Journal of Writing & Environment

The Smell of Abandonment

I am not looking for forgiveness when I run across the street into the graveyard and stumble upon a headstone that looks like it might have been forgotten. I just need to touch something, a cold stone, wet moss. The aches in my fingertips are real this time. They only ache when it’s cold outside, and it is cold now, in the rain, in the cemetery on Halloween. It’s 2008, and I am reading a letter to the granite slabs in the graveyard. The quiver is from the embarrassment of hearing my own voice. Maybe this is my attempt to apologize, to change what happened during my second robbery twelve years ago. It’s not guilt that has me standing in the rain – it’s my desire to stay sober. I do want to pay back every cent, but not because I wish to change the past.

Even though there were only twenty-five bucks in the wallet in the top dresser drawer, there was much more value in everything else I took. When I say that I took it, I did, but I wasn’t alone. The guys were there with me – Dave, Rick, Mike – and I think April was there, too. Maybe Mike has nightmares now, and maybe the smell of eggs reminds him of the rotten smell in the linen closet. We took the linens, the furniture, the television, the radio; we took everything we could fit into my 1984 Honda hatchback. We even went back the next day to take more.

It’s not like I have a connection with the cemetery across the street from Foliage, the Chinese restaurant on Riverside Drive, but I convinced myself that it would do. It might have been too distracting if I was related to someone buried here. As I entered the cemetery, I didn’t know that I would move back to Binghamton two years from this moment and live less than a mile away from here. I was looking for a man I never met, a soldier, a victim of war, maybe even a victim of disease. I found the grave of James T. McDonough, SGT 514 SVC BN Engr. Corps WWI, September 15, 1891 – October 15, 1955, and I read my letter, the one I wrote with the intention of changing my memory of the robbery. I don’t remember how we found the house on Deyo Hill Road or how we knew that no one was home. We walked through the front door with confidence; the lock was easy. We huddled in the kitchen covering our noses, stepping over piles of mail, dirt, food, dirty dishes, heaps of soiled clothes. It looked like a drunk had lived out the last of his days with the shakes and not enough alcohol to ease the pain.

The only things we didn’t take were the war uniforms that we left hanging in the bedroom closet. The folding louver closet doors were off the tracks, and it was a pain in the ass to open them, but I pried them open and found the last of this man’s dignity hanging there. I was alone in the bedroom when I found the uniforms that looked like the man himself, this man who was haunting us as we robbed his house. I want to believe that this soldier numbed himself out with scotch or bourbon. I want to believe that if he had been a drunk who died drunk then I would have a better chance of living out my days sober. Statistics say that most drunks don’t ever stop chasing their first drink, but it is really the last drink they are trying to get to. Alcoholism wants you dead, not jonesing for more. I didn’t know this then. I ended up spending all the money that we got from the pawnshop to buy more booze and some stank-ass weed laced with mescaline. I got ripped off on the bag even though I fucked my way to the best dealer in the house on Rush Avenue.

I never planned on this robbery, but I was a good thief, and I needed the money to get my fix. I didn’t think twice about selling pieces of someone else’s life to the old man at the pawnshop on Clinton Street.

The day we skipped school to ransack the abandoned soldier’s house – that’s what I wrote about in the letter I am reading in the cemetery. I read it aloud twice and then tuck it between blades of grass and the neighboring gravestone. When I kneel down to wipe away the moss on James T. McDonough’s headstone and pull out my notebook to write down his name, I get a whiff of pine and fresh soil. The dirt reminds me of the smell of the soldier’s house: This death smells like my twenty-year-old cat’s rotting mouth. For a moment, I can’t think, so I just stay kneeling, my cold wet knees sinking into the ground as I start to remember odors. The smell of the pawnshop: something like piss, wet dog, old newspapers, and fast food. The smell of the drug house on Rush: dirty laundry, weed, jeans soiled by mud and sex. The smell of abandonment isn’t just sour milk; it is wet plaster, an empty refrigerator, and old mail lying on a stained kitchen table that’s sinking into a rotted linoleum floor.

No, I didn’t touch the uniforms, I say again as I reach down to touch James’s headstone. I tell James that the uniforms looked clean and out of place compared to the rest of the house. I tell him that I don’t know where the gun is now, the one that I found in the top drawer. That I am sorry for knocking a few pairs of black socks onto the floor. That I was sorry for adding to the destruction. I never told the others about the gun. I only told my mother because I asked her to hide it in the china cabinet, and she did.

Oh my god, I got to go James, I say, now more comfortable talking aloud to the emptiness in the cemetery. I got to go James. My mom and wife are waiting in the Chinese restaurant across the street wondering where I ran off to.

When I get to my feet and start to walk away, I don’t expect some ridiculous miracle. As I weave through headstones, I continue to talk out loud. My head down, I tell everyone there that I robbed a soldier, that it looked like the soldier forgot to take in the mail and pay the bills. Until now, I’ve been a thief. My fifteen minutes are up. I have to get back to dinner across the street before my mom wonders where I went or whom I was talking to on the phone. I told her that I had to step outside to call a friend back in the city, someone I was supposed to meet up with tomorrow when we returned from our visit upstate. We are in town for two days to visit my grandfather Santalucia, who is dying from a brain tumor.

On August 21, 2009, the day my grandfather dies, I will think about James T. McDonough again when I’m driving back to Binghamton. My wife, Deanna, and I will follow my parents up Route 81, forgetting that it is their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary. In the car we will talk about the last time we visited my grandpa and how cute he was when he disappeared from the living room to get his fascist sash and cap – he told us that these were the only belongings he brought with him from Italy when he arrived in 1930. We sat on his couch in the basement living room when he emerged wearing a small fez, the tassel dangling on his forehead. At first I thought the tumor had popped out of his head, but then he started saluting us and tapping his feet on the yellowed linoleum floor, and the cap tilted toward his face. He left the room again to get his WWII U.S. Navy cap. When he emerged this time, he was out of breath and said, I am late for the train; it is going to leave without me. The air in the basement was stale – it tasted like dried out spaghetti – and we knew that it was the tumor talking. We told him we’d make sure the train didn’t leave without him.


Driving Down Main Street

We didn’t have a real gun, but when we cornered the little old man and screamed in his face he looked scared and handed over all his money, thirteen dollars. We ran at him, puffed out our chests and moved in on him fast and all at once. The more he backed away the closer we got. He was short, but not that much shorter than any of us. It felt like we were looking down at an insect, something small that wanted to disappear into the crack of the sidewalk, something that we could crush. The street was dark and the lampposts were burnt out. There was no way to see what was around the corner in the empty parking lot; nothing else existed to us. We wore big hooded sweatshirts and baggy jeans.

Give me all your fuckin’ money, April said to him. He reached into his khaki jacket pocket and pulled out crumpled bills and held them out in front of him. Her hands were shaking just as much as his. I saw their hands touch. His fingers were skinny and wrinkled, and he had long fingernails. She grabbed the money, and we ran. He said something, but I couldn’t understand him because he was breathing too hard. His deep heavy breaths still haunt me.

It’s hard to remember exactly what we did after taking the money, and I wonder if we got enough to get drugs or if we had to steal more. I wondered this as I drove down Main Street, fifteen years later, looking for the Asian grocery store, Hang Phat. When I found it, I pulled the car over and stared at the envelope in my hands, the one with a letter and fifty bucks in it. Maybe I should have mailed it. I don’t remember getting out of the car or what the lady’s face looked like when I asked to speak to the owner. She didn’t know how to answer me, so she started speaking Chinese to the other women working. They all started talking and looked frightened. We were all nervous now because we couldn’t understand a word we wanted to say to one another. This is when I pulled out the envelope, tilted my head, and said, Please take.

They locked the door when I left. My adrenalin was rushing and I just wanted to get back to my car, to drive away, but my legs felt weak and my feet too heavy. I sat quietly in the car for just a few moments hoping the women in the store would forget my face, that they’d take the money for themselves. When I finally turned the car on I thought it might explode, that maybe someone was watching me. I didn’t think I would relive this fear. I drove slowly down Main Street, and when I passed the Johnson City Public Library I thought I saw three sixteen-year-old girls hiding in the shadows, but it was just someone carrying their groceries, someone hugging a paper bag filled to the brim.


Happy Trees

When I ask my grandfather Potenzino if the painting I gave Grandma is hanging on his wall he says yes, and I wish that I could paint new houses for the people who had to evacuate their homes when the flood hit in September 2011, but I haven’t painted since I was a kid. I took an oil painting class with my neighbor, Sue Boncek, at the YWCA and learned how to paint happy trees and babbling brooks, Bob Ross-style – this was in 1988, the year my grandmother went to Conifer Park, a drug and alcohol rehab in Albany, New York. There are happy trees in that painting. They shoot out of the oval stenciled frame into the blankness of the canvas above. The scene in the painting is peaceful: It is winter, and nothing has been stepped on. The birds never land, and they never tire. So much is left untouched in this landscape with a pink and orange sky. The snow will never melt, nothing will ever flood, nothing will ever die, nothing will grow. It will just always be what it is, and I don’t know if the sun is rising or setting. It is between days in this painting.

Every time I think about the stillness of the trees on that canvas it reminds me of the day we buried my grandmother, on October 21, 2000. I got drunk at the memorial dinner after the funeral. Aunt Shirley walked around the Polish Club with a Manhattan asking where her sister was. No one answered her; they just let her walk around the banquet hall until she forgot who she was looking for. She eventually took her seat at one of the round tables where they served soggy green beans and ham.


In 1988, I was in the mayor of Johnson City’s re-election campaign commercial. My brother and I stood on either side of the mayor and stared at his fluffy brown mustache and giggled. The commercial aired for almost six months. My parents recorded the commercial, and every once in a while we would watch it together, usually around the holidays. I found the tape in a box. I watch it alone now. The tape buckles when the still shot of me and my brother and the mayor flashes on the screen, and for a moment it looks like we are trapped in the TV. Then a dark grey floods the screen and the voiceover says something like, Reputable citizen, town judge, blah blah blah, re-elect Edward Boncek for mayor. When I watched the footage on the news about the flooding, I thought about Ed Boncek and how we used to be neighbors. I also thought about his wife, Sue, and felt terrible once I remembered their divorce. I am starting to believe I was trapped in the TV and that I never got out because sometimes I lose my breath for no reason.

This town was submerged by the Susquehanna River a year after we moved back. There was an aerial shot of our neighborhood on the news. I swear I saw myself floating down the river, my head bobbing up and down, but it wasn’t me, it was just a tree branch. In September 2011, it is exactly ten years since Deanna and I met here in Binghamton as undergraduates, since we moved into our first apartment on St. John Avenue. During the flood we walked down Leroy Street, down St. John Avenue, and past a pale green house with the windows knocked out, one of them covered with plywood and spray painted red. We walked fast to pass the house and didn’t look back when we got to Riverside Drive, where the water was gross and smelled like rot. We didn’t say much of anything to each other that day. We didn’t talk about the green house on St. John Avenue, where we first met, where I had my last overdose. We just kept walking down Riverside Drive, but I was afraid to go any further, to see the cemetery underwater. I wondered if people’s grandmothers were drowning in their graves, or if the makeup on their faces stained the satin pillows where their heads rested.

There is a picture of Deanna and me in front of the pale green house on St. John. It is from July 25, 2011, the day we got legally married. We hopped out of the car and took a picture of ourselves. We aren’t smiling in the picture; we look nervous. When we got out of the car, there were people staring at us out of the second floor window, the one window that hadn’t been boarded up. They were peeking through the blinds.


When my grandmother died she was wearing lipstick. It was like witnessing a child play with crayons when she applied it. She pulled out a plastic baggy full of lipstick and showed me all the colors. Her favorite was a dark orange. She did this when she was high on pain meds in her basement apartment. Her twin sister pumped her with morphine one day, and an hour later I got the phone call from Aunt Shirley saying, She’s gone. Six months later my grandfather moved into an apartment above a tombstone store on Burbank Avenue. It’s been twelve years and I’ve never been in it. When I pull into his driveway I get out of the car to greet him, but I don’t walk through his front door. We are going to meet my parents for dinner. When the flood came I worried that my painting would float away – that my grandfather would have to sleep on a cot in a public facility, but the water from the Susquehanna didn’t reach his apartment. The water didn’t reach the bowling alley where he plays cards every afternoon, either.

My grandfather used to take me to Brandywine Bowl on Saturday afternoons when I was six or seven years old. His brother Art owned the place. They’d order me a Coke and rig the arcade games so that I could play them for hours while they sat at the bar. I remember winning a teddy bear out of the crane machine; it had dark brown fur and a tan nose. I ate brownies and half-listened to them talk about their childhood. My grandfather and his brothers lived on the east side of town; their father bought an old barn that they dragged with ropes across Robinson Street to a small lot on Silver Street. They dug a hole for the foundation, poured cement into it and rested the barn on top. I don’t remember visiting this house when I was a kid, but my mother tells me that my great grandmother used to sit in the kitchen, rock me in her arms, and sing keezadeech, lochie doch, keeza dotch loddy da. No one in the family really knows what this means. After leaving the bowling alley we’d stop at the bakery for more brownies and go to his childhood home to visit his mother. This house is in a crack-dealer neighborhood now. I hate that I’ve been in the house next to it to buy some dope.


Blue Hooded Sweatshirt

I haven’t changed my blue hooded sweatshirt in four weeks, and my entire stomach is infested with scabies. My skin looks and feels like a rusted train track, brown and flakey. But this isn’t what I remember most from the day I was kicked out of Canterbury, a boarding school in New Milford, Connecticut. I lasted three months before I realized that moving to a new place wasn’t going to solve my drug and alcohol addiction. I don’t remember being transported in the back of an unmarked white van, in the middle of the night, to Four Winds Hospital, but my parents remind me. They often tell me how they had to drive four hours from Binghamton to meet me at the hospital in Katonah. I do recall the abstraction on my skin, the rust-like texture of my stomach. My body has a memory of its own. Whenever I see rust I want to touch it. Like the other day, when I was getting the mail, I noticed a little rust on the mailbox. I didn’t think about why I was touching it, but it was just something I had to do before taking out the junk mail and heading back inside. I had no intention of pausing this long with my hand inside the mailbox searching for something that wasn’t there. I had no idea that I was lingering just to spend more time pressed up against the jagged rusty flakes at the bottom of the box. I didn’t stand there thinking about how horrible the conditions were at the hospital seventeen years ago and how badly I wanted to break free from that part of my life.

I replaced most of those memories with longings for the things I didn’t get to do: I didn’t get to spend four years at boarding school playing soccer, I didn’t get to eat orange slices on the sidelines with my teammates, and I never got to wear cleats and shin guards with long blue socks over them. Well, I mean, I did get to do these things, but then I chose to break a black light in my dorm room in the middle of the night and shove shards of glass into my wrist. I chose to disappear during soccer practice to get high. I chose to jump out of the second floor window of my dorm and sprint across Canterbury’s campus. I ran away from one set of memories and kept running. I ran into a living hell, into a padded room where bugs buried themselves under my skin, and I scratched and scratched until my torso hardened, until it felt like a tree stump, something no longer human. Thirty days without a shower was not as bad as six months – the girl in the padded room next to mine told me she wished she could get the bugs out of her eyes and that her arms ached. I think her name was Rachel. The day before I left she found a way to break the plastic mirror embedded in the pads on her walls, rip out veins in her forearms, and carve her name into her chest.

In a few months after getting home I’ll wear the blue hoodie for my eleventh grade yearbook picture. I’ll have moved into it again for about month, too tired to change my clothes and still afraid that someone is going to watch me take a shower. This picture will fall off my bookshelf when I move to New York City with my girlfriend. It will take us a few days to unpack the boxes stacked against the brick wall of our small studio apartment on 81st Street. On the last round of unpacking, we will stay awake all night. I remember falling onto the black rug, desperate for sleep or food, the wool chafing my knees as I scramble to pick up a piece of white fuzz and taste it, wondering if it is crack. I might have stashed something and forgotten about it, but it was just lint. This was my last encounter with drugs, and it wasn’t even real.


It is 1996, and I feel like I am losing my mind. A few months later I am admitted to the crazy ward, the fifth floor of Binghamton General Hospital, where they take away my shoelaces and give me a paper gown. I shuffle up and down the white hallways, smoke cigarettes in a glass walled room, and hope my parents visit. When they do, I sit on my hospital bed, and my mother sits in the chair that an aide brings into my room. She rocks back and forth and tells me that I was born in this hospital. She tells me that the fifth floor used to be the maternity ward.

My roommate happens to be the wife of an old drug dealer who ripped me off. I met him behind C. Fred Johnson Middle School. One night, I rolled down my window and gave him fifty bucks for some acid. He said he’d be right back, and I never saw him again. His name was Jim. He talked about his wife, Anne, and he was always in a rush to get home to her. In the hospital, Anne stares at my dad, standing stiff up against the white wall, and starts laughing or mumbling. She pushes her tongue into her cheek, makes a fist, and gestures it back and forth in front of her face as if to ask my dad if he wants a blowjob, as if this is a universal signal that he would understand. I pretend not to see this happen. I spend my days waiting for my parents to bring me turkey or chicken sandwiches after they get out of work. They bring Anne a couple of sweatshirts that say Florida in big yellow letters.

A few months after my stay in the hospital I’ll see Anne again. She’ll be wearing one of the sweatshirts my dad gave her, the ones that my grandmother probably brought back from vacation as gifts no one wanted. We are on Cherry Street in Johnson City sitting on a drug dealer’s couch, the dealer’s kids in a playpen in the middle of the living room floor. It smells like cigarettes and mold; the tweed fabric scratches my legs. We stare at the kids and wait for the dealer to come downstairs. When I ask to use the bathroom, Anne leaves, and the dealer picks up one of the kids, shakes him, and says, Shut the fuck up, mommy’s got a headache. I flush the toilet and tiptoe into the bedroom, open the top dresser drawer and steal food stamps, thinking that I made out big time. I hide the food stamps in my gym bag. When I go to basketball practice I stare in the bag. It smells like sweaty feet. The food stamps are crumpled up next to a pair of dirty socks.

In the eleventh grade, my basketball coach found an empty six-pack of beer in the locker room. I held my breath, tried not to inhale so that I’d catch a buzz. Sometimes I’d squeeze my neck as I slammed a few cans in the bathroom stall just before warming up for a game. I was the second highest scorer in our game against Vestal, and my name was in the Press & Sun Bulletin the next day. I think there was a picture of me dribbling the ball down the court, my white shorts extra white in the picture, my maroon jersey black in newsprint, the number 22 wrinkled and in motion. I don’t remember any of this now, and when I spend time with my grandfather he tells me what a wonderful athlete I was in high school. I shy away from the compliment. He usually asks why I stopped playing ball, and I always change the subject.

I got paranoid after my picture was in the paper, after drinking beers and trying to make myself almost pass out in the locker room, so I started taking pills, something to slow me down. I took one too many Valium and passed out on the court. I spent my seventeenth birthday in another rehab where my counselor made me write a poem on the chalkboard every day for twenty days. I don’t remember the poems, but I do remember sitting in front of the fireplace in the lounge where the ceilings were vaulted. I sat there for hours, dreaming about becoming a superhero. I’d wear a black leather bra and a sash of bullets across my chest, swoop down from the rooftop, crash into the twenty-foot tall windows, and break everyone free. The people would duck and cover when the glass shattered, but then they would make their way into the mountains, into the woods, and find shelter in the dense forest. It would be dusk, and they would have just enough daylight to collect kindle and dig a hole for a fire to keep warm. It is strange how in the daydream I am already outside of the building, still trying to break free. Besides, it wouldn’t have been difficult to just leave the rehab place,  walk out the front doors, head toward Route 81, and hitchhike.