When a New York neighborhood secedes, a veteran rockstar finds himself on the outs
By Ralph Lombreglia
June 5, 2017
Rock Nova walked down West Third Street in disguise. He had his well-known mop of corkscrewing hair tucked into a big knit cap, oversized shades on his face, and a leather jacket that a woman fan had told him looked cheap, though he’d paid good money for it in a SoHo boutique. He stopped for coffee on Thompson Street and laughed to himself when nobody recognized him. But he was too tired to give it the gusto it deserved. He’d gotten up at 8:30 A.M. to pee and take some ibuprofen, and he was so hung-over that he couldn’t go back to sleep. At 9:30 he finally said fuck it and took a shower.
He’d have to rearrange his day to get some sleep before the gig. For now, he was going to visit the breakaway republic of Alphaland, which had seceded from the Union a week ago. He’d watched it happen on TV from his farmhouse upstate: everything from 14th Street at Avenue A down to East Houston at FDR Drive was now another country, surrounded by militiamen. The soldiers were symbolic, for the moment, with business carrying on as usual, vehicles and pedestrians coming and going at will. But everyone was waiting to see what the government would do. Rock knew what they’d do. He remembered it from Zuccotti Park: crack down violently in the middle of the night. And the pressure was on them to do it. Iceland and Venezuela had recognized the fledgling nation, and now Russia was praising the spirit of the Alphalanders. Rock expected the hammer to come down sooner than later, maybe even today.
Alphabet City. In the ’70s people got shot there, like the trumpeter Lee Morgan, killed by his girlfriend at 33, Jesus’s age, in a club called Slug’s on East Third Street. Even in the ’80s, when Rock was growing up in Jersey, you had to be careful going that far east. Today, he couldn’t afford a condo there. When he’d heard about Alphaland seceding, he wanted to stay there this weekend and feel the energy, write a song about it, but his wife, Laurie, said, “With a fucking seven-year-old, Rock?” And so they’d kept the West Village apartment she’d already rented online. They would stay in Washington Square like a couple of NYU parents, shopping and having dinner with friends, and then Rock would play his comeback gig, as his manager insisted on calling it.
And then the sudden lunatic fight, where one minute everything was fine and the next minute his wife and daughter were getting on a plane and flying to Laurie’s sister’s in California. He’d left an apology on her voicemail during the flight, and last night he’d sent an email from the city, pleading with her to fly back for the gig. She hadn’t answered. He was a flawed human being, and she was divorcing him. She’d get custody of Grace, and his own daughter would grow up regarding him as a stranger.
His latte was gone. He threw the cup in the trash. His band was staying at The Roxy, hoping to be recognized. They, too, thought he was an asshole—for canceling their tour, taking a year to write new music, blowing off dinner with them last night. They viewed tonight’s gig as make-or-break. In fact, it was break. Rock was dissolving The Snow Pussies after the show tonight. He just hadn’t told them yet.
Or was he only thinking of dissolving the band because he was coming down with something? While sweetening his latte in the coffee shop, he’d repeatedly dropped sugar packets and wooden stirring sticks on the floor. A case of the dropsies usually meant he was getting sick. If he hadn’t gotten high last night and then had a whole bottle of Sancerre in the strange woman’s apartment, he’d have slept just fine. He cursed himself for it while crossing Lafayette where Third Street became Great Jones.
No, he was doing it. Dissolving the band.
He thought of his Airbnb landlady. Her picture was on the rentals page. She was quite beautiful. Her profile stated that she rented her apartment because she was always at her boyfriend’s place anyway. People now announced such things to the general public. She was probably a Snow Pussies fan. He could send her a message offering his wife’s seat to the sold-out show. Or he could just fail to check out tomorrow, stay in her bed, and meet her that way.
He turned left on Bowery toward the tangle of streets where he’d gone to college. His professors thought he’d never make anything of himself, and they were right—in their world anyway. Cooper Union had been free when he attended. Now it cost money to go there, and the big new glass building was an insult to the old spirit of the place. The dream was officially dead, everywhere you looked.
Except in Alphaland! He emerged from chaotic Cooper Square and headed east on St. Marks Place, where, crossing First Avenue, he could see the National Guard up ahead on Avenue A, just as he’d seen them on the tube, standing at ease but with the big-ass weapons across their chests. They were strung out along the eastern side of the avenue, maintaining the intersection itself as part of the USA. Up and down the line, citizens faced off with them, sticking flowers in the barrels of their guns.
He passed through them like they were ghosts and entered Tompkins Square Park via the northwestern gate, across from the portrait of Joe Strummer on the wall of a Seventh Street building. If you wanted to be a legend, all you had to do was die. The sky was blue, and the air was unseasonably warm for the 10th of April, more like a day in late May. It was Saturday, and the park was packed. But it would have been packed on any day in any weather. It was the soul of a new nation. He wondered how many of these freaks were actually undercover cops. A guy in full purple camo with a purple beret came up to him. “Hands off Alphaland!” He had a petition he wanted Rock to sign.
“Nobody has their hands on it,” Rock said.
“Yeah, but soon.”
“And you think a petition’s gonna stop that?”
“You got a better idea?”
“Yeah. Get the law to stop taking people’s signatures. Starting with you.”
The guy seemed stunned. He looked down at himself and then back up at Rock. “Fuck you! You’re the cop!”
Rock loved that. He elbowed his way deeper into Tompkins, through the throngs, looking for a place to sit down and take it all in. The benches and the grass were already filled. He would have settled for a seat of roots with a tree trunk for his back, but those were all occupied, too. He was almost to Avenue B when he saw two adjacent benches that weren’t totally full. One had two men on it, the other had only a woman. But the woman was sprawled out with one leg up on the bench and her pocketbook behind her as support for her back. She was attractive and announcing her desire to be left alone.
Rock sat down with the two men. His immune system was nuked, and something was undeniably blooming in his sinuses. He absolutely had to get a nap before bouncing onto the stage tonight. The obvious opportunity was to skip this afternoon’s rehearsal in the theater. The band had already rehearsed plenty in Rock’s barn. However, skipping it would be interpreted as further evidence of Rock’s “terminal LSD”—Lead Singer Disease—a phrase the other Pussies had taken from Van Halen lore. They hadn’t bothered to consider that Van Halen had hired the singer, whereas Rock had hired them.
They didn’t know he was down here alone. He’d say that Laurie had the flu and he was stuck taking care of his daughter. That wouldn’t satisfy them, but fuck it, rock bands weren’t democracies. They could rehearse all afternoon without him if they wanted to, killing the music slice by slice.
It was Rock’s 40th birthday. He’d woken up this morning with that fact searing its way through his brain. Now he took his mother’s birthday card from his inside jacket pocket. It had arrived two weeks ago, a heavy, black envelope textured to resemble animal fur, though it wasn’t the hide of any animal Rock had ever seen—oil-slick and textured by an algorithm, yet also believably organic. Or so the greeting card geniuses believed. It was large and square and required extra postage, as befitted a special birthday, the big four-O. But why had she sent it so far in advance? Eagerness to welcome him to the other side? Or did she believe that Rock’s turning 40 was the signal for her own body to start shutting down, and she’d better get his card in the mail while the getting was good?
It was addressed in her perfect cursive, in silver ink—pretty much your only option with a black envelope. He’d saved it to open on his birthday, which he did now, still headachy and half-sick to his stomach. The card itself was inexplicable—just another hunk of the same shiny hide, cut into an irregular shape like the silhouette of an animal. Was it the animal he’d have to fight in a future life? His mother believed in future lives. It had no preprinted message inside, just her handwritten “Happy 39th!”
He dialed her number in Florida. “Thank you for the birthday card, Mom. I’m touched. I waited till today to open it. But I have a question. Actually, two questions. What animal is the card supposed to be? And why do you say ‘Happy 39th’ when you know perfectly well I’m 40?”
The phone was quiet for a few seconds. “The card’s a museum piece I thought you’d like,” his mother said. “The title’s on the back. And how do you get 40? Take the year you were born and subtract it from the year we’re in now.”
Rock turned the card over: Rough Beast Slouching Towards Bethlehem. He took the phone away from his ear to use the calculator: 39. He sat staring at it for a minute. “I can’t believe this. Do you have any idea what a miracle this is? You’ve given me back a year of my life!”
“I gave you the whole life to begin with.”
“I’m down in the city. I’m playing a big gig tonight.”
“Not for your 40th, I hope.”
“No, I haven’t told anyone it’s my birthday.”
“Because you’re terrified.”
“How do you know that?”
“Why else would you keep your birthday a secret?”
He yearned to tell his mother about the fight with Laurie, but he knew she’d take Laurie’s side. “You’re right, I’m terrified,” he said. “You’re the only one I can admit it to.”
“But now that you’re only 39, you can relax!”
“I’ll try to get that thought through my head.”
“Be the rough beast,” his mother said, and laughed.
When they hung up, he considered speed-dialing Laurie’s number. She could fly as late as one P.M. West Coast time and still be here to see him go onstage. He could use his mistake about his age as the pretext. You’re not gonna believe this, honey. I thought I was 40, but I’m only 39! I can do this whole rotten year over again! But Laurie wouldn’t get to do the year over, only he would. And he’d already apologized and asked her to come back twice. Calling her would be begging.
He looked up to the sky for guidance. The wind shifted, and he caught a stunning reek of garbage. He’d managed to sit right next to a heaping trashcan that hadn’t been emptied since the secession began. How could he have failed to spot it? When he looked away, the lounging woman was staring at him.
“So, you’ll sit next to a stinking garbage can before you’ll sit next to me.”
He walked over and sat down on her bench. “First, I didn’t realize it was a garbage can until the wind changed direction. Second, you were sprawling across the whole bench like Cleopatra.” He held out his hand. “Rock.”
“It’s my name. Rock Nova.”
“It says ‘Rock Nova’ on your birth certificate?”
“It says Rocco Dellanova.”
“Ah. You don’t meet many Roccos these days.” She shook his hand. “April.”
“You don’t meet many Aprils either. And here we are in the month of April.”
“You think I’m making up my name?”
“No, sorry. I’m preoccupied by this brand-new nation.”
“You elect a clown president, people will want to leave. Unfortunately, I’m not sure they know what they’re doing. The ones I saw on TV didn’t look too swift.”
She seemed vaguely suburban in a yellow-blue printed shift and almost-matching blue flats, her hair in a flip. Were suburban women wearing flips again? Rock had seen the television coverage, too—stoned incoherents you couldn’t take seriously. Undoubtedly, this revolution had its bona fide Tom Paines, but you’d never see them on the mass media.
He said, “They know enough to get off this fucking Titanic.”
She was staring at his wedding ring. He lifted his outstretched hand and looked at his palm. “My wife left for California with my daughter. I don’t know why I keep wearing this.”
“Me neither. I saw you giving me the once-over.”
“I’m an artist. Artists look at people.”
“Songs. I’m the singer in a rock band.”
“Oh. Do I know you?”
“I doubt it.” His band’s name was legendary to some, but if you didn’t know the music, it sounded idiotic.
He said it. She cracked up. “What’s that even mean? Men who don’t like winter? It’s men, right? Even though you’re pussies?”
“Basically men or basically pussies?”
“I was starting a new band, and I was sick of winter. Voilà. We’re playing tonight, five minutes from here.” He nodded northwest, in the direction of Webster Hall.
“In the old country,” she said.
He laughed, though there was nothing funny about the militiamen, even with petunias sticking out of their guns. He moved closer to her on the bench. Her dress was more complicated than he’d thought at first: a blue-and-yellow fractal pattern that seemed to reiterate itself endlessly, downward and downward. She held out her hand. He laid his in it. She wiggled off the wedding band and dropped it in his palm.
“Now, there’s something you could help me with,” she said. “I think I parked my car in a bad place.”
They crossed back into the USA at 1st and 10th, under the watchful eyes of the militiamen. At 11th Street he made a left to walk her past Webster Hall.
“Wow, you weren’t kidding. But it’s sold out. I won’t be able to go.”
“Obviously, I’ll get you in.”
“I might bring a friend.”
“Guy or girl?”
“Guy, probably. Is that a problem?”
“Of course not,” said Rock.
They came to a private parking lot on an alley not far from the Strand bookshop. There were two big, identical signs painted on the brick buildings bordering it:
Your tires will be deflated and
your plates will be removed.
A high-end black Mercedes was parked directly under one of them. It looked new, but those hulking diplomatic models never went out of style. All four tires were flat and there was no front plate, but some states didn’t require one. He walked to the back. No rear plate. In her defense, the warning signs were painted fairly high up on the walls, and she was petite.
He called the West Village garage where his own Mercedes was parked. They would send someone over to fix it for her. It was now 12:30. He was starting to imagine himself going completely blank on stage, unable to remember a single song lyric. Maybe the thing to do was go back to his room, take a light benzo, sleep for four hours, and show up for the end of rehearsal after all.
“Listen, I’ll have two tickets waiting for you at the box office. We go on around 11. The opening act is supposed to be good, if you want to check them out. Come back after the show and say hi. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go get some shuteye.”
“I know what you mean,” said April. “I hardly slept a wink last night myself.”
She pulled off his beanie and ran her fingers through his famous hair. They made out like teenagers against the wall of the parking lot. Then they took a taxi across town and fucked in the rented apartment. Rock thought of Japanese love hotels, which he’d wanted to see when he was touring Japan, but there hadn’t been time. He felt that he was cheating on his landlady more than his wife. He made April come with his mouth, then came himself. Ten minutes later, she was sound asleep. He didn’t know how someone could do that. He lay beside her for a while with restless leg syndrome, then got up and took a shower.
When he was dressed again, he went to the living room to look down on the streets he’d often walked as a young man. Only movie stars and
finance brats could live in this neighborhood now. The much-grittier Alphaland had been going in the same direction, but then a billionaire bought his way into the White House and brought them to insurrection.
His phone rang. It was Ivan from his garage. He’d arrived at the Union Square lot to find a man with the black Mercedes, claiming to own it. “He wants to talk to you.”
The man came on. “Where’s April?”
“No idea. I was sitting on a bench in the park when she asked me for help with her car.”
“In Union Square? That’s where I left her.”
“Yeah, but I think she was heading to Alphaland.”
“They get your car fixed up?”
“One guy’s inflating my tires now. His partner went to get the plates. This is what they do to you in Manhattan.”
“Maybe that’s why Alphaland seceded. I gave April my garage’s address. She can pick the car up anytime.”
“No, I’m driving it from here. She can fend for herself. Your guy won’t take my money, by the way.”
“I told them it was on me.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“Let me make the gesture. From what I saw, you have enough on your hands.”
“You’re a prince. Text me your number, and we’ll have dinner sometime.”
When Rock hung up, a nude April was in the living room entranceway.
“You were on the phone.”
“It was a wrong number.”
“You were on for a while.”
“They always want to tell you their life stories.”
“Why are you dressed?”
“You said you needed sleep. Come lie down.”
“I will in a few.”
When she was back in bed, he closed the door and called Laurie’s number. It went straight to voicemail. He hung up and tried it again. Same thing. His wife had abducted his daughter and wasn’t taking his calls, but not so his rock band. His phone was full of complaints from The Snow Pussies. They were upset by his behavior, by his going incommunicado. They were waiting at the theater for the rehearsal to begin. He sent them a group text.
He took out his mother’s birthday card and ran his fingers around it. What segment of the rough beast was the card portraying? Was it in profile or straight-on, slouching left or right toward Bethlehem? He couldn’t see anything in it. If it was all beasts to all people, then Rock should have seen a dragon, because dragons were the beginning of his recent misery. He’d started telling his daughter, Grace, about them last summer when he found scans of old maps on the Net, the kind that said “there be dragons” at the edges of oceans, with pictures of scaly monsters in the water ready to eat the boats. He thought it would be good for her to see fanciful things that people once believed in, rather than made-up junk on TV. But he miscalculated. The dragons hit her wrong. She got sleep-terrors from them. She’d wake up screaming in the middle of the night with fire-breathing monsters chasing her.
“Why did you have to show her those fucking maps?” Laurie had screamed at him. “She’s a six-year-old, and you show her dragons that people thought were real.”
“I thought she’d think it was cool. I didn’t know she’d get obsessed by it.”
“You didn’t know she’d get a behavioral disorder from it, you mean! She can’t sleep. She talks about dragons with her teachers. You’ve damaged her development.”
“That’s a serious accusation.”
“I’m glad you think so. I’m calling a therapist.”
Rock sat down with Grace to talk about it. “Honey, I know I told you the dragons were real. But I just meant that the old-time sailors thought they were real.”
“You said they saw them.”
“No, I said they thought they saw them. They thought the earth was flat back then, which led them to imagine that dragons were hiding in the places they couldn’t see.”
“What is hiding in those places?”
“Nothing, honey, because the earth’s not flat. There’s no edges. It was a big misunderstanding because the sailors were ignorant. Scientists came along and showed that there’s no place for dragons to hide. Okay?”
They were sitting on the living room sofa, Grace’s feet on his lap. She leaned closer and put her face to his ear. “The dragons told me they can hear your music from very far away.”
He heard April snoring lightly in the bedroom. He used his landlady’s pad and pen to write her a note. “Going to rehearsal. Come backstage after the show.” He wondered if the guy she was bringing was the same one he’d spoken to. He called for a ride on his phone. When he got downstairs, it was the kind that still had a human driver, and he had opinions about Rock’s destination.
“Think about the position Alphaland puts the president in. They’re forcing him to drop a bomb on them.”
“Not a bomb, but I get your point.”
“He tweeted a bomb.”
Sometimes a driverless car was exactly what you wanted.
“But the president, as you call him, will tweet anything.”
“He’s the commander-in-chief of the soldiers surrounding it.”
“Yes, and I’m surprised it took the commander this long to impose military rule. I expected it on Inauguration Day.”
At Avenue A they were stopped so soldiers could look into the car and examine the trunk.
“They’re asking for it,” said the driver. “You’re the last person I’m taking over here today. I don’t like the smell of this place.”
“I love it,” said Rock. “Let me off at the corner.”
He got out on Avenue B in front of a bar with some empty sidewalk tables. The hostess gave him a table that looked across East 10th Street at the edge of the park. “Gin martini straight up with olives,” he said. At four o’clock there was a chill in the air, but it was warm enough for one drink outdoors. If he wanted something to eat after that, he could go inside. At the right moment, he’d walk up to the theater. His anxieties about the gig had magically disappeared. Nothing could touch him. The dragons heard his music from far away and told him not to be afraid. He created them with his singing, scaly creatures made of fractals that turned the flat earth into a sphere.
He couldn’t see the militiamen, but he could hear their unintelligible barking over the bullhorns, exactly as if the president himself were ordering people around. People hated the man for an infinity of reasons, but Rock had one that didn’t seem to bother anyone else: the bastard was now a blond. His coiffure surgery was like nothing else on earth. But at least when other politicians dyed their hair, they more-or-less stuck with their original color. The current commander-in-chief had been a brunet all his life, and suddenly he was golden haired, and no one even commented on it. The scoundrel thought he could get away with anything, but becoming an Aryan at his age was a stroke too far.
And then his mother’s birthday card hit him. He pulled it out of his jacket pocket. It was a presidential silhouette, like the ones he’d done in grade school. The rough beast was the swirling head of fraudulent hair. He laughed and took out his phone to call his mother, but it started ringing in his hand. It was his guitarist, Duncan “Dunk” Dunkle, the member of his band he was closest to.
“Dunk, I’m on my way. The city’s madness.”
“I’ve done everything I can do. They’re frothing at the mouth now.”
“I’ll be there in half an hour.”
He hung up. The waitress arrived with his brimming martini. He was waiting for her to put it down when she said, “Oh, my god! You’re Rock from The Snow Pussies!”
He’d forgotten about hiding his own mop of hair. Plus he was six-foot-five. He gestured for her to be quiet, but other customers were now staring, and this was tripping the celebrity sensors of people walking by. Within seconds, a smiling oaf was approaching with a Sharpie to get himself signed.
“Sorry, sister, and I wanted that drink, too.”
He stepped over the bar’s sidewalk rail and ran across the street, hiding his hair under his beanie. The park was a different scene than before. The people were agitated. He shouted to the guy beside him, “What were they saying on the bullhorns?”
“That it was our last chance to leave Alphaland. But we’re not fucking leaving!”
“Right on,” said Rock. But leaving, he realized, was the thing to do. He started making his way toward the nearest exit on Avenue A. He’d find a gap in the militiamen and go straight to the theater. His phone was ringing again in his pocket. “I’m on my fucking way,” he said into it.
“Rock?” It was his wife. “What’s all that noise?”
“The sounds of revolution.”
“We’re on our way to the apartment.”
“The apartment I rented in the Village. If you’re not there, could you call the landlady to let me in?”
“You’re in New York?”
“We just landed.”
“You didn’t tell me that.”
“You pleaded with me to come back.”
“Listen, the place in the Village turned out to be a dump. I went to The Roxy instead.”
“Hundreds of people raved about that apartment.”
“Trust me, it was bad. I’ll call the hotel and get a room.”
“You just said you were staying there.”
“Yeah, but I shared Dunk’s room last night.”
“Why? You hate Dunk.”
“I don’t hate Dunk. This is how these rumors get started.”
“Never mind. I just found the landlady’s number. I’m going to the Village.”
“I gave that apartment up!” he said, but she was already gone.
When he looked back over the heads of the crowd, he saw that a phalanx of soldiers had entered the park from the periphery and circled around behind them. Paddy wagons were suddenly parked on all the surrounding streets. Everybody in the park was being zip-tied and herded into them.
“I have to get out of here,” he shouted when he got to the troops.
“You’re under arrest.”
He was ill, feverish and achy. “I need to be in a bed, maybe a hospital.”
“Remain silent and put your hands behind your back.”
He ripped the beanie off his head. “Do you know who I am?”
“Rock!” someone said. “It’s Rock of The Snow Pussies!”
“Snow Pussies! Snow Pussies!” the park began to chant.
“They love me,” shouted Rock, “and that’s more powerful than your bullets!”
“Snow Pussies! Snow Pussies!” he heard as the soldiers started dragging him away.
Ralph Lombreglia is the author of two short-story collections, Men Under Water and Make Me Work. His stories have appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and the Scholar, among other magazines.