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My name is Malcolm Pomerantz, and I’m an axe man, though not like those guys on that reality-TV show about loggers. Had I ever been that kind of axe man, I would long ago have cut off both feet or been crushed by a toppling tree. I’ve been clumsy all my life. I have managed not to stumble into an accidental death only because my profession—I’m a musician—doesn’t require me to deal with power tools or treacherous terrain. Axe is musicians’ slang for instrument, and my axe is a saxophone. I have been playing it since I was seven, when the sax and I were nearly the same size.

I’m fifty-nine now, two years older than Jonah, my best friend of half a century. I’m tall, and Jonah’s not. I’m white; he’s black. When I first met him in the summer of 1967, Jonah was ten and quick and graceful, a piano prodigy, and I was twelve and lumbered around like Lurch, the butler in The Addams Family, which had been big on TV the previous year. When I first heard him playing, he rocked the keyboard with Fats Domino’s “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday.” In both our lives, 1967 proved to be … unforgettable.

At my insistence, Jonah recently talked his life—or at least a strange and tumultuous portion of it—into a tape recorder, and his story became a book titled The City. There isn’t any point in talking my life, because most of the interesting parts are what happened when I was hanging out with Jonah; he’s already covered that territory. I do have one little experience to recount, however, a curious series of events that occurred a few weeks before I met him. Like his more engaging story, mine suggests that the world is a more mysterious place than it seems to be most of the time, when we’re plodding along from breakfast to bedtime in a reassuringly familiar routine.

In those days, my sister, Amalia, was seventeen, five years older than I was, but we were as close as twins. Not that we looked alike. Blond hair in a ponytail, she was lithe and graceful, full of such enthusiasm for life that both in sunshine and in shadow, she had a glow that I swear was not entirely a figment of her adoring little brother’s imagination. On the other hand, I was a loose-limbed twelve-year-old with an Adam’s apple that made me look as if I had swallowed a Granny Smith whole and had gotten it stuck in my throat. Although she didn’t have much of a wardrobe, Amalia always wore the right thing for the occasion and looked as if she’d stepped out of a Sears catalog. With my round shoulders and arms as disproportionately long as those of an orangutan, I tried to disguise my awkward form by dressing as if I were an adult, though, being blind to fashion, I only called greater attention to my gangly nature: black wing tips but with white socks, dress pants hiked a couple of inches north of my navel, my short-sleeved spread-collar white shirt buttoned all the way to the throat.

At twelve, I didn’t yet think much about girls. Considering my long, pale face and hound-dog eyes behind black-rimmed glasses with thick lenses, maybe I already knew that even through adulthood I’d never be a guy who had flocks of pretty girls in flight around him. I had the love of my sister and my saxophone, and that was enough.

It had better be enough, because Amalia and I didn’t have a home life that would be suitable for a TV show like Ozzie and Harriet or Leave It to Beaver. Our old man was a machinist, a foreman for an entire shop of lathe operators, most of the time as silent as a rock, a cold man who by his stare alone could convey his disapproval and his ardent wish that he could hold you to his lathe and shape you into someone more appealing. Chesterfield cigarettes were to him what the Eucharist is to devout Catholics. Amalia insisted he wasn’t cold, but only wounded by life and emotionally isolated. Our mother liked TV around the clock, interludes of neighborhood gossip with Mrs. Janowski, who lived next door, and Lucky Strike cigarettes, which she burned through as if the fate of the Earth depended on her chain-smoking even through meals, which she usually took on a TV tray in the living room. She prided herself on being a fine housekeeper, by which she meant that she efficiently delegated all the work to Amalia and me.

The king and queen of our little lower-middle-class castle spoke to each other so seldom, you might well have assumed they primarily communicated telepathically. If that were the case, then judging by their demeanor, they detested virtually every exchange of their psychic conversations. Amalia said that something profound must have happened between our parents long ago, that they had hurt each other, that they’d said all they had to say about it, and that they couldn’t bring themselves to forgive each other, and that, therefore, they found it painful to talk to each other about anything. Amalia didn’t like to think the worst about anyone until they had proved themselves irredeemably vile.

My sister had played the clarinet since she was eight, when a kid in the next block, having been forced into lessons by his folks, finally rebelled and convincingly threatened to hang himself. She’d been given the instrument for nothing, and she had wanted to learn to play it largely because she knew that it would annoy our parents. She hoped that her playing would get on their nerves so much that they would insist that she practice in the detached one-car garage, where she wouldn’t have to see them so determinedly not talking to each other, where the air smelled of grease and tire rubber and mildew instead of Chesterfields and Lucky Strikes. Her hope was fulfilled, and the remaining years that we lived in the house, the words most often spoken by our mother and father were, “Take it to the garage,” not only when we practiced the clarinet and saxophone, but also when our mere presence became a distraction from their TV shows, their drinking, and their committed smoking.

Amalia became pretty darn good on the clarinet, but I proved to be a prodigy on the saxophone, self-taught and self-polishing, always working to get a little better. Playing the sax was the one thing I could do that was graceful.

With a 4.0 grade-point average and considerable writing talent, Amalia was an amateur musician with bigger things than a dance band in her future. Although our distracted mother and father didn’t consider it much of an achievement, Amalia received a full scholarship to a major university based on her grades but also based on several cool short stories that she’d written and with which she’d won prizes in various competitions.

I was proud of her, and I wanted her to succeed big-time, and I wanted her to escape the cancer clouds and the gloom and our parents’ bitterness that made the Pomerantz place so like Poe’s House of Usher just before it sank into the swamp. At the same time, I couldn’t imagine what my life would be like when, at the end of that summer, she went far away to school, leaving me as the only member of the family who didn’t want to eat dinner off a TV tray.

In early June, nearly a month before I heard Jonah Ki

rk rocking that Fats Domino tune at his grandfather’s house, across the street from our place, a weird thing happened next door. The residence in question was not to the east, not the Janowski place, where my mother and Mrs. Janowski regularly shared gossip, most of it delusional fantasy, about the marital relations of other people who lived on our block. It was instead one door west of us, at the former Rupert Clockenwall place, which had been unoccupied ever since old Mr. Clockenwall died of a massive heart attack a month earlier.

The strangeness started at 3:00 one morning, when an unusual sound awakened me. As I sat up in bed, I didn’t think the noise had been in my room. I was pretty sure it came from beyond the window, although it might have been the last sound in a dream that, by its very threatening nature, compelled the sleeper to wake. In this case, it called to mind a long sword being drawn from a metal scabbard, the stropping of steel on steel.

Even in an older residential neighborhood like ours, far from the high-rises and the Midtown bustle, the city is never silent, and long before you’re twelve years old, you learn to tune out its most familiar rattles, clashes, and percussions to get a good night’s rest. What woke me now was alien to the ear. I threw back the top sheet and got out of bed.

Earlier I had raised the lower sash of the window in hope of a draft, but the night air remained warm and still. As I bent to the window, the sound came again and seemed to vibrate in the screen as if the blade of a stiletto had been whisked across that metal mesh, so that I startled backward.

When the stropping came a third time, softer than before, I realized that it originated not inches from my face but from the house next door, and I leaned close to the window screen once more. Between the houses stood an ancient sycamore in full leaf. Perhaps because in its early years it had received too little sunlight or had suffered a bout with disease, the tree had attained a tormented architecture and did not entirely screen my view of the Clockenwall place. Through the twisted branches, I saw lamplight bloom beyond a downstairs window.

The late Rupert Clockenwall’s only surviving relative was a brother who lived half a continent away. Until the small estate was settled, the house could not be put on the market for sale, and there had been no activity at the place since the day that Mr. Clockenwall died. Naturally, having the usual fantasy life of a twelve-year-old, I sometimes imagined dramas where none existed, and now I wondered if a burglar might have forced entry.

Lamplight brightened another window on the ground floor and, soon thereafter, also one on the second floor. Through the sheers that hung over that upstairs window, a sinuous dark form whidded past the curtained glass. Although any moving shadow is bent by light and by every surface over which it travels, this one seemed particularly strange, bringing to mind the supple wings of a manta ray swimming the sea with all the grace of a bird in flight.

Overcome by a sense that someone sinister must be prowling the Clockenwall house, I waited at the open window for a while, breathing the warm night air, hoping to glimpse that lithe and eerie shadow again or something more. Eventually, when I was not rewarded by any phantasmic shape or further peculiar sounds, even my boyish desire for mystery and adventure couldn’t sustain my attention. I had to admit that neither a burglar nor a vandal was likely to announce his invasion of the property by switching on nearly every light.

After returning to bed, I soon fell back to sleep. I know that I had a bad dream in which my circumstances were desperate, but when I suddenly sat up in bed at 4:00 A.M., I could recall nothing of that nightmare. Little more than half awake, I went to the window, not to observe the house next door, where lights still glowed, but to close the lower sash. I also locked it, though the night was hot and a draft was much needed. I don’t remember why I believed that I should engage the lock, only that I felt the urgent need to do so.

In bed once more, I half slept through the last sweltering hour of the summer night, muttering like a victim of malaria in a fever dream.


Most mornings, our old man preferred a sandwich for breakfast, usually bacon and eggs on heavily buttered toast. In bad weather, he stood at the sink to eat, staring out at the small backyard, silent and remote, as though he must be pondering important philosophical issues—or planning a murder. On the nearby cutting board stood a mug of coffee. He held the sandwich in his right hand, a cigarette in his left, alternating between the two. When witness to this, I always hoped that in error he would take a bite of the cigarette or attempt to smoke the sandwich, but he never became confused.

The morning following the activity at the Clockenwall house, he ate instead on the back porch. When he descended the steps and went to work, I retrieved the empty coffee mug and ashtray that were balanced on the flat cap of the porch railing. While I washed them at the kitchen sink, Amalia served breakfast to our mother in the living room, where on the TV some movie star was being interviewed by a morning-show host, the two of them competing to see who had the phoniest laugh. Our mother had ordered fried potatoes, a cheese omelet, and a cup of canned fruit cocktail. She and the old man rarely ate at the same time and never wanted the same thing.

When Amalia returned to the kitchen, she said, “I think someone moved in next door during the night. My window was open, and a voice woke me, and then there were lights in all the rooms over there.”

Her bedroom was on the same side of our house as mine. I said, “I didn’t hear anybody. Saw the lights, someone moving around over there, just a shadow. But no Realtor has put up a sign yet.”

“Maybe they decided to rent the place instead of selling.”

“Moving in at three in the morning is kinda weird. Was it just one person or a family, or what?”

“I didn’t see anybody.”

“What about the voice?”

“Oh, that must have been a dream. There wasn’t anyone standing under my window. I thought someone called out from under my window, a man, but I must have been dreaming and woke up, because when I got out of bed and went to the window, no one was down there.”

I put place mats and flatware on the dinette table. While I made toast, burning the first two slices, Amalia scrambled eggs and fried slices of ham for our breakfast.

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