of the New Yorks
(Frames, Book 2)
Copyright 2016 Sue Perry
Published by Sue Perry at
All rights reserved.
Cover photographs and
collage by Sue Perry.
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Thunder Building a Storm
Don't Invite Psychoanalysis
New York Fool
Only Cross At Red Lights
I'm Your Musician
Tattoo On My Heart
A Place Of Great Power
A Deeper Mode
Tell Me About The Brainwashing
Flannel Sheets On A Winter Night
A Wee Bit Of Resentment
When We Were Still Safe
I Knew That Flash Mob
Should Every Question Have An Answer?
Those Left Behind
The Basic State of Being
I Trust Your Instincts
Our Time Arrives
The First To Die
The Futility Of My Request
Books Don't Mean Bad
Your Steps Must Be Your Own
A Convention Of Middle–School Principals
Tantamount to Treason
All In Favor?
Scuffed By The Steps Of The Wicked
Your Nature Is Not A Flaw
Everybody Including Hernandez
I've Got Your Secret Answer
New York Rat Stories
Something Tickled My Memory
And It's Dangerous
Any Knowledge Will Help My Quest
I Don't Have To Believe You
The Impulses Of Their Masters
A Beginners' Recruitment Meeting
Affinity With Books
Here's the Worst Part
I Sense What Is Actual
Marzipan Stands Against Evil
You Brought Her Here
We Weren't In Bedlam
I Know About You Now
What Lesson Can You Learn From This?
You Don't Want To Be Seen With Me
Don't Feed Maelstrom
I Thought I Hated Them Before
The Time Of The Traitor
Must Be So Important
Like There Was A Wind, Except There Wasn't
Four Beings Survived
At Full Speed, Hold On
Everyone I Love Is At Risk
What Frame Are You From?
With Books We Win
The Trouble That Happens
His Mother Was A Hero
Go There, Stop It
The Bipolar Roller Coaster
Separate To Survive
Our Spirits Shall Not Be Broken
What Makes You Think I Have Cats?
Trust Is A Tether
We're Just A Bunch Of Neutrals
We Plotted Destruction
Bridges Aren't Made To Twist
When My Side Killed It Would Be Noble
What I'm Supposed To Do
Almost And Nearly
More Jenn Through The World
I Clutched It To My Heart
I Can't Go Back There
The Evolution of Meanings
THUNDER BUILDING A STORM
Tonight marked the
end of life as we know it, though few of us understood at the time.
Tonight, Maelstrom got free.
The first explosion
boomed from the northwest, way behind me, maybe back on the Columbia
campus. I didn't remember jumping at the noise, but here I was
jogging atop the seats of benches. I was already skittish before the
blast startled me—I knew I had no business crossing Central Park
alone after sunset, but I needed a run and had persuaded myself I
could outpace trouble. I hopped back to the path, sheepish but
unobserved—all attention was on the park's perimeters, where
glorious fall foliage lined the cobalt horizon. Fall. I'd been in New
York more than two months—had moved here to fight Maelstrom—and
at the moment, my effort felt pretty much for frigging naught.
bleached the sky, this time east of the park. Then north. Then south.
Then west. Then west again. People called the blasts simultaneous,
but actually they spanned about fifteen minutes. Simultaneous would
have been easier to handle.
As I curved back into
the city, I heard more echoes of blasts, near and distant, all over
the island. With each boom, the air grew further pressurized, as
though thunder was building a storm. South of Columbus Circle, the
air pulsed in a series of rapid blasts, punctuated with the deep
screams of grown men. Suddenly the building's top floor, under
reconstruction, was in flames—and from the sounds of it, several
workers were caught on the burning floor. I swerved to get out of the
way of men, clinging and swinging on the scaffolding, becoming
acrobats to reach the ground faster than was safe to move. But of
course safe is relative.
By the time the last of
them were down, the flames were out. The men began bickering about
whose carelessness had caused the explosion—debate that terminated
when a construction site across the street exploded in similar
flames. I didn't have to see more; already, I could have told them
that this was happening at remodeling sites around the city, to free
Maelstrom, a being of legendary power and evil who had long been
I knew the exact moment
when Maelstrom got free. The air pressure built and built, then with
one more explosion, pffft, the pressure was gone. I was
surprised when my next breath took in oxygen, because the air felt so
empty. The explosions had made the ground rumble but now it settled
with a groan just below detectible hearing, like the planet had
I resumed running to
flee feelings of impotence, failure. Maelstrom 's freedom was
inevitable, that's why the allies focused on preparations for the
warfare that would follow, as he moved to consolidate power and rule
the Frames. We allies couldn't match the military forces of
Maelstrom, but we had to prevail. Sure, Maelstrom and his minions,
Warty Sebaceous Cysts, had the advantage. But history is full of the
vanquishing of big strong bad guys. And not just in my Frame, as it
My two months working
for the allies in New York were not pointless, as they felt at the
moment of Maelstrom's escape. They were essential to the long–term
goal: Maelstrom might not be contained but he had to be stopped. I
gave myself this pep talk but tonight it didn't penetrate. I'd been
much more confident about fighting Maelstrom when I was back in Los
Angeles last summer, trying to explain the allies and the Frames to
DON'T INVITE PSYCHOANALYSIS
When your best
friend since third grade thinks you're crazy, it gives you pause. I
was confident that I was sane, but if I told Jenn how I'd spent my
summer while she was away, she'd be crazy not to think I was. Crazy.
Correction. Not if
I told her, when I told her. Jenn had been back in Los Angeles
for two weeks and every day that I avoided telling her about my case,
she got more distant. I had to tell her the truth, but whoever said
honesty was the best policy didn't have to explain detective work in
other dimensions or sentient lawn chairs.
I confess, my
experiences sounded crazy to me, too, now that I was cut off, back in
my own Frame, awaiting word about what my next move should be. I was
already fighting fear that the word would never come—that my
engagement in the Frames was over. I didn't need to add maybe I'm
nuts to my list of things to never think about.
Jenn and I were having
a last night together before she left town again, on another quest to
improve her health through spiritual retreat. Two years ago, Jenn was
diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and the doctors have been
surprised at how rapidly hers has progressed. Never surprise your
She was draped across
the futon in my office, her back to me at my desk. She was in the
middle of a daily ritual: install a free phone app, try it, decree
"Loser," delete it. Meanwhile, I watched the skylight for
clouds that held messages, and checked internet travel deals to see
if any resonated. Nope. None of the deals made me think yes, that
is where I'm supposed to go next, to fight Maelstrom and reconnect
with Anya and Anwyl.
When I closed the
travel web site, Jenn didn't look up from her phone. "Loser,"
she murmured and made a few clicks.
If I had any interest
in women, Jenn would be my main event. I love her luminescent skin
and her eyes that are green enough to be cat–worthy. She has a
well–formed opinion for every occasion. Also, she can out–curse a
But she hadn't cursed
all evening, not even a measly damn. That's how uncomfortable
I'd made her with my refusal to tell her about my detective work. I
couldn't let her leave town with our friendship in this state.
She looked up again.
"What's with the snort?"
"I was picturing
you in a t–shirt that says 'Some of my best friends are crazy', one
of those lame shirts with an arrow pointing to me."
She lowered her phone,
I shut my laptop.
I started before I
could change my mind. "As you know, while you were at your
latest retreat, I became a private detective and, amazingly, I got
clients. I was busy the whole time you were gone."
"I'm happy for
you. You've been searching for a new direction. Do you think this is
it?" Formal and polite. Not good.
"Yes, I believe it
is." I withheld my doubts about when/if/whether my case would
resume. "I haven't been comfortable talking about my work and as
I've been all too aware, that makes you unhappy."
Jenn tapped fingers
against lips in a fake yawn. Get on with it.
about to tell you is confidential." This got full attention, as
I knew it would. "My information will sound bogus and I can't
prove it right now but I will—at some point." She frowned,
perhaps reacting to my uncertainty. But she also curled her feet
under her. Listening.
"My clients are
other beings—people, maybe, humanoids, definitely. Never mind about
that, it's a detail. My clients are named Anya and Anwyl, and they're
not from this world. I wish you could meet them. She is—she's like
a living sunrise. He is—scary, but in a good way."
"They're not from
this world. Your clients are aliens."
spaceships and death rays. They're from another Frame, which as near
as I can figure is another dimension. It turns out there are Frames
all around us in all directions, with all kinds of life, all living
do we go to a new Frame? I want to see one."
I tilted my chair to
look out the skylight. "I don't know how to go by myself. My
clients would take me. We would walk through a tunnel between Frames
called a Connector. Or they would just take my hand and bring me with
them. They are beings of great power so they can do that."
"What's going on
in all those other Frames? Magic? Space colonies?"
living their lives. About half the beings know they're in Frames, the
others are like us, in Neutral Frames. Neutrals don't know about
other Frames, with a few exceptions."
"You're one of the
exceptions. And now I am, too. We're special."
I could hardly begrudge
her sarcasm. "Some of the Frames look like ours, but they're not
like ours. And stuff can turn out to be alive. This building, for
example, is sentient. Her name is Henrietta and she held the door
shut one time when it was dangerous for me to enter."
might think the door was stuck. I didn't know you had a cat."
I followed Jenn's gaze
and saw the reason for her non–sequitur. Dizzy, the
building's formerly stray cat, strolled in from my waiting room.
"That's Dizzy. She lives here when she's in this Frame. I
haven't seen her for days. She's probably been Traveling in other
Jenn made a noise like
I cut her off on the freeway. "I'm not laughing."
"I'm not kidding.
That cat saved my life once in another Frame."
Jenn sliced a finger
across her throat. No more about the cat.
Maybe I should have
stopped. But then Jenn was certain to conclude I had made up a
ridiculous story to exclude her from my case. "Another thing
about the Frames is that the Watts Towers are sentient. Anyway, the
two tallest ones are. They're sentient and animate—they move
around. They talk. They have rad powers, actually. One of them
disappeared, though, on an espionage mission, and we think he's
Nobody noticed that a ten–story tower disappeared?"
version of him didn't disappear in our Frame. Beings like the Watts
Towers, who are not animate and sentient in every Frame, have
different versions of themselves in different Frames. I'm not clear
on how that works."
your favorite folk art sculpture would be so powerful and special.
And a spy, too."
Talking about the
Frames had energized me, but this snagged my balloon on a power line.
"Of course you don't believe me yet, it would be weird if you
just accepted all this. I'll skip a lot of the details, they'd take
longer than we've got."
"You mean there's
more? Can we order pizza first?"
She made the call, then
I went out to fetch our pies from the pizza joint across the street.
Dizzy walked ahead of me down the hall. I squeezed my eyes a couple
times to clear them. Too much time on the internet, my vision was
blurry. The threadbare paisley rug was bleeding into Dizzy's gray and
Correction. I could see
the rug through the cat. Dizzy was becoming transparent. The cat did
a gradual fade out and right before she vanished, flicked her tail. I
felt honored—never before had Dizzy allowed me to see her change
Frames. But why couldn't she do that in front of Jenn? That would
have cut through Jenn's disbelief. Not for the first time, I had to
wonder how much conversation the cat understood.
Every meal is Christmas
morning for Jenn. While she compared pizza slices, I resumed my
spiel, occasionally waving my slice of jalapeño with green olives.
"My clients, Anya
and Anwyl, introduced me to the Frames. They have a prophecy that
says I could help them. They're leading an effort to save the
"From evil, I
assume." Jenn crammed pizza into her mouth but I caught the
snicker and was grateful for its modesty. Situation reversed, I'd be
at the guffaw stage. She chewed, she swallowed, her tone got serious.
"Just a few months ago, you were feeling lost and pointless
after Ick died. Now here you are with a new career and a job to save
Jenn knew, better than
anybody, how rough it had been after the death of my fourth
husband—she pulled me out of that tailspin. But still. "Thank
you, Dr. Shrink. Please don't psychoanalyze me."
She ate pizza. I played
with my food.
Jenn broke first. "I'm
sorry," she said, "tell me the rest."
"The rest won't be
easier to believe. There's this super evil being named Maelstrom,
who's in prison, but wants to rule the universe like he did once
before. We—Anya, Anwyl, the Watts Towers, all the allies including
me—have to stop him."
"He can rule the
universe from prison?"
"His henchmen are
working to free him. There are three henchmen, they're called Warty
Sebaceous Cysts, and they act like morons but they're cunning and
cruel." Thinking about the Cysts iced my heart. They acted goofy
while they orchestrated genocide, then hunted and murdered witnesses;
while they ransacked my thoughts, then told their flying chainsaws to
finish me off. I'd be dead if it weren't for a sentient volcano, who
"Did you say
'warty sebaceous cysts'? Like the lumps on Sadie's stomach?"
Sadie was Jenn's dear departed mutt.
"That's not the
real name, that's just as close as I can get to saying it—a lot of
the names are in languages I can't pronounce."
"Of course they
are. Languages of other Frames."
"Someday I'll be
able to prove this to you. But I can't right now, because we took
Warty Sebaceous Cysts to court and we lost. The court is a special
tribunal called the Framekeeps. The Framekeeps forbade Anya and Anwyl
from associating with me because I'm a Neutral. But they said 'stay
away from Nica of Los Angeles' so that gives us a loophole. I'm going
to move, and then I won't be Nica of Los Angeles, I'll be Nica of
Somewhere Else, and I can get back on the case."
I dropped into a chair,
refused to slump. "I don't know. Anya said 'you will know' but I
don't—yet. I'm. Expecting to get that information. Any time now."
Jenn folded her plate
and wiped her hands. Her staccato movements told me her attitude was
unchanged. What had I expected? Not to be believed, certainly, but
that she would see my sincerity, see that I believed, and wonder.
Jenn pulled her hair at
right angles to her ears, her gesture of utmost frustration. Her hair
was garnet underneath, burgundy where the sun kissed it. People think
she dyes her hair because the colors are so rich. But there is
nothing artificial about Jenn. "I thought you were going to talk
straight." Her voice lost decibels. "I didn't know you were
moving." She held out her pizza debris for me to dispose of.
"Are you writing a screenplay, bitch? I know I make fun of
wanna–bes but I wouldn't make fun of you. Hardly at all. You know
"Of course I know
that. I did tell you straight, and I –"
"I need to talk
about something else."
And so we did, and
although hearing about the Frames annoyed her, our friendship was
back on track, thanks to the prospect of separation for an unknown
length of time.
I considered driving
her out to meet Hernandez, who had shared many of my Frames
adventures. But he was in such a funk lately, I wasn't sure how that
meeting would go.
Maybe he'd act like a
veteran with delayed P.T.S.D. Maybe that's what he was. Maybe all
those tours in war zones had finally nailed him. Maybe the signs were
there already: educated, skilled man working as a custodian, after
all. Which made me feel disloyal to Hernandez.
Another explanation for
my summer adventures was psychotic break. Which made me feel disloyal
No. Things happened
like I said. That had to be the reality. I'm not a masochist. I
wouldn't hallucinate the Frames then exclude myself from them.
NEW YORK FOOL
When I first
detected that New York was my relocation destination, I ignored the
evidence. I love New York but I've been there often. I wanted unknown
and exotic. Nica of Shanghai sounded about right. But no one
consulted me. Instead, my travel services emailed alerts about
fabulously low airfares one way to New York. Every day there's a deal
going somewhere, I sniffed. When I stopped for coffee, the sound
system blasted Laura Nyro—New York Tendaberry. I hadn't
heard that for decades. Leaving the coffee joint, I took a short cut
through a parking lot and every car had a New York license plate.
This was all before lunch. Come afternoon, the homeless guy who asked
for change had a Brooklyn accent; public radio launched a series on
vintage jazz, live from the Blue Note; and the top news story was the
bomb scare near Wall Street.
When I went to toss
trash in the dumpster behind my building, the cinderblock wall
grabbed my attention. Hummingbirds are my favorite bird and someone
had spray–painted two giant lime green hummers in confrontation
mode: beaks down, chests arched, wings back. I once had a yard with a
faux honeysuckle and the hummers spent all day around
it—seconds eating and hours confronting others who tried to eat.
This drawing captured the essence, which had to be awfully hard to do
with spray paint. Was this graffiti new? Surely I would have noticed
it before. Then I discovered the lime green writing that gleamed atop
older, basic black graffiti. I dropped my garbage bag, moved closer.
The inscription smeared when I touched it. NEW YORK FOOL the blocky
graffiti shouted. Tagger's signature or talking to me?
I needed to find
Hernandez. He was the only Neutral who'd shared the Frames with me
and we'd spent many hours speculating about where I would be called
to go next. Hernandez was due to start his custodial shift in my
building, so I jogged to the parking garage to intercept him.
"It's New York,"
I yelled as Hernandez pulled his battered red pickup into a parking
"How long before
you leave?" He slammed the truck door then patted it
apologetically. He had not yet adjusted to the revelation that his
truck was sentient.
"A week at most, I
"No time to
waste." He unlocked the custodial closet without looking at me.
His daughters recently left for Spain to live with their mother, and
people leaving him was an issue. In fact, from the moment his girls
took off, he kept himself crazy busy, with a second custodial gig and
hours of daily driving around southern California, doing
reconnaissance for Anya and Anwyl.
I trailed after
Hernandez as he pushed the custodial cart into the elevator. He set
to work as though I weren't there. I'm not into forcing friends to
talk with me, so we did the adieu thing and I went to find the
Henrietta's building manager.
The building manager
gets a gleam in his eye around me, because he has been led to believe
that I'm doing police work and he lo–o–oves police work. I
informed him that my case would take me to New York for an unknown
stretch of time. I paid four months rent in advance and—jackpot!—he
offered to set me up with a rental in the owner's property in
I wanted to tell
Hernandez but his truck was gone—he must have cut his shift short.
I looked for Dizzy, but hadn't seen her since the night she vanished
in the hall. I felt so disconnected from my life in L.A., I might as
well already be gone.
What with my scrambling
to get out of town and his overbooked schedule, I didn't see
Hernandez again before I headed for New York. Our last contact was an
empty text exchange.
:: At airport, boarding
soon. Keep me posted on yr recon work.
:: Safe flight! Will
With that, I added
Hernandez to the growing list of loved ones I didn't know when I
would see again.
ONLY CROSS AT RED LIGHTS
remember the last time I'd felt lonely, but I spent the first couple
weeks in New York fighting a creeping nostalgia. Everything reminded
me of something. Somebody. The absent and the dead. And I was
irritable, as irritable as my second father–in–law's bowel
syndrome. Here I was, already—moved, already—but
nothing had changed. I was still excluded from all things Framesian.
For all I knew, Maelstrom and the Cysts might be vanquished by now,
without my involvement.
When I wasn't sulking,
I did believe that Anya and Anwyl would fetch me when it was time. I
was unsure what to do with myself until then. I had developed
confidence in my private eye abilities—I rarely turned to fictional
detectives for advice nowadays. I could open up shop as a private
detective, but hadn't decided how to attract clients and hated to
leave a case unfinished if—correction, when—Anya and Anwyl
My new abode was on the
Upper West Side, just shy of Columbia University, in an as–is
brownstone with a name etched over the front stoop: The Julian.
Call it lovingly unrestored. The Julian had decayed with dignity
intact. The front stairs, jagged with missing concrete chunks, rose
to a magnificent lead crystal door that shimmered softly, day or
night. The inner foyer was scuffed by so many feet that the parquet
grain was plaid. Two lean mahogany staircases led to five stories of
narrow apartments on separate, locked halls. Mine was second floor,
west half. In the main room, floor to ceiling windows gave plenty of
light to examine the peeling pastiche of wallpapers. I loved my
apartment from the moment I stepped inside, sharing space with so
many generations of tenants.
And I loved roaming
outside. At night, I killed hours and energy on zigzag walks during
which I thought of nothing but the color of the next traffic light.
My initial rule was keep moving so I crossed streets going
whichever direction was green. Then Manhattan's pedestrian anarchy
overtook me: lights don't matter. You cross the street if there is a
lull in traffic, or if you suspect that oncoming driver is a wimp who
will brake for you. With this realization, my rule became only
cross at red lights. To follow that rule I had to pay attention,
whatever the hour, which made brooding impossible.
Each day, to become
familiar with my new stomping ground, I rode a different subway line
to its farthest terminus, then tracked back by a combination of
walking and station–hopping. The regime gave me purpose; and reason
to spend time on the subway.
I glanced out today's
train window and an express train with film–strip windows flashed
by. The train paced mine briefly and in each window was a still life
of unknown souls, then the windows shot ahead—and down! Did that
train go down or did my train go up? How many levels were there in
this underground universe?
Was it any wonder I
loved the subway? It was as close to Frame Travel as I would get for
On one day's
exploration, I passed a bookstore and my first impulse was to run. In
other Frames, I'd witnessed books as mercenary soldiers who flew
upside down, shedding razor–edged text that cut through anything—or
This was my first
bookstore visit since discovering the violent lives of books in other
Frames, and I was relieved that being surrounded by books felt every
bit as cozy, restorative, and enticing as it ever had. Books could
not be inherently evil, their natures must have somehow been twisted.
So far, this was the only way that my Frame seemed superior to other
Frames: here, we appreciated the true nature of books.
The bookstore clerk
flirted, "I bet you're a California girl. You've got a real even
said and escaped to the back aisles. I was overdue to dye my hair.
I knew, because
encounters like this were on the rise. My natural hair shade is beach
bunny blonde. That—coupled with my skin's tendency to tan after the
briefest sun exposure—is the bane of my existence. Yes, I would be
a better person—stronger, healthier, yada yada—if I accepted my
looks. But I barely made it to sweet 16 before I grew terminally sick
of guys hitting on me because they suffered from blonde fetish. And
so I dye my hair. When I was a teen, I went for a mottled print that
suggested leopard skin. I have also enjoyed nuclear yellow hair,
which makes me feel like a Marvel heroine. Nowadays I'm mostly
a chestnut brunette, which keeps moron encounters to a minimum.
The bookstore had a
display of best sellers, including Lose Twenty Pounds of Worry in
Twenty Days. Self–help hogwash that would never have come into
my life, had Jenn not bought me a copy. In another Frame, a copy of
Lose Twenty Pounds had died at my inadvertent command. As a
memorial, I would buy a copy of Lose Twenty Pounds.
The clerk lost his
flirty smile when I set my purchase on the counter. With a
sucked–a–lemon look, he rang me up quickly. Interesting that Lose
Twenty Pounds could be a bestseller yet sound a dork alert. Maybe
I should carry a copy at all times—think of the blonde trouble that
I was kidding but
within a block I felt an urge—a necessity—to return to the
bookstore. I fought the feeling for another block then went back and
bought the stock of Lose Twenty Pounds—four more hardcovers,
two paperbacks. It made no sense but I had to. Maybe this was a sign
from beyond my Frame.
I'M YOUR MUSICIAN
Or maybe it was a
pointless whim. I spent the next several days interpreting all manner
of pointless whims as messages from other Frames. Meanwhile, I
traversed a different subway line each day, which helped me calculate
how long I'd been waiting here for Anya and Anwyl to reconnect.
On my eleventh day, I
just missed a train at Columbus Circle station. Next train arrives
in 9 minutes, the message board assured me.
The train and its
racket receded and that was when I heard it. Him. The slide
guitarist, set up at the far end of the platform. He looked like a
retired biker, with a shaved head and an anarchist's beard and thick
coarse worn garments suitable for long trips on rough roads. He
played a blues that was as beautiful as it was mournful. It took me
back to the unparalleled glorious sunset on the day that Ick died.
Next train in 4
minutes. Next train in 10 minutes. Next train in 13
minutes. It was impossible for me to leave that music. The longer
I listened, the deeper it reached. It dragged my yearning and
frustration to the surface, then shouldered them with me, then took
them from me in a gentle catharsis.
I sat on a bench, close
enough to read the script in cracked lime green paint on the open
guitar case: Kelly Joe. I only had a twenty–dollar bill so I
dropped it in the case. If I'd only had a fifty I would have dropped
that in. "I thank you for your kindness," Kelly Joe
murmured without looking up from his strings. I bet he needed to
concentrate. I play a lot of instruments a little bit, which was
enough to recognize how difficult that passage was. He made it look
as effortless as a pelican skimming waves.
While he played, one
leg tapped an erratic beat. He didn't sing but he hummed in a
resonant baritone. Intricate drawings covered his forearms—tattoos
that seemed to animate as he played.
The next two days, I
chose subway lines that went through Columbus Circle station and was
thrilled to find him playing in the same spot. The day after that, he
wasn't there and I spent most of the day checking back for him, in
vain. I found him on the following day and I stayed for hours.
I wasn't the only one
who spent excess time in Columbus Circle station to hear to him play.
Among the regulars was a young woman, Manhattan trim and savvy, who
listened with tears flooding her cheeks. To give her privacy, I
watched Kelly Joe's hands glide over the frets. I was frustrated at
my powers of observation, or lack thereof, because his tattoos looked
different than I remembered them. Today there were totem animals that
I hadn't noticed before. When I looked up, I must have frowned and
the young woman must have thought the frown was for her. She shoved
the heels of her hands across her face to dry her tears.
I reached a hand toward
her, yanked it back. Not cool to touch a stranger. "Sometimes
crying is all we can do," I said. Which set her to bawling
again. A train came, she moved to board it. "See you tomorrow,"
I called, and when she braced herself to clutch a pole in the packed
train car, she showed just a hint of smile.
Right when I said 'See
you', Kelly Joe's music paused then shifted melodies. As the train
pulled that teary face away, the music spread through my bloodstream,
changed my pulse. By the time the train disappeared into the tunnel,
I relived every leave–taking that ever mattered to me. They no
longer made me sad. I felt their inevitability, sensed our lives
flowing in currents now parallel, now merged, now divergent.
I moved closer to Kelly
Joe. As always, the grace and strength in his hands entranced me. I
wanted him to never stop playing.
I grabbed his wrist and
stopped him. "Hey!" I said. Among his forearm tattoos was a
lime green hummingbird in confrontation mode. No way had I missed
this tattoo previously. It had not been on his arm until now. "What
the hell! What is this?"
He got very still but
did not pull away. He murmured, "My messages," which, I
later learned, is what he calls his tattoos. He means messages to,
not from, him.
He looked up from his
frets. I saw his eyes and dropped his wrist. "Who are you?"
I whispered. His eyes were a deep shifting blend of grays and blues
like unpolished silver. Like Anya's eyes. They looked at me, into me,
beyond me. He gathered the change people had tossed in his case,
packed his guitar, and stood.
musician," he replied. "Tomorrow your lessons begin. Have
an enlightened evening, Nica."
A train arrived and
commuters flowed around Kelly Joe, the only one not in a hurry. He
tucked his earnings into the clenched hands of an old man, sleeping
or passed out below the escalator. Then the rush–hour crowd
TATTOO ON MY HEART
On that same day,
I met the cat, Leon. Stray cats are a fixture back home in Los
Angeles and in many cities I've visited, but I'd never seen one in
New York. Or maybe I did but mistook it for a smaller–than–average
rat. The cat sat on the stoop of my building. He was an orange tabby
with long fur or short dreads. He looked like he had rolled in glue.
I sat at the other end of the steps, hoping to make friends with him.
As soon as I sat, he jumped down to the sidewalk. He was small for a
pony but the largest cat I had ever seen, and a graceful jumper,
floating from the stoop to the sidewalk with a ripple of spine. Below
me, he rolled on the cement. His fur was so matted that when he rose,
his coat had sprouted cigarette butts.
His thinking was
equally unkempt. When a big dog went by on its evening walk, the cat
held his ground. However, when I stepped to the door—away from
him—the cat fled.
Inside my apartment, I
allowed myself one comprehensive recollection of my encounter with
Kelly Joe, my musician. At last things were moving in a promising
direction! However, with nothing but time on my hands, it was too
easy to wander too far inside my own head, so after the single
recollection I washed my face at the bathroom sink. I stared into the
mirror, pondering which subway route to—gak! A face appeared behind
my shoulder in the mirror.
Outside the bathroom
window, the unkempt cat clung to the fire escape railing in a
balancing act better suited to a bird.
All that evening, the
cat wouldn't come inside and he wouldn't go away. He was on the stoop
when I went out to get some dinner, across the street from the
pharmacy as I shopped, and back at the window when I prepped for bed.
My bathroom window has bars so I was comfortable keeping it open
that night as an invitation to him.
By morning, the cat was
perched on my chair. I shut the window and corralled him in the
bathroom, where he pinged like a tennis ball on the space station. I
stayed with him until he accepted or forgot he was trapped, and
meanwhile read all seven languages' instructions for the hair
clippers I bought at the pharmacy. While he watched, I clipped myself
first, converting tresses to dense velvety fuzz. I hadn't had a clip
for years and the liberation was immediate. I petted my head and
"It feels great,
you'll be glad you did it. Think of the savings in furballs!" I
held him in the sink and he didn't resist near as much as I expected.
He so needed to be touched, he didn't care what I did to him. I'd
known times like that and perhaps he felt my sympathy.
After I clipped the
cat, I opened the window. He shot out like horizontal lightning, but
then stopped on the fire escape and watched me bag his nasty clumps
of fur. I went out for breakfast brew and by the time I returned, he
was asleep across the back of my couch.
Without fur, he was
nothing but bones. And scars, which looked like knife cuts. Across
his skull was a jagged homemade tattoo that said Leo, with an
o like a diamond. It was probably his name—he had the long nose,
hint of crossed eyes, and lion markings if you squinted while drunk,
which his mutilator probably had been. But in case Leo was his
mutilator, I dubbed the cat Leon. "Why did you let
anybody do that to you, Leon? What are you, part dog?" I knew
the answer. He was too sweet to fight. A terrible trait for a street
cat, whatever your size. I scritched his head and he broke into a
purr that rumbled the dishes and made me nostalgic for earthquakes,
confirming my homesickness.
From that instant, I
had a Leon tattoo on my heart. He kept falling over while I
petted him, because he would lean into my hand with such gusto that
he lost balance. I hadn't laughed like this in weeks. Hell, this was
the longest I'd spent with another being in weeks. Lesson there. I
moved to New York because I was so eager to be part of something
special with Anya and Anwyl; instead, here I was, cut off and alone.
Could I trust Leon?
Monk and Miles, the Watts Towers, once told me that it was okay to
love Dizzy, but that I shouldn't trust her because cats have only
their own side. What were the odds that two cats in a row would have
a side that aligned with us, the allies, against Warty Sebaceous
Cysts and Maelstrom? If Leon was trustworthy did that increase the
chances that Dizzy wasn't? Did you ever notice that male cats seem
less bright than female cats? Maybe it's because they are more
easy–going, which means that –
Nica! Focus! I was late
getting out the door for today's subway line. Although I was
reassured to catch myself digressing. First time in ages. I really
hadn't been myself lately.
gained. I liked being alone when in my city of birth with loved ones
nearish–by. Being alone across the continent made for a whole other
shebang, and only felt okay now that I knew Kelly Joe and Leon.
Momentarily this made me feel weak, but needing loved ones nearish
wasn't a trait that I could change, so I acknowledged it and moved
A PLACE OF GREAT POWER
My plan was to
take the number 7 train under the East River into Queens. I got to
Grand Central then kept walking. I didn't like using either
mega–station, Times Square or Grand Central. Going inside was like
entering scenes from before I was born.
Nica." I recognized Kelly Joe's baritone and spun around. He was
right behind me.
suffered a sudden loss of conviction. Maybe he wasn't a tutor from
the Frames, maybe he was some weird street busker that I had just
made a date with. Except how did he know my name or where to find me?
Well, if he were a weird enough street busker he could.
I got a grip. After
all, I wore Anya's lanyard across my torso, hidden under my clothes.
The lanyard signaled me when I was in danger and it never let out a
peep around Kelly Joe, although it had been driving me nuts since I
arrived in New York, with prickling warnings of no consequence. Just
this morning, it gave a jolt of pain because I was about to step in a
Kelly Joe stood
motionless while I worked through all this. We were close to Grand
Central so the sidewalks were crowded and people flowed around us. He
studied my head.
"I cut my hair
off," I acknowledged.
"You did. It suits
you both ways."
I wanted to know a lot
more about him. He didn't talk or act like a Frame Traveler. Except
for playing music of unearthly soul. And, p.s., having tattoos that
"We should get
started. Anya gave me a list of ways you need to be trained," he
Anya. Hearing her name
come out of someone else's mouth. If hope is a brain scan, mine just
spiked after a lengthy flatline.
He rested a finger on
his lips. "We won't mention her again," he said.
Which left me with so
many questions I had a logjam between brain and mouth. Why not? Was
she in danger? Were we? From the Framekeeps? From Warty Sebaceous
Cysts? How did he know Anya, anyway? To passersby it may have seemed
like I was sharing my guppy impersonation. I hoped Kelly Joe wasn't
someone who put much stock in first impressions.
"It's a fine
morning for a walk," he noted.
I shut my mouth and
joined him heading east, across Lexington Avenue and away from Grand
Central. It was indeed a fine morning for a walk. Sun warmed the air
but did not yet bake the sidewalks. Commuters had commuted, so
traffic noise was no longer continuous. All around us, pedestrians
whistled for taxis, placed orders at food stands, barked instructions
into cell phones. Hell–bent bicyclists swerved at the last minute
and yelled like a collision would be your fault. It must be Kelly
Joe's presence that made my sensations so acute.
Or it was just New
York. Dirty loud crowded vibrant alive. On the streets there, I was
isolated and part of a whole. I could not comprehend the variety of
lives around me but felt they were people much like me.
Kelly Joe held out his
hand. "Will you take my hand? I want to show you where you are."
I wanted to push his
sleeve up to check his forearm tattoos—did they change all the
time? were they changing right now?—but figured I should wait until
I knew him at least six minutes. I took his hand instead. His skin
was cool and dry despite the humidity, his grip was casually strong,
and his clasp distracted me. Those long thin musician's fingers. I
stopped thinking about ways to play them when I could no longer hear
New York is always loud
but this was to loud like a supernova is to a cigarette ember. I
searched for the source, but the noise came from all directions. This
wasn't the New York I knew. Around us, the buildings looked familiar
but all signs of people had vanished and vehicles seemed to be
grazing on the asphalt, as I had seen them do in Miles and Monk's
Frame, Next Vast. This was not my Frame. My musician was a Frame
Traveler, powerful enough to take me with him when he shifted Frames.
I was so excited I felt
shy. I tried to sound cool and collected, but I stripped my throat
yelling above the hubbub, "Did we Travel to Next Vast?"
Kelly Joe leaned close
to reply. "Thereabouts." His voice remained soft yet I
heard him, or felt the words. With his cool breath on my ear lobe, I
wished he'd say more. Instead, he gripped my hand tighter and we
Traveled to another Frame where it was quieter, although still much
louder than home.
Here the streets were
under water and each block's sidewalk bobbed like a dock. Our steps
intensified the bobbing and made buildings bump each other. Which was
impossible! I had a slew of questions but he touched a finger to his
I sensed rather than
heard him say, "When I have questions, I observe more closely
until I have answers." Then he chuckled.
"What are you
laughing about?" I yelled. Me, the answer had to be.
"Anwyl said I'd
need time for questions."
"He knows me!"
I looked around, taking it all in, grinning. At last I was Traveling
As we approached the
East River, a disturbing noise grew, like someone cackled while
gargling. With each cackling episode, I grew more uneasy.
"That's just the
river," Kelly Joe assured me. "Pay it no mind and it will
ignore you, as most predators do."
"Okay but why does
–" I cut myself off, challenged to prove I could walk one
block without questions. "It sure is loud here."
"And in all the
New Yorks," he nodded. He Traveled us back to the first Frame
we'd visited, the loudest of them all. The noise was like a thousand
mix tapes, played simultaneously, backwards. I tried to pick out
individual sounds but the harder I tried, the more I got lost in the
rush of noise.
"I hear everything
but nothing," I complained.
attention," he instructed. "Take your focus away from what
I couldn't get it. He
began to hum. I tuned into his baritone and gradually the background
noises sharpened and separated. They were voices. Hundreds of voices,
near and far. Yet I saw no beings in this Frame.
Eventually, over many
visits, I pieced together the situation, no thanks to Kelly Joe, who
seemed more willing than Anwyl to tell me stuff, yet—like
Anwyl—rarely told me things I could understand.
New York is a place of
great power, with a persistent presence through many Frames. Of
course it has sentient structures, as all cities do. What is
different about New York is that the land itself transmits so much
power that it imparts a little bit of sentience to every
structure, from the Waldorf Astoria to the pretzel cart across the
street. The sentience derives from the construction materials, the
wood and metal and glass and rock, much of which comes from sentient
beings. Every structure is a mixture of sensibilities that, in places
of power, becomes a personality. Usually the sensibilities add
together and create a modest intellect, occasionally they conflict
and induce schizophrenia. Each personality persists through all the
New Yorks, that is, all the Frames where the land imparts power. The
land's power is strongest in the Frame where we walked now, (whose
name sounds to me like) Frivolous Bedlam. The land's power weakens
with distance from Frivolous Bedlam and in those Frames, fewer
buildings have sentience so the noise level diminishes. In the New
Yorks, a quiet Frame is one that is far from the source of power. Or
it's a Neutral Frame. Neutrals can't hear the buildings because of
filters that shield Neutrals from awareness of other Frames.
As my own Frame
teaches, sentience guarantees neither intelligence nor wisdom, and as
Kelly Joe and I walked in Frivolous Bedlam, most of the chatter
around us was simply that: buildings gossiped, discussed the weather,
complained about leaks and creaks, told jokes. The truly sentient
structures—the beings like Henrietta, my home in Los Angeles—were
quiet. They only speak when they have something to say.
"That one shaved
herself and then a cat," I heard a voice, followed by titters.
I stopped walking.
"Hey, they're talking about me!"
"As they do, as
they will." Kelly Joe murmured.
"How do these
buildings know or care? They didn't see me shave the cat. I don't
live anywhere near here."
"Few Neutrals are
Travelers nowadays. The buildings like to keep an eye out."
I stumbled. Struggling
to keep up with the pace of information, I'd stepped in a pothole.
All too soon, Kelly Joe
brought us back to my Neutral Frame, where a typical Manhattan work
day suddenly seemed silent.
"Thank you for
taking me to other Frames! I've missed Traveling. So much! Even
though Traveling used to make me feel like crap. How come that didn't
feel bad? One time when Anya held my hand and we jumped off a roof,
Traveling didn't hurt then, either. Was it because you held my hand?
Why is that less bad? The worst was the time Anwyl took a bunch of us
to far Frames really fast, to escape Warty Sebaceous Cysts. Is going
to far Frames the hardest?" Ahhh. I hadn't had a good babble in
weeks. Kelly Joe stood, fidget free, as patient as a broken clock.
"You're welcome to answer any of those," I concluded.
"When I take your
hand, you Travel on my energy and I share your journey. You'll feel
less pain as you Travel more."
"What if –"
I plugged my question spigot.
Kelly Joe's finger was
back to his lips. "It's time that you learned to Travel on your
That left me
A DEEPER MODE
Cut to unknown
hours later. "So your instructions are, relax and don't think
about it while concentrating with every molecule of my being. In your
Frame, do you have the concept 'mixed message'? Wait, don't count
that as one of the questions I'm hardly ever allowed to ask,
rhetorical shouldn't count."
"This is my Frame,
too," was all Kelly Joe said.
makes me testy."
"It really doesn't
help that you're so calm and reasonable."
He watched a traffic
light change. "Would you like to take a break?"
"No way. Not now."
And I strode up Second Avenue as though the next Frame had a head
My feet advanced, left
right left right. The only thing on my mind was stepping into a new
Frame. Walking into a new Frame was all I thought about and that
pallet the delivery guy just dropped with a thud that chattered my
teeth which reminded me I might need to find a dentist –
I stomped back to my
teacher. Kelly Joe met my gaze, face unreadable. His expressions were
on par with Monk's sentences. If you thought you got the meaning,
that only proved you didn't.
He took out a harmonica
from a jeans pocket that had a white worn strip where the harp lived.
Much as I loved listening to his music, I needed to get this right. I
strode forward. The only thing on my mind was stepping into a new
Frame. Right left rightleftrightleft.
Kelly Joe strolled
behind me. He bent bluesy notes, all keening, yearning, and sighs.
The music distracted me, but with it I tuned out other distractions.
Left right left right left right. I heard the music as I pulled away
from it. And then –
– something clicked,
my thinking shifted to a deeper mode, no longer influenced by my
thoughts, which were pollen in the winds of daily life. Now I had to
strain to hear the harmonica because it was so loud here, so many
voices chattering at once. I stumbled with a sudden vertigo, like I
dropped sideways in an elevator. At the same time, I thought I might
The stumble converted
to a victory leap. This combination of sensations was what I felt
when I changed Frames in the past! I jumped up and down while
shouting, "I did it! I did it!" By the time I had leaped
back to Kelly Joe and clasped his biceps in an awkward hug, whatever
had clicked in, clicked out again and I was back in my Frame. I
continued to whoop my success.
New York is a good
place to act like—or be—an idiot. I could have run down the block
with a roman candle in each fist and armadillos looping around my
wrists—and the only sign that any pedestrian noticed would be the
minimalist change in direction to avoid collision with my circus.
I stopped on a mental
dime. "Wait. Was that me or you who did that?" If I needed
his music to change Frames, what had I accomplished on my own?
experience with our earlier walk."
"This time I felt
woozy and nauseous! That was awesome!"
"Yes, that's the
proof that you found your way. My music showed you how to focus. Soon
you won't need help."
I took off west without
him or his harp. I tried changing Frames another dozen times,
succeeded maybe twice. I grew ever more dizzy and nauseous.
Fortunately, we returned to our home Frame within a short dash of a
trashcan and soon I was no longer nauseous. Unfortunately, that was
because I vomited a considerable volume into the trashcan.
Barfing is wrong. I so
hate it. Go ahead, call me emetophobic, you won't be the
first. My first and third husband, Ben Taggart, learned the medical
term so he could tease me about my phobia in two languages. Whatever
you call my concern, over the years it has been a deterrent to all
manner of bad behavior. Shows how much I love Frame Travel; I'm
willing to emeto for it.
Kelly Joe extracted a
neckerchief and water bottle from his denim jacket. He dampened the
cloth and gently wiped my face, then encouraged me to empty the
bottle down my stinging throat.
make a good dad, Kelly Joe." I returned his empty water bottle.
"Those are words
never spoken," he said, with an un–positive expression I
didn't know him well enough to define.
We got to Columbus
Circle subway station and he stopped at entrance.
"You'll want to go
home. A visitor left you a message."
"How do you know?"
"The way that all
information spreads in the New Yorks."
"The buildings in
Frivolous Bedlam!" Was that a chuckle? "Did you just laugh
at me? How was I funny?"
"Your accent is
unique when you say..." he thought his words were inflected
differently but they still sounded exactly like "...Frivolous
Damn. I'd never get
those names right. But I slammed the door on frustration—at least I
had some new Frames to mispronounce now!
"I need to hear
you play a couple songs before I go home. I've had a rough day."
exhausting and don't forget I barfed."
"Then come along."
For a moment, I thought he might smile.
That afternoon, his
music was giddy and fun. It sent me flying to the moon on homemade
wings and dancing a jig around Saturn's rings. A pair of kids seemed
to inspire the difference. The girl, maybe four, and the boy, maybe
three, bounced in place as kids do when they must move but can't go
The platform was
packed, a train delayed. Typically, this generates bad tempers, and
usually, when a late train arrives, the crowd presses en masse
into the cars. Today, many lingered to keep listening. Now there is a
testament—Kelly Joe's music kept New Yorkers from pushing forward.
I slid back on a bench,
ignoring the way one pants leg stuck on something. Glad I wasn't
wearing shorts. A train pulled in; a train pulled out. I closed my
eyes to let the music penetrate more deeply. Could music be
A gulp and a sniffle.
On the other end of the bench, someone was crying. It was the same
young woman who cried here yesterday. Her eyes said she recognized
me, too. She turned her head away.
"Did you come to
this station every day before he played here?" I tried to break
the ice, waited a New York hour for her to respond, closed my eyes
her voice cracked, "it's my commute."
"Did you stop at
all since yesterday? Crying, I mean."
remember." She stared at the cavity left by the most recent
"You remind me of
me after my fourth husband died." She reacted to the fourth.
"It takes me a while to get things right."
"Didn't you have
I snorted. How to
answer her underlying question. Why had I buzzed my head? The blonde
thing hadn't genuinely bothered me for ages. Starting new? Solidarity
with Leon? Behind the gentrification, it's still Travis Bickle's
Manhattan? My companion shared my hair color. Maybe blonde was her
crowning glory. If I ever got to know her better, I could ask her.
Her question held a splash of concern. When you're twenty, you buzz
your head and people figure style. Let a couple decades elapse
and a new guess arises, chemo.
patient, bemused. I rubbed my silky scalp. "Long story."
"My brother cut
his hair like that. He allowed me to rub his head but no one else
could." She stormed up again. Even dry, her eyes would be the
watery blue that goes best with blondes. My brown irises had let me
skip that stereotype.
"I'm sorry you
feel so miserable. Let me know if a private detective could help."
She reacted with
surprised thoughtfulness. "Maybe—I—that might—I—never
thought of that. But I couldn't afford that."