Roasting lunch on the plaza in front of The Plaza
(No. 114) The Lost City of Desire, Chapter 6, hunting wild game in central park
[Some days I write about aging, or the absurdities of life. Some days I serialize my dystopian/utopian novel, The Lost City of Desire. The previous chapters are archived here. I will release Chapter Seven next week.]
Joe, Carmen and I left early to have a good wander, planning to catch whatever we could that would be tasty. I had my compound bow and arrows, which were good for shooting animals from far away. Carmen carried a heavy hunting knife. She said she wasn’t much for killing, but she didn’t mind cutting them up once they were dead. Joe showed off his slingshot on the walk uptown, a piece of rubber tied to a small V-shaped branch. He’d scraped the bark off and the wood was pale blond and very smooth. Pretty, for sure.
“Why are you looking at me like that,” he said.
“Well, can you actually kill anything with that?”
“I mean, isn’t that what kids play with?”
He shrugged. I’d made him feel bad — by mistake. I wasn’t that good with people. I was a misfit -- I didn’t know what to say to them. I didn’t know how friends worked. We walked towards the pond at the lower end of Central Park.
“Does anybody claim this land?” Joe asked me.
“What do you mean?”
“Are they gonna kick us out if we hunt this pond?”
“Nah, first come first serve as far as I know,” I said.
“Back home clans will lay claim to something like this and you’ve got to get permission, or risk getting shot. Usually they want half of what you kill.”
I’d never heard that. No one had ever really taken control of the park --- or anything else around here, as far as I knew. The city was big enough for everyone, it seemed, there were so few of us.
“What’s that?” Carmen asked, pointing to a tall, slender tower that rose over 59th street.
“Apartments,” I said. “Crazy apartments.”
You had to stay clear of that block because windows kept falling out. I’d read that back in the day it had been the most expensive place to live in all of Manhattan -- funny that. The really fancy people all wanted to live on the top three or four floors. I’d considered walking to the top, but I never tried. About 90 stories, it is – that’s a lot of steps in the dark stairwell.
In the park the bright sun gave way to cool shade. The moss under my shoes was spongy and slick.
“What are we looking for here,” said Carmen.
“Doves, wild chickens, ducks…”
“I never ate those, but sure, there are raccoons in here,” I said.
“No deer? Bear?”
“Not since they closed the zoo,” I said.
I’d never seen the zoo when it was active, of course. I’d wandered through it a couple of times over the years, and had skateboarded the empty pool where the polar bears used to hang out. Some people worried that the white bears still lived in the park, but I didn’t — you had to avoid the pale grey skull and spine at the bottom of the empty pool as you skidded along the concrete.
“We’ve got pigeons and squirrels – those are the easiest to get, although the old timers say there aren’t as many pigeons as in the old days. There aren’t food scraps lying around, and the owls and falcons hunt them.”
“What about fox,” Joe said.
“Definitely a lot of them, but we don’t hunt them. It’s not our thing,” I said. “Too cute.”
I chuckled a bit at my earnestness, but I was dead serious all the same.
Carmen looked around, did a full 360, taking in the tall buildings on the park’s perimeter, the full oddness of this wilderness in the city.
Joe spotted the pond in the distance, brown water surrounded by tall grass. It was a meandering pond, with fingers extending here and there, and an island in the middle with a sun-worn sign reading: “No trespass. Bird sanctuary.”
“I wouldn’t mind some turtle,” said Joe.
“I never figured out how to catch them.”
“I’ll show you,” he said, smiling like he knew something I didn’t.
A few turtles relaxed on rocks in the sun about 30 feet up the shore. Joe motioned for Carmen and me to stop while he stood staring at the turtles. A massive snapper sprawled across one of the rocks, his neck craned up. Several smaller turtles sunned themselves nearby.
I knew people ate them, but how? The turtles wouldn’t let you sneak up on them – believe me, I’d tried. I mean, they looked good and I was always hungry for meat. Never felt crazy hungry, but I’d try to get anything I could to eat, whenever. Still, the one time I’d tried shooting a turtle the arrow bounced off the shell and disappeared into the water. I couldn't afford to lose arrows.
“You’ll never get one,” I said, as Joe edged closer to the pond.
He turned and put his finger to his lips for me to be quiet. Carmen and I stopped where we were and watched him crouch down and inch forward in the grass. The big turtle raised his head, and Joe froze. When the turtle relaxed its vigilance Joe reached back and pulled the slingshot out of his back pocket. He put a stone in the fold of the rubber band, pulled it back and let loose with a whoosh that took the turtle’s head right off. Even without a head its legs kept moving and it slid off the rock into the water.
“Holy shit,” I said.
The other turtles slid into the pond as Joe hopped from rock to rock until he could reach the big turtle. He pulled it out of the water and tied off the neck to keep the blood in and brought it back to shore, heavy as hell. He tied the animal to his back to butcher later -- weird how handsome he looked carrying that thing around.
It was an easy day of hunting. Over the next hour I got nearly a dozen ducks. Not that they were that brilliant at getting out of the way of my arrow. I think they got so much to eat in the summer that they were in a fat coma, just wanting to sleep as they floated around on the water. You probably could have just walked up and asked them to come home with you and nest in the fire pit, really. The hardest part was getting the dead ones out of the water before they floated away. This was when a dog would be nice, except for the rabies.
“You’re good,” Carmen said.
“We all gotta eat.”
We found a spot with some clear water and Carmen took her knife to the turtle while I worked on the ducks. Joe wandered off to find greens and wild garlic and soon we had the makings of a pretty great meal. There were guts in a pile, and the flies were buzzing, so we headed up the hill to 59th Street. This was one of those intersections that had collapsed when the water invaded from the flooded subway tunnels, the rotten water mains, from everywhere, but over the years someone had built a good bridge of planks across the arroyo.
“Fish down there?” Joe asked. “Bass?”
I didn’t know, I’d never thought about fishing the subways. Those tunnels were off limits. Too much mold, water and God knew what else.We landed on the square off the Plaza Hotel, where we built a fire in the shade of the statue of William Tecumseh Sherman, the gold leaf shiny in the sun. We rigged up some sticks and a metal grate to roast the ducks and the turtle and set everything to cook. The hot sun was nice. I’d never eaten turtle before, and it looked good! The weirdest stuff, really. Deep red meat with strangely iridescent green tinges in spots that made it seem even fresher. As it cooked, the legs were like spigots dripping fat to the embers which shot back with flame throwers that caramelized the ducks. I could feel the crisp skin in my mouth already.
Carmen put the turtle shell upside down close to the fire so it would dry into a serving bowl. I felt so hungry from all the walking, and the smell drove me mad.
“Smells like roasted chicken, right?” I said, and Joe and Carmen laughed. They were good hunters, stealthy. Bumpkins, we called them. Upstaters. I admired their skill. I pictured Joe’s muscles moving across his body in waves as he tiptoed towards the turtles until he was close enough to see their tongues move.
Cut into slices, the turtle cooked fast and we filled the shell with the fatty, roasted meat. I loved the burnt bits, which we ate as the ducks cooked on a spit.
“Do your Aunt and Uncle ever talk about what happened?” Joe asked me.
“Yeah, what the fuck did happen?” Carmen said. “I mean, obviously somebody lived in all the hotel rooms and apartments. Somebody shopped in Bergdorf Goodman and rode in all these dead cars.”
“They never have much to say about anything,” I said.
Their whole thing was about keeping things cool, peaceful, avoiding trouble, not making waves as they put it.
“I think it scared the shit out of them. After all, they were only kids when it all happened.”
“Same with our parents,” Joe said, and Carmen nodded.
The duck smelled almost sweet – the flame kissed the fat slicked skin. I was hungry again, even after all that roasted turtle.
“But I do know someone who’ll talk about it,” I said. “Someone who knows it all. I'm going to take you to him. His name is Terence.”
“That sounds great,” Carmen said.
“He’s like my second father.”
We ate our fill and then some.
“So they’re alive?” asked Carmen, lounging back against the statue’s base.
I’d never considered otherwise. The question was shocking.
“I guess so,” I said. “I mean I assume so.”
“But you’ve never heard from them.”
I shook my head. “Wow,” said Joe. “Do you ever think about going to look for them?”
“You can’t,” said Carmen. “They wouldn’t ever let across the wall. You idyot.”
“I think about it every day,” I said.
And that was the truth. I’d had so many plans for going to find them. But I’d never done it. I’d never felt old enough, or strong enough – until now. Now, my belly full of meat, I was definitely going to do it.
[You’ve just finished Chapter Six. All the previous chapters are archived here. I will release Chapter Seven next week.]
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