The Ghost Sonata – Vincent Zangrillo

The Ghost Sonata - Vincent Zangrillo

Gregory Corso loved Patti Smith. Patti Smith loved Jim Carroll. Jim Carroll loved Ted Berrigan. Ted Berrigan loved Mark and Mark loved me. Once after Gregory was gone maybe two years, I’m not good with numbers, I ran into Patti at the O.T.B. on King St. It was a delicious day in June, the type day you’d wait a whole year for. Clear sunshine, no humidity, the air clean and cool and fine, cool so that if you put on a spring jacket, as I did and rolled the sleeves up, as I did, you’d be fine. Patti was sitting on the sidewalk leaning up against the OTB wall, allowing the sun to absorb like a cat. She was doping the ponies. It was Belmont Stakes Day. Gregory and me and Mark had gone to Belmont one day, and Gregory was as happy as a strange child, eternally optimistic, the next race always hovering ahead like some as yet unclaimed “goodie.” Wishing there was one with a horse begging to be bet on, like one called Rimbaud’s Ghost or Shelley’s Spirit.

When Gregory said who’s got the “goodies,” you always knew what the signified was.

I told Patti, Gregory would have loved this day, and she smiled and said — Yeah, he would have. She liked my jacket which was littered with black and white splotches, which I had gotten when I was living in the Hantu Anjing Homestay in Ubud, Bali in a grove behind The Beggars Bush Pub. She referred to it as my Jackson Pollock jacket. Patti had been a participant, a priestess, at all three of the Corso Memorials; The Funeral at Our Lady of Pompeii where Gregory had been baptized and years later I was to get married, and St. Mark’s Church, and that old synagogue on Norfolk St. When she sang:

There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far, very far
Over land and sea
A little shy and sad of eye
But very wise was he
And then one day
A magic day he passed my way
And while we he spoke of many things
Of fools and kings
This he said to me…

it was a dirge of elgaic transcendence.

Patti especially loved Jim Carroll, and many years before all this, I had walked down the block with him, arguing the merits of various types of codeine-laced cough syrups, Hycotussin vs DMX, Romilar, Coricidin, etc. He said, It’s not wine, you know, it’s cough syrup. Maybe a year or so after Gregory gave up the ghost, I went to one of my very few St. Marks New Year’s Day readings, which for some reason I always found as depressing as The Office of the Dead. And a very ephemeral looking Jim read a poem dedicated to Gregory. I thought to myself: He’ll be able to deliver the message personally, soon enough.

Back when I walked the block with Jim, I was surrounded by and bounded by charismatic, super smart people. The person next smartest to me was ten times smarter than me. I hadn’t realized then, that charismatic people were a dangerous diversion. I hadn’t realized that smart people were those to be wary of.

Jim loved a girl named Holly Brown who was a friend of his little sister. Holly had disappeared for a couple of weeks and people were worried, Jim was worried. Holly Brown was someone we’d seen around at parties and things. Jim asked Ted Berrigan, if anyone had seen her around, downtown. Ted asked Mark; Mark asked me. I asked Rockets.

Rockets Redglare, whether invited or not, whether welcomed or not, pretty much combed every party, opening and event from sundown to sunup, from 42nd St to Canal St. Rockets said she was acting in some porno. He told me the rumor was that somehow Holly Brown had taken up with Lance, was in his orbit, and that was a difficult orbit to cut loose of. Like I should’ve mentioned, even if I haven’t had the chance, Lance was persona non grata among the Downtown Artists and Writers Drug Guild and nobody would deal with him.

I went to Lance’s loft somewhere near Herald Square, a couple of blocks from Macy’s and Penn Station, but by our standards, as remote a place as places get. He was sitting, wearing an Admiral’s hat, in a clawed foot tub positioned in the middle of the loft, disconnected from any plumbing. Some girl was steaming up pots of water and pouring them in like Lance was Warren Beatty in McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Lance had a glass pipe instead of a cigar. He was expounding: He thought he could get Debbie Harry who he claimed he knew somehow, to be in a remake of Alphaville. He was also going to remake Scarlet Street with Rockets playing the Edward G. Robinson role. There was this other guy there, straddled on a chair, his arms resting on the back, a Ghost Dragon up from Chinatown, who was peddling smack that looked like pellets of rabbit shit. I asked Lance about Holly and he admitted that she had been around and that he had given her some “spending money” because “She looked like a hit and run.” He told me the name of a hotel that she would probably be staying at. There were no hotels downtown in those days that weren’t rat holes, S.R.O.’s, with the possible exception of the Gramercy and Chelsea and even they were dumps. The one Lance mentioned, The Breslin, was a few blocks away. I walked over. She wasn’t there. I went back downtown and told Rockets and he said that was such bullshit. He laughed; he said Lance was the car and probably “hit her and ran” and that if he gave her money, it was to shut her up. He said try the Carlton Arms. I said why and he said because everyone ends up at the Carlton. I didn’t know if he was paraphrasing Casablanca, but he was an actor. I started feeling like a gumshoe.

I had no particular reason to find Holly, but I had no particular reason not to, and sometimes no reason not to, is the best reason of all.

I went to the Carlton which was in the Twenties (25th maybe?) between Park and Madison (3rd and Lex?), a real nowheresville neighborhood. The Carlton was the kind of place where they could be shooting a porn film in the lobby and down-to-their-last-dime Euro-trash wouldn’t turn their heads. It was like a shooting gallery with a lobby and a desk clerk. I had been to the Carlton on a mission exactly one time before, on the bequest of a Hungarian girl who worked at a wonderful French Bakery on West 4th Street and brought me back boxes of Napoleons for free. She said she was aristocracy; she wanted me to deliver a note in Hungarian to a fellow exiled aristocrat, she referred to as The Baron. I owed her the favor. I walked into his room at the Carlton and all four walls were plastered, no blank spots, with ejaculation shots ripped from porno mags. The effect was unsettling. Where was the Baron going to go from there? I didn’t stay long, didn’t want to know.

I found her, Holly I mean. I was two for two at digging up people at the Carlton.

(Years later, three for three, I guess. I went there to find my high school hero, Wimpie — back in ’71, he drove me in his ’70 Cutlass Supreme to see The Faces and Savoy Brown and The J. Geils Band at The Fillmore — I got to his room two days too late. I walked to the street corner and did some street corner talking, didn’t even need a dime for 911. No rush, I said.)

She was staying in a room with a sagging mattress and old worn furniture, but the room was big enough, with a window on the street.

Not much on décor, I said.

It’s a waiting room, she said.

She had acne and was really skinny; she was wearing a guys white shirt (Lance’s) and panties and she had welts on her upper thighs. She had some tinfoil and a Bic pen with the cartridge taken out, leaning over her bed stand and smoking gross brown heroin, real caca. But when I saw her, I had this feeling, it was as if she was every variation of broke up, from Terry to Mardou to Tristessa.

She would be my own pathetic Edie Sedgwick. I sat down on the bed next to her and leaned towards her; when she pushed the tinfoil towards me, I said, that’s OK, I’m good. She seemed pellucid, shivering, not on the outside but beneath her skin. I told her people were worried about her. She said she was scared; that she wanted to go away. I said OK, let’s go. She checked out of the Carlton. She had a pocketbook with everything shoved inside it. I remember her giving the clerk $75 which seemed a lot.

We hit the sidewalk and the grey sun made her withdraw a little more: I got to go see my little brother first. I shrugged. I had nowhere to go, nothing to do.

We walked over and caught the 6 train at 23 St. and took it all the way up to 177th St., some place in Parkchester, in the Bronx, where, as they said in the Tombs, “Them white niggers lived.” Then we got on a bus, and went to this Italian enclave, City Island. The place pretty much had a moat around it. We went to a clam bar called The Wander Inn and drank beer and watched Bowling for Dollars or something for a while before she went to see her little brother.

Where’s he staying at, I said?

Hell, she replied.

How old is he?


I took a sip of beer. You’re sure they’re going to let him out?

No, but they’ll let me in. She took a cigarette from my pack and turned to leave. I stopped her and led her to the back of the bar where there was a payphone. I ripped a little piece of paper from the Yellow Pages and wrote down the number of the payphone.

Call me if you run into any trouble.

I will.

(“Run into trouble”- a dead metaphor, even I knew that, even then. Even then, even I, knew there are two types of people who are trouble: Those who make trouble come to them (Holly, Lance, The Baron, Wimpie) and those who wait for trouble to come to them (Rockets actually; me, maybe.) A subtle distinction perhaps, but not to me. But “run into trouble,” like a fucking car accident? No way, never happen. Not the way I looked at it.

But alas, as I was to come to know, whether you make trouble come to you, or wait for trouble to come to you – either way – come it will.)

Holly left.

The Wander Inn was one of those clam bars in outposts like Breezy Point, in the Rockaways, where only white people were welcome, preferably Irish, or like City Island in the Bronx, very preferably Italians or Irish that they at least knew. But I didn’t give a shit. I felt really comfortable in bars, any bar. Black, White, Cowboy, Biker, Dyke, Hardhat, Gay.

It was the Monday before Thanksgiving and the waitress was stringing Christmas lights which made the place cheerful in a depressing sort of way, which If I didn’t exactly like, I appreciated. It was about the length of time Bowling for Dollars was on, followed by an episode of the Match Game, about an hour, an hour and a half later, that Holly came back and said, Let’s go. She had tears in her eyes but she was smiling. I figured the kid was in foster care, but as I said, I wasn’t in the habit of asking questions, past, present or future. We took the bus and then the 6 down to Grand Central. I put my arm around her on the subway. I liked this train from the Bronx, because when it was up there, it was above ground and you could see (not literally “see,” necessarily, but I knew it was right there) at first in the white sections, little houses and then in the black and Spanish, tumbling relics with hydrants running and cyclone fences with barbed wire on the top protecting empty parking lots, as if what? People were going to steal the pavement and turn it into a tennis court? When the train lurched, I felt her ribcage just at the point, maybe three fingers to where her breast began. It seemed like she didn’t notice, and she started talking about her little brother, who I think she said was something like a voluntary mute, like he could talk but wouldn’t. I remember she said he didn’t like dodge ball, which seemed to have a lot of significance for her. That and kickball. She said that when the other kids in the street would play kickball, he would sit on the curb or he would walk around until he found a house where they were giving violin or piano lessons and sit outside on the curb and listen.

We took the shuttle to Times Square and walked underground to Port Authority. I sat on a plastic chair and watched her go up to the Continental Trailways window. She came back, put her elbows on my shoulders and leaned over. I got the feeling she was looking past me — and then she walked away to the stairs that went to the terminal.

All told I knew Holly for what, maybe eight or nine hours? A shard of time. I have no idea how the rest of her life went. But it’s a safe bet she found what she was looking for.

I walked out of the Terminal. I had zero money left after paying for the beer and a dozen clams while watching Bowling for Dollars. But the whole episode put me in the mood to steal something. I went over to King Karol Records on 42 St. and lifted a copy of the new John and Yoko album, Double Fantasy, which had just been released. I would do what I always did, bring it back, listen to it once, then go outside and hand it to some homeless asshole who would sell it for two bucks, just enough to buy a quart of beer and then piss in my stairwell. After King Karol’s, I walked over to Nathans, took a paper plate, loaded it with sauerkraut and relish, put some catsup on and consumed it (The Nathan’s Free Buffet Lunch, Rockets called it). Then jumped the turnstile, got back on the 6 down to Astor Place and then went back over to 2nd.

I tried telling Gregory about it, but he was frenetic, so I figured Zev must’ve been by with some Desoxyn. He listened, though he had an overflowing ashtray balanced on a copy of the Herald Tribune spread across his lap, was on the phone (there was a big earthquake in southern Italy and he had removed the rubber band holding his little black Business Relationships together and was trying to organize a Poetry Benefit; but Gregory’s black book was to Gregory exactly as Allen’s black book was to Allen.) All while watching the usually hapless Jets beat the Houston Oilers. At some point during my story, as Wesley Walker was eluding a tackle, the phone still to his ear, Gregory exclaimed, Aghh Never Happen! Ashes fell over the Herald Tribune. I had no idea what he was signifying. The possibilities were so rich.

Every sonata has a coda and here’s mine:

Thanksgiving came and went. About two weeks later, a Monday night around eight or nine, it started snowing quite heavily. Not really unusual for New York, but it was December 8th, still a little early. Gregory was dying to go outside.

Let’s walk over to Cookie’s, come on, let’s go nowww!

The timing of the snow, and the snow itself, was perfect, big soft hushed flakes that fell quickly, sticking and covering the ground – very little wind so they just floated down. It started after the day traffic and the commuters and the trucks had left, so it lay unmolested, giving the streets a spectral quality. Besides hardly anybody lived downtown, in them days. We walked past Gem Spa and saw on the newsstand a copy of the Soho Weekly News, with a photo of Yoko on the cover and the headline — Yoko Alone. Gregory scowled and hunched his shoulder. Foolish, he said to me. We walked up St. Marks and then cut across towards the park to make it to Bleecker St. By the time we got to Washington Square, the snow was two or three inches, as white as a shroud and still unsullied by dirty soles, and seeing it like that, not its usual New York slush made ash grey by exhaust fumes – and the quietude of the night itself, put Gregory in a very very rare, nostalgic mood. He asked me if I could ski and I laughed, Why?

He said, I can.

I laughed.

Check out the shot. When I was a boy in Clinton, there was a hill, well a big mound, in the yard. It snowed hard all the time. Some inmates had made some skis in wood shop, shellacked the shit out of them. We would carry them to the top of the hill and shoot down.


Yeah. He chuckled himself. The only problem is I never learned to turn or stop; I just picked up speed until I fell or crashed into the fence. Kept the guards laughing. And as if to prove it, he tried to skitch sideways through the untrodden snow, right at the point where you could look down Sullivan St. and see the World Trade Center and the bare white snowy bones of the leafless trees.

We walked across Bleecker and got to Cookie’s building and got buzzed up. When we walked in, Cookie was wrapped in a shawl, half curled on the couch, crying, her mascara smeared. There was a copy of The Ghost Sonata opened and spread across her knee. The TV was on with the sound turned off.

Oh they shot John, she uttered. He just died.

Now I had been with Gregory in ’77 when Elvis died and Gregory was smirking, derisive, dismissive.

Yah know how the King died? Sitting on the throne at Graceland taking a shit. A dozen empty boxes of Dunkin’ Donuts and a gold goblet filled with Demerol.

But this was an altogether different matter. Aghh shit, he said: Now we’re assassinating artists.

Later, in that chronically cold clear January, I lay naked one night with Cookie. I lit a cigarette and passed it over to her, who was wrapped in a sheet to her waist. I could make out the smoke drifting out of the alcove by the draft currents from where her bed lay, towards the bedroom where her kid, Max, slept. Although it was too dark to see clearly, I could sense she was staring at the ceiling.

Hey Cookie, remember the night when me and Gregory came over? The night John died? I remember you had a copy of The Ghost Sonata, that’s Strindberg, right? What were you doing with that, huh?

She placed the cigarette back between my lips.

I was reading for the role of the Milkmaid.

I took the cigarette out of my mouth and tapped the ashes into my palm, a move I had picked up from Gregory.

I turned away from the wall and leaned towards her. I reached across her chest with my hand to try and shake the ashes off onto a piece of paper on her nightstand, but some sprinkled on her breast.

Hey sorry, Cookie. But hey, the Milkmaid. She doesn’t have any lines right? (I was always checking myself so as not to sound stupid.)

I mean she doesn’t have any lines. She’s a ghost right? I mean that’s the point right? I mean what did you have to read for? What were you learning?

She said, When I’m in a film, I’m always trying to be there. To have presence. I was practicing not being there.

Really?… Cookie?

…It takes a lot more practice. Not being there, I mean.

About Vincent Zangrillo

Vincent Zangrillo was born in Ozone Park, Queens. He graduated from SUNY Albany in 1977 with a degree in English literature. After graduation, he attended Naropa Institute, where he studied with Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Gregory Corso. From 1978 to 1987 he lived in downtown, New York. Currently, he lives and writes on the East End of Long Island. He is the author of Dime Bag: Stories 1978–1986, a collection of short stories, published in 2016.

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