New Year’s Eve in Harlem

by John Repp

Artwork by Julia Sorensen


When the jug of wine hit 142nd Street, my wife zoomed
for the brownstone in which her best friend—call her Rachel—
shared a walk-up with her daughters & a friend—call her Amy—

I found immediately fetching after my wife & I ran
up three flights & through the door—another of those ten-foot
slabs the remembered ka-thunk of whose shutting will

always evoke the bliss of reading Tolstoy under a pile of blankets
while the wind off the Hudson rattles the window—
into the Christmas-light dusk where Rachel hugged us

then threw out her arms for our coats & danced a speedy,
off-kilter watusi the length of the place while her kids raced laughing
after her & back & the sudden Calypso I didn’t yet know

was Amy sat cross-legged on the coffee table, twisting a hank
of dirty-blonde hair over her right ear & whispering
into the phone to “that charming Victor,” Rachel said, “the asshole

who beats the shit out of her.” New Year’s Eve in Harlem.
I thought those exact words many times, feeling my wife’s terror
as the cab pulled away & her bumpkin husband not only

dropped a gallon of wine, but hollered they should clean it up,
which no sane white people would do, not even on a silent-
as-death block with sleet wind-tunneling off the river near ten at night.

She’d long known my Harlem was the euphonious, discordant
river down which I drifted each day & a long-ago drive to Idlewild
gone awry, my mother yelling “Where are we?” as she cranked

the windows shut, my father peering at the map spread over the wheel,
neon blaring, muffled shouts, revving engines, blatted horns,
my sister whimpering, brother rigid, me sliding damp thighs side-to-side,

the all-but-liquid air we alone breathed somehow keeping us safe,
the bloodworms—leech-like, delicate horrors whose life or death
meant a week in the clear or in debt—stacked in a hot terminal

while we lurched up streets & down avenues sunk in fear, absurd
as my belief in my wife’s street-punk savvy, as the looks
I snuck at beautiful, broken Amy in her half-unbuttoned flannel shirt,

as the need to save her friend my wife couldn’t forsake—
Rachel wandering Riverside Park, zonked against a lamppost on 96th,
the Angel Gabriel at the Port Authority, in bed for a month,

stinking, emaciated, remorseful—because she’d loved child-Rachel,
loved as only she could love what no longer was yet still
might be, somehow, if only the beloved would wake to her devotion.

I wish I could write a song called “New Year’s Eve in Harlem,”
a tune Eric Dolphy would bring down from heaven, his bass clarinet
breathing a mournful theme, bandstand dark but for a spot

on the dapper genius who makes for five minutes all of this superfluous.

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