Fiction by Ed Taylor
First thing he saw was the flurry of gulls high on the side of abandoned B Block; then the man with a pole leaning from the unsealed fifth-floor window. Brian braked, put the pierogi on the seat and shifted into park: what the hell?
On the ground below the window, two boys in identical dark green stood looking up, hopping in the spring cold, or playing, or something. Two p.m., and this mirage in the bright flat afternoon, the birds hard to watch as they whirled around the sun. He squinted, shading his eyes. Chewing another bite, he took the chipped binoculars from the glove compartment. As his head almost touched the interior roof he had to bend to look, saying to himself Asian. Chinese, whatever.
Empty since 1980, B Block stood at the edge of the crumbling Psych Center complex, like a tree mostly but not quite dead. The Center had stopped accepting new patients that year. Most of those left arrived as children in the ’50s and ’60s, and had now outlived their parents.
Brian babysat the grounds, in a blue uniform, for $11.60 an hour, much of the time smoking or reading. Others handled the inside world, which was fine with him. He remembered the female patient who rammed a Bic into a nurse’s neck a year ago while they wrote the woman’s brother or sister an actual paper letter: they did it every week, and each envelope came back, “Return to Sender.”
The pole flicked. There was string or rope attached, and something at its end the gulls wanted. He aimed the binoculars and saw an old Asian man, and a fish head at the end of what looked like clothesline maybe, flung up from the pole, which might have been a broom handle. Then, one gull shot at the bait from the knot of birds; the man pulled the pole in and gripped the line with both hands to yank and wrangle until the bird beat close to the window, wings wide as the frame. The man pulled it through and inside. The boys ran around the distant corner and were gone.
I’ll be goddamned, Brian said. He put the car in gear and picked up the pierogi, eating with one hand and driving, hunched, to squint up.
Still a little winded, Brian loped down the pale hall, kicking through plaster, a rotted smock, a sleeve of plastic cups still sealed, the clear bag fogged but the red cups untouched. He’d walked up six flights, flowers of mildew on the wall like murals, taking the first steps two at a time but after the third floor stopping on every landing to catch his breath, thinking they were probably back in China by then and he should quit smoking.
In the empty room a dustless fan of clear floor spread from the open window. And there was blood, darkening, a few drops near the window and toward the wall. And footprints. Small feet, and smaller feet: he was the old guy’s size when he was twelve, Brian observed.
Moving to the window he fingered a cigarette, zipping his waist-length jacket, thinking that when the lake didn’t freeze you couldn’t tell January from April.
He looked over the city’s west side, Grant Street and trees, sporadic cars and a couple of slow school buses on the salt-stained gray-white of the 198, the empty Consolidated factory’s flat black roof. The only things higher than trees were church steeples, he could see at least four, and there was the Armory. The highway rose on pilings to turn south and separate city from lake. He picked out Guercio’s through the green; he needed to get some vegetables, anything; just get some food in the house that wasn’t fried.
So there were squatters, maybe. Brian had heard from another guard that homeless people occasionally nested in the old section, but it had been a while. Pest control, the other guy said.
Brian flicked his butt at the blood, glad he didn’t have to key in at checkpoints, like at the Trico Building. He quit there after he sat in his car one frigid day to get high, not wanting to go home, and watched his relief march from light pole to light pole sticking in his key: good doggie; fucking depressing.
He heard somewhere that sea birds didn’t taste good: too salty. He shivered. The real question was whether to include this in an incident report. It was for sure an incident, the only one during his eight months at the Center, except for the couple he caught screwing as he looked for a place to light a joint last summer. They were parked, facing each other, the girl sitting on the guy, her almost hysterically working up and down, hands clamped on his shoulders, her short hair stuck to her face. He just blinked his headlights and drove on, thinking lucky son of a bitch; it’d be bad karma to interrupt, like interfering with nature. Then, something about the faces finished processing: two guys. Jesus, he needed to get out more.
His shoulders were wide as the window. For all he knew, the old man and the kids might have been a one-shot deal, like day campers, in through the fence and out. He remembered the old man’s face through the binoculars, its bird-like quality of bright attention, of someone serious about his work. He turned from the window, deciding to not decide anything. It wasn’t over, because of the kids, but he’d see what there was to see.
Still too cool for the scooter, Brian had learned that morning, humming east on Forest to work, freezing in thin gloves and denim jacket, the engine’s whine like a rabid kitchen appliance. He drove it anyway, when it was warm enough. When it wasn’t he took the bus to Elmwood and walked two blocks. He’d sold his car earlier that year, but it was no prize and the money hadn’t gone far. He liked the idea of the scooter. The reality let him down. However, the slowness that initially irked him turned into a good thing; he could still smell things and see things. And, in the neighborhood, he’d become an official part of the tour, the big guy who rides the little scooter.
Now on the way home, a bag of kale flapping on the steering bar, he tried to face visiting his mother that night. He said to himself he’d go if his dad did.
The two of them rattled in the house since his father signed her into a long-term residential treatment facility. She would never come back. He couldn’t imagine his mother’s dying being any worse than that send-off, but time had passed and the rawness was mostly gone. Everything just seemed the wrong size now. It didn’t help that the old house sank in parts and sloped, so he had to walk slightly uphill to the refrigerator. Now the place reminded him of his psych 101 text, photos of rooms painted to fool the eye into believing up was down or near was far.
Nobody home. Breakfast still on the table. He looked for a note: “Staying late with Mom. See you around 7”—good, off the hook. Then he felt a quick wash of guilt, like a blush. He didn’t see how his father did it, every damn day. Seeing her, too young for that place, but sure enough in it.
He made a pass through the house, picking up clothes, not thinking. He could turn it on and off. As he passed his room he noticed his lacrosse stick, lightening with dust at the top as if it were getting gray hair. The phone rang.
“Great timing, Dad’s with Mom.”
“How’d her procedure go?”
“She was supposed to have some kind of procedure today.”
“According to who?”
“That’s what I remembered.”
“It’s six o’clock, man. Why’d you really call?”
“Okay, okay. How’s the sunny south?”
“We opened up the patio today and it was full for the whole lunch.”
“Can you help me work on Anna? She hasn’t called in seven weeks. She sent a check.”
“She sent a check?”
“She sent a check.”
“What do you want me to do? You know what her life’s like, she’s about to get bounced off the air, San Diego’s a tough market, she’s tight as a fucking drum.”
“Yeah, well, Dad’s a little tight too.”
“Look, I know it’s hard for you.”
“Hey, thanks, I feel better now.”
“Come on Bri, we’ve done this one to death.”
“Yeah, you’re right. Just see if you can get Anna to call, okay? Mom’s fine, everything’s good here.”
“Come on, man.”
“I’m just telling you what you want to hear. That’s my job. Rah rah.”
“Speaking of job, are you still—”
“Yeah, I’m still. I love it, it’s all I ever want to do.”
“Okay. Look, tell Dad I called.”
“Sure, it’s already done. I’m writing it down now and putting a heart around it.”
“What is the matter with you?”
“Nothing. I’m just. Sorry, man.”
“Look, I’ll call this weekend, okay, and let’s talk, okay? And I’ll see what I can do about Anna.”
“Yeah. Good, thanks.”
“Okay. Later. Okay?”
My fault completely, Brian thought. He took a beer to the back porch and the old armchair, canted because of a shot spring. As he had since he’d hit 220 pounds at 16 and college recruiters began calling, he lowered himself tentatively, testing the chair. He took out the work joint he hadn’t gotten around to and lit it, the thing gone in three long breaths. He laughed once; some neighbor’s radio was playing a song with some simpering girl singer saying have you ever been mellow. He snorted, thinking he should beat the shit out of them for playing it loud enough for him to hear; that’d be amusing.
He stared at the weathered porch rail, the porch facing west. Wind and weather from the lake cracked even enamel in half the time it took for an East Side house, and winter made painting a healthy business there. The skins of houses around him warped and cracked, but painters made their money on suburban professors and Lincoln Parkway lawyers, people who could afford to pay someone else to do the job. He’d painted for a while, and also been a bouncer on Chippewa Street, soldered truck radiators for Delphi Thermal, been a roofer, took the police and fire exams, crewed for touring bands at Indigo Productions: his resume, he concluded. But he didn’t want to think about it. He went to the kitchen for Doritos. His fingers turned bright orange and he stared at them, for a minute. Rousing himself, he remembered the Sabres played that night and decided to go to the Rendezvous. Out, he headed for the bus stop, into the wind; a tough walk.
From a distance Brian saw the little Asian kids the next day, like deer, skittish and quickly gone. They ran, he drove, and when he got out and huffed to where they’d been, there was no hint of where they’d fled. But, they left something. A Barbie. I’ll be damned, he thought. Ratty Barbie in a bathing suit. From the look they could go either way, boy or girl. He walked her to the nearest building, bent her to sit, and set doll against wall. Then he looked up and around, at the empty windows in the square building, all of them.
When he swung by an hour later, the little patch of color still sat against the wall, but two hours later, no.
Leaving his mother that night, after a half hour of talking at her and holding her waxy hand, on the way to his father’s car, he kicked a half-full plastic Pepsi bottle in the lot; it split against the church wall five yards away. He took a deep breath of the cold, like filling his lungs with ice water, and, looking up at the smeared stars, he almost howled.
He slammed the front door, thumped to his room, grabbed his lax stick and dug a ball from a net bag, then moved back through the hall to the small living room. His dad, squinting through cigarette smoke, hunched over the guts of a clock radio. He asked his father what he was operating on.
His father rolled his eyes and snuffed the butt with his thick fingers. “I told Mrs. Wardinski I’d try to fix the thing, but I’m damned if I can do anything for it, I don’t even know what I’m looking at. Would you turn that record over for me?”
Brian moved to the turntable: Ralph Stanley, another hillbilly hoedown.
“I bet they even have this stuff on CDs, you know, in the High and Whiny section. I should buy you an iPod, since you’re too cheap.”
“What are you doing with the stick?”
“I’m going down to Front Park to work off a little steam.”
His father eyed him, inhaling. “Okay. Be careful, the Mexicans like to hang around down there after dark.”
“How do you know they’re Mexicans?”
“You know what I mean. Whatever ethnic persuasion they might be, they’re not down there exercising. Just watch your ass. And bring me a beer on your way out.”
“I didn’t hear the magic word.”
His father grinned a little. “Son of a bitch, get me a goddamn beer please.”
Driving, Brian thought: a year ago their living room conversation would have been impossible; his father was on his ass 24-7. His mother’s illness had changed his dad and himself, her between them melting and reforging whatever touched her, so they all were annealed together in some new configuration.
Front Park was freezing in lake wind, always ten degrees cooler than the rest of the city. He’d first thought about running some in the grass, and did, but stopped, coughing from the cold and smoking. Fucking pathetic, he said. Some of the shadows moved and he knew he’d need to keep his eyes open, but he felt good next to the wide lake rising to the horizon in rough stairs painted by moonlight. Erie’s empty prairie was a yardstick; see how you and your shit measure up to this, he thought. It took the pressure off, always had. He walked, broke into a trot once in a while on the concrete edging the water, soaking it up, flipping stick and ball in old motions, a routine first practiced at ten and still unconscious as knuckle cracking, looking ahead and out. He still had an athlete’s focus and he did, just out in his hands and feet and the net basket, scoped knee twinging, big quads bunching and relaxing, wind from the right, in it all for a while.
At the pipe rail, watching the gray water rush the shore in short peaks and walls, he breathed heavily, leaning, a cold stripe from the rail bleeding through his coat sleeves to his forearms. Left was the city, trailing off in a rash of low lights to the tiered sparkle of the power station. On the right was Canada: Fort Erie and then beach houses and nothing, a black scalloping of treetops against the lighter sky and the taller finger of the Point Abino lighthouse fifteen miles off. Dead ahead was Detroit, 350 miles away across the plain of water.
Might as well be Paris, he thought, you still just look and you don’t know anything, hundreds of miles that could be a million and what’s in it, how deep it is, all that shit, you just have to shut up.
Behind him, something stirred the roosting gulls dotting the baseball field, the rustle of wings like sails flapping. He turned, putting his hand on the stick against the rail. Four medium shapes, hoods up, wading through the birds. Time to go; he’d enjoy the majesty of the inland sea another time, he told himself. He pulled the ball from the basket, looked to the field and picked up the big stick and twirled it once in his right hand, something he learned in high school when he got tall enough to work it and moved from forward to defense because of a growth spurt. Then he looked toward the car and started walking, flicking his eyes to the side without turning his head to note them angling a little to walk to where he had been, not where he was going: okay; peace.
Brian skimmed the newsprint: yes, new American record, now 700 Sundays in a row with the same shit in the News; help wanted? Wheelchair van drivers, collection agencies, nurses, social service workers. He crumpled up Employment, which he got through in half a cup of coffee. He just read it for laughs, he told himself. And, to shut his father up, who still yapped at him about getting on with his life. And his brother. And his sister. And all his friends who had left town for Atlanta and Charlotte and Nevada and Texas and everywhere else, talking like they were in a lifeboat yelling up at the chumps on the Titanic.
Sure, he thought, his friends who stayed were knuckleheads, working stupid jobs to pay for hockey tickets and Chippewa Street binges with female versions of themselves and busting loose to New York and Atlantic City twice a year. But, he told himself, he at least knew what they were all doing. He couldn’t quite identify to what their loyalty attached, because when he tried to figure it out it fell apart, or got embarrassing.
To him the city was like one of his friends: big, slightly punch drunk, warmed by what was left of the past, and not afraid, just not ready to face finding new heat when the fire finally dies. And there was life still, green parts that just kept growing.
That’s what he believed, and what his sister and everybody who ran away didn’t. Shit, another article about “attracting visitors,” like the city was some girl with one eyebrow on a blind date: but what about the people that lived there, fix her up for the people who lived there for Christ’s sake.
He looked at his dad, who wasn’t going anywhere, except fishing, lubing a reel with sewing machine oil. His sister asked if he was happy in their last phone call, after a lot of words about his wasting himself. Are you happy, he asked. She waited a beat too long to answer, so he let her go on, and then made noises to keep her satisfied. He walked out the front door to smoke; at the crumbling sandstone curb sat Mrs. Wardinski’s rusted green Chevy, with a tattered American flag on the antenna curling in the weak breeze. He smiled, for the first time that morning.
Cutting across grass in rain he surprised them from the other side, the kids on the ground forty yards from the building, almost at the Grant Street fence, the man fishing from D this time: the kids should have been in school. The gulls stood out against the darker clouds like bits of paper whirling in a wind.
“Hey,” he yelled, feeling stupid. He broke into a trot. The kids sprinted, but not panicking, their arms parallel to their bodies as if they were trained: or used to the drill. Then they split, one veering to C and the other getting to D’s ground floor door and through; and the old guy gone too when he looked up, slowed down, and stopped. He laughed at himself, then began walking to D.
He yanked open the exit door and stepped into faint stairwell echoes. And, he smelled something that he couldn’t fix on at first, laboring up the stairs, lighting a cigarette, running over possibilities. Snuck over from Canada in a truck? Jumped ship, maybe the guy was a sailor, maybe he hid the kids? Lost his house there, taking care of grandchildren because his son was a drunk, maybe he was legal but his plans fell apart, nobody picked him up at the train station; maybe the guy was just cheap.
He stopped to listen. Maybe the guy was a doctor from Amherst who liked seabird, maybe it was some kind of tradition in Laos or wherever; how else would the guy catch a gull without his patients paying too much attention.
Or, were they just fucking hungry? That was it. It was some kind of cooking smell.
On the top floor, quiet except for his heavy feet, he moved from room to room and laughed; the kitchen. In the center of a mottled green room, plaster and trash swept from around it, sat a rusty Weber grill like a big turtle; garbage-picked, he figured. On a ripped but folded green tarp in a corner: restaurant salt and pepper packets, soy sauce, and hot mustard packets. Meat smoke permeated the place: they must cook with the window closed, except at night maybe.
The kettle had been wiped down. He lifted off the round top. Inside, a blackened rack over an ash bed and half-charred chipped wood he thought could be from the new bushes near administration. He hoped the chips weren’t treated; god knows what would be in that smoke.
In a corner, he saw two books, palm sized, red paper covers curling; long columns of characters in one, Chinese, Japanese? He liked their look on the page. The other, printed with characters stretching across the page right to left or left to right, with blue ink on the inside cover: handwritten characters, bigger, carefully made, it seemed to him; maybe a kid’s writing. A name?
He heard geese, faintly; moving to the window he caught a broken vee low from the west, just over trees and then away east. Then he took out his half pack of cigarettes and dropped it on the tarp, beside the salt. He tugged out his worn wallet, flipped through the bills, a bunch of ones and a ten, and bent to leave the ten, next to the smokes. What the hell, he said to himself, welcome to the promised land.
On the scooter going home, first stars out but the sun not quite down, he saw a streak at a yard edge that zagged into the middle of grass and froze long enough for him to see a rabbit before it shot into darker space. His mind idled: coming up on a year out of school, a year into his career, without fear, without peer, in one ear and out on his rear, cheer, near, fuck fuck fuck it. He had to be careful without a light on the scooter: he was invisible.
His mother’s hand lay high on Brian’s thigh. His father stood and walked to the opposite window.
“Mom, it’s about time for me and Dad to go. We’ll be back tomorrow. We’ll see you. We’ll see you. Okay?” He got up and her hand fell.
His father came from the window and kissed the top of her head. She looked at them, puzzled.
He and his father strode out silently, his father slightly ahead nodding at staff, and both pulling out cigarettes a few feet from the doors, lighting up as they moved to the car. It was a brittle blue Easter Sunday, chilly, and bells clanged in the air everywhere, the sounds hard and erratic, clashing. When they settled into the car, it sank. The interior felt like a trap. Brian didn’t want to be there, he didn’t want to be in any room anywhere. He wanted to hit something.
His father backed out fast. “So when you gonna get off your ass and get a real job?”
“I’m not talking about this now. You go on without me.”
“A man who doesn’t care about his work isn’t a man.”
“Shut up, dad, okay? I mean, that was tough and everything, but shut up.”
Later, he played the weekly roller hockey game like an asshole, leveled guys, pissed off everyone. He skipped the post-game tailgating, left the players steaming and drinking and eyeing him as he backed up twenty yards before he turned to get out of the school lot in Williamsville where they met. He told himself that was stupid, but fuck it.
He drove nowhere, but in a hurry, the car and his head filled with a Green Day CD, his dad hunkered at home with three Powertrain buddies watching the Red Sox in Japan and not needing the car. When he woke up he was at Tifft Nature Preserve, on the south edge of town at the lake edge, a thousand acres of reclaimed industrial fill like new carpet around the abandoned Cargill grain elevators, dark towers a scorched gray-black, as if bombed.
If this were a movie this would be where a girl would come along to take the thorn out of his paw, he thought. He froze in his damp sweats, sitting on one of the rolling grass hills overlooking the lake, the sky wide with sunlight breaking over the lake in sparks. His eyes watered in the wind and light. When he shaded his eyes a moving dark shard in the white turned out to be a black-suited wind surfer cutting a long slice in the water then turning back, tossing off foam, skimming back and forth in the massive shadow of another old grain elevator. The surfer was good, and strong, as was the wind, steady and unwavering. He closed his eyes, pressed his fingers lightly on them, let red and yellow swirl in, with the surfer, and the elevator’s weight, the light, the horizon.
He hauled himself up and started down the path, a seam of folded-over grass like the part in a scalp, toward the parking lot. He stopped; at the foot of the next hill, eighty yards away, stood two does and a fawn, stiff and still. He waved, they stared, he walked, they bounded toward the woods flowing to the rail line and Lackawanna. What do the Jews say? L’acheiem; to life? Shit. But he felt light and fast all the way to the car, not thinking.
Brian was surprised to see the fisherman again the next day at work and with no kids, so soon after the last time. He parked, and walked to where the man had appeared. Passing into B Block again, he let the door slam, and took the steps slowly, tweezing a wrinkled joint from his jacket pocket with his big fingers. He walked slowly, inhaling and holding till he got dizzy. By the time he hit the right floor he was eating the tiny roach, thinking, I’ve got a date with an angel. He slammed open the hall door and started whistling, ambling. He felt pretty goddamn good. He nosed into rooms randomly, working his way toward what he hazily remembered as the fishing hole. There was his little black friend: they’d moved the grill. “Shit”: the hood was hot, vents rusted shut and keeping everything in.
Lifting by the handle, he let out acrid smoke. He turned away, then back: red embers and an old metal coffee pot lidless on the grill, but in it something brown textured with what looked like onions, its smell rich, oily but unidentifiable. On another Tops bag lay a cheap metal spoon and fork, nicked but dully glowing. He wondered if the old guy made them switch sleeping rooms, like an old guerilla; or a young wetback—what did they call the ones who come across here, frostbacks? He looked up at the window, a rectangle of unbroken blue on the wall like a travel poster.
He picked up a spoon. Still squatting, his knees ached. He went to one knee, then lifted out a mouthful. L’acheiem, he thought.
Man, it was strong; he guessed gull, thinking radial tire, like calamari, but not bad: tough, but edible, he concluded, squinting in the brightness.
Did he leave it for me; that’s why no kids, he asked himself? Then: over on the floor, a picture or something. He rose, pushing with one hand, and walked to, in dust, a character like in the books, a word or a letter, or what?
Brian stared. Then he knelt again and put a finger to the floor, tried to copy the figure. He thought he got pretty close, then moved to untouched floor to draw. He made a line, looked at it, did more; a tree, maybe, a plant.
A small man stepped into the room with one hand up, palm toward Brian, the other holding a baseball hat at his thigh. How the fuck: Brian stood and frowned, pain in his knees ignored.
The man’s clothes hung from him, windbreaker sweatshirt big trousers. Worn brown work boots. Wiry gray-black hair. The face gold, wrinkling around pouched eyes. He was not smiling.
Brian stared, his mind focused as during games, empty and alert.
The man put the hat on his head, held out one hand again, palm out, and reached with the other into an outer pocket and had something stamp-sized, which he unfolded and held out.
Brian stared and then moved forward, looking down at the man’s solemn blank face, stopping about three feet away. He leaned to reach, read in careful blue ink: “Buddhist Cultural Center, 647 Fillmore Avenue.”
Then, he remembered a Sunday News story, a color picture of a carved temple bell; the building an old police station, run by a former South Vietnamese soldier, an old guy. The bell could be heard for miles, it said. Sanctuary, it said.
They stared at each other and the small man held his two hands out, palms up. “Please.”
What the fuck: translation? Directions? Money? Brian looked at his watch, then stared at the man, who looked at him, unblinking.
Brian stood, and bowed, until the old man smiled, then Brian straightened: “Thanks for the hospitality.”
Brian looked again at the address in his hand—a short drive. And, a little warm, he unzipped his jacket all the way, thinking: maybe, finally, it might be spring.
© Ed Taylor
[This piece was selected by Rachel Wild. Read Ed’s interview]
Ed Taylor is the author of the novel Theo, the poetry collection Idiogest, the chapbook The Rubaiyat of Hazmat, and the forthcoming chapbook Cardinal Directions (fall 2017). His prose and poetry have appeared most recently in The Literary Quarterly, The Moth (UK), Southern Poetry Review, Gargoyle, North American Review, St. Petersburg Review, New World Writing, Clackamas Literary Review, and a 2016 anthology on the theme of drought.