by LUCY MORRIS
If it began when I think it did, it’s the March I am sixteen and he’s the guy who writes his number down for me with a red crayon he happens to have in his pocket. There’ll be a thing downtown later on that night, he says, some poetry and some beer, if you’re into that. He walks me toward home with a limp and an inhaler he stole from a friend, alternating puffs on a cigarette and puffs of Albuterol. The air bears the anxious humidity of pending spring, but the wind tangles with his hair and takes snipes at his extremities. But my hair is matted against my temples and underneath my black pea coat I feel sweaty and nauseous, vaguely feverish in a way that is new to me, in a way I do not yet understand will be a recurring sensation, that this is what the physical manifestation of new possibilities feels like.
There’s early evening traffic on Oakland Avenue, minivans pointing toward Newberry Street and Lake Drive, those avenues of mansions, and old Acuras and Caddies with rims, with turn signals pointing in the direction of the Locust Street Bridge, where we are headed. It’s a relief after the density of exhaust fumes and the pervasive impatience of rush hour, the cars speed up but we hold back: he has an odd limp, which I realize only later is affected, though I never figure out why.
It’s hard to say, at this point in time, what it is we want from each other, and it is this unresolved quality of our relationship that’s compelling to me, that spits us out onto these city streets together a few times a year even after I no longer live here, sometimes in July’s humidity, sweat rolling down our faces; sometimes on the black ice of Wisconsin winters.
It is the Midwest, two-thousand-and-something, in the dying beer town where I’ve grown up. While we walk, we survey the city’s paper factories and churches of endless denominations, scurry and slide up and down muddy hills with grass traction just about in sync, stubbornly put our faces to the wind and to put our hands in our coat pockets, with no question of what comes when we loop back to North Avenue and part ways. Here, I always walk slower, trying to delay the parting until next time, not knowing how to make things continue and also knowing that our time has expired, that he will go to work and drink on his breaks, that I will go home and read on my porch.
He calls at eleven one night during a summer when I’m home working retail. He asks me to meet him at the bus stop on Locust and Humboldt. I peg my jeans and put on a sweatshirt and I shrug, why not. It’s a straight ten minute walk down the Boulevard, but there have been a lot of muggings this summer and I usually won’t do this alone when it’s dark, but, I am finding in the fast-paced way of young adulthood, that there are exceptions to most rules, it’s just hard to know what they are until they present themselves. He has a bottle of whiskey in his back pocket, a six-pack of Schlitz in hand, and not enough money for a bus ticket. He swears he know where we’re going. The bus charges with the late night freedom of speed down through the Third Ward, blocks of deserted loft spaces stacked upon ground floor galleries and antique shops catering to the rich and the quirky: the stuffed owl in a gilded cage and absurd cast iron sculptures depicting hearts cracked down the middle.
We get off at an empty looking building; he makes a call with my phone. A man with a silkscreen rendering of Jeffrey Dahmer’s mug shot on his wall invites us in and asks me: “Are you a good one?” I cannot begin to answer this question. I am handed a beer.
We are seated in mammoth armchairs; I’m so high my feet don’t touch the ground. The crease of his forehead becomes more pronounced as he drinks and he becomes meaner; I become quieter with every sip, toes tracing invisible points in the air in front of me. The bus stopped running at one and I do not know how to get out of here so we accept rides from a guy who’s tripping and end up across town on Center Street at the home of a guy who in three weeks time will be dead from liver failure. A man is smacking his girlfriend while she moans and everyone is rolling joints.
I wish he would walk me home, so that we can gain some kind of equilibrium to the steady rhythm of our steps, that we could brush shoulders and apologize. We could climb the hill on North Avenue that contains the city’s water supply and looking across the horizon, he might instruct me not to look straight down and in hearing that, I would be moved to do so and I would waver, just briefly, and look back up.
It’s winter and he needs a job again: He’s worked at the corner store for too long; he’s growing sick of selling porn to methheads and beer to frat boys at Open Pantry. He left his waiter position at the Japanese restaurant on Prospect Ave, the sandwich shop environment was too oppressive, he got fired from the auto repair shop and he stole money from the movie theater he worked at. Lately, I have been far away, I have been occupied by the act of falling in love, and I do not have time to actively worry about him so I channel my concern into party-time anecdotes in which he call me lioness and everyone laughs at his odd walk. I feel vaguely guilt when I think of that now, striding alongside the limp, going from store to store collecting applications, toes numb in our shoes, noses pink from the cold.
The sidewalk lining the Humboldt Bridge is disguised by discolored snow, we trip a little here and there. We brave an unmarked intersection and turn right onto Water Street. Everything here used to be tanneries, now everywhere are condos. He tells me that in ten years they’ll all be empty and it will be an urban playground again, the land rightfully restored to graffiti artists and skaters and homeless dudes and bond fire pits. We slouch by the Technical College’s new glass-ensconced gym, by biker bars, by the new insurance building across from my old middle school on Walnut Street. A girl at the museum’s reception desk is smiling broadly at me, sheepishly; I think she must be wanting him but it turns out she was a friend of my brother and also slept with a boy I was once with. We wave goodbye and in the elevator he is the one who blushes.
He decides we should hit the hotel loop downtown: the Pfister, where the presidents stay; the Wyndham where my grandparents used to visit; the Crown Royale, the Marriot, the Motel 6 and the Howard Johnson’s. I have never before had occasion to step in these lobbies. I see it all, briefly, through his eyes: a blueprint world, a model waiting to be animated, a series of futures waiting to be conceived of. I generally see things instead as the set on which my life has played out, buildings mere markers of events, the many scenes of a couple decades’ worth of anecdotes – here I kissed a boy in the fiction aisles of a used bookstore; there I saw a movie alone for the first time.
In the lobby of the Holiday Inn, a peppy man tries to recruit him for the military. I am uneasy about his indiscriminating decisions, about the books he reads that convince him that anything he may decide to do has potential narrative value, and yet I adopt his stories like they’re my own, I co-opt his quirks and pass them off as products of my imagination. I worry when I hear, six or so months from now, that he may be taking the man up on that offer, that he plans to move to Santa Cruz and join the Navy, but I tell myself there is nothing I can do from a distance, and this is true, but what I do not bother reminding myself is that there is nothing I could do even if we were shoulder to shoulder, climbing the watchtower in Riverside Park.
We meet at the café this time, the one equidistant between our houses. It has decent iced tea and offensively bad local art on the walls, self-portraits of young women done in mirrors, unsubtle and oversaturated political collages. His plan to see the redwoods fell through. This summer, the last one I’ll be around at all, he is keeping in his freezer a cicada, immaculately preserved on a paper plate among the liquor.
I think about the bottles of gin he consumes and how maybe in five years, when he hits thirty or is robbed one more time of the few possessions he has, that the alcohol that seems to be preserving him will instead unwind him, easing the sidewise smile off his face and unfurling the charming, frightening crease of the forehead, and graying the blonde hair, at first imperceptibly then just around the temples, and then everywhere on his head and his soft hands with the hair on the knuckles I always forget exists.
The plated cicada he balances on his fingers is all awkward angles, its eyeballs miniscule glazed over globes. He’s entertaining a robin in his house. He feeds the bird grapes and in response it shits everywhere, in the empty beer bottles lining the windowsill and on the dirty floor and the couch where he passed out so drunk last night he pissed himself.
I have forgotten the bird’s name now, though it was something eccentric without being multisyllabic. It feels like a long time ago now, and many cities and streets have intervened, popping up between us to create a landscape of distance and letters and phantom sightings. A few years later, lying in bed across the world, I will think about him and I will try to explain him and the distance makes it easier:
We take walks together. He drinks beer from ten in the morning til three in the morning. I once wanted to know him very badly, more badly than I had wanted to know anyone then or even have since. At one restaurant we would go to he put dinners on his tab even though he overdrew constantly. There were days when he had zero dollars, just some cents on the floor of his bedroom. I never gave him money because he never asked and because it would have ruined everything. He drank whisky and water while I swirled my straw in a can of cranberry juice. In his living room, we break danced until his roommate asked us to read his poetry and we sobered; no two people on each other’s peripheries should enjoy each other this way and so much. Things became muddled when he lifted his hands above his head to remove his sweater, I saw his belly and it looked like a grown man’s belly and I called my brother to ask him to come take me home. There was a church across the street from the house he lived in then on Weil Street, I remember that. I remember the raincoat he wore the last time I saw him before things changed, and the shoes. He wore old man’s shoes when I first met him, beige, thick-soled, and when I left he was wearing child’s sneakers, brightly striped, and a yellow raincoat. He looked like Paddington the Bear with a cigarette in his paw. I never stopped worrying for him.
Lucy Morris is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Iowa City. She last wrote in these pages about Macdonald Hall. She tumbls here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.
"Everything's Gonna Be Undone" - Band of Horses (mp3)
"Slow Cruel Hands Of Time" - Band of Horses (mp3)