LA BEFANA OF STATEN ISLAND

The harbor is so calm that it barely ripples at the foot of the St. George rocks. Seagulls lay in flocks on the waves. It seems that the melancholy, the decadence of the shore, takes on a new depth at the sight of these dreamy squadrons – as if the emptiness was bound up in a knot with them. From time to time this wells up in the voice of a gull. 

Elenore Volpe was contacted by Ira Schwartz a week before the anniversary of her son’s murder. A “close friend” of her son, Ira made an unusual proposal. An only son and a self-described entrepreneur he requested she meet him along with two of her son’s friends at the site of his murder before retiring to his family’s estate for a what he called, a ‘grieving exercise’. 

With each brumal cry through the open car window, a dance of frost, wet ice rain and avian calls breathe through the crack between the metal VW Golf door frame and the driver-side window glass. Elenore had bought the car two years ago with her late husband for her son, Paul. Elenore and her husband Teon had named their only son after Saul of Tarsus. Something about blindness before clarity spoke to them both. The story of St. Paul was one of their first conversations sharing stories about growing up Catholic on Staten Island when they met at college. Naturally they were on mushrooms. The couple met this same date, Jan 6, 1991 through mutual friends. They did not put Nirvana’s Nevermind on the weekend night studio cassette machines. As ubiquitous as the record was that winter, no their crowd was generative, they preferred playing music to listening. Their mutual friends jammed out with Teon leading on drums in the vacant practice space at the SUNY Purchase conservatory of music. The young couple locked eyes in ecstatic kaleidoscopic eros. Teon was a jazz drummer, a Sun Ra head. Elenore preferred Donovan and Sibylle Baier. She played bass. It was the first night they played music together. The drugs were not quite a ‘heroic dose’ but damn near close. No silence and no darkness, only light. They were married by senior year. Their son Paul was born in 1993. Elenore and Teon divorced shortly after Paul was murdered last year. Teon took his own life in July. 

Richmond Terrace stretches along the north shore of Staten Island, NY. A road that starts with a panoramic view of southern Manhattan that gradually fades across water and mist to a less than impressive panoramic view of New Jersey petroleum refineries. The “Kill van Kull” is the narrow tidal straight between the island and Bayonne, NJ that follows along seagull hunting routes and shipping container paths into the inner harbor. The Kill van Kull borders Arthur Kill, achter kol, the “back channel” ending right above Mariner’s Harbor, five minutes north of Bulls Head where Elenore and Teon drove last January through a snowless warm for winter night. They had left the NYPD 120 precinct after identifying their son’s body.

Perhaps it was curiosity. They were never a couple that shied away from reality. They were artistic and spiritual travelers. The couple drove to the very spot where their son spent his last five hours.

Last year Paul Volpe drove the same Volkswagen Golf to meet a regular customer on the corner of Clifton and Jones street at midnight. The same spot where he had met him monthly since junior year of high school. The police reports described Paul’s injuries as “acute traumatic brain injury”. Elenore and Teon know the description through imagined mirror neuron pain and not the impact Paul endured from a metal baseball bat to the front of his skull. Paul was robbed for an ounce of marijuana and his credit cards. He bled out on the sidewalk between midnight and 6am before finally dying from ulcerative swelling. 

What Elenore and Teon did not experience was how blood clotting in neural tissue shuts down the prefrontal cortex at impact site. How twenty years of music theory fluttered harmonic resonance into Paul’s consciousness as he faded from the street concrete into partial memory, partial liminal space. Paul was a gifted guitarist taught by his mother. Beyond his adolescent years playing in their family band was his string of failed side projects that amounted to little compared to his drug dealing business. On the ground dying, Paul had receded from any notions of pain, but knew the images that would appear on police homicide reports to himself only as a full page of sheet music whispered into last thoughts that he would never show his parents personally. Whispered into the concrete. 

Teon knew the police photos from the morgue folder as a spell causing him to fall against a door frame in the morgue office, the last connections he had to love and music vacating his body from seeing a photograph of his son’s blood. 

Elenore knew the injury description from memories of recording bass solos with Teon for a live record with Tito Puente in Lincoln Center in spring of 1993. She recalled the soft kicks Paul touched against the inside of her body between her skin and the vibration of a Fender precision bass slacked over her belly. 

Elenore will forget Teon gradually growing distant after Valentine’s day last year. She will choke back déjà vu while filling out estate sale forms vacating the last things from her Livingston home. She will block out memories of her husband’s funeral only months after her son’s. She will move out into a one-bedroom condominium overlooking Manhattan on the edge of northern Staten Island, not quite a widow, not quite a mother. She lives in the building from Brian De Palma’s Sisters

Elenore parks her son’s car a block away from the murder site. Ice rain grows denser into snow.  The Theophany is Three Kings Day, Little Christmas, the visit of the Magi, among other creatures. Elenore tightens her coat around her neck as the wind picks up far colder than her single memory of walking down this same street a year ago, silence with her late husband replaced by air choruses. 

Unlike marble, concrete does not absorb blood. A simple wash will clear away discoloration that seeps into stone. Elenore remembers how the marble floor of the Elmer Holmes Bobst Library at NYU has blood stains permanently painted into the lobby marble from student suicides. 

Three young men are standing together with lit cigarettes over the very clean, very gray, cold marker of Paul’s murder. She hastens up to them as they look up through cigarette hot breath plumes. They’re the three wiseguys.

“Hey. Who has a cigarette?” Elenore asks.

One of the boys fumbles out a Newport, sliding it out of a pack to her. He holds out a dented BIC lighter as Elenore cups the wind cries away from the flame. 

She breathes in.

“How did you all know Paul? “ 

The boys are smoking, they don’t shake her hand. 

“I’m David, I went to school with your Paul, your son. I played clarinet for his band.”

David chins up at the next boy, 

“Hey, um, I’m Mark, I bought weed from him. But I hung out at practices.” 

The snow transitions from a dust to a wet stick, the first layers of blizzard begin to color white the crime scene below them. Elenore and the two boys say nothing. They don’t look at the third before he speaks. 

“Hi I’m Ira, I’m sure all of you know who I am. I called each of you to come here.” 

Mark flicks his cigarette into the street. “Who even are you, none of us have ever met you. How do you even know Paulie, what, did you buy from him? He never mentioned you once.” 

David fights a smirk.

“I mean, I don’t have your phone number, I have no idea who you are.” 

Elenore breaks between–“Wait, I thought you were my son’s friend, how do you have my number, how do you have any of our numbers? Who are you?” 

Ira shakes his head.

“It’s been a year. I know about each of you because Paul talked about you in my sessions with him. I thought it would be useful if we all met, at this time too. I wasn’t a customer. He actually came to me. I helped him acquire things he couldn’t get anywhere else. It doesn’t matter. I learned a lot from Paul. I think he learned a lot from me too.” 

David walks into the street.

“What the fuck… What is this, you got his fucking mom here. You weren’t even at the funeral. I remember every face I saw there.” 

Eleanor’s smile does not match her eyes. “I spoke at it and I don’t remember any of you. I don’t care. Let him talk.” 

Ira is wearing a long hooded down jacket, waxed jeans, and Dinosaur Jr. Dunk High Pros,

“I needed all of us to meet here because it’s what Paul would’ve wanted. You’re all coming back with me Paul would’ve wanted that too

None of the travelers have a rosary 

Ira leads Eleanor, David, and Mark to an old Mercedes wagon adjacent to the murder site. They sit inside. Ira leaves the antique FM radio on 106.7 Lite FM radio Christmas standards. The drive through the mounting blizzard is slow. Bing Crosby converges from the past in songs of figgy pudding and drummer boy. They reach a sparse wooded property in Todt Hill overlooking the New Dorp Moravian Church. Ira stops the car in front of a stone garage and leads the group inside. The living room is broad, white, draped in pastels. There is no television. It’s dark apart from the windows. Ira lights a fireplace. The fire tails erupt into the dark room contrasting amber against the bright highlights of white reflected snow light from large bay windows. Ira tells them all to sit around a coffee table after taking their coats. 

“My parents died when I was seventeen. They left me too much money than I knew what to do with. To answer all of your questions. I never bought drugs from Paul. But I did see him perform with his band at a coffee shop, The Muddy Cup in Stapleton. We spoke after. He was enchanted that I knew how to synthesize DMT. He came here many times, we explored these substances together. I can’t tell you how beautiful he was. How he helped me understand and move beyond that grief. He never met any of my friends. I never met any of his. He talked about each of you, how much he loved you.”

Elenore hasn’t cried since last winter. She asks Ira, “What did he tell you about me?” 

“I can’t betray everything he confided in me, but his only regret was he no longer connected with you artistically. He needed that, even if he didn’t express it.” 

“Mark, David, you were his closest friends, even if he thought you were kind of tasteless. His only regret was knowing that the three of you would grow apart. I think he felt that someday the life you shared would end and he would move onto something else.”

Mark is visibly uncomfortable and starts getting up to leave.

“This is wack, this is bullshit. I’m not going to walk in here and get talked down by, who the fuck are you even? I don’t know you. You don’t know me. He was our friend, her son. How come he never told us about you? Frankenstein ass fanook in this weird house.” 

Ira stands and puts a hand on Mark’s shoulder. 

“These things come and go and at every stage of life you must give yourself time. Are you leaving? Pity because I’m not dissatisfied with your condition.”

Mark pulls back.

“Hell no, I’m done with this. This shit is fucked up, ya’ll should leave too. Sorry Mrs. Volpe,” Mark starts to the coat closet. 

Ira sits back down.

“Stop Mark, I understand you didn’t come here to be talked down to. I understand also you didn’t come here to recover either. I offer nothing but what you are open to seeking. The same as with Paul. This isn’t about reminiscing. No stories of good old times or memories. This is serious. I’m not walking you through anything Paul and I didn’t already do.” 

Ira kneels at the center coffee table and opens a teak wood box with both hands lifting the top obscured between fire flicker and whited out windows onto chiaroscuro.

“I haven’t touched any of this since Paul died. He was the only person I ever used it with. The last time we did, I don’t know. I don’t think he knew what was going to happen, dying that is. I don’t think that’s possible. But he told me that if he was gone, I’d have to find all of you. Specifically, each of you. Elenore, Mark, David. I mean, Mark, you can leave if you want. No one is forcing you to be here. I had to do this, for Paul, exactly as he described it.” 

Mark stops short of pulling his North Face from the foyer closet, does a back stretch and sits back down on the white couch between Elenore and David. 

“Ok, shoot, I’m down for whatever.” 

“Good,” Ira whispers. 

Ira sets out a bowl with a salt mixture. He lights a fire at the center starting a path of smoke up through the center of the room with a scent of cinnamon and blackcurrant. He sits back on the chair across from his three guests. 

“Part of what Paul and I dived into was entheogens, psychedelics and sensory therapy. None of that will be what we do tonight. It’s funny, I’ve never celebrated Christmas, this isn’t my thing, but he was so insistent on Janus and the Magi. My parents were Jewish but you won’t find a menorah anywhere in this house. Paul and I were more into symbols” 

Snow begins to rise against the bubbled-out bay windows, stacking three feet high on the glass. The sound of wind fades deeper into a distant ringing of bells and the whipping of a broomstick. Laughter pounds against the glass in rhythm with the blizzard wind. 

Elenore starts hyperventilating. She feels the hairs begin to raise on the back of her neck. She grabs onto the couch cushion reaching out for Mark’s hand, her left hand gripping the couch rest. The smoke rising from the coffee table dish is a colored void of gold and red phosphorescence pouring over into green. 

Mark holds Elenore’s hand tightly. David falls back into the couch while the smoke curls like snakes into ladders of color with the noise of bells in the wind outside. 

The fireplace shuts black as the fire stops, amber light replaced only by the white cast blizzard snow windows and the knots of color over the coffee table bowl smoke. 

The three wiseguys and Elenore watch speechless as a set of aged, wrinkled crone talons double the size of human hands grip the top marble of the fireplace. Elenore closes her eyes. She remembers her nonna mention La Befana, maybe a song? The memory is piecemeal. 

A head like charcoal descends below the fireplace line, single diamond bright pinpoints of light glow at the center of the witch’s eyes. La Befana crawls out from the fireplace with the sound of cracking bone and insect carapace. The witch floats over the coffee table, a body ten feet tall straddling an ancient broom of gnarled seagull bones, Christmas bells in each beak. 

Last year Paul Volpe lay dying in Bulls Head. As the blood flow to his hippocampus collapsed, Paulie wrote three pages of sheet music in flow state. If not cried out in blood to the ground, a hag passing over can hear music written in night wails. Like a fairy queen La Befana perhaps kissed the young man’s forehead to memorize three voices on jazz harmony. 

Ira stares at the witch not with fear but a smile, tears running down his eyes. The music of Paulie’s last composition fills the Todt Hill living room. Inside Ira and Paulie’s DMT box are dried out vaporizer cartridges. There was not a milligram of the hallucinogens left. Elenore remembers the song of the Epiphany procession her nonna sang to her as a child. The black void of the witch’s body falls into beauty and calm against the liturgical glow of her eyes. The witch sings for the widow and the three wiseguys. Drums reminiscent of Teon’s meter beat with the room smoke trails. Saul of Tarsus’s last song radiates over the Jewish wiseguy orphan’s living room before the witch’s body slipstreams into black, blacker than night as a snake up through the fireplace. Bells ringing through the blizzard. 

The four travelers hold each other’s hands after Ira blows out the bowl fire. 

Elenore will sit in her one-bedroom condo the next day, in the building from Brian De Palma’s Sisters. She will write down a three-voice jazz song for drums, bass, and guitar, some Improvisational clarinet, as she touches the skin of her belly recalling Paul’s kicks. She will invite David over to play clarinet. Mark will come over to smoke weed during practice and learn guitar. Ira will visit knowing more about drum rhythms than he knew about being the Frankenstein fanook.

— Adrian Georges Silva is from New York City. He used to work in arts and fashion but learned how to write bad Enochian that passes for computer code. He may or may not reside near the “Electa” point of the capital pentagram. He has a Twitter and a Substack.