his arms out in a welcoming gesture, smile wryly, and execute a flawless plié-assemblé sequence, encumbered though he is by winter clothes.

Ah, the older man will say. Of course: I can see it now. He’ll nod amiably, and they’ll start off again, until in time they reach the piers. Across the Hudson lights will be glowing; from time to time a party boat with dark figures arranged on the deck will slide past them on the night-water, making its way to or from the docks of the financial district, evidence of more cities built in the hollows of this one, each nestled inside the others. Here’s a river, the older man will say. The river leads to the ocean, and in the ocean live all sorts of creatures: great schools of grey fish, sea serpents, octopus and giant squid. All of it just—and here he will gesture—out there.

I never think of it that way, Dominic will admit. When I’m here, all the life I can possibly want is here.

Couples will be huddled on the pier, and it will be hard to tell whether that was a man or a scrap of paper that just went by on the wind. Lights are going to fall from the sky as airplanes land off the water, again and again and again. A siren will pass behind them. The older man will take up the conversation again, saying, As for the island we stand upon—they will both turn to look at it—have you ever noticed that they don’t bury their dead here?

What do you mean? Dominic will ask in return.

There are no cemeteries. None to speak of, anyway; maybe little churchyard things here and there. The rest have been banished to the outlands. It’s the only city I’ve ever been in where there’s no room for even the dead to rest.

This is how it’s going to happen. Dominic will reflect on this, and then he’ll say, But there are so many ghosts, aren’t there? From all the fires and all the falls, the plagues and the murders, ghosts of dead mayors, police officers, priests, ghosts of prostitutes and addicts, ghosts of the very rich and the very dull, movie stars and shoeshine boys, every trader, every grocer, every secretary, every drunk in every bar. Here Dominic will appear to be growing angry, in a way that doesn’t frighten the older man, nor is it meant to. It’s just the way he feels, when he feels something immense. — No one dies in New York without leaving a phantom behind, he’ll say. It doesn’t matter where they’re buried, or if they’re buried at all. Everyone who was ever on this island remains here, everyone who ever came here to live, and loved or hated the place, or loved or hated anyone here.

They are everywhere, the older man will agree. Suppose we could set them free, you and I? Suppose we could bring them back, make them visible, to occupy the city side by side with the living, dressed as they would have dressed, alive as ever, so that time itself ceased to exist, and past and present mingled freely. Imagine if we could rejoin one another. He’ll pause, the older man, and there will be something in his aspect, a premonition, as it were, of being understood, coupled with a very slight air of harshness, something bitter in his eyes, but not unpleasant—gratifying, in its way, like the first sip of black coffee, or a long-anticipated betrayal that at last becomes real. Dominic will catch it and he’ll smile hotly. The older man will smile as well and say, Just for a moment. Just for a bit, maybe just one more time.

What do you mean? Dominic will ask in return.

Dominic will stare at the older man’s face, his skin smooth, his eyes bright, and he’ll start to feel a joy that he hasn’t felt in a long time. It’ll be so warm that it will make him shiver, the naturalness of it will take him by surprise, and make his legs weak and his mouth drop open, and he’ll sink slowly down to his knees, so that the lights rise and reel around him, framing his head. His face will be burning, and when he’s caught his breath he’ll look up at the older man and ask, Now?

And the older man will stop smiling, because a smile is not enough, and he’ll say, Yes. Now.


Excerpted from Ghosts of New York by Jim Lewis. Excerpted with the permission of West Virginia University Press. Copyright © 2021 by Jim Lewis.

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