He is back in the city, back home. He shivers in his inadequate jacket. He lives in a place where coats are not necessary; he has forgotten how cold and gray the winter is here. How the trains and factories have coated everything with grime. Even the people seem dingy, dressed in shades of old gray, tired brown, faded black. He likes this, how easy it is to be invisible.
He eats eggs and toast and coffee in the café where his mother waitressed. She is not working today. He does not know if she has quit, has the day off, or is dead. He does not ask.
He glances at the paper, where a young boy grins up at him, perhaps twelve, his teeth shining whitely against his café-au-lait skin. The latest victim of the killer stalking the young boys of this grimy neighborhood.
The face smiling out at the man is familiar, a face like those of his childhood. Like his own face, in fact, right down to the tight cap of kinked curls that earned him the nickname “Brillo” from his best friend Angelo, whose own hair was straight and brown and silky as a girl’s.
The man wants to read the article but does not. He does not want to be remembered here; he certainly does not want to be remembered reading this paper, this story, in this place.
He finishes his coffee, warming himself for the walk he will soon take.
The first time Bril saw it he was standing in the doorway of Ching’s across from the highrise. He always went there when he needed money.
The highrise was a burned out husk. No one lived there anymore, but the druggies liked to use the first floor to flop. If Bril waited long enough, sooner or later someone would come out of the highrise and blink in a surprised way at the sunshine. They’d look around in that rabbitty way they had.
They didn’t always see him – they were either too paranoid and jittery or nearly comatose. So Bril would make some movement – shift side to side, spit – to give their jumpy, sleepy eyes a chance to land on him. Their bodies would go relaxed with relief and tense with need all at the same time.
“Hey kid,” they’d yell. And Bril would go pick up a packet of something, or deliver a packet of something.
He hated when women came out. They never wanted to pay. They’d tell you what you could do to them, instead of getting paid. Bril always ignored them. He didn’t want anything they had.
If they had asked, which they didn’t, and Bril had felt like telling them, which he wouldn’t, he’d say that he needed money because of Angelo. Angelo’s birthday was coming up and Bril was going to burn all of his favorite music onto an iPod.
He didn’t need money for the CDs or the iPod – he’d already stolen those. The money was for a pair of one hundred and fifty dollar sound-isolating Shur ear buds. Not Sony or Kos but Shur – the good shit. They were down at the pawn shop for the amazing price of twenty eight bucks.
Bril asked the shop owner to hold them for him – he had eight dollars, figured he could get the rest pretty easy at the highrise. The shop owner suggested that Bril could manipulate a piece of the shop owner’s anatomy in a way that would lead to the shop owner’s complete sexual gratification, and the sale of the ear phones for five bucks. Red-faced, Bril pretended not to hear him.
The highrise was the tallest building around, a big rectangle that rose like a defiant finger from the scarred fist of the neighborhood. Its blackened face was punctured by eight rows of eight windows, half of which were broken. Bril and Angelo were responsible for a few of these – that was before Rosalie.
Overhead, an airplane scratched at the sky. Bril glanced up, started to look down again, and caught sight of movement in one of windows near the top. He gasped and took a step backward onto something soft.
“Huzzaaa fu gah ovvame,” growled a voice.
Bril looked down. An old junkie lay curled under a jumble of clothes, their bright colors not yet totally obliterated by filth.
“Fuck off, old man,” Bril said, businesslike. He looked up again at the window – second from the top, all the way to the right. No glass. The thing was still there, its head framed in profile.
If you can call that a head, Bril thought.
It was maybe four times the size of a normal head. It was pale, whitish, like a mushroom he once found poking up from the porch boards after an all-night rain. He’d gone outside to sit and smoke and smell that wormy fresh after-rain smell and contemplate the shiny washed street, and he’d put his hand right on it.
He remembered how it felt, all slimy but somehow firm, as if it had a right to be there. He’d kicked it savagely, kicked it for daring to rear its repulsive head, kicked it for refusing to stay crouched in the dark under the steps.
The thing up there in the window had a stalky neck that was too thin and too long for the swollen head it supported.
“What the fuck?” Brill muttered.
As if hearing him, the head-thing turned toward him, turned so fast its face seemed to blur.
Bril took another startled step back, ignoring the junkie’s cursing. That mushroom head was now looking right at him; it was thrust forward, leaning out of the window in an attitude of concentration. Of interest – a thought that gave Bril a chill. But though the thing stood perfectly still, its features were still curiously blurred.
As he watched, the area where the eyes and nose and mouth should have been began to move – to roil slowly, its runny features shifting and swirling.
“I wouldn’t look at that if I were you, boyo,” said the old junkie.
Bril glanced down. It was strangely difficult to tear his eyes away from the mushroom-headed thing up there.
“Who the fuck IS that?” Bril asked.
You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” the junkie said. Despite his warning, the junkie was staring up at the window. His eyes were the color of spilled coffee, the sclera yellowed and thickened. He stared for almost a minute, his body so still, his muddy eyes so fixed Bril thought maybe the old fuck had popped off to junkie heaven until he saw the knob of Adam’s apple bob in the grizzled chicken neck.
Bril looked back at the highrise, up to the top right window. Now the thing was leaning out the window, waving slowly. Its bulbous head was truly horrible, the most disgusting thing Bril had ever seen. It was soft-looking, misshapen, the skin the same color and texture of the leeches that sometimes showed up in his old mama’s decrepit garden.
“Damn,” Bril breathed. He glanced back at the junkie, who was still staring raptly up. “How can you look at that fucking thing? What the fuck IS it?” He asked again.
The old man seemed to pull himself physically from his gaze. His head jerked; his body spasmed; he coughed a long ropy-sounding cough.
“Never mind,” the old man wheezed. “Don’t look at it no more. It’s bad enough it knows you standing here, knows you noticed it.”
“So what, man. I ain’t scared of no big-headed slime ass bastard like that.” Bril spat, thought about looking back up at the thing, didn’t. He didn’t want to see that spooky thing waving at him.
The old man hacked violently, then fixed Bril with eyes that were watery but fierce. “You should be scared. You don’t know its business or you’d be nothing but scared, boyo.”
“What’s it bidness man? Crack? Meth?“ Bril’s eyes gleamed. He glanced up the window with renewed interest. The thing had pulled back a bit; now it swayed just inside the frame. As Bril looked, its face slowly began to move, blur.
“I could use a job,” Bril said, his voice sounding slow and far away. The thing up there was shifting, blurring, yes, blurring but somehow sharpening. Second by second it changed, so that it was starting to look a little like….
There was a sudden pain in his right shin,
“Hey!” Bril shouted, jumping back. “Touch me again I’ll bust you up, old man,” Bril said mildly. But even with the pain in his shin it was hard to tear his eyes from the thing up there, the thing that was starting to look like someone he knew.
His cell buzzed. Bril dragged his eyes away from the face in the window (it was still coalescing around some familiar permutation of eyes-nose-mouth) to check the caller ID.
“Angelo!” Even as he said it, his eyes returned to the mushroom thing high and right above him.
But there was no mushroom thing up there. It was Angelo, leaning from the window. Angelo, shirtless and waving and grinning.
There was another sharp pain in his right shin – much sharper, a pain that exploded behind his eyes in bright little pinprick stars. He couldn’t yell or kick the junkie; he could only clutch the pain to himself and groan. When he finally could open his eyes, the first thing he saw was the old junkie brandishing the empty beer bottle he’d used to whack Bril out of his trance.
“You don’t want no truck with that thing’s business, boyo,” the old man growled.
Bril looked up at the far right window. It was empty. He looked at his phone, which reported 1 missed call. He punched Angelo’s number.
“Hey man, why didn’t you answer? You with that chica from last night, ain’t you?” Angelo’s voice was warm, laughing. Bril shivered.
“What’s up, man?” Bril asked. “Where you at?” He stared up at the window, waiting for Angelo to appear.
“I’m at Rosalie’s man.” A feminine murmuring in the background; Angelo’s voice fell away for a moment, then returned.
“Hey, you still up to go to CJ’s tonight? Rosalie has to go see her grannie.”
Now Bril could hear the sound of pans rattling. He kept his eyes glued to the window, even though he knew they weren’t up there rattling kitchen stuff in a place where there hadn’t been electricity or water for years.
“You’re at Rosalie’s right now?”
The window stayed empty, a gray-black oblong of negative space in the early evening dusk.
“Yeah man. I told you. “ Angelo’s voice was puzzled but not impatient. He was smart, much smarter than Bril, but he never talked down to Bril, never tired to embarrass him or make him out to be a pussy.
“Hey, come over for some fajitas. Rosie’s are the best. Besides, she hasn’t seen you in like weeks.”
“Nah. I got a job to do. See you at CJ’s.”
“OK.” More sound of pans rattling; a feminine voice giggling. Then silence.
Bril gazed at the window, now purplish with gathering twilight. He felt a light jab. For a moment he’d forgotten about the junkie.
“Stop looking for it boyo,” the junkie hacked at him. “You’ll find more trouble than you ever wanted.”
“I ain’t afraid…… Hey! Jesus fucking Christ!” Bril screamed as the bottle whizzed past his head with a shocking speed and accuracy.
“You could hurt someone bad like that, you stupid fuck!” Bril kicked the old man in the side, but pulled his foot at the last second so that his foot barely connected. It was like kicking a kite. The old man grunted and coughed but, amazingly, reached out with one old claw to manacle Bril’s ankle.
“I’m telling you the only thing that matters, boyo. Don’t come back here, don’t look at that thing. Don’t give it what it wants.”
“What’s it want?” Bril asked.
“What we all want, boyo”.
Bril snorted. He was tired of this old junkie asshole. He had things to do.
The old man looked down. “It eats up your love,” he muttered.
Bril stared at him, then broke into a long, loud laugh. “Love,” he mimicked the old man’s gravelly rumble.
Then, in a mincing falsetto: “Looooooooove!” He shook his head, laughing some more as he turned on his heel to walk across to the highrise. Once across the street he wheeled to face the old man. He raised both fists, popped both middle fingers into the air.
“Fuck you, old man! Fuck your loooooove!”
Behind him, a skinny guy in a black watch cap appeared in the open mouth of the front door of the highrise. He looked left, right, left right, left right. “Hey kid,” he called in a sort of shouted whisper. He danced a nervous jig, looking right again left again.
The old man watched Bril trot over to the highrise. He glanced up at the window on the high far right, but the thing was gone. He sighed, rolled himself tighter into his crazy cocoon of clothes and turned his back on the thing that for now was no longer in the upper right window.
He first saw the thing four years ago, the last year Angie was alive. He’d lived here ever since, in the doorway of this abandoned dry cleaner’s. He had everything he needed – the clothes no one claimed kept him warm, the occasional job for the younger junkies across the street kept him in enough stuff that he couldn’t do much more than look at the thing up there – after all this time he was sure he was too stoned and weak and scared to ever go up there. Pretty sure.
But he had to live here so he could see it. He’d learned not to look until the runny roiling shifting of its putty features resolved (these days it didn’t take long – the thing knew him well) and he caught the movement of its waving in his peripheral vision. Only then would he look, and see Angie with her braids and her crooked smile.
He unpacked his works. Cooked, injected, slept. He didn’t look up at the window; it was gone for the night. After all this time he knew its ways as well as his own. Better, even.
The jittery jivey dude wasn’t just a dealer but a junkie and a half-assed pimp too – Bril scored three jobs in the next twelve hours and had enough to get the ear buds and even enough left over to buy something for his brother Jason.
Jay-man was eight, a tough little guy with a smile so happy and goofy it always made Bril laugh out loud. He was old mama’s favorite and in this Bril was in total agreement and had no jealousy – Jay-man was special, not like his junkie whore half-sister Brianna and not a budding thug like Bril. Jay was just Jay – a sunny spot in life that Bril looked forward to visiting, like a cat stretching in a puddle of sun.
Little Jay-man cried when his daddy didn’t show for his birthday. His daddy wasn’t the same no-good no-show that was Bril’s dad, but an all-new and different no-good no-show. Whatever his excuse had been for the first seven years of Jay-man’s life, Bril knew he had a good one now, doing a nickel at Attica. But he didn’t tell the Jay-man that – it would just make Jay want to visit him and bring him pictures. The little Jay-man was like that, ignoring the bad – hell, not even noticing the bad – spreading the good. Bril thought Angelo was a little like that too.
There was a pair of bright red Nikes in the window that looked small enough for little Jay-man, and Bril bought those. Hell, he might even tell him they were from the no-good no-show daddy.
His step was jaunty as he left the pawnshop. The owner smirked knowingly but did not repeat his offer – if he had, Bril thought, he would have sliced the guy’s prick off and stuffed it in his mouth so the next customer didn’t have to hear the same dirty bullshit he laid on Bril.
Bril hoped the iPod would remind Angelo who his real friends were, how girls could never replace that kind of friendship. How Rosalie would someday be just another junkie whore selling herself to anyone to get what she wanted.
Rosalie was sick the week of Angelo’s birthday – something about an ear infection. That’s what Angelo told him. Bril wondered if it was true, or if Angelo was just making an excuse so they could spend time just the two of them. Rosalie didn’t like him – Bril knew that perfectly well. It made him mad that Angelo might be telling lies to see him, but he didn’t dare complain.
They had some great days, like old times. They walked along the old train tracks and Bril let Angelo lead the way, watching the way Angelo’s dusky neck rose from the neck of his t-shirt. He loves this small expanse of smooth flesh, the fine caramel-colored hairs gleam in the sun. He imagine it would taste of salt and flan.
They stole a Schlitz tallboy and swigged it out of the bag while sitting in the old foundry talking and swatting at the dust motes that danced in the weak winter sunshine. They wrestled in Bril’s room, their elbows and knees pounding through the thin mattress onto the wooden floor until Bril’s old ma said to quit the rough housing, did they want the whole roof to fall in?
They crawled commando-style under the house, booty-hunting. Not booty like girls but booty like pirates – they had once found a jar of quarters, nickels and dimes and crumpled up dollar bills scraped into a shallow grave. Probably it belonged to Bril or Jay-man’s dad, buried in a fit of drunken cunning and long since forgotten, but Bril made up a story about pirates that Angelo had listened to with dancing eyes, so Bril was happy to call it booty hunting even if he didn’t like Angelo’s inevitable jokes about girls.
Once, Bril had tried to join in the joking but he’d said something about Rosalie that made Angelo mad. Not wrestling, hitting mad – Bril could have handled that – but a silent, wounded-eyed mad that made Bril feel desperate and violent. He couldn’t stand Angelo looking at him like that so he apologized.
“I didn’t mean anything,” Bril said. Then, in an inspired flash “I’m happy for you, man. You know that.”
It was the right thing to say. Angelo’s face had lit up, his eyes warm. He slung an arm around Bril’s neck and briskly scratched his scalp, a faux-punishment that left a tingling trail that lit up the inside of Bril’s head so that all of his dreams that night had Angelo in them. It was the best week of Bril’s life. He thought Angelo might even feel the same way, if it weren’t for Rosalie.
Bril forgot about the thing in the highrise until a week later. Angelo was headed to the city to visit Rosalie – she was in the hospital, something about tubes in her ears. Bril declined to make the trip. He told Angelo he had to watch the Jay-man, though in fact he just couldn’t stomach the idea of Rosalie lying there gawping up at Angelo, waiting to be admired, demanding flowers and kisses and all that other stupid hypocritical shit girls wanted from boys before they put out. He couldn’t understand how Angelo could put up with that.
He was standing in the doorway of Ching’s, waiting for some action. He’d been there for a half hour when someone came out of the dark mouth of the highrise. A very small someone.
Bril squinted. It was a kid, which was unusual but not unheard of. Most of the junkie whores had kids, sometimes they brought them to the flop. The thing was, Bril knew this kid, knew those bright red sneakers.
“Jay-man!” he called, but Jay-man didn’t hear him over the noise coming from the highrise. – some junkie whore screeching, some pimp shouting and cursing. Jay-man walked outside, looked up in the faded blue of the sky. Bril looked too, saw the exhausted contrail of a long-gone plane.
He caught movement in the high right corner of his eye, looked and saw that bigheaded thing, its melted face roiling fantastically like a bubbling pot of melted whitish-gray skin. It was leaning out the window but it wasn’t facing Bril. It was facing Jay-man. Facing little Jay-man and waving.
Bril looked at Jay, how Jay’s face was going through a quick roiling change of its own, not unlike the disgusting thing in the window: fear was replaced with revulsion was replaced with confusion was replaced with amazement was replaced with a big goofy happy smile. He waved back at the thing, waved with an enthusiasm usually reserved for the days leading up to his birthday when he innocently boasted of all the presents his daddy was going to bring him.
“Hi Daddy!” the little Jay-Man waved for all he was worth, red shoes dancing with pure happiness.
Fear tickled Bril’s stomach. “Hey, Jay-man! JASON!”
But the little Jay-man, still waving excitedly, was now headed back into the highrise, disappearing into the dark open mouth of the door.
“What’s he doing here?” Bril muttered to himself, and the panic he heard in his own voice got his feet moving across the street double time. That was when the junkie whore screeching inside the highrise came running outside with a gun-wielding pimp – a dude Bril had run many jobs for – close behind. The junkie whore wasn’t just any junkie whore but Brianna, Bril’s half sister, little Jay-man’s real sister.
Brianna saw Bril and ran straight for him, her gummy red eyes bulging with hysteria Bril got his hands up in time to stop her from a full-body collision. She tried to get behind him, to put Bril between her and the gun dude. Bril shrugged her clutching birdy-claw hands off him. The pimp – who went by the name of Digger – skidded to a halt in front of Bril and gestured with the gun.
“Scram kid, it ain’t none your business.”
“Come on man, she my sister,” Bril said, but without much enthusiasm. He didn’t want to lose Digger’s good will or the jobs that came with it.
Behind him Brianna started running her mouth. “Thas right motherfucker he’s my brother and he’s gonna show you what’s what, gonna introduce your head to your asshole motherfucker…”
“Is that right?” Digger asked Bril. His voice was silky, interested.
“Shut up Bree,” Bril said over his shoulder. Brianna subsided into muttering.
Bril stepped away from Brianna, his hands still in the no-weapon, no harm no foul position. “Man, I don’t want trouble,” he told Digger. “You and me, we always got along. She owe you money, or what?”
“She’s got a visit to make, pay for the last stash I gave her,” Digger said.
There was a thin cry; it came from inside the highrise. Deep inside, and high.
Bril remembered Jay, little Jay man walking back into the highrise. Instinctively, he looked up. The thing was at the window, its face a blurred and somehow slimy looking mass. Then suddenly it was Angelo, smiling and waving Bril up.
Digger followed Bril’s glance, his body tensing, ready for trouble.
“Hey,” he said in a surprised voice. “What the…” He slowly lowered his gun, turned to face the window more fully. He cupped a hand around his mouth.
“Yo, Mr. Baker! Mr. Baker! What you doing up there? Mr. Baker!” He turned to Bril with a puzzled smile that changed his face from street thug to Boy Scout. “That’s my teacher, man. My high school history teacher.”
They both turned back to the highrise, and for a moment, looking up, Bril saw Angelo’s café au lait complexion and short brown braids replaced with a hideous mass of bulging, grayish black flesh.
“Mr. Baker, man, he was the best,” Digger told Bril. His voice was charged with happiness. He seemed about to go on, then shook his head and turned eagerly back to the highrise, craning his neck backwards.
“Yo, Mr. Baker! It’s me, Jonathan! Down here! Jonathan Digby!”
Bril looked up at Angelo, waving shyly down. No, not waving – inviting. Inviting Bril to come up, even though that was impossible because Angelo was on the train on the way to the city to visit Rosalie in the hospital. Was probably already there, in fact.
Still, Bril wanted to go. He even took a step toward the thing, barely hearing Digger’s amazed shouting next to him. With a great effort, he remembered Jayson, little Jay-man.
“Bree, go inside and get the Jay-man,” Bril said. He’d keep the thing occupied, somehow. His heart was beating very hard now, but he thought he did a good job keeping the tremor out of his voice. Brianna mumbled and Bril gave her a savage push.
“Don’t look at it, man,” he told Digger. Digger didn’t even glance around at him.
Brianna walked past Digger, shooting him a suspicious look. But Digger was still staring up at the window, one hand now cupped to his ear, that amazed smile still transforming his face.
Things happened very fast then. Brianna lunged for Digger’s gun. Digger wrenched his eyes away from the highrise, looking at Brianna with the sleepy bemused face of a drunk waking up on the sidewalk. Bril looked up at the window, his breath catching at the sight of a caramel-chested Angelo leaning out and smiling. There was a distant popping sound that took Bril some time – a minute? two? – to realize was the sound of a gun being fired.
He wrenched his eyes away from Angelo to see Bree lying on the ground, a surprised look on her face and a perfectly round hole in the middle of her chest. The blood burbling up from this hole was a rich, thick-looking red.
Digger was nowhere to be seen. Bril had no idea if he’d run back into the highrise, or simply run away. He looked desperately around but a gunshot in this neighborhood was like a magic wand that made everyone disappear. He caught movement across the street, at Ching’s. It was the old junkie, the one in the Technicolor clothes. He was staring up at the highrise.
Bril followed his gaze. Angelo waved, smiling. Beckoning. With an effort, Bril looked away.
“Hey,” Bril called to the old junkie. “I need some help, man. My sister, she’s shot. Somebody’s got to stay with her while I get my brother.”
The old junkie stared at him.
“Come on, man, I got to get my brother! He’s in there!” Bril pointed up at the Angelo-thing in the window.
Very slowly, the old man shook his head. “Your brother’s gone, boyo. You have a better chance saving your sister.”
As if in answer, Bree coughed. A small blood bubble formed on her lips. She looked at Bril with no recognition. He stared at her until her eyes skinned over with the blank indifference of death.
He rose to get the Jay-man and somehow the old junkie was there, gripping him. His long, curved yellow nails pressed through Bril’s cheap winter coat like pincers.
“Let me go, I gotta get my brother! I gotta get the Jay-man, he’s just little…”
Above them the Angelo thing in the window turned its head, as if at a sound elsewhere in the apartment. It smiled down at Bril, shrugged….and then its Angelo face exploded into a mass of bulbous, grayish white flesh. There was a hole in the bottom of its face, Bril saw, a hole ringed with triangle-shaped white things. After a second he realized he was looking at its mouth. At its teeth.
“Your brother be knocking at the door right about now,” the old man whispered. “You can’t save him now.”
The thing left the window with a liquid, improbable speed that made Bril’s knees go weak with fear. There was no screaming – just a single cry that might or might not have been a little boy. It was a small sound, easily drowned out by the rising scream of police sirens.
Bril yanked his arm out of the old man’s grip.
“Don’t go up there, boyo – “ the old man started, and Bril gave him a shove, again surprised at the kite-like fragility of the man’s body. The old man went down to one knee with a woofing sound.
“Who do you see, old man?” Bril said to him. The old man collapsed onto his side, so that he lay next to Bree like a lover. The sirens were getting louder. Bril got ready to run. The old man struggled up onto an elbow.
“My daughter Angie.” The old man gave Bril a level look. “Like she looked before she got sick.”
The sirens were only a few blocks away now.
“No one ever comes out, not in four years has anyone ever come out,” the old man said. “You won’t either, boy-o, no matter who you see up there.”
“What’s it want?”
“I told you. Love. And love’s always hungry.” The old man looked at him shrewdly. “But you already know that, don’t you boy-o.”
Behind him, a police car rounded the corner, wailing. Above him, the window was empty.
The funeral was a nightmare. His old ma crying and crying. Jay-man’s no-good daddy sending flowers in a big horseshoe with a banner Daddy Loves You, the smell making Bril gag.
Angelo there, his hand warm on Bril’s shoulder, melting the ice in his heart ‘til Bril feared it might bubble up to flow from his eyes in a never ending rain. What a relief that would be.
And stupid Rose there, crying as if she knew the Jay-man, hugging Bril, her small breasts pressing into his chest, wiping her face and the ring sparkling there amid the tears.
She caught Bril looking and splayed her fingers wide. Incredibly, she smiled. “We’re engaged!” she trilled.
Then Angelo was there, giving her a stern look before turning to Bril.
“Life is short, man.” Angelo’s voice low and quiet in his ear. “Bree, Jay-man. You can’t let death get a hold. We gotta move towards love.”
It was the kind of thing he might have said at the foundry, or walking along the tracks. The kind of thing that left Bril awake at night, watching how the streetlight made its flickering light and shadow show on his bedroom ceiling. Thinking. The kind of thing that opened like a door inside of him.
“If it’s a boy, we’ll name him Jason,” Rosie said, her hand on her stomach. Angelo gave her an irritated look and turned to Bril, but Bril was gone, the door slammed.
“Where we goin man? Come on. I don’t have much time.”
“It’s right up here man, just another minute.”
“Better be quick man. I gotta get to Rosalie’s. Her momma’s in the city, won’t be home ‘til ten o’clock. We’re gonna use the big bed.” Bril’s breath did something funny – came up short in his chest, before it could fill his lungs. He coughed.
Angelo glanced around, held up a small cellophane square of white powder. “Get our groove on, man.” He cupped his crotch and laughed. The sound pierced Bril like fishhooks.
They stopped opposite the highrise. Angelo’s lively dark eyes scanned the building. Bril’s eyes scanned Angelo.
“Man, I don’t like this place,” Angelo announced.
“Why?” Bril asked.
Angelo shook his head. “Bad karma, man.”
Bril smiled a little. Angelo was always using words like this. Someone else might do it to make you feel stupid; with Angelo, it was like he was letting you be as smart as he was, just be acting like you were until you almost felt like you were.
“Come on man. What’s this about. I got Rosalie waiting.”
Despite the impatient words, Angelo smiled, waiting. Bril remembered the day they ran outside after a heavy rain, stomping in every puddle until they were soaked with muddy water, the way Angelo had grabbed Bril’s head and shaken the drops from it yelling “Brillo Boy! Brillo Boy! Rain don’t stick to you!”
Bril looked at the doorway of the old laundry. The old junkie wasn’t there today; maybe he scored and was off on a toot. Maybe he’d gone up the highrise to see his daughter.
Not that it mattered, Bril told himself. He wasn’t going to do anything except watch Angelo. He wouldn’t let him go up there. No way would he let him go up there.
“Check it out,” Bril said to him, and turned to look fully at the window, the one second from the top, all the way on the right. Even as he turned he could feel it there, looking at him. Still it was a shock, looking at Angelo up there, with Angelo right there beside him. A feeling of unreality washed over him.
“What the fu-“ Angelo took an involuntary step back, then stopped. He squinted, frowned. Bril held his breath. His heart thumped so hard he was sure his shirt vibrated with it.
“What is it to you?” Bril asked, the words thick in his throat. “Who do you see?”
Angelo looked back at the window, where, improbably, Angelo looked down at Bril, a little smile playing on his lips that Bril could clearly see, even from this distance.
“Man, what’s Rosie doin up there?” Angelo asked, and Bril’s heart turned to ice and sank quickly to the bottom of his stomach.
Angelo grinned and punched Bril on the arm. “What the fuck man? What game you two playin?” He turned back to the window, cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted up.
“Rosie! Hey! What you doin? Get your ass down here man!” He laughed uncertainly.
Bril looked up. Seventy feet above him it looked down, a perfect likeness of Angelo, a smile of understanding and welcome on his face. Bril looked down, shook his head, watched Angelo from the corner of his eye.
Angelo craned his neck upward. He seemed to be listening to something, absently dancing his weight from one foot to the other. Then he cupped his hands to his mouth again.
“I ain’t comin up there no way Rosalie. Now get your ass down here. I-“
Bril watched the Angelo thing high above him. The smile of understanding became something else – darkly teasing, seductive. The Angelo-thing pulled his shirt off to reveal his perfect pecs with the scattering of silky hair, the coffee nipples tweaked by those long sensitive fingers.
Next to him, Angelo glanced at Bril. “Don do that, baby!” he called up. To Bril: “Don look man. She on something. She don’t know what she doing.”
“Rosie stay there. Don’ move. I’m comin up baby!” Angelo started across the street. Bril watched him disappear into the open dark rectangle that served as the front door of the building. He looked up.
The Angelo-thing was looking down, smiling. Bril looked away. He figured ten seconds for each flight of steps; he counted to ten eight times, and looked up in time to see the Angelo-thing turn its head back toward the room behind it. The Angelo-thing glanced out, waved at Bril, and disappeared.
Bril stared up at the window, willing Angelo to appear, willing him to beckon. But the window stayed empty, and after a lifetime of waiting – or maybe just a few minutes, he’d never really know – Bril walked slowly home.
Now, outside the cafe, the cold air slaps the man’s face. He looks east at the river, south toward the train yards. He looks west and the highrise is there, rising from the flat dirty landscape like a plume of solid smoke. From this distance he can just make out the black squares of windows, small punctures of negative space.
He sees (or thinks he sees) a pale blur at the window on the far right. He glances quickly away. Not now, he thinks. Not yet. Still, it may be nothing.
He approaches the highrise at an angle. He does not look up at the window; even when he is standing in front of the building he does not look up at the window. Instead he looks at the façade of the building.
It has not changed much in fifteen years. All the windows are all broken – not just those he and Angelo busted – but someone has replaced the front door. Someone has dragged a couch into the square of dirt that serves as a front yard.
The air is fuming, oppressive. He breathes through his mouth and it leaves a vaguely chemical taste on his tongue. There is no living thing in sight, no trees, no grass, no weeds. No pimps, no whores, no junkies. No swaggering young black toughs, no sexy angry Dominican girls screaming at their kids, no urchins running drugs for the dealers in exchange for comic books, McDonald’s, a few bucks.
There are no people at all. The highrise stands in a pocket of toxic silence staring at him with its indifferent broken eyes.
He wonders if the thing in the window scared all the people away. Or maybe it finally got them all, all the ones needing love. But he cuts this thought off. He would see for himself soon enough.
Across from the highrise the old laundry sits, sill deserted. The faded wooden sign above the door still reads Ching’s. It was here in this doorway he had first looked up into the top right window. It was here the old junkie sat his watch, just another ratty old man with a bent spoon and a broken life.
He snorts. He’d called the junkie old man, though now he was older than the junkie had been, had ever lived to be. Now here he is, looking up, looking back.
He toes the detritus in the doorway – wads of old newspaper, crushed paper cups, fragments of smashed beer bottles scattered like cockroaches. Filthy butts clog the gutter like severed gray fingertips.
He wonders if anything from that day has survived across fifteen years – didn’t he read that cigarette butts took thirty years to decompose? Maybe he, or Angelo, had stood on one of these.
In the corner of the doorway there is a pile of newspapers. The top paper is not too old, from weeks ago. It is dirty and already yellowing but plenty easy to read the headline ANOTHER BOY DISAPPEARS. A boy with café-au-lait skin grins out at him. The man nods.
Abruptly, he senses it, high above him. Waiting.
Where is it from? He wonders, but there is no urgency in the question, or even much curiosity. It doesn’t matter. It is what it is. It needs what it needs. He understands that.
And when he looks up finally, it is there, wavering in the window, the face – if you could call it that – a pinkish gray blur. It roils slowly, as if it cannot decide what to be. A nose begins to take shape, the nostrils small dark pinholes of possibility.
His heart thumps in his throat. He clenches his fist against the trembling.
Maybe the old man was wrong, he thinks incoherently. Maybe it’s not what you most want, but what you most fear.
He can imagine the junkie’s response to this, and says it aloud to himself. “Same thing, boyo.”
He looks at the paper. Aloud, he says “I’m sorry.”
He looks up to the boy’s face in the window high above him. He looks for a long time. He thought he would never forget this face, that it was burned forever into his memory, and he is right. It is more familiar to him than his own face.
Of course he looks the same – it’s getting the face from your memory, fool.
He is not sure if the voice is the old man’s, or his own, or if it matters. He ignores it. He ignores it and goes on looking at the boy so high and untouchable above him.
And when Angelo smiles – a sunny smile that tells him all is, if not forgiven, then forgotten or, better yet, not even remembered – when Angelo smiles and beckons, he is surprised how light and quick his feet step their way across the street, as if they have known all along something he has just discovered.
© Copyright Sandra Stephens (nee Sandra Miller)