It became an unspoken daily ritual for the busy crew members to gaze at the black fabric draped over the inanimate something. It was encased in a clear plastic cube atop an alabaster column next to the site supervisor’s trailer. On one unusually warm Tuesday, a large man paused in front of the display while chewing on a roast beef sandwich held in the clasp of his dirty right hand. Another man who was jittery and easily distracted, plaid green shirt hanging loose on his thin frame, asked the larger man exactly what he was doing. Gesturing at the object concealed in front of them, the large man, whose curious eyes remained hidden beneath the shadow cast by the brim of his helmet, spoke out proudly in a dense, foreign accent, “I don’t really care what’s under.” The small man snorted with incredulity while pawing anxiously at his left arm. “C’mon now,” said the small man. “That’s our damn bonus. They promised us whatever secret they got in there along with a big raise if we finish this building before fall. Probably a cornucopia of grand prizes filled with…” He waved his hands in a flutter of feigned excitement, his shirt shaking at his arms and torso like a sagging flag briefly catching wind. Patting his sizable coworker on the back, the man in plaid beelined for the exit gate after forgetting to clock out, again. The roast beef sandwich came to an end. The large man carried himself away after concluding that the fabric fell over the unseen object or objects in such a way as to resemble a faceless black dog at rest and waiting. This thought made him chuckle but also left a strange sense of unease. Removing his helmet to pull back a thick head of hair, the large man raised his face with eyes closed to the clouds and sun. He wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of a sinewy, tattooed forearm. He replaced the helmet. Someone shouted at him loudly from across the worksite.
The handsome middle-aged man knocked gently on the teal formica. He smiled at Clara doing her rounds with the other customers in the diner. When she finally came over to his seat at the front counter, he asked for coffee, black, along with one egg, poached, and unbuttered rye toast on the side. She promptly relayed the order through an opening in the tiled wall to a corpulent Chinese cook humming his way like an attendant bee above a grill slate that teemed with congealing yolk and shriveled bacon.
Clara continued to move from table to table, refilling ice water and replenishing small supplies of assorted fruit jams. She finally satisfied a growing urge to glance back over at the man. He remained calmly sitting as before, tilting a speckled porcelain cup to his lips. He had a sharp, wet look in his eyes. The man’s silver-flecked auburn hair was slicked back behind his ears. His tanned cheeks, combined with the scent of fresh old spice lingering at his loosened collar, contributed to a presence of someone well-preserved for his age. Clara was intrigued, if mildly. Something about him was disquieting without causing initial alarm, like the slight concern raised when overhead lights flicker to signal a forecasted rainstorm or minor electrical surge.
Clara set down a hot plate of food in front of the man. She raised a glass coffee pot in her left hand. “More?” she asked. Her voice was pleasant but more leading and strong in tone than normal. Clara was surprised at her tone, in fact. The steaming dark liquid swished back and forth.
“Yes,” he replied, lifting his cup. Most regulars pushed their cups forward, perhaps reluctant to exert any effort, perhaps for fear of getting burned. He appeared poised to take the pot from her hands with practiced ease as if to relieve her of the task like a nurse carefully guiding a heavily medicated patient to her bed. She sensed in him a kind of self-containment intensified by the company of others. But maybe she merely saw in him an envied measure of confidence? This sudden leap from observation to doubt confused Clara. Her cultivated talent for work day ambivalence failed to ‘kick into gear’. She refilled his cup.
The man’s voice startled her from thought. Leaning forward a few degrees, the man traced, almost childishly, a series of small circles on the counter with a free index finger. “As long as long will be, right?” Clara followed this meaningless response with a nervous spit of laughter. He widened his eyes.
“We were drilling at a work site some weeks ago, trying to level a rock formation keeping us from setting the foundation. Took forever. One man even fell from a conveyer tower and died.” He sipped. His speech was collected and precise. It was difficult for Clara to imagine the man covered in lime dust, repairing crusted gashes on his worn hands with antiseptic and flesh-colored bandages. “I remember staring above me at a series of cables and pulleys. Looked like a spider slowly spinning a web. Creeped me out. Didn’t go back.” He grinned generously, revealing deeply set wrinkles at the corners of his mouth. The top row of his white teeth peeked out. “It can feel like a damn eternity sometimes when you’re doing what needs done.”
“For sure,” Clara replied. She felt a piercing itch between her bra strap and shoulder blade. He nodded graciously and resumed eating his poached egg.
After settling the bill, the man departed, leaving Clara a considerable tip. He did not eat the complimentary mint, but instead stole the pen left for his signature. Just a short time later, another, much older man went into a coughing fit after choking on a sliver of fish bone that the cook had uncharacteristically failed to catch before serving. Everybody close by helped the old man recover. Clara did not. She felt unwell and weak for the rest of the day, taking more cigarette breaks than usual to glare without reason at a decidedly ugly tree standing behind the coffee shop. It had nearly lost all of its leaves.
Andrew was persuaded to go, buoyed by his smart friends and a freckled girl who had recently taken to wearing sleeveless navy blue dresses with white trim. School started on the following Monday. He imagined in his racing mind an endlessly curving hallway of identically arranged classrooms. His schoolmates filed in and out the many windowless doors, carried along with increasing speed on an air wave disabusing them of any need to use their legs. The ceiling rose. Andrew floated upwards. He looked down on a highway of human blur. Through an overhead skylight he could see a familiar fleet of pillowy clouds rushing toward him.
He began to panic a little. The humid evening weather jarred him from his waking dream. As he crossed the field, it occurred to him that this could be a very bad idea. It was only the third time he had attempted to try illegal drugs. When his parents arrived early one night to break in on him drinking with his swim team members, he found himself genuinely ashamed and scared. His father replaced the disturbed bottle of Crown Royal to its purple sheath, chastising the son he thought would never, as he put it, ‘disrespect his things, and with other people, too’. But Andrew tried to bury these thoughts for the time being. He wanted to live outside himself.
When the idea to get more came about, more than the usual amount, he felt like it was an imperative to follow through. The freckled girl in the navy blue dress got somewhat flush with what seemed like legitimate surprise at the suggestion. Andrew would do it. This was the last of his last weekends. He tightened a sweaty fist around the wad of damp cash collected from everyone for the transaction.
Walking along the edge of the darkening field, Andrew approached a park bench surrounded by a gangly assembly of teenagers. At the center of the group, a hulking figure sat, elbows resting on his knees, one hand enclosing and lightly scratching the top of the other. He rocked gently back and forth. A flock of black crows scattered in a rash of wings and talons from a silhouetted nest printed on the waist of his oversized red t-shirt. Though the folds of the shirt obscured the design, it appeared to Andrew as if the inky nest formed a word of some kind.
“What?” The figure lifted his head, oval eyes blankly addressing the laced oxfords sprouting a pair of washed-out jeans just a few feet away.
“Wondering if I could buy an eighth.”
Now fearfully scrutinizing the drug dealer, Andrew could see a young face staring back. His bald head caught the gray gleam of the faded sky above. The thin film of a mustache coated his upper lip. Thick, round cheeks padded a strong jaw made tight when closed. A small stud shimmered in his left ear. He replied with a price.
“So?” The drug dealer’s hands opened in a show of impatience before quickly locking again.
“I don’t have enough,” he squeezed the money as if wringing out a wet rag.
The drug dealer mumbled to himself under his breath, “dumb motherfucker,” buzzing with the relief of met expectations. “You got it, or you don’t. This ain’t a down payment type a’ thing.” The surrounding crew snickered, gyrating slightly with amusement like awkward concertgoers silently mouthing song lyrics in the corners of a ballroom.
Andrew promptly left without replying, the sound of laughter and mock invitations to ‘come again’ resounding across the field as he sped farther away. The tiny insects once seen as floating glints of afternoon sunlight had begun to disappear into the night. The neighborhood birds were now quiet. Andrew focused on the comforting rhythm of his hastened footsteps. He avoided the block where his friends, together behind glowing windows, waited in a drunken circle for their courier to return. He checked off the foreign names of streets as if inventorying unread books returned to their proper shelf. A plodding bus came along to drowsily escort him back to a familiar corner stop on the avenue where he lived. The well-lit blue front door of his home appeared at the end of a brief, L-shaped sidewalk. He barged in to scale the creaking stairs without acknowledging his parents joking with another married couple in the kitchen. He entered his room. His weekly shirts, pants, and underwear were folded neatly for him on the bed.
She picks up the orange. The door of the small grocery swings open. Bells trill and clang above the entranceway. A 7-year old boy reaching for a package of imported candy retreats to the corner behind a column of empty produce crates. The .38 special appears first at belt line of the intruder before rising in the air. Pastel leaflets and gloss advertisements come unpinned from a community bulletin board. They fall to the floor in the burst of movement. The man with the gun has lank hair cut to the shoulders of his leather jacket. Maroon framed sunglasses conceal his eyes. He charges toward the register surrounded by racks of chewing gum, breath mints, and energy supplements. He points the gun at a thin cashier recoiling behind the counter. A voice breaks out, “EMPTY IT.” They all stand arrested, shuttering in place.
The uniformed police officer takes down names. Will Friedman. Janis Stewart. Juan Sandoval. Adisa Wilkins. She gives her name, too. The 7-year old boy leans against a brick wall beneath the awning, eating candy. Japanese symbols on the package fan outward in a daybreak of lurid pink and yellow sunrays surrounding an ecstatic cartoon rabbit rendered mid-air. She wonders over the taste and consistency of such candy. Too sweet, but oddly so, like a tart grape dropped in powdered sugar. Hard tac with pliable, chewy innards. She imagines the boy heaving the package skyward in an eruption of individually wrapped, bite-sized, richly variegated pieces raining onto the brightly lit portions of the sidewalk. The boy, in real life, merely cocks his head in wait for something or someone to lead him away. She flashes back to the doorbells ringing convincingly into gunfire. Her arm grazes the person next to her in the tired huddle surrounding the police officer. Veins of sprayed blood stain her gabardine trench coat. “Let’s go ‘round again,” he says, elevating a pocket steno closer to his chest, pen ready.
It is quiet in her bed after a long shower. Partially raised blinds afford a view of facing apartment buildings stitched together by power lines and fire escapes. Dim streetlight from the window falls on the outlines of her legs and feet hidden trembling slightly beneath a down comforter. Damp hair rests on her bare, ivory white shoulders and chest. She traces the patterns in the fabric with her eyes. The hazy figure with the gun recedes and reappears. On the floor, she spies a plastic bag of belongings collected in wake of the botched robbery. She removes and slowly peels through an orange. Separating the wedges, she places them on her tongue one at a time before chewing slowly. She cups the rind in her hands for a moment.
After stopping to help a retired neighbor dig out his old Plymouth from under the snow, Steven and his son arrived at home to hear the phone ring in the kitchen. Steven answered, still wearing his insulated coat and fur-lined boots. Small puddles of melting slush formed on the tile where he stood. His wife’s depleted voice came through on the other end. Her shift at the hospital had gone longer than expected. Several scheduled day nurses had been unable to come in on account of the storm. “Everything’s out of order,” she reported. Steven nodded with the receiver pressed tightly against his ear, scratching at the uneven stubble on his neck. He had not shaved in several days.
Peering out the window, Steven caught sight of a small hatchback spinning its wheels before regaining traction. His son, meanwhile, traipsed in superhero ankle socks through the otherwise dormant house. He ran invisible ribbons around the high counters and cushioned furniture. With his wife lingering on the phone, Steven confirmed with a hint of annoyance that he would not be going out again. He ended the call after agreeing to cut up a salad for dinner and cook the tenderloin thawing in the refrigerator. The little boy rushed wildly through room after room, his expelled proximate energy making stove pots rattle and glasses chatter on the dish rack. “Stop chasing your tail,” Steven yelled at his son. Snow fell fast. It looked like torn bits of cotton settling on the ground. It was increasingly difficult to see up the block.
Early evening arrived. The flurries of snow continued unabated. Venturing outside in full winter gear, Steven’s son set out to explore his new surroundings. The lawn had transformed into a pristine white expanse intermittently ignited by the low beams of passing headlights. Strange miniature peaks and mysterious, misshapen hills rose along the edge of what was once distinguishable as a narrow path leading to the backyard. The boy enjoyed running his gloved hands over the new formations. He brushed away snow like tearing open a surprise present to reveal disinterred flower pots, pyramids of unused bricks, and deck chairs draped with stiff polyethylene tarps that crinkled and cracked at the touch.
He turned the corner to lean against an elm tree rising tall and barren in the backyard. Adult voices carried from a cul-de-sac somewhere close by. They were laughing and interrupting each other. He could also pick out the solitary noises of Steven preparing dinner in the house, the faucet turning on and off as he rinsed tomatoes in the sink, the rapid chopping of potatoes and carrots that had always secretly frightened the boy. Watching his sticky, damp breath disappear in the chilled air, a gray sky above beginning to darken with violet color, he sensed, in his moment of listening, that he had somehow trespassed onto a kind of in-between space. The feeling was similar to when he awoke early on Sundays to a creaking house otherwise asleep and cast in a thin half-light of morning. That was the time for inanimate objects to assume their places again, for the heirloom clock to resume ticking as before in order to maintain appearances. Humans were allowed but unwelcome.
Steven could now be heard vaguely cursing amidst the smell of boiling broth winding through the yard. In the near distance, the unseen strangers still laughed above the discernible shattering of ice underfoot. The boy’s chin lowered behind his bright red scarf made sticky and warm by quickened, heavy breathing.
Turning to go back inside, he heard a weak scratching noise coming from near a gap in the fence that separated their property from an open field. The boy approached to investigate. The scratching grew louder. When he came within steps of the apparent source, the head of a large, long-haired black dog slowly peeked through the opening. It did not move or make a sound, nor respond when beckoned. Its clear, blue eyes fixed on the boy. Becoming worried, the boy took a few steps backward. The dog let out a low growl, dropping its head to hover just above the ground. The boy shouted. Unchained, the dog limped into the yard to reveal a series of deep cuts and gashes running across its side. Its dense coat of black hair appeared muddied and matted down. Steadily, the growl became a deep, piercing bark followed by a reedy whimper. Noticeably shaking from cold and pain, the dog barred a considerable row of yellowed teeth. Drool dripped gently from its jaws. Drops of blood blotted the snow. The boy shouted again and again, afraid to move. The dog crept closer.
Hearing the screams of his son, Steven ran outside in his white kitchen apron still wielding a butcher knife from the tenderloin he was preparing. The boy remained in the middle of the yard with his back to him. A trail of blood led toward the missing fence post.
Steven listed slightly. He panted from adrenaline and concern, the handle of the knife clenched in his fist. The boy calmly explained that a big black dog had come in hurt and then left.
“Did he get you?” Steven’s son shook his head. He was fine. The boy would later remember the moment as though red and white shreds of fabric had been scattered across the lawn, as if you could have picked up pieces of blood and cold like scraps of clothing, like the scrim of something stretched and worn. Steven took his son’s hand strongly into his own. They stood together in the falling snow.