Tuesday, July 15, 2014

I walk now. I walk along the bus route now. Some days I trail a block behind the red stream of the bus’s taillights the whole way, some days I never see the bus at all or any other moving vehicle. Or person. I see animals, occasionally: rats, squirrels. Squirrels that might be rats, cats racing under cars. I hope they’re cats. Trash—plastic bags and beer bottles and paper. Scraps glued shoe-deep in the wells of the curbs like leaves, candy wrappers pinned against buildings like wings. Usually nothing living. It’s cold out.

Most of the route is lined with boarded-up and falling-down buildings, scrap metal junkyards, gravel lots, old factories: the hat factory on one side, the ketchup factory on the other. I can never resist the ketchup factory—it’s too cold out to look up, but I look anyway—the way the red brick rambles down the block and works its way up to higher stories, four then five then six, each roof section topped with its own line of rust pipes reaching up to the sky. If the factory still operated, the pipes would sound like an organ, bellowing and belching hymns. The topmost roof stands two stories higher than any other building in the neighborhood, and there, in the middle, is a wire-framed sign: the number 57 outlined in movie-star lightbulbs. The bulbs don’t burn anymore, but they’re there. The sign doesn’t spin anymore, but when the train comes by, when the train rumbles across the old train bridge, and the bridge’s knees shiver and shake and sweat with the weight of the three-car train, the sign creaks back and forth, back and forth, like it remembers how.

I used to take that train. I was a teacher for three years, and for three years I took that train, and then another, and a third, to the same private townhouse in the city every day, Monday through Friday, pushed up the same three flights of stairs along with the students, unlocked the door to Room 6—the room everyone said was once a bathroom, which was true, all the rumors were always true—wedged myself inside, pressed my back against the door to keep the students out, closed my eyes, and held my breath until the bell rang. “Good morning. Welcome. So happy you’re here again. All of you.”

I was a good teacher, above average, for three years—three teacher years, which must be more like twenty—I was a good teacher for the equivalent of twenty years—but then, one day, I didn’t take the train, didn’t go to work, didn’t get off the couch, didn’t put on my shoes, didn’t even let my feet touch the floor. And the next month, when I showed up again, the headmaster blocked my way up the stairs and escorted me by the elbow to his office. He was much taller than I realized, and sitting in his office that day, I understood for the first time how tall he must have always seemed to the high school students sitting in that same chair, how it must have felt to sit before a headmaster. I was sitting there, watching his chin bob up and down, when I noticed his head was disproportionately small compared to his shoulders. The more he talked and nodded and told me he understood my extenuating circumstances, the smaller his head became, so that by the time I stood up and made for the door, his head was barely the size of a green apple, perhaps a small, cold plum, though his tie was still magnificent, impeccably knotted into a double Windsor. I didn’t open my mouth for fear I might like to nibble on the small, round flesh swelling above his tie like a pimple, a plumple, so I took myself out the door and around the corner, down the street, down the stairs to the train—

No need to take the train now; it can’t take me where I need to go—and the bus is off limits, even when it’s so cold my bones turn glassy. Even when the bus driver pulls over to the curb in the middle of the street and opens the doors, “Too cold out there to be walking”—I wave my arms so he’ll go on. I fall asleep too easily on the bus. My feet start in with that heavy feeling they get even before I sit down, and then my head drops, and I’m out. I sway and rock the whole length of the route as unconscious as if I’d been knocked out in a prizefight, dead to the world. “You there, you there, you there,” the wind of the driver’s newspaper edges flutters against my face. “Time for my sandwich,” he says, which is code for “Get off my bus.” And there we are, at the end of the line, where the city ends and the seagulls cry. We step off the bus, he eats his sandwich—he likes a good turkey on rye, lettuce, tomato, no cheese—he takes a bite and chews for a long time, and we look up and down the street the same way everyone looks when they stand at the bus stop wondering, “How long until the next bus?” Then the driver spits, like he’s reached his decision, climbs back in the bus, and I walk back up the steps and nod hello. “Afternoon,” he says, and we both pretend we’re strangers all over again. Every time I take the bus, I fall asleep and lose a job, so the bus is off limits now. This is the third job in three months, and I’d like to keep it. I would. It’s a fine job. It’s a job. It’s only a forty-minute walk away, straight along the bus route. I couldn’t get lost even if I tried. It’s fine.


The first thing I see when I walk out of my building in the mornings is the empty lot across the street, which isn’t empty at all but filled with cars and cats and cans of half-eaten cat food. The man who sleeps in the cars feeds the cats, and the cats go back and sleep under the cars when they’ve licked their cans clean. The empty lot was a building once, and the building must have looked much like the rest of the buildings on the block—brown or red or orange with a festoon of leaves carved in the concrete at the top. The old people in my building—they were young then—must have looked out their windows in the fall to see the colors of the concrete change, the way other people on different blocks might see the colors of leaves change on trees. By the time I moved in across the street, the only thing left was the cars and the cats and the cyclone fence with its mailbox wired and duct-taped to it, filled with the same junk mail the mailman crams into everybody else’s boxes. The man who sleeps in the cars picks up the mail when he feels like it and keeps the key to the padlock of the thick chain wrapped around the gate duct-taped to his pants, so he owns the place. I call him “the owner.” He must have slept in a bed somewhere in that building, once, when it was there, in a room he called his own. If I’d lived here thirty years ago, maybe I would have seen him there, maybe his apartment was right across from mine on the third floor, I might have even seen him naked—that happens all the time, people don’t pull their shades down—but who’s to say? I wasn’t alive thirty years ago—almost, but not yet—and I lived about as far away from this place as anyone could imagine. Aunt Ag never thought I’d look out my window and see what I see now, which, right now, is just the hole where the building used to be, filled in with sky—the same gray sky as it has been this entire winter—no sun, just the gray—the radio says it’s a phenomenon. But if I look down, right now, I see the owner wrapped in all his scarves—whole decades’ worth of scarves—kicked back in his recliner on top of the gold car’s hood, tearing out coupons.

Lately, I keep my eyes peeled for the chicken that escaped from the slaughterhouse down the street and wandered his way through the hole in the fence. He’s always out having a little breakfast when I leave for work in the mornings, when I go, and I like to crouch down and rub my snapping fingers together to try to coax him closer because I have something really important to tell him. This never works, the coaxing, but sometimes he cocks his head to the side as if he’s listening or maybe I cock mine to the side so he looks like he’s cocking his, but in the end it doesn’t matter exactly what I say, since the words that come out are “Keep on keepin’ on, bird.” This is code for what I mean to say, and I think he knows exactly what that is, even though he can’t change the expression on his face to convey it. He’ll be gone sooner or later. He’s getting fat from all the cat food he’s been eating, and when I was walking home from work a few nights ago, I saw the owner dragging a barbecue grill along the bus route. He passed me as we were both walking under the train bridge, and I stuck my hand in the air to wave hello, but he didn’t see me. One way or another, my chicken is a goner. If the owner doesn’t hurry up and eat him soon, the winter will. Or, maybe the winter will hide him, and I’ll never see him again. When he first escaped, he was white, I remember distinctly, but every day he’s grayer and browner than the day before, looking more and more like the sidewalk and the dirt and the buildings and the sky and everything else in this winter. Maybe one day I’ll look directly at him but I won’t see him, and I won’t know I’m not seeing him, and he’ll be gone whether he’s there or not. Maybe I’ll eat him.

I say my last goodbye to the chicken every morning on the way to the deli where I get my coffee now. Aunt Ag would tell me it’s a waste of a dollar when I have a good Mr. Coffee right upstairs in my kitchen, but I could never explain to her the way the deli guy and I never have to say a word to each other. The way I walk in and he moves to pour the coffee, the way I slap the dollar down on the counter and he hands me the cup. The way I walk out my building some days and head in the opposite direction, make a whole loop around the avenue and walk to the other deli where the coffee is far inferior, so the next day, my deli guy will say, “Where were you, my friend?”


I don’t want to lose another job this month. I don’t want to sit in another boss’s office this month. Each office is smaller and colder with chairs increasingly less comfortable than the chairs from the offices before. Cracked pleather chairs become folding chairs become milk crates. I don’t want to watch any more cigarette smoke waft up some Miss January behind a balding man with a nametag on his shirt who sits on his desk with his legs spread out and his pants too tight, smoking and spitting rhetorical questions at me, while I sit and think about how cold Miss January must be in her bikini, or New Year’s hat, or fur-lined boots. All those numbers peeping up at her all month. Aunt Ag would disapprove. I’m going to keep this new job. Tomorrow, I’ll walk myself back to my office and sit in the squeaky chair the same as yesterday, space heater by my feet, and I’ll enter the applications into the database, just like before. Then I’ll put the hard copy in its own file folder, and then another and another, so that by the end of the day, I’ll have a whole stack smothering my desk. It’s an easy job, a no-brainer. It’s not like teaching at all. I don’t have to prepare in advance or work after work—never. No obligatory happy hours with other teachers, no stories to trade about students’ problems and their awful parents. No more jokes about the smell in Room 6. No more smell. No need to watch the cold, small head bobble over my extenuating circumstances, asking me how I’m doing, asking if it can help. All it had to do was say, “You’re fired!” But it didn’t say that, saying that would have shut it up, and all it wanted to do was keep yakking and clapping and yawping away. The only thing I could have done was put my mouth over the head and hold it there and suffocate it until it stopped. But that would have been absurd, so I did the next best thing, which was to run. I ran out of the office, past the students, past the people in the street—all the suit legs and patent leather shoes, so neatly hemmed, so perfectly polished—I ran all the way down the block, down the stairs into the subway, and I was running right for the open doors when they closed and the train pulled out of the station. I didn’t want to stop running, so I ran back up the stairs, down the street, over the bridge. If I could have, I would have run all the way home, but I don’t run, I never run, not really, and by the time I found the bridge, it was just a hopping kind of jog, and after the bridge—I got completely lost after the bridge—so the jog turned into more of a confused, awkward gait.

I get lost. I can’t help it. Grandma burped my sense of direction right out of me when I was a baby. Mom walked in the kitchen and kicked it under the refrigerator. She didn’t mean to, but her feet were so big and it was so small. It looked like a spring, a tiny, silver spring, so new and shiny and bouncy—barely used—and I reached for it, but Grandma grabbed my hand and put it in her mouth instead. “I’m going to eat that hand, yes I am!” And I’ve gotten lost ever since.

I wasn’t lost in my head, though. The perfect picture I have of myself, in my head, wasn’t lost at all and was still running so smoothly, so effortlessly all the way home, all the way up the stairs, bursting through the door, bee-lining to the living room couch, and taking one final leap, so perfect that it missed the couch altogether and broke majestically through the window behind it, landing in 10.0 form on the sidewalk below. It was so beautiful, in my head. I replayed it again and again as I lay on the couch, trying to catch my breath.


It was warm then. Hot, even. It was the last hot day of fall. I was sweating, and breathing hard, and the sun shining through the window above me was hot on my face. I lay on the couch, on my back with my eyes closed. My perfect body lay still on the ground down below. I clasped my hands tight on my belly, and they felt like they were being rocked in a boat in a storm, I was breathing so hard. Then, all around me, in the middle of the nowhere behind my eyelids, in the rocking boat, the sun, slowly—I always thought when the sun exploded, it would burst first—the entire box of fireworks all at once—but it didn’t. It seemed more like a heavy honey rain breaking free from the circle, the brightest drops I’d ever seen, but by the time they reached me, they had hardened into a hail of gold coins. I couldn’t move. They were falling so fast and heavy on my eyelids, my shoulders, my arms, my belly, my knees, pinning me down in my tiny boat, spilling over into the hull, filling it fast. Sinking. We were sinking. Me and sun-gold coins, sinking down behind the 57 sign on the ketchup factory, down behind the slaughterhouse and every last roof in the city, until we sank into darkness.


Aunt Ag was there, in the darkness. She was lying there with her hands resting on her belly, busy concentrating on keeping her eyes closed without missing whose face was whose up there over her. She was keeping track, ticking off a little list she had stored in her head. Preoccupied. I was glad for that. She had a bigger problem she couldn’t have seen from that position, no matter how wide she might have opened her eyes. Better she didn’t see. Everybody else saw it—her blouse. They covered their mouths when they stepped up to the casket and gasped, discreetly, but nobody said a word. They were waiting for after, for the car ride home, for talk on the telephone, for happy hour.

She’d been saving that blouse for years. It was a birthday present. I was there when she opened it. She snatched it out of the box and carried it off right away from the living room, straight down the hallway, put a black trash bag over it and shoved it to the back of her closet. “That’s what I’m going to be buried in. Isn’t it pretty?” She should have tried it on first, but it was too late. Unfortunate daisies. Most unfortunate brassiere. If Aunt Ag was headed to heaven, her breasts were taking her there all the way. Everyone knew it. Daisies first.

You were the last one left, Aunt Ag. Everyone else had gone before: Uncle Clifford, my Grandma, my Mom, my brother, all the aunts and uncles and cousins gone—disappeared or dead—one way or another. In the darkness, Aunt Ag, it was just me and you in the boat sunk full down in the nothingness behind my eyelids. And when I opened my eyes, just me. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014