2018 Prose Contest Winner
Chosen by Danielle Dutton
"I was immediately intrigued by the voice of Liam Murphy, who starts off by telling us he doesn’t feel like a Liam Murphy (it's an “aw-shucks” name, he tells us), and I was kept in place, turning the pages, not only by Liam’s story of abandonments, but also by the immediacy of the spaces he conjures up—the apartment with its cold walls, the balcony, the various buildings designed by his godfather Josep. It’s an ambitious and serious story, one that moves in many directions at once, and one I was pleased to inhabit."
Then, I lived with my godfather, Josep, in an apartment in this big modern cement building between Harvard and Central squares. My life was hectic, but some sensations have stayed sharp, despite how young and as alone as I was, as prone to imagination I needed to be to survive our kind of collateral solitude. The sensations of my early life with Josep retain a brittle crispness. Those moments creep up on me, still, from time to time. They become these magnificent ringings — sharp buzzing. A breeze could be felt sneaking under the floor to ceiling windows of our apartment during the winter — and when the wind whipped up, the hollow metal railings of our balcony would hum. Almost like a theremin, I told my godfather in that first year. This was the mid 90s and I had been heavy into ambient-pop. I didn’t like lyrics. The voices always rung hollow compared to the noise behind them. Only an adolescent can manage things like that. Brian Eno. Tortoise...I was a loser, through and through. I thought that, actually. And was a bit proud. It felt fine. It had been something of a conscious choice. I’d never be normal there. I’d discover Godspeed You! Black Emperor a couple years later during a period of utter and lonely freedom once again on my own and I would turn the sound up and neutralize everything and lay the speaker down on the floor and let it buzz there beside me. That’s what sounded good to me.
I had been fourteen when my godfather took me in. When we became a pair. Alone, ugly, pimple-faced with long greasy black hair, I was too dark skinned to pass as plain Italian because of an indígino father I hadn’t known. Josep reminded me of this every time we were out together. Just his presence let me know he was not my father. It’ll be difficult, he’d say. Being so dark in the winter. That’d hurt me — one more handicap. Bastard. Loser. Orphan. Indígino. I had an Irish name my mother gave me. But it never fit. I never felt like Liam Murphy. I could not wear the thick aw-schucks feeling of that “L” in Liam. But there it was. I was.
Josep was a Catalan whom my mother had known well. She’d been his secretary once. He was like a father to her. A mentor. She claimed he'd been a famous architect. He took me in when my mother died, in a cold winter that did not seem to thaw until May. 1996. I've looked up the weather again and again to make sure it didn't just feel that way, that I wasn't committing some arrogance. Josep and I had shared an indifference to the long passage of the winter that seemed only natural. But it still felt appropriate in its endurance. We were both children, adolescents, in that way.
Josep would sit under an electric blanket and drink tea and dream of sundrenched
Tarragona — he explained to me the rocks had a color like good dry straw, and that in the summer they remained hot enough to keep you warm through the night. In the stale chill of winter his face would go a pale yellow as if imitating those warm rocks, his eyes glaze over and shimmer in the cold draft from the window. He had not been allowed back, he told me. Would not be allowed back. Maybe if I were famous, he said. Maybe if I were Antonio Banderas. But, no...my father was no captain in the Guardia Civil, I am no famous anybody, no architect, no….he would trail off, blow into his hands, and wrench himself up from the chair to warm some more water for tea.
When the humming of the balconies rose, I captured it with an old Hamilton cassette recorder bought second hand in Chinatown. I covered the microphone with a kitchen sponge I’d cut into shape to fit over it for a windscreen so the draft would not whistle on the recording. Josep stopped shivering and pointed out — he was always pointing things out for me — that I was recording the rise and fall of the wind using a microphone dampened to it, the wind. It’s what you want to hear! It is ironic, he said, as if it were a novel observation. Why not just stick the microphone out the window, he said, and catch the whole of the sound?
He did not get it, I assured him.
I had been painfully shy my state records show, even more so after my mother died. I was granted my papers at eighteen. My paper trail. It has helped me to remember. I’d been sent to Josep before she passed, another friend of my mother’s had driven me the hour to Cambridge. Her name is recorded there, or I wouldn’t know it. I’d been at home, alone, subsisting on crackers and tuna fish. My mother bought in bulk, even at the end of her life, an irony I’ve taken as my own. When the friend opened the door the first thing she said was: smells like a cat in here. And then she looked at me and I could see her eyes became wet with the beginnings of tears. She was a bit much in this respect. She worked with my mother at a dentist’s office. My mother booked appointments, and the woman, Karen, would clean teeth and squeak at the patients about hygiene techniques. I remember sitting in the chair for a cleaning — a perk of mom working there — and watching Karen’s eyes go wide as she bared down with a metal tool on the plaque stuck against my molars. She always felt bad for people. For me, for my mother, she said. I just feel so bad, she would say. To us. Or, to the men on the street who washed car windows. For children who came in without insurance who needed root canals, or cysts drained. Though I can’t remember her emptying her wallet for either. Maybe for this reason my mother had chosen her to drive me to Josep. She would feel bad, so she would not interrupt or try to help.
I barely know him, I told Karen when we’d reached Cambridge and she asked me if Josep would be waiting for me out front of the building, and what did he look like, and if that, or that, or that was him. I said, yes, maybe that’s him. But it wasn’t, the man walked away, down the sidewalk toward the train station, his head bobbing against a background of red brick and red signs, not looking back.
Karen cried when she dropped me off, which seemed strange and indulgent to me — a feeling I kept to myself though. I would have told that to my mother. We always had things to say about people. About ourselves. But that part of you goes silent, and then you realize that it is you that people say things about, and that you can no longer say anything about yourself, just the imaginings of the perpetual worry and sorry feelings of others, and the clicking of their tongues.
Karen drove a red hatchback Honda, and on the way to Cambridge from Worcester, she’d put the heat on until it became oppressive, hot as it would go, as if to try to force that warmth into my bones as the warmth left my mother expiring at the hospice house. When I opened the door in Cambridge, a line of cold sweat dripped down my sides.
I did not see my mother die. Or know when she did. All you need to know, all I need to know, is that she had short blonde hair and crow’s feet when she smiled and she would do all the voices when we read books together, which is important, I think, though not unique, I’m told. In the car on the way to Josep I read a book from the Worcester Library, and at an exciting point, I remember beginning to read aloud. Karen turned up the radio, it was on All Things Considered. Not now, she said, this is a difficult time. When the car stopped she made me leave the book. I will return it for you, she said. It was a novel, The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. I have never read the end of it.
Karen rang the bell and Josep buzzed me up.
Just send him up, he yelled through the tiny speaker.
I guess that’s where Karen left me. And although the elevator did not offer a view of her as it hauled me up eleven stories, I have this image in my head that I can’t shake of Karen falling away below me, visibly wrenching into a sob, as I looked down. The things the mind can do!
I did not know Godfatherhood would entail this, Josep said when he opened the door — that was the first thing he said to me — maybe a moral compass, he continued, idly. Maybe I get you gifts on your birthday. But I accepted, he said, seemingly to himself.
He turned and walked back into the apartment, leaving me in the doorway. A single large room painted a faded blue split duties as kitchen and living room, the kitchen portion richer in color, farther from the windows. A dark hallway led to the bedrooms. The darkness seemed to produce a smell, its own thickness a sort of weight. The paintings on the wall of the main room looked original. They were bright shapes on white backgrounds, black lines, odd angles. They are fakes, he assured me when he saw me examining one, but I didn’t know what they were faking. You can sleep in the TV room, he said. But I like to watch TV late sometimes, so you’ll need ear plugs. But for now, there’s an extra pillow.
The plastic covered the windows blew against the winter draft, and the apartment was cold to the touch, everywhere: the walls, the furniture. It had settled into the bones of the place. I shivered. We seemed to hover just above visible breath. I never again heard from Karen — that woman who had the audacity to cry at me. She felt sorry, I assumed, from afar, from Worcester, crying into her patients’ mouths as they looked into the bright light.
That winter I listened to the balconies and recorded their noises. My mother had enrolled me in the public schools, but I chose not to go that first spring. A prudent choice, Josep told me, coughing over tea. The authorities will not catch up to us until the summer, he assured me. And it will take some time to process all of the paperwork once…
Massachusetts, thankfully, does not have great child services. Josep was right. My mother had the paperwork filed by a friend in the event of her death, I was told. It could have been Karen who did the filing. Josep had already signed the papers that year before, when my mother was in remission. Maybe that is why he signed. I do not know exactly when she died, though. The average stay at hospice is eleven days I’d read in a brochure I pocketed the one time I’d managed to visit. I had walked the three miles from our house. Karen drove me home.
I kept the brochure to the hospice in my luggage, under the piece of cardboard my mother had stuffed into the bottom of my duffel to keep it rigid before she left for the hospital. I took it out that first night at Josep’s and tried my best to imagine my mother in her bed. I saw her always as if from a long way above, as if she were on a soundstage in a vast studio, or as if she were a lost treasure holed away in the endless warehouse from the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I would hear the shuddering of the lights going off — a long line of them — and she would look up at me from the bed. This was pure imagination, she’d never been conscious in the hospice, never lucid. The lights would be clicking off, shunk, shunk shunk, ever faster. She would look up at me, and there would be a terror on her face — one I had never seen before, had invented, or intuited would be there. There it would end. I held on to the hospice brochure, and its terror. It stayed in my duffel, and even as a messy child, I managed to keep it clean and neatly folded.
I spent that winter getting to know Josep. He smelled odd and foreign, even in the cold. Like burnt oil, or some bean paste that I couldn’t quite name. He had come to the Cambridge in the sixties, ostensibly to study under another Catalan architect, also named Josep. His mentor had been big in the Republic, and had known Josep’s father for that reason. Spain was different then. It’s all very confusing, he said. But he had been rebuffed when he got there — rebuffed in several ways he always failed to mention in specifics (he would waive the specifics away like mosquitos) — and although his supposed mentor signed off on his asylum visa, and then his degree, Josep felt it was, had always been, a tainted credential for him. People have ominous beginnings, and then they never
quite can begin, he said to me. But you know this…
He said things like this offhand, as if it were gossip that I had long ago grown tired of. Soon after graduating Josep had designed a public school in the neighborhood where we lived. Public commissions were big then. He was working toward an Urban design. The school ended up the only piece of this project. A masterpiece, he assured me, in its original form. But incomplete. It would have been a whole neighborhood. A picture of it hung in my room, which continued to be his television room, where he’d watch PBS documentaries as I tried to sleep. We walked by it, the school, one day and he grimaced at the painted and stained concrete walls running off from the street into a warren of geometries. The yellowed plexiglass windows reflected the thin warmth of children and dry electric heaters. If you asked a student there, or a teacher, or anyone in the neighborhood, it’d been, always been, a leaky and draft ridden eyesore. Its concrete crumbled at the edges because of a poor mix of unwashed aggregate (the same old story). He was cursed by the other Josep, he said, who’d designed a big beautiful apartment complex across the street for a University. It sat next door wonderfully maintained and gleaming and towering, and his school sat incomplete and sodden. Mildew slowly crept up the walls. It was an insult from which he would never recover. He worked for the next twenty years designing bauhaus-like concrete-and-panel additions to the old wooden three deckers in central Cambridge. The additions were always plum, he insisted, even if the houses sagged. He began to design hardscape gardens in the early nineties when the renovation work of his variety dried up. When that stopped, he lived on translating for a Catalan architecture magazine that must have been funded by the provincial government. This is my life, he told me. He was honest.
Josep looked like an older Ricardo Montalban, a comparison I told him that spring one late morning when we were both sunning ourselves on the front step of the apartment building like two mangy cats. People stepped over us as we lay there. Montalban is elderly, Josep said. And Mexican.
I am part Mexican, I said. This was folk knowledge, though, I’d never met my father to confirm. Karen had told me on the way to Cambridge, between sobs, that it’d be hard for me anywhere I went, being a Mexican, like I was. I told Josep that it was fine that he looked like a Mexican man. There was nothing embarrassing about it. Mexicans were all sorts of people.
Exactly, Josep said, huffing. You are projecting, then. You are telling me I am a Mexican man, and that I am old and that I am going to die like your mother, and you are worried.
I told him I was not worried. I had in fact, never thought of it — of what a person looked like when they were about to die elderly. I’d never seen that, I’d only seen the young sick about to die.
He was always direct like this. He told stories that had no morals — once he designed a home for a man out in Concord, regular late seventies stuff with those whiffs of Catalan infused Bauhaus that couldn’t be avoided. Bright yellow and red and blue panels. A big circular window above the front door. Concrete mixed into a pale gray. The building was a success, Josep said, an award winner, but in the late eighties they tore the place down in favor of a neo-colonial in beige. A grove of birches in the house’s courtyard had been left standing at first, but died because of drainage issues with the new house. The end. After telling a story like this he would look at me straight in the eyes for a second. Then, nothing.
I recorded some of his stories, and still have them, on tapes. That first summer, I told Josep that I would be his biographer.
A fourteen year old biographer! he had yelled as we sat by a public pool down on the river. That’s all I need. But, he said, his golden bronze back, oiled and fuzzed with white back hair, rising into a stretch against his towel, this is all I can deserve. I am cursed. Just don’t call me Mexican, mijo.
He made me promise. You are Catalan, I reassured him. You have built a school. And it is beautiful. It will last as a testiment. We were both fine with this lie.
It’s okay that you are who you are, he said. But don’t make me into you. That’s not the job of a biographer, that’s the job of a poet — to make everyone into themselves. Or a bad architect. At this he became silent, and began to apply oil to his skin. Arms first, then his neck, then his legs.
I would not violate him in that way, I said, and then I cannonballed into the pool — the guard’s whistle audible even before I broke the surface.
That July a knock at the door came to inform us that I had been deemed truant the past year. I had recorded the flat, emotionless stories that gave the rise and fall of fifteen buildings Josep had built or irrevocably altered, but I had failed to learn anything in the sciences or in math. She was a black woman, the social worker who came to our door. It must not have looked good, the two of us there, this old man and his young companion. We were both shirtless in the heat, and I had been out on the balcony leaning over the balustrade to catch a breeze from the river as Josep smoked a clove cigarette next to me. The atmosphere seemed dangerous and strange in the city, and I could tell that she smelt something off as she stood in our doorway. Whispers of the clergy scandal had begun that year. A boy had been kidnapped, tortured, and killed in an adjacent neighborhood. I’d hung a picture of him on my wall from a missing poster — he smiled back in a turquoise baseball shirt, metal bat on his shoulder. Josep saw it and had said, offhand: you know you should be happy to be with me, as if such a thing could be said nonchalantly.
As the woman entered, Josep’s bare chest glistened despite its folds and wrinkles and spots. He stood behind me on the balcony smoking his cigarette when I’d opened the door. It was blazing hot and the elevator had broken. The social worker was sweating through her blouse and asked to come in. Wind blew past her from the window into the hallway, carrying the fleeting moisture off of us.
Sure, I said.
You are Liam, right? she said, sitting down and accepting a mug of tepid tea.
Josep finished his cigarette, stubbed it against the railing, and casted me glare.
Yes, this is Liam, Liam Murphy, he said. Though he doesn’t look like it. And I am Josep, his godfather.
You’re his legal guardian? the woman said.
You could say that, Josep said. There is paperwork somewhere.
My mother’s dead, I said. So I moved in here. I said this matter-of-factly with the air of adulthood that I’d been granted with my time with Josep. He shot me a ‘no’ glance.
We have it here, she said, producing a notebook from her shoulder bag, that you’ve lived here since January. And that you have yet to enroll...show up to school.
We thought, I said — but I didn’t have any follow up.
It was much too soon, Josep said. Liam, he wasn’t ready, and he was just adjusting to being here.
I could feel Josep becoming evasive, as he did when I asked him questions he didn’t have the answer to. He could forever make up excuses for inaction, but they were always poor excuses.
The woman sternly produced some paperwork for me to sign, and said that she would be back in August for another visit and to ensure that I would be attending the high school that September.
And if I don’t show up, I said.
You must, she said, flatly, stacking up the paperwork and putting it into her bag. You must!
At the door she handed me a card with her name and phone number. If anything comes up, she said. Call me and we can talk. Or— she looked past me to Josep who had resumed smoking on the porch — or just if you want to talk. About anything. Anything.
I slipped the card into my pants’ pocket.
I learned from reading the paperwork that I would be put in protective services if I didn’t show up to school.
Josep did not see the irony in that.
It’s going to kill me, I said.
Rubbish, he said. But, well...Josep went on smoking.
Josep wasn’t a good parent. That’s why I’d kept the card, I thought. I didn’t blame him for it, sure. But. Somewhere I knew that there was some metric that declared him unfit. On the border of unfit, at least. I had no way to prove it though. I could compare him to my mother, but doing so pushed down on my stomach, threw my bowels into freefall — so I didn’t. But I knew he must be on some list somewhere in the Department of Social Services of people, of guardians, to check in on, because that summer we had three other visits from people in various departments. We played it cool. The people who came drank tea. And I read aloud once from a book of translated Catalan poetry. (Look! Josep had said. He is a genius!) So, when it came time for my first day of school, a momentous occasion, it seemed not too odd that Josep asked me if I wanted to spend the day down at the public pool. We’d passed all the tests already. It’ll be the last week it’s open, he told me. And without students, it’ll be largely ours. I couldn’t tell if it was a trick. Or a bid to rid himself of me. Either way, I agreed to go with him for the morning, and I would show up to school after lunch. That way I could avoid the humiliation of the morning, and of lunch. Lunch, I knew, meant humiliation. I’d prepped myself that summer by watching VHSs of all of our country’s best High School dramas. American Graffiti, Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, Fast Times... and later ones... Clueless, Encino Man, and then a whole bunch of subtitled Eric Rohmer stuff: A Tale of Winter, A Tale of Springtime. I had stolen them from the library because I’d been embarrassed to place them on the desk in front of the old man in circulation. I would watch them twice, and I would record my thoughts into the Hamilton recorder, then sneak them back into the library and place them back on the shelves. They must have known. The mousy bobbed librarian would smile at me when I came in. The teen movie section had a big display where you could drop anonymous questions about puberty into a box. As I walked by she would smile and ask if I had any questions about the movies. I’m not checking anything out, I’d say. And she would say, well do you have any questions. And I’d say, I’m not checking anything out. And then she’d smile and point to the display. KNOW YOUR BODY was the campaign. I looked down at my sallow yellow skin. Maybe she thought I was sick. I’d thought the same thing. The end of the summer passed in that way.
That morning, on a bit of a whim, I’d asked Josep again what he knew about my father. My real father.
Is he here? What am I nothing? he asked, and then laughed a bit and stubbed a cigarette out in an empty teacup. Look at all I’ve done for you, he said. And he waved his arm around the room like that little apartment was a far reaching palace. Out beyond the windows, an August haze had begun to rise from the bricks of the square and the hills beyond the city began to turn from green to gray. I’d laughed along.
At the pool Josep and I drank iced tea out of a big thermos and took in the last bit of summer sun. I wore gym shorts my mother had bought me the year before. As usual with my clothes they seemed big and too small all at once — too small and falling off. I jumped and splashed in the pool to an audience of no-one, Josep sleeping and the lifeguard reading a magazine. I can’t place the exact instant when I awoke to the loneliness of that moment, my childhood fervour of splashing and screaming spreading out across the expanse of the river beyond the pool and dissipating into the noise of the highway leading West. But in an abrupt moment I stopped splashing and got out of the pool. I stood dripping looking down at Josep sleeping. And then packed up my things and left, walking barefoot to school. I changed in the first bathroom I saw.
When I got home after school, after being forced by a truancy officer to stay late to meet with my other teachers, I stomped into the kitchen and began pouring some water for tea, slammed the kettle down on the stove and felt tears stinging my cheeks.
I have successfully repressed what happened on the first day of school. I can’t remember what my teachers said, what it felt like to experience being looked at, laughed at for wandering into a senior English class, by students I didn’t know — would never know. I do not remember their faces. I couldn’t read the numbers on the door properly. I was in the wrong building. I was in the office of some sort of administrator. There was a call to a social worker. It was my fault. I was wrong, I was bad, I could still feel the wet off my shorts I’d swum in that morning.
When the water boiled, I poured the tea in a rage, my body shaking. I remember the shock of feeling the cold of the burn across my hand that held the cup. I didn’t even scream. How could it feel cold? I did not show the burn to Josep, did not leave the house. I stomped into my room and stayed there until two days later the burn began to fester and smell. I listened to the recorded sound of the humming balcony railings trying to convince myself that my mother was still alive in Worcester, still laying there in the hospice bringing up the average stay. 11.3 days. 12 days. 14 days. I heard phone calls ringing on Thursday. And Friday. Josep did not answer them. He did his work at the cafe. He was used to not bothering me when I’d been in a mood. He watched TV while I lay in
bed, ate chips, stuffed my face into a pillow to smother my tears. My hand swelled. Stunk. I no longer felt the urge even to pee.
Josep found me in a state of shock that Sunday. I’d puked, that is how he noticed I hadn’t moved. Fuck, he said, and backed out of the room at first, before returning minutes later to carry me to the hospital, which I do remember and for which I told him many times that I was grateful.
Things became normal from then on. As normal as they could: I took the hospital visit, the first since seeing my mother off, as a sign from God to go to school. Like my mother I did not believe in God, but knew, I thought, where to find his signs.
Josep had convinced the truancy officer I’d been sick all week, and produced a miraculous doctor’s note — doctor’s pads easy to find when you’re wandering around a hospital, he said. No one asked about the burn. How it happened. The gods are good, he said, jokingly, when he told me. I lay on a bed with clean sheets, the room smelling like carpet cleaner. He’d pitched the TV, and the VHS player with it.
That thing will rot your brain, he said. You need to go to school.
We were always short of cash even though Josep had paid the apartment mortgage off years before. Our money went just to food, or taxes, although I never knew if he actually did pay his bills. We kept the heat off for the most part, and left the door open to the hallway on the worst of the cold nights to let the warmth from the central heat drift into our living room. We’d both sleep in our open doorway under ratty afghans knit for some distant favor. Once, a pizza delivery man woke us up on a February night when we’d retreated all the way down the hall into the elevator lobby. Is the pizza paid for? Josep asked.
The man didn’t answer. He looked afraid.
Josep held a greasy five out to the man. Leave it, Josep said, his hand shaking. Leave it.
Which the delivery man did, pausing first, then placing the box on the ground at our feet and retreating backward into the elevator as if he were feeding a bear. He had not grabbed the money. The man was dark skinned, Mexican, I thought, or Guatemalan. I watched the light recede down the center of the door and only then could I marvel at the magnificent warmth of the box. I could not believe it — that Josep had held onto the five, that we had warm food. We held it between us and let the smell of cheese and sweet tomatoes seep into our bones until the pizza was only just warm, then devoured it in an instant.
Thankfully, in my junior year Josep came down with a bad back after laying down against the stoop of the building on a warm spring day and heard a thick viscous tearing. I’d been home at the time to bring him to the hospital, to return the favor — I was always home, he complained as I scooped him up. I found him stuck hallway out of the elevator on his way up to our apartment.
Thank God, he said. That you — he winced — have no friends.
I had already been labeled a loner by a school of loners and weirdos and kids that Josep called ‘thugs’ but what I knew to mean ‘black.’ I tried my best not to parse Josep’s calling a classmate of mine a ‘nehgro’ who had pushed me to the ground and stolen my hat that spring. I’d gotten the hat back the next day, after its brim rubbed to a plastic mess against the ground. Nehgros, Josep repeated. They are different here than in Mexico. There, they are indíginos, like your father. Here?
But being a loner amongst all the rest meant that by the time my senior year rolled around, I had already been approached and asked if I sold. It’d been a freshman who didn’t know any better.
I do not, I said, almost quizzically.
Come on, he said. You don’t even have any vikes that you could sell us. He held out a crisp twenty dollar bill. I could see a group of other young students standing forty yards away behind a grove of trees in the library courtyard of the high school. Perks? he questioned, hopefully.
I was sorry to disappoint him.
So, when Josep tore that something in his back that spring, and came home from the hospital with a dull orange tube full of shining white painkillers, I knew what we had to do.
He could not possibly take all of the pills, I explained to him.
But Josep could not be swayed immediately. So, you’re a little Mexican drug dealer, he said. Narco, narco.
I’m no narc, I said.
Come here, he said. He’d never said that before. Never hugged me, only once patted me on the head when I’d been in the hospital with the burn.
I walked over to him. He was sitting in his reading chair looking out our window. It was warm out, and the sun was yellow, the light in our apartment thick with dust.
Closer, he beckoned, as if he were going to whisper.
I leaned in.
And he grasped my hair with one hand and lay a slap flat onto my face.
Never! he said. Do you want me to go to jail? Do you want me to rot in prison? You puto! You shit on your mother’s fucking grave, you piss in her milk.
I pushed myself away, smelling the blood rising into my nose. I wound up and punched him with a heavy closed fist in his eye. I could feel his orbital bone give, or what I thought was giving. He yelped and spit and kicked at me, still sitting. Then he wrenched with pain against his chair.
I freed myself from him, kicked him in the shins, and watched him writhe against the pain that shot up his back. He tried to get up, but collapsed against the weight of his body. He lay there on the ground, cursing me.
I saw him there, helpless. I spit a big gob of back of the mouth shit that landed on the floor next to him. Pervert, I said, just trying to think of the worst and then stormed out the door, slamming it behind me. I ran down the stairs, eleven stories, hitting every step as I went. Outside, I retched into a sob.
I stayed that night in the unfinished basement of a friend’s apartment building.
I don’t really know you Liam, he said, after we’d smoked a bit and he was going back upstairs to his apartment. So don’t steal nothing from me you asshole.
Right, I said, and fell asleep thinking that maybe, with my swollen nose, I would need to skip a few days of school. I woke up the next morning wheezing, but feeling liberated.
I tried not to feel anger toward Josep, just pity. He didn’t know the gnaw that I felt from our type of poverty. For me it was not the same genteel poverty he felt. I had no degree, I had no school, no life. Mom had left me nothing but Josep’s care — shit, I thought, or worse. And I had missed what the movies and TV shows of the time assured me as a seminal experience, good or bad. I just drifted, it seemed. For him, it was a liberating nothingness; for me, it cut me to drift to the bottom of a deep, terrible chasm in a thick purple ocean. I would not go to prom. I would not rail against the curfew of my parents. No one would buy me a car for my sixteenth birthday, or even take me to get my learner’s permit. I watched MTV at friend’s houses, and we made fun of the nubile pop-stars knowing under our laughter that grunge had died and that given even the slightest chance we’d all become whoever Britney Spears wanted us to be just to get into the Catholic school we imagined she attended. I always over stayed my welcome. Everywhere. It usually became painful right before dinner when I’d check if a place had been set for me. I wouldn’t often get invited back to a house. I wouldn’t often watch TV with the same friends twice.
After a week in the basement, my friend kicked me out. Or rather, when I showed up one night he would not answer my ring and when I stepped back on the sidewalk to look up at his window, I saw him quickly duck away under the blinds. I thought I could hear the hum of our balcony stuck in my ears.
I let out a primal sort of scream that must have woken the whole neighborhood. Or so I hoped. I lay on the cold sidewalk for a good long while before getting up and, pathetically, shuffling away. When I’d wandered down to a park, I only then thought of picking up a rock and smashing his window and then picking up a shard of the glass and cutting myself with it. Letting the blood soak down into the brick. I didn’t think I could kill myself. I remembered the burn, the hospital, Josep, and thought better of it. Death was abstract, as it always is for seventeen-year-olds. I wanted it, but only as I saw it in dreams, from far away.
I went back to the apartment and opened the door quietly hoping Josep was already asleep. But I saw him still in his chair, the whole side of his face streaked with purple and blistered red.
Don’t stare at me, he said. I fell against the counter.
I could smell that he’d shit himself. The realization of that smell stung me, or the smell itself did, like seeing the brightness of the white sun after a long spring day inside a school.
We were lucky that the winter was mild, and that the elevator in our building remained in service. Insurance paid for a wheelchair. Down the brick streets I would push Josep, dodging tree roots. He would scowl at every bump. Are you trying to kill me? he would ask every time we hit a curb. You are trying to kill me, he would say, and you are going to keep the apartment. I knew he was joking, but secretly hoped that after that winter, after our fight, he’d come round to me being a permanent piece of his life.
Still, I looked forward to the future, an unknown place where I would move out and find a full time job and begin again somewhere new, in my own way. It felt like a repetition. A cycle that I then could control the second time around, the second time of many. I held this hope somewhere — among a pile of cassettes. It was hiding in their collective magnetism.
Josep had bought a new TV, a small one with a VHS built in and kept it in the living room. We watched documentaries together that I borrowed from the library, mostly old American Masters. Josep felt that they were like him, those Masters , but they had not been cursed. They’d become famous. He was always among them, he assured me. He had known a mutual acquaintance, always. He knew one of James Baldwin’s lovers, he said. He knew Aretha Franklin’s hair dresser. He’d exchanged letters with E.L. Doctorow about the portrayal of art in his books, and he could, he said, show me the correspondence if he wanted. He never did, of course, and I never believed him.
It was at night during one of our walks around the neighborhood, after an episode about Louis Armstrong (Josep had talked to him once backstage at a show in Munich, and they had gotten drunk together on cheap dark German liqueur), that we saw the notice on the school. Josep had just said: it was shortly after I built this school that I was in Germany, all that reconstruction going on. He said this, then looked up to the school and almost waved at it in an all-encompassing wave as he usually did. But it was then that he saw the fence around the school. Construction fence. He almost got up from the wheelchair. He sprung against the renewed pain in his back.
Oh Jesus! he said. And vomited on to the street.
I rolled him forward, away from the vomit, and then stopped in front of a large placard.
How could they not tell me? he moaned.
There was a hearing to be held four months ago, I read on the placard. And then next to it there was a faded rendering of a new school.
Where have I been, Josep said. What have I been doing? He was doubled over in the chair, and remained that way as I wheeled him back to the apartment, refusing to hear his pleas to dump him right there and then into the river.
I helped him into bed where he stayed until late the next evening. I brought him in tea, and left it on his nightstand, then retrieved it, cold and untouched, hours later. He lay there, eyes fixed at the ceiling. At one point he screamed for a solid minute in a long flat, terrible scream, and then abruptly stopped. I thought it had been a death scream, a final burst that I could interpret into his last words for the obituary. But it was not. I had never seen someone die. I did not know what it would be like. This was not it. He was only wounded. Badly wounded, but not dead. I went to school the next day. And on the third day, like Jesus, he woke and rolled back the stone.
I came home and found his door open. He was on his feet in the living room sipping a cup of tea. It was a miracle.
I’ve taken a pill, he said. It is marvelous. I’ve never taken them before, but I took one, and now I’ve got the prescription refilled.
That’s wonderful, I said. You can walk. You’ll feel better.
I’ve been thinking, he said. This summer. We need a vacation. We need something. I need to leave — to find something.
That sounds wonderful, I said.
But we need money, he said. We need money, to fund a campaign. And we need money for this vacation.
A campaign? I said.
We’re going to save the building, he said. It’s going to be difficult. But we are going to do it. Or, he said smiling at me with a drunk’s twinkle in his eye, we will destroy it ourselves.
I could see that he wobbled slightly as he spoke. The dope was wearing off, I thought. He would soon be a pile on the floor. I took the tea from his hand, put it on the counter, and led him back to the wheelchair.
When he’d settled in he reached into his pants pocket and brought out two orange vials. You said you knew what to do we these, he said.
I held the vials in my hand. I’d graduate in two months, I thought. And then?
We will go on vacation, I said. I promise you.
And the campaign, he said. You’ll help me?
Yes, I said, nonchalant, but knowing shit all of anything.
It wasn’t hard to offload the painkillers at first. I waited around the library lawn until I saw the underclassman who’d asked me before. He was sitting on a bench listening to a discman. I could hear that it was Rage Against the Machine. It was a good sign, I thought. He didn’t want any, but he knew people who did, he said. He looked excited, nervous. The music had switched to Green Day. He packed up his discman in his backpack. I had no idea how much things cost, how much we would need, and this was at first exciting. The possibilities were open. He led me to another boy, a black kid, who asked, how much? I showed him a single pill in a kleenex. White on white in the palm of my hand. I’d seen this in a movie — never show the whole stash. I wasn’t stupid.
It’s a forty, he confirmed, sniffing a bit.
It was a warm spring day. He must have allergies, I thought. He must be allergic to dogwoods.
So forty dollars? I asked.
I’ll give you fifteen, he said. And walked hurriedly off.
I looked back at the underclassman. Follow him you eejit, he said.
We walked down a tree-lined side street, brick apartments on both sides. A woman sped past with a stroller. The boy sat on the stoop of a beige brick building.
Oh, hey! he said. It’s you! He beckoned for me to sit next to him.
Which I did. My stomach fluttered.
He put fifteen dollars on the step next to him. I took it. I handed him the kleenex.
Thanks, I said, fingering the bills in my pocket.
Shut the fuck up, he said.
When I got home, Josep was ecstatic. He took the cash and put it in a tin that he then shoved into a cupboard above the fridge. There’ll be more? he asked.
Of course, I said. There’s plenty of kids.
He frowned. Ah, yes.
I didn’t know what he had planned for the school. But seeing his glee over that first bit of money, and then the steady stream that came in for a couple weeks, and then a couple weeks more with a third vial of pills, put a stir into my stomach. I thought at first of Karen, who had cried for me. And then I thought of the black social services lady, how she’d climbed all of those stairs to get up here that first day. I wondered what she would think, the face she would make if Josep and I got caught. Her name was Tina Olivier. I took out her card and held it at night. My hand ached, its scar pulsing a bit every time I met up with the black boy again, Ian, or with someone else he put me in touch with. Did I feel bad? No. We were left with a thousand dollars. We were rich, I thought. Josep retreated into his bedroom. He was sick again. His back ached. He’d needed the pills. He’d needed the money.
We will go to Barcelona, he said.
It’d been a week until graduation. He’d gotten a fourth vial of pills, a new prescription.
You need to sell these before you leave the market, he said.
He was being insistent, I didn’t like it. He’d be nowhere without me.
The school was set to come down that summer. His school. It’d sat empty for a year. And now it was time. When we walked by that week, cranes had been parked on a side street. The air smelled of dust already.
I’d need a passport, I said. Why not go to Florida, I asked. That way, we could just go. I sensed this was a stupid question. Our balcony slider was open. Josep was smoking, sitting in the wheelchair and had a teacup balanced on the balustrade. A gentle wind blew in that I could not hear.
What about the campaign? I asked. Are we going to save your school?
I’ve been cursed, he said. I have been cursed and cursed and cursed. How is this any different?
The next week I took the rest of the pills to school. They felt heavy in my pocket. I met with the usual people. You need to buy more, I said. I’m leaving. They said, collectively, they’d see what they could do. After school, as I sat drinking a coffee on the library lawn, Ian came up to me. He was wearing a bright orange shirt that said on its back said, Property of Bad Boy.
Nice disguise, I said.
Preparing for the future, he said. And he laughed. I’ve heard you’re looking to offload, he said.
Going on a vacation. I’m going to Spain, I said. My godfather and I.
Godfather? Sounds badass, he said. And then he walked off.
I followed. It was hot, and I noticed that the two vials made a distinct shape against my shorts. I always held them close. Never put them in my backpack. This time Ian led me somewhere else. I followed. We wanted to be safe, I thought. Get far away from the school. He walked quickly, forty yards ahead. Down a side street, and then, looking behind him, down an alley behind a brick block of apartments. The alley was gravel, and when I got to it, I could not see him waiting down the end. There were only the backs of other apartment buildings, dumpsters, scrubby trees growing out from the edges of the building. Birds, swallows, swooped in and out of an attic of a rundown house at the end of the alley. I turned and followed where he’d gone. I listened for Ian. I knew him, I thought. I knew Ian. We went to school together. I had once met him out front of his parent’s apartment building. He’d gone to the school that Josep designed. That’s it, I’d tell him they were tearing it down. He’d help with the campaign, he’d understand what that sort of legacy meant.
That morning Josep had woken up early. He’d packed. He’d been out the door before I hit the ground in that back alley. He’d been out the door.
Here is the story. I am built, I fail, I fall, I move on. Josep was gone. And I still had the keys to the apartment. That is the average; that is the energy of life. This is how I came to live here now. I pray that I know the effects of the gods, even if I do not know their faces.
Sean Alan Cleary holds a M.F.A. from the University of Montana and a B.A. from Tufts University. He is currently a high school English teacher and spends his time in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Danielle Dutton is the author of Margaret the First, SPRAWL, and Attempts at a Life. Her writing has also appeared in Harper’s, BOMB, Fence, Noon, The Paris Review, etc. In 2009 she cofounded the acclaimed independent press Dorothy, a publishing project. Born and raised in California, Dutton now lives in Missouri with her husband and son, where she teaches literature and writing at Washington University in St. Louis.
Photo by: Alex Chen