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Something's not right, you think to yourself. It's Saturday night. Your body and mind are soft and booming with the last vapor trails of a speed cap you took in the morning. The capsules are timerelease; over the course of twelve hours your skin has been suffused with a cocktail of amphetamine salts, each metabolized at a different rate. By midnight Mary's fallen asleep in her chair, first sitting upright, eyes closed, impish face slowly slackening; then slumped over on her desk, head pillowed by crossed arms. The TV blathers and blares through the brown living room, eating away at your concentration. To preserve the flood of grace through your body and mind you roll a joint and decide to take a walk. Lorain after midnight is no stranger to you. You've been lucky lately as far as weed goes. Your connect has been bringing you vibrant, pungent buds that stick with you long after you've rubbed the smolder out with spit and finger. This and the MP3 player Mary bought you last Christmas propel you out of the house; all night long the dark, salted with yellow and blue streetlights, has pressed against the windows like a poultice, drawing you out. Late spring in Lorain, it says. There are houses along railroad tracks, running like a rough scar. The East Side, where you live, used to be the place Lorain citizens moved if they wanted to get away from the blight. Less sophisticated Lorainites would say the West Side of the city was full of niggers and spics, crackheads and gangs; this was always only partially true. There was a significant representation of the darker races on the East Side of the Black River as well as the West; the main difference between the two was that the West Side of the city seemed to be falling apart at a higher rate than the East Side. The Black River separated the two sides if the city, crossable by two bridges: the Charles Berry bascule and the Lofton Henderson. As far as you're concerned, both bridges have their charm when it comes to walking after midnight. Charles Berry is the closest of the two, just four blocks from your house, and it's also the smaller bridge. Crossing it takes you right into the thick of downtown Lorain. The bars seem empty, dark, though it's just after midnight and a Saturday midnight as well. Broadway 1
2 begins with a left turn off the bridge. The architecture here always whispers to you of life in a previous century; every block of downtown is flanked by a stone facade, eagles and ornate corners carved to watch as you pass on the wide sidewalk below. This part of Broadway is easily the bestlit section of the city, and the streetlights, stylized fauxiron lamps, hold the purple dark off the pavement, engineering sharp, skittering shadows that roll across the sidewalk and catch you unaware as you stumble to the beat in your headphones. This walking, you think, one foot gliding before the other, this means something to me. My dreams are infused with its images. Stark, blind buildings that flow over your mouth as you sleep and choke your breath with their emptiness; sidewalks dry and blue, treelawns cacophonous with abruprtly dropped dolls and upturned tricycles; the sense of the whole of the city unreeling through my body, and the sense that you could punch a hole in it with your finger, that it would pop and the hole would shrivel and blacken brightly like botched film; this is where I live, you think. Stumbling forward as the spectacle burst. Streetlights hollow out the last of the gaunt churches on Reid Avenue. Dark ripples in stone, they're embarrassed at their gothic baudiness; all around them, squat houses squint with windows, shrink. Because in your dreams too you're walking, Stereolab's “Parsec” bleaching your ears, and in your dreams it's all de Chirico. Some feeling bit of memory, you think. As if pavement and box buildings leering were a way to remember rust. Like raw walking the bottom of the ocean and just remembering that you needed air. So it's something like death? Hmmm, why would you say that? Well, that's what would happen. If you walked on the bottom of the ocean long enough. And remember what you said about not breathing? Covering you over, coughing, slipping from the channels. I'm nothing if not a religious man. Like a monk, I'd say. She's slipping into a pair of pants she's had lying on the floor for days. She misses company and she misses family. Remember the early days, when you smiled your way through Christmas dinner with her Grandma and her brother. You stand with the two boys flanking you; they're restless like kids get, this isn't anywhere fun. You understand. Her brother collects glittering holiday automata, and it's displayed in every open space. Fidgety hands release mechanical holiday songs and the click and rotor of robot motion. You stand, flanked by the boys, and you smile. She will miss this. 2
3 Her eyes widen. I know. What? A farm! Huh? A farm. That would be the best way. We could be free from society and all this advertising. We could grow our own food and raise animals for meat. We could find a natural gas well... You make a left from Reid onto 12th Street. Between 11th and 12th railroad tracks stretch beneath streetlights like the ribs of a long snake, long dead. There's some sort of small industrial building at this corner, and on previous walks the desolate aura around the place intrigued you. You click your MP3 player silent and slip the headphones off your ears to rest around your neck. This is a dark street, one you haven't explored before, and you want to hear it. This isn't a neighborhood one strolls through casually at night; many of the low, peeling houses have the starved look of crack houses, dark windows peering blindly back as you pass. This treet runs parallel with the tracks. Between sparse residences patches of trees and undergrowth strain to reclaim it. As you walk the trees at some intervals achieve complete saturation; both sides of the street swoon with the hushed motion of leaves and the dark vistas between branches. These patches you walk slightly faster through. With so few streetlights here, passing into one of these wooded intervals is like falling down a well; a well alive with cricket sonatas and unseen sinister dance. Falling down and crawling out. When you hear the toilet flush you know Dad's done. It's a welcome sound. You've been standing outside the bathroom door for what seems hours, listening to the tide of hush that is your family, asleep. For some reason you think of Mr. Murphy as you wait. He owned the house before your family did, and his name has become tangled somehow in your mind as you settle in. You heard he died. That's how your family could buy this big house on 12th Street. The pop of the door cuts your thoughts. Dad stands for a minute, fifteen feet tall, in the doorway, harsh bathroom lighting throwing his thick arms into relief. Then he flicks the switch, and mumbles something unintelligible in a voice so deep you hear it in the rocks. You have no idea how long you've been staring at it. White misty light in the shape of a man gliding up the stairs. White misty light in the shape of a man gliding up the stairs. 3
4 White misty light in the shape of a man gliding up the stairs. Many of the streets next to railroad tracks in Lorain host these predictable industrial buildings. Some are small machining shops; others build furnaces. Many are closed and deserted. One of these is on Long Avenue, and it's circled by a chain link fence. The fence has been reenforced with green plastic, blocking for the most part any view of the property. He owned the house before your family did. Every house across the street from it is empty. What hasn't been boarded up there remains smashed and jagged, or scattered on the lawn. It's on your way down Long Avenue that it hits you. It's late Spring, early Summer. It's a warm night. It's not horribly late, just a bit after one in the morning, on a Saturday night. And you haven't seen one other human being while you've been on this walk.
Azariah Beebe is falling swiftly through himself. He is falling asleep. From beneath lidded eyes he watches the contour of his body dissolve into the warm viscous fluid he's suspended in. He's floating in seamless darkness, every thin tendril connecting him to the world around him shrinking as quickly as the world around him has shrunk away. This is the first stage. What's left of a human being after the senses have all shut down? Before lowering himself he thought, well, surely I'll still feel, surely even after you've dimmed sight and muted hearing there would still be touch; so he's surprised when he realizes even that's been dulled down here. William Martin was right. Afloat at this depth in the well, a man begins to drown even if he's got air. But only in the first stage. Next is the invention of monsters.
5 “For me, “ William said, licking his thin, windwhipped lips, “it was my mother. She was hanging clothes out to dry on lines, but it felt like the 1970s. I mean, all the colors were slightly faded, as if on pause. There was a rushing sensation, as if the world were filled with the most enormous wind it had ever endured—but nothing was moving. The clothes swayed just slightly, as if it were a gentle summer breeze. I watched the clothes she was hanging sway back and forth, push against her leaning. The repetition of her breasts for just seconds sketched by wet sheets...” There were tears in his eyes. Azariah leaned forward and squeezed his shoulder in comfort. The cigarettes sometimes make my tongue feel like it's trying to crawl down my own throat. Oiled fingers jabbing slick black keys, Azariah says, it's mostly like dreaming but with a head full of seawater and the glassiness of amber grains of salt flickering on treelawns burst open and still screaming warm and slipped in. Stand on the shore of the lake on a summer night, the great lake where Lorain drops off and the water stretches to Canada; it's like staring into a perfect void, and hell yeah I wanna fall through it, the same part of me going over the bridge, gazing off to my side at the safety rails and looking down at that water moving, that water never ceasing; it's inviting. The invitation William saw in his mother somehow beads on the bone pavement. This page is still loading. “Well,” Azariah says, forcing his face muscles to suppress the laughter, “I'm sure it's nothing. There's stillness now, at least, perhaps broken only by the computer spinning its fans and disks. Partially listening for the knock at the door, night unreels across the house, touching yellow lights to life and turning young heads back to hunger.” This page is still loading. The first monster Azariah invents is the Monster of No Escape. The walls of the well stretch above him into darkness; they're slippery with lichens and mosses, and even when he tries, he can't get a hold. This gives Azariah the feeling that he's sinking deeper and deeper into the earth with each breath. Afloat in the fluid, direction begins to lose meaning; up and down become interchangeable. Without his sight, Azariah forgets space. Afloat in the fluid, his thoughts curl around his body, absorbing limbs, washing even dampness away, leaving only the black, starcrusted interior of his mind, objectifying it. Without his sight, without the sprawl of transmission that was his skin, his hair: Azariah covered over in drowning, covered over in ice. At first thrashing, twisting, whipping. Leaning into wet sheets, printing them softly with barbed roundness. How would you define ambition? Oh shit. I don't know. Um. Um. The push to...advance, I guess. To advance something, move it forward. How would one instil ambition? 5
6 Hmm, I'm not sure you can. I can't really give you any universal answer to that. I can only tell you how it is for me. I guess I would say...feeling behind. Feeling like a loser. A lack of some sort. Then filling. I've never been described as enthusiastic. Discontent, really. But you know, it doesn't work like that for everybody. There are two ways one can go, feeling that lack. Some people just become the emptiness, become the loser. Some push forward and try to fill it. In the end the emptiness wins, of course. Erosion takes place. Soft suckslip of fluid rushing in. I don't know. I just don't seem to care. Maybe you don't feel any discontent. No, I feel discontent. I am dissatisfied. I know I have to change. I just don't feel any motivation. Hmmmmm. Keep in mind Hitler had ambition, too. Ambrosia. Noone in the town could remember ever having seen the well before, and none could recall the first time they noticed it. In fact, when William Martin confided to Azariah Beebe that he had fallen into the well just last week, he himself was unsure whether the well had been there before, or whether someone had decided just recently to build it there, in a clearing a mile or so deep in the woods off the Lake Road. William knew he had been in that clearing before; he'd rested there before, hunting squirrels on late summer mornings. But though he remembered the clearing, he couldn't say for certain whether or not there'd been a well there all along. The sun dripping citrus over the leaves. Birds calling to each other across huddled trees; below, the deeper rhythm of gulls singing to the lake. At night in the winter you imagine dark shapes shuffling across the snow, shuffling into the shadows of trees,interlaced and confused. Churches bobbing in the very respiration of the city. Azariah, too, was uncertain whether there'd been a well there or not. Naturally he wasn't as familiar with the clearing as William Martin was; Azariah rarely went into the woods. He bought his meat from William's family, mostly. The Martin's farm was ample, and more than one of Azariah's neighbors 6
7 bought their meat from them. On Fridays William would lurch through the countryside in his worn wagon, shouting instructions back to his two sons on what bundles to make up next. The two boys flurried in the back of the wagon, horsing around with each other mostly, but sometimes William's baleful scowl would shoot beneath one or the other's skin, and bundles of salt pork and glossy ears of corn would be quickly assembled. More than a few Black River towners found their orders short or long when William and his sons rode through. But it was worth a shot. Azariah had lately been feeling spooked in himself—becoming aware, while trying to convey to one of the dark natives who strode into Perry's cabin that perhaps the quality of the pelts he'd brought him wasn't quite enough to get two bottles of whiskey, that the entire time he was gesturing a wholly different conversation was quietly playing itself out in his head. This he could have simply marked down to nature; it was natural, symied by a lack of common language, to have words run on beneath the surface of one's gestures. What bothered Azariah was that, here, he'd gradually come to understand there were two distinct voices holding court in his brain. And he recognized neither of them. Cute. What? I think he hears us. I don't hear nothin'. Listen. He wrote Nathan about it. Briefly at first, alluding lightly to it as an addendum in his reports. Dear Mr. Perry, the post is doing fine. The natives here just as you intuited seem to have a natural knack for catching fur. We'll have enough Beaver and Buffalo. You asked for my initial impressions of this land at the mouth of the Black River, and I will tell you: there are other people talking to other people inside me head. They're talking about things I don't understand, so low I can't hear them. A murmur from the river, a murmur from the lake. Nathan, can you come here? Please help me. I open the blue box. Inside the blue box there are two pill bottles, labels peeled. One is filled three quarters of the way with fingersized marijuana buds. The other has in it four thin roaches, the sorry butts of a Friday night. Also inside the box is a small wooden tray, a wooden tobacco grinder, and four books of cigarette papers, two books flavored—wild berry and lemon. I empty the remaining marijuana from the roaches into the wooden tray, further breaking apart the tarry chunks. Then I open the other pill bottle, selecting two smallish buds. I place the buds in the grinder and whip it through a few rough turns. This I mix with the roach weed, further breaking apart the fresh chunks. When I feel this is sufficiently fine enough to smoke, I peel a paper from a book. 7
8 In my desk right now is some forgotten diner waitress' brown tip plate. On the plate, under an old credit card, is a small pile of cocaine. Yes just enough right now just enough. Just enough. Right now. Just enough. Just enough just enough just enough enough enough enough enough enough. Right now now enough. Now just enough. Just enough right now yes yes yes just enough. Yes, that was just right, right enough. But what's the opposite of drowning? There is no opposite of drowning. Not if you understand drowning. Just the other night I drifted off to sleep thinking, you are going to die. All of this, all of your comprehension, will vanish. You don't know what comes after that, do you? My dad knows. My uncle Richard says he talks to him in his dreams. There were also the fast things, the things he saw only in his peripheral vision. They moved very quickly, so fast you couldn't see them, but Azariah felt them more than saw them. Getting up to lock the door after trading was done for the day, at dusk. A rush of motion at the margins of his senses— sometimes several of them, as if incredibly swift men had just bolted past him, barely missing him. Hauling one of Perry's shipments, crates of whiskey, colored glass beads, into the cabin. Zip. Zip zip. It was hard out here, with no common language.
Hey. Hey. Hey, you up? 8
9 You up? It's 4 in the afternoon... OK, OK... You must have been up pretty late. Yeah, I don't think I went to bed until 6 in the morning. What were you doing? Went for a walk on the West Side...weeks of piled snow and ice across everything...thawing...you can actually see the blacktop of the streets out there. Where did you go? Across the Charles Berry bascule bridge, down 6th street to Washington Avenue, Washington to 12th. Clear, creamyblack sky. Took 12th up along the tracks, where the old CPak/Displays Displays Displays building used to be. Moon waxing gibbous, smearing above the silent bricks. Sounds boring. Hmmm, I don't think like that. I don't think anything's boring, really. It's just a space, and I inhabit that space. For the most part I'm indifferent to it. You like to walk around a lot at night. Why? Maybe I crave silence, and emptiness. Last night I left the house at 3am—the Devil's Hour, according to legend. Supposed to be a mockery of Christ's crucifixion at 3 in the afternoon. No traffic on the streets to speak of. Noone else on the streets but me. Maybe I feel that, in such silence and emptiness, I can expand. There's nothing to offer resistance at that hour; just the houses with their blank staring windows, the squat brick leftovers of businesses long bankrupt, the smooth dark sky striated with deadpurple and rustorange clouds. It's liberating, and very beautiful in a frozen way. And last night I was all geeked on coke. Do you do cocaine often? No, coke's a weird drug, and it plugs into some nasty cycles of my personality. I buy a gram of coke every few months; hardly what you'd call a habit. We used to do coke everyday here, but we 9
10 deliberately stopped. One day we noticed that we were planning on scoring instead of paying a bill. Once we noticed that, we knew we had to leave it behind. You like stimulants a lot, though. You like speed. Yeah, I got a yen for amphetamines. Back in my twenties, I was smitten by LSD. I took as much acid as often as I could get it; this was in the 1990s, back when you could get acid on the streets. A lot of the street acid had an amphetamine component back then, so not only was your entire world, your entire perspective, melting away before your very eyes, but also you were quite amped up, gorgeous tension spidering through your limbs as the colors and contours of everything around you exploded. It would turn your mind into a very fast rollercoaster. Are you a thrillseeker? Isn't everybody? Not everyone. Some lead lives of quiet desperation, to quote the famous American philosopher. I don't believe in desperation. You're full of bold statements today. Tell me something about what scares you. I think I'm claustrophobic. That's why I walk. Being in the house becomes too confining. Yellow light drenching my bones, citrus scrapes and punctures. As I'm laying at the end of the day, thinking through death, palpitating the strangeness of this, that the solid world around me has a limit, and beyond that limit I don't know what. I panic. I thrash, I lurch, I surge against it. But it doesn't move, you know. Every breath I take is a commitment to this end. Maybe it's the commitment you're afraid of. Wouldn't that be a wonderful tweak to the ass? All of this existential bullshit all boils down to a lack of commitment. Typical man. There's probably something to that. The idea of inevitability frightens me. Hell, closure...closure scares the shit out of me. Well, why? I don't like the idea of putting things in a box like that, neatly wrapped up, nicely tagged and defined. Frozen. I think that's just a way we have of rendering the world safe. It's no different than the fables. We snip off a bit of the living world and freeze it, study it as if it were closed off, as if it were dead. We derive a science from it. 10
11 How do you propose we learn things, then? What is there to learn? I wish I could approach the world without words, without names; I wish I could get inside the world. I suspect that's how the world really is. Dogs don't know they're dogs, and trees don't know they're trees. I can't know anything about what they call themselves, or us, or whether for that matter they need names at all. You seem nostalgic for an undifferentiated world. But that discrimination is where knowledge begins... Well, fuck knowledge, then. My. That yellow light splitting my brain and tilting my room. I'm asleep in an unmade bed, gray as the ashes of good ganja, and just as worthless. Spread me on the lake, Mary; let me slide through the depths in a million grains. You sound like you prefer ignorance. That depends on how you think about ignorance, and on what you think its antithesis is. Naming absolves you from further investigation, too often. Once I've hung a name on something, I don't have to think too much about it anymore, do I? Sure, I can trace some principles once I've snipped this particular bit of reality out of the fabric, but, like Nietzsche, I'm suspicious. These principles work in this bit of space I've cordoned off, but would they ring as true if I didn't partition the world in that way? How much of science is just a provisional grammar? You believe that science is provisional? Absolutely. We're always going back and correcting our assumptions about the universe. Just recently, we decided that Pluto wasn't a planet. What we mean is, Pluto no longer fits under the name “planet.” The object rebelled against the word, on reevaluation. Noone. The streetlights spread a yellow starkness across the street, leaving black throbbing veins on all the houses. You've been stumbling, every motion blurred, burned by the drugs. You come to yourself alone on Long Avenue. The silence floods your brain; you eye the blind windows, many of them with shades drawn, others letting that shameless yellow scream of light fall on empty scratched walls. Each one is black, too; here and there, as you walk, a glint bends itself out of the corner of your eye. You stop, listening for something, a rustle just beyond the range of what you notice. It's what's going on behind the windows that you can't see into, slow, furtive movement, that roots you to the sidewalk. You imagine everyone in Lorain dead; those houses mute, falling into themselves with quiet, covering bodies cold, blue, insensible. This stillness is full of souls, you think. You're losing yourself in the 11
12 dreaminess of yellow light, strained white and arctic by dead glass, winding itself around blue bruised limbs pushing with all the urgency of inevitability on the floor, pushing bodies up. The quick rattle. Fluid slur and crack of a screendoor thrown open. You spin around. One of the doors on the street of the corner you just turned has opened. There's a man standing on the small cement porch. The breeze works at his open shirt. He's gurgling. He jerks, as if something was running through his body, some small animal that gnawed into his muscles and swallowed his organs. His head snaps forward, backward, grinding out angles that should snap the windpipe. He gurgles. Another door opens. Another. Men and women twitch on stoops. You never talk about yourself. You never make any decisions. You never choose what you'd like for dinner. When we're watching TV, you never say you want to watch anything. You don't let anyone know you. I know. Well, it's like that character in every horror movie who dies in the first twenty minutes, the one who never gets any character development. It's hard to care when he dies. And just like that it's hard to love someone you can't know. I know. You're afraid. You don't want to be vulnerable. You're afraid that if you let someone in they'll hurt you. So if someone gets too close you attack. It's not that simple. It's not? It's not just that I'm afraid to show myself. Truthfully, I'm afraid that there's noone to show. That's bullshit! No, no, it's the truth. Ever since I was young and I first started reading about Buddhism and religious experience I've tried...I've tried to get rid of my ego. I've tried to slip out of my own particulars. I 12
13 want...I want to be infinite. I think about killing myself every day. You're depressed then. No, that's just it, though, it's not sadness. I wake up every day and I'm thankful I have a floor or ground to walk on. I'm thankful I have air to breathe, and trees to look at, and a whole goddamn world of people and animals and things to explore and experience. I'm really very blissful, really. But sometimes it gets to me. When I think of it all, when I think of the people in the world I'll never meet, or the skies in the world I won't see...I feel trapped. I feel like I'm chained to this particular body, this particular space, this particular angle. And I don't like it. I want to be universal, infinite... But that's impossible. That's not reality. I know. Well, I don't believe you when you say you're not depressed. Anyone who thinks of killing themselves every day has a problem. Why are you limiting me like that? Why won't you listen to me? All of them are looking at you. All of them tilt their ragged heads back, sniffing the wind. A gurgle multiplied, flapping through the still sidewalks. Long Avenue persists, black, stretching through forests of yellow and white houses. Time crystallizes and hangs in the air like snow. Run, you think. It's as if you could feel the breath of the men and women twitching and sniffing on the stoops of their houses. Run, you think. Run! So you run, feeling their hot empty eyes, their angry grasping faces, scalding your back. A scream punctures the dreaminess of Long Avenue after midnight; you can hear them behind you, slipping off their porches and their stoops, shuffling quickly to follow. They moan as they batter toward you. The air smells like iron ore, like sulfur, like meat left too long under a petulant sun. The railroad tracks catch your feet, and you fall hard, knocking the last dizzying pulses of the drugs from your system. You're able to collect yourself into a crouch before they're on you. Men and women crash over you like a wave. Dark faces, dark arms, ragged shirts, ragged skin. Everyone's eyes have gone black. A skinny creature that at one time must have been a crackhead tries to fit your whole shoulder into his mouth. The air smells like iron ore, like sulfur, like meat left too long under a petulant 13
14 sun. Pain blossoms in your shoulder as his teeth shred your skin. A thousand hands close over your body, pushing you to the tracks, turning you over to expose your belly. One of them pulls your shirt up. A large white woman, hair highlighted with platinum, mascara pulled in screamlivid streaks over cracked cheeks, pushes her face into your bare stomach. Your mind slips down a hole somewhere in the gutters of consciousness. You're covered over in an ocean of gurgling and snarls.
“It just seems peculiar, that's all.” Diadema was sitting on a wooden straight chair against the far wall of the store, watching Azariah with her face squeezed to worry. The wooden floor scraped and snuffled with the sound of thickly moccasined feet; a few sullen natives shuffled and coughed through Perry's wares, dark and inscrutable even with the light streaming in through the open door. Azariah watched them pick over bottles of whiskey and hunks of jerky, fascinated by the way their hands, scarred and hardened by a life he could never hope to share, deliberated over each article. “William Martin thinks it's interesting, too. He climbed down in there.” “William Martin is a fool. That last bag of corn meal we got from him was crawling with bugs.” Azariah chuckled. “I'm not sure that makes him a fool, exactly. But it was risky, climbing in there like that. He told me the strangest things about it.” “Well. The day I take William Martin's word for it will be the day Perry sends us some decent gingham. He drinks, you know. It's not just meal he's making out of that corn.” “Yes, I know he drinks. I guess what he says he saw down there could be the imaginings of John 14
15 Barleycorn. But I would like to see it for myself.” Diadema scowled. “You want to climb down into some hole just because William Martin proclaimed it interesting?” “You weren't there, Diadema. You didn't hear how he talked about it. He was...different. Haunted. It's like someone else had crawled inside of him, and was explaining something very important to me, something I needed to know. Have you seen him at all since then?” “No. The boys were the ones who made the last delivery.” “Exactly. Climbing down into that well did something to him. When I talked to him, he was clean. He'd shaved. His clothes looked washed for once. I came upon him as he walked through the woods. He was just stepping out of a patch of trees, and his passage was soundless—it was like the brush just sighed apart to let him through.” It was the rustling that made it sound like a sigh. The banks of the Black River were an explosion of reeds, browning with merciless summer. Light bent over bubbles in the mud. The light was bending bubbles over in the mud; it was near dusk. William seemed to float over the ground, his shirt loose and trailing amniotic in the noise of dead fish. He was ruddy. No dark circles under his eyes. “Spits like entitlement, she does, when the moon pulls her back up in contorted tides. That icy cartwheel through pinned toxicred clouds draws most of us out in one shape or another, until we're elongated, spun like a shadow on the floor. Carl Cox, be so good to my ass.” “Shit, woman, I loot the damned earth, scorched as it is by all these bricks, scorched as it is by the in dwelling lepers that spindle tipsily across her caked face.” “Carl Cox, about the meal: it falls from my mouth in spurts of wet ashes.” “Shit, woman, I'm plotting along in this mud a map to your final resting place.” “Spits like shit, Carl Cox, as I lay moondrenched on a loud bed thinking up murders that stalk the whispering oceans of reeds. Silt, too, falls from my eyes; you know, the usual mud imagery, that suck at the edge of this wave we're on that drags you down. Listen, my main man, you got frozen coming to you is the words on the streets, the indictment, handed through loop after loop of moonpeppered owls. I don't know about you, but the whole darknativestaringhungrilyatyourwife business makes me a bit nervous.”
16 The native growled. His hair hung crosses across his face. Azariah's heart popped a quick spasm in his chest. The native was pointing at Diadema, shooting her with gazes, then turning to Azariah, staring hard and inquisitive at his eyes. “Woman?” he gruffly asked. “Yes?” “Womman?” A flurry of annoyance skittered over Diadema. “By god, I am!” The native looked puzzled. Reaching into his hide jacket, he fumbled in an inner pocket. Suddenly, he smiled, pulling a small bag out of the inner pocket and offering it to Azariah. “What's this?” “Is he trying to buy me?” Diadema was indignant shrilly in Azariah's ear. “Azariah, what is going on?” Azariah took the small hide bag from him. “I don't know what's going on, Diadema. But, yes, it does appear he is trying to purchase you. You should be flattered.” “Flattered? He stinks! The very thought of letting that dirty black hulk touch me...” Azariah weighed the bag in his hand. The hide was the darkest hide he'd ever seen; the shape of the bag made a hole in his hand as he looked down on it, a negative gape in his flesh with no discernible features. The touch of the native had worn a hole in him. But, yes, there was a string holding it closed; it tickled at his wrist. Azariah pulled the string. It was awkward, because he just barely knew where the string was. The whole store paused; a frozen explosion. He dumped the contents out onto his palm. A small black leathery bit of meat, indistinct and incoherent, lie tilting in his hand. The air of the store was bending around it. It shivered like a black eye in the middle of the ripple of the air. “Oh, geez, I'm sorry.” One of the natives, who had been browsing beads on one of the far shelves, started. “You all ain't supposed to see that. That's just for us.” Azariah raised his head, dazed. “What is it?” “It's a bird's heart. It's...it's not money. He wasn't trying to buy you, ma'am.” 16
17 “He certainly couldn't have afforded me with that.” Azariah poked a finger at the tilting black meatball. “What does it mean? Why is he carrying around a bird's heart?” “Well, what do birds mean to you? What archetype does the bird reference in your culture?” Azariah thought of an explosion of birds shooting into flight as something jerked out of a well in the woods. “Sure, that, but to us the bird is more a symbol of swiftness than it is raw startlement. It's a solid chronology.” The native peeled his glasses off and began to polish them intently. Diadema had grown bored with the conversation, and drifted off to her knitting; the hulk who started the whole thing watched her, pupils dilating and constricting in time to her needles. “I'm not sure what you mean by that.” “Birds' hearts beat faster; they live a shorter amount of time.” “Their bones are hollow.” “Yes, their bones are hollow as well.” Azariah fixed the bespectacled native in his gaze. “You know English very well. Where did you pick it up?” “I don't know English.” “OK. But I'm still not sure I understand this business about the bird's heart. It seems an odd thing to carry around, kind of morbid. I don't like what it portends.” “Then you're a superstitious man?” “A godfearing Christian.” “Mmmm. The Christ on the Cross, the corpse. And you think carrying around a dried animal heart is odd.” “In the end, don't we all end up worshiping corpses?” The words escaped his lips, seeming to come from somewhere else, somewhere far away from the dim log trading post.
18 “Those are some fancy cogitational contortions, white man.” The native thrust out his hand. “My name is Speaks With Stone, in your language, which, incidentally, I don't know.” “Mine is Azariah Beebe.” “A pleasure, I'm sure. It's interesting to talk to you, Azariah Beebe. I'm unused to white men being as articulate as you are.” Azariah shrugged. “I do my best.” Speaks With Stone chuckled. “Modest, too.” He stepped back, surveying the dim log room with a sway. He beamed at Azariah. “I don't know...do you really think it's worth it?” “What's that?” “Commerce, industry...” Azariah leaned toward him, smiling. “Gotta eat.” “I suppose so. It's not so different from killing, is it? Perhaps less polite. But my people at least respect what we're killing. I don't feel it's the same with your team.” “I'm a quarter around the globe from where I was born, in the middle of a wilderness. I don't have a people or a team.” Rain curling in on itself. You love best that light you can breathe, like the day you drown summer, the serpent spending against your thigh like deserts bored in, sucking like the last tart sliver of sticky coughdrop the power from your appointments. The sugar goes to your head unexpectedly velvet and then there's that dark dark dark fucking street, anywhere near 17th street, those dark faces that bellow into pillow silence from the porch. Maybe I want you to give me a cigarette. And maybe you do. Meanwhile, I'm used to coughing shit up. I walk John home, then I decide to walk back to the East Side via Reid Avenue, the way I used to take when I worked at the store. Ten hours into a twelvehour amphetamine jag. The lags were slipping off my shoulders in molts. I wished fervently to be referred to as “Boltneck.” I have a joint with me too, in case of fatigue, and I've also eaten some caffeine pills, and some ephedrine. Strangely, I'm not jittery at all—I just walk fast. Reid Avenue runs east, several blocks from the lake, but you can never hear the lake here anyway, 18
19 unless you're right up against it. I really just want to dirty up my mouth. Started tying the beat to different things, to letters, angry collect calls, to chairs and the heartsplit tree behind St. Joe's, behind 17th street, like I'm there or something. But I have to go up 32nd street to get there, I have to lift from Elyria avenue. Maybe I just want to dirty your mouth up. Maybe I just want you to shut up. The thing about Reid Avenue running east is, you start off in a good neighborhood, but you end up in dirt. All of the houses when you first turn 32nd balk as your ragged blackjacketed figure fidgets past. They're large, welltrimmed, immaculate; it's only suburbia, after all, but it wants to cough you up, like you're ash in the air, wafting in from the steel mill, and they all have important announcements to deliver. What announcements do the houses deliver to the night? We're the sheaths on it all, fences of glass and wood. We're the holes all of you crawl into, the safe zone, the underground at eyelevel. You shrug off your world's skin when you enter us, and we feel you deeply, deeply. We feel the secrets of your body as you slough off your days. You take shape beneath us, within us, around us; we define you by your sighs. You do things, you say things to each other you wouldn't dream of doing or saying outside our protection. Yes, we slip over your mouths as you sleep; we ceaselessly weave your history, over and over, embroidering the needless flashes of anger, embellishing the shame over your loss of control; we glean fugues from your frenzied and desperate couplings. Only at this depth of night do thirsty wanderers hear us. What do you want to say to the houses? “Fuck you. I don't care if I bear some forbidden witness to this. I want to go home.” There's a pitch to the light tonight, a short tone. I think the chances are good that the sun will start rising before I make it back to the East Side. I also think the chances are good I won't run into anybody —even on 17th Street, where the crackheads reel under cold yellow streetlights, pacing the eternal dance of need into their hollow globes. But, see, I'm wrong. Right at the corner of Reid Avenue and 17th Street, pacing on the cracked sidewalk in front of a demolished, abandoned house, a figure, a fugue, jitters and buzzes. She's an old black woman by herself, running circles around the assend of the night. I feel her veins throbbing with trouble as I approach. “Hey baby...” Shit. I brace myself for fending off another hooker. They get more and more aggressive as the city's economy bottoms out. “Hey.”
20 “You got an extra cigarette I can have? It's my birthday, and I done had a really bad day.” I just happen, in fact, to have an extra cigarette. I pull it out and hand it to her. I can see in the meager light that she's solidly built. Beneath a thin, shockwhite blouse her breasts jut forward, daring me to keep my eyes off them. The stims boiling in my blood seem to strip some cultured veneer off my thoughts. “Well, I hope your day gets better.” “Yeah. I know I ain't s'posed to drink, but I had a little bit. It's my birthday, y'know.” “Sure. I don't think anyone can fault you for a little drinking on your birthday. “ I lean in and light the cigarette for her. She draws on it, and her shoulders loosen. “Thank you. You done made my day. You're blessed. This cigarette and that smile of yours done saved my day.” “Thank you.” “Can I give you a hug, sir?” “Sure.” She leans forward and envelopes my sweaty frame in hers. Her breasts push against my chest. “Which way you goin'?” “Down Reid here. I'm on my way back to the East Side.” A cloud of concern passed over her face. “You gonna cross the tracks around here?” “Yeah. I have to.” She leaned back and looked me over. “I heard something coming from over there a little while ago. I heard stories. I don't go over there. You shouldn't either. You should go up by Broadway, go that way. Somethin' bad goin' on over there.” “Oh yeah?” “Yeah. You done been good to me, I'm tellin' you you stay away from over there.” I chuckle. “There's nothin' over there I'm afraid of. Noone fucks with me on the street. As you can see, 20
21 I'm pretty big.” “Yeah, I don't think you big enough for what's over there.” “I gotta get home before my girlfriend gets up and worries about where I am. She was asleep when I left.” “Oh, you steppin' out on her, huh? You getting' some West Side pussy, ain't you?” “Naw, nothing like that. I was just walkin' a friend home.” “You fuckin' that friend?” “Naw, it's a guyfriend.” “Oh.” Her eyes crawled over me again. “You ain't gonna take Broadway, ain't ya?” “No.” She flung the cigarette down into the dirt. “Suit yourself. I done warned ya. That's what I'm here to do.” “What?” She turned away from me, and as she turned, an icy blast of wind whipped Reid Avenue. Scales of ragged brown glass twittered across the pavement. The shape of her body smudged itself out into the night, as if she were flat, and that flatness was falling through a rip in the streetlight. At the very edges of the smudge, I could see maggots pulled across the rim, tiny mouthless screams. I was left alone, standing in front of a demolished house, tasting the linger of her cigarette.
So...yeah. You saw that, right? Shit, boy, that didn't happen at all. She was never there. The drugs concocted her. That old black skank was just all the stims and weed. Then why do I still smell her cigarette? You think you're the only one out here smoking? Well, I am now. It's one of those odd moments that happens when you do a lot of drugs: that itch of doubt at the sight of something fantastic, that groping for veracity. Sure, it could have been some paranoid manifestation of amphetamine psychosis, but nothing, as far as I knew, had ever caused me to dread the tracks on Reid Avenue. So I shrug. And I move on. I like how blasted everything looks down here. The closer you get to the tracks in Lorain, the closer you get to the singed, striated lips of a scar. This is what I am telling you. Huddled near the tracks, on every street they touch, abandoned concrete huts bend everything to a deep black street level, nose to the pavement, mouth full of the grit and rust of decades of boots. We're born here with this taste in us, this crumblingaway. We stink of burden. Back when I worked at the store, I remember walking the length of 17th street. There was some huge building there at the time that was being demolished, it might have been a church at some point. The sight of the scaffolding, and it's brokeopen, grimacing flank, slid into me; the glance of seeing the side of her breast, such a blatant white spark through the eyes. This scar makes you interesting; this scar makes you beautiful. Their pinched faces are nudged against the night, their lips straining, their lips stained with rust, with blistercracked beer bottles strewn like the roses leading me over your white shoulders with my mouth. The missing parts of that giant open church were white, too...just in case you were wondering. My head feels like it was baptized in whiteout, I think. One house has grown a conservative rose patch in front of itself. In the turgidness of the air before dawn their scent slid into me, leaving me defenseless, open to anything, spilling such a brief blizzard on the sidewalk. It's a smell that promises something in a whisper. You're something out of Gauguin, with a Modigliani face. I stop, sniffing the air. Not just roses, but something else. Sweeter. Sweet in an artificial way. Bubblegum...
23 Teenage girls, maybe? I think to myself. Then: it's late for the bubblegum set. Or really early. It's almost dawn. This house has grown a protective picket fence around itself, a warm, putrid beige instead of white. On two of the pickets human heads have been pushed down. Their faces are sealed in a noiseless scream. What the FUCK? Okay, here's where I reconsider taking Reid all the way down to West Erie Avenue. Here's where I think maybe I should have taken Broadway. Blood trickling down that puke beige, that ugly salmon color.
What the FUCK? What should I do? I have to tell somebody.
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