Andrés Amitai Wilson
The backdoor slammed shut as Manké Jones left Il Paradiso with one last garbage bag, overstuffed and exploding with wealthy old people’s leftovers: the gooey green parts of lobster bellies; the extra dollop of vinaigrette on the side; the bloody flank that—but for a few gnawed pieces—some cow from a Vermont farm had relinquished against the will to live to which even livestock are beholden. Morning was breaking, and it had taken this long to clean the kitchen after an evening of chopping onions and spices, and a night of prepping whatever else was needed when the orders came in.
Manké was a sous-chef, a role in which he had never envisioned himself in the six years he spent as a student of painting—first at the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston, then as an MFA student at Columbia, but really ever since his toddler explorations with crayons on his parents’ apartment floor. Five years ago, the Timeout New York had called an installation of his in Harlem, “virtuosic and visionary,” hailing Manké as “The biracial, Millennial Dalì”; now there were vegetables to be braised and cartons of spoiled milk to be tossed.
A few rats scurried as Manké opened the lid of the towering dumpster to throw in the last bag. Even the dishwashers and bartenders had long gone home, and Manké still had to lock up, but he needed a cigarette first and reached in the victual-stained white pockets of his apron for one, sifting through a few crumpled dollars and a pen before finding the pack of Marlboros and the lighter on top. Just then, with a low thrum, a towering green garbage truck pulled up. He wouldn’t have noticed it had it not been for the din of its engine. It must have been a Thursday morning, when they usually came, but his points in time had begun to coalesce like the dots of Seurat—all except Monday and Tuesday when he had his days off. Those he normally spent wandering around Central Park or going to films. When he first moved to the city, he would spend every free day buzzed on whiskey and sketching his own copies at the Met—everything from the crisp contours of a Greek kouros to the squiggles of a de Kooning. But now he never ventured through the bag check to enter those halls on whose walls his works would never hang.
“Hey bro’, you got another cigarette?” The garbage man outside of the truck tugging the bags from rows of plastic receptacles yelled from a few barrels away. He was skinny with wide-framed eyeglasses and an overly coiffed handlebar mustache. Manké was stumbling along through another interminable day that was at last about to be over once he locked up Il Paradiso, but something about this interaction with another person had caught his attention. It seemed a communication beyond the barked directives of Mushlam—the Israeli, Baby-Boomer head chef—or a frazzled waiter whose order Manké had somehow messed up.
The skinny garbage man heaved the bag twice his width into the enigmatic pool of stinking ooze and the Pollock splatter of the truck and walked over to Manké.
Manké lit a cigarette for him and the two men stood a few feet from the door that Manké hadn’t noticed was now locked. It was a forgettable alley, with a number rather than a name, and it stood demurely behind the dazzling facade of haute cuisine.
“So, just getting in or about to leave?” Mustache asked with slightly more than feigned interest.
“Heading out after this cigarette,” Manké responded as a smattering of ash fell into his frizzy, three-day-old facial fuzz. “Hey, don’t you guys work in twos? Your partner just waits for you in the truck while you smoke?” He figured he should say something if they would be chatting.
“Nah. He’s on the phone with his lady. Some sort of paper she can’t find that she needs for work today, and he’s trying to talk her through it, but doesn’t really know where it is himself. You know how it goes.”
Manké had never been with someone for more than a month, hadn’t the faintest clue what Mustache was talking about, but he nodded all the same.
“You a cook?”
“Sous-chef. I started as a cook, but now our cooks are all Salvadorans and since I am the only American, I got promoted to sous-chef.”
“So, what’s the difference?”
“The difference between what?”
“Sous-chef and cook?”
“Well, in French sous means ‘under.’ So I am basically the head chef’s most direct underling.”
“OK,” Mustache giggled.
“Basically, we cut less shit, know all the chef’s recipes, and stand next to him in the restaurant where all of the guests can see us—unlike the cooks.” After explaining his role aloud, Manké wasn’t sure whether it gave him a sense of pride or despair.
“Cool. So, d’you go to culinary school?”
“No. Actually, art school. . .about ten years ago.”
“No shit? I went to music school, so we’re both artists!”
Manké thought of the irony of that claim, two “artists” in an alley, smoking next to the garbage.
“Dude, I’m . . . a jazz musician,” Mustache continued, “I recorded with some of the heavy cats. You know? You might have heard of me if you read the Downbeat or any of the other jazz mags. I was supposed to be the next big trumpeter. I am sure you heard of me. Should I tell you my name?” Mustache seemed urged on by his own curiosity about himself.
“Well, since you are only bumming cigarettes off of me, I am not sure if there is any need. Besides, I don’t really listen to jazz.”
Mustache chortled, “Dude, you’re a Black artist. You have to listen to jazz! I am surprised you don’t fucking wear a beret.”
There was a pause in which Manké considered making some grandiose proclamation about racial misconceptions or further disabusing Mr. Mustache of any notions he might have held about how things are or aren’t supposed to be in the world, racially or otherwise. But he just inhaled, thinking about the old futon with yin-yang embroidery that he had had since high school, brought from his parents’ Connecticut home to his Harlem studio, and to which he desperately longed to return. Then, he responded with a perfunctory:
“So, what happened, Hepcat? Now you’re a garbage man?”
“First of all, we prefer the term ‘refuse collector,’ and second…Hepcat?”
Manké couldn’t decide whether to laugh politely or commiserate. “Sorry. So…”
“Well you know how it goes—gigs weren’t coming in…I mean I had a steady residency but that only paid beer money. I did weddings in the summer, but that’s three months out of twelve. Meanwhile, my girl wanted kids—I have two boys, Spencer and Ellington—and we just needed money. I mean I’m good enough, but there just weren’t opportunities. I played at all the venues—Blue Note, Jazz Warriors—all of ‘em, but people just aren’t that into jazz anymore.”
“Even Black people?” Manké couldn’t resist, but promptly regretted a retort in response to Hepcat’s seeming sincerity. “Well, couldn’t you apply to be a music teacher?”
“I taught lessons on my horn, and guitar, piano—everything, but I couldn’t teach in the schools because that requires certification and a year of unpaid student-teaching, which buys as many diapers as an Ornette Coleman solo.”
“Huh? I hear you, but why a garbage man?”
Mankée sensed that Hepcat’s career terminology meant more than mere semantics, and he decided even in that liminal space between yesterday and tomorrow, awake and asleep, he would strive to meet the Platinum Rule of treating people the way that they wanted to be treated.
“No worries. Well, I applied to so many things and people were always intrigued by my background, but I lacked the experience to get hired. One day, I saw the ad for Refuse Collector in the Voice and they took me. We make good money and get a pension, so in thirty more years my boys are set.”
Manké thought about a “guest” from the night that just passed—in her little black dress from which her gigantic white body was desperately trying to escape. He thought about the pearl necklace that looked like a chain of translucent testicles around her neck, or about how she would come up to him and the line cooks and say that things looked so soignée (as swaney!) while asking preposterous questions that suggested she knew nothing about either food or the conventions of the English language, or the tacit demands of decorum to which she and her bank account were presumably not beholden. He wondered what had made her so rich despite the mediocrity that defined her every word and gesture. He turned to Hepcat, “My name is Manké. It’s a Haitian-Creole name,” and extended his hand.
Hepcat smirked, “No offense, bro’, but I don’t wanna shake your hand. It’s for our own good. Elliot, not Hepcat, but most people just call me White Miles.”
“White Miles—seriously? No, I am sorry. Black. Lives. Matter. They do, but I’m just playin’… you want another one?”
As Manké reached into his apron, he followed up, “White Miles, huh?
“Funny story: I used to have this residency up at Cleopatra’s Needle in the West Side, and there was this older Black trumpeter who had played with all the greats—even Miles Davis. He even sounded a lot like Miles, which is particularly ironic because his name was Miles, too—Miles Sanders. You might say he was a Miles Davis clone with none of Miles’ soul. He could play any Miles solo note-for-note and would always quote them in his own improvisations. We called him “Black Miles” to differentiate him from the real Miles in our conversations, and look, don’t get me wrong, I love Miles…”
“Sanders or Davis?” Manké pulled out another cigarette and began to light it.
“Davis, man—he’s the king, but I always wanted to chart my own course as a trumpeter. Look, I transcribed everyone—trumpeters, guitarists, even EDM shit if the beat was neat, you know? The point was just to sound like me. But the booker at the Needle, he used to say that I was too progressive, that my solos went too out.
“Yeah, ‘Out’—playing with the conventions of standard harmony or rhythm, if the whim strikes you. Well, anyway, one night I had just finished a set during which I blew the most dissonant but wailing solo over “Stella”—I mean the sickest shit. I left the bandstand to drink my one comped drink for the entire four hours that I only played for tips, and the guy says to me, ‘I want to hear Black Miles, not white Miles.’ So, I asked him what about Bitches Brew, you know, Miles’ groundbreaking 1970 album with Wayne and Chick, and he said, ‘Not that Miles. I mean the old fellah that sits in here all the time. I want to hear that Black Miles.’ Anyway, I told the other guys in the house band and I guess it kind of stuck—‘White Miles.’ It isn’t so bad.”
Manké smirked as Miles’ story set in.
“Anyway. What’s your story, artiste? Why’d you switch from palettes to plates?”
Manké didn’t see the point of rehashing his own narrative for someone whom he would never see again.
“I guess I like cooking better than painting.”
“I could see that,” said Miles with an incredulous grin, “and at least if you make something delicious the response from people is so immediate, you can just look at their faces. I mean I have seen that from the stage, but I imagine visual art doesn’t work in the same way.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
Maybe it was because he had been awake and mostly on his feet for nearly twenty hours, or maybe it was because his subconscious had invaded consciousness, but Manké dropped his cigarette, fell to the doorstep, and started to bawl as if he were alone on the yin-yang futon in his Harlem apartment, the tears constructing the contours of his body like the colors of a Klimt. Slowly Miles sat down next to him and put a tattooed forearm around Manké.
“Sorry, I stink.”
Manké cried on with Miles pulling him closer.
“It’s OK. I probably smell just as bad.”
As he shrunk into a stranger’s arms, Manké saw one of Miles’ tattoos on his forearm. It was a trumpet inscribed with Gertrude Stein’s famous assertion to Ernest Hemingway, “You are all a lost generation.”
“The words on your trumpet tattoo—aren’t those from a book?”
“Yeah,” Miles responded, “read it in high school. The time after World War I was the greatest period for jazz, hence the trumpet, but I am thinking of having the ‘lost’ changed to better reflect ours.”
“What will it read?”
“You are all a fucked generation.”
As the two laughed, the horn began to beep impulsively from the garbage truck and a more stereotypical waste-management professional ducked his head out the side window with a navy-blue knit beanie and a chubby face. “Come on fun boy, we got three more streets and then I can drop you at Chip and Dale’s.”
Manké’s crying was now broken by giggles.
“Jackie’s a Trump voter.”
“But he’s right, I should go. Hang in there, Manké. Get home and get some sleep, man, and when you wake up remember to make something. We are makers; no one can take that from us.”
As Miles scampered off toward the truck, Manké shouted out to him, “Hey man, where can I hear your record?”
Miles smiled, “Elliot Stone and the Dream Quartet. Jazz is a State of Mind. We’re on ITunes.
“I know, but sometimes cheesy is OK. You can depend on cheesy, right? Anyway, the music isn’t cheesy, bro’. Peace.”
Manké went back to the door to lock up, only to realize he had locked himself out. There was probably a fridge or two still open and all the lights and ovens still on inside. He all too vividly remembered that he had responsibilities and stake in a world he neither created nor really cared about. He would have to call Mushlam and have him unlock the restaurant while cursing him out for being careless. Manké imagined what might happen if he just walked away—smoking another cigarette as Il Paradiso caught on fire, but staying close enough to paint it as it burned.
Once upon a time, there was a book. Or maybe it was a manuscript––with sepia vellum rolling out in frenzied contortions of ink and knotted, golden tufts of imagination. But, accepting for the purpose of argument that it was actually a book and not some tonsured monk’s morning labor on which you had first laid your eyes, then its binding stood like the cherubically winged gates to a vast castle that swung open before you above the mired moat of shit and piss, with a front cover that would tattoo your hippocampus in the Tyrian purple of celestial snail secretion. And, though its back cover has been lost somewhere in the compost bin of human detritus like the placenta that followed you into the world, it probably had indices and titles and maps to guide your boneless baby fingers through the melting manna of its pages.
Actually, maybe that book was just a handful of paragraphs on a dog-eared page in an anonymous magnum opus that you would never read in full; a blueprint with illuminated rubrics and illustrations as monstrous and revelatory as the oil of a Goya coalescing into your shadow’s self-portrait. In that story–its pages brimming with kaleidoscopes of nacreous possibility that you consumed with a telescopic eye turned to galaxies of exploding stars–castles hovered beneath the hallowed silver arms of knighted angels, and everyone–even you, the reader–had been sprinkled with Glinda’s pixie dust and the hallowed blood of unicorns.
Oh, and its hero! That hero had a majestic mane like Rapunzel and exploding biceps–vascular eruptions of thews that were merely vesuvian tools, allowing him to slay dragons as scaly and evergreen as nightmares. Indeed, he could pull any sword from a stone with a mind as malleable as iron–aged as a demigod that could out-binary the ineluctable codes of death from the true north of axis mundi. Of course, there were princesses to save, and moribund grandmas, and foolish little brothers–from one-toothed wicked stepmothers or prickly and prurient wolves, hungry for some sort of oedipal consummation in tooth and claw. And really, his story was always a matter of sex and death, which you intimated in some peternatural way from the first opiate breath of the “there lived a…” to the final guillotine stop of “ever after.” (Later on, some crustily moribund philosopher, chewing on a hickory pipe, said and wrote that all narrative is a rusty quest for death, but that story taught you it is already there, both death and quest.)
And in between all the dying and searching and searching and dying, there were haunted woods of deciduous eyes and “one forbidden things,” dilapidated houses of sugar and peppermint, debonair foxes in the animal equivalent of auburn tuxedos standing at a crossroads, and the closet things remorselessly gnawing on bodies when your mother left the room. These ends would be denied for one thousand or so nights.
But you needed to learn the gilded ends of your spiny heroes, your valorously avuncular woodsmen, your red-headed morons taking the long way in what should be an in-and-out-type of jaunt. You needed to learn that narrative is hardly ever linear or circuitous but recursive and that some coordinates were always in place: the cunning beast, the crossroads, the death of the mother. You needed to learn that a story is a formula within a formula, that solving for X has a set answer. You needed to taste that, somehow, there were only two stories: A stranger comes to town and a man goes on a journey, and that that journey–no matter how unsettling–is always really your own.
And thus, with all of this in mind, it is my distinct pleasure to offer you this unpaid internship of more than 1001 nights to study dragon blood and glimmers of immortality. You will not eat, but you will follow your broken heroes down lavender paths and almost see where their spines end–on a bookshelf, somewhere between the glossary and the legend, the death of the monster and the bending for breadcrumbs. Included in our archives we have every story ever written and, if you just keep reading, you might very well find the first one that started all of this. And if you don’t, at least you will have something to show for your quest, even if an internship is not a happily-ever-after.
Dr. Sophia Lectura Amantis
Proprietor and CEO
Wonder and Vanity Books
Neverland, Nowhereville 012345
Andrés Amitai Wilson: “My maternal ancestors were the first Blacks to settle the small New England town in which I grew up. I currently teach English, music, and yoga at the Roxbury Latin School, and I am also a busy session and touring guitarist with many recordings and performance credits. My poetry has been widely published, and my debut chapbook of poems, Glitter Glue the Slowly Sinking Idols, is slated for release next year. I hold a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature. When not making music, reading or writing, I can usually be found running around with my three children.”