The sixth trip up the stairs I see them. Sometimes you can go the whole day without seeing anyone, and I thought it was going to be like that. Little did I know. Maybe I just missed them or maybe they snuck in when I was down at the van. The room is piled high with boxes, and there are plenty of places for them to hide.
But they aren’t hiding. They are staring at me with a mixture of curiosity and contempt. Like I’m a bug they’d found under a box: an odd bug, one they’d never seen before, which they’d maybe like to kill and preserve and add to their collection.
“What’s wrong with your face?” It’s the girl who asks, and she’s old enough to know it’s a rude question—she’s got to be fourteen or fifteen. Although she’s one of those people who could be 10 or 70, it’s hard to tell, with her flat pale face, her fair lank hair, her poker-straight posture. I don’t answer her, cause why should I? “Moving man. What’s wrong with your face?” She gestures vaguely towards her own flawless face with a wave of her thin hand.
The boy next to her puts his hands over his ears. He’s clearly younger than her, with the same translucent skinniness, but with an unruly pile of curly hair tumbling into his eyes.
“I have a toothache.” I know that’s not what she’s talking about, but why should I care? I hoist a box and head back down the stairs. I do have a toothache, too. I almost can’t tell which tooth. It could be all of them, it hurts so bad. It keeps me up all night; it’s on my mind all day. It feels like my tooth is growing in my head, and my cheekbones hurt, my skull hurts. I can’t afford to even get a single fucking X-ray. I can’t afford to step foot in a dentist’s office. All I can afford to do is worry.
I hope they’ll be gone when I get back up the stairs, but they haven’t moved at all. They’re sitting on a little sofa–it’s got gold arms, but that’s about all you can see cause it’s wrapped in plastic for the move.
“Mr. moving man, Mr. moving man,” She says in a singsong voice, “Why o why won’t you answer my question?”
I shift some boxes trying to find a lighter one. I’m suddenly exhausted, I don’t know why. I just feel drained. If those kids weren’t in the room I’d sit for a while. “It’s a rude question.”
“Is it? It is?” She seems genuinely surprised. Her eyebrows and her voice rise in elegant little arches. The boy puts his hands over his ears again. “He doesn’t like to hear fighting,” she explains.
“Who’s fighting?” I ask. She shrugs her skinny shoulders and smooths her skirt.
“Do you like my dog?” the little boy’s voice is surprisingly husky—he sounds like my pack-a-day grandma. I jump a little, to be honest. I’m not always crazy about the dogs. They don’t want you in their house, taking all their stuff. They get nervous seeing everything in boxes, and you carting it out the door.
I try to hide the fear in my voice. “Dog? I don’t see a dog.”
“He’s right here! HE’S HUGE! HE HAS SPOTS! SPOTS!!!” He pats the air beside him about a foot over his head. The girl’s uneasy. She looks straight at me for the first time, with a mixture of embarrassment and pleading.
“That’s one hell of a big dog.” I say. “I didn’t see him right away.” I gesture to my eye. And why do I care that the boy looks happy and the girl looks grateful? What do I care about these rich brats?
“Don’t worry, he’s nice. He won’t bite you.” The boy leans against his imaginary dog and sighs.
“My brother loves his dog more than anything. My brother’s name is Brooks Tyler Rotheringham the third.“
Of course it is.
“How’d you do it? The eye? Can you see? Can you see at all?”
“I see shadows. I see moving shadows.”
“And how? How? Are you in Mexican gang?”
“Yes, yes I am. That’s it exactly.”
“His name is TigerToo!” Brooks rubs his dog vigorously behind his invisible ears.
“Ah, because of the spots, of course.”
“No! Because of our other dog! Our other dog! She’s Tiger. He’s TigerToo.”
She clears her throat with a clean, almost delicate sound. “Yes, we have another dog. Sadly she can’t stay with us for a short while. Our mother’s boyfriend already has a dog. A dog who doesn’t like other dogs. Also, he has children. Two children. So Tiger will be staying elsewhere for a short while.”
“Ah, the old farm upstate, eh?”
“How did you know? How did you know? Who told you? Have you seen her?”
“Sure, I mean, I’m sure she’ll be fine. She’ll come home with you again. Sure.”
The girl gives a nearly imperceptible shake of her head, and the boy puts his hands over his ears. He says, “Fine. Home,” with a catch in his raspy voice and I grab another box and hightail it down the stairs.
Out on the street in a fine cold rain the city smells like piss and smoke and diesel. Sirens and car horns ring in my sore teeth. The sidewalk is tented in plywood and scaffolding, and the scaffolding is leaking cold dirty water down my neck. There’s always scaffolding, and its always leaking. The whole damn town is falling down. War-torn.
But right now it feels ok to be out here. It feels better than that hot close room and the strange sad kids. I wish I still smoked. Instead—I can’t stop doing it—instead I grind down on the tooth that hurts. Over and over until my jaw gets tired.
I have to go back up eventually, of course. I have to empty the room. I have to take the goddamn sofa out from under them. They haven’t moved much, but the boy’s face is red and splotchy, and the girl is holding his hand.
“You look tired, moving man.”
“Would you care for a glass of water? I wish I could offer you something stronger, but sadly I do not have anything.”
“I do!” Brooks pipes up. “I do! Sit here sit here, I’ll get it for you! Sit!”
He pats the couch next to him, between him and his sister. He pulls a box out from behind the sofa. It’s a metal tin, the kind that fancy cookies come in. The cheerful paint is scuffed and rusty, like it’s been opened a million times with grubby hands. He pats the couch again like I’m a dog. I don’t have time for this shit, I don’t want anything to do with it. The next thing I know I’m sitting on this tiny couch between these two frail freaks. I’m a big man, I’m squeezed so close between them I can smell them. They smell like milk and money.
Brooks leans over the box and opens it with his plump inept child hands, breathing heavily through his stupidly small child nose. The box is full of treasures. A plastic dog, a matchbox car (and of course it’s a Bentley), a heart-shaped rock, a drawing of a horse, a couple of acorns and chestnuts, and a goddamn beer bottle. It’s a goddamn bottle of Schlitz. It’s dusty as hell, who knows how old it is. He lifts it up and holds it before me like it’s the holy grail.
“It’s for you. I’ve been saving it for you.”
Of course I shouldn’t drink this ancient beer, this beer the boy has probably been saving for years, this beer that will likely kill me. I watch as he opens it, with a soft skunky pssshhhhhh, a puff of dust and smoke. He hands it to me with a hopeful face. This close I see that his eyes are a murky color, with a ring of light in the middle. His lashes are soft and golden, his skin is softly freckled.
Well, it’s warm and flat and sour, but I drink it, I drink it all, I drink it quickly. It burns like fire in my tooth with a pain that radiates through my whole skull. I put my hand to my cheek.
“Mr. Moving Man, why does your tooth hurt?”
“Poor dental hygiene.”
“Get it fixed, why don’t you get it fixed?”
I don’t answer, cause why should I? Why should I tell these rich kids that I’m poor? That vets don’t always get benefits for life?
“Our dad is a dentist!” Brooks pipes up.
“Of course he is.”
“Dental surgeon.” The girl corrects him with a little uplift of her sharp chin.
“Of course he is.”
“Sadly, I can’t contact him to help you with your problem, as we are instructed by mother’s lawyer not to communicate with him.”
The boy is playing with a little utility tool from his box, one of those things with the pliers, the screwdriver, the little magnifying glass. He’s eyeing me up like he might take the tooth out himself. I want to get up. I want to leave this hot sad room and these strange sad kids. But I’m not going to lie, the beer has gone straight to my head. I’m feeling dizzy with the pain and the heat. I’m feeling like I might puke. So I sit with my head in my hands, staring at my boots, which look so large and dark and ugly in this fine room.
“Where is your dog?” It’s Brooks who asks, in his husky confiding voice. I feel like I’ve been shot again. It hurts that much, it’s that discombobulating. I cover my good eye and hit myself on the head, hard, over my bad eye, Like I’m fucking R2D2 and if I can hammer out a dent in my head all my memories will come flooding out in a faltering blue stream for them to see. I’m thinking to myself, get up, get to work, stop scaring these soft sheltered kids.
And then they pat me on the back, with their soft skinny hands, one at a time. Soft slow pats on my rough aching back. I can’t remember the last time I’ve had a kind touch from a human being. I honestly can’t remember. And it’s like they press some button. It all comes out. I tell them everything.
“My dog Pepper.” I tell them. “She is a speckled dog.
“I don’t like people, I never talked to too many people or wanted to spend time with them. But Pepper, she showed up on my doorstep one day and then we were always together, together always. She was my shadow, short, in the morning walking behind me, I was her shadow, long, in the evening rushing to meet her.”
“And when she looks at you with those eyes your eyes get bruised.” Says Brooks, nodding his wise head.
“Yeah, yeah they do, that’s it exactly. That’s it exactly, Brooks. And then I get called up. I get sent overseas. I didn’t think it would really happen. Your family will be safe, they said. You’ll be safe. You’ll be taken care of for life. They said. I can’t explain to her about why I have to leave her. How can she understand that? I can’t explain to her that I’ll try to come back. So I leave her with my sister. But my sister doesn’t like dogs, doesn’t even understand why a person would have a dog. So I make her post pictures every day. Then one day the pictures stop. The messages and posts stop. Everything stops. I try to find out what’s going on and she’s been deported. My sister’s been deported. That’s not keeping her safe. That’s sending her to a farm downstate. I’m frantic and I want to know where my dog is. I’m asking everyone who can help me. Anyone. And they all say, ‘We don’t give a fuck about your dog.’ So I walk out. I just walk away. I’m going to walk home and find my dog, find my sister, all the way over the ocean. But of course they track me down, they pick me up and bring me back, and on the way back this happens, this happens to my face. I’m in the hospital, I can’t get out, they won’t let me leave. And then they make me leave. They discharge me. And I’m home again, walking the streets looking for Pepper. But it’s been so long. You know? It’s been so long. It’s been a lifetime. And nobody gives a fuck about my dog. And I lie there watching these videos about men and women going home to their dogs, the dogs jumping and singing. Grinding on my bad tooth till my head will cave in with pain. And these videos about horses kept in barns for 30 years with curled heavy hooves, about them seeing grass for the first time. And about junkyard dogs, chained under trucks, about somebody who takes them home and gives them a bath, about kittens abandoned in the middle of a highway, puppies dropped in the storm drain. It doesn’t warm my soul, it breaks my heart.
And everything is dark, everything is chaotic, everyone is cruel, ignorant, blind.”
Well, I look up, finally. I think I’m shaking, I think my voice is ragged and painful, but I’m not sure of anything.
Brooks has his hands over his ears. He’s looking scared. He’s looking at me, scared. The girl has her hand on my knee, and she’s squeezing with strong needling fingers. She’s squeezing hard. She says, “In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king.”
It’s so quiet you can almost hear the rain through the heavy sealed windows. You can almost hear Brooks’ imaginary dog crying in his sleep.
“What the fuck, Oscar?”
Well, it doesn’t look good. Me sitting down on the job, with a beer in my hand, between a terrified boy, and a girl hanging onto my knee. It doesn’t look good. It’s my boss, too. It’s not just one of the guys.
“Watch out there, Frank,” I say, as I leave the room. “Don’t step on the dog’s tail.”
I’m down the stairs, I’m out the door. The icy city rain burns me clean and I head downtown. All these skinny grey people on their phones, in a hurry; all wearing the same boots, the same coats, the same closed expressions. I pass a man sleeping on the sidewalk. Something black and sticky trickles out of his mouth and pools on his cardboard mat. And he’s laughing in his sleep, man. He’s just laughing. On the steamy piss-scented subway a girl has her soiled sweatshirt pushed up to the elbows so she can scratch her trackmarks, she’s shaking and mumbling. She wanders the length of the car, considering the posters and the maps, staring at the commuters. She takes a seat across from me, and she looks up at me with such a sudden beaming smile it’s like sunshine in this dark place. It’s too bright. I look away. I lower my head and look away.
My neighborhood smells like oil and onions, like it always does, and people are yelling to each other from half-opened windows and doors. They shut them tighter when I pass, but I don’t care. The door swings heavy into my building and the stairs smell like dust and rain, the stairs are sick to death of the weight of human feet. Country music jangles out of an open door down the hall, “This story has no moral this story has no end. This story just goes to show that there ain’t no good in man.”
I eat some rice and beans, cold, out of the fridge. I drink a couple beers. I close my good eye and watch the shadows in the bad eye. I chew on my bad tooth. Finally I can’t take the unholy stink of my garbage, which I haven’t emptied in weeks. I pass through the alley of filth behind my apartment to the dumpster, in the lowering dusk and the lightening rain. There’s a cool blue stillness to the air, the rats have stopped their scuttling, the birds have stopped their singing, even the neverending sirens are silent, waiting.
And there she is. She’s glowing like the moon, like the goddamn speckled moon, she brightens the whole alley. I don’t believe my eyes, my shattered lying eyes. I’m seeing shadows, memories. But when she jumps into my arms, in a whiskered frantic fastlicking frenzy, when she bites me, hard, on the nose, when she slices my hands with her pretty flailing claws, how can I doubt that? It’s my girl, it’s my Pepper. My mangy, filthy, scrawny, beautiful dog.
I bring her in, I put her in the tub, I wash the grime, and she’s shaking, shaking, but she doesn’t mind, I feed her rice and beans and the cans of dog food I’ve been saving, saving. I let her eat till her concave pink belly is round and swollen.
And I hold her skinny body in my arms all night long. Fuck the fleas, fuck my job, fuck my sore teeth and my bad eye, fuck the army, fuck the war, fuck the rain. I don’t care about any of it. I don’t care at all. I lie all night with her skinny body in my arms, the wind rattles the windows and the rain comes in sheets, the rain comes in waves and drowns out the shouting and the sirens and the car horns. I lie all night with Pepper in my arms, and when I have that dream, the dream of loss and longing, the dream where I can’t find her or reach her, I wake to find her there, find her in my arms, bruising me with those eyes.
Everybody Plays the Fool
The kid is crying and screaming so I get a headache just walking down the same aisle. There are two kids, and the mother is yelling at the other kid, the one who was just quiet and looking scared and not asking for anything. I gotta say, she doesn’t seem like the kind of mom who lets her children cry in a grocery store. She’s just normal, you know, American, speaking English, with a nice haircut. And sure, she’s wearing sweatpants, but the nice kind, with pockets, and not baggy or dirty.
Of course I’ve just come from church, so I’m dressed nice. Nothing too showy, just a slacks suit and a nice blouse. Lovely rose color. To tell the truth, I had some of that lemon cake that Helen Davis brought to church, you know, with the glaze frosting. And I don’t think it was too fresh, cause she’d already cut it up, like you know they do when they’re trying to pass off leftover cake as new. I had some of that coffee, too, like they have at church. So my belly is feeling a little bubbly, and my pants are feeling a little tight. What else too is that it’s very hot outside. It’s a glowering day, with the air heavy and wet, the kind of day that pushes you down. They have those screens on the big windows of the grocery store, the dark ones that seem to shimmer and make it always feel like a storm coming, so you’re surprised when you get outside to the full force of the summer sun. I cannot tell a lie, I’m a little damp, I’ve got trickles of sweat here and there, and the air conditioning feels good.
I stand for a spell in the cold foods aisle, enjoying the frosty misting air. I pretend to study the labels on some yogurt, because you don’t want to stand too long in one place with nothing do, because that can make a person look crazy. So I’m studying the yogurt, but to tell you the truth I can’t stand the stuff. An older lady—older than me, even—stands nearby staring in some sort of wonder at her shopping list. She’s wearing a house dress—faded, but clean and not too wrinkled, and some of those sturdy shoes you imagine they might sell in a hospital. She doesn’t know where she is. She doesn’t know why she’s there. Her hands are shaking and she drops her pen. I pick it up for her because that’s the kind of person I am. I believe in helping people.
I nearly bust my nice pants bending to get it, the waist cuts in something awful, but I get there in the end. Does she thank me? She does not. She just looks at me with lost streaming eyes. On the PA system some teenager sings about love, just like they always have. The light is looming in the window and that darn kid is screaming down the aisles, and I feel bothered by something. Something I heard, something I said, something I can’t quite remember. Maybe at church or on the car radio or walking into the grocery store; and now I feel worse trying to remember all of the ways I might feel bad. I turn away. I just turn away from her and get on with my shopping.
And what do I see but a woman in her pajamas! Not very nice pajamas, either, as if that would make a difference. Just dingy, terry-cloth pink pajamas, much too large for her, so that she keeps hoisting them up with the fist that’s not holding the cart. And she sniffles every time she does. Hoist…sniff…hoist…sniff. She’s wearing bedroom slippers, too, of course, the cheap kind with the plastic soles, which slap slap slap on the linoleum. She’s with a woman who could be her mother or could be the same age, it’s hard to tell. They both have the same slack expression on their face, like they aren’t curious about a thing in the world.
She stands scratching her belly and says, “Did you get the puddin’?”
“It’s in the cart.”
“The big puddin’?”
“It’s in the cart.”
“Oh, no, I meant the Jello.”
Pudding! There’s nothing wrong with it, of course. Honestly I prefer it to yogurt, doesn’t everyone? But adults don’t eat it. You can’t eat it when you’re an adult, even if you want to. From the look of their cart they don’t care. All chips and soda and frosted cakes. I look up from the cart and see that the young one is staring at me with a strange expression. I gotta say she’s almost pretty, almost delicate—small nose, high cheekbones, a light spattering of freckles. And the look she gives me! It’s, well it’s almost a look of pity. And I don’t know how that makes me feel, I really don’t. I just turn away again, and as I do I hear her saying, “Not the grape Jello, the lime Jello.”
The shimmery, stormy light of the windows bears down on me, and I’m sitting in a car, oh so long ago, with my husband, though he wasn’t my husband then, of course. We’re parked somewhere, I don’t remember now and I doubt I knew then. The windows are open though a storm is kicking up; the hot air bustling through the windows, the thunder louder and louder and louder and the rain just starting to spatter into the windows. But we didn’t care. I wasn’t as scared of the storm as I was of Russell. I knew what to expect from a storm, but Russell….
The radio is on, but it’s late at night, and they’re not playing much music, they’re taking calls, and they’re talking to some joker who says that grape popsicles are better than lime popsicles. He goes on about it longer than you’d think a person could. And Russell says, “I wouldn’t eat either,” and then he leans in and kisses me, and I thought I was melting like a popsicle. And then the storm really broke over us, rain dashing through the windows. Then the radio or maybe the rain started playing Everybody Plays the Fool, and I thought am I am I am I but I didn’t care.
Everywhere I go in the store, there she is with the screaming child. It’s like she is following me or playing some strange game of hide and seek down the aisles. The kid’s voice has to be getting tired but he just keeps getting louder and louder. Everywhere people are giving each other these looks, like, thank god that’s not my kid, and what the hell is wrong with that mom? And there’s another mom, going the other way, with so much noise, but her kids are laughing and chittering chattering in Spanish, I guess. So many kids she has, too, three or four, and they’re clambering all over the cart, riding inside or hanging on in front.
They’re coming towards each other at a great pace. The crying louder on one side, the laughing and chattering on the other. All the noise and the looming lights and the memories are making me feel ill. The bubbles in my belly are fizzing, my fingers are tingling, and the noise is suddenly blindingly loud. I have a premonition of great and terrible violence. I envision a sharp sudden attack and blood in the aisles, screams in the air. I can feel it as a chill. I can feel it as a blow. The lights flicker and I fall to the ground in the tolling darkness.
Pictures, memories, revelations, urgent and strange, speed through my brain, the most important, the most insistent, completely unforgettable. Everything is explained.
I open my eyes to silence and small staring faces. The screaming has stopped, the laughing has stopped, everything I understood a second ago is gone.
I have landed flat on my butt on the dusty floor. My nice rose slacks have split, I’m sure of it. I feel so tired, so strangely drained, that I almost don’t care about sitting on the floor in split pants, with these children staring and staring at me. I want Russell. I want Russell to come and pick me up off the floor, and put his jacket over my pants. I feel so suddenly all alone that, well, I start to cry. Not in a nice way, neither, in a blubbering, tears streaming down my face kind of a way.
And I think that I don’t care about these people staring at me, this mom who can’t get her stupid kid to stop crying. That mom who doesn’t even speak American in America for chrissake. I don’t care how I look around them, and thinking about this makes me bawl even louder.
And then the little girl, the one who doesn’t speak English, she comes up to me with the serious face and the big dark eyes, and she hands me her half-drunk juice bottle, and she says, “This will make you feel better.”
Well! I don’t like kids, to be honest, I think they’re gross and full of germs. Dirty creatures. But almost against my will, as if I’m watching myself from the outside, I take her juice, and I drink it. I drink it all. It’s sweet and a little thick, a little tart, like nothing I’ve ever tasted before. And I do feel better. And then the boy, the little boy who has been yelling his A-double-S off all over the store, he comes over all serious, with a face streaked with dirt and tears, and he hands me a toy he’s holding, a little spaceship with a broken wing, so heavy, so fragile. He’s not crying any more, and neither am I. I can tell he really wants it back. Sure, I’m going to give it back to him. But I hold onto it for now, because I really can’t let it go. And then the mothers, they each bend down and take an elbow, and they pull me to my feet. They don’t look like strong women, and I am not small, but they make easy work of it.
I stand swaying on my feet for a moment, and one woman gives me a tissue from her bag, which smells like all the things you need to keep children safe and happy. And the other asks if she can call anyone.
No no no no. I say. I say, “I’m fine.” I give back the spaceship, I give back the tissue, though I’ve already used it. I pull myself up and steady myself on the cart. And I walk away. I want to say thank you. I want to tell them that I love them all, because I do, I love them so much it hurts like when you press a bruise. Tender. But I don’t say anything else. I walk away.
I walk back to the pudding, and I put some in my cart. Everybody Plays the Fool comes on the PA system, and I feel like I’m floating on the sound. Everybody, everybody I pass is singing along, as they move through the aisles.
In the parking lot it’s stark staring sun flashing blinding off the cars. But on the drive home I see the storm clouds in my rear-view window, travelling faster than I am, they will catch me, I know it.
Each Saturday, I’ve been writing a story inspired by a vernacular photo posted on Square America. I’ve decided to collect them all on a page, here, uninterrupted by recipes or my nonstop nonsense. My stories are here, as well as a few that others have written. I no longer write a story a week, but I’ll post them as I finish them!
The Strong Man
All the way up the mouth of the river, Harry and Jason staged the usual competition: who could go farthest fastest. It was a hot day; their shirts came off, as they always did. Two giant men with massive muscles, only slightly softening now that they were in their fifties, only halfway hidden by a layer of fat, a barely perceptible paunch. They sweated beer, and the smell of them mingled with the smoked mildewed canvas in the bottom of the boat. Bob, in Jason’s canoe, had seen it all before, so he just laughed and lay back with his feet up. Miles was new to all this. He sighed, and staggered his stroke so that he came out of step with Harry, so that he slowed him down. Harry frowned. They’d done so well together up till then, stroking in unison.
Nobody talked about Harry’s boy. The kid showed up one day out of nowhere as if he’d been with Harry forever. And now they were together night and day. Nobody asked where Harry had found him. He could almost have been Harry’s son. He looked like Harry, like Harry had looked when he was young. This kid was maybe sixteen, seventeen. And maybe he was one of those foster kids. They almost asked, but something stopped them. And maybe when Harry gazed at the boy with a face so full of love his eyes watered, maybe that was fatherly affection.
All the other guys couldn’t look at the boy. They were confused by him, bewildered by his beauty. If he’d been pretty, if he’d been beautiful like a girl, they would have been all right, they could have mocked him. But he was a beautiful man, or becoming one, and they’d never seen anything like it. They didn’t know what to do with it. Bronze curls, golden green eyes as cloudy and deep as sunlight in river water. Full as tall as Harry and nearly as strong, but lighter and easier in his movements. Easier in all things. So ripe, so glowing with good health that it seemed like a self-imposed curse. He would anger some jealous god and be cut down before too long, you could feel it. And it was such a drag, frankly, to be around so much robust youth. Where was the fun in sitting around the fire with some beers, talking about your sour stomach, your irritable bowel, your aggravated joints, your fatigued muscles? Where was the fun in laughing at each other for growing old? Gone, the fun was gone, absorbed in this boy’s eerie quiet, his silence that never seemed awkward or stupid, it only seemed sad.
Some things, when you didn’t understand them, you didn’t try to figure them out. Sometimes you just didn’t want to know.
And Miles didn’t have much interest in these guys either, in Harry’s gang of friends. Eight middle-aged men making the same trip every year, drinking beers around the camp fire and killing everything in sight. They caught fish, they trapped rabbits, they shot deer. They shot crows and doves and sparrows. Some they ate, but mostly they left them lying in the mud, they left the entrails rotting in the sun.
On the canoe it wasn’t so bad. It wasn’t bad to move in steady rhythm, without thinking, to feel the strain of your muscles, the breeze in your curls. To feel the sunshine dappling through leaves overhead, the light warm on your face, so that you could tell if you were in sunshine or in shade, even with your eyes closed.
In the canoe it wasn’t so bad until now, now that Miles had wrecked their rhythm, and he could feel Harry glaring at him without even looking, he could feel anger boring into the back of his head. Harry tugged at his oar so powerfully that the sides of the boat shuddered with each pull. Harry’s oar was made of hard wood, and as thick as his massive forearm. In his frustration he knocked it against the boat, close by Miles, waking him from a sort of slumber, and the oar snapped in two. Half of the oar fell into the river to disappear into the waving weeds, and Harry held the other half in his great hands, working it as though he would crush it. And you almost believed that he could as he sat in silence glaring at Miles, who shrugged and passed his own oar back.
At twilight they stopped rowing and pulled onto a sandy bank beneath a steep grassy slope. The men, weary and hungry, pulled the boats out of the water and hoisted them, dripping, onto the grass. Some stretched and bemoaned their creaking backs, some stamped their feet to get the feeling back. Miles lay on his back and stared into the vivid shifting sky, until the motions of the men played out as silhouettes on the edge of his vision. He thought about falling off the earth, he thought about flying. He could almost feel the great powerful wings on his back, with feathers as soft and white as the clouds. Harry’s peevish voice brought him back to earth, and he leapt lightly to his feet. He took his end of the canoe, and followed Harry into the woods, tethered by this heavy thing they carried together. They passed through a stubbly meadow, burnished by the late summer sun and prickling with thorny plants and rattling insects. The earth was hard and uneven, stones made of dust and dirt crumbled beneath their feet, and the smell of baking weeds surrounded them in a cloud with the gnats.
Evening fell suddenly in the trees, in the shadow of dark branches. It felt hours later here in the woods, and the earth was soft and wet with the sharp sweet pungency of osage oranges and green walnuts, almost as if in walking into the trees they’d entered autumn. Miles saw a rabbit crouching in the bushes, soft peppered fir quivering at their passing. He didn’t say a word, but he didn’t suppose she had much of a chance, now that these men had arrived. He felt a shock of loneliness at the sight of the rabbit hopping scared and quiet into the dusky bushes. Night was falling all around him, and he felt an unaccustomed shock of loneliness and cold.
They made camp in a clearing, in the dust and rocks and brambles. The light and warmth returned, fadingly. Harry wouldn’t look at Miles, except to find fault with his work. When Miles picked up a tent pole or a tarpaulin, Harry snatched it away petulantly, blowing out a stream of muttered curses. Miles bent to hammer a stake into the ground, and when he stood Harry wrenched the hammer from his hand. It slid through calloused flesh, but left a barbed splinter in the soft center of his palm. He stretched his hand out to Harry as if in supplication, and Harry saw the hurt in the boy’s eyes and he felt sorry. He saw something of the sadness there, shifting in Miles’ deep-water eyes, and he wished he’d caused it, he’d like to be that important to the boy, but he knew he wasn’t and he would never be. Still, he was kinder from that moment. He held the boy’s hand cupped in his own giant mitt, and squinted at the splinter with failing eyes. He tried to pinch it out with his strong fingers, but only pushed it further in, deep under the flesh, where it remained as the skin grew over it year after year.
The men started a fire, they opened the beer and whisky, they set out some traps, they cleaned their guns and hooked their poles. They cooked up pots of beans and ate dried smoked meat. They settled into their camp chairs with a whine and a groan.
Miles sat apart staring into the darkening woods. The trees were pitched into blackness, and all around him was still; dusk and dust and warm firelight on the cool pale ground. Far above, the leaves formed stark lace against a still-bright sky of warm and glowing blue. The clouds rushed by in an unearthly light. Miles didn’t feel lonely or not lonely, it no longer mattered, and he thought again that he might fall off the earth.
Harry brought Miles a plate of beans and a can of beer, along with a boozy smile and a chuck on the shoulder that nearly knocked him to the ground. He shuffled awkwardly and then shambled back to his friends, words unsaid. Miles ate the food, but he poured the beer into the dirt, watching it form into dust-coated puddles before it seeped into the dry ground.
When the night grew so dark that Miles could see nothing beyond the circle of firelight, nothing but black emptiness, the chill returned. In their tent he zipped his sleeping bag up to his chin. He liked the shiver of warmth he got when his sleeping bag heated up all around his body. He liked the smell of fire and dirt and damp canvas. He liked to hear the men outside the tent talking and laughing. He knew that once he’d gone to bed they would get louder and louder. They would tell their stories with raucous abandon and their voices would become muddier and lustier with every swig of liquor. Miles felt like a child again, lying in bed, listening to the rise and fall of adult voices saying words he didn’t need to hear or understand. There was comfort even in the happy sloppy roar of these men he barely knew, and he turned to the dusty space where the tent met the ground and looked for shapes in the shadows.
When Harry came to bed, fumbling with the tent closure, burping beer and beef jerky, Miles pretended to be asleep. Harry said his name once, twice, in a voice he meant to be a whisper, but Miles didn’t turn to him, he did not move. Harry landed beside him with a bellow, like the great beast he was, and was soon snoring. His warmth was not unwelcome, and the sound of his breathing entered Miles’ dreams when finally he fell to sleep.
In the morning Jason woke with a splitting head and a full bladder. Some small distance from camp he found a clearing and took a piss. Looking up he saw a bird watching him, a grey bird with bright black eyes, who said “Eh,” in an emphatic voice. He sat on a log and rubbed his temples and thought about his wife. He wondered what she did all day, while he was away on his trips. He’d never asked her, he never had. He pictured her sleeping late, walking around the house in her grey nightgown, frying up liverwurst and eating it on toast (he hated the smell of liverwurst, couldn’t stand it in his house). He imagined her playing solitaire in her nightgown ignoring the dirty dishes in the sink. Or maybe she went out. Maybe she went to the pictures with her girlfriends. Or with a boyfriend! Maybe she had a boy like Harry’s boy! Some gin-soaked boy he didn’t know. Jason laughed, and then he frowned, and both things hurt his head. She’d helped him to pack, and it suddenly seemed as though she’d been in a big hurry to see him go. He tried to remember what she’d said about Harry’s boy after she met him. Sad and far away, she’d said, and what the hell did that mean? What did she mean by that? He was trying to remember the way she looked at Harry’s boy when the boy himself walked into the clearing. He was dressed and he looked awake and clear-headed (of course, the bastard). He carried a rabbit, and he was near tears.
Miles startled when he saw Jason, the way a rabbit might, but he didn’t bolt. He sat beside the older man and tried to keep from crying. The rabbit lay in the boy’s large, fine hands, panting with fear and pain, her scrawny ribs heaving under hoary fur. Her paw was a bloody mess of snapping-thin bones and gleaming guts, and Jason knew that Miles had taken her from a trap.
“Will she be okay?”
“Okay for dinner!” Jason laughed, but stopped when he saw the boy’s pale face. He wished the boy would sniffle or turn red when he cried, like everyone else on the planet, but of course he didn’t. He looked sad but frighteningly close. So Jason sighed and pursed his lips and said, “Let’s see what we can do here.”
He took a flask of vodka from his pocket and took a swig himself and poured some over the wound. The rabbit shrieked, once, in an otherworldly voice, and then lay rigid, almost without breathing. Jason found his handkerchief, which was large and nearly clean, and his penknife. He cut strips of fabric and used one to clean the rabbit’s wound.
“It’s not so bad,” he said, “Just the one big puncture.” He wound strips of fabric around the rabbit’s paw, making them as tight as he could.
“Do you mean that?” Miles searched Jason’s face, and seemed to accept what he found there. He looked back down at the rabbit and stroked her furrowed soft head, between the ears, with devastating tenderness. “Will she live?”
“If everybody will leave her alone and give her a chance to heal. She might.”
“Don’t tell Harry.”
“No. Of course. Of course I won’t.” Jason had a secret with Harry’s boy. It felt okay. He put a hand on Miles’ shoulder. He was surprised by the feel of it, and tried not to let himself leave his hand too long. “You best let her go. You can’t bring her to camp. She’ll find a place. She knows best.”
Miles looked up at Jason, and Jason knew he should leave. But he turned when he was a small distance away, to look back. The boy stroked the rabbit until she was quiet and calm. He picked her up and kissed her on the head. He set her on the ground and watched her go. She gave her bad paw two big shakes, and then she hopped off, and never looked back.
Miles walked down to the river. A thick white mist curled off the water like smoke. All around him the trees were vivid and hung with raggedy dew-jeweled spider webs. But beyond the trees the world was completely white, like a blank sheet of paper, like somebody had forgotten to draw the background. Miles wanted to walk into the blankness of that page. He tried not to think about the rabbit. He’d always been good at not thinking of things he didn’t want to think about, but this power failed him now. He heard a clanking sound from across the river; low, cool, irregular but insistent. As he got nearer to the water, past the trees and onto the bank, it seemed that his eyes became used to peering through the mist and he could make out shapes on the other side. He could see a house, a white house, large and sprawling but silent and still. He smiled to himself to think how angry the guys would be to know that they weren’t lost in the wilderness at all. They weren’t in the middle of nowhere; they were almost in somebody’s yard.
Miles spent the morning walking in the woods, getting farther and farther from camp, getting himself lost. Even in the shadow of the trees the day grew hot, and near midday Miles walked back to the river. He stripped down to his underwear without a second’s thought, before he’d even cleared the trees. The water looked deep and cool and green and Miles longed to be swimming with the silvery fishes. Underwater you could lose yourself completely in the moving murky silence.
He saw the face before he’d even gotten his feet wet, and he stood frozen on the sharp wet rocks. A pretty face, smiling, disembodied, seemingly floating on the water, a face out of a dream. But when she bobbed in the water he understood that she was real, that she was a young woman not much older than him, and she was swimming. She had a body under the water, and the thought of this made his cheeks burn.
“Come in,” she said.
And he did.
He dropped in the water in a moment, to hide himself from her watching eyes. He’d never felt so bare, so aware of his body, as he did now with her eyes on him. The shock of the water was great. His feet touched the bottom of the river, and tangled in soft clinging weeds and slick mud. He slipped towards her, but turned himself away
She’d never seen anything like him. She was undone. Not by the sight of a boy walking in the woods or stripped to his underwear, although these were both unusual. Not by the boy’s size or his great beauty, although these were remarkable. Somehow he was so vivid, and so solid, and yet so quiet in his movements, so far away in his expression, that she felt confused, even in only minutes of watching him. If she’d had more time to think about it she would have been nervous, she would have even been scared. But she wasn’t. He came into the water in a fluid movement but stayed at some distance from her, not meeting her eyes. In her confusion she could scarcely gather her wits, and this made her heart faint. He moved away, but she moved toward him. She laid her left arm upon his neck yearning to kiss his mouth; and with her right hand she drew down his elbow, and plunged him into the midst of the eddy. She had never behaved this way, she would never behave this way, but summer was very long around here, the time passed very slowly. And she had never seen anything like him.
He fell into her, into her soft surprising warmth, and he felt he was drowning, but he couldn’t stop himself, and he did not want to stop himself. He went under completely, he was gone. He couldn’t breathe or see or think or hear, he was sunk into her depths, and powerless. Finally, finally, he was lost.
They lay in the ferns and brambles, drinking in their green savory sweet scents. He felt nearly drunk. He felt nearly happy.
She’d had more time to think, and now she was nervous, now she was even almost afraid. She tried to turn herself away, but he held onto her arm and he was stronger than he knew. So she lay and watched this strange boy, who held her as if for dear life after knowing her so short a time. She knew his name now, Miles, and she liked the sighing sound of it, but she didn’t know anything else about him. He stared into the sky, smiling or nearly smiling, and she couldn’t know how rare it was for this boy to smile. She thought about their bodies, tangled together, warm where they touched, cool where they were apart. She thought about how she didn’t know what he was thinking, what would make him half-smile like that. She could never know, even if she asked, she could never fully know what he was thinking or where he’d been and all that he’d seen or done. She imagined being together 40 years, being married, maybe, and being grey, entwined on a big spare bed in a cool grey room, and still not knowing what he was thinking, because nobody could ever know that.
“I’m hurting you?”
When he let her go she felt that she was falling, like she did sometimes in her dreams, sudden and waking. She wanted to touch him but she couldn’t have said why. He pushed her wet hair behind her ears and looked into her face and she felt completely bewildered but not scared anymore and certainly not ashamed. They lay like this for a while, and she thought there was a lot to say, so much to ask and to explain. She was always talking, she loved to talk, but it didn’t seem possible on this rare, slack, under-water day.
She carried him back across the river in her rowboat. With him watching she was clumsy on the oars, but they were in no hurry. He didn’t want to go back. He couldn’t go back for anything he’d come here with, and he didn’t know how to explain that so he didn’t try, and he left with nothing. He didn’t think too much about what would come next, he just watched this girl dropping her oars and laughing. She had a ridiculous laugh, large and ringing, but not loud. He didn’t think he could like anyone any more, not any person. But he liked her whether he wanted to or not. He wondered if she’d bring him home, he wondered where her home was. He wondered if there was a train station nearby, or if he even wanted there to be.
She gave up on rowing and they sat and let the water take them wherever it would, for a while. He thought there was something she wanted to say, something she wanted to ask him and he wouldn’t mind, but he didn’t know how to help her ask. So they sat in silence listening to the river and the wind.
From deep in the thick wood, a thunderous bellow raged fiercely through the quiet, like the cry of a beast in pain. “Miles,” howled with hurt and loss, moaned with love and longing.
“My god, he loves you!”
“Yes,” said Miles, “he does.” And he took the oars from her and rowed away, down the river.
I Hermes stand here at the crossroads by the wind beaten orchard, near the hoary grey coast; and I keep a resting place for weary men. And the cool stainless spring gushes out.
-Anyte of Tegea
Herman stood on the summer-scorched lawn and stared at the picket fence, knowing he could clear it in one leap. He had wings on his feet; he was as light as the sprinkler-scattered air. He flew over the white spiked planks, and the sun and the wind caught his shirt and held him aloft—joyous and glowing. He lightly landed in the softly prickling grass and took off, running. He crossed yards and sidewalks and hot streets. He ran over a world he’d known forever, a world that he held, charted, in his head. He’d been racing through these backyards and alleys for as long as he could remember, crouching in hedges in the hushed dusk, watching through windows, before his mother called him home for dinner.
He stopped at a small pile of stones, which had been placed one on top of another in a neat tower. He kicked them over with a clattering and circled to the back of the house, where he let himself in at the screen door. After the noisy mid-afternoon, mid-summer sunlight, the quiet darkness of the house felt nearly blinding. The rooms smelled of cigarettes and cinnamon and lime, and were brown and grey and cluttered with the oddest collection of objects Herman had ever seen. Silently weaving through piles of curiosities, he paused to touch a pearly yellowed accordion, a carved curved sword, a tattered playing card of The Drowned Man, a bright still bird under glass, a small strange skeleton floating in grey water in a jar.
He found Jack smoking and drinking whisky from a sweating glass and painting waves on small pieces of wood. The paint soaked into the wood and nearly disappeared to nothing, to just a pale smudge of green or blue or grey. Jack looked up at the sound of Herman’s light step, he didn’t smile but he nodded. His face was creased and tan, his hair was black but flecked with white, and tipped with white at his temples. Like waves, thought Herman, waves in a dark sea washing onto his face. Jack wore a t-shirt and jeans. He was the only man Herman knew that dressed this way, that didn’t wear a suit, or at least shirtsleeves, in every weather. Jack wordlessly stood and poured Herman ginger beer in a rocks glass. They sat for a while, in silence, clinking their ice and sipping their drinks. Finally Jack said, “Well I could use your services tonight.”
“Of course, of course,” replied Herman, trying not to sound too eager or interested. He cleared his throat. “I mean, sure, why not.”
They sat in silence again, listening to the clear hot summer sounds of the neighborhood filter through the dust. Herman was hoping for a story of Jack’s naval days. A story about his travels as far as a person could go in the world and beyond. A tale of a shore-leave visit to a brothel, almost more frightening than a tale of a storm at sea. But Jack didn’t seem in a mood for storytelling. He seemed distracted and sad, he sighed and swore quietly under his breath.
“I’m sorry to ask it of you.” He said. “I’m sorry about the whole situation.”
“Naw, I don’t mind.”
Jack looked up at Herman and laughed a soft short laugh. “My god, boy, look at your face! Of course you’re right. What a goddamned mess!” Jack had a tattoo on his arm: a ship, strangled by grape vines rising out of the ocean, and all the sailors turning to dolphins in the waves. Jack rubbed it absently. “I’d put her name here, if I could. I’d put her name here on my arm.”
Outside the window a leaf hung in mid-air as if suspended from nothing. It turned in lazy circles, first one way and then another. Herman waited, wishing for a strong breeze to spin it in a tizzy. Probably a spider web holding it up, he thought.
“Well,” sighed Jack. “And how will I be paying you this time?”
Herman was ready with his response. “A coin!”
“My little mercenary friend.” Jack pushed a wooden box towards Herman. Coins from all over the world: coins with holes in the center, coins with strange letters that Herman would never understand, coins with birds and animals Herman would never see, coins that had passed through the hands of people Herman would never meet. He picked one with a rooster on one side and a harp on the other, it was heavy and dark and felt good in his hand.
He let himself out the back door, feeling the weight of a coin from beyond the farthest place in the world. He raced through yards criss-crossed with a rigging of laundry-lines and sails of billowing sheets and underwear.
“Cooooeee, Herman, coooeee.” Mrs. Graham. Kind confused Mrs. Graham. She beckoned with a long gnarled finger, and Herman followed her into the house.
“My dear,” she said, in her emphatic quavering voice. “Have a cookie.” The cookie crumbled to sand in his mouth, salty and dry. When she turned away he dropped it in the trashcan. She had a rolling gait, and she walked with her arms straight and her hands balled into fists at her side, and Herman wondered if she was in pain with every step. Her house smelled like sweet decaying fruit and tuna fish, it buzzed with fruit flies, and it was cluttered with notes she’d written to herself to help her remember. She’d set them everywhere throughout the house, and they fluttered like moths when she moved past.
“I’m packing up some cookies for my friend, Wilbur. And I know you’ll take them to him, won’t you, you good boy?”
“Sure, Mrs. Graham.” She held the string on top of the box, and he helped her to tie it, careful not to catch her raw red finger in the loop.
“Should I put money in, too, do you think? I have some money here, some twenty-four dollars and sixty-two cents. Could he use that, do you think?”
“Naw, Mrs. Graham, you keep it. He can’t use money where he is.”
“No?” She looked up at him with bright worried eyes. “No need for money?”
“No need for anything, Mrs. Graham. He’s all taken care of. He’s all settled.”
“You good boy.” She placed the box in his hands, and squeezed his arm, pressing her fingers into his muscles, lost in thought.
Herman waited until he was a few blocks away to ditch the box. Mrs. Graham rarely left her house, but you couldn’t be sure, and he’d hate for her to find it. He dropped it in a trashcan behind somebody’s garage and carried on down the alley.
After dark, Herman climbed Henry and Alice’s porch steps as if drawn to the light like any of the buzzing summer insects. The bugs threw themselves desperately at the cracked glass globe over the light bulb, and then spun away in a daze to try it again seconds later. They cast monstrously large shadows over Herman’s face. The yard hummed and chattered with the busy quiet of a late summer evening; a few yards away a dog barked, urgent and unheeded.
Alice opened the door to Herman, and she gave him a kiss on his cheek. Her skin was soft and her hair was soft and her voice was soft when she whispered “Thank you so much for this, Herman. You have no idea!”
She walked him back to Henry, who sat in a big leather chair with a glass of something and a pipe. Henry, large and handsome, had thick silvery hair, thick gleaming glasses, and a red face, which lit up when he saw Herman. Herman sat next to him, as he always did, and they started talking; slowly at first but it always picked up. The whole house was dark and shiny. This was, by far, the cleanest house that Herman had been in all day, but it reeked of fried onions. A thick fug of onions hung in the air, and Herman thought that it was strange that Alice would cook onions on the night of an assignation. He imagined the smell would linger all about her, would linger in her clothes and hair. He imagined her walking through the shadowy night to Jack’s house, with the poignant smell of onions clinging to her like guilt.
When Alice bent to lift the heavy chess set, Herman could see her ribs and shoulder blades stretch against her yellow dress. She was strong and thin, and, Herman suspected, a little crazy, but not in a bad way. While they played, Herman watched Alice. She moved quietly from room to room, trying not to disturb them, getting herself ready. Herman wondered where she went, when she disappeared from view, and he wondered what she did there. He thought about her alone, in rooms, out of his sight, doing what she liked, and the thought maddened him. She wasn’t pretty in any expected sense. She didn’t look perfect like the girls in magazines, but Herman was old enough to understand why Jack liked her. She had a spark, a gleam in her eye. Whatever it was that made her imperfect and alive, whatever that was, it made her fascinating, and Herman saw that.
Finally she left. She put one pale hand on each side of her husband’s ruddy face and kissed the top of his head. From the porch she turned a glowing, conspiratorial face to Herman, and then she moved down the path, her bright dress fading into shadows.
Henry liked to talk about money. He was good at making money, he was a rich man. Herman was a bright boy and Henry wanted him to be good at making money, too. A rich life was a good life, a full life. He liked everything in his life to be rich—rich food, rich leather, richly furnished rooms. He said the word, rich, so many times that it began to lose all meaning in Herman’s ears. The light glanced in his glasses and through them his eyes looked huge and watering. Henry took a mouthful of ice from his glass, and put a thick hand up to his face. It obviously hurt his teeth, and he sputtered and spit the ice back into his glass, and in that moment Herman saw him not as a rich old man, but as a child, and he felt sorry. But he also thought about getting Henry to sleep, as one would get a child to nap. This was all he could think about. It was more stressful to lose chess games on purpose than you might think, and if Henry fell asleep, Herman could go and watch Jack and Alice through Jack’s windows.
So he thought of dull things to talk about. He thought of his mother’s life. Of the sameness of it from day-to-day. How trivial it seemed to him. He thought of her washing dishes, up to her elbows in soapy water, but perfectly still, lost in thought. He thought of her hanging out the laundry, and the far away look she got when the clothes got caught in a gust of wind. He talked to Henry of washing dishes and folding laundry. He talked of the price of peas, and how it varied from small store to small store all over town. He talked of sweeping, and of how no matter how often you sweep, there’s always more dust, no matter how often you wash, there’s always more dirt.
When he looked up, Henry’s eyes had closed. First one, and then another, swimming through the thick lenses. He grunted, and tried to hold them open, but instead he rolled his great head around on his neck, and let it rest on his chest. He breathed fitfully for a while, and startled like a baby, and then he was quiet. Herman watched him, scared to make a noise and break the spell, waiting for the exact moment that he could fly out the back door. But then he saw that Henry wasn’t breathing at all. Herman didn’t move for long slow minutes in the impossible rich silence, and then he went and felt Henry’s wrist, as he had seen people do. His arm felt hard and strange and cold, and Herman felt a sickening pressure behind his eyes. He kissed the old man, foolishly, on the top of his head. He put his new dark heavy coin in the old man’s cold hand, and the fingers curled around it.
Herman moved quietly through the house, as if fearful of waking the old man. When he got to the back door he cleared the steps in one leap, he raced through yards and over fences, he barely touched the ground. For the first time he felt afraid of every noise, of the hushed teeming dark grass, which felt like wild nighttime waves to a drowning man. He got to his house and spoke to nobody, but climbed into his bed, where he lay all night, thinking, and watching the breeze stir slowly in his thin pale curtains.
They were born ten months apart. Their mother was the most beautiful woman in the world, and their father was a capricious and powerful man with appetites like a toddler. He wanted their mother, he had her, he broke her, and he cast her aside. He stayed for a year and left her with two babies and a bad brain.
The boys were never apart, from the earliest they were inseparable. They slept in the same bed, ate from the same plate, fought the same fights. They were always fighting because of the things people said about their mother, which only hurt because they knew they were true.
They lived in a big city in a big world, but they never ventured beyond their neighborhood, beyond the ten blocks all around their building. But they were kings there, and they knew it. They were hard and lean and fierce, and they walked around their town with a loose, easy swaggering strut. They were small for their age because their beautiful mother was a petite and delicate creature. She gave them all of her elegance, but none of her frailty.
In elementary school, Gus had tried to stay back, so that he and Ray would be in the same grade. But Ray was held back, too. So they weren’t together in the same class, but they were together in being considered failures. When they hit their teenage years they began to change, one from the other, and this scared them, though they would never have told you so, because they’d never admit to being scared of anything.
In tenth grade Gus had a new teacher. He despised him at first, because he was bumbling and awkward. He was a nice man, and there’s nothing to respect in that. He was kind and quiet. He was kind even to the bad kids, the mean kids, the kids that were mean to him, and this made Gus almost hate him. One afternoon, towards the end of the school year, this new teacher was in charge of detention. Gus went along after school as he was told, for punching a kid in the cafeteria. The kid had swiped his milk and said something about his mom and milk and Gus, and he’d heard it before, of course, but he couldn’t help it, it made him angry every time.
So he sat at his desk in the detention room, and he knew all the kids there, it was always the same kids, but the teacher was different, this new English teacher that Gus despised. The teacher seemed apologetic, he seemed sorry to keep all the kids there, and what was that? What was that but a sign of deplorable weakness. He tried to talk to the kids—he tried to talk to them about their lives, when everybody knew a detention teacher was supposed to keep his head down and growl and maybe throw something, if it came to that. But this guy tried talking and Gus could hear people laughing at him. And then the guy stopped trying to talk; he went to try opening the window. But nobody opened the windows in this old school. They acted as if fresh air would drive the kids wild, or maybe the kids would all rush in a mass, to jump out the windows, if they were opened. But this guy—he tried to open the window, which was on a rope with a weight on it. The rope was frayed, the weight was heavy, and the window crashed onto his fingers. Everybody laughed. The teacher stood with his back to them. They expected an explosion, and they got a joke. A mild joke, a dumb joke. Everybody laughed at the teacher, not the joke. Gus’ heart hurt.
Ray liked to watch television through the windows of a furniture store. He liked the commercials, where everything was perfect and every kid had a sister a brother a father a mother and a dog. And they all looked happy, the damnblasted bastards. He liked to watch the boxing, standing out here. With no sound, it was just movement. And it felt perfect to him, the most perfect thing in the world. The guy that owned the store was an okay guy, with white hair and thick glasses, so skinny he looked like was caving in on himself. He yelled at Ray and pretended to chase him away like Ray was a rat or a pigeon, but they both knew Ray wasn’t going anywhere. He just stood, hands in pockets, easy and cool. And sometimes the guy would stand with him, in the evenings, when it was darkening and cool on the sidewalk, because he liked the boxing with no sound, too. And he liked his store from the outside, warm and full of life, like someone else’s living room. They never talked, but they stood on the sidewalk, hands in pockets.
In English class the stupid teacher had his fingers wound round with gauze. It was a mess. Gus sat and thought about this, and wondered if maybe it was a mess because the teacher had to do it all by himself, on his right hand, and he was right-handed. He wasn’t thinking about the class, he was thinking about the teacher’s fingers, red and raw under the bandages. He looked at the teacher’s face when some other kid was reading something, he didn’t know what, and the teacher looked tired, like he’d been up all night with sore fingers. Gus thought about how hard it was to sleep when you’re sore from a fight, and you can feel all your anger and shame and worry throbbing in your wound. The teacher looked up, straight at Gus, and he smiled. Gus felt his heart race, which he didn’t expect and didn’t like, and he looked down at the swarm of words in front of him, making sense of nothing.
On his way to school, Ray decided not to go. In June it always felt like such a waste of time. Even first thing the day was heating up, and a block out of his house he was sweating. He told Gus he was going down to swim in the river; sure he’d fall in step, without a thought and come along with him. But the idiot said, “Naw, naw, man, I’m going to school.” Ray shrugged and walked off, but he felt almost angry.
He never made it to the river, because he passed the furniture store, and saw the cool grey light of the televisions, like moonlight in the morning. He saw a guy with a funny haircut reading aloud from a storybook. Even with the sound down, Ray liked it. He couldn’t read too well himself, only a few words, but Gus read to him sometimes from a comic book, and he liked that. He stood and watched the man turn pages, and then some puppets came on, and it made no sense, and it was so strange it made Ray angry. And that’s when he realized the guy wasn’t there. Usually this time of day he’d be shuffling around opening things up, Ray knew that. But not today. So Ray did something he’d never done before; he went into the store, with a ringing of bells and some stale air that smelled like cheap varnish and cheap upholstery. Even in here, the TVs were quiet. He’d always wondered about that. The place was cluttered but empty of people, and you could hear a fan whirring somewhere, whirring and clicking. Ray walked in cautiously, his hands formed into fists. But he was stopped by a sofa. A long, clean, sofa covered in aqua vinyl. He sat down, and it was so new and crisp it made a small squeak. It was smooth and shiny, and he’d never seen anything like it. They’d never had nice furniture, and this was new, this was fine. He sat for a minute, feeling cool.
He thought the old guy was dead. He found him in a small room sitting in a big green chair with his head on his chest. The room was full of a powerful smell—off, but not bad, and very familiar. Ray yelled, “no!” The man turned around and squinted at him, not dead at all. Ray felt foolish for caring, which made him angry, so he said, “Aw, you dumb fuck.” The man didn’t seem to notice or care. He went right on peeling hard-boiled eggs. He peeled one until it was perfect and clean, and then he set it on a plate. He put another egg, whole, in his fist and squeezed to crack the shell, and then he peeled each piece, dropping them in a dirty paper cup. He put this egg on the plate, too, and then he shook salt on them from a pretty saltshaker, all crystal and silver. He handed an egg to Ray, and Ray had a memory of eating these when his mother made them, long ago. He sat by the old guy for a while, and then he went out and fell asleep on one of the beds in the store. He slept hard, and he had a dream of a bird flying from a flood.
The teacher had a garden in some old dirty yard in an allotment. He invited the whole class to go after school. Gus wasn’t going to go. He pretended to be headed somewhere else, he sauntered by. He acted surprised to see the teacher. The teacher saw Gus but he didn’t say anything. If he’d said something, if he’d been glad to see Gus, Gus would probably have had to leave, but he didn’t. Instead he cursed and scowled. He was trying to tie some vine to some stake of wood, but he was having a hell of a time because of his crushed fingers. Gus went in at a gate of wire and wood, and he tied the piece of twine with his quick clever fingers. He stood and looked around. He’d never seen anything like it; he’d never seen anything so green. It even smelled green—not pretty like flowers, but sharp and strong and fierce. The smell made him hungry. He felt stupid not knowing what to do, so he kneeled by the teacher and pulled weeds. He forgot about everything but the weeds and the wet dirt and the small bugs running from his fingers. After a time, he couldn’t have said how long, he stood, and felt a rush of blood to his head. In a daze he saw a bright yellow and black bird, tiny, flying away with a graceful swooping flight. He nearly fell over, and he saw the teacher laughing at the look on his face. But he couldn’t be angry, because it wasn’t a mean laugh.
Gus walked away, sweating and sore, thinking. When he walked by the furniture store, he found Ray, who yawned and looked crumpled. Without talking they went down to the river. They stripped to their boxers and jumped in. Ray pretended to drown Gus, like he always did. He looped a wiry arm around Gus’ neck and pulled him down. For once Gus didn’t fight back. He felt heavy, he was so full of thoughts, and they sank down together, strong skinny arms entwined, they sank down down in the dirty water.
EXACT FARE PLEASE
I left first thing, before he even opened his eyes. I knew it was the right time to go cause I could feel it was right. Plus as I lay there watching the light turn grey around the blinds, grey like dirty water, I heard the church bells chime. First it played Bringing in the Sheaves, which is surely the creepiest song I ever heard. “Going forth with weeping, sowing for the master.” What the hell is that? That’s creepy as hell, that’s what. It made me feel scareder even than I felt all night. Scared down to my belly. And then the bells rang out the time. When bells ring out the time, the time passes strangely. The space between them seems impossible, like it’s hanging, just hanging, waiting for something. For the moment to be ripe, I suppose. So I waited for the bells, and I counted, and I said to myself, if he rolls over or snores or opens his damn dark eyes, if he makes any movement at all before the last bell chimes, then I will lie here and wait. I will wait and see what happens. But if he is as still and quiet as a dumb stone, then I will leave his sorry skinny ass forever. And lying there beside him, not knowing when the bell would stop tolling, with its strange, slow impossible pace—well, I knew what I was waiting and wishing for. So I had to leave. And of course he lay like an idiot rock, barely breathing.
So the bells rang five times. I waited for another but it never came. I moved his arm off me. And for a minute, yeah, I missed him before I left him. His damn wiry arm, soft and hard at the same time, with that smell of his that’s sort of fierce but sweet. I missed him already as I shifted his stupid arm and moved out from under it. I didn’t have much but I put it all in a bag. I took five dollars from his wallet. I thought he owed me that. Not that I’m a hooker or anything, but I couldn’t leave him without it cause I had nothing of my own. And I thought, at least he owes me the price of escape.
My shoes were facing the door, when I found them. They were pointed to the door, so I knew I was doing the right thing. At the first landing of the stair was a window. It was open part way, and it only let in a pale dusty breeze, but it smelled like grease and coffee and yesterday’s rain. It smelled new and good, like waking up.
When I hit the street I waited for a sign to tell me which way to go. There’s always something if you look hard enough and notice everything. The people on the street at this hour were in a daze, and you didn’t trust them if they weren’t. They looked weird as hell, they looked dodgy, if they knew where they were going at this hour. Some had been up all night. Some were stumbling to an early job of work. Some were just stumbling, all the time.
But the pigeons were all right. They looked like they knew a thing or two, but they’d never just come out and tell you. You had to watch them, hard. So I did. I stood for a while and watched the pigeons—purply grey and gold, strutting and cooing. The smell of pancakes from somewhere was killing me, but I focused on the pigeons, on their dark surprised eyes rimmed in white. Oh yeah, sure enough. They showed me the way. Two of them, three times in a row, pointed to the south, down the street running to the south. So that’s the way I went. I went down.
Of course the pigeons were right, like I knew they would be. The street was dark and light in patches—like dawn and dusk at the same time, but mostly cause of the scaffolding on and off along its length. Finally I came out on the corner in bright real sunlight, real morning sunlight, and that’s how I knew I’d come the right way. When the sunspots cleared from my eyes I saw the bus stop. Yeah.
There were some pigeons here, too, to tell me I’d come to the right spot and they all flew up in a flurry, in a celebration, when the big yellow bus lit up that early morning street.
I pulled myself onto the bus, the crumpled five dollars burning in my hand. The driver shook his old head and said, “Sorry, miss, exact fare, please. It says so right there on the bus.”
And I said, “I read that sign, but I didn’t think it was talking to me.”
And he said, “Sorry, miss, it means everybody. The signs are for everybody.”
I said, “Can’t I go somewhere that costs exactly five dollars?”
And he laughed and said, “No where on this route costs five dollars. You go and find some change, miss, and you catch the next one.”
So I climbed down. It felt as though from a great height. The bus felt like flying away and my feet were heavy, walking down those steps. I didn’t wait for the pigeons this time cause they were damn wrong last time, damn birds. Wasting my time. I just walked. I walked till I came to a small shop that sold newspapers and candy. It was cool and dark inside and it smelled like mint and bubblegum, ink and cigarettes.
The man sat in a chair in the corner. He must have been about one hundred years old. He had a short-sleeved shirt on, that buttoned down, with a collar and all. He had big hands, which he fluttered around his face, and glasses about an inch thick. He peeped up at me, he looked like some old mole, looking up out of a hole made of magazines and soda pop.
He looked hard at my face, and his eyes were all watery and sad behind his thick yellow lenses. “Oh dear, girl.” He said in a weird low voice, strangely deep for such an old guy. “Oh dear. What do you need, child?”
Well, I didn’t want to talk about it. I could feel that I might fall apart all over the place if he talked to me in that way again. I bought a bottle of ginger ale and a roll of peppermints and I beat it out onto the street. He yelled after me, “Have a nice day!” And it made me want to cry, because I thought he meant it, and I didn’t see how I could have a nice day, starting from where it did.
Everything was heating up all around me, you could smell the rain steaming out of the damp streets. I was suddenly thirsty as hell, so I drank the ginger ale so fast it burned my throat and filled me with bubbles. I coulda floated away. If only. I ate a peppermint after that, and that was a bad idea, cause it reminded me of my boyfriend. I go through stages with these things. Sometimes it’s peppermints, sometimes it’s lemon drops, sometimes it’s butterscotch. I was firmly in a peppermint stage when I met my boyfriend. I was nervous as hell so I offered him a peppermint and he said that was very cheeky, and while my brain was scrambling to figure out how, how was that cheeky? he kissed me just like that, tasting like peppermint and feeling more right than anything had ever felt in my life. More ripe. I thought about his thin hard body, so strange and new and I knew I could have touched it anywhere but I was scared. He wasn’t scared, and then I thought about his hands and then I grew very cold and turned and walked the other direction. I looked at my hands and saw the crumpled dollars there. Four damn dollars. Well, shit, I hadn’t even gotten the change for my exact fare, I hadn’t even done that.
All of a sudden I had to pee like hell. Damn ginger ale. Things go right through me like that. Everything does. And then I smelled those pancakes again, and I figured that was the sign that I’d missed. I was supposed to stop for pancakes to get change. So I’d go back and see if I could get back on the right path, if I could get myself going in the right direction again.
It was a coffee shop. Of course I didn’t have money for pancakes now, cause of the dumb peppermints, so I got a donut. I sat at the counter and got a donut and a waxy glass of water that tasted like soap. I sat down next to a girl, a young girl, younger than me, even. She was a mess, and she was frowning into a bowl of cereal.
“What did those cheerios ever do to you?” I asked her. “You look as though you could murder them.”
She turned to me with a scowl, but when she saw my face she laughed, with a hard raucous laugh. “Speaking of murder, girl!” She yelled. “Somebody did for you, girl! They got you good! They got you bad. Aw, right in the pretty eye. That is not fair. That is just exactly not fair. Poor kid.”
I said “Yeah yeah yeah,” and turned away from her, but she just kept staring and laughing like a little kid. I didn’t want my donut much anymore, and I remembered about having to pee. I followed the signs to the ladies room. The room was yellow, like my bus, but it had a weird underwater light. It smelled like bleach and pink soap and pee. I chose the booth on the right, cause I like the number three, but there was no toilet paper, so I had to go in the middle one.
Then I looked in the mirror cause I couldn’t not any longer. The mirror was bright and beveled and a little fancy and the slanting light hurt my eye. My eye was purple and grey and gold like a pigeon, and maybe that’s why they steered me wrong, damn birds. I touched it and it hurt. Why is that? When you see a bruise you have to touch it, even though you know it’s going to hurt, of course it is. Why is that? Or maybe it’s just me.
I went back to the counter and the girl had eaten my donut, but I didn’t care. She had crumbs on her face, and she looked very serious now. She looked at me with dark eyes, dark messy eyes. She said, “Well, what are you going to do?” I didn’t know. I was hoping she would tell me. I was waiting for her to tell me. She sighed and shrugged her skinny shoulders. I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t know. I paid for my donut, and the waitress gave me my change. My exact fare. I looked at the coins in my hand. Somebody put a song on the jukebox and I thought, this will tell me, whatever this song says, that’s what I’ll do. But it didn’t really have any words, just a guy saying “hey,” and I didn’t know what that meant.
I went out into the bright hot street with my exact fare hard in my hand, cutting into my hand. I walked back to the bus and I stood and waited. The bus came, bright and yellow barreling down my street. In the window on the door I saw a bright red car, my boyfriend’s bright red car. The door to the bus opened with a whine, and I saw my face for a moment in the reflection. My boyfriend yelled, “Hey,” and opened his door, too. The birds all flew away like fireworks and the church bell chimed.
The roof is my world, where I can be myself by myself. I like the warm dusty tar on my feet. I like staring straight up into the vast reeling sky, into the fast wheeling birds. I like when the birds land and speak to me with gentle soothing voices. I like the soft sounds they make when they all settle together. I like to watch people from my roof, to see them washing over the sidewalk in waves—coming together, breaking apart. Sometimes I hear them yelling, but I don’t listen to what they say. And I like to watch people through their windows. I like to watch them walk from room to room and move in and out of the circles of light that their lamps make. When they go farther back into the house, into the darkness where I can’t see them, I’ll watch and wait until they come back
Sometimes I can make them do things, just by thinking about it. I can make them turn on lamps, open windows, call to each other from another room. From where I sit, people yell to each other all the time, but they don’t do much talking. They yell from the window down to the street, they shout at the cars going by, they shout at their busy televisions, which are all manic blinking lights and silence, to me.
They’re all swimming in my aquarium. The lady with the clocks and mirrors, who watches time passing. The man with rivers of cats to wade through and ice cream every day, the boy who spits out the window on people walking by, the girls who sing with their caged birds, the woman who piles all her mail on the table, till she has walls of yellowing letters to hide behind. The man with a different girlfriend every day of the week, sometimes two in one day. They dance and kiss in the light of his living room, and then disappear into the shadows, into his bedroom, into my imagination.
In the summer on hot evenings all the windows hang open, and the neighborhood is deafening and fragrant, with all the sounds and smells melting together in the heat. My feet stick to molten tar, and I have to put papers down to walk on. In the winter everything is icy and closed and silent and icicles hang from the edges and overhangs, and melt slowly in the cold sunlight.
In the springtime I watched a man die. Cat man put a bowl of ice cream on the floor for the cats and sat at the table with a bowl for himself. He raised the spoon to his mouth once, twice, and then he fell still. My arms and the top of my head prickled with electric fear. I waited for him to move, I willed him to move with all my strength. But he never moved again. I worried about his ice cream melting. I worried about who would take care of the cats, who would know that they liked to eat ice cream, who would keep them all together.
I watched him all through that day, until the sun went down. The blue became deeper and thicker all around my roof until you felt you could hold it, but you couldn’t see through it. The ice cream man’s home filled up with shadows. I lay in bed regretting him, and sorely sorry that I couldn’t save him.
In the morning I watched again. The cats rubbed against him, they ate his ice cream. In the afternoon they howled for food. Somebody finally came for him the next day. They carried him away. Then they came for the cats, they packed them hissing into crates. Some people came a few days later and wrapped everything in newspaper and put it all in boxes. When they found the freezer full of ice cream, they took a break and they each ate a bowlful. Then they washed the bowls and dried them and wrapped them in newspaper and fit them into boxes. The apartment lay empty for a while, with nothing to watch but the sun moving across the walls with the hours of the day.
Finally a man moved in. He was skinny with short hair and a blue suit, he was strange in all his movements, gentle and awkward, but I liked him. He didn’t have a television or cats, but he had dozens of photographs, and he hung them all over his walls. He sat and watched the pictures as if they might move. He watched out the window, too. On the lengthening spring days he sat in the open window and watched the people hurrying down below. He put crumbs and seeds out for the pigeons, and then he took pictures of them. He had cameras, and he took pictures of strange things, I couldn’t tell why, then he hung them on his wall and watched them.
When he would leave his home, I’d watch him. I’d wait for him to come out on the street, and watch which direction he walked, I’d watch as he walked off and turned away around a corner, and I’d wonder where he went. One day he left his apartment, and I watched the street door and waited, and waited. But he never came, and I froze when I saw him come out onto the roof. He was in his shirtsleeves, and his feet were bare. He walked all around looking down. He took off his shirt, and I saw his shoulder blades, his ribs, the hollows of his collarbone, he was pale and gleaming. He lay down and disappeared below the low wall of his roof. I got scared, and I went down below to my room, but I thought about him up on the roof and didn’t sleep for days.
I decided I wanted him to have a picture of me. I waited all week for the photos to be developed, sick and excited and scared, making plans for how I’d give him the picture. When I went to the shop to pick them up, the lady at the counter shook her head at me, and looked sad. She had red-rimmed green eyes, large and watery, and soft, wrinkled, powdered skin. She smelled like powder and perfume, like a field full of flowers you’d never find on this earth. She looked kind and I was sorry she was sad, but too nervous about my pictures to worry much about her. She said, “Tsk tsk tsk.” I clutched my purse, waiting for the pictures, and thought about opening the envelope, and smelling the fresh filmy smell, and picking one picture. She said, “Poor girl.” I didn’t know who she was talking about, but I was sorry she was sad for the poor girl. I said my name, and looked to see if I could find my pictures. She had them in her hand, and she was worrying the edges, folding the corners. I felt nearly frantic. She said, “Did you see, dear, on your way in, that you passed some nice tubes of lipstick? Some cakes of face powder? Some hairbrushes? Did you … happen to notice?” I thought “Why why why?” But I said, “No, I didn’t, but thank you for pointing them out.” And I reached out for my pictures. She said, “Sometimes a girl likes to make herself…pretty. She likes to look…nice.” I smiled at her. I thought there must be something wrong with her, talking to me in this way, and I wondered how she got a job in the shop.
When she finally gave me the pictures I raced up the stairs, two at a time and came out in the squinting sunshine on the roof. I sat on my paper and looked at the envelope. I made myself wait. Then I took out one photo at a time: I saw one of a water tower, one of the staring sky, one of birds’ shadows, one of the secret edge of roof, one of skinny stripes of wires, one of bricks and one of cracked tar. And then I saw myself. I saw myself through tear-blurred eyes. I didn’t know this girl, with her strange sad face, her wild hair, her pale skinny limbs. In a blind white rage I stabbed angrily at this girl with colors. I made myself pretty, I made myself nice, I threw myself from the roof. I floated down in weightless silence, and landed foolish and forlorn on the sidewalk. I watched myself there, I watched myself crumpled under shoes, kicked to the curb, falling nearly into the street. And then I saw a blur of blue, a familiar blue suit. The man picked me up, he smoothed me out, he ran his fingers down my body. He turned his face up to me, pale and still and shining in the sea of moving bodies.
Five days a week, Frank walks to the train station. Whatever the weather, winter or summer. He wakes at 6:15. The dog sits up at the foot of his bed and yawns a nervous song, anxious that she might not get her breakfast, though she’s had it at exactly the same time every morning for the eight years of her life. He walks down stairs and she dances around him, and it’s a wonder they haven’t both tripped and fallen to their doom in a tangled mass. In the winter, it’s pitch black in the hallway, because Frank doesn’t like to turn on the light and wake everybody in the house. In the summer, he can already feel how hot the day will be, in the pale bleak light that streams into the hallway and bakes the dust out of the floors and carpets.
He always makes a pot of coffee, standing stupidly for a few minutes to watch it drip, because he can’t do much else till he’s had a cup. He makes a piece of toast and he fries himself an egg. He likes his egg just so—soft and golden with a thin pale film over the yolk, and a crispy lace forming in the butter. He washes his dishes, even the pan, which needs scrubbing every time. He piles them neatly in the dish drainer, and wipes the counter clean.
He checks himself in the small mirror by the coat rack just behind the front door. He’s dressed himself in the dark, so he wouldn’t wake anybody, but he likes to look neat. He has to look sharp, in his line of business, so that people will trust him.
In the winter, in the freezing rain or stinging snow, when the dark is unrelenting and his feet get wet and he knows they will stay that way all day, he sometimes wonders why he bothers. In the summer, though, he likes to hear the birds busy about their work, and smell all the flowers, which will never be so fragrant all day long as they are at this early hour. He’s glad to be awake and about so early, with somewhere to go.
People amble and meander in the sleepy neighborhoods and side streets, but when he gets closer to the station the sun climbs higher in the sky and everybody is in a hurry, they’re all on their way somewhere. By the time he reaches the station it’s full bright morning and the world of employed, productive people is buzzing and vibrant.
People are always busy by the train station, at any time of day. They come and go with purpose, they have somewhere to be. And the people who work in the station: cleaning, guarding, selling sandwiches or newspapers or tickets, they’re busy, too, they’re always hard at work, and he likes to hear them cheerful, calling to each other, making the same jokes every day.
Frank likes the light in the train station, soft and golden like the gloaming. No matter the time of day, it always has a twilight glow. And he likes the smells. The station always smells like rain, and breakfast cooking, and people, and trains, of course. He loves the smell of trains.
By the time he reaches the station, Frank is hungry again, and he buys a Danish. Always the same Danish—raspberry and almond, with a sticky sort of glaze on top. On Tuesday, it’s soft and fresh, but by Thursday, it’s stale as cardboard, and on Friday they sometimes don’t have them at all, and he begins to suspect that they’re not baked on premises.
“Hello, Louie, how’s business,” He’ll say to the man who sells the pastries.
“Can’t complain,” Louis will reply, “Can’t complain.”
“And how are your lovely children?” Frank will ask.
“Somebody is spoiling them rotten and I think it might be me.’ Louis will say.
“Isn’t that always the way?” Frank will say with a chuckle. And then he sits on a bench and eats his Danish, and watches the people go by. He likes how the crowd swells by like a wave and then thins out, how people crowd by him in a rush at rush hour, and then subside, until there’s only a few people, on their way somewhere, pretending not to look at one another.
Sometimes he buys a magazine, but he doesn’t like the advertisements, they hold too many memories. Sometimes he buys a newspaper for the crossword, because he believes it keeps him sharp, keeps his brain lively. But mostly he sits and listens and watches. He likes to hear little parts of other people’s conversations. He likes to make a patchwork quilt of odd phrases. People are so strange, everybody is so crazy, yet so endearing. It feels so rare to be a person, just like them.
Sometimes he stands on the platform, where the feeling of waiting is something thick and solid. Anxious anticipation is palpable. And then comes the flurry of activity when the train pulls up, everyone grabs their things as they’re drawn to the train by some mysterious force, shuffling along beside it as it slows and stops. And then it’s gone, and Frank is alone on the platform again.
For the last 22 years, Frank has walked to the station, but it’s only in the last two years, three months and 14 days that he hasn’t bought a ticket. He stops at the ticket booth, any way, to say hello to Russell, who sells the tickets, and to ask after his lovely wife. Imagine Frank’s surprise, one day, to find not Russell in the booth, but a girl. He stops walking. He nearly stops breathing. He’s always been bewildered by change.
“Where to?” She’s young, not much older than his daughter. She has dark shiny bobbed hair and pale translucent skin. He can see her blue veins. She has small dark eyes, and she looks at him without a trace of recognition or concern. He laughs apologetically. He’s not going anywhere, but he doesn’t know how to explain that. He’s never had to explain that. And then her face changes. She knows who he is. She frowns at him, he laughs again and walks past, heart racing. He has to sit on his favorite bench at the very end of the platform to collect his thoughts. He avoids the ticket booth for the rest of the day. He walks home in the evening lost in thought. He’s never had trouble sleeping in his life, except for two weeks in his twenties when he first met his wife. But now he lies awake, “where to?” going round and round in his head. Where to where to where to where to where to where to where to where to where to? He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know.
In the morning he lies in bed for a full five minutes after the alarm goes off, and it’s only the dog’s anxious face that gets him up. He burns his toast, and his egg is only half-cooked, but he eats it anyway. His usual route takes him by the ticket booth, so he alters his course, and spends the morning outside, climbing from platform to platform, until it gets too hot.
He takes his lunch break at a sandwich shop in town. They’re always glad to see him because he’s kind and he tips well. He gets roast beef on white bread, with mayonnaise and tomatoes. He likes salt and pepper on the tomatoes, and they always put it on without having to ask. They give him celery and olives on the side, because he likes those, too, and they give him his coffee (milk and two sugars) in a paper cup, so he can walk back to the station with it. After lunch he sits in the shade in the station sipping his coffee, watching a young mother soothe a crying baby, rocking it against her body, back and forth, back and forth, and tickling its soft fat legs. The crying makes Frank anxious as if it was one of his own children, and when it finally stops he smiles at the mother, and she sighs and smiles, and walks off, still rocking from side to side.
And suddenly the girl is beside him on the bench. He wants to jump up, he wants to leave, but he knows that would be wrong, he needs to stay, he needs to be friendly.
“Hey,” she says. And he thinks, why do the kids say “hey?” His children do it, too. When he was young, it would not be okay to say, “hey.”
“Hey. I want to talk to you.” She has a sandwich, but she’s not eating it. She’s tearing it apart with thin pale fingers. She peels off the crust all the way around, and then she tears the sandwich into small pieces, and crumbles them into a ball. “My mom makes me sandwiches,” She says, looking up to him with defiant confiding eyes. “But I can’t eat them. I’m slimming. Don’t you think I need to?”
He tries not to look at her, at her straight skinny bruised calves, at her bony wrists, at her heart-breaking ankles.
“Well. I heard about you. They told me about you.” She says.
He smiles and nods, but he’s dying inside.
“I don’t want to take tickets in some lousy train station my whole life. You know?” She won’t let him alone.
“Yes? No. No, I think that’s a very fine job. Taking tickets. The best….”
“Naw. Naw. You know that’s not true. Why would you say that?” She glares at him. “Thing is…” she says it all in a rush, with a furrowed frown, like a foolish child. “Thing is, I want to be a model, and I know you work…worked in the business, they told me that about you…and I know you must know some people I should know, and I’m going to do it, no matter what my mom says so don’t try to stop me, but maybe you could help me out a little.”
He laughs apologetically. “I don’t do that anymore. I don’t work in the city, anymore, in that…business. I work here now. This is my job.”
“Naw. Naw, I know you don’t believe that. You work here? Naw. That’s dumb.” He knows she isn’t trying to be cruel. She frowns at him again. “I just… I just… I want… I just. Don’t you see?”
“Well, I do, I think I do see, but I’d say you’re fine here. At the station. It’s a fine job. A noble job.”
She turns her whole body towards him, and raises her face, wrinkled and distorted and near tears, she raises her face to him. She’s calm by the time she speaks again, and her face is pale and perfect. “Don’t you think I’m pretty enough? Is that what you’re trying to say?” He tries not to look at her beautiful crooked nose, and her freckles, and her bright uneven eyes. He tries not to look at her pretty chapped lips.
“No.” He says. “No, you’re not. You’re not pretty enough.”
She’s more angry than sad, he’s relieved to see that. She stands and looks at him like she might kill him, and turns and walks away. She’s left her sandwich, torn to pieces in its waxed paper wrapping, lying on the bench beside him. He balls it up in his hands, and walks slowly to the trashcan.
When my birds saw me they would take to the air with a great clapping of wings and they would sing HALLELUJAH!! When I let them out of their cage, they would stream by me with joy and gratitude, and I would lose myself in their feathers, and in the beating of their wings. Then I would lie on my back and cover myself in birdseed, and I‘d watch their pretty shadows as they settled all around me with their soft sharp feet and their soft brushing feathers and their soft cooing voices saying “Hallelujah, coo hoo coo, hallelujah.”
I don’t say hallelujah when the guard comes by. I don’t say much of anything any more, any more. How I used to yell and holler. I’d holler myself hoarse. I’d curse and swear and threaten. But it was all foolishness, because here I still am, with no voice at all. I never had any voice at all.
They picked me up by the side of the road. I was standing on the wayside and the wind began to blow. I didn’t have no money and I was trying to get back home. The sky on one side stayed bright as day, but along the other it was dark and purpling like a bad bruise. The trees were caught up in the glow, but their leaves were all turned upside down, stark and white against the dark sky. The weather was coming, it was coming fast.
I thought about my birds, I started to run. They don’t like the stormy weather, the thunder and lightening. I’d lie with them, in their small cote, and keep them safe, and watch the wind wilding like the end of times, dark as night except for the stark staring flashes. And they kept me warm with their bright eyes and their racing worrying hearts.
When the rain came and I saw the car’s flashing lights in the darkness, I started to run, and they picked me up. I thought they’d give me a ride home, but that’s not where they took me. I said, “I ain’t done nothing wrong.” And they laughed a mean laugh and said, “We all done something wrong, son.” Yeah, maybe, maybe so, but we’re not all rotting away in prison, trying to get back home. All I could think about was my birds. With no one to let them out, no one to feed them. I screamed about them. I yelled about my birds, how someone had to let them fly, someone had to feed them. But they thought I was crazy. They said, “There ain’t no birds, son, you shut your mouth.” And in here you’d start to believe them. You’d start to believe that there are no birds, that there is nothing good in the world. Except then why did I have this terrible aching pain? Why did I have that? I yelled about the birds singing HALLELUJAH! I yelled hallelujah till I lost my voice completely. I yelled it till the word lost all meaning. The word has no meaning for me any more. The world has no meaning for me anymore.
And now I don’t scream and holler. I don’t make a noise. Ain’t nobody listening. If I go home now I’d have to see the state of my birds, and I don’t want to do that. It’s too late for that. They come to me in dreams, sometimes, bright pure spirits, beating hearts with wings and nothing else. Sometimes they carry me out of here and I fly free with them. Sometimes they drop me from a great height in their anger; how could they not be angry for what I done to them? I used to think of them as angels, but not any more. I never think of angels any more. I think of them as living flying creatures that I kept in a cage, that spent their whole lives slowly dying in mesh and wire.
I’m sitting on top of the world, I really am. Here I am, in the middle of nowhere, completely alone, no way home, and I swear I’ve never felt better. I swear it. I watched her taillights as she pulled away, bright winking demon eyes in the dust. And then she was gone and I listened to the settling gravel. I felt myself bathed in a white light that shone only on me, like some crazy celestial glow from above, for Christ’s sake. Well, I felt that it shone for me, and I felt cleansed.
And then a cloud passed over the sun, and I saw where I really was, some dismal dirt road stretching into the great, ignorant American backwoods as far as I could see. But I wasn’t going to let it get me down. I was feeling good, I tell you. It’s a noisy goddamn world, and it was a drink of cool water, standing here by myself, with only the birds for company. I’d never just stood and listened to the birds before, and it was on my goddamn list of things to do.
But I felt foolish standing in one place for too long, so I started walking. I was sporting my white shoes, and they were sharp. It broke my hardened heart to see the gravel making its crazed pattern on them. If there’s one thing I despise, it’s scuffed shoes. I am not ashamed to say that I have turned away from a man because the sight of his worn shoes offended me. I can just see her now, frowning in shame and embarrassment at my rudeness, turning away from me as I turned away, in a ridiculous dance of mortification.
I met her at a party, and I could see in an instant that she wasn’t like everyone else. A midwinter Sunday at dusk. We’d all gathered at Paul and Sylvia’s place to drink some gin and play some gin, to while away the long tedious winter evening. She was completely out of place. Everyone faced inward, they were animated and colorful, and she was still and quiet, staring out the window at the shadowing dusk, when the church bells rang out Christmas carols. If there’s one thing I despise it’s Christmas carols: insipid, nostalgic tripe.
She was not my type at all. No beauty, no elegance, no sparkle. Mouse brown hair, grey wool tights, and a damn gunnysack of a grey wool dress. And yet I couldn’t stop following her with my eyes. As she moved from room to room I watched her go. I watched her watching other people, her expression alternately amused and saddened. She did not sparkle, but she had a glow about her. Once I’d started following her in earnest like a confounded puppy dog, I thought she’d notice. Any other female on the planet would notice, she would flirt. But she didn’t so I found myself in the embarrassing position of having to secure an introduction. But she wasn’t speaking to anyone; she didn’t seem to know anyone. Finally, in my desperation, I grabbed a bowl of olives. I walked to her and I said, “I wish they were emeralds.” The shame! Neither original nor witty, and I’m only sharing this to demonstrate the depth of my strange urgency and bewilderment. And she laughed. Not a charming chuckle, but a short burst of surprised laughter. I don’t know if I despised her or loved her in that moment, but from then on, I could not leave her alone.
Well, I followed her though I knew it would be trouble. She wanted nothing to do with me at first, and I had to persuade her, I had to move slowly. We went on dates, for Christ’s sake, like goddamn teenagers. I didn’t touch her for a month. Every conversation was like a crazy game. My wittiest quips fell flat, but she would brighten and glow at the oddest times, when I felt the most foolish. She didn’t like me much, but I wanted her terribly. It was ridiculous, but I had lost my ability to ridicule, she had killed it. She scared the hell out of me. I felt as though I didn’t know myself.
I saw a rabbit by the side of the road, staring up at me with wet dark eyes. He turned tail and ran, offended, no doubt, by my scuffed shoes. I could have eaten him, I was so hungry, except, of course I had no gun, and I’m no hunter. I walked along, thinking about food, having a small laugh at myself and my nonsensical ineptitude. Oh, I could order a sandwich at any luncheonette in the country, I could order drinks and snacks with the best of them, but out here in this wasteland I felt truly lost. I tried to recall the stories from my boys’ magazines. “Alone in the wilderness.” And how did those hirsute men survive? Those burly fellows in flannel and canvas, how did they do it? Could I see myself fashioning a trap of twigs and reeds, catching some poor animal, and then roasting it over a clever campfire lit by rubbing two sticks together? I could not. I could not see it, and I could not do it. I couldn’t sit with my arm half submerged in icy water and tickle the belly of a trout, thus seducing him into my frying pan. I could not do it. I couldn’t even manage the overalls.
Although at the moment the thought of icy water wasn’t half bad. I wore my great coat—in the latest style, but far too warm, as she had said it would be. I’d told her that I needed it as protection from all of this natural beauty, as armor against rustic charm. And she had frowned and said nothing. She was right, of course, and I was miserable, at once strangely chilled and dripping with sweat. I took the coat off. I rolled my sleeves up, I draped the coat over my arm, but the wool of it was itchy and uncomfortable. I was faced with a terrible question: would I ever make it back to civilization? Because if so I could not abandon my coat, it had been very hard to track down—I’d done some stepping. I sat on a rock and the white bright sun filled my eyes with water, as I remembered a time we’d shared my coat. It had been a frantically cold evening. She’d met me, running through shards of snow and light, her face bright and warm. I thought she was happy to see me. I’d allowed myself to believe that she was happy to see me. But she was shivering in a light coat. We shared a taxi, and I wrapped my coat around us both, like a blanket, and she had let me press up against her surprising warmth. She had let me hold her hand. Like some rube kid, I melted at the touch of her hand.
Once we had touched, we were attached. I felt it in an instant. My reaction was unaccountable. I was so happy and scared that I cried. Though not in front of her, not in front of anyone. I never felt like that in all my life, and I hope to never feel like that again. She had no idea what a man wanted, what a man needed. She killed me with her awkwardness and curiosity. Her body was pale and colorless, but it shone in iridescent hollows against sharp bones. It was luminous, and it makes me ache to think about it now.
Or maybe that’s the hunger. The food is all gone with her, all gone. We had packed a picnic in our car—her idea. I had laughed at the idea of a picnic—a party for the ants, I’d said, and for the unfashionable. It was so tedious to leave the city; it just wasn’t worth the effort. She hadn’t liked my jokes, and now here I was with nothing. Then I remembered a bag of sunflower seeds in my coat pocket. I like to suck the salt off, and then spit out the shell. After a few I remembered that I had no water. But I kept eating till my lips stung with the salt, just to show I didn’t care. Hot, miserable, sweating and desperate with thirst, I happened upon a building. A low brick building plastered with advertisements for beer and soda pop and oranges. Eureka, I had found a store.
“I didn’t mean you,” I had said, “Of course I didn’t mean you.” She clutched the steering wheel with a fury, and turned her face from me. “You’re not unfashionable!” In fact she’d become almost stylish, since we’d been together, despite the fact that she wouldn’t let me buy her anything. She drove with angry speed, and I swear I feared for my life. To die out here, in the country, a desolate and ignominious death, I swear I could think of nothing worse. She was not appeased. She did not slow down.
“You don’t understand!” she cried, and when I say this I mean that she was nearly crying. “You’ll never understand.”
“Well,” I replied, in a soothing voice, “Why don’t you explain it to me. Slowly.”
She shook her head and wouldn’t talk, and I loved the way her hair settled in fetching curls behind her ears. She drove because I couldn’t. I’d always lived in the city; I had never needed to drive. One of the many practical skills that she possessed that I did not, but I did not begrudge her these skills, she was welcome to them, I had no use for them. Finally she stopped. She had to because she was overcome with tears. She turned her face to me, her sea-grey eyes clouded and glowing, like waves after the rain. They were rimmed in red, her whole face was red and contorted—she was not at her best. But she was, I’d be lying to say she wasn’t. I’d never seen her more beautiful. Her lips trembled and she snorted and tried to catch her breath in little hiccupping gulps. She said, “Don’t you see? There are no unfashionable people! There are no fashionable people! It’s just people, all over the world, wearing clothes. Some are comfortable in their clothes, some are not, but it’s all just people wearing clothes. Don’t you see? All the rest is…is…is…is…is…nothing. It’s worse than nothing. It’s lies.”
She left me by the side of the road. I was sure she’d come back, but she did not. And to my surprise, I felt relieved. A weight had been lifted. I was free from the constant noisy worrying whirring of her thoughts. I was free from the heaviness of her honesty, from the burden of her expectations. I was sitting on top of the world.
I bought a cola, a warm bottle of cola from a dusty shelf. Nothing had ever tasted so good to me. No well-mixed cocktail had pleased me in this way. The place was dusty and quiet, like the road, but at least it was dark and cool in here. I had expected the shop keeps to be dusty and quiet, too, with maybe five teeth to share between them. So imagine my surprise to find a lady—not young, maybe ten years older than me, but quite well-dressed. Her outfit was nicely put together, though everything was a few years out of date. She gave me a very sharp look, and I suddenly understood that I knew her, that I had known her when she was the most admired and talked-about person in the city.
“By god, Veronica,” I said, “What the hell brings you out here?”
Her skin was soft and lightly wrinkled, her hair beginning to gray. Her eyes were watery but shrewd. She stared right at me, and she said, “For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.”
I lightly laughed. She was not wrong! I thought about buying another cola, and maybe a sandwich. I wondered if she sold sandwiches.
She said, “What should be in it, that men should love lies; where neither they make for pleasure, as with poets, nor for advantage, as with the merchant; but for the lie’s sake. But I cannot tell; this same truth, is a naked, and open day-light, that doth not show the masks, and mummeries, and triumphs, of the world, half so stately and daintily as candle-lights. Truth may perhaps come to the price of a pearl, that showeth best by day; but it will not rise to the price of a diamond, or carbuncle, that showeth best in varied lights.”
I laughed again, but I thought of leaving.
She said, “It is a pleasure, to stand upon the shore, and to see ships tossed upon the sea; a pleasure, to stand in the window of a castle, and to see a battle: but no pleasure is comparable to the standing upon the vantage ground of truth and to see the errors, and wanderings, and mists, and tempests, in the vale below.”
I give Veronica my coat. I set it on the chair beside her, and she gazes fondly at it, petting the fine soft wool. I leave the store and set off, walking. I abandon the road; I follow a path that winds through small trees. The earth is wet and black, and tars my shoes with mud, but I don’t care. The trees grow taller, and I walk through patches of shade and patches of sunlight, bewildered by the alternating coolness and warmth. I come to a creek rushing through smooth grey stones, the water chattering and singing with a clear cold voice. I step in up to my knees, I dip my head in the water. When I reach the road again, I leave my sodden shoes by the side of it, and I start on the long walk back to town.
The secret to capturing a photograph of a ghost is, of course, the long exposure. It can be difficult to persuade them to remain stationary, which is why in most photos ghosts seem blurred and wraith-like. I coaxed mine to sit still by asking him to read with me. He’s something of a mimic, so if I sat and read, odds were that he would do so as well. Of course, before long, he’d be reading aloud. He loves the sound of his voice, which is odd, really, because it took a long while to induce him to talk to me at all.
It began with the decorative touches about the room. I didn’t think much of it at first. I had come out west a few weeks earlier, and I found everything very strange and barren. Everything—the vast, flat sparse earth, the wide new sky, the oddly empty people, with a cold eager light in their eyes that meant nothing or less than nothing. And my big bare rented room, a cave where I spent all of my time alone and unnerved. I was a fish in a land with no water.
So when things started showing up—small, pretty objects that made the place feel a little more homey, I thought it was my landlady attempting to make my stay more pleasant. She seemed a coarse enough character, but perhaps she’d taken pity on my plight. The first was a small tableau with an owl and a squirrel. Curious and rare—I’d never seen anything like it. But so much seemed baffling to me in my strange new world. And then it was a lovely fan, long lace curtains, a flowered garland. Delightful, really, and from all over the world, the artifacts of a well-traveled soul. I began to suspect that it could not be the landlady, who spent most of her day on the porch, spitting. Finally a small lamp appeared, which really did transform the space. I had been freezing in the cold raking light of a bare bulb far overhead, and this lamp turned the room warm and radiant. Things materialized while I was at work, and it was nice to come back to a room that was a little more welcoming, a little more cheerful of a place to spend all evening, alone, thinking my thoughts.
It was the beans, and some sort of meat—I can’t be sure what animal it had been in life. The concoction tasted funny, off, but I didn’t want to be rude. Well, I’ve never been so sick, and for the first time I felt grateful that my room was on the first floor, round back by the latrine. I stayed home from work, and I lay on my bed floating through waves of nausea and pain, shivering and wretched. At times I believe I became insensible, I fell into a faint. In my lucid moments I became aware of my ghost. I saw objects move of their own volition. I felt his impossible weight on the bed beside me, I felt his softer than soft hand on my forehead. I heard him laughing. I heard him laugh long before I heard him speak. And then I knew, after sign upon sign upon sign, I knew as surely as I knew my own self, that I had a ghost living with me.
I returned to work, of course, but I could sense, the second I walked in my door of an evening, whether he was home with me. Sometimes he went out, lord only knows where. Haunting someone else, I suppose.
I got him to speak by speaking to him. I’d sit, alone in my room, talking to the thin air, the thin sun-baked air of my new western home. I’d say anything on my mind. I’d tell him about my day. I’d read from the local paper about the calves that were born, or the woman that choked on a cherry pit. But he never responded, never said a word. And I grew impatient and yelled, “Go haunt someone else, you imbecile ghost!”
Well, he howled at that! He hates the word “haunt,” he hates the word “ghost.” He’s a stickler for accuracy, my ghost. Of course, once he started talking it was difficult to make him stop. But he would never answer my big questions. He would never speak about important things. I would ask him about the darkness, about the light, about the ocean of time before us and after us. I would ask him for any hint of what comes next. And he would say, “George,” which was not my name, “George,” he would say, “You should paint this room a brighter color. It’s so dreary. You could at least cover some of these dismal cracks in the plaster.”
And I would shout, “It’s a rented room, you stupid ghost! I can’t paint it. And even if I could, I wouldn’t. Because I just don’t care!”
And he would sigh with a sigh that went right through a person.
He always had a sigh in his voice, even when he was happy. And I think he was happy, and I felt happy, too, happier than I had in some time. It was the small things. His day-to-day thoughtfulness. His conversational contrariness, his crossness in the morning, his expansive after dinner mood. Of course he didn’t eat dinner (though he did, mysteriously, partake of spirits.) He would taunt me mercilessly with my bodily weakness, my flawed corporeal being. My need to use the latrine or to sleep. He found it all very amusing, the fiend.
Well, I was happy, as I say, but although I felt I knew my ghost, I felt, too, that I should like to see him. I wanted a photograph.
I settled in to read one of the infernal western romances that had brought me here in the first place, and I smiled when he sat next to me, in the same aspect, and began to read to me, just as I knew he would do.
“Soul. [he read]
O, WHO shall from this dungeon raise
A soul enslaved so many ways ?
With bolts of bones, that fettered stands
In feet, and manacled in hands ;
Here blinded with an eye, and there
Deaf with the drumming of an ear ;
A soul hung up, as ’twere, in chains
Of nerves, and arteries, and veins ;
Tortured, besides each other part,
In a vain head, and double heart ?
O, who shall me deliver whole,
From bonds of this tyrannic soul ?
Which, stretched upright, impales me so
That mine own precipice I go ;
And warms and moves this needless frame,
(A fever could but do the same),
And, wanting where its spite to try,
Has made me live to let me die
A body that could never rest,
Since this ill spirit it possessed. “
Well, it goes on for a few stanzas, I knew it well, it was one of his favorites. He was still and we got a clear shot. The most curious of cabinet photos.
I was surprised, when I looked at the photo. He looked like my father. Not my actual father, mind you, but as you would surmise that my father might look. This I did not expect. I knew the ghost was not my father, I could feel that. I had been scared of my father my whole life, and I never felt a moment of fear in the presence of my ghost. I knew in an instant his objection to the word “haunting.” My father had haunted my nightmares, waking and sleeping, for as long as I’d known him, with a wrenching icy grip. But my ghost brought nothing but warmth to my dreams and to my waking life. I felt him as a good friend.
Too late, of course. He saw the photograph. The light from it splashed onto him and he disappeared with a sigh that shook the room.
I wanted to call him back, but I had no name, no words to use. I understood that he was gone. And I was so sick and so sorry. As empty, aching and vacant as I had ever felt. I was angry with myself for being disappointed that his appearance was not more phantasmagorical. I had wanted him to be beautiful, not ordinary and dingy. I wanted him to be singular, peculiar, not reminiscent of something so familiar to me. I was small in my disappointment.
I lay on my thin hard-boned bed and thought of my ghost. I thought of the time we lay here, together, I unable to sleep, and he not needing to sleep. We looked through the tall windows at the impossibly deep sky black upon black upon black stretching forever and ever into lonely nothingness.
“George,” he said.
“That’s not my name,” I replied.
“George,” he said, “We make a nice light, don’t we?”
“Yes yes,” I said impatiently. “I like the lamp. I’ve told you so.”
“No,” he said. “No, George, we make a nice light.”
Well, I wept to remember it. I lay and wept like a child. I lay for days, in my room, waiting and wanting and watching. I lay for days, weakening and not caring.
On the fourth day, I was awakened by a slight, impossible weight next to me on the bed, a quiet creak of bedsprings. I held my breath, I closed my eyes, I listened with an intensity that could strike me dead. A softer than soft hand brushed against my forehead, and a sigh trembled through the windless room.
At 2:55 am, he made himself a bed on the floor and he opened the door to his rented room. He felt vulnerable with the door open, but it was better than stagnating in still, hot air. In the mid-July heat the room was dry and baking, and the parched dark wood sipped the clear moonlight. He left the damp sheets in a tangle and settled in a cool pool of light in the middle of the room. The moon drenched his white shirt and splashed off onto the polished floorboards. He squinted into the waves of light, and then he closed his eyes. He loved the exact moment between waking and sleeping. He tried to catch that exact moment like a slippery silvery fish leaping through the moonlight. Sometimes he lay half-awake all night, waiting for this exact moment.
He didn’t need much sleep these days. He’d learned to live without it, being on the road as much as he was. Being constantly on the road. He’d learned to rest comfortably in any situation. He always slept with his clothes on and his valuables nearby. Never remove your watch or your trousers, that was his rule. Ready for anything. He could sleep on the floor; he could even sleep with the door to his room open for a bit of breeze. That’s how confident he was.
So he lay and waited for the feeling that his rational thoughts were floating from his brain. Sometimes the realization that this was happening was enough to snap them back in place. He thought about walking down long icy corridors, with tall pale walls and high windows. He thought about wandering in a cool forest and crunching snow with blue-cold feet. He thought about the number on the open door, gleaming in the pale light. 202. 202. The house number of the girl he loved. 202. He thought about the first time he’d seen that number, spotted with rust, on the gate in front of her house. The first time he saw her she scowled at him and turned her back. It was spring and the world was glowing green and fragrant. Her yard was overgrown with vines and sharp-smelling flowers. The very air was green and her dress was pale and shimmering.
He loved her so much in that exact moment that he felt all the rational thoughts floating from his brain. He felt elated and shaken. He thought he might vomit. She glanced at his slick hair and his uneasy smile and his briefcase full of samples and she frowned and turned her back, in a swirl of shimmering fabric. He suddenly saw himself as from a great height—small and pale and conniving, smiling the same smile to everyone and dreaming of money, dreaming of dollars raining down around him.
He felt desperate to tell her that he wasn’t like that, but of course he was like that and she knew it with one look. Which was why he loved her so madly, because she made him feel speechless. He could speak affably to anyone. He could talk. Words were his, he owned them and he rolled them around in his mouth and blew them out like bright bubbles. Like shiny floating balls of sound that charmed people, that charmed and disarmed them. Grown people, smart people, would laugh and chase his words like a child chases soap bubbles, trying to hold the fragile, insubstantial, slippery things in their hands.
She didn’t pop them, but one look from her, one withering glance, and he couldn’t even form the words. They tangled in his mouth and he couldn’t make sense of them, he couldn’t even understand why he’d try. Everything he’d said in his life had been a lie, and he couldn’t lie to her, so he became mute and foolish.
She turned on her heel with a glinting wave of dark brown hair. The screen door slapped shut, and the numbers—202—clanked against the paint-peeling wood.
“Gladys,” someone called from inside the house, and he knew that it was the most beautiful name he had ever heard. “Gladys,” called a voice, “Who’s that at the door?”
“It’s nobody. It’s just a salesman.”
Nobody. Nobody stood there, without a rational thought in his head, with no voice and no power over his limbs.
“What’s he selling?”
“I don’t know. Nothing we need, I can promise you that.” She stood there, as she said this, watching him through the dusky mesh of the screen door. Her face was serious and sour, but he knew she was laughing at him, and he was unmanned.
“Well, ask him in,” yelled the voice, “And give him something cool to drink.”
She pushed the door open, and the door, with its creaking hinges had more to say than he did. He fell to pieces, and she laughed at him with eyes the changing color of mourning doves. He sat in her kitchen, which was butter yellow and polka-dotted and smelled of toast and silver thyme, which grew in a pot by the open window. He drank something sweet and bitter from a sweating glass. He clutched his sample case on his knees for dear life, but he didn’t dare to open it because it was nothing she needed, nothing she would ever need. His heart was leaping all over itself to push out of his body and swim into her, and this made him dumb. He had played conversations like a game, and he always won. He was the champion of anticipating a reaction, of calculating a response. And yet, somehow, he couldn’t predict and didn’t understand that his awkwardness, his stuttered words, his thick tongue, his wide dark downcast eyes won her over as nothing else could do.
She gave him a picture of her face, and he left it by his bed when he dropped into sleep. He’d stare at it till she floated in the air, but he didn’t mind that she drifted away from him, because he could fly, too. They’d float together and small leaves of cool silver thyme would rain over them. They wouldn’t try to catch them or to shield themselves; they’d let the leaves brush like shadows on their faces. Her face was the first thing that had ever made him feel longing and loneliness; it was the first thing he’d ever missed. It was the only thing that had ever felt like home.
The thing about a baby bird is you can’t tell if it’s a boy or a girl. When they’re older, sometimes they look different. Usually it’s the boys that are crazy fancy and colorful and pretty. But some birds, you never know. My crow, I’ll never know. I call him a him, cause that’s what he seems like, but I’ll never know for sure. And some people say that no crows are pretty—not the girls or the boys. But I think they’re all beautiful. I see the blue and green and purple in their pretty black feathers. I see in their eyes how smart and funny they are.
I found him on a cold day in a slow spring. It was damp and chilly, but I saw things flying in the air. Small glowing specks—bugs or seeds or dust or who-knows-what flying like crazy all over in the air, catching the little bit of light. Some things don’t care if spring is slow and cold. They don’t get dampened, these spirits. They go about their business according to some schedule. We’ll never know about that. They just float on in their dizzy way. And maybe they regret it when the world is so cold they can’t survive, but at least they’ve floated for a moment.
So I found him on a cold morning. He must have fallen out of his nest, but I didn’t see any nest up in the bricks and the fire escapes, like crazy trees, like a weird metal forest. I’d been chased back there, of course, like all the other times. That first time they’d caught me, and they were as scared and surprised as I was. They didn’t know why they chased me, and they didn’t know what to do with me when they caught me. Like the dog that finally catches the squirrel and just drops it cause they don’t know what else to do with it. Like that. So they hurt me, cause they didn’t know what else to do with me.
I cried like crazy, but I stopped by the time I got home. I knew my grandma wouldn’t like it. She could tell, of course, she could tell I’d been crying, and she told me to man up. She wiped the dirt and blood and tears off my face, though. She spat in her soft old yellow handkerchief and washed my face clean. I could tell she was thinking about crying, too. I could tell she had heavy tears pricking the back of her eyes, but she didn’t cry.
Then we watched some TV. We sat in her old room, on her bed, with the yellow smell of her all around, and the only light all that flickered from the TV in a cold blue moving glow. And the window open just a little so you could smell cool fresh rain mix in with the warm powdery smell of grandma.
There was a woman on the TV playing guitar like a man. I thought she was really pretty and great. She sang about music in the air up above our heads and I really liked that idea. Music flying in the air, like birds or bugs or seeds in spring, even in the rain. My grandma got sleepy, her head fell to her chest and then she picked it up and then it fell again. She held my hand in her strong hands and pushed all the muscles with her strong fingers, and she said, “pretty pretty hands, such pretty hands, poor boy.” And then she fell asleep.
So one time I was chased, and they’d pretty much stopped trying to catch me, cause you can only hurt the same person so many times before it gets pretty boring for everyone concerned. But I ran anyway, cause that’s what I did, and they chased any way, cause that’s what they did. And they yelled stuff about me being a fairy, which is just a person that can glow and fly, so who cares, really.
I ran up the fire escape, even though they’d pretty much all disappeared, and that’s when I saw the ugliest thing I ever seen. Pink and grey and tufted with crazy black feathers. With a freakishly long beak for its size and angry beady eyes. There was nobody around. No birds, no people, nothing. Just the cold damp drip drip drip all around us. I picked It up in my hands and it felt so strange. Prickly and oddly heavy with a crazy beating heart. It looked cross as hell, but I swear to god it settled in. It waggled its scrawny feathered butt and settled into my hand like it had found a home and it had nowhere else to go. I nearly cried but I didn’t want to scare it.
I took it up to my room. I put it in a box with one of my t-shirts in it. It looked weak and I didn’t know what to feed it and I was scared so I showed my grandma. She frowned and said, “Well, the damn thing’s probably going to die, so don’t get attached to it,” and took a big drag on her cigarette and coughed. But she showed me how to set it up with a light bulb to keep it warm, and she helped me feed it, and she didn’t know it but I slept with it warmed next to me in bed.
Well the damn thing didn’t die, he grew crazy big, with fine shiny feathers and a ridiculously long beak and angry, funny eyes. He stayed by me all the time. I let him fly out the window, and I was scared to lose him, but he always came back to me. My grandma pretended to hate him, but sometimes when we watched TV she’d let him eat popcorn right out of her hand. He laughed like my grandma—hoarse and raucous. They laughed together.
My grandma told me a story about a crow with rainbow feathers and a pretty voice. It flew to the sun to bring some warmth to make the spring come along faster, but it got burnt. Its feathers turned black and its voice grew hoarse. But somebody felt sorry for it and said it could still have a rainbow in its black feathers if you looked at it the right way. And said nobody would chase it any more. My grandma said that’s what the damn bird got for being so pretty, dumb bird.
When my grandma gave me her watch I got scared. It was a really pretty watch—thin and elegant. I’d always loved that thing. But it wasn’t a boy’s watch and she knew it would be trouble for me, and she wouldn’t have given it to me if everything was normal. She frowned fit to break her face when she put it on me, tutting and shaking her head, clucking sadly like some old crow.
I was scared to think about why she wouldn’t need it any more. I was scared to think about who would take a boy with pretty hands and his grandma’s watch and a pet crow. We went out back and sat at the top of the fire escape, in the high metal trees. We looked down on our world. I felt his familiar impossible light-heavy weight on me. I felt his sharp claws on my arm, his sharp eyes on my face. I wanted to be with him forever. He pecked at the watch—he liked shiny pretty things. We sat and listened to spring and change come slanting towards us, coldly, slowly, surely.
Penny did her nails and then she got into bed and waited. Her nails were perfect and so was her waiting. Hard, shiny, flawless. She’d been waiting for so long, hour-to-hour, year-to-year. She built it layer by layer. As one layer thinned or chipped she applied another, and made it smooth and impervious.
He left a week after they married, and she cried at the station, hot tears melting into his wool uniform, cooling in the damp scratchy wool. She wasn’t going to cry, but she did. She didn’t want him to remember her this way, with red eyes, but the loss was so gaping and he left her so alone. She had nobody. She went home from the station feeling sick and sad and so cold. She lay in their bed with the book and the picture he had left for her, trying to fight off a chill she could not lose. The book smelled like dust and damp paper and cheap ink, but she loved the smell, because it reminded her of the day they’d gone to a small shop in the rain, bells ringing, like in a movie. Laughing and kissing like in a movie, and he’d bought her this book so that she could always find him.
When he wrote to her to say where he was posted, she’d find him in the book. She’d read about the natives, and the local customs, and the interesting geological features, and it was like she was there with him. The waiting was hard at first, when she was new to it. She hadn’t learned not to hope, so she was wistful and wanting. She cast her memory back; she sent her thoughts to the future. Foolish and restless. She thought of traveling to the places in the book, to surprise him. She thought of her suitcase, and the smell of a station, and she thought of drinking a glass of beer at a small table in a new city—watching strange pigeons and children that spoke no English. Thinking of these things made her more restless.
When he stopped writing to say where he was, she still read the book, because the smell of it was all she had of him. She’d forgotten his real smell, and this had become more real for her. She knew he’d come back, and she was desperate with the aching wanting.
When she learned about their child she laughed and cried at the same time. She was expecting. And what is expecting but waiting? Expecting taught her how to wait. It taught her about time passing at its own impossible unchangeable rate. It taught her about lying in their bed, listening for any sign that she wasn’t alone, listening to time passing.
And when the baby was born she wept and laughed. She had a love and a friend, but she was more alone then ever. She made decisions, decisions about life and death, and she made them by herself and she felt desolate.
But she had someone to lie with, in a bright shaft of sunlight from the one window in her new rented room. Someone to lie with and wait. Somebody to be next to while she waited for her husband who never changed but only faded. While their boy changed, slowly, sweetly, every second of every day.
She lay waiting and felt quite strange at times. She started to see faces in the curtains and in the windowpanes. On the headboard of their bed was a pattern with two flowers, and she saw these as eyes—the eyes of an owl, a kind, wise owl watching over her and her son.
Some time after he stopped writing to say where he was, the money stopped coming. She got a job in a shop. She was gone all day in a shop but her thoughts were with the boy wailing for her at home, and the boy abroad, who would come back to her, she was sure. It hurt to think about them, but it was worse when the shop got so busy that whole hours would pass and she hadn’t given them a thought. That was hard.
It was all hard. You can’t pay the rent on your small room and feed your son and pay the lady next door to watch your son. Not on a shop girl’s wages. Any small unexpected expense will drag you down, and pull you under, gasping.
Penny was still very beautiful, and now she had a sadness and a far-away look that deepened her beauty and seemed irresistible to some men. Part of her was never there, and could never be reached, which meant they didn’t even need to try. “A penny for your thoughts,” they’d joke, but they couldn’t have them for any price. She had many suitors, but of course she remained faithful, because she was sure her husband would come home.
The first time was a big man with white hair. His face was red, and his breath smelled of plastic and cigarettes. Penny worked in a shop that sold perfume and jewelry. She helped happy laughing kissing couples to buy presents for one another. He came alone and sat very close to her. She smelled his talcum and his sweat. He put his hand on hers. He put his fingers on her wedding ring and spun it around and around and around. He didn’t talk much, but he bought her a bracelet. It was beautiful, and she sold it to pay the doctor when her son fell ill.
One day the man followed her home. She was awkward, but he liked that. It was over quickly—nasty, brutish and short. The benign owl watched over her, and the man left her more money than she’d make in a week in the shop. She bought medicine and a toy for her son.
There were others. It was fast and they touched no part of her. It was always the same—flushed and excited at first, small and ashamed after, and over quickly. They never stopped to talk. She quit her job at the shop. She worked fewer hours and could pay the neighbor better for watching her boy.
Now she lay in bed and waited for them to come to her. She looked at the photo of her husband—smiling and squinting in the blurring rain. She knew it would be him coming through the door some day, happy that she’d been faithful all these years, that she’d never thought of anyone else, not even for a moment. She read her book that smelled of damp pages and cheap ink. She loved that smell. And in her mind she was miles away, in the pages of the book, sitting on crumbling steps in some ancient city drinking a thick dark coffee. She was listening to the soft cooing of strange pigeons and watching her son play with children who spoke no English. She called him to her, and they wandered slowly home. They took their time, weaving slowly through narrow streets. They stopped to buy a bright pretty cake for the boy; they stopped to buy the strange cigarettes her husband loved. They made their way slowly to their home, where he was waiting for them.
THIS IS A BIRD DOG
“I’ll sell you off, you dumb bitch, what I say,” He growled. And he hung a sign on me suggesting that I was something other than I am—something taller and more elegant than I am. The sign was designed, no doubt, to attract his imaginary buyers. Had I been as the sign suggested, it might have fit me. As I am somewhat short of leg, however, the sign was too long, and it made it difficult for me to move. I didn’t mind, though. I had nowhere to go.
I know better than anyone that you don’t always have a choice about where you’ll go or who you’ll go with. You can’t control your fate, you can’t decide where you’ll end up. My memories are wild, blurred. I dream them and I race after them, with all of my strength and speed, all of my muscles working together, getting me nowhere. And now I have these dreams of my whole life, a life I could not change or control. I dream them even in this strange, cold place I would never have come to given a choice.
My earliest memories are of warmth and companionship. My brothers and sisters and I all in one bed, tumbled on top of each other. We’d fall asleep mid-tussle and wake playing. I remember the first time I left the house. We were set on the lawn, and I was frantic with the beauty of it all. The dry leaves skittering along the ground, so impossible to catch. The smell of rain and grass and earth. The smells of everyone that had ever walked here, as secret and unreadable as their clinging dreams. The smell of the birds, the birds that sang to you from the shifting leaves, that could fly where they wanted, where you could never catch them, no matter how you jumped.
That first time I was torn from my family I was taken by another family so different from mine that I was frightened, and I behaved badly because I didn’t understand the new rules. And even once I understood, I was too scared to control myself, to control my body according to the new rules. But I learned, and I found myself in a place that I was loved and petted, in a place that I was expected to love and rewarded for loving, and in the end that is all we can ask of this life.
I have a glowing memory of lying pressed against a little warm body, and of a small soft hand holding my ear. I loved that body. I loved that hand so much that I wanted to swallow it up. I remember the feeling of the bones hard beneath the softness of the flesh. I remember the salty taste of tears; they tasted like love.
I was taken from that place in a bad time. I will never know why. It was beyond my control or comprehension, as most things are. I felt it as a punishment. I felt as if my heart would break. I couldn’t bear to be separated from them for an evening, and now I would never see them again. It was a very great, aching pain. I felt it as unfair, and tragic, but I have learned since that it is just life. You take a warm place when you can find it. You stretch and sigh.
After that I went from home to home. I spent some time in shelters, I spent some time on the streets. I learned that people could be kind, or indifferent or cruel, sometimes all three at once. I learned not to show my love, because it annoys people. They don’t like to be plagued by foolish exuberance. I have spent a lot of time alone and afraid. I have had few moments of love and warmth, but I have poured myself into them completely. There is no wise love, there is only too much love.
And that brings me where I am now. I met this one when I was on the streets, and he was too. He fed me. People have said that all I care about is food, but you must not underestimate the pain of hunger. You must not underestimate the love that is given with the sharing of the food, particularly when food is scarce. You must not underestimate the hungry ache that the affection fills.
He is hard and dirty, with skin like cracked leather and a strong, sour smell. He is quick to kick me with his torn shoes. There is nothing soft in our lives, it is all dark stones and ragged sticks and garbage. I know that he didn’t choose to be here any more than I did, and his impotence makes him angry.
Even the birds here are desperate and dirty and cold. But they can fly away. I watch them sometimes. I stand here, wearing this sign, and I watch the birds. They can fly away, but they don’t. I know, if I was a bird dog, as the sign says, if I was a dog that could fly like a bird, I wouldn’t leave either. I would think about the time that he takes off the sign. That he finds the warmest softest place in this cold rubble. That he presses his large, stinking body against mine. That he gives me his warmth and I give him mine. That he holds my ear for dear life. That I know he loves me, and he knows I love him, and we know we will be always together.
They poked my goddamn eye out. I never seen anything like it. I didn’t see them at first because I had your letter in my pocket. The damn thing was making it so I couldn’t see straight. I could just see, in my head, the letter, folded neat and small in my jacket pocket. I didn’t even read it. It’s a hell of a thing to do to a guy—give him this folded up piece of paper when he leaves the house in the morning. And write TERENCE on it in your neat nervous handwriting. Why can’t you call me Terry, for fuck’s sake, like everybody else? Cause, yeah, yeah, yeah, cause of a book you read with a guy named Terence and a girl who said it sounded like the cry of an owl. Like no owl I ever heard! And it made you cry, this goddamn book. So why read it? I say why read books at all? That’s your problem. That right there is your problem. Damn books.
So I left the house with the letter in my pocket, and I could feel you watching me go. I walked with purpose for a block or two, but I didn’t have anywhere to go, and you knew it.
Cool morning, but the kind you know is going to heat up. Smelled a little like rain, and the ground was wet, but it hadn’t rained. It wouldn’t rain. The sun would break through the goddamn haze and heat the whole place up so my jacket would be too warm, with your letter in it.
I know I shouldn’t a gone down a dark street with kids throwing rocks in it, but I did, and I got my eye hit. Square in the socket with a big rock, right inside my glasses. The kids laughed, the bastards, and they ran away in every direction like somebody tilted the damn street and poured them out of it. They left me, on my back bleeding like a idiot. The world was reeling and bloody, and the pain was a shock, a strange sick shock of pain.
I lay for a while on my back. I was wondering if I could still read your letter with one eye. Maybe now I wouldn’t have to read it, because I just had the one eye left. Somebody must a took me to the hospital. It’s hard to know what’s happening when you can’t see straight. It’s hard to know what’s going on.
But here I was in the hospital, with that god awful sick clean smell that makes me want to puke. It burns right through me. Here I was in some small bright room, sitting on a bright metal table, legs dangling like a goddamn kid, everything so bright in my bad eye I thought I might puke.
This guy came up, and I called him doctor. He laughed and said he was a nurse. A guy nurse! Can you imagine! I felt a little weird about it, to be honest, and I tried to get a look at this guy, at this guy nurse, with my good eye. He seemed okay. He didn’t seem so bad. He didn’t seem like that. Anyway, he wasn’t checking out my skinny legs if he was! I watched him rolling up some gauze with his big hands and he seemed nice. Like a good guy. I hoped nobody teased him for being a guy nurse, I’d a felt bad about that. People can be such assholes.
So I wandered out into the bright day—like I said, the sun burned a goddamn hole in the clouds and my jacket was killing me, with your letter burning a goddamn hole in my pocket. So I stepped into Joe’s. Joe’s was cool the way a bar is cool. You know, still hot as hell, but it’s dark and nobody’s watching and you got the damn sun off your back, so you don’t care. I had a nice cool glass of beer, I took out your letter. I just looked at it with my one eye. I know what it said without reading it. I known you that long. I know you’re mad about the other night, that I went to that place, that I watched that show. But I tell you, I didn’t mean to go, I didn’t want to go. I was halfway in my gin already. The night was dark, the world was reeling, the car was hot and crowded. I couldn’t a got out of that car if I wanted to. And I did want to, I swear, but those guys are such assholes, with the stuff they say if you try to get out the car when they’re going to a show like that. So you’re stuck like a damn little kid in the back seat, with them saying all kinds of asshole shit. I know you wouldn’t like it, but what could I do? Nothing. I tell you I didn’t look. I didn’t look at all. I tell you the place was no paradise, and she was no goddess. She was just a sad girl with not much clothes on. I felt bad for her, and I didn’t look. I know I should a changed my clothes, so you wouldn’t smell me full of cheap perfume and cigarettes and crazy loneliness, but I wasn’t thinking, I just wanted to be with you in our bedroom that’s cool like only our bedroom is cool in the whole damn world. Still hot as hell, but still and dark, with your breath quiet like whispers. I just wanted to lie there with you and have the world stop spinning, and listen for the cry of the damn owl saying my name.
Louis had wanted a camera for so long, since he was s tiny boy. He’d been desperate for it. He’d tried to make something out of cardboard and mirrors, but of course it hadn’t worked. Finally I bought him one, because I wanted to see the world the way he saw it. He’d stopped talking to me, the little man he was now. He’d gotten so quiet, and his eyes were shadowed and shy when he looked at me. He wouldn’t tell me the important things, any more. So I thought the camera would show it—would show what he was focused on. I’d know where he went when he left our dark house. I’d know how he passed the long afternoons that he didn’t come home, I’d know who he spent them with. And I’d have his photographs up on our crumbling walls, and I could look through them like windows into his bright odd world. Well, it would be something to see besides the brick of the next building, for a change. Besides my old face in the mirror. Maybe he’d have pictures of playing ball with friends, I thought, and I’d know who they were. Or girls. Maybe he’d have pictures of bright young girls.
I went with him to buy the camera. He was shinier than I’d seen him in years—just glowing. He gets a light in his eyes when he’s happy that you never see from anyone else. You can’t look away. He used to watch the birds that way, in our window. The pigeons would get trapped in our window, between the buildings, and they’d raise a frantic fluttering, and he’d watch their madly stuttering shadows with radiant eyes. I’ll always remember that. His eyes were just so, in the camera shop. He wanted a good camera, and I was glad to see him happy so I bought him one. It was the money for our rent and oil for the winter, but we’d find it somewhere, we always do. And then I bought myself a camera, too. I don’t know why. It’s so far beyond our budget that it didn’t seem to matter any more. I felt desperate, too, all of a sudden. I wanted to see. To see beyond our dark walls. Or just to see our own dark walls, even those, to see them through this glass, kept forever. To keep even my chores, to keep my scrubbing and dusting, my potato-boiling and shopping, my cabbage-chopping and all my toiling. Maybe it would all be beautiful if I looked at it like this. He looked surprised, abut my camera, but he didn’t seem to mind. We hadn’t shared anything in a while.
And then it was my turn to be surprised, that first day we went out. I didn’t know where we’d go, but I couldn’t see how he’d want me there. I didn’t know where a boy of his age could go that his old mother wouldn’t be an embarrassment. Would it be a soda shop? A friend’s house? Would he meet some girl?
But we walked and walked to the ends of town. The buildings became lower and shabbier, the traffic sparser. The people fewer, and they stared. They stared at us as we passed through these strange quiet streets, carrying our cameras.
We came to the marsh, and he kept walking, walking through the reeds, passing through the always changing lights and shadows of the moving reeds, his white shirt glowing like snow on this bright hot day. He put one hand back, and his finger on his lips, he grew quiet and slow. But the marsh wasn’t quiet. Everything that lives in a marsh is noisy and strident, with a rattling, buzzing voice. They all sing that way—the frogs and bugs and birds of the marsh. They all speak like the wind rattling through the reeds. I thought about that and I thought about my son and me with voices like the dusty shadows of our rooms, like the cramped quiet spaces between our hard houses. But he had stopped. With a hard trilled “konk la reeeee, chuck!” I saw what it was. A bird’s nest. A blackbird’s nest. A pretty drab brown blackbird in her fragile-strong nest, just trying to keep her little ones alive until they could fly away. Well, I laughed to see the kind of girl he was out watching! A very different kind of bird! I laughed, and I took a picture of my boy, glowing in the dark and shifting reeds, under the wide pale sky.
He didn’t know what it was about, but he knew enough to know he should get out of the house quickly. On the street he found he’d left his jacket behind, but he didn’t want to go back in. It was a chilly day but not raining, so he set off down the road. Spring was late that year and the trees he passed had not yet come into leaf.
Down by the lake it was very quiet. There were no people, no dogs, and you couldn’t hear the traffic any more. There was a bird singing very high up, and he squinted into the sky to see it. When he looked down again he could not see properly for a moment, because the light had got into his eyes, and so he nearly stepped on the nest without noticing it. He rocked back on his heels and reached out for something to grab hold of, but there was nothing but reeds. For a moment his mind seemed to slip away and he was not sure where he was.
Then he looked down and saw what had caught his eye. There were six eggs, speckled brown and fawn, and the nest was made of woven reeds mixed with some dry stuff like straw. He squatted down and reached out a finger, wondering whether they were warm. But before it touched he pulled back. What if the bird could tell someone had been here? He raised his head and the bird was there, standing among the green stalks and watching him. It was a black bird with a red patch on its face. They were eye to eye.
He stood up carefully and slowly. The bird waited. He backed away, trying to be quiet, but his feet made a sucking sound as he pulled them free of the mud. Looking back, he saw the bird cock its head, as if irritated; and then, as he watched, it stepped forward and settled itself on the nest.
The water had got into his shoes, and he supposed he would get into trouble. He thought of staying longer, to see whether there were any more black birds with nests along the shore; but then he decided to head back. It wouldn’t do to stay out too long, and perhaps it would be teatime when he arrived.
I loved him so much that I cut his eyes out. I put them in my pocket, the one on the inside of my jacket. He would have been angry if he’d known, so I never told him. Now I could take his eyes out and look into them any time I wanted, and I could think about him looking back at me, which gave me an odd sort of inexplicable physical pain. A twinge, but I couldn’t tell you where it hurt. His eyes are dark, and deep like shadows. But with pools of slanting light in the center, shifting sunshine through the shadows of leaves. I know because I could study them all through the winter, and I learned them well in all of their moods and changes. I cut them out at the close of summer when the season ended, and I returned home to school and friends and life. Of course there were no friends, there could be no life after I had met him. He shone so bright, his colors glowed so vividly that everything else was shaded and weak. I kept his face, too, of course, and I would look through the holes that were his eyes. I saw the world as he saw the world and I felt I understood him. And I could hold his face to the sky and watch the vast blue space and the fast clouds moving, changing, in the spaces that were his eyes. I would lie back on my bed for hours, holding his face before me, sunny and dripping, and I’d watch the light change through his eyes with the hours of the day and the days of the year.
“You’re too old to be scared of the waves,” my mother said, that first day in the hot sand. “Be a man, and get yourself into the ocean. You need to be knocked over—that’s what you need.” She said, “A boy of your age, scared of the waves. You need to be knocked head-over-heels.” I wasn’t listening, but I heard her words as a prophecy—while she talked he walked out of the waves, smooth and wet, bare-chested, so young to be never smiling. Never scared. I followed him back into the water, terrified and happy, lifted off my feet and flying in the whole warm vast curve of the world. Rising and falling in the blinding bright day. And then I was set spinning, upside down, salt water in my mouth and everything smoky glass-green flowing in my eyes, confused, whirled, in a tangle. And that’s how it has been with me, ever since. Waves of joy and waves of sorrow; sometimes floating, sometimes drowning.
“I’m gonna kill you sons of a bitch,” he said, when he saw the torn sheet. He was sorry about the ‘sons of a bitch,’ he was sorry about that. That was no way to talk about their mother. But he felt like he might kill them, he was so mad, when he saw that torn sheet.
They looked scared of him, too. Truly scared. And they ran down the stairs and out the door. They slammed the door behind them, and they shook up the whole house.
He walked down the stairs slowly. He didn’t know why he followed them, but here he was, walking in their wake, walking through the smell of boys that they left behind; sweat and grass and candy and open windows.
The light filtered through the glass curtain and prismed through the cut glass of the heavy door. Weak and pale, but it filled the stairwell, and the dust the boys had raised curled around him in waves. He waded through and upset the settling silt with the slamming of the door.
He stood on the porch in his shirtsleeves. As far as he looked his world was grey. The grey house, with its torn and gritty asbestos tiles, the slick grey street. The cold, early June sky stretched away forever, flat and pale and indifferent and grey upon grey upon grey.
He caught a glimpse of the boys racing around the garage. A flash of color, of the damn yellow plaid, the damn torn sheet.
They laughed, but they looked scared – their faces flushed, their eyes wide, like animals.
He walked toward them, following in the space they’d made in the damp cold air with their foolish boy warmth. He wasn’t looking for them, wasn’t angry any more. He was as flat as the sky, but he followed anyway, carried along behind them.
He saw them climbing to the roof. They stood on the fence, and then an oil drum, and then an old hot-water heater, standing on its side. So much junk. He hadn’t noticed all the junk. He thought about them climbing – he thought about the chubby one in the pink shirt. What kind of boy wears a pink shirt? And the tall one, so foolish in a swimsuit, on this cold day, with any water a person could swim in many miles and weeks away. The sight of his pale, foolish skin, soft and tender like a baby’s, made him sad. The sight of ribs and a pale belly made him sad that he said he’d kill them.
They stood on the roof with an air of defiance, chests out, stupid cloaks (made from the damn torn sheet) held slightly aloft, as if they were wings. As if they believed they could fly. He thought of them on the point of the roof, which looked sharp enough to cut them through, from where he stood. He thought about them slipping, and the stupid cloaks catching on something. And he felt bad about saying he’d kill them. He leaned against the house, where they couldn’t see him, under the eaves. He saw his reflection split in the window, his grey face split in two, but when he reached his hand it was only cold dirty rain-smelling glass and peeling paint. Fifty years of dirty rain on the panes of glass.
Their mother had played dress up, of course, but she hadn’t been so old as they were now—too old for games. And she wouldn’t have torn the yellow plaid sheet. She loved that damn thing, that warm flannel thing. He’d wake her in the morning, and then he’d go back up a quarter of an hour later and she’d be out, dead to the world, content and peaceful in her flannel plaid sheet. She wouldn’t have torn that thing.
“Come down into the damn house!” He yelled to the boys, without stepping out of the shadow of the eaves. “Come down into the damn house before you catch your death!”
Dear Susie, you asked if I had any pictures of grandpa. This was the only one I could find. Tommy and I are up on the roof playing super heroes. He never even knew we were up there. We kept tossing peanuts off the roof. He though the squirrels were getting into his secret stash. You could show this to him and see if he remembers anything. I know he’s forgetting more and more these days. Let me know if you need anything else.