Steven Ostrowski: Welcome to Oblivia — (Chapter One from The Last Big Break, a Novel in Progress)

Chapter One

Welcome to Oblivia

Rain throbs in the bones of the hand that carries the guitar case, Eliot Learner’s strumming/picking left hand. Striding down McDougall Street, head bowed to the needle-wet wind, he pictures himself making love to his wife. But the scene comes in like a broadcast from a shaky, handheld camera; as he rounds the corner at Bleeker he concentrates on steadying the picture and nearly plows into a woman whose long, dark hair is plastered to her skull and whose yellow raincoat is open, revealing an advanced pregnancy. Eliot looks up from the woman’s belly to her eyes, which are far away and narrowed, as if she’s trying to see her future through the downpour. “Excuse me,” he mutters, and moves aside for her.

Raising her hand, then dropping it, the woman says vaguely, “Oblivia.”

Eliot watches her waddle away. “Not yet,” he mutters.

It’s five-thirty when he steps into the dank, boozy warmth of The Bitter End. The first show isn’t until 7:30, but, having been burned once too often, Paul insists that the opening act arrive a couple of hours early. Two ponytailed men and a spiky-haired woman sit at the bar, and it sounds from the drawl of their speech as if they’ve been there a while. Jack, the bartender from Georgia, nods and tells Eliot to go ahead and put his gear in the back.

“You the singer?” one of the ponytails says. His half-turned face is more ravaged than the back of his head would suggest.

“One of them.”

“Yeah? What’s your name?”

“Eliot. What’s yours?”

“I ain’t no singer. Why you wanna know my name?”

The other ponytail turns, says to his mate, “What’s he trying to do, ask you your name?”


“What the hell…” The man burps out a stench of gin and vomit. “What business you got with his name?”

“None whatsoever,” Eliot smiles. “Thought maybe I knew you from somewhere.”

Jack leans on the bar and says, “Why don’t you go on ahead back to the dressing room and get settled, Mr. Learner?”

Eliot gets the smaller of the two dressing rooms. It’s twenty-five or so square feet, the paneled walls of which are covered with faded posters of old folkies: Baez, Seeger, Odetta, Paxton, Mimi and Richard Farina–Eliot’s forefathers and mothers. There’s a small attached bathroom that every few minutes emits whiffs of stale puke. He lays his guitar case on the ratty sofa, opens it, and lifts out his Martin 200E. The wheatgold wood is worn like an old hardwood floor, though its sound is truer than the day it was made. Holding the guitar, he feels the rush of its potential: he’s always felt that if he could use the thing in just the right way, get it to translate the groaning inside him into songs that matter, he’d be okay. But he’s been at this a long time and still feels like he’s more potential than realization. He can hear his manager Gumberman rasping though his slobbery cigar: “Can’t live on potential forever, my friend.”

Eliot thinks of this afternoon’s spat with Anita. Rectify it.

At the pay phone at the front of the bar, he punches seven shiny squares. The ponytails eye him as if in some furtive way the call has something to do with them.


“Hey,” Anita says.

“Sorry about before. I overreacted. Not to mention I realized I did say I’d take her to the dentist.”

“Yeah? All right. It’s okay, Eliot.”

“You’re sure?”


“Good. Listen, can you call Billy for me and ask him if he’d come at three instead of four tomorrow? His number’s in my appointment book.”

“He the one who owes you for three months?”

“It’s no more than a month and a half. He’s hurting, honey. He’s looking for work.” Eliot listens to the hum of silence. “So,” he says.

“Eliot, Peter Steen called.”

“Peter Steen? Holy Christ. How’s he doing?”

“Fine, he says. He wants to come visit around Easter. I, I tried to…”

“No. I’m glad he wants to come.”

“I don’t know.”

“He’s an old friend, Anita. It’s good to know he doesn’t hold grudges.”

“Why do you say that?”

“What do you mean? I say it because of the whole thing that went on between him and me, remember? We were ‘Learner and Steen,’ remember?”

“I was thinking of something else.”

“Oh. Sure. I forgot. Sorry.”

“I’m glad you forgot. Hey, I’ve got to go. Janie’s hungry. Good luck tonight, okay? Break a leg and all that.”

“I’ll break two.”

“Oh, yeah, Mark called, too.”

“Mark who?”

“Your brother Mark. Or should I say Father Mark. Said he called to catch up. Nothing urgent. He sounded distracted. Said there was some trouble in his parish. He was vague.”

“I should call him,” Eliot says. “Hey, think you’ll be up when I get home?”

“It’s two shows, isn’t it? I doubt it, Eliot. I have to work in the morning.”

“Well, if you are, we could, you know…. Hey, kiss Janie for me, huh? Tell her daddy loves her more than all the windows in the Empire State Building. More than all the farms in Cuba. You won’t forget?”

“I won’t forget.”

“Yo,” ponytail number one bellows as Eliot walks past. “Got any famous songs, man?”

“Nothing you’d have heard of.”

The other ponytail spins the barstool a hundred and eighty degrees, leaps off and shoves his chest into Eliot’s. “That sounds like wise-ass talk to me, bro.”

In no time the spiky blonde and Jack the bartender are between them, though Jack is no heavyweight and ponytail number two is a big guy on his feet.

“Nothing wise-ass about it,” Eliot says. “Just the unfortunate truth.”

“Come on and sit back down, Danny,” the spiky woman says to her friend. “He’s just some singer nobody ever heard of.” To Jack she says, “Get him another drink, huh.”

Heard of yet, Eliot wants to correct her. He starts to head for the dressing room, but changes his mind. Part of his wage is a reasonable number of drinks, and he’s ready for his first. “Jamison’s on the rocks, Jack.”

Jack pours quick, says, “Why don’t you take it in the back with you?”

“There’s not much to do back there, Jack. It’s okay. It was a misunderstanding.”

And in fact the ponytails and the blonde don’t say a word to him. They drink up, and all three stand. Spiky, after a glance into a pocket mirror, walks out first. Ponytail number one, with only the slightest malice in the veiny whites of his eyes, also walks past. But Eliot feels ponytail number two lingering. He waits, drink at his lips, thinking, just go, asshole. Finally the big man begins to walk toward the door, and Eliot is thinking, good, when suddenly a club of a forearm wallops him across the side of his head and his drink flies away and he careens off the barstool into the next one, then drops to the floor.

“Holy Jesus,” Jack says, and comes running around the bar again. To the ponytail wobbling out the door he says, “You didn’t need to do that, buddy.” To Eliot, “You okay, Mr. Learner?”

“Son of a bitch,” Eliot says, and shakes his head. Six, seven years ago he’d have chased the guy down. Would have gotten himself beat up, too. These days he lets a lot go. Because at the very least, his daughter deserves a living daddy.

“Was that called for?” he says to Jack as he gets to his feet. “Do I sound like a wise ass?”

Jack averts his eyes and shrugs–not the answer Eliot wanted. One way or another, one by one, you find out all the things you don’t want to know.


“Ladies and gentlemen, to open our show tonight please give a warm welcome to the man Rolling Stone magazine once called the next Bob Dylan, Stick River Records recording artist, Eliot Learner.”

The next Bob Dylan. Why don’t you just kill me now?

Eliot walks from the back of the room, up three steps, into a cone of light which angles down across the small stage and illuminates all of him and half the brick wall backdrop. The applause is warm, although from a handful of people clumped together on the left it’s downright enthusiastic. These are the ones who own the records, who know the lyrics.

“Evening,” Eliot says, and squints into the crowd of maybe a hundred and a quarter. “Always a pleasure to play on the great stage of The Bitter End, especially with somebody as talented as Mr. Eric Anderson.” The larger contingent of Anderson fans applaud; a few whoop. “Glad you all came out in the rain. But I have to warn you, I was watching the Weather Channel with my little girl before I came over here. They say it’s gonna rain for forty days and forty nights. Remember, you heard it here first.”

Somebody with a lot of beers in his belly cries out, “Yeahhhhh! Let it rain, baby.”

“I guess your conscience is clean,” Eliot says. “I’d like to open with a song written by one of my favorite songwriters.”

He adjusts the microphone, breathes a secret relaxing breath, strums E minor and hums. His voice is soft but deep; if it can, it aims to disturb.


Tyger, Tyger, burning bright

In the forest of the night

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?


By the time he arrives at the last line of the song, which exchanges the word “Could” for “Dare,” (and which Eliot snarls), the world of cold rain and forearms to the head has dissolved. In the entire universe, there’s no other room but this one, no human beings but these in front of him. And nothing matters but the song.

There’s a millisecond between the last reverberation of the last-struck chord and the explosion of applause. “The Tyger” never fails, which is why he opens with it. But it creates an expectation for the next number that he has to meet or else risk getting the crowd to wondering how long the set’s going to be. There have been nights when it felt like they booed for forty minutes. Of course, when that happens you have to refuse to believe them. They know not what they do.

“This next song’s been with me a long time.” He takes a step back from the mike to tune down his lower e string, and steps forward again. “It’s off an album of mine called The Gate (cheers from the left) and it’s always been called ‘The Last Big Break.’ As those of us in the transportation business like to say, it goes something like this.”

Three fast chords, then a slow fingerpick.


Things started falling apart, as they’re designed to do,

That day in the fog that wouldn’t lift, when I first laid eyes on you.

Side by side on the roller-coaster, or was it the wild mouse?

Anyway we ended up renting a room in the haunted house.


He reads his voice as pretty sure tonight, so he does things: holds on to the last syllable of a word here, clips another there, tries to keep himself off balance, which is a way of getting drunk off the juice of your own lungs and, with any luck, intoxicating your audience, too.


The doomsday clown’s seen his vision

And the message is crystal clear.

The end of the world is coming

In fact, it’s already here.


So now it’s time to lay me down

Into my bubble bath

If you’re still around you can join me

And we’ll contemplate the aftermath.


He gazes out at silhouettes; some sway slightly, most remain motionless. To the stiff ones he thinks, How the hell do I get through to you? and for an instant he forgets where he is in the song and has to improvise a short instrumental. Then


I don’t know if the last big break is coming,

Or if it already came and went.

I have no idea what it still might do for me,

I have no idea what it might have meant.


He ends the song abruptly, mutters, “Ain’t that the truth,” and steps backward to good, though not good enough, applause. “Thanks,” he says. But he’s thinking, Hey, listen, listen to me: this matters.

Paul gives the opener forty-five minutes, a time span so familiar to Eliot that he can hit it within a minute and half without the benefit of a glance at his watch.

“I’d like to close with a sing-along number. Join in.”

He launches into “New Dark City.” The tempo is a relentless thump, the whole song two minor chords.


When we get to this point on the line

All we got left is a little fear and a little pity.

There’s an epiphany lurking, leave you speechless as a mime,

When this night train pulls into New Dark City.


As a child I was shooting for salvation,

All those hymns and those prayers made me giddy.

Look at me now, all hellbent and broken,

On the night train pulling into New Dark City.


Semi-hypnotized, Eliot moans through the four verses of the song. Near the end he says again, “Sing along with me.” The left do. Everybody else simply watches uneasily, as if they might be witnessing some petty crime. Eliot and his little band of fans chant


….no night train running out of New Dark City

….no night train running out of New Dark City

His palm slams down over the strings, ending the song with the chanters still chanting. Some stand and cheer and light matches, others applaud politely. Eliot bows.

Near the door to his dressing room, Paul tells him, “No encore tonight, okay Eliot? Shitty as hell out there. Let’s get everybody home as early as possible.”

Eliot stares at the fleshy ruts that run from Paul’s eyes all the way to his ears. Paul, goddammit, he ought to understand.


It’s after three when Eliot climbs up into a residual drizzle at Broadway and 103rd. On the subway (their car is in the shop and he refuses to pay cab costs) he’d had a chance to replay the evening, from the shot in the head from Ponytail number two to the scar-faced hippy-woman who’d knocked on his dressing room door after the second show wondering about his plans for the rest of the evening. “I’m hoping my wife’s up,” he’d told her; his desire for Anita is always strongest after a show. The woman had blushed and said, “Oh, well. Your loss, singerman–just ask Dylan about Louise the Squeeze.”

“I will,” Eliot smiled. “Next time we talk.” But the mention of Dylan, as usual, had sounded in his ears like an accusation.

When he tallies up the gains and losses, tonight feels like a wash. That’s not good enough, not at this point. He needs to be moving forward, not running in place. Seems like there’s a clock as big as the moon hanging over his shoulder, ticking away.

Cabs careen up and down Broadway like unsupervised children. All-night types walk the sidewalks: old ladies with miniature dogs on retractable leashes; gesticulating Hispanic men in heated discussions; intellectual homosexual types in pairs and threesomes with small diamonds in their ears wearing olive-colored baseball caps with long brims. Lifelong Manhattanite, Eliot is attentively oblivious, recording impressions without interrupting mainline thoughts. His thoughts at the moment have moved from his career to the creamy secret territories of his wife’s body, which, if she’s up, he intends to explore in as many ways as she’ll put up with.


You enter the apartment through the kitchen. The light is on and a copy of Macbeth is opened face down on the table. Beside it is a legal pad with half a page of scribbled notes under the heading, “Act II.” There’s a loose scrap of paper that says “Peter Steen” and a phone number with an unfamiliar area code. Under that, “Mark L,” and a gothic cross. Nice touch, hun.

The hallway is dark and the door to Janie’s room, the room nearest the kitchen, is half open. Further down the hallway, the master bedroom door is ajar– but it’s dark and quiet inside. Damn.

Still, she might wake up.

In Janie’s room Eliot makes sure his little girl is breathing and that the covers are on and that there’s not too much of a draft and that it’s not too stuffy. He kisses her cheek, cool to his lips, thinks, You.

He grabs a beer, sits at the kitchen table and gazes at the cover of Anita’s textbook. Macbeth looks shaken, uncertain, eyes wild, his manhood on the line. There’s no ambivalence in his wife’s eyes, though; she’s slightly backgrounded in the illustration but looms larger than Macbeth. Her eyes seethe first-degree murder.

Eliot once wrote a song, which he’d intended, at first, as a children’s song, called “Out, Out Damn Spot,” about a dog who wanted to rule the apartment he shared with a family of humans. But with each successive verse the song grew darker and more violent, until finally it was useless even for jaded adults. The failure of the song, he remembers, annoyed him, and Anita had noticed his consternation and asked what was wrong and he’d made a cryptic remark about writing garbage and she’d said, “Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.” He remembers thinking, if you take the attitude that something is or isn’t meant to be, the assumption is that there is someone or something with the power to mean or not mean things to be. To Eliot, the idea of God, despite the holy rollers his parents were and brother is, is absurd. As far as he’s concerned the pursuit of holiness made all of their lives, and his, miserable.

Finishing the beer in a long gulp, he stands and stretches. In the bathroom he undresses, brushes his teeth, pisses out as much of the evening’s alcohol as he can. His own nakedness fuels his desire for Anita. In the bedroom, which is warm and brightened by a street light outside the window, she lays on her stomach in the lacy white panties he’d given her last Valentine’s day. The matching bra has been abandoned to the floor.

Well, she gave it a try.

And still, stubbornly, perversely maybe, he wants to turn her over, so that he can at least kiss her nipples and her crotch through the satin; lightly, lightly. She’d know, in a dreamlike way, that he’s there, but not enough to wake up, since in a few hours she’ll be talking to her students about murderous ambition.

He kisses her forehead, then lays himself perpendicular to her body. He brings his face to the twin scoops of her buttocks and kisses them where her panties have risen to the crack: one kiss for each sweet bun.

Ah, but it’s no good like this. It’s no good if she’s not really here.

He flops onto his back and stares up at the ceiling. A word, if it is a word, floats down like a torn wing from a lost angel in the heavens and settles in his head. Oblivia.


* * *


In the faculty lounge, Anita sits reading a poem in the English Journal called “She Leaves Them Thinking,” by someone named Vita Sparrow. It’s about the narrator’s encounter with a homeless woman who stands at a street corner chanting, “The children will have their revenge.” The narrator ruminates on several possible meanings of the cryptic message, and ends saying,


I find myself rushing home

apprehensive to see

if my son and my daughter

are plotting their mother a welcome

she could never have conceived.


When she finishes reading, Anita lets the magazine slide into her lap and closes her eyes. A vision comes: Janie as a teenager, tears flowing, confronting her: “You’re the most selfish woman alive. Admit it. Admit it.”

No, I won’t admit it. I just wanted my chance to say my bit, that’s all….

She conjures an image of Janie as she is, sweet little girl, and that helps. But she’s shaken.

In the ladies room, she brushes back her straight, dark hair. The half moons under her eyes make her look waifish. She needs more sleep, but the only time for writing is after Janie’s down, and once she gets going it’s hard to stop. The other day she got an acceptance from Northeast Corridor. The editor said it was the best story she’d read in months. For a few hours she’d walked on air. Then she graded essays, made lasagna, and cleaned the bathtub.

A picture of Eliot flits into her mind. He’s making some kind of promise to her, some kind of deal. She’s vaguely annoyed, but rather than indulge the vision she lets it pass; there are Macbeth notes to go over, and class in ten minutes.

Both her slender hands gripping an elaborate teal and bone porcelain mug, Mara Hillendale strides into the lounge and drops into the chair next to Anita’s. “God, it’s cold in this school.” She lays a warm hand on Anita’s knee. “I just finished reading the most wonderful essay. By Sharon Bly? You’ve had her, I’m sure. A junior. She’s in my American Lit. Get this, it’s a feminist reading of The Red Badge of Courage, which I’d be very surprised if anyone’s done before. All about what the novel doesn’t say about women.”

Anita is aware of the tinge of jealousy she feels when someone else writes something well. She scolds herself for the feeling, tries to convert it into motivation. “Terrific,” she says.

“She managed quite nicely to make our presence felt.”

“Our” rubs Anita the wrong way–there are too many women who might as well be aliens, starting with her own mother, the “we are woman” crap–but she loves Mara too much to pick a fight.

“I’ll never read the book the same way again. Don’t you love it when a kid writes something original?” She leans over, looks around, says, “I almost wish I could give her an A.”

“So do it.”

“Sure. And Ed finds out and I get the two hour lecture on the destructiveness of grading the students’ writing. No thanks.”

“Tell Ed you were overcome with nostalgia. Better still, tell him you were being ironic. You might even get brownie points for that.”

“Yes, ironic,” Mara smiles. “Well, aren’t I always?” She lowers her voice again. “How else to survive this place?”

“You could teach in the South Bronx.”

“Don’t try to infect me with guilt, you. My husband just reminded me that next week is Ash Wednesday. God, I hate Lent.”

“Why is that?”

Mara looks at her watch and stands up, hands re-wrapped around her mug, the tea within still unsipped. “Oh, I’ve got to go to class. Remind me to tell you all about my unresolved Protestant guilt. I’m morally ambivalent about everything. I’m incorrectly politically correct. Anyway, there is such a thing as Protestant guilt. You Catholics haven’t cornered the market.”

“Mara, I’m about as Catholic as…I don’t know, James Joyce.”

“Oooh, bad analogy.” Releasing one hand from the mug, Mara shakes a school-marmish finger at Anita. “My theory is that Joyce, despite whatever he may have said, despite that whole refusal-to-kneel-and-pray-with-his-dying-mother thing, never left the Catholic church. I mean, the man was obsessed. Unconsciously, he’s as Catholic as the Pope. He was an unconsciously practicing Catholic. There. Free literary brilliance.”


In the hallway one of Anita’s seniors, Jason Parles, stops her. Flipping his blonde bangs from his eyes, he says, “Hey, Ms. M-L., I heard a song of your husband’s on the radio last night. It was so cool. You know, that they were playing somebody I know.”

Anita’s eyebrows lift. “Oh? Do you know him?”

“Well, I know you. It was on an awesome college station from Fairley Dickenson. WFDU? All they play is really obscure shit. The song was about getting married and living in a haunted house. I forget what it’s called.”

“Me, too.”

Jason throws his hair back again. “Tell him one of your students heard him on the radio.”

“I will. See you later, Jason.”

Really obscure shit. A fondness for Eliot bubbles up unexpectedly in Anita, and she floats back ten, fifteen years. Everything was promise. Unimaginable good things were still to come. She can hear Eliot saying, “It’s too good to be true, babe. I’m doing what I love; I have a gorgeous, talented woman in my life. Don’t wake me up, okay?”

She should have been writing–instead of dreaming of being a writer. She should have woken Eliot up.

Late last night, when he came into the bedroom, Eliot had made an overture while she lay there thinking. She feels guilty now for pretending to be asleep. He claims they don’t make love as much as they should. Maybe he’s right. Sometimes it hurts her. Body and soul. Still, they should probably be making love every chance they get.


* * *


The late evening stillness is palpable, and Mark, suddenly aware of it, looks up from his work and glances at the windows at the back of the office, as if the stillness has entered in stealth from outside. A shiver creeps down his back.

He stands up from the desk where for hours he’s been paying bills and filling out requisition forms, and blows warm breath over the numbing tips of his fingers and wriggles his toes to try to circulate the blood. Though they’ve had to be somewhat austere this winter–heating costs are way up–Mark is tempted to go over to the thermometer and nudge it to sixty-three, sixty-four.

There’s something other than what he’s doing that he’s supposed to do, some supply that has to be ordered by tomorrow, some bill that if it isn’t paid immediately will incur a fine. His eyes search the surface of his desk, which has grown a bit untidy lately, for clues. Order forms, the first-draft of this week’s sermon, missalettes, a letter from Arlene Herlihy, concerned that some of the local Filipino kids are forming gangs, Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude (which he’d found last week at the Tottenville library, but which has lay unread since), a photograph of his surviving family: Eliot, Anita and Janie. No clue.

It’s cold. He walks toward the thermometer but as he reaches for the dial the telephone bleats and he lurches backward like he’s been caught red-handed.

He takes a long breath. Could it be Eliot calling back? At this hour? More than likely Eliot won’t call back at all. No, somebody’s died, or needs last rites. Or is tormented.

Or it’s Melissa.

He picks up on the fourth ring, says softly, but with a tremble the softness doesn’t conceal, “St Gregory’s rectory.”

He listens for a first word, a breath even, but there’s nothing, so he puts down the receiver and waits, expecting it to ring again. When it doesn’t, he walks to the window and pulls the curtain away and gazes across the rectory’s small backyard to the river. No sluggish oil barges pressing on, no tugboat heading to dock after twenty-four hours at sea. Just black water dragging itself into the harbor. Looming on the other side are the silhouettes of towers and stadium-sized oil tanks. Though emblazoned upon their four grey chests are the words SHELL OIL COMPANY USA, Mark reads: WELCOME TO CANCER ALLEY.

Truth is, he’s always found a kind of beauty here: in the ravaged river and wild industrial geometry of iron and steel and fire and smoke, in the potholed streets and the hillside Victorian houses built for a maritime heyday long past, in the acrid, old-man bars that open at ten a.m. and are closed tight by ten p.m.–except, that is, for Lucky’s, the topless place next to East Coast Diving. To see these things as beautiful is, he knows, his inclination to romanticize. He wants to view everything as, if not in fact transformed, then capable of transformation.

Charlie, he remembers, and lets the curtain fall. On his way out of the office he steals a glance at the telephone.


The older priest is asleep, though his small table lamp is still lit. A smell of peace exudes from his papery skin, and though he’s been dying of cancer of the liver since early last spring–when he was given three months, tops–he looks like a man who expects his date with his Creator to go well.

Lingering near the bedside, Mark remembers how for the first year he would only address his superior as “Monsignor Maldanado” despite Charlie’s protests. In those days Charlie, picking up on what he’d heard around the parish, liked to call Mark “the boy priest.” Four years have done a lot to render that identity inaccurate.


It’s too late at night to be making friendly phone calls. Still, she might have been the one. Maybe she needs to talk. Maybe she’s trying to send a signal: call me; I need you. He picks up the receiver and teases himself by punching in four, five, six numbers. He could say he couldn’t sleep, which is the truth; and that he just wanted to chat. It would give her the chance to say what she needs to say.

He presses the last number, listens to the first ring, then slams down the phone. No. No. Why on God’s earth would you want to provoke anything?


Read Steven’s interview with WIPs about his novel in progress, The Last Big Break