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The Slant

 

The Slant

I lived in a slanted-floor place and saw someone killed in

The courtyard – I was walking to trade Woody Shaw albums at

A friend’s, staring at the sky and picturing a blue-black never

Seen, hoping a little firecracker could make things right.

 

On his knees, bent over and gasping for air,

If he just would’ve paid up, of course, earlier.

It’s always early when that time comes.

 

“Whatever it is, it’s not good,” said the first cop,

The swirl of those colored lights only make you dizzier,

And they never come with music.

 

 

 

Hospital Party

freezerThrough the thin light that waxed before dawn, layers of creosote on the railroad ties painted them a lumpy lavender hue. They served as our narrowly spaced steps, underlines bolded in the lingering gray of night. We always trekked over them to cross the suspension bridge above the river while trying to spot the grain of dark water moving below us.

It proved a good test of our balance-versus-hangover ratios, one last sobriety measure before we left the train tracks to finish our walk to Mercy Hospital in Durango, Colorado. Our shift there began at 5:30 a.m. We were dietary aides. We knew nothing about diet.

Durango lies on the edge of the San Juan Mountains where they give way to desert in the south and west. This was about a year ago, give or take. Sometimes, I wish it felt longer ago, or that I had the money to go back to school, or that I’d just gone somewhere else and started over by now. Easy come, easy go, that’s the style now. But, I’ve stopped giving a damn about what the style is, and I can’t think of another place to go, anyway.

My roommate Jake and I had finally made it into a house, a decent one at that, five bedrooms and two baths on a corner lot less than a mile from the hospital. It was a brick two-story with a small front yard cradled by a wooden picket fence that Jake and I joked we would paint a gleaming white as soon as spring broke. We never did. I’ve got no reason to frequent that part of town anymore, but, last I’d seen, a family of four was living in the house and they had stained the fence a golden walnut. Both developments are an improvement for the neighborhood.

We had three roommates that put the rent in reach for us. Upstairs tenants Dan and Felix preferred to remain upstairs, so much so we used to think they would have used a dumb waiter to exit the house rather than pass through our first-floor quarters had the option been available. Occupying the lone bedroom on east side of the first floor, Izzy tolerated us, as well as her live-in boyfriend, Wild Bill, another drunk like us.

Jake and I had just moved from separate rooms at a hotel above a bar with one bathroom per floor that was often occupied by fornicating drunks at moments of your necessity. Before that, we lived for almost two years in a trailer with one working electrical outlet and no running water. Snowfall leaked through the roof onto the carpet during the days and froze into an icy crust at night. When it came to lodging, at least, we were moving up in the world.

A front had moved in on this particular morning and the sky would not brighten much beyond the fleshy olive tone of dawn the rest of the day. Faint red light from the tree in the hospital lobby hung a foot outside the windows in the crisp air. It was 10 days before Christmas. We were still woozy with tequila after an hour or two of sleep the night before. A mix of Indians and nurses had come by and aided us in a kind of loosely defined Christmas party. The college in town granted free tuition to the surrounding Native American nations, many of whose fine members we drank with in dive bars or attended classes alongside when we could afford to enroll for a semester. We had coaxed the nurses over with a promise of a dinner that never materialized into more than salsa and chips, beer and tequila. At some point in the evening, we also had broken some windows, perhaps in a primitivist homage to our trailer park icebox. The official hospital Christmas party was tomorrow, a Friday, the first of our two days off.

“Drink some juices, jovenes,” said Delfina, one of the older Mexican women cafeteria servers who did her best to look after Jake and me. Tulia, who was carrying out a metal tray of scrambled eggs from the kitchen, her big arms and shoulders encasing her deep-set eyes like a tortoise shell, glanced at our entrance and turned her tiny head side to side. Besides their webbed hairnetting and the puff powder blue hairnets that we wore, there wasn’t a huge difference between cafeteria workers and dietary aides. They were managed by Cassandra, the blonde Patient Services supervisor I often daydreamed about while waiting for hospital staff to come through the breakfast line. The more-serious Sonya was our boss. Both women were in the late 20s, seven or eight years our seniors.

We retreated from the fluorescent lights and stainless steel surfaces of the serving area to the cooler, less bright part of the kitchen where we filled the orders for patient meals. This was the primary task of our jobs and a perfect one to ease gently into the day. You usually didn’t speak to anyone and many of the meals for diets that rarely changed had already been assembled on their trays and placed in the metal racks by the cafeteria staff. You filled breakfast orders, and later, lunch and dinner orders. The rest of the time you helped out in the cafeteria. There was no heavy lifting, no dishwashing, no dangerous cleaning solvents to inhale. There were nurses around you every day. Our bosses were young, cool and attractive. Many worse jobs existed.

I had not told anyone that I worked at the hospital before, not even Jake. As an itinerant construction worker I’d hitchhiked into town and found a spot with a crew working on the newest wing of the hospital. This was after I dropped out of college back east. I didn’t tell anyone because I think I wanted to develop a new relationship with the place. I didn’t want to jinx it with my past as an under-the-table worker who still hadn’t paid taxes on the money he’d earned there before.

“Ready for your weekend, Joseph?” asked Cassandra, smiling warmly.

I liked that she used my full name, the formality of it coming from her ample lips made me sound older. But she’d surprised me. Cassandra didn’t usually venture into the kitchen until at least 6 a.m., and I hadn’t put on my hair protector yet. I felt the haircap set off my eyebrows and eyelashes nicely, and I was learning you needed to use everything you had in this life, every last brow and lash. I was also a bit self-conscious of my matted, unwashed hair.

“Always, Cassandra,” I said, trying to position the elastic band of the cap so as to expose a fetching portion of forehead without the help of a mirror. “Are you going to the party?”

“Of course.”

“Great. I’ll see you there then.”

“Yes you will.” The smile again.

A cackle pierced the skin of dawn just after Cassandra disappeared down the white corridor that led to her office. Lalo, the frizzy-haired chubby chef, was standing with the cooks and laughing loudly at his own jokes. I could tell already that he was drunker than Jake and I. If it was possible for someone to arrive at work looking worse than we did, Lalo had done it. His hair extended like an afro on one side but was mashed flat on the other side where he had obviously slept on it, and there were two horizontal black streaks where the whites of his eyes normally lit.

We turned our backs and hid ourselves in our work. We liked him but it was still too early for Lalo.

“Whazzzzup, guys?”

He spotted us through the food racks.

“You guys party last night?”

“A little bit, Lalo,” said Jake.

“It’s Christmas, right, eh? Feliz Navidad. I got something to show you guys later.”

“Ok. Later Lalo.”

He had some seniority at the hospital but Lalo was not a favorite of Cassandra and Sonya’s. Though harmless, he could make them both uneasy at times. He had entrenched his own brand of kitchen etiquette in the cafeteria, which included staging regular hot baked potato tosses among the cooks, stringing together and wearing necklaces made of garlic, and refusing to scale back the use of jalapeno peppers from recipes. He complied with supervisors’ requests to change this behavior only to forget about them a month later.

Unlike Lalo, Cassandra and Sonya were always put together well every day, never a loose thread, misapplied makeup stroke or bag under an eye. But they looked like they liked to have fun, too, especially Cassandra. Maybe they had mastered the art of self control, I thought. But, hadn’t the most successful serial killers done that also? I could never fully envision a scenario where I was dating Cassandra, no how matter I wished things would progress there, while Jake carried no illusions at all about dating Sonya. He was single-minded. “Sonya,” he would sing over and over ad nauseam, “I don’t wanna own ya’/I just wanna’ bone ya’.”

The day I met Jake he was jumping barefoot from a second-story dorm window onto a steel grate below him. From a far distance it looked like someone pushing a sausage link through a grinder and then chopping it. Up close, I could see he wore nothing over his flushed skin but faded cutoff jeans that threatened to slide down past his hips.

I had decided to give college another try, this time out west, after a stretch of fizzled-out construction projects, unemployment and menial jobs. I watched him jump three times – stumbling to his feet, running inside the dorm and back up the stairs to his window, summiting the ledge and jumping again  But I had no knowledge of how long he’d been at it before I’d arrived on the scene to check into my dorm room.

I had just been released from several days in jail for getting into a shouting match and near fight with a man who turned out to be an off-duty state trooper. After four days sharing a cell with a rather large inmate awaiting a first-degree manslaughter trial in Illinois, I got released on the weekend before classes began. The jumping man, if he was indeed real and not an apparition, seemed a truer representative of the world than the volleyball keg parties that stretched out across the campus greens.

I stood there with both palms on the small of my back and watched him jump. There was an obsessive-compulsive determination to it, as if S.W.A.T. Team testing or a circus record were at stake. Not too many minutes later I discovered we had been assigned the same room. Window jumpers trumped manslaughterers on almost any roommate scale, I reasoned. The next day, he was the first person I had ever seen with bruised heels.

Jake had not pulled a stunt like window jumping in a while. But if he still didn’t care much one way or the other about what happened to him, I wanted to know, for selfish reasons. It paid to avoid those who did not care much about what happened to others, those buttoned faces who appeared at construction sites or furniture moving jobs and vanished back into the void after their first paycheck. But it was also risky hanging out with someone who had given up caring about himself. I was hoping to avoid traveling down either path. I wasn’t doing a great job so far.

The last group of nurses had come through the cafeteria breakfast line. I had eaten a plate of bacon with an egg-and-sausage sandwich and could feel the grease lubricating neural passageways that had been dessicated into dusty creek beds from the night’s tequila. Our shift was already more than half over. We had turned off the heat lamps and carried the steam trays back to the kitchen. Now the buzzing of the overhead lights and the sweep of the empty bluish-grey tiled floor closed in, and time seemed to slacken. Jake and Lalo, the last holdouts in the cafeteria, exited for their usual smoke break.

It was not from the constant flow of people through the emergency room doors or in the regular screams of the ambulance sirens that I felt lives moving along a precipice at the hospital, but in the moments when only the faint hum of machinery could be heard absent of any human sound. My mind wandered during these break-time stillnesses.

The people who died on the floors upstairs or in the emergency room every day could never poke holes in the silence that had drowned them again. I felt in a way that the wave frequencies of the machines did that for them, in the gentle surges through the refrigerator coils, the gurgle from the Hobart dishwasher in back, the lights’ soft buzz or the hiss of automatic doors down the hallways one by one by one. Framed by the quiet, they transmitted the mechanical traces of life leaving bodies. No matter how badly we needed to believe it was, death could never fully be human. And only if death were both human and impersonal could our days feel consequential, even if they were spent doling scrambled eggs onto plates with an ice cream scooper. It was a neat trick I was discovering we all learned to play on ourselves to some extent. Some people never walked away from this building again, while we ambled home across the railroad viaduct every day. That, somehow, was destiny.

“Hey Joe,” Lalo said, breaking up my daydreaming with a mocking deep-toned, authoritarian voice.

He was standing at the entrance to the kitchen, smiling and waving me over as if he had a secret, his brow raised just enough to reveal the suggestion of the whites of eyes. I walked over and he immediately punched my arm, whisked over to the walk-in cooler and cranked open the metal door.

“Quick, before anyone comes by.”

Inside, Jake was sitting on an upturned 5-gallon bucket.

“Not my idea,” he shrugged.

Lalo walked back to the shelf where the wine for the patients was stored, pulled out three stryofoam cups from the pocket of his apron and filled them with Merlot.

“Here you go,” he said, handing us the cups. “Don’t worry, they never notice.”

We drank. Lalo gestured to another bucket for me to sit on and leaned his back against a stack of wooden palates.

“Been killing it for three days, mis amigos. I think I need to skip the party tomorrow and dry out.”

“All that free food and booze?” said Jake. “I can’t miss out on that.”

“Or Cassandra and Sonya in dresses,” I added. “Speaking of them, do you think they’re wondering where we’re at yet or why they can hear vegetables talking in the walk-in freezer?”

“Speak for yourself. We’re just taking our break,” said Jake. “In the walk-in.”

“Hey I’m not saying for you two to make this a regular, you hear? But when you really need it, it gets you right again. Got me?”

“Gotcha, only when you need it,” I said. “But I don’t think I need any more now. Thanks Lalo”

“It’s no problem.” He collected our cups, screwed the top back on the bottle and was putting it back on the shelf when the door ratcheted open.

“What are you guys doing in here?” said Cassandra, her usually smooth brow creased and ridged.

“We’re just chillin’ out, Cassie,” said Lalo.

“Were you guys smoking pot or drinking in here?” she asked and directed her button nose from side to side as if trying to detect smoke.

“Noo. Nooo. Just sitting in here, it’s good for the muscles.”

“What?!”

I had no idea where Lalo came up with this one, either.

“There better not be any wine missing. Let’s go now, guys, break is over.”

I remember thinking I was glad Lalo was closer to the wine when Cassandra came in, if and when they found the wine missing, and, also, “Wouldn’t most managers check on such a thing if the people of interest arrived at work smelling like liquor 10 out of 10 workdays?”

But then, why jump to conclusions already. Instead, I tried visualizing us at the Christmas party tomorrow, raiding the potluck food, drinking free wine, exchanging clean jokes among the old cafeteria workers and dirty ones among ourselves. Things could be worse. If it had been Sonya instead of Cassandra, she would have never let us walk out of the walk-in without running us through our steps, searching the area where the wine was, examining our lips for wine stains, maybe even smelling our breath. This was an extremely dumb idea, even for us – even for Lalo! – but maybe Cassandra would let it go. I didn’t know that soon it was not going matter much if she did.

We both feigned shock at returning home from our shift under the wan early afternoon sky to discover Dan and Felix taping up windows outside. They had regretted allowing us to move in for several months but, unlike Bill, we had money now and made rent on time.

“You guys are going to pay for these,” yelled Dan.

“What the hell happened?” I tried asking with as much indignation as I could gather.

Through the unbroken kitchen window gleamed the bald sides of Wild Bill’s head, divided by his “Taxi Driver”-styled strip of shorn hair. He was watching our exchange with Dan and Felix and smiling or laughing, it was hard to tell which with the window glare. When he was 14, Bill had followed the footsteps of his older brother and left Los Angeles, hitching across the West. He had also followed his brother straight into crank drunkenness, though he was not homeless like his brother yet. He was living with us, or off us, or more accurately, off Izzy.

When not hanging out in our house, Wild Bill stayed with a couple who had fled the dried-up mining town where they were born to search the Southwest for work. They had a five-year-old son named Henry who Bill sometimes looked after if the couple needed to go out. One afternoon Bill decided it was a good day to teach Henry how to drive a car and shoot a shotgun. He tied a wood block on top of the gas pedal of the couple’s seldom-used old pick-up truck, sat Henry between his knees and, as Bill described it to us, they began navigating the home’s property on the outskirts of town together. Henry could see little of the patch of land he steered over and nothing of it when he stretched his leg down to push the gas. The joyride complete, they discovered a watermelon in the refrigerator. Bill brought out the shotgun and perched the melon out on a plastic milk crate in the yard. He positioned the butt of the rifle against the exterior wall of the house: “Okay Henry, put one hand here on the stock. I’ll hold it with you,” he told him. “Put your finger here on the trigger. Now, pull it!”

The parents were none too pleased when they began to piece together bits of watermelon and other stray details of that afternoon, but Henry referred to it as “the funnest day ever.”

Waking from a post-shift nap, I shuffled to the kitchen and saw snowflakes sputtering down outside in the graying light. I hoped to locate a stray beer in the fridge and instead found a freshly broken 12-pack and two full cases of Schlitz tall boys. I heard another voice besides Bill’s coming from the living room. Jack was still asleep. Izzy was likely working her day shift at a restaurant, and this was a male voice, anyway.

I glanced outside again and spotted a green Nova curbside. Weird Eddie, I thought immediately. I knew him only from our meeting at a couple of parties, but I remembered Bill mentioning the repainted green Nova with the police cherry still on top and telling me about Weird Eddie, or Special Ed, as he also referred to him.

Weird Eddie was an L.A. transplant, too. He drove an old Los Angeles Police Department car with a row of beacon lights on the roof, scraped and repainted before it could be legally sold so as to prevent people like Eddie trying to impersonate police officers. Using the beacon lights for the same purpose was also illegal.

As I peered around the corner past Bill picking through a pile of albums, I recognized Eddie’s slack-jawed face. He had weakly wavy blond hair that had been permed no too long ago. His mouth was hanging open and, at a distance, his face looked vacant of potential for any expression. Up close, one could detect a faint smile in his deep-set eyes. But I wasn’t ready to get close and socialize. I carried the Schlitz back to bed with me.

He had never owned a license but Bill liked driving and was especially bad at it. The fact that a car was sitting outside, with newly falling snow that made conditions ideal for the “donuts” he loved to spin, might get he and Eddie out of the house, I hoped. The light closed in around me in my room as I began to sink toward sleep again. I was happy to be in my warm bed, away from the little party brewing in the living room. Twenty more minutes of sleep and I could still make the happy hour buffet at the Holiday Inn that Jake and I frequented out of mere habit. We bought drinks now – the food was a bonus.

When we were out of work, the Holiday Inn buffet had been our dinner ticket for weeks at a time, purchased with refillable iced teas. We always sat at the round black-vinyl topped bar and tried to avoid eye contact with the few patrons also there for their dinners. We depended on each other like undercover police plants. No one wanted to blow the cover of anyone else. Buffet offerings were disappearing all over town one by one, and, like good cops, we needed to track down our targets before they got away. We tipped the bartenders and learned to arrive after the manager left for the day. It is not bending the truth to say that chips and salsa, chicken wings, and cheese and crackers can taste fresh every day when they comprise your only meal.

Now that I had spending money again, I often searched in vain for something to spend it on besides booze. It was like freshman year in high school repeating again. You searched for examples on how to navigate the new circumstances.

Loud talking over music finally roused me. I walked out to the living room and joined the party. Izzy had passed out slumped on the brown love seat with her legs crossed and an unlit cigarette in her fingers. Bill and Jake were bickering over whose turn it was to choose the next record. Three empty bottles of whiskey sat on the floor near the love seat. I suddenly realized I was ravenously hungry.

“What time is it?”

“Almost four,” said Jake.

“What? Why didn’t anyone wake me up, I’m starving.”

Weird Eddie still sat in the same seat wearing the same blank face.

“We’re gonna go for a drive,” he said. “I want to see the sights.”

He had not been in town for that long of a time. It was difficult to know if he was kidding. I would learn this was normal with him.

“It’s dark out,” I said.

He glanced out the window behind him as if, like me, he was just realizing it was night. He turned around, took a puff of his cigarette and quickly looked back outside again for confirmation. I brought out a few cans from the last case of beer and started drinking.

At some point in the night, Bill, absent of a high school degree, had convinced Eddie of the charms a college campus has to offer. Bill had never shown any desire to visit the campus before.

“We need you college vets as chaperones,” he said. “You’re in the vanguard.”

I tried catching up a bit more with a few swallows of whiskey. I could take an afternoon nap, I reasoned, and be fine for the hospital party. And the bonus would be that, with a nice head start behind me, I’d look like a social drinker at the party and still catch a good buzz. Delfina and the gals were great, but I didn’t look forward to making small talk with them outside of work if I had to do it sober.

Barely visible between the trees, a band of tin hung on the horizon beneath the blackness. The band slowly rose and widened until a cobalt crown took shape on top of it. Snow was visible again in the tinny light, floating down in hat-shaped chunks. At least a half foot of it was on the ground. We could hear the faint rumble of city trucks plowing on the main intersection blocks away during Bill’s flip of album sides.

Around 6:30 the four of us left Izzy sleeping and piled into the Nova with Bill driving and Eddie his clueless co-pilot. A narrow switchback road led up to the campus, which sat on a plateau overlooking the town and its backdrop of snow-covered mountains. Thankfully, Bill maneuvered the Nova up the hill in first gear and the traction held.

The campus was desolate save for a few scattered students plodding heads-bowed into the weather. The college owned a couple of pickups with plow blades but they didn’t appear to be out yet. Wind began to lift the blanket of snow on the ground up to meet what was falling from the sky.

A couple minutes of Bill motoring through the snow and Jake wondered aloud if we were on a road. I looked to my left and could see the reason we were so close to campus buildings was that Bill was driving on the sidewalk. Thirty-odd yards in front of us, a student stopped in his tracks and jumped onto the road at the same time Bill dropped the Nova hard off the curb. The student jumped back onto the sidewalk and ran to a space between two buildings. I saw him stop and look back at us after Bill crashed over the curb on the other side of the street and onto the campus open space.

Bouncing from side to side on the uneven terrain, we somehow kept accelerating. I thought Eddie might protest rather than witness Bill ruin his car. But he only ashed his cigarette out the window and gawked around like a bemused tourist. Bill slammed on the brakes and we fishtailed, sending snow up like a wave of foamy sea spray. He cranked the steering wheel more and we started spinning in circles. The car finally came to a stop after several revolutions near two flagpoles that bore the state flag and Stars and Stripes, respectively.

I looked around and did not see any other vehicles. To any onlookers the Nova would appear empty and stranded from the road, which would buy us time. The light beacon presented a symbol of authority if anyone spotted us moving inside the car, though it didn’t seem too believable that a security detail would be out inspecting the structural integrity of flagpoles during a snowstorm. I cracked open a beer, still feeling behind everyone else.

“Do you trust him to drive?” I asked.

“He’s doing fine,” said Eddie, “it’s slick out there.”

In the distance, a maintenance truck from the row of tan quonset huts on the edge of campus pulled out and began traversing the main road’s circuitous path. As it neared almost 180 degrees from where we sat, it slowed to a stop. We could see the black dot of someone’s head turn and tilt forward to look our way.

“Turn the police cherries on,” said Jake.

“They’re not wired to anything. And they say enough as they are.”

“What’s that?”

“They say,” Bill started, ” ‘All is calm, keep going down the path you are headed.’ They say, ‘We got a handle on things out here, Paulie Poindexter sitting in the school library. Continue reading.’ ”

Jake and I got out and pushed. Bill might have learned how to radically turn a steering wheel, but getting the car out of the heavy snow from a dead stop was beyond his sun-kissed California skills. We got back in and Eddie had taken over driving. He kept it in first gear and shifted up to second and third after gaining momentum. He was headed not only back to the road but, it appeared, more specifically toward the maintenance truck.

“Where you going?” I said.

I could envision us from an aerial perspective barreling ahead on a needle pointing to the due “north” of the maintenance truck as it puttered along the perimeter of a compass dial.

“Hey,” said Jake, “we want to go back to school. Sometime.”

Eddie only stared ahead, his mouth parted as if mesmerized. The truck slowed again. We had its attention. It stopped. The Nova flew off the curb a few feet in front of the truck’s bumper and Eddie cranked the wheel, sending us spinning into a small and thankfully empty parking lot just off the other side of the road.

Eddie crawled the Nova back out of the parking lot and pulled up even with the truck.

“Could be a little easier to spot the roads up here,” he said rolling down his window all the way and resting an elbow on top of the door. “We’ll see if we can get you some plows from the city up here.” Before the man could answer, Eddie climbed the curb again and chugged back in the direction we had come from, gradually building speed again.

We veered left. I spotted a small footbridge rippling the plane of snow in the distance. Eddie must have seen it, too.

“Not wide enough, Ed,” I said, “if that’s what you’re thinking.”

There were several of these hump-backed, quarter-moon-shaped bridges on campus positioned over a dry creek bed that twisted across the mesa. About half had cement foundations with wood railings and half were 100-percent wood. I couldn’t recall if the one we careened toward on the south side of the campus was wood- or cement-based. I peeked over Eddie’s shoulder and saw the speedometer needle climb over 30.

Bill and Jake let out a few whoops but I was more nauseated by the sight of the approaching bridge and its side railings that could not possibly be wide enough to fit the Nova. Maybe I still wasn’t drunk enough. I saw the upside of my academic career, even if only in comparison to its failure so far, closing down like the sky above us had over the last 24 hours.

The collision of the Nova’s front suspension and lower bumper into the front of the bridge concussed like an explosion. Before we slammed back down into the snow there was a second or two of silence as we floated through the air. It might have served as a reset button, the un-grounding and interruption of the electrical current that had powered our little bender. But at contact with the ground we kept right on plowing across the campus, past the beige quonset huts of the maintenance department, off the curb and onto the road that led down the back exit of campus.

As we headed southeast toward the closest Indian reservation – an unnecessarily long trip just to purchase cigarettes, in my opinion – I stared at the red rock outcroppings streaked in white and tried to gather perspective. A maintenance worker and a few students had seen us driving across a sidewalk, an open field and a footbridge, and likely did not record our license plate. As I learned a couple years earlier after my run-in with the off-duty state trooper, a simple description and direction were more than enough to attract a full grouping of police cars. But we’d been traveling for 15 minutes now, plenty of time for any pursuers to catch us. I relaxed into my buzz and studied the high desert passing by.

As we descended to the reservation lands, red and tan rock formations poked through the white fur like meat clinging to the bones of a giant carcass. Horizons stretched out with little in the way of a human presence interrupting them. I rested my forehead against the car window and tried to think of career opportunities for myself. They felt as simultaneously infinite and empty as the land itself.

How many hours we drank at The Perrito Malo, the bar occupying the first floor of the hotel where we once lived, proved by mid afternoon to be outside our powers of estimation. Jake guessed three, I said six, while Eddie insisted we’d only just arrived and should learn how to relax. Most of our time was spent playing pool on one end of the pool area, the other end occupied by emotionally unavailable Mexican nationals we didn’t recognize and who played the same country songs on the jukebox over and over. It was just as well. We would not have stood a chance against them in billiards or anything else. Green table felts rippled like skins on the surface of water when we tried to eyeball shots. Our games stretched on forever before someone mercifully scratched the eight ball, the only way any of us seemed capable of winning.

Looking back now, I’m still convinced it was Jake’s idea. But I don’t blame him – wherever Jake is now – because I went along with it the whole way. I hadn’t eaten since the egg sandwich over 24 hours ago. Everyone was famished.

The plan was we would all walk in together, though Eddie and Bill were not to say anything to any of our co-workers except hello unless they were spoken to first. If they were spoken to first, they were my fourth cousins from Los Angeles who were visiting for the weekend.

Tulia lived in a two-story brick bungalow on the other side of the hospital from us. The house sat on the mound of a tiny corner lot in a neighborhood of similar 1950s constructed brick homes. Apparently, hosting the Christmas party had become a tradition for her after her husband died years ago. Tulia welcomed us warmly but looked confused by our party offering of three Schlitz tall boys.

“Guys, whazzzup!” we heard before Tulia could even close the door.

“Feliz Navidad, Lalo,” said Jake.

“Come on in the kitchen, it’s where us drinkers are.”

Lalo wore white socks, black sandals, long jean shorts and a silk maroon vest over a tight green t-shirt. That he had not yet noticed our severe inebriation signaled positively, even though he was likely several drinks ahead of everyone else. Lalo and his brother Esteban stood around some chips and salsa on a small round table in the kitchen drinking beers. Everyone else congregated in the connecting dining and living rooms eating plates of sliced ham, enchilada casserole, mashed potatoes, stuffing, tamales with pork green chile, various pies and other dishes hidden from our view. Lit candles filled almost every available table and mantle space.

Jake and I looked at each other, nodded and edged into the dining room waving to everyone, hoping this weak gesture would suffice to allow us to fill our plates and crawl back to our beers in the kitchen. The stumble Jake made when his feet hit the shag carpeting sent his right hand into the middle of the green chile pot as he reached for balance. The mass of alcohol in his system deadened the burn but also helped convince him that licking his forearm was a sensible clean-up strategy. Tulia rushed to him with a towel, her tiny brow rumpled with worry and no small amount of agitation. Murmurs rose above the soft Christmas music. At least I had not spotted Cassandra or Sonya yet.

“Boys, Merry Christmas,” said Delfina, giving Jake and I each a hug as we sloshed our bodies away from our heavy leans into the kitchen counter and tried to meet her without spilling anything on our plates. “Be careful.”

“Safety is their middle name,” said Bill raising his beer toward us.

“What?”

“Never mind,” I said to Delfina, “my cousin’s new. I mean, he’s just visiting from California.”

Bill and Eddie were to get their food after Jake and I, avoiding congestion and any further mishaps around the dining table.

“Do you smoke?” I heard Lalo say lowly to Eddie. “You like to get high and have fun, vato?”

Jut then a smiling Cassandra entered the kitchen in a short red dress with a plunging neckline. It doesn’t matter now, but when I look back on it, I like to think she was smiling at me.

“Fun is exactly what we need,” shouted Eddie. “This calls for a celebration!”

Weird Eddie might have been the kind of person who refrained producing a handgun in public, say, at a at a teen’s birthday party, a baby shower, his own mother’s funeral or a hospital staff Christmas party. But he was not that kind of person. I should have suspected this from the day we’d spent together, though I was hardly thinking clearly through the alcohol myself.

Jake and I both made a grab for him from opposing sides but he moved back and waved the .38 like a wagging index finger.

“Calm down, you two, this is about having fun,” he said, casting a bit from side to side. “No one’s getting hurt, including me.”

“Put it back in your jacket now!” I scream-whispered.  My ignorance of him carrying a gun was matched only by my belief its presentation could be rewound a few seconds so that it never happened.

“Now, all of us, let’s go outside! Come on you stick-in-the-muds, let’s go!” he yelled, holding the gun just above his head, and, for the first time I’d ever noticed, smiling in the right corner of his mouth.

Amid gasps and stifled hysterics, everyone filed out to the sloped front yard under the slate sky, unsure whether to gather by the wrought-iron yard lamp or hide from its weak yellow oval on the snow. Realizing we were the last two people following Eddie, it seemed wiser in the event of police to drop back to the den just off the kitchen where the liquor bottles were gathered. Whether Bill followed outside to try and control Eddie or just to be amused was no longer our concern. The two of them deserved each other, anyway.

“Now, this is how people celebrate all over the world,” we heard coming through the still-open front door. “Merry Christmas!”

The first shot boomed into the silence and echoed. Women screamed. There were at least three more, amid Eddie’s loud hooting, but by that time we’d already grabbed our coats from the bedroom. Jake snatched a tequila bottle and we went out the back door, hopped a fence into the alley and began walking home.

We didn’t see Eddie, Weird Eddie or Special Ed the rest of the night. We would later inform Wild Bill that Eddie was not welcome again at the house and that if Bill didn’t like it he could find somewhere else to live.

All the same, that Sunday walk to the hospital felt enough like approaching an inevitable sentencing.

A pallid calm had replaced the snowstorm. Barbed clusters of black trees on either side of the train tracks crowded in on us. It may have still wanted to snow but the ashy cloud ceiling felt too close.

We walked slowly. Maybe Lalo had been let go for the wine theft already. He would serve as the example, I thought, to prevent anyone inferring our terminations were caused by the actions of Eddie, our retarded cousin from California, I imagined describing him during one last chance before the human resources department, a chance we would never get.

On the bridge, I felt less sure of foot. As we de-bridged and headed for the hospital entrance we stopped.

“This is gonna suck,” I said.

“More than getting up and going to work at 5 a.m. everyday?” said Jake.

“I don’t think we’ll need to worry about that option much longer.”

“Sonya, I don’t wanna own ya,” he groaned, but didn’t finish.

Jake and I drank the bottle of tequila we stole from the party but I still was unable to find solid sleep during the night. At some point nearing the time to get up for work I fell into a kind of restless half dream. Weirdly, I saw Cassandra and I together for the first time.

There were the two of us waking up to go to work at the hospital, getting in a giant black SUV and leaving our house, which was this kind of weird brick A-frame. I was wearing a dark suit and she had on a yellow dress. We were both some kind of administrators, though she was higher up than I and sat on the hospital board. We walked through the same back door entrance Jake and I used. Then we followed down our own paths through the maze of white hallways.

It was quite a future I was going to be missing out on. But then, who wants to live and die in a hospital anyway.net

Middle Men by Jim Gavin

middle-menTo say the hard luck characters in Jim Gavin’s “Middle Men” stories wander obliviously through their days sells them a bit short. They may cling to hopes and dreams as momentary releases from the circumstances of their lives, but they are not ignorant of these circumstances.

Published this spring by Simon & Schuster, Gavin’s first book traverses the city of Los Angeles to detail people encountering unwelcome moments of truth.

The hotshot teenage basketball player in “Play the Man” lies about receiving scholarship offers from Division I colleges to impress his teammates after he transfers to a new high school. In his mind, he sees the player he wants to be running circles around the player he is. This realization fuels the dread he feels as he prepares to play against the squad he was cut from at his old school.

A young lover knows the messages from his older girlfriend in Bermuda spell the end for their relationship. He scrapes together just enough money for a plane ticket to visit her, anyway, unable to swallow the idea he did not try one last time.

An aspiring comedian loudly berates his fellow performers at a talent night because deep down he can see that he’s one of them, lacking the right connections, moving laterally from show show, treading water in the same talent pool.

A brother’s shortcomings influence his sister to reassess the wisdom of her career choices in Northern California. For a free steak dinner, a failing screenwriter tolerates his condescending uncle.

These are people making sometimes absurd bargains with themselves, not so much out of delusion, but because they don’t have the right cards to play. Gavin knows his characters so well that every snippet of dialogue reveals the humor and bathos in this bargaining.

Gavin drives readers to the less glamorous corners of L.A., the plumbing junkyards and ungroomed municipal golf courses, the inland sprawl and desert towns, fast-food exits and back roads leading into the grayish haze of abandoned stretches of beach. In one story, he gives us glimpses of Hollywood’s fast lane from the golf cart of a game show lot.

Gavin’s middle men try their best to convince themselves they’re moving upward, or, at the very least, that the middle will hold for them, if no one else. Therein lies the humor and tragic overshadowing of their separate stories. But perhaps the lies we choose to tell ourselves are the best measures of our character.

In the book’s final story an aging widower has learned to resist the drug of dreams, allowing himself only the slight possibility of winning the toilet/plumbing parts salesman of the year award. By never reaching far he’s ensured he no longer gets hurt when he falls. He loses himself in the simple pleasures of watching the Dodgers on TV, eating junk food and making a rare family outing to Catalina. His recipe for disillusionment is simple: to live without hope.

The Move Ahead

His baseball teammates nicknamed him “Caboose” as a teenager. He’d never been a fast runner. Physically fit, yes; fast, no. His large head always pivoted back and forth with every stride, and, like the bobblehead doll proves, head movement does not always translate into forward progress.

But he was running fast now through the starless night. Or more accurately, he felt like he was. Detouring from his fear momentarily, he tried to imagine the figure he cut, how smooth the arms reached and recoiled, whether his legs appeared blurry in their churn. He had to be really moving, he told himself.

When he’d felt this way in the past and asked friends for confirmation, it had always been pulled out from under him. “No, not really, Bobby, you really weren’t running all that fast,” they’d say, or, “maybe average speed, probably less, though.” In his flight from the carful of men following him, there was no one to ask. It was just as well. He didn’t need any more bad news.

Moving to Denver two weeks ago had presented the perfect set of circumstances. He would help his handicapped friend Lou get up and shower in the morning, fix him breakfast, put him on his way to work, and be waiting at home to help him when he returned. In the precious hours between he would write. At 23, an English major college dropout, he was about to clean himself up and start moving forward.

In the recession years of the mid 1980s, he’d got himself stuck in a vicious circle of small town life — never enough work to stay, not enough money to leave — in the Four Corners region of the American Southwest. At least, this is what he told himself over lunch every day beneath the stark fluorescent lights of the soup kitchen he and his buddies visited to cure their hangovers and strategize how they could get more booze again each afternoon. The scale of the jagged mountain peaks surrounding them, and, behind the mountains, the high desert that rolled out for hundreds of miles, framed their efforts with an insignificance beyond a city’s purview.

A few temp jobs occasionally broke up this routine.

There was the “deconstruction” job across the street from the trailer park where he lived for almost two years in a damaged single-wide with no heat or running water. The park sat at the base of an old uranium mill-tailings pile that provided some of the source material for the first atomic bomb of the Manhattan Project during World War II. In the mornings, he put a few extra yards of distance between himself and the radioactivity of the tailings pile by walking across the highway to the abandoned warehouse to be demolished. Most of the building’s red roof’s trusses had collapsed, but its walls stood firm. It was set in a small clearing of a valley that swept west and sank into the rocky, bronzed terrain of Utah and Arizona.

The deconstruction he learned about in literary theory classes didn’t function here. He sat atop a cinder block wall, legs gripping either side of it for balance, while taking a mini sledge hammer to the cinder blocks in front of him — hopefully a safe distance in front of him. It’s true he immediately recognized the elemental misguidedness and baldfaced danger in the task, even before families of bats flew up from the cinder block holes in the wall where he was perched, explosions of black napkins from the chalky dust of the cement. But so much was misguided, he thought. Where did you stop once you began drawing a line?

There was the painting and drywall jobs he did for a Mormon contractor who bought the crew beers every Friday. Bobby considered the beers an extra-generous gesture given the man’s beliefs. But the contractor was always long gone by the time “Mongo,” the 6’6″, 280-pound Vietnam vet drywaller, had to be tackled to the ground by handfuls of the crew to prevent his drunkenness leading to arrest. Though a slightly larger man, Mongo reminded Bobby a lot of his former stepfather back east.

A gunnery sergeant who served four tours and returned home to a hero’s welcome, his stepfather took a job with the city sewer department after the war and coached the boys basketball team at Bobby’s elementary school on the side — heroes’ welcomes are usually neither long-lived nor especially profitable. Unlike Mongo, his stepfather’s rage didn’t require an alcohol trigger. An errant bounce pass or sloppy pick-and-roll caused a volcano to erupt inside him and send basketballs flying off walls and backboards, torrents of screams that left sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade boys frozen in silence while the balls trickled to their lonely stops.

Parents of the players, including his mother, marveled at how well the coach disciplined the boys. They never saw the rage, unless a referee happened to make a questionable call during an actual game. The parents could ascribe the ensuing outburst to a highly competitive spirit caught in the heat of battle, and the piddle that likely ran down the poor referee’s legs was concealed by the black pants of his uniform.

They got married shortly before Bobby’s twelfth birthday. His stepfather was 10 years and five months older than he was. Beaten by his drunkard father, carted off to southeast Asia for four hellish years, sentenced to walk the sewer lines under the streets of the city, tilted toward mania by talentless juvenile basketball players, and now a father. When he might have used a little brother, he got a son.

The trail of jobs this union between his mother and stepfather soon set in motion for him, from painting and landscaping to hauling trash and cleaning out condemned houses, rarely came with payment attached. He wasn’t going to travel two thousand miles to trace those steps again in search of money and sustenance.

Here was an offer from a former college classmate who, with a computer programming degree, possessed skills that attracted more demand than any proofreading or building deconstruction abilities ever would. They had reserved a two-bedroom apartment — with balcony — in the heart of the city’s downtown district. Lou was his ticket out of destitution. And although almost every cent of his compensation as a home health care aide would be in the form of room and board, he didn’t care, he’d finally be able to write without anxiety over those kinds of concerns for a large swath of time. The city could have been Timbuktu as far as he was concerned.

Raised on a pinto bean farm outside of Cortez, Colorado, Lou had no experience at all with urban life. He’d been born with a rare form of Muscular Dystrophy called Arthogryposis, which turned what would have likely been a sheltered life if he were able-bodied and could walk, into an existence where his parents practically mapped out the approved paths his electric wheelchair could travel. Bobby knew Lou was stubborn, and that a job in the city presented a way for him to break away from his family. But he had also seen how the helplessness of his condition led Lou to trust no one but his parents. He’d seen him forget friends who worked as his health care aids once the jobs ran their terms. Lou possessed a childlike, jovial spirit and Bobby liked him a lot, but he had to accept the fact that he would always be his employee first. He remembered what Lou told him once: “I was born like this. I don’t know anything else.”

 

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A few old 45 records were tacked on the walls and what looked like a half-lit string of Christmas lights framed the mirror behind the barhead. Though he was winning at pool, he’d never been here before and was wary of making bets. Bar flies buzzed on their stools. The tall man he was playing sauntered confidently up to every shot but moved with a surplus of swagger to hide the twitches and glitches of someone too high to be shooting pool. He could somewhat  identify with this — he played best between four and seven beers, a marker he had just passed with his latest round.

At the first bar of the afternoon, they took a table by the window looking out on Denver’s Colfax Ave. He was imagining beatniks like Kerouac and Cassidy trolling the same street for drinks a little more than a generation ago, young punks raising hell, ready to bounce anywhere with a ferocious passion, when he noticed they were the only men in the bar. The two gals who greeted them with laughter on their entrance now made more sense to him. He waved to them softly and they smiled again and waved back. Lou was getting anxious to see some straight women. They finished one more round of long-neck bottles of beer and moved down the block to their current drinking hole, The Music Box Lounge.

Next to the jukebox in the long and narrow space, a lone man danced animatedly as they entered. There was no music playing. Part of Bobby felt bad for insisting they visit bars in their downtown neighborhood when he knew Lou would rather be at one of the nightclubs in the suburbs looking for co-eds. But they had only been in city a couple of weeks and he wasn’t sure they could survive another of Lou’s drunk driving experiments.

He hadn’t decided whether Lou’s van was built to torment him with danger or tease him with its invincibility, but he was seeing it in his dreams now — a brand-new Chevy with bronze stripes lined across its mud brown coat of paint like grooves in panelled walls. Lou’s parents had it made especially for him. The driver’s seat was removed to create space for his wheelchair and the steering column was crowned with what resembled a chain-link chrome wheel from a low rider’s wet dream. They called it “zero-effort steering modification.” Lou, who packed no more than 110 pounds into his four-foot frame, could not move his fingers with any great dexterity or independence — he typed with a stick in his mouth. But he could swing his arms atop the van’s tiny steering wheel and guide it very capably. When he wasn’t drinking.

At about 80 pounds his junior, Lou could drink as much as Bobby and with equal gusto. His years of drinking heavily overmatched his months of experience driving. On their very first night out in the city they traveled to a dance club in the southern suburbs. It was the Fourth of July weekend. Bobby had downed several drinks in the course of the evening but was still worried when they climbed back in the van to go home, and he never worried when he drank. Less than a mile from making it back to their apartment downtown they hit a 1966 red Cadillac convertible with a white vinyl top. The car was parked. A well-known Greek restaurateur in the city turned out to be the owner. Perhaps because he was too heartbroken or filled with disgust, the man had his wife handle all the insurance claim paperwork.

A few nights after that they missed a down-ramp entrance onto a highway, slid down a steep embankment and basketed the van into the belly of a chain-link fence like a baseball in the webbing of a glove, mere feet from a very crude merge into said highway. Bobby climbed out in a haze and knocked in vain at a few doors before finally convincing a neighbor to call a tow truck. There was no amount of alcohol that could make him feel safe in the van with Lou driving drunk, and it wasn’t a vehicle he could drive himself even if he remained sober. He hadn’t complained out loud yet primarily because it was he who totalled Lou’s old van trying to escape bikers chasing them down Wildcat Canyon outside of Durango, Co., an incident they were both trying their best to forget. Lou hadn’t quite messed up like that yet. But it wasn’t fun waiting for it to happen, either.

“Hey,” he said after getting up and looking out the back door, “it’s dark out.” They were sitting at a round two-top with a pitcher of beer listening to the jukebox. “How’d that happen?”

“Happens every day,” said Lou.

“Sounds like a cause for celebrating, but maybe we should head back and drink at home.”

“One more pitcher and we’ll go.”

He understood Lou would’ve preferred a woman, especially a girlfriend, to witness him naked every day and shower him and dress and undress him. But it had to be evident to Lou that this was not going to be a place where he might meet such a woman, no matter how long they stayed. The bar flies who had hung on were louder now. A woman with front teeth missing stood at the corner of the barhead and laughed to herself, the frosts in her brown hair melted away seasons ago. Most of the newcomers now beat a path through the bar to the restrooms and out the front door again in search of drugs for the evening. The growing crowd now made it difficult for Lou to maneuver his chair as he moved over to check out the jukebox.

With the pool table right next to the jukebox, Bobby figured it was his chance to play one last game. On his first turn after the break, a corner slice back toward the jukebox, he saw a man in his mid-30s talking to Lou. He wore a beaten and torn navy blue windbreaker, jeans and a dirty baseball cap. The man had Lou laughing.

Bobby wanted to go over and introduce himself but he was in the middle of a five-ball run. Amazingly, his luck hadn’t yet left him even though he’d abandoned his pool-shooting drink limit 12 or 13 beers ago. Lou was shaking his head and smiling as the man talked and tapped him on the shoulder with the back of his hand. On his third made shot he saw the man putting a dollar in the bill slider of the jukebox and gesturing for Lou to help him pick songs. Just after his fifth make he saw the man opening the pouch where Lou kept his wallet.

“I’m Lou’s buddy,” he said, extending a hand.

“Well nice to meet you, buddy.”  The man had already pocketed two $20 bills, put the wallet back in its pouch and seemed uninterested in a handshake.

“It’s ok,” said Lou, “he’s gonna go get us a bag and then we can go home.”

“No need to go alone, my game’s over, I can go with you.”

“No, better if I go alone.”

“Ok, I’ll just hang in the background, you won’t even notice me.”

“It’s alright, don’t sweat it,” said Lou with remarkable calm, as if the money he had just handed over was of no more concern than a wrong pick on the jukebox.

“Be right back,” the man said and was quickly out the door.

Bobby wanted longer to weigh the decision as he watched the man walk away, especially given Lou’s nonchalance, but there wasn’t time.

“I’ll be right back, too,” he said.

He heard Lou’s yell above the music as he made the door but he kept going. If he wasn’t back soon, he knew that Lou would go home and wait for him in their building’s handicapped-accessible lobby. This was the default plan they agreed on the day they signed the apartment lease and were given a tour by the building manager.

Trying to focus above the motion of the traffic, Bobby glimpsed the movement of the metal door of a convenience store closing behind the man across the street. Over the rim of his coffee cup, the man’s eyebrows raised either from the press of steam or the surprise of seeing Bobby again so soon.

“Ready whenever you are.”

“Man, I told you I need to do this alone.”

“Look at it like this, though — I’m saving you a trip back to the bar.”

The man headed back across Colfax Ave. and took a left into the tiny parking lot behind The Music Box. For a minute Bobby hoped he would enter the bar again through the back door and return the money to Lou, no harm done, but he walked right by it and quickened his pace. He made a right on the next street and headed north.

“How far you gotta go?”

“I told you to back the fuck off, man.”

Bobby leaped in front of him and turned around.

“Look, just gimme back the 40 bucks.”

“It’s not your money.”

The man walked faster. If he didn’t stay on the man’s heels there would be no way to keep up if he got a running start, and he didn’t know the neighborhood. It was still a hot July night outside despite being well after midnight, and it was dark to Bobby in the way one’s peripheral vision shrinks away from lights after drinking a certain amount of alcohol. Wet streaks lined the cracks of the sidewalks and black water pooled  in the gutters of the streets after a thunderstorm the night before that had been violent enough to bring down tree limbs.

He stopped and turned to face Bobby, who was only inches away. “What the fuck is wrong with you, man?”

“I don’t know. I make bad decisions.”

“You’re making a real bad one right now, motherfucker!”

He cut through another lot. Bobby knew the farther they walked the worse things could get for him. At least he was sure the man had no weapon or he would’ve seen it blocks ago. He followed so closely behind the man’s left side that he was all but stepping on the backs of his feet. When he saw other people on the street, he couldn’t help imagining that, from their vantage, the figure their close silhouettes cut in the night was of a bickering couple, the offended party leading the way and the protester hotly following behind. “He didn’t care about the money now,” he thought in a snippet of melodramatic prose, “he had let it go on too long — he just wanted to be respected in their relationship!”

He had to find a way to stop their progress. The apartment buildings grew shabbier the deeper they walked into the neighborhood. There were projects two blocks west of his and Lou’s apartment on the other side of Colfax, but they lived on the fifth floor of a new secure building, they could wave to the minions below from the nest of their balcony. And that’s where he wanted to be right now, sipping a beer in the open air and looking across the glittery midsection of the city five stories up from the street.

The man suddenly grabbed for a fallen tree branch. They had entered the small parking lot of a building that was surrounded by a steel fence and drooping, weather-beaten trees on three sides. A circle of asphalt was lit by a streetlamp next to the building.

“Stay the fuck back!”

The fat end of the branch was almost the width of a person’s calf. As Bobby scrambled for and found a branch about the same size on the pavement, the man took a looping swipe at him and missed. They squared toward each other awkwardly and tried to find the right grip for their weapons. The branches were too big to parry like swords and too crooked to use as ramrods, so they gripped them in both hands and took their best swings. One man would make an attempt and the other would try to move as quickly as possible into the opening of space created, but their weapons were so heavy they looked like hitters taking swings in slow-motion replays around a loosely defined on-deck circle. The set up and evasion of the swings happened in real time, but the swing itself seemed to cut through molasses.

When the branches finally collided, both men were surprised by the impact that knocked them from their stinging hands. Bobby noticed some blood between his right thumb and index finger. He looked up at the man. The patchwork of beard stubble matched the hard black beads of his eyes. As if what just occurred were no more real than a daydream or hallucinatory interlude from a multi-day amphetamine binge, the man turned around and began walking again.

“Hey!”

“You’re gonna get your ass killed if you don’t stay away.”

They were close-couple walking again now.

“What kind of motherfucker are you? He’s fucking crippled! Just give me the money.”

“Like I said, not your money.”

He had to admit the man was right on that count, and maybe that was the reason he hadn’t been more confrontational with him about it till now. But that approach was going to change, it had to, he couldn’t keep walking further north with the man. Sooner or later an end would be forced on him and his lack of having a plan for that end would be dire.

The man suddenly peeled away at a 90-degree angle and sprinted up some steps into the foyer of an apartment building. He tried to hold the front door closed with his foot to keep Bobby out while fitting the key in the security door. Bobby pushed through just as he opened the inner door and they tumbled inside against a flight of stairs.

Their crash landing had to be heard by everyone in the building, and now there were heavy footsteps coming from the floors above. He put the man in a headlock and pressed his head against a stair while frantically trying to pull out the money from his pockets. Footsteps lit on the floor directly above them. He pulled the man’s pocket inside out and two crumpled $20 bills fell through a railing bannister onto the hallway below the stairs. He saw the tops of boots on the flight of stairs above him, there was no time. He left the money and sprang back from the stairs and out the door as fast as he could.

“He tried to roll me, kill that motherfucker!” the man yelled.

At the sound of tires squealing behind him and the rapidly approaching moan of an engine he darted between two apartment buildings, jumped the next street over and ran between two more homes where he encountered and hopped a wooden fence. He needed to make sure there was only one car, so that he couldn’t be pinched from two directions, but running between buildings would make him less visible than on either the streets or sidewalks. He waited between the two houses for the car to pass. How was he going recognize it, he thought?

A Torino with the same groaning engine slowly crept up the block. He could tell the front and back seat were full. The car stopped and two men climbed out. Damnit, he thought, had they seen him? He re-hopped the fence and ran back the way he’d come, in the opposite direction of his apartment. He needed to be patient.

He shot across three more streets perpendicularly by picking his way through yards and walkways, and waited in the darkness between two buildings. Minutes passed thickly. He saw the car pass down the street, the two men would be coming fast behind him. He waited for the car to round the corner, broke out and ran south down the sidewalk for a block toward Colfax Ave., then went back to cutting between buildings. The car must have doubled back because he could hear tires squealing behind him. But he had to start moving in that direction toward his apartment sooner or later. There was no avoiding the bald stretch of Colfax where he would be without residential lots to use as cover.

He was standing in the small backyard of an apartment building peering down an alley at a slice of kaleidoscopic Colfax traffic when he decided to begin the sprint home. If he mistimed the stoplights, he would dodge traffic or look for parking lots to cut, then run west till he could cross due south. He crouched down as if grabbing for track blocks and took off. Without so much as single car horn calling him out, Colfax parted like a red, green and yellow sea.

He cut across boulevards, scrambled for the smaller streets, detoured down a short alley, ran over the viaduct where the river had swelled from the rain below. His building appeared on the horizon, still several blocks away. He didn’t know how long he had been running or if  he was still moving at a steady clip, he was too busy trying to think clearly through his rapid breath: should he stop running to deflect attention from himself, no, they had already seen him, should he jump down to the river and walk along it, no, that  was just as dangerous, how many days or weeks would he have to stay inside before this blew over, how would word of mouth spread about what he looked like and where he was last seen, how would he know who to trust in a city where he knew no one, how had he fucking done this already, in two fucking weeks! or, would they die in a fiery crash on the highway long before all of that payback stuff, two new and nameless transplants, incinerated without a trace of ever meeting anyone, save for a con man in a bar, and no, holy shit no, he thought, stopping to palm his knees more from the thought of it than his exhaustion — what if the man wasn’t a con at all, just someone down on his luck who Lou wanted to help without publicly belittling him, what if he and Lou had simply arrived at an understanding, one which it had taken him until now to figure out, one that, come to think of it, was not that much different than entrusting a dropout to be your nurse — and no, it wasn’t his money, as the man had tried to tell him, wasn’t his money at all, even less his money than the man’s money in practical terms, and so, all of this for what, he hadn’t even got the money back, not a penny, so all this for what?

He lifted from his knees still catching his breath and stared up at the coal sky, it’s edges ringed by the city lights like fringe around the depthless cone of a black hat. His new home might as well be in that void above him after tonight, he thought. He looked back down at the headlights passing him by, two by two, more pairs of eyes without the power of sight. The mountains and the desert, the city and the sky. And still nowhere to draw a line.

The White Light

The call came late on a Saturday night in March.

“Ray’s been in an accident. It’s serious,” said his brother. “They don’t know if he’s going to make it so you might want to come to the hospital right now.”

I’d had a few drinks and let the panic inside get the better of me. But, in times like these you have no sense for the irony of driving through stop signs and pink traffic lights to reach a friend who has been in a car accident, you only think of trying to delay all that’s derailed and outsped the usual train of events.

I met the brother and parents outside the double doors of the emergency room intake. Not even they were allowed inside yet. Hours passed under yellow fluorescent lighting and there was little any of us could think of saying to break through the smothering silence, until finally we received word that, while Ray would likely never walk again, it looked like he was going to survive.

“What hasn’t already died of my body will now begin dying,” Ray told me in his room at the rehabilitation hospital for spinal cord injuries just after they transferred him out of intensive care. “But at least it doesn’t smell like it yet.”

“Good,” I said, “that would be too much to bear. For me, I mean.”

“Yeah. Wouldn’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

In a flash, Ray’s body had transformed from that of a 6’3″, 225-pound avid outdoorsman, writer/adventurer, former gold and silver miner, and all-purpose raconteur into a form completely immobilized by the fracture of a C-5 veterbra. His weakness and the steel brace around his neck made the words tumble from him like the candies of a Pez dispenser. Walking one day, a quadriplegic the next. Sitting in his room amid a garden of giant-vased flowers, I wondered how long it would take before his sense of humor left also.

“One of the out-patients here who’s had this kind of injury for a while told me people turn very bitter or unrealistically optimistic. I told him I’d always been bitter but was excited about the chance to become unrealistically bitter. I could break new ground for my people.”

“You could gripe about how paralysis prevents you from both space travel and masturbation.”

He lifted both of his arms up for a moment and they fell back on the bed. He could not press down with any strength to move himself up on the bed because he no longer had the use of his tricep muscles.

“Move the pillow further down.”

I tried adjusting the pillow around his neck gradually, fearfully.

“Just move it!”

“All right, all right.”

We both glanced toward the glaring white light in the window, full of a spring midday sun. The window was on the far side of the room above the empty bed of his roommate Matt. The pull curtain usually extended for privacy was drawn back. Matt had been here a month and recently transitioned to a wheelchair.

“I don’t know what to do. I can’t live like this.”

“You don’t have to figure it out right now,” I said, but had no idea whether he had to figure it out now or not.

“I asked R. J. yesterday, ‘If I’m still like this in a year, would you do me a huge and just kill me?’ ”

R.J. was another friend whom we had both known for over a decade. He spent a good deal of his waking life drinking in the city’s dive bars.

“‘Yeah. I’ll smother you with a pillow,’ Ray said he’d told him without a beat. “He’d already worked out how he would do it. You kind of hope for a little more deliberation from someone with that kind of question.”

This was the first time I’d heard Ray laugh since everything happened, though I didn’t hear him so much as see him laugh. He didn’t have the diaphragm strength to produce more than a wheezing sound, which eventually lapsed into another depressing silence. Nothing that wasn’t imbued with dead humor felt worth uttering. Even on bright days like this, the room cast a grayish blue tint over everything, a kind of sterilized hospital hue.

“Where’s Matt?”

“Interviewing.”

“Does that make you feel a little bit shiftless, your roommate out hustling the pavement for a job?”

“I’m hoping to become a ward of the state. No, it’s just the same asshole doctor that tried interviewing me when I was still in I.C.U. He’s doing a study of near-death experiences. He wants to use age- and sex-matched controls, so, we’re perfect candidates, I guess.”

“He tried to interview you right after came to?”

“I guess I was more fresh. It’s just this need to know, right. Get all the info we can right now so we know what comes next.”

“Did you tell him to leave?”

“I told him no but he was persistent. And I guess I needed to be distracted. I still couldn’t believe any of it was real, that I was alive and that I was paralyzed.”

He stopped to gather his breath.

“So, I started telling him about how I felt like I was riding along this noodle, sailing along this long noodle over waves. But, there was a light at the end of the noodle, so it must have been a tunnel, not a noodle. Anyway, when I got to the end of it everything opened up peripherally and I was bathing in this white light, literally floating in it, as if it were some endless cream of celery soup. I don’t know why, but I looked behind me and saw this hand extended down to me. It looked like a woman’s hand. I followed up the arm. The woman was wearing a loose-fitting white dress. Her hair was huge, like a big helmet. And then I realized. It was Phyllis Diller— the zany 196os comedienne. She began cackling in that loud laugh of hers. That’s the last thing I remember before coming to after surgery.”

“You actually told him that?”

“Yeah. And if Matt remembers correctly, he’s telling him the same story right now in his interview.”

As if on cue, Matt rolled his electric wheelchair back into the room wearing a smirk and followed closely by the doctor. The doctor walked up to Ray’s bed and leaned in to him.

“You might think this is all a joke, but I’ve seen people like you before,” he said, “and you’re likely going to die alone.”

“Actually,” Ray said, “I’ve already got that worked out with a friend.”

Thanksgiving Storm

The car sat on 12” x 12” blocks in the front of a mechanic’s shop. We didn’t have any money but it didn’t matter — the hostels, shelters and bars were closed by now, it was Thanksgiving. Snow slid off the car doors as we cracked them open on either side. I climbed in front, Lee took the back.

Our walk through the empty streets of the town had helped bend our toes, even if we stopped feeling them hours ago. The storm had caught us by surprise when we reached the highway 30 miles west and across the border into Utah. We’d made the highway too late, the cars dwindling away from the semi trucks before midnight, the trucks falling off after that, until nothing came for what felt like an hour in either direction of where the snow on the road dipped into the blackness.

The steel toes of my Double H cowboy boots conducted the cold like guard rails. Just another dumb choice in a long line that trailed our zigzag path across the state of Colorado. We paced back and forth, jumped up and down on the side of the highway, it was no cure for our lack of winter clothing. We began walking the 30 miles back to Colorado more from a hope to generate body heat than any belief we’d reach the city limits.

Around 2 a.m. it no longer seemed the greater risk to stand in the middle of the highway and try to stop the next car. A lone pair of headlights approached and I tried not to look too crazy with desperation, just somebody out for an evening stroll through the middle of nowhere who had gotten himself turned around a bit, a slower family member left at the last filling station or maybe a motorist battling an overheated radiator whose car had vanished.

The bad road conditions favored us, as the car couldn’t have been traveling much over 45 mph when the headlights illuminated me waving my arms over my head. Once it stopped, once the driver saw how ill-clothed we were for the storm, we both believed he would have to give us a ride.

We began shivering within minutes after settling in the parked car. These are the kind of shivers that edge you into an involuntary muscle-twitching shake, when your body is too cold for you to get to sleep. Liquor helps. But if you don’t have it, you don’t get any kind of deep rest. I pulled out whatever clothes I had left from the Army issue laundry bag I used to carry my belongings in and Lee had taken everything out of his daypack that could be used to keep warm. We fought over the clothes and travel bags for hours.

Whoever inched toward rest and relaxed his grip lost a patch of his makeshift blanket to the other, who later had the same thing happen to him when he relaxed. It was a battle fought with the adrenalin that flows between waking and sleep.

“Fuck you!” Lee said.

“Fuck you, this was your dumb idea.”

Our brilliant plan had been to catch a long ride all the way to Los Angeles, where we would lounge poolside for the holiday weekend at the homes of Lee’s wealthy family, who were, according to him, direct heirs to the Hilton Hotel fortune. Believing in this was easier than contemplating our immediate circumstances. We’d been sleeping at a park  near the river in Durango and in the morning had boiled the last of our black-eyed peas on one of the public barbecues.

Lee and I had been traveling around the state for months, finding jobs here and there. The construction project at the hospital in Durango had long finished and it was time to go. But then, it was shaping up to be such a mild and unseasonably warm November day. Why not scrape up enough for a 12-pack and make the most of it before hitting the road? Wonderful idea.

All the cars that don’t stop to pick you up change their tone as time passes. As the cottony snow falls from the black sky early in the evening, they speak to you in a simple “No thanks” or “Just going up the road.” As your hopes begin to fade, they snarl and hiss as they pass by.

When the sun rose we exited out the same car doors we entered. With the car between us we both looked uneasily down at the ground as we fixed our travel bags over our shoulders. There was a pause before we walked in opposite directions without saying anything. I can’t speak for Lee but I did look back once. The sun lit his breath like steam as he walked.

The Wolfman Next Door

Until my father’s death shortly after my ninth birthday, I spent almost all of my free time loitering in the tiny confines of his barbershop.

Two red vinyl barber chairs anchored the main space of the shotgun-style building. In the back there was an additional bedroom for supplies, a half bath and a stairway that led down to a small dirt-floored basement. Relieving some of the claustrophobic feel, a picture window let in light from one of the city’s busier four-laned streets outside, and on warm days my father kept the front door open for the added benefit of a cross-breeze.

Behind the building was a small yard where I tried to drag my father at every break between clients to play countless games of wiffle ball. His assistant barber, a kind round man named Bob, stayed in the shop and leafed through magazines in the event of walk-in customers.

Until I was about 7, when we took a house rental around the corner, we lived directly across the street from the barbershop in a second-story apartment. Next door to our building was a small gated nursing home. Its black trim and wrought-iron fence contrasted with the painted white brick of the single-story building like parenthetical marks cocooning the cursive word on its small sign, “Battersby,” apart from the rest of the block’s residential phrasings. I never noticed anyone in the small front yard besides landscapers. I remember watching ambulances wait for bodies in the small blacktop parking lot in back whenever a resident had made his or her final “out.”

But far more exciting to me than convalescence was The Wolfman next door to the barbershop. When wiffle ball wasn’t an option, I sought out friends in the neighborhood for sparring and/or fencing bouts in the basement. My father owned two pairs of boxing gloves and on the wood-panelled wall across from the barber chairs hung two rubber-tipped, decorative swords. No matter how cool boxers and pirates were, however, the basement never contained us long and we would charge back up to the two areas we were permitted outside — the backyard and the sidewalk in front of the shop. The sidewalk was always the first place we checked.

From there we had a perfect view of the barred window above the entrance to the house next door. “Wolfman! Hey Wolfman!” we would yell up to it repeatedly. Beyond the peripheral vision of my father, we tossed sticks and pebbles at the window. The wait was usually not long. In a flash the window filled with his fury, grabbing the bars with his clawed hands and shaking them violently, glaring out from the wild eyes in his wooly head that he had forced between the bars, bellowing out squeals that concussed beyond the window, scurrying back to who knows where he came from and charging the window again and again. Covering his head and face was black hair that was not cut or shaved. His yellow fingernails were well past an inch in length. He was not a large man or boy, however the case might have been, and when he was shirtless you could see the bones of his arms and ribs. But his eyes, his eyes always gleamed like black pearls. Below him, we clapped and roared our approval wildly to his further confusion.

Not all of the time did he come when we called. On those occasions we would run to the backyard to play and sometimes discover him slumped in a wheelchair on the covered, second-story back porch. A shawl often sloppily covered his legs, perhaps from him pushing it away from his chest before passing out. He’s sleeping, we reasoned, unaware of the avalanche of sedatives probably coursing through the poor young man’s system, and we would let him rest. How else would he be able to thrill us with such uncommon fury if he didn’t rest, we would tell ourselves. Occasionally we would pause from playing to glance up at him, but he rarely stirred. What kind of magical on/off switch possessed The Wolfman?

There was never a time we passed his window that we didn’t call for him. He was famous in the neighborhood, the feared Wolfman that other kids only got to read about in comic books or see in movies. In our unconscious cruelty, he was still more than human, rather than less, a personage to be both afraid of and respected for the bars he required. Maybe that’s why we never bothered him as he sat so lifeless in the backyard, since that state could not be his true self, was just a refueling station, an incubator for spectacles of rage.

We moved away after my father’s death, first to live with my grandmother and then to a neighborhood in a different part of the city. Looking back as an adult now it’s hard to grasp what horrors the man endured, some certainly attributed to us, or to imagine what eventually happened to him.

But back then, not knowing any better, he was what all the grown-ups could never bring themselves to talk about, what they averted their eyes from and encouraged you to ignore. It was they who were going to end up at nursing homes like Battersby, not him. He was both an animal and a man and that’s what we wanted to be, too. He was everything that could never be tamed. Back when all that still seemed so believable. Before we soon learned it was only pain in this world that could never be tamed.

Island of Enchantment

The child who sang all the time at age 4 is now the woman who sings all the time at 40. After over 20 years away, returning home to Puerto Rico means hearing old stories again as if they were new.

 

• Her great grandfather, a ship-jumping Spanish German Jew, hid in a barrel and sailed from the Canary Islands to Puerto Rico… long before that, Taino Indian slaves were supposedly heard to cry, “Take me back to Peru!”

• We may never know if anyone ever called Ponce de Leon a ponce as a common noun, but plenty have followed him — and preceded him — to Puerto Rico, the Island of Enchantment, or Isla de Encanto in Spanish.

• Ceaseless marches of songs on the radio proclaim, “I’m going to Puerto Rico,” or “I’m in Puerto Rico,” or, as if in a sudden moment of discovery, “Hey, I’m Puerto Rican!”

• Rarely is there a jump or leap the lost cats of Puerto Rico grow afraid to attempt.

• For three nights, her mother once heard a cry in the night she thought caused by kids playing around, possibly even a ghost, and instead was a woman discovered cut to death, pieces of her skewered body hanging from the sharp leaves of the cane fields.

• But there is also the story of the man in the countryside who fell gravely ill and apparently passed away only to later rise and walk around the house. After this phenomenon recurred a few more times, the wife told guests, “Don’t touch him — you’ll wake him up again!”

• The sing-song manner of speaking inherited from Africa.

• Long ago when they were young, her mother and aunts drove off a cliff by the waterfall near their town, the car tumbling and tumbling, the soon-to-be-referenced “crazy” sister shielding her one-year-old niece in the car with her body, another pregnant sister dying with her fetus from the crash. Decades later, the crazy aunt still says to her niece who survived the crash, “I saved your life, and still you never call!”

• The tropical rain forest crowds you in hues of greens, holds you in its sleeve, and, when you breathe, it breathes too.

• The niece who survived the crash would later declare herself independent as an 18-year-old in order to fight for her home against her stepmother, with she and her two college girlfriends rebuilding the damaged house on their own every weekend.

• A storm pushes the Atlantic closer to the hotels and restaurants of San Juan, and from a bar’s wall of windows, its soft, big blue waves roll down and toss swimmers around like goldfish in an aquarium.

• It was later discovered the crazy aunt may have not really been crazy. While everyone else in the car was rushed to the hospital, she was sent home with a skull fracture that slowly leaked and destroyed brain cells for 20 years. Her husband took up with the housekeeper he hired to manage his wife and they both abandoned her. The kids, ill-supervised by their mother, started burning mattresses and raising hell, until the older brother discovered sexuality at 11 and began abusing his 5-year-old sister.

• The older man hitchhiking in the mountains who gave us directions to an isolated restaurant and said “God wanted you to get lost so you could give me a ride,” in addition to repeatedly remarking in the back of the car, “you gotta buy a ticket before you get on the plane.”

• Leading a trail of traffic up a steep road in the mountain country: A seven-year-old boy galloping on horseback

• The father she has no photograph of, knifed to death on a baseball field long ago.

• An artesan driving a pick-up full of his wares through the neighborhoods, a recording of “c-a-n-a-s-t-a-s, canastas” blaring from his speakers — or “b-a-s-k-e-t-s, baskets” — almost as lonely as the words “…still, you never call.”

 

The child who sang at 4 is now the woman who sings at 40.

 

death in the family…

To bastardize Tolstoy — happy towns are all alike, and unhappy ones are unhappy in their own ways.

In Erie, Pennsylvania, where I grew up, the steel industry fueled the good times, and when it left to find a cheaper home toward the end of the ’70s, those good times gave way to recession. Left with only a polluted Great Lake to offer as an alternate attraction, Erie’s never fully recovered. Many of my friends and family members are out of work, under-employed, or collecting disability or unemployment. The lake’s beaches often close because of E. Coli levels. Its fish are cancerous. In many ways my family is representative of the people in the town — deeply generous, tough but fiercely loyal, skeptical but unwilling to ever give up.

A few weeks ago I flew back to see my relatives in Erie. On a visit with my Uncle John, or “Johnny,” as everyone in the family called him , we sat in the living room of his mother’s old house where he had always lived and watched a replay of a 10-year -old college football game, taken from ESPN’s completely unnecessary series called “Greatest College Football Games.” And, we talked about the game. Johnny never liked to talk about himself. He had suffered with polio as a child and spent two years in an Iron Lung. Besides emerging from this experience physically and mentally stunted, he also dealt with kids bullying him in school.

“This was a really good college football game,” he’d said, “this, yeah. Uh, this was a really good game.” I agreed with him, though had to admit to myself I had no memory of ever watching the game.

Shortly after I returned home from Erie I received news that Johnny had passed away. He rarely left the house, but just before he died he went to a family picnic feeling unwell. My mother said she thought her brother had come to say goodbye. Less than 48 hours after the picnic, he died in his chair watching TV of an apparent heart attack, still grasping a bottle of water by his side.

Years ago, when my wife first met Johnny, she’d commented afterward, “I could see he had a kind heart, he looked at me right in the eyes. He accepted me right away.” A  stranger to my uncle, she’d reminded me of qualities he possessed that I’d somehow learned to take for granted with the passing of years. Johnny likely never had a girlfriend, he had no acquaintances and no contact with any one outside the family. It had become habit for us, or, at least me, to think of him as anti-social.

The funeral for Johnny was held yesterday. Ever since learning of his passing I have been thinking of the personality traits my wife had immediately noticed. I’ve wondered, were they enough? And for whom, us or him?

We could not afford to go back to Erie so soon again to attend the funeral. We decided against sending flowers, as sentimental gestures like this, even pity, didn’t quite feel right. I emailed my mother the sketch of a poem I’d written on my visit instead. Honestly, I don’t know that it speaks to Johnny at all. There seems so much and so little to say.

 

A Train Gone

Sunlight soaks the coned fruits of the sumac,

Wounds crowding a rusted train viaduct

Whose chunks have broken off in the rumble of years,

The phantom load of train cars that used to pass

Over the road, last shreds of ghost locomotion.

 

The heat sweating the jagged leaves,

Does it push the steel slab further along,

Little by little, like a drop of rain on a stone?

 

Or has this bridge built by dead men

Seeped into what surrounds it, burnishing

The earth, then the roots, the stems, leaves

And fruit with all its distresses, all its decay,

For the sun to lay bare.

 

 

W.G. Sebald & memory

“Think of W.G. Sebald as memory’s Einstein,” says The New York Times’ Richard Eder on the cover of Sebald’s first novel, “Vertigo.”

This statement feels true when you imagine the “quantum Einstein,” the one grasping for form in dark spaces, or, the measurer who’s instruments fail him. “Vertigo” may not be Sebald’s best novel, but it announces his style of unreliable narration in the person of a narrator greatly concerned about reliability and context.

If you haven’t read it, here’s the basic “action” generated in the novel: A man travels through northern Italy and over the border into Austria musing about things like Stendhal’s service in Napolean’s army, the historical background of the regions he passes through and Kafka’s similar journey shortly before his death. Seven years later, the narrator repeats the very same itinerary, curious about his disturbed state of mind during the first trip but also in search of what might have eluded him.

What are readers to make of a narrator who can’t speak directly about what is tormenting him, or who spends a chapter retracing the travels of the Kafka-like “Dr. K.”? As if they were pieces of evidence, there’s a black-and-white snapshot of Kafka with friends on one page, and on another a photo of an Italian street crowd allegedly awaiting the arrival of the “Deputy Secretary of Insurance from Prague” (mimicking Kafka’s real-life occupation). He’s a narrator for whom the  past is full of curved spaces. Born into 1944 Germany, Sebald often writes as if he’s so haunted by his own country’s history that he is forced to adopt the histories of others.

In the first chapter of “Vertigo,” Stendhal is quoted writing that “even when the images supplied by memory are true to life one can place little confidence in them.” As proof, he recalls a glorious descent down an Italian mountain pass during his service in the Napoleonic Wars, particularly the entrance into the town of Ivrea as the sun set. Years afterward, he realizes looking through newspapers that the picture of the town he had in mind was actually from an engraving.

If history could be as vulnerable as memory, it would be easier for Sebald’s narrator to escape it. And that would mean a denial of everything, including the present, in order to live in a fantasy. Whether he’s employing cheesy old photographs or leading us through labryinths, Sebald never makes that choice. Just because we possess inadequate instruments does not mean we stop measuring.