Once Upon a Time in Alphabet City

By Joel Best

It's two old friends running into each other in a grungy no-name dance club on Avenue B. Pinocchio's gunning Luckies and knocking back bourbon at the bar when the fairy with the blue hair steps in from the street wearing a sheer Day-Glo blouse and hot pants that leave little to the imagination. Blue sees him, gives her shimmering azure hair a toss; he can tell she's doing a little mental check, can this possibly be? Then she's sitting on the next stool, drinking a dirty martini, and marveling at the coincidence of this meeting.

"Actually," Pinocchio says, lighting his tenth cigarette in an hour, "I was waiting for nobody else but you. A dream told me you'd be here tonight."

"Flatterer." Blue leans into him. "You've grown up."

"I'm not a little boy anymore."

"It's been ages since I last saw you."

"Summer of 1970. The day we all arrived in this world."

Blue averts her eyes. "I shouldn't have abandoned you. I was in shock."

"It's ancient history." Pinocchio exhales a fire-hose stream of smoke. "Those were difficult times for everyone."

"How are the others? The old man and the talking cricket?"

"Later." He orders another bourbon and signals the bartender to refill Blue's glass. A band takes the stage and people dance.

Go away, he thinks at the fairy. She remains on the stool. "How have you been?" he says aloud.

"Getting by. Doing this and that. Right now I'm living with a painter who thinks he's going to be the next 'big deal.' Problem is, his idea of achieving this goal is hanging around CBGB waiting to be discovered." Blue gulps her martini and sighs. This is 1985. CBGB hasn't been a happening spot for years. "I don't know why I stay with him. Tell me why I put up with his bullshit."

Pinocchio shrugs. "Your kind is obliged to take care of strays. I remember that from the Old World."

He's thinking, Get out of here. Don't look back.

"The Old World," Blue breathes. "It seems like a mirage."

"That world existed. It was as real as this one."

She regards him closely. "Were you truly waiting for me?"

"It's the unvarnished truth," Pinocchio says, and Blue coos, "Liar." But she's genuinely pleased and, taking his hand, leads him to the dance floor.

The fairy is warm and soft in his arms. Pinocchio shuffles his feet, as clumsy now as when he still wore a wooden body, and allows Blue to lead. He continues thinking at her, telling her to walk away, but she can't hear. He knows in advance she won't hear, but still he tries.

A scrap of waking dream comes to him. He's a few minutes up the timeline and Blue falls into him, making believe it's an accident. The dream takes him ahead another hour, to his room at the Hotel Commodore on Avenue D where Blue says she isn't going to do anything more than kiss him, but ends up in his bed. It's the fulfillment of ancient, forbidden desires. They touch one another. It's delightful. It's sinful. Pinocchio has had this exact dream for years and often wonders if the feelings he's had for Blue since their very first meeting aren't what caused them to be transported from the Old World in the first place.

That doesn't explain the old man and the talking cricket. Why punish them for someone else's crime?

Because life is full of innocent bystanders?

He's with Blue in his room, he's on the dance floor. The dream makes it all the same.

Leave immediately.

"Time," Pinocchio says, "is a profoundly screwed-up mess."

"Tell me about it."

"I really do see the future."

Blue laughs and pretends to trip.

Long past midnight, tangled in sweaty sheets, they talk about the past.

"So what happened to the old man and the cricket? I know it can't be anything very good." Blue rolls another joint and the air grows sweeter. She's had to get a little stoned to bring the subject up.

Pinocchio lies quietly beside her. "Geppetto never adapted to the shift from storybook world to NYC. He's been in Bellevue since '71."

He reaches for his Luckies, fits one to his lips, lights up. "And I still can't talk about the cricket. What happened to him made Bellevue seem like a walk in the park."

Blue smokes another joint.

"Life has treated us harshly," Pinocchio says.

Blue is small beside him. "Tell me about it. I used to be magic. Now look at me; I'm just another bimbo."

Pinocchio stubs out the cigarette and holds her tightly.

Get up. Dress. Run.

He wants to speak the words, but can't. Knowing about tomorrow isn't the same as being able to control it, any more than understanding every molecule of a mountain grants a person the ability to move it a single inch.

The telephone rings when he expects it to. Being flung into the New World turned Pinocchio into a seer. Dreams constantly speak to him of the future. They began the moment he was sucked into the same bright hole in the sky that swallowed Blue, the old man, and the talking cricket. Pinocchio picked himself up and found the dreams lodged within his soul like shards of glass.

Three rings before he lifts the receiver. Blue opens her mouth. He put a finger to her lips.

"Wood Man here. Yes? Uh-huh. No, everything is progressing as expected. Another day, maybe two. Be patient. You know I'm reliable. I'll call when the job's done."

In the midst of this, another dream. He's standing with Blue in front of her flop, a shabby loft building off Tompkins Square Park. Part of him finds it ironic that she's been so close all this time, practically a neighbor. She's just finished telling him how her man, Leon, is upstate begging next month's rent from his sister. It's an invitation to come inside. Pinocchio wants to leave, but the dreams have always told him he'll do otherwise.

He hangs up the phone and turns, still breathing the scent of her musk. "Sorry about that. Work."

"Gotta pay the bills," Blue says. "What do you do, anyway?"

"Solve problems for people. Life contains a lot of loose ends. I get paid to tidy them up."

"Like a private detective?"

"In a way." Pinocchio pulls up the sheets and swaddles them both like babies. "Part of my job usually involves finding someone who doesn't want to be found."

Blue's getting excited. "That sounds interesting."

"Sadly, it can be."

"Why sadly?

He quiets her with a kiss.

Early morning fog wraps the trees with wet gray wool. The streets bordering Tompkins Square Park are somber rivers; the shabby apartments occupying this part of town, drab and formless mountains. The air stinks of wood smoke laced with garbage. Someone's burning trash in a barrel to keep warm.

Blue dawdles at the bottom of the steps leading to her building. The light from a nearby street lamp paints her face a garish yellow.

"Someday," Pinocchio says, "these lofts will go for small fortunes. Young urban professionals, fantasizing about the romance of city life, will roll into this part of town with wheelbarrows of money. With them will come the expensive boutiques, the chic coffee shops, the late-model cars. Another few years and you won't recognize the place."

"You and your imagination."

"It'll happen."

"A dream told you so?"

Pinocchio nods.

"Leon isn't home," Blue says abruptly. "Once a month he heads upstate to wheedle rent money from his sister in Albany." She cocks her head. "You feel like a nightcap?"

"It's getting late."

"I wish you'd come up. Just for a while." The fairy hesitates, not wanting to explain, then going ahead and doing it anyway. "Two weeks ago I saw someone getting hurt, hurt bad. I don't know who he was or why it happened or any of the details, only that it was awful and I still have nightmares." She's breathing heavily. "I don't want to be alone."

Pinocchio knows all about the dimwitted bookie named Wagner who stiffed the wrong client and got his head caved in with a tire iron. Examples must be made, order maintained. Shit happens. The event took place below Canal, behind a boarded-up deli where no one else should have been. Blue, on her way to a party, drunk and slightly lost, saw the whole thing.

He searches a pocket for cigarettes.

Pretend you've changed your mind. Send me home. In the morning, pack a suitcase and get the hell out of the city.

"Guess I can come up for a drink," he says, lighting up, hands shaking.

Blue beams. "My hero."

In the morning, the fog has grown even denser. You could build castles in the mist. Blue gives Pinocchio a quick kiss on the cheek as they walk to the street. She's happy. Slept like an innocent. Pinocchio had his dreams for company all night.

Blue smiles, as beautiful as the moment he met her back in the Old World.

He loves her. They're both paying for that.

A fragment of his last dream still hovers in his thoughts. Two days from now. He holds a bloody knife. Something lies at his feet, but he Won't Look Down.

Forgive me, he thinks at Blue. I can't change the future. Maybe that's part of my damnation.

"See you later," she says, still half asleep.

Some storybook tales have terribly unhappy endings.

"Not if I see you first," Pinocchio whispers to himself, fading into the fog like a ghost.


Copyright © 2002 Joel Best

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Joel Best lives in upstate New York with his wife and son. His fiction has been published in Writers of the Future, Electric Wine, Deep Outside, and Chiaroscuro.