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Coney Island Knock Off

Tablet Original Fiction: Broken lives collide in the shadow of the Cyclone

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Peter Feigenbaum, Pie in the Sky, digital photographic print from Trainset Ghetto, 2008. (Courtesy of the artist)

Nachmann’s grandfather used to tell him a story about the four days one October when he slept on boxes of gold. It had been during the Spanish Civil War when both the prime minister and the finance minister were convinced the only way to keep Spain’s vast gold reserve safe was to ship the treasure to Russia. Also, they needed to pay the Soviet Union for men and weaponry desperately needed by the Republicans, Communists, anarchists, and everyone else who was fighting against Franco. Stalin said please, let me take care of your reserves, and from that store we will accept payment for our services only. The gold first went by train to a cave outside Cartagena. Durutti, the anarchist, planned a raid but was talked out of it. From there the gold was loaded onto a gray ship said to weigh four thousand tons, manned by sixty sailors who worked all day and by night slept on the boxes of Louis d’or coins, sovereigns, and pesetas. Nachmann’s grandfather was one of the sixty. The steamer itself was nondescript, the name on its side had been rendered illegible, and it flew no flag. When the ship arrived at an Odessa roadstead, two boxes were missing. Nonetheless, upon its arrival, Stalin held a banquet at which he said, “The Spaniards will never see their gold again, just as one cannot see one’s own ears.”

By the time Nachmann was born, the youngest of many grandchildren, his grandfather was very old and had retired to a part of the city far from the docks. He was remembered as a small man who kept his hat on at all times, even in the house, said the word pesetas with an Odessa accent, and at some point after the Bay of Pigs Invasion, changed his name from Nischtmann, to Nachmann. Nischt, nothing, a reasonable name if you can make yourself invisible, he had said, but this was not a family skill, as proven many times over. The two stolen boxes of gold were never found intact. What did they expect? His grandfather shrugged. You give a bear a piece of meat, you expect he’s going to return it to you in the same condition in which it was offered?

If only his grandfather had been the sailor, if it had been a sailor, who figured out how to steal such a treasure. Even two boxes would have been plenty, even all those decades ago, enough to change Nachmann’s life as it reached into the twenty-first century. If his grandfather had shown even a little ingenuity instead of just sleeping on top of the all that money, Nachmann now wouldn’t be balancing in his knock-off running shoes on the edge of a Coney Island rooftop, feeling the crenellated tiling through thin soles. The ladder to the nearest fire escape down didn’t look very securely attached and some of its rungs were corroded. He could make out a sign on the ironwork that said, Anyone Placing an Encumbrance On This Balcony Will Be Fined $10. Ten measly dollars. Who cares? That’s how old it was. In the yard between the buildings lay a patch of poured concrete whose cracks resembled a topographical model of some large creature’s arterial system, bottles both glass and plastic, abandoned signage from Gross’ Aluminum Siding, and a small halal food cart.

In order to get a better view of the possibilities Nachmannn climbed from the roof down to one of the fire escapes that looked serviceable enough. Many of the iron structures intended for the purpose of emergency escape were barely recognizable because small huts made of pieces of wood, what looked like reeds and plastic or real vines, had been built on them. These innocent, symbolic structures were a pain in the ass. Not only were there people inside eating and drinking, but the succot, even when empty, interfered with his access. The day before he’d been on a fire escape and a man in a black hat had asked him to be a guest in the succah, because that’s what you’re supposed to do, invite guests for dinner, but Nachmann had declined. He was working. By now it was October and many huts had been taken down, but enough remained to present an annoyance. The building he surveyed had looked promising from a distance, but now on the roof, it appeared less so. Many of the windows were lit, people were home, then he spied an open window, no lights, only one floor below him. This was good.

Nachmann had been a driver for an escort service, Escort Plus. The service had recently been busted, and the owners went to jail, but Nachmann, just a driver, was able to disappear into thin air. He was small potatoes. One week, two weeks, more passed, and he began to miss driving the girls all over town to meet men who looked not so different from himself but with money. Apartments and two- or three-family homes lay before him waiting, for the most part, to be harvested. An open window in a dark apartment was an opportunity asking to be investigated, beckoning with unknown riches: jewelry and electronic hand held devices, the rare expensive kind glittering like a pile of onyx saucers. Just as he was about to put a foot on the rungs of the fire escape below, a man climbed out of the window and stood for a moment, hands on the railing staring out at the city curved along the shore. Both of them looked out at the same night, the same lights of Astroland and the infinity of the Atlantic Ocean beyond. Nachmann began to retreat in order to find other quarry when he realized the disheveled man was leaning too far out. He was certainly about to jump.

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Coney Island Knock Off

Tablet Original Fiction: Broken lives collide in the shadow of the Cyclone